Sep 042013

Things I didn’t expect to do today: talk about flies live on BBC Radio 2!

I made my radio debut this afternoon when I helped out with Simon Mayo’s Homework Sucks! segment of Drivetime. Homework Sucks! is a regular feature where listeners send in questions (whether from their kids homework or otherwise), and the BBC finds experts to give a hand with the answers.

Today’s question: Can insects smell, and if so, how far away can they smell things? You can listen to my answer thanks to the recorded and archived edition of the day’s episode on the BBC website (skip to 1:39:30 for my segment).

So how’d my first brush with the mainstream media happen? I got a call from Richard Levine, the Public Affairs Officer for the Entomological Society of America, asking if I’d be interested in the opportunity to speak on the BBC about how flies smell. There was a catch though: the segment was going to be live, and was going to start in less than 10 minutes! So, I ran across the lab, grabbed R.F. Chapman’s The Insects: Structure and Function off the shelf, quickly refreshed my memory on volatile chemoreception in insects, then jumped on Google Scholar to see if I could find an estimate of how far away some insects can sense scents (which isn’t easy when your fingers are quivering from the adrenaline rush & nerves). Before I even had Chapman opened, a BBC producer had called me to explain what was going to happen and to get my details figured out, and then 5 minutes later another producer called and I was on hold waiting for my opportunity to go on the air! A few minutes after that I had given my spiel, and was sitting at my desk wondering what had just happened, while trying to dissect what I had said and whether I could recall making any goofs!

While I was sure I stumbled and mumbled my way through it at the time, I actually think I sounded pretty coherent after listening to the recording, and it would seem people enjoyed it as well (thanks for the feedback to those who’ve given it!). I’m giving a lot of the credit for me not sounding like a bumbling n00b to Breaking Bio, which has provided me the opportunity to practice talking about science in an informal setting, and in a digital format. It just goes to show that goofing around on the internet with your friends can have surprising benefits for your work!


Aug 142013

The Bug Chicks (aka Jessica Honaker & Kristie Reddick) are two of the most enthusiastic, creative and hilarious entomologists I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. They’ve dedicated their careers to educating people (especially kids) about insects and related arthropods through interactive workshops and field camps, as well as with a whole series of videos showing the weird, wacky and wonderful ways in which insects go about their lives, and why they’re important in ours (their earwig video is probably my favourite, I highly recommend checking it out).

The Bug Chicks have done an amazing job on their own so far, but they want to reach an even larger audience and are gearing up for an epic cross-country road trip/web-series to show off some of the incredible insects that can be found in our own backyards. Check out the promo trailer:

Honda is lending them a brand new van and Project Noah (a web & mobile natural history app supported by National Geographic) is making sure all the cool stuff they find is accessible to viewers around the world, but Jess & Kristie still need some help from you to make their dream a reality. They’ve set up an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign to help raise the money they need to haul that crazy couch from the forests of Oregon to the deserts of Arizona, and from the mountains of Yellowstone National Park to the beaches of Assateague State Park in Maryland. They’ve got some great perks for those that donate, ranging from “Bug Dork” bumper stickers and insect artwork to classroom lectures for your favourite student!

At a time when science programming on network and cable TV has been replaced with fauxumentaries and fear-mongering reality shows, we NEED people like The Bug Chicks to help inspire and educate future generations of scientists, biologists, and entomologists. Jess & Kristie are two of the finest role models you could ever want, and I fully believe that they have the potential to change the landscape of educational video programming with their work!

So if you can, check for change under your couch cushions, donate a few dollars (or as much as you can afford) and help spread the word by telling your friends and neighbours! There’s only 9 days left in their campaign, and while they have a long ways to go to reach their goal, every dollar will help them bring quality educational entertainment to you and the rest of the world.

Donate to their Indiegogo Campaign HERE.

Finally, we talked to The Bug Chicks about their campaign recently on Breaking Bio, where they announced their partnership with Honda, and explain what they hope to do on their trip, give some hints about some of the cool stuff they’re hoping to find, and share why it’s important for there to be strong, women role models online and in the real world.

Aug 062013

Evolutionary biology is dramatic. Species come, and species go. Simple, random mutations allow organisms to exploit bold new resources. A year’s worth of field data can hinge on the immediate availability of duct tape. You get the idea.

