Writing habits

I read Helen Sword’s Air and Light and Time and Space: How successful academics write earlier this year, and a few months later, I find myself going back to it again and again. It now sits on the shelf next to Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and On Writing by Stephen King – a book about the hardships and pleasures of writing.

One of the first posts on this blog was about my plan to finish my dissertation – “Writing Goals”. I had recently read How to Write a Lot by Paul Silva, which is basically a kick in the pants to write every day, without fail. I took it to heart, and tried. But I rarely actually wrote every single day. I did not stick to a regular schedule of, say, a 2 hour block of time every morning devoted to writing. I certainly wrote most days! I got the dissertation done, but didn’t ever get in the habit of sticking to a specific, daily routine like Silva advocated. And I definitely never started writing on the blog with any regularity, like I thought I would.

Over the years, I’ve tried other strategies. Some people get a lot of writing done in half-hour chunks – it takes me twenty minutes just to remind myself where I left off! Others binge-write, like a student pulling an all-nighter to turn in a paper. Been there, done that, too exhausting to be a long-term solution. Writing “retreats” where you escape to the wilderness for a few days, sequester yourself away from normal life – I wanted to hike and stare at the birds, not write.

Air and Light and Time and Space surveys successful academics and workshop attendees, and comes to a conclusion: there is no One True Way ™ to be a productive writer. Given that many of the strategies that people swear by didn’t work for me, I find this immensely comforting. The book provides a deep look at what people actually do and then celebrates the diversity of those practices. Sword herself was surprised – she adopted the daily writing practice long ago, and thought it would be common. Some academics certainly benefit from it, but many take other approaches. The main commonality – you have to write on a regular basis. What counts as a “regular” basis varies, but successful academics make writing a habit. Sword focuses on the practice, the process of writing. Writerly habits. She analyses data from surveys, and provides excerpts from interviews, and encourages us to find joy and satisfaction from the process of writing.

What has worked best for me? A consistent writing group. I joined a writing group at my last postdoc in Minnesota, and that was often the most productive chunk of time during the week. We met two times a week, for three hours in the morning, laid out our goals for the session, and wrote. At the end, we’d check in on how far we’d gotten. There were three of us at the core of writing group, and several others who cycled in and out, or would come once a week. That group has evolved – Amy left for a faculty job at University of Kansas, Peter is on leave for his new kiddo, I started a new postdoc at UVA. But we’re evangelists for writing group – Amy has one at KU, I’m getting it going here in Virginia, and others have taken up the mantle for the UMN writing group.

Writing group works for me – and all of us, I think – on a couple levels. First, habit and practice. Writing will never be easy for me, though it can be rewarding. But practice makes it more doable, and much easier to get started. Getting started has always been the hardest part for me, at least. Once I get going, I often enjoy writing quite a bit! A time and place reserved for it establish cues – the library is for writing. Or conference room, or friend’s office, or wherever. Rituals can help with this too. I make a cup of tea, then I write. I listen to this music, then I write. I open my notebook and get out my favorite pen, then I write.

Making writing social helps, too. As previously established, I am very introverted, so was quite surprised by how effective it was to turn writing into a group activity. But, it is! For one, if I didn’t show up for writing group, I was letting down a friend. Guilt can be powerful (for better or worse). Stating intentions – and knowing that I had to state them – got me to plan more in advance, and prioritize what I was doing. Over the course of a few months, stating my goals and seeing whether I met them also gave me a better sense of what I could (or could not) accomplish in a set time. Prior to writing group, I didn’t really know how many paragraphs I could write in three hours, or how time it would take to revise a section of a paper. I do now, more or less. And, by voicing goals for a session, there was immediate accountability. Telling your friend that you just futzed around for half the time would be embarrassing. And you can’t procrastinate on it – tasks, even with deadlines, can be put off for later. But knowing you have to say what you did for a three-hour chunk? You have to actually do something during that time, to have something to report. Finally, just having another person physically present reminds me of what I’m supposed to be doing. They’re writing, I should be writing, so I’m gonna start writing. Attention starts to wander? Oh, wait, my friend is here – they’re writing, I need to do that too.

Writing group ensures I have the time to devote to bigger projects and support to actually start on those tasks. It’s what works for me. I’ve had a little, lingering guilt that I wasn’t necessarily writing every day, like I thought academics were “supposed” to. Air and Light and Time and Space reassures that there’s no one way to do approach writing, and gave me some ideas for other strategies to experiment with. This is not the book to read if you’re learning how to structure a paper or advice on wordsmithing – I still love The Scientist’s Guide to Writing and Writing Science for those. I think Sword’s book will be a source of inspiration, though, and a push to think creatively, analytically, and without judgement about how to foster effective writing habits.

Ridiculously large conferences as an early career introvert  

American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting is coming up in a couple weeks, and prepping for it has been on my mind. Terry McGlynn over at Smallpond Science had a recent post about going to a truly huge conference for the first time, and how easily it could be isolating for junior scientists. AGU is “my” meeting, but with 25,000+ people it can definitely be overwhelming! Stephen Heard also has a good post on how to deal with conferences as an introvert, but I thought I’d expand, with a focus on the triple threat of introversion + giant conference + early career.

Just to give my bona fides a bit – AGU was the first conference I ever attended, as an undergraduate. I was visiting family in San Francisco anyway, and just applied to graduate school, so it made since to attend for a day to meet potential advisors. Since then, I’ve attended six more times, presenting a poster or talk five of those years. I am also very, very introverted. It drives me up the wall to be around people all the time. I’m not shy anymore, but it took effort to overcome my tendency to be a wallflower with strangers who I respected.

So, here are some things that I do to make sure I can cope with AGU as an introvert still in my early career, and strategies that I worked on to become more outgoing. It ended up being a long list, but I hope folks find it helpful!

  • Well, first – I don’t go every year any more. If you only have funding for one conference per year (often the case for students/postdocs), I think it’s a good strategy to switch between a big, interdisciplinary meeting and a smaller, more focused one from year to year. There are benefits to both types of conference, so take a longer-term view and figure out which one will be better for you that year. On the job market? A big meeting might be better. Still developing your thesis? The chance to think in-depth for a whole week about your topic will probably be super helpful!

  • Housing – finding housing while introverted and on limited funding is tricky! A few things to think about:

    • Do you have to have a roommate? What has worked best for me is to find something a little farther away from the conference center, and have a commute rather than share a hotel room with 1-3 other people. There are usually reasonably priced hotels and AirBnBs, with a 30 min bus ride from the conference center.

    • If you do have a housing mate, can you get separate rooms? My roommate and I this year have separate bedrooms in an AirBnB, 20 min from the conference center. A closed door makes a world of difference. If a big group of you rents a whole house, though, this works less well.

    • What’s your roommate like? Extroverted roommates can actually be the best, if you need quiet time alone! They are way more likely to be out socializing, while you take a break from people.

  • Plan ahead: You will absolutely not want to spend time on Wed night figuring out what you’re doing the next day. You will not be able to pin down a prospective advisor for impromptu coffee. You and your field-buddy will be super busy, and have a hard time finding a common free moment to catch up. These are the things that I (try to) plan before leaving home:

    • What conference events, plenary talks, and workshops am I interested in? How high of priority are these?

    • What sessions look the most interesting? As much as possible, I tend to stay in one session for an entire time block. My first couple AGUs I switched between multiple concurrent sessions and the poster hall constantly. It was exhausting. You won’t be able to see all the great science, so try to minimize the energy/stress spent running between things.

    • Relatedly – do I have the right notebook for the conference? I ran out of space in my moleskine one year, and deeply regretted it. Make sure you have plenty of blank pages left, write down reminders about key things you’re interested in, and be sure to note any questions you come up with during the conference.

    • Who do I want to meet with? This includes colleagues and friends, and potential collaborators. Reach out ahead of time, if possible. I also like combining these with other conference events – the Earth Science Women’s Network Reception, for instance, is always a good time to meet with folks, and introduce yourself to some new people too.

    • Are there any chunks of time that I can miss?

    • Are there any cool sessions/talks at the conference that are wildly outside my field but sound awesome? Sometimes it’s energizing to listen to someone talk about Mars or earthquakes, without having to think too critically about it. Just to appreciate all the neat things that are going on within the scope of this massive meeting.

  • Taking breaks: I need time away from the conference, and crowds. I get overloaded, and there’s diminishing returns, anyway. How many talks do you remember by the last day? I start to lose my ability to focus on conversations after 3-4 uninterrupted days of a meeting, too. Breaks are restorative.

    • I usually take a chunk of one morning and one afternoon off at a meeting like AGU. Having a late morning, where I don’t feel rushed, helps a ton. And taking an afternoon to visit a museum or arboretum is also a much appreciated break. The first conference I presented at, a group of students took a trip to the beach one afternoon, and ran into all our advisors. Don’t feel guilty about missing out for a bit.

    • Don’t plan on going out every evening, or choose to call it early at least a couple nights. Maybe schedule a breakfast meeting instead of dinner one day. It will be less crowded (and probably cheaper), and can help get the day off to a good start. You might be yawning, but you might also be a little more focused if you haven’t just spent the past 8 hours surrounded by people and science.

    • Find a couple quiet corners in the conference center that you can retreat to for a 15 min recharge. There’s often quite a few people in these spaces, but none of them are looking to interact. They just need to breathe (or work frantically on their presentation) for a moment, too.

    • If you’re meeting friends for lunch, just stop by a grocery then head to a park. Getting away from the crowds and ambient noise is a break, all on its own.

  • Networking: There are a ton of people, way better at networking than I am, who have written all sorts of helpful advice. But, below are a few things that I try to do, specifically at AGU.

    • AGU Poster Sessions are great! People actually attend them, and some of the best discussions at the conference are often at a poster. Dedicate good chunks of time to posters, not just attending talks all day long.

    • Do you see someone whose poster is neglected, or standing awkwardly alone during a reception? Go talk to them! Good practice for you to be outgoing, and maybe it will end up being productive.

    • At a poster, it’s ok to not have a ton of follow-up questions. Get the presenter to walk you through, see if you can come up with a few things. But it’s also ok to say, “That’s cool! I need to think about it more, but I’ll be interested to hear what you find next.” Then feel free to swap contact info, or move on.

    • If you can, find a conference buddy. Maybe it’s your roommate, maybe it’s an old friend from the field, maybe it’s someone from your department. Plan on attending events together, as moral support. Push each other (a little) to speak to a bigwig at her poster. Get together for a low-key evening to catch up and go over how the conference has been.

