Tag Archives: academia

Is Google Glass dead? I don’t think so, and here’s why

Subtitle: A short essay in which Kelsey proves she is an extremophile of Sci-Fi literature

People love to make predictions of success and failure. Star Trek is commonly cited as one of the first tv shows to predict the flip phone, ipad, and smart phone. ‘Back to the Future II’ predicted the hoverboard, Arthur C. Clarke first conceived of GPS, and Ray Bradbuy, in ‘Farenheight 451’ predicted earbuds, giant TVs, and mechanical hounds…and cats*. Compared to all that, digital glasses (a la William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’) seems like a slam dunk. Plus, Google is like the Pixar of the tech world. They’ve has had so many wins, how could they fail? Yet, two years and thousands of selfies later, the predicted revolutionary impact of Google Glass now seems to be going the way of the Segway.

Dronte_17th_Century_Segway

Restored 17th C. sketch of Raphus cucullatus by Dronte (Wikimedia)

However, like the Segway, Google has not tapped into the true market for the glass: the primary (raw materials) and secondary (manufacturing) economic sectors. Stay with me here and I promise this leads back to Paleontology. How handy would it be for an inventory screen to pop up in the right upper corner of a person’s vision? Or for a logging company to keep track of where and how they are cutting down trees? You could even keep a record of what each tree looked like before. A surgeon used the Glass to record his procedure, but in the future I can see EMTs sending reports and pictures of the patient to the hospital before they arrive, so the staff are better prepared.

No one would judge a person wearing Glass to inventory or save a person’s life. Instead of trying Glass out in the shower or at a wine bar, we as a society should focus on what technology can contribute to humanity, not how it can enhance a Facebook status.

“Really, Captain, I don’t feel silly at all wearing this…” (ST DS9)

Currently, the University of Texas at Austin’s Non-Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory (NPL) has a team of volunteers using three Glasses to conduct a cursory inventory of their 3.5 MILLION fossils. Chase, one of the employees at NPL, calculated that it would take him 90 YEARS to catalog all the fossils currently at NPL the “traditional way.” The pictures produced by Glass are sharp enough that they are already being used for reference. It’s a damn good start.

If the 2015 Consumer Electronic Show (CES) is any indication, wearable tech is the way of the future, but a future that must be as useful as it is flashy. Gadgets can’t just be useful for the consumer market, the have to blend into the background of a “normal” life. However, in an industrial or scientific context, normal is shoved out the window in favor of innovative tech, and most importantly, gadgets that make people’s lives easier.

So, there you have it. Google Glass is not a Segway (which, by the way, has been adopted in large manufacturing facilities and by security companies), but a useful tool for the future.

And don’t forget: there are plenty of wrong futuristic predictions as well.

*And let’s not get into how accurate Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ turned out to be. I’m just glad that fannypacks aren’t nearly as popular as he predicted.

Wait…you do what?

Author: Kelsey

Over the winter break I took three weeks to visit my family and friends in Portland, OR. I think I saw pretty much EVERYONE I usually promise to see on such holiday visits. Usually I have a 50% attrition rate, but by staying for a prolonged period of time I met all my people, rest, and work goals.

However, meeting so many people made me realize how few people knew what I was doing and, more importantly, WHY I was doing it. They were usually not asking about the larger philosophical reasons why I am in Paleontology or a Masters program in Texas (let’s save that for a later post), but why, as a paleontologist, I am studying the skulls of modern lizards. Good question. Let’s get into it.

I am studying Australian agamid lizards (heretofore referred to as ‘AA lizards’), specifically the osteology (skeleton, bones) of these lizards. These lizards are highly variable and some are crazy enough to appear on popular nature shows. If you’ve ever seen a frilled lizard running upright (i.e. Chlamydosaurus kingii) or a spiky lizard that slowly walks and gorges itself on ants (Moloch horridus), you’ve seen one of my study organisms.

File:Dilophosaurus (Jurassic Park).jpg

Fun fact: Jurassic Park’s Dilophosaurus has more in common with the frill-necked lizard (C. kingii) than the actual reconstruction of the dinosaur. Represent!

Agamids are part of Squamata, the largest living order of reptiles (a group of animals long thought to be the domain of naturalists and 8 year old boys, which is, in fact, a myth). The ancestors of modern agamids differentiated pretty early from the rest of Squamata. Agamids, iguanids, and chameleons form the Order Iguana (appropriately named). Iguanids and chameleons are probably more closely related to each other than to agamids. After that… the picture gets rather hazy.

Like most of the current dominant orders, squamates are thought to diversify during the Jurassic. After this the agamids die off in the Americas when Pangea splits, but they slowly invade Africa, Asia, and, eventually, Australia. Recent genetic analyses1 have shown AA lizards have been in Australia for much longer than their slow invasion would have allowed. Remember that.

