May. 18th, 2016 10:17 am
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
This is a bit convoluted because I'm still working on how to pack meaningful parts of the information below into the leafcutter manuscript (or how to avoid having to pack them in).

A challenging part of writing about the leafcutter manuscript involves how different groups of people think about and write about nutrition. From a broad ecological perspective, it makes the most sense to use elements as a fundamental currency, and that's the perspective I started from originally. For those interested in animal nutrition, however, it makes more sense to think about elements in nutrient form, and to distinguish between things that can be readily digested and assimilated or not. So I have to be more nutrient-explicit than just talking about elements.

But where do fungi fit in? Many kinds of fungi can break down cellulose and lignin, which is why fungi are key for decomposition. I learned yesterday that in many ecosystems, decomposition often occurs in a two-stage process, with small soil organisms initially breaking down leaves into small particles, and then fungi can come in and colonize things: when tough leaves are put into a mesh bag with pores that are so small that only microbes can enter, the leaves don't break down. As soon as the pores are large enough to permit entry of soil arthropods, the leaves get decomposed. On the other hand, if leaves that are easy to break down are put into those same mesh bags (e.g. kale), there's no difference in decomposition rates between mesh bag types. But the jury's out with regards to the extent to which cellulose digestion is important in the leafcutter system specifically.

Anyway. Over the course of further extensive literature searching, I also determined that next to nothing is known about the ability of fungi to ingest and utilize lipids as an energy source. The vast majority of work has focused on the utilization of different carbohydrate sources. Typically, glucose is prioritized, but in mixtures, fungi (in general) will use different blends of things. This corresponds well with some of the studies that have been conducted on enzyme activities in leafcutter fungus gardens - gardens will shift enzyme production in response to changes in fungal substrate.

I got to thinking about all of this over the course of trying to determine why, from a biochemical standpoint, there are large differences in the carbon and nitrogen content of palo verde leaves as compared to polenta. I think the main reasons are because corn is mostly full of stored carbohydrates, whereas leaves are full of photosynthetic machinery. In addition, leaves of desert plants often have more waxy cuticles to prevent water loss. Waxes and and chlorophyll are high in carbon, and chlorophyll is somewhat high in nitrogen, so these are reasonable explanations for the differences.

It took a while to think this through and find good references for it, though, because I wasn't sure about how large the differences in N content were for leguminous vs. non-leguminous plants, or whether the differences are strongly tied to the production of plant secondary compounds. I also had to remember which kinds of plants use C3 versus C4 versus CAM photosynthesis. The literature informs me, however, that at least ~75% of the protein in plant leaves in general is associated with chlorophyll, so on a coarse level this explanation seems like it will hold unless a reviewer informs me otherwise.

I'm still not sure about how to justify my diet treatments, though, or if I even need to do much in the way of justification. I do, however, need to be able to talk about why it is that colonies in the wild collect foods that have more protein-biased ratios than the high-protein polenta treatment I used.

The answer really lies in the waste material. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to analyze the waste material for anything other than overall elemental composition. I also need to go back to working on comparisons of throughput rates for leaves versus polenta. Just knowing elemental composition doesn't reveal the full story in terms of nutrient utilization; I need to know things about both input rates and output rates. The main thing I know at the moment is that they aren't exactly steady-state in smaller colonies, which complicates things - there's variation in retention times within the fungus garden. If there was even a hint of steady-state rates, I could say, "Here's what goes in, here's what comes out, so here's what the ants and fungus and microbial community have used up."

I could design and conduct some really good experiments with what I know now, but I really don't have that luxury at the moment.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
On Friday and today, I've been working on that leafcutter manuscript I mentioned. I've gotten all the way to the Discussion, but have been feeling stuck on the Discussion. What to talk about, at what length? How to structure the damn thing? My PhD advisor offered one clue, in the form of "talk about your results first, THEN the other literature," based on the material that's currently there under the label of Discussion, but I have still been hung up on something. How to structure it so it all hangs together as a coherent story? What's the most efficient way to bang out a Discussion for an academic paper? In writing about the subject, I tend to wander off into the forest, admiring all the different trees and flowers, reading all the papers that are only remotely related to what I'm working on, and then reading all the interesting papers that are cited in those remote papers. Basically.

Just now, I had a flash of insight, based on something clever I learned from my first postdoc advisor. His strategy is to sketch out the main talking points based around the figures. Bring it back to the data, the heart of the story.