After discussing these thoughts on Twitter with @Sciencegurlz0, @sciliz & @cbahlai this evening, we’ve come up with a way of conveying the events occurring in research labs and backyards around the world in a manner befitting their seriousness: a YouTube series featuring abstracts of evolutionary biology papers being read dramatically by professional actors.

Picture it: Hugh Jackman belting out the abstract for “Macrophages are required for adult salamander limb regeneration“, or Jenny McCarthy sharing her talents to pass along the “Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975–2009, Featuring the Burden and Trends in Human Papillomavirus (HPV)–Associated Cancers and HPV Vaccination Coverage Levels“, or Sir Patrick Stewart providing a dramatic reading of, well, anything really (although I’d suggest “Space travel directly induces skeletal muscle atrophy“). Yes, I believe this is what the internet was made for.

While the videos would be highly entertaining and have the potential to go viral, I’d accompany them with explanatory write ups of the paper in question. The silly-sounding readings would serve as the hook to pique people’s interest in the science (i.e. what on earth is Hugh Jackman singing about), and encourage them to read more about the paper with the help of a skillful synopsis provided by one of the many talented science writers currently at work on the web.

While I think the idea has a lot of potential, we don’t have the connections to make it a reality (I’m not sure I know any actors personally, famous or otherwise). So, I’m throwing the idea out into the web with the hopes that a connected and creative person out there will run with it. The online science community is a large and diverse place, and I’m sure there’s someone who can make this a reality.

The only thing I ask is that you send me a link when you roll it out, because I’d really love to watch Samuel L. Jackson ad lib “Germs on a Plane: Aircraft, International Travel, and the Global Spread of Disease“.

Mar 102013

Dear io9,

I appreciate all the work you do to bring science news to a large and enthusiastic audience, and I’m a frequent reader myself, but as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. Unfortunately in a recent post one of your authors blew it in a big way.

In “Too many fly bites can lead to death by bug-spit poisoning”, Esther Inglis-Arkell repeatedly states that black flies inject their larvae into the bodies of the birds or people their feeding off of, and that humans are carriers of their young.

No. Just, no.

Black fly larvae are 100% aquatic, living in streams, rivers & flowing water all over the world. In some places — like northern Canada, so infamous for its black fly populations there have been songs sung about them — rivers and streams can be black with fly larvae attached to rocks and other material under the water (check out this post by Crystal Ernst to see just how many larvae can be found in the cold waters of the Great White North).

Yes, like most blood-feeding invertebrates, black flies employ anti-coagulant-laced saliva to keep the good times flowing, but there certainly aren’t fly babies in that spit. Some species of black fly in Africa and South America can transmit a nematode parasite through their saliva (Onchocerca volvulus, responsible for River Blindness, a non-fatal disease), and, as evidenced by the paper that inspired Inglis-Arkell’s post, too much fly saliva can be a bad thing, but to fear-monger that there could be fly larvae swimming in your blood isn’t cool.

Now, I recognize that Inglis-Arkell acknowledged her mistake in response to a commentor who also pointed out the error, but that acknowledgement is buried in the comments, and, unless a reader goes looking for it, will likely remain unread. Why not correct the post (preferably in a way that doesn’t hide a mistake was made) or at least add a footnote that clearly states the author’s mistake? That’s the great thing about web publishing: you can immediately clear up mistakes when they’re uncovered instead of waiting days to print a retraction or correction like in the olden days (i.e. less than 10 years ago). Your web stats show that more than 36,000 people have read articles by Ms. Inglis-Arkell today alone, meaning there are a huge number of people potentially leaving your site with a horribly inaccurate impression of black fly biology.

And that’s the real shame, because despite their bad reputation, black flies are fascinating creatures and are actually kind of cute, especially when they’re biting someone else.

Simulium sp from Ecuador Black fly Simuliidae

Simulium (Psilopelmia) bicoloratum from Ecuador (Simuliidae) feasting on my blood.

UPDATE 2013-03-10 20:30: That was fast! Less than 15 minutes after I tweeted a link to this post, io9 responded saying they were correcting their original article, and included links to those who pointed out the problem! Well done io9, well done!

Jan 302013

I’m currently sitting in a nearly deserted terminal at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport waiting to make the first leg of my trip to the ScienceOnline conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. To say I’m excited would be an understatement (I’ve been up since 2:15 this morning and am banking on some serious adrenaline today…), as I’ve been looking forward to getting a chance to attend this conference since I first heard of it 2 years ago.

