Monday, April 7, 2014

Emporia Expedition: Kansas Entomological Society 2014 Meeting

Saturday was the 2014 meeting of the Kansas Entomological Society in Emporia, Kansas, and I joined the University of Arkansas delegation on the 4 hour trip to attend. The week leading up to the meeting was stressful, with preparing my talk and not feeling well towards the end of the week, but everything worked out fine.

I will say that I need to start preparing my talks sooner. I'm apt to procrastinate, which gives me a tendency to put off writing my talks until a few days before I give it. This is not optimal. It results in feeling unprepared (because I am) and makes for an awkward talk. I've started to budget more time into my schedule dedicated to working on my talks, and it's helpful to block out a half hour to an hour dedicated solely to working on presentations in the weeks leading up to them. That's not to say I still don't fail to take advantage of that time, and in those cases, I've gotten past feeling sorry for myself and being paralyzed by the fear of a blank page.

A benefit of being part of the Entomology department is that the department head schedules times for the grad students to give their practice talks to a small group of peers for feedback. It's not a good idea to disappoint the chair, so we always have our talks ready to go a few days before leaving for any conference. They're definitely not perfect, and the suggestions we receive help a lot during the pre-conference editing process.

Thanks to the suggestions I received, I was able to make my talk much better than what I started with, and it was relatively fun to edit. My talk covered my previous work with Ohio's millipedes and what my plans are for the summer with my grant from the Ohio Biological Survey. I made a chart showing my current millipede species count for Ohio, which I was particularly proud of. You can see it below.

This chart will surely change as I get better data on how many species are in Ohio, but this is what I have so far. The top three orders: Polydesmida, Chordeumatida, and Julida make up 82% of the state's millipede diversity. It's not terribly surprising, but I had never done the math on it before, and it's useful to lay out the data so that I know what I'm dealing with.

On the day of the conference, I was more nervous than I usually am for public speaking, which I wasn't taking as a good sign. Thankfully, when I got up to give my presentation, I was feeling back to normal. I started my talk by taking a photo of the audience and mentioning a publication on millipedes available near the registration desk. It loosened up the atmosphere a bit.

My talk went very well, and I had a wave of relief overtake me once I sat down. It's always nice to get a talk out of the way early on during a conference and then be able to just enjoy it. I was very impressed by the other student talks I heard during the day, and I was able to meet Crystal Maier, a fellow Twitter user! Her talk was immediately following mine and it was great, aside from her negative opinions on Ohio fieldwork. Though when she has the option of going to the tropics to collect beetles or stay in US....I guess I can see her point.

Crystal ended up winning first place in the competition for her talk, so congratulations to her! It was well-deserved. The judges couldn't make up their minds, so 1st place was shared by Oliver Keller, who presented an excellent talk about his work with California's bear scarab beetles. I was happy to take 3rd place, showing that my talk had definitely progressed since my (disastrous) practice talk a few days prior.

The posters at the meeting were likewise of high quality. I read a particularly nice poster by Emmy Dudek, from Wichita State University, about a pilot survey of grasshoppers in the state she had completed. It had beautiful photos and I'm hoping to see it eventually adapted into a field guide!

State entomology conferences are always great to present at and have a cordial feel to them. They're not nearly as hectic as national or regional conferences, and it's nice to be able to have conversations with fellow scientists instead of constantly running around. It's also a low pressure environment, another positive. The Kansas meeting was probably the most fun I've had at a conference recently, and I'll definitely be attending next year.

Additionally, the next meeting will be at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville next April, which makes for a short commute time for me. Convenient!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

On feeling like a good scientist

I've had a pretty great week.

It started off with the Southeastern Branch meeting of the Entomological Society of America in Greenville, South Carolina. I was there from March 2-5 and heard some great talks and met some very nice people. The University of Arkansas entered a team into The Linnaean Games (it's like Bug Quiz Bowl), and I was the alternate for the team. I cheered them on from the audience, and we made it to the semi-finals before losing in a close round to North Carolina State University. There were no hard feelings though: it was a well-fought contest, and we all went out to dinner afterward. You can see some photos from the meeting on the Entomology Society's Facebook page, and hopefully that album will have some of the candid photos uploaded soon.

I received exciting news while I was in Greenville: my symposium for the national meeting in Portland, Oregon this November was accepted! The symposium is entitled "Reaching Beyond Our Horizon: Social Media & Connecting with the World" and will have speakers from entomology and other disciplines talking about how social media has enhanced their research and their outreach. I had enormous help brainstorming for the symposium from Morgan Jackson, a fellow grad student, and his help was instrumental in getting the symposium accepted. We'll both be moderating the session in November, and we hope to see you there! It will be the best program symposium at the conference!

Yesterday afternoon I received my other piece of good news for the week: I have been awarded a grant from the Ohio Biological Survey's Small Grants Program! This grant will support my millipede field work in Ohio this summer, which I intend to document on this blog and on Twitter, along with other avenues. I'm very excited to have this opportunity and will make OBS proud.