I think I can do this now.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
Ahh, bike maintenance. It always seems like a thing that can be scheduled in a straightforward fashion. Earlier in the week, the housemates and I were talking about how projects happen, and I noted that it wasn't a REAL project unless it involved at least two trips to the hardware store.

Bike maintenance usually doesn't require multiple trips to the bike shop, but it can require the occasional unanticipated trip, and regardless, it almost always takes twice as long, if not longer, to do.

On top of that, it has continued to rain here, a soft and gentle drizzle that mostly serves to make the indoors seem that much more cozy and outdoor activities slightly less enticing. [ profile] sytharin did manage to get out during a gap in the clouds to turn the compost heap and also to trim a good 6-8 inches of dead, frizzed-out hair off my head.

Once that was accomplished, there was no more delaying the inevitable. I got the Jolly Roger all half-assedly washed up out on the back patio (poor bike, so grimy). I'd pulled off all the old brake pads before I realized that I only had a single set of spares in the bike parts bin. Thankfully, the Missing Link in Berkeley is open on Sundays. Also thankfully, Froinlavin is in rideable condition. It would have been highly irritating to further postpone the project.

S was kind enough to put up with me continuing to fuss around with bike parts during our Skype-Scrabble game. Adjusting brakes is not one of my favorite activities. V-brakes can be finicky.

It was dark by the time I got everything back together, and still raining, and time for dinner, so I haven't been out for a test ride yet. But at least it feels like I've accomplished a few things for the day's work.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
Short one first, a time-lapse video of a leafcutter ant colony at the Houston Zoo demolishing a bouquet of roses:

Second, one of my colleagues from graduate school created a video to document the process used to make a cast of an ant nest. It's on the long side (15 minutes) but is thorough and cool.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
I visited my advisor this morning and we had a great discussion about the current leafcutter manuscript. Things are moving forward, hurrah! I am supposed to be working on revisions right this very minute so I can keep the momentum going. Hmm.

It was also fun to see the current state of the ants in the behavior lab. Here's my advisor and a kickass grad student in front of the Cabinet of Curiosities:

Fewell Lab Curiosity Cabinet
Blurry as usual. Thanks, smart-o-phone!

This student studies honeypot ants of the genus Myrmecocystus.

My photos came out mediocre or terrible, but here's an observation colony he constructed:
Myrmecocystus nest in the Fewell lab

The cool thing about these ants is that they use a subgroup of workers as living storage vessels for water, sugar, and fat.

Myrmecocystus nest in the Fewell lab

You can see some of the workers hanging from the ceiling with large, balloon-like abdomens.

This student was a huge help to me when he was an undergraduate because he and his father built a set of cabinets for this lab so I could more easily store all of my leafcutter ant colonies.

Apparently these guys were inspired after a visit to Germany last year/earlier in the year (date uncertain), to the Universit├Ąt W├╝rzburg, where they got to see some of the incredible nest designs partially featured in the film Ants - Nature's Secret Power. They returned to Arizona with ideas for how to improve their nests, and are now able to grow bigger, better seed-harvester colonies.

Pogonomyrmex nests in the Fewell lab

This is phenomenal for people whose research centers around colony size, colony organization, and colony growth.

Pogo nest design
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
I've wanted to make this graphic for several years by now:


First, I had to draw pictures of individual worker ants - there are five different ant poses in this image. Then, I had to figure out how to extract the colors from the original Very Hungry Caterpillar: hand-position ants, one by one, on top of the caterpillar drawing, then merge them into a single image. Select all of the ants via a color threshold, then put the ant layer underneath the caterpillar layer, flatten the image, invert the selection, and press the 'delete' key.

Popular search engine searching-fu really didn't help at all for this one.

Noted here in case I or anyone else wants to employ this trick again.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
1. Claremont is POSH.

2. The Biomathematics and Ecology Education and Research meeting is, once again, awesome. It's making me think about spending a bit of spare time taking some additional math courses. Also, I think you'd be surprised by the gender balance and level of diversity.

3. I'm thinking of some additional interesting modeling questions to pursue with my favorite pet biological system. I hope I'll figure out a way to do so. Hard when so much brainspace is getting eaten by crickets these days.

Work it

Sep. 30th, 2014 08:55 pm
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
Kind of a boring day, but for a good cause. I got a request to review a highly pertinent manuscript on Sunday night, but I have a lot on my plate at the moment, so this morning I decided to bite the bullet and got the review turned in.

