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Academic etiquette: Tips on conducting yourself at an academic conference

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This is a joint post by Dani Rabaiotti and Jeff Clements. You can find the sister version of this post over at Dani’s website.

Ah! Conferences. A time take in the cool work that others are doing, and share the cool work that you’ve been doing – and a time to relax and network. Well, maybe for some. But a concerning number of researchers (particularly students and early career researchers, or ECRs) are unable to relax and network at conferences because of negative experiences.  While there are a number of factors that can influence one’s experience at a conference, the theme of negative associations with colleagues has emerged as an ongoing issue (see twitter discussion HERE and tweets below). Given this seemingly common issue, I teamed up with Dani Rabaiotti (@DaniRabaiotti) to share experiences and put together the following guide.

What’s the issue?

In a largely unscientific Twitter poll of 488 fellow academic tweeters, only 28% had never had a negative experience with conference criticism, whilst 40% had had a negative experience with criticism that was done respectfully (generally part of conference experience but can be tough!). However, nearly 1/3 of people polled had had negative experiences where others had been disrespectful, or had engaged in an ‘all-out war’ with an audience member.

Sadly, for us as authors, this was unsurprising. For example, Dani has been told she was wrong about her own study species because the questioner ‘had seen them hunting’ (anecdote vs data, anyone?), while Jeff has been publicly told that his work will do nothing for his career and may even hinder his progression. In addition, we have both witnessed some incredibly aggressive questioning styles at conferences. A wide variety of respondents to the Twitter poll also shared their experiences, many of which were, we think you’d agree, pretty awful:

This brings us onto a second issue – one that nearly all of us have experienced – the ‘this isn’t a question but a comment’ during conference QUESTION sessions. Of 387 people polled nearly 1/3 had experienced comment-not-questions lasting more than 5 minutes!

During the question period, if you need to preface your ‘question’ with, “This is more of a comment than a question, but…” and subsequently go on to add your thoughts about the work, save it for after! Likewise, if you know that your question is a lengthy one that will take up most of the question period, save it! Not only does this approach allow others to ask questions (providing the speaker with a broader degree of feedback), but it provides an opportunity for networking and discussion after the talk. This is a much better use of time and is a more productive way of providing commentary feedback to presenters (not to mention that it can facilitate collaborations and potentially enhance a field of research!).

Top tips for conference etiquette:

It appears that negative experiences with peers at conferences are quite common. These experiences can have lasting effects on the people involved, particularly for students and early career researchers. Such instances can be easily avoided by following some simple rules and avoiding conflict. Yet, while a quick google search of “behaviour/etiquette at academic conferences” provides a laundry list of tips for grad students and ECRs, little information is provided for senior researchers on how to engage appropriately with grad students and ECRs, nor on how to conduct oneself during question periods, etc.  To facilitate this, we have compiled a few tips for ‘conference etiquette’, which can be found below (you can also find other tips here, here, and here, among others). We suggest that if a predominance of conference goers follow these guidelines the frequency negative conference experiences can be reduced and research efforts and quality can be enhanced.

Some conference Do’s and Don’ts:
Should you ask that question?:

Open up! On the Benefits of Open Access Publishing

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This post is also published as a guest post on the Canadian Science Publishing Blog. You can access that version of the post here.


During my undergraduate degree, I remember all too well the many times in which I would search for a journal article that I needed to write a paper, only to be stymied by my institution’s inability to afford a journal or publisher. Of course, Interlibrary Loans could help me get my hands on those papers eventually, but rarely was it sufficient. As a result, I ended up spending out-of-pocket for journal articles during a time in which personal finances were dismal.

This reality is commonplace for many students both near and far. For many Canadian undergraduates, access to journals has been dwindling. Particularly in developing nations, scholars-in-training have limited access to journals published by conglomerate publishers. Furthermore, expensive subscriptions to scholarly journals can deprive everyday citizens from becoming more scientifically literate. So, what are we to do?

Cue the open access movement.

