The phone, the program, and the big dark room: Twitter at a conference

I wrote a post a little while ago about my first 100 days of Twitter. Sort of a report card from a late adopter. I took another step on the social media stairway last week, when I attended the Ecological Society of America annual meeting in Sacramento, California. it was my first conference since joining Twitter and, in addition to checking out lots of great talks and posters, I decided to check out some of the pros and cons (for me, at least. Your mileage may vary!) of dragging my “devices” around with me for the week.

The changing nature of “us and them”

The way we communicate and share science is changing, so gatherings of scientists have to change to keep up. The lines between scientists and non-scientists are blurring, as are the lines between researchers and the people who communicate research. We are increasingly connected, so even the distinction between those who had enough money or time to attend the conference, and who did not, is becoming fuzzy.

The changing relationship between who’s at a conference and who isn’t creates challenges for the societies hosting the meeting. In the rapidly evolving world of science communication, clear policies on what kind of sharing is and is not permitted are important. At ESA, for example, there was a stated policy in the program book prohibiting audio/video recordings or photographs of presentations (nothing about tweeting though!) Some recent meetings have been more open; some have been more closed. I think the next couple of years will see a real shift in these policies.

One of the oft-stated concerns about sharing presentations broadly is “fear of being scooped”. But, well, seriously, this is ecology, not smartphone design or pharmaceutical development. I suspect my results on the nature of arctic insect food webs and fly diversity are reasonably safe from industrial or academic espionage. Plus, we’re already presenting our research at a conference with 3500 people and our abstracts are posted online for the world to see, if they’re so inclined, so it’s not like there’s shroud of secrecy over our work.

A blue bird on my shoulder: pros and cons of Twitter at the conference

The Pros:

I connect with new people. This was the first conference at which I already knew some of the presenters via Twitter. So although we’d never actually met, I knew I wanted to check out their talks and posters on a wider array of subjects than I’d normally take in. And that’s mostly because I enjoyed their previous tweets about their research. It was nice to put faces to the names and be able to talk with people in real time. Of course, there were Twittery benefits as well. I followed a few new people and picked up a few new followers as a result of connecting with them at the meeting.

I concentrate more in talks. If I’m going to send out tweets about a presentation it’s probably a good idea to get it right. And because I would likely only post a small number of tweets about each, I wanted to make sure I was capturing the big picture, without sending out specific details about the actual results. This one surprised me the most — I have trouble keeping my brain focused sometimes and one of my initial reservations about diving into social media was the opportunity for twitchiness and distraction. The fact that I found the opposite result while listening to talks was a bit of a revelation (I briefly toyed with the idea of live-tweeting my own attempts to write to see if it would help my focus, but quickly realized that would be insanely boring and nobody would follow me any more).

I see what’s happening in talks I missed. With 20–30 concurrent sessions at an ESA meeting it’s hopeless to try and see every talk you want to (posters are different, because ESA has a dedicated 2-hour block at the end of each day when authors are at their posters, nothing else is scheduled, and there is beer. I wish other societies I belong to would do this at their meetings). But even with concurrent sessions I could, for example, keep up with the session on Theory vs. Empiricism while listening to bee or tree or bird talks in another room. And if somebody tweets about a great climate change talk while I’m sitting in an ant talk somewhere else, I can at least flag the presenter and remind myself to check out their work another time.

I practice communicating science. Let’s be realistic — if we write our science so that only other scientists read it, what’s the point of doing it in the first place? We, as researchers, have a responsibility to communicate what we do, and what it means, to a broader audience. And social media is one of the best mechanisms for doing that. Some people I know are great at this. Some are not great. But we can all use the practice. Doing it in 140-character bursts is challenging, but not as hard as writing a manuscript.

We can promote each other. Our community is big, but not that big. There are some great people doing really great work, at all levels of The System, both inside and outside academia. Some of the best talks and posters I saw at the meeting were by grad students and post-docs, at early stages in their careers. They’re not “big names” (yet), but they’re asking great questions, doing great research, and presenting it with consummate enthusiasm and clarity. Other people deserve to know who they are (think of it as the non-Hollywood equivalent of “10 rising actors to watch”, but in a realm that actually means something).

We can extend the discussions. Talks are short, and question periods are even shorter. But there’s no need to for the discussion to end there. I saw some great examples of discussions about research or approaches or methods that went beyond the end of the talk, and beyond the people who were in the room.