I'm also giving a lot of talks in the next couple of weeks, beginning on Friday. Friday's talk is mostly done - it's an introduction to the software program R for an emerging technologies engineering grad student group on campus. It will be interesting to see the engineers' first impressions. Giving what amounts to an hour-long marketing pitch can be kind of tough, but it should be enough time to leave the graduate students with a good idea as to whether or not R will be useful for them.

Next week, it's an hour-long departmental seminar at my brother's university (ahh, sweet, sweet nepotism). Leafcutter-focused. Hopefully I will wow them all with my beautiful photos, excellent fieldwork and lab experiments, and superb graphs.

After that, a talk at a Bio-Math meeting, where the audience will be mostly mathematicians, and where I won't be talking about much math. My main goal is to get some behavioral datasets in sufficiently good condition that I can explain how they're generated and the opportunities they present so as to give the mathematicians more ideas for mathematical models of leafcutter ant colonies and behavior.

I might also be giving a talk to people in my grad research group the Monday after the Bio-Math meeting, which may or may not be the same as the departmental seminar. And a week or two after that, I'll go up to Taylor, Texas, for another department seminar. Theoretically these two department seminars will be good practice for any job talks I get to give, although I think it's going to be a while (if ever) before I have any such opportunity. More than anything, I hope I can manage to be articulate and not make a complete fool of myself. I hope my audiences come away inspired.

Oh, and there's a conference in November. That talk with be cricket-focused.

I want to be working on manuscript revisions of the respirometry manuscript, and on the draft of the Discussion for the next leafcutter manuscript, and on the cricket longevity manuscript. Sometimes the writing is a real slog.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
First, have you yet read the Wired article about the new grasshopper species discovery? If you think it's tl;dr* watch the video first, then backtrack and read about this interesting line of work. It's somewhat relevant to me because I'm studying a wing-dimorphic cricket species - crickets are also Orthopterans, and "wing dimorphism" means that, within the species, there's variation in wing length and flight capability - as described in the Wired article, there have been important changes in flight capability in grasshoppers over evolutionary time.

Next, this piece on publicly prominent scientists should provide food for thought, regardless of how you feel about Richard Dawkins. It's pretty sad that most Americans don't know about the many other awesome women and minority scientists doing amazing things these days.

And lastly, I'll toot my own tiny horn briefly. I've updated my leafcutter ant research methods album over on flickr. I still feel I have a responsibility to the taxpaying public to share how I do the science that it funds. Besides, it's cool.

*too long; didn't read


May. 16th, 2014 09:54 pm
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
I think I might finally be getting a handle on the statistics for this next leafcutter manuscript. Maybe. It's been a hard one to navigate because I've had to think things through without much feedback from anyone else. But that makes it a good self-test for my confidence in my abilities as a scientist. I just really don't want to embarrass myself when submitting this paper for publication. Oh, and I think I can potentially get it published somewhere spiffy.

The figures are beautiful, and the data tell an interesting story, especially with the addition of more contextual information on the protein and carbohydrate content of some plants that the ants collect in the wild. It's easier to justify the dietary treatments in the context of the protein-carbohydrate data than in the context of the elemental composition of a single leaf type we used to feed to the ants (how I'd originally framed things), especially since I've pulled out the other elemental data that were originally in the paper (for the leafcutter waste material). Elemental data can be useful, except in the case of carbon, because (a) most of the carbon in plants is locked up in non-digestible structures like cellulose, and (b) the carbon content of different compounds (cellulose vs. sugars) is basically the same, but those different compounds function in radically different ways in consumers.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
Work today was a real grind.

No, seriously:
Today's work was a real grind

I've spent several hours grinding up all of the plant samples that we collected in Arizona. For larger plant samples, our lab has a cutter mill, but the cutter mill is messy and loses much of the material that is shoved into it. The leafcutter-collected plant samples are precious because they took a lot of work to collect, so I wanted to retain as much of the sample material as possible after grinding.

When I tried grinding a test sample several weeks ago, I had mixed success. I used some twiggy palo verde leaves, and while the leaves themselves powdered nicely, the small stems were nigh impossible to grind by hand. After a bit of research on Ye Olde Internet, I got the idea to try mixing my samples with dry ice:

Freeze-dried sample and dried ice

Crushing a Plant Sample

My arms are very tired now, after grinding up a mere 13 hard-won samples. But at least the job is done.

End result: powdered plant.

Yeah, not a perfect powder, but close enough.

