Archive for April, 2014


When I was young – yes, that was indeed last century – I made a paper with two American scientists that I had never met. I one them I met years after, on the other side of the world (for me), in New Zealand. The guy is quite fascinating for a number of reasons, one of which being that he has wild ideas, the type that divides the world into those that will call him a genius and those that will loath him, ever after. That’s Josh Donlan. A few years back, he published a paper in Nature that created some waves in the normally well-behaving community of conservation biologists, about assisted colonization: rewilding North America.

The idea is that the Pleistocene is not so far away, in eco-evolutionary times, and that a few thousands years ago, the great mammalian megafauna was still roaming the plains where Clint Eastwood rode yesterday. So in terms of ecology, there are a bunch of key ecological processes that are not performed by these beasts anymore. Also, there exist large animals in the world now that could somehow replace their extinct ancestors: elephants, camels, lions, horses, giant tortoises… Wait, it gets even better: many of these species are currently endangered in their native areas, so translocating them into North America could also alleviate some of the threats they face in Africa and Asia, such as poaching. Just think about some critically endangered Equidae, like the Przewalski’s horse. Or like the wild Asian ass. I’d put you an image of this magnificent animal, but I seem to have problem with my browser; it behaves strangely.

Brilliant idea, but… There are a number of problems as well. Let’s put aside the fact that it is very costly, long and probably logistically nightmarish to obtain a large population of a large mammal from another continent. Remains two drawbacks as big as that mega-fauna. First, there are important conflicts with humans and some of these animals, in particular elephants and lions. Human-animal conflicts are so problematic that entire sessions are devoted to them in conservation meetings. Second, putting species where they don’t belong ecologically often leads to biological invasions, something that can be very nasty. Ask the Australians about the half-million feral horses and twice that many camels that roam in their backyard.

So on one hand, we have a superb solution to save some endangered species with a really bleak future, and in the meantime restore the ecological functioning of the great plains of late (while providing some amazing sights that will undoubtedly increase the ecotourism value of the Giant Sequoia National Park); and on the other one, we have a potentially evil danger of novel human-animal conflicts doubled with uncontrollable alien invasive species. A perfect debate menu for our Semibière meetings (see the previous post on that).

So, what about you, my friend. You’d be against, or for it?



Yes, I mentioned that earlier: we study invasive ants. We do all kind of fun things we them, from models trying to predict where they could be invasive, now or with climate change, to lab experiment trying to see which species are better at finding and monopolising resources. There are a bunch of papers now that we have published on that (and more to come, that I will probably advertise here, so I won’t say too much now), but the point is, they are very interesting, and quite problematic for biodiversity and economics alike.

There are about 20 000 ants species out there (40% of which remaining to be described by science). One percent of these species are exotic, meaning they have been introduced outside their native range, and seem to have been established there. About a tenth of these 200 exotic species are known to be highly invasive. That mean they are mean. And I do mean mean. Not the mean mean, really mean. Ok, I stop. They are highly aggressive and exceedingly efficient. When they invade, they destroy the native entomofauna, starting by the native ant communities, but also affecting plants, other invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds and even mammals. Humans are known to be victims of the Red Imported Fire Ant by the thousands in the USA (with hundreds of death – that is more than by sharks). They really affect biodiversity and doing so they disrupt ecosystem functioning and services (like pollination and seed dispersal). And they cause billions of dollars of damage every year to agriculture, forestry, real estate and public health.

Oh, and they also go by scary names, like the fire ant, the electric ant, the crazy ant, the destroyer ant, the ghost ant… And before you ask, yes there are zombie ants and vampire ants as well, only they are not invasive ants. No werewolf ant though. Kinda disappointing.

Anyway, invasive ants are about to take over the planet, and who is working their ass off trying to save the day, in the general ingratitude? To whom will you turn when they try and make you their slave? Biodiversity Dynamics, thank you.

