Sunday, December 2, 2012

Human dispersal and fish

Fallen democracies, civil war, and overall conflict. What do these have to do with fisheries, aquatic ecosystems, and dispersal?  At times... everything.

During World War II, fishing effort drastically plummeted as ships and men were repurposed to fight in the war. This resulted in a double blip in fish catches -- a drop during the war and an increase in size and numbers after the war when fishing resumed. In ecological terms, the top predator had to allocate resources to survival which decreased predatory pressure... additionally, the top predators were dispersed to other parts of the world.

I had the privileged to meet a researcher, Cullen Hendrix, from William and Mary who along with Sarah Glaser has made strides in establishing the connection between conflict and fish beyond just the WWII 'blips'. Globally, when there is sustained conflict reported fish catches decrease. However, unlike WWII, Cullen and Sarah found that fish catches did not rebound to exceed or even meet ore-conflict levels until decades after resolution of conflict. There are many possible reasons for this lag - illegal and unreported fishing in poorly patrolled waters, destruction of infrastructure or capital (such as piers, boats, nets, etc), and my favorite... loss of human capital through the dispersal/migration of people.

There are some exceptions. It is possible to have the opposite effect. If conflict displaces refugees towards a coast, distant conflict can indirectly create an increase in fishing pressure and thus fish catch. 

These drastic changes in fishing pressure due to conflict can have ripple effects through the ecosystems. As far as I can tell, exactly how the ecosystems react to temporary changes in human dispersal during conflict is a wide open question with fascinating implications for the economic and environmental costs of conflict.

Cullen S. Hendrix and Sarah M. Glaser. (2011) Civil conflict and world fisheries, 1952-2004.  Journal of Peace Research.  48: 481-495.  (link) (pdf) **Awarded the Nils Petter Gleditsch Journal of Peace Research Article of the Year Award, 2011**

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A new lens

A S-event, congressional hearing, a National Geographic Symposium, a myriad of interagency meetings and briefings. Its been a crazy two weeks and I was only peripherally involved in the frenzy surrounding wildlife crime in DC this week.  I'm assured that this stuff never happens in our office. Its not often that the Secretary (S) of State becomes passionate about a conservation or biodiversity issue.

I don't know if all of this high profile attention will translate into action and progress on the ground, but I have started to see conservation and biodiversity differently.

I have spent my scientific career studying marine processes to improve our understanding of the world around us. I've stayed away from conservation per se - partially after seeing too many hippies pedaling hemp to save the earth growing up in California and partially because of a deep seeded value for curiosity. I had never thought about the broader implications of preserving biodiversity and the environment.  Of course its a good thing... but not just for the sake of the environment. How is it that the crazy hippies didn't ever convince me - a biologist, a believer in the environment - that a healthy and protected environment is essential for our  national security, global economy, and health. Now it shouldn't have to be about humans, but there might be a lot more buy in if it was.

National Security. What does conservation have to with national security?  We'll start there since its been integral to the wildlife events the past two weeks. A testimony to Senate and House Reps of the International Conservation Caucus painted a grim picture not just of rhino's horns being cut off and elephants slaughtered for the skyrocketing price of ivory but of a growing, untraceable monetary supply for terrorist groups. With other revenue streams successfully being closed off, rebel and terrorist groups are turning to the lucrative business of poaching in developing countries with poor environmental protection and enforcement. Well-run wilderness (marine, forest, savannah, or other) preserves coupled with stable local communities surrounding them will not only save species but might close off a revenue stream to ... well, bad people.
 "From al-Shabaab to the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, we are seeing the worst of the world’s worst poaching elephants to fund their illicit activities," said Rep. Royce.  "... The transnational aspect of the illegal wildlife trade and the demand from Asia has elevated this problem from an ‘African problem’ to a global problem. There are dangerous terrorist connections. It is time we target these networks engaged in the illegal wildlife trade."

World peace through environmental conservation? Not quite but a necessary step in the right direction.

Monday, November 5, 2012


I'm foreboden from discussing politics at work, and I'll keep that pledge here. The most important thing is to VOTE.

Its a strange thing being entrenched in the policy side of the government during a major election year. If there's a change in the White House, science and foreign policy will likely get a big overhaul.  Aside from the intangible policy, people will be in flux. Political appointees may or may not disappear in the next few months. A few are already set to leave no matter what.

Right now last minute (midnight hour) policies are being pushed through for VIPs to leave their mark or stamp on the landscape. My office is all in a tizzy trying to push through multiple 'action items' before the upheaval. I am quite excited that at least a couple of the VIP causes will help conserve wildlife and the environment!

Monday, October 22, 2012

In the Public Eye

I just entered into the arena where science and policy come together - applying science for public good. I'm still very much in the midst of learning the culture, what I can and cannot say (aka how and when to censor myself), and figuring out what I'll be doing. At the same time on the other side of the world, six scientists were just convicted of poorly communicating the uncertainty of science in the public sphere. Six geoscientists did not predict an earthquake or 'accurately communicate' the potential earthquake hazard. This does not inspire confidence as I start navigating this new realm.

We had 2 weeks of orientation - oriented to leave out the caveats when giving a message to the Hill. There's not time nor the desire by the audience to go through the uncertainties. At the same time, we were told to tell it how it is... within the confines of the audience and time limits. It's a difficult line to find - concise, clear and decisive, but scientifically complete. I knew I had to learn how to hit the right balance. Now I'm a bit scared of what might happen if I miss.

There are numerous articles, blogs, comments, etc discussing the trial and verdict. I don't know the intricacies of the trial nor the exact words said before the earthquake, so I do not try to presume the 'correct' verdict. However, only hours later, there are already profound effects rippling across the scientific community. It is not only me, a small player in a pond, that is questioning their role and willingness to put themselves out into the public... its really too bad, because I also see a lot of opportunities to help society and help the environment.