Behold, Pangea! If ever there was time for a road trip… 

The fossil record? Sparse and mostly jaws, which is actually pretty cool. Agamids and chameleons have teeth that literally fuse to their jaw bones (acrodont dentiton)2
. They literally can’t lose their teeth. Instead, they are worn down gradually and eventually the jaw is used as a cutting surface if no tooth is left. For chameleons, all teeth are irreplaceable, whereas for agamids only the side teeth are irreplaceable and the front teeth are replaced with wear (pleurodont dentition). So, their teeth are pretty cool, but that means most of what is known about the osteology of agamids centers around the jaw (or the ribs, if you are Draco volans, but I digress).

So what is the problem? Currently, most of the work on modern agamids is genetic, which is awesome, but it means there is no way to directly compare what we know about modern agamids with their fossil ancestors (which lack genetic data). Fossil DNA has been sequenced, but only for fossils that were well preserved and only thousands of years old. In other words, the babies of the fossil record. Babies. DNA duplicates and changes easily, which is how evolution can occur, but that means it also easily degrades once death occurs. What paleontologists are mostly left with is bones.

BonesFox

Genetics can overestimate the divergence times of different groups of animals, and accuracy decreases the farther back in time you go. Often, fossils are used to calibrate or check phylogenies, but if no one knows what a fossil agamid would look like… And that’s where I come in!

 

What I have done so far: collected all osteological characters used to describe agamids, rewritten characters, coded characters on my lovely AA lizard skeletal collection*, and recorded all the weird stuff I’ve noticed along the way.

*skeletal collection not actually mine, but we’ve bonded a bit

Currently: I am running tree analyses, taking pictures through a microscope to definitively record these characters (you’re welcome, five interested people), and writing.

In a few months I will be able to tell you what makes the skeletons of different species of AA lizards unique, what these characters can contribute to a phylogeny, and one of the many critical gaps between the past and the present will be a little smaller. I am adding information not only to the past, but the current state of these lizards, which is becoming more and more critical in our extinction-centric world.

What more do agamids have to offer? That, my friend, will have to wait for a later post…

 

References

1. Smirina, Ella M., and Natalia B. Ananjeva. “Growth layers in bones and acrodont teeth of the agamid lizard Laudakia stoliczkana (Blanford, 1875)(Agamidae, Sauria).” Amphibia-Reptilia 28.2 (2007): 193-204.

2.Hugall, Andrew F., and Michael SY Lee. “Molecular claims of Gondwanan age for Australian agamid lizards are untenable.” Molecular biology and evolution21.11 (2004): 2102-2110.

Little things: small habits that help my science focus and productivity

Author: Brianna

Here’s another old post that was initially drafted some months ago. More thinking about work habits.


Focus is a fickle creature sometimes. Getting consistent, high-quality work done without burning out (or wasting too much time trying to optimize my ability to get that work done) is a challenge — and finding the right balance of routine and change is important, too.

As I switched from “work mode” to “browse the internet for 10 minutes before I meet my friends for lunch mode,” I did a couple things that made the shift more clean mentally. Then I decided I would share with you some of these little things I do, mostly without thinking about them, to help me work when I am working and relax when I am relaxing.

At work, I listen to music when I am working. When I start doing something else (email, chatting to friends who drop by, reading blog posts, tweeting) the music goes off.

After reading this Dynamic Ecology post about work hours in science, I started tracking my time. I do it in a very loose way, tracking only academic-related things (different science projects, email, fun science/academia reading, paper reading, etc) and not any other life activities. I use a free timer for Android called TimeSheet; it’s simple and has nice features. It’s been enlightening seeing how much work I am truly doing during the day. Knowing that it’s running reminds me to stay on task or read just one more paper even though I’m a bit bored. Also interesting: seeing how the peaks and troughs smooth out to a quite respectable average.

If I’m stuck in a procrastination loop or just really struggling with what I’m working on, I reset by going for a walk outside and often by making a cup of tea before I sit back down to the work at hand. Smaller version: close all programs and close my laptop, get up, stretch, sit back down and begin again.

I change my level of planning detail on a pretty regular basis. Right now, my outline for the week is very loose and vague (e.g., today’s list shows work on a phylogeny project in morning, lunch + walk, work on the postcrania project all afternoon plus some dissertation specimen planning, a Skype call, and a library book return task). You’ll notice that those aren’t very accomplishment-focused, other than returning the library book. Other times I work best if I map out very specific tasks to specific times of day. Other times I am motivated by setting discrete tasks and saying I’m done with work for the day when I am done with them. No one thing ever seems to work for me forever, so I’ve learned to just roll with whatever motivates me most at the time.

I use Chrome Nanny to block tempting websites like Twitter during specific times of day. Usually just in the morning; by afternoon, I tend to be in a working groove and capable of discipline.

