About Us

We are members of the Andrew Gonzalez lab , in the Biology Department at McGill University.
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Girl talk. One gal’s thoughts about gender bias in Academia

Growing up, I assumed gender equality was a non-issue, at least when it came to school. We dealt with that ages ago, right? I spent my elementary school days happily playing soccer with the boys, and my aspirations of being a scientist were encouraged by my peers and teachers. In high school, a bright, young, female physics teacher taught one of my favourite classes. Girls dominated the top of my cohort. Glass ceiling? Oh, you must be referring to the song by that popular Canadian indie rock band, right?

I moved away to attend University. While an eye-opening experience in many ways, I remained blissfully unaware that a gender gap existed in Academia. After all (even though girls can’t do math) I found myself vying with my (female) roommate for the highest grade in calculus, and although in retrospect most of my professors were male, there were enough female professors to look up to that I guess I just really didn’t notice the discrepancy. Perhaps it was partly due to something I’ve come to affectionately call the “Guelph effect”. (Guelph is without a doubt the most accepting city I have lived in with regards to gender equality, LGBT issues, and just general all around respect regardless of whom you are or how you identify. The sense of community there is palpable.) Either way, I left undergrad entirely unknowing that I would soon be entering a world evidently rife with gender bias. 

Enter grad school. I can’t say for sure whether it was the shift in location, the move up the academic hierarchy from bachelors to masters, my newfound fascination with twitter, or perhaps just a coincidence, but suddenly it seemed like references to gender inequality in science (and academia in general) were everywhere. And I was fascinated. I learned that while female students equal, or even outnumber, males throughout much of graduate school, there is an attrition of women at every phase of the academic track, dropping from 42.6% of assistant professors to only 36.2% of associate professors and 21.7% of full professors (lower still in many STEM fields), and even then, women make less than their male counterparts

In a much-reported-upon new study, both male and female science faculty were found to be more likely to hire a male job candidate than female despite equal qualifications. Another study shows females had to be 2.5x as productive as males to land biomedical postdoc positions in Sweden (Sweden! A nation lauded for it’s gender equality). Female academics also do double the housework of their male counterparts, and while marriage has been shown to help male professors get ahead, not so for women (even in dual academic couples, men are more likely to rate their own career as more important than that of their partner). Then there are the reports of female scientists judged on attractiveness at conferences, and female bloggers contending with misogynist comments and threatening emails.  All that, and I haven’t even mentioned the baby aspect.

Now, before I get carried away here, I’ll confess that I’ve personally had no direct experiences in the academic world that have made me feel inferior to my male peers (which is perhaps why all of this research has caught me so off-guard). I’ve always felt that my work is respected by my (awesome!) male labmates and supervisor, I have an incredibly supportive partner, and I’m fortunate to have found a strong female role model in my co-supervisor. But I have to wonder, is this partly an artifact of my current position on the academic ladder? If I were a PhD student, or a postdoc vying for an elusive tenure track position, would I suddenly be treated differently, solely on the basis of my gender? It’s awful enough that we as a society still can’t seem to shake street harassment; shouldn’t an arena as supposedly objective as academia be able to rid itself of these antiquated notions of a gender hierarchy?

To end on a more positive note, it does seem that just recognizing the bias can help us work towards solutions. Editors at Nature have posited that simply working through a conscious loop can help eliminate gender bias in peer review, and there has been a (controversial) call for a pledge to help phase out all-male panels at science and tech conferences. Hopefully, things will continue to improve, and should I find myself doing a postdoc one day, these issues will be a thing of the past.

What do you think? Should I start using my gender-neutral middle name on job applications, or doth the lady protest too much?

A few excellent references I haven’t mentioned:
This excellent blog from The Last Word on Nothing
This study on "The Attrition of Women in the Biological Sciences"

Friday, January 18, 2013

Why ecologists should care about Idle No More

Canada has a disproportionately large share of the world’s accessible freshwater resources. 1100 fish species, hundreds of plant species, countless waterfowl species, and tens of thousands of invertebrate species live in Canada’s waters. Ultimately, all 140 000 species – including humans – estimated to make up Canada’s biodiversity are directly or indirectly dependent on water systems. Ecologists recognize the key role played by biodiversity in ecosystem functions and services and many ecologists believe that biological diversity has intrinsic worth. The people of Idle No More are protesting, among other things, changes brought about by Bill C-45 and C-38, which weaken Canada’s protection of its biodiversity and its waters. Idle No More is about more than just environmental legislation, but it is a key concern which the protesters share with most ecologists. Whether or not one agrees with the other arguments and demands of Idle No More, anyone who believes that biodiversity is important (i.e., the vast majority of ecologists) should care about Idle No More. 

