Archive for May, 2016

I’ve heard so many times the saying that curiosity killed the cat. In French we say that quality is a naughty defect (generally to kids, in order to discourage it). That’s utter-bullshit, pardon my English. Curiosity saved men. It’s because we’re curious that we founds ways to compensate our tiny constitution, our ridiculous speed, our feeble health and so on. And it’s because we’re curious that we invented a special job: researcher. People devoted for the sole purpose of satisfying the curiosity of the society, and/or their own.

In return, the very minimum that these researchers can do, it tell the results of their investigations. Otherwise, that’s a bit unfair, no? It’s called staying in the Ivory Tower, the tower where intellectuals selfishly do their work, while staying disconnected from the society. We get paid by the society to find stuff, and we don’t tell what we find? Apart from fueling the lunatic nature of conspiracy theorists, who think every researcher in the world participate covertly to global machinations, this is just failing to do the full spectrum of our very responsibility as researchers. Every researcher should do popularization work, be it public conferences, press interviews, books or documentaries or just press release and let the journalists communicate for them. That’s the fair thing to do, and that’s also a very good exercise to be able to explain complicated concepts, and ultimately also to get more people interested in our discipline.

With that in mind, I’ve been popularizing quite a lot, since my very early carrier. I’ve written a piece about my thesis research during my first year of PhD, against the advice not to do so of my supervisor, who thought – like almost everybody else at the time – that popularization was the realm of bad scientists: those who where not sufficiently strong in research to stay with their peers went to shine with the public, pretending to be smarter than their colleagues knew them to be. Now I’ve written more, from articles to books, initiated several documentaries, participated in several others, given conferences in front of many different audiences, including about every age of school children, and interviews to radio, tv channels and written press. And apart from one or two exceptions, every single one has been a great experience.

In some countries, like my own, the public tends to think that researchers are at best immature society parasites who work on useless questions just because they can. In others, like the USA, they tend to have a better reputation, sometimes up to selfless saviors of the society. Regardless of the general view of our profession, communicating with the public is profitable for the public, is profitable for us and is profitable for our profession.

Of course, when  I say communicate to the public, don’t go telling them all everything. We want to keep all our global conspiracies safely concealed, otherwise our secret plot to take over all the governments of Earth might be delayed…

Communication

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yes, better than Starwars and World of Warcraft together, the wars of ants. Last year in our lab, we set up wars between different species, among the most aggressive in the world.

I’m sure you can imagine. Monstrous armies of millions of Unsullied warriors, impervious to danger, dedicated to the death, working together with the efficacy given by millions of years of evolution, all entirely bent to one single purpose, destroying the other armies. I’m certain to are picturing this. Well, you are picturing it wrong, you immature brutes. So, what did we do and why did we do it?

It was a time when a Ph D student (Cleo Bertelsmeier) was studying the effect of climate change on invasive ants. I’ve told you already why we study invasive ants. If you’ve missed it, you can read it here. The first part of the PhD thesis was to build up species distribution models to try and predict where invasive ants would find favorable regions with climate change (ants are very sensitive to climate, and milder winters may mean higher probability of establishment). And the result was that some of the most problematic invasive ant species were predicted to arrive at the same place in several regions. And because the most obvious characteristics of all these invasive ants is that they are extremely efficient at removing other arthropods, starting with local ant species, we naturally wondered what would happen if two of such Hun armies were to clash in newly invaded territories. Or in other words, is there among these tiny berserk beasts one that would take over all the others (and the rest of the world with it).

