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!


Mar 102013

Insects make great teaching tools for a wide variety of lessons in evolution & biology, but their small size can limit what you can do if you don’t have a microscope set up. Lately I’ve been playing around with a 2 megapixel USB Microscope from EmCal Scientific Inc that I picked up at the 2011 Entomological Society of America meeting in Reno, Nevada. This little device cost ~$100, and provides magnification up to 200x life size! (Note: there are similar products available around the web for cheaper, but I can’t say how well they may or may not work.)

I’ve used it in a few lectures & labs to show specimens, structures and techniques, but honestly haven’t had much success, largely because the stand it came with is pretty well useless. Hand holding it isn’t an option either, as even the slightest movement at such high magnifications turns your demonstration into a bad example of the Harlem Shake.

Despite the problems I ran in to, I really wanted to use the camera in a couple of outreach events I’ll be participating in later this month, but I couldn’t afford to invest much in a solution. So, this afternoon I went to my local big box home improvement store and wandered around until I managed to design and piece together what I think will solve a lot of the issues I was having. Here’s a breakdown of what I used and how I put it all together for less than $30. Continue reading »

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!

Apr 182012

Another week, another Monday night blog challenge from the Bug Geek! Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is explain your research in 250 words or less in a way that a 10-year-old could understand. Instead of banging my head against the wall on a manuscript (see earlier challenge) I tried my hand at explaining Diptera taxonomy.

What do I do for a living? I collect bugs! Not just any bugs though; I like to catch flies from around the world, bring them back to my laboratory, and figure out what their names are. Just like your parents gave you a name that’s special to you, scientists like me have given names to a lot of the flies around us. Many flies have long complicated names, like Drosophila melanogaster or Taeniaptera trivittata, but these names tell us who the fly is related to, just like your name.

Sometimes when I’m out collecting flies, I find one that has never been seen by a scientist before. That’s when my job gets really exciting, because I get to give that fly a new name! I can name a fly because of how it looks or how it lives, but sometimes I name the fly after someone important. As long as I know who it’s related to, I have lots of flexibility in naming!

There is so much about flies that we don’t know, which means plenty for me to learn.  Most people think you need to travel to faraway jungles to find something exciting, but there are amazing new discoveries waiting for you in your own backyard. There may even be a new fly waiting to be discovered! Learning about flies at home and abroad helps us understand how they live their lives and why they look the way they do.

Not really knowing any 10-year-old children, I hope my explanation isn’t too simplified (I think it’d be ok for my 7-year-old nephew though). Clearly I didn’t really get into the other aspects of my job, like phylogenetics, systematics and disseminating biodiversity knowledge through identification aids (and blogging of course). While I think I could do it, these topics would need another 250 words, and it was already 2am when I finished this bit…

This was a great challenge, and has applications far beyond inquisitive school children. I have family and friends ask what I do and why it matters fairly frequently, and in the past I’ve sometimes felt self-conscious trying to explain it (but that’s a much larger topic for another day). After this exercise, I think I’ve got a few new tricks up my sleeve for the next family reunion!

Toxomerus marginatus Syrphidae on flower

Toxomerus marginatus

Jan 022012

Spoof cover of book Twitter for ScientistsToday is my 1 year Twitterversary, making it as good a time as any to share why I think Twitter is one of the most important resources available to scientists, how to make the most of it, and what makes it great for interacting with non-scientists.

Twitter is as simple a social network as you can get, “limited” to text-based updates of 140 characters telling people “What’s Happening” in your life. But as they say, it’s not the size of the tweet that matters, but rather how you use it, and there are roughly 2 million ways in which to interact with the Twitterverse, sharing and finding all manner of relevant content, ideas, and information!

So what makes Twitter the ultimate scientific resource? Networking. If there’s one thing I’ve realized about academia, it’s that what you know is not all that matters when it comes to finding opportunities (although it is extremely important). Many times it also matters who you know, and maybe more importantly, who knows you! Through Twitter I’ve “met” entomologists of all disciplines; apiculturists, IPM consultants, taxonomists, ecologists and physiologists across the spectrum of amateurs, graduate students, post-docs, museum staff or university faculty. But I’ve also interacted with individuals who I would normally never come in contact with, like marine biologists, scientific illustrators, botanists, bioinformaticians, evolutionary biologists, statisticians, microbiologists and many, MANY science writers! Joshua Drew (a marine biology post-doc in Chicago) hit the nail on the head:


These people won’t be at the usual conferences I attend, but that doesn’t mean my research isn’t related to theirs. By exposing myself to a wide array of scientists, I have found inspiration to apply to my own projects, methods to experiment with in future, and kindred spirits who are also working their way through the trials of academia and provide invaluable advice. As I move forward, who knows how these individuals may influence my career, with each “tweep” a potential collaborator, advisor or hiring committee member; fortune favours the prepared, and Twitter has allowed me to diversify my knowledge base significantly, better preparing me for future research obstacles.