    • Was there a talk you really enjoyed? Say so! Go up to the speaker after the break. Very few scientists will be rude if you compliment them, then ask a question. Remember the notebook from earlier? Write down a question or issue from their talk that caught your attention. And, if they do brush you off – well, they honestly are unlikely to remember you very well. Just move on.

    • Explicitly ask your advisor to introduce you to people. Mine was very good about this, without needing a reminder – the 2nd year I presented at AGU, he dragged three senior people in quick succession to my poster, and I felt a little starstruck before getting distracted by the science. But not everyone will think about this without prompting.

    • If your advisor is not attending, ask them to put you in touch with a few people ahead of time, preferably other early career folks. Other people can be good about this too – committee members, other PIs on your project, postdocs in your lab.

    • If there’s no one like this that you can ask to help introduce you around – well, I know I mention ESWN a lot, but look into the website and FB group. I’d guess that there are other issues with grad school that you might be struggling with, and we’re super supportive!

    • Go to the networking events, like the ESWN one mentioned above. They are hard. But a lot of other people there feel the same way, and they are there to meet people too.

  •  Asking questions at talks: I had an epiphany at a conference in about 2014. Someone stood up after a talk and asked one of those questions – long-winded, unclear, and kinda missing the point of the talk. And I thought, “Oh! It doesn’t matter if you ask a dumb question.” It’s really hard to ask a question so outlandish that it will stand out, that people will remember you and think, “Dang, she’s just not up to par.” The stakes just aren’t that high. If there’s something that confused you, you probably aren’t the only one. If you think of an interesting implication of their research, following up adds value.

    • Again, write it down! You will not remember.

    • Practice beforehand. Speaking in front a bunch of people, off the cuff, is hard. Ask questions during your departmental seminar on a regular basis, or at smaller regional meetings. Building confidence takes time. Formulating a good question on short notice also just takes practice.

    • Make an effort to ask questions of student presenters. They might be nervous, and starting the Q&A from someone not as intimidating helps. There’s also research showing that if a junior person or under-represented minority asks the first question, other junior and under-represented scientists are more likely to participate, too.

    • If it seems like no one is going to ask a question, come up with something. The moderators will thank you, since otherwise they would try to ask something, and they might have been focused on other things. I had one talk with no questions after, I think at ASLO in 2013, and I felt mortified. Try not to leave the speaker hanging! Any question (as long as it’s not hostile), is better than no question. 

That’s a long list, but I hope folks will find it useful! And if you’re going to AGU, let me know! As much effort as it takes to be outgoing during these giant conferences, I really do love meeting new people at them.  

The Academic Hiring Season Doesn’t Have to be The Hunger Games

I have a confession. I kind of like applying to jobs.

It scratches the same itch as applying for grants. I enjoy thinking about all the cool new things that I could do next. Back to the Arctic? Working in coastal ecosystems? Turn my focus more to nitrogen or microclimates or long-term trends in biogeochemical processes? Try something entirely new? How might I apply my existing skills to a new, local ecosystem? Who might be my next collaborators, what fun intersections are there between our sciences? What courses would I get to teach – seminars, where upper level students delve deeply into a topic? First-year, introductory courses, where students first learn and get excited about how our planet works?

Figuring out potential answers to some of those questions makes me eager for each position. But it also decreases the stakes, just a little. Yes, I’m on pins and needles, waiting to hear back from each job. If I don’t hear back, or am rejected, it is disappointing – I wanted that job! But I also know that it is not the One True Job for me. There are other positions out there, ones that I would be happy in.

This attitude also helps me avoid seeing my colleagues as competition, which I think is essential to be in academia and avoid bitterness.

Postdoc applicant pools might be tiny (just a few) or large (dozens). Faculty pools even more so. I’ve heard of job ads that got only 20 applicants, for specialized positions in fairly rural areas, to 400+, for broad ads in ecology at major R1 universities in desirable places. And, yeah, you are being measured against others. But viewing the other applicants as your competition doesn’t really help. For one, you don’t know who they are, unless you have a couple friends applying for the same position. For another, those “competitors” are also your potential collaborators and long-term members of your academic community. Why waste the energy resenting them, when you might want or need their cooperation down the line?

A few months ago, one of my good friends had a string of well-deserved success – a paper published in Nature Geoscience and faculty offers from two R1 universities. When Amy told me about the first faculty offer, I immediately high-fived her and gave her a hug. She’s awesome, and I was psyched for her!

A little later, I think when the NG paper came out, I did the same – a high-five and a congratulations. She mentioned that some of her officemates in a different department had been…a bit begrudging their congratulations. As if they resented her success a little bit, when she was just hoping that her friends would be excited for her.  A high-five was perfect – celebratory, satisfying, short. This wasn’t about making a big deal, just about appreciating each other’s success.

Amy and I applied to some of the same faculty positions (though not the ones she was offered), and worked in the same lab. We applied for a (rejected, unfortunately) grant together. There is plenty of overlap in our interests. But I never thought of her as competition for jobs. We were at different career stages, had different goals, and different priorities for what we wanted in a faculty position. The hiring committee who hired her would not have considered me. And, likely, when (if) I get a faculty position, that hiring committee would not be interested in someone like her.

The things you can do get a faculty position, to increase your chances, are not about competing against each other in a zero-sum fashion. You publishing in a high profile journal does not mean there is one less spot for me to do the same. There are always more students you could mentor, more ways to demonstrate your commitment to teaching or outreach or inclusivity. Grants are competitive, but in some ways similar to faculty applications – there are so many high quality proposals, that it often comes down to whether you catch the interest of someone on the panel. Getting a grant – and getting a faculty offer – is some mixture of your qualifications and skills, your ability to sell yourself, fit, and a healthy dose of luck.

I’ve only been part of one faculty search committee, as a grad student representative almost 5 years ago. I’m not exactly speaking from a deep well of experience. But if you read all the blogs, and twitter, and talk to faculty, many will say the same thing. “Fit” for a position ends up being highly important, as does luck. There are issues with that, as people sometimes will think that an applicant won’t “fit in” if they are from an underrepresented group(s). But, no matter how explicit the ad is, you can’t predict exactly what the search committee is looking for. It’s not just a matter of how many papers you’ve published or how much grant money you’ve received or whether you got your degree from a top university. If faculty hiring isn’t just a measure of those quantitative things, then comparing yourself – and competing – against others doesn’t really help. Danny* might have more publications than you, but maybe they only worked on one project for a long time. Elise* was a co-PI on a grant, but isn’t down to teach that introductory GIS class the department has been trying to offload. You can’t predict how a hiring committee is going to weigh those different strengths, so why worry about it?

My point: when I apply for jobs, I tailor things to highlight why I’ll be an asset, what I plan to achieve, and how my achievements thus far demonstrate that I will succeed. I don’t worry about whether I stack up against other applicants. I don’t stew about why I wasn’t invited to interviews, if I hear that someone else was. Maybe I’m wrong – I don’t have a faculty offer in hand to back up my way of thinking. Maybe I would be more successful if I had more of a competitive drive to beat colleagues in the academic hiring game. But I think I would be less happy, less satisfied.

So, when my friends get faculty offers – I’ll offer more high-fives.  



*Made up people

Note: This whole thing was sparked by a twitter thread, but these are issues I’ve been thinking about more broadly and wanted to expand upon. This is not meant to be a pointed criticism of Michael Hoffman’s tweet – the academic job search can feel cut-throat, and he’s wishing luck to all. But I’m hoping that we can push-back against the idea that it’s a to-the-death competition from a dystopian society. We all will do better if we celebrate each other’s success and pull each other along.

Thread linked below.

Roundup from #LGBTSTEMday

July 5th, 2018 was the first annual #LGBTSTEMday, organized by Pride in STEM, Out in STEM, InterEngineering, and House of STEM. As a capper to pride month, queer scientists took to twitter and social media to share their stories, reflect on queer science, and post lots of rainbow-themed science pictures. Below is a round-up of a few posts that I found worth bookmarking, plus some tweet threads. 

American Geophysical Union, From the Prow: LGBT STEM Day: Time to talk about it

AGU is my “home” professional association, and has been pro-active (at least compared to some other organizations) about promoting diversity, creating policy to combat harassment, and speaking out about science policy. I was glad to see someone from the AGU Board of Directors writing directly about her experiences as a queer woman in the geosciences.

Nature comment: LGBTQ Scientists are still left out

“In science, where our personal lives already take a back seat, it can feel unprofessional or career-damaging to be open about something as personal as our LGBTQ identity, and no scientist should feel pressure to do so. But without visibility, other scientists will not benefit from a sense of belonging and inclusion.” Striking a balance between outspoken-ness and professionalism can be difficult – that’s true for any under-represented minority. But the often “invisible” nature of LGBTQ scientists has its own twist on that struggle.

Science Careers: Visibility matters: a conversation with the co-founder of 500 Queer Scientists

Dr. Lauren Esposito talks further about why visibility and community building matters so much to queer scientists. Even if someone is not in a position where they would feel comfortable being out, we can help them feel less isolated. Knowing you are part of a larger community, having people you can reach out to or role models you identify with – all these help scientists cope.

The Lab and Field

Dr. Alex Bond has been writing on his blog about being LGBTQ in STEM for years, and had quite a few great posts this past pride month. Some highlights include asking why professional organizations aren’t engaging in LGBTQ diversity and inclusion, a Queer in Science Ask Me Anything, and essential reading for straight allies. And dig into his archives on queer science!

One professor’s experience as queer in science (thread)

Being a good ally of queer scientists (thread)

Why does #LGBTSTEMday even exist?

And many, many rainbows of science!

God Save Texas

I recently listened to Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas on a couple of long drives across the Great Plains. The book fit with my contemplative mood and the rolling hills of Middle America flying by.

Wright is a native Texan and journalist, who won a Pulitzer for his book on Al Qaeda and the road to 9/11. God Save Texas is part memoir, part history, celebration of Texas and critique of its many flaws. Just like me, Wright has a deep but ambivalent love of our state. The culture and history and natural beauty and politics of Texas all draw me back and repulse me away from home.

We claim Molly Ivins, Ann Richards, Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson. But also produced Ted Cruz, Greg Abbott, Rex Tillerson, and Rick Perry. We have the hallmarks of the American West – canyons (Palo Duro), mountains (Guadalupe), deserts (Chihuahuan), and ocean (Gulf of Mexico) – but none quite as deep or high, dry or dramatic as states further west. We were proudly independent, until we had the choice of ending slavery by accepting an economic bailout from Britain or joining the United States. Texas chose slavery. And, let me tell you, I did not learn that until reading this book, despite multiple courses in Texas history growing up.

