You can get from Anchorage to Denali National Park by rental car, Alaska Railway passenger train, or chartered flight — but we took the bus. A regular service runs from the convention center in downtown Anchorage to multiple stops in and around Denali, about four hours’ drive north on State Highway 3, and it leaves early. C and I hiked our luggage through a light morning drizzle to join a small crowd of fellow-passengers huddled under the convention center portico, and by 7:30 am we were driving north.
We took the highway — the only highway — east out of town and then west towards Wasila, with views of mountains through the cloud banks. Eventually the rain got too heavy, mist rolled in, and the highway headed north and left more developed territory, running between walls of forest that looked, to eyes raised on eastern temperate-deciduous woods, distinctly scraggly. The trees were aspen, spruce, none more than 40 feet tall, rising out of thick undergrowth like bathers wading in the shallow end of a crowded swimming pool. Large swathes of the spruce were dead-looking, gray-brown ghost groves — killed by spruce beetles, apparently.
We landed in Anchorage at eight o’clock in the evening, but it might have been any time from dawn to almost midnight. High-latitude summer light is uncanny enough to a southerner such as me (flying in from Los Angeles via a long stopover in Seattle) when it’s still fully light out at nine o’clock in the evening; but then also a mid-July weather system had swathed the city in low clouds and persistent drizzle, filtering the sunlight down to a high-twilit grey.
C and I took a taxi to a rental apartment we’d planned to use as a base of operations for the trip. I had an academic conference in Anchorage, and we’d taken that as an excuse to fly up a week early and see some sights — Denali National Park, then the vicinity of Kenai Fjords. First, though, we had a day in town to settle in and get our bearings. The rental-apartment host and her husband met us and our heap of luggage on the doorstep of their house — which, in addition to having our apartment in the basement, appeared to operate both as a multi-unit bed-and-breakfast and as the local consulate of the Netherlands. Our host was, it developed, a Dutch transplant. She showed us around: kitchen, living space, bedroom, washing machine and dryer, sofa bed in the living room (I suspect she didn’t realize C and I were a couple), and an orientation to the city via a tourist map on the kitchen table. Downtown was a dozen blocks north, on the other side of a long east-west strip of parkland. We thanked her out the door, unpacked a bit, and then hiked into downtown to the nearest late-night food we could find, by-the-slice pizza with, it turned out, reindeer sausage — how local!
Shaun O’Boyle and Alfredo Carpineti have spent the last two years interviewing LGBTQ+ folks working in the sciences, and the result is now available today on the website of Pride in STEM: an e-book compilation of 40 edited interviews, The Queer Variable. I’m very glad to have been included, as just one voice in an impressively international (if necessarily Anglophone) chorus. The book is something of an oral history, not of a single event or project, but of the career trajectories of the interviewees and how their queer identities have intersected and shaped their work — a topic addressed in a more systematic (dry) manner in the second Queer in STEM paper [PDF]:
Three key processes emerged from our analysis of participant experiences and provide an explanatory framework for how queer STEM workplace identities are shaped by a combination of internal and external influences (see Figure 1). Defining explains how these individuals come to understand and name themselves as queer in terms of gender and/or sexuality; Forming refers to their construction of specific STEM identities; and Navigating describes how the interplay of professional and personal influences impacts expression of identity in places of work and study.
The Queer Variable effectively samples the wide range of ways LGBTQ folks have defined their queer identities, formed their place in a STEM field, and navigated the challenges of a career that incorporates both. Go download the free e-book and have a look.
My review of Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods, a not-unsympathetic exploration of timber poaching on the margins of Redwood National and State Parks, is online (and in print) in this week’s Science.
It’s a good book, following a small group of “outlaws” in the depressed logging community of Orick and the park rangers trying to prevent and prosecute their thefts of valuable old-growth coast redwood from park property. The author, Lyndsie Bourgon, blends that true-crime narrative with bigger-picture perspective on the history of forest management and the global trade in illegally harvested timber. Maybe not surprisingly, it ends up being more a critique of global capitalism than an indictment of the tree thieves, and my review follows it all the way to Full Space Communist:
The book’s unavoidable conclusion is that the problem manifest in timber poaching is not the destruction of a particular tree or the failure of a conservation plan but rather a social and economic system that roots personal identity in wage-earning work (or lack thereof) and that describes a tree by its value as board feet in a lumberyard. Tree Thieves thus suggests that the theft of a tree may be a category error … so pervasive that we don’t know we’re standing in its shade.
