SSE Community Blog | Perspectives from the Society for the Study of Evolution and beyondTime 2022-09-30 01:13:14
by Jewel Tomasula
I had brought back thousands of plant samples from my field season in the salt marsh and was ready to genotype them: the next big step in my PhD research in spring of 2020. My data sheets were ready to be filled in, and my PCR primers were in my online shopping cart. Suddenly, the email notification popped up: in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the campus of Georgetown University would close, and all researchers would need to work from home until further notice.
Just like that, my plans were put on hold, seemingly indefinitely. I felt overwhelmed in my uncertainty and fear as to how the pandemic would impact my PhD progress – how much longer would it take for me to finish my work if I wasn’t allowed in the lab? Would I be barred from traveling to the salt marsh to collect more samples? I fretted about the disruption to the economy and how it might impact my future job search. I felt stressed about the health of my family and friends in other cities whose leaders weren’t taking COVID-19 seriously. So much felt out of control.
In the absence of security and productivity, I needed hope and purpose. I found them through organizing with my graduate union, the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees (GAGE). Grad union organizing means having earnest conversations with other graduate student workers about their struggles, envisioning how to change our working conditions through our union, and taking action together to demand changes. Organizing is empowering under ordinary conditions. In a crisis, organizing became a lifeline.
I had gotten involved in GAGE early on in my PhD because I quickly discovered that the university’s PhD stipends and health benefits were woefully inadequate, and I understood that negotiation for a union contract was the surest way to improve these. As the pandemic took hold, there was more urgency to fight for progress. Those same months when I was shut out of the lab and I rarely left my apartment, negotiations for GAGE’s first collective bargaining agreement were intensifying. We were pushing for more financial resources for graduate student workers at the exact time Georgetown University was tightening its budget and freezing pay for faculty. I was on the bargaining committee, though it was just one part of a diverse community of graduate student workers involved in our “Contract for the Whole Person” campaign.
In meetings with university administrators and publicly over social media, we told the truth of our graduate experience: we worked long, hard hours in research and teaching roles but we spent over half of our stipends on rent alone. Only the most privileged young adults could pursue the academic path without struggle. The pandemic, we foretold, would exacerbate the inequities already prevalent in higher education.
We won our contract on May 1, 2020, with increases to science PhD stipends to match the Washington DC cost of living, fully paid dental insurance, paid leave, and more. Because of our contract wins, some of my closest friends visited the dentist for the first time in several years, other close friends moved out of terrible apartments into much better ones, others were able to quit the stressful side gigs they took on just to help make ends meet, and another told me they felt more secure to plan to have a child now that we have paid parental leave. I believe our contract wins are a huge step forward to making graduate work, especially in the sciences, more equitable and inclusive.
After we signed our contract, we saw that the impact of organizing was broader than these specific wins. When the university announced plans to coerce graduate teaching assistants into teaching in-person classes while the virus remained uncontrolled, graduate student workers could respond rapidly and decisively because we were well organized through GAGE. Administrators attempted to dismiss our concerns about how the university’s pandemic response impacted graduate work, but we had recourse through our union grievance and arbitration process. No one can speak for the experience and struggles of graduate student workers better than graduate student workers themselves; GAGE protects our collective voice and ensures it is heard.
It was September 2020 when I could finally place that order for PCR primers so I could start the process of genotyping my plant samples. Lab work done solo with a mask on goes excruciatingly slow, and I sorely miss working with fellow students at the nearby lab bench. However, I’ve felt safer knowing our union will advocate for our needs and I’ve been heartened by the camaraderie of my fellow graduate worker organizers even when we can’t physically work together. I now think that I’ll be as proud of our first collective bargaining agreement as I’ll be of my doctoral dissertation.
Academic sciences will be grappling with the impacts of the pandemic for much longer, and paths forward are unclear. Union organizing has shown me what a community dedicated to a shared vision can accomplish even when it feels like the world is falling apart.
by Sasha Mushegian
The naturalist sciences are for anyone who likes noticing things. Knowing even a tiny amount about plants, birds and insects makes every glance at your surroundings more interesting. Every weed you see sprouting from a crack in a sidewalk, every strand of a spiderweb you notice threading through a chain-link fence, gives the world richness and texture and color. Anyone who has experienced this joy should be indignant at it being denied to anyone else.
Last week, both the joy of naturalist pursuits and the struggles they entail for people of color were on display in a social media campaign called Black Birders Week (expanded beyond birds by hashtags like #BlackInNature). Started by graduate students Corina Newsome and Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman and @BlackAFinStem, the campaign collected the stories of Black naturalists and unfolded across Twitter at the same time as the remarkable uprising of nationwide protests against police brutality. The juxtaposition was moving: repudiation of injustice, reclamation of joy.
Black Birders’ Week featured countless stories of both scientists’ and hobbyists’ favorite species, preferred outdoor spots, and personal stories of scientific journeys. They made visible the presence of Black people in ecology and evolution and challenged the narrow conception of “nature lovers” that doesn’t include Black Americans. In the midst of a week of serious national reckoning, in the wake of months of pandemic-related grief and uncertainty, the cascade of exuberant photos and sincere expressions of love for wild things felt triumphant. At the same time, communicators including Newsome and ecologist and nature writer J. Drew Lanham contrasted the freedom and beauty of wildlife work with Black Americans’ everyday experiences of racism, and stories of being harassed, threatened or being made like they didn’t belong in the field or in academia.
Read more:“‘I can’t even enjoy this.’ #BlackBirdersWeek organizer shares her struggles as a black scientist” – interview with Corina Newsome“Black in Nature” by Alexus Roberts and Shaz Zamore“Nine New Revelations for the Black American Bird-Watcher” by J. Drew Lanham“Birding While Black” by J. Drew Lanham“New Profs in the Age of COVID19” by Swanne GordonBirding While Black: A Conversation with Birder Jason Ward@BlackAFinSTEM on Twitter#BlackinNature, #BlackintheIvory, and #BlackBirdersWeek on Twitter
A recurring theme was the restrictions imposed by stereotypes, prejudices and systemic barriers, versus the freedom afforded by scientific pursuits. To fully enjoy this freedom requires physical and psychological safety. Safety and freedom are sometimes set up in opposition to each other, but this is only true in the context of some supremacist structures. One of the rallying cries of Black Lives Matter is: the police don’t keep us safe; we keep each other safe. This is also true in the context of the coronavirus pandemic: by keeping our distance, wearing masks, and finding new and creative ways to maintain community ties, we keep each other safe. Liberating each other and protecting each other turn out to be intertwined goals.
As the coronavirus pandemic progressed in the U.S. in the past months, it became increasingly evident that there was at least one nexus at which all the failures of American ideals were colliding: mass incarceration. The US has the world’s largest population of imprisoned people and more imprisoned people per capita than any other country in the world, far higher than many countries we denounce for their assaults on freedom. Incarceration, like coronavirus, disproportionately impacts Black people, and both have far-ranging ripple effects on their communities. And prisons are now among the leading centers for coronavirus outbreak clusters. From the most dispassionate epidemiological perspective, mass incarceration must end. The acute crisis we are facing now should be a call to action to address the chronic moral crisis. In that sense, the protests denouncing over-policing are not tangential to the pandemic: they highlight what should be a key dimension of pandemic response.