Texas represents opportunity. The state economy weathered the Great Recession relatively well, and now bustles with tech businesses, fossil and renewable energy industries, tourism, healthcare, and research. It is deeply red and “politically immature” as Wright calls it. But the state is slowly, oh so slowly, turning blue and progressive. The 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate is a lesbian Latina, the first major party candidate in the state to be openly gay or Hispanic. Beto O’Rourke is giving Ted Cruz a run for his money for Senate. Texas is majority minority, since 2011. And Texas culture can’t be beat – a melting pot of the Deep South, American West, and Mexico in its music, literature, art, cooking, and architecture.

Wright, ultimately, can’t see himself living anywhere else, for all of Texas’ flaws. Nowhere else is home.

I am a postdoc in Minnesota, and am still trying to figure out the next moves in my career. Scientists, whether they are academics or working in other capacities, do not routinely have much flexibility in the location they land in, most of the time.  I love exploring places, and want to try living in new cities, states, even new countries.  I miss Texas. I have things that remind me of home – a print of a grotto in the Hill Country, a bottle with sand and shells from the Mustang Island beach, a candle that smells like bluebonnets. But I don’t, in the end, have much desire to go back, though. The state has changed too much from where I grew up, although many of those changes are for the better. Wright says he and a friend couldn’t “have lasted in Texas if it were the same place we grew up in, but we’re so powerfully imprinted by the culture it’s impossible to shake it off.” That imprint will stay with me, but the state is changing both too fast and too slow for me to want to return for now.

I visited recently, and everything felt different than the imprints I carry around in my head. The grackles still made ungodly, mechanical croaks as they flocked around the ferry in Port Aransas, but Hurricane Harvey had devastated the town. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, but the old school building down the street is being converted into HQ for Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.  It takes longer to escape the Hill Country McMansions, but the old cedar breaks are still heady with the scent of juniper. Fracking development continues to transform south Texas from flat, empty expanses of bad roads to busy highways dotted with drilling platforms and semis. None of these changes are bad or even very new, strictly speaking. It just all adds up to an Uncanny Valley version of home.

Plus, Texas is already too hot. I can’t imagine what 2°C of climate change will do.

God Save Texas encapsulates how I feel about Texas, how strange and great and problematic and frustrating the state is. Wright ends the book with a tour through the state cemetery, where he and his wife go to pick out their burial plots amongst other Texas luminaries such as Barbara Jordan, the astronaut Eugene Corman, and Ann Richards. He could have chosen to live somewhere else, may have been someone else – a player in Washington or big man in Hollywood. But, Wright reflects, he would not have been home.

I am thinking of my own path differently, as I navigate finding my next position and future career. Maybe I won’t be home. But I’ll take the pieces of Texas that I love with me.

What Can I Do? Being a Climate Scientist Post-2016 Election

I felt gobsmacked on Tuesday night. I spent the day cooking for friends, excited to celebrate our first female president. As the results started to roll in, we ate carnitas and drank beer and mostly ignored the TV, confident in America's choice. Then North Carolina and Florida started to look more red than blue. We got quieter, and checked results on our phones, until one friend looked up and said “All the swing states are going for Trump.” Those swing states included Wisconsin and Michigan, states that I never thought of being up for grabs.

I moved to Minnesota this summer, and spent four months driving around the rural Upper Midwest, sampling lakes. There were a lot of Trump/Pence signs, and a lot of people that we talked to who probably voted for them. We chatted about water quality and the weird weather as we launched boats and explained our research. People care deeply about their lakes, in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Especially in rural Minnesota, everyone wanted to know about their lake health and talked about zebra mussels and marveled that we could measure algae blooms from space. I often brought up climate change, and not a single person tried to contradict me or pick a fight. I don’t know if they accepted the science of climate change, or if this was a symptom of the “Minnesota Nice” I’ve heard so much about. If they did accept climate change as real, I don’t think it swayed any votes in the rural Midwest.  I don’t think love for their lakes and forests was on anyone’s mind as they cast a ballot.  In retrospect, I wish I had tried to make that connection.

There are a lot of proximate reasons that liberals and progressives and marginalized groups are up in arms about a Trump presidency, paired with a Republican Senate and House.  There are immediate threats, easily linked to specific policies. But climate change – and many environmental issues – are background issues. Rolling back regulations on carbon emissions affects quality of life indirectly, but that effect is unequivocal. The disconnect, though, remains a key part of why communicating the threat of climate change has been so difficult. Each extra ton of carbon dioxide emitted means more sea level rise, more permafrost thaw, a greater threat to biodiversity and the services ecosystems provide. So, what can I, as a scientist studying these issues, do? What can you do?

I don’t know all the answers to that. It will be different for each person. But here are some things I will be doing and thinking about over the coming months and years.

As an educator, I will talk about climate change in every class I teach. I will talk about why climate effects how we live and the places we value.  Because, as others have said, providing students the tools to speak and act with authority will be even more important under an anti-science administration.  We will all have to be more resolute to protect our oceans and lakes, rivers and forests.  I will do my best to do this myself, and help students prepare for this struggle.

As a researcher, I will continue to explore the ways human action has influenced our aquatic systems, through climate and land use change. I will work to understand how rivers in the Arctic, lakes in the Midwest, estuaries in Texas are changed by our way of life and how those changes will feedback into the climate system and downstream ecosystems.

As an academic, I will work to make my institutions safe and welcoming for women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQgroups, and disabled people. I will contact our Diversity and Inclusion office, and advocate to create opportunities for students from marginalized communities.  I will continue to be involved in the Earth Science Women’s Network, and Association of Polar Early Career Scientists, to make all of STEM more accessible, and to work in partnership with indigenous communities who are threatened by climate change.

As a citizen, I will write letters to my legislative representatives and city council and governor’s office, and yes, even the Trump transition team. I will do my best to articulate why climate change is not a partisan issue, why it will affect everyone who wants to vacation in Florida, or escape to a quiet lake, or just spend less money pumping water out of New York’s subway system.

As a new Minnesotan, I will seek out opportunities to educate the public and K-12 students about climate change and watershed management. Admittedly, this is the most nebulous of my plans. I do not have a network, yet, of local organizations and educators who could help enable connections with non-university students. I did in Texas, though, and this is something I will try to work on in the coming months. Ultimately, this might be one of the most important things that I, or any scientist, can do. There are a lot of people who love their environment – from fishermen in Texas to hunters in New England to everyone in Minnesota with a family cabin on a lake. I hope I can help them see that their voice and votes are important. That climate change will affect them and the places they hold dear, and no matter their political persuasion, they can help enact smart climate policy.

As an individual, I will find climate action organizations that I believe in and contribute either time or money to them. Again, this is something I need to research more. But there are a lot of people out there trying to advocate for climate change prevention and better energy policy. One of them (at least) will be a good fit for me.

Finally, I will do what I always do – I will read, and try to educate myself about climate change and diversity and improving STEM. I will say yes more often. I will try to be a better person and a fiercer advocate for what I believe in.  This year has left me feeling raw and drained, but I will try to work hard and be empathetic.

I’ll be honest. This will be a difficult, uphill battle. Optimism feels out of reach. Science, specifically climate change initiatives, has been on the chopping block for a long time. The House Science Committee has been on a vendetta for years now, and some scientists and environmental groups have been targeted by state government with Freedom of Information Act requests or frivolous investigations.  I think that will get worse. A friend, from Colombia, started asking me in a panic what we could do to stop the EPA from being gutted. She was galvanized because this matters not just to the US, but on a global scale. When scientists are ignored or intimidated into silence, it is difficult to know how we can accomplish anything. I don’t know that we can. But I think it will feel worse to not try.

So, that’s what I’m doing. Some of it is a continuation of what I have already done, some of it is new, some of it is stepping up my previous efforts. I hope you’ll consider what you can do.

Take a deep breath. Remind yourself of the places and people you're fighting for. And do what you can.

Take a deep breath. Remind yourself of the places and people you're fighting for. And do what you can.

Writing Goals, Take Two

I’m re-posting one of my first blog posts (not that there’s been that many!) as inspiration for this year’s #AcWriMo. What’s AcWriMo, you say? You can find out more here, but it was inspired by National Novel Writing Month. A bunch of people (academics, in this case) banding together, across the world, to try and get some writing done.  

The below post was written over a year before I finished my PhD, so a little of it is outdated. But the sentiment holds true. The only way to accomplish your writing goals is to sit down and do it. Otherwise, life will sneak up and things will never get done. You’ll never find a day for nothing but writing, so chip away at it, a little at a time. It’s like science – sometimes you’ll move forward in leaps and bounds, but a lot of your progress will be incremental, building on what you had before. And that’s a good thing.

My goals for #AcWriMo:
•    Write one hour, daily. Three hours on Wednesday. Preferably more each day
•    Complete Response to Reviewers for paper #1
•    Submit paper #2
•    Write proposal for special issue paper
•    Continue to refine materials for faculty applications
•    Write an actual blog post

Good luck, and happy writing!

Original post:
When I want to procrastinate, which is all too often, one of my top strategies is to engage in “career development.”  Looking for jobs that I might be qualified for, poking around www.sciencecareers.org or the Earth Science Women’s Network (www.eswnonline.org), or reading columns on Inside Higher Ed or the Chronicle.  And the blogs.  Oh, the blogs.  So many.

Of course, the advice in many of these resources on becoming a successful academic, or really any type of scientist, boils down to one thing:


Write more.  Write every day.  Every single day.  Treat it like a meeting – have at least a half hour of your day blocked out to write.  Just get in the habit.  Practice, practice, practice.  Don’t get distracted.  Turn off your internet.  And WRITE.

I know this.  I’ve known this for years.  A couple of years ago, I went on a kick of consuming a bunch of books about writing.  I read everything from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to Josh Schimel’s Writing Science.  Stephen King’s On Writing and William Zinsser’s Writing Well.  Strunk and White.  Science Writing and Communication.  And guess what they said you should do?


When I was 17, I tried to do National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, for those in the know).  Hundreds of thousands of people participating, trying to pound out 50,000 words in the month of November.  That’s 1,667  words a day.  Up through this sentence, this post is 240.  I made it about half way through my novel, then stopped for a couple days and could never pick it up again.  I still argue that November is a terrible month for this – how does anyone write during the chaos that is Thanksgiving?  Nonetheless, every few years I try again.  But I have never been as disciplined about it as that first time.  Sure, I can pound out that much pretty easily on any given day, but not day in and day out.  Establishing that habit, that pattern, is key.  I learned that in high school through my failed novel, and it still holds true.

