The Pesticide (maybe) in Your Coffee

Insecticides are a huge industry in the United States – whether we’re talking the small-scale can of Raid for your kitchen counter ants or the much larger scale agricultural market. But what if there was something already on your kitchen counter that might take care of those ants for you?

Erythritol is the main compound found in Truvia, a common artificial sweetener that many people use for baking or their morning Cup o’ Joe. Erythritol is a non-nutritive sugar alcohol – so while it sweetens your food, it can’t be digested by your body. The fact that it is sweet (like sucrose or other sugars) makes it attractive to insects such as Drosophila melanogaster, one species of small fruit fly that is a very common organism for scientific study. In this case, attractive can also mean deadly.

Figure 1. Drosophila melanogaster raised on food containing Truvia show decreased longevity. Truvia is red, Purevia is green, control nutritive sugars are dark blue, and other non-nutritive sugars are light blue. Graph shows percentage of living adult flies raised on food containing different nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners over time. Note significant decrease in longevity of adult flies raised on food containing Truvia compared to other food.
Figure 1. Drosophila melanogaster raised on food containing Truvia show decreased longevity. Truvia is red, Purevia is green, control nutritive sugars are dark blue, and other non-nutritive sugars are light blue. Graph shows percentage of living adult flies raised on food containing different nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners over time. Note significant decrease in longevity of adult flies raised on food containing Truvia compared to other food.

My lab published its first ground-breaking (what, can’t a girl brag?) paper on erythritol in PLoS One, entitled “Erythritol, a Non-Nutritive Sugar Alcohol Sweetener and the Main Component of Truvia, is a Palatable Ingested Insecticide” (Baudier et al 2014, before I arrived). As you can see on the graph to the left, flies that ate Truvia had significantly decreased longevity as compared to flies fed PureVia, Sweet ‘N Low, Sucrose, Equal, Splenda, or Corn Syrup. It’s a pretty drastic split. They also ran an experiment confirming which compound in Truvia was the killer compound (spoilers above: it’s erythritol).

Figure 6. CAFE experiments show Drosophila melanogaster actively consume erythritol over time. Upper graph shows prandial behavior of 10 individually housed flies fed 5% erythritol (red columns) and 10 individually housed flies fed 5% sucrose (blue columns) over a 6 hour period. Average intake per fly per hour is graphed for each treatment and separated by sex. Lower graph shows prandial behavior of 10 individually house flies when presented with a choice between 5% erythritol (red columns) and 5% sucrose (blue columns). Average intake per fly per hour is graphed for each treatment and is separated by sex. Note the significant increase in erythritol intake compared to sucrose intake for both sexes.
Figure 6. CAFE experiments show Drosophila melanogaster actively consume erythritol over time. Upper graph shows prandial behavior of 10 individually housed flies fed 5% erythritol (red columns) and 10 individually housed flies fed 5% sucrose (blue columns) over a 6 hour period. Average intake per fly per hour is graphed for each treatment and separated by sex. Lower graph shows prandial behavior of 10 individually house flies when presented with a choice between 5% erythritol (red columns) and 5% sucrose (blue columns). Average intake per fly per hour is graphed for each treatment and is separated by sex. Note the significant increase in erythritol intake compared to sucrose intake for both sexes.




But it doesn’t matter if erythritol kills the flies if they won’t choose to eat it! So Baudier et al. ran several CAFE experiments; one gave the flies access to both sucrose and erythritol of the same concentration and measured how much of each solution the flies ate over time (bottom graph of the figure to the right). As you can see, the red bars are much higher than the blue for both sexes – the flies, when presented with a choice, ate more erythritol than sucrose. If that trend were to hold in the wild, that would be very good news – the flies would self-select to eat the pesticide over other available foods containing non-lethal sucrose!









While this paper looked at a few more things, the last piece of the puzzle I want to talk about here is the effects of higher or lower doses of erythritol on fly longevity. The graph below shows that flies fed two molar erythritol all died within 48 hours! That’s incredibly fast-acting for a pretty tame pesticide.