So, to answer the question in the title, we study invasive ants, simply because invasive ants are importants. Import-ants. Get it? Ok ok, I thought that was a good one…



Ever wondered why ant colonies are so big? One talks about millions of individuals in some colonies. And for people working on invasive ants, like us, this thought can be both fascinating and frightening (BTW, we work on invasive ants, because they are importants. Sorry.). Take the Argentine ant for example. It forms “supercolonies” (related colonies) that can encompass tens of thousands of nests over thousands of kilometres. This amounts to perhaps hundreds of millions of tiny, mean brothers-in-arms that will attack and effectively kill almost anything they encounter and that is small and stupid enough to hang around. Sweet little things. We love them. Later on, I’ll tell you how we compare the nastiness of the various invasive ant species, and believe me, Mother Nature had loads of fun – and bursts of creativity – when She created ants.

But for now, how did they manage to evolve such immense social colonies? One answer could come from our study of Allee effects. An Allee effect is a positive relationship between the size of a population and its capacity to persist and grow. In a word, in some species, the more individuals there are, they better they do, often because they help each other in some various ways. So, we studied Allee effects in ants; just because we study all we can about the Allee effect (because we are a bit monomaniac) and because we like ants. We like rhinos too, but that’s less practical in a lab. Oh, and of course because, very surprisingly, nobody ever had the idea (or the madness?) to look into that.

So, we set up large experimental designs to record the survival and reproduction of colonies of various sizes. By various sizes, I mean different number of workers and different numbers of queens. Because, yes, some ant species live with several (sometimes hundreds of) queens in the same nest. And after a few years of hard work, the results were worth it: there are indeed Allee effects in ants; at least the two species we studied. The corresponding paper is here. The more ants, the better they do. And it even gets better: the more queens, the more workers are produced per queen (that’s not that obvious, they could compete for food). And also, the more queens, the better the workers survive (don’t ask me why, I’m supposed to be concise here). And the fun continues: the more workers, the higher the queens productivity! So in fact, each cast (workers and queens) benefit the other cast, so that it creates a mad feedback loop leading to ever growing colonies (that I think can possibly only end in them taking over the world). So this mechanism of Allee effect might have played an important role into making large colonies of eusocial species. Nice no? Oh, come on!



What, no funny image? Yes, this one IS funny too, just watch closer!

Bonjour les petits lapins!

Now that you are totally convinced that your supervisor is more going to influence your PhD success than the subject would, you are wondering how to identify a good supervisor. If I tell you “that’s the one that proposes good PhD subjects”, you’re going to throw me carrots, so I’d better develop a bit. I said “a bit”, but that’s a figure of speech. Difficult to develop it in just one paragraph and one cartoon.

It may seem ridiculously obvious, but I think a good research supervisor primarily needs to be a good researcher. First because I don’t believe it is possible to show well the ropes of any profession if you don’t master them yourself; second because it may be even harder to transmit the compulsory need for passion for doing research if you’re not good at it. And also, I am a strong believer that you learn much by seeing what you like and dislike in the way your supervisor does research even if it is not an explicit lesson. I believe in “leading by the example” even if I can resort to “do what I say, not what I do” when I mess up. So your supervisor should be someone you want to take example on. Better choose a good scientist then. Perhaps I’ll post one day on what I think this means. I don’t have enough enemies yet.

Should you choose a man or a woman? If you’re more confortable with either sex (but that’d be odd), then chose it. Otherwise, it’s an irrelevant question. Should you find a young scientist or an old one? Well, a young one is less experimented but probably has a smaller lab so more time and perhaps more enthusiasm, so there’s a balance here that means both can be good. One thing that is for sure is that he/she needs to like supervising, and to devote to you a significant amount of his/her time. That doesn’t mean just above 0.05, even if a precise percentage would be meaningless here. People have different ways of supervising, some leave more autonomy and are available upon request, some sit with the students in front of their computer to show them how to do stuff. Some spend a lot of time discussing ideas, or interpreting results. Regardless of the specific way, the importance is availability.

