Jun 112014
How I spent my month of May.

How I spent the month of May.

The Qualifying Exam.

Its mere mention is enough to make a grad student break out in a cold sweat. At least it had that effect on me, up until I successfully completed mine. Continue reading »

Mar 302012

You may have noticed that this blog has been rather quiet lately. Too quiet… My apologies for that, as there’s been a lot of cool science going on in my absence! I hope to get caught up on some of the delightful Diptera discoveries that have been published lately, not to mention all sorts of other fun stories, but for now they’ll have to wait for another day.

Why have I been neglecting the blog as of late? In January I was offered the opportunity to build and teach a Horticultural Integrative Pest Management and Plant Health course for Mohawk College in Hamilton, and I saw it as an excellent chance to expand my CV and gain valuable teaching experience (also make some money, ’cause that’s pretty important). I knew from the outset that I was in for a challenge; I was hired less than 2 weeks before the course began; my combined knowledge of IPM, botany and horticulture amounted to 1 university IPM course and some extremely black thumbs; and oh yeah, I’ve never constructed and taught a course before! Nevertheless, I took the rough curriculum the college provided and set out to make my mark on the horticulture class of 2012.

I expected this course to be as much a learning exercise for myself as it would be for my students, and it certainly lived up to expectations. Here are a few things I learned while teaching.

1) Lesson preparation will take longer than you anticipate

Before accepting the position I tried to guess how much time I would need to devote to the different projects/duties I have on the go:

Time Management Guess

An example of poorly estimated time commitments (and poor penmanship)

You probably guessed that those 6 hours/week of blogging didn’t happen, with much of that time being spent on lecture preparation. The amount of time needed to prepare lectures from scratch really blew me away, and I usually ended up spending at least one day on the weekend plus all day Monday & Tuesday getting ready for my 5 hour lecture on Wednesday. Because IPM isn’t my area of expertise, a lot of my time was spent on background research, getting up to speed on topics before trying to teach it back to my students. Theoretically that prep time would go down if I was teaching something I was more familiar with (i.e. taxonomy or general insect diversity), but the decrease probably wouldn’t be that dramatic. I must admit that I learned and retained more having to teach these topics than I did as a student sitting through class…


2) Five hour lectures require creativity (and a good night’s sleep)

A 5 hour class is not an ideal learning environment, especially for a group of students who would much prefer to be outside! In order to try and retain their attention, I broke my class into 4 segments with short breaks in between: 1 hour of review & quiz covering the previous week’s work, 45 minute lecture on Topic A, 1 hour lecture on Topic B, and 1.5 hour pest identification lab. I found this worked pretty well, with the students still paying attention through most of the classes, and only occasionally head bobbing (which is pretty hilarious to see from the front of the room, albeit a little disheartening).

Trying to keep the students engaged for each of these lessons required a little more work. I found YouTube to be invaluable, providing a lot of great resources to help illustrate my points (and give me a chance to grab a sip of water). If you’re interested, I’ve created a playlist of all the videos I included (or promoted) in my lectures; 72 clips in all. Some of them might seem a little odd out of context, but they made sense (mostly). Of all the videos I showed, I think I got the largest reaction out of the early DDT propaganda videos; seems the students didn’t like the idea of eating their cereal with a helping of insecticide…

I tried to draw on my natural history & pop culture knowledge to draw the students into the topics. Whether it was using Jacob from the Twilight series to introduce the concept of the “silver bullet” (heh) or using movie plots to explain the differences between invasive species control tactics (Containment = Outbreak; Control = Night of the Living Dead; Eradication = Independence Day), by bringing pop culture references into the lecture I could usually get the students to show signs of life. My students also seemed to enjoy parasititism, so anytime I could find a way to work a parasite into a topic I did.

Also, it seems giving a 5 hour lecture is physically exhausting! I’m not sure whether it was the standing/pacing or the mental marathon to stay ahead of the students, but I was pretty wiped each afternoon following my class. Make sure to eat your Wheaties prior to teaching, and have something to drink nearby!


3) Blog posts are a great way to keep students engaged outside of the classroom

Every week I assigned my students a blog post to read, and rewarded those that read it with a bonus question on the next week’s quiz. It was a great way to expose the students to topics and stories that tied back to our lectures but which weren’t necessarily about IPM. Judging by how many students got the bonus question correct each week I think they enjoyed the posts as well. Here are the posts I assigned over the semester (they’re all worth a read, believe me):

The Home Bug Garden – Clivia Foodweb: Part II

Not Exactly Rocket Science – The world’s biggest market (and it’s underground)

This Scientific Life – Berry Butts: Parasitized Black Ants Resemble Red Berries

The Beacon News – Hunting for the super-bug

Not Exactly Rocket Science – Since pythons invaded, Florida’s mammal populations have crashed

BioBlog – blood-sucking vampire moths!