Figure 4. Increasing concentrations of erythritol show decreased longevity in Drosophila melanogaster. Graph shows percentage of living adult flies raised on food containing different concentrations of erythritol. Control food is 0.5 M sucrose (blue line), 2 M erythritol (red line), 1 M erythritol (orange line), 0.5 M erythritol (green line), and 0.1 M erythritol (black line) were used. Note significant decrease in longevity of adult flies as concentration of erythritol is increased.
Figure 4. Increasing concentrations of erythritol show decreased longevity in Drosophila melanogaster. Graph shows percentage of living adult flies raised on food containing different concentrations of erythritol. Control food is 0.5 M sucrose (blue line), 2 M erythritol (red line), 1 M erythritol (orange line), 0.5 M erythritol (green line), and 0.1 M erythritol (black line) were used. Note significant decrease in longevity of adult flies as concentration of erythritol is increased.

I hear you saying: “Okay, Meghan, but this is all about flies. Didn’t you promise me that I could take out ants with this stuff?” A recent study by another lab has shown that erythritol works against Solenopsis invicta – the red imported fire ant that causes so much trouble in the United States and abroad. While that probably isn’t the species of ant you have on your counter, it is a promising sign that this stuff may just work on many different groups of insects – from flies to ants, perhaps beyond.

And because erythritol is found in a sweetener meant for human consumption it has been rigorously tested by the FDA and is known to be human-safe (though if you eat a lot, and I mean a lot, of it all at once it may have a laxative effect). In other words, you can feel better about spraying this stuff onto your countertops than Raid. Compared to neurotoxins and other nasty chemical pesticides, erythritol is also thought to be more environmentally friendly too!

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What I’m Working On

The last ‘What I’m Working On’ was all the way back in September 2016, and a lot has happened since then – so you probably deserve an update!

Research/Science Projects:

I’m still working on gathering data for the Eciton ant brain project (the only thing which did stay consistent between my last post and this one). It turns out that this project is going to be a really, really long one… we’ve got about 12 heads left to embed and slice and somewhere around 45 left to photograph and quantify. If you imagine that it takes a week to embed, 1.5 hours to slice each head, 6 hours to stain them all, 3 hours to coverslip them all, 1.5 hours each for photographs, and 2 hours each to quantify… basically, see you never! In addition to the Eciton spp project, we’re doing something similar with termites – I’m helping Susie finish up the tail ends of that project by taking photographs and embedding for her so she can be the master quantifier. Termite brains are funny (though not as funny as the spiders!).

While we’re waiting to hear back from the NSF on social spider brains, I’ve been doing some work for Sean on our super-secret pesticide project. Unfortunately, this is one I really can’t talk much about given that there’s patents and all kinds of legalese involved. Basically, I’m learning lots of things about lots of different arthropods and pesticides and animal husbandry it’s been really absorbing lots of my time in a (mostly) good way.

Photo by Arizona Board of Regents/ASU Ask A Biologist entitled ‘digging male’ (Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported), link through photo

I have a few other project ideas brewing as I begin thinking more about my thesis – some involving Centris pallida, a beautiful species of desert bee with really dimorphic male mating behaviors. I also have some developing interest in the brains of myrmecophilous beetles – parasitic beetles that live in ant colonies and utilize their resources. Hopefully, these more collaborative projects will start to develop soon, since I’m not currently in the position to collect these insects myself!

Writing Projects:

As my last post stated, I recently embarked on my Camp NaNoWriMo journey for April of 2017 and managed to write about 20,000 words of my novel-in-progress that I didn’t actually even conceptualize until April 2nd! April was a whirlwind month, but I feel pretty good about this story, and am excited to continue it when my life gets a bit more under control. The story features a journalist in England in the early 1800s, and her investigation into the Foreign Office and a prolific English assassin. I’ve had a lot of fun researching who the assassin kills, and making sure the timeline and locations fit – overall, this story is a set up for another that I’ve been working on for a long time and filling in all the background is really rewarding and intriguing.

I also managed to participate in the Creative Writing Collaboration since my last September post – but pretty much everything else has been at a standstill with graduate school at the forefront of my mind.

And that’s what you missed on… Glee?

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Social Spiders: Brainy Stuff

A few weeks ago, I introduced you to a project I’m working on in my lab with social spiders in this post here. In that post, I talked about overarching differences between solitary, subsocial, and social spiders that will factor into my research question about spider brains – we’ll get to the question in a few posts.

This is incorrect. The legs come off the first section – the ‘head’ of the spider.

I thought I’d move in this post to discussing the spider brain, which resides in the cephalothorax – or the first section (not the silk spinning abdomen) of the spider. When I started this project, I thought a spider looked like my drawing to the right – and many of our popular representations of the spider incorrectly show the legs coming off the abdomen (think Halloween decorations). It’s important to remember that the legs actually come out of the first section, the ‘head’ of the spider; it plays into the really cool layout of the brain/central nervous system.