Friday, October 19, 2012


I had a month hiatus due to personal reasons - I wish I was off to some fabulous vacation, but no such luck. The hiatus is over though.  This was my first week in another new and foreign discipline and another government agency - US Agency for International Development (USAID). Its still 'development' but in a very different vein. Its also ecology but in a different context. Going to NIH, I went from large-scale biology to small-scale biology. Now, I'm scaling back up even larger than before - a more complete ecosystem which includes humans and all of their institutions.

The week didn't start off well though. I hope its not a sign. My first day... My first staff meeting... I descend the longest escalator in the DC metro system to board my train to my new job. Only problem - someone decided that they were having a bad day (or year) and jumped in front of a train half an hour before I got there. The red line was DELAYED while they were investigating the incident. I was patient, having included an extra half an hour to get there. Finally a train came to pick us up after at least 10 min waiting. Yeah. Two stops were completely normal and then we stopped... and stopped. After 12 min sitting at a station with the doors open (total delayed time now ~25 min of my 30 min buffer), I gave up and got a cab. After walking to the cab stand, negotiating payment type, and then driving back towards the metro stations, the train still hadn't moved. Of course, we hit traffic once we got into downtown DC. I finally got dropped off in front of the Ronald Reagan Building - my new place of work. I finally made it through visitor's security and was escorted to the meeting. I was 7 minutes late. Ugh. Luckily, two people came in after me and my new mentor.

The rest of the week has been full of logistics, meetings that I mostly to somewhat understand, and gathering reading assignments. Overall, I think its been a win - I got badged (giving me access to the building and my office without an escort attached to my hip); I can access my computer and have a new email address; and I have contributed a possible new idea towards the office's research portfolio. The best part though was getting out of the metro station this evening, after my first week, and seeing a full rainbow against retreating grey storm clouds. A gorgeous end to my first week.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Back to the Insane

I'm officially no longer an employee at NIH. I apparently didn't learn my lesson about working for Uncle Sam because I'm headed off into the "Wild and Wacky World of Science Policy" during a one year AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship at USAID (Agency for International Development). Yep, more government!

The AAAS fellowship places scientists and engineers in congress and at many agencies, not just USAID, in and around D.C. The fellowship has been going now for 40 years strong with the biggest incoming class this year. With many past fellows finding new homes in policy the DC area, there's a cadre of AAAS alums with fingers and toes in all aspects of the government.

The fellowship year starts off with the 'hallmark' AAAS orientation -- a two week intensive introduction to the ways and means of the US government. It is intensive. Everyone was pretty exhausted after the first week... and it was only a 3 day week! I'm worried about next week.

I have learned a whole lot, though I can't say I'm optimistic about government efficiency. I have, however, gained an appreciation for WHY it is inefficient. I've learned more in the three days about US History than I did during my US History class and Government class combined.  Sorry, Ms. Gilbert-Rolfe and Mr. Mullen.

I've also met more people in the last three days that I can possibly remember - a couple marine biologists, a particle physicist from CREN (yes, he was part of the team who found the Higgs Boson... and NO, he couldn't explain to me what the Higgs Boson is besides something to fill a mathematical hole), a couple of Ag people, ex-NIHers and so-to-be NIHers, and a myriad of others hailing from Alaska to Florida.  I SO wish I was one of those people who was good with names. I better get better fast... cuz in this town it is definitely who you know and I'll be meeting many more in the very near future!!


Friday, August 17, 2012

In the field

Deep-sea coral snapped during a
SCUBA dive. (c) Rhian Waller
All of my friends seem to have such exciting lives! Check out Dr. Rhian Waller diving in Fjords in Chile in search of deep-sea corals living near the surface. Dr. Anna Michel is stomping around Alaska with a super fancy laser to measure changes in atmospheric composition.  (No, the laser is not attached to a shark. Too bad, I know.)

Dr. Michel conquering the Alaska wilderness.
Someone at NIH once asked me why I gave up such a cool job diving to the bottom of the ocean and finding new, strange species for... well NIH? I had very specific reasons - I wanted to learn molecular techniques at a cutting edge facility to bring back to marine sciences; I wanted to decrease travel for a while, so I could be with my kids while they were young. And I've accomplished what I set out to do. I have two wonderfully annoying kids and learned far more about developmental biology and molecular biology than I thought I would. Its about time to start putting a toe back in the water. 

I'll do some traveling with USAID. I don't know where but likely to some island nations and Southeast Asia. Not too shabby. The bonus will be that I'll also be helping the people there. I'm hoping to get some proposals submitted and funded during the next year, so I can get back into the big blue head first in 2014. There's something inexplicably beautiful about the sea spray smacking you in the face while you drop thousands of dollars of equipment into the water... hoping that you'll bring up something new and exciting.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Loose Ends

Advice to all of us in temporary positions or really ANY position... start keeping protocols and inventories as early as possible and as organized as possible. Fight the urge to put off organizing all of your reagents and work. There's always a new experiment to run, but the loose ends will come back to haunt you later. And now I'm at the end... the later... I should of learned this after my graduate school experience, but some how its not the same -- field ecology/oceanography and molecular biology. 

Molecular biology has WAY more protocols, solutions, reagents, etc, etc, etc. The next few weeks will be spent sifting through catalog numbers, gene ID numbers and a freezer full of clones, probes and 5 years of work. Its amazing how much of that will literally be thrown away.

I guess it could end up being a cathartic process... like burning your notebooks at the end of school year or after graduation. It always made for a great bonfire.

