Archive for: September, 2012

Fossils of insect-damaged leaves reveal clues about how plants may respond to future global change

Sep 28 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

In my previous posts, I've discussed some of the impacts that very large, "mega-" herbivores have on plants. There are many microherbivores, however. While they may be small, insects have packed a large whallop in the evolutionary arms race with plants. We know a surprising amount about this, considering that the players are smaller and more fragile than the other organisms that make up the fossil record. While insects are rarely preserved in the fossil sediment record, signs of their presence survive in the fossils of leaves that they consumed. Can these fossils tell us anything about modern plant-insect relationships?

Let's start with what we do know. Carbon dioxide concentrations have probably not exceeded 280 ppm in the last 650,000 years; current values (>380 ppm) are predicted to be greater than 550 ppm by 2050. Temperatures are predicted to increase by as much as 6 degres C by the end of the century, according to our best estimates (IPCC 2007). It's well-known that plants that grow in high CO2 environments tend to be nutrient poorer than those that grow in low CO2 conditions, because the ratio of carbon to nitrogen (C:N) decreases as CO2 is more available. As a result of this lower-quality forage, herbivores of all kinds need to eat more leaves of high-CO2 plants in order to get the same amount of nitrogen. Given what we know about how plants respond to temperature and CO2, and what's likely to happen in the future, understanding how plants--especially plants we eat-- will respond to these changing conditions has been an area of extensive research.

The last 56 million years of Earth's climate history. The PETM was an abrupt blip in an otherwise smooth transition to warmer temperatures during the mid-Eocene. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In order, then, to understand how plants and insect herbivores have responded to a combination of warmer temperatures and elevated CO2 levels in the past, you have to go back more than fifty million years to find the best analog to the conditions we're predicted to be in in the next century. In the early Cenozoic, some ten million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs, temperatures had been gradually warming for some time. Around 55.8 million years ago, this gradual transition was interrupted by a 100,000-year "spike" of especially rapid, warm, and high-CO2 conditions. The partial pressure of CO2 in the atmosphere (pCO2) is thought to have tripled or quadrupled, as global mean surface temperatures warmed by 5°C over around 10,000 years (geologically speaking, a short period of time) (McInerney & Wing 2011).

Much of what we know about how plants and animals responded during the "Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum," or PTEM, comes from a series of amazing fossil deposits in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming, some of which can be seen here. Some responses, such as the movement of subtropical plants into Wyoming, are fascinating but not particularly surprising. One of the things that caught researchers by surprise, however, is that the leaves from the PETM have a greatly-increased rate of insect damage from herbivory than the fossil leaves above and below the PETM layer. One study of more than 5000 leaves from the Bighorn Basin found that 57% of PETM leaves were damaged, as opposed to 15-38% before or 33% after (Currano et a al., 2008). Additionally, more kinds of insect damage were recorded in the PETM fossils than those that came before or after, presumably because warm-loving insects invaded from the tropics to enjoy a broader range of plants. The scientists concluded that this increase in both the rate and extent of damage was due to the fact that insects would have had to have eaten more leaf material to get the nitrogen they needed.

A selection of the diversity of fossil insect damage from the PETM. Photo from Currano et al., 2008.

One prediction that comes out of this research is that with increasing pCO2 and temperature concentrations in the Anthropocene, we should expect increased activity from insect pests. This has been tested empirically in some cases, such as the increased insect damage to soybean crops grown with experimentally high levels of CO2 (Zavala et al., 2008). Such a conclusion comes with a few caveats, not the least of which is the fact that the response of plants and insects to changes in temperature and pCO2 his highly variable among species of plants and insects; some plants may produce more defensive chemicals and reduce herbivory (Knepp et al., 2005), and some insects may become more common in a high-CO2 world, even though the rate of their herbivory may decline (Stiling et al., 2009).  Another issue is that phenology (the timing of ecological events) plays an important role in plant and insect life cycles, and so the ability of an insect to consume a plant is going to depend a lot on the timing working out for all parties involved (DeLucia et al., 2008). Ultimately, the indirect effects of increased CO2 and warmer temperatures (not to mention moisture!) on plants' abilities to tolerate herbivory may be more important than the number of insects or the rate of insect herbivory (Lau & Tiffen 2009).

