Call for Blog Contribution

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This space is designed to provide a platform for students of biology to share their experience, advise, and resources. We aim to keep our blogs relevant to graduate students, but we are a pretty diverse bunch. So if you think your voices should be heard, please let us know.

 

Believing Science

by Shengpei Wang Feb 2017

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the American Society of Naturalists.

Section 1. Should we think before believing?

A simple sentence caught my attention today. “We believe […] that a unified ecology must start from individual-based ecology.” 1 It read naturally to me at first, but something seemed amiss: Is it legitimate for scientists to say we believe?

Since the earliest forms of civilization, we have pondered questions such as “How do we gain knowledge?” and “What do we believe?” Given the recent social and cultural climate, questions such as these should concern us now more than ever. In my opinion, science is the only reliable way of obtaining knowledge. Not everyone agrees, however.

Historically, knowledge had been derived from the views of leading political and religious authorities, but in time, theories and observations overtook the role as the primary source of scientific knowledge around the seventeenth century. This change was pioneered by early scientists such as Galileo, whose scientific discoveries not only laid the foundations to modern astronomy and physics, but more importantly, challenged the authoritarian view of knowledge. I don’t think any of us question the importance of observable facts, but many people in the US still question whether we can believe science. Can we truly believe patterns inferred from observations made by the scientific community? And can we truly understand what is not directly observed or even observable?

Scientific statements arise from logical deductions and inductions. Deductive reasoning generates definitive conclusions that are true as long all the premises are true. But scientific premises usually need to be tested or are derived from inductive reasoning. Induction, however, does not necessarily ‘test’ a premise but provides multiple lines of evidence of support. I regard the inductive approach as the source of open-mindedness that characterizes science, but to others it seems to be their source of doubts. If we truly believe in science and believe its findings, shouldn’t we know what makes scientific knowledge justified? And hopefully, we can persuade others to trust our logical conclusions if we are explicit about our reasons.

Section 2: What I have learned about epistemology.

Knowledge is generally accepted as justified beliefs, but there is no consensus of what makes knowledge justified. There is even skepticism about whether knowledge is possible at all.2 Although I will omit arguments of skepticism for practical reasons, I argue that we should judge scientific claims critically. Science seeks truth, but it does not possess it. Rather, science approximates truth.

Modern science is characterized by falsifiable claims, which can be demonstrated to be wrong if appropriate evidence is discovered. However, falsification is not the totality of scientific pursuit, because it does not generate new hypotheses by itself. This was also why I stumbled over the claim of we believe earlier. This claim is not an easily falsifiable claim, at least not with observations currently available. But is it not scientific? Other philosophical theories disagree that science should be solely characterized by falsification. For example, Imre Lakatos emphasized the development of theory through scientific programs, where existing principles guide new theories.3 By this token, claiming that we believe a novel prediction in light of existing theories and evidence is justified. Additionally, other approaches even allow for the quantification of levels of confidence based on existing knowledge, such as using conditional probabilities developed by Thomas Bayes. Despite the differences of these different philosophical theories, science is based upon the assumption of Uniformity of Nature, i.e. invariance of natural laws.4 This is necessary because we cannot possibly test a hypothesis in every possibly instance, and must generalize from limited observations.

Scientific methods discussed above ensure that scientific claims can be judged heuristically and beyond the specific context where observations are made; however, the claims are not objective in the sense that there is always subjective involvement. Even observations themselves are intrinsically influenced by our subjective experience, because all truth claims are states of minds.3 For example, an entomologist and a mycologist would notice very different types of organisms if they went on a nature hike together, and they would learn very different things regarding the local habitat. Furthermore, even if we were to start with the same observations, how we interpret our observations depends on both our existing knowledge and our expectations. This is also why some great findings, such as Mendel’s genetic theory, only gained prominence until rediscovered by scientist with very different mindsets. After all, science is not merely a collection of facts (observations), but a systematic synthesis of generalized claims. It results from our interaction with the natural world. We are part of both the process and the outcome.

