How is this month already almost over? Four weeks ago I was just starting to realize that an unexpected, astonishingly good flowering season for Joshua trees meant I needed to shoehorn in some fieldwork, eyeing the data analysis I needed to do for not one but two in-person conferences coming up in the first weeks of May, and hitting the hard phase of a training sequence for a marathon. Now I’m a week out from that first conference and still grasping for free days to drive into the desert, and the marathon has been … delayed a week? (This is not a thing that happens so late in the game! And yet.) Also I’ve had multiple workweeks with more days spent on campus than not, to the point that the morning commute feels dangerously routine.
Whether or not we’re ready for it there’s a whole backlog of things that weren’t properly possible for the last two years that are suddenly crashing back into place.
I have managed to do some reading, though! Here’s the highlights:
April Fool’s Day is no one’s favorite holiday, as far as I can tell. I do remember a time when it was sort of fun to be listening to Morning Edition over breakfast and slowly realize that the totally serious-sounding report about (say) New England maple trees exploding because the syrup market had slowed down was a gag. But decades later, the internet is a year-’round stream of content pretending seriousness to deliver jokes of highly variable taste, and that’s not even getting into the news pretending to be real with no intention of a punchline.
The editorial board of the journal Molecular Ecologyis seeking nominations for the Harry Smith Prize, which recognizes the best paper published in Molecular Ecology in the previous year by graduate students or early career scholars with no more than five years of postdoctoral or fellowship experience. The prize comes with a cash award of US$1000 and an announcement in the journal and in the Molecular Ecologist. The winner will also be asked to join a junior editorial board for the journal to offer advice on changing research needs and potentially serve as a guest editor. The winner of this annual prize is selected by the junior editorial board.
The prize is named after Professor Harry Smith FRS, who founded Molecular Ecology and served as both Chief and Managing Editor during the journal’s critical early years. He continued as the journal’s Managing Editor until 2008, and he went out of his way to encourage early career scholars. In addition to his editorial work, Harry was one of the world’s foremost researchers in photomorphogenesis, where he determined how plants respond to shading, leading to concepts such as “neighbour detection” and “shade avoidance,” which are fundamental to understanding plant responses to crowding and competition. More broadly his research provided an early example of how molecular data could inform ecology, and in 2008 he was awarded the Molecular Ecology Prize that recognized both his scientific and editorial contributions to the field.
Please send a PDF of the paper you are nominating, with a short supporting statement (no more than 250 words; longer submissions will not be accepted) directly to Dr. Alison Gonçalves Nazareno (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Dr. Kaichi Huang (email@example.com) by Friday 29 April 2022. Self-nominations are encouraged.
In the last fortnight, I saw one long-gestating project finally published, and got to be a small part of the publication of what’s arguably the biggest-ever study of adaptive evolution. I subjected an SUV full of students to a botany-themed playlist on the way to a walk through Joshua tree woodlands; and spent a big part of Monday afternoon guiding some of those same students through keying out some lovelyspring-bloomingplants. My university also formally invested a new President, so I spent a big chunk of my Monday morning dressed like I was going to preside over court. The natural world is flowering, campus is as busy as I’ve seen it in ages, and science is actually getting done in the sense that it’s “done” when it’s published. Is this … normality?
Anyway here’s some of what I’ve been reading, recently:
It’s now two weeks since I resumed in-person teaching, and so far, so good. It’s shockingly refreshing to actually interact with students directly, even with everyone masked, and to be able to just improvise with a specimen picked up on a walk around the campus. And field trips are back! There’s war in Europe (and the U.S. is at sort-of-but-not-war with Russia?) and the IPCC has dropped a huge list of things we need to do to cope with coming climate change but on Saturday I guided a bunch of students through keying out Ceanothus spinosus at the side of a trail in the Santa Monica Mountains. We might not be out of the woods yet, but we’re in different woods.
