What does it mean to “do science”?

This is a guest post by PhD student Shaun Turney. I fully endorse it. It’s awesome.

As a scientist, when I’m brushing my teeth, I’m doing science.

This thought occurred to me yesterday as I was trying to reason myself out of a bout of imposter syndrome.

I was thinking: I don’t work hard enough to be a good scientist. I haven’t even done any science all day. I helped a francophone colleague with grammar, I read some stories on Eureka Alert, and I wrote up a field work budget. And that’s just some of the more useful sounding stuff: I also spent a fair amount of time playing basketball with a boy I mentor, cooking dinner, staring into space, telling my partner about my imposter syndrome issue, and reading a science fiction book. I looked through zero microscopes, wrote zero papers, and made zero hypotheses.

I convinced my brain to stop bullying me by distracting it with a question: What does it mean to “do science”?

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra. It's part of doing science.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra. It’s part of doing science.

It would help to know first what exactly “science” is, but philosophers are nowhere near resolving that debate. Science is often defined as a set of processes or tools, the most notable of which being the scientific method. Science is also the body of knowledge produced by that set of processes. These definitions seem pretty solid until you prod them a little: which tools and processes count as scientific? Which knowledge counts as being part of Science? What is “knowledge”, for that matter!

So “Doing science” could be roughly and problematically defined as carrying out scientific processes, like the scientific method, to add to science’s body of knowledge.

But tell me: Is wiping down the counters after your experiment part of running an experiment? Does arguing over beers about whose study organism can jump the highest count as a scientific debate? Can writing a blog post about your research count as writing a paper?

I think times are a-changing enough that many scientists, especially early-career scientists, would feel comfortable with including some instances of lab “house-keeping”, socializing (ie, networking), and social media-ing as part of doing science. Here’s a more radical proposition: taking care of yourself is also part of doing science.

Here’s a strange-but-true thought: If you’re a scientist, your body is a piece of scientific equipment. Your mind is an even more important piece of scientific equipment. If maintaining scientific equipment is a part of doing science, then equally so is maintaining your mind and body. This fuzzy line between doing science and not-doing science is especially evident in field work. In the field, ensuring that your traps don’t get holes and the soles of your feet don’t get holes are equally important parts of the scientific process.

We wear gloves when working with hazardous chemicals, and we consider this part of our scientific protocol. I brush my teeth before engaging in scientific debate so I don’t repel anyone with my breath, and this is part of my scientific protocol. We read papers and sketch down ideas to encourage our minds to come up with interesting hypotheses, and we consider this part of the scientific process. I play with children and read science fiction to encourage my mind to come up with interesting hypotheses, and this is part of my scientific process.

Pyramids of species richness

This post is written by PhD student Shaun Turney, and highlights a recent publication from the lab.

Two years ago, I was finishing my MSc and considering whether I’d like to do a PhD, and if so, with whom. I met with Chris and we threw around a few ideas for PhD projects. It was when he brought up a certain mystery that my decision to do a PhD in his lab was cemented. The mystery? Chris and his former PhD student Crystal Ernst were puzzled why there seem to be so many carnivores on the Arctic tundra, and relatively few herbivores to feed them.

How could it be possible? Is there a high level of cannibalism? (But then it would be like pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps — how does the energy and biomass enter the carnivore population in the first place?) Are the carnivores really omnivores? Is our methodology for sampling the tundra biota biased towards carnivores? Is the transfer of energy from herbivores to carnivores somehow more efficient (less energy loss) than in other ecosystems? These sorts of questions touch on some fundamental questions in ecology and I was hooked.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra.

It seemed to me the logical first step would be to find out what is a typical predator-prey ratio. In what proportions are the organisms in an ecosystem divided up from plant (lowest trophic level) to top predator (highest trophic level)? The answer to that questions has already been very much explored when it comes to biomass and abundance. Charles Elton explained about 80 years ago that typically the mass and number of organisms form “pyramids”: They decrease with trophic level because energy is lost with each transfer from resource to consumer. But what about diversity? How does the number of species change with trophic level?