I want to make a point here: I think the human aspect of science should be cherished rather than avoided. Even though scientific arguments are almost always influenced by subjective judgments, why shouldn’t I believe a premise if it is based upon all available evidence and the best judgment possible. The value of science for me is that it generates justified beliefs. I can believe a scientific claim if all existing evidence supports it, while maintaining an openness to change in light of new evidence. Additionally, just as there is no single view of the value of nature, the pursuit of knowledge can take on different meanings for different people. This is liberating rather than constraining, because it opens up opportunities for each person to define why and how nature or knowledge matters to them. Knowledge can be valuable to us in different but intimate ways. We can believe what we know.

Section 3: Resources

I hope I have incited some interest in you to learn about epistemology if you haven’t already. I have been inspired greatly by the book “What is this thing called Science?” by A. F. Charmers. It is a great read and very easy to follow. If you don’t want to read a whole book, the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” is a reputable online resource open to the public. And there are always more journal articles waiting for discovery and many more exciting reads. Scientific findings are leading many philosophical developments, including evolutionary epistemology, neuroethics, and neuroesthetics.

Bibliography:

  1. Grimm, Volker, Daniel Ayllón, and Steven F. Railsback. “Next-Generation Individual-Based Models Integrate Biodiversity and Ecosystems: Yes We Can, and Yes We Must.” Ecosystems (2016): 1-8.
  1. Steup, Matthias, “Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/epistemology/&gt;.
  1. Chalmers, Alan F. What is this thing called science?. Hackett Publishing, 2013.
  1. Gould, Stephen Jay. “Is uniformitarianism necessary?.” American Journal of Science 263, no. 3 (1965): 223-228.

Guide to the graduate interview season: Making the most out of your visits.

By Emlyn Resetarits Jan. 2017

It’s interview season for prospective graduate students! If you were lucky enough to be asked to come out for an interview, congratulations! Although acceptance is not a done deal, you have a good chance of getting accepted. Why else would they fly you out there? So, relax! The interview process is a two-way street: yes, your potential mentor and faculty are interviewing you, but you are also interviewing THEM. Finding the right mentor and department is very important for your later success as a graduate student.

Make the most out of your visit! This is your chance to assess how well a given department or advisor will fit you! All departments and mentors are looking for something slightly different in their graduate students, but here are a few tips on how to impress:

Before you arrive:

  • Read up on the faculty. Get a sense of what everyone does (in general terms), so that you are more prepared if/when you run into them. You don’t need to memorize their research, just get a sense of what they do. If you have a schedule beforehand of whom you will be meeting, focus on looking up these faculty members.
  • Make sure you can answer the following questions:
    • Why do you want to get a PhD/Masters?
    • What are your research interests?
    • Why are you interested in this university, specifically?
  • If there are specific faculty that you want to meet with besides your potential advisor, make sure to mention that when scheduling your trip. You want to make this visit as informative as possible.

During the interview/recruitment weekend:

  • Dress comfortably! You will be running around all day, continuously meeting faculty and students, and the last thing you want is to feel self-conscious or in pain because you decided to break in a new pair of shoes during this visit. A suit may be overkill, but also don’t wear sweatpants and a t-shirt. You’re not there to impress anyone with your sense of fashion, but looking sharp will help you give a good first impression.
  • Meet as many people as you can! This is your chance to get the details on the department, the university, and the people! Get to know what your potential faculty work on and what graduate school is like in this department!
  • For your meetings, treat them like a first date. What I mean is, give a quick summary of your interests and experiences, ask about what the other person does, actively listen and engage, and don’t be a creep. You should try and make all of your meetings (with graduate students, prospective advisors, and other faculty members) a conversation rather than an interview.

One way to impress people is to be prepared with questions. Even if you aren’t looking at any other places, asking probing questions makes you seem more desirable and more sought after. Also, it’s the best way for you to make your decision of where to go, if you do have multiple programs you are looking at.

