Monday, June 22, 2009

Welcome to Sophia Engel, our new postdoc!

This bloggpost has also been published on the CAnMove-blogg.

Together with my co-PI Anders Hedenström, I am pleased to introduce our first CAnMove postdoc Sophia Engel. Sophia will join CAnMove soon on a project dealing with insect flight adaptations and evolutionary ecology, dealing with adaptations for dispersal and predator avoidance. This is an exciting project that will combine field and wind tunnel studies, using moths and calopterygid damselflies as model organisms. Both Anders and I are thus extremely happy to host Sophia as a shared postdoc. Below, I will let Sophia introduce herself in her own words:

"I am interested in the interaction of physiological capabilities, ecology, and evolution in shaping a species’ life-history. My previous research has been at the interface of ecology and physiology: For my doctoral work I focused on avian migration. I combined wind tunnel studies and detailed measurements of water- and energy budgets at various ambient conditions with modeling approaches, and showed that dehydration can be a limiting factor for flight duration under naturalistic ambient conditions for my model species, the Rose-coloured Starling. A more recent project is focused on understanding the effects of climate variability on primary productivity, arthropod consumer performance and ultimately the structure and function of the food web in the Chihuahuan Desert of central New Mexico. I am looking forward to combine these two lines of research, wind tunnel studies and insect ecology, in the project “insect flight and morphological trade-offs” at the CAnMove center in Lund!"

Monday, June 15, 2009

Annual Barbecue in Dalby 30 June

It is time for our annual lab-barbecue in Dalby, at Erik's & Pia's place (Lyftvägen 10). Above, you see some pictures from last summer and how fun it can be. This annual barbecue now goes in to its tenth season, as I started it in the summer of 2000, my first real field season with damselflies.

Please bring something to put on the grill, as well as something to drink. We will serve some sallads and desert. Also, if you feel for it, you might of course bring some entertainment, such as music instruments etc. We hope for good weather and an evening as fun as last year.

Since our research laboratory is a modern one, you can sign up for this event through Facebook, or by more old-fashioned means such as calling me or by sending me an e-mail. You can also leave a comment after this bloggpost that . This event is open for everyone who has worked with Erik or his associates this year, whether it was lizards, isopods or damselflies. Please inform anybody who I might have missed.

When: Tuesday June 30, 18.00
Where: Lyftvägen 10, DALBY

Friday, June 12, 2009

Day 2: Genomics of speciation

The second day at Kristineberg has mainly been devoted to the genomic basis of speciation and the genetics of postzygotic isolation. Interesting talks by Michael Nachman, Hopi Hoekstra, Axel Meyer and Dave Presgraves. In general, though, it has been a bit too much about postzygotic isolation, though, to my taste. This, however, reflects that it is a meeting that was organized by Hans Ellegren, whose main interests are in these genomic aspects of speciation and evolution.

Again, my general feeling from yesterday remains: the field of speciation have reached the phase of "normal science", where there are not that many exciting discoveries or new concepts, but rather a lot of "problem solving" and filling in of the gaps. This might not necessarily be a bad thing: when fields are too hot and fast moving, the best science is not necessarily made because people tend to jump on bandwagons and reflect very little once they are on those bandwagons.

I had an interesting lunch discussion with Trevor Price today about the role of learning in evolution, particularly the role of learned mate preferences. This was quite refreshing, since Trevor thinks learning is extremely important and underestimated in the speciation process (as I also believe). When I first brought up the issue of learned mate preferences in on of our lab-meetings about 1 1/2 years ago, I saw mainly a lot of blank faces in the room, but I am more convinced than ever that this is one of the most exciting areas of speciation research in the future (and our coming postdoc Machteld Verzijden would probably agree, I suspect). It is also a natural area where field ecologists and behavioural ecologists could make important contributions and add to a more balanced picture of the speciation process than we would have had if we only relied on genomics data from Drosophila-research.

Another general reflection of this meeting is how large resources many research groups in the US have, compared to us in Sweden. This is particularly evident when it comes to genomic studies, such as large-scale DNA-sequencing efforts, transcriptomics, "454" and microarrays. All these techniques cost a lot of money, more money than we can ever dream of getting in Sweden with the current research financing system. So how then to seriously compete with these groups?

Perhaps the correct answer is not to try to compete at all, but rather try to specialize in areas where these groups are weaker, and not be too frustrated that we do not have access to similar large-scale genomic resources. Our main strength in Lund is our ecological and experimental tradition, not primarily our skills in genomics. This is also where we have to profile and advertise ourselves in the future, as this is an area that separates from other departments. In that sense, we have to push or Linnaeus-programme CAnMOVE in the future and emphasize the strong Lund research tradition of animal movement, dispersal and migration (and the consequences thereof).