We can check in on other events. For entomologists, this was the Summer of Meetings. There were major gatherings for specialists on many orders around the globe. Unfortunately for me as a fly person, the ESA meeting overlapped exactly with the International Congress of Dipterology in Germany. I chose ESA for a variety of reasons, but found it remarkably easy to keep up with what was going on at the fly meeting via  frequent tweets from some excellent and connected colleagues. As an added bonus, the time shift between California and Germany meant I could get my fly feed in the late evening and early morning when the rush of ESA was less intense.

The Cons:

. . .


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Remembrance of things past: footprints in a log

I spent last week at the annual Ecological Society of America conference in Sacramento, California. It’s a huge gathering of ecologists, and it’s amazingly diverse. Ecology is as big as the planet, and the range of presentations and conversations at the meeting are as big as ecology. I like going. It gets me excited about science, it challenges me and pushes me to understand research that’s unfamiliar to me, and it gives me the chance to interact with other people who work on very different organisms and research questions. But it’s a lot of time to spend inside, especially in the summer, so I always try to take a day or two at the end of the conference each year and go someplace quiet and wild. This year I drove east from Sacramento, out of the Central Valley and up through the hills, watching the landscape change, until I was up in the conifer trees and granite rock on the crest of the Sierra Nevada at Donner Pass. I parked the car and went for a walk. I saw lots of great things up there, from tiny plants growing in crevices, to craggy mountains I’ve hiked on past trips through the area.

I also saw this lying by the trail:

Ecological footprints: beetle galleries in a conifer log (photo T.A. Wheeler)

Ecological footprints: beetle galleries in a conifer log (photo T.A. Wheeler)

And that’s what this post is about.

The squiggles on this log were made by beetle larvae, eating their way through the outer layers of the wood, hidden under the bark, while this tree was still standing, or just after it fell. That’s the easy story, but it only tells part of what went on here, only a small fraction, really. These squiggles are footprints of a huge set of interactions.

The adult female beetles that laid their eggs here probably didn’t choose this tree randomly. Plants get stressed by a huge variety of factors: changes in water or temperature; a hard winter or summer; diseases or pests; pollution; damage from fires or storms; or just old age. And the plants put out chemical signals of  stress that many insects are adapted to detect. These beetles came here because they picked up that signal on the breeze.

There’s a huge variety of beetles that live in trees. Some of them eat wood; some eat the inner layers of bark, others excavate  galleries under the bark to rear fungi that the female brought in with her and left behind along with her eggs. The tree becomes a habitat for growing a fungal garden. Other fungi, drifting on the wind, will colonize the tree too, finding a way through the protective bark in the holes made by the beetles. Bacteria show up as well, and add to the community living in the beetle galleries.

The beetles themselves give off chemical signals that other organisms pick up. Parasitoid insects use a range of cues and clues to locate host insects inside the tree and lay eggs in, on or near the hosts, turning the beetle larva into a food source for their offspring. Predatory insects colonize the galleries and hunt down the beetles, while fungus feeding insects or bacterial grazers move in and feed on the fungi and microbes. Some insects specialize in feeding on frass — the nutrient-rich droppings and debris created by the wood-feeding beetles moving through their galleries. Bigger players move in as well – woodpeckers and other birds pick insects from the bark and wood, and small mammals dig into fallen logs. It’s a diverse little food web there under the bark, and many of the players will, in their own way, contribute to breaking down the bark, and the underlying wood, recycling the tree and speeding up its decay.

You might look at this log and see only beetle galleries. And if that’s your main research focus then that would be a perfectly reasonable perspective. Somebody else might look at the log and see the fungi, or the woodpeckers, or the parasitoids, or the little frass-eating flies, or the cycling of nutrients that goes on in and under the decaying wood. Or, you could step back and see the big picture, the whole complicated, messy food web.

Ecology, and our ecology conferences, are kind of like that. We’re interested in different questions, and we like different organisms. Some of us do most of our research in the field, some of us do our work at the lab bench, and some of us at the computer. We wear different clothes to work, and we use different tools. But, in a sense, we’re all looking at the same log.


