EcoNews Round-up: Feb. 4, 2013

I figured it was time again to share some of the science news I’ve been crunching on this last week or so.  Note, not every story occurred in the last calendar week.  Graduate student here, so I’m usually just a little bit behind the times.

I thought this graphic from the original article bore repeating.
Even scientists love LOL Cats.

First, I’d like to share two stories about a topic that is near and dear to my heart, privilege in the world of science.  This particular conversation about privilege in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering  and mathematics) was started with an article about privilege in the marine sciences and followed up by this insightful article about how access to these fields is sometimes closed to students before they even get to college.  I think the former article does a good job defining privilege and charting out some general territory where it can come into play once you are on your path to a scientific career.  If you are interested in reading about diversity in the sciences, I would suggest Dr. Kate Clancy’s blog over at Scientific American or the always amusing Dr. Isis (a pseudonym!) over here.  The latter article, in my opinion, gets much more at the heart of the diversity problem in STEM professions.

My example of my own experience of privilege is always this:  When I was in 3rd grade, or maybe 4th, I was working on some math homework.  It was some sort of word problem, I don’t remember the details.  I asked my mother to help me (sign of privilege numero uno!) and instead of just helping me with that one word problem, she explained to 8/9 year-old me how to set up a simple algebraic equation to get the correct answer.  I recall being really annoyed with her at the time for not directly answering my question, but dang.  I am sure that my current position as a scientist is thanks to a million little interactions like this one.  I am privileged beyond belief, and I thank the authors of these two articles for pointing this out, and pushing scientists to think about these issues!

The next two articles are born out of discussions we had in my classes last week about food web ecology (my favorite!).  The first hits very close to home (geographically speaking) for me, and concerns the canceling of a class planned by the Department of Fish and Wildlife on predator hunting.  We talked at great length in class about how predator exclusions can really mess with ecosystem health.  The article makes this same point as well:

“In recent years, a flurry of scientific papers have pointed out the valuable role predators play in keeping ecosystems healthy, including preying on jack rabbits and rodents that can carry disease.”

One thing the article fails to point out is the difference between a top predator (such as a mountain lion) and a meospredator (such as a coyote).  In some cases, both are positive for ecosystem health, but in other cases, removal of the top predator can relax pressure on the mesopredator, leading to other problems.  Food webs are complex ya’ll.

Last, here is an article about how humans can really insert themselves into a food web.  This is the tragic tale of the Atlantic cod.  This story also highlights one of the real challenges of viewing ourselves in an ecosystem context; humans can be adversely impacted by recovery plans.  The short story is this, much like the passenger pigeon, we thought cod were an inexhaustible resource, but in recent years the fisheries have started to collapse.  In an attempt to recover cod populations, take numbers have been reduced, and eventually slashed.  I don’t think anyone involved is denying the difficulties ahead of cod fisherman on the Atlantic coast.  However, without cuts in take (weight of fish brought to shore) the fishery will, likely, never recover.  Furthermore, it is possible that this entire issue (and the loss of billions of dollars in governmental aid in the US and Canada) could have been avoided if we had simply examined ourselves as part of the ecosystem.  Can we really expect to consume our resources at this break-neck pace and not see those resources depleted?  Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, but we must do better.

Wow.  I refuse to leave you guys on such a downer!  So, here you go, a sad, sad, nerdy break-up song with YEAST!  You can read an NPR write up about  this silly video here.          

Last Word:  This week I got to integrate two of my favorite topics, diversity issues in STEM fields and food webs.  How lucky am I?  Let’s hope the news for the coming days is just as stimulating!

What do you think?  Are there any topics in the news you would like to hear me discuss?  If there is ever an issue that strikes your fancy (please say food webs!), I would be more than happy to expand it into a full post.  Just let me know!


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