Writing science is different, of course.  Getting a paper done is not so much about hitting a word count every day, as it is about finishing an idea or section.  That might be the entire methods section (which I did a VERY rough version of yesterday for one paper) or it might be just a short paragraph in your discussion.  Or the carefully phrased research questions in a proposal.  Or the abstract as the cake topper to your (mostly) finished work.  The point is, though, to get through something.

So, that’s my goal for 2015.  Not to write a novel.  Not to get ~1500 words a day.  But just to write.  Every day.  At least half an hour.  For now, it can be anything – a blog post even!  But, especially as I really get down to writing that pesky dissertation, more and more of it will be science.  

Happy Mapping!

Walking down the beach, it’s easy to lose perspective.  I live on Mustang Island – a long, skinny barrier island on the Texas coast.  When I first moved here, I’d stroll down the beach and think, “I’ll turn around when I reach that condo.”  Only for the walk to my marker stretching over two miles, rather than the half mile I’d originally thought.  The building stood out amongst the dunes, but each step – each minute – didn’t seem to bring me that much closer to my goal.

Finishing my Ph.D. feels a little like that, sometimes.  Until recently, each step did not always seem like it advanced me towards the end goal – my dissertation.  Now I’m barreling towards the end, approaching rapidly.  But I’ve been thinking and talking and writing about one overarching project for so long, it is easy to lose sight of what makes my work exciting. 

So I really appreciated getting a reminder of how cool my job is the other day.  I’d been emailing with a colleague, who kindly supplied me with some watersheds GIS data and signed off with “Happy mapping!”

I love maps.  I have a map hanging for every wall in my apartment.  One of my labmates still gives me a hard time for how giddy I was when USGS had a $1 map sale a few years ago.  A friend just yesterday commented on my notebook, adorned with a copy of the first geological map – also featured in an excellent book by Simon Winchester called “The Map that Changed the World” (which you should read).

Organic matter in the Kolyma River in Northeast Siberia

Organic matter in the Kolyma River in Northeast Siberia

 Really, mapping is much of what I’m doing in my dissertation.  I’m mapping organic matter in the giant Arctic rivers.  These maps give us information on how tributaries of the major rivers might differ; how much the rivers’ chemistry changes over the season; even how some rivers may have changed over the past thirty years.  That is a pretty cool project.  And “happy mapping!” was a nice reminder.

Finding the fun in scientific writing

“I for one find Hennig’s polysyllabic terminology irritating.  After years, the “heterobathmy of synapmorphy” still does not trip lightly off my tongue.  But no matter: the tide of terminological change can no more be arrested by protests of those of us who are more terminologically conservative than can the flow of molten lava from an erupting volcano be stayed by prayer.  Like it or not, “unique” is coming to mean “rare” and adverbs are going extinct.” - David Hull, Science as a Process

This is the end of a footnote from David Hull’s Science as a Process, and I don’t think an academic book has ever made me laugh more.  Then stop and think about why this is actually a pretty great piece of writing.

Science as a Process chronicles the sometimes vicious battle over taxonomic methods in the second half of the 20th century.  The social interactions between the scientists – centered at Kansas State University and the American Museum of Natural History – devolve sometimes into fights, but that is Hull’s point.  Scientific progress happens because of the groups and collaboration we form and debate against.  Science itself is an evolutionary process where the fittest theories survive and spawn the next generation of ideas. 

The book explains the science and sociology well, but its dense – I’ve been reading it for about a year and am still less than 200 pages in.  But that’s precisely why this footnote was so wonderful.  After pages of trying to wrap your head around the difference between phenetics and cladistics and phylogenetics, you get a brief look at the personality behind the text.  Hull is ironic, metaphorical, and despairing.  I really wish I could see him debate William Zinsser or Stephen King over the proper and good use of adverbs.  The footnote is a relief. 

Scientific writing tends towards dryness and, as Hull says, “polysyllabic terminology”.  Little bits of humor sneak in through an arch title or snide reference to some hotly debated topic.  There may be the occasional out-and-out argument at meetings and conferences – but those are only ever witnessed by a small handful of people.  Rarely do we enliven our professional communications with anything beyond a couple of lame puns.

Yet, we get downright gleeful when talking about our science in less formal settings.  One friend will wax lyrical about kelp at the drop of the hat.  Another is making a display of snake skins that she finds.  I will talk incessantly about Arctic climate change with little to no provocation.  And, contrary to popular belief, many of us are good at communicating our science.  We talk to public audiences and teach at high schools.  We involve kids in searching through mud for bugs or tracking zooplankton as they zip across a microscope slide.  Twitter erupts periodically with content like #overlyhonestmethods, #DistractinglySexy, and #fieldworkfail.  But that enthusiasm rarely crosses over to our academic writing.

Maybe scientific writing doesn’t have to be quite such a slog.  Maybe we can use humor and metaphor the way any other author does – to make a point.  I think there’s more of that now – Jeremey Fox over at Dynamic Ecology has a couple of posts on humor in scientific writing.  It's definitely essential when talking to non-scientists.  The CDC did an entire simulation on how they would handle a zombie outbreak, as a way to show how to effectively respond to any emergency.  I’m not sure how – or even if – I will work in something to make my dissertation a little more enjoyable for the reader (and myself).  But it is something worth thinking about.

Favorite Reads of 2015: Fiction

Favorite Reads of 2015: Fiction

I read mostly sci-fi and fantasy fiction, but there are a couple books from other genres thrown in here.  Again, not all of these books were published in 2015.  I just read them this year. Very brief thoughts below!

Ancillary Mercy by Anne Leckie

The conclusion to this series continues to ask questions about identity, class, and social justice against the backdrop of farflung space opera.  The first in the series is still the best, but Mercy is a strong ending – even if some of the aliens involved make me grit my teeth a little.

Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson

I stayed in London for a few days after a conference, and was chatting with my AirBnB host about books and the Arctic, when she handed this to me.  Kolymsky Heights is a post-Cold War thriller, which…not my usual fare.  But large parts of it take place in the Arctic.  In fact, most of the action happens in and around a town where I’ve done field work and written about a couple of time here - Cherskiy.  I wouldn’t say it’s a great book, but I definitely got a kick out of it – the terrible science counterbalanced by bleak, engrossing set pieces of Russian winters.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg

Another thriller, again with questionable science and an Arctic bent.  I enjoyed Smilla’s Sense of Snow much more than Kolymsky Heights, though.  A Greenlandic boy is killed in mysterious circumstances in Denmark, and Smilla – herself half Greenlandic, and friends with the boy – investigates.  Smilla is dark and cynical and completely impatient with bureaucracy and Danish cultureYet she recognizes that her attitude is at times hypocritical.  Great characters, bleak settings, and some unexpected twists.

Shepherd’s Crown/ Tiffany Aching series by Terry Pratchett

Somehow, despite having read Terry Pratchett for years, I’d never read the Tiffany Aching Discworld series until this spring.  Knowing his last book was the conclusion to Tiffany’s story, I started them shortly after his death.  And immediately regretted that I hadn’t read them twelve years ago when the first, Wee Free Men, was published.  Tiffany is a witch in the making, and the books chronicle her growth into being one of the greatest witches in Discworld.  Shepherd’s Crown, Pratchett’s final Discworld novel, was particularly poignant. 

Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette-Kowal

The conclusion to Mary Robinette-Kowal’s excellent series, set in Regency era with a slight twist – there is magic, of a sort.  Glamour bends light and creates illusions, but has few other applications. Of Noble Family continues previous themes of family versus ambition and career for Jane, the main character, while tying into a bigger story of slavery and human rights in British Caribbean colonies during the early 19th century. 

Bryony and Roses by T. Kingfisher

Ursula Vernon, author of comics and kids books, writes for adults under the pen name T. Kingfisher, mostly retold fairytales.  Bryony and Roses re-works Beauty and the Beast with a few wonderful twists.  Gardening becomes central to defeating the antagonist.  Vernon’s writing is more wry and humorous than Robin McKinley’s fairy tale novels, but are still compelling (if too short!) reads.

Uprooted by Noami Novik

Possibly my favorite book of the past year.  Agnieszka is a confused young woman, navigating entrapment by a menacing sorcerer, politics, and the archetypal, poisonous, evil Wood that surrounds her village.  She fights for her home, but especially for her friendship with Kasia, her closest companion.  While some high fantasy in this vein ends up feeling rather generic, Novik does an excellent job differentiating her world from any other, with Polish folk tales pulsing throughout the story and world.

The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Going meta a bit, I think there are three main aspects of storytelling that factor into whether a book is worth reading or not.  Character, plot, and world-building.  Do the characters have personalities, make decisions that are consistent with those personalities, shift and change as their circumstances force them to grow into a different person?  Is the world they inhabit rich and well-imagined and internally consistent?  Is there a plot that makes at least a little bit of sense?  Of these three, plot is the factor that actually interests me the least.  The Long Earth series, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, has relatively little plot.  Things happen, but the pace is slow and each book has a theme rather than a strong plot.  The characters are interesting though, and the world building – across an infinite number of parallel Earths that people can hop to – is excellent.  There are strange creatures, space exploration, and Pratchett’s patented brand of absurdism, combined with Stephen Baxter’s realistic science fiction. 

The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein

Another slow-paced series with strong characters and an intriguing world.  Steerswomen (and a few men) are wanderers whose only purpose is to ask questions and learn about the world.  If they ask a question, a person must answer.  And the steerswoman will answer any question asked of her.  Rowan finds some mysterious pieces of crystal that lead her on a quest across barbarian badlands and discovering weird creatures with a … unique way of communicating. These books cross genre from fantasy to sci-fi and back again, with wonderful imagination. 

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemison

The other top contender for favorite novel of the past year.  N.K. Jemison is a master of world-building, creating setpieces unlike any other in fantasy.  Plus, a fast-paced story that jumps through time and space.  Her characters evolve and react – or sometimes over-react – in understandable ways as their world is literally shaken apart.  Excellent!

Favorite Reads of 2015: Science Edition

My goal this year was to read 75 new-to-me books, and I’m  nearly there.  I thought I’d take this week and next to highlight a few favorites.  I listen to nonfiction audiobooks a fair amount during long car rides and chores, so I’ll make note of which ones I listened to versus read, and maybe comment on the narrator.  Also, these are books that I read in the past year, but a fair number of them were published pre-2015. Science books first!  Next will be fiction, followed by history/social sciences. 