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Me and my shadow: on Impostor Syndrome

Reader Advisory: The following post contains material suggesting that a white, male, middle-aged, tenured professor sometimes has doubts about his abilities. If such ideas mess with your worldview, perhaps you’d prefer to read about why taxonomy is sexy, or why natural history matters, or why Bohemian Rhapsody is kind of like data.

Let’s talk about Impostor Syndrome — that “what the hell am I doing and who the hell am I kidding?” feeling that can follow you around, poking you at the worst possible times, making you doubt Every Single Decision you have made throughout the duration of your young career. There’s been a growing recognition lately of how common this is in science people (although it’s by no means restricted to scientists!) A lot of the discussions have focused on grad students, especially female students. I’ve seen it my own students, and in other students I’ve known or talked with over the years. And I can only imagine how challenging it can be for female and other under-represented students, who have to fight so much harder for recognition and respect in the (still) male-dominated world of science.

I can relate to this, at least on some levels, because I deal with it myself. Impostor Syndrome is a little shadow that still follows me around.

When I was in primary school I was a good student. I was smart and curious and I liked learning. And I always did well (disclosure: it was a tiny rural school with three classrooms). But moving up through school is a bit like running fast. Little kids like to run, and fast little kids tend to win the races at school and family reunions and summer camp. But as the fast kids keep running, they come up against other fast kids, and by the time you get to varsity track meets and national championships and the Olympics, you realize that you may not always be the fastest kid any more. And finishing 7th out of 8 in the Olympic final in your event may make you feel like a failure, because it’s easy, in those moments, to forget that you’re in the freaking Olympics with only seven other people in the world! And the world of science is a lot like that.

My road’s been smooth so far (at least my academic road). I got scholarships. I got my PhD in 1991, I got a faculty gig in 1995 and tenure in 2001 at a great university. I get grants and I publish papers. Lots of my grad students have great jobs that they love. Students like my teaching. I won some awards. People on other continents know who I am and what I do. You’d think that all of that together would give me all I need to feel pretty awesome about my accomplishments.


Impostor Syndrome still greets me in the lab some days, with a fresh cup of coffee and sinister giggle. Why? Because fieldwork doesn’t always work out. Because results don’t always make sense. Because manuscripts get rejected. Because I get dropped from a grant application cuz my H-index is small (srsly. that happened). Because somebody says the wrong thing at the wrong time about my work or my students’ work. Because scientists are only human.

I trained as a taxonomist. My grad and postdoc work was based on insect taxonomy using morphological traits. I was pretty comfortable with that. When I was hired at McGill, that’s what I came to do. But pretty soon I realized I should diversify. That was mostly driven by my students. Not everybody wants to do taxonomy. Some of them liked working with insects but they wanted to do faunal inventories, or address ecological questions. And I thought there was a niche for ecologists who also do taxonomy. So I had to start learning some ecology. And some more stats. And a bunch of new literature. On top of all that, 21st Century taxonomy uses more characters than just morphology, so I’ve had to learn about molecular methods and the pros and cons of DNA barcoding, and the analyses that go along with those methods. If not for my own work, at least to keep up with my students. Sometimes I feel like I’m back at the MSc/PhD level trying to digest a bunch of new papers and questions and methods. And although that’s great for making me question my abilities, it also gives me the chance to remind myself that my Impostor Syndrome is an indication that I’m still pushing myself out of my comfort zone.

So how do I deal with it? I wish I had an easy answer. But I don’t. What works for me might not work for others. Hell, sometimes it doesn’t even work for me. But here it is.

Some ways of dealing with it definitely don’t work. The “have you tried not having Impostor Syndrome?” approach is about as effective as asking someone with mental health problems if they’ve tried not being depressed.

It’s hard to ignore the negative feelings sometimes, but a concerted effort to focus on one or two things that I’m pretty proud of can help, at least in the short term: looking over a paper or a presentation that I’m pleased with; talking with one of my students who’s doing great work and feeling excited about their progress; reminding myself about good things that have happened to me over the course of my career; talking to somebody who thinks I rock. Sometimes these things don’t help much, but sometimes a little is enough.

