Positive Feedback

Last winter, I took a course on pedagogy here at the University of Chicago. One of the assignments was to draft a philosophy of teaching statement, a 1-2 page document that is an important component of any academic job application. In class, we peer edited these essays, and the first thing our professor asked us to do was to point out a phrase, sentence, or paragraph that we found particularly effective in someone else’s statement. Two things about this were interesting: (1) The authors of the statements were generally surprised at what was chosen; that is, they didn’t know the good parts of their statement were good; (2) I don’t remember ever being asked to put the positive aspects of a critique before the negative ones.

This experience led me to rethink the power and utility of positive feedback. Often, critiques (especially of writing or presentation skills) focus exclusively on what didn’t work and what needs improvement. Obviously, these are useful things to know, but it can be equally useful to know what not to change. Indeed, anecdotal observations of myself and my colleagues and friends suggest that people are often already aware of what they are doing wrong – but much less certain what they are doing right.

Sometimes in academia it feels like positive feedback is equated with coddling or hand-holding. Rigorous critique is vital to every field of intellectual endeavour, but too often in practice it seems to be equated with abrasive negativity. But far from being some sort of unnecessary concession to the weakness of human ego, I think positive feedback is a powerful tool for improvement.

At this point I’m going to take what at first might seem like a jump to a completely unrelated topic, but stick with me. On November 14, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) announced an initiative called the Green List. Quite possibly you are familiar with another ICUN initiative, the Red List. Since 1964, this list has tracked the conservation status of species worldwide. It places species into categories ranging from Least Concern through Critically Endangered, as well as providing information on species known to be extinct.

As the name suggests, the Green List serves an opposite function. Considering sites instead of species, the Green List highlights the best-managed protected areas in the world, using a set of criteria including quality of conservation programs, management of tourism, and interactions with indiginous peoples. The first set of Green List sites includes 23 areas in 8 countries.

Why is the Green List important? First, the Green List highlights that good conservation outcomes are possible. They are not inevitable, as should be clear from the fact that most protected areas don’t meet Green List standards. Nevertheless, the existence of the Green List shows that human action in the face of environmental threats can make a difference. But the Green List is important for more than just morale.

Just as governments and NGOs depend on the ICUN Red List to determine current or potential negative effects of action or inaction, they can look to the Green List for global standards of conservation success. Obviously, lessons learned from any particular site cannot necessarily be applied elsewhere – complexities of the biological, political, or social environment always make this a challenge – but the creation of global standards of excellence provides an important way to measure conservation effectiveness in concert with human needs. In other words, to improve, we need to know what we are doing right as well as what we are doing wrong.


Here is a Nature article about the Green List: http://www.nature.com/news/green-list-promotes-best-conservation-areas-1.16350

(Citation for above: Gilbert, N. Green List promotes conservation hotspots. Nature 515:322. November 20 2014.)

And from ICUN:

“Green is the new gold” 15 November 2014 http://www.iucn.org/news_homepage/?18624/Green-is-the-new-gold

Lots more information: http://www.iucn.org/about/work/programmes/gpap_home/gpap_quality/gpap_greenlist/

Real or fake tree for green xmas? A life cycle analysis.

This season Americans celebrating Christmas will buy around 30 million trees – 20 million live cut trees and a little over 10 million artificial trees.

Every year articles (like this one) come out about which is more environmentally friendly – this is bs.

According to a life cycle analysis of real and fake Christmas trees in the United States sponsored by the American Christmas Tree Association last year, artificial trees are environmentally friendlier than live-cut trees only after they’ve been in use for around eight holidays.

A study by Ellipsos, however, found that it could take as many as 20 years for an artificial tree to break even with yearly live cut trees in terms of its impact on climate change and natural resources. Estimated impact on human health: 6 years, impacts on ecosystem quality: 2 years til artificial tree breaks even. If you’re curious how people define effects on these terms check out the image below.

From the Ellipsos life cycle assessment of real vs. fake Christmas trees. This is how they define the different categories processes that lead to damage in climate or human health.


Really though, the environmental impacts are negligible compared to other activities such as car use.

Therefore, carpooling or biking to work only one to three weeks per year would offset the carbon emissions from both types of Christmas trees.

A life-cycle assessment of a product (also called cradle-to-grave assessment or life cycle analysis) is an assessment of the environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product’s life, from raw material extraction, manufacture, distribution, use, and disposal or recycling. Tree choice of course doesn’t make or break a household’s effect on the environment (so long as you’re not filling your house with them), but the analysis is a pretty cool example of how we can evaluate the effects of products on our environment. And if you’re curious about how these two options do impact the environment, there are some interesting data out there about it.