On days when my focus seems totally shattered, I’ll do the “mental reboot” I mentioned earlier (walk, tea, or shut laptop) and then work in painfully tiny timed increments. When I’m really having a rough time, I start with 15 minutes. (You can type into Google, “Set timer for 15 minutes.” Magic.) I can do whatever I want after the 15 minutes, but for those 15 minutes I am not allowed to do anything but work. No bathroom break, no tea, no just-check-the-email-for-a-second. This bite-sized goal helps me work back up to more usual 50-minute chunks of focused work with short breaks in between.

If I am working on something and have distracting thoughts – about other research projects, about something I just remembered I need to do later, about a really great name for a cat, whatever – I write it down on scrap paper and leave it for after my work session.

Priorities in research doings (or: knitr, mammalogy labs, and motivation)

Author: Brianna

One of the nicest things about graduate school, for me, is the control over my schedule. I had that in undergrad too, but more constraints because of more classes. Also I was still riding horses almost every day, which cut out most evenings. Why is control over my schedule so great? Because I am obnoxious about my work habits and I think I can get better work out of myself when I follow my nose.

I drafted this post a few weeks ago in a fit of inspired work time. (I’m still just as excited about knitr, by the way. And the paper I mention is getting submitted in the next week or two, with full data and the code formatted all pleasantly thanks to knitr.)


You guys know the way I think about work habits all the time: I have detailed writing strategies, I enjoy settling into routines and then semi-frequently breaking them, I spend time thinking about nature of motivation. About the only thing that stays really constant is that I’m a morning person, so I don’t really do work past 7pm except in dire circumstances or…moments of pressing inspiration.

Which is to say: yesterday I was working on R code for a really neat project on horses from the Paisley Caves of Oregon, and as I was working I was pondering its eventual inclusion with the paper itself. So I was trying to be thorough, you know, including code to save the plots and commenting things nicely and such. And then I thought, what the hell, learning to use knitr and rmarkdown to make nice outputs has been on my to-do list for awhile, let’s learn it.

Which is more or less why I wound up working last night until about 8, when the grumbling of my stomach became too much to ignore. (You’ll note that the other half of Fossilosophy would snicker at this, as Kelsey sometimes doesn’t even warm up until around that time in the evening.)

Because I was having fun. So much fun. Do you guys REALIZE how cool knitr is??

Right, about priorities: yesterday I tasked myself with working on writing mammalogy labs. That is also a cool project that gets me really excited about science and teaching, because I get to design an entire semester’s worth of labs. And also I am feeling internal pressure to make forward progress on it because it has slipped down on the priorities list thanks to preparing two posters for SVP.

But I was really excited about knitr!

So you know what? I worked on my code and knitr. Because damned if I’m going to waste the kind of excitement that helps me learn important tools I’ll use in just about every research project ever, while also moving forward the project that is probably closest to submission of all my projects.

This is the glory of having few to no hard deadlines this semester, a luxury that I recognize is rare and thus will milk for all it is worth. I will still write all the mammalogy labs; a day or two will make zero difference. How silly it would have been to let the internal guilt meter decide what to work on when I was truly excited and motivated about something else that also offers me long-term research benefits.


Extra credit links:
A Beginner’s Tutorial for knitr
Knitr with R Markdown
Getting Started with R Markdown, knitr, and Rstudio 0.96
Drifting towards deadwood, or not: learning to use R (interesting thoughts on putting in the time to learn big new skills; same thought process I use to make myself put in the time to learn things like knitr)

Posts I have found useful that are about getting into and going to grad school

Author: Brianna

I had excellent mentoring as an undergraduate. Among the many wonderful things about being in the HopkinsDavis lab was their attention, when the time came, to giving us good and detailed advice throughout the graduate school application/admissions process. Potential labs to apply to, yes you really do need to apply for that NSF GRFP (thanks Sam!), feedback on essay structure, sympathy + a kick of motivation when all the deadlines collided, a sounding board for the Actual Decision About Where To Go For Grad School needed to be made, and more.

Anyway, there’s a new crop of undergrads at the UO pondering grad school, and I promised to write up a collection of blog posts I’d found useful. They’re mostly focused on Biology-type or at least science programs, because that’s what I do. I post the list and my comments here in hopes that it may be useful to other readers too! Feel free to add your own suggestions, particularly more recent posts, in the comments.

Preparation/Misc

Dynamic Ecology (a great blog to read in general!) with some thoughts on what to do before and while applying to graduate school.

Clear and concise advice on the whole thing (with a math/comp sci focus) from Matt Might, including book recommendations, what he looks for in grad students, what to do if you’re rejected, and lots more. Actually, his many posts on grad school/research/academia are well worth taking some time to read as a current or future grad student; you could start with the ‘related posts’ down at the bottom of that one.

Contacting professors

Writing to me” (about graduate school) from Female Science Professor. Discussion of levels of quality, and her likelihood of responding, from form letter to very well-considered.

Advice on choosing and applying, including emphasis on finding a potential advisor, in geology. From Mountain Beltway. (Listen to his advice about file-naming for your CV.)

