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.


Queer in STEM survey of LGBTQ science professionals now published

The first peer-reviewed paper from the Queer in STEM survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer scientists, engineers, and research professionals is now online ahead of print in the Journal of Homosexuality. It’s the first big, nationwide study of LGBTQ career experiences in the sciences — a potentially important resource to inform the policies of scientific employers and professional organizations.

Some of the most important points in the paper, which I wrote with collaborator Allison Mattheis, are

  • There are a lot of LGBTQ folks working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) — we had more than 1400 responses from STEM professionals across the United States, and in several other countries. (Edited to add: Does this mean LGBTQ folks are well represented, as a proportion of everyone working in STEM? We can’t tell from this dataset — but that’s something we hope to work on in a follow-up study.)
  • Most survey participants reported being completely open about their LGBTQ identity with their friends and family, but a large subset of them were not open at all with their colleagues or coworkers. (This is similar to the results of a survey of U.S. workers released by the Human Rights Campaign last year.)
  • Participants were more likely to be open to their colleagues or coworkers if they described their workplace as safe and welcoming.
  • Participants were more likely to be open to their colleagues or coworkers if they worked in a STEM field with better representation of women (see the figure below). This suggests that in fields with poor gender balance, the climate may be less comfortable for anyone who fails to conform to a straight male gender presentation.
Queer in STEM participants were more likely to be open to colleagues if they worked in STEM fields with better representation of women, as estimated from the U.S. National Science Board's Science and Engineering Indicators (SEI) report. Regression with all STEM fields (solid line), p = 0.31;  with Psychology excluded (dashed line), p = 0.02.

Queer in STEM participants were more likely to be open to colleagues if they worked in STEM fields with better representation of women, as estimated from the U.S. National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators (SEI) report. Regression with all STEM fields (solid line), p = 0.31;
with Psychology excluded (dashed line), p = 0.02.

You can find the full paper on the website of the Journal of Homosexuality, or download an easier-to-read PDF copy of the manuscript here.


Today, in statistics that lose almost all meaning when you really think about them

Someone in my Twitter stream passed along a Washington Post WonkBlog item, which, drawing from WaPo’s important and impressive tracking of shootings by U.S. police, estimates that as of the posting date (June 1), police were responsible for 1 in 13 gun deaths in the U.S. There’s a graphic, for extra share-ability:


… Is that a lot?

Actually, we know it’s an estimated 385 deaths, because the numbers are right there on the shareable graphic. (Good practice, that, well done!) But the first thing that occurred to me, as I looked at the graphic, was that the “one in 13” ratio is only alarming to me because I knew, even before I saw the raw numbers, that Americans shoot a lot of each other. According to the Post’s data, there were 5,099 shooting deaths in the first five months of 2015! If we had the per-capita shooting death rate of a civilized nation, the police could shoot exactly as many people and end up with a much higher ratio, but would that be proportionally more alarming?

And then the second thing that occurred to me was that, actually, I can picture a scenario in which I’d prefer for the ratio to be higher — if I could trust the police to shoot people only when necessary, unencumbered by systematic biases and a proclivity to use maximal force. Heck, in a world where fully trustworthy police were responsible for 100% of gun deaths, that’d mean no gun deaths resulting from four-year-olds rummaging in their parents’ nightstands, and no gun deaths by paranoid old white dudes who hate rap music. I’d actually quite like to live in that world.

Really, all of the underlying understanding that makes the info-graphic stat alarming and newsworthy and share-able is more depressing and infuriating than the statistic itself: we live in a country where guns are used to kill far too many people, and we don’t trust the police to treat their fellow citizens fairly. Happy day-after-Independence-Day!

(As expounded previously on Twitter.)


New place, new project

Lodgepole Pine, Pinus contorta

Lodgepole pine, up close. (Flickr: J. Maughn)

I’m very excited to announce that I’ve accepted a new postdoctoral position as part of the AdapTree project at the University of British Columbia, starting in mid-August. The work I’ll be doing with AdapTree is a dramatic extension of the landscape genomic research I’ve done with Medicago truncatula, studying the genetic basis of adaptation to different environmental conditions. For AdapTree, the focal species are lodgepole pine — Pinus contorta ssp. latifolia — and two species of spruce — Picea glauca, P. engelmanni, and hybrids between them. Using genetic data from thousands of trees at hundreds of sites across British Columbia and Alberta, and growth and performance measurements in big climate-controlled experiments, I’ll get to help figure out what it all means for the future of northern forests.

