Archive for the ‘Scientific selfie’ Category

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

A previous postdoc of mine just asked me to post a blog article on how I manage my time. I chose to think that this was meant to be for an advice, rather than for things to avoid.  So there it is: how do I do everything I do in research, while also spending considerable amount of time having a family, running long-distance and playing World of Warcraft, all four of which being notoriously time-consuming.
Researchers are now expected to spend time for (and be good at) a large number of various tasks, often requiring totally different skills, including doing research, writing articles about it (well, and a lot), speaking at scientific congresses but also for at public conferences, popularizing in various formats (written, interviews, etc), networking with colleagues, communicating with journalists and stakeholders, finding, securing and managing grants, acting as an editorial member and a reviewer for several scientific journals, evaluating colleagues, students and grants in juries and committees, teaching various classes, supervising internships, mentoring graduate students and directing postdocs (which is quite different), and sometimes heading a group of research. And if time allows, going to pee every other day.

 

Multitasking_Done_Wrong
So how do I fit all this into my days? Come to think of it, I don’t have a carefully designed strategy, but over the years I have naturally developed a way of working that allows me to cram in quite a lot.  Here are a few things that I do that help me manage.
First of all, I manage my tasks; I set up priorities. Everyday I have a list of things I have to finish by the end of the day, and while being realistic (otherwise it’s useless), I try to have an ambitious list, and to finish it every day (otherwise it’s useless). So I put in this lists the urgent tasks, those that can’t be further pushed away, plus the important ones that still can fit.
Then, I play Tetris with my priorities: I try to tightly fit various tasks into time holes of the corresponding time and concentration need. If I just spent four hours focusing on a manuscript, I’ll respond to some emails that don’t require a sharp brain, or I’ll browse the Internet for some fitting illustrations for an upcoming talk. If I just have half an hour left before leaving, I’ll find a task that takes me 40 min, and do it more efficiently. Or two tasks of 15-20 min, but I’ll try not to let gaps, unless purposely. And that’s the second point.
Staying efficient. I’m lazy, and I don’t want to spend more time than necessary on things, so I do them as efficiently as I can (because I’m also perfectionist and I don’t want to make them bad). And of course, being efficient is tiring, if you give yourself 100%, then you burn energy, even sitting at your desk. So in addition to managing my tasks and my time, I manage my energy and my motivation. Because without one or the other, you’ll achieve nothing, or at least nothing efficiently. And in the long term, you’ll get a burnout (see my post here about that).
Managing your energy is crucial. The more and the harder you work, the less effective you become, and the more you need to take breaks – either during the days or during the week (or the year). So this may seem like GrandMa’s advices, but you need to sleep well (there are many studies on the effect of one more hour of sleep on work efficiency), to eat well and to rest (your brain) well. That is one of the reasons why I take my whole group to the staff restaurant every lunch so that we can all have a large break at mid day. Plus the food is good there (and remembers, that’s France: while humans eat to live, we live to eat).
When asked to present the distribution of his different research activities, I remember a colleague and friend of mine giving percentages of various tasks, and when I mentioned that the sum was over 100%, he simply answered that he worked longer than 100% of a normal day. That can work, but I think a more efficient (and pleasant) way is to know when you get tired and less sharp, and stop to rest. It’s way better to work 8 hours fully (with breaks) than 6 hours fully without, followed by 3 hours at 50% speed and 3 hours at 25% speed. You’ll achieve less in the end, and will have spent more time, be less rested or entertained and in the end, you’ll like your work less. Rest a lot so that when you work, you can work at 100%. You must remain driven, never dragging.
When I say rest between tasks during the day, you can do like most of my San Diego lab pals when I was in postdoc, play ball in the yard (or go surfing, but that’s not easy here in Paris); you can do like my grand father, who in his time got the world record of criminal case solving by taking a 5 minutes nap twice a day; you can goof off on Facebook, clean up the coffee room, go hunt a roller blader, you can do whatever you find most resting, provided it works for you (and it’s not illegal (or you don’t get caught)).
And last bit of advice: manage your motivation as well. If you have a task that is boring you or that you don’t like, procrastinate a bit. Push it back if you can and do things that are more motivating until either you can’t push it back further, or you have enough motivation/energy to do it.