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Photo credit: Meghan Barrett and the O’Donnell lab at Drexel University.

To the left is a picture of the ‘ventral’ portion of the spider nervous system – called the subesophageal ganglion – the V shaped bit in the center of the picture, in lighter blue (the darker blue is muscle – wow, these spiders are strong!). It sits really close to the belly of the spider, because this portion of the CNS is responsible for movement in the spider and thus needs to be close to the legs. It takes up most of the head, with several discrete sections, radiating out from a central body. The two sections at the top of the photo innervate the pedipalps – sensory organs near the mouth in spiders. The other eight sections each innervate one of the spider’s legs, and the very bottom of the photo is where the nerves go to the abdomen.

These structures are made of motoneurons (neurons that control movement) that go out, into their respective organs/legs and sensory neurons that come in – giving chemical and mechanical information from hairs that cover the body and legs. In the smallest of spiders, these regions can extend pretty significantly into the legs as the spider has a limit to how small its brain can be and still function.

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Photo credit: Meghan Barrett and the O’Donnell lab at Drexel University

The subesophageal ganglion is really large, compared to the ‘brain’ portion of the central nervous system – called the supraesophageal ganglion (so named because the esophagus runs between the sub and supra sections of the spider CNS). The supraesophageal ganglion is pictured to the right and is about a third the size of the subesophageal ganglion; you can see the central body, the strip at the bottom, and the main mass of the brain in front of it. This is the part of the brain responsible for receiving input from the eyes, learning, memory, and other pre-programmed behavior (more classic ‘brain’ activities). It is dorsal to the subesophageal ganglion, meaning it sits (unsurprisingly) closer to the eyes while the sub is closer to the legs.

Photo/data credit to Meghan Barrett and the ODonnell lab at Drexel University.

Below and to the left are some photos of my 3D reconstruction of an Anelosimus guacomayos brain – enjoy! You can really see the difference in size between the supra and sub, and the large space above the sub where the stomach of the spider sits. In my next post I’ll talk about some of the incredible behaviors this tiny CNS is capable of – more than you’d think! Does the spider brain look like you expected? Cool – or creepy? Share your thoughts with me in the comments below!

Photo/data credit to Meghan Barrett and the ODonnell lab at Drexel University.




Sources: Check out the paper linked below for more great views of spider brains, and a good diagram showing the sub/supra divide at the esophagus. 

Park Y, Moon M (2013). Microstructural Organization of the Central Nervous System in the Orb-Web Spider Araneus ventricosus Araneae: Araneidae). Applied Microscopy, 43, 65-74.

Many thanks to Leticia Aviles for the specimen. 

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An Introduction to the Social Spider Project

I’m about to begin a series of posts on social spiders – yes, those creepy crawly arthropods we all despise – to give some background information on a research project that my PI and I have been developing for a while (now in pre-proposal stage). My hope is that this series of bite-sized bits of my project, the theory behind it, and the journey of the research itself will be interesting enough to turn some of the fear we have into curiosity. As a child I was terrified of spiders, and made my father ‘take care of’ any of the unfortunate few that wandered into my room; but through all this research, I’ve actually developed a (very small) fondness for the little guys, and I hope I can share that fondness with you.

We’ll start this introduction by discussing the study organism itself – the spider. In this study, we’ll be looking at closely related spider species that differ dramatically in one major type of behavior – sociality. There are three ‘types’ of this behavior – solitary, subsocial, and social.

Found on the @ApprenticeRPG twitter

Solitary spiders are the ones most of us are probably familiar with – you know, the spider that chills out on its own web or wanders around on the ground by itself. It meets with other spiders for mating, but that’s the extent of its desire to socially interact.

Subsocial spiders are those that engage in some social behaviors – perhaps they live together or engage in cooperative prey capture maneuvers, but they also have some kind of obligate solitary phase. This could be a particular season of the year or a particular age that they spend alone, or they could even have communal webs but with marked, individual territories. The behaviors here are really diverse.

Photo Credit: Donna Garde, Texas Parks & Wildlife, link through photo.

Lastly, you have the social spiders. For people with arachnophobia this is probably the WORST thing ever because if you find one spider, you know there are bound to be many more nearby. Social spiders engage in cooperative maternal care, nest maintenance, and prey capture behaviors and live together pretty much 24/7 – except during dispersal, when young spiders leave the nest to venture out into the world alone.