What will changes to the Navigable Waters Protect Act (Bill C-45) and the Species At Risk Act (Bill C-38) mean for endangered wildlife such as the Spotted Turtle?

Idle No More is a protest movement led by Canada’s First Nations peoples which aims to “assert Indigenous sovereignty and begin the work towards sustainable, renewable development”. It was initiated by Nina Wilson and Sheelah Mclean in response to Bill C-45, the federal government’s latest omnibus budget bill. In particular, they take issue with changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA).

The NWPA, which existed since 1882 and was under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Transport, required that an extensive approval and consultation process take place before any kind of development occurred in or around any water deep enough to be navigated by canoe. Bill C-45 renamed the NWPA to the Navigation Protection Act (NPA), and drastically reduced the number of waterways which are regulated. The NPA protects only 97 lakes, 62 rivers, and the three oceans bordering Canada – this excludes 99.7% of lakes and more than 99.9% of lakes in Canada.

Many, including the leaders of Idle No More, have claimed that the changes in Bill C-45 are part of a broader move by the federal government to weaken environmental oversight. The spring omnibus budget bill, C-38, for instance, replaced the Environmental Assessment Act, modified the Fisheries act, modified the Species at Risk Act, repealed the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, and gave ministers more approval power for energy and pipeline projects. Of particular interest to ecologists is the imminent closure of the unique Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario, due to funding cuts included in Bill C-38. Omnibus bills such as Bill C-45 and C-38 have been criticized for pushing through dozens of bills simultaneously, which gives minimal time to debate each bill individually. 

Idle No More may be a movement led by First Nation peoples, but ecologists understand better than anyone that issues regarding biodiversity loss concern all people. If you’re living in Canada, consider contacting your local member of parliament to discuss your concerns with Bill C-38 and C-45

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Lateral gene flow and arthropods

I’ve long been a fan of A Thousand Plateaus, the epic second volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guttari, in good measure because it is a philosophical work that makes a number of statements directly relevant to evolutionary biology. In particular, Deleuze and Guttari spend some time criticizing the idea that the gene flow from parent to offspring (vertical gene flow) is far more important than any other form of gene flow. Instead, they argue that we should be paying more attention to lateral gene flow, the flow between organisms not involved in a parent-offspring relationship. 

While evidence of lateral gene transfer in micro-organisms is well accepted (think, for example, of plasmid transfer among bacteria by conjugation), there seems to remain some skepticism about the importance of this phenomenon in more complicated organisms. Despite this skepticism, Deleuze and Guttari’s suggestion that lateral gene flow is generally important was recently reinforced by a paper out of Yale describing the first evidence of de novo carotenoid synthesis in animals, effected by genes incorporated into the aphid genome from a probable fungal origin (Moran and Jarvik 2010). 

Fast forward to 2012 when two papers make this story a little longer, and a little more remarkable. First, the April issue of Biology Letters contained a paper by Altincicek et al. describing genes for carotenoid synthesis present in spider mites. These genes cluster phylogenetically close to the aphid carotenoid synthesis genes (and therefore are also likely to be of fungal origin). Second, an August 16th paper in Scientific Reports by Valmalette et al. suggests that the carotenoids in aphids may actually form a sort of photosynthetic system capable of reducing NAD+, and therefore fueling ATP synthesis. 

While the results are new, and therefore are sure to come with a number of unanswered questions, there is no denying that these papers are going to shake up our understanding of both ecology and evolution. First, the previously accepted wisdom that animals have to obtain carotenoids from their diet has been challenged in two disparate arthropod groups, which suggests that the power to synthesize these physiologically important pigments may actually be widespread. Second, we may have to abandon the notion that animals are not necessarily pure heterotrophs if they can perform some  photosynthesis-like process, which adds a whole new level of complexity to food webs. Finally, it may be time to begin accepting that lateral gene flow has relevance to metazoans, and at least sometimes in functionally important ways. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

When stressors collide

Though not exactly ecology, this week’s “HIV/AIDS in America” special issue in Science highlights an important trend that applies to all sciences involving the public well being: the extent to which economically marginalized communities bear the brunt of many challenges, be it the HIV/AIDS epidemic, or, as our lab has pointed out in the past, biodiversity loss.

