Dec 312014

It’s that time of year when people look back on the year that was and reflect on what they’ve done, or not done, and begin planning on how to fill up the blank slate that comes with the new year. For myself, 2014 was arguably one of my most successful to date: I was awarded more than $20,000 in scholarships & awards, not counting my NSERC scholarship; I published 1 paper, have another major paper scheduled to be published in January, and have 3 more in progress that I hope to have submitted by February; I passed my qualifying exams, TA’d our intro entomology course, gave almost a dozen workshops and outreach events, and took my first MOOC; I visited some incredible places for my research, from Austria to Iceland to Oregon, and was fortunate to meet and spend quality time with dozens of friends and colleagues from around the world, including some old friends, some digital friends I met for the first time in the “real world”, and many, many, new friends. I collected new data for my PhD which already has me saying “huh…” (a good thing, really), am starting to get a handle on the diversity of the Micropezinae (my focal research group), and have been invited to collaborate with researchers across the continent on a variety of interesting projects that could have potentially significant ramifications.

Online, I published 26 blog posts, fewer than perhaps I had hoped, but not bad overall. More importantly, something has recently shifted: I’m actually beginning to enjoy writing, and what’s more, I’ve become confident in my abilities, thanks in large part to the supportive online science community. It’s taken me nearly 5 years, but perhaps this whole blogging experiment is paying off how I had hoped it would! I was also interviewed for articles in The Atlantic, CBC News, and my university’s digital magazine, I contributed to an article on the shared graduate experience, and published a newsletter article encouraging biologists to try their hand at science communication. Oh, and I had a tweet go viral and draw all kinds of rage from the internet.

Breaking Bio is still going strong thanks to Tom, Steven, Heidi, and Gwen, and not only did we get to talk to dozens of interesting and engaging people and publish 24 episodes in 2014, but we also secured funding from the European Society for Evolutionary Biology to cover our operating costs, making this the first of my online ventures to actually approach a break-even point financially. Watch for plenty of new content, and potentially some new and exciting things in 2015!

Like I said, 2014 was a pretty damn good year for me, and yet I can’t help but feel like I could have, and should have, done more. I still deal with existential dread about my dissertation and whether I’ll ever get caught up on my research, and I waver daily about what I may or may not want to do when I do finish my degree. I have no idea what 2015 will hold for me (although it’s already starting to fill up, and I haven’t even flipped the calendar over), but my goal is to procrastinate less, stop allowing fear of rejection hinder my progress, publish more (both academically and publicly), and reacquaint myself with that black box in my backpack that can apparently take photographs and record video.

So Happy New Year, internet! I hope your 2014 was filled with as much success and fellowship as I was lucky to have, and that 2015 brings you even more of the same!

Holiday Ornament

Oct 312014

It’s that time of year again, when spiders make their triumphant return to become decorations rather than despised, and when everything normally considered scary is fun, at least for one night: it’s Hallowe’en!

As in past years, the University of Guelph Insect Systematics Lab took to the pumpkin patch and came back with some new insects to be added to our glowing growing collection.

Ento-Lantern 2014

This jumping spider in full display mode is ready to take back the night. Design by Jonathan Wojcik, carved by Meredith Miller, Tiffany Yau, Steve Paiero, and myself.

Trich(optera) or Treat! These larval caddisflies went all out with their costumes this year. Designed & carved by Meredith Miller, Steve Paiero, Tiffany & Jocelyn Yau, and myself.

Trich(optera) or Treat! These larval caddisflies went all out with their costumes this year. Designed & carved by Meredith Miller, Steve Paiero, Tiffany & Jocelyn Yau, and myself.

Sticks & stones won't break this caddisfly's bones... mostly because caddisflies don't have bones.

Sticks & stones won’t break this caddisfly’s bones… mostly because caddisflies don’t have bones.

Caddisflies get hyped for Hallowe'en at an early instar, as this one created by Meredith Miller clearly demonstrates!