The concept that we have to look back more than 50 million years to find the closest analog to the Anthropocene when it comes to climate and the atmosphere is sobering, especially when you consider that the climate change recorded in our closest analog took place over 100,000 years, not 100. It's amazing to me that the damage created by insects on leaves is captured in the fossil record as something we can look to to see how plant-herbivore interactions have changed through time, under different environmental conditions. There are widespread insect outbreaks today that are having a devastating impact on North American forests, from the hemlock woody adelgid in the eastern United States to the mountain pine beetle in the American West. The paleorecord may reveal clues about how ecosystems responded to similar outbreaks in the past. There are a lot of unknowns about how insect herbivory will affect plants in the future, and generalizations should be avoided. Still, by looking at the evidence left behind in meals eaten 50 million years ago, we might just learn something about the next 50 years have in store.

Currano, Ellen D., et al. 2008. Sharply increased insect herbivory during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. PNAS 105: 1960-1964

DeLucia et al., 20008. Insects take a bigger bite out of plants in a warmer, higher carbon dioxide world. PNAS 105: 1781-1782

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007. Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Knepp, Rachel G., et al. 2005. Elevated CO2 reduces leaf damage by insect herbivores in a forest community. New Phytologist 167: 207-218.

Lau, & Tiffen. 2009. Elevated carbon dioxide concentrations indirectly affect plant fitness by altering plant tolerance to herbivory. Oecologia 161: 401-410.

McInerney & Wing. 2008. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum: A Perturbation of Carbon Cycle, Climate, and Biosphere with Implications for the Future. Annual Review of Earth & Planetary Science 39:489–516

Stiling, Peter, et al. 2009. Seeing the forest for the trees: long-term exposure to elevated CO2 increases some herbivore densities. Global Change Biology 15: 1895-1902.

Zavala, J. A., et al. 2008. Anthropogenic increase in carbon dioxide compromises plant defense against invasive insects. PNAS 105: 5129-5133

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Forgotten fruits: Or, megafaunal dispersal syndrome and the case of the missing herbivores

Sep 25 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Consider the avocado: a large fruit, delicious, full of nutrition that is easily accessible with the merest pressure of the thumb against the ripe skin. A hard, round seed at the center poses little in the way of an obstacle to your enjoyment. Add a little cumin, lime juice, salt, and a finely diced tomato, and the compact, creamy flesh becomes a delicious, satisfying dip. It tastes so good, it should probably be bad for you, but it's packed with healthy fats, potassium and B vitamins.

Close your eyes. Can you taste it? That is the scrumptious, irresistible flavor of megafaunal dispersal syndrome. Pretty good, huh?

The next time you eat guacamole, remember the poor gomphothere. Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

Plants, it turns out, must make trade-offs when it comes to reproduction (as with everything else), which means that a number of different strategies have evolved to make sure that enough seeds are dispersed to the appropriate locations and are able to make more plants, given the constraints of limiting resources and natural selection. One such trade-off is between seed size and seed dispersal; simply put, gravity tends to ensure that big things don't go very far, as a general rule. One way around this, however, is thought to be the evolution of megafaunal dispersal syndrome, wherein plants get big animals to move the big seeds around for them (Guimarães et al., 2008). That delicious avocado (that I now cannot stop thinking about) is thought to be an example of one such fruit.

The idea of megafaunal dispersal syndrome was first suggested by Dan Janzen, a tropical ecologist. He noticed that there were a number of large elephant-ear tree fruits in the deciduous forests of Costa Rica that just rotted on the forest floor-- unless cattle had been introduced, in which case the cows went about gobbling up as many of the fruits as they could find. Janzen called such fruits "neotropical anachronisms," hypothesizing that large, fleshy-fruited seeds had co-evolved with megafaunal dispersers that have-- in the Americas, at least-- been extinct for over twelve thousand years (Janzen & Martin 1982). In other words, as author Connie Barlow puts it, these incongruous fruits are "ghosts of evolution," living out of evolutionary context with their co-evolved dispersers (Barlow 2000). Many large-fruited trees have have other life history traits that are handy around large herbivores. Some, like honey locust, have large thorns or other defenses, presumably to make sure that the herbivores don't do more harm than good. "Come closer," say the trees, beckoning with their tasty seed pods. "But not too close." Others, like osage orange, compensate for overzealous herbivores with clonal or apomictic reproductive strategies.