I decided to look at the food webs in the data base GlobalWeb to answer this question, and we just published a paper in Oikos on this topic. I found that typically ecosystems form “pyramids of species richness”, just like the pyramid of numbers and pyramid of biomass described by Elton. But some types of ecosystems, notably in terrestrial ecosystems, we can consistently observe a uniform distribution or even an “upside-down pyramid” rather than a pyramid like Elton described. That is, there are consistently cases where there more carnivore species than herbivore species in an ecosystem.

An example of aquatic compared to terrestrial food-web structure (from Turney and Buddle)

An example of aquatic compared to terrestrial food-web structure (from Turney and Buddle)

So evidently, at least when it comes to diversity, the pattern that Chris has observed in the tundra is not so unusual! The next step for me is to try to figure out why. Stay tuned!


Turney S and CM Buddle. Pyramids of species richness: the determinants and distribution of species diversity across trophic levels. Oikos. DOI: 10.1111/oik.03404


Bog spiders: family composition and sex ratios

This is the second post by Honour’s undergraduate student Kamil Chatila-Amos – he has been busy working on identifying LOTS of spiders from bogs of northern Quebec. His first blog post introduced his project: this one gives a glimpse into the data…

My project is focused on studying spiders from bogs in the James Bay region of Quebec. Five bogs along the James Bay highway were sampled with pan traps every week for four sampling periods. In the full project I’m looking at how abiotic factors (i.e. pH, water table, latitude, etc.) and the plant community affect the arachnid community composition. For now, let’s look at how the spider families are distributed in these sites:

bogSpidersThe first thing that might strike you if you are familiar with the area and its spider fauna is that in 4 out of 5 sites, neither Lycosidae (wolf spiders) nor Linyphiidae (subfamily Erigoninae) are the most abundant family. Previous studies in similar habitats tend to find a much greater proportion of those two taxa (Aitchison-Benell 1994; Koponen 1994). All sites except the first have more Gnaphosids than Lycosids. However, the breakdown within families is very different. Whereas the Lycosids are represented by 19 species, there were only five species within the Gnaphosidae. Even more impressive is that one Gnaphosidae species represents 99% of the family. Indeed, Gnaphosa microps alone represents a fifth of all arachnids I collected.

I’ve come to like Gnaphosa microps a lot! The family Gnaphosidae is pretty easy to identify thanks to their long and separate spinnerets, colour and eye placement. Even the palps, which are unique to species, are fairly easy to recognize. It ranges in size from 5.4 – 7.1 millimeters which is a large enough size so it isn’t a hassle to manipulate.

Gnaphosa microps, seen from above. Photo from the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario through Barcode of Life Data Systems

Gnaphosa microps, seen from above. Photo from the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario through Barcode of Life Data Systems

Gnaphosa microps is by no means a star of the spider world but we still know a fair bit about it. It is a holarctic species meaning it can be found in almost all of the northern hemisphere, even as far as Turkey (Seyyar et al. 2008). It is usually found in in open boreal forests, alluvial meadows and bogs. A nocturnal species, it spends its days in a silk retreat under moss or debris and hunts at night by catching prey on the ground (Ovcharenko et al. 1992). Even though sampling has been done very near my sites and in similar habitats (Koponen 1994) I still haven’t found another study where it was the most abundant species.

Another interesting tidbit about this species is just how skewed their sex ratio is. According to my data, males outnumber females almost 10 to 1! Now this does not mean it is always like this in nature, this ratio can be explained by sexually dimorphic behavior. This means that the males would behave differently than females in a way that would increase their odds of falling into traps. Indeed, according to Vollrath and Parker (1992) spider species with sedentary females have smaller, roving males. And like their model predicts the G. microps males are a bit smaller than the females.

Sex ratio of Gnaphosa microps, collected in bogs

Sex ratio of Gnaphosa microps, collected in bogs


So what’s next? I still need to retrieve the COI barcode of all my species and that will be possible thanks to the University of Guelph’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario. This is to make sure my identifications are indeed correct. As a first time spider taxonomist it’s great to be able to confirm my work in a way that still is not widely available. Today I received the plate in which I’ll load the spider tissue and I am amazed at how tiny it is. I guess they just need 2mm per spider but I still expected it to be much more impressive. Hopefully I don’t get any nasty surprises once the DNA data comes back, although some of those tiny Linyphiids did give me a pretty bad headache…



Aitchison-Benell CW. 1994. Bog Arachnids (Araneae, Opiliones) From Manitoba Taiga. Mem. Entomol. Soc. Canada 126:21–31.

