Thursday, June 30, 2011

Science on Tour

Sorry for the long break between posts, a lot has been going on that has kept me from writing as promptly as I would like. But I will try to make up for that in the next couple weeks.

So, summer doesn’t only mean field work, it also is when most of the big scientific conferences are held. This sometimes seems silly, holding an ecology meeting in the summer when a lot of the people going have to collect their data during the summer, but on the other hand it is much easy to schedule when there are not classes in session, plus its usually more fun to see a new place in the summer than the winter. At these meetings, scientists from all over the country come to hear talks and see poster presentations on the latest research going on in their field. It is also a time to catch up with friends you haven’t seen for a while, chat with people you have been wanting to talk to, like someone whose papers you have read, and meet new people who you may have never heard of but turn out to do really cool research or generally be a nice person to hang out with. Drinking a lot of coffee and alcohol also goes along with these meetings, a very important component (this is where some of the really great discussions happen!).

I presented my research at 3 regional conferences this spring, and the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease conference at UC - Santa Barbara was the first of my 3 larger-scale summer conferences. I attended my first EEID meeting last year at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY and had a ridiculously fun time. It was the first conference I had ever been to, and meeting so many big-name folks and getting to talk to so many other people interested in the same stuff I am was kind of overwhelming. But as many people who have attended this meeting will could tell you, once you go to this meeting you want to keep going. It’s a relatively small group, about 300 people, made up of founding professors (some of the famous dudes like: Pete Hudson, Andy Dobson, Jamie Lloyd-Smith, Janis Antonovics), other professors from many universities, post-docs, graduate students, and non-academic Phds and other scientists working for government agencies or national groups. This makes for a diverse group of people from the US and around the world with the connecting interest of integrating disease and parasites into the study of ecology and evolution. Besides being a manageable size, it is also a manageable length with 2 days of talks and poster presentations and a hike scheduled for the third day. This gives everyone a chance to talk to each other, all go to the same talks, and not get too worn out with science and frivolity by the end of the meeting.

To not bog this post down with too much text, I think I’ll focus on some pictures for the rest.
The UCSB Lagoon. There were a lot of pelicins, herons, and other water birds hanging out here.
A very California sunset on the first night.

Kevin Lafferty (UCSB) talking about parasites in stream food-webs. He joked about how having the theme of the day's talks be "diversity" is kind of silly when you're already at an ecology and evolution meeting. Diversity is kind of all we deal with.

While in So-Cal we figured we needed to get some real Mexican food. This is one grilled veggie taco. Yes, there are tortillas and some beans under that luscious pile of veggies. So good!

Dusk over the UCSB campus, mountains in the background.
California ground squirrel. I was so excited when I first saw one of these guys running around on campus. They are super cute, interesting coloration, have big burrows on the sides of hills. We didn't know what they were for a couple days until someone found out what they were. And as a bonus, found out they do carry plague, so you don't want to catch any of their fleas!
Beach walk as the hike scheduled into the conference. This is the usual weather for mornings in Santa Barbara (cloudy, chilly)

Two kinds of barnacles on a big rock. Barnacles are classic ecology systems used for studying community ecology. Having your study organisms be latched onto rocks make them pretty easy to study.

A big red snail and some anemones in a tidal pool. I had never seen a tide pool before, so this was really neat.

After the beach hike me and another student (former IU undergrad, now at Penn State) went to downtown Santa Barbara, which is about a 30 minute bus ride from the campus. Very sunny, beautiful beach, mountains adjacent, could see why people like living and visiting here.
 UCSB was a cool place to visit. Met a lot of great people and talked about a lot of cool science. Made me excited to get back to finishing the field season and work on the manuscript of some of last summer's work. Ellen Ketterson, one of the professors in our department, told me that when meetings make you feel like that, excited about your work and what is going to come out of it, you know you're doing the right thing. Wise words.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Sorry about being a little late on this post. We pulled a double week (7 days in a row in the field) so I didn’t have much time for anything else. But one of the animals we caught looked like this, so it was worth the work!
Nymphal ticks covering this little guy (actually girl), juvenile mouse

All work with living organisms, in the lab, greenhouse, or field, has issues with pests, things that interfere with your work, which you then have to use some problem solving skills to work around. This could mean making sure everything is sterilized when making media or spraying for white flies in the greenhouse. In our case, we have pests of our animal traps and us.

The biggest pests to the animals trapping is raccoons. Baby raccoons can be cute and all, but when they mess with your research enough they definitely lose their cuteness. Raccoons like our traps because we bait them with peanut-butter flavored Bamba. (Everyone loves Bamba!) The reach into the traps to get the Bamba out, and in the process trip it closed so the animals we want aren’t able to get in. Once they trip it closed, they sometimes try to get in again, biting the edges of the trap, throwing them around, or biting and ripping the shields on top of the trap. 

We found the shields like this after our first night at one of the field sites. Almost all the traps had been tampered with by raccoons, and I was really worried about the prospects there. Luckily they seemed to lose interest after we weren’t there for a week, and the amount of damage from raccoons has gone down significantly. One of our solutions was to make trap-sized “staples” out of wire (actually old flags) that are used to attach the trap to the ground. This works reasonably well, but some really determined critters are able to rip out the staple and move the trap. That is basically the only thing we have figured out to do to try and thwart them. It seems like raccoons being attracted to the Bamba is just something we’re going to have to deal with, but luckily it hasn’t been bad enough.
Shields that were ripped beyond use by racoons

Trap bitten up around the edges.

The main pest of people (me and my field assistant, Alisha) are biting gnats/midges. The very wet spring has caused an unseasonably large outbreak of these awful little bugs ( that caused us no end of grief. Bug spray has no effect on them and they go right for your eyes, ears, nose, neck and mouth, all the places that your really don’t want bug bites. Alisha and I both had our eyes and lips swell up a few times. My first day out, I wore a short-sleeved shirt, like I normally do, but I had never had these kinds of bugs to deal with. My neck and arms got so bit up that my lab-mates were asking what happened to me. Later, one said that when she was complaining about her bug bites she stopped to say, “I shouldn’t complain, mine aren’t as bad as Evie’s!” Needless to say, I have been wearing a long-sleeved shirt ever since.

Our first solution was to tie a bandana around our ears and neck to at least block some from getting those areas. But this meant they still got to your face and neck. 
See if you can spot the gnats all over Alisha's bandana.

We looked all over Bloomington for mosquito head nets, but everyone else in town must have been having the same problems because everywhere was sold out. Eventually I just ordered a couple off (thank you, Amazon Student – free two-day shipping!). 

Our lives are much better now. Some still make their way in or try to bite around your neck where the net comes down, but it is so much easier to work without a cloud of mean, biting gnats trying to bite you everywhere. Plus, we look like hard-core field ecologists with this get-up!