The process brings home, like no other, that this phase is over. I'm moving on. Forward. For now, its just a couple metro stops away to a new realm - policy. Then its to start my own lab... scary but very exciting!!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Job Search - my one regret

Though by the end I was getting tired, I actually enjoyed almost all of my interviews. Its a joy to meeting new people doing great science who are also interested in your own science. What can I say? I like talking shop... especially since I've been at NIH where I get fewer chances to do it.
There was really only one regret I have - 'the diversity seminar'...

I applied to all sorts of job ads - integrative biologist, biological oceanographer, marine ecologist, ecologist, modeler, and a very unique ad for Diversity in Marine Sciences. I have participated in many different outreach and 'diversity' programs throughout the years to promote my own research career and to help others in theirs. However, I never thought that it would translate into helping me get a job so directly. Still, I applied and actually got an interview at a top tier place. Wohoo!

It wasn't a bad interview but it was strange because no one really knew about the position. I had 'interviewees' ask me what they should be looking for. I had to give a research seminar, which I rocked, and then a modified chalk talk. The chalk talk was to consist of two portions - 1) contributions and plans to increase diversity and 2) research plans and goals. This is where my regret comes into play.

I can make excuses (I had a sinus infection. The committee wasn't clear on their expectations for the diversity plans. etc. etc.) but it comes down to the fact that I didn't deliver. I had a plan from which I deviated... to my own demise. I didn't practice it enough to know the important points I needed to drive home and which ones could be skimmed over. I hadn't thought enough about it in depth. I've always contributed to diversity efforts and even been a recipient, but not in a planned way.

One great thing about interviewing is that you ARE forced to think about what is important to you, where you want to go with your work and really life. Although it is crazy, stressful and hectic, there is a lot of time that must be devoted to reflection and personal goals to be successful. As such ideas spring forth and priorities clarify. I regret not taking that time. I don't regret the outcome of my search in anyways. I think Rutgers is the right place for me in many many ways... but still I would have liked to have put my best foot forward throughout the entire process.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Job Search: The happy outcome

Done... over... FINALLY!! I have signed on the dotted line - okay it wasn't dotted but solid line doesn't quite sound right. It was a long journey, but the end result was worth it. I am now a new Assistant Professor at Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences... well I will be in Sept 2013.

I'm really excited... mostly because I think they actually get me. There's a tradition of deep sea research, a contingent that brings cutting edge molecular approaches to oceanography, and a core of people that consistently work across disciplinary boundaries. The institute was set up this way from the get go. A pioneering deep-sea biologist founded the institute and purposely created a small (relative to other major oceanography institutes) but elite faculty housed under one roof, removing any physical barriers to collaboration. I look forward to making that roof part of my new academic home.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Job search - Advantage of Order


The Usual Suspects... its always the one at the end.
Percentage of offers from interviewing first = 0%, middle = 0%, end = 100%. All of my job offers, thus far have come from the places I went last or very near the end.

Everyone said, go first or go last. The first one sets the bar. The last one is freshest in their brains.  I guess I just didn't set the bar high enough... or it wasn't memorable enough... or maybe its a coincidence. The other common denominator was a broad job description for the places I've gotten offers - any marine science or biological oceanography. So 'fitting' the job ad wasn't an issue.

Granted, it is only an n = 13 and for one person... but its enough that my new superstition is to always go last.

Anyone have any additional data to add?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Job Search - the worst interview

I've been on quite a whirlwind adventure interviewing. Of course, there were the places that impressed, and there were a couple that fell short.

The first short coming was when I got into my temporary residence late at night to find a twin bed from (I swear) the 1920s awaiting me. I haven't slept in a twin since middle school. I'm not exactly tall (a nice average 5'5"), but my feet were still dangerously close to dangling off the end of the bed. The bed also had a nice bi-level appeal with one half significantly lower than the other from years of people 'sleeping'. Needless to say it was not the most pleasant few nights, and no doubt I wasn't on my best game in the morning.

The bed is relatively minor compared to my actual worst interview. Though, I did come to gauge my chances based on how well I slept the night before and the temperature and pressure of my morning shower.

To the worse interview... First misstep - the invitation to interview for ... huh... "which position did you apply for?" This should have been my first sign that all was not well. Indeed, it didn't get better from there.

This was my one and only interview in which I flew out (or drove out) the day of the interview, per their instructions.  I believe this is generally a bad idea - flight delays, traffic, weather, etc. The one good thing about the interview was that the trip out was smooth.

If at all possible, someone should pick you up at the airport - saves taxi fare and saves the candidate hassle. I was not picked up when I arrived at 11 am. I made my way to a cab and to the hotel where I was informed that the cabbie didn't have any change. Are you kidding? What cabbie doesn't have $4 in change? So a $13 cab fare became a $20 cab fare. Hello, ripping off your customers.

I rang my host to let him know I had arrived and to figure out lunch plans (11:30 am). He had not made any lunch plans, because apparently I don't need to eat... but I did have a 1 pm meeting with the dean.  We could squeeze something in beforehand. Unfortunately, a 12:15 pick up in a new jag convertible from the hotel and a 15 min drive to the dean meant that we were still late after quickly scarfing down a burger and my hair was a disaster.

Apparently, the meeting with the dean and an evening seminar were the only things planned for the day. We roamed the halls searching for someone for me to talk to. I ended up in one 'interview' over the copy machine for 20 min. Another meeting consisted of 10 mins of discussion followed by 15 mins of a discussion between the interviewer and a student.

I'm generally a go with the flow gal, but this was getting ridiculous. The second day was an improvement, but there was really no where to go but up... and it was still pretty bad.

Dinners were well attended though. Each dinner consisted of a lively bunch consuming multiple courses and copious amounts of alcohol. It was like port call after a cruise, so it brought back good memories of debauchery in my youth. However, I felt rather miffed when after two dinner bills over $750, I was informed that transportation 'on my side' was my responsibility.  They wouldn't pay for my parking ($36) or mileage to the airport ($30). Note to the search committee - it helps to keep a candidate happy. Instead of inviting 10 people to dinner, inviting 8 and reimbursing the candidate would have been the better route and cheaper!