This message about economic vulnerability and HIV is made clear in the issue’s news feature A Tale of 10 Cities by Jon Cohen, which does a nice job of highlighting how economic and social stability have major consequences for prevention and treatment of infection in individuals, and, one imagines, on the overall infection dynamics as well. While much of the the article’s focus is on prevention and treatment programs in cities across the United States, Cohen also describes how structures that uproot people, such as borders, can facilitate spread, whereas socially stabilizing structures can minimize it by facilitating access to treatment and acquisition of stable housing for the infected.

It should not come as a surprise that economically vulnerable individuals can be the hardest hit by medical or ecological stressors, but this unfortunate truth seems particularly germane to our present era of exceptional austerity and government cut backs. Economically it has been a tumultuous year across the globe, which has brought many governments to try and curtail long running deficits, yet there is also a much needed place for societal assistance to prevent the most vulnerable from being left behind. There is a role here for academia generally, and science specifically, to guide us through the challenges facing us, and we would all do well to remember that when deciding on the allocation of our limited resources.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Isolation from the natural world and our perception of biodiversity

Why doesn’t society value and effectively protect biodiversity?  As a “biodiversity scientist” this question often occupies my thoughts, especially when I contemplate the current rates of human-caused biodiversity loss and environmental degradation.  Two recent papers point towards a couple of potential causes:

(1) The increasing isolation of human populations from the natural world
(2) People’s relatively poor ability to perceive the actual level of biodiversity in the environment around them

Children's picture books that depict
the natural environment, like these,
are becoming more rare
(1) One of the first ways we're exposed to important social issues is through children's picture books.  The stories we tell our children are often designed to teach important moral lessons, as well as entertain.  A recent paper in Sociological Inquiry by Williams et al shows that depictions of the natural world in children’s books have declined over the past forty years.  This despite increasingly serious and widespread environmental problems and a highly public environmental movement.  Their study examined 296 children’s picture books from 1938 to 2008 that won Caldecott awards for illustration.They found that depictions of the natural environment in children’s picture books peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, but have since declined.  Depictions of built environments (anything constructed by humans) have increased since the 1970s.  Likewise, pictures of interactions between humans and the natural environment or between humans and animals, also declined, reaching their lowest levels during the past ten years.  While the authors caution that their study cannot say that these changes are directly caused by our increasing isolation from the natural world, or that environmentalism is not taught through other media, it does suggest that young children are less and less exposed to the connections that exist between human society and the natural environment.  I read with surprise that this mirrors other studies that have found similar declines of environmental issues in children’s science textbooks, television entertainment, news programs and magazines.  One possible consequence of this lack of early exposure to environmental issues may be a subsequent lack of understanding of environmental issues, like the consequences of biodiversity loss.

How much biodiversity we perceive in a
landscape influences our well-being,
but how good are we at perceiving the bio-
diversity around us?
(2) Society derives a multitude of benefits, both material and emotional, from the biodiversity that makes up the natural world.  Apart from essential ecosystem goods and services, these benefits can include improved psychological well being, increased cognitive functioning, and lower stress.  Dallimer et al (2012) set out to investigate whether psychological well-being of park visitors was positively correlated with the actual species richness (plant, butterfly and bird) of riparian greenspaces around the city of Sheffield, England.  They found no consistent relationships between actual biodiversity and human well-being, but a positive link between the perceived level of biodiversity and well-being.  Essentially, people were unable to accurately identify the actual level of biodiversity present in the greenspaces around them, leading to a mis-match between reality and perception.  However, if they perceived a high level of biodiversity this had a positive effect on their well-being, irregardless of the actual level of diversity.  People’s well-being was instead better predicted by the “greenness” or tree cover of the greenspace, similar to a recent study of urban areas in Australia (Luck et al 2011).  Park visitors also had poor species identification skills, with many unable to identify a single common bird, butterfly or plant species from pictures.  These results could have important conservation implications.  If the areas the public perceives as biodiverse and lobby for protection aren’t the same areas that contain actual biodiversity, conservation programs may be unable to effectively conserve biodiversity and the ecosystem services it provides.