Caddisflies get hyped for Hallowe’en at an early instar, as this butternut squash creation by Meredith Miller clearly demonstrates!

If you & your friends or family created your own Ent-O-Lanterns this year, drop a link in the comments so we can all enjoy!

Happy Hallowe’en!



Sally-Ann Spence (@minibeastmayhem) shared this fantastic scary-b beetle on Twitter

Aug 052014

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for me since my qualifying exams. I’ve travelled up to Ottawa a few times to work with my co-advisor and gather a big, new DNA dataset, I’ve put my Google-fu and Google Translate skills to the test, and I’ve learned how spoiled I am by the ease of booking hotels in North America.

All of that hard work is about to payoff though, as I’m heading out for a grand European tour! Starting with a red-eye flight Tuesday evening, I’ll be attending the 8th International Congress of Dipterology (ICD8), and spending 2 weeks on the roads and in the natural history museums of Europe.

This is the second ICD I’ll have attended, and just like the last one in Costa Rica, I’ll be blogging all the way through about the things I learn, experiences I have, and whatever else comes up. I’ll also be tweeting, Instagramming & Vine-ing my way across the continent afterwards as I visit natural history museums and entomology collections looking for important type specimens of Micropezidae described by some of entomology’s biggest names over the past 250 years.

Starting with a quick stop in Iceland to explore, I’ll move on to Copenhagen to visit the Natural History Museum of Denmark, and then will be driving down to Potsdam, Germany to present my newly acquired data at ICD8 and fill my head with all kinds of new knowledge about flies & dipterology. After that I’ll be hitting the road with fellow PhD student & blogger Kai Burington to visit museums in Stuttgart, Munich, Vienna, Dresden, Berlin, and Muncheberg before heading back to Denmark to visit friends and fly home.

Before things kick off, I’d like to thank the Smithsonian Institute and the S.W. Williston Diptera Fund for making this trip possible for me with a Diptera Research Grant. If you’d like to help make future opportunities like this possible for graduate students like myself or others interested in dipterology, I’d encourage you to donate to the S.W. Williston Fund. You can find more information about S.W. Williston and the Smithsonian endowment fund program here.

It’s going to be a whirlwind trip, and I hope you’ll join me as I try and share my European adventure with you.


Mar 302014

Blank Page


The blank page, the biggest obstacle to my success.

I’ve been thinking about this post for 4 years. I’ve reworked what I want to say countless times on my walk to and from the lab and considered ways to tie it all together while laying in bed staring at the ceiling, but, until last week, I didn’t know how, or even when, it would begin.

I’ve put off writing about blank pages and my writing struggles because it so often begins with me staring at, and subsequently backing away from, a blank page. Did I mention I have a problem writing when faced with a blank page?

By late 2010 I had a full molecular DNA dataset prepared and analysed for my Master’s that showed some interesting relationships among the flies I study, and I proceeded to write up the results for my thesis. I moved on to the other major chapter of my thesis, and then defended my work. The whole thing was well received by my committee, and I was granted my degree in 2011 with the expectation that I’d make a few relatively minor changes and then submit the chapters for formal peer-review.

Well, after the final few months of pushing to get my thesis ready to defend, I needed to decompress and had no desire to look at my work for awhile. I figured after a few weeks of doing something — anything — else, I’d be ready to come back and reanalyse the data, rewrite the paper and submit  my work to an appropriate journal, and then never have to look at it again. Instead, I got busy working on other projects, writing a book, teaching, and then eventually starting my PhD, all the while having this paper hanging over my head, like a rusty guillotine just waiting to fall.

It wasn’t long until every word I wrote for the blog, for grant applications, or even emails elicited an increasingly larger pang of guilt that those words should be going towards that paper, to the point that nearly every aspect of my life was tainted by anxiety over it.

