Monday, February 25, 2013

Assorted links: predictable evolution, why the US government maybe the best thing for open access, and the lab junk drawer

A few interesting places to start the week. Probably these are worthy of full blog posts, if only I had the time.

A recently published paper in PLOS Biology shows that in multiple experiments, independent  populations of E. coli showed similar processes driving adaptive diversification. That is, similar ecotypes of E. coli arose from different populations, sometimes as a result of the exact same mutations at the same nucleotide position. A really cool result.

Good news on the open access front - the US government revealed a new policy stating that publications from taxpayer-funded research should be made free to read after a year’s embargo. It will remain to be seen how this plays out for most researchers, but it appears to be an important step, and one inline with European policies. It seems like steps made by big governments and universities will ultimately be what will create a new normal in publishing.

Why do biology labs tend to have hoarder-esque tendencies? Even newish labs seem to have a junk drawer of equipment that may or may not work inherited from past tenants, half used primers, ancient samples in a freezer somewhere, and more sharpies that don't work than do. An amusing list of the usual suspects was complied in this comment thread.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Academic ambivalence, part 2: poor prospects

The topic of Caroline's excellent post on why we choose grad school and an academic career seems to be hitting an on-line crescendo. A number of blogs and numerous posts to the ECOLOG listserve have been arguing and lamenting the state of job prospects and the grad school experience in general. What has been lacking is an analysis of the job numbers. In a case of perfect timing, Jordan Weissmann, and The Atlantic, has posted an excellent analysis of the numbers of recent PhDs employed across fields. The general message is: the number of fulltime, permanent jobs waiting for PhDs has been declining. However, the proportion of PhDs taking up post-doctoral postions has not declined (and in fact has increased for many disciplines).

From PhD comics

People in graduate school need to be cognizant of the available options, but it seems that if there is an emerging bottleneck, it certainly is not at the postdoc stage (the proportion of postdocs has not changed recently). Of course, the academic stream is but one option for recent PhDs, and the loss of other opportunities is a serious concern. The graphs in the Weissmann post enumerate full-time jobs, and I wonder how many people are taking up part-time, sessional positions as a way to move forward? Regardless, employment opportunities are changing.

My feeling is that academic institutions should be doing a better job of researching, and presenting viable career options to their graduate students. There are a number of industry, governmental and non-governmental postions out there, but people in academia often have a very limited understanding of these types of positions -where they are, how many are available and what kind of training they are looking for.

Perhaps it is time for graduate programs institute real career training.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Academic ambivalence: why do we want to join the academic pipeline?

(This is inspired by a few related posts, and the ongoing discussion in the comments and elsewhere...

At the foundations of the University is the concept of academic freedom, unhindered exploration. At their best, universities are reservoirs for society’s brightest and most creative thinkers, people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to explore their intellectual potential. Despite the worst things we might say about academia, it is a place with unmatched room for the exploration. And as a result, academic positions are in constant demand from bright, thoughtful people.

As every grad student learns, academia’s popularity greatly outstrips the availability of research funding and academic positions. Last year there was a string of articles declaiming graduate school as a mistake, a pyramid scam, and an institution in drastic need of rethinking. It’s also a place where students interact with like-minded peers for possibly the first time, succeed or fail at independent research, and experience more responsibility for their own success than many full-time employees ever will. Depending on who you listen to, it will be the best, or the worst, experience of your life.

And then there are tenure track positions. These are the holy grail of the academic pipeline. Advertised positions in ecology often get more than 100 applications for a single job. And yet everyone knows that these jobs are accompanied by a list of problems. They are unremittingly--exhaustingly--competitive, and for that reason, they are associated with long working hours and no concept of “overtime”. The frequent moves between universities mean that relationships can be strained or disrupted, the long hours make family life complicated, and women faculty especially face balancing pregnancy and childrearing with academic demands.

And yet. Hundreds of applicants for every position. So this is the ambivalence about academia: is it one of the best jobs in the world or the worst ones? An (admittedly ridiculous) article in Forbes about how faculty jobs are among the least stressful received rapid condemnation. But this must be reconciled against the fact that many professors choose to remain active years after retirement, and that faculty jobs are often ranked among the most fulfilling.

One consequence of this system of concurrent reward and punishment, with its supply of many similarly-talented people and stochastic element, is a strange culture of competitive martyrship. This shows up in many subtle and less-subtle ways on job boards, in personal conversations, on panels and discussions, in the comments on blog posts. The funniest example I’ve experienced was the comment from a grizzled prof that having a dog would decrease my publication output by one paper a year (I can’t imagine how much a baby would set it back). The saddest examples are people who emphasize that they work 12, 14, 16 hours a day, at the cost of seeing their children and/or spouses. These statements are always made with the confidence that this is the necessary sacrifice for success, that people not willing to give up on balance and hobbies and everything else in life are deserving (or at least risking) failure. The people who make these claims are survivors of the academic arms race. They found one strategy (immense hard work combined with talent) that got them through. But this can create the attitude that those not able or willing to sacrifice aren’t deserving of a position – rather than that the position may demand too much of people.

Such people also tend to be more vocal than other survivors of this arms race who had more success balancing the personal and professional. If you are lucky as a grad student, you know some faculty members who had families, hobbies, personal interests, and managed to be successful academics. This suggests that the dichotomy between personal and professional success is not absolutely necessary.