So what can be done to improve people’s understanding of our connections with nature and perception of the biodiversity around them?  In general, the scientific community (myself included) could do a much better job at communicating the importance of biodiversity to the public.  This doesn’t mean that we all have to write children’s books and teach people to identify plants or insects, although these might help at a small scale.  Instead, new and innovative ways to communicate science need to be developed, including research-based communication initiatives, greater participation in public forums, digital science news communities (blogging, video posts, etc.) and involving the public in biodiversity research (see Groffman et al 2010 for a discussion).  Increased training for graduate students and young scientists in public communication should also be encouraged in our universities.  Programs like Let’s Talk Science, the new TerreWEB program at the University of British Columbia, and the Biodiversity Education and Awareness Network (BEAN) in Ontario are all good starts, but require all of us to be engaged and involved in communicating our research and knowledge of biodiversity and human well-being.

(1) Williams, JA et al. 2012. The human-environment dialog in award-winning children’s picture books. Sociological Inquiry 82(1): 145-159.
(2) Dallimer, M et al. 2012. Biodiversity and the feel-good factor: Understanding associations between self-reported human well-being and species richness. BioScience 62(1): 47-55.
(3) Luck, GW et al. 2011. Relations between urban bird and plant communities and human well-being and connection to nature. Conservation Biology 25(4): 816-826.
(3) Groffman, PM et al. 2010. Restarting the conversation: challenges at the interface between ecology and society. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 8(6): 284-291.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The biodiversity numbers game

How many species are there on Earth? Given the effort required to sample habitats and identify species this figure will likely never been known with great certainty. Indeed current rates of discovery may be slower than the current species extinction rate! To make a start ecologists have thus turned to estimates based on extrapolations of well known patterns in the distribution of species, or the rate of taxonomic discovery. Best estimates vary from as few as 3 million up to 100 million species. A recent paper by Mora et al. (2011, PLoS Biology) has come up with a value of ~8.7 million (+/- 1.3 million) eukaryotic species. This is somewhat lower than the previous best estimates of ~15 million species. The authors base their estimate on the predictable increase in the number of taxa with increasing taxonomic resolution (i.e., from phylum, class, order, family, genera and species). Although the number is likely an underestimate (consider the diversity of microorganisms that remain undiscovered) it is the method that has been criticized. Some experts believe that the patterns upon which the estimates are based are more the reflection of the taxonomic enterprise and have little to do with how many species actually inhabit the Earth. Read the piece in the New York Times about this study.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Spare it, Share it, or Both? Balancing agriculture with biodiversity conservation

How can we feed the growing human population while conserving biodiversity?

A recent paper in Science by Ph
alan et al. makes the case for establishing strict forest preserves and intensifying agricultural practices in the surrounding matrix.The paper compared two biodiversity-management strategies for agricultural landscapes:

1) Land sparing - set aside strict forest preserves while intensively farming the remaining land

2) Land sharing - adopt low-intensity, biodiversity-friendly farming across the landscape

The study correlated crop yields with densities of 341 bird and 260 tree species in India and Ghana across an agricultural intensity gradient (ranging from “diverse low-yielding mosaic agriculture to large-scale high-yielding monocultures”). They showed that, for a given amount of food production, most species (rare and common) would have higher populations under land sparing than land sharing.

There are caveats* to the conclusion that land-sparing is better for biodiversity. The authors point out that the conclusion depends on local context and may not hold for all species in all regions. The study did not discuss "how" to spare land in terms of building a network of forest preserves.

The agricultural landscape surrounding Montreal represents an opportunity to test this question. The image to the left highlights the fragmented forest patches (green) embedded within an agricultural matrix (yellow) and interspersed urban areas (gray). Perhaps this landscape could showcase an intermediate approach whereby biodiversity-friendly farming practices form the matrix around forest preserves and more intensive agriculture. In this model, eco-agricultural methods in the matrix and forest corridors would facilitate species dispersal among forest fragments to enhance biodiversity conservation, ecological functioning and ecosystem services across the forest network.

Certainly we need to apply cross-disciplinary biodiversity science that integrates ecological, economic, humanitarian and social interests to achieve the appropriate balance between land sharing and land sparing.

Reference: Phalan, B., Onial, M., Balmford, A., Green, R. E., Reconciling Food Production and Biodiversity Conservation: Land Sharing and Land Sparing Compared. 2011. Science. 333, 1289-1291.

*I haven't discussed implications of land sparing on food accessibility and security.