 

Multitasking
A happy researcher must have three things full at all time: daily planning, energy level, motivation level. Too often they also have a full bladder, but that’s just bad managing. Now I’ve spent a good hour writing this page; remember I told you to alternate hard work and rest/fun. Time for a quick run then…

It may seem odd that someone often known as a conservation biologist would promote and defend basic ecology. Yet, I do. I do because I feel basic ecology needs promoting and defending. In a time when environmental crises are so worrying (at least for those who are aware of them), it is normal that people, including scientists, would want to favour applied ecology. That is, after all, a science directly committed to solving environmental issues, such as biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradations, food security, emerging diseases, climate change and the likes.

As a result, the trend has been in the past decades to increasingly favour applied ecology; and because budgets are not extensible, that has been at the expense of basic ecology.

Yet, there are many reasons why basic ecology – or fundamental ecology – is important. I will not enumerate them all here, you’ll probably want to read the article I just wrote, with 4 other authors in the last issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, here if you subscribe, for for free here*. But I can still pick up a few, just to arouse your curiosity, because I’m sure you didn’t think of them all, and several might surprise you a bit.

And then not! Go read the paper, I’m feeling lazy today and I’ve been told to keep my posts shorts. But of course, you can use this blog to tell me why you disagree. Because, unlike applied ecology, debate is fundamental in science.

ThermodynamicsOfEcology
by Ari Weinkle

* you can download the paper from the link on this post or directly from my lab web page here. I shouldn’t offer it like that, but I am in the process to pay for the Open Access and I don’t want to wait until it is available for readers to access it easily.

Joy

 

Just a short note to inform you of the results of the BNP Paribas public vote: we won!
for those of you who followed the unbearable suspens of this sage, here are the figures:
FATES = 329
CPATEMP : 126
SOCLIM = 597
INVACOST = 4463
APT = 3361

So thank to you (yes, you), our research group is awarded an additional 50.000€ for communication purposes. We will use this money in two major ways. We will first buy the design and construction of an interactive web site to explain our results to the public, and allow them (yes, you again) to check that we are not just playing angrybirds all day long, ask questions and request all the analyses they want. We will also use this money to hire a communication officer that will be in charge of this web site, of dealing with emails from the public (i.e. replying to insulting ones and forwarding me the nice ones), of writting media memos and of many other things that we scientists are too clumsy to do ourselves.
Anyways, this is an opportunity to once more thank you all for your votes!
From the hysteria in France and the US to the delirium in Indonesia and Brazil and the frenzy in Australia and China, we now know we can count on hordes of devoted followers, ready to the craziest things for us, even sometimes read this blog.

 

 

The Fundation BNP Parisbas selected 5 scientific programmes on climate change and will give 50 000 € (that’s US$ 62,000) to one selected by the public, for a communication project on their scientific programme. This is why we need you to vote for our project: InvaCost.

InvaCost will look at the impact on invasive insects, when climate change allows them to invade regions that are now too cold for them, but that will warm up in the coming decades. These include the red imported fire ant, the predatory Asian wasp, the disease carrying tiger-mosquito, and many others that are among the worst invaders worldwide. InvaCost is described a bit in an earlier post, here.

Our communication project is really different from anything that has been done before, and very probably different from the four other projects. In addition to building an interactive website to communicate with the public, show and explain our results and answer your questions, we will inaugurate a new type of citizen science, or participatory science: the public will be able to select some of the 20 invasive species we will study in InvaCost, from a large list we will compile. You will also be able to ask us to do specific analyses, for example “will Argentine ants be able to invade the UK?” or “where will the Formosan termite invasion expand in the USA” or “Is the malaria mosquito likely to reach my city and when?”. We will then collect the data, build and run the mathematical models, analyse the outputs and show and explain the results.

In a word, you will chose the subject and the questions, and we will do science for you. The money will be used to design and run the web site and to hire staff to interact with the public and make specific analyses during the four years of InvaCost. The communication project is described here.