Koponen S. 1994. Ground-living spiders, opilionids, and pseudoscorpions of peatlands in Quebec. Mem. Entomol. Soc. Canada 126:41–60.

Ovcharenko VI, Platnick NI, Sung T. 1992. A review of the North Asian ground spiders of the genus Gnaphosa (Araneae, Gnaphosidae). Bull. Am. Museum Nat. Hist. 212:1-92

Seyyar O, Ayyıldız N, Topçu A. 2008. Updated Checklist of Ground Spiders (Araneae: Gnaphosidae) of Turkey, with Zoogeographical and Faunistic Remarks. Entomol. News 119:509–520.

Vollrath F, Parker GA. 1992. Sexual dimorphism and distorted sex ratios in spiders. Nature 360:156–159.

Insect herbivory in fragmented forests: it’s complicated

I’m excited to announce a recent paper to come out of the lab, by former PhD student Dorothy Maguire, and with Dr. Elena Bennett. In this work, we studied the amount of insect herbivory in forest patches in southern Quebec: the patches themselves varied by degree of fragmentation (ie, small versus large patches) and by connectivity (ie, isolated patches, or connected to other forest patches). We studied herbivory on sugar maple trees, both in the understory and canopy, and at the edges of the patches. Our research is framed in the context of “ecosystem services” given that leaf damage by insects is a key ecological process in deciduous forests, and can affect the broader services that forest patches provide, from supporting biodiversity through to aesthetic value. Dorothy’s research was part of a larger project about ecosystem services and management in the Montérégie region of Quebec.



Dorothy Maguire sampling insects in the tree canopy (Photo by Alex Tran)

The work was tremendously demanding, as Dorothy had to select sites, and within each site sample herbivory at multiple locations, including the forest canopy (done with the “single rope technique). Dorothy returned to sites many times over the entire summer to be able to assess trends over time. Herbivory itself was estimated as damage to leaves, so after the field season was completed, thousands of leaves were assessed for damage. The entire process was repeated over two years. Yup: doing a PhD requires a suite of skills in the field and lab, and there is no shortage of mind-numbing work… Dedication is key!

As with most research, we had high hopes that the results would be clear, convincing, and support our initial predictions – we certainly expected that forest fragmentation and isolation in our study landscape would have a strong effect on herbivory – after all, our study forests varied dramatically in size and isolation, and herbivory is a common and important ecological process, and insect herbivores are known (from the literature) to be affected by fragmentation.



The landscape of southern Quebec. Lots of agriculture, some patches of forest.


However, as with so much of ecological research, the results were not straightforward! “It’s complicated” become part of the message: patterns in herbivory were not consistent across years, and there were interactions between some of the landscape features and location within each patch. For example, canopies showed lower levels of herbivory compared to the understory, but only in isolated patches, and only in one of the study years! We also found that edges had less herbivory in connected patches, but only in the first year of the study. Herbivory also increased as the season progressed, which certainly makes biological sense.

So yes, it’s complicated. At first glance, the results may appear somewhat underwhelming, and the lack of a strong signal could be viewed as disappointing. However, we see it differently: we see it as more evidence that “context matters” a great deal in ecology. It’s important not to generalize about insect herbivory based on sampling a single season, or in only one part of a forest fragment. The story of insect herbivory in forest fragments can only be told if researchers look up to the canopy and out to the edges; the story is incomplete when viewed over a narrow time window. In the broader context of forest management and ecosystem services, we certainly have evidence to support the notion that herbivory is affected by the configuration of the landscape. But, when thinking about spatial scale and ecosystem processes, careful attention to patterns these processes “within” forest patches is certainly required.

We hope this work will inspire others to think a little differently about insect herbivory in forest fragments. Dorothy’s hard work certainly paid off, and although the story is complicated, it’s also immensely informative and interesting, and sheds light on how big landscapes relate to small insects eating sugar maple leaves.