Social spiders come in various shapes and sizes just like the more familiar solitary spiders; you have larger huntsman in Australia that can have up to 300 spiders in a colony and the smaller Anelosimus (the spiders I’ll be working with, known as cobweb spiders) found throughout the Americas – Anelosimus eximus, a species I’ll be working with frequently, can have tens of thousands of spiders in a web (found as far north as Panama, though there are other Anelosimus in the US). There are other social spiders found throughout the world, in varying colors, numbers, sizes, and with varying behaviors.

That’s it for today’s introduction to the project – be sure to check back for future installments on spider brains, brain resource allocation theory, social spider behavior, and more!

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New Years Goals: 2017

With the New Year comes new year’s resolutions – which are typically a bit of a mess, in my opinion. Oft hyped but rarely completed, resolutions are something you find on a scrap piece of paper three years later and realize you (maybe) achieved one of the eight things on your list.

Nevertheless, as an eternal optimist, I make resolutions every year without fail and, usually, one or two of them happen. As I get older, my resolutions have gotten more tailored to my actual desires (no ‘run a marathon’) and less numerous – I think, more reasonable overall.

So here are my, hopefully modest, new year goals, not resolutions. Next year, I’ll hopefully be able to reflect back on these and feel like I achieved something significant – just like in my 2016 Wrap Up post.

  1. Finish gathering data for the Eciton army ant project
  2. Maintain an active blog presence here, with at least one post a week
  3. Develop my board game idea into a reality
  4. Publish three more poems
  5. Have my committee and thesis ideas outlined for my PhD

What’s on your list for 2017? How do you feel about New Years Resolutions/goals? Let me know in the comments and thanks, as always, for reading.


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SINNERS 16: Social Insect Conference

Photo courtesy of the SINNERS FB page.

December 10th and 11th, I had the absolute pleasure of attending my first scientific conference while in grad school – the SINNERS (Social Insects iN the North-East RegionS) meet up, for social insect entomologists in the NE US. The conference was hosted by the Powell lab at George Washington University, and was a rollicking good time – the sort of party only social insect people can put on, you get me?

This was my first time at a conference like this, so I gave a little lightning talk about my burgeoning social spider project (yeah, social spider. You heard me). It was really well received, and people had great questions even though I strayed from the ‘insects’ part on the conference name a tad (SANNERS – social arthropods – doesn’t have as nice a ring, I guess). I thought I’d give you a really small taste of just a few of the amazing presentations given at the conference that really excited me.

Ant-mimicking rove beetles – Dr. Joseph Parker from Columbia University

Photo courtesy of a PDF poster download from Dr. Parker’s website

 Dr. Joseph Parker gave a talk entitled “Evolution and development of rove beetle myrmecophiles” (you can read more about this here, in a paper he published). Myrmecophile literally just means ‘myrmeco’ – ant – and ‘phile’ – loving; basically, species other than ants that capitalize on the structure of the ant society. In the case of these beetles, many live within ant colonies, receiving food and protection from the ants they mimic. However, ants are obviously not a huge fan of these thieves, and thus the beetles have to do their best to chemically and morphologically mimic the ants of the colony they are infiltrating – which some beetle species have done really well.

You can see a picture on the left of the incredible mimicry in form that these beetles undergo in order to be able to pass as ants (to ants!) and thus live in ant colonies. Dr. Parker’s talk mentioned how the benefits of successful ant-mimicry led to multiple independent evolutions of the behavior, and how novel glands had even been developed in particular beetle species to ‘control’ the host species. In particular, he mentioned an ‘adoption’ secretion which causes the ants to pick up the beetle, carry it into the colony, and deposit it in the brood (egg) chamber for it to feast on the baby ants. Other beetles are also able to use the ant alarm pheromone and pass other chemical ‘tests’ required when living in a hostile ant colony.

Snap and Trap Jaw Ants – Dr. Fredrick Larabee


Trap-jaw ants Photos from, and from Larabee’s website

The above video is of Plectroctena mandibularis, an African snapping ant; it was posted by @DrStrangeAnt to Twitter on December 10th, and gives you an idea of how fast and powerful these ants’ jaws are.

Dr. Fredrick Larabee, from the National Museum of Natural History, gave a great talk entitled “Kinematics and Functional Morphology of the Snapping Ant, Mystrium camillae”.  We got to see amazing, up-close videos of the snapping jaws of different ant species – the Mystrium and the Mymoteras. The Mymoteras video was particularly incredible – it was taken at 1 million frames per second, in order to be fast enough to capture the snapping jaw. It’s one of (if not the) fastest animal movement on the planet. Mystrium is less impressive, with the video taken at “only” 1 thousand frames per second. The muscle that it takes to power movement that fast is incredible; sections of the ants’ heads show about 90% of the head is made of muscle in Mystrium. Different trap/snap jaw ants use different mechanisms to make their jaws shut, but all of them are lightning fast!