Here are a few questions to ask when interviewing:

Ask your potential advisor(s):

  • What is their mentoring style? Are they hands off or hands on? Do they give deadlines to their graduate students or do they let their graduate students work at their own pace? Are they open to weekly meetings? Different students flourish under different mentoring styles. It’s important that you have a sense of what type of mentoring style you would like from an advisor, and see if you and your advisor are compatible.
  • What type of funding do they have and what funding are they applying for? What could that funding provide for you? Research money? RA positions? Conference fees? Some faculty may have a large grant, but if you aren’t interested in working on that specific project, then that funding might be unavailable for you. It is important that you figure out how much funding you may have to come up with yourself and how realistic that is.
  • Is your advisor thinking of moving from their current institution? This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but is important to know before you move to that institution for them. If your potential advisor is thinking of moving, make sure that there are other faculty members in the department that you could be advised by. I’ve know many students who have had to change labs because their advisors decided to move half way across the world for a new academic position. Most of these switches were successful, however, because there were other faculty members who had similar research.

Ask advisor’s graduate students:

  • What is your favorite and least favorite thing about your advisor? About the lab in general?
  • How collaborative is the lab? It’s nice to have the flexibility to do whatever project you want, but it can also get a bit lonely if you don’t have anyone working on a similar topic. Does your advisor collaborate with graduate students on projects? Do graduate students collaborate together?
  • How cohesive/social is the lab together? Does the lab do anything outside of work? Does everyone go home to their families at 5pm? Or does the lab go out for beers monthly and have a Christmas party? It’s surprising how much lab events can impact how you feel about graduate school and your lab in general.
  • Are you planning on pursuing a career outside of academia? How helpful has your advisor been in preparing you for this alternative career?
  • Does your advisor give quick and thorough comments on your papers? Does your advisor prioritize graduate students getting their papers out quickly? These questions are ones that are rarely asked during the interview process, but I think are some of the most important. I’ve known many fellow graduate students who have had a paper completed to the best of their ability, and are just waiting for comments from their advisor. For some students, getting feedback on their paper takes months and is like pulling teeth. There is very little more frustrating and demoralizing than waiting and waiting to submit a paper and feeling like you are getting farther and farther away from your goals. I have even known late-stage graduate students that have given up on academia entirely, because they are 6 years in and have not been able to submit any papers yet. Of course, if you just ask your advisor, it’s likely that they will tell you, “Yes, of course! I think it’s vitally important to help graduate students publish early and often.” Of course, faculty want this, but the question is, do they emphasize it in actuality? The best way to determine this is to ask late-stage graduate students in the lab if their advisor prioritizes this.

Ask any graduate student:

  • Do you think my potential advisor is a good advisor? If you ask enough graduate students this, you will be able to piece together an accurate representation of them, one that is perhaps more comprehensive than if you just ask graduate students from your potential lab. Graduate students from your potential lab may be more hesitant to give you the dirt on their advisor than others are.
  • Are you happy? This may seem like a stupid question, but it can tell you a lot about the graduate student climate.
  • Is the graduate student stipend sufficient for you to live comfortably? How will you get paid through the summer? Are you expected to teach your entire graduate career, or will you never be seen in a classroom? This is a big consideration. If you are applying for a PhD program in the biological sciences, you should NOT be taking out any loans, nor should you be eating only rice and beans and living in the windowless basement of some creepy man’s house to afford to go to school. While a program that offers teaching assistant positions only to students might provide you with the living wage you need to survive, you also have to consider how teaching time will impact your ability to finish your own research. During my interview at one school, I was scared away because many graduate students had to take out loans to afford to live there. While most graduate students are entering PhD programs without expectations of large wages in the future, that doesn’t mean finances should not be an important consideration when choosing your graduate school.
  • In a similar vein, ask what the housing market is like. You will be living in a place for 5-6 years and buying a house, if feasible, is a great alternative to paying rent for that whole time.
  • How cohesive is the graduate community as a whole? Do you feel like people are pretty social, outgoing, and have diverse hobbies? These will be your peers and your social circle for 5-6 years, so it’s important that you feel like you could have fun with them!

Ask faculty:

  • Ask them what they do! What projects are they most excited about currently? What projects are they planning for the future?
  • What do your graduate students do?
  • What graduate courses will you be teaching?
  • What resources are available for graduate students? Departmental grants? Sequencing facilities?
  • How collaborative is the department? This will give you a sense of the environment of the department. If the department isn’t very collaborative or a faculty member gives you a knowing look, then perhaps there is a lot of departmental drama or factions. A collaborative department is a good sign!