Maguire et al. 2016: Within and among patch variability in patterns of insect herbivory across a fragmented forest landscape. PlosOne DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0150843


Natural history of canopy-dwelling beetles: More than just ‘Fun Facts’

This is the second post by undergraduate student Jessica Turgeon – she’s doing an Honour’s project in the lab; here’s her first post that introduces the project.  Since that first post, Jessica has spent a LOT of time at the microscope, and has identified over 120 species of spiders and beetles from forest canopies and understory habitats.

Every species has a different story to tell and each one of these is equally interesting. I sometimes think about natural history as ‘fun facts’: something interesting about an organism (or species) to tell children so that they can appreciate nature. As my time at McGill progressed and my knowledge of the natural world deepened, I realized that the ‘fun facts’ are actually built upon a very strong scientific foundation, and can help us understand results of research projects. Natural history can sometimes be reduced to ‘fun facts’ but it’s a whole lot more than that!

The European Snout Beetle on a pin.

The European Snout Beetle on a pin.

I decided that perhaps I should look at the natural history of some of my species and maybe this would shed light on some patterns that I’m seeing within the data. The most abundant beetle species was Phyllobius oblongus (Curculionidae) with 69 individuals. Interestingly, we only collected this species in the first half of our sampling season and they were mainly collected on black maple and sugar maple trees. To try and understand why this is so, I turned to the species’ natural history, and to the literature.

These weevils tend to eat fresh leaf shoots and prefer the soft leaves found on maple trees. Once the maple’s leaves are fully-grown, P. oblongus moves on to plants with indeterminate growth, like raspberry bushes (Coyle et al. 2010). This corresponds exactly to our data: the beetles were found on our black and sugar maples during the beginning of summer and then they taper off as the season progressed!

Beetle data: the European Snout Beetle was only collected during the beginning of the season.

Beetle data: the European Snout Beetle was only collected during the beginning of the season.

To make this even more interesting, P. oblongus is an invasive species. Its common name is the European Snout Beetle and was accidentally introduced into North Eastern North America in the early 1900s. While most invasive species are a cause for concern, both the Canadian and American governments largely ignore this species. It may inflict some damage to trees but not enough to be worried about. They’re more annoying to researchers than anything since they congregate in the trees in large numbers!

The second most abundant beetle species in the collections was Glischrochilus sanguinolentus (Nitulidae). This species is native to Canada and rather abundant. Species in this genus are called sap beetles but this species in particular is more commonly called a picnic beetle. Large groups of G. sanguinolentus swarm to picnics since they are attracted to sweet food, which ruins the picnics. In nature, they feed on the sap produced by injured trees – hopefully not an indication that the trees we were climbing were damaged!

The natural histories of species open new doors to understanding how organisms live and interact with one another. I thought that it was strange that P. oblongus completely disappeared from my samples midway through the sampling season and its natural history explained why this was so. Picnic beetles eat the exuding sap of an injured tree so in the future I’ll be on the lookout so that I don’t accidentally climb a broken tree! So really, natural history is more than just ‘fun facts’; it helps us understand patterns and to better understand how our natural world works.


Coyle, D.R., Jordan, M.S. and Raffa, K.F., 2010. Host plant phenology affects performance of an invasive weevil, Phyllobius oblongus (Coleoptera: Curculionidae), in a northern hardwood forestEnvironmental entomology,39(5), pp.1539-1544

Evans, A.V., 2014. Beetles of eastern North America. Princeton University Press.

Tips for managing a research lab

Running a research lab* isn’t easy. I learned this the hard way last fall when I performed rather poorly on my lab safety inspection. At the time it seemed to be a low priority: cleaning up the lab always seemed less important compared to, for example, having a lab meeting. We have since done a major lab clean-up, and we are back on track (phew!), but the experience has made me think about the skills needed to run a lab. Hopefully this is of interest to some of you, especially early career researchers (ECRs), but I would also like experienced researchers to wade with comments and tips. This post will be more about the “nuts and bolts” of running a lab, but perhaps a future post can be about broader philosophies around being the head of a research lab.


Part of my lab – AFTER cleaning.