I hope that future epidemiological analyses of the protests’ effect on COVID-19 will make the best possible attempts to distinguish between cases linked to demonstrating in the street from cases exacerbated by law enforcement actions like jailing protesters or otherwise confining them in small, crowded spaces. From my personal observations, it seems highly plausible that arrests, kettling, tear gas, and other punitive action by law enforcement agents (many of whom were not wearing masks) will have far worse effects than protesting on its own. As humans who will continue to face both infectious disease threats and issues on which we need to make our voices heard, we’ll need this information.
Which brings me back to the topics of safety and freedom in the outdoors. Like many people, as the pandemic progressed I had been thinking a lot about what aspects of society would be permanently reshaped. In addition to decarceration, I hoped that our experiences now would lead to universal healthcare not tied to a person’s employment, to more robust and durable public health institutions, to a de-emphasis on growth and productivity at all costs in favor of a focus on maintenance and care. One relatively minor point I kept returning to was the hope that this period would change our relationship to public space.
The emerging evidence tentatively suggests that almost any outdoor activity is safer than almost any indoor activity (aside from complete isolation, which is not sustainable for human beings). I hoped that this realization would lead to reinvestment in and redistribution of public resources like parks and pedestrian-friendly streets. And I was cheered by the thought of a surge in popularity of slow, introspective, non-consumerist hobbies and pastimes like gardening and botanizing and birdwatching and generally deepening our relationships with the environments that sustain us, whether those be cities or suburbs or wild places. In the face of climate change and other threats to a livable planet, these relationships have never been more important.
Black Birders’ Week and #BlackInNature highlighted how hard Black naturalists are working to bring about these shifts in attitude, but also how far we have to go. These stories demonstrated the threat that white supremacy already poses to the values of observation and exploration, also known as loitering and aimless wandering. These things are treated with suspicion or outright criminalized when it’s Black people or other marginalized people who are doing them. In a very real way, liberation of Black people in the outdoors is a public health concern, too. Equitable access to nature and the outdoors, and the host of physical and psychological benefits it confers, will turn out to be an important dimension of shrinking the disparities in the effects of the pandemic.
Liberation and justice are enormous, ongoing, multidimensional projects. But in my capacity as a scientist and naturalist witnessing a pandemic, these two threads of it feel squarely in my purview: We cannot continue to imprison people in the way that we have been. And we have to give everyone the ability to move safely and freely through the world they inhabit, for everyone’s health and survival.
By Leandro R. Monteiro
“The evil in the world comes almost always from ignorance, and goodwill can cause as much damage as ill-will if it is not enlightened”.Albert Camus, “The Plague”
This quotation from the book “The Plague” by Albert Camus serves as an opening for David Sloan Wilson’s 2019 work “This view of life: completing the Darwinian revolution” (Pantheon Books) (reviewed in Nature here). I read this book last year on the recommendation of a colleague. Now, I find myself thinking about the considerable applicability of Wilson’s ideas in the current pandemic situation. It is almost prophetic that it was released last year with this passage from Camus in its opening.
As an evolutionary biologist, I have sometimes felt uneasy with group selection ideas and sociobiology, but I found much of interest in Wilson’s book, particularly as multilevel selection is applied to the problem of cooperation among humans.
Wilson first dispels the myth that the theory of evolution and natural selection inevitably leads to Social Darwinism, which the Humanities abhorred as a vision that authorizes the exploitation of the weakest by the strongest, and which arguably led to eugenicist policies, the Holocaust and World War II. On the contrary, Wilson argues that multilevel selection can see altruistic collaborative behaviours emerge in groups of people, even when selfish behaviours present greater reward at the level of individuals. In fact, he sees human evolution as a continuous tug-of-war between different levels of selection from genes to nations.
Societies can thrive or crumble depending on how cooperative or individualistic they are and which level of selection is being favoured at a certain point in history. An analogy is made with cancer cells that stop cooperating with the rest of the body. These cells have high fitness (rate of multiplication) at a certain point, but wreak havoc with the organism they are a part of. Similarly, highly individualistic people taking over a society would cause that society to fare poorly in a challenging environment.
Wilson’s book is not without criticism. Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, who reviewed the book for Nature, argues that Wilson fails to consider processes of change other than multilevel selection (such as time preferences, imitation and drift) in cultural evolution. Wilson shows many fascinating examples from biology to anthropology and business to illustrate his points, but evidence that multilevel selection is the force causing local individual actions to benefit the common good is still limited.
Nevertheless, Wilson’s most interesting proposal is that we can take control of the process of cultural evolution. Evolutionary biology could be used as a guide for the establishment of public policies allowing for populations or groups to be adaptable to changing environments, rather than only being adapted to the current environment. Wilson provides tools and guidelines to incorporate good practices into everyday life and the management of human groups on different levels. In the context of a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, this means crafting policies that favor the collective group good at the expense of individual selfishness.
Many evolutionary biologists must be viewing the coronavirus pandemic as an ongoing global exercise in human cooperation and multilevel selection, with a visible tension between actions that are good for the collective and what individuals are actually doing. We are living through a collective risk social dilemma akin to the prevention of climate change. Social dilemmas are usually observed when incentives for certain behaviours at the level of individuals are misaligned with group interests (the tug-of-war between different levels of selection).Continue reading
by Sasha Mushegian
At the beginning of March, I flew to Berlin for an intensive course in programming for evolutionary biology. At the time, Italy was shutting down due to COVID-19, but the rest of Europe was relatively quiet; the first officially diagnosed case was announced in Berlin the morning that my classmates and I arrived in the classroom for the first time. As a group, we agreed to wash our hands frequently and not come to class if we had a fever and got to work writing code. We kept each other updated about how things were changing in our respective countries — labs closing, events getting canceled, increasingly forcefully worded emails from our universities — but mostly, we were focused on R, Python, and Bash.
I hadn’t been in a classroom or workshop setting that intensive in several years, and I was delighted. The first week of twelve-hour days of collaborative learning felt invigorating in a way that I had forgotten about. Learning is great, I thought, biology and computers are great, being part of a shared intellectual tradition is the greatest! One of my main takeaways from the course, I thought, was going to be that, in spite of the welcome proliferation of online and independent learning resources, there was nothing like learning a skill together in the same space. As we wrote and debugged code, my classmates and I were constantly popping up behind each other’s shoulders or crouching down next to each other’s workstations; pointing at screens, gesticulating wildly as we attempted to talk through a problem; sharing insights over coffee and meals. Humans are social animals, and it turns out that sociality also comes into play when doing something as seemingly individualistic as writing scripts to analyze sequences. There is something irreplaceable about the physical classroom, I concluded.
That message didn’t age well.