So if you want to see that happen, it’s quite simple, vote for our project, by going here. And forward the message around, we will likely need tens of thousands of votes to be selected. Thanks in advance, we look forward to working with you!

keep-calm-and-vote-for-me-158

I’m normally not a big fan of citizen sciences. Because as trained scientists we strive so carefully to achieve the upmost rigour, I always have this irrational uneasiness when it comes to handling data that have been collected by thousands of uncontrolled volunteers, good-willing but sometimes scientifically unqualified. Citizen science is a great idea though. In a nutshell, it is the fact of using the network of citizen to gather simple raw data and send them to a centralizing team that will assemble it into a giga-dataset that we scientists, with our slow performing slaves, sorry students, cannot even dream of achieving on our own. That way, we can learn about the changes in arrival dates of migrating birds all over Europe, we can more quickly identify star clusters and exoplanets, or reconstruct past climates from thousands of log books of old ships.

So citizen sciences means science made from data collected by citizen. It is nice because it gives enormous datasets to scientists, but also a nice feedback to citizen: in general those implied are interested in birds, or stars, or ships, and are happy to be involved in projects and know the results on programmes in which they have contributed.

It’s a win-win situation, but I thought there could be more to gain for the citizen. This is why, in the days to come, our group – Biodiversity Dynamics – will present a new project in which citizen can do more than collect data and find out the results. Way more.

We have been awarded a grant from the Fondation BNP-Paribas to study the effects of climate change on invasive insects. If you want to know more about why insects could very well invade our regions in the near future and how this is going to be bugging, read this post. If you want to know more about which species are likely to invade where, and when, than this is for you: we will propose in this project to involve citizen in a way they have never been so far. Citizen will not collect the data here, they will instead play (some of) the scientist role: they will ask questions. That’s right. You will start by choosing (some of) the insect species that we will work on. We will propose a list of interesting cases and you will be able to select one from them. We will set up an interactive website to post our results such as distribution maps and graphs and you will also be able to ask for more (e.g., “would it be possible to model the potential distribution of invasive fire ants in England in 2050?”). If the requests are reasonable and within our reach, we will do it and post the results (with the explanations). If they are not, we will explain why (so that you can stop taking us for scientists from the TV shows and ask us irrealistic things).

There is a catch though. This “novel citizen science” project will exist only if we win the vote of the public, which will select one project over 6. I will post soon the vote links so that you can unleash the mad clicking-beast that hides in you and thus allow us to serve you better. For, always remember that, as scientists, our ultimate goal is serving Humanity.

Abby

Of course Gibbs, every scientist is like me: an expert in all possible fields that will give you awesome results within the hour

I have been working for years on biological invasions. You know, the species that are put into regions in which they don’t belong and that just expend madly and outcompete everything, unchecked. A bit like Mcdonald’s in France. Because I’ve also started working on the impact of climate change on biodiversity, I’ve naturally wondered (like many) whether climate change would affect biological invasions.

My group – Biodiversity Dynamics – has produced already some awesome work on that. For example, see here, here or here. Or here and here. Or here. Ok, I stop. You see, they produce too much, I’m not the only one to say that.

Anyways, because climate change is likely to make winters milder and habitats climatically more suitable year-round for cold-blooded animals like insects, we have been wondering whether invasive insects would be able to invade other regions with climate change. There are many very nasty bugs out there.

For example, the Asian predatory wasp is an invasive hornet in Europe that butchers pollinating insects, especially bees, thereby affecting the production of many wild and cultivated plants. And we all remember what Einstein said about pollinators: « if bees were to disappear, humans will disappear within a few years » (we all remember that because it’s one of the few things he said that we understood). The highly invasive red imported fire ant is feared for its impacts on biodiversity, agriculture and cattle breeding, and the thousands of anaphylactic shocks inflicted to people by painful stings every year (with hundreds of deaths). Between the USA and Australia, over US$10 billion are spent yearly on the control of this insect alone. The tiger mosquitoes are vectors of pathogens that cause dengue fever, of the chikungunya virus and of about 30 other viruses. And I could go on.

Most of these nasty creatures are now unable to colonize northern regions of Europe or America, or southern regions of Australia, for example, because they cannot survive cold temperatures. But how will this change? Where and when which species will invade with rising temperatures? What will be the costs in terms of species loss? In terms of agricultural or forestry loss? In terms of diseases to cattle, domestic animals and humans? What will be the death toll if insects that are vectors of malaria can establish in new, highly populated areas?

All these questions, we’ve proposed to study them from a list of 20 of the worst invasive insect species worldwide. And we got selected (ie financed), so brace yourself, we are going to provide some answers. Soon. I just need to hire a couple of postdocs first to do all the work for me.

InsectInvasion

I don’t care; I don’t like popcorn anyway