Why am I so excited? ScienceOnline has become the place for people who are passionate about science communication to get together, geek out, and come up with all kinds of new projects to help share exciting science with the world. As far as I can tell, it’s like if the Manhattan Project collided with Woodstock, but without the risk of total annihilation or psychotropic acid (I hope). I followed along remotely last year, and got really excited about all the cool stuff being discussed, so when registration opened this fall, I knew I had to try and make it (and luckily for me I managed to register in the first lottery window)!

While I’m excited, I’m also incredibly nervous. A lot of the people who will be attending the meeting are people who I look up to in the community, and to get the chance to hang out and talk to them about science is going to be amazing. To me, being a part of this conference will be like taking batting practice with Mickey Mantle, or jamming with The Beatles. Yet, while I tend to be on the quiet/shy side of the spectrum in real-world interactions, I already feel like I’m meeting old friends, in part because I’ve interacted with many of them via social media, but largely because the organizers and participants strive so hard to make it a welcoming environment where everyone is on equal footing, with no special distinctions separating science communicating giants from n00bs like me.

That doesn’t mean I won’t turn into a total fanboy when I meet people for the first time (David Quammen! Ed Yong! Bora!! SO MANY OTHERS!) or even people who I’ve met before (they’re all freaking awesome), but I’m going to do my best to “Keep Calm and Carry On”. So for anyone attending ScienceOnline this week, I apologize in advance for the starry-eyed gazes and toe shuffling when we first meet, but I’ll channel that excitement into discussing all things science as quickly as possible!

Anyways, my plane is about to start boarding, but I’ll be trying to post highlights and various observations/epiphanies here throughout the week, as well as on Twitter and Instagram (morgandjackson). I’ll also be taping a special episode of Breaking Bio so that I can share the experience with everyone. And if you’re intrigued by the whole thing, follow along and participate from home with #Scio13 on Twitter!

Nov 232012

Today is Black Friday in North America, a day where all manner of consumer goods go on sale to jump start the holiday gift-giving buying season, and people go crazy trying to grab their share of the deals. Instead of fighting the crowds for a slightly cheaper sweater or another widescreen TV, why not stay at home and fund some exciting arthropod science this year?

Joseph Parker is planning an expedition to Peru in search of tiny little rove beetles (Staphylinidae: Pselaphinae) that live within ant colonies. I met Joe at the Entomological Society of America meeting last week, and he wears his passion for beetles on his sleeve (and his Twitter handle – @Pselaphinae). While Joe spends most of his time as a post-doc at Columbia University studying the mechanisms that drive insect size, he’s been working on the taxonomy & phylogeny of pselaphine beetles as a “hobby” for several years, and I think it’s about time Joe gets the chance to leave the lab and play in the dirt looking for beetles!

It’s not all about Joe though, because he’d like to repay your donation with anything from a sincere “Thank You”, to his services IDing insects, and even the opportunity to name a new species! Even though Joe has reached his financial goals, every dollar raised above his goal will go towards DNA sequencing costs, meaning there’s always room to help — believe me, DNA don’t come cheap! You can follow along with Joe’s progress & trip to Peru on his Facebook page.

If sneaky beetles living on the forest floor aren’t your thing, perhaps you’d rather help researchers in Spain study arthropod diversity high up in the canopy of a protected forest that’s under threat from human activity? Jorge Mederos is a biologist (and crane fly enthusiast) with the Museu de Ciències Naturals de Barcelona who loves to get up high in the forest canopy, a place he calls “the nearby cosmos”. Just as we’re discovering new things about the cosmos light years away, the biology of the forest canopy is poorly understood, even though it’s only metres above our heads. Jorge’s work revolves around Collserola Park, a large protected forest on the edge of Barcelona, which is under growing pressure from human activity and urban development. Jorge needs your help to purchase weather monitoring equipment and lab supplies that will allow him to understand what life is like for insects living out of our reach.

Jorge is also on Twitter (@jmedeCCF) and will be acknowledging those of you who help fund his project in the scientific papers he publishes. Jorge still needs help to reach his funding target, and time is quickly running out on his project, so don’t delay in helping him reach for the sky!

So there you have it, two exciting scientific projects which need a little help from you this holiday season! Remember, sweaters go out of fashion and electronics are outdated before you get home, but scientific papers & species names last forever. 😉

Oct 122012

I just got finished talking about insects with a swarm of high school students, educators and other entomologists, and I’m jacked up!