And to end the interview with a bang, I arrived to the airport to be informed that my seat had been given away and that I was put on standby for the next flight. I had a lovely flight stuck between two larger gents who had been on holiday, arriving back home just late enough to miss tucking my kids in bed.


I'm glad that most of my interviews were enjoyable. Only one bad apple in the barrel.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Science careers: More scientists, less jobs

The Washington Post ran an article over the weekend, U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren't there, that has sparked quite a bit of discussion - sciencey and political. I'll stay away from politics for a variety of reasons and stick to a more science perspective focused on the latter part of the title.

First off, for those of us on the job market... duh!! We didn't need a headline to tell us this. We know the job market is tough. It seems like many grad students have gotten the message as well.

A group of students at an interview at a highly ranked school asked me why I wanted to come there.  I mentioned the great resources - people and facilities. Then I said that I would feel more comfortable training people with a brand name like University X behind them. I have moral dilemmas about training new cohorts of scientists that don't have anywhere to go. Where you were trained and with whom matters in today's competitive market. You need every advantage you can get.

To my surprise, the students were surprised by my answer. 'We've never heard anyone on the faculty talk about this.  We, of course, think about it all the time.'

One of my fellow postdocs is purposefully leaving academia, not because he can't hack it, but because he refuses to train students in this context.

So, are faculty really that ambivalent? Are they the slave drivers the Post article makes them out to be - using cheap labor as hands in the lab for the benefit of their own career? I (maybe naively) like to think that they are neither. Faculty benefit from successful students. It is in their own best interest to help their students thrive and land a great job.

Maybe the problem is that training can no longer be focused on academia as an end goal. So many professors are (or seem to be) set on the pursuit of academia is the only option. Of course, the stars will rise and have that option... But with only 14% of PhDs within 5 years of degree landing a faculty position (stats from Post article), students must be prepared for other career tracks. The analytical skills help in this regard, but its not enough.

Heck, grad students at many universities aren't even trained well to be professors - what about personnel management skills, budgeting, grant writing, project management, curriculum development? Essentially, a professor runs a small business and also teaches. To run that business, the prof must 'sell' themselves and their science in grants, presentations, and publications. If you want to get into high impact journals you need to tell a story. The usual summary of literature search, methods, results and dry discussion won't do it. I'm surprised at how few students are taught how to sell their science.

These more 'practical' skills are often overlooked, but can be very translational to other venues -- consulting (project management & budgets), policy ('selling' science), K-12 education (teaching), industry (project management), etc.

Above all, I believe there needs to be a shift in culture from preparing students to become professors to preparing them to contribute to society in multifaceted paths. Once this can be accepted, I think the career development support will come - new networks, translational skills, etc. And with it, the ivory tower may forge new collaborations with policy makers, industry, government, education sectors, and endless other places where society can benefit from scientists.

In the end, I agree that we still need more scientists (... really, more science education). A more science literate population, can only mean more appreciation (and hopefully funding) for science and an increase in innovation. They just probably shouldn't be all PhDs.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Science at home: When your science geek passes to the next generation

Andrey Rogozin | IST

Eating our second helping of salmon for the day (sushi at lunch and lox at dinner)...

4 year old daughter: "Can I have more?" [after devouring her first helping... a rarity at any dinner]

Dad: "When mercury attacks." [handing over a large slice of lox]

4 year old daughter: "Daddy, Mercury can't attack.  Its a planet."

Dad: "Why not?"

4 year old daughter: "Because planets just spin in space.  They're not alive.  Silly Daddy." [giggles ensue like only a 4 year old girl can do]

Now, as a marine biologist, I'm a bit irked that she didn't know yet about bio-accumulation of mercury in fish.  As a scientist, I'm thrilled by her thought process and her knowledge about planets. I guess I shouldn't be too sad about bio-accumulation as I have taught undergrads who didn't get it.

Into the deep - again

Design of the New Alvin (c) WHOI
The submersible Alvin has been out of commission for a major upgrade since December 2010. But there is progress... significant progress towards meeting the goal of test dives in December of this year!

The biggest piece of Alvin to be updated was the personnel sphere. This was said to be the only original piece left from the original Alvin of the 1960s. Now it too will be turned in for something newer and shinier. The personnel sphere is a perfectly spherical hollow ball that houses the pilot and two observers as well as oodles of electronic equipment and supplies. (picture of the sphere being made)

The new sphere was delivered to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution today after passing its pressure tests. The original sphere was 6ft in diameter. The new one is larger. Most importantly the new sphere will increase the depth limit from 4500 m deep to 6500 m deep. To be rated to 6500m, the sphere had to pass pressure tests up to the equivalent of 8000 m (a 1500m margin for safety). Still not Cameron's feat of the Mariana Trench at about 11000 m, but this submersible is meant to be a scientific workhorse. While Cameron did include some features to allow for scientific collections, Cameron's Deep Sea Challenge can't match the scientific abilities of the research submersibles like Alvin.

We miss you, Alvin. I'm glad you'll be back in the water soon.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Job search - the illusive 'fit'

The job search process often felt like a act of random chaos, with little rhyme or reason. In the end, I applied to 55 jobs ranging across R01 research universities, teaching colleges, policy fellowships, and even an aquarium thrown in. There was apparently enough there for quite a few search committees to throw me in the short list and thirteen wise committees invited me for an interview. I interviewed pretty much across the range to which I applied - prestigious liberal art school to R01 university, and from Hawaii to the United Kingdom. Needless to say that I've covered a lot of ground and met a lot of great people along the way.  Again, stories of some of the best and worst interviews will come... I promise... but right now whats been on my mind is that final step from interview to job offer.