Open access publishing – making access to published works free for readers – has recently been adopted by many academic journals in attempt to remove barriers to scholarly works. Open access publishing in academia typically comes in two forms: green and gold. While the ‘green’ option allows scholarly authors to openly share their work through different outlets (e.g. personal webpage, social media, etc.), the gold option provides readers with free access to an article directly from the publisher. This has resulted in the establishment of fully-open access journals (such as the brand new on from Canadian Science Publishing, FACETS), as well as hybrid journals (where the journal offers the option for authors to pay for their article to be open access) Nonetheless, by enforcing an open access method, barriers to accessing scholarly works begin to dwindle and readership can be increased.

While open access certainly seems like a great idea from the readers’ perspective, it comes at an expense to authors – literally. Currently, the cost of making a scholarly article is substantial, generally running authors more than USD $1000 per article. So, is there any benefit from the authors’ side of the coin? It turns out that there is!

The prestige and productivity of scholarly authors is often gauged on citations – when another scholar references the work of a scholarly author in a subsequent article. The more citations that an author gains on their publications, the better. So, for authors, increasing citations is a benefit to authors for increasing the impact of their work and for career development. Interestingly, one way that appears effective in increasing citations is publishing open access.

In a study recently published in FACETS, I was able to show that open access articles in hybrid marine science journals received more citations than articles that were closed access. For my study, I collected citation data from articles in 3 hybrid marine ecology journals with similar impact factors as a microcosm to test for open access effects on citations: ICES Journal of Marine Science (Oxford Press), Marine Ecology Progress Series (Inter-Research), and Marine Biology (Springer). I also controlled for a number of other factors that could potentially influence citation rates, including self-citations, article type, time since publication, the number of authors, and the year that the article was published. I found that open access articles received, on average, 57%, 38%, and 24% more citations than closed access articles in for ICES Journal of Marine Science, Marine Ecology Progress Series, & Marine Biology respectively.

Although the trend observed in my study could be driven by authors’ self-selection to publish only their best work open access, the results are in line with numerous other studies showing a citation advantage of open access articles. In addition, my study only focused on a narrow field of academia: marine science. However, these ‘microcosmic’ studies are important for highlighting the benefits of open access to authors that reside within a defined academic discipline, and more of them are certainly needed.

Ultimately, the consistently-documented citation advantage of open access for authors of scholarly works should motivate authors to publish open access and, in turn, increase the accessibility of scholarly works for students, researchers, and the public. However, the financial burden to doing so is still substantial. Given the documented benefits of open access publishing to both authors and readers, it’s about time that both authors and readers push for reduced costs to publish open access. Alleviating the financial burden to authors will help to stimulate open access publishing and will lead to more efficient scientific communication between scientists and with the public. Such a transition is crucial in an age where scientific literacy is increasingly needed.

It’s time to act now! It’s time to open-up.

Seven Spooky Species

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Leading up to Halloween night, I recently embarked on a #scicomm project via social media (Facebook and Twitter), sharing information about #SevenSpookySpecies from the ocean. The project was fairly successful in engaging people on Facebook (95 likes, 19 interactive comments, and 3 shared posts), and Twitter (26 likes and 23 retweets). I was able to spark interest in followers by introducing people to the the biology of skeleton shrimps, vampire squids from hell, ghostly shrimps, humpbacked anglerfish, creepy crawly spider crabs, giant isopods, and alien amphipods. I very much enjoyed delivering this series of fun (and maybe a little bit creepy) marine species. In fact, I plan to make this an annual series leading up to Halloween. Nonetheless, I wanted to make it accessible for those who may have missed my posts.

So without further ado, here are my picks for this year’s #SevenSpookySpecies!

#7. Skeleton shrimp, Caprella mutica 

Japanese skeleton shrimp (Caprella mutica)
Japanese skeleton shrimp (Caprella mutica)

Commonly known as the Japanese skeleton shrimp, Caprella mutica is native to eastern Asia and is considered an invasive species in Atlantic Canada, first reported in the Bay of Fundy in the 1990s (although it’s ecological impacts as an invader are not well understood). These guys can often be found in high densities on ropes, buoys, mussel socks, and other man-made structures. They are quite small, with males reaching a maximum size ~3.5 cm and females reaching a maximum size ~1.5 cm. The males’ neck and claws are super hairy and the males also have a segmented neck (2 segments).