From a NYTimes article:

“When you really consider it, if you exchange a couple of days of commuting by car with carpooling or riding a bicycle, you’ll completely overcompensate for whatever the impact of the tree is,” he said. “It’s not such a big deal. Enjoy your tree, whichever one you prefer.”

All the inputs that make a tree on a tree farm. From the PE Americas Life Cycle Analysis.

A life cycle analysis uses available data on transportation and fuel costs, energy considerations for running machinery, and other industrial requirements for creation of a given product/widget/whatever. These data are then used to estimate effects of the product on the environment (like contributions to climate change and smog, or the overdosing water bodies with nutrients), and the amount of energy used throughout the life of the product.

One consulting company behind the study, PE Americas of Five Winds and PE International, compared the most common artificial Christmas tree sold in the United States to the most common real Christmas tree sold in the US. Length of ownership, disposal method and “tree miles” (how far it travels to get to you) shift the balance of which one is environmentally preferable. The method of disposal of live cut trees makes a difference in how many years it takes to break even using an artificial tree, and in how to tree most impacts the environment. For example, the left-most bar below shows that based on this life-cycle analysis, using the same artificial tree for three years requires about as much energy as using three live cut trees and disposing of them in a landfill, but it takes nearly seven years for the same artificial tree to break even in terms of acidification (acid rain) potential. The study (available here) is ISO-compliant. “As a general rule of thumb, if you are going to purchase an artificial tree, keep it in use for at least nine years” William Paddock says on the American Christmas Tree Association site.

From PE America’s Life Cycle Analysis of real vs. fake Christmas trees. The bars depict how many years to hang onto an artifical tree before its environmental impact breaks even compared with one live cut tree per year over the same time period. For example the first red bar shows that using the same artificial tree over

Another study by Ellipsos found that the break-even point is more like 20 years for an artificial tree…BUT the site writers note that either choice doesn’t make or break the footprint of a household, so if you’re looking to have a more environmentally friendly Christmas this year think about other high-impact activities and products before you stress about your tree.

Rethinking “Naturalness”: GMOs and Food Issues

Sometimes it seems to me that everyone has already made up their minds about genetically modified organisms, one way or the other. As with many polarizing issues, discussion and debate generally don’t move people from their opinions. There are many reasons why this particular topic has become so fraught. There’s the way it taps into the deep current of distrust with which the public increasingly views corporations, especially in the recent economic crisis. There’s the centrality of food to cultural identity – no matter what culture you come from. And, as always, there’s sensational media headlines about mutant foods alongside clever cartoons of Frankenstein-ian tomatoes and corn, touching fears related to new technologies that have plagued humans since we started inventing new technologies.

But for what it’s worth, the article I’ve linked to here is one of the best pieces of writing about the GMO issue that I’ve read, and I would encourage you to read it regardless of your position. The author is a plant biologist at the University of Cambridge, and I think she elucidates a compelling argument, not unreservedly for GMOs, but for a new perspective on GMOs – and indeed on agriculture in general – that takes into account not only what we understand about the science of genetically modified and conventional crops, but also the thicket of cultural, economic, and social issues surrounding food technologies.

Perhaps the thing I found the most refreshing about the piece was the way it tackles the concept of “naturalness” that’s found everywhere now in our society. We could quibble forever, but based on any sensible definition, all agriculture is profoundly unnatural, the product of human selection over thousands of years. We don’t find our major crops growing uncultivated; they have in most cases been so substantially altered from their wild relatives that they are unrecognizable, and they could not survive without human care. Where wild members of a cultivated species are to be found, they usually resemble cultivars poorly, and often are inedible or unpalatable. In a broader sense, the conflation of “natural” with “good” is also fallacious – plenty of “natural” things will kill you, from predators to poisonous plants to diseases. Making informed decisions about agricultural issues requires the letting go of the concept of naturalness in the way it is currently used.

Beyond this clouding issue, which far from being a scientific argument is really a cultural phenomenon, the piece argues that most other concerns attached to GMOs are fundamentally about something else – corporate agriculture, the environmental effects of monoculture, health and nutrition. Banning GMOs would not solve these problems. The argument can be made that focusing so much time and anger solely on GMOs is preventing these larger issues from being comprehensively addressed.