Honey locust's large thorns suggest a defense against an equally large herbivore. Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

How are plants faring in the absence of their extinct dispersers? In the case of the avocado and other cultivated fruits, there's obviously little to worry about. Humans, it turns out, make pretty good megafaunal dispersers, too. For breadfruit, for example, humans have been an effective disperser, selecting particular varieties and transporting them across the islands of Oceania for many millennia (Zerega, et al. 2006). But what about the osage orange, the honey locust, the pawpaw, or the elephant ear tree, which Janzen observed in Costa Rica? Did they once taste as delicious to the ground sloths, horses, and gomphotheres (basically cousins of elephants) that once roamed the Americas as the avocado does to me? In the absence of modern dispersers, scientists have speculated that large-fruited plants may be struggling, living in greatly restricted ranges compared to where they could grow if the mastodons and other megafauna were still eating-- and dispersing-- their seeds today. Osage orange's name comes from the fact that its range fell within the territory of the Osage people, who purportedly controlled its trade for the use of bows. Following European colonization of North America, the tree's range expanded rapidly to new regions, suggesting it had previously been dispersal-limited (Barlow, 2000).

No one knows which of the Pleistocene megafauna preferred these osage orange fruits; today, cows and horses are generally pretty indifferent. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What are the consequences of being an ecological anachronism? Are such species on the road to extinction, barring intervention? Did "thieving rodents" or other herbivores take up the slack (Jansen et al., 2012)? Megafaunal-dispersed plants are a high-profile example of the consequences of the Pleistocene extinctions, but so far there have been surprisingly few studies to test what have been, thus far, very compelling just-so stories. One of the projects I'm developing for my postdoc is to assess whether plants with extinct dispersers have more restricted ranges than we'd expect given their climatic tolerances, and whether such plants are at greater risk of climate change if they have trouble keeping up with their habitats in the future without a little help. As a paleoecologist interested in plant-herbivore interactions, it's hard to touch the thorns of a honey locust and not think of the mastodon in the room, so to speak. If we can help keep the "fruits the gomphotheres ate" alive, maybe it will help us to remember the gomphotheres, too.

Barlow, Connie. 2000. The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and other Ecological Anachronisms. Basic Books, New York, NY.

Guimarães, Paulo R., et al. 2008. Seed Dispersal Anachronisms: Rethinking the Fruits Extinct Megafauna Ate. PLoS ONE 3(3): e1745.

Janzen, Daniel & Paul S. Martin. 1982. Neotropical anachronisms: The fruits the gomphotheres ate. Science 215: 19-27

Jansen, Patrick, et al. 2012. Thieving rodents as substitute dispersers of megafaunal seeds. PNAS 109: 12610-12615

Zerega, N.J.C., D. Ragone, and T.J. Motley. 2006. Genetic diversity and origins of domesticated breadfruit. In Darwin’s Harvest: New Approaches to the Origins, Evolution, and Conservation of Crops, ed. T.J. Motley, N.J.C. Zerega, and H.B. Cross. Columbia University Press, New York.

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Where the buffalo roam, wallows will follow.

Sep 19 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

American bison are one of the few species of megafauna to survive the late Quaternary extinctions in North America, only to be hunted to near extinction in the 19th century (though they're no longer considered endangered today). It's impossible to know for certain how many bison there were before the great buffalo hunts of the 19th century; early European anecdotes describe landscapes darkened by the giant animals as far as the eye could see (Krech 1999), though Charles Mann points out in 1491 that this may have been due to a population explosion following the devastation of Native American communities by European diseases.  Earnest Thompson Seton, the first to estimate the population densities based on carrying capacity in the early 20th century, suggested that there were "not less than sixty million" bison in North America in 1500 AD (Krech 1999); subsequent estimates have been lower, in part because researchers have learned that bison tend to be very unevenly distributed across the landscape through time (a factor that some have suggested is responsible for their survival into the Holocene). While the exact numbers of bison may be unknown (and disputed), what is less contentious is the role of bison as a keystone species of the North American tallgrass prairie, maintaining patches of different species as they ate, wallowed, and rubbed their way across the Plains (Knapp et al., 1999).

