Grant Writing: Are You Listening?

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Photo by Fredrik Rubensson entitled ‘diary writing’ (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Grant writing is a new thing for me, so you should take all my advice with a grain of salt – but this is one piece I think might be worth considering. Grant writing isn’t really a big, scary exercise in writing and self-promotion (well, I mean, it is that too) but more importantly it’s an exercise in listening.

But who are we listening to? To answer this, we must think about who are we in conversation with as we write our grants. There can be several answers to this question – and several audiences for you to consider.

  1. The Grant Reviewers – Imagine you have to sit down and look over hundreds of applications from, mostly, similarly qualified candidates. What would make some stand out? It isn’t likely to be that one extra paper you published – it’s more likely to be that your application was enjoyable and easy to read. When the pages fly by and your story is interesting, you’ll leave the reviewers with a far more positive impression of you, and your science. So spend lots of time perfecting the readability of your writing – the reviewers will thank you.
  2. The Grant-granting Agency – I work as an assistant poetry editor for a literary magazine – in some ways we are a ‘granting agency’ in that we grant author’s work publication in our journal. Nothing is more irritating than reading work that doesn’t fit the stated goals of our magazine! Granting agencies likely feel the same way – if your work doesn’t fit the criteria, or address the points in the application instructions clearly, it doesn’t matter how amazing you are, you simply haven’t demonstrated you deserve this grant. Pay close attention to the wording used in the application for who they are looking to give this money to – and then use that same language to describe yourself and your work, so it’s easy to spot how you fit the bill.
  3. Your Critics – Another creative writing tidbit is the idea of workshops; you bring in a piece of writing and distribute it to your peers, who read it and comment on it – telling you what worked and what didn’t. You usually end up with 15 copies of your work that all say slightly different things… but have some common underlying thread. Apply the same principles to your grant – send it to lots of people, those with and without experience in your field or with you/your projects, etc. The suggestions they send back will vary and you absolutely should not take every suggestion, but look for the underlying themes. Are certain sections unclear? Do you need to reorganize so your question is broader and has more impact on your field? Is the tone bogging the piece down? Listen to what your critics are saying underneath their suggestions to get to some of the real issues with the piece.
  4. Your Cheerleader – Grant writing, maybe because it’s new or maybe because I have some serious impostor syndrome, is some hard stuff. I have to catch myself from making all kinds of qualifying, humbling statements like ‘this was a pretty big paper’ (since grant writing is all about acknowledging your accomplishments). So make sure you have a cheerleader – preferably somebody in your field but not your adviser who can tell you that you are GRRRRRREAT. It could be your mom, but would you really believe her? Find that one professional who can make you feel like others in your field recognize how awesome you are – and then read their email while listening to that ‘New Avengers’ song from ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’. I promise, you’ll feel ten feet tall after and swagger like you’re Iron Man.
  5. Yourself – If you can’t represent yourself in the grant application, you don’t deserve to get it – whoever you represented does. No matter everyone else’s suggestions, edits, comments, and concerns, make sure before you submit that the grant still sounds like you. No one knows your smarts, skills, achievements, creativity, humor, etc like you do – so always read that last draft with yourself in mind.

Listening is hard and takes practice – pulling out the ‘underlying concerns’ in a critic’s piece or identifying what to do to make your narrative read more easily can be difficult. Not receiving a grant isn’t actually always about you and your qualifications – there are so many nuanced reasons, especially when there’s so little money to give out and such competitive pools of applicants (that you’re a part of!). Put your best application forward, then back away from the result – and be prepared to try again.

Each day, a new day.

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Caste Differences in Wasp Brains

Brain section within this photo credit to the O'Donnell lab and Drexel University.
Brain section within this photo credit to the O’Donnell lab and Drexel University.

My first co-author published paper came out this summer in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, and I’m (no surprise) very excited. The paper, the foundation for the kind of work I want to do in my PhD, is titled: Caste Differences in the Mushroom Bodies of Swarm-Founding Paper Wasps: Implications for Brain Plasticity and Brain Evolution (Vespidae, Epiponini), authored by Sean O’Donnell, Susan J Bulova, Sara De Leon, Meghan Barrett, and Katherine Fiocca. If you haven’t left me after the long title, that’s a good sign – let’s take a quick jog back to our eusocial basics!