#6. Ghost shrimp, Neotrypaea californiensis

Ghost shrimps (Neotrypaea californiensis) are an intertidal species found on the Pacific coast of North America. These shrimps are fairly pale in appearance and can reach a maximum size of just under 12 cm body length. Neotrypaea californiensis live underneath the sediment surface in U-shaped burrows that reach to the surface of the sediment – as such, they’re referred to as “infaunal” species (species living within the sediment). These burrows have many branches or arms and support a diverse array of other species, including snapping shrimps, copepods, crabs, and clams.

Bay ghost shrimp (Neotrypaea californiensis)
Bay ghost shrimp (Neotrypaea californiensis)

In Canada, they can be found in soft-sediment intertidal habitats (mud- and sandflats) of British Columbia where they residewith other infaunal shrimps (mud shrimps, Upogebia pugettensis). Together with mud shrimps, ghost shrimps can often be found in high densities, which can result in significant amounts of bioturbation (i.e. sediment disturbance). Because they are such efficient bioturbators, it is thought that ghost shrimps (and mud shrimps) positively affect their surrounding ecosystem increasing primary and secondary productivity, and by reducing the system’s susceptibility to eutrophication (nutrient loading). However, this bioturbation can have negative effects on the production of oyster beds and they’re often considered pests. As such, mudflats with high densities of mud and ghost shrimps are often sprayed with insecticides to remove the “pests”. These shrimps are also often used by fishermen as bait.

The adults of this species display claw dimorphism (or claw asymmetry) – meaning that one claw is bigger than the other. This feature is more pronounced in males, where the large claw can account for as much as 25% of the male’s body mass (see image below) – imagine one of your hands occupying 25% of your weight! The larger claw in males is thought to be used when two individuals are competing for a mate and is thus likely an evolutionary product of sexual selection.

#5. Spider crab, Macrocheira kaempferi

Japanese Spider Crab (Macrocheira kaempferi)
Japanese Spider Crab (Macrocheira kaempferi)

Having the largest leg span of any living arthropod, the Japanese Spider Crab (Macrocheira kaempferi) resides in the waters off of Japan. This species can have a leg span of up to 18 feet (5.5 meters) from claw to claw and is thought to live up to 100 years (although ageing crustaceans has proven difficult). M. kaempferi can weigh up to >40 lbs, making it the second heaviest living arthropod, (second to the American Lobster).

Japanese Spider Crab (Macrocheira kaempferi)
Japanese Spider Crab (Macrocheira kaempferi)

Japanese Spider Crabs use their thick and durable exoskeleton to protect themselves from predators. However,they also utilize camouflage to avoid being detected by their predators, as their carapace blends well with the sea bottom. Even more, these crabs use a super cool behaviour called decorating to disguise themselves, whereby they cover their shells in algae, sponges, and other plants and animals to enhance its cryptic appearance on the ocean floor.

Japanese Spider Crabs are omnivorous. They can use their claws to gather seaweed and algae from the ocean floor, or to pry open the shells of shellfish. Additionally, these crabs are also known to scavenge on the carcasses of dead animals on the sea floor. A small fishery for this species exists in Japan. However, population declines have meant that fishermen need to fish deeper waters to catch this species and have initiated considerable conservation efforts to protect their populations. Nonetheless, these crabs aren’t an easy catch, as they are very fast and can cause considerable damage to humans with their strong claws and long reach!

#4. Vampire squid (from Hell), Vampyroteuthis infernalis

Not an octopus, not a squid, and residing in deep temperate and tropical seas, Vampyroteuthis infernalis (which translates to “vampire squid from Hell”) is a small cephalopod reaching a maximum body length of ~30 cm. This animal is unique in that it contains the features of two other groups of cephalopods: octopuses and squids! The vampire squid has 8 arms (like an octopus) which support a web of tissue. Concealed behind this web of tissue are two “retractile sensory filaments” – sensory structures akin to squid tentacles that retract into pockets of tissue that are used to detect predators and prey (and other environmental attributes). As such, the vampire squid is placed in its own Order taxonomically – the Vampyromorphida. Because the Vampyromorphida have the features of both octopuses and squids, it is thought that this group of animals may represent a common ancestor to modern octopuses and squids. Interestingly, Vampyroteuthis infernalis is the only extant (still living) species of Vampyromorphida (as far as we know; we still have a lot to learn about the deep sea).

Vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis)
Vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis)

Behaviourally, when these animals are threatened, they use a defense response known as the “pumpkin” or “pineapple” posture. When a vampire squid is threatened by a predator or superior combatant, it throws its arms back over its body and the web of tissue acts as a “cape”. When the cape covers the body, it displays intimidating (but completely harmless; they’re simply constructed of soft tissue) spines, or “fangs”; hence the vampire reference. In addition, the animal uses bioluminesence when in the “pumpkin” or “pineapple” posture, where the tips of its arms flash light and trick a predator into biting the tips of its arms, rather than biting vital structures. Luckily, if a predator does dismember a vampire squid’s arms, they can regenerate.

A vampire squid from Hell that displays a pumpkin posture – definitely a spooky species!

#3. Humpback anglerfish, Melanocetus johnsonii

Chosen as species #3for its Quasimodo-esque name (of course, any anglerfish would suffice as a spooky species), Melanocetus johnsonii is a species of anglerfish belonging to the family Melanocetidae, which are more commonly known as “the black seadevils”. This species lives in the deep sea and can reach depths of up to 4500 m below the surface. M. jonsonii is considered fairly ubiquitous, having been found in tropical and temperate waters of all five oceans.

As in other anglerfishes, female M. johnsonii (max. size of 18 cm) are much larger than the males (< 3 cm). It is black in colour and has a broad, deep head with

Humpback anglerfish (Melanocetus johnsonii)
Humpback anglerfish (Melanocetus johnsonii)

very small eyes. Like other anglers, the humpback anglerfish possesses an illicium (or esca) – a “fishing lure” – on its head. This lure dangles near the angler’s mouth and uses bioluminescence to attract prey (remember Finding Nemo?). These predators can consume fairly large prey items – indeed a 5 cm female is recorded to with 3 fish >10 cm body length in its stomach!

While it is certainly most difficult to study anglerfish behaviour, their reproductive strategies are fairly well known. In many anglerfishes, when a male finds a female mate, he attaches himself to her permanently and acts as a parasite, releasing sperm and mating with the same female for the duration of their existence (i.e., males are often monogamous). However, while male M. johnsonii do attach to females for mating, they do not attach permanently, release from the female once she has been inseminated, and will seek other mates.

#2. Giant isopod, Bathynomus giganteus

Giant isopod (Bathynomus giganteus)
Giant isopod (Bathynomus giganteus)

If you’ve ever turned over an old log, you may have noticed a number of small, grey “bugs” that are commonly referred to as woodlice or pill bugs. These actually aren’t insects, but belong to a group of arthropods known as the Isopoda! While the thought of those little woodlice may have your skin crawling, they pale in comparison to their deep-sea relatives, the giant isopods!

Giant isopods belong to the genus Bathynomus, of which there are approximately 18 species. Within this genus, Bathynomus giganteus – first described in 1879 – is often considered the largest isopod in the world with a maximum length of 76 cm and a maximum weight of just under 4 lbs. It is likely, however, that other Bathynomus species likely reach comparable sizes. Given their overwhelming size, giant isopods are a great example of deep sea gigantism (the tendency of deep sea species to be far larger than their shallow-water counterparts).

Giant isopod (Bathynomus giganteus)
Giant isopod (Bathynomus giganteus)

The morphology of giant isopods is highly similar to their terrestrial relatives (woodlice) except for the obvious difference – their size! B. giganteus are scavengers on the sea floor and can be found at considerable depths of >2,000 meters (but also at shallower depths of approximately 170 m)! As such, B. giganteus must be able to withstand incredible pressure and extremely low temperatures (which is one potential explanation for deep sea gigantism).

