Friday, July 29, 2011

Some reflections on looking outside your scientific box

Overall it’s been an interesting week participating in the ABS conference here in Bloomington. An opportunity to see talks and posters on subjects I never would otherwise, like bird song, aggression and face coloration in paper wasps, and competition between seasonally sympatric wren species. I went to a talk just because it was on Beldings ground squirrels (they are very cute!).  It was also interesting to go to the handful of talks on parasites and immune function and see how they are presented at a behavior, as opposed to a disease or epidemiology, meeting. These were interesting, but often with less rigor or complexity than I have come to expect from the studies presented at the disease meetings.

I keep saying this is a very “hard-core behavior” meeting, and I think that still is the best way to describe it. This is where the folk who do focal observations, activity pattern analysis, song pattern analysis, play behavior, and sex role-reversal research present their work. These are things I have not thought about for a long time. There is very little applied or mechanistic work, so less kind of comprehensive or interdisciplinary work looking at the evolutionary mechanisms and patterns in behavior. There are of course talks on those subjects, but they don’t seem to be in the majority. Being a person to dips her scientific quill into the ecology, eco-immunology, and behavior wells, which seems to be the case of a lot of disease ecologists, it’s a bit strange to step back to see work that only work in one of these fields. This research is very interesting and worth-while but I don’t think it would be as satisfying for me. Maybe it is more fun to get to see talks on cool things animals do instead of studying it all the time, I need ecology and interconnectedness for my real work.

So one of the themes of this week has been thinking about how other biologists do their science. I went to a genomics lab meeting on Monday, one of the students who rotated in my lab is doing some work on genome sequences from lonestar ticks and presented her work. She has been looking at genetic sequences from this tick species, comparing it to other available sequenced genomes and trying to find matches for possible genes. When Mandy was showing some candidate gene matches and talked about how they could be related to the biology of the tick, mainly blood-feeding, one thing the PI (principle investigator) said during the meeting was, “Great, we can really emphasize the biology when we present these findings.” Because so much of genomic research is descriptive and mechanistic at a very basic, functional level (Mel can scold me if I am making too much of a generalization here), I guess its not always the case that the researcher brings their story back to the biology or natural history of the study species. You rarely have to remind someone to “emphasize the biology” in a community ecology study, for instance.

During the poster session last night, another IU grad student friend had similar sentiments about the meeting not being very mechanism heavy, and she said you didn’t hear the term “evolution” in the presentations at this meeting. This isn’t an issue of people not “believing” in evolution, more that the evolutionary biology (and sometimes the ecology) of the behaviors they study isn’t always the first priority for their research. This is not the case at more integrative behavior meetings that she is used to going to. It also made us think about the personality of the IU biology department, which is quite interdisciplinary, and in the animal behavior section in particular very strong in terms of evolutionary mechanisms. It was also clear that the people studying disease and parasites in animals do not come to these meetings, or the growing interest in parasites that seems to be everywhere I look hadn’t made it to this community. I had maybe 5 people come to my poster last night, and most of those people were friends or professors who already know about what I do. This is a change from the EEID meeting in Santa Barbara where I was talking to people about my poster for 3 hours. I also got very few questions on my methods or details of the work that I was hammered with at EEID. The behavioral ecology poster next to mine, which was very interesting, had a crowd around it the whole session.

I’m glad everyone is interested in different things. If we all liked the same kind of research it would be pretty boring. We need experts and people that integrate different things, this is what helps us get real understanding. The big thing is that I think scientists from different fields need to be ok talking to each other, thinking about how they can work together and what connections there are between our work. This is where science can be really exciting and innovative.  

No comments:

Post a Comment