Next, onward to measuring plant digestible protein and carbohydrate!
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
One of the greatest benefits of working with my current boss is that he's quite good at pinpointing ways to improve my academic writing, and we work well together as writers. Last week we met to discuss a current manuscript-in-progress, and he suggested spending a bit of time with two books while thinking about and working on revisions to the manuscript's introduction.

I had to spend the better part of last week working on two other manuscripts, so it wasn't until Friday afternoon that I cracked open one of the books, Physiological Ecology: How Animals Process Energy, Nutrients, and Toxins, by William Karasov and Carlos Martinez del Rio, and promptly found myself nodding to sleep. It's a well-written textbook, but I just couldn't focus, so I decided to cut my losses and work on sorting out the materials collected in Arizona instead.

Here are two examples:


Interesting stuff - in the first example, there are a bunch of mistletoe flowering/fruiting stems on the left-hand side. After looking at everything for a while, I determined that the tiny, seed-like items are actually mistletoe flowers.

Flipping my to-do schedule meant that I could go home at a reasonable hour and try to work on reading Physiological Ecology on Friday evening, instead. Of course, I didn't get as far as I would have liked. Hopefully I will manage to get myself to focus more today, instead.

Which brings me to the weekend. Saturday morning, the Aggies hosted the Lake Bryan Sprints. Originally, they'd hoped to rope in three teams, Baylor, St. Edwards, and UT-Austin, but Baylor and St. Ed's backed out at the last minute. It was great to have UT-Austin there, though, because the Aggies needed some good competition. UT won every event they entered, but A&M had some solid and very close (one-foot) second-place finishes, so there was a lot of good racing for everyone.

The A&M Open Women's 4+ had the same problem they always have - no one to race against - so I challenged them to a duel against me in the 1x at the very beginning of the regatta. They won, but not by a huge margin, and the race was good practice for all of us with keeping our heads in the game. After the 1x, I hopped in the launch and spent the rest of the morning aligning boats at the start and chasing after the boats as they raced.

The rest of the weekend mostly consisted of chores: groceries from Brazos Natural, a recycling haul and several more groceries from Village Foods, then cooking up some aged vegetables on Saturday night (note to self: don't buy discount eggplant from Farm Patch ever again, it's just not worth it). I played Pancake Factory on Sunday morning, although it's kind of a depressing game when I'm the only one to eat them. Then the sink and bathroom got good scrubbings, things got vacuumed, stuff that migrated across the house got migrated back, and the worst of the weeds got pulled in the garden. I have a feeling that the snails are going to eat almost everything I'm planting, but I just can't seem to make the time to give the garden a proper going-over.

I tried to invite people over for crafts on Sunday afternoon, but nobody made it, so I sat out back and worked on painting an oar until I got too cold and it was time to stop, and then I knitted a bit on a vest I will most likely frog, while C worked on crocheting some blanket squares.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
To put it mildly, the trip to Arizona was busy. I'm back in Texas, as of late last night. The next four or five days are also going to be hectic, so I suspect the most I'll manage to write are some brief points.

Monday: While making plans for the AZ trip, [ profile] scrottie asked to reserve Sunday morning. I initially said yes, having forgotten that I needed to meet with my writing group friends, and then, when I remembered the conflict, S was eventually able to reschedule his surprise for Monday morning instead. We got up at 4:30 and left the house shortly after 5 on the motorcycle, heading up to a random spot in north Phoenix outside a Dunkin Donuts. There I learned that we would be going on a hot air balloon adventure! It turns out that a friend of ours bought a hot air balloon business. Originally we were supposed to go up with him, but at close to the last minute his balloon got booked by a party of six, so he arranged for us to go up with another company instead.

It was pretty magical. I took photos, including many photos highlighting the ant-watching one can do from a hot air balloon. If you click on this photo and then click forward, you can see some of the sights we enjoyed:

As soon as we got back to S's house, we had some lunch and then it was time for me to set out for Tucson to continue my ant-collecting project. My goal is to collect foraging leafcutter ants and the leaves they're bringing back into the nest, so I can learn about the protein and carbohydrate content of the foods they're eating in the wild. I have also collected my own plant samples from the locations near where the ants are foraging. I don't always remember the plant species, so I took photos of many of them to aid with later identification. That whole photo series starts here:

Foraging trail

I even caught the ants bringing home some chunks and berries of mistletoe! Fascinating stuff. If you continue clicking through the photos, you'll also get to see some pictures of some of the colonies of honeypot ants being maintained in the Fewell lab at Arizona State University. And a stack of crepes.