Of course, this is not a comprehensive list of questions to ask, but it should help you get the most out of your interview visit. Most of all, have fun and engage with people! Faculty, advisors, and current graduate students are looking for students that will be active members of the scientific community, that means they want you to be a dynamic human, not a work-obsessed robot!

Good luck!

 

A Grad Student’s Guide to Conferences Part I. Planning for conferences

by Matthew Nielsen Dec. 2016

Don’t know where to start? Please check out our list of upcoming major conferences.

When should I start thinking about conferences?

Now.

“But conference season isn’t until Summer,” you might protest. It’s true, the majority of conferences are in summer, but abstract and registration deadlines are earlier, sometimes much earlier. As an extreme example, the deadline to submit a presentation to the European Society for Evolutionary Biology’s conference is January 10, when the conference itself isn’t until August. Thus, the time to start thinking about conference is now. You don’t need to sort everything out, but you should at least make a list of conferences you would want to go to, and make sure you know the relevant deadlines. Thinking about conferences sooner rather than later can also help keep costs down (see below).

Should I attend a conference?

Yes.

Of course there are always caveats and cases where attending conferences may not be possible (e.g. summer field seasons), but in general attending conferences is valuable at any stage of your career. Late in your graduate career, conferences are obviously important for networking, sharing your research, and finding postdoc opportunities, but even early in graduate school you can get a lot from conferences. For a new graduate student, conferences can give you feedback on your research ideas from your field outside your department, as well as new ideas from what others in your field are doing. By attending conferences early, you’ll get these ideas and feedback in time to actually address them in your own graduate research. Attending conferences early can also give you a head start on the networking you’ll eventually need, so while it may be more intimidating, it can really pay off in the long run.

Which conference should I attend?

Unsurprisingly, this is a much harder question. There are so many conferences you could attend, and each is unique. That said, one of the clearest distinctions among conferences is their size. The smallest conferences, either regional meetings or on very specific topics, may have fewer than 100 attendees, while the biggest may have over 4,000. Both sizes have their pros and cons. Small conferences are usually less overwhelming, and it can be easier to meet specific people at them; however, that same smaller size means you can’t reach as broad an audience and you may miss good connections outside of your subdiscipline. Large conferences, on the other hand, give you the opportunity to expose yourself to a wide range of ideas and approaches. Although their size can make them intimidating and make finding specific people hard, with some planning they can be quite manageable. If you’re considering several large conferences, look to see what symposiums they have that year and if any fit your own research interests. These symposia can give you some of the benefits of a smaller conference within the context of a large one.

I’ve listed some of the major North American conferences that would be relevant to ASN members at the end of this post, but there’s no way I could list all of the smaller conferences available. Ask your advisor members of the lab about conferences they’ve attended. They can provide some of the best advice, but if you find a different conference that seems relevant to your interests, don’t be afraid to give it a try.

What if no-one else from my lab is going?

 Go anyway.

While having your advisor present at a conference can make networking a lot easier, it’s not impossible on your own (I’ll give more advice for this in a future post). Smaller conferences may be easier to attend on your own, but even large conferences can be worthwhile. An advantage of going to conferences independently from your advisor is that it helps distinguish you and your research from theirs, which will ultimately be important for finding a job. My first time attending evolution, there not only was no-one else from my lab, but only a couple others from my university. It was certainly intimidating, but it forced me to introduce myself to people (including other graduate students) that I may never have met if I could have just hung out with people I already knew. In the years since, I’ve not only built a broader professional network because of this first experience, but I’ve become good friends with many of these people.

Should I present?

 Yes.

If you truly have nothing, you can still get some networking benefits and ideas from a conference that you only attend, but you will get much more out of your conference if you have something to present, even if it’s uncertain or small. Early in a research project, I find presenting a poster quite valuable because it facilitates deeper discussions of your current research and future plans. I’ve gotten some great ideas for how to improve my projects from poster presentations, and had the time to pick the brain of the folks suggesting the ideas. I wouldn’t have had that time with an oral presentation. Once you’re more confident in your results, you can start giving talks, which are good for telling a specific story to a larger audience.

But what if I don’t have my data yet?

Not a problem.