Your supervisor should not impose one immovable PhD subject but should instead build with you an excellent project that is tailored to you, that you will enjoy doing. That does not mean letting you work on dolphins or chimps because you’ve always loved them, but to show you what the lab does, understand what you seem to be most interested in and adapt the most topical subjects so that the subject will be gradually adapted to fit you while still being relevant to the lab and the most sexy, head-smashing brilliant subject ever. That subject will evolve with time during the three years of your PhD. Because science changes, because you will change, and because your first results will probably shift your initial priorities and interests. Your supervisor should encourage you to become gradually independent and to shape you thesis with his/her guidance. The subject has to become your baby, the one you work for, you wake up for, you fight for and are ready to die for. Ok, maybe I’m getting a bit ahead of myself but you get the idea.

Over the course of your PhD, your supervisor must be prepared/able to show you, directly or indirectly, how to write research papers and grants, how to review papers for journals, how to prepare posters and talks, how to communicate to the public and how to prepare the next steps of your career. The two of you will form a team, so that’s one that has to be strong, to work on trust, and to aim for pride and success of the team mate. And it goes both ways.


Still there? Ok, you’re half way through the post, bear with me. So, how to you know who has at least some of these requisites? There are several ways. First, remember that the PhD interview goes both ways. It is also a way for you to assess whether the prof would suit you, seems to think the way you expect about a supervision, and if the lab more generally would suit you. I often say that students should be able to ask profs for recommendation letters from former students/postdocs, which they obviously can’t, but that’s a pity. Still, they can contact former students and lab members, ask around when they visit the lab and generally try to get info from students and staff alike, either upfront or more subtly according to the circumstance. Ask about the style of the supervision (not the quality, subtlety I said). Your supervisor should be proud of your work, let you present your data in meetings and mention your contribution when he/she presents it. Obviously, he/she should not put two or more students in competition over the same subject (and not have too many students anyway), write papers in your place, take ages to read and edit your drafts, fail to be encouraging or supporting of your limitations, deny you opportunities to take courses or to visit other labs to learn new methods/techniques. Your supervisor should not expect a given number of hours or day in the lab. If too much emphasis on this, then this is suspect. If your project is your baby, you’re not going to count the hours yourself, so why should someone else? Also, when you visit the lab (which should be proposed), try to assess the ambiance, if the students seem generally happy to be there (don’t confuse stress with discontentment). Finally, look also at the scientific output of former students, the number and quality of the papers they produce, as it’s likely to be indicative of your own once you’re there.

The perfect supervisor doesn’t exist, don’t look for that. But there are tons of very good ones over there, and I’ve given you some keys to find them. But most importantly I think, I’ve told you that it’s more important to make your choice over the supervisor than over the topic. Ah, and one last thing that I think is essential. You should like your supervisor, or at least not dislike him/her upfront. Whether or not to bond with students/supervisor is a very interesting topic per se – one that I’ll treat later – but just… no, I said later.

Now, I’m of course not trying to imply that I’m all that. Supervising is not easy and even if you know what you’re supposed to do on paper, managing to do it on a daily basis is not that obvious. Plus, a supervision is a two-ways relationship and it cannot work well if the student is not fully in the game. And believe me, finding a good PhD student is at least as hard to find as a good PhD supervisor. Ah! Just to end up on a nice note: I’ve been very lucky with all my PhD students so far, and totally blessed with the last two.

So, obviously, next post: how to fool your potential supervisor into believing that you would be a good PhD student. Or my own personal expectations during student interviews.

One very important aspect of a good lab it its internal scientific activity. Students and staff benefit much from a dynamic scientific environment. Regular meetings where science is presented and discussed is something that will develop your communications skills, your ability to synthesize, to get a critical view of approaches and topics and simply will increase your scientific culture. It can be of various forms, Lab Meetings, where the last progresses or projects of group members are reviewed and discussed, Journal Clubs, where some papers in the literature are presented and criticized, Conference Reports, where one lucky bastard summarises to the others the amazing talks he/she went to at that last congress in Hawaii (because only the teacher’s pet got to be sent there), or any other form of scientific interaction in groups (acid battles in the chem lab don’t count).