With over 200 million users posting more than 95 million tweets per day, you may find it daunting to discover tweeters relevant to your field of science. Luckily there are several ways to get the most out of Twitter with minimal time investment. You can easily subscribe to lists of scientist twitter users, or super-tweeters like @BoraZ who share content from a wide variety of scientists (or you can start with who I follow even). It’s important to note that when you follow someone on Twitter, the information being shared is unilateral, meaning you can see what that person posts, but they don’t see what you post (unless they reciprocate and follow you). This means you can tailor the information you receive to only those you find interesting, without getting inundated with updates by all the people who may follow and interact with you.

However, to unlock the real power of Twitter, I recommend exploring the #hashtag. Integrated by Twitter as an automatic search term, hashtags allow you to filter tweets from all 200 million+ users simply and directly. There are a number of interesting and widely adopted science hashtags which may interest you, but you can create, use and follow any hashtag which you consider interesting or relevant (like #Diptera, or #ScienceShare perhaps). There are 2 in particular however which I have found to be the most powerful; #madwriting and #IcanhazPDF.

#madwriting is a rallying call for those that may struggle with writing or dedicating the time to do so. Created to develop a shared sense of community, accountability and encouragement, #madwriting bouts last about 30 minutes, and encourage undistracted writing, followed by a sharing of progress after the time is up. Major portions of my Master’s thesis were accomplished thanks to the #madwriting community, as well as numerous blog posts (including this one).

Although grammatically terrible, #IcanhazPDF is the most useful hashtag for scientists in my opinion. If you or your institution does not have access to a journal, it can be frustrating, time-consuming and difficult to obtain a copy of a paper. Traditionally this obstacle would be overcome using interlibrary loan or contacting authors or other colleagues at different institutions and requesting copies directly. With #IcanhazPDF, the Twitter community has changed the game, crowd-sourcing paper requests from complete strangers across the world. The speed at which you can obtain a paper has now gone from days or weeks to minutes, allowing you to go on with your research & writing without delay. I can personally attest to this system, having made a request last spring and receiving the PDF via email less than 20 minutes later. While no different from making direct requests from colleagues (which has gone on for decades), there is the potential for legal trouble, so be sure to make an informed decision before taking part.

As you can see, there are numerous ways for scientists to benefit from Twitter, but Twitter is also a great way to reach out to the general public and give back. Whether you share tales from your research (or more personal stories that demonstrate that scientists are human too), pass along links to popular science articles or blog posts (or even open-access journal articles), develop citizen science projects, or simply interact with the public by answering questions, it’s easy to give back on Twitter and potentially inspire future generations of scientists. I’ve helped identify insects for people, provided answers on biodiversity, and tried to change people’s opinions about flies in general, all via Twitter. The 140 character limit I mentioned earlier has also forced me to become more concise with my writing, and lead me to change my use of verbose terms common to scientific jargon. I can also see Twitter being incorporated in the classroom, facilitating interactions between students and teachers/professors or being used as extra credit (recording wildlife sightings, extracurricular readings, etc).

While I understand scientists are busy people and may be hesitant to join a(nother) social network, I feel that careful integration of Twitter into a research program can actually increase productivity and innovation. If you’re not already tweeting, I encourage you to give it a chance and explore what you may be missing!

You can find me on Twitter @BioInFocus.
UPDATE (Jan. 3. 2011, 00:30): @BoraZ sent me a link to another great clearing house of science twitterers, Science Pond. At this time their tweet display algorithm seems to be down, but you can still browse the long list of scientist users on the left hand side.
Dec 112011

This week I’ll be running a whole series of posts and ideas on using social media as a scientist; both for connecting with other researchers, but also as a tool to communicate with the general public. I encourage you to chime in and share some of your own ideas on how to use social media in science, either here in the comments section, on your own blog, or through any of the plentiful social network sites. If you don’t have a blog and want to expand on some ideas, contact me and we can set up a guest post here!

I’ll be using the hashtag #ScienceShare throughout the week (and beyond I hope) while discussing the topic on Twitter and Google+, so feel free to follow along across the web!

I figured I’d start the week off by sharing a talk I gave at both the Entomological Society of Ontario and Entomological Society of America meetings this past fall, which should serve as an overview of where this week may go!

If you’re interested in exploring some of the things I discussed, here’s the Prezi I gave at the ESO meeting. I’m looking forward to seeing where this week takes us! Be sure to stay tuned!


