27 September 2012

Bursting heart.

I spotted a lovely specimen of Euonymous americanus, or strawberry bush, alongside a path on Duke's campus earlier this week.

In proper botanical romanticism style, I tend to prefer the whimsical common name of bursting heart.

I'm primarily a monocot girl, but these are the prettiest plant displays right now (at least until the naked ladies get going soon...I've seen a few already!).

19 September 2012

I'd often rather stop and photograph a mushroom than stop to smell roses.

Granted, it's easier to find mushrooms than blooming roses during a rainy North Carolina September, but the colors of this particular specimen would give any flower a run for its money. I came across this lovely mushroom while walking across Duke's campus this morning and could resist taking a moment to marvel over its color and form. What use is being a biologist, after all, if I can't indulge in a bit of wonder and curiosity at the natural world?
I've talked with a couple of folks lately about how a mindset accustomed to biological research intersects with the rest of the world. I know quite a few biologists who are also artists, either through photography, painting, or music. My chosen medium is fiber (like wool yarn to felt or knit), and my research constantly catalyzes new projects and offshoots of creativity. 
While on retreat last week, I was also reminded of another common interest of biologists--history. I took the picture to the right in the main gathering hall at the biological station where we met. The botanical and owl wood carvings were fantastic, but the piano(-ish) instrument in the middle was just as interesting. More specifically, the 50 year old music books on the stand were quite compelling. I was not the only one to take note of these objects. Upon further contemplation, it comes as no surprise that evolutionary biologists would be interested in historical stories and artifacts...after all, both areas of study require an appreciation of time.

14 September 2012

How much can red stilettos actually hurt?

For better or worse, looks like this is the first in a series of posts relating to gender and sexuality issues here at Princess Tradescantia.

Today's thoughts were precipitated by a friend's post on Facebook regarding the picture to the left. This photograph is from a fundraising event at my alma mater, Western Kentucky University, which aimed to raise awareness about sexual abuse and violence about women (the full article from the event is here). My friend, who also attended WKU, asked for my thoughts on the event.

It's not shocking this event has garnered attention in subsequent months. Although events like this have taken place in other locations for years, Bowling Green, KY is a fairly conservative area. When combined with the participants representing a fraternity, that steadfast bastion of gender binary, opinions run very hot about the intentions, sincerity, and consequences of this event.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how I actually feel. I spent a lot of time reading others' viewpoints about this event. I've decided my conclusions are fairly simple. This was a fundraising event, and the goal was to spread awareness about domestic violence. Could they have accomplished their goals in another way? Sure. Could they have donated the money they spent on heels instead? Of course. Did some of the participants use it as an opportunity to mock the transgender and transsexual communities? Perhaps. Are there hypocrites in the group, who are themselves perpetrators of sexual violence? Possibly.

My opinion boils down to a very simple argument. Their goals could've been accomplished just as successfully in a different manner. All of the bones of contention voiced by opposers would've still occurred: there would still be homo- and trans-phobia, and there would still be less-than-sincere participants. There is an advantage to the red stiletto approach, though. There is now a group of men living in a conservative area who no longer find it quite so shocking that men might wear high heels. They've allowed themselves to be seen and photographed wearing stilettos, and maybe a few of them even kept those shoes. The event was planned with good intentions, and they met their goal of fundraising and attention. Additionally, I argue that simply by virtue of wearing heels for a mile walk, these men added to the normalization of acceptance of such behavior. That little bonus, to me, is well worth it.

Or maybe I just like the gender-bending aspect of watching men wear high heels.

11 September 2012

Greetings from the mountains!

NESCent post docs are retreating at Mountain Lake Biological Station this week, and I'm personally very appreciative of the sunshine, trees, and chipmunks. Despite our shared research focus of evolutionary biology, those of us gathered here have quite diverse educational backgrounds and correspondingly, very different views on teaching, communication, and other topics relevant to our professional development. I'm enjoying both the discourse during discussions and intervening breaks, during which we explore things like awesome caterpillars defoliating nearby plants.