Suffice it to say that this week has been very helpful for my ego. Science communication and millipede research are two of the things I'm most passionate about, and both those interests have been vindicated by professional organizations. I'm going to make sure the symposium and the grant are magnificent investments for both those organizations and sink a lot of hard work into each of them.

I'm excited and honored by both these opportunities, and my passion for science is definitely at an all-time high right now.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Winter Mycology - Earthstars

I expected winter in Arkansas to be more mild than I'm used to, but this year's winter seems to have been a bit unusual. By unusual, I mean cold. Not as cold as Ohio, but cold enough to have snow on the ground and stay there. But today it got into the 50s, melting away the snow and revealing what was underneath it.

As I was walking past a tree in Fayetteville, I noticed some white objects about the size of small acorns. I stopped and knelt down to examine them, and it turned out that they were mushrooms!

Earthstars in the genus Geastrum were huddled around the base of the tree. The white sphere you see is the storage structure for the mushroom's spores. When force is applied to it (such as from a gust of wind or a finger), the spores puff out in a cloud from a hole at the tip. The spores are then dispersed by the wind. The brown stuff you see under the sphere is the "skin" of the mushroom (outer peridium): it peels back from the sack of spores and lies on the ground.

Mushrooms like these are relatively common once you know what to look for. Often, the earthstars and related groups look like small piles of decaying leaves or poop unless you take a closer look. If you see something gross on the ground, stop and take a closer look, it might be a mushroom.

EDIT: February 22 - Adding some photos of three collected specimens.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A New Year, a new update

2013 has come to a close, and my first semester of graduate school has as well. I emerged victorious, and the break before second semester has been good to me.

I unfortunately didn't blog about my time at the 2013 Entomological Society of America conference in Austin in November, but I did write a few posts for EntomologyToday. The first was about how Twitter is useful for entomologists, and the second was about using Storify to organize tweets. Suffice it to say that the conference left me exhausted and still wanting more. I had a spectacular time meeting other entomologists, grad students, and friends (old and new), and I heard some scintillating talks.

I'm now looking ahead to the future. My next semester has been thrown out of whack already, due to my plant taxonomy class being cancelled (much to my disdain), so now I'm searching for a new class to take. I'm bitter about losing plant taxonomy.

I'm also hoping to TA my first class--any tips are welcome.

My main focus during the next semester will be working on my thesis question and research. Related to that goal, I want to publish at least one paper (or at least have it submitted), take a shot at making science/nature videos, and of course, spread the news about how great millipedes are.

Not to mention set aside more time for blogging. I've noticed that I tend to tweet more thoughts and experiences that I used to make into blog posts, so I'm going to be more wary of that in the future.

I'm looking forward to a productive, fun, and scary but exciting 2014, and I wish the same to everyone else.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Dissections and a Crop

I'm taking an insect morphology class this semester, so I've been doing a lot of dissections. I know my way around an insect so much better than I did before, and I'm getting to the point of being quite comfortable with all the tools used for dissections. Now I can be fancy when I'm cutting and tugging at the insect's body.

In today's lab, I dissected a honey bee to observe its heart, which is located dorsally on the body. To get there, I cut away the ventral abdominal plates, exposing the guts. I was met with this scene:

You can see a few things in this photo. There are silvery air sacs along the edges of the abdomen, the exposed stinger at the distal end (i.e. the butt), and you can see the gut taking up most of the room in the abdomen. In particular, you can see the crop: the bulbous, slightly golden part of the foregut, where honey is stored. It's also called the "honey stomach."

Obviously, I didn't want to waste the honey by throwing it away after my dissection.

That drop of honey was the freshest honey I had ever tasted. It was delicious!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Tweeting or just twittering?

The newest edition of the Bulletin of the Entomological Society of Canada (Volume 45, issue 3, September 2013) begins with a column (pp. 101-103) about digital media, its usefulness, and its pitfalls, by the president of the ESC, Rosemarie De Clerck-Floate. She writes about how online tools can be useful, but also notes that scientists should be judicious in their use of these tools: a fair point. In something of a counterpoint, the last column in the Bulletin (pp. 151-152) takes a different view of online tools, notably social media. Editor Cedric Gillott holds a less rosy view of social media's role for scientists, proclaiming:
However, I have never found a need to open Twitter or Facebook accounts or to blog. And even in retirement I find myself so busy that I doubt I would find time to tweet, or post  items on other social media sites.
It's worth your time to read the entire column, but his main complaints about social media and blogging amount to (1) not having enough time for it and (2) not seeing the usefulness. Gillott does mention that blogs can quickly answer scientific questions, but he ascribes no such benefit to Twitter. As someone who often blogs and tweets (I've been doing both for about three years now), I feel that I can answer his concerns.

As for the time commitment, sure, maybe social media (I'll include blogging under this umbrella for simplicity from now on) would take up too much time for some people. But everything eats up time: television, reading, socializing...particular activities aren't the issue. What matters is budgeting time correctly. I use Twitter during my daily bus commute, while waiting for people, during lunch, and later in the evening when I'm relaxing at home. It doesn't have to be a constant time suck, nor does it take much time to read through some tweets.