As for GMOs themselves: as with all technologies the question should not be “is it good or is it bad?” Such a black and white formulation misses the subtlety, complexity, and context of the real world. The question rather should be “in what situations is this helpful and in what harmful? How can we minimize harm and maximize benefit?” Answers to these questions require groups of technical experts, informed by social needs and opinions, hashing out sensible systems of regulation. It also requires the recognition, by these groups and by the public, that there is every likelihood we won’t get it exactly right the first time. The solutions to such complex problems are always going to be, at some level, a perpetual a work in progress.

For global food security in a healthy environment to become a reality, it is likely that we will have to combine many technologies, old and new, along with new ways of using them. We will probably seek to change the behaviors of individuals, governments, corporations, and societies. There won’t ever be a silver bullet, but the converse of this is that there probably won’t be one bogeyman either. GMOs are not that bogeyman. They’re just a tool, one that can be used poorly or well. To feed the world, we need to use all our tools well.

This is a link to the article.

And here is the citation: Leyser, Ottoline. 2014. Moving beyond the GM debate. PLOS Biology, 12 (6): e1001887.



Science The Endless Frontier

Science The Endless Frontier

A report to the President on a Program for Postwar Scientific Research

By Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research

Governmental reports don’t usually make for dramatic reading, but this document is perhaps an exception. Commissioned by President Roosevelt in November 1944 and completed in July 1945, The Endless Frontier outlines a vision of science in the postwar world that came to shape how research has been conducted ever since.

The report can be described very briefly as three things:

(a)      A passionate defense of the need for independently conducted basic scientific research (that is, research not dictated by a government agenda or any other central organizing body and with no immediate applications).

(b)     A justification of the role of government in funding basic science, but without exercising control in any way that would jeopardize the independence of such research.

(c)      Practical suggestions for the implementation of government support for funding science and educating scientists.

The last point involved both short and long term recommendations for recovery from the war (during which very few scientists were educated, there being very few exemptions from selective service) and improvement of the nation’s research infrastructure. These recommendations would lead to the creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950 and, in essence, the system of grants we have today. And while it would be naïve to think that political pressures and governmental agendas have never influenced how and what research has been funded, the NSF has continued to support the idea that basic reasearch should be conducted free from central planning, excessive oversight, or the need to provide or demonstrate practical application.

The foresight exhibited in the early drafting of this report is, to my mind, exceptional. The report was commissioned and written while the war was still very much the present reality. True, after D-Day, there was little doubt that the Allies would retake Europe, but it took nearly a year more to get to Berlin, and conclusion of the war in the Pacific was far more uncertain. Yet President Roosevelt and his advisors realized the importance of having plans and policies in place before the war ended. They knew that how the U.S. government acted with regard to science as the country transitioned off a war footing would have huge impacts for science in America and the world for decades.

Moreover, Roosevelt, Vannever Bush, and various committee members were some of the few who were aware of the full scope of wartime science. Of course, the report doesn’t discuss the Manhattan project, as it was still deeply classified. The transmittal of the the report to the President (Truman, by this point), occurred on July 5, 1945, eleven days before the Trinity test and a month before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Vannevar Bush and many of the committee members were certainly thinking about the project when they wrote about the need for openness, decentralization, and international cooperation in postwar science.

Apart from questions of transparency and freedom of information, the Manhattan project raised issues about the structure of the research community. Bush and others knew that once made public, the dramatic success of the atom bomb project would suggest to some that centralized, application driven projects could produce impressive results in other arenas. For this reason, they emphasized that wartime accomplishments had been built on generations of undirected basic research, and that a failure to support such research would eventually result in an empty reservoir of useful knowledge with which to tackle problems of applied science.

It was also clear to the writers that the U.S. would be taking a leading role in science in the postwar world. Between the large number of European scientist refugees working in America, the destruction of the social and physical infrastructure of Europe, and the catastrophic human toll of the war, the center of gravity of cutting edge scientific research had shifted considerably toward the United States (and, perhaps, to Russia). Before the war, research had been funded largely through university endowments or private donations. But as such donations had decreased, the cost of research had increased, and evidence suggested that basic research programs would become impossible without the injection of federal funds.

So the authors set out to construct a clear and reasoned argument justifying, on the basis of national security, a healthy economy, and progress in the development of technology, industry, and medicine, the use of federal funds to support basic research. Their success can be measured in the preeminent position of the United States in research spending and scientific publications, though recent alarming trends suggest that we should not be complacent, and indeed, would benefit from investing even more in basic research.

One last note: the fifty or so members of the committees contributing to this report – scientists, university faculty, industry leaders, and bureaucrats – were all men. Throughout the committee documents, most references are to “trained men,” reflecting the utter lack of women in science (and in nearly all professional careers) at the time. However, in a section devoted to developing scientific talent in American youth, the committee advises that scholarships and fellowships should be awarded “solely on the basis of merit, without regard to sex, race, color, or creed.” Moreover, in the final document transmitted to the President, all references are to “men and women” and “boys and girls.” Vannevar Bush clearly saw that the future of a successful American research community would include both men and women.