Our time in Tucson on Monday afternoon went pretty well. We managed to find and collect samples from 3 colonies, and I, the grad student who came with me, also spotted a big Arizona tarantula. As evening approached, we headed over to my aunt and uncle's house for dinner and a visit.

Right after we sat down for dinner, I started feeling unwell to the point where I got up from dinner to lie down. I figured out later on that I probably contracted a stomach flu virus at the regatta last Saturday. That made for a rough night of praying to the porcelain god that made me wonder if we'd be able to do any more fieldwork the next morning. Fortunately, by 2 am, things settled down to a point where I could sleep a bit, and I was able to keep down enough breakfast and water to feel confident about going back out to continue ant-collecting, albeit at a slower pace involving more breaks for water and time in the shade.

The rest of Tuesday was slow and quiet, and the same went for yesterday morning and the flight back to Texas yesterday afternoon. I'm hoping I'll be able to eat and drink enough to be ready for a 400k brevet on Saturday. One day at a time.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
Nest entrance
The desert leafcutter ant Acromyrmex versicolor is known for the conspicuous volcano-shaped nest entrances it makes. However, the nest entrances are often just simple openings, making them harder to find.

Field assistant
Field Assistant

Sleepy birthday boy
Sleepy birthday boy


Finally, murals.
Finally, murals.

Semi-shoddy photos of foragers at work:

Flower girls:
Flower girls


Follow the yellow flower path:
Follow the yellow flower path
This colony was not actively foraging, but it was clearly active not too long ago.


May. 1st, 2013 04:30 pm
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
This trip out to Arizona has been a busy, hectic one: I hadn't really seen [ profile] scrottie since the holidays, aside from one crazy, packed weekend at the beginning of March, and it's hard to know how to go about really catching up after a period like that. There's a part of me that doesn't quite believe in the concept of "catching up" anyway. We made it over to Matt's Big Breakfast for his birthday, did a wee bit of shopping (!, but didn't buy anything), and saw a dance production. I deeply miss the aesthetics of Arizona, and especially the chance to work with and look at ceramics. I'll go over to one of the Texas ceramics studios next Monday. I have to go. And looking at murals painted on buildings, and cacti and succulents and palo verde trees.

Aside from that, much of the time has been spent chasing after leafcutter ants. It's a simple project, really - the idea is to collect leafcutter ant workers plus the leaves they are harvesting. There's just one slight complication, known as the weather. It's warmer than I had anticipated, which means most of the leafcutter colonies have shut down completely until the summer monsoon season begins. We went out to the Salt River on Friday morning, but arrived late in the morning and only found one active colony. That meant a change in strategy for collecting foragers in Tucson; instead of a day trip, an overnight stay would be necessary, so we could look for colonies foraging at night and in the early morning. So Sunday afternoon, after the paddle-out service for Okie, S and I packed up the motorcycle and headed on down to Tucson in the heat of the day. We arrived just in time for dinner with my aunt T, uncle Z, and cousin D, right as the sun was setting. After dinner, we poked around the yard and found an actively foraging colony and collected from it. The next morning, we got up early and headed down the road to track down additional nests from around the sites where I've collected queens in past years. While there was plenty of evidence of leafcutter colonies, there were few colonies actively foraging, so we were only able to add three more colonies to the tally. Then it was time to point the motorcycle back up towards Phoenix, once again in the heat of the day.

After some conferencing about logistics, S and I decided to head back to the Salt River again on Tuesday morning, to give collecting there another go. The result: nothing. I don't know if the colonies have just shut down for the summer, or if years of drought conditions are driving the populations to extinction.

Other than the heat, I'm glad I had a chance to get out and poke around in the desert for a bit. It has been years since I've done anything even remotely resembling fieldwork.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
Sometimes, this whole dissertation-writing thing makes me a stressbucket, as S has witnessed perhaps all too often recently. It requires tuning out distractions, focusing, and thinking. Yesterday wasn't a good day for it, although the day wasn't a complete wash. At this very moment, it consists of five major activities:

1. Trying to wrap up the Manuscript of Doom II: The Sequel. I meet with my advisor once a week to work on it. From those meetings, we generate about 6 hours of independent work for me. I think it's turning into the project I work on on weekends. All that I really care about is being able to work on it and then set it aside so I can work on more important things.