A week and a half into the course, the situation began to escalate quickly. One by one, my classmates’ home countries started telling them to come home. As a US citizen, the ban on travel from Europe to the US did not apply to me, but it did apply to several classmates and instructors in the course who were on postdoctoral fellowships in the US but were not permanent residents. One of the instructors managed to get her flight changed in the 36 hours before the ban went into effect; she closed her laptop in the middle of a lecture she was giving and left for the airport. Another lecturer was not so lucky. Unable to return to Texas, where he is a postdoc, he had to return to his hometown in Italy.
After a few days of all of us frenetically checking the news and the airline websites, the university that was hosting us officially closed its classrooms, and the course organizers made the decision to send us all home. We had the weekend to get back to where we were going, and then we finished the course online, cobbling together videoconferencing and chat software and navigating byzantine systems of copying files to and from remote servers. We were grateful to be making the best of it, but we missed each other terribly: in the short time that we’d known each other, the workshop participants had formed the kinds of bonds typically based around shared sleep deprivation, which had only been heightened by the experience of a shared stressful situation.
For many scientists and academics, the pandemic has revealed the precariousness of their positions: their current work, job prospects, living situations. At the same time, it has forced us to rethink our priorities, creatively retool teaching and research, and troubleshoot a thousand problems of various scales that we haven’t had to think about. For many of us, it’s forced us to think in stark and immediate terms about how we can best apply our hard-won expertise to an immediate global problem (or at minimum find somewhere to donate nitrile gloves). Nothing is the same as it was a month ago, nothing will be the same for the foreseeable future, and for better or for worse we won’t have the same perspective on things when we’ve weathered the pandemic.
Along these lines, we want to hear any stories you have to tell about being a scientist right now. What’s on your mind, what’s worrying you or inspiring you? Do you have any ideas or advice to share? How are you managing your competing priorities and responsibilities to others in an uncertain world? As a social animal, what are you doing to maintain your humanity even if you can’t be in the same room as the people you care about? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Maridel Fredericksen
Living all around us, but largely unknown, is a single family of bizarre wasps that likely contains more species than all vertebrates combined. Unlike widely-known wasps like hornets or yellow jackets, they are not a household name. That might be because the only name they have is their Latin family name, the Ichneumonidae. Recently, though, a group of scientists convened to give this group a common name in hopes of getting more people talking about them. Allow me to introduce: the Darwin wasps.
Stranger stings: outlandish life histories and unfathomable diversity
Many wasp families include species that are parasitoids: they live in or on their invertebrate host and eventually kill it. All 25,000 Darwin wasps described so far are parasitoids, and an additional 75,000 species are thought to still await discovery. Indeed, hundreds of new ichneumonid species are being described every year.
Darwin wasp species have incredible life histories, each more extraordinary than the last. One species, Ichneumon eumerus, was featured on David Attenborough’s 2005 documentary Life in the undergrowth. These wasps parasitize caterpillars that are themselves parasites: the caterpillars live inside ant colonies, chemically disguised as ants. Somehow, a mother wasp manages to find the ant colony that contains caterpillars, and when she does, she releases her own chemical weapon that confuses the ants and makes them attack each other. Amidst the confusion, the wasp can enter the nest, deposit her eggs in the disguised caterpillar, and leave again unharmed.
Ichneumonids don’t just parasitize caterpillars. Some family members attack moth cocoons, while others specialize on various life stages of flies, beetles, spiders and other wasps. There are even hyperparasitoids, which attack hosts that are already inside another host.
Another example of Darwin wasp diversity: Many subfamilies such as Xoridinae and Labeninae prefer wood-dwelling hosts. First, they find a wasp or beetle larva hiding in a tree branch by tapping with their antennae and then listening (with an organ in their legs!) for the hollow echo of a feeding tunnel. Once they’ve found one, the wasps use a tiny saw at the end of their ovipositor to make a hole in the wood and access the larval prize inside. To add yet another layer to this story, sometimes wasps with weaker ovipositors watch in anticipation as the wood borer drills and lays her egg. Once the hard work is done, the freeloader swoops in and uses the same hole to lay her own egg on the host. When this egg hatches, the larva uses its huge jaws to kill the other wasp larva and eat the host.
These wasps are also economically important, some of them being natural enemies of agricultural pests. For example, many farmers in North America rely on the Darwin wasp Diadegma insulare to manage populations of the diamondback moth, a pest of cruciferous crops such as broccoli and cabbage. The wasps thus act as valuable agents of biological control, reducing the need for harmful pesticides. There are no parasitoid wasps currently on the IUCN red list, but this is mainly because not enough is known about them. Even so, many Darwin wasp species are likely threatened by habitat loss and would benefit from conservation efforts. Parasitoids are high in the insect food chain, and many are host specific; if the hosts are threatened, so are the parasites. In fact, the ant-mimicking caterpillars that are host to Ichneumon eumerus are classified as vulnerable and have priority conservation status in Europe.
A Rosaceae by any other name… Common names matter
Given the sheer number and mind-blowing strangeness of the ichneumonid wasps, why aren’t they more familiar to us? Why aren’t we talking about them more? Many of us can conjure a mental image when we hear the names of some other wasps, such as “yellow jacket” or “paper wasp.” But when you hear the name “Ichneumonidae”, does a picture pop into your mind? For most people, the answer is probably no. One reason for this may be that ichneumonids aren’t the human-stinging, angry-sounding wasps that disrupt our picnics or build nests on our patios. But another reason may be that, until now, we could only call these wasps by their Latin name. This would be like calling squirrels “Sciuridae”, or referring to the cat family (including lions, tigers, cheetahs, etc) as “Felidae.” “Look at that cute Sciurid running up the tree!” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
Common names for organisms help us connect to the natural world. We teach these names to our children, and we see them represented as plush toys, stickers, and mascots. The charismatic and relatable animals we tend to think of first when considering biodiversity and animal well-being all have memorable common names: think pandas, sea turtles, monarch butterflies, and honey bees. All of these organisms have Latin names too of course, but does it have the same impact if we say “please consider reducing your use of plastic straws to help protect the Chelonidae”?
Assigning a Latin name is a standardized process, first developed by Carl Linnaeus, to classify organisms in a hierarchy that describes each species’ relationship to all the other members of the tree of life. When scientists find a new species, or when they reclassify a taxon at any level, they describe the group in a publication, they define physical specimens (types) that will be stored in a museum to serve as a reference for that taxon, and they give it a Latin name.
Common names are usually not designated in such a formal way. Rather, they arise from communities of people in the same organic way that other words in each language are generated. We give names to the things we interact with, because names help us organize the world and communicate our experiences. For animals and plants, we might give a name that describes an aspect of its natural history, appearance, or economic value to humans.
But what about organisms that are less familiar to us: creatures that we might not interact with unless we were looking for them? Many of these creatures may never be given a common name in the usual way, and that is unfortunate: our lack of names to describe thousands of species makes them invisible to us and limits our perception of biodiversity.
For such “forgotten” creatures like the Ichneumonidae, we might have to intervene to break the cycle and increase their visibility. If more familiar organisms are more likely to get a common name, maybe the reverse is true too: if we give a group a common name, perhaps it will become more familiar to us.