Song of the Dodo by David Quammen (1996)

David Quammen, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Carl Zimmer are probably my favorite science writers.  Quammen, especially, does a magnificent job of weaving scientific theory, field anecdotes, and biographical notes of eminent scientists together into one seamless story.  Song of the Dodo, written in the mid-1990s, is the story of island biogeography and extinction.  Quammen jumps from Darwin and Wallace inciting “a shitstorm of resentment in Victoria’s England” to isolated patches of Amazonian forest amongst Brazilian plantations, and everywhere in between.  We learn how evolution, and its close cousin biogeography, developed as disciplines – and what these theories will ultimately mean for species survival in a fractured landscape.  One of my favorite books, ever.  I’d also recommend Spillover, Quammen’s more recent book on zoonotic diseases, and once again one of my all-time favorite  books.

Dry Storeroom No. 1 by Richard Fortey (2008) 

Richard Fortey was director of the British Natural History Museum for years, in addition to being a trilobite expert and writing quite a few popular science books on natural history.  This time, Fortey dwells less on the science and more on the people.  He gives a chatty, gossipy look behind the scenes of the BNHM.  Sure, there’s science.  But this book is mostly a description of the quirky individuals and sometimes controversial developments inside the museum.  Anyone in science will recognize a few personalities.  The stories reveal not just the comings and goings of people and ideas, but also the sometimes cut-throat politics of science at a public institution.  Fun, enlightening, and well-worth the time.  I read it shortly before actually going to the BNHM, and enjoyed knowing a bit of what was going on beneath the surface. 

Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth by Alan Weisman (2013) 

I actually switched between audiobook and the hardback (signed by author!) for this one.  I had the hardback first, but found that I never quite got around to finishing it, so the last half I listened to.  Weisman wrote World Without Us previously, imagining what would happen to Earth if humans disappeared.  He now tackles the opposite end of the spectrum: what are the consequences of too many humans, and how can we control populations?  Using on-the-ground interviews in places as different as India, Iran, and Israel, Weisman addresses what works and what doesn’t to limit population size.  What are the obstacles to accessible birth control?  Are the economic, cultural, political? The answers are surprising.  I found the section describing Iran’s successful family planning program – and how it was later dismantled – the most interesting and informative.

How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro (2015)

How does cloning – or rather, de-extinction - work?  What species (plant, animal; extinct or near extinct; charismatic or keystone) should be revived? What happens then?  Should we even try to bring back species that no longer have an ecological niche?  Shapiro addresses each of these questions in turn, or attempts to answer them.  As with anything in science, there are no easy solutions, and multiple ways to achieve any goal.  Even trickier than the scientific obstacles are the ethical ones, though.  The recently extinct (or near-extinct) species that would be easiest to revive mostly lack a home – their native habitats are gone or greatly reduced.  That applies even more so to mammoth and their ilk.  The great steppe tundra that mammoth perpetuated has gone the same way as the ice-age megafauna – Pleistocene Park notwithstanding.  There are no easy answers to these issues, but Shapiro has a fun and fast-paced style laying out all the complications de-extinction faces.

The Strange Case of the Ricketty Cossak by Ian Tattersall (2015; Audiobook) 

Science does not progress forward in a linear fashion.  There are leaps and bounds, sidepaths and backtracks.  Similarly, evolution itself does not progress forwards towards a particular goal.  Evolutionary trees are bushy, with many branches that diverge again and again, or end abruptly.  Tattersall demonstrates the complicated nature of both evolution and scientific progress through primate paleontology.  There may now be only one species of human, and a few Great Apes, but that wasn’t always the case.  Paleoanthropology sometimes had a hard time accepting that there were other Homo species, that humans are not the result of a regular ascent towards some apex.  Hence, the Ricketty Cossack  whose bones actually belonged to a Neanderthal, not a bow-legged horseman.   Tattersall tracks the scientific developments that led to our discovery and acceptance of a bushier family tree with anecdotes, biographies, and criticisms of those who tried to force scientific results to fit their own theories.

The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures by William deBuys (2015; Audiobook)

 I started listening to this on my way to Austin over Thanksgiving, and did not want to stop.  William deBuys narrates his own book, which can be hit or miss – this instance is definitely a hit.  He details the search for saola, a rare ungulate in the mountainous forests of Laos and Vietnam.  Somewhere between antelope and cow, the saola was only noticed by Western science in 1992.  Faced with poaching and habitat destruction, the already rare beast is likely dwindling even further.  DeBuys accompanies a wildlife biologist, a couple of Laotian students and officials, and a rotating team of local guides on grueling treks through unpopulated (except for Vietnamese poachers) forests.  The subject and writing both harken to Peter Matthiesson’s search in The Snow Leopard, complete with quirky ecologists, exhausting hikes through remote Asian wilderness, and an elusive quarry, with occasional asides about the author’s personal life.  The Last Unicorn is less personal than The Snow Leopard, but the writing is engrossing and the science explained in a cogent, clear manner.

Career paths and transparency in academia

Nature News released a story this week, “How to Build a Better PhD”.  Labor economists, as explained in the piece, have long advised academics that we are over-producing doctoral students.  Too many newly-minted PhDs for too few faculty positions.  Anyone in academia knows this, we often have long discussions of it, and yet the system doesn’t change – or, if it does, the change is incremental.

Most of the Nature News story focuses on the statistics and fates of PhD students, plus some suggestions on how to fix the systems.  I wasn’t surprised that only 26% of PhD students end up in full-time academic positions, but I never would have guessed 37% of PhD biology students leave their program before finishing.  But, the career paths of many students remain unknown – or at least untracked.  Stanford made an effort to track doctoral graduates and found only 31% of recent cohorts were employed as postdocs.  Statistics following students after graduation are rarely collected by universities, however.  Advice ranges from, “stop producing PhD students” to providing training in management and budgeting applicable to jobs both inside and outside academic science.  Those management skills are sorely lacking in academia, actually – we all know faculty who could improve their time management, and even as a sixth-year PhD student I have little experience in creating a budget for an NSF proposal.  Basic job skills are learned on the fly and some more formal instruction would probably give us all a leg up.

Overall, the article lays out the problems with our current systems nicely, and offers some possible solutions.  However, one sentiment (not long dwelled upon in the article) sparked a bit of a rant on Twitter, and I’d like to expand on that here.

“Meanwhile, some experts say that the onus falls partly on prospective and current PhD students to make sure their eyes are open. They should arm themselves with as much information as possible, says Labosky, so that ‘they are aware of their alternative options and can make plans’.”

While I do think students should attempt to make an informed decision about entering graduate programs, the onus is not on them.  If universities can’t even be bothered to formally track the fate of their graduates, how can we expect new students to know how competitive academia really is?

Starry-eyed early-twentysomethings are often exhorted to “do what you love and love what you do”.  That ideal leads many to graduate school.  Certainly, that’s how I landed where I am now.  And I do love what I do.  I love debating and discussing science, and learning new things.  I love how much I travel – for conferences and field work.  What other job sends you on a month-long, all expenses paid trip to northeastern Siberia?  I’ve met amazing people and made great friends.  I’ve discovered things that no one else knew before.  Just yesterday, I annoyed my officemates as I cooed over a new figure for my dissertation, elegantly summarizing months of work in one scatterplot.  I identify as a graduate student, a scientist, and an academic.  I’m open to alternative career paths, but I think I would make a good professor.

And, yet.  Miya Tokumitsu’s article last year, “In the Name of Love” rings true.  It is a privilege that I can afford graduate school.  I do value the intellectual products of my work more so than the money. Which can be a problem, to pull a few quotes from the article:

“[O]ur faith that our work offers non-material rewards, and is more integral to our identity than a ‘regular’ job would be, makes us ideal employees when the goal of management is to extract our labor’s maximum value at minimum cost.”   


"Is there any way we can get our employees to swoon over their desks, murmuring “I love what I do” in response to greater workloads and smaller paychecks? How can we get our workers to be like faculty and deny that they work at all? How can we adjust our corporate culture to resemble campus culture, so that our workforce will fall in love with their work too?"

This attitude has become pervasive across other industries as well (unpaid internships are rampant in the arts and entertainment, for instance, although science also claims infamy on that front).  Academia embodies this attitude across entire careers, not just at the beginning.  No one, even the most idealistic undergraduate, expects to be making bank as a professor.  But many do expect a secure, steady income doing what they love in a university setting.  And, these days, those jobs are pretty thin on the ground.

Academia can be a bit of a closed community, for all our talk of outreach and “broader impacts”.  We discuss academic politics and problems with each other ad nauseam, but often remain tight-lipped to outsiders.  Do new students know that faculty searches often weed through one hundred applications?  Or 450 applicants, as one position (again, from Twitter) apparently had?  Do departments routinely tell undergraduates attrition rates, or placement 3 years after graduation?  5 years?  10 years?  Probably not.  Probably, most departments only know career paths of some alumni, not all.  Our department is currently constructing a complete alumni list spanning 30 – 40 years.  That’s essential information to assess our success as a department, yet only in the past two or three years has that database been created.

So, what to do about it?  I think a key problem is transparency.  Departments need to track their students after graduation, and be upfront with those statistics.  Current faculty and students, particularly senior students, need to be honest with prospective students about career prospects after graduation.  Faculty who advise undergraduates should let them know the consequences of pursuing an academic career – both the good and the bad.  And, yes, prospective students should seek out that information.  But that knowledge and data has to first be freely available.

Pleistocene Park

Wandering through taiga, tromping through thick underbrush of willow and birch in Siberia, it is easy to imagine yourself transported back to the last ice age.  Bison could be browsing over the next hill; cave lions napping across the river.  The Arctic feels wild and untamed, even though humans have left indelible marks on the landscape. 

Northeast Siberia is a historically important place - infamous during the Soviet Era, home to gold-mining industries and gulags.  Scientists now study the Kolyma because of a much more distant past, however.  During the Pleistocene, too little snow fell in the region to accumulate ice sheets.  The Kolyma remained largely unglaciated, unlike much of North America and northern Eurasia.  Instead, windblown dust deposits accumulated, burying the steppe-tundra ecosystem, and then freezing to form permafrost.  Slowly, these deposits, called yedoma, built layers of organic rich permafrost tens or even hundreds of meters thick.   They are still there today, storing carbon from 15,000 years ago and more.  However, yedoma no longer accumulates.  The ecosystem has changed drastically, from grassland to boreal forest.  A clue as to why can be found along the eroding Kolyma river bank at Duvannyi Yar.

At Duvannyi Yar, scientists have studied the exposed and thawing permafrost.  They’ve found ancient seeds, 30,000 years old, and germinated them in the lab.  And anyone can walk along the shore and find bones exposed by slumping permafrost as it degrades and falls into the river.  These bones reveal the rich ecosystem that thrived here during the Pleistocene, home to bison and musk ox.  Horses and reindeer.  Wolves and moose.  And, of course, mammoth.