The clear-sighted vision of Science The Endless Frontier provides a much needed touchstone for scientists today. In what feels like an increasingly difficult scramble for funding, with increasingly strident voices clamoring for applications and guaranteed results, we need to become adept at defending research at the most basic level. Vannevar Bush’s words can help.

Beneath The Dome

Where once ‘wilderness’ was easy to define – vast expanses of the globe untouched, at least in the modern era, by humans – we are now confronting a reality in which the impacts of humans are being felt the world over.

Humans are not distinct from the global ecological context. We seek to control where species exist, both in and outside of our cities. Foxes are welcomed into the urban landscape as beautiful, while rodents are exterminated as filthy. Endangered species are propagated and released, and sometimes we kill their predators so that the endangered might survive. We must be mindful of what we are trying to control and why.

Conservationists are, I think, aware of the blurriness of such boundaries. But most people have not abandoned an idealized notion of a ‘pure’ wild that exists outside of us. Explaining this new reality is a task for educators and artists. I’ll encourage you to take the time to listen to Steven Millhauser’s short story “The Dome” (linked below). It was brought to my attention by friend and Philospher Stefan Linquist, and it explores these themes quite effectively.

“A change is in the air. You can feeling it coming.” http://thisisaweblog.com/2009/06/28/the-dome-by-steven-millhauser/

Exploring Nature and Calling it Work

Just about every biologist I know started out as a kid with a disproportionate fondness for messing about outdoors. We dammed streams, climbed trees, studied carcasses of rodents our cats dragged in, and painstakingly collected live sea creatures for private (and usually temporary) aquaria. Formal lectures on freshwater hydrography, forestry, mammalogy, and marine biodiversity did not spark our interest in biology, but rather provided scaffolding on which to rest our previously developed enthusiasm for and sense of ownership of the natural world. Apparently the geologists have a saying that goes, “The best geologists are those who’ve seen the most rocks. “ It seems that we as current or future biology teachers could and should coopt this quote for ourselves. In order to produce really good biologists or even biologically literate humans, we need to show students a whole lot of real live biology.

Students who become scientifically literate are those who can connect to scientific information to their own lives. It is a fact that modern American children are spending less time outdoors than ever before (Louv 2005). There is something very troubling about increasing isolation of young people from the unplugged, unlit, unheated outdoor environment. Forget about the demonstrated health benefits of getting dirty (Yazdanbakhsh et al. 2002), we as biology teachers should be facing the challenge of Nature Deficit Disorder head on. In this time of unprecedented global change, we cannot afford to produce scientifically illiterate students who are disconnected from their environment. So before we rely on lectures to teach about the natural world, let’s go outside and expose students to real patterns in nature. Let’s allow them see for themselves the real pressures threatening our environment, and provide them with a sense of ownership of and responsibility for protecting the future of natural systems.

A transect at the Indiana Dunes to survey plants.

Continue reading

Seven Minutes in Heaven of Science at Northwestern

Northwestern graduate students are giving lightning talks tonight about their research in (you guessed it) seven minutes.

Seven Minutes of Science will showcase graduate participants in Ready Set Go: Winter 2014 as they present their research in seven-minute presentations for a general, non-expert audience. The goal of this symposium is to share the great research going on at Northwestern in a way that is accessible to individuals from any field.

For more info and to register for this FREE event, check out the Ready Set Go site.

Thursday, March 20, 2014
5:00 PM – 7:00 PM

Northwestern University
2200 Campus Drive
Pancoe-ENH Building, Abbott Auditorium
Evanston, IL 60626

This looks like a cool event – I really enjoyed giving a quick talk about my science to a room full of game designers and developers back at the Science Jam, and they turned out to be really into seaweed research. More discussion between scientists and a more general audience is more fun for everyone.

On another note, this class Ready Set Go looks awesome. It was founded by Michelle Paulsen, program director for Reach for the Stars, a National Science Foundation-funded program that places Northwestern grad students in middle and high school classrooms to serve as ‘resident scientists,’ and Alex Adler, a PhD from Northwestern with a long track record with improvisation and STEM outreach. The class is just what many of us want – specific training in communications for researchers at an early stage in a scientist’s career. Way to go Northwestern!

Research Tool: Electronic Lab Notebooks

Hey researchers!