I did get more than one job offer, but not always the ones I would have predicted. In quite a few places, I was able to figure out my competition. Tip: If you want to know who you're up against, look on seminar schedules; if you know someone there, ask as it is usually public information; look at posters for upcoming seminars during your visit. I'm a pretty humble person, but at least on paper, I was a stronger scientist than some of the people who were offered the job. So why doesn't the best scientist always get the job offer? ... 'FIT'

What is this ambiguous and annoyingly illusive word - fit?
[read more]

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

View into the Abyss

I've been to Brest, France once for a deep-sea biology meeting. It had been ravaged during WWII, so the architecture wasn't much to look at. The historic charm of much of France and Europe was absent. However, they do have a wonderful aquarium for those of you who are marine enthusiasts. This aquarium, Oceanopolis, now has a one-of-a-kind display - an AbyssBox. This high-pressure box can keep animals brought up from the deep alive and in view of thousands of visitors... spend millions of dollars like Cameron or without having to endure/enjoy a month long research cruise and an 8 hour dive cramped in a 6 ft sphere. True to my heart, they've chosen some vent animals to display. To learn more, check out

I love that more people can get to see some of the wonders that I've been very privileged to experience. I still prefer the long cruise and cramped submersible dive. There's nothing like witnessing the complete environment with your own eyes. Diving on hydrothermal vents is about as close as I'll ever get to going to a different world.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


There are many science blogs out there. So why is mine justified? I'm not sure it entirely is, but it has been a fun and useful outlet to 1) keep me writing, 2) express my unique point of view, 3) update colleagues, friends, family and whoever else finds their way to this site on my scientific life, 4) provided some search committees with additional insight into who I am, and 5) forced me to get outside of my daily myopia.

Sushi Science and other bloggers have argued that more scientists need to blog - for their own benefit and the benefit of those who pay us, the taxpayers. That educating just 3 people more about science is worth the time. With now over 1,000 visitors (sometime in May) since inception a year and a half ago, I have hopefully sparked at least a couple of people to think about science, science careers, or life in a slightly different way. My meager 1000 pales in comparison to other blog sites with tens of thousands of visitors, but I'm okay with that. Thank you to you 1000 that have graced my blog with your time.

I'm getting ready for new journeys now. First to the US Agency for International Development, where science will be thrown into a whole new context. And then as a new faculty member. The battle for a scientific home is coming to an end and now I need to start thinking about the furnishings, landscaping, and scientific kids.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Diversity: Message in a Rose-Colored Bottle

A recent ScienceCareers article on the benefits for women in science caught my attention. Of course, it was by a marine scientist... but that's not why it intrigued me. Maybe step one for retaining women in science and academia is to send the right message -- Science CAN be good for women who want it all (aka family and career). So often the message is that its too hard or impossible.

from FemaleScienceProfessor
Its interesting that the man is the one
trying to balance a tenure clock and
family. If more of these 'female' issues
became male AND female issues, I believe
more progress could be made and faster.
I think I was lucky enough to get the 'right' message early.  I had many extraordinary female role models as mentors... actually almost all of my mentors have been female.  Each has chosen their own path - no kids, single mom, delayed kids, etc. None of them took my path to have kids early, but I think the diversity of paths gave me confidence that there were multiple ways to 'make it work'.

Tracy Ainsworth writes in her ScienceCareer article that "there is no best time for a scientist to have kids" ... "I have found that the inverse is also true: There is no worst time, either." I agree completely.  And I believe those words have actually come out of my mouth a couple of times - for our first kid and when we bought a house. Life doesn't go and shouldn't go on hold while you write your award winning paper, do the critical experiment, or wait for the security of a 'permanent job'. I took the leap (with my wonderful spouse) and found ways to make it work. And I'm happy to say that I have two adorable (and annoying) kids and a house in the suburbs of DC. The only things missing from the quintessential American Dream picture is the white picket fence and dog. (I have a policy of only dealing with one source of poo that I have to clean up.) We're not rich but we're happy.

It was a bit shocking to me that some students I've meet over the course of my interviews were amazed that this was even possible. It is possible. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Climate optimist or pessimist?

I love questions after a talk. It gives me a sense of whether I got my points across and how engaged the audience was during the talk. However, a question from the audience after a recent seminar caught me a bit off guard - "So, you sound like an optimist when it comes to climate change. Why?"

photo by @jot_au
In many ways, I'm an optimist in life -- with all the ups and downs in science, I'd be depressed and probably give up otherwise -- but when it comes to the outcomes of climate change, I'd like to think I'm objective. I believe its pretty clear that there will be winners and losers. Some of the losers will likely go extinct. My bigger concern is understanding who the winners and losers will be, WHY, and what effects will that have on ecosystem function.

Obviously, we can't do experiments on every species in the world, so understanding WHY (the mechanism for persistence or frailty) is essential for predicting the fate of others. I focus on plasticity during development as a way for species to rapidly (within an individual's lifetime... often within days) respond to environmental change. I chose this because it is intimately tied to dispersal and I think it gets far less attention than other mechanisms such as range expansion, change in reproductive timing, and behavior, but could be equally important. Unfortunately for the purple sea urchin, it appears that its changes in development in response to food will NOT help it adapt to climate driven mismatches between when food is available and when larvae in the water column (Adams et al 2011, Nature Communications). 

All of the mechanisms mentioned above, with the exception of range expansion, rely on plasticity (alteration of form, function, or behavior) in one way or another. Range expansion could simply be due to increased survival at the range limits as temperatures become more optimal or tolerable for a given species.