Bison are picky eaters; their diets are typically composed almost entirely of grass, and they usually avoid other common flowering prairie perennials, like ragweed and ironweed (Fahnestock & Knapp 1994). In addition to avoiding these “forbs” in their diets, the very presence of bison makes the prairie a more forb-friendly place. Forbs tend to be shorter than grasses in the tallgrass prairie, and also have shallower root systems. This means that forbs can’t outcompete grasses for light in the shadow of grasses, and aren’t as able to reach the moisture in prairie soils that sustains grasses through dry spells. In other words, by acting as ecological lawnmowers, bison basically keep the grasses in check, allowing forbs get a bigger slice of the resource pie. Understandably, the late Holocene near-extirpation of bison is thought to have significantly influenced the ecology of the modern Great Plains, and bison grazing is thought to be an important component of prairie restoration efforts.

Top: A bison wallow at Konza Prairie. Bottom: An ungrazed portion of Konza Prairie. Photos by the author.

Bison do more than just eat, however. Like many other large animals, bison roll around in the dust or mud in natural depressions on the landscape. As they roll and lay in these “wallows,” they compact the soil, enlarging the depression when they carry away the mud that sticks to their fur. It’s not entirely known why bison wallow (yep, it’s a verb, too). They may be seeking relief from insect bites or parasites, cooling off, grooming themselves during their moulting period, or even just having fun (MacMillan et al. 2000). Regardless, these patchy disturbances in the prairie landscape can persist for a century or more; some modern wallows have been found in places where bison have been absent for >120 years. It’s estimated that there may have been >100 million wallows over the 70,000 ha of the prairie prior to European settlement (McMillan et al 2011).

While the diversity of plants in wallows has been found to be lower than that of the surrounding prairie, those species found in the wallows are often different, particularly along the disturbed edges (Collins and Uno 1983). If you read the Little House books, you may remember that Laura’s little sister Grace wandered off and was later found in an old buffalo wallow full of violets in By the Shores of Silver Lake. One reason for the difference in composition is that bison compact the soils in the wallow as they roll around, and so wallows provide disturbed habitat where ragweed and other forbs are more readily able to out-compete deep-rooted grasses for water. Since wallows are formed in the spring and summer and tend not to drain very well, they hold more water (and for longer) than the surrounding undisturbed soils, which can provide good habitat for wetland species and is a source of water for prairie animals. At Konza Prairie, reintroduced bison both reactivated old wallows and made new ones, which were then used as breeding sites by frogs in the years when the climates were cool and wet enough that the depressions formed standing pools (Gerlanc & Kaufman 2003). Today, the absence of wallows has contributes to the prairie being a less diverse place than it was before European settlement, all else being equal.

Modern prairie remnants or restorations may be grazed by cattle, which don’t wallow, or may not support any megaherbivores at all. Bison wallow research, even as something of a niche field, points to the importance of non-trophic interactions between animals and plants; landscapes, it seems, experience much more of a megaherbivore than its digestive system. If the Holocene prairie was more like a patchwork quilt than a bedsheet in terms of landscape diversity, what are the ecological legacies of the loss of bison wallows? Do the frogs, birds, insects, and wetland plants of the modern prairie record a signature of the loss of these missing potholes of diversity?


Collins & Uno, 1983. The effect of early spring burning on vegetation in buffalo wallows. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 110: 474–481.

Fahnestock & Knapp, 1993.  Water relations and growth of tallgrass prairie forbs in response to selective herbivory by bison. International Journal of Plant Science 154: 432-440.

Gerlanc & Kaufman 2003. Use of Bison Wallows by Anurans on Konza Prairie. The American Midland Naturalist 150(1):158-168.