More specific advice on contacting potential advisors, including some direct examples of emails, from Neurotypical?.

My general advice: be polite (use Dr. or Professor in the salutation, check that you haven’t left any copy/paste errors if you’re reusing parts of an email, don’t go on for paragraphs, show that you’ve done your homework), ask questions, definitely contact current students, try as hard as you can to actually meet professors of interest before applying to work with them, ask friends and colleagues for labs they know of that might be a good fit, and Google is your friend for finding potential labs you might not have otherwise heard of.

Applications

My grad school application essay” from Female Science Professor, including rules on not talking about how you have wanted to do X since you were 5 years old. And a really amusing shot at the Platonic ideal of a bad applications essay.

Things you should do and not do in your personal statement, from Prof-Like Substance.

Excellent advice on asking for letters of recommendation from Arthropod Ecology. (You know it’s a good post if I’m actually linking to a website THAT USES PICTURES OF SPIDERS IN ITS HEADER.)

Another note from me: start early. Submitting things at the last minute = mistakes, and almost certainly means you haven’t had enough people read and give thorough feedback on your application materials. Having good, critical editing is invaluable for the personal statement and research essays. Ask research mentors! Ask current grad students! This can be tough if you’re still taking classes, so plan ahead. (You will probably still end up scrambling at the last minute. If you do, try to take the brunt of the suffering yourself; don’t, for example, ask for a letter of rec with 3 days’ notice.)

Interviews

Good questions to ask current (biomedical) grad students.

It’s not an interview,” pay attention to cost of living, and other advice on grad school interviews from Not the Lab.

If you’re wondering what to wear (which I certainly did), I’d say it’s about comparable to what grad students wear at conferences. Which doesn’t solve the problem if you haven’t been to conferences. Happily advice on conference-wear for my general area of science is much easier to find than on interview-wear. In short, something you’re comfortable in, and that is less casual than jeans but more casual than a suit, is probably fine (though I saw both jeans and suits when I interviewed). Be prepared for weather: cold places are cold, especially during interview season. When I interviewed at Harvard we got ~3ft of snow overnight and it took extra days to get home. Fun! If you want more detailed recommendations than that, here are a few more takes on the idea (mostly aimed at women): How to dress for a conference like a fashionable lady scientist, Women’s attire at AGU (geology meeting!), and a beautifully bitter/rebellious/uplifting “What can I wear to this conference?” poem from the kickass Meaghan at Mary Anning’s Revenge.

Choosing a program

Dr. Isis on two really important features to ponder: funding and placement.

Brief advice on several questions about choosing a program, from advisor choice to geographic preference to teaching opportunities, from Sociobiology.

Note that there are many differing opinions on going for a Masters degree before jumping into a PhD program. For example, this Dynamic Ecology post on choosing a program argues why doing a Masters can be a very good idea (and has other good advice besides). For what it’s worth, both halves of Fossilosophy came out of the same undergrad lab, and one of us is doing a MS first while the other went straight to PhD. We are both happy with our respective choices.

I will note that making the final decision was really tough for me. I think I could have been quite happy and successful in any of the three graduate programs that accepted me; in some ways that made the choice easier because it was probably hard to truly screw it up, but in other ways it made the choice very difficult indeed. Talk to people about it — I had many discussions with my undergrad advisors, my friends and labmates, and my family while mulling the choices over. There are many variables to consider and it’s a deeply personal decision. Don’t forget that, if you have more questions at this stage, you can still be in contact with your potential advisor and/or labmates to ask about more things you want to know.

That seems like a sufficient amount of material for now. Happy reading!

Research projects are like cats

Author: Brianna

I have come to an important analogy-realization. This is great because I spent the four years of my undergraduate research career being spoken to in elaborate analogy (see: Edward Davis’s use of 7 football maxims for basically any mentorship discussion). And that means that I, too, must develop my stable of eye-rolly but ultimately enlightening metaphors!

So here’s my new favorite.

Research projects are like cats.

Louise

Adorable, cuddly, wonderful cats.

Everyone wants one. (If you do not like cats, feel free to substitute dog/bird/child/expensive car/whatever.) It is good to have a cat. Especially if cats are something you want in your life, it is kind of sad to be hanging around not having a cat and looking at all the adorable cat pictures being posted by people who do have cats.

So you get your first cat and it’s really really exciting. Maybe you even soon get another one! That’s great. You spend much of your free time snuggling with this cat and thinking about how awesome it is that your cat is the best, most loving, cutest cat in the whole world.

Louise 2

And life is good.

But cats take up time and attention. You generally know where they are in the house, more or less, and if you have multiple cats then you might get really nervous if they are off in some other room and things suddenly go mysteriously quiet. Your energy and focus is divided.