Not Exactly Rocket Science – Scientists and tourists bring thousands of alien seeds into Antarctica

About.com Insects – Before You Mulch, Read This


Look Ma, no wings! (female Fall Cankerworm - Alsophila pometaria)

4) Seeing a student make a breakthrough makes all the hard work worthwhile!

It’s amazingly rewarding when a student asks a question that shows they’re engaged and curious about a topic. Case in point, while discussing gypsy moths (Lymantria dispar) I noted that adult females don’t fly, instead waiting for males to come to them. Having discussed the Fall Cankerworm1 a few minutes earlier, one of my students eagerly asked why female gypsy moths invest energy in developing wings which they never use2? Suffice to say I could hardly answer because I was geeking out over the question! Not only was she clearly connecting the dots between ideas, but she was applying advanced ecological & evolutionary concepts to something she’d only just been introduced to! SO AWESOME. It was these sort of moments that made every second I spent on lecture preparation worthwhile!

Of all the things I learned over the course of the semester, the most important was that I really enjoy teaching! I’ve had some experience with teaching before3, but never to this degree. There are certainly some areas of my teaching that I’d like to improve on moving forward, but overall the semester was a success, and my students walked away happy (or so they tell me at least). This course was a nice confirmation that I’m heading down the correct career path, and I’m already excited to give it another shot in the future.

IPM Class Photo 2012

My class on our grower field trip. Thanks for a great semester everyone!



1 – Female Fall Cankerworms are also flightless, but have wings that are reduced to tiny little stubs.

2 – This is almost an exact quote, she actually said “invest energy”. It blew my mind in a good way!

3 – I’ve given several guest lectures at the University of Guelph and was a teacher’s assistant on an entomology field course.

Oct 242010

Well, October is all but finished, and I can hardly believe where the time has gone. Well, I know where the last week has gone at least, and that’s been busy transcribing old Hennig papers in German. This is one of the greatest challenges to the science of taxonomy in my mind, needing to critically review all prior information on the taxa of interest. Getting the papers in the first place is often an issue, especially when they’re published in obscure journals from the 1800’s, but once you have them, the real work begins trying to decipher the text. Not only is the obvious language barrier standing in the way, but also the obscure entomological terms that most translators can’t catch and, with the older papers, old lexicon which also isn’t always easily translated. With that in mind, I thought I’d share some of the resources I use for translating these papers (from languages including French, German, Portugese and Spanish).

Google Translate Logo

As with most things on the internet these days, Google is my first choice, and in this case, Google Translate. I’ve found that the translations from Google are much better (when reading the results back in English, not doing a direct translation comparison) than say Yahoo’s Babel Fish (is there a trend here between search engine popularity and translation success? Hmmmm…). Even some complicated German compound words are easily readable after a quick run through Google Translate. Other pros for Google? Real-time translation, allowing you to break up those long compound words which confound the software, and the ability to upload entire Word documents to be translated at once. I find typing accented letters in a word processor much easier than online, speeding up the process in many cases (and also allowing you to save your transcribed files for later instead of evapourating into the ether of the web). I’d say that 95% of my translating needs are met with Google Translate. Another added benefit? Google recently added Latin translation, allowing you to check the etymology of taxon names, or invent your own!

Woxicon Free Online Dictionary

Sometimes when you read over your translated text, you’ll come across a word or term that doesn’t seem to fit or make sense. In these cases I turn to the Woxikon Online Dictionary, which provides a list of synonyms for translated words. This website is only for individual words and not mass blocks of text, but it has helped me make sense of some rather odd sentences! Woxicon works for a bevy of languages (although not as extensive as Google) covering most of the languages in classic taxonomic papers.

Of course, neither of these sites are much good with detailed morphological terms, although in many instances I find I can guess the correct structure based on similarity to English, or by comparing to specimens (i.e. looking for the red sclerite on the thorax, and then determining that was the katepisternum).

Now my question to all you taxonomists (and anyone else dealing with similar linguistics issues): how do you go about translating papers? Do you have access to a multi-lingual colleague in your department, speak multiple languages yourself, or have other resources for this sort of thing? Leave your solutions below in the comments!

UPDATE: After finally finishing transcribing Hennig, I found that Google Translate had some issues translating the entire document (26 pages) and took a few tries to translate the whole thing. After finally getting everything translated, I found I couldn’t download the text, and copy & pasting resulted in both the English and German versions getting transferred in a mixed format. The solution? I uploaded my Word document to Google Docs, used the translation service (again needing 3 tries to perform the entire translation) and then downloaded the file back to my computer for reading later. Overall, easy to do (other than the need to translate it multiple times) and with pretty decent results.

Sep 032010

One of my favourite yearly entomological events is coming up soon, and I wanted to spread the word to all those who may be interested in attending. The Entomological Society of Ontario Annual General Meeting is being held October 15-17 in Grand Bend, Ontario, and it promises to be another great meeting.

ESO 2010 Logo

Continue reading »