Knapp et al., The Keystone Role of Bison in North American Tallgrass Prairie. Bioscience 49: 39-50.

Krech, Shepard, III, 1999. The Ecological Indiana: Myth & History, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, NY.

MacMillan et al., 2000. Wallowing Behavior of American Bison (Bos bison) in Tallgrass Prairie: an Examination of Alternate Explanations. The American Midland Naturalist 144(1):159-167.

MacMillan et al., 2011.Vegetation Responses to an Animal-generated Disturbance (Bison Wallows) in Tallgrass Prairie. The American Midland Naturalist 165(1):60-73.

5 responses so far

Mammoths, acacias, and breadfruit, oh my!

Sep 17 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Greetings, Scientopiads!

I am honored and excited to begin my two-week stint as a guest blogger for one of my favorite science blogging communities. I'm a community paleoecologist and a conservation biogeographer, which means that I'm interested in using the tools of space and time to figure out what ecological questions are most important to understanding how ecosystems, and especially plants, respond to global change-- particularly when facing interacting threats like extinction and climate change. To do this, I spend a lot of time (in my head at least) in the Quaternary, the geologic period that encompasses the last 2.5-ish million years of Earth history. This is a really fascinating natural laboratory, particularly if you zoom in on the last ice age in North American (which is my specialty). Humans show up for the first time, lots of very large animals (like mammoths, giant ground sloths, and beaver the size of black bears) go extinct, and a 2-mile thick ice sheet makes life very interesting for animal and plants. One of my main research interests is in the interactions between animals and plants, which is a topic that hasn't received a lot of attention for reasons I'll get into later. For this reason, I'd like to spend my two weeks at Scientopia detailing the many ways that animals (especially large ones) influence plant species and communities, from the coevolution of tasty fruits to the modern-day dispersal of invasive species. Topics will include bison wallows, avocados and other seeds with Megafaunal Dispersal Syndrome (a tasty, tasty syndrome!), passenger pigeons, sheep spit, and, of course, mammoth poop.

As for me, I recently completed my dissertation at the University of Wisconsin, where I researched the effects of the extinction of ice-age herbivores like mastodons on eastern North American plant communities and fire regimes (more on this-- stay tuned!). I'm currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Environmental Change Initiative at Brown University, where I'm spending a lot of time these days thinking about ecological anachronisms and how well large-fruited trees will be able to cope with climate change. I'm normally found blogging at The Contemplative Mammoth, and on Twitter as @JacquelynGill. Feel free to suggest a topic you'd like to read about in the next two weeks! While my tenure at Scientopia will be a mere blip in the paleoecological record (my timescales rarely involve centuries or decades, let alone years or weeks!) I'm very excited to share my perspective from the fourth dimension--time-- with you.


6 responses so far

Some unsolicited advice

Sep 14 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

It was great being here at Scientopia for the past two weeks! If you’ve enjoyed reading my posts, then please follow me back to my usual spot:

In the lab I’m known to always come by with unsolicited advice. Whether you’re dating a new guy, you have a new outfit or you’re presenting plans or data for labmeeting, I’ll usually have something to say about it, unless I’m very specifically asked to shut up. Since I feel that this is my last chance of reaching such a large audience before going back to my own measly blog, here’s some good advice I’d like to share:

-          Don’t complain to new (or not so new) parents about how tired you are. Even if you are super tired, at least realize that you get to sleep in whenever you want without some baby waking you up at 7am.

-          If you are using more than one t-test and then you’re saying that there’s a difference between the one p-value and the other, you should have used an ANOVA

-          No wonder you think there’s no difference in your loading control, when you completely over-expose your beta-actin bands on Western blot.

-          If you have recorded from only two (crappy) cells, there is nobody who wants to sit down for an hour long labmeeting hearing about your results, because your next two cells may show something completely different.

-          If you’re going to the gym, you can change there. There’s no need to walk around in public wearing gym clothes. Or, even worse, pyjamas.

Alright, that was all folks! Thanks for reading!