At some point, you have Too Many Cats. Just keeping track of them is a chore, let alone doing anything fun with them. They keep you up at night, meowing and knocking things over and clawing the furniture. Your feline carrying capacity (catpacity?) probably increases throughout your career, especially if you have collaborators helping you take care of some of them, but early on that number may be limited.

So you have to…get rid of some cats? By publishing. (This is where the metaphor breaks down a bit if you are too literal-minded, as all eye-rolly metaphors do. Maybe you are a foster home for cats, and you need to find them loving journals – er, homes…)

Therefore it is important to not wind up juggling too many cats, lest you lose the focus that lets you help them along into happy home/journals.

I have a few too many cats prowling the halls right now. They are all totally great projects and I love them! But some of them need to go out the door. They’ve been lingering a little longer than I’d really like. Happily one should get submitted, if not next week, then by the end of July; it’s about 95% there. Another is clicking along fairly rapidly, and two more are sitting in the corner waiting for me to stop being annoyed about having to rewrite semi-substantial sections. Then there’s the shiny new one I started as a first-year project at Harvard, and the even shinier plans I have for my dissertation…

Too many cats. Good thing I really like them.

Thoughts on motivation

Author: Brianna

Sometimes motivation is hard to come by and that is okay.

For me, the trick is in being calm when motivation is gone; in being a grownup about keeping up my responsibilities even when I don’t have it; in finding it when it is hidden; in knowing and trying to learn more causes of its ebb and flow; in making choices that will nurture it in the long and short term; in spending time around and talking to interesting people; and in consciously aiming for more intense productivity when it is close at hand.

This all involves paying close attention to what excites me. The good news: my dissertation plans excite me! Right now, though, I am working on remembering my excitement for a few papers that need to get finished and out the door. It was there once, and I can still kind of feel it, but we’re in that last 10% of the publication process that always takes up about as much time and energy as the first 90% did. I will be pleased when these papers are off my plate. They are good projects and I like them.

Also, it is good to be home for a little while. I missed Oregon and my animals.

McKinna
Communing with McKinna before my first ride in about 6 months.

Dealing with the first year of grad school, Part 1: the general sense

Author: Brianna

It occurs to me, as I sit in a cozy chair in a sunny lounge overlooking some pleasantly evergreen trees, that I am currently ‘dealing’ with graduate school. As in, things are going pretty well. I’ve published a paper, submitted another, drafted a couple more, given some presentations, taken some classes, made good friends, found a good first-year project. I haven’t written much lately, in part because I am not always sure what I (we) want this blog to be. Also, blogging is not always high on the priority list.

But I think this blog can be a place for advice. I like giving advice, but I am also “just” a first-year graduate student. (This is why we have an “Unsolicited Advice” category.) I still have some sensible ideas about getting work done, though. At the very least I have my own experience working my way through this first year and ostensibly the years after that. I think that might be a useful and/or interesting thing to people. Especially if you’re, say, a senior-ish undergrad looking to go to grad school. Or a first year grad. Something like that.

So this is the first in a several-part series, which I’ve just now decided will be a loosely organized collection detailing exactly what you’d think from the title: how I am dealing with the first year of graduate school.

For the first post, here’s some things I do to keep myself healthy and relatively happy and chugging along. Maybe in the next one I’ll go into some specifics of the first year, like learning to use a bike to commute (even in a terrifying place like Cambridge/Boston!) and being scared of meetings with your adviser.

I have been spending a lot of time around my fellow first-year grads, or G1s as the parlance here goes. Turns out they are a bunch of brilliant, kind, interesting and interested people. Our new-grad seminar, where we meet professors or work on professional development and do lots of talking, is a highlight every week. As a cohort we’ve been tight-knit socially but also academically, for lack of a better word – there are always several people willing to proofread a paper or grant application, give feedback on a presentation, or sit in the conference room eating lunch while you sketch out your lab meeting talk on the whiteboard. You can’t force cohesion, but you can seek out this contact. The first year is easier when you have some buddies to panic with you. (Same goes for the rest of the grad students in the department, of course. But I think making strong connections with your cohort is important, if you can.)

I have been paying close attention to what works for me and what doesn’t. The things that work for me have fluctuated a lot over the 8 months or so I’ve been here so far, which surprised me quite a bit. I talked about this more in the post on flux, but I’m still surprised just how adaptable I’ve needed to be. I need to remember that when I’m stagnating, I should probably go for a walk or go work somewhere else, like I did just a bit ago by relocating to this lounge. When the usual trick of goal-setting and bouncing ideas around really wasn’t helping me get out of a motivation slump, I accepted it eventually. I slept in a lot (for me, around 9 or 10am). I worked in coffee shops to enjoy the anonymous rumble of cheery conversation flowing around me. I read a lot of non-science books. I went from occasionally doing a few hours of work on weekends to never working weekends. You know what? The world didn’t end. I kept up with my classwork, and I made a little progress on my research each week even if it wasn’t mind-blowing giant steps. And then the sun came out, and it stopped snowing (mostly), and gradually I walked myself back up the hill to the place where I once again get excited by all the things I want to do.

