Tuesday, February 28, 2012

reporting from the Animal Behaviour graduate course

Last week Ben Chapman and myself organized a graduate course on Animal Behaviour. This was a first for us, and for Lund, so we were very excited to see it go as well as it did. Here a report from the course.

But first, let’s go back in time about 6 months, when Ben and I went down to gorgeous Portugal to learn new skills at the First IV workshop led by Diane Ebert-May. Here we heard about and learned to put into practice techniques for student-centered learning. I wrote about that in a previous blog. With this in mind, we designed last week’s course, and we have a feeling that we were successful, more on that below.

To remind you, with student centered learning, the students are actively involved in their own learning: students are thinking about the concepts, research questions and discuss these with other students and teachers. This means that we worked hard to provide the opportunity for the students to be active during the classes. Some of the telltale sings of our approach working can be seen in these pictures below.

Apart from us practicing our teaching techniques, we covered a large area of topics, and invited in-house and external experts to the course to provide the students with the view from scientists at the front of their field. These in-house experts were: Michi Tobler & Caroline Isaksson (physiology and behavior), Mathias Osvath (animal cognition), Charlie Cornwallis (sexual selection). We also invited three workshop leaders from outside Lund. These were Dan Franks (university of York), who inspired us to think about social networks in biology and how to analyse them. Niels Dingemanse (Max Planck institute for Ornithology) who has developed methods to analyse animal personality data. Hans Slabbekoorn (Leiden University) led a workshop on acoustic analysis and told us about environmental influences (anthropogenic or natural) on animal communication.

Each of them gave inspiring contributions, and the students, including Ben and I, learned many new things and were inspired to think about our own research from a bunch of new angles.

Thus, from our perspective the course was a success. All Ph.D students completed the course, the content and teaching styles were diverse and the students were actively engaged in their own learning. The anonymous student feedback was also positive. The mean overall course score was 3.94 in a scale between 1 – 5 where 4 = Excellent! Interesting and covered all relevant information. Students scored the overall difficulty of the course at 3.13, where 3 = The right level of difficulty. We also asked students anonymously in the evaluation whether they would recommend this course to a colleague. 100% of respondents replied ‘Yes. Our aim was to teach the course in an active learning style (see Handelsman et al. 2004, Science), and we encouraged all contributors to involve discussions and student-centred learning techniques where possible. This style received very positive feedback from students: In response to the two questions “Comments generally about the course/What did you like about the course?” 14/16 completed feedback forms spontaneously praised the interactive approach and our use of discussion within classes to facilitate learning. Students were very positive about the opportunity to interact socially with one another and also the visiting lecturers, and enjoyed the research talks. The highest feedback score was for the ‘speed dating activity’ where students had 2 minutes in pairs to come up with an interesting collaboration. After the 2 minutes had passed students switched to a new partner and designed a new collaboration. This allowed everyone to apply their creative skills to generate new and exciting research questions and worked very well.

Critical feedback from the students

We also received important feedback on how we could improve the course should it run a second time. Many students found the data analysis workshops too intense and difficult, which is reflected in their lower mean scores (~3/5) compared to the more general classes. There were also requests for more examples from the invertebrate literature. Both of these issues raised could easily be addressed; in the first case by modifying the workshops to make them more inclusive and less software oriented; in the second case we could include a contributor working with an invertebrate system.

We also received positive feedback from the staff and visiting speakers involved in the course.

Ben and I would like to thank all the collaborators, in-house and external, for working so hard with us to make this course a success. The effort clearly paid off!

Below the statistics on the feedback:

Scoring: 5 = This was the best hour and a half of my waking life; 4 = Excellent! Interesting and covered all relevant information; 3 = Good, but could be improved; 2 = Not so inspiring; 1 = An effective substitute for water boarding

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lab meeting Feb 29: genetic basis of adaptation

Posted by Jessica Abbott

For the next EXEB lab meeting (Wednesday February 29), I suggest we read a recent paper from Evolution about the genetic basis of adaptation.

Rockman, M. V. 2012. The QTN program and the alleles that matter for evolution: all that's gold does not glitter. Evolution 66(1):1-17.