Do you have folders within folders full of files labeled things like “FINALfinal_draft-1.pdf.docx” or “Paper_v2.3_AKHedits_revisionJan2014.xls”? Tried to learn a version control program but it just didn’t stick? Would you like to have your pictures, methods, data, etc. from a single experiment all in one place? Find yourself sending the wrong attachments to collaborators, or explaining the metadata?

Perhaps you should try an online lab notebook! I’m going to talk today about closed and open online lab notebooks, specifically hosted on WikiSpaces.

I use WikiSpaces, which is a free (paid upgrades available) service that facilitates project management and collaboration. It seems to have been designed with classes and collaborative projects in mind, however, I find it useful just for keeping my own work together!


This is what a page from my WikiSpace looks like:


This particular page I’ve set up like a mini lab report. I have my excel file at the top so I can find it easily, with my Objectives and Methods listed so I can remind myself what I did (and it’s great to have it already written to make writing it up for a paper someday easier!). Adding tables is a little clunky, so I only enter data in that format if it’s simple and easier to reference. The blue text saying “Photographs” is a link to another page where I’ve uploaded photo files from my experimental setup. I can add captions and annotations on this page, like a scrapbook. The buttons at the upper right of the white part of the screen allow me to edit the page, show how many comments my post has (since mine isn’t public this is none), and how many revisions I’ve made to it. The gray toolbar allows me to jump to other pages and files, showing my most recently viewed pages. “home” is my chronological field notebook. I try to immediately transcribe field notes into the online version! It’s great while I’m waiting for the ferry.

One thing that is different about WikiSpaces from a blog like WordPress is that it acts more like a document manager than a series of discrete posts. It can handle lots of file types, and it remembers revisions, like a more hands-on and visual version control.

My electronic lab notebook is awesome because:

  1. I can access all my data from anywhere with internet.
  2. It helps me keep a chronological record of my work and keep my most recent versions of files right at the top.
  3. Within that chronology, I can link directly to pages that compile all my work relating to a single experiment or project, so it’s easy to look up when I did things.
  4. It’s more visual and intuitive than other version control resources like GitHub.
  5. I can link together multiple types of information that relate to a single experiment, such as photographs, graphs, tables, excel spreadsheets, and any other type of document (including code) with explanations/thoughts so I don’t forget what anything was.
  6. I can add my advisor or any other collaborator to the blog so that they can view and edit my resources too, which helps keep everyone updated on progress while I’m doing fieldwork.
  7. It’s searchable! Unlike a paper lab notebook, it’s easy to find every single day that I mentioned “rain” or “tanks”. Pages can be tagged too.
So what’s an open laboratory notebook?

Ph.D Models? Betabrand’s new lineup modeled by female Ph.Ds

I’m not quite sure how I feel about this. According to Adweek:

Betabrand, an online retailer of crowdsourced clothing, just launched its spring line, and the company decided to take a different approach to marketing the new looks: Each of the models would have a Ph.D.

On the one hand, it’s pretty awesome to see smart women with graduate degrees modeling clothing. I’m all for increasing visibility of women with degrees. On the other hand though, I’m running through all my fellow graduate students in my head from my Ph.D program, and we are a pretty diverse bunch visually. I’m inclined to agree with Hanna Brooks Olsen at The Stranger:

Diverse representation is cool, but this feels like theoretical diversity, rather than, you know, visual diversity.

The majority of the Ph.Ds modeling for Betabrand are white, thin and beautiful in a conventional sense.

Wow! Such PhD. Actually looks like a pretty standard model-y type to me. From Adweek.

It makes me think of the ‘white guy in a labcoat’ depiction of scientists. There’s not a whole lot of visual diversity going on there with Betabrand’s models, but at least it’s nice to see a depiction of Ph.D-holders focused on women.

Ah yes, there’s my portrait from picture day. From Wikia.

Thankfully we are getting to see a wider array of academics in more and more venues. The Field Museum of Natural History right here in Chicago has a fully functional DNA lab that doubles as an exhibit, so visitors can connect with a wider range of scientists coming from all over the world, beyond my friend Mr. Safety Goggles and Lab Coat above.

Overall though, something deep in my brain recoils a bit from the ad campaign – women are smart and (conventionally) beautiful and model-y all at once! I guess it’s a fine line, between celebrating these women and setting the bar pretty high for the rest of us – tenure’s going to get even harder if we’ve got to be models too. But then again it is just a bunch of ads for a clothing line. Maybe I’m being a downer on an interesting concept and Ph.D models are pretty sweet – I hear there is no such thing as bad publicity. What do you think?