AP Photo/Butterfly Conservation, Keith Warmington
New findings published today in Science show that range expansion can also be facilitated by plasticity. The brown argus butterfly in the UK has rapidly expanded its range to the north not just because temperatures warmed. Key to the expansion was utilizing another host plant - plasticity. During cool periods, the new host plant was not as well suited and resulted in higher caterpillar mortality. However, warmer temperatures have now made this plant a better host, boosting population growth and expanding the butterfly's range.

Many animals have these sorts of complex interactions with other species - predator-prey, parasite-host, symbiosis, etc - that can either hinder or propel response to climate change. Taking an opposing scenario for the argus butterfly - if there hadn't been an additional host plant, the butterfly's range would be confined to the spread of the range of the single host plant, even though the butterfly alone could physically tolerate more northern habitat. And for the more pessimistic view, although the butterfly's range is expanding rapidly to the north, it does not appear to be keeping up with habitat loss in the south. So this butterfly may be a "Global Change Winner" in the UK, it may be a loser overall.

Still, the story highlights the need to include multiple species interactions in our mind when considering climate change. Temperature and pH (ocean acidification) tolerances alone are not sufficient.

Its a complex story. The only thing I'm clear about is that there will be change.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

14 hours in the Hole

Yesterday was a whirlwind trip to Massachusetts for a meeting to discuss preparing a proposal.  The trip was surreal in many ways - talking about a proposal when I don't have an institution to submit a proposal through; giving a colleague and former mentor a congratulatory hug on receiving tenure that day; and having coffee at Coffee O while discussing upcoming cruises. A page out of the past and future.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Job Search: Two down

More decisions had to be made and I now know where I'll be for 2013. Yeah. I've accepted an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship to work with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) on their Biodiversity and Forestry Team. I'll be working with international development teams around the world to incorporate biodiversity conservation within their programmatic efforts. USAID recognizes that preserving biodiversity will maintain essential ecosystem services that people around the world depend on for food, water, transport, and income. These biodiversity initiatives, training and global programs will be essential to achieve sustainable international development. For me, I hope this fellowship will allow me to directly apply my marine background to real world problems in a meaningful way. I hope to gain new perspectives on how science can affect people's lives around the world. At the same time, I hope to expand to contribute to new related areas, such as food security, where biodiversity is often underappreciated.

This doesn't mean that I've given up on a faculty position. Being a professor has been my professional goal since I was in grade school (to be precise, 7th grade when I first learned about hydrothermal vents). I still have applications pending at my top choice places. I've gotten the go ahead from them to accept the fellowship. It is a one year gig. Deferring an academic job offer for a year is not uncommon.  So in a perfect world, I can have this unique experience to gain an important perspective on the broader impacts of science AND have my dream faculty position waiting for me at the end of the year. I can only hope to be so lucky.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Feb 3rd Science - Part II

Long overdue.... I know.

Nuclearized β- catenin (yellow/orange) in the 
vegetal pole of a sea urchin embryo, indicative 
of active cWnt signaling. (c) McClay, Duke.
Much of my work right now involves understanding how the environment can alter development and the resulting ecological consequences for larvae. This sort of developmental plasticity could be advantageous to rapidly responding to changing environments. However, it is important that much (really most) of developmental processes are insulated from environmental signals. This is especially true early in development when the basic cell types and overall patterning are specified. It wouldn't be advantageous for your future muscle cells to become gut, for example. So understanding when and why developmental programs are either receptive to environmental signals or refractory to (insulated from) them is essential to understanding how developmental defects arise and for current research trying to artificially mimic development in a dish.

Sethi et al, Science 2012 show a beautiful example of how two of the three basic cell types in most animals - endoderm (gives rise to the gut) and mesoderm (gives rise to muscles and other cell types) - are segregated from a common 'endomesoderm' state and become refractory to external signals. This segregation is NOT a single event but is a process and progression.

A cell-to-cell signaling event initiates the process. The localized nature of the signaling event is important because it allows only the future mesoderm to receive the initial signal.

As signals often do, this alters gene expression. So often we focus on what is turned on, but here, what is essential is what is turned off. By turning off a key early endomesoderm-state transcription factor in the future mesoderm, the resulting cascade of gene regulatory interactions allows the mesoderm-specific program to run and turns off another signal (a cWnt, see image) in the mesoderm. This carves out a new mesoderm territory.

Notch signaling suppression in mesoderm.
Endoderm's reinforcing loop. (c) Science
                                                                                                                            In the endoderm, the endomesoderm-state transcription factors continue to be expressed and drive the expresssion of the cWnt signaling molecule. The endoderm factors form a reinforcing loop with cWnt signaling driving transcription factors and those factors driving cWnt expression. Thus, by turning off gene expression in one territory but not in another one, two new states are created.

We're not done yet. If cWnt signaling is inappropriately received by the mesoderm, it will initiate the expression of endoderm genes. In order to prevent this, the initial cell-to-cell signal turns on a protein that can eliminate active cWnt signaling in the mesoderm by sequestering an essential co-factor. Now, the two states are insulated from one another.

Cell-fate specification, and development in general, is not just about turning things on. What gets turned off and prevented from being turned on (through insulation from 'outside' signaling) are just as important.

So for my purposes, I'm left wondering why and how some processes are left open to external signals. When is development robust and when is it plastic? Are there ways gene are connected (business jargon: gene regulatory network architectures) that make the process more robust? -- Sethi et al show reinforcing loops and insulation from signaling as possible mechanisms. Are there ways genes are connected that make the process more plastic? -- like in organ development with multiple, dynamic signaling inputs between multiple cell types? ... We're working on it...

Sethi, A.J., R.M. Wikramanayake, R.C. Angerer, R.C. Range, and L.M. Angerer. 2012. Sequential signaling crosstalk regulates endomesoderm segregation in sea urchin embryos. Science. v335:590-593. DOI: 10.1126/science.1212867 
(Images of gene regulatory networks from Sethi et al 2012, Science).

