Lookin’ for a Job

Here is an article about one prof’s attempts to increase transparency about the faculty hiring process at Harvard. It’s a great first step toward demystifying this process and hopefully will encourage more women and minorities to apply. Now, if only others would follow suit…

Hiring committees take note: this article also links to an online test where you can test your own implicit biases!

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Where Is My Mind?

In a recent conversation with a fellow friend and grad student, it dawned on me how crazy the life (and brain) of a grad student is. Simple evidence for this is our computer. So here I am airing out my dirty laundry.

Number of tabs open in my web browser: 26

Most common topic of said tabs: R-related topics (a program for running stats)

And this is what my desktop looks like these days:

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 7.06.54 PM

How does this happen to a highly organized person, you ask? Science. Literally.

Making science more welcoming for women and minorities: a workshop.

This. It may be uncomfortable, but it is important work that every department could benefit from. Maybe it’s time to take a crack at it?

Ambika Kamath

It’s been a tough week for social justice in academic science. There was a series of racially insensitive tweets about “overpopulation” and Ebola, a misogynist metaphor occupied centrestage in a piece condemning the “new conservation” movement, and a New York Times Op-Ed helpfully informed us that academic science is no longer sexist (all links in this paragraph take you to responses to these outrageous statements, and not the offending pieces themselves, so I urge you to click through).

But in the middle of the week, I was part of something that made me a little bit hopeful, despite all the disappointment. Together with two grad student colleagues also from the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, I planned and led a workshop on how to make science more welcoming for women and minorities. It was directed at the first-year grad students in our department, and was slotted into their weekly…

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NB&B 50th Anniversary

This weekend marked the 50th anniversary celebration of my department – Neurobiology and Behavior – at Cornell. That’s 50 years of studying brains and behavior – indeed, something to celebrate.

Saturday held the majority of events; the morning and afternoon were dotted with mini-presentations by PhD alumni, followed by a discussion about the department’s future, a poster session by current students on their research, and an informal evening gathering at the Lab of Ornithology.

While it was great to meet my predecessors, the most fascinating part of this experience for me were the alumni talks. The guidelines provided to the speakers for their presentations were somewhat vague, which turned out to be a good thing because there was so much variety among them. Interestingly, the alumni were arranged such that those receiving their PhDs in the 1970s started off the talks and those more newly-minted Phds closed them.

As a current PhD student in this department, I appreciated these talks not because of the old photos or hilarious stories, of which there were many, but as an observer taking in a complete picture of this department and watching the historical narrative unfold. Where it’s been. Where it’s going. All that can happen in 50 years.

Needless to say, the technology changed. Days of card catalogs and copy making in libraries turned in to online database searches from the comforts of a personal laptop. I can’t believe that at one point, the department had a shared computer with a single MB on it! Now I see why these folks think that we current students have it made.

More captivating is that as time marched on, the representation of speakers changed. Women and diversity  increased (a good sign of things to come?). And what started as a series of talks by established professors became a series of talks by many who deviated from academia. It was refreshing to get varied perspectives  from representatives of policy, industry, conservation, and the public sector in addition to academia. You can imagine how a group of people returning for a reunion would be self-selecting, all churned by the machine to be a part of that very same machine. I was impressed that this was not the case. I think what helped contribute to this varied representation is the feeling NB&B breeds of being a part of a family. Whether or not you stayed in academia, this department and the people within it is a place that many call home. And who wouldn’t want to come back for a ‘family’ reunion, especially one that happens only once in a lifetime? I’m already getting nostalgic, and I still have a few years left here!

Despite the vastly different paths of the speakers, there were common threads linking them together. Getting a PhD in NB&B means learning how to be independent, creative, resourceful, and a critical thinker. It was enlightening to see the many ways these PhD skills can be broadly applied. Later that evening I was asked by an alumn how I perceived all of these talks – does it make me depressed, hopeful, or both? Given the current picture of the future of academia, I found these talks very hopeful in thinking about my own future career. My success is ultimately how I define it, and I think this endeavor is a worthwhile one regardless of what career I choose. I wish I had experienced these talks in my first year here. But let’s be honest, I’m glad I experienced them at all. Thank you to the organizers who made this happen and to those who make this department what it is. I feel truly lucky to be a part of it.