These isopods are primarily carnivorous scavengers, feeding on pelagic animals that perish and sink to the sea floor. They may also act as predators, eating live animals on the sea bottom. Because food is scarce in the deep sea (another potential explanation for deep sea gigantism), however, giant isopods will essentially eat whatever they come across. When they do find food, they often gorge themselves to the point that they can no longer move (kind of like after a big Thanksgiving turkey). They are also thought to be fairly aggressive animals, as they’ve been documented attacking trawl cages and live fish – one was once filmed attacking a shark by latching onto and eating the shark’s face! While that might sound a bit unnerving, you might consider doing the same thing if you had to go upwards of 5 years without eating (as I said, food is scarce in the deep sea)!

#1. Alien amphipod, Phronima sedentaria

Phronima sedentaria is a deep sea amphipod that can be found at depths of up to1,000 m. The females of this species can reach lengths of >4 cm and are larger than males, which only reach up to 1.5 cm. P. sedentaria resides in temperate, subtropical, and tropical waters and can be found in all five of the world’s oceans. While it can reach extreme depths of up to 1,000 m, it is most commonly found in midwater pelagic habitats and can even be found at the surface.

Alien amphipod (Phronima sedentaria)
Alien amphipod (Phronima sedentaria)

So you may be wondering why the hell I chose this species as my most favorite spooky species – this little guy doesn’t seem so scary at all! That is until you realize that the queen Xenomorph in “Alien” is likely based on this tiny deep sea amphipod. While much smaller than the alien queen, the outward appearance is highly similar. For a super detailed comparison between the two, check out this killer post from Michael Bok at Southern Friend Science published back in 2010.

Not only do these amphipods look like Xenomorphs, but P. sedentaria also exploits a host organism to reproduce – just like Xenomorphs! Females will hunt for salps, consume all of their living tissue to hollow them out, and essentially live inside the hollowed-out salp “barrel”. The female amphipods then use their specialized appendages (known as pleopods) to propel the barrel through the water in search of more prey, and can even do somersaults to quickly change direction. So they essentially kill, eat, and hollow out these salps, and use them as a vehicle to cruise around the deep sea in. Then, when they’re ready, the females will lay their eggs inside the barrel, where the eggs will develop and eventually hatch. Once the larval amphipods hatch, they use the salp barrel as food. When they inevitably grow up into adult amphipods, P. sedentaria become carnivorous predators, feeding predominantly on zooplankton, krill, and arrowworms – they can even take down prey more than twice their own size!

My first offshore cruise in the Northwest Atlantic

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Click on the images to view larger versions.

For the past 6 days, I have been quite fortunate to experience my first offshore cruise in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean aboard the CCGS M. Perley – a Canadian Coast Guard research vessel. This is not my first time away from land – I’ve conducted research from fishing vessels in the Bay of Fundy and from zodiac in the Bras d’Or lakes. Even as a kid growing up in a small fishing community I was exposed to the sea, frequenting fishing vessels owned by friends’ parents. However, this was my first time venturing a substantial distance offshore on a large research vessel to sample the benthic diversity associated with the NW Atlantic.

As a recently hired biologist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Moncton, New Brunswick, I was offered the chance to assist in an annual (but temporary) scallop survey off the northern coast of New Brunswick. The five-year-long survey has been established since 2012, with this year being the last year of the survey. A bottom trawl is used to collect benthic samples. We trawled for 2 minutes at each site and organisms brought up were sorted, identified, counted, weighed, and measured on deck in between drags. This made for intensive 12 hour days, but the data alone provided enough currency and motivation to keep me going.

Sunsets are better at sea.
Sunsets are better at sea.

While the cruises are dedicated to assessing scallop populations off the coast of New Brunswick, data on a slew of other benthic species are collected. Indeed abundances and biomass of all collected species are recorded, along with other basic morphometrics of other key species (e.g. carapace morphometry of crabs and lobsters, and lengths of fishes). We also had a CTD on board, equipped with probes to measure depth, conductivity, temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and pH.

Rock crabs (Cancer irroratus) were present in almost every drag.
Atlantic rock crab (Cancer irroratus).

The experience was nothing short of spectacular. I’ve come to note that sunrises and sunsets are much more appealing from sea. The diversity of animals was astounding and unpredictable from trawl to trawl – crustacaens, cnidarians, echinoderms, molluscs, poriferans, and fishes were all apparent in multiple trawls. The most common species were crustaceans. Shrimps (Argis dentata, Pandalus borealis, Pandalus montagui, and Sclerocrangon borea) and rock crabs (Cancer irroratus) really dominated the trawls.