Fieldwork in the spring is always a bit tricky, but I’ve fortunately been able to put my teaching commitment aside for a week to help plant Joshua tree seedlings in an ongoing experiment in climate adaptation. It was a scramble to get things set up and get myself out the door to drive into the desert; and it’ll be a scramble to catch up when I get back into town. But in the moment, I’m out in the wind under the open sky, with a pallet of tiny delicate plants that need to be tucked into the ground.
Update, February 1, 2022: Less than a week after I published this post, Stacy Farina — an evolutionary biologist at Howard University — and her husband Matthew Gibbons published an extensive look through E. O. Wilson’s correspondence with, and active support for, J. Philippe Rushton, one of the most outspoken race scientists of recent decades. If you’re finding this post for the first time, I’d ask you to start by reading what Farina and Gibbons found in Wilson’s archived papers. It is much uglier than I knew when I wrote this, and it really forces a re-evaluation of the ways in which I’d given Wilson the benefit of the doubt — the correspondence reveals he was quite committed to advancing the goals of race science.
I grew up in the Mennonite Church, a sort of next-level Protestant Christian tradition. (In cartoonish brief: Ulrich Zwingli rebelled against the Roman Catholic Church; the spiritual ancestors of Mennonites rebelled against Zwingli.) Mennonites practice adult baptism, holding that only an informed adult can meaningfully choose to follow their beliefs. One thing that people know about Mennonites, if they know anything, is that this doctrine means Mennonites take church membership — who’s an active part of a congregation, who isn’t on the rolls — very seriously.
In “old order” congregations, and the theologically-adjacent Amish church, this manifests as “shunning”, in which a baptized church member who stops adhering to the church’s beliefs is cut out of the social life of the congregation. The degree of that cutting off varies with tradition. It can mean complete separation from fellow congregationalists and family, even to the point of refusing to communicate; it can mean that the “shunned” person simply can’t join in church ceremonies. In the branch of the tradition I grew up in, it meant my family’s pastor — who, to 11-year-old me, was like a beloved uncle who was also the Metatron — drove from rural central Pennsylvania to Chicago to let a daughter of the church know that she’d lost her membership when she moved in with her girlfriend. I still haven’t forgiven him for that.
All of this is to say that I know a little bit about social sanctions. I think about that every time I see my fellow evolutionary biologists grapple with how to approach people who believe our scientific work supports their vision of genetically determined racial supremacy.
The period between semesters is supposed to be quiet. I’ve been mentally dumping things to do into this one — paper revisions, reviewing service, analysis of long-awaited new data, a first draft of a new grant, writing my (eek) application for tenure — since at least October. But SARS-CoV-2 had other plans.
I spent the first week after campus reopened in the New Year watching the number of COVID exposure alerts sent to faculty mount up until the number of buildings on campus with a reported case was greater on the first workday after the break than the peak we hit during fall Finals Week, when students flocked back for in-person exams. Pretty soon after that we got word (via the University’s Twitter and then an all-campus email sent with no prior alert to faculty) that the first three weeks of Spring 2022 would be “primarily remote instruction” … but maybe not all of it? And so in between all the other stuff I’ve been trying to figure out how to teach a botany lab from my home office. It’ll be fine, I am telling myself.
In the midst of all that, here’s what I’ve read recently:
Molecular Ecology and Molecular Ecology Resources are looking for new Editorial Board members to join the journals as Associate Editors in the key subject areas below:
Broad genomic resources including genome assembly. Experience with plant genomes would be advantageous
Microbial ecology/community ecology
Nominations and personal applications are welcome, and whilst scientific qualifications are paramount, we would particularly appreciate nominations and applications from suitably qualified researchers in underrepresented groups, including women, ethnic minority scientists, and scientists with disabilities, among others. Please email nominations/applications by February 15th, 2022 to firstname.lastname@example.org with the following items:
Cover letter stating the reasons for your nomination, of if applying for yourself, your interest in the role and familiarity with the journals,
Abbreviated CV (Education, Publications, Outreach) if you have it.