In our lab, we don’t do Conference Reports, because we usually travel in herds – I’m too shy to get to conferences alone – but we do the other types. We have the Ant Club, where we present some interesting papers in Myrmecology (in general on invasive species or community ecology). We have Team Meetings, where we discuss the projects of Master students, the past work of newly arrived postdocs or the latest findings of other group members (plus loads of administrative crap). And we have the Sémibière, which is the subject of this post. Yeah, I know, my introductions are awfully long. That’s just to show you what you should not do.

The Sémibière is a regular meeting held especially for the benefit of students (although we all enjoy it). We had realised that students were especially shy went it comes to expressing opinions in front of the others, mostly because they were convinced that their opinion was crap – or that they didn’t even have one. They were also rather un-motivated by technical papers, like on modelling or stats or such. So we decided to do a different format. First, we remove the “naire” part of the word “séminaire” (French for seminar) and replaced it by “bière” (beer in French). The journal club is held with beers and nibbles, because we know that will attract students as surely as vinegar attracts flies (does it really?). Simple but efficient. When the weather is good, we do it outside – we have an awesome campus and I installed picnic tables for this very purpose.

The other change was to treat only papers of two specific types. The first one is funny papers. Papers that have a real set of scientific features that make their discussion beneficial – approach, structure, methods, presentation, etc – but on a funny topic. We discussed the population dynamics of the Loch Ness monster, the demonstration of Murphy’s Law (when you drop your toast, it always lands on the buttered face), a Capture-Mark-Recapture model of tea spoons disappearing from lab coffee rooms, the Ring Effect (males are supposedly more attractive if they have a wedding ring – a type of honest signal showing that they have been picked up, so are probably higher quality mates), etc.

The second type of papers we discuss in the Sémibière is controversial papers. For example, should we re-wild North America, by introducing the long extinct elephants, lions and giant turtles, or this that an ecological blasphemy? The best-ever-genius-idea or the most dangerous stupidity? We don’t provide the answer, because probably there isn’t a single/simple one, but we present the arguments and confront our various points of view. Controversy helps anyone to have an opinion, or to say why they can’t decide. There, I’ll make a specific post category for these controversy themes, so I can present some difficult scientific controversies and prevent you to sleep forever over these unresolvable existential issues. Mouahahaha!

Sémibière Outside - 13






Ok, my posts are too long, I realise that. And you’ve seen nothing: I’m trying hard to be concise. Well, anyway, that was the message of the day: see how painful it can be when you don’t manage to cut short? It’s the same for your manuscripts: they are too long. Always. Learn to be concise, or you’ll end up like me, with people laughing at you, throwing you stones and rotten cabbage. Be short. Like Tyrion Lanister and like this post.



No post for today. Too tired and still loading…



Now that you have no doubt whatsoever that you were born to do a PhD, and because you know oh-so-well how intimate you are going to be with the topic of that PhD, you probably want to be extra-careful with the choice of that topic, leaving nothing to random. So how to chose that topic? That’s simple: you don’t. Let me tell you about that, through a little story.

That’s the story of a little cute rabbit (yeah, I know, it doesn’t start so well) who gets caught by a mean hungry fox. The fox is about to devour the poor rabbit, when he (the rabbit) starts pleading “you can’t eat me, I’m about to defend my PhD Thesis, and it’s been almost one year of hard work (in rabbit years, that’s a lot, believe me). Please let me defend, and eat me tomorrow”. The fox is not entirely stupid – as is to be expected of foxes – and knows well that he shouldn’t let the rabbit go, but he is also well educated and pretty curious, so he ask about the thesis subject. “Oh, that. It’s “Demonstration of the superiority of rabbits over foxes through non-linear models of inferred non-Bayesian statistics”. The fox is very doubtful, but as he is also, logically, very respectful of science (and impressed by big words even if they are nonsensical). So, he asks the rabbit to show him his PhD, and if he is convinced, then he will let him defend; otherwise, he will eat him. “Fair enough, says little rabbit, let’s get to my burrow and fetch my manuscript”. When the fox enters what is eventually a much, much larger burrow than would be expected for a rabbit, especially a graduate student one, he comes face to face with a mighty lion. “There, goes little rabbit, this is my supervisor, who will be making the demonstration”. The lion grabs the fox, and eats it in one bite. End of story.