Abstract: The search for the alleles that matter, the quantitative trait nucleotides (QTNs) that underlie heritable variation within populations and divergence among them, is a popular pursuit. But what is the question to which QTNs are the answer? Although their pursuit is often invoked as a means of addressing the molecular basis of phenotypic evolution or of estimating the roles of evolutionary forces, the QTNs that are accessible to experimentalists, QTNs of relatively large effect, may be uninformative about these issues if large-effect variants are unrepresentative of the alleles that matter. Although 20th century evolutionary biology generally viewed large-effect variants as atypical, the field has recently undergone a quiet realignment toward a view of readily discoverable large-effect alleles as the primary molecular substrates for evolution. I argue that neither theory nor data justify this realignment. Models and experimental findings covering broad swaths of evolutionary phenomena suggest that evolution often acts via large numbers of small-effect polygenes, individually undetectable. Moreover, these small-effect variants are different in kind, at the molecular level, from the large-effect alleles accessible to experimentalists. Although discoverable QTNs address some fundamental evolutionary questions, they are essentially misleading about many others.

We'll start at 13.00 in Argumentet.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

New blog name and a few words about the past and the future

Some of you might already have noted this, but the blog has recently changed its name from the more person-oriented "Erik Svensson Research Laboratory", to the more general name "Experimental Evolution, Ecology and Behaviour" (Acronym: EXEB). This is more than cosmetics and simply a changed name: it reflects a significant change that had as its starting point over a decade ago, in 2000, when I returned from my postdoc in the US.

By that time, our department was (and still largely is), very dominated by bird behavioural ecology and two large research groups: Molecular Ecology and Bird Migration Ecology. It was therefore a bit odd to try to start up something in between these two large groups, that was neither, and in this case an evolutionary and ecological research programme focussed on field studies on insects and with a strong connection to quantitative genetics and selection approaches. Moreover, at that time (unlike today), odonates were still considered to be quite odd study organisms, both in Lund and elsewhere. It was quite lonely, at times, to strive to cut out an independent niche in a department so strongly focussed on birds and behavioural ecology, and it was tempting several times to give up, and just follow the crowd along some easier path.

Luckily, I got several excellent PhD-students, who were all succesful in terms of their theses, defended, got postdocs and went abroad to learn new things: Jessica Abbott in 2006, Tom Gosden in 2008, Fabrice Eroukhanoff in 2009 and Kristina Karlsson in 2010. Of these former PhD-students, Jessica recently obtained a "Junior Project Grant" from "Vetenskapsrådet" last year, and as you know she has now re-established herself in Lund and in our research environment. She is hopefully not the last of my current and former PhD-students/postdocs who will be able to establish herself as an independent PI, but only the future will tell this, of course. This spring several of you will apply from VR, and later this year, Tom Gosden will return to Lund from Australia on a one-year postdoc (Marie Curie). Any new PhD-students entering this group will have an idéal situation in the form of several postdoctoral mentors, good role models and senior scientists.  

Given these happy and exciting developments, I feel that the goal I did put up more than a decade ago, i. e. to build up a new evolutionary oriented research group in Lund focussing on insects/invertebrates, has largely been achieved. As there is now more than one senior scientist and PI,  it is time for me to transform this group in to more of a collective enterprise, and less of a one-man show. This has already started to happen,  naturally, as lab-meetings were obviously running when I was recently away in South Africa. This is great, and exactly how I want it to be. A research group cannot stand and fall with a single person, it has to be a collective effort.

Time is therefore mature to change the name of both the blog and the research group. These new changes will soon be seen also at the the department's website. I strongly feel that it is important to have a group of people who regularly meet, as several brains work synergistically, and intellectual lab-meetings of the kind we have had over the years should be the last thing to prioritize down, even if time is always limited. As for myself, I will now try to cut down on the number of projects, focus more on my own research and hopefully share some of the administrative burden and advising activities with Jessica and those others of you who might also hopefully soon enter as new PI:s.

A few more words about the new name of the blog, which I and Jessica have discussed before deciding on  EXEB. "Experimental Evolution", i. e. the first two words, signify the important fact that Jessica brings with her an entirely new research approach to Lund and our research group, while at the same time we keep our strong focus on ecology and behaviour.

Some might argue that there are other groups in our department working with these topics too, and that our research group is therefore obsolete or unnecessary. Perhaps we should simply dissolve it, and happily integrate ourselves with other similar groups like MEEL, The PEG ("theoretical ecology") or "Bird Migration Ecology"?. Well,  I do not think so, otherwise I would of course have shut down this blog a long time ago. Personally, I think we represent a significant and different research current than these other groups, without denying that they also do good work.