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Sleep problems in early childhood associated with drug use

Sep 13 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

It’s not a secret that BlueEyes is not the best sleeping infant in the world. This week he has woken up about every 2-3 hours and that has its toll on how rested I feel. It seems like he is able to sleep well (which in my dictionary is now a stretch of about 5-6 hours and then I’ll nurse him back to sleep for another couple of hours of sleep), but that this is disrupted by all these things like teething, cramps, having had an exciting day, etc etc.

So far, I had not bought a single book about baby sleep, because I felt that if I was just relaxed about it, it would turn out okay and get progressively better. But last week I caved and I got a book. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I got ‘Nighttime parenting’ by Sears, which is probably not going to learn me anything new, because it mostly advocates co-sleeping which we already do, but I figured I’d start out easy. However, not only did I get a book, I also started reading on pubmed. I actually read about something kind of related for a project, but came across all these papers that talk about the fact that sleep problems in early childhood are associated with subsequent behavioral problems and drug use. These authors find that early childhood sleep problems are a robust marker for substance use in adolescence.

So does this mean that BlueEyes is on his way to become an addict? I think we all understand that it is not that simple. First, these studies have a couple limitations that the authors themselves also discuss. An important one is that they assess sleep problems only through interviews with the mothers. And from talking to other mothers I know that there is a wide variety in acceptance when it comes to poor sleep. If you ask me, BlueEyes still falls well within what I would consider ‘normal baby sleep’. Fine, he wakes up a couple of times but I still feel like it’s acceptable for us as a family. I know other moms however, that have decided to start more rigorous sleep training because they felt their babies were sleeping poorly (while they actually slept better than BlueEyes if you look at how many times they woke up). So what does it tell you when a mother says her child is a poor sleeper? Does that perhaps say more about the tolerability level of the mother rather than the actual sleep quality of the child? Or about the way the parents deal with their child’s sleeping behavior?

Another potential confound here is that all these children are from families that are at high-risk for alcoholism and families that lived in the same neighborhoods. We know that there is a hereditary component to drug addiction, and we also know that it is unsafe to co-sleep when you are under influence of alcohol or drugs. It remains to be determined whether these results extend to all children with sleeping problems.

The bottom line: there seem to be early indicators of alcohol and drug use during adolescence and adulthood. Also, don’t search things on pubmed that are related to yourself or your children.

This blog post was brought to you by MOAR COFFEE.


Wong MM, et al. Sleep problems in early childhood and early onset of alcohol and other drug use in adolescence. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2004

Wong MM, et al. Childhood sleep problems, response inhibition, and alcohol and drug outcomes in adolescence and young adulthood. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2010

17 responses so far

Out of sight, out of mind?

Sep 11 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Coming from a small country, I always heard people say that if you wanted to stay in academia, you had to go abroad for a certain amount of time. I think this is very valuable, not just because the home country’s funding agency thinks it’s important, but also because it’s good to see a different scientific culture from up close. However, when we recently went back for a short vacation combined with some informal interviews, I realized that a lot of the people that are assistant or associate professors have never been abroad. And also, that some people that did go abroad are now having great difficulties to come back as assistant professors*. It seems that the very simple explanation for this is that when you’re away for too long, you’re out of sight and thus out of mind. The people that decided not to go abroad however, have started to help out teaching and supervising graduate students and thus made themselves very useful. And in the current economic condition, this creates the situation where maybe you have a better CV with post-doc experience abroad, but there’s simply no place for you because the available spots have been taken by people who just stayed in the same department where they got their PhD.

As I said, the home country’s funding agency thinks it’s an advantage when you have been abroad, but for their personal grants, you need a host lab that is willing to sponsor you, and thus offer you a place to sit. And more importantly you need a host lab for its equipment, because the funding agency’s grants mostly pay salary.

I don’t know if this is the case in more small countries, but I think it might be considering the lack of tenure track job ads coming from European countries. I would love to see more countries (including my home country of course) adopt the US system where you can interview for TT jobs. Now, it’s more a matter of sneaking your way back into a university, or just staying in the same place where you did your PhD and make yourself irreplaceable.