For nearly 4 years I let it slide while busying myself with other projects and tasks, telling myself that next week will be the week that I look at it again, until this fall when (with a not-so-subtle nudge from my PhD committee) I forced myself to get it done, or perhaps die trying. After all new analyses, totally redrawn figures, and about a dozen written drafts spanning several months, I finally submitted the paper two weeks ago. The feeling of relief when I finally pressed that submit button came immediately, and I finally realized that I hadn’t been devoting my full attention to any of my other projects or responsibilities.

So why bring all this up now when the paper hasn’t even gone out for review, and will undoubtedly require more work post-review before I can finally be done with it? Because I need to get over my hesitancy to put my thoughts on paper (or whatever this digital equivalent of paper should be called), and I suspect I’m not the only one who faces these obstacles.

My qualifying exams are coming up, which means several weeks of intense studying followed by days of writing compelling papers in a set amount of time, on demand. I’ve always approached this blog as a tool for self-improvement, so I plan to continue using it to force myself to write more frequently, to get past my fear of that blank page.

And for anyone out there currently in the midst of graduate work or projects that require writing, don’t let that blank page stand in your way: all it takes is one word scribbled down to defeat it.

Oct 312013

As has become tradition in the University of Guelph Insect Systematics Lab, when Halloween rolls around, we pull out the knives & hand tools and make a trip to the produce aisle to get ready for a new Ent-O-Lantern. This year our lab is considerably smaller than in the past (4 grad students, an enthusiastic undergrad, and a significant other), but what we lacked in sculptors, we made up for with dedication!

So what was this year’s creation? Behold, a nightmare for social wasps everywhere, the Spooky Strepsiptera!

Spooky Strepsiptera for Ent-O-Lantern 2013

Spooky Strepsiptera looking for love in all the right places — Ent-O-Lantern 2013

That pumpkin wasp doesn't stand a chance with a Strepsiptera salad hanging around -- Ent-O-Lantern 2013

That pumpkin wasp doesn’t stand a chance with a strepsipteran salad hanging around — Ent-O-Lantern 2013

The big male twisted-wing parasite riding atop a poor wasp’s abdomen is in search of females, who spend their lives wedged beneath the tergites of a social wasp’s abdomen, only to be consumed from the inside out by their own progeny! Yes, everything about the Strepsiptera is nightmare fodder.

Strepsiptera are also renowned for their odd wing morphology; males have a single pair of functional wings while their second pair of wings have evolved into haltere-like knobs, similar to true flies in the order Diptera. Unlike flies however, the functional wings of Strepsiptera are the hind wings, while the fore wings form the haltere-like knobs!

Needless to say, there was a lot to take into consideration when putting together this pumpkin. Here’s the ingredient list and a fully lighted photo to show how it all went together.

Pumpkin – carved to look like a wasp abdomen

Orange Bell Peppers – female Strepsiptera poking out from under the pumpkin tergites

Butternut Squash – thorax and abdomen of the male, carved with great care to show tergites & segments

Sweet Potato – head

Ornamental corn – compound eyes

Cauliflower – filiform antennae

Dried Mango Slices – maxillary palps

Carrots – legs (jointed with wire)

Cabbage – “twisted” functional hind wings which give this order their common name

Bell Pepper stems – fore wing “halteres”

Ent-O-Lantern 2013 Construction

Ent-O-Lantern 2013 Construction

We just do these big creations for fun, but our department also held a pumpkin carving social event at lunch, so we washed off our tools and put together a true horror show from a single pumpkin: Frankendrosophila!

Well, not really Frankendrosophila, just a Drosophila who’s been subjected to some genetic tinkering with his Homeobox transcription genes, resulting in Antennapedia! SCIENCE!

Drosophila Antennapedia Horror show for Ent-O-Lantern 2013

Drosophila Antennapedia Horror show for Ent-O-Lantern 2013

Antennapedia in the light -- Ent-O-Lantern 2013

Antennapedia in the light — Ent-O-Lantern 2013

Thanks to Meredith, Nichelle, Grace, Jordan & Steve for getting into the spirit of the season and putting together 2 awesome Ent-O-Lanterns this year!