Greetings and Salutations

Hello! And welcome to my very first blog! I know this has been done before by many others and that you have a lot of other options of blogs to look through, so thank you for taking the time to check out mine!

Who am I? My name is Kristin, and I’m a graduate student working on my Ph.D. in animal behavior. No, I’m not a veterinarian. No, I can’t tell you what that weird, oozing rash is on your cat Mewbacca’s (insert-kitty-parts-here). What I am is a behavioral ecologist in training.

Behavioral ecology is a sub-field within biology that seeks to understand  the evolutionary basis for animal behavior. We are a curious people that are driven to understand things like how ants or bees make decisions as individuals even though they live in large, complex societies.

Photo By: Kristin Hook

Leaf Cutter Ants in Costa Rica (Photo By: Kristin Hook)

Why some spider species are social and what benefits they might gain from living in a group and being cooperative.

Credit: Dr. Linda Rayor

Social Huntsman Spiders from Australia (Credit: Dr. Linda Rayor)

Why male fiddler crabs have ONE GIANT CLAW!

Credit: Copyright: Tanya Detto

Male Fiddler Crab (Credit: Copyright: Tanya Detto)

I mean, really, that thing is just silly looking. Might they use it to compete for females? Is bigger always better? Are they always honest about what their claw says about them, or can they be deceptive?

What female water bugs really find sexy when looking for a mate to glue their eggs to. Males in this group are the ones who care for offspring, termed paternal care. Is this a common form of care? When is it common and in what animal species? And what, pray tell, are those mischievous females up to?

Giant Water Bug     Photo By: ?

Giant Water Bug Male with Eggs Glued to His Back

Why males of many birds are so colorful and gaudy and what they are saying when they sing, call, or dance!

Photo By: Kristin Hook

Blue-Footed Booby Feet in Ecuador (Photo By: Kristin Hook)

Photo By: ?

Blue Bird of Paradise

These are just a few examples to whet your appetite.

Though behavioral ecology tends to center around animals and their behaviors, the field can be further subdivided into different types of behaviors (e.g. social, parental, sexual).

The burning in my id is mating behavior, or green porno, if you will. One question that still boggles me is why females mate multiply, termed polyandry. We know that there are many costs to mating, so why would females choose to do so many times with different males? There are many hypotheses as to why, but one thing is certain: the female’s choice to mate with different males often puts the sperm of one male in direct competition with the sperm of another male within her reproductive organs, or tract. This is especially true if she is able to store sperm, as is known in many female animals, including insects and birds.

And now we’ve arrived to my favorite party conversation topic – the study of sperm competition! It has quite a heavy hand as a selective force in a) shaping sperm to be fierce, competitive, and numerous and b) making female reproductive tracts as selective as possible so that not just anyone can fertilize her eggs.

Sperm Competition

Well done, ladies.

So this is my start. I intend for this blog to be a source of entertainment and information. My passion for animals and their behavioral oddities will be the focus. I will undoubtedly write about animal stories involving mating, but I also intend to keep an eye out for the latest in research and pass that along to you as well. I would also love to hear from you – what you’d like more of, what you read about that I overlooked and should post, what questions you have, et cetera.

A bigger question that remains is why should we care about animal behavior? I consider myself lucky that I get to spend my day thinking about organisms and their behavioral oddities and working with other people who also think about these interesting questions. Through experimentation, we attempt to answer them. Sometimes that works, and sometimes we have to go back to the drawing board. Finding these answers is exciting, and knowing more than we did before serves the purpose of progressing our science and moving to the next step or question. It also provides us with a deeper appreciation for the natural world. Why would you want to bother saving something if you didn’t know what was contained within it? This is the importance of basic research, or discovery science. It provides us with foundational knowledge that may then lead to practical real-world applications.

Though starting this blog is a partially selfish endeavor (to practice writing on science topics that I hold dear and simultaneously working on my communication skills), it is mostly purposed for sharing research and news of the weird with you, whether you’re a scientist or not. I dislike how divided academia and the research community are from non-scientists, non-researchers, and non-academics. Education is a right, not a privilege. I’ve dedicated the last four years of my life to learning about  the curiosities and oddities of animal behavior – both the theories and the experimentation. It’s about damn time I share those stories.

K Hook