Naming Darwin’s nemeses
Last summer, a group of Ichneumonologists brainstormed ideas for a name that would help their beloved wasps become more widely known and appreciated. Some candidate names included “seeker wasp,” since they can often be seen searching for their next host, “wolverine wasp” as they are known in Finland, where wolverines are top predators (and Ichneumonids are top predators among insects), and “bastard wasp,” as their hosts might call them. But in the end, the name that won the vote was “Darwin wasp.”
Apparently Darwin was deeply troubled by the wasps that are now his namesake. He refers to them specifically in a letter, which he wrote the year after publishing On the Origin of Species, to the American naturalist Asa Gray:
“I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars…”
In other words, the wasps’ parasitoid lifestyle shook Darwin’s faith in the existence of a benevolent creator. The scientists at the Ichneumonid meeting were amused that their favorite wasps had incited such conflicted musings in the mind of an evolutionary genius, and they appreciated that this connection would be preserved in the new common name.
Of course, simply assigning a common name is just a first step: a name has little value unless it is used. So the next step is to spread the word: these are incredible insects that deserve our admiration and respect, and now we can proudly call them #DarwinWasps!
In 2013, Cathy Rushworth, then a graduate student at Duke, volunteered to lead an effort to increase student representation on the Council of the Society for the Study of Evolution. The goal was to give students a voice in the Society’s activities by surveying SSE’s graduate student membership to assess their needs, attending Council meetings, and organizing a student mixer. She and another student, Karl Grieshop, became the founding members of the SSE Graduate Student Advisory Council (GSAC), which was first officially formed in 2016.
Since then, the GSAC has spearheaded some of the society’s most visible efforts, like creating this blog, helping develop the Evolution Meeting Code of Conduct, developing networking lunches, the Undergraduate Day at Evolution, and mixers, and working to make GREG award criteria more transparent. Many of these initiatives were created under the leadership of Megan Kobiela, who served as the second Chair of GSAC. Together, Cathy and Megan established the GSAC as it currently operates. In 2018, GSAC received voting privileges on the Council and today has two votes in all SSE Council business. With the deadline for applying to the new cohort of GSAC coming up April 15, we (the current GSAC members) wanted to talk about the exciting activities and initiatives we pursue each year to promote the interests of graduate students and postdocs in the evolutionary biology community.
We start our GSAC year on January 1 when we welcome our new cohort and say thank you to our members who are rotating off. In the winter, we finalize our schedule of GSAC events for the annual meeting with the meeting organizers and help review R.C. Lewontin Early Award GREGs. In addition, the three GSAC chairs attend the mid-year SSE Council meeting where we work directly with SSE leadership on society decisions.
Liz Carlen’s perspective on the mid-year meeting
“2020 was the first year that I got to attend the SSE mid-year Council meeting where Council members from all over the US (and the UK) converged upon Durham, North Carolina for two days to discuss the future of SSE. What I found most exciting about being a graduate student member of Council was how eager the other Council members were to hear our perspectives on things like encouraging submissions to our Evolution journal and what types of mixers best connect students at our annual meeting. All the council members were invested in how the Society can support and promote graduate student and postdoc work.”
In the spring we are hard at work planning for our events at the annual meeting. We currently run or help run a lot of events, including the Flying Solo Coffee Break, Student-Faculty Networking Lunches, Postdoc Networking Lunch, Peer Review Workshop, Undergraduate Day at Evolution, First Presentation Swag, and the GSAC Booth, and we also create the SSE Swag. We divide the planning between all members of GSAC so everyone helps out with a few events that match their interests. This year, GSAC is also providing input on the conference in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and will be actively involved in plans for moving forward in the event the conference does not take place as planned.
[Update 3/13/2020: The councils of SSB, ASN, and SSE have made the difficult decision to cancel the 2020 Evolution meeting in Cleveland. Our highest priority is the health and well-being of our communities. Full refunds will be issued to all attendees and sponsors who have registered thus far. We are continuing to plan for Evolution 2021 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Please pay attention to best practices during these stressful times, and stay healthy.]
Sally Chang’s perspective on planning networking lunches
“During April and May, we do most of the work for organizing the postdoc and student-faculty networking lunches at the annual meeting. These are informal avenues for SSE postdocs to meet one another, and for small groups of SSE students to have lunch with a faculty mentor. The postdoc lunch groups are based on a combination of research interests and institution (we don’t want you to hang out with people you already know!), so part of this matching process is actually conducted using a script in R. We think this is a pretty great use of those coding skills many of us have acquired throughout grad school!
The student lunches require some serious spreadsheeting and e-mailing! During registration, students tell us if they are interested in attending the lunch, and faculty tell us if they are interested in being a mentor. In April, we contact faculty and have them submit a few lines about their interests, which then go into a form from which the students select their top choices of mentors to have lunch with. All of this info is then used to create groups of 3-5 students per mentor, who are then all put in touch with one another.
Although organizing these lunches can be a little hectic, the outcome is incredibly satisfying: watching these lunch groups find each other and start interacting on the day of is awesome, as is hearing them continue to talk science (and non-science!) as they re-enter the convention center after lunch. Facilitating meaningful relationships between SSE scientists at all career stages is definitely one of the highlights of my time on GSAC!”
The annual meeting is the biggest event for GSAC. GSAC members balance presenting our research during the meeting with running events for postdocs and graduate students. Luckily, most of the hard work for our events happens before the meeting starts, which means we are able to spend the meeting enjoying and facilitating connections between undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty.
Andis Arietta’s perspective on Undergraduate Day at Evolution
“I’m sure most folks can empathize with the uncomfortable and slightly embarrassing feeling of approaching a sea of strangers at the first coffee break at your very first conference. That is why one of my favorite times of the year is when we get to match volunteer graduate mentors with undergrad mentees for the Day at Evolution program. The purpose of the Day at Evolution is to give promising undergrads who would not ordinarily attend the Evolution conference a chance to spend a day at the meeting. To help reduce obstacles, GSAC covers their registration for the day and we pair each student with a graduate mentor. Mentors help the students navigate the conference and find interesting talks, but mostly, they assuage the intimidating feeling of participating and interacting with more senior researchers. Last year, it was heart-lifting to see the transformation as the group of nervous undergrads from the morning quickly gained independence throughout the day. When I asked one of the mentors how her student enjoyed the day, she told me she hadn’t seen her mentee since the afternoon break because her mentee had quickly made friends and spent the afternoon going to other talks and chatting with presenters at the poster session. Although I felt a little bad that the mentor had been ditched, I can’t imagine a better outcome, and I’m already excited to start matching up mentors and mentees for Evolution 2020!”
Liz Lange’s perspective on running the GSAC Booth
“One of the best parts of the annual meeting is running the GSAC booth during coffee breaks and poster sessions. GSAC divides the duties among our six members, but we often end up spending a lot of time at the booth even if we are not scheduled for duty. At the booth, we hand out swag (buttons, pins, pens) and connect with members from all levels (undergrads, grad students, postdocs, and faculty members) who are presenting for the first time at Evolution. At the booth we also try to have a few fun activities to get to know our members. Last year, we had a question of the day. My favorite question was, “Who are you outside of science?,” where I learned that some of our members are curlers, others play roller derby, and many people love their dogs and cats. Hands down my favorite part of the GSAC booth is simply talking to our members. This is our chance to meet with people in person and hear about SSE issues that are important to them. So next time you are at an Evolution meeting, stop by the GSAC booth—we would love to meet you!”