Most titles and details of the abstract change between submission and presentation, often substantially, and conferences understand that. If you already knew the answer, the results wouldn’t be very exciting, would they? So long as you’re reasonably confident that you’ll have some data by the conference, go ahead and register to present on it. It can be a great incentive to keep yourself on task and actually get the research done. That said, since many people will be choosing to attend your talk or poster based on its title, do try to keep to the same overall subject. If you’re highly uncertain, keep the title and abstract a little more ambiguous, but otherwise specific details are important for convincing people to attend your presentation.

How can I afford to attend a conference?

Sometimes, you’ll be fortunate, and your advisor will be able to cover your attendance at a conference, but this won’t always be the case. Travel isn’t cheap, especially on a graduate student budget, but with proper planning you can go a long way on a little. First, you can look for places to apply for travel funding. Often departments or universities will have travel grants from $500-$1000 you can apply for specifically to attend conferences. Also look to the conferences and societies themselves, which will often provide some form of funding. In some cases this will be awarded by lottery among eligible students. Funding from conferences can also come in the form of reduced registration for volunteering for part of the conference.

Often, you’ll still need to chip in some of your own money, but this is where careful planning and budgeting comes in. Make sure to register early to get the discounted rate (where the planning ahead mentioned above comes in). Also, make sure you’re a member of the relevant society. The cost of membership is usually much less than the savings when registering for the conference. Another easy way to save money is on housing. Sharing a room is the first step, but not the only. Official conference housing is rarely the cheapest (with the exception of dorms, which sometimes still aren’t the cheapest). If you’re willing to walk 10-20 minutes to get to the conference venue, you can often save $50 or more a night on a room. Hostels and airbnb can provide especially cheap lodging if you’re travelling solo and don’t need as much privacy. Airfare is the last major cost of attending most conferences. It’s more difficult to save on, but buying your ticket in advance can help a lot. Also, sometimes you can find a much cheaper tickets one to two days before or after the conference. If you’ve found cheaper housing (such as a dorm or hostel), this can still be a net savings while giving you a little time for sight-seeing. Applying for additional funding and careful budgeting tips can make the difference between being able to attend two to three conferences a year and none.

How long should I plan to attend?

The whole conference.

Plus a couple more days if possible. Conferences usually start with an opening reception the evening of the first day. It may be tempting to skip it and show up late that evening or early the next day, but these are often some of the best networking opportunities of the conference. Closing receptions can be a bit more hit-or-miss, but if they are free or inexpensive (not always the case) they usually worth giving a try, and you usually want to stay for the last afternoon of talks regardless. If you can at all find the time and budget, I would strongly recommend either arriving a day or two before or leaving a day or two after the conference to do some sightseeing. Conferences are usually in really cool places easily worth visiting on their own. The cost of an extra day or two is usually small relative to the cost of getting there, so this provides an easy way to fit some personal travel into your schedule which can otherwise be hard as a grad student. I’ve personally found that the extra time helps to either energize me for the conference or going back to work afterwards.

 

Once we get closer to the summer, I’ll post another guide about making the most of your conferences, but for now, I hope this helps you better prepare for the coming year of conferences.

 

Upcoming Major North American Conferences

by Matthew Nielsen Dec. 2016

Evolution—June 23-27 2017, Portland, Oregon:

Early registration deadline—April 15, 2017; Presentation submission deadline—May 20, 2017. The big evolution conference, but it’s a pretty broad interpretation of the topic, and thanks to ASN’s involvement, it includes some ecology as well. It’s jointly sponsored by ASN, the Society for the Study of Evolution, and the Society for Systematic Biology, and typically has ~1600 attendees. Personally, it’s my favorite of the major conferences.

 

American Society of Naturalists—Jan 5-9, 2018, Asilomar, California:

This isn’t one of the big conferences (attendance is capped at 200), but given that it’s ours, I figured it should be mentioned. It’s biennial and not until next winter, and each year is focused around three specific symosia.

 

Animal Behavior Society—June 12-16 2017, Toronto, Canada:

The major meeting for animal behavior, including plenty of behavioral ecology. It typically has ~600 attendees, so it’s on the smaller end for national/international society meetings.