Sometimes the workload gets overwhelming. And that contributes to stress. And that contributes to the sense that I’ll just end up doing crappy work anyway. Hello, Impostor Syndrome! I find it’s worse when I’m doing something out on the edge of my comfort zone — community ecology, phylogeography — when I get away from the work and methods that I’ve been doing and using the longest. I’m having a challenging time lately, for example, because I’m trying to work on some manuscripts that have analyses that are new to me. But what if they’re all wrong? What happens when the reviewers shred them? Silly mind games. At worst, I’ll shelve these papers for a while. I know they have to get done sometime, but maybe when I’m feeling better about things. Maybe next week. Maybe the week after. In the meantime, there is always a big backlog of work to be done that’s right in my comfort zone — sorting samples, identifying flies, describing new species. So I’ll take a break and do that for a while. It’s displacement, I guess, but at least it’s productive displacement. And it reminds me that I’m pretty good at that part of my career.

The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone. I can’t stress that enough. As we go farther in The System, the air gets rarefied. Everybody who got this far got here because they are good. Really good. But yes, a lot of us brought our little shadow of doubt along for the ride. A lot of us wonder how we’ve gotten away with it for so long. But for all its faults, The System is generally pretty good at recognizing good people. If we’ve made it this far, it’s because we deserve to be here. Sure, sometimes we venture into areas that aren’t a good fit for us. A little alarm goes off. That’s maybe just a signal that, for the moment, we’re a better fit in other parts of The System, doing the stuff we already know that we’re good at (but see stuff up above about pushing comfort zones!)

And I am sure I am NOT the only mid-career professor or research scientist or director or teacher or writer who feels this way. Far from it.

And with that, it’s time to get back to work. On this new stuff. That I’m new at.

I just wish I knew what the hell I was doing . . .

Epilogue: I started writing this post almost a year ago, but I kept not finishing it. One reason was that I wasn’t sure it was a good decision to come out with this. Gotta maintain that veneer of sciencey superiority after all! The second reason was that I wasn’t convinced many people would care about this post (Entitled Prof Whines!) I’ve never been big on the “personal gut-spilling” approach. In the end, I decided those weren’t very good reasons and the potential benefits to joining this conversation outweighed the costs. Thanks to Sally Le Page for giving me the nudge to write this up. Check out her take on Impostor Syndrome here.


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The flavours of loss: a tale of a moth

Loss comes in many forms. Sometimes loss is a sharp, sudden thing; sometimes it’s a slow, fading twilight, creeping in so slowly you don’t even notice when it gets there. This is a story about both those kinds of loss. It’s also a story about the naturalist son of an eccentric Englishman, about a Montreal businessman, about a mysterious little moth, and a homestead on the Canadian prairies that tied them all together.


Percy Criddle left England and came out to Canada in 1882 to start a new life. He settled on a piece of land west of Winnipeg, Manitoba with his wife Alice and children, and his mistress, Elise Vane, and her children (it’s complicated). They built a log house at first (replaced by a much bigger frame house several years later), barns, a tennis court, a golf course — all the things any farm needs. And he started raising a family that would help shape Canadian natural history in the 20th Century. The place they set up farming was called Aweme. It’s still called Aweme, even though there was never really anything else there except the Criddle-Vane homestead. It’s also one of the most famous insect collecting localities in Canada. Specimens from “Aweme” have found their way into the world’s great insect collections.

Norman Criddle (photo: R.D. Bird)

Norman Criddle (photo: R.D. Bird)

Norman Criddle was a boy when they came to Canada and he grew up on the homestead and spent his life outdoors. He was a naturalist in the old and honourable and generalist sense of the word. He wandered. He watched things. He wrote field notes. He sketched and painted. And he asked questions and collected data and studied the life around the homestead. By the time he was in his early 20s he was already a well-known naturalist, with connections and correspondents all over North America. The province of Manitoba hired him as an entomologist in 1912 and a couple of years later the family built him a lab on the farm so he could better do his research and host visiting entomologists.

In the summer of 1908, when he was still an amateur, Criddle collected three specimens of a moth that he couldn’t identify. The label says “Aweme” but in those days Criddle put “Aweme” on all the labels of specimens that he collected within several miles of the farm. So his specimens could have come from the pastures around the house, from little streams in the forests nearby, or from the big open sand dunes over at Spruce Woods, where glacial Lake Agassiz had left its footprint after all its water had drained away several thousand years before.