But at the time, it felt a little like everything was ruined forever. It’s okay to feel like that.

When I’m getting overwhelmed by the short-term deadlines, I take a deep breath and remember the long timeline of this PhD. It’s oddly comforting that just about everyone in the program seems to say they didn’t get much of anything directly “useful” (i.e., that went into their dissertations) until their second or sometimes third year. This lets me be content with indirect usefulness.

When I’m getting overwhelmed by the long timeline of this PhD, I take a deep breath and focus on the short-term deadlines.

I lift a lot of weights. It’s satisfying, it makes you ready for bed at the end of the day, and it’s a good chance to chat with a friend if you talk one of them into being your lifting buddy. Also it is really good for you. If I had to pick one thing that helped me pull through the end-of-winter slump, it is starting up with a regular lifting schedule again. (Okay, two things: sleep too.)

I make a conscious effort to stop my stress, or at least mellow it, about things I can’t control.

I don’t go for as many walks as I should, but whenever I do it makes a world of difference to my mental state. I come back calmer, happier, and clearer of mind. Bonus points if you spend some time on your walk coming up with things to be grateful about. I usually start with the healthy legs that are obligingly carrying me around, particularly since I’ve spent enough time in the past with a broken ankle to know a taste of the alternatives.

I try to focus on the parts of my research that I love (planning, data analysis usually, writing, exciting projects) and be a grownup and just matter-of-factly accomplish the parts that I love less (some types of data collection, cleaning up mistakes in data, doing a bunch of revisions after reviews, less exciting projects). Same goes for life: more enjoying things like cooking or rock climbing or thinking about the power tools I’m going to get this fall, less procrastinating on things like taxes or cleaning the bathroom. Just do it and move on.

I go to as many job seminars, departmental seminars, and dissertation defenses as I have the time and energy for. Sometimes I have other priorities or I can’t bear the thought of sitting in a dim room for an hour and a half. Those times I generally don’t feel guilty about.

Good food is important! We get a CSA (community supported agriculture) box with fresh fruit and veggies in it every week, which is nice when you learn to cook new delicious things and annoying when it’s the fifth straight week of way too many dandelion greens.  It helps that I like to cook. It’s easier when you live in a house with roommates who like to cook, too; we all go through cycles where sometimes you’re cooking giant meals all the time and sometimes you have no desire or available time to cook. It’s nice to have hot meals even on evenings when you come home hungry and grouchy at 8pm. I suppose my advice here is to get good roommates! Failing that, learn to make some simple, fairly healthy things that you like to eat. Make them in quantities and freeze some for the busy times.

That’s enough for now. The SVP abstract deadline is coming up, and I have things to finish!

Mental conversations I have with myself during finals week

Author: Brianna

Hey, self.
Yeah?
What are you doing?
…looking at pictures of cute animals on the internet.
Hmm. What should you be doing?
Probably working on things on my insane finals week to-do list.
Oh, did you actually want to finish that list?
Yes.
And what do you have to do to finish that list?
…do the things on it.
And what are you doing now?
…not the things on it. Can I go get some chocolate?
No. Shut up and write.

(A finals week vignette brought to you by lots of tea.)

Conference Wrapup: SVP 2013, Los Angeles

Authors: Brianna and Kelsey

We’ve just returned from our third time at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting, and our first as graduate students. What a wonderful, exhausting, exciting experience! SVP is always a great meeting, and it gets more fun every year. The first year or two were much more stressful because we didn’t know many people (more thoughts on conference-going as an undergrad in a future post), so it was nice to relax a little more. This was also the first time we really looked forward to reconnecting with our undergrad friends and mentors, the UO Paleontology crew. It was a bit like an early, very scientific Thanksgiving.

Instead of trying to sum up the whole conference, we’re planning to share a few highlights: our favorite talks and posters, how our presentations went, things we really enjoyed about this year’s venue, and a few bits we think could be improved in the future.

Favorite talks
Brianna: It’s tough to choose. One that really impressed me was Paul Koch’s investigation of network structure in Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions. He argued that extinctions have two main components- external factors, which trigger extinction, and internal factors, which are system properties that allow the effects of those triggers to operate. This second component is often overlooked, so he (and coauthors Pires and Guimaraes) set about investigating whether Pleistocene assemblages were in some intrinsic way more likely to collapse. They compared megafaunas from modern Africa and Pleistocene North and South America, looking at networks of relationships between animals. They modeled the probability of two animals interacting as a function of predator-prey body mass ratios. Essentially, the model specified that every time a large predator runs into a prey animal, it’s going to be bad for the prey; every time an animal runs into a conspecific, it’s going to be bad (because intraspecific competition); every time a smaller predator runs into a prey animal larger than itself, nothing happens, and so on.