What an absolutely incredible hour of lightning-round outreach! The students were asking great questions, and more importantly, appeared to be thinking about the answers they received and responding with follow-up questions or comments. I’m guessing that there was about a 7:1 ratio of students to entomologists, and the stream of questions, answers, comments and observations was going so fast I could hardly keep up. I personally answered questions about diversity, fly behaviour, mosquito-vectored diseases, taxonomy, morphology, physiology, how I got interested in entomology and a whole bunch more, and I was typing as fast as my stubby little fingers could go!

What makes #SciStuChat so important in my mind is the way in which students are encouraged to meet, talk and ask questions with real, working scientists. I would have killed to have an opportunity like this when I was growing up, and I’m more than happy to provide an hour of my time to help connect with the next generation of potential scientists and perhaps turn them into future colleagues!

If you’d like to check out (or better yet join in) #SciStuChat, it’s held on the second Thursday of every month throughout the school year with a new main topic each month. Until then, check out what we were talking about tonight, and consider joining in next month! Continue reading »

Oct 102012

A few weeks ago I was invited to help out with a cool project connecting high school students with working scientists via Twitter called SciStuChat. The program, started by high school science teacher Adam Taylor, encourages students and other inquisitive minds to talk about science, ask questions and get to know their friendly online-neighbourhood scientist!

I tuned in to September’s chat which centred on sharks and marine biology, and it seemed like fun for both the students and the scientists who participated. It turns out that October’s theme will be Insects, so when Adam (@2footgiraffe) invited me to help out, I jumped at the opportunity!

I know there are a lot of entomologists on Twitter who really enjoy outreach and spreading the good word about bugs, so I hope that some of you might be interested in joining the discussion. The chat will be taking place this Thursday, October 11 starting at 8pm CST (9pm EST or 6pm PST), and I think it’s scheduled for about an hour or so. All you need to do is log on to Twitter, follow the hashtag (#SciStuChat), and start interacting with curious minds! There is such a diverse field of entomologists on Twitter that I’m confident that we can answer and engage with any questions people may have regarding insects.

Finally, don’t worry if you’re not on Twitter, I’ll round up all the discussions and post them here later in the week so you can see how it went, although this as good a reason as ever to sign up for Twitter if you’ve been thinking about doing so!

Sep 262012
Breaking Bio Podcast

Breaking Bio, the newest science podcast to hit the internet, with your host, Steven Hamblin!

I have a confession to make: I’ve been “secretly” recording a podcast with other biologists from around the world and haven’t told anyone about it.

Until now.

I’m happy to share with you a new podcast having fun with (and at the expense of) science. Momma always said I had the face for radio and the voice for newsprint, so I’m happy to be putting it all to the test with this new media project!

Breaking Bio was the brainchild of Steven Hamblin, a behavioural ecology/computational biology Post-Doc currently working in Australia, and he soon enlisted a motley crew of twittering scientists:

  • Rafael Maia – PhD candidate at University of Akron studying evolution of bird colour,
  • Tom Houslay – PhD candidate at University of Stirling studying sexual selection in insects and our resident eye-candy (or so I’ve been informed),
  • Bug Girl – Queen Bee of the insect blogosphere and provider of sage advice and witty responses,
  • Michael Hawkes – PhD student at University of Exeter studying sex, selfish genes and insecticide resistance in Drosophila (he’ll be making his debut soon),
  • Crystal Ernst (aka The Bug Geek) – PhD candidate at McGill University studying Arctic beetle ecology (she’ll be making her debut soon as well),
  • Me

We’ve recorded 5 episodes, and have so far managed to slander a dead tortoise, compare notes on the grad student life, discuss the world’s smallest fly, give a how-to on academic bridge burning, and share stories from international conferences (among many other topics & tangents). Overall it’s a light-hearted look at science and a way for us to share our passion while having some fun and unwinding a little!

It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of, and I hope you enjoy it while having a laugh or two at our expense! Of course, if you have a question or topic you’d like to hear us discuss, or want to join in on the fun yourself, let us know and we’ll be happy to taint your CV bring you on board!

You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes, or subscribe & watch the video version over at YouTube (I’ve embedded the first 5 episodes here for your viewing pleasure). Be warned that there is some explicit language in each episode, and possibly bad puns.

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 »