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Job Search: One down

The first set of decisions has come down the pipe and I ended up turning down a tenure-track position yesterday. I didn't expect to be in a position to do such a thing... the hyper-competitive job market, desire to move to a more permanent position, etc, etc. However, in the end the job offer wasn't something I could take and feel that I would be successful and happy.

In thinking about diversity and women dropping out during the postdoc stage, I thought mostly of not being able to compete given time spent at home rather than in the lab or of voluntarily dropping out because of the high work demands.

This negotiation posed another barrier. I kept thinking that this would be a fine offer if I was single. I wouldn't have to worry about my husband getting a job (not in academia... but still a job in his field) - the every popular two-body problem. Also, a lower salary wouldn't be as much of an issue without kids -- no daycare expenses, smaller house, no college savings plans, etc. And not having personnel support early on would be okay because I could work later hours to make up for it until a grant came in. But alas, I am not single without kids.

I have the apparently lofty goal of having a spouse, kids, AND a career. I've currently got all of them and I'd like to keep it that way.  We'll see if that ends up being possible or if I transition to program management, science policy or something else. During an interview, one of the students said that a professor once told him - "Spouse, kids, or career. Pick TWO." I just don't want to believe that that is the reality.  It doesn't need to be. I have some great mentors that have all three, so I know it can be done!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Job search: The end is nigh

I haven't posted too much about the specifics of my job search, due to my prudence. I don't want to speculate, offend, or entice.  But I can say that, after five months of interviews, the end is finally insight. I've only got one more interview left and decisions must be made in the very near future. The good news is that I have job prospects, so I won't be peddling my wares on the streets. Its a strange feeling though... having your future decided. I promise interview stories and conundrums once the light at the end of the tunnel is clearer.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Faculty of 1000 Biology

Faculty of 1000 Biology is a group of experts in biology and biomedicine that provide post-publication peer review. The effort should help scientists wade through the ever expanding literature in order to keep up to date on the best papers and important advances in our field(s).

Our 2010 PNAS paper, "Larvae from afar colonize deep-sea hydrothermal vents after a catastrophic eruption" was reviewed.

Figure 2 from Adams et al 2012.
Illustration by Jack Cook, WHOI.

I'm pleased that another one of my papers has just been reviewed. This one was more of a surprise. Often the papers that are reviewed are in the big name journals - Science, Nature, PNAS, Current Biology, etc. This makes sense, as they often contain the major advances. However, it wasn't my Science paper or even my Nature Communications paper. The most recent review is on a review of larval biology and dispersal at hydrothermal vents in Oceanography, by myself and two other exemplary early career female scientists, Shawn Arellano and Breea Govenar... now a Recommended read. Thanks!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Diversity: Where do they go?

This week I've been thinking a lot about diversity in marine sciences. Diversity can mean lots of different things... But by pretty much all metrics, marine sciences lacks diversity. The number of women in the faculty, tenured and tenure-track, is disparingly low. The number of under-represented minorities is even lower. At the graduate level, gender equity is much better while minorities are still woefully poorly represented.

The numbers suggest that there may be pipeline issues in preparing, captivating, and recruiting minorities into marine sciences. I think the hope is that it's preparation and exposure issues. The harder scenario would be a cultural barrier. Doctors and lawyers may be more highly valued professions... Clearly their pay checks suggest that they are more highly values by society as a whole. Assuming the best case scenario, K-12 and community outreach efforts and targeted recruiting have promise for improving diversity.

Women may have different issues. There are women in the pipeline. Graduate student numbers are up... Some sub disciplines lag behind a bit but women are entering the pathway to the professorate. Where are they going from there? A hypothesis that's gaining more attention and supporting data for the sciences is that the conflicting pull of work and family during the transition between being a graduate student and becoming a faculty member causes dropouts before entering the academy.

A totally biased sample of my graduate cohort friends, 5 of 9 female friends have had kids or are pregnant within five years since earning their PhDs. Of these outstanding women, one has become a high school teacher, two are in policy and management, three have tenure track positions, and three of us are in post doc positions. There is not a perfect agreement between those that dropped out or have tenure track positions and family status. But I can say from personal experience that it's hard. Productivity is undoubtably impacted. The question really is how will going against traditional practice of either no children or delaying having kids until after tenure impact our ability to compete for faculty positions and to obtain tenure. competition is fierce...

Things that could and have help me are policies and support that increases my ability to do work... So child are, not only day to day, but also when traveling for business. Easy and clear maternity leave policies helped me... There were no questions regarding the benefits, so I could plan accordingly. The ability to have a panel of parents an email away to answer any questions regarding parenting has been invaluable from finding child care andpicking a doctor to getting coupons to save all I can. Now to get the kids to sleep through the night so I'm rested enough to think clearly all day....

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

To go where no (solo) man has gone before

Day late and dollar short, but it had to be included. I would have posted earlier, as the tweets came in from the initial launch to hitting the bottom, but I was cloistered in a hotel room with no internet access and a computer on the edge of failure followed by two days of interviewing. It was nice to be at a oceanographic research institution for the event, especially one with such a rich deep sea community. This meant that some of my meetings were cut short by calls to the press all over the world, but also that I got to hear inside discussion about the engineering, observations, and what it could mean for our business. So what was all the racket about? JC hitting the bottom.

Photo by (c)Mark Thiessen/National Geographic.
Deep Sea Challenge
Whether driven by pride or science and exploration, you have to applaud James Cameron's descent to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. It took guts, bravado, and a significant chunk of change. Even if he didn't find anything particularly new, and the 'spoils' aren't all reveled yet, the excitement and media attention he can and did generate has brought ocean research and exploration to the forefront of many people's minds. A handful of young children may have gained the excitement that Jacques Cousteau generated in previous generations. In the end, science needs and should want the public support - for funding, for purpose, and for a bright next generation of scientists.

