Why I Went Full Stats Stud

In honor of World Statistics Day 2015 I felt motivated to write about my own experience with Statistics and my decision to switch career paths from Ecology(ish) to Statistics for my PhD program. One could argue that my current position as a statistician is a result of an intense desire to avoid any more Chemistry courses as an undergraduate student in Biology. My Chem 2 experience was the roughest of my educational experience (the last year notwithstanding) and when I crawled out on the other end I vowed never again. Since a minor in Chemistry was out, I decided to go the Mathematics minor route instead. Why not? I took AP Calculus. I was “good at math”. My second grade teacher told me so. Let’s do this.

Continue reading “Why I Went Full Stats Stud”

EcoNews Round-up: May 29, 2013

Hello, hello.  It’s time yet again for me to share some of the cool ecology (or conservation, or just cool science!) related news and media I’ve been taking in recently.  As it has been over a month from the last EcoNews segment I posted, this will cover some of my highlights from the past 8ish weeks.  Onward!

African Elephants.  Kenya, 2008.

I’ll start with something less obviously “science,” but still totally science related in my mind.  As you probably remember from my post about my morning routine, I bike to work/campus nearly every morning.  On this bike ride I generally listen to a bunch of different podcasts (only one headphone, and the one that isn’t near to traffic, plus I’m on a bike path 50% of the time…okay, it’s not super safe.  Guilty.).  One of my favorites is Stuff You Missed in History Class.  Obviously, this is a history focused podcast, but they often talk about science history or discuss other things which my brain instantly connects to science.  The latter was the case with their shows in early April about The Great Emu War and Australia’s Rabbit-proof Fence.  The Great Emu War (great may be a bit hyperbolic) is a classic case of human-wildlife conflict.  Humans plant wheat, emus eat wheat, humans want to shoot emus with machine guns.  I don’t mean to make light, the description of the occurrence made my little veggie heart tremble, but it instantly struck me how similar this situation was to other cases still happening today.  An example from my personal research experience is the impact of elephants on subsistence farmers in Kenya.  Elephants can trample an entire farm, which supports a family, and afterward there is a tendency to want to destroy the “problem elephant.”  From a western perspective, the idea of killing an individual member of an endangered species seems reactionary, but from the perspective of people who support their entire lives with small plots of land easily dispatched by the said individual, the choice is not so clear.  Understanding how to mitigate these conflicts is a key area of research in conservation biology.

The Australian Rabbit-proof Fence is interesting because it discusses the issues around managing invasive species.  I don’t recall if they use that specific term in the podcast, but Australian rabbits are a classic example in invasion ecology.  An interesting note, which they bring up in the podcast but do not expand upon, is the potential to introduce a virus to control rabbit populations.  This is another classic example in the scientific literature concerning biological control.  Biological control can be defined many ways, but the definition I currently like best can be found in Eilenberg et al. (2001):  “The use of living organisms to suppress the population of a specific pest organism, making it less abundant or less damaging than it would otherwise be.” And though this definition technically excludes viruses, I very much doubt the authors would dispute the fact that the use of viruses to control pest populations is, in fact, biological control.  The virus referenced in the podcast is one of a group of myxoma viruses, which have been used to control rabbit populations in Europe.  One one level, the argument for biological control is that it helps us avoid potentially more harmful control measures (like poisons or pesticides) and it may be naturally sustaining (such as a virus which has natural cycles within the population) making it more cost effective.  More cost effective, say, than continually up-keeping a fence to exclude rabbits.  However, biological control isn’t always perfect and introducing a biological control agent to control another introduced species can have a run-away effect.  These sorts of decisions are heavily researched  and the literature surrounding the study of biological control is very interesting.        

Another really cool podcast I heard earlier this month was from my favorite podcast of all:  Science Friday.  It was a discussion with Michael Pollan’s about his new book, Cooked:  A Natural History of Transformation.  In the interview, he discusses the ecosystem inside your guts.  I don’t know about you, but I love, love the idea of thinking of myself as an ecosystem where I am the manager and I have to care for the populations.  Oh wait, you didn’t realize I was that nerdy?  He also talks about fermented foods and how there is a process of ecological succession among the communities of bacteria growing in your sauerkraut or kombucha.  I found this section exceptionally fascinating and plan to ferment some stuff over the summer.  Science plus cooking, I love it.    