Much to my chagrin, I'm skipping a hike with other folks right now so I can finish up a few things for teaching. I'll go sit on the porch of my cabin in awhile, though, and bask in the glow of no cell phone reception and quiet forest.

10 September 2012

Retreat! Retreat!

I leave in a few hours for University of Virginia's Mountain Lake Biological Station, where NESCent postdocs are aggregating for our annual retreat. I can't help but think of us a battalion of scientific soldiers, withdrawing from our offices to regroup and plan our next attack.

I'm reminded of many lovely field trips from my time as an undergraduate at Western Kentucky University. Our small class sizes meant that loading students into a few vans and galavanting off for the mountains or Gulf coast was par for the course (pun intended) in ecology and evolution labs.

Thus, I'm actually quite excited to head off to the mountains for a brief adventure. I'm taking some field guides so I can stalk wild plants and mushrooms. I'm also eager to talk about the professional development topics scheduled for the next few days, especially in light of upcoming deadlines for job applications (eep!).

08 September 2012

Data visualization

I've been thinking lots lately about how we visualize data in biological research. As a student of both communication and science, I find the interplay between the two fields to be especially compelling. This interest was reinvigorated last spring by some meetings with a visiting NESCent scholar, Tyler Curtain, who introduced me to some of the preeminent and current literature on the field. Since then, I've noticed the theme popping up repeatedly in my interactions with colleagues. Folks pop in to my office to ask for advice on figures, and some NESCent-associated projects like Open Tree of Life are particularly interested in advancing visualization abilities for evolutionary biology.

As a result of this convergence of events, I jumped at the chance to take a short workshop on data visualization offered by Duke Libraries Data and GIS Services. I was struck by the breadth of options available for representing data visually, and began thinking a bit about how different figures in evolutionary biology are from other fields. I talked a bit with Angela Zoss, the instructor of the course, who concurred that biological disciplines tend to lag behind other sciences in adopting more effective methods of visualizing data (I would extend that claim and imply that sciences in general lag behind other fields of study as well).

Let's face it, folks. Figures representing biological data are notoriously problematic to not only build, but interpret. Dendrograms (which in the data visualization world include many types of tree structures) are very complicated in evolutionary biology, and our tendency is to cram as much information as possible into each figure. A single diagram may include tree topology, branch lengths/divergence times, taxon names (tree tips AND higher taxonomic groupings), color coding for one or more traits, etc. Additionally, I've long thought that effective visualizations for genomics research, especially in the comparative realm, are notoriously convoluted and difficult to understand.

Why are our figures so complicated? I think it's because biology as a science inherently includes many different variables, each of which includes sometimes large margins for error. As scientists, we want to tell our research narrative in as non-biased a manner as possible, which means including (visually) as much data as possible. This impulse is compounded by a push to streamline figures for publications, which is further complicated by lack of availability of color, space, and resolution.

But let's face it. We're never telling an unbiased story with our figures. We make decisions about inclusion of data in a study and methods of analysis even before we get to the publication stage, and cramming as much summary information as possible into a figure doesn't represent those biases. What is the goal of a figure or representation of biological data? It should be interpretable by an audience, which in journals means scientific peers. When visualizations become so specialized that only a handful of people in a field can understand them, we're working counter to the purpose of the visualization. It's not doing its job.

I advocate striking a balance between the goals of the two paragraphs above. Tell a clear story with the data, but include enough information for the audience to understand associated variance and error. As a result, I'm planning a open discussion at NESCent with folks from our informatics and science groups, in addition to folks who work on data visualization, to see how we can improve our methods of building figures.

Possible topics for contemplation include (but aren't limited to) the following:

  • tree visualization
  • deep time
  • visualizing error
  • taxonomic levels
  • trait mapping