Monday, July 3, 2017

Moving the needle

[Note, this post is not about phylogenies]

I’ve sensed some ‘what’s-the-big-deal’-ness in response to recent discussion about inappropriate behavior at the recent Evolution meetings, so I want to explain why I take this so seriously. I think you should care too, assuming you are interested in making science more diverse and inclusive.  I’ll speak from my own experience here, making this a perhaps uncommonly personal post.  First, I should say that I have been lucky throughout my career to have exceptional mentors (both men and women) who strongly encouraged my interest in science and always made me feel supported.  But early on, it became apparent to me (and my female peers) that being a woman in science was going to present extra challenges. None of my experiences are unique and I have colleagues who had a much harder time*. One thing it seems like we all discovered was the amount of caution that was needed in interacting with male scientists, especially senior ones.  Being friendly was sometimes taken as openness to flirtation, which could escalate to unwanted touching or worse. So as young woman in science, I learned how to tread carefully and how to be friendly but divert conversations when there were red flags. I learned what the flags are (“looks like you’ve been working out!” or “why is someone like you single?”**). I learned to avoid places and situations where inappropriate behavior is likely to happen, even if it meant sometimes missing out on networking***, and I found friends with whom I could safely discuss these issues. Friends who understood that it’s not as simple as ‘not putting up’ with bad behavior, especially from senior scientists in a community that is so tightly woven through letters of recommendation, reviews, grant panels, and committees.

For me, these social acrobatics became part of the fabric of interacting with other scientists. Another skill like presenting posters, or making aesthetically appealing slides.  It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized how much mental and emotional energy I wasted on these acrobatics as a younger scientist. Energy that I could have devoted to science or something else! Energy that some of my peers never had to spend****. Now that I am a faculty member, inappropriate behavior towards me has become less common, but I worry for my students and other young scientists. I wish I could prevent unprofessional behavior from clouding their experiences. I wish I could save them from the wasted energy of handling those who behave inappropriately. I wish I could keep them from ever having to become social acrobats themselves. They shouldn’t have to. But it doesn’t seem like things have changed that much in the 16 years I’ve been in this field. For my mentees, I try to prepare them, let them know that I know it happens, welcome them to come talk with me about their concerns, and ask them to brainstorm with me on how to make things better.  With regard to the Evolution meetings, the Society for Systematic Biology has called for suggestions. I’m hoping that together we’ll come up with ideas that could actually move the needle.

*To get a sense, peruse the nearly 900 responses to Gina Baucom’s post about crappy things said to or about women in academia.

**I know that these may seem incredibly obvious but when it’s someone senior, someone you respect, and someone that you would never imagine would hit on you, it takes a while (at least for me) to realize what it is.  I have learned now to look past rank and listen to my gut.

***If we want access to science for everyone, no one should have to make these choices.

****These are my experiences but I imagine the same goes for other underrepresented groups in STEM.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Back to the future

One of the most pervasive carryovers from ladder-of-life thinking is that some living species are older than others.  These are often thought of as sitting on the lower rungs of the ladder.  Of course, tree-thinking rejects this notion as all living species have evolved the same amount of time from their shared common ancestor at the base.  Nonetheless I hear so many phrases that reflect the continuing influence of ladder-thinking, even among evolutionary biologists.  So here's a good one - 'That trait goes all the way back to echinoderms' [or insert any taxon perceived to be old]. The speaker almost certainly wanted to communicate that the trait was present in the common ancestor of echinoderms and vertebrates.  So what's the problem with using the shorthand 'back to echinoderms'?  Well, it suggests that an echinoderm was the common ancestor of echinoderms and vertebrates (not true even if that ancestor *looked* more like an echinoderm) and/or that echinoderms haven't been evolving since their split with other deuterostomes.  This is particularly dangerous as it often leads to poor experimental design --  using living species perceived to be old or primitive as stand-ins for ancestors.  Certainly studying echinoderms can help us make inferences about that common ancestor, but so would studying any other descendant.

So in summary:

p.s.  I think it would be a little better to say 'out to echinoderms' -- if your listener assumes humans are starting point, then going 'out' to echinoderms spans the clade that captures both humans and echinoderms, which maps to a particular ancestral node.  But why not just use a couple more words and say the trait was present in the common ancestor of deuterostomes.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Naming nodes

A friend texted me today to share a ‘crazy’ biology fact – that ‘a slug is not a critter but a fungus’.  Of course, I had to protest immediately.  A slug is not a fungus, it is a mollusk! (Which I guess would colloquially be a critter?)  This interchange made me think about how that kind of statement translates for an evolutionary biologist.  When we say, a [species] is a [taxonomic group], we are saying, that species belongs to a clade, a branch of the tree of life, that we have given a name.  So it’s really a statement about evolutionary history.  A slug does not belong to the clade that we call fungi.  A slug is in the mollusk clade, which is a branch of lophotrochozoans, which is a branch of animals, which is a branch of eukaryotes, etc.  So a slug *is* all of those. The limit on the number of these statements is only the number of nodes (and corresponding clades) which we have assigned names.  Since all species share common ancestors back in time, at some point, the slug’s history will intersect with the fungus; that is, we will eventually arrive at a node which sits along both of their evolutionary histories.  Currently, this node is the opisthokonts, whose descendants are eukaryotes with a single posterior flagellum.  Naming these nodes give us a handy way to remember traits that the species belonging to that clade possess (although some may have subsequently lost those synapomorphies).  So then you might wonder, how do we decide which nodes to name?  Anyone who publishes a phylogeny is free to name any node they wish, although typically only nodes that are well-supported by various sources of evidence would be named.  Among those with good support, authors often pick those that correspond to some previously named group (like a genus) in order to carry that information (whatever characteristics originally resulted in the group's description as a separate genus). Many nodes however don’t contain members that had a