*For now, I am fine with doing another post-doc back in the home country and from there write grants and assemble my own little research group, but there are people that have done longer post-docs and would be competitive for TT jobs that still have to start out as post-docs.

2 responses so far

Data and expectations

Sep 10 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Today I’m going to start a series of experiments for a paper that is almost done. It’s a collaborative paper and there’s a whole bunch of data there already. I’m going to do these experiments hoping that they show something consistent with the rest of the data, because otherwise they won’t go into the paper, which has already been mostly written. To make it even worse: getting the desired results will make me shared first author. Getting different results will make me author somewhere in the middle.

This makes me totally understand why it is sometimes too tempting for someone to make up data.

For me this is not the first time it happens that I have a last experiment that in order to be included in a paper should show certain results: at the end of my PhD we had a story that only ‘needed’ one extra experiment to show that two things were actually connected to each other instead of only a correlation.

I also don’t think we’re the only lab that has this happen. Often we build stories about our findings and then the last experiment for a paper should nicely fit this story. Is it unethical not to include that experiment if it doesn’t fit the story? And other than doing our experiments blind, what can we do to prevent this bias?

Alright, I’m off to do experiments, fingers crossed please!

10 responses so far

Is two babies too many?

Sep 06 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

It seems to take about a year after having baby number 1 that people around you start asking about when you’re planning on having baby number 2 (which in my opinion is almost as rude as asking when you’re planning on having baby number 1).

The other day I learned that a post-doc from across the hall who just had her second baby is not coming back to work, because sending two kids to daycare (or any other form of paid childcare) will cost (much) more than what she makes as a post-doc. Will she be able to come back into academia if she would want to after her kids start going to school? I don’t know. For me, the realization that two kids are too expensive for us is the kind of sad reality too. In the old days, when a post-doc was supposed to last about 2 years, this would work out well. You could have one baby before tenure and in case you want more than one baby, you could have the next one when you had secured a better paying job. But now that it is not uncommon (at least in my field) that a post-doc is more like 5 years, what are you supposed to do when you want a family of more than one baby? I guess you could see the money paid to the daycare as a good investment in everyone’s future, but do you then need to take out a loan in order to pay for daycare? Or one of us would have to quit academic science and find a ‘real’ well-paying job somewhere else. Or: in my opinion the best solution: universities should provide subsidized daycare!!

Seriously, if there were no worries about finding a daycare place and paying for it, my life would be much better. If only BlueEyes would stop crying when we drop him off there in the morning (because the new classroom and the start of separation anxiety seem to converge for him), everything would be icecream and unicorns here.

22 responses so far

On patience and honesty

Sep 04 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

As scientists, we all need papers (although exactly how many is still the question).  Also, we all should be loyal people who give other people honest advice. These two apparently don’t always go together well, like in the following situation:

I am applying for an important grant from the home country that will secure my desired move back there in two years. For that grant it is very important that I show that I am doing a productive post-doc and so it is kind of necessary that I have at least one publication from my current lab to demonstrate that (that means that said paper needs to be accepted in December). Currently I have two second author papers that have been submitted, so it seems to be going somewhere. One of those papers came back from a pretty decent journal the other day where they said: “That was an alright paper, but not very coherent and it would be better if you would split it in two papers.” The optimistic reader will think:”Great! Two papers for the price of one!” But that’s not entirely the case, because splitting it will require more experiments for both papers, and worse for me: my name will be on only one of those two papers. The grad student who is the first author wants to finish within a reasonable amount of time, so when he asked what I would do, I advised him to first try the current manuscript at a slightly lower impact factor journal and only then decide whether we were going to split it into two manuscripts or not. I think it definitely has a chance at that journal, but I mostly gave that advice because I want it to be accepted somewhere soon. In my opinion that was borderline good advice to give, but I admit that it’s a slippery slide to giving advice that only benefits yourself and not the other…

However, our PI already decided that it would be a good idea to split it into two and to do all those extra experiments. I don’t think I’m in the position to see anything about that, so I guess I’ll just have to be patient here…

What about you; have you ever given someone bad advice because that would benefit yourself?

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