Duvannyi Yar - an eroding river bank along the Kolyma where yedoma exposes ancient bones.

Duvannyi Yar - an eroding river bank along the Kolyma where yedoma exposes ancient bones.

These megafauna roamed the landscape, grazing and fertilizing grasslands.  Their high densities prevented trees from encroaching on the steppe tundra from the south by trampling any seedlings.  Much as the many grazers of the African savannah maintain that tropical ecosystem, their high-latitude counterparts performed the same function.  

Then, humans migrated north and east, eventually reaching the far corners of Eurasia.  With them, they brought a wave of localized extinctions (and some not so localized).  The great herds of bison and mammoth and horses disappeared from the Kolyma.  And with them, the steppe-tundra ecosystem. A recent paper in PNAS describes this process, globally.  The dense, diverse populations of large herbivores from yesteryear were fundamental to maintaining open woodlands and grasslands.  Remove those species, and the entire landscapes becomes more forested.

However, a few Russian scientists are trying to recreate the steppe-tundra, at a place called Pleistocene Park.   They have built fences to hem in their herds.  They traveled to the Wrangell Islands for musk ox and western Russia for bison and wapiti (a type of deer).  They lured horse herds with salt licks and captured baby moose to release into the park. 

And, of course, they have a Soviet-era transporter to knock down trees, in lieu of a mammoth.

It’s all very well to try to re-establish a lost ecosystem, but why?  Sure, there is inherent value in “re-wilding”, but there are also more practical reasons.  Namely, the steppe-tundra was much better at storing carbon in the ground than the current larch forests of the Kolyma.  Forests and mossy tundra that now dominate much of northeastern Siberia insulate the ground.  Snow accumulates more easily, and the bitter cold air temperatures do not penetrate as deeply into the permafrost.  The permafrost underneath taiga or moist, mossy tundra, while still frozen, is less cold than might have been the case in a steppe-tundra ecosystem.  Thus, the permafrost – and the millions of tons of carbon stored within it – can thaw more easily in today’s modern ecosystem than might have been the case if mammoth still walked.

Baby moose at Pleistocene Park

Baby moose at Pleistocene Park

Pleistocene Park and its founder, Sergei Zimov, been featured in a number of recent articles and papers about global extinctions of ice age megafauna.  I’ve enjoyed reading journalists’ descriptions of the places I’ve been, and the people we work with, but I think my favorite discussion of Pleistocene Park was in a recent book.  Beth Shapiro’s How to Clone a Mammoth discusses the science and ethics of “de-extinction”.  We might – emphasis on might – be able to raise some sort of mammoth from the grave, but what happens then?  Will it survive?  Should it survive?  Pleistocene Park is an obvious place where new mammoths might be kept, but that doesn’t mean de-extinction is advisable.  Still, I was delighted to scratch the ears of a baby moose while there.  I can only imagine what it would have been like to, instead, give a baby mammoth a pat on the head.

A week of DOM

Well!  That was fun.  I’ve been back about a week, (mostly) caught up on things I’ve missed, and now seems like a good time to talk about my trip.

First, shortly after uploading the last post, I realized my computer charger was missing.  Unfortunately it didn’t turn up at either the conference or the hotel, so I was without a computer for over a week.  Typing up a blog post on my phone was not appealing.  Hence the lack of updates! Although, thank goodness for technology.  I was still able to keep up with email and work on a review from my tablet (How many devices do I have?  Too many).

DOM in the Ob River.

DOM in the Ob River.

Anyway, the meeting was fantastic.  I’ve been working to use satellite imagery to map the amount of organic matter in major Arctic rivers.  A sample from the Ob River in Russia is to the left.  I don’t get to hear from other folks in the remote sensing community too often, which makes meetings like these very important.  It’s a chance to hear what criticisms you might get when sending your work out for peer-review; suggestions to improve; enthusiastic questions from people interested in your work; and (hopefully!) opportunities to collaborate with anyone doing complementary research.   This meeting in particular was great for all these types of discussions.  It was intended to be a small conference, only about 80 people.  Which meant that there was plenty of time to talk about everyone’s research during breaks, at dinner, or over drinks.  Usually all three. 

I usually go to the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting – 23,000 scientists descend upon San Francisco every December.  Volcanologists and planetary scientists to atmospheric chemists and glacial hydrologists, every discipline of earth science attends.  I enjoy the scale of it, and nowhere else do you get the opportunity to hear about such diverse topics.  But I have to admit, the intimacy of one room of DOM specialists compared to the small city of all stripes of geoscientists, was a nice change. 

Sopot itself was a neat town.  I didn’t have the chance to explore the larger adjacent city of Gdansk (formerly Danzig), but we did wander around Sopot quite a bit, with a few of the local Polish researchers taking a group of us to a spot or two.  The hosts of the meeting organized a barbeque one night, that featured a whole boar.   Everyone from south Texas to Poland likes a pig roast.  Afterwards, we migrated to a bar on the beach, and watched ships move across the Baltic Sea as the sky darkened.  We had a few visitors too – the ubiquitous hooded crows and a red fox that wandered around the beach, begging for food.  All in all, a great week!

A lovely gradient of colored organic matter concentrations in a variety of local Polish beers.  We're going to make our own brewery: St. Mary's Stout to the  Lawrence River Lager, all named after famous waterways and their respective color.  

A lovely gradient of colored organic matter concentrations in a variety of local Polish beers.  We're going to make our own brewery: St. Mary's Stout to the  Lawrence River Lager, all named after famous waterways and their respective color.  


Greetings, from the International Workshop on Organic Matter Spectroscopy, from Sopot, Poland!  I'm here for the week, then going to hit a couple other spots around Europe.  It's my first time out of the country that is NOT for field work, so I'm pretty excited!

Of course, my visit could have gotten off to a better start.  Mainly because I'd been in my hotel room for about 20 minutes and this showed up:  Giant House Spider.  Too fast to get a picture or squish it, but it was about 1.5 inches across.  I like bugs and I yelped.  According to google, not venomous (thankfully).

The park across the street from the workshop

The park across the street from the workshop

Still, I've very much been looking forward to this trip.  It will be a good chance to present my research, get some feedback, and talk to other folks who also want to discuss organic matter and little else for 4 days.  Plus, Sopot is a beautiful spot.  

After this, I'll be going on a (nerdy) vacation, to take advantage of being on this side of the Atlantic.  I'll try to post a few updates about that, and this workshop!

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

We started off the workshop today with a tutorial on drEEM , a MATLAB tool that uses PARAFAC.  This is a method to take the optical properties of organic matter, specifically fluorescence, and identify common chemical components. Dissolved organic matter is a bit of a black box - we don't actually know much about its structure or properties; this is one method to try and shed some light on that black box.  I don't know a whole lot about drEEM or PARAFAC yet, but the workshop was definitely helpful. I at least have a starting point!

The really exciting (for me) stuff starts tomorrow.  We'll have three days of researchers sharing their findings on colored dissolved organic matter in high latitudes.  I'm in the first session of the day, talking about remote sensing of DOM in large Arctic rivers.  More on that - after I present!

A few books

Well, there went my plan to update once a week or so.  I do have a couple of posts in the making – one on the Anthropocene and one on my own research on using satellite imagery to monitor Arctic rivers.  In the meantime, here are some books I’ve read in the past few weeks.  No particular order:

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

If you like fantasy, fairy tales, or novels with a deeply rooted sense of place – read this book.  Agnieszka, a coltish young woman, awaits the day that her best friend, Kasia, will be taken from their home as a tribute to The Dragon.  The Dragon is no mythical beast, but a century-old sorcerer, who plucks one 17-year old girl from the valley he oversees, once every ten years.  Kasia is beautiful, self-assured, and talented.  Yet, Agnieszka is the one who is taken.  In doing so, she is drawn into a world of magic, intrigue and an ongoing battle against the malevolent Wood. 

Uprooted came out on the day that I flew back from New England to Texas last month.  I was spending the night in the airport, and rather than trying to sleep, I devoured this book.  Novik drew inspiration from Polish folktales, and that translates into a wonderfully atmospheric setting for her story.  The Wood feels like an archetype of an evil forest.  Plus, I found Anzieszka to be a very relatable character whose choices and actions actually made sense.  Not always the case in genre fiction!  Her friendships with Kasia, the Dragon and other characters evolve and motivate her in believable ways.  Suffice to say, I loved this book.  Novik already earned a spot on my comfort-reading shelf with her series of dragons in the Napoleonic War, but this is even better .

Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele

A few weeks ago, as part of a workshop, the National Academies hosted a webinar and panel discussion featuring Claude Steele.  He spoke about stereotype threat and implicit biases, and how we might be able to combat those obstacles.  About halfway through his talk, I bought his book (oh, ebooks, how I love thee).

People experience stereotype threat when they fear being at risk of fulfilling a negative stereotype about a group they identify with.  High school girls (and younger) do poorly on math exams compared to boys, in part, because they have added anxiety from this stereotype threat.  That anxiety – the actual, physical and mental symptoms of it – prevent them from performing their best.  The same holds true for other groups – white men in athletics and black students taking academic exams are cited frequently in Whistling Vivaldi.  Steele steps through how this theory was developed, what the effects are and how it is possible to lessen  stereotype threat.  As someone who might be teaching students in the relatively near future, I found this book particularly interesting.  There are strategies here that could make any classroom more welcoming and effective – not just for a few privileged students already likely to succeed, but for all. Underrepresented groups in STEM face other hurdles, of course.  But stereotype threat is an important topic for any educator to understand.

Missoula: Rape and Justice in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

I started this a few weeks ago, and set it aside.  This weekend, I read the remaining 90% in one go.  I won’t lie – it is an upsetting read.  I had to pause every few pages (to alternately yell at the book or drink a bit more beer as fortification).  However, Jon Krakauer writes a gripping story, sympathetic to the people involved and backed by extensive research into the psychology and statistics of rapists and their victims.  Missoula may have grabbed headlines as a place of inordinate sexual violence, the “rape capitol”, but really it represents a standard college town in America.  Brace yourself, and read Missoula.