Henry Lyman (Lyman Museum Archives)

Henry Lyman (Lyman Museum Archives)

Criddle sent the moths to some collaborators and one of the specimens found its way to Henry Lyman, of Montreal. Lyman was also an amateur, but in very different circumstances than Criddle. Lyman’s family owned a very successful pharmaceutical business and that gave him the money and time to pursue his real passion — butterflies and moths. His collection was an impressive one, he was very well-known and active in the North American entomological community, and he had published many papers over the course of his long career as an amateur entomologist. He was a recognized expert on the noctuid moths, so he was the logical person to look at Criddle’s strange little moths.

The moths from Aweme caused Lyman some confusion at first, but he soon decided it was a new species, so he published a description of it in 1908 and called it Gortyna aweme. It’s now called Papaipema aweme, the Aweme Borer. The holotype specimen (that’s the single specimen, the “real entity” to which a species’ name is permanently attached) is deposited in the Lyman Entomological Museum here at McGill University. It’s in a small tray, in a tight wooden drawer, in a closed metal cabinet, just over my left shoulder here in my lab.

The original: Holotype of the Aweme Borer

The original: Holotype of the Aweme Borer


Norman Criddle collected three specimens of the Aweme Borer that summer of 1908. He never collected another. Between 1913 and 1936 three more specimens were collected, all around the Great Lakes: one near Grand Bend, Ontario on the shores of Lake Huron; one at Rochester, New York, south of Lake Ontario; and one on a boat near Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan. And then nobody collected another until 2005, when John Morton, a lepidopterist who lives on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, and has been collecting there for decades, collected a specimen on his own property. I can only imagine how he felt when he realized what he had.

Seven specimens. That’s all we have of the Aweme Borer.

It was listed as an Endangered Species by the Government of Canada in 2006.


Henry Lyman died in 1914. He and his wife were on their way to England for their honeymoon. As their ship, The Empress of Ireland, was steaming out the St. Lawrence River, it collided with the Storstad, a Norwegian coal ship, in the dark and fog. More than 1000 people drowned when the Empress sank, including the Lymans.

Norman Criddle died in Manitoba in 1933. He was buried in the little family cemetery at the farm in Aweme. His gravestone reads “Norman Criddle – Naturalist – 1875–1933″. Whenever I go to Aweme I stop by the cemetery to visit. It’s a quiet little shady place, nestled under trees.

I’ve also visited the big farm house many times on past trips to Aweme. We’d go through the empty door frames and wander through the empty rooms with the peeling wallpaper. I’d regale my students with stories of how important this place to Canadian entomology. They’d very kindly try not to look bored. In recent years, with its historical importance recognized, the Criddle-Vane house got a new lease on life as renovation work started, evicting the barn swallows and pigeons and fixing the place up.

A few weeks ago, somebody, probably a bored and ignorant group of kids from the area, burned the house to the ground. It’s gone now. All that history reduced to rubble in one night. Because people can be incredibly stupid.

But what about the moth? Norman and Henry’s dull little moth may have outlived them all. The Aweme Borer might still be hanging on out there somewhere on the sandy glacial beaches in the middle of the continent. We don’t know. We don’t know how it lives or how it dies, where it lays its eggs, what the caterpillars eat.

We know that all seven adults were collected in August. And we know that they were mostly collected in places that are either sandy dune-like habitats, or open oak prairies. Until John Morton collected his specimen in 2005, nobody had seen an Aweme Borer for more than 70 years. And, as far as we know, nobody has seen one since.

The Aweme Borer is not an iconic endangered species, but maybe it should be, if for no other reason than that its eventual loss might look exactly the same as the loss of so many other species — not a sharp, sudden thing that everybody notices, but that slow, fading twilight . . .


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A moth, a fern, a feline: a species name story

As taxonomists, we give names to new species that we describe. The name is entirely up to us (within a few limits imposed by rules of grammar, and a recommendation that they not be offensive). Sometimes it’s easy to figure out the source of the species name; sometimes it’s not. Authors of new species names generally explain the derivation of the name when they first publish it, but that hasn’t always been the case. And that can create confusion, especially when the origin of a species name looks pretty obvious, but actually means something completely different.

Henry Bird was an entomologist from Rye, New York. In 1907 he described a new species of noctuid moth that lives in bracken fern. He called the moth Papaipema pterisii. Makes sense — at that time, bracken fern was in the genus Pteris, and lots of species are named after the thing they live in, live on, or eat (In this case, the Latin ending “-ii” is a bit wonky, but we’ll get to that in a bit).