As with any other activity, if it's important to you, you'll make time.

Now to tackle the usefulness of social media. I often meet scientists who have the perception that Twitter is useless and it's just people talking about what they had for lunch. Sure, some people tweet about their food choices and post selfies all day, but as Tom Houslay elegantly puts it: "the wonderful thing about Twitter is that your feed is entirely as interesting as you make it." If you see something you don't care about on Twitter, you can unfollow people and follow others who are more interesting. If you find your feed uninteresting, that's your fault.

I want to point out that the "Twitter is useless" attitude comes mainly from scientists who haven't used it. Gillott admits that he himself doesn't use social media. Twitter isn't perfect, but I would encourage scientists to give it a shot before concluding that it's not useful. After all, that would be making a conclusion without any evidence, and that's a science faux pas.

So where's my evidence that Twitter is useful?

For one thing, I found my current job through Twitter. I'm earning my Master's degree because I saw the position advertised in a tweet, and I wouldn't have known about it otherwise. That pretty much sealed the usefulness argument for me. It's an example of Twitter's biggest strength: networking.

I follow almost 1,000 accounts on Twitter, which mostly consists of scientists, including many other graduate students. I can ask a question about a concept or something I come across in the field and get an answer quickly. (I just did this today, in fact, and received an answer two minutes later.) I hear about struggles other students have, learn about what research is going on, and meet others in the field. It's a natural way to network: I meet someone based on shared interests and make a friend instead of just a colleague.

I've received specimens from people I meet on Twitter, and I've sent some as well, aiding in research. I'm interested in millipedes, so I monitor the millipede hashtag on Twitter, identifying species for people when possible. Most of the tweets I find are from people who aren't scientists, and sometimes they send me photos of other bugs they've found and want to learn more about. Twitter is a great tool for reaching the general public (that Holy Grail of "outreach" that scientists love to give lip service to), and enables me to help people make connections with the natural world. That's not useless. It's what social media should be about.

As for this blog, I haven't gotten any scholarly publications from it (yet), but it has helped me hone my writing skills, organize my thoughts, and connect with the general public. I get emails from people who were able to identify an insect or millipede after they read one of my posts, and that information might not be easily accessible to a non-scientist (especially the millipede information).

As scientists, we should embrace new media to disseminate our knowledge. We pride science on being ever-changing, incorporating new ideas and data, so why don't we apply that mindset to our scientists?

If I think back on all the time wasted by scientists not knowing their way around Powerpoint* or fiddling with a projector to put up a new transparency, I realize that I could have written a bunch of tweets or blog posts to better use that time. As scientists, we shouldn't be resistant to new technologies because they're viewed as immature/time wasters/too complicated. We should give them a chance and try to find their usefulness, instead of automatically writing them off as bad.

If you're a scientist who wants to try Twitter, but are unsure of where to start, check out these links:
What is Twitter and Why Scientists Need To Use It
Scientists On Twitter: 30 Biologists And Chemists To Follow
Tweeting for Science (with links to other resources)
Twitter for Scientists (and why you should try it) (#ScienceShare)
Why should scientists use Twitter?
Guest post: creating scientists in 140 characters
Don’t throw away the Twitter manual yet!
More resources, including a Twitter guide, from the Bennett Lab at McGill University
Why I spend so much time on the internet (#ScienceShare)
Social media for academics
Scientists & Social Media; A Popular Subject

You can follow me on Twitter: @derekhennen. While I don't tweet about what I had for lunch, I do tweet photos of cats sometimes/often. Fair warning.

*Protip: If you want to enter presentation mode on Powerpoint, just hit F5. It takes half a second and people will be impressed that you know your way around the program.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Scientific Method: Leaf litter samples

Much of my research involves collecting leaf litter samples from the field. There's a surprising amount of diversity in leaf litter, including insects, arachnids, and myriapods, all hanging out together under the detritus on the forest floor.

To collect leaf litter, all you need to do is grab a few handfuls of fallen leaves (usually including various amounts of soil, dead wood, moss, etc.) and stick it all in a plastic bag. It helps to use some kind of sifter first, to concentrate the litter and avoid filling up the bag with large sticks and leaves, but it's not critical.

After collecting the litter, transfer it to a funnel. You usually want to do this ASAP so that the critters in the litter don't get squished or eaten by the predators you've collected with the prey, but that's not always possible. Keeping the bags in a container with some ice helps to slow the invertebrates' movements and keeps the bags from overheating.

I had a few bags of leaf litter yesterday after a collecting trip, and I decided to showcase how I process the samples by tweeting a series of photos, embedded below. I have access to a room full of dedicated Berlese funnels, but they're easy to set up if you're interested in just testing out the method once.

In a few days, I can go back to check my samples and figure out what I caught. It's sort of like Christmas morning every time I sort one of the samples: I never know what to expect and it's exciting!