We start planning our events for the next annual meeting as soon as we finish the current meeting. We spend the fall talking about what worked at the annual meeting and brainstorming new events and initiatives. In addition, postdoc members of GSAC, as well as past members, are often asked to evaluate submissions for the Graduate Research Excellence Grants (GREG) Rosemary Grant Advanced Awards for advanced PhD students.
Sally Chang’s perspective on reviewing GREG awards
“This was my first year reviewing [the GREG awards], and it was a fairly time consuming but very valuable experience. I ended up getting to read and comment on about 25 total proposals, so it took a few entire days to do this thoroughly! The breadth of research foci, study systems and methodologies was amazing to see, as was the overall extremely high quality, which made comparing and ranking these proposals really difficult. Luckily, we were working with a rubric based on several years of feedback to guide our evaluations. I learned so much about what successful research proposals and questions look like, and about writing feedback that is actually helpful for the proposal-writers. I don’t think I would be able to get this much grant review experience this early in my career if not for GSAC.”
While some events are seasonal, GSAC works with SSE’s council on grad student and postdoc initiatives year-round. One aspect of GSAC that we work hard on throughout the year is our Twitter account. We also accept and review applications, with Council, for the Early Vocational Opportunities (EVO) Award.
Melissa Plakke’s perspective on running the Twitter account
“For the past two years, I have helped to maintain the GSAC Twitter account. While we tweet about society events and deadlines, my favorite part was highlighting student and early career researchers’ work that had been published in the two society journals. Along with tweeting about the article, we include pictures of the researcher and their study system. To me, this made the research seem much more personal and the tweet more of a celebration of the accomplishments. Seeing your friend or someone you may have met at a conference pop up on your Twitter feed brings a flutter of excitement, at least for me! We all know how much work goes into each and every published paper, and it’s worth a reminder that this is no small feat. Additionally, the feed captures who the Society and the future of evolutionary research is: a vibrant, international, diverse set of people. And that is genuinely inspirational.”
Catherine Chen’s perspective on evaluating EVO awards
“We evaluate proposals for EVO workshops year-round. These workshops, originally conceived by the GSAC, act as additional learning opportunities for folks early in their careers. Applications come in on a rolling basis, but when I joined the EVO awards committee this January (2020), we happened to already be evaluating three! For every application, each member reviews the proposal and then we discuss whether or not to fund it, and if so, whether it should be funded in its entirety. Sometimes we ask applicants to address specific concerns before making a final decision. So far, this process has been a fun way to learn about various impactful opportunities available to SSE members, and to have a say in how SSE funds are best spent to help early-career researchers participate in these opportunities.”
Cathy Rushworth, GSAC Member 2013 – 2017 (Chair 2013 – 2016), reflects on GSAC
“I consider my involvement with GSAC to be one of the best accomplishments of my career so far. Through GSAC, SSE is truly broadening representation in evolutionary biology. The voices, experiences, and ideas of graduate students and postdocs are heard, honored, and implemented in creative strategies that the Council ensures will last far beyond the involvement of any one GSAC member. It is so exciting to see new initiatives roll out every year–the latest one I’ve seen is the EVO workshops, which is such a great idea! I’m so thankful for the colleagues I met through GSAC and the friendships that have emerged from those connections.”
Want to join these cool people as part of GSAC? Applications for the 2021-2022 cohort are due April 15. See the SSE Students page for instructions on how to apply.
by Sally Chang
In a world dominated by digital data, what is the role of natural history collections, and how do we demonstrate just how crucial these collections are? In December, a group of representatives from U.S. biological societies met at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) Council of Member Societies and Organizations in Washington, DC to discuss just that. The meeting title was “Beyond Specimens,” intended to foster discussion about how best to enhance, promote, and modernize natural history collections and the massive amounts of valuable data they contain.
Two major themes emerged throughout the day: 1) How can we all do better to quantify and demonstrate the value of biological specimens to the public and to funding agencies? and 2) How should the research community address issues that may impact future biodiversity research, such as changing legal landscapes, lack of data standardization, and lack of education for future taxonomists? The discussion around these topics is relevant and timely for anyone reliant on specimen data for their research. Given the focus on U.S. societies, some of this information is necessarily U.S. focused, but the main themes should resonate no matter where your research is based.
Demonstrating the impact of collections and specimens-based research
A number of suggestions were made throughout the day for how researchers might more effectively demonstrate the impact of their collections-based research to the public and to decision-makers, with the goal of maintaining and even increasing government funding for collections management and specimen-based research. Besides their invaluable roles in research on the patterns and processes of evolution, natural history specimen collections are more important than ever for enabling research into biodiversity under global change. To help tell these stories, efforts are underway to develop tools to quantify and model the impact of our collections. One example is the effort to link collection and specimen data to publications using ORCID, in part to give taxonomists quantifiable credit for species descriptions and taxonomic revisions.
Some organizations and governments around the world already have procedures in place for demonstrating to the public and policymakers the connection between federally-funded investments in basic specimen-based research and social and economic benefits. For example, the Atlas of Living Australia, Australia’s leading biodiversity data repository, explicitly provides their data and analysis tools to federal, state, and local governments and organizations involved in ecosystem services and conservation work.
Individual researchers can also build interdisciplinary partnerships between departments at their institutions to demonstrate the value of specimen collections. Some attendees discussed successful efforts they made to encourage engineering and medical departments to use collections for bio-inspired design, and to actually reference these collections in their publications.
Implementing the Extended Specimen Concept
The Biodiversity Collections Network is leading an effort to increase the research impact of museum specimens by connecting specimens with one another and with extended data in an Extended Specimen Network (ESN). Started in 2011, the NSF-funded Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections program (ADBC) has facilitated the digitization of around 60 million specimens. Now that digitization of biological specimens is relatively commonplace and standardized, the focus has shifted to transforming the wealth of existing specimen data into an extended network that connects specimens to one another in ways that will represent biodiversity more thoroughly and allow for biodiversity-enabled research. An Extended Specimen begins with the physical specimen itself and adds basic data like specimen measurements and related information, such as DNA sequences. Ultimately, an Extended Specimen can become part of the network by being formally linked to things like sequence-based phylogenies that the specimen’s sequence data is part of, which themselves can be thought of as the summation of data from many specimens.
The Biodiversity Collections Network organizers imagine that the ESN will allow for highly integrated answers to questions such as “What factors might explain the disjunct species distribution in these taxa?” Answering this question could use phylogenetic data, trait data, genomic data, associated microbiome data, and more, all linked through the ESN. Some benefits of broadly implementing the ESN could include better species tracking, attribution of use in publications, and creation of a thriving network of biodiversity collections, all of which would help to quantify the impact of museum collections.