Apart from the sheer awesomeness of the data, it’s going to be fantastic working with the AdapTree collaborators, which include many biologists whose work I’ve long known and admired: Sally Aitken, Michael Whitlock, Loren Rieseberg, Jason Holliday, Katie Lotterhos, and Sam Yeaman, among others. On top of all that, I get to do it at UBC, one of the premier North American universities for evolutionary ecology, and in Vancouver, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited. Really, this will be a return to the northern Pacific coast community of biologists where I “grew up” as a graduate student at the University of Idaho, but I’ll be coming back with four years of great experience and learning from my time at Minnesota.

I can’t wait to get started.


No, E.O. Wilson didn’t invent the term “evolutionary biology”

Screenshot of the OED entry for "evolutionary biology."

Screenshot of the OED entry for “evolutionary biology.”

This View of Life, the evolution-centric online magazine, has a long “conversation” with myrmecologist E.O. Wilson, one of the most prominent evolutionary biologists of the era following the “Modern Synthesis” in the second half of the Twentieth Century, and still one of the leading popularizers of evolution. It’s a long ramble, but worth your reading time, I dare say. Though, to be honest, I only found out about it because of this aside that TVOL highlighted in a tweet:

I can’t say Jim [Watson] and I were friends because I was the only younger professor in what came to be known as evolutionary biology—a term I invented, incidentally—as I started here in Harvard, and it was Jim Watson’s wish that I and other old fashioned biologists not leave the university but find a place elsewhere than the biological laboratories. So we were not on friendly terms. [Emphasis added.]

Wow! No one was using the term evolutionary biology before E.O. Wilson? That would be pretty nifty, but it’s also easy to fact-check. I did it by looking up the phrase in the online Oxford English Dictionary over breakfast. And I found a citation to this, on page 140 of St. George Mivart’s book Contemporary Evolution, an Essay on Some Recent Social Changes, published in 1876:

The second instance is that of the apparent conflict between evolutionary biology and Christian dogma, and indeed, no better test question as to the effect of scientific progress on Christianity could well be devised. [Emphasis added.]

The OED also has a citation from 1920, nine years before Wilson was born, which refers to work by T.H. Huxley, one of the contributors to the Modern Synthesis. [Correction: Whoops, nope, Thomas Henry Huxley isn’t the Modern Synthesis guy; that’s his grandson Julian. I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS.] So, I’d go so far as to say that it looks like evolutionary biology pre-dates Wilson considerably, and was probably even in common use by the time he joined the faculty at Harvard.

Update: Following from Dave Harris’s response on Twitter, I see that evolutionary biology, as a fraction of all mentions of biology in Google’s Ngrams text database, does start climbing upward in the mid-1960s, coincident with Wilson’s early career. Wilson’s work surely contributed to that increase in the use of the term, though I think it’s quite unlikely he’s solely responsible.


An open letter to Jack Andraka, the Advocate, and, what the hell, OUT magazine while I’m at it


I think I speak for the every gay science nerd when I say that we’re exceptionally proud to count you among us. The initiative you took, while still a high school student, to join a research lab and design a new rapid test for cancer is incredibly inspiring, and you’ve taken to the role of public advocate for science with aplomb.

So I was disappointed to read your recent op-ed on the website of The Advocate about the lack of queer role models in science — not because you’re wrong about the problem, but because you missed a big opportunity to start fixing it.

Continue reading


Life, um, finds a way

The LA Review of Books has just posted my review of Unnatural Selection: How We Are Changing Life, Gene By Gene—a highly accessible book about how insect pests, weeds, disease organisms, wildlife, and even cancer cells evolve in response to the chemicals and drugs we use to contain them. I particularly focus on the skin-crawling case of bedbugs:

Bedbugs are a particularly intimate example, at least from the human perspective, of the broader trend. Surveys of exterminators report that between 2001 and 2007, the number of bedbug infestations across North America increased 20-fold, concentrated in places like apartment complexes, college dormitories, and homeless shelters in major urban areas. Some of this resurgence is due to international travel. Major ports like New York, San Francisco, and Miami are epicenters of bedbug activity, and genetic surveys show that the bugs are arriving from multiple populations, not spreading from a single geographic source. Still, a large part of the bedbug revival is attributable to the fact that the bugs have developed a resistance to many of the insecticides that kept them down for decades.

Go read the whole thing, and try not to scratch.


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.