So we set up colonies of four of the worst of the worst. These were the invasive garden ant Lasius neglectus, the Argentine ant Linepithema humile, the big-headed ant Pheidole megacephala and the electric ant Wasmannia auropunctata. The experiment set up by Cleo was not really the wars you pictured, but they were enough for our purposes: boxes with colonies of 300 workers and one queen, put into contact by a tiny tube, and days of counting the dead and the survivors. And these taught us a lot. First, that the experiments of one worker versus another in a Petri dish – often set up to establish dominance hierarchies among ant species – are not well suited, because some ants species need other workers to kill others. Some ants hold the enemy while it is being cut into pieces, and you can’t do that when you’re alone, and you’ll systematically lose in duels but not necessarily a battle. It also mean that classical experiments of 10 vs 10 workers in a Petri dish are also problematic, because the lack of natural conditions can bias the results. These ants are very stressed, more or less forced to fight, and with no territory, nest or queen to defend (which was not the case in our experiment). Last, it taught us that ants adapt their strategies according to their opponents. Some species that are very aggressive and kill everything were less so when confronted to potentially stronger adversaries. Some even escaped or feigned death. And some raided the other colonies D-Day style improved with chemical weaponry, with many losses but an eventual conquest while some others remained in their strongholds and privileged defense. And eventually it taught us that when you increase complexity, for example by putting all four species together, you increase… well complexity. Here, the species that systematically lost against any of the three others won half the time when all four were fighting simultaneously.

Now I’m sure you’d like to know who was the meanest of the four. The tiny electric ant, so named for its terribly painful sting? Or the scary big-headed ants, which soldiers can cut in two any of the other species? Well, I guess that to know that you’ll have to read the paper (and perhaps that one too about their strategies)… Yes, I know, I’m mean. That’s what the ants say too.

Marvel-Ant-Man-Banner-Poster

Of course, the best fighter of all remains the Ant-man

When I was a PhD student, a researcher that I admired once told me that half the research in labs is done in corridors and coffee rooms. Of course he didn’t mean that the dire restrictions of lab and office spaces faced by academia nowadays force half of us to install their benches or computers there. Even in France. What he meant was that in academia the social aspect is very important, and that social gatherings, such as coffee breaks, are not to be neglected because they are not just breaks from work and coffee loading. They are more than that. They are crucial because that’s where scientists chat. They of course sometimes chat about mundane topics, such as whether Schrödinger’s cat is male or female or both, or why 42 and not 43, or 41. But they most of the time talk about their work. Yes, most of us are in the latest stage of nerdiness and can’t be saved anymore.

And chatting about studies is really important for two things. Well, three, because it also gives you information about what the guy on the desk next to you is spending his days on (beside Facebook), which can be interesting, if not utterly fascinating (sometimes). But regarding your own research progress it’s important because it forces you to synthesize and to structure your thoughts about your work (the whole of it, or a more specific problem). This effort alone can benefit you a lot. Sometimes it will help you to get unstuck or to spot a weak link in your reasoning; sometimes it will just help you see more clearly your problem and go forward more easily. The second reason is that you can get feedback that can in many times be useful, be it from someone close to your topic or on the contrary rather remote.

With this in mind, we have set up three types of regular meetings in our group (in addition to the boring ones). The first one is the SemiBeer. We’ve talk about it here. But in a nutshell, it’s a Journal Club with two twists: 1/ we treat unconventional papers, such as funny ones, articles about controversies or papers about carrier and 2/ we drink beer (or other stuff, with peanuts and crackers, what we call apéro in France, a key cultural tradition that every other country on Earth should copy).

The second type of socio-scientific meeting is the Teameeting. That’s where we discuss problems encountered by a team member. We just gather around a table with a computer and sheets of paper and someone presents where (s)he’s stuck in her/his topic and others try to give suggestions. A brainstorming session set up at teatime, so with homemade cookies and similar goodies, hence the super pun I’m so proud of: Tea-meeting / Team-eating. Oh God, am I good when it comes to food…

The last type of meetings that we have is the Breakfast Club. As you may have guessed (I hope for you), this one is in the morning, very very early (9 am) and we discuss about carrier. Students ask a question, such as how to best find a supervisor for a PhD or how to balance work and personal life, and the postdocs and PIs give them their famed wisdom. And we eat croissants and other morning delights with tea and coffee and good ambiance.

So if I count well, we’ve been very serious scientifically, because we’ve covered breakfast, tea time and apéro. And of course everyday we all have lunch together at the canteen of the university. Now I just need to do something about Elevenses, and we’d be one step closer to the Hobbits.

LabFoodYes, that’s my lab and yes I told them not to eat while doing experiments