There were other incredible presentations given on thermal tolerance in army ants and how they regulate the temperature of their brood for optimal rearing conditions on the road (army ants are nomadic), math that showed the way ants find the optimal position for making living bridges of their own bodies, and even preliminary thermal imaging results that show how honey bees manage cases of honey bee fever in their colonies.

All in all, the conference was AMAZING and I can’t wait to go again. A huge thanks to the Powell lab for organizing everything this year. What do you think makes for a good conference? Let me know, in the comments!

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The Important Part of REsearch

My messy slide station.
My messy slide staining station.

If I were to sum up the entirety of my fall 2016 quarter, my first three months as a PhD student, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that research is not about the ‘search’ part as much as it is about the ‘re’. Or rather: the ‘search’ is the end goal, but the ‘re’ is how we get there.

Research is about redoing things, over and over, tweaking things slightly until you get it right (at least, for that one time). It’s about understanding that every experiment that doesn’t turn out as you hoped does not mean it’s time to give up – instead it’s time to try again, and figure out what went wrong. Never have I had so many PCRs or DNA extractions come back negative. It can be incredibly disheartening to do hours worth of work, over and over, to get back blank gels with nothing but perfectly fluorescent ladders.

Similarly, what does one do with a brain that doesn’t stain when you add DAPI (a stain that binds to DNA – something all brain cells should have)? Or with FITC (another stain that should 100% light up under the microscope if there are cells present)? What do you do with brains that are so soft they’re almost impossible to dissect out of the cephalothorax? Or with an embedding procedure that has worked perfectly for hundreds of soldier ant heads that suddenly starting turning brains into glue?

Sometimes the problems aren’t obvious at first glance; say, a broken piece of machinery that throws your results for two weeks until you figure it out. Other times, you get odd results – some primers that show your DNA extracted, others that show no extraction occurred at all. These odd results can be compounded by the fact that your experimental primers are successful in amplifying samples that your more universal primers appear to miss entirely. What does it all mean? (hint: I still have no f***ing clue)

And to me, this is the big lesson of the first quarter; what i-have-no-idea-what-im-doingdifferentiates a PhD researcher from a hired
hand. The PhD researcher must figure out these complex questions – must figure out where to go next to make things work and what to throw at the experimental wall to see if it sticks. The hired hand, or the undergraduate, simply performs route tasks – but at the end of the day, can leave when things don’t work out.

This has been an especially hard lesson for me as a lifelong perfectionist; I’ve come home numerous times this quarter to tell my fiance that “I’m a failure” and questioning “Why am I so bad at such simple research tasks?” and “Is this really for me?”. But I am getting the idea that, to survive in science, I must let go of the notion that everything will go perfectly and be in my control; I must get used to the idea of moving past mistakes quickly, and figuring out new directions to push through unanticipated problems. There is not time to wallow in what went wrong – to take an angry “it’s all my fault” attitude. The immediate response, whether I did truly make a mistake or not, must be to move forward and stop punishing myself for the imperfections that are going to occur – with high frequency – in my scientific career. Because I won’t make it if I hang on to these unrealistically high ‘perfection’ expectations – amazingly, I’ve come to realize that perfection is what will stifle my career before it begins.

This has some application to my writing life too; how many books have I re-written the first six chapters of, striving for perfection before moving on, only to never finish the book? Striving for the perfect first chapter means the first draft, imperfect as it may be, will never be realized. We’ve talked about the importance of failure before on this blog, but this is about more than failure; it’s about recognizing that the goal of perfection is, in itself, a failure to honor reality.

Who knew that PhD school might be more about reflection on your own character than learning scientific concepts? Huh.

So, moving forward, I’ve got steps I need to take whenever I recognize the creeping sense of worthlessness that happens when something goes wrong:

  1. Breathe and Take 5 – restore calm and a sense of self worth
  2. Acknowledge the Imperfection – admit that something went wrong and identify the problem
  3. Build a Plan – figure out how to move forward, even if there are several options and I’m not sure which might be best to try
  4. Ask for Help – when doubting where to go, ask someone with more experience and get a second opinion

I’ve been really lucky to have an amazing mentor, Susie, in the lab who has shown me this kind of let it go and move forward attitude multiple times this quarter. When something goes wrong, she doesn’t play the blame game – she says “huh, that’s odd” and then immediately looks for a way forward. I’m a long way off from that kind of attitude – but I hope I can start modeling that behavior soon enough.