Robin McKinley

I needed a palette cleanser after Missoula, so I’ve been reading some old favorites by Robin McKinley.  Most of her books are standalones, but set in a very loosely related world – many are retold fairy tales.  Rose Daughter retells Beauty and the Beast, my favorite fairy tale.  I told a friend this recently, and she looked at my bookshelves, at my stack of books on the coffee table, and my necklace (a book made out of handmade paper and reclaimed leather), and said something to the effect of, “Is it because you relate to Disney’s Belle?”  She’s probably right.  Anyway, Rose Daughter also features gardening, and the best use of unicorns in any fantasy novel, ever.  Other favorites by Robin McKinley include Sunshine (best vampire urban fantasy with a baker as a protagonist); Spindle’s End (with fairy godmothers far less foolish than the Disney version); The Hero and the Crown (should be given to every 11 year old on their birthday). 

I’ve read other books the past few weeks, but these are the highlights (with one exception, that will be a longer post if I can get around to it).  

Women preferentially hired in STEM - but does that solve the problem?

Edited to add: Aradhna Tripati pointed out that the paper does not state that women are preferentially hired - that's an over-reach.  I'm going to let the original title stand, but a better title would be "Survey suggests progress on gender-biased hiring in STEM - but hiring is hardly the only obstacle."  Or something along those lines.

A new study came out about women in academic STEM.  The authors write that women are favored 2:1 across disciplines when hiring STEM tenure track positions.  Briefly, the authors sent out surveys asking for faculty from four disciplines (biology, economics, engineering, and psychology) to assess three job candidates – an inferior foil candidate (male) and two equally qualified superstars (one male, one female).  In some cases, they included information about children and marital status.  They also varied whether the candidates were described using masculine or feminine adjectives (assertive vs easy to work with, for instance).  Over 800 faculty replied, pretty much equally split between men and women. 

Now, this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart.  I am lucky, I’ve only very rarely been subjected to overt sexism myself, and it was always pretty mild (and usually in Russia).  But I have witnessed it more often, heard stories from many sources, and been called a rabble-rouser for bringing the issues up.   I’m kind of proud of that last bit.  Blame my parents, ex-60s era radicals that they are.  So, I keep an eye out for papers like this.

I should state up front that I was very skeptical of this paper from the get-go.  Yes, the premise seems off from my own experiences, and those of colleagues.  But even more than that, the authors of this paper published another article last year, with an accompanying op-ed stating “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist.”  The article and op-ed were, at best, flawed, featuring this gem:

As children, girls tend to show more interest in living things (such as people and animals), while boys tend to prefer playing with machines and building things

I won’t go into details – this post is about their new article – but Rebecca Shulman, Rachel Bernstein, Emily Willingham, Jonathan Eisen, and Kelly J. Baker all have excellent takedowns of the methods and approach.  Suffice to say, I was primed to disagree.

And, boy-howdy, do I ever.

The first sentence, “Women considering careers in academic science confront stark portrayals of the treacherous journey to becoming professors.”  And you know what?  Men do too.  This is not a good time to consider becoming a professor.  NSF has a 4-8% funding rate, depending on program (anecdotal, from what people have told me).  NIH is worse.  Tenure depends on getting big, nationally-competitive grants, and usually you need multiple.  Hours may be flexible, but they are long.  Pay is crappy until you get a tenure-track position, but even then it is not great.  You will move, and move often, before you land a tenure-track job.  Every tenure-track job has dozens, if not hundreds, of applicants.  Academic science right now is tough.

Data is not the plural of anecdote, but I will say I was not warned about the “treacherous  journey” while being explicitly female.  Yes, I knew funding was terrible.  People were encouraging.  They wanted more women to participate.  My cohort only had one guy in it, out of nine.  I’m more aware of the structural obstacles that women and POC and other under-represented minorities face now, five years in.  I think that’s true for most of my friends, too.  But, if you are interested in STEM, I do not think many people will tell you not to do it because of sexism.  Most conversations are positive – “How can we fix this?” – rather than negative – “God, this sucks.”

Williams and Ceci repeatedly state that the message “hiring is sexist” discourages women from applying for tenure track positions.  Their previous work had a similar point, about citation, publishing, promotion and retention.  Perhaps that single message is driving women away from STEM.  But there are far more factors driving the divergence between rates of graduating women doctorates in STEM, and the hiring of women assistant professors.  I’d like to think we, by and large, won’t be deterred because we hear hiring practices are sexist.  Personally, I’m more deterred by the low funding rates and moving every two years until I get that magical tenure-track position. 

I don’t particularly like this message-driven justification for these experiments, but you know what?  The experiments themselves are important. 

First, though, a little umbrage about how they designate the disciplines.  Biology and psychology are called “non-math-intensive.”  I cannot say anything about psychology, but biology?  There’s a lot of math.  Biostatistics and bioinformatics are growing disciplines because biologists are now dealing with huge datasets and complicated modelling to describe everything from fish populations to environmental metagenomics.  Ecologists are way better at math than I am. 

What’s more, the presence of math is probably not a good predictor for whether a field tends to more preferentially exclude women.  Otherwise, as Meg Urry states in this great lecture, there would not be a disparity in representation between astronomy and physics.  They do the same work, need the same skillset.  Yet astronomy has better representation of women.  Separating biology and psychology from engineering and economics makes sense – women representation differs strongly between the two groups.  But setting them up in contrast based on how “math-intensive” the disciplines are is silly, and leads the reader to equate the non-math-intensive disciplines as feminine and math a deterrent to women.  This is mostly semantics, but I think if you’re publishing a paper on gender biases you need to be careful about such details.

The authors also include in their design the marital status of the applicants, whether the spouses had a job, and whether the applicants had children.  Certainly, these are the types of things that can influence hiring decisions.  But they aren’t supposed to be.  A job applicant is protected from answering these questions.  Faculty, hiring committees, even graduate students are not allowed, at all, to ask about marital status or children. That doesn’t mean the hiring committee doesn’t know, or that someone won’t break the rules.   It is still against most university guidelines for faculty to ask.  And such information would not be provided in a job application.  Even if that information was volunteered in conversation, I absolutely do not think it would be included in any official documents presented to faculty for assessment. Seriously.  I cannot emphasize enough how shady that seems to me. 

The faculty surveyed knew that these were not actual job candidates.  They knew it was part of a study.  From the supplemental material, an excerpt from what was sent to faculty in the survey,

“Imagine you are on your department’s personnel/search committee. Your department plans to hire one person at the entry assistant-professor level. Your committee has struggled to narrow the applicant pool to three short-listed candidates (below), each of whom works in a hot area with an eminent advisor. The search committee evaluated each candidate’s research record, and the entire faculty rated each candidate’s job talk and interview on a 1-to-10 scale; average ratings are reported below. Now you must rank the candidates in order of hiring preference. Please read the search committee chair’s notes below and rate each candidate. The notes include comments made by some candidates regarding partner-hire and family issues, including the need for guaranteed slots at university daycare. If the candidate did not mention family issues, the chair did not discuss them.”

Reaching way back to my undergraduate years, when I took “Qualitative Methods in Geography”, we learned about surveys.  Bias blindspot.  People think that they are less biased than they actually are, less swayed by those biases than the average American.  They are more objective than their colleagues.  Everyone wants to think well of themselves, so they think they aren’t racist, sexism, bigoted.  Everyone wants to think themselves resistant to the implicit biases that have been instilled by the cultural landscape.

Imagine a colleague receives a survey about hiring practices in academia.  The exact questions motivating this survey aren’t known, but you know that surveyors are assessing something about hiring decisions.  Your colleague, she’s pretty fair.  But you know she’s said something about single parents not having time to really devote themselves to their job at an R1 university.  How could they?  There aren’t enough hours in the day!  She has a bias.  Do you think, though, that she’s going to admit to that in a survey?  Do you think she is going to do anything but try to be as absolutely, unimpeachably “fair” as she can be?

Do you think she would come to the same conclusion if this were a hiring decision in your department?  Maybe. Maybe not.  I’m skeptical. 

Note: I’ve used “she” here because half of the respondents were women and I try not to default to “he”, but I’m not trying to imply that this effect is any more or less pronounced in men or women.  Implicit bias influences women and men roughly equally.

I suspect that the preference for women is at least partially owing to over compensation in order to appear unbiased.  I also think including anything about “lifestyle” – marital status, children, etc – probably leads people towards the idea that the study is about gender, or something related.  I also just saw someone on Twitter say that the email with the survey explicitly stated the study was about biases in hiring.  I’d also point out that the lifestyle description was, as far as I can tell, the biggest concrete detail provided in the summaries passed out to faculty.  Otherwise, they are described in adjectives such as “likeable”, “powerhouse” and “imaginative”.  I do not think that this effect alone could account for the staggering difference between male and female applicants in the results.  But I do think it is important to consider. 

All that said, the results are encouraging.  Women do not appear to be discriminated against, with the possible exception of economics.  The details are interesting – female faculty prefer divorced-with-kids women to married-with-kids men, male faculty the opposite, as an example.  Overall, this is great!  I’m really happy to see this.  My knowledge of social science best-practices is limited, but the statistical analyses seem fairly robust.  Systematic hiring biases are not as important as we thought! 

And then.  Then.  The opening sentence of the discussion.

“Our experimental findings do not support omnipresent societal messages regarding the current inhospitability of the STEM professoriate for women at the point of applying for assistant professorships.”

No one, to my knowledge, has recently claimed that hiring bias is The One Big Obstacle for women.  Calling this “omnipresent” is just weird.  There is no single barrier like that.  In fact, a much larger topic is not hiring women, but simply to make sure they are included in your hiring pool.  Encouraging women to send in applications in the first place. That’s certainly been the discussion in our department, and supported by several different initiatives.

This study used applicants with identical qualifications.  They did not use actual CVs, except for a small subset, but the CV summaries used made the male and female applicants appear to have the same expertise.  All the CV summaries were for extraordinary people.  And that is where things get hairy.

Women are cited less.  Women are nominated for (and win) fewer awardsRecommendation letters are weakerWomen apply to fewer positions than men, and men apply for a wider variety of positions that they do not necessarily qualify forAcademic women hold fewer patentsWomen are more likely to hold adjunct positionsFields that perceive themselves as requiring “genius” are far more male-dominated.  Women consistently report less mentoring.  Fewer women hold tenured positions at universities.  An even smaller number are in administrative positionsMuch of this has been the case for decades, despite an increasing percentage of female graduate students

Some of these are driven by women’s decisions, yes.  Those that do, I think, are tied to societal expectations that women are “nurturing” and “good teachers” rather than “brilliant” (see interactive based on RateMyProfessor).  There’s a reason that women are more successful than men once hired – probably because they had to be pretty extraordinary to overcome those obstacles and get hired in the first place.  The candidates in this study were all very strong – results might have been different if the candidates were a little less superstar, and a little more typical.