Even though Bird wrote a fairly long description of the taxonomy and natural history of this moth, he didn’t explain the source of the species name. It wasn’t much of an issue in the case of Papaipema pterisii; the name was a bit of a no-brainer and it would be reasonable to assume that he named the moth after the fern. Some later authors have actually given that explanation for the name.

Bird's 1907 paper in Canadian Entomologist

Bird’s 1907 paper in Canadian Entomologist

As it turns out, assumptions aren’t always right.

I was going through some old archival documents here in the museum yesterday — a box of notes, letters and manuscripts from Henry Lyman, the founder of the museum, and a well-known Lepidoptera taxonomist. One of Lyman’s oldest friends and colleagues was the Rev. Charles Bethune who, over a long and productive career in entomology, served as the Editor of our national entomological journal: The Canadian Entomologist. I found a letter in the box, written by Henry Bird to Bethune in 1907. Bethune apparently passed it on to Lyman, who was also on the editorial board of the journal.

Henry Bird fesses up (Lyman Museum archives)

Henry Bird fesses up (Lyman Museum archives)

Bird and Bethune were having one of those Editor/Author discussions about a few small details in the manuscript. Bethune and Lyman apparently weren’t keen on the spelling and formation of the species name of P. pterisii. Bird’s explanation was probably unexpected. And it’s fairly priceless.

Dear Dr. Bethune:-

I was glad to hear from you, as always, and note your remarks concerning pterisii. Perhaps it would have been better I not used this term, but those who infer — and I admit it is natural — that the species is named after the food plant are in error [. . . ]

Now Pterisius happens to be a pet cat that accompanies me on my frequent trips to a nearby clump of Pteris and who is ever ready to spend as many hours there is search of mice, as I care to do on my knees observing the Papaiema larva. It was due to him that I first discovered this little patch was infested with this species [. . . ] I am less in favor than formerly of naming species after a foodplant, for in different localities, they are apt to have alternative ones, and it gives the impression that a particular foodplant is responsible in a certain way for a certain species, or that it never occurs in anything else.

Henry Lyman published a short note in The Canadian Entomologist the following year (1908) in which he talked about Bird’s new species, among other Papaipema-related things. Bird’s cat explanation finally made its way into print. Lyman still wasn’t impressed.

I don’t know if Bird was joking about naming the moth after his cat. I guess it doesn’t really matter.

A hundred years before Facebook, Henry Bird had it figured out: it’s all about the cats.


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100 days of Twitter: reflections of a somewhat senior rookie

In early March I changed my mind and joined Twitter. I resisted climbing onto the wings of the little blue bird for a long time. I’m not inherently opposed to social media or anything like that. In fact, I’m convinced it’s a very powerful tool for scientists and educators. But despite my on-line presence in various other media, I was not an early adopter of Twitter.

I am, however, fond of being an outlier, so after repeated exposure to statements such as “Twitter users are mostly young”, “Scientists on Twitter are mostly students”, and “Prof don’t tweet”, I was bound to end up with an @ in front of my name (Just for the record, I think all three of those generalizations have got to go).

After my 100 day break-in period, I thought I’d toss out some impressions from a Twitter noob who is, apparently, older than the great majority of  users (if we are to believe survey data here or here) (that’s me in the “over 50″ bar)

The hesitation of the mid-career researcher

I initially stayed away from Twitter for a couple of reasons. The main one had to do with the way my brain works. Somewhere in the chemical soup and frayed wiring of my head, there are wonky connections that make me very susceptible to distraction. I’m easily knocked off course, especially when I am trying to juggle many responsibilities, which is, ummm, always.  Focus is not my friend, and it’s gotten worse with time. Oh, and I’m a bit obsessive too. So I was worried about the impact that checking in on Twitter ALL THE TIME would have on my tenuous time management abilities. Effusive testimonials from others that “Twitter makes me MORE efficient!” aside, I was concerned. My To Do list is terrifying.

The second reason was, well, silly. Let’s just say it’s embodied in the “If I wasn’t on Twitter I’d never know there were Nobel Prizes!” and “before Twitter I had no idea there were insects!” school of breathless hyperbole.