Did you carve an Ent-O-Lantern this year? Leave a link in the comments below so we can all marvel at your insect geek pride!


Oct 162012

This afternoon the Natural History Museum in London, UK posted a pair of permanent curatorships at their insect collection, one for the Coleoptera collection, and the other for the Odonata and Small Orders collection. Seeing how rarely these types of jobs open up, there has been considerable buzz on Twitter, with many awesome people exclaiming how great it’d be to get a job like that at one of the premiere insect collections on the planet, but too bad they don’t have all the qualifications so they wouldn’t stand a chance and thus won’t be applying.

This is something I’ve seen far too frequently during my time in academia: people selling themselves, their work and their qualifications short, and not bothering to apply for positions they find interesting because they see invisible barriers they assume will prevent them from getting the job. I’ve seen undergrads do it, I’ve seen MSc students do it, I’ve seen PhD students do it, and I’ve seen Post-docs do it, so I figured I’d write down my observations & thoughts on what holds people back from applying for jobs, and why it shouldn’t. Continue reading »

Sep 072012

Photo by Jonathan Joseph Bondhus, CC BY-SA license

The Why

Journal clubs are common in many labs/departments, with students meeting with post-docs and advisors to discuss the latest and (sometimes maybe-not-so-) greatest research being published in their field of study. These journal clubs not only help students learn new techniques and concepts, but also teach them how to critically examine and review an academic paper, an important skill for evaluating new research.

Unfortunately for those of us who work in smaller labs without many other grad students or senior researchers, we don’t get the opportunity to have these discussions very regularly (if at all). While I took a few course-based colloquia during my MSc, I would love to take part in a journal club that lasts more than a semester. When I first joined Twitter, I floated the idea of a Twitter-based taxonomy journal club, but never really got much of a response at the time (largely due to my small follower list I suspect).

Then earlier this week Rafael Maia (a PhD candidate at the University of Akron) confessed on Twitter that he cyber-stalks journal clubs in other labs and universities, and so I suggested perhaps we start our own journal club via social media! It wasn’t long before grad students from other institutions expressed an interest, and so I figured I’d get the ball rolling and start fleshing out some of the ideas that were thrown around on Twitter about how we can make this happen! Continue reading »

Aug 032012

It’s been the kind of week where stress levels have been on the rise and I’ve asked myself more than once why I’m killing myself over a million and one things instead of drinking beer and relaxing on a patio somewhere.

Finding the energy and drive to keep pushing forward, writing and making progress even when faced with what seem to be insurmountable obstacles is tough, but it helps to stop, take a breath, and look up from the dark pit of deadlines from time to time and just ogle over a fly or two to remind myself why I love what I do.

In case you find yourself in a similar position going into the weekend, here are a couple of shiny flies which I hope will cheer up your day like they did mine.

Shiny Neurigona sp. Long-legged fly Dolichopodidae

Neurigona sp. (Long-legged fly – Dolichopodidae)

Laphria index Robber fly Asilidae

Laphria index (Robber fly – Asilidae)

Apr 022012

The Geek In Question posted an awesome graph representing the stages and challenges of scientific publication. You should go check it out right now if you haven’t seen it yet, because it’s spot on! I’m right in the middle of the graph (you know, the big pit of despair part) on a couple of manuscripts currently, and am really looking forward to that beer-drinking phase!

Until then, I figured I’d join in and provide my take on the taxonomic process, which has it’s own series of highs and lows!

Fun look at how species are described


This may seem intimidating, but trust me, I love what I do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life! I also might be exaggerating a little bit in some of those low areas (except for the phylogenetics software, that stuff blows), but nothing beats the highs of collecting, species discovery, and making your work accessible to the world!