Our semesters end the week before the Memorial Day holiday, which in practice means I don’t really get out from under the end-of-semester pileup and start my summer until that holiday weekend. Which is sort of nice for me, personally, because my birthday usually lands somewhere in or adjacent to the last weekend of May.
This year it’s a big(ger) round number, and there were any number of moments that seem nicely timed to commemorate it: I joined the University’s first in-person commencement since 2019 as a faculty “marshal”, and the passel of students from my spring botany class who were participating actually tracked me down to pose for photos. I introduced the first in-person thesis defense by a Master’s student from my lab, and she gave a fantastic, polished presentation of work that her committee declared outstanding almost the moment she stepped out of the room to let us confer. Next weekend (since I’ve now widened this moment to roughly a fortnight) I’ll run and probably survive my twelfth marathon. And, after I’d stopped checking email before the holiday weekend, I got the letter from the Provost conferring tenure and promotion, a year ahead of schedule.
It’s all nice and gratifying in different ways: good impressions made, mentorship successful, hard work paying off, employment and a raise secured. It’s really shockingly well in line with what I’d have wanted to have happen by this particular round-number birthday, if you’d asked me a decade ago when postdoctoral research was still fresh and exciting and radically more adult than grad school. (I’m in the midst of hiring the lab’s first postdoc right now, yikes.) However, right now my mind is more on the sheer number of things I’m still planning to accomplish: the big plans for the summer, grant and paper writing and course planning, and the speed with which making those plans chopped that vast expanse of teaching-free time into not enough. I’ve gotten a lot done in the last five years, and I’ve got so much more to come.
This is a bit of a rehash from the social media platform whose name I will not utter here, but earlier this month I made my first TV appearance as an “expert” on Joshua trees, talking about the Joshua Tree Genome Project common garden experiments as a first step towards assisted gene flow to help the trees cope with climate change. It was a weird experience! The reporter emailed to arrange things and I agreed to an interview on Zoom, but I didn’t fully realize I was being recorded for broadcast until we were wrapping up. Mercifully, he selected the most coherent bits of what I told him and I didn’t make too many weird faces.
Word is that Twitter is selling out to Elon Musk, whose (speculated) plans for the platform are not especially encouraging. On the one hand, Twitter privately owned by a “free-speech absolutist” may not be appreciably less pleasant for a person like me than Twitter as a publicly traded company with some nominal interest in the experience of users besides Elon Musk. On the other hand, this is as good an excuse as any to take a step back and see if I can, finally, log off.
I’m not deleting my account — not yet — but I’m going to see if I can’t get back to something like my online behavior from the era before Twitter was my first social login of the day. Way back in the Obama administration, I posted to this blog (actually, its incarnation on, yikes, Blogger) multiple times a week. I didn’t break my thoughts up into pithy little snippets, or plan longer discussions in strings of 280-character sentences. I just … wrote.
I’m delighted to announce a new paper published today in the Biology Letters, coauthored with Colin Carlson at Georgetown University and a CSUN undergrad researcher, Gio Gomez. In it, we examine a big collection of floral visitation records and find a pattern that pollination biologists have talked about but never quite directly demonstrated: the symmetry of flowers seems to shape the diversity of animals that visit them, and potentially provide pollination services. Here’s a brief “lay summary” we wrote to accompany the article:
For centuries, botanists have understood that the symmetry of flowers — whether or not they are “zygomorphic”, with a single line of symmetry — shapes how they attract and interact with pollinators. We examined 53,609 records of animal visits to flowers in 159 communities around the world, and found that zygomorphic flowers are visited by fewer potential pollinator species. This may explain broad patterns in the diversity of flowering plants, in which zygomorphic flowers are associated with faster formation of new species. It also suggests that plant species with zygomorphic flowers may be at greater risk of extinction due to pollinator loss.
This is an exciting paper because it’s my first foray into pollination ecology proper, and because of its place in that broader field of research — and also because it’s the first paper I’ve published with a student coauthor since starting on faculty at CSUN. On top of all that, the project has been a really nice bridge between my interests (mutualism) and Colin’s (host-associate community ecology), and it’s kicked off a collaboration that has produced some even more exciting results, coming soon to a preprint server near you.
Local adaptation, in which populations of a species become better able to survive and thrive in their home environment than in conditions found elsewhere in the species’ range, is a widespread pattern that evolutionary biologists have long used to study the causes and consequences of natural selection. My newest paper, which is now online ahead of print in The American Naturalist, combines data across many studies of local adaptation to answer a persistent question about the history of life on Earth — has evolution been influenced more by selection arising from environmental conditions, or by interactions among living things?