A eusocial colony has several different types of individuals (called castes) which perform different tasks in the colony. In the most advanced colonies, reproducing Queens complete few tasks besides laying eggs; they rarely leave their nests, have extensive social contact with workers, and do not gather food. In contrast, female Workers don’t reproduce, complete a variety of tasks inside and outside of the nest (gathering food, feeding larvae, maintaining the nest, defense), and often act alone. It would be hard for these two groups to act more differently!

In theory, we could see how some of these tasks could differ in the demands they place on the animal’s brain. For example, flying outside and searching for food while avoiding predators might require larger regions of the brain in charge of processing visual information (called optic lobes) when compared to sitting in a dark nest all day, laying eggs.

And this is where a key ecological theory comes in – called Neuroecology Theory. This theory predicts that, because brain tissue (like all tissue) is costly to produce and maintain, evolutionarily successful organisms won’t invest willy-nilly in brain tissue they don’t need since those resources can be spent elsewhere. Instead they will invest more in regions of the brain that help them deal with the cognitive demands their environment presents – for the flying wasp, this is the optic lobes.

Imagine we are building a two story house in a flood plain. Sure, we could invest in fire-resistant materials, nuclear-grade shutters, and the kinds of steel they use to make sky-scrapers sway just right in the wind. But if we have a limited amount of money, or resources, we know we will be most successful if we address the most pressing demand of our environment and build a house on stilts, to withstand floods.

The ‘mushroom bodies’ are one area of a wasp brain, involved in learning, memory, and integrating information from the various senses. Previous to our study, scientists have shown that the relative size of the mushroom bodies (mushroom body volume as compared to total brain volume) increases with foraging behavior, the job of the workers. But scientists had also shown that maintaining social dominance via aggressive social interactions can have positive relative mushroom body size effects. This leaves us in a bit of a pickle:

Do queens, with their limited task repertoire but high social dominance, or workers, with their many tasks but decreased social demand, have larger relative mushroom bodies?

Histological section and photo credit to the O'Donnell lab and Drexel University.
Histological section and photo credit to the O’Donnell lab and Drexel University.

To answer this, we sliced wasp brains at a thickness of 14 microns – or 1/7 the thickness of a sheet of paper (see left). After setting the slices on glass slides, we stained the brain tissue a deep blue and photographed each slice – allowing us to measure the area of each region of the brain every 14 microns. By stacking all the slices on top of one another, we get a complete 3D image of the brain – and thus the volume of each of the pieces, since we know the thickness of our slices! Then, we could compare the relative volumes of our mushroom bodies in queens and workers of several different eusocial wasp species. You can see a 3D brain below.

Brain reconstruction credited to the O'Donnell lab and Drexel University.
Brain reconstruction credited to the O’Donnell lab and Drexel University.

 

Figure credit to the O'Donnell lab and Drexel University.
Figure credit to the O’Donnell lab and Drexel University.

So what did we find? In a nutshell:

  1. for 13/16 species, Queens had greater relative mushroom body sizes than their workers
  2. species with larger colony sizes saw larger differences in the relative mushroom body sizes of their queens and workers

These results are consistent with the idea that maintaining social dominance increases relative mushroom body investment – and adds the additional caveat that it seems to increase investment more than foraging.

 

The fact that larger colonies saw larger queen-worker differences in mushroom body investment may be a result of increasing ‘caste specialization’ – this is the idea that, as colonies get larger, the gap in work performed by the queen and the workers gets larger as well.

This is just one kind of question we can answer using histological techniques – we can also look at the effects of light, sociality and other behaviors, disease, body size, etc. on animal brains. All of this gives us a better understanding of how evolution works, and how different brain region sizes are selected for – or against – in different conditions.

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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.

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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.

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01
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.

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01
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.

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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.

spider
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.

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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

sinners
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

parker
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

 

trapjaw
Trap-jaw ants Photos from Antweb.org, 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.

    20160905_213138
    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.
    20160905_213124
    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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