Standardizing across databases and collaborations
As many of our specimen-based projects become more collaborative and use ever-larger data sets, we are faced with questions about how we can efficiently share this data and ensure data quality. Many presenters and attendees shared personal experiences with the difficulties of large, international collaborations. While data sharing and standardization have been much improved by national databases such as NCBI, some felt that these data were still too siloed in many parallel initiatives in different countries. Priorities for improving international data sharing include: creating a standardized system of identifiers for specimens, agreeing on how to measure data quality, maintaining collections catalogs, and developing tools to help researchers actually use the data to answer biological questions, for example by performing complex queries across many databases at once.
Panelists from non-profits and industry described how they have been tackling data-sharing issues and echoed the challenges of siloed data, lack of tools for sharing data-driven insights, and questions about the data quality in publicly available databases. To these panelists, collected but un-shared and un-analyzed data is wasted money! From a less technical standpoint, panelists from the NSF felt that we, the biology research community, could be better at communicating and sharing data across the divides in our subdisciplines, which can have varying research vocabulary and data standards. They emphasized the importance of identifying and tackling big questions that span major areas of biology as a way of demonstrating the value of specimens-based research to funding agencies.
Ongoing developments ino international policy may change the landscape for international collaborations and specimen sharing. The Nagoya Protocol is one development that is already affecting data-sharing. The Protocol implements one of the main aims of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, which is to provide for the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from use of genetic resources. As it is currently implemented, the Protocol allows every signatory country the ability to define access and benefit-sharing rules for specimens collected within that country, even extending to items like sequence material already on GenBank. Broadly, countries have defined themselves as “provider countries,” which have the biodiversity, and “user countries,” which have technology and scientific training and historically have removed specimens from “provider” countries. Some countries interpret the protocol to favor open data sharing (e.g. the European Union). Others, like Brazil, Mexico, and India, have more stringent regulations regarding data-sharing, in part due to their history of providing biodiversity data and specimens to users without necessarily getting to capitalize upon it themselves.
Some meeting attendees thought that this protocol, while certainly complicating the logistics of data-sharing, will have a net positive effect for international research, by encouraging “user” nations to forge real, ongoing collaborations around the world with researchers in provider nations. Our pre-existing collaborations and work in these countries may in fact set us up well to petition governments for access to data, and the ESN will likely help to make sure compliance with the protocol has taken place at every step of specimen usage. At this moment, the United States has not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, meaning we have limited say in the future implementation of this policy. Therefore, U.S.-based researchers should encourage the U.S. ratify the treaty and become part of the official discussion. This is a very complicated issue, so the AIBS has developed a webinar specifically addressing the Protocol.
Museum collections in the classroom
Attendees agreed that museum collections possess inspiring educational value. Specifically, many speakers at the meeting felt that collections are uniquely positioned to be great examples of real-world data usable for pedagogical purposes at all levels of education. The ESN itself may prove to be a useful tool for education, assuming we can develop tools with user-friendly interfaces. One could imagine a learning progression through the ESN network for a given specimen: students could start with the individual specimen, learning about how the data was collected and how data quality was assured. The lessons could then progress to larger data sets that include the specimen, demonstrating the power of many specimens for inferring trends and making predictions. These data could even be discussed in the context of a wider data science curriculum, touching upon topics such as critically evaluating information and using data ethically. To realize this vision, educators need educational materials and teacher training from researchers. One such endeavor is the Biodiversity Literacy in Undergraduate Education initiative, which organizes educator resources on biodiversity literacy, provides vetted data sets for classroom use, and encourages/trains researchers on how to make their own data into modules suitable for use by undergraduate classes. One positive side effect of familiarizing students with biodiversity data early in their educations is that it may inspire some of them to become the taxonomists and collections professionals who will enhance and maintain these collections in the future.
On Monday, Katherine Johnson, the pathbreaking mathematician who led calculations of the trajectories of the first crewed space missions in the US, passed away at age 101. The story of Johnson and her black women colleagues, which finally reached a wide audience in the 2015 film “Hidden Figures,” is one of extraordinary people overcoming numerous structural obstacles to achieve great things. Her life story was amazing, but as her obituary in the Washington Post notes, she tended to downplay her stature: “There’s nothing to it — I was just doing my job,” she said. “They needed information, and I had it, and it didn’t matter that I found it.”
Johnson had the right to be modest about her achievements, just as we as a society have the responsibility to celebrate them. But Johnson’s “I was just doing my job” attitude is one of the things that I find most inspiring about her story – not necessarily because modesty is itself inspiring, but because there are few things more inspiring than people who, facing obstacles, keep showing up and doing their job.
In 2018, The American Naturalist published its own kind of Hidden Figures retrospective, digging into the lives and work of women scientists in the early days of the journal. These stories varied widely: some women published one or two studies total before starting families or changing careers, whereas others landed permanent research or teaching positions. Some were sole authors of their studies; others had lifelong collaborations with their spouses. Some of their work has had minimal impact on their fields; some were foundational.
I had been wanting stories like these ever since, in an undergraduate paleontology class, I noticed that the old-timey photographs in the textbook contained plenty of women (standing in front of the Rhynie chert with pickaxes in Victorian garb, looking pleased). I realized that I didn’t want to read about them abstractly as feminist heroes; I wanted to know what fossils they touched and what measurements they took and what they thought about and what drove them.
Everywhere you look in the history of science, there are women mentioned in paper acknowledgments but not credited as authors, women who managed laboratories and greenhouses, who were underpaid lecturers in departments where their husbands were full professors. They deserve the recognition that they didn’t get in their lifetimes so that we can do better by our colleagues, including those marginalized among many more axes than just gender, today. But they’re role models to me personally because despite the lack of recognition, they kept finding ways to do the work.
These stories also demonstrate that progress in scientific diversity and inclusivity is not a straight line, from everyone being bigoted to gradually everyone being treated equally. One statistic from the American Naturalist review notes that women made up majorities, or even all, of the PhD recipients from some university ecology departments before 1920. The dynamics of who gets degrees, who gets jobs, and who gets what kind of recognition are constantly fluctuating.
In fact, the simple narrative of historical women scientists as heroic geniuses toiling in obscurity actually lets their contemporaries off the hook, by making it seem like the reason they lacked institutional power, stature, and security was because men back then simply didn’t know that women could do things. A particularly egregious example is in the 2014 film The Imitation Game, about the code-breaking team at Bletchley Park led by Alan Turing. In the movie, Joan Clarke, a core member of the team, is portrayed as an unknown quantity who literally comes in off the street and dazzles everyone with her puzzle-solving skills. In the less narratively tidy reality, she was recruited by her academic adviser at Cambridge University.
She was already embedded in a privileged institution; within that context, she was overlooked until she was needed for the war effort. Throughout history, those in power have been perfectly aware of the skills, talent and potential of marginalized groups, but have largely been content with the status quo that sidelines them.