(You can move around and interact with this Prezi to explore some of the links and sources included within it)

Nov 142011

Normally when I go to these large, multi-room conferences I stand at the back of the room so I can sneak out between talks to see plenty of different presentations, usually at the other end of the building. Today was a little different however, as I sat in one seat for the entire morning, and then did the exact same thing for the entire afternoon! And they weren’t even Diptera symposia!

This morning was the Citizen Science symposium, and featured talks by a number of different programs that are reaching out to the public to help with data collection. Projects ranged in scope from an amateur Orthopterist studying katydid biology and taxonomy in her free time, to multi-site sampling projects trying to understand the complicated interactions of caterpillar/plant/parasite communities in North America, Costa Rica and Ecuador! The number of people willing to help out with these projects, including travel to exotic locations, all on their own dime is pretty amazing. Lee Dyer of the University of Nevada, Reno even told stories of participants who became so entranced by the research they helped with, they went back to school and ended up earning advanced degrees in entomology! Also, one of them got the caterpillar she was tasked with studying permanently tattooed on her return home! That’s dedication! Overall it was a really great group of talks, and there was quite a bit of interest in my talk about how the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification can contribute to their projects (my talk went pretty well I think, only one major coughing fit on my behalf from this stupid cold I keep dragging around). Here are the different projects, with links when available:

EarthWatch Caterpillar/Parasitoid Life History and Tritrophic foodweb

Monarch Larva Monitoring Project

Lost Ladybug Project


John C. Carlson – Passive surveillance in medical entomology using BugGuide

Mark Fox, Tulane University – Using internet images to track a new species of Caloptilia (Lepidoptera: Gracillaridae) specializing on Chinese tallow


After a quick lunch with the Citizen Science crew, I headed back to the conference centre and took in the Myths, Misconceptions and Mental Modifications symposium. Designed to help dispel some of the myths surrounding insects by encouraging greater public outreach, this symposium was full of entertaining speakers who taught me all sorts of new things to put to use here on the blog! Marianne Shockley Robinette (@DrBugAppetit on Twitter) started it off with a great talk highlighting some common insect myths people should be forgetting, and included a whole range of cool insects in pop culture. Next, Martha Lutz held a really interesting little seminar complete with handouts and group discussion on how to help change people’s preconceptions about insects, using a technique she called the “criticism sandwich” – tell the person something good about what they think, correct the part they were incorrect about, and then finish with more encouragement for something they were right about. She also suggested using metaphors for explaining complex insect biology, like the effect temperature has on insect growth and development, by comparing to humans. For the temperature example, she would explain that if humans reacted to temperature like insects, you could heat up a 2 year old to get through those terrible twos more quickly, cool them down when they reach the fun stage where they listen to you and are interested in what you do so it lasts longer, then throw that temperature way up when they hit their teens and think they know more than their parents to get them out of the house in a hurry! Pretty brilliant way to relate a complex phenomenon in terms any parent could understand!

Richard Hellmich was next and discussed how media-induced hoopla can hamper research programs, specifically with regards to genetically modified plants. It’s really unfortunate that a few uninformed media instigators can have such a detrimental effect on public perception, but that is the reality we live in and something that all entomologists should be on the lookout for, no matter what their research may be on! My talk on using social media to perform and promote entomology research seemed to go over well, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a large number of people in the audience already using social media!

The final 3 speakers provided some really fantastic information on dealing with the media, and how to be an effective outreach researcher. Michael Raupp, who’s appeared countless times on national TV and radio segments, shared a bunch of tips on dealing with the media, and how to get your message across in an entertaining fashion. He was followed by Holly Menninger (@DrHolly on Twitter) who shared even more great tips on how to prepare for a media engagement and getting your message out there without getting lost in the dazzle of pseudo-celebrity! One of the more important points I took away from her talk were her 5Ps for dealing with the media: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance! That pretty well goes for any aspect of academia I suppose, but most of the time your poor performance because of poor planning isn’t immediately showcased to the public the moment it happens! Finally, Richard Levine got up and talked about dealing with difficult situations in the media and with the public. With his experience as media consultant for the ESA, he had plenty of examples on how to deal with rogue journalists (see Tucker “Douche Bag” Carlson hijack Anthony Cognato of the Michigan State Entomological Collection and read his response) or misinformed citizens. Overall it was a great conference, and if I hear of the talks being collated and posted anywhere, I’ll be sure to pass along that info!

This evening I took in the Opening Mixer for the free food and an uninterrupted perusal of the vendors was pretty good. Check out some of the photos below, including a rather embarrassing taxonomy fail considering where I am… Overall, it was great start to the conference, and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the week has in store for me!