Chronicle Vitae: Thanks to mentors

In the field with my dissertation advisor, Olle Pellmyr (centre) and collaborator Will Godsoe. (Flickr: jby)

In the field during the first year of my Ph.D. research with my dissertation advisor, Olle Pellmyr (centre) and collaborator Will Godsoe (left). (Flickr: jby)

Over at Vitae, I’m contemplating an appropriate topic for the week of U.S. Thanksgiving: how much I owe to the many senior colleagues who’ve mentored me over the course of my scientific career.

In graduate school and as a postdoc, I’ve been exceptionally fortunate in my formal and informal relationships with senior colleagues. As I’m nearing (I hope) the day when I will begin teaching, training graduate students, and supervising postdocs myself, I’ve tried to keep track of specific ways that my mentors have aided me. It’s helped me define what I want to do as a mentor myself, but it’s also good, I think, to remember how much my career has depended on others’ support.

No, I don’t know why the piece is illustrated by men carrying turkeys, apart from the seasonal connection. Maybe the men are mentors and the turkeys are mentees? Maybe just go read the whole column and don’t over-think it.

Chronicle Vitae: Why the tenure track job hunt sucks — and why it maybe ought to?

(Flickr: Alison Curtis)

(Flickr: Alison Curtis)

In a new post for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae blog today, I let off a little of the steam accumulated over four years (and counting) of writing applications for tenure-track faculty jobs.

Do you really need to receive letters of reference with my application? Yes, of course, you want perspectives on candidates from people who have worked with us in the past. Will you use their letters in the very first round of sorting through dozens (or hundreds) of applicants? Probably not. I have met a few faculty members who tell me that they do read letters for that first-stage decision — but those professors are the rare, possibly superhuman, exceptions. For candidates, making sure letters get delivered means making sure that three-to-five usually very busy senior collaborators know the general description of the job opening in question, the idiosyncratic method by which letters should be submitted, and the deadline for submission — then following up to ensure they meet that deadline.

I’d like to think this column is both a (reasonable) extended complaint, and a #SlatePitch-y rebuttal to said complaint — because I kinda think, actually, that as maddening as tenure-track applications can be, they might be pretty good at identifying people who will do well as faculty. To find out why, go read the whole thing.

Social Evolution Forum: Evolution in response to ecological conditions changes ecological conditions

Daphnia magna adult and juvenile. (Flickr: NTNU Faculty of Natural Sciences and Technology)

Daphnia magna adult and juvenile. (Flickr: NTNU Faculty of Natural Sciences and Technology)

I am very happy to be among the members of the Evolution Institute’s new community blog, the Social Evolution Forum. The team includes a bunch of terrific geneticists and anthropologists and people with more social-science-y backgrounds … and me, with a publication record that’s easily 90% research on plants, which do not have societies in any meaningful sense, and interactions between plants and other things that are not really very social, either — moths, or bacteria. Still, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, and evolution is very much what I study, and I have written about the biology of the most quintessentially social species, Homo sapiens quite a bit in the past.

All the same, for my inaugural post to SEF, I’m leaning into my role as the generalized evolutionary ecologist with a kind of post I haven’t written in some time, it feels like: a brief discussion of a cool new experiment in rapid evolutionary change and its ecological consequences.

Evolution in response to natural selection over a few weeks or months may not seem like it could matter much, but a recent experiment with one tiny evolutionary champion shows that it can, in fact, have measurable effects on a whole community of interacting species. The communities in question are the kinds found in ponds all over the world, in which swarms of small crustaceans compete to graze and prey on algae and other microorganisms, and evade death in the gaping maws of minnows and sticklebacks. One of these crustaceans is Daphnia magna, the common water flea, which has a life cycle that turns out to be quite convenient for scientists who want to watch evolutionary change in real time.

As you’ll find if you read the whole thing, Jelena H. Pantel and her coauthors raised clonally-reproducing Daphnia in artificial environments with communities of competing crustaceans for about three months — ten water-flea generations or so. They then used individuals sampled from those evolved populations to colonize new communities, and compared what happened to those communities to ones started with Daphnia that hadn’t had time to evolve. It’s a nice experiment in ecological consequences of evolutionary change — and how that change can actually feed back to alter the conditions that caused it in the first place.

And, when you’re done with that, check out great opening articles by Arun Sethuraman, Lee Alan Dugatkin, Jennifer Raff, and Anthony Biglan — that should give a pretty good sense of the variety of voices and expertise you can expect at SEF.