The moral of this story is that the topic of your PhD student is not what matters.

What does matter is who you supervisor is.

Now that may seem a little far-fetched, but this is really what I do think, but not in that cynical denier-of-fairness way. In a much more positive way. If you are really into scientific research, you will be interested in your research, regardless on the species and the precise question. You may now think that you could never ever work on something else than those stupid birds or those puny ants, but believe me, if science is what moves you deep down, you will get interested in microbial interactions and plant adaptation as well. I know. I was first rather disappointed by my own PhD topic, about domestic cats and viruses (don’t laugh please). Far from the glamour I was then hoping for. But I rapidly got caught by the amazing studies existing in epidemiology as marker of population processes, by host-parasite relationships and the esthetical esotery of their dynamics and by the plain fun of nocturnal field work in the undergrounds of Lyons’ hospitals… And I learned a lot.

Eventually, what really matters for you is who you supervisor is, not because he will pull strings for you, but because he will be providing you with a sexy project (regardless of the species), an enriching scientific environment and a robust formation that will help you make an enjoyable, successful thesis and a prolific carrier afterwards. And how do you choose that supervisor? That’s the topic of my next entry. But not before a while, now I’m going to take care of a few foxes that my little rabbits just brought me…



If you are doing a research Master, you may be wondering whether or not to do a PhD Thesis next. If you don’t wonder, you can skip this entry and spend all the saved time to indulge in some more Flappy Bird. Otherwise, here is what I tell those who ask me about it.

For some reason, doing a PhD is increasingly seen as the logical continuation of the university programme you are following. Consequently, and because there are more student finishing a Master than PhD fellowships available on the market, not everyone will get to that next level. And this is increasingly seen as a failure, and a source of frantically, desperately seeking what in the end many of you should not be looking for.

And that’s for two reasons. First, not everyone can do a PhD. It is more than one level higher than the Master; it is doing something radically different, and very demanding, very stressing and very difficult. Second, and this is the key message of this entry, not everyone would like doing one, just like not everyone would like being a lawyer or a movie star. Doing scientific research is something quite specific, and it’s not because you have successfully completed five years of scientific studies that you will like doing scientific research, even if you were good in scientific classes. And that’s because there is one compulsory ingredient that you must be sure to have before committing to that 3+ years of misery: passion.

That’s the main point here so I’ll emphasize it: scientific research can’t be done without passion. You can be very rigorous, you can be very intelligent and knowledgeable, quantitatively or experimentally skilled, hard-working, creative even, that will be needed, but that will not be enough.

Like many other jobs, scientific research is a very stressful activity. Doing a Master Sc project is stressful, you are just starting and you know almost nothing and already much is expected of you. Doing a PhD is a lot more so, for a lot longer, and if you can’t handle stress, well, learn to handle it. Doing a postdoc removes some (not all) of the “I don’t know if I can do it” stress, but replaces it by a stronger dose of “will I ever find a job afterwards?” stress. I guess being a non-tenure staff stays quite stressful until you get tenure. In France, the few lucky that get tenure get it from the beginning (more on that later). But when you get your tenure position, you constantly strive to get good papers, good grants, good staff/postdocs/students, in one word, a good lab running smoothly and productively. That involves of course some stress, and naturally, little rewards. We don’t get large pays (especially in France), we don’t get fame, we don’t get even the simple recognition from the society (well, depends on the country, US citizen are better for that). What we get is the recognition by our peers, and the satisfaction of having worked well. Plus, that little detail of… enjoying doing scientific research. And that’s why, if you don’t have passion for scientific research, if you don’t get excited by unexpected findings, if you don’t get challenged by seemingly unresolvable questions, if you don’t get motivated by original approaches and novel methods, then you are missing the single ingredient that allows you to cope with all the stress, the bad results, the frequent rejections, the endless little failures and the plain difficulty of working long hours when you’d rather be doing something else. In that case, I guess you’re not ready for that long journey into a PhD and you most probably should do something else.