I've been out to sea with Cameron for a month on a Russian ship, diving on hydrothermal vents as a scouting cruise for Aliens of the Deep. Since I wasn't actually working for him, I saw less of the exacting and demanding hollywood producer and more of an explorer. Many a night was spent on the aft deck with a delicious bottle of wine discussing science and telling stories. He has a very passionate scientific mind. You can see this in his movies, which almost always contain science fiction, a keen sense of exploration, and the ocean. Avatar, though terrestrial or extra-terrestrial, contained life that resembled and bioluminesced like creatures inhabiting coral reefs. Titanic, he claims was, at least in part, driven by his desire to dive on the wreck of Titanic. Which he did for the movie using his director's retainer money, to move finely explore and image the wreck than ever before with custom ROVs (remotely operated vehicles - remote underwater robots). He was pushing forward ocean engineering over a decade ago.

(c) Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
So it was no real surprise that his sub design was innovative - resembling more of a spar buoy, meant to go up and down, rather than a more traditional submersible design. (Compare images of Deep Challenger and the US's workhorse Alvin.) As such, it seemed to have rocketed to the seafloor and back to the surface, allowing for more time on the bottom. Key to that may have been the titanium sphere - something only someone like JC could afford. I would have felt more comfortable going down in a titanium sphere than some of the other 'competing' designs, with a glass or acrylic sphere. The view might be better, but the probability of failure would have put a dent in my comfort and anxiety level during viewing.

My one complaint to Cameron is that he didn't make it much of a race. There was starting to be some hype about a 'Race to the Deep' - Cameron, Richard Branson, Sylvia Earle, and a commercial company. In the end, the other competitors haven't even made it to the starting line. While they unveiled sub plans, Cameron debuted the completed sub and started on an impressive test dive. A longer and more competitive 'race' would have heightened public awareness and kept this in the media spotlight longer.

Still it is a historic achievement and an advancement for science. Thank you Jim for your continued love and passion for the ocean!

(c) National Geogrpahic
For more coverage of the historic dive, check out the timeline on DeepSeaNews and more from National Geographic, including this video below.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

DC in colorful bloom

Back from a brief respite in Hawaii. One might think coming back to DC in March would be tough, however the weather is almost better here in DC! Its been a gorgeous spring week, yet I'm happy to be inside. This has been a rare 2 week stint with no traveling for interviews or work. I'm finally back at the bench (and computer) to finish analyzing experiments and start new ones.

I also got result back from my first nanostring experiment. Nanostring is a new technology that directly counts individual molecules of mRNA. This means no bias from amplification nor making cDNA. The technology achieves this amazing feat by using a two probe per gene system. One gene-specific probe has a biotin anchor. The other probe has a unique fluorescent barcode - i.e. red-orange-green-orange-yellow or yellow-blue-red-red-green, etc. The probes are mixed with the mRNA and then immobilized via the anchor on a substrate. The barcodes are all aligned in the same direction by a current. Then the sample can be imaged and counted.

Although the changes weren't big, I did get a couple of interesting genes whose expression was significantly correlated with changes in arm length. Again, showing the power of this technology. Too bad at least one of them was Wnt-signalling related. Everyone in the lab is working on a Wnt (some on the same Wnt). I've flat out refused up until now... Wnt signaling is crazy complicated and still really controversial. It looks like I might have to finally dive into the mess.

(I am not related to Nanostring Technology, Inc and have only used their product once. I have yet to verify the results using qPCR and/or in situ hybridization.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Feb 3rd Science - Part I The Southern Ocean

And back to some science. I've got a short break from interview travel, so I can finally sit down for another science post.

The February 3rd issue of Science provides me two special opportunities to highlight exciting science: how the release of carbon dioxide from the Southern Ocean contributed to deglaciation and how signaling pathways and gene regulatory networks interact to specify endoderm and mesoderm in the sea urchin. They are special because they represent the well-deserved culmination of efforts by some of my friends. The two articles also demonstrate how very separate development and oceanography can be. Its no wonder why its can be a challenge and so exciting to bring them together.

Andrea Burke and Laura Robinson use the chemistry incorporated into now fossilized coral skeletons to understand deglaciation events in their article The Southern Ocean's role in carbon exchange during the last deglaciation. (Admittedly, Laura is really a friend of a friend. However, my dear friend Rhian Waller was instrumental in obtaining the samples... so I still count it. For the adventures of Laura and Rhian on their latest cruise adventures in the Southern Ocean check out their blog.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Job Search: Side effects

There a couple of unexpected side effects of interviewing for faculty positions. Of course there are the late nights preparing and the stress... but I didn't think about the extra five pounds from being wined and dined combined with missing soccer games. My back is also recovering from back to back flights and long car rides. Really, I'm not complaining. I'm excited that other people are interested in integrating across biology and in my work. There are also numerous pleasant surprises. I may have just gotten access to a great sample set coming up from the deep blue in the near future. I've met many interesting scientists with whom I'd like to collaborate, whether or not I get the job. And I'm getting the opportunity to share my work with people who may not have been exposed otherwise. I thank you again, search committee members, for giving me these opportunities.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Job Search: Whirlwind

Let the whirlwind travel that is January begin... I've safely landed in South Carolina for the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology Meeting - the first of my trips, which will take me to or through six states this month. We'll have to see whether I've got too much or just enough on my plate. My randomly assigned row mate on the plane commented, "A poster and a talk. Double whammy. What, the stress of just one presentation at the conference wasn't enough?" Oh, my new friend, that is just the tip of the iceberg for this month. Good thing I like meeting new people and giving presentations. If the kids don't break their Dad, I think we'll be in good shape.