Hans Ellegren, the organizer of this meeting, actually suggested that we in Lund should organize a similar meeting about animal movement in the future, and this seems like an excellent idéa. If there is something I think has been missing at this meeting, it is the field experiments and studies on animals in their natural environments, including mate preferences in the wild and dispersal behaviours.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

"The Origin of Species - 150 years later"

I am currently at the Marin Biology Research Station in Kristineberg (Fiskebäckskil) in Bohuslän att symposium in celebration of Charles Darwin. This year (2009), it is 150 years since "The Origin of Species" was published, and 200 years since Darwin was born. To celebrate the memory of Darwin, Hans Ellegren (professor of evolutionary genetics in Uppsala) and Staffan Ulfstrand (professor emeritus of animal ecology, also from Uppsala) has arranged a symposium in the beatiful archipelago on the swedish west coast. Funding for this meeting comes from The Wennergren Foundation. Unfortunately, this meeting was only open for a small group of invited people, apart from the speakers, so here is a little report from the first day.

The theme of today has been theory and genetics of speciation, with some great contributions from evolutionary theoreticians Michael Turelli (University of California, Davies) and Sergey Gavrilets (University of Knoxville, Tennesse). Turelli talked about Haldane's rule and the genetics of postzygotic isolation, and Gavrilets presented models for the tempo and mode of adaptive radiations. Although some of these topics have been presented before by these two leading theoreticians, it is always nice to get un update.

Gavrilets have apparently got a big grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to set up a centre for mathematical and biological synthesis in Knoxville, similar to the ecological synthesis centre in Santa Barbara and the evolutionary synthesis centre in North Carolina. Worth checking up: there will be funding opportunities for both postdocs and workshops.

More "naturalistic" talks were given by Trevor Price (University of Chicago) and Jim Mallet (London) about bird and butterfly speciation, respectively. Trevor presented some idéas and phylogenetic patterns on bird diversification in the Himalayas, which challenges the current ecological speciation paradigm, which has almost been taken a bit too much for granted based on a few well-investigated model systems such as the Galápagos finches. Mallet questioned the views by Ernst Mayr about the reality of species and argued that Darwin's view on species was more realistic than some of the views that were advocated by Mayr and other architects of the so-called "Modern Synthesis" in the 1940'ties. In particular, Mallet argued that some of their idéas about reproductive isolation evolving to protect the "genetic integrity" of species relied on naive group-selectionism.

Two swedish contributions were by Kerstin Johannesson (parallell evolution of reproductive isolation in Littorina-snails) and Anna Qvarnström (genetics of speciation in Ficedula-flycatchers). In general, I would say that this meeting has been good to get updated on the classical concepts and discussion topics, although there has not been many surprising news. In that sense, I have the feeling that perhaps the field of speciation might have reached a plateau (perhaps temporary) where it has now entered what science philosopher Thomas Kuhn would call "normal science" or "problem solving". Perhaps I am wrong, but I have the distinct feeling that we need some new idéas to focus on, as the classical allopatry-sympatry controversy seems to fade away and people loose interest. To me, the most thought-provoking talk today was the one by Trevor Price, although I do not necessarily agree with everything he had to say. In any case, his book "Speciation in birds" is highly recommendable.

Hopefully, I will be able to publish another bloggpost tomorrow about the genomic aspects of speciation, which will be discussed tomorrow. Food here is excellent, by the way.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

PLoS launches new campaign on Article Level Metrics (ALMS)

As many of you are aware of, I am quite critical of the "Impact Factor"-hysteria when it comes to journals. It is very weird, I think, that an article's importance should be measured by where it was published. To be sure, there is a correlation between the Impact Factor (IF) of a journal, and the number of citations of the average article there (per definition), but the correlation across all articles is at most moderate (around 0.5, if I remember correctly).

This high variance means that many individual "low-impact"-papers are regularly published in "high-impact"-journals like Nature and Science. These papers receive few citations, many of them fewer citations than papers published in more specialist journals in our field such as Evolution or American Naturalist.

Clearly, something is wrong here. Should a person who is lucky to get a paper in to Nature, but which is not cited a lot, be offered a job or a research grant, while a competitor who have published a much more cited article in a "normal" journal not get the job? Clearly not, if you ask me. What should matter, ultimately, is the citation rate and importance of individual or articles or authors, not journals.