Many of these hindrances are not based on “supply-side” decisions, as the paper calls the problem.  Rather, they are a result of structural obstacles and biases within academia and society at large.  The authors belaboring that “messages to the contrary [that it is a precipitous time to be a woman in STEM] may discourage women from applying” is misleading.  I do not think that the scientific literature attributes the lack of women in STEM as driven by unfair hiring.  I think the scientific literature is pretty explicit that there are a lot of things going on preventing women (or any under-represented group) from succeeding on the tenure track, possibly including unfair hiring.  And, despite their previous claims (cited heavily in the new paper) that academic culture isn’t sexist, it’s pretty clear that gender biases and hostile workplaces are still a problem (evidence of which can be found in their own data).

Look, the experiments they did were valuable.  And the results were encouraging, wonderful to hear.  Everyone should know about them.  But the simplistic, overly broad take-away – that this whole thing would be fixed if women applied to more jobs – jumps way beyond the scope of those results.


The Permafrost Climate Feedback

A synthesis paper of the Permafrost Climate Feedback just came out in Nature this week (paywalled, but it’s here).  Field buddy Jorien is a co-author, so congrats to her!  I’m going to take this opportunity, then, to wax eloquent about permafrost and climate.  Plus the paper has some cool figures that I think everyone should see.

Permafrost is any ground that is below freezing (0°C) for two or more years.  Permafrost can be icy – some yedoma soils contain up to 80% ice – but often it is just cold.  The easiest way to piss off an Arctic scientist – say permafrost is melting.  Permafrost thaws, it doesn’t melt (see the update at the bottom of the article.  We get testy). 

Permafrost soil carbon, from Schuur et al 2015.  Permafrost covers about 25% of the northern hemisphere land surface.

Permafrost soil carbon, from Schuur et al 2015.  Permafrost covers about 25% of the northern hemisphere land surface.

Often, permafrost has been frozen not just for two years, but for thousands or tens of thousands of years.  Some permafrost has survived as much as 740,000 years.  It acts like a giant freezer, storing animal bones and mammoth mummies.  But, even more importantly, permafrost regions store as much as 1670 billion tons of organic carbon.  To put this in perspective, that is more than twice as much carbon currently in the atmosphere or in terrestrial vegetation.  That carbon has been locked away for millennia, but the freezer is beginning to thaw.  As permafrost warms, the preserved soil carbon can be decomposed, releasing carbon dioxide and methane – both powerful greenhouse gases.

We, as a scientific community, have been trying to quantify this process.  How much carbon, exactly, is stored in permafrost?  What portion of the frozen organic carbon can be decomposed into greenhouse gases? How much of the permafrost will actually thaw over the next century?  What timescale will this process occur over – abruptly or over decades?  Where will the carbon decompose – in the soils, or in streams, lakes, rivers or estuaries?  We still don’t know all of this, but we have some pretty good estimates.

First, as you might have guessed, we are becoming more confident about how much carbon is actually in the permafrost soils.  Some of the more remote areas in Siberia and the High Canadian Arctic still need more measurements, but the Permafrost Carbon Network database now contains many soil cores from all over the Arctic, including deeper soil samples that used to be rarely collected.   Subsea permafrost is the biggest unknown.  This is permafrost that formed during the last ice age, when sea levels were much lower, and has since been inundated by rising oceans.  Still, estimates for permafrost carbon are converging around 1300 – 1700 Pg C (units are petagrams, or billions of tons). 

If permafrost does thaw, what percentage of the carbon contained can actually be mineralized, turned into CO2 or CH4?  This is a complicated question, and one of the most important ones.  Elberling et al. (2013, paywalled) did a great experiment where they incubated permafrost soil for 12 years to see how much carbon was lost.  Twelve years!  I was nine when they started that project (it also took them, like, 5 years to publish after completing the experiment because writing/publishing is ridiculous – another rant for another time). 

Anyway, as much as 75% of the carbon was mineralized – turned, by microbes, into CO2.  Not all soils are created equal, though.  A friend did some experiments in Cherskii, Siberia and only a small percentage of the carbon was lost.  Joanne was limited by her time in the field, so a longer incubation could have different results.  Other factors matter too – exposure to sunlight can break down organic molecules, releasing CO2 even faster.  The ratio of nitrogen to carbon (it’s juiciness, as one of my committee members would say) matters.  All in all, the decomposability or lability of organic carbon varies widely. 

Still, we can combine what we do know of the lability with warming projections, to try and estimate how much carbon will be released from permafrost over the next century.  These models still need work, but there seems to be some convergence between multiple methods.  Or, we’re not sure, but people using the different data and different methods seem to be coming to about the same answer, so let’s go with that for now.  Until we can get better data and better methods.

From Schuur et al 2015 again.  Different models predicting how much carbon will be released from permafrost by 2100, 2200, and 2300.  The dotted line is the average C released by 2100 for all models.

From Schuur et al 2015 again.  Different models predicting how much carbon will be released from permafrost by 2100, 2200, and 2300.  The dotted line is the average C released by 2100 for all models.

Including just gradual permafrost thaw (there’s also abrupt thaw, but I’ll save that for a different post), we seem to be facing 5 – 15 % of permafrost carbon loss during this century.  Again, putting this in perspective: land use change (deforestation, etc) released about 0.9 Pg C per year from 2003 to 2012 (as said in Schuur et al).  If that held constant over the century (unlikely, but just for arguments sake), that means human-driven land use change would emit about 90 Pg C by 2100.  Loosing 10% of permafrost carbon would be about 130-160 Pg over a century.

Of course, that is a VERY back of the envelope calculation, and permafrost carbon would only be a fraction of the fossil fuel emissions (9.9 Pg in 2013, and it increases every year unless policies change drastically soon).  Still, it is useful to think about just how important the permafrost climate feedback could be.  And none of the current climate projection models include the permafrost climate feedback – yet they all include land use change. 

What does this all mean?  The permafrost climate feedback will exacerbate climate change.  Warming climate thaws permafrost.  Permafrost releases additional greenhouse gases.  Greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere more.  More permafrost thaws.  This loop, or positive climate feedback, needs to be included in our decision making.  There are still unanswered questions about permafrost.  But we know that this carbon pool is vulnerable.  And we know that it will contribute to global climate change.


The birds and the bees

As I’ve noted before, I have a lot of “old lady” activities.  We’re getting to the time of year where one of them winds down (knitting is not pleasant at 80 degrees and 90% humidity) and another ramps up.  Spring means gardening!

I’m only container gardening this year, but I have a lovely full sun deck.  I am somewhat hampered by my broken ankle, which limits my ability to haul bags of dirt upstairs.  But I persevere!  There’s a plant sale at the South Texas Botanical Gardens this weekend, and I already have a few things going.  Mostly tomato plants.  Soon, I will have more native plants!  I love natives.  Because I am deeply geeky and most cool things are under-pinned by science.

Native plants are the base of any terrestrial ecosystem.  They evolved in conjunction with the myriad butterflies and bees, moths and wasps, flies and beetles that inhabit any particular place.  You may not love the bugs, but know what does?  Birds.  Particularly, baby birds.

I'm practically a cartoon!  Image by  Suzanne Britton

I'm practically a cartoon!  Image by Suzanne Britton

While adult birds will eat seeds (depending on the species), young birds generally need insects.  The early bird gets the worm and all that.   Take the adorable Ruby Crowned Kinglet.  They eat insects almost exclusively, with occasional berries.  You will not see one coming by your birdfeeder.  And who wouldn’t want to have these guys around?  They’re little balls of floof, with a red crest!  Hummingbirds are similar – the adults may drink nectar all day long, but the nestlings primarily get bugs stuffed down their throat. 

If you want birds, you need bugs.  Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy really drives this home.  The author is an entomologist, so he’s partial to insects anyway.  But the science remains true.  Native plants lead to more insects – and a greater diversity of insects – which lead to more birds.  It’s for the birds.

Between Port Aransas and Austin, I used to stop at the Cuero Nursery, which has since closed down.  The first time I went, a friend was with me.  Slow, lazy bumblebees hovered nearby, while flies and parasitic wasps and a hornet buzzed around.  The humidity, still wind and blooming flowers made the air feel heavy and everything smelled wonderful.  My friend was not thrilled.  The owner of the nursery replied to her feeble attempts at avoiding the bugs, “Any good nursery is going to have bugs.”  And, of course, it’s true.  Go to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center during their plant sale in April.  I guarantee, there will be lots and lots of bugs.  Then go to, say, Lowe’s garden center.   I know which I prefer.

Some suggested reading:

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center: http://www.wildflower.org/explore/

Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy

Noah’s Garden by Sara Stein

Attracting Native Pollinators from the Xerxes Society

Ecosystem Gardening: http://www.ecosystemgardening.com/start

And, this is the blog post that spawned my initial interest in the subject:  http://www.redwombatstudio.com/garden/?p=355

RIP Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett passed away this week.

I chronicle my life by the books I read, and few authors hold as prominent a place as Pratchett.  His books are funny and cynical, warm and pointed, comforting and probing.  I laughed with these books, and grew up with them.

I read Good Omens when I was 13 or so.  I couldn’t stop talking about it – I was a wee atheist, then, and had not actually told anyone that I didn’t believe in any god.  Good Omens poked fun at religion, alternating between vicious, uproarious criticism and a more gentle, good natured “isn’t this ridiculous” voice.  I knew the authors agreed with me, even if they did not say so outright. 

My overenthusiastic prattling about this book also led to the first time I was told to censor myself – a relative thought that the storyline I described would be offensive to some born-agains at Thanksgiving.  I bristled at that - the same way I do now when it’s suggested I keep my opinions to myself – but I kept the peace.  Terry Pratchett’s book affirmed my worldview, and led to the realization that not everyone would tolerate that view.

Soul Music, Hogfather, Mort.  Equal Rites, Maskerade, Witches Abroad. Eric, The Truth, Going Postal.

What other fantasy book titles reference a John Knox’s tirade against women leaders (Monstrous Regiment)? Or who models their entire plotline off of a Macbeth joke (Wyrd Sisters)?  Who sums up an entire theory of economics and why poor people stay poor with a boot metaphor (Men at Arms)?

Neil Gaiman wrote an eloquent memorial for Terry Pratchett, in anticipation of his passing from Alzeimer’s.  You should read it.  The fury and anger he describes are there in Pratchett’s writing.  These were books that helped me through being a teenager, that shaped my philosophy.  But also kept me from being too cynical, too down on humanity.  He was humane and hysterical.  That’s a rare combination, and the world is a poorer place without him.

And now to go re-read Hogfather and Feet of Clay.