2. Working on writing up my first chapter. Most of the other work is done; the data were collected five years ago, a mathematician has helped to construct a model of the system, and the data are mostly analyzed. That last item was a bear to figure out, as I had to teach myself to use R before I could analyze the data, and even after I attempted multiple statistical approaches I still wasn't sure if they were correct. Fortunately, an incredibly helpful faculty member took a look and offered a useful suggestion. Unfortunately, his suggestion could only go so far in resolving the issue. The writing is the hardest part, though, because the subject and approach are quite novel, and I can't always see the logic that I need to clearly lay out on my own, without any help. If it were derivative work, it would be simpler, of course, but less interesting and rewarding in the long run. At least, that's what I'm trying to tell myself. I've rewritten the first paragraph about 6 times already. On Tuesday, after taking a nap, I was finally able to get it to a point where I wasn't absolutely and completely embarrassed to show it to my advisor. Only a little embarrassed. We meet to go over it on Thursdays. After today's meeting, I have a fresh set of concrete changes to make. I think I can make it. It will work out in the end. She thinks the study system and approach are novel enough to make a sizeable impact in the field. It's just a matter of constructing the writing to convince reviewers that we're correct about that. From there, perhaps it will influence the way other people think about the world around them. We hope. After all, that should be the goal of important theoretical scientific work.

3. Working on writing up my second chapter. For a little while, there, I thought it would be part of the first chapter. It's becoming clear that it will be a distinct entity, directed towards a completely different field than the first chapter. This one is a fun project, at the moment, mostly because I'm in the midst of some relatively straightforward data analysis. Plus, it has provided me with an excuse to wrap up some data collection from three summers ago that I've wanted to work on for ages, but haven't had the time to work on. Too many other obligations were getting in the way. Yesterday's efforts were kind of hilarious. I reached a point where I discovered that I needed to collect some additional data that would allow me to calculate an ant's dried weight from her fresh (wet) weight. So I went from sitting in front of the computer to collecting up and weighing 250 ants (50 each from five colonies). And that's where the rest of that afternoon went. Unlike Chapter 1, the writing for Chapter 2 is kind of effortless at the moment. I sat down at the computer this morning and wrote two pages and constructed a diagram to go with the pages. I hope we can find a good target journal for this chapter. I'm excited to develop it to the point where I can discuss it with a couple of my committee members, as I think they'll be interested in it and excited about it, too.

4. Getting things finalized for my last experiment. I think, at the moment, I'm mostly just waiting for ants to hatch for this one. I also have to do a couple of hours worth of calculations, to figure out exact dosages of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus to add to supplement the polenta I'll give to the colonies. But that's not really a big deal, just hours of work to complete. Data collection is really the easiest stage of experimental work.

5. Working on figuring out what I'll do next year. I spoke to my brother about this, briefly, on the phone yesterday. "Oh yes," he said, "That's the phase where you basically run around doing little courtship dances to different professors until you find one that will accept you." Exactly, C, exactly. Such an ornithologically-oriented behavioral biologist, that one. I've seen his courtship dances - he did one at his wedding, in fact. But it worked for him, so I should take at least some comfort from that.

And there's one project on hold at the moment - analyzing the data from the experiment I conducted last summer. Again, it's one I'm looking forward to working on, because it should be relatively straightforward. Relatively. I bring it up because once I get underway with it, I know I'm well on my way to completing my dissertation.

My biggest comforts, in all of this, are knowing that my advisor will work with me to bring this work to life in the best way possible, and knowing that if I get this all done, it will be a pretty kick-ass dissertation. A career-starter. If I get it all done. Nose to the grindstone.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
Okay. Saturday night, [ profile] scrottie flew back from a conference in Las Vegas. I'd gotten word earlier that afternoon that heavy rainfall in Tucson had caused my ants to fly, and a guy in Texas wanted to know if I'd be willing to collect up a bunch of them for him. Time for a battlefield decision. So I alerted S that I'd be heading down to Tucson at 4 am on Sunday morning, so if we wanted to spend time together, he'd have to get ready to come along with me. Not an easy thing to do, following up on an intense conference experience that involved precious little sleep. Somehow, we managed.

I should also note that it was his introduction to my field work. Few people have a chance to see what it's like, because of the delicate timing that's involved. I have to monitor the weather closely and then get up at an ungodly hour to drive down to Tucson, after all. I've grown accustomed to doing it all by myself, I'm discovering, but it was so very nice to have such good company.