I tried to find a picture of Meridith, Colin, and I, but I’m
not sure I have one!  You’ll have to settle for Colin
and Meridith as biology babies (2007).
Last up in this segment, I’d like to plug two of my friends who recently got scientific papers published.  I’m at that age where some of my friends are having babies, and my friends are birthing research papers.  Some are doing both at the same time, overachievers!  Anyhow, my long time ecology friend Colin Kremer was first author on a cool study in the Journal of Theoretical Ecology entitled, Coexistence in a variable environment: Eco-evolutionary perspectives.  I love papers like this because they attempt to address questions that bridge fields in biology.  Specifically, how does ecology interact with evolution, and how will this impact the communities we observe.  Last, but not least, a recent paper by the all time ecology love of my life, Meridith Bartley was recently published in the journal Biomass and Bioenergy.  Her paper, Effects of salinity on growth and lipid accumulation of biofuel microalga Nannochloropsis salina and invading organisms, attempts to improve efficiency of production for the marine algae used in many algae biofuels operations.  Again, her study is unique because it takes an ecological perspective on the problem by incorporating competition and predation from invading organism.  Okay, end shameless plugging of my friends.  
Last Word:  I’m always finding that non-science focused things make me think of science.  That’s probably because I spend so much of my day thinking about science related issues, but it’s still fun to find connections.  No matter if you are biking to school, fixing your dinner, or making new friends, all roads can lead to science eventually.  I just love that.
What do you think?  Do you see connections between outside events and your field of study?  Where do you get your news?  Internet, print, podcast?  Do you have any cool science news to share?     

Scale Matters: What is Small?

What is the smallest thing you’ve ever seen?

Now, what’s the smallest thing you can imagine?

Imagine something even smaller.

Even smaller.

How about even smaller?

How small is it? How would you measure it? With what units?

This video, narrated by Stephen Fry, has inspired this weeks look at size and scale. Check it out and then come back for more!


Woah! A nanometer is pretty tiny! If you recall, my research looks at a specific species of micro-algae, Nannocloropsis salina. These guys are only one cell, and can only be seen under a microscope. How many nanometers across are they?

You’ll have to take my word for it, but the diatom on the left is about 34 um,
while the four N. salina cells are each about 4 um. I can place rulers on the cells individually
within the program, but they don’t save in the image files. Odd!
So these itsy-bitsy, unseen with the naked eye cells are thousands of nanometers wide. The diatom is about 34,000 nanometers long! In fact, both are so big that we measure them in micrometers (µm). 

A look at different size prefixes.
Let’s think about this. N. salina is just one cell, and it’s 4,000 nm in diameter. What makes up a cell?
We can break down even this basic building block into molecules and atoms. How big might they be? What can you find inside of an atom? How big are electrons, neutrons, and protons? Can you go even smaller?

Check out this fantastic website for help answering these questions with an iterative, visual module of the universe.

Surely there can’t be many things that are even smaller. Right?


Why do we even need to study anything so unbelievably small? 
How big of an impact could they have on us, the giant humans?
We could ask Mr. Owl, over here, but I had better luck searching the web. 
  1. Nanotechnology could enhance environmental quality and sustainability.
  2. Ultrathin and lightweight organic solar cells with high flexibility

  3. And an extra special application that could help with the trip to Mars: The NASA Biocapsule – made of carbon nanotubes – will be able diagnose and treat astronauts in space!

Tune in tomorrow for the continuing saga of Scale Matters!
Question of The Day:
Can you think of any other applications or uses for the extra small objects we learned about?

Kaltenbrunner, M., White, M.S., Głowacki, E.D., Sekitani, T., Someya, T., Sariciftci, N.S. & Bauer, S. (2012). Ultrathin and lightweight organic solar cells with high flexibility, Nature Communications, 3  770. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms1772