Do you have a perfectionist problem? How have you tried to move past it – and how has it affected your life? Let me know in the comments and thanks, as always, for reading!

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How to Read an Academic Article

Dense, jargon-filled paper about ants.

I recently stumbled across a pair of articles over at Science that resonated with me as a first year grad student taking a ‘Readings in Cellular and Molecular Biology’ class. The first article by Adam Ruben (a bit sarcastic) opens with “Nothing makes you feel stupid quite like reading a scientific journal article”; I recall my social insect seminar, junior year of undergrad, where we read at least one primary research article a week and were asked to develop questions about it. My most frequent question, my persistent frustration, “what is this even about?” It amazed me that I could read a scientific paper (sometimes several times) without even coming close to understanding it.

Step ten of Ruben’s satirical ‘ten step process for reading a scientific paper is: “10. Genuine contemplation of a career in the humanities. Academic papers written on nonscientific subjects are easy to understand, right? Right?”. Interestingly, as an English major, I can tell you that they really aren’t; it’s just a different kind of incomprehensible thinking.

Academic articles, scientific or otherwise, are known to be dry, confusing, and wordy; this may be one reason why we have so much trouble getting a lay audience to read, believe, or report on the facts (but that’s a discussion for another time). While Ruben laments the nature of scientific articles, Elisabeth Pain takes on tips for reading them in her follow up article in Science where she compiles advice from other scientists. I’ve summed it up here, succinctly:

  • Read the abstract and conclusion, and study the most important figures first (this will tell you if it’s even a paper you’re interested in for your research). Then go back and try to understand the dense verbiage of the paper.
  • As you read, take notes of important sentences/ideas in whatever note-taking format works well for you. Then make comments on this document (or the paper itself) with your questions and other information that you think is relevant.
  • Take shortcuts – for example, skip the methods unless you feel there’s something vital in there for you. Skip the intro if you’re really familiar with the field already. Etc.
  • Pause immediately to look up words you don’t understand; write in the definition so you don’t forget if you need to come back to the paper…
  • OR only look up words if they’re critical to your understanding of the work; otherwise, don’t waste your time on all the jargon.
  • Go to a colleague for help if you’re overwhelmed and don’t be afraid to use lay-audience sources (Wikipedia, blog posts) to get a feel for your area of study.

I recommend, if you have time, reading through the advice in Pain’s article – there’s a lot more in there about identifying the scientific rigor of the paper which I chose not to deal with here.
Coming at this topic from a dual background, and particularly as a poet, I thought I’d share with you my method for reading scientific papers:

  • Making the paper a found poemfound poetry is poetry that was ‘discovered’ or ‘uncovered’ from another source. To familiarize myself with the language and very general ideas of the paper, the first time I read through, I pull out beautiful words and write them into a notebook for the potential to make a found poem later. This allows me to peruse the poem with no scientific understanding in mind, to get used to the writing style and to look up any words I don’t understand without being too frustrated to apply that definition.

    My word bank for the article ‘Mushroom Body Volumes and Visual Interneurons in Ants: Comparison between Sexes and Castes’
  • Highlight, make notes, find the stories – The next time I read, I take notes on the paper itself through highlighting and comments/definitions in the margins. I also use symbols to tie together a particular ‘story’ of the experiment – often, a study worked towards several different goals and the symbol notation lets me follow just one goal at a time.
    My notebook for found science poetry… every writer has to have their tools!

    So if the paper is answering three questions, I mark each paragraph with the relevant one to three symbols, allowing me to read just to understand one of those three questions. This also makes sure I understand what the questions actually are that the paper is addressing.

In the end, the real trick seems to be time – you must spend time with the paper in whatever way works for you, be it found poetry or note taking or reading it fifteen times until it makes sense.

Do you have to read academic work – scientific or otherwise? Do you have tips or tricks for getting through your reading with your sanity intact? Share them in the comments below!

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Five Tools for Writers and Scientists

The commonalities between what I do as a scientist and writer are so omnipresent it’s astounding. For two fields that are ‘so different’, there is so much overlap. Recently, I was talking to my Uncle about a note-taking app called ‘Evernote’, something new I’ve added to my arsenal of tools to help me stay organized with all my various research, and I realized I was using it for both science and writing purposes. So behold, a list of five free applications you should know about whether you’re a scientist or a writer, to help you achieve all your goals!