All of which is to say that, as Women’s History Month approaches, I’m most interested in and comforted by the history not just of women doing extraordinary things against the odds, but also of women persisting in doing the unglamorous, everyday work of ordinary science. One of the core facts we have to learn as scientists is that we don’t know in advance whether our experiments will work, whether our hypotheses will pan out, whether our work will make an impact. The thing that has to sustain us is the work itself, and the knowledge that we’re part of a historical continuity of people who cared as deeply about it as we do.
Hari Sridhar interviews the authors of groundbreaking papers in ecology and evolution to get the story behind the study and create another kind of record of the evolution of scientific ideas. This interview originally appeared on his blog, Reflections on Papers Past. The version posted here has been edited for length and clarity.
In a paper published in Nature in 1999, Anurag Agrawal, Christian Laforsch and Ralph Tollrian showed that when Daphnia and wild radish were exposed to their respective predators, they produced offspring that were better defended than those from unexposed organisms. This study was one of the first to find strong evidence, in both plants and animals, for transgenerational or maternally-induced defense. Seventeen years after the paper was published, I spoke to Anurag Agrawal about how this study came about and what we have learnt since about transgenerational effects.
Citation: Agrawal, A. A., Laforsch, C., & Tollrian, R. (1999). Transgenerational induction of defences in animals and plants. Nature, 401(6748), 60.
Hari Sridhar: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you did the work presented in this paper towards the end of your PhD. What was your motivation to do this piece of work, in relation to the rest of your PhD?
Anurag Agrawal: You’re right on the mark that it was at the end. When I started getting interested in induced response to herbivory in wild radish, I came up with the idea about transgenerational effects, and it seemed like a bit of a fringe or crazy idea, so it was on the back-burner. What got us to do the experiments is pretty interesting. There’s two pieces of the story, I suppose. One is that I had read an obscure paper in The New Zealand Journal of Agriculture that reported that oilseed rape plants, when damaged by aphids, produced more defensive glucosinolates in the seeds. And that was a problem (for human consumption) because glucosinolates in the oil being pressed from the seeds gave it a bad flavour.
This gave me the idea that there might be some transfer of information from what the parent plant experiences to what goes into the seed, which henceforth might shape the seedlings’ defenses. The other thing is that there was an undergraduate student who came along named Joel Kniskern who was interested in this just as an initial research project. When you have interested undergraduates around, it’s an opportunity to try out some of the more risky ideas, and I proposed to him several different projects. This was the one that he chose. So I think this little bit of literature information as well as this undergraduate’s interest motivated us to do the initial experiment, and I replicated it and then it went from there.
How did this group of three authors come together?
That’s an interesting story as well. And you know I didn’t meet either of those authors for many years until after the paper was published. So what had initially happened is that I had the idea, Joel was on board, we were doing the preliminary experiments. At the same time I was writing a chapter for a book on inducible defences. Ralph Tollrian, who is a co-author of this paper, was one of the editors of that book, and I knew at the time that Daphnia were some of the most well-studied organisms for inducible defences. They had been studied for decades, much more so than plants.
And so at the beginning of our work on the plants – on the wild radishes – I emailed Ralph Tollrian. I’d already been in contact with him about our book chapter – and said “Dear Ralph, we are starting these experiments on maternal effects or transgenerational induction in wild radish plants; have you heard of anything similar in animals, especially Daphnia?” I just thought there might be a part of the literature that I was unaware of. He immediately wrote back and said, “You know, I haven’t heard of any such things but let me look into it, I’ll get back to you.”
Six months later he wrote to me, “Dear Anurag, I have a bit of an awkward situation that I want to mention to you. After I got your email about transgenerational effects, I mentioned it to a student in my lab [Christian Laforsch] and he’s been doing experiments for the last couple of months and he’s finding the kinds of effects that you had suggested to me…What do you think we should do about this?” I really appreciated the email and honesty, but it was not clear how to proceed. We had exchanged ideas by email, and he had started a research project based on that, but felt a little uneasy about just going off on his own to publish that, given that the idea came from our conversation.
So at that point I suggested to Ralph that that we might put our work together, and perhaps it will make for a stronger story because the effects are shown for the first time in an animal and plant. That was just really serendipitous, but to me I think it points to two really important things, and they have to do with knowing the literature. It was this obscure paper that got me a little bit excited, and then it was in discussions with colleagues, looking for other literature and ideas from other kinds of systems, which eventually led us to put it together.
Do you remember how you came across the paper in the New Zealand journal?
I don’t remember. You know, at the time, maternal effects were quite, I’d say, popular, but kind of a fringe area of ecology and evolution, and there were several excellent reviews written in the mid-eighties about maternal effects in plants. It’s possible it was referenced in one of those.
Was the term “transgenerational induction” used for the first time in this paper?
I would guess that “transgenerational induction” is used for the first time in the paper, but that “transgenerational” as a term referring to cross-generational effects was certainly in use before. It’s interesting, in the abstract of the paper we coined the term “maternally-induced defence” but that’s not a term that has that has caught on in any way, it has not persisted in the literature.
If you don’t mind my asking, how come your doctoral adviser Rick Karban wasn’t an author on this paper? I’ve done quite a few interviews now, and I find this was quite common around that time but it’s not so common today.
AA: Yeah, that’s a good question and it’s a question that we got asked at the time that the study was published as well. There were some reporters and other people that asked “Why wasn’t your PhD supervisor a part of this study?” Something you said is really true – there’s been a historical and temporal change in authorship guidelines, especially in our field of ecology and evolutionary biology. There was a time when most PhD papers were single authored by the people doing the work. Currently, most PhD-related papers are not single-authored for two reasons. In general our work is much more collaborative, so there’s often the adviser, but also other people as co-authors. The science has changed; it’s much more interdisciplinary.
Also, PhD theses currently are maybe a little bit less independent from advisors than in the past. One of the things that Rick Karban said to me early on is that it would be strange if we didn’t co-author some papers together during my PhD time. I think what he meant by that was he wanted to be involved in some of the projects – intellectually involved, not just providing money or edits on the manuscript, but to come out into the field or to come up with some ideas together. Indeed, he and I co-authored several papers together. But he didn’t impose his name on all the papers. In fact, at least some of the papers that I gave to him, as a manuscript to read, had his name on the author list. He would sometimes cross his name off. I think that was an amazing gift, but also a way of training to do some projects together and some projects independently.
The last thing I’ll say about this is in relation to graduate students of my own. Here at Cornell University, most of my graduate students – not all of them – have had a paper or two that don’t have me as a co-author, and those are projects that were largely done independently. So I try to use the same thing that Rick taught me – to do some projects together, but not to necessarily put my name on all papers coming out of the lab.
Why wild radish? Was Rick already working on this plant?
No. In fact, I struggled a lot in my first two years of graduate school on the particular questions to ask and the particular systems to study. I had many failed attempts, but in my second year, I started interacting and collaborating with Sharon Strauss. She’s currently a professor at UC Davis, was an assistant professor at the time, had been working on wild radish, and she had developed that as a system for studying plant-herbivore and plant-pollinator interactions over the previous decade. I had asked her about this as a possible study system and she was very encouraging. She and I collaborated on a project together that was published in 1999 in Evolution on the costs of induced responses to herbivory. This was the first project I had done on wild radish, but then after that study, Sharon allowed me to continue to work on it. She continued to work on radish as well, and she and I continue to collaborate in different ways, but it was a tremendous amount of generosity. After our first project together, she gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted with it.