So. We get up at 4, and I head to the lab to get our lab's truck. It's not there. Panicked, I call my advisor's house, and fortunately, her husband answers to tell me that the truck was moved over to a nearby parking structure. That setback only delayed us by about 30 minutes, not a devastating delay. We drove down as the sun came up, stopped for a minute for donuts, and then drove over to the part of town where I've previously had success collecting queens. There was a small swarm, but it mostly consisted of desperate male ants, kind of like certain bars near closing time. After scouting around, I ascertained that most of the activity had happened the previous morning, so we'd need to take a different approach to get the queens I wanted.

We drove back to Tempe to do miscellaneous things like take showers and check e-mail and such, and then Sunday evening at 10 pm, we drove back down to Tucson. We got there at midnight, and my suspicions were confirmed: in the cool darkness, the queens who had started digging nests on Saturday morning were back at work. Within an hour and a half, we were able to collect the remaining queens I wanted, and were ready to drive back to Phoenix.

By then, I was fairly exhausted, so there was a 45-minute nap thrown in the mix somewhere on the side of the road, and we ended up going to sleep at 4:30 am on Monday morning. I woke up again shortly after 8 am because my mind kept wanting to run through the checklist of things I'd need to do that day. From there it went:

Drop S off at his house -> go to the lab and pour plaster into 45 petri dishes to make homes for the ants -> track down my advisor to work on my poster for the conference -> give file to the lab to print it (very quick turnaround for them) -> get ants sorted into the freshly prepared dishes -> make sure my intrepid undergraduate R is squared away for projects while I'm gone -> pack up a subset of ants to ship off to Texas via FedEx -> pick up poster -> pay rent -> ship package -> give queens enough food to last for 2 weeks and tidy lab -> go to ceramics to finish up some pieces for [ profile] gfrancie -> go home to eat dinner and pack. S also came over and kindly cooked dinner for me, so that I was able to get to bed by 11 and sleep 5 hours before getting up to go to the airport.

And now I'm in Atlanta, waiting for the overnight flight to Copenhagen. I think I may spend a day or two just recovering from the hectic field season once I get there.

It made me a little nostalgic when I realized this was the last time I'd do this crazy activity, rushing out at a moment's notice to collect queens, then getting back to the lab to feverishly organize them. It inevitably happens in conjunction with crazy travel schedules. But I'll miss the thrill of running around in the desert in the middle of the night, spotting queens and grabbing them to bring them back to the lab for study.

Dumb Fool

Jan. 13th, 2010 01:12 pm
rebeccmeister: (Default)
One of my fellow graduate students has an article taped up on the door to his/her office entitled "The importance of stupidity in scientific research," by Martin Schwartz. It was an essay published in the Journal of Cell Science in 2008 (volume 121, page 1771, just to ensure that all citation information is contained in this entry, even if I'm not including a separate References section), about the fact that science makes scientists feel stupid.*

Today, I am trying exceptionally hard to think about the Introduction for the Manuscript of Doom II: The Sequel. Trying to think is making me feel stupid, so I thought I'd take a break and write about what I know instead. As a reminder, this Manuscript is not part of my dissertation. The data to be included in this Manuscript are really interesting and novel, and by themselves, they tell a pretty good story. The challenge is the framework in which they are presented. I think we are stuck on figuring out how to use these data to help advance the field of social evolution. What I'm trying to imagine is, if a TeeVee News Crew stuck a camera in my face and asked me, "So, what have you done to advance science lately?", what would I say?

The joy and frustration of attempting to advance the field of social evolution is that it requires Great Thought. I've spent countless hours puzzling through the thoughts of other scientists who have attempted to study social evolution, so I think I have a pretty good idea of where they are coming from. The majority are devoting their time to defining and re-defining cooperation a thousand different ways. I have lessons to learn from the field of ecology, which has not really seen the emergence of any new Great Thoughts in quite some time (just a lot of spinning through a set of different trendy "approaches").

And I am armed with skepticism (is it actually possible to advance science, anyway, or is it all a political game?).

But ugh. I don't know where I'm going. At least it makes me grateful that the sphere of my dissertation research is not as all-encompassing. I wish, at times, I could work on something more concrete than this "social evolution" business. I don't want it to turn into the sort of pointless navelgazing that seems too prevalent in anthropological circles. But what's the point? I don't want to just say, "Here, have some interesting data and some patterns we discovered in some ant queens." There's more to it than that.

That's what I need to figure out.