Habitica: Motivation and Organization, but actually Fun

*Not this kind of pet

I recommend this app for everyone, everywhere. You can do pretty much everything on the app for free and the PC and phone versions are both easy to use.

Habitica is an organize-your-life, motivate-yourself tool that helps you make goals, form good habits, and get things done. The tool is actually set up as a game – you become a fully customizable character that can go on quests with other players to defeat mythical beasts, earn coins to buy cool armor, and feed/hatch/collect pets*. You lose health when you don’t do your dailies and gain experience (to level up!) and gold when you complete tasks.

Why yes, I am a blue teddy bear wield dual hooks riding a bee wearing garden armor with a phoenix pet. Is there something wrong with that?

The Dailies tab lets you set up things you want to do every day (though you can customize these to appear only certain days of the week). The To-Do section allows you to set up a list of tasks to be accomplished. The Habits section allows you to change small habits you do each day (Take the stairs? give yourself some points! The elevator? Lose some health).

As a writer, I use this to set a daily ‘write something’ reward and use the to-do section to set smaller research/community building goals. As a scientist, I use the to-do section to reward myself for completing work in the lab or remind myself to finish various assignments, order supplies, etc. It allows you to break down your life into small, simple goals and then gain no-cost-to-you rewards for getting things done, turning your stressful life into a fun game. One of my friends once suggested using Habitica to get over impostor syndrome and feelings of failure; she put ‘fail at something’ as one of her habits!

Freedom: Free Yourself From Distractions

As a human being, I am a chronically distracted person – email and social media are by far the worst of my distractions. With Freedom, not so! Freedom allows you to block certain websites for an amount of time you set (minutes to hours). When you try to access that website, you get one of those funny ‘not able to access the server’ messages and are reminded, sheepishly, that you should be working on something else instead.

Freedom also blocks apps, so don’t forget to put it on your phone to block Candy Crush from ruining your productivity.

Pacemaker: Set Personalized Writing Goals

Lichelle Slater, an author-friend of mine for almost ten years, recommended this one to me and boy am I grateful!

Pacemaker is the perfect website for a scientist working on a dissertation or potential publication or a writer trying desperately to scratch out a novel/writing routine. The website allows you to create a personalized writing plan based on the amount of work you want to finish (words, lines, worksheets, pages, etc are all options for measuring your completed work!) and the date you want to complete it by. Using these variables, it pops out a number of words/lines/pages/etc that you’ll need to finish each day to make your goal on time; you can then add your progress each day and it will adjust future days accordingly.

strategyBut what really makes this website great is that you can customize it so heavily; for instance, I have it set to ‘light’ writing on Friday (because I have class) and no writing on Tuesday (same reason). You can also have it give you a heavier workload on weekends/weekdays and reserve free days for you at the end… just in case. It also allows you to pick a writing strategy (see photo) so you can best plan out your writing needs. I have mine on Valley so that I can write less when grad school is most intense.

All in all, it’s a great tool for planning out any longer work of writing by turning it into small, achievable goals that you master day by day, according to the constraints of your own schedule.

Mendeley: Organize Your PDF Research

Oh Mendeley, how I love you. Before Mendeley I would download 600 PDFs and hope that my personal labeling system would work and that I would be able to find the paper if I needed it again. While folders upon folders are great, and headache-inducing computer searches are also lovely, Mendeley is a far better way to go. I know scientists generally download more PDFs than writers, but don’t worry writer-friends, I have a tool for you too, below!


Mendeley inputs all the details of your papers automatically upon downloading them and very rarely glitches. You can set keywords for each article so that when you search Mendeley by those words, the articles you tagged will pop up (instead of needing to search 300 different folders on your computer). You can also use a traditional folder structure for them, within Mendeley, but because it’s all in Mendeley it’s still easy to search the whole collection by author, title, etc. Also, because Mendeley is all synced up with your online account, moving all your research from one computer to another is a breeze! You simply log in on the new computer and Mendeley downloads all your files! No more lost research for you.

As I mentioned before, Mendeley inputs author, title, publication, and year as the PDF downloads, which leads to the best part of the whole application (besides the sweet relief of always finding every article you need). But the best part (for research articles) is that Mendeley will automatically do the citations for you (yes, you heard me write. That 200 page works cited can be done with a click of a mouse) making storing them in Mendeley and not on your desktop worth your while.