If you feel you have passion – and you should have done at least two internships in different labs, on different approaches to be sure – then you should try your hardest to find a PhD project and fellowship. Do not be discouraged by the odds of finding one, by the first few negative answers or even by the unemployment rate at the end. I loathe those teachers/researchers that discourage impassioned student – and I’ve seen that many times. It’s fair to warn you that it is tough and not guaranteed at the end, but many succeed, so why not you? If you are really motivated, impassioned, you are increasing much your chances to be among the lucky ones. And anyways, if you have scientific research under your skin, there’s nothing else you’d rather do, so it’s not like you have much choice…

Now, if deep down you’re convinced that you were born for that, remains the question of how to find a good PhD. More about that soon. Ish.



So we’ve already introduced the two tenure staff of the group: Elsa, wise and warm and Gloria, who is akin the Captain’s second (running everything while letting the Captain believe that he is in charge). Which is cool, as I then get to be the Captain. Sweet. So I’m Kirk, Elsa is Dr McCoy and Gloria is Spock. I like that.

Then, who are Sulu, Uhura, Chekov and Scott? Well, perhaps the analogy should stop being too specific. After the permanent staff are a number of brilliant people who don’t yet have a permanent position, but without whom the ship couldn’t sail (I said stop the analogy!).

Céline Bellard, senior among them in the lab, is now a postdoc and has been with me since her first year of Master. Five years later, she is juggling with awesome projects and has behind her an amazing PhD thesis, with 11 published papers, and two very prestigious prizes (UNECSO-L’Oréal “Women in Science” 2012 and the French Academy of Science “Great Scientific Advances” 2014). With very ambitious ideas that always make me jealous (almost) that I didn’t get them myself, an efficiency bordering on scary (remember to do this? – done already – uh, and this? – done, and that too. Never been able to catch her unprepared even once) and an altruism with other lab members that helps me constantly running the ship- hum lab. She also is very good as sensing my moods, especially my occasional downs, and showing me discreetly that she cares has always been enough to raise my spirits back to their normal high-optimistic.

Very nicely completing the team are remarkable Camille Leclerc, who can do about anything with her computer, except waffles, which is a pity, and who pretty much lacks only one thing: realising how good she is. Boris Leroy just joined us as a postdoc and looks to be a very fitting recruit, full of ideas and skills. He has the same flaws than me: he talks a lot, eats slowly and has way too many ideas to be reasonably handled in a single day. I have other flaws as well, but nobody suspects that yet. I still have to see how – and what – he drinks. Boris has to be Ldt Uhura, because she was very pretty.

The description of the crew wouldn’t be fully accurate without including Cleo Bertelsmeier, although she just left us this month. She is now crewing another ship, after four years of loyal services, during which she produced a master, a PhD and 17 manuscripts, most of which are published or close to being. Yes, you read well, no typo there. She also is a workaholic, redoubtably efficient, loves challenges and bets, and sets herself objectives that only her, or a Vulcan, can achieve. She constantly has ideas, about her models, lab experiments, field work, and her enthusiasm and negotiation skills make it difficult to resist saying yes to every new project. Luckily enough, she hasn’t yet found out the way to clone herself, or she would run the world by now.

Now I should shorten, blog entries are supposed to be short, you’ve told me already. So I won’t talk about Alok Bang, sweet and intelligent who just went back to India after one year with us, or our unique Lucille Palazy, who finished her PhD last year, Stephen Gregory one year before her, Yuya Watary before him etc… Too bad: they were all really great and are all missed. Also, we’ve had a very large number of Red Shirts (the interns) over the years here, and I keep a very fond memory of all of them (even if I like to pretend that I don’t remember people).

All these have been key not only to the success of the Biodiversity Dynamics group, but also to my constant pleasure of doing research. Thanks to them, I like Mondays a bit better, I’ve started drinking coffee and I love going to congresses.

Captain log, supplemental. No, nothing to add, I just wanted to say that. Feels good, really.