*I feel like I may have written about this before, because it's reminding me of what [ profile] scrottie says his work is like - he is always on the lookout for "new" problems, because simply applying solutions to "old" problems is intellectually tedious. But the problem with "new" problems is that nobody has come up with any kind of strategy for solving them yet.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
Now that I am no longer in intensive data-collection mode, I've been getting back into measurement and analysis mode. I have a list of five major projects that need to move forward, so there's no shortage of things to do. The only drawback to this switcheroo is that now I have to go through and piece together what things I still have and what things I lost in the Black Hole Era (the period from March 3, 2009 through June, when my laptop Ruby was stolen).

Generally, this is a disheartening venture, although there are occasional semi-uplifting moments when I discover things aren't as bad as I thought they would be. For example, I spent a lot of time and energy reorganizing some critical data files (Excel spreadsheets), summarizing a lengthy experimental timeline, and developing a new naming system for worksheets within those files. I was afraid I'd lost all of that effort, and would have to reinvent it and relocate a bunch of paper records, but then I discovered a couple of things I'd e-mailed to myself and was able to reconstruct everything in an hour's time instead.

I am also about two-thirds of the way through a project from that era that involved measuring fungus areas. Tedious business. At least it's getting done again, and I am more cautious now, so I won't lose this batch of about 30 hours' worth of work.

But every once and a while, I remember/discover something else that no longer exists. The thing I'm remembering now is a particularly hairy mess of data that may need to be re-entered from another set of cryptic paper records (I was a pretty inexperienced scientist when I started the project, back in August of 2005, and my notes are quite spotty and disorganized). This time through, I will probably be smarter about re-entering the data, though, and won't re-enter the stuff that I won't end up using anyway. So I have learned at least something.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
Well. Last night, I apparently failed to set my alarm. I had thought I would get up to go on an extremely early bike ride. Instead, I suddenly awoke at 5 am and realized my alarm had never gone off. Storms had been brewing on the horizon last night, so I sleepily plugged in the borrowed laptop to check the rainfall patterns in Tucson.

The rainfall and weather patterns were ambiguous--some spots were reporting more than enough rain, while other patches were just slightly under the inch required to trigger mating flights. I had just about decided that it wasn't worth it to go down to Tucson when I remembered to check the morning's weather--swarms tend to form when it stays overcast the following morning. That added enough uncertainty that I started to consider going down to Tucson. The clincher was when I asked myself that critical question that usually gets me up and out of bed for rowing when I'm just not quite motivated: "Will I regret this later?" The answer was yes. So I got up, threw on some clothes, and was on the road to Tucson 30 minutes later.

There's beginning to be a pattern to these Tucson expeditions. I drive down to Ina Road, and then slowly creep along, looking for swarms. I got there a touch on the late side of things (8:00), and when I rolled down the window, it just didn't feel quite humid enough, although it was certainly cool enough. No swarms. I kept going, and figured that if all else failed, I would check the handful of spots where I've had success in the past, to see if there were any signs of activity. Finally, I drove up to a spot near DW's house, and walked along the roadway where I collected that very first batch from the huge swarm (north of intersection of Sunrise and Swan). I spotted one male and two queens, and then headed back to the truck to get some tubes. Two queens isn't nearly enough, but I can't help myself: if I see them, I must collect them. Then, surprisingly, D herself drove up--she had spotted someone in that distinctive "ant-hunting" posture, noted the truck, and put two and two together. [As I was walking around, I was kicking myself for not having e-mailed her sooner to let her know that I might show up in her yard this summer--I think she would have handled my intrusion with equanimity, but still. Anyway, she's been hunting Camponotus festinatus, so she was also on High Ant Alert.

Shortly after that, I managed to lock the truck keys in the truck (I blame sleep deprivation/general exhaustion/excitement), along with my cell phone and wallet. Classic. I had been waiting for my Tucson vehicle problem to crop up, and there it was. It made me realize that I hardly know anybody's phone number--in the very least, I know my advisor's number. Fortunately, when I walked up the road a little ways, I found someone who was able to loan me a coat hanger, and managed to unlatch the door using a method that my uncle F and cousin J taught me (no damage done to anything, woohoo!). After that, I was able to locate the main site of a small swarm (mostly left-over males huddling in any cracks they could find), and found a bunch of queens starting to dig new nests underneath a couple of trees.

So I came back to Tempe with a collection of 75 queens, the exact number that I figure I need to have enough for experiments next spring. Unless something catastrophic happens to them, that means I'm DONE with this ant-collecting nonsense for the summer. HOORAY!

Now I am tempted to prolong my stay in Seattle. Very, very tempted.


rebeccmeister: (Default)

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