Evernote: Better Organize Your OTHER Research

Evernote does everything – you can make to do lists, organize receipts and bills, take notes, organize documents, set reminders, and (my favorite function) ‘clip’ and attach different things from the web so it’s all in one place. Gone are the days of 3000 bookmarks where you search tiny, 9 pt font in 500 different folders for the one link you need. I’m pretty new to Evernote, but so far I’ve found it easy to use and easy to find what I’ve clipped. Because it has a little ‘clip’ button that goes on your bookmark bar, it can clip things for you with just one click! Plus, just like Mendeley, this syncs to all your different devices so you’re never without an important link, document, or list while on the go or switching to a new computer.

I hope these tools help you organize, motivate, plan, and achieve goals! If you really like one in particular (me with Habitica) consider throwing a subscription in the bag; while it might not give you too many additional features, it’s important to support our developers – they’re hardworking, creative people too!


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Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

Me, the impostor: Somehow they let me graduate? I need to get off stage quick before they figure it out and take my diploma back! Me, looking back: I worked hard for this moment, and I deserved every cord I was wearing!

Last week I wrote a post about impostor syndrome (you can find it here) and promised to follow up by discussing ways of handling impostor syndrome. It’s funny because even when starting this blog I felt like an impostor – who am I to start writing as though I have advice to give or am worthy of someone’s precious time, reading my words? But day by day, I’ll keep writing and pushing through until I can live with this impostor syndrome and even welcome it as a reminder of my personal growth.

The key is to learn how to live with your impostor syndrome – not to resist it and try to force it to go away forever. I’ve compiled some advice on the matter, and came up with some of my own, and I thought I’d share it with you – I hope it helps whether you’re earning a degree, getting a new job, or finding a new group of peers:

  1. Recognize that feeling incompetent and being incompetent are two different things: And try changing how you feel by watching this compelling TED talk
  2. Keep a praise journal/celebrate your accomplishments: make sure to regularly celebrate your accomplistments in a way that is memorable for you (going out for dinner, rewarding yourself with a special treat, etc). A praise journal is another way to do this – a small notebook you carry around where you write praises on one page and your negative feelings on a separate page. When you fill up a ‘negative thoughts’ page you can rip it out and burn it, then re-read all the praises you’ve received as it burns.
  3. Have a Praise Ambassador in your life: this is someone, a friend or family member, who knows your struggle and is specifically looking out for you to give you praise for your accomplishments; this person can be responsible for taking you out for a drink or simply giving you that much-needed and oft-overlooked praise for being the awesome person that is YOU
  4. Talk to your peers and advisers: If you trust your peers and advisers, even if it’s scary, it’s a great idea to open up to them about your feelings of insecurity. It’s always good to hear from those you know, trust, and find to be competent that you are competent too.
  5. Don’t idolize anyone: everyone is human; even if you don’t always catch someone’s mistakes, trust me, they’ve made plenty. Idolizing others makes it easier for you to belittle yourself via comparison. Trust me, just stop.
  6. Come up with a “key reassurance”: this is a phrase, a mantra if you will, to repeat to yourself whenever you feel the rising tide of anxiety. For me, something like “You are worthy of this success.” is in the works.
  7. Avoid the ‘humble brag’ at all costs: The humble brag is often used by impostor-syndrome sufferers to not actually take ownership of how awesome your accomplishments are – don’t “it was no big deal” a goal you’ve made and don’t allow your self-deprecation to overwhelm you either. If you’ve done something great – go you, 100%! Be honest and straightforward about your achievement, or else the anxiety will catch on the ‘humbling’ joke you made and never go away.
  8. Plan time to manage the anxiety: I do this for the blog by making posts weeks in advance. I think every post is terrible right after writing it, but after giving the post some breathing room I’m able to see it for the quality material it actually is and can then go on to post it. Give yourself whatever time you need (long or short!) to manage your anxiety.

Lastly, I’d like to leave both scientists and writers with something I found in the 2008 Journal of Cell Science – it’s called “the importance of stupidity in scientific research” by a professor at Yale named Martin Schwartz. He contends that being stupid is crucial to the process of research because being stupid is the fundamental step to making discovery – you must admit to not knowing in order to research and answer your question! Writers and scientists both do this in our own ways through our variant and beautiful creative processes – so don’t let a little bit of feeling stupid get you down. Pick yourself up and get back to writing/research – where you belong.

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