They then examined the stability of these community matrices and found that modern Africa is no less susceptible to perturbation than the fossil assemblages. However, they did find that the probability of stability decreased with predator richness and increased with the average body mass of the prey. Koch suggested that large predators have a wide diet breadth, increasing connectivity in the web, whereas large prey are more controlled by bottom-up effects (temperature, food availability, etc) and thus decrease connectivity. In a tightly connected web with strong interactions, effects propagate faster, like motion that comes from hitting a tightly stretched sheet of fabric as opposed to a loosely draped one. Pleistocene North America had many large predators (sabertooth cats, cave lions, dire wolves, regular wolves, bears of several sorts…), so perhaps this contributed to the demise of our megafauna. A complex talk with much more nuance in methods and conclusions than I’ve described here, but very cool.

Other talks I really enjoyed: Tseng on skull morphology convergence both within and between bone-crackers and bamboo-eaters, Miller’s investigation of how well a death assemblage captures community ecology of the living assemblage, and Holroyd’s eye-opening talk on identification bias in collections, where she pointed out that specimens can only get studied and published if they are identified. She also quantified the probability of “losing” a specimen via lack of identification.

Kelsey: There were too many mind-expanding talks to cover here, but some of the ones that bent my world a bit (in a good way) were the ones that looked at the historical and identification biases of data sets. Pat Holroyd’s talk was nicely complimented by Matt Mihlbachler’s look at Cope’s rule as a product of historical collection bias. Specifically, brontotheres initially appeared to consistently increase in size throughout the Cenozoic. Matt pointed out that this conclusion was reasonable during Cope’s era, because this is what the available data were saying. However, greater sampling has shown there are multiple lineages that dwarf or just never increase in size over time. Compound this with the multiple migration events between the Americas and Eurasia and you’re looking at a much more complicated, nuanced relationship between the evolution of body size in lineages and time.

This is the vibe I got from many of the phylogenetic and systematic talks as well. It’s as if we are realizing that many of the “ground rules” of paleontology are not as solid as we thought. Now we are looking through the cracks and finding some very interesting mysteries. Perhaps it has always been this way and it’s my own assumptions that are beginning to crack.

Favorite posters
Brianna: I think my favorite was Poster #1 on the very first day, by Sadleir and colleagues. It was a reconstruction of body mass and related characteristics in an ornithischian dinosaur where the analysis drew on information from a gastrolith that stayed with the fossil through preservation. From a new CT-scanning algorithm originally designed for distinguishing metal-metal surfaces (led to much clearer imaging of the rock-rock bits, as fossils are!) to an interesting argument for massive tail muscles in this particular dino (perhaps needed to counterbalance gastrolith position, and supported by tail vertebral morphology). Had a great discussion with the author and am really interested to see where that project goes.

I also had a great time getting the poster-talks from current undergrad students in the UO Paleontology group. They were just revving their research engines as Kelsey and I left, and it reminds me of the fun and anxious times we had at our first conference. Plus, they are doing really cool work and I enjoyed hearing detail about their projects for the first time. Warm fuzzies all around.

Kelsey: I’m a sucker for bone histology, so I found myself discussing bone growth and function a great deal. This is a nice connection for me to the dinosaur world. There is an unfortunate schism between the “Mammal People” and “Dino People” (with neoaves falling somewhere in the middle and fish people partying on the side), and it’s easy to stay with your own crew. Hopefully I can find more connections in the future.

I also enjoyed the less-finished project posters, where I could really talk to the presenters about the structure of their future projects and why the label on the y-axis of their graph was missing. We’ve all been there…

Our presentations
Brianna: I gave a talk titled, “Identifying isolated postcrania using discriminant analysis.” In plainer language, that’s: “How to use some pretty simple data analysis to figure out what kind of horse/camel/whatever those ankle/toe/hand/foot bones belong to.” You know, the ones that are sitting all unloved in drawers in your museum. This was my first big conference talk, so while I usually do well with public speaking, I was a bit of an adrenaline-rushed mess for the two hours before I spoke. Happily, my nerves settled as soon as I started presenting and the whole thing went very well. My time slot was in the morning session on the first day of the conference and it was great to get the stress out of the way. I got some excellent feedback and ideas after the talk, including some fun new collaborations.

I’m really fond of this work. One bit of it will come out soon as a paper in Palaeo Electronica with my former advisor Edward Davis; I’m currently writing the second paper, which deals more specifically with the stuff I talked about at SVP. Both will get the blog post treatment when finished, but if you’re interested, shoot me an email (bmchorse at fas dot harvard dot edu) and I will happily explain how you, too, can get IDs on your postcranial fossils.

Kelsey: This was year #2 for presenting a poster on osteopathology in Rhinocerotidae, and never have I been more grateful to present an updated study. I’ve been looking at population-level osteopathology in rhinos from 50 mya to the present, a project that has motivated me to learn the intricacies of pathology, bone growth, large mammal evolution, and systematics. Being able to display my constellation of data and questions led to at least six firework moments (what some would call eureka moments) during my two hour poster session. This year I also kept a notepad and pen nearby so I could write every suggestion down. Paper, here I come!

