Chronicle Vitae: Mentorship in pop culture



I’ve got a new piece up on Vitae looking at some inspirational (and not-so-) examples of mentoring in popular culture. Leslie Knope (duh) and Miranda Priestly (yikes) make appearances, plus I have officially managed to shoehorn Star Trek into the careers blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education:

When DS9 and the Federation are threatened by deteriorating relations with the Klingon Empire, [Benjamin] Sisko recruits the Klingon Starfleet officer Worf (Michael Dorn) to the station’s crew for his unique combination of security and tactical expertise and cross-cultural competency.

Go read the whole thing, and tweet your own picks and pans with the hashtag #PopCultureMentors.

Chronicle Vitae: On advice

Truth in advertising. (Flickr: Alexander)

Truth in advertising. (Flickr: Alexander)

I’m back in Vitae this week, ruminating on the usefulness of personal advice — or rather, its frequent lack of usefulness.

The challenge with receiving and applying advice is to distinguish real, general principles from what may simply amount to another person’s recollection of a series of events that ended well. … Certainly in academia, as in any career, there are habits and choices that improve the odds of survival from graduate school to tenure. But simply making it to a particular stage doesn’t actually mean that you had all the right habits or made all the right choices — or even know which habits and choices will work for most other people.

In keeping with my established approach to these columns, I actually do circle back around to a way in which you can learn from other folks’ personal experiences, but you’ll need to read the whole thing to find out how.

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.

Chronicle Vitae: What is a postdoc?

(Library of Congress: C.H. Kidurell)

Vitae totally found a picture of an old-time scientist with exactly my haircut. (Library of Congress: C.H. Kidurell)

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Vitae site, I’m contemplating my own job description.

In the four years since I finished my doctorate, I’ve done at least another Ph.D.’s-worth of work on questions that, back in graduate school, I would never have thought I could tackle. I’ve been lucky — I landed a good postdoc on an interesting project with a mentor who gave me freedom to pursue just about anything I thought would be valuable. That is all exactly what I would want to do running my own lab as a principal investigator, with a faculty appointment. And isn’t that what I’m “training” to do, after all?

It ends up being, as you might expect, as much about the prospects for something to do after being a postdoc as the postdoc itself — but for that, you should go read the whole thing.

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Nature’s Nether Regions, by Menno Schilthuizen, reviewed

Jewelwing Love

Jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) mating. (Flickr: Lisa Brown)

Over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, I’ve posted a long-overdue review of a terrific little book about naughty parts. Genitals. Junk. It’s called Nature’s Nether Regions, by evolutionary biologist and entomologist Menno Schilthuizen, and it puts the weird world of (animal) reproductive anatomy on full display, while avoiding the cliches and pitfalls into which so many popular accounts of sex and evolution fall.

The book’s subtitle What the Sex Lives of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell us About Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves, might be a bit ominous to a reader familiar with the many hazards of evolutionary hypothesizing about human behavior, but Schlithuizen’s chatty tour of animals’ sexual anatomy dodges them all. He does this, in large part, by devoting far more time and attention to the “evolution” and “biodiversity” than to “ourselves,” putting the rather pedestrian reproductive arrangements of Homo sapiens in their place amidst the baroque diversity of appendages, receptacles, secretions, and behaviors other animals employ to multiply their kinds.

Go read the whole review, which includes some sampling of the natural history Schilthuizen covers, and then check out the book itself.

Mammoth ambitions

Giant ground sloth

Nothrotheriops shastensis, the giant Shasta ground sloth, is one of many large North American mammal species that went extinct when the ice age ended and humans arrived on the scene. (Wikimedia Commons: Michael B. H.)

Over at The Awl, I reviewed paleobiologist Beth Shapiro’s new book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Exitinction. Shapiro argues that we can and should resurrect mammoths, then release them into the best approximation of ice age habitat we can assemble. Which is crazy! Right?

Shapiro frames mammoth resurrection, or de-extinction, or recreation, or whatever this would be, as part of a broader effort called “Pleistocene rewilding.” The idea is not to put recreated mammoths in zoos—it is to release them into wilderness preserves in Europe, Asia, and North America, as part of re-establishing the community of large animals that lived in those regions during the last ice age, the geological era called the Pleistocene.

… proponents of Pleistocene rewilding argue that it could provide new habitat for megafauna species that are critically endangered in their native ranges, like lions and rhinoceros, and that it would have significant benefits for the health of the ecosystems into which they are introduced.

But hey, go read the whole thing.

The Molecular Ecologist: Fishing for genetic signals of adaptation

Atlantic Salmon

Adult Atlantic salmon. (Flickr: Matt Hintsa)

Over at The Molecular Ecologist, I discuss a new paper that exemplifies how we’re going to be studying the genetics of adaptation in the age of high-throughput DNA sequencing—even if it doesn’t quite live up to that promise. It’s a study of adaptation in Atlantic salmon, whose lifestyle makes them uniquely suitable for a particuar sampling design:

Salmon hatch in freshwater rivers, and spend at least their first year in that environment before swimming downstream to the ocean, where they develop into reproductively mature adults. When they’re ready to mate, they migrate back from the ocean, up the river where they hatched to spawn at the site of their birth. Those major migrations and the transitions between freshwater and salt-water are likely to be major selective events for salmon, and they offer convenient times to catch and study salmon from roughly the same age-cohort: when they migrate downstream to the ocean, and when they return to their birth-river.

By taking genetic samples of juvenile salmon on their way out to sea, and then adults on swimming upstream to breed, you can test for genetic changes—adaptation—that has occurred over the course of the fishes’ life in the ocean. And that’s exactly what the authors of this paper did—go read the whole post to find out how it worked.

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: The key to a secure global future is evolution

Sunrise from the Fall River Road

A mountain vista in Colorado, with trees killed by pine beetles in the foreground. (Flickr: John B. Kalla)

Over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, I discuss a big new review article on all the ways understanding evolutionary biology will be critical for human health and development in the next hundred years:

The long list of authors, led by Scott P. Carroll and including Ford Denison, whose lab is just down the hall from my office at the University of Minnesota, explicitly connect evolutionary principles to global goals for sustainable development. These include the reduction of both “chronic lifestyle” diseases and infectious diseases, establishment of food and water security, clean energy, and maintenance of healthy ecosystems. Carroll and his coauthors divide the applications of evolution to these problems into cases where evolution is the problem, and those where evolution may offer the solution.

I’m going to be citing this paper in every grant application I write for the next decade, I suspect. Go read the whole post, and download the original article from Science Express.