Shrimps: Sclerocrangon boreas (A), Pandalus montagui (B) and Argis dentata (C). Pregnant Argis dentata (D) – note the bright teal eggs!
Shrimps: (A) Sclerocrangon boreas , (B) Pandalus montagui  (C) Argis dentata, (D) Pregnant Argis dentata – note the bright teal eggs!
We also recorded quite a few Acadian hermit crabs (Pagurus acadianus).
Acadian hermit crab Pagurus acadianus).

Closer to shore, lobsters (Homarus americanus) were quite abundant as well, while an abundance of snow crabs (Chionoecetes opilio) and toad crabs (Hyas araneus and Hyas coaractatus) were frequent at more offshore sites – in one trawl we hauled up >80 snow crabs! We also recorded quite a few Acadian hermit crabs (Pagurus acadianus).


Echinderms: (A) Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis, (B) Henrica sanguinolenta, (C) Solaster endeca, (D) Crossaster papposus.
Echinderms: (A) Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis, (B) Henrica sanguinolenta, (C) Solaster endeca, (D) Crossaster papposus.
Sand dollar (Echinarachinus parma)
Sand dollar (Echinarachinus parma)

In some of the trawls, a vast array of other species were evident. Echinoderms  were also abundant. Sea cukes (Cucumaria frondosa, Psolus fabricii), urchins (Strongylo- centrotus droebachiensis), sand dollars (Echinarachinus parma), sea stars (Asterias spp., Crossaster papposus, Henricia sanguinolenta, Leptasterias polaris, Solaster end- eca), and brittle stars (Ophiopholis aculeata) were quite abundant in many trawls – we even saw a couple of large basket stars (Gorgonocephalus arcticus)!

A number of bivalves were also present, including clams (Arctica islandica, Cyclocardia borealis, Cyrtodaria silique, Mactromeris polynyma, Serripes groenlandicus, and Yolida sp.,), scallops (Chlamys islandica, Placopectin magellanicus), and horse mussels (Modiolus modiolus). Similarly to bivalves, brachiopods were abundant at a number of sites. We also observed a number of gastropods (Buccinum undatum, Neptunea decemcostata, Colus stimpsoni, Aporrhais occidentalis, Lunatia heros) and chitons were abundant at a number of stations. Less common were sponges, jellyfishes, and sponges. Tube worms (Polychaeata) dominated the deeper muddy zones (>50 m depth).

Yolida sp. (clam)
Yolida clam (Yolida sp.)
Cyclocardia borealis (clam)
Heart shell (Cyclocardia borealis)
Placopecten magellanicus edge
Giant sea scallop (Placopecten magellanicus)
Serripes groenlandicus (clam)
Greenland cockle (Serripes groenlandicus)

Fishes were also present in a number of trawls. Species observed included American plaice (Hippoglossoides platessoides), Arctic alligatorfish (Ulcina olrikii), Atlantic poacher (Leptagonus decagonus), cunner (Tautogolabrus adspersus), fourline snakeblenny (Eumesogrammus praecisus), yellowtail flounder (Limanda ferruginea), winter flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus), longhorn sculpin (Myoxocephalus octodecemspinosus) shorthorn sculpin (Myoxocephalus scorpius), grubby (Myoxocephalus aenaeus), lumpfish (Cyclopterus lumpus), ocean pout (Zoarces americanus), sea raven (Hemitripterus americanus), and sand lance (Ammodytes sp.)

Yellowtail flounder ()
American plaice (Hippoglossoides platessoides)
Fourline snakeblenny
Fourline snakeblenny (Eumesogrammus praecisus)
Atlantic poacher (Leptagonus decagonus)
Atlantic poacher (Leptagonus decagonus)
ocean pout (Zoarces americanus)
Ocean pout (Zoarces americanus)







Of course other species have been observed on trawls that I have not attended. The above list is nowhere near exhaustive, but is an overview of the species that I observed during my time on the M. Perley. The experience was fantastic, and I look forward to the next opportunity to get back to a place with a flat horizon.