100 days: A Twitter report card

3+ months in, it’s an unreserved thumbs-up. I’ve gotten a lot out of my time on Twitter. It may help that I joined just in time for Taxonomist Appreciation Day, and was part of the waves of discussion about Natural History’s place in science and society, and the “Minteer Affair“. There was instant connection with a big community of like-minded people. People follow me, I follow people. There have been no tears, as far as I know. The positive outcomes for me have been both tangible and intangible (in other words, I have data about the benefits of Twitter, and I have anecdotes)

The tangibles: I give Twitter credit for getting me involved as an author on a community-wide response to an anti-collecting opinion piece published in Science. Within hours of the original diatribe appearing, the discussion was swirling on Twitter and it galvanized the community response in a way that email could not. I’ve also been tipped off to some great new data for a paper I’ve been working on for a few years about a weird fly that has weird natural history (tip of the hat to The Bug Chicks!). And, of course, exposure on Twitter has increased traffic on my blog (not that this blog has been terribly active since March).

The intangibles: I’ve connected with new colleagues, both in my own research area and beyond. We don’t often have a lot of conversations, but I can follow along with the day to day stories of research on insects, plants, marine organisms, vertebrates, parasites and more, not to mention finding out about new things in fields beyond biology. I’ve also been able to connect with some very keen amateurs — people who keep natural history alive and vibrant, and who contribute very useful data to taxonomy and ecology. I find out about new research pretty quickly, from a variety of sources. Yeah, I can, and do, all of these things through other media anyway, but Twitter adds another dimension, and one that often works faster.

The downside: I have also learned from Twitter that: 1. Academia is a cesspool of hate and bitterness; 2. That everything about the way I teach is absolutely, completely, utterly wrong; and 3. That every single journal that is not Open Access is scummy and sleazy. I guess my responses to those three epiphanies are: 1) whatever; 2) whatever; 3) whatever. It’s social media, and social media consensus can be a funny and fickle thing. Your mileage may vary. So, really, in the grand scheme of things, that’s not much of a downside.

My Twitter survival strategy

I think I’ve figured out how to customize my Twitter Experience to fit my brain. Here’s what worked for me, and why:

Limit my time. I need to be pretty harsh about how many times I check in during the day, and how long I spend on Twitter. I try to limit myself to a few minutes at a stretch, and only check in a few times in any day. I’ve forbidden myself from clicking through to more than 3-4 links in any Twitter session, so I have to choose carefully. I’m sure I miss a lot of interesting things. So be it. I have a job to do outside the internet.

Limit my focus. I get my news and sports from the mainstream media, so I can scroll past the general things in my feed. I don’t follow feeds that are too broad or peripheral. I tend to treat Twitter as a science/nature/art buffet rather than a portal to everything.

Limit my follows. I have to be careful and merciless here. If I follow too many people, then the River Twitter flows by at too fast a pace. What if I miss something?!? I’m twitchy that way, and there would be much scrolling trying to catch up. So I tend to be pretty strict with myself about who I follow. I’ll check out the signal to noise ratio on a feed before I follow an account. It’s early days, but so far, I think I’ve got a great diversity of people and institutions so I can get a good mix of new science, great natural history, ruminations on education and science communication, and my daily dose of giggles.

If I had a wish

I’d like to see more professors and researchers on Twitter (although I acknowledge that not everybody wants to be here. I respect that. Twittershaming of non-adopters is dumb, but so is slagging Twitter when you haven’t tried it).

I’d like to see more amateur naturalists sharing great observations with professional biologists.

I’d like to see more scientists explaining and publicizing their work. Lots of us do great stuff, and it’s important and relevant. We need to be better at telling the rest of the world why that is. Twitter only gives you tiny sound bites to get that message across, but it’s good practice to try anyway. After all, many politicians and policy makers probably only have a 140 character attention span anyway . . .


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On biodiversity, museums and breadth

May 22 is the International Day for Biological Diversity (IDBD from here on in). Many people will take the opportunity today to give some thought to the richness and diversity of life on earth, as well as how much we still have to learn about it. But for those of us who work and play in biodiversity science, everyday is IDBD (in that sense, I guess it’s a little like Valentine’s Day).

Down here in the museum, I’m reminded every day of the enormous number of insect species, their great variability, their role in ecosystems, and the impact that a changing world has on everything from their genes to their community structure. I’m also reminded of just how many undescribed species of flies are sitting here waiting for some attention from me.