This is where I think scientific assesment will move in the future. We can think of, for instance, the increasing use of the "h-index" to evaluate individual scientists, which seems to replace the length of publication lists or the journals where people have published as a criterion to decide who are the "best" scientists. The general message should be: try to publish fewer, but better papers, because you will be evaluated as an individual and there are no shortcuts or easy ways of cheating these new measures.

Along these lines, the new and rapidly growing OA-journal PLoS ONE has just launched a campaing for Article Level Metrics (ALMS). The staff at PLoS ONE hopes that these new measures, which includes per-article performance measures such as citation rates, number of downloads, coverage in media and the bloggosphere, inlinks and other measures of "importance" will outcompete old-fashioned journal Impact Factors (IF:s). IF:s are increasingly subject to criticisms, and I would not hesitate to call them old-fashioned and yesterday's hat.

Just as the "h-index" quickly became popular and established itself as a new evaluation tool of individual scientists and their performance, ALMS will hopefully also contribute to deconstruct and remove the "monopoly" of IF:s and the naive use of them by hiring agencies. The journals that should worry most about this should be the traditional high-IF journals like Nature and Science. Their whole existence and high prestige has been built more or less solely on the absurd IF-system, and if starts cracking down, their future might be in jeopardy and they can certainly not take anything for granted. Here you can follow a "Webinar" where the Editor of PLoS ONE (Peter Binfield) explains more about ALMS.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

What could one do with 250 000 SEK? A stepping stone towards a thermal image camera

Well, today I found out that I was awarded 250 000 SEK from The Crafoord Foundation, which is for an application I did send in this winter to buy a thermal image camera. This type of camera does of course cost more (around 400 000), but it is at least a start, and hopefully more money from other funding sources will come in so that I can eventually buy it to my research laboratory.

As some of you already know, I am interested in thermal image camera as a novel tool to quantify insect thermoregulation, and relate such variation to other interesting things, such as genotypes, phenotypes (e. g. wing colouration patterns), species or heritable colour morphs.

One recent scientific application where such an IR-camera has been used has been to look at differences between pygmy phenotypes in humans and normal-sized people (see picture above). One of the hypotheses for the evolution of small stature in many populations of humans inhabiting rainforest environments across the globe (Asia, Africa, South America) has been that short men and women do not have as much trouble with excess heat as tall men and women. This thermoregulation hypothesis, as well as other adaptive hypotheses for the evolution of the pygmy phenotype was recently discussed in a TREE-review by Perry and Dominier.

Back to the Crafoord Foundation. Although I am somewhat disappointed that I did not get the full amount I applied for, I am definitely happy that my hard-working scientific "Animal Ecology"-colleagues Staffan Bensch, Anders Hedenström and Susanne Åkesson also got grants from Crafoord. Money is not everything in research. But with money one can (sometimes!) do good research.

Sarkozy and Peer-review...

Those of you who follow a bit French politics (actually probably not many of you, but who knows...), about six months ago Sarkozy initiated a big reform of the research system in France. The French research system is indeed in deep need for changes, although many academics were not really enthusiastic about the direction taken. But the point of this post is not to criticize Sarkozy’s views on the role the private sector should play in universities or whether or not the CNRS (more or less the equivalent of VR in Sweden and NSF in the US) represents a good research system. What I wanted to discuss is what he said in a speech a few months ago to different research council’s representatives, university directors and politicians.

The speech was video recorded and so (un)popular that it was immediately translated and criticized on web platforms such as Youtube (here is a link for those interested). One of his most criticized statements in this speech was his open and extreme criticisms towards the way papers are published or more so the way grant applications are reviewed and research evaluations are conducted. Basically he literally criticized peer-evaluations and peer-reviews, finding it remarkable that “the one who acts is at the same time the one who is evaluating”. Well, this is rather inaccurate of course as we all know, but beyond this lack of basic knowledge on the way research works, there is a deeper problem in this way of reasoning.

Of course, there can be bias in the peer-review system as we all might have experienced, sometimes positive bias and sometimes negative bias, but most of the time reviewers do a great job for free and with great professional consciousness. But most important is that Sarkozy is actually implying that, for instance, research evaluations or grant applications reviewing should be conducted by people outside research, like politicians. The administrative side of academia is already one part of the big problem in my opinion, but adding a few bureaucrats to the equation is not only going to slow things done (including reforms) but also, it is going to result simply into bad research, because politically biased and of course incompetently judged/financed. As the video I suggested you to watch ironically says, let’s have all the speeches of the French president peer-reviewed before he pronounces them, even by his own team if he chooses to, just for fun…