Until then, it’s back to manuscripts and grant proposals…

My CV of Failures

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In professional discussions with a number of colleagues, a common comment from those I talk to is that I’m very successful and productive for the stage of my career. While I do consider myself a productive and (thus far) successful early career researcher (ECR), such productivity does not come without failure. In fact, depending on how one wishes to measure academic productivity and success, my failures either match or supersede my successes. At times, such failures can weigh heavily on graduate students and ECRs (as well as veteran scientists), and can result in severe impacts to mental health, often driven by imposter syndrome. Having experienced imposter syndrome-driven anxiety and depression personally, I have elected to join the small number of academics who have confronted their failures and have made them publicly accessible. My hope is that more researchers – including “famous” experts and others leading their fields – will publish their CVs of failures to dismantle the idea that scientists (even the most famous) rarely fail. Ultimately, I hope that such CVs will provide graduate students, ECRs, and any other researcher struggling with their competency with an understanding that most (if not all) researchers fail, and that failure and success are not distinct attributes of researchers.

Disclaimer: I am not the first (and hopefully will not be the last) to publish a CV of failures. The idea was introduced by Melanie I. Stefan (check out her website and follow her on Twitter) in a 2010 Nature article. More recently, Johannes Haushofer published his CV of failures online as well.

I will strive to keep this CV updated as much as my CV of accomplishments.



Climate change is adding fuel to the Fort McMurray fire – and it’s okay to say that

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If you would like to support the aid in Fort McMurray, you can donate to the Red Cross here, or by texting REDCROSS to 30333 ($5 donation per text message).

View of wildfire from Highway 63 in Fort McMurra, on 3 May, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)
View of wildfire from Highway 63 in Fort McMurray, on 3 May, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

As the province of Alberta declares a state of emergency and tens of thousands of people are displaced, social media is abuzz with shock, sympathy, and support.

While scrolling through my Twitter feed yesterday, I decided to scour the #yymfire hashtag. At the top of the thread was a tweet from @Slate which linked to an article on their site published by @EricHolthaus. In a moment of weakness, I decided to take a gander at the online responses to the article. Almost every response to the tweet included commentary about the insensitivity of associating this disaster with political arguments about global climate change. The fire, the responses argued, is an inevitable result of conditions inherent to the location of Fort McMurray and would have resulted in the same devastation regardless of climate conditions, concluding that it is inappropriate and fallacious to place the extreme loss to the working class people in the region in the context of climate change. I can empathize with these responses – emotions are high and the laceration of this tragedy is fresh. However, knowing that climate science does, in fact, predict increased wildfire occurrence (that is, the event can be scientifically linked to climate change), I’m inclined to disagree with the majority of responses on Twitter.

At the same time, I came across Facebook posts from numerous friends linking to a post from a man in British Columbia (that has subsequently been deleted after going negatively viral) expressing his lack of sympathy and karmic association towards a tragic fire in a town that exemplifies the Canadian oil industry and the proliferation of climate change – of course this attitude is highly insensitive and inappropriate.

So is it okay to talk about this fire in the context of climate change when the area affected is so heavily scrutinized for being a major contributor to it? My short answer is undoubtedly yes.

While the proximate cause of this fire wasn’t climate change. Of course, climate change isn’t the proximate cause of any fire – usually it’s something like lightning or some a**hole who doesn’t listen to fire advisories. However, the functional reasons for the fire’s spread and destruction can be largely attributed to record-breaking, abnormally-high temperatures and humidity – and this is going to be something that we face more often in both the immediate and distant future. Stating that isn’t insensitive – it’s factual and it’s our reality. What is insensitive is stating that this tragedy is karmic and to lack sympathy for the people affected. I’d consider those that feel this way as environmental extremists (yes, like religion and politics, environmentalism has extremism too), and they need not be pandered to.

I have many close friends working in Fort McMurray that are impacted by the devastation, and although I firmly think climate change has played a large role in this event, I’d never wish this tragedy on anyone. But discussing and admitting to the factors contributing to these events is a necessary part of adapting and making sure they don’t happen again.