Human resources

There are people in a lab. This means, as the head of a lab, you need to pay attention to human resources. This might be practical kind of stuff, like signing expense reports, or making sure students are getting paid when they are supposed to. But there are also many more complex things to think about, such as helping resolve arguments, or helping students through difficulties. You need to learn to listen, you need to navigate social dynamics, and be a good communicator. Make your expectations clear, and be sure that everyone is well aware of their roles and responsibilities. Work on ways to have a productive AND fun lab. Be sensitive to everyone’s different needs, and be open to change – operate on a principle of kindness. You will likely find yourself navigating some tricky situations so be sure to get help when you need it: there may be training available, or perhaps ask your Chair or a colleague about advice on being a good manager of human resources.


Running a lab is very much about being organized. There has to be a “plan” for all the different supplies, and space for everyone to store their samples, find the ethanol, or grab new Petri dishes. From the start it’s important to think about space needs in the long-term – anticipate how the lab might change in the future, and make sure there is room to grow. People need to feel that they have a “home” in the lab, whether it’s a desk or piece of a lab bench, and this requires careful assessment of space. I personally struggle with sample storage, and seem to squeeze old samples into various drawers, with a promise of getting rid of them (or putting them in long-term storage) after students have published their work. That promise is mostly broken, as it it easier to just store stuff and forget about it. ECRs: avoid this mistake! Stuff accumulates far too quickly. Be sure to label things too, including where to put supplies.


Safety and training

Don’t drink from the beakers; broken glass is dangerous. Stay on top of the safety rules at your institution: it’s easy to miss those emails, but as I learned, they are important. Top-down guidance about safety will show the lab members that safety is a priority not an afterthought. Know where to store chemicals, know about the eye wash stations, and make sure the first aid kit is stocked and ready. Know what needs to get stored where, and be ready when there is a call for hazardous waste disposal. Learn about MSDS, and be on top of the chemicals that may be present in your lab. As the head of a lab, you are indeed responsible for making sure your lab members have the appropriate training in the context of lab safety: whether it be WHIMIS, research ethics, or wilderness first aid, get your students signed up, and pay for the training. Don’t shirk this essential responsibility.



As the head of a lab, your name will likely be on all the research permits, and depending on your field of study, this can be a very big deal, and complicated. From collecting permits to animal care to biohazards, you need to guide your students through the permit process, from application to final reports. You have to be aware of deadlines, and know the ins and outs of the different requirements, especially when your work might cross jurisdictions. This can take an inordinate amount of time, but it requires the time commitment: lacking a permit can stall an entire research program. It’s essential to be proactive and prepared for permits. I certainly get my students to write the bulk of their own research permits, but a manager of a lab needs to facilitate this process.

Budgets and supplies

Running a lab means making sure there is a budget (i.e., you need a research grant!) to buy light bulbs for the microscope, flagging tape for field work, or medium for the agar plates. You need the money, and you need to know the process. The latter is not trivial: at my University some supplies are best bought using an internal purchasing system. Other places need just a credit card, or perhaps a purchase order. There are so many systems to learn, and each one probably needs a different password. It’s confusing and frustrating, and you have to stay on top of it. I keep a special file with all the details written out, and a hard-copy folder with old invoices – this way I can make sure to but the right sizes of things. Consistency is supplies is rather important!


Here are some things that have occurred in my lab over the years: weird smells from the sink. Lack of heat. Leaks from the ceiling. Power failures. Spider escapes**. Failing fridge. Failing freezer.

And the list goes on… Running a lab can be a lot about troubleshooting – you need to figure out who to call for what problem, and find a speedy resolution – otherwise you let down your grad students. Make a list of key people to get to know, from facilities to the local safety officer. Even better, post the list up in the lab, next to the telephone.


Ok, so there are certainly more things to know about running a lab, but hopefully the list provided is a start. Here’s the catch: almost everything I learned about running a lab was learned on the job. Despite attending some required workshops at the start of my career, I did not learn any real skills about running a lab. I was not trained to run a lab. Scientists must be taught to manage a lab.

That is a problem because a failure to run a lab properly has significant consequence for a lot of people! My students depend on the supplies that I have to buy, and they need to know what to do if there’s a chemical spill. Thankfully I had some good mentors when I was a grad student, and I managed to figure a lot of things out. However, I do think Universities need to do a better job helping hone the skills needed to run a lab; in many research fields, a successful academic career really depends on having a smooth-running lab, anything that can be done to help prepare ECRs for this would pay off.