What we really need is less rhetoric and more open debate about what is acceptable and what is appropriate in academia, and how to shift the culture to be aligned with this. This is difficult, but also not impossible. For example, departments can decide that they want to encourage a particular atmosphere within the department. For example, EEB here at the University of Toronto has decided that they want to support families: as a result, there is a move to provide some maternity funding for graduate students, and provide income for faculty on maternity leave to hire a postdoc during this time. The hope is that this postdoc will help reduce the publication gap that having children can cause by maintaining research activities, while also providing support to current undergraduate and graduate students. Obviously this is only a drop in the bucket. But what matters is that we recognize that academia combines both good and bad, and merely selecting for those people who can survive the bad isn’t optimal. Instead, we can try to make academia a place where the best people can thrive. In this I am, and hope to remain, an idealist.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The birds and the bees and the microbes

Vannette et al. 2013. “Nectar bacteria, but not yeast, weaken a plant-pollinator mutualism”. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences.

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."- John Muir

You can’t help but marvel at the complexity of ecology, at the intricacy and multiplicity of species interactions. But this complexity is also problematic. For many ecologists, it becomes necessary to focus on a single type of interaction, or on interactions limited to only a few species. But real ecological systems are hardly ever limited to a single important process. They might include competition, mutualism, facilitation, predation, environmental constraints and fluctuations, additive and interactive effects, nonlinearities, thresholds and emergent properties. Can knowledge of  omplexity emerge from simplicity? Can simplicity emerge from complexity? These are important and longstanding questions in ecology, the focus of some of our smartest minds. We may not have the answer yet, but if nothing else, it is helpful when experimental work in community ecology attempts to explore multiple interactions.

For example, some of the work from Tadashi Fukami’s lab is focused on how communities of microorganisms (yeast and bacteria species) assemble in Mimulus aurantiacus nectar. In the past, this work has focused particularly on priority effects and resource competition, which plays an important role in structuring these communities. While past work has suggested the importance of pollinators as a dispersal vector for microorganisms, fascinating new work suggests that microbial communities have important effects on pollinators and their mutualistic interactions with the host plant as well.

Vannette et al. (2013) focused on the effects of the two most abundant species in Mimulus nectar, Gluconobacter sp., an acid-producing bacteria, and Metschnikowia reukaufii, a yeast. They then looked at three related questions – how do nectar microbes affect nectar chemistry, how do they affect nectar removal by hummingbird pollinators, and how to they affect pollination success and seed set. Basically, do nectar microbes disrupt important mutualistic interactions between the plant and their pollinators, or are their effects neutral?

This is where the story becomes interesting. Both types of microbes altered nectar chemistry, but in different ways. The bacteria acidified the nectar (to ~ pH 2.0) far more than the yeast species, and tended to also reduce the sugar content of the nectar far more than the yeast. Hypothesizing that these changes could ultimately affect pollinator preference, the authors then filled artificial flowers with nectar containing either the bacteria, yeast, or no microbes. Half of these flowers were bagged to prevent hummingbird access. Compared to the bagged controls, flowers with bacteria-inoculated nectar had less nectar removed than either yeast-inoculated or sterile nectar. It appeared that nectar removal was related to the changes in chemistry driven by bacterial growth in the nectar. Finally,  the authors looked pollination success in relation to microbial inoculation. Flowers inoculated with bacteria did indeed have less pollination success (measured as the number of stigmas closed) and had decreased seed numbers. Microbial communities were not isolated from the ecology of the plant.

Perhaps none of this is that surprising – hummingbirds are intelligent and will preferentially feed, and pollinator choice is important for plant fitness. However, these bacteria and yeast species are specialized for growth in the hypertonic nectar environment and their continued presence in the ecosystem depends on dispersal from one flower to the next before their host flower dies. The transient nature of this nectar habitat suggests that obtaining a dispersal vector should be important. The fact that Gluconobacter alters nectar chemistry in a way which negatively affects their likelihood of movement to other patches suggests an interesting paradox and a complicated relationship between plants, their nectar microbes, and pollinators. Gluconobacter species growing in Mimulus flowers produce acidifying H+ ions and reduce sugar concentrations in nectar – this increases their likelihood of winning competitive interactions with other microbes in the nectar, which should select for the maintenance of acidifying, sugar-reducing characteristics. But on the other hand, these characteristics reduce the likelihood of being transported to new flowers and persisting in the metacommunity. Further, these pollinator-decreasing characteristics may result in selection by the Mimulus plants for nectar compounds that reduce microbial contamination. So understanding competitive interactions in microbial communities, or understanding pollinator-plant interactions, or understanding pollinator-microbial interactions on their own might be inadequate to understand the important ecological and evolutionary processes structuring the entire system.

Given that the question of simplicity vs. complexity is still so difficult and at least for me, uncertain, I would hesitate to draw a general conclusion about whether this is the kind of work all community ecologists should strive for. But it seems that recognizing ecological and evolutionary context is key, whether you work with Arabidopsis, microcosms, or tropical forests.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Travel the world with the Carnival of Evolution

The latest edition of the Carnival of Evolution, hosted by Lab Rat, is online. Take an evolutionary journey around the world.