 

Ecological Society of America—August 6-11 2017, Portland, Oregon:

Presentation submission deadline—February 23, 2017. This is the really big one, with attendance usually on the scale of ~4,000. I’ve never been personally, but it covers pretty much all aspects of ecology and is big enough that there should be something for everyone (if you can find it).

 

Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology—January 3-7 2018, San Francisco, California:

Formerly known as the American Zoological Society, SICB covers all levels of biological organization, but has an especially strong organismal focus. It usually has ~2,000 attendees. The Division of Ecology and Evolution has a strong presence, and the society’s integrative goals align pretty well with those of ASN overall, so if you study animals and are looking for an off-season meeting, this is a good choice. There is a 2017 meeting in New Orleans, but it’s a bit late to register, so I listed the 2018 meeting instead.

 

Is there a big meeting of likely interest to graduate student members of ASN that I missed? (I’ll admit, I know the animal-oriented conferences better than those for plants or microbes, so I wouldn’t be surprised). Let me know at maerniel@live.unc.edu.

How to be a Scientist in a World that Doesn’t Always Appreciate Science

by Alannie-Grace Grant Nov. 2016

Please note the ideas expressed here are my own and not the ASN’s. This blog is written not to take sides, but rather address a perspective.

The results of the most recent United States Presidential election have caused some concern within the scientific community in regard to science funding, acceptance of science, and generally the role that science will play in the president elect’s governing strategy. We do not fully know what the future has in store, but we can create a plan to make the best of a potentially bad situation and succeed! Below are a few things I think graduate students should keep in mind.

  • Stay focused – The election happened and despite how emotional you may feel, life goes on. You should still stay focused on getting your degree or on other career plans. If you are having difficulties staying on track due to the election or other issues in your life, do not be afraid to reach out to your campus’ mental health center. You may also consider some form of meditation or mindfulness to help ease anxiety and relieve stress.
  • Think of others – Regardless of your specific opinions on the outcome, to maintain a respectful and professional school/work environment it is good to think of other people’s feelings. Do not harass or belittle anyone for a specific view point and provide assistance or a friendly ear to anyone who is feeling emotional.
  • Be cautious around undergraduates – Avoid conversations with undergraduate students about election results. That said, if students are allowed to talk during parts of class time, do allow them to discuss among themselves. Stopping such conversations may make the students feel censored. If students become rowdy or disrespectful, ask them to stop the conversation.
  • Explore your community & be an advocate – the world is bigger than just your lab or university. Go out be a part of the campus and greater communities. What are the big issues facing these communities? Once issues are identified, you should make the effort to communicate this to your legislators and vote accordingly! The most effective way to communicate to legislators is by phone. Phone calls are actually answered by aids as they come in, for the most part, and can have large impact. Letters and email are far less effective simply due to the volume a particular legislator may receive. Beyond traditional forms of communication, actually inviting the legislator and/or their aids to some event where the topic will be discussed will bring greater visibility to the concern. For example, if the issue is with updating children’s textbooks due to misinformation, maybe invite them to the school and have them see for themselves or have children show them the mistakes. Make sure you express to your representatives that the public has a need for science funding and education.
  • Get better at communicating science – many people in our line of work – ecology and evolutionary biology (and related fields like environmental science) – fear the importance of their work to be reduced under the new administration. “Science is not a special interest group,” is something I saw on my social media recently. We are not self-serving; we simply want to understand our systems or certain phenomena, and if we can, also save the world. We need to get out there and let the public know this. This means creative outreach that goes beyond making workshops for schoolchildren. We need to reach out to adults! Examples of these include the Pint of Science and World Science Festivals. Events can be organized on a smaller scale to interest non-scientists on important and interesting science. You may generally want to brush up on science communication skills as well by attending workshops and getting practice at conferences.
  • Plan for the worst – remain optimistic, but be aware of the possibilities. What will science be like with severe cuts to funding? How will you excel in the face of such adversity? Make a plan and seriously thing about what you would do in the worst-case scenario.

Evolution Austin recap

It was great to see and meet so many of you in Austin this past week at a great meeting! If you had any thoughts/feedback/comments on the meeting and anything we can do better for grad student members of the society, don’t hesitate to get in touch with any of us on the grad council, or keep an eye out for this fall when we will advertise for new graduate council members!