There is clearly room for a research group that is both integrative (i. e. combines molecular, experimental and field approaches) and theoretically oriented (although not a pure theory group), and which is firmly rooted in population and evolutionary quantitative genetics. That is who we are and what we are good at, I think. And we also have a certain responsibility to represent this particular research tradition in Lund, rather than trying to copy others and become too similar to other research groups.

Finally: Goodbye "Erik Svensson Research Laboratory" and long live EXEB!

New Drossie paper, multivariate genetic constraints on sexual dimorphism

A quick post from down under highlighting a new paper that has just gone "online early" at Evolution. It contains work I have been doing with Steve Chenoweth on the Australian vinegar fly, Drosophila serrata (see picture above). In the paper we attempt to quantify the degree of constraint imposed on sexually homologous traits by the between-sex covariance matrix, B, first introduced in a seminal paper by Lande in 1980. For those not familiar with quantitative genetics it is a little heavy in places, but I hope that you will all find it relatively easy to read and enjoyable none-the-less. For any of you who can't get to it behind the paywall, please feel free to e-mail me and I'll be happy to send you a copy.

Title and abstract:

The extent to which sexual dimorphism can evolve within a population depends on an interaction between sexually divergent selection and constraints imposed by a genetic architecture that is shared between males and females. The degree of constraint within a population is normally inferred from the intersexual genetic correlation, rmf. However, such bivariate correlations ignore the potential constraining effect of genetic covariances between other sexually coexpressed traits. Using the fruit fly Drosophila serrata, a species that exhibits mutual mate preference for blends of homologous contact pheromones, we tested the impact of between-sex between-trait genetic covariances using an extended version of the genetic variance–covariance matrix, G, that includes Lande's (1980) between-sex covariance matrix, B. We find that including B greatly reduces the degree to which male and female traits are predicted to diverge in the face of divergent phenotypic selection. However, the degree to which B alters the response to selection differs between the sexes. The overall rate of male trait evolution is predicted to decline, but its direction remains relatively unchanged, whereas the opposite is found for females. We emphasize the importance of considering the B-matrix in microevolutionary studies of constraint on the evolution of sexual dimorphism.

Monday, February 13, 2012

On "Evolutionary rescue", climate change and evolution of range limits

This week the lab-meeting will focus on  "Evolutionary rescue", which was a topic of a recent scientific conference involving several leading evolutionary biologists and ecologists in France, including leading population geneticist Mark Kirkpatrick who gave a talk entitled: "The evolution of a species’ range by beneficial mutations"

The organisers of this interesting conference has been kind enough to put up videos on the internet of Mark's talk, which you can find here, as well as two other interesting talks by contributors. This is an excellent way of making it possible for others, like us, who could not take part in this meeting, and also a very environmentally-friendly way of spreading scientific information without necessarily travelling to every meeting you wish to attend.

I suggest that we meet the usual time (13.30 on Wednesday April 15 in "Argumentet") to listen to Mark's talk, and (if we have time), to one or two of the other talks. Thus, there is no need to read any paper before this lab-meeting, just come sharp and alert and be willing to discuss! Hopefully, we can arrange with Machteld's computer to be linked to the Powerpoint-projector so we can see the talk on a large screen. 


Monday, February 6, 2012

new time for next gathering

The usual time (13.00) clashes with the course on animal handling that some of us are taking (including me). Therefore, it's moved forward to 12.00 (in Argumenthet) and we'll make it a lunch meeting.
Hope this works for everyone?

Friday, February 3, 2012

The life of a researcher

Jessica and I have been talking about getting together and talk a
bout how to deal with the demands, uncertainties, but also the myriad of possibilities and exciting pro's that come with our choice of career. How to keep a handle on it all, and feel confident making choices, either in career directions, but also in time-allocation issues in everyday work life. Though these issues may change somewhat along the way, we thought it'd be good for all of us to discuss this with people that are at various stages of their career, share experiences and considerations.

So, instead of discussing a particular scientific paper this coming wednesday, let's get together and share our experiences and insights and learn from each other!

I think we can have this meeting without reading material, but if anyone has a good suggestion, please post!

Wednesday, 13.00, Argumenthet.