Natural history museums are the single easiest place to connect with biodiversity. Whether insects, plants, fossils, preserved vertebrate specimens, macrofungi, or any of the many other branches of the tree of life, a walk through the displays or the collections is a reality check on just how much wonderful diversity there is, and how much remains unknown and undescribed. Of course, this is just one of the many roles that natural history museums, and their invaluable specimens, play in research, management and education.

There’s been a lot of discussion in recent weeks about the importance of specimens. That discussion was mostly started by a paper published in Science that condemned the practice of scientific collecting as a factor in extinction. The authors of the paper just don’t seem to understand what museums or biodiversity scientists do. Unfortunately, this paper, despite its weak and misinformed arguments, will probably get considerable mileage among a community of people who condemn collecting, collections and museums as cruel and archaic; people who generally do not bother to find out how collecting actually works, and people who apparently fail to consider that their daily actions probably kill far more organisms than scientists (I’m looking at you, automobile grill). And that’s a shame.

For those who like a little balance in their science, some of us (well, 123 of us) have just published a response in Science to the original paper. And it’s a happy coincidence that it’s coming out on IDBD. It’s a short piece and I’m proud to be part of it.

I’m proud of it because I think it makes a compelling argument about the importance of specimens and collections to address a wide range of research questions.

I’m proud of it because it helps, I hope, to dispel silly misconceptions about scientists and collectors perpetuated by the authors of the original Science paper.

Mostly I’m proud of it because of the sheer number and diversity of authors who jumped into this undertaking within days of the original publication. The authors on this response represent a great breadth of excellent biodiversity scientists who span geographic regions, large and small institutions, and taxa of interest. But more than that, it’s a group of people who span generations. Some of my co-authors on this paper are people who I have read and admired since I was an undergraduate student, reading about their work in phylogenetics, biogeography and more. But at the other end of the scale, one of my co-authors was an undergraduate student in my classes here at McGill who sat through my lectures in phylogenetics, biogeography and more. We’re a pretty diverse bunch, with a pretty diverse range of perspectives and interests. But there are some important things that we all have in common:

We understand the critical importance of strong and vibrant natural history collections.

We understand that preserved specimens are a priceless data set for research.

We understand that museums matter.

Happy IDBD everybody.


Rocha, LA, A Aleixo, G Allen, F Almeda, CC Baldwin, MVL Barclay, JM Bates, AM Bauer, F Benzoni, CM Berns, ML Berumen, DC Blackburn, S Blum, F Bolaños, RCK Bowie, R Britz, RM Brown, CD Cadena, K Carpenter, LM Ceríaco, P Chakrabarty, G Chaves, JH Choat, KD Clements, BB Collette, A Collins, J Coyne, J Cracraft, T Daniel, MR de Carvalho, K de Queiroz, F Di Dario, R Drewes, JP Dumbacher, A Engilis Jr, MV Erdmann, W Eschmeyer, CR Feldman, BL Fisher, J Fjeldså, PW Fritsch, J Fuchs, A Getahun, A Gill, M Gomon, T Gosliner, GR Graves, CE Griswold, R Guralnick, K Hartel, KM Helgen, H Ho, DT Iskandar, T Iwamoto, Z Jaafar, HF James, D Johnson, D Kavanaugh, N Knowlton, E Lacey, HK Larson, P Last, JM Leis, H Lessios, J Liebherr, M Lowman, DL Mahler, V Mamonekene, K Matsuura, GC Mayer, H Mays Jr, J McCosker, RW McDiarmid, J McGuire, MJ Miller, R Mooi, RD Mooi, C Moritz, P Myers, MW Nachman, RA Nussbaum, D Ó Foighil, LR Parenti, JF Parham, E Paul, G Paulay, J Pérez-Emán, A Perez-Matus, S Poe, J Pogonoski, DL Rabosky, JE Randall, JD Reimer, DR Robertson, M-O Rödel, MT Rodrigues, P Roopnarine, L Rüber, MJ Ryan, F Sheldon, G Shinohara, A Short, WB Simison, WF Smith-Vaniz, VG Springer, M Stiassny, JG Tello, CW Thompson, T Trnski, P Tucker, T Valqui, M Vecchione, E Verheyen, PC Wainwright, TA Wheeler, WT White, K Will, JT Williams, G Williams, EO Wilson, K Winker, R Winterbottom, CC Witt. 2014. Specimen collection: an essential tool. Science 344: 814–815.


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