Good things about the meeting!
The welcome reception at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County was really, really lovely. Everyone got to wander around the exhibits before eating some impressively tasty food. The dueling T. rex and Triceratops in the main atrium are beautiful, the brand new Dinosaur Hall is spectacular, and Brianna particularly enjoyed some very skeptical looking mammals:

Skeptical zebra and tiger at the NHM Los Angeles
Skeptical striped mammals are not impressed.

What else did the Society do well this year?

They added a family room for the first time, which is an important step in making the meeting more friendly to those of its members traveling with children.

The awards ceremony was quite enjoyable as well, particularly because it came complete with a tour through several films portraying paleontologists (including The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, The Lost World, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Bringing Up Baby, Lost Horizon, Lake Placid, and, of course, Jurassic Park ).  The food was also wonderful, though the vegetarian option ordered by our labmate was literally just white rice with steamed vegetables. That needs some definite work, though props for the gluten-free option, which Kelsey reports was delicious.

The costume contest at the student round table was also amazing (did you all get to see the two-man Quetzalcoatlus costume?) and we almost wish it could happen every year.

Finally, the coffee quality and tea selection in the mornings leveled-up from last year. These are important details for scientists with varying severity of jet lag and sleep deprivation.

Things the meeting could improve…
Speaking of all those things the meeting did nicely, we have suggestions for even more improvement on a few of them. We’ll do this in a nice numbered list.

  1. Offer childcare. Yes, it’s probably a pain to deal with; yes, liability and stuff; we get it. But not having available childcare (it doesn’t even have to be free!) can be a problem for many would-be participants. This is not something we have personal experience with, because neither of us has reproduced, but you can read more about it in many other places. Plenty of other conferences do it (e.g., Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution, American Political Science Association , American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology…), and SVP should too.
  2. Free wifi for conference attendees. People have been begging SVP for this for years, and still nothing! Heard much unhappiness about this, verbally and online, during the conference this year.  We’re pretty sure that offering free wifi would drastically increase the number of people live-blogging and live-tweeting the conference, thus increasing visibility for the Society itself. 3G was only an option for a few people who are from the US, have smartphones, and weren’t worried about a data cap; it’s not good enough. This post has many curated links about live-tweeting and conferences, if you’re interested.
  3. Can you keep the coffee out all morning, please? Remember what we said earlier about sleepy scientists? You already bring it out at 7:30am and again at 10am – just leave it out til lunchtime. Or better yet, leave it out until the poster session starts at 4:15. It’s one of those keep everyone happy, keep everyone awake things. We are such sad pandas when we straggle down at 8:30 and the coffee/tea has been whisked away.

    Might as well have two cups, it's disappearing soon...from flickr user chichacha

  4. Give some serious consideration to venue with respect to pricing. We acknowledge there are probably many, many interests to balance when selecting a conference hotel, but please add this one. SVP 2013 was in the middle of the financial district in Los Angeles, meaning a very expensive hotel and limited (+ expensive) dining nearby. This is hard on students! And postdocs! And anyone without a lot of extra cash!
    Consider, for example, booking two smaller hotels together next time (maybe even with some cheaper hotels available nearby – the Raleigh meeting last year had lots of nearby, inexpensive choices). This would let you put it in a friendlier place, with affordable options for everyone. You can still have all the sessions in one hotel; it’s not like walking across the street is that much different than trying to navigate the Halo-level-like maze of the Westin Bonaventure in LA.
  5. On the expensive note: you know you’ll make more money at the bar in poster sessions and whatnot if we don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for the alcohol, right? We don’t know if the pricing was SVP or the hotel, but man, it was bad enough we didn’t even want to bully our coauthors into buying us a drink.

Criticisms aside (which we hope are constructive – and yes, we’ll be sending an email to relevant committees, as soon as we figure out who they are), this was a well-run conference that we enjoyed. As we said, SVP is an excellent time every year and it’s well worth going.

We really enjoyed live-tweeting some talks and posters this year, thanks to our phones. There weren’t many people doing so – again, see wifi situation – so we got to feel useful! Getting to experience little bites via tweet of talks we weren’t attending was really nice, so we hope we were able to provide a similar function to others for the sessions we attended. It’s a bit difficult sometimes because in the really interesting and complex ones, you want to take notes, but you can’t take notes if you’re tweeting. We tried to strike a balance. Meeting a bunch of people at the tweetup was great, too.

In all it was a most excellent conference (not least because the two halves of fossilosophy were reunited for five days!), and we are looking forward to the next one. We’ll both be at SICB in January, Kelsey will be at NAPC in Febuary, and we are definitely looking forward to SVP 2014 in Berlin, Germany!