So I will continue to discuss this tragedy in the context of climate change, and feel that we should all be framing this tragedy in the context of climate change, because it is important to. Not only because more people need to be aware of what future climate change means for us as a species, but in order to prepare ourselves for the next event of this magnitude – because it is inevitably going to happen. Such a discussion doesn’t imply insensitivity, nor should it be treated as such.

It’s times like these that I wish I could do more than donate money, express sympathy, and educate people, but that is what I’ve got to offer. My heart goes out to those affected. In the words of everybody’s favorite Cape Bretoner, “best of luck to ya’”.

Common names suck; stop using them

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This afternoon I engaged in a Twitter conversation with some colleagues regarding the use of the term dreissenid in the context of “dreissenid mussels”. Colleague A wanted to know if dreissenid should be italicized. I assured her that it indeed does not, because Dreissenidae is a family of mussels containing 3 genera and is not a single genus (to which she obliged). Colleague B then questioned this and asked what to do if using the term when only referring to the genus Dreissena, whereby I suggested using a more specific term (i.e., Dreissena spp.). Colleague A then responded that she originally wanted to use the term to describe only the genus Dreissena, and that this was common practice. Then I got annoyed (again) at common names in general…

So which is it – does dreissenid refer to the family Dreissenidae or the genus Dreissena?

Figure 1. Total number of dreissenid mussel species when “dreissenid” refers to the family Dreissenidae (16) versus the genus Dreissena (7). Data obtained from MUSSELp (
Figure 1. Total number of dreissenid mussel species when “dreissenid” refers to the family Dreissenidae (16) versus the genus Dreissena (7). Data obtained from MUSSELp (

The answer is that it’s commonly used for both. Although many scientists may not care about or acknowledge this, the interchangeability of common names across different taxonomic resolutions can be problematic for a number of reasons.

Let’s first look at a relatively simple example. Say I published a paper on “dreissenid mussels” in the Journal of Crappy Nomenclature, and in the introduction made the claim that there are 16 species of dreissenid mussels. Without context, the reader has no idea as to whether there are 16 species within the family Dreissenidae or 16 species within the genus Dreissena unless they search this information themselves (there are 16 species in the family Dreissenidae; Figure 1).

Likewise, let’s say that in the same paper I was to claim that dreissenid mussels reside in supraterranean (above ground) freshwater systems. While that is true for the genus Dreissena, there exists a subterraneous genus of Dreissenidae (Congeria; resides solely in cave river systems). Again, without context, the reader would be left searching such information. Unfortunately, many readers would not recognize the need to search for this information and would likely apply the information obtained from the two statements outlined above in the context of how they interpret the term “dreissenid mussels”, which may be correct or incorrect depending on my definition of “dreissenid mussels”. Thus, in subsequent publications obtaining information from my hypothetical paper on dreissenid mussels, information may be incorrect, but nonetheless become “common knowledge”.

Figure 2. Extant Dreissenidae species of the genus A) Congeria (Congeria kusceri), and B) Dreissena (Dreissena polymorpha).
Figure 2. Extant Dreissenidae species of the genus A) Congeria (Congeria kusceri), and B) Dreissena (Dreissena polymorpha).

While the above examples may appear extreme, particularly for those who study these mussels, the points still stand – and for many more taxa than the example herein. Researchers conducting work on species new to them must learn as much about their new study species and related taxa as possible. In this way, using common names interchangeably across levels of taxonomic resolution can easily create problems for these researchers and the propagation of incorrect biological information may result. Furthermore, other problems with common names arise when even more generic terminology is used, like “cushion stars”.

Ultimately, there are two ways to solve the problems outlined above: either define the range of taxa (up front) that a common name being used encompasses, or stop using common names all together. If we are to follow the biological writing rules of Dr. Pechenik (i.e., more concise = better), scientific works would benefit from the elimination of common names (for example, “Dreissena spp.” consumes less space than “dreissenid mussels”, and the former would not require a formal definition). Not only does the use of precise taxonomic nomenclature reduce verbiage, but it would remove the potential for misinterpretation with respect to the breadth of biological processes across various levels of taxonomic resolution. That, and we would negate complex Twitter conversations regarding how to use common nomenclature and have more time to spend on writing our actual papers…

So, in conclusion, just stop using common names. They suck.