In sum, I’m certainly a work in progress. Although I have some skills in research, I know that running a lab can be a real challenge for me, whether it’s forgetting to order supplies or checking the eyewash station weekly. I have learned to delegate a bit, and my grad students help me immensely at maintaining a safe and clean lab environment. I sure hope some of you can learn a bit from my own trials and tribulations… And please educate yourself, plan ahead, and know what it takes to run a lab well before you get the keys.


Here are some other resources I’ve come across, related to managing a lab: from Genome Web, ASBMB, a post by Matt Welsh, and a Reddit thread on the topic



**Sometimes we work with live spiders, on various projects. There have been times when they haven’t been where we left them. Oops.

Bog spiders: a serendipitous research project

This is a guest post, written by an Honour’s undergrad student in the lab, Kamil Chatila-Amos. It’s the first of two posts about his work, and the goal of this post is to introduce Kamil and his research project. 

Research can be serendipitous and spontaneous, and that’s certainly the story of how my honour’s project started! I spent last winter working on howler monkeys in Panama (which is a story in itself) and although I adored every second of it, it certainly made me out of touch with the McGill world. When I came back, most of my friends had found themselves a summer research job and even an honours supervisor for the upcoming semester.

So there I was, barely a week after my return, erratically filling out online job applications in the lobby of one of our buildings. I was looking at all kinds of opportunities: herbarium employee in Edmonton, ichthyology assistant in Wisconsin, plant surveying in Vaudreuil, bird surveys in Ontario, insectarium employee in Montreal. I was applying to anything and everything that was still available. Little did I know that the arthropod ecology lab is right next to the lobby… Chris walked by, saw me and stopped to chat. (Well it’s more accurate to say he talked to me while quickly walking to his next meeting)*. Turns out, a student of Terry Wheeler (another entomology Prof. at Macdonald campus), Amélie Grégoire Taillefer, was going to post a job online that very afternoon! She was looking for a field assistant to help her catch flies in bogs in the James Bay area.

A couple days later I was northern-bound! A 15 hour drive north of Montreal is the town of Matagami and about 30 km north of there is Lake Matagami, along which we were staying. In a yurt. A yurt!!! Basically, a large round tent of Mongolian origins. They’re big and this one had a minimal kitchen and shower. But the fact remains that it’s a tent with the isolative properties of canvas. It got pretty cold those first couple weeks and dropped below freezing a few nights. At least it had a fireplace. (It’s actually a great place for people wanting to explore that area of Québec and the owners are wonderful. Go check them out at ecogiteslacmatagami.ca)


The work itself was great. The first week, we explored the area for suitable bogs to install her pantraps. That’s when I realized how awesome bogs are. There are so many things to eat in bogs! Cattails, cranberries, Labrador tea, cloud berries, chanterelles, boletes, black flies…

For the remainder of the trip two days a week were spent visiting our five sites and harvesting the pantraps filled with flies, dragonflies, crickets, spiders and the occasional putrid mouse. The following two or three days we would sort through the samples, separating the lower flies (Nematocera) from the rest.


Ready for some serious bog-sweeping.

After the first week I couldn’t help but notice just how many spiders we were catching. Mostly out of pity I think, I decided to sort out the spiders as well. I felt bad throwing them out… Fast forward to five weeks later and I’m heading back to Montreal with a bagful of vials filled with dead spiders. (My roommates were not very fond of having them in our freezer).

A few weeks later I set up a meeting with Chris and essentially barged into his office with the spiders to ask to work in his lab. It took a while (and quite a bit of convincing) but here I am, sorting through spiders and writing blog posts!

The research project we structured has two components. The first part will look at how the community composition of spiders varies between the five sampled bogs. Second, I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to try DNA barcoding using COI markers. This part remains very blurry right now**, but I’m very excited to see where it leads.


Kamil hard at work in the lab!

If it weren’t for serendipity I would not have gone to James Bay this summer. And if it weren’t for being spontaneous, I would not have sorted out the spiders and would not be working in Chris’ lab right now. But spontaneity does have its down sides. I didn’t plan far enough ahead** and in hindsight, I should have collected some insect orders to be able to do a more in depth ecological analysis.


* um, yes, I spend a LOT of time in meetings, and often have discussions and chats with student on my way to and from those meetings!

** for what it’s worth, research is often blurry, and planning ahead isn’t always possible!