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?
If I’m really going to take my digital life off Facebook, I have to get serious about tending to a more distributed version of that site’s functions. Exhibit A is my Flickr account, which I’ve gotten lax with updating — I was almost a year behind with uploading images there! The holidays have been a good chance to catch up, though, and I’ve finished updating through a trip to Spain and France for fieldwork last June.
I was there to take samples of Medicago truncatula along the Spanish and French Mediterranean coasts — ridiculously pretty territory, even when a snafu with my car rental meant I had to do a fair bit of collecting by mass transit and rental bike. I flew into Madrid (with a layover in London), then to the Spanish coastal town of Málaga; then I spent most of a week in and around Narbonne, France, and finished with a day in Paris before flying home (again via London). It was my first time in both Spain and France, and my first time in Europe in more than a decade.
Facebook is a problem. It’s become the only way I’m in contact with a lot of folks, including far-flung family and friends accumulated over a decade of the Academic Nomad life. But it’s also absolutely awful at moderating the news or stopping the spread of falsehoods, and it continues to seek new ways to do unsavory things with the data we put on its servers even as it fails to secure that data. So I’m trying to cut as much of my life out of Facebook as I can, paring my profile there to a point of contact and not much else.
I’ve downloaded my data and done my best to clear out past postings — so many old photos! — and I’m going to use the holiday season to spread the things I used to do over Facebook to a variety of other platforms, which are at least nominally separate entities. I’ve put up a list of those platforms and profiles as my last Facebook post: my Flickr account, which needs something like eight months of updating (!); my Twitter profile; my e-mail and phone number for messaging; and this very blog for longer-form stuff. None of these are perfect solutions; some of them are entangled with corporations very nearly as unlikable as Facebook. But I hope I can use them together to achieve what a Facebook profile does with more control over the negative externalities of life online.
Also, it probably wouldn’t hurt for me to do more quick writing in a space like this one. We’ll see how this goes in the new year.