You mentioned earlier that you didn’t meet your co-authors until later. When did you eventually meet them?
You know, frankly, I don’t know if I’ve ever met Christian Laforsch. We’ve definitely corresponded by email. I don’t know where he is these days. Ralph Tollrian, I met at least once but probably a couple of times. In either 1999 or 2000 we were in Wageningen together, in the Netherlands, at a meeting or some kind of a conference. It was just a real pleasure to meet him and talk.
Can you can you tell us a little about the writing of this paper itself. Do you remember how long the writing took and where and when you did most of the writing?
Boy, you ask the hard questions. I don’t remember, I believe it was in Davis. If I had to characterize two aspects of my writing, I would say that, on the one hand, I write relatively fast, in terms of trying to crank out a manuscript quickly. But then, I tend to be patient and edit things very iteratively. That’s why that list of acknowledgements is long in terms of who read the paper. My guess is that I’d asked each one of those people to read it one at a time. I didn’t send it to all of those people at once; I was kind of working away and improving the manuscript by getting comments from somebody, and then editing and working on it, sending it to the next person. I tend to be kind of patient in getting a lot of comments and improving and honing the study. That’s something I still do.
At the time the paper came out, did it attract a lot of attention, both within academia and in the popular press?
I think there was a little bit, yes. A week or two, probably 10 phone calls, often articles in the newspaper or in other places talking about how it was similar to, or reminded people of Lamarckian inheritance. That kind of thing. Although, academically, maternal effects had been studied some, I think what made this paper more interesting is that the maternal effects were associated with mediating interesting ecological interactions.
Today, it’s 17 years since this paper was published.Would you say that the main conclusions from this paper still hold true, more or less? If you were to redo these experiments today, would you do anything differently, given the advances in technology, in our knowledge, in the techniques available for analysis?
Yeah, I think the results hold, and that’s nice to be able to say. My sense is that they were preliminary experiments, but due to my own work on radish for a couple years after that, as well as work other people have done in other systems, this seems to be a general phenomenon.
I’m not sure what I would do differently. I mean, I think there was a lot of serendipity at the time, e.g. getting in touch with Ralph Tollrian as we talked about earlier, that’s not something you can really plan; it just happened. But certainly, chemistry was a small part of the early experiments. In my laboratory now, we’re doing much more chemical analyses. I suppose we could do some more chemistry. There are measures of methylation that you can get, in terms of the genome, asking whether you can see signatures of epigenetic effects. But that’s not where I would start personally. I’ll probably still start with something pretty similar, but the standards for publishing something like that would be higher; it would require more diverse kinds of data and perhaps something more definitive.
Towards the end of your paper you say that several other systems are strong candidates for having maternally-induced defences. Do you know if people have gone out and looked for and found such defences in these systems?
Definitely yes. Those were all systems where there was some hint that there might be something like that going on. At the time I had ideas about seed size in plants – should large-seeded species or small-seeded species be more likely to show maternal effects? I don’t know whether those have been tested, but certainly things like Arabidopsis, which have tiny seeds, have been tested. So yeah, I think people have gone on and looked at other systems, including some vertebrates. Maternal effects are everywhere, and the epigenetic basis has now been revealed in several systems.
This might be a difficult question to answer given the number of papers you have published but would you count this as one of your favourites?
I suppose one of my favourites, sure. It stands out I think in two ways to me: one, in the two different systems that we ended up using to test the same question; that’s just kind of neat. Two, it stands out as being an early demonstration of something that people are much more interested in now: epigenetics. So from that perspective, it’s kind of cool, because we more or less were bumbling around looking for new and different things to do, we stumbled on something and got together this with Ralph Tollrian’s group. It was less than complete, but more than ordinary.
What would you say to a student who is about to read this paper today? What should he or she take away from this paper? Would you add any caveats?
Yeah, I think I would say, as a means to contextualize where the field was, flip through Karban and Baldwin’s 1997 book. That was the state of the field then, and you can then see how and why this paper was an advance at that time. Another thing I would say is to read a couple of these newer papers in the last three or four years that have been on transgenerational induction, just to see how the field has changed. In a way, the original paper is very singular in its contribution. It is a proof of concept showing that this stuff can happen in these two groups of organisms. On the one hand, we’ve come a long way in terms of understanding the mechanisms; on the other hand, we haven’t come that far in terms of understanding how important these effects are for population dynamics and evolution. So, yes, I think the important thing is to try to contextualize where we were at that time and where we are now.
by Elizabeth Carlen, Irene Liao, Maurine Neiman, Maria Orive, and Cathy Rushworth on behalf of the SSE Diversity Committee
In 2017, the SSE Diversity Committee was formed. We are composed of faculty members (Maurine, Maria, Daniel, Brandon, and Kelly), post-doctoral researchers (Cathy and Eve), and graduate students (Elizabeth and Irene), reflecting perspectives from different career stages and cultural backgrounds.
Each of us had different motivations for joining this committee. Many of us were at least in part driven by the near absence of racial and cultural representation in the evolutionary biology community. We wanted to find concrete ways to create a representatively diverse community and design and implement tools to help make us all more aware of and learn how to mitigate biases. Through the Diversity Committee, SSE members can voice any thoughts or concerns regarding inclusion and accessibility. We welcome feedback from our membership.*
As a committee, we would like to take the opportunity to reflect on our diversity and inclusion efforts over the past three years. Using our Diversity Statement as a guide, we consider both our accomplishments and areas that need improvement in the following areas: (1) Representation and voices to build a stronger community; (2) Considering diversity in awards; (3) Recent diversity progress across several awards; and (4) Making the Evolution meeting more inclusive.
We have begun to implement ideas that are becomingintegral to the practices of the Society and are also cultivating spaces at ourconference where people can feel safe, seen, and heard. We are working toproduce data-driven initiatives that serve SSE’s membership. Toward this broadgoal, we have begun collecting voluntary demographic data on meeting attendeesand awards applicants, which will respectively help guide future meeting eventsand our awards processes. At our meetings, we have organized workshops andevents to get to know our community better and for members to have resources tomitigate biases and promote inclusivity. We have also held severalcommunity-building events and plan to extend this to more groups, such asbiologists of color. Although we have made progress in making our awardsprocess more equitable, we have more work to do to better assist in thedevelopment of and recognize the achievements of early-career scientists fromour diverse community.
When one society makes efforts to create a more inclusiveand welcoming community, it can ripple out to our home departments,institutions, and even to other societies. To that end, we always welcomefeedback from our membership to better serve and recognize this community ofdiverse biologists.
As we near our 3-year term limit, we are looking for two new and enthusiastic members to join the Diversity Committee, generate new ideas, and carry out these activities to promote equity and inclusion within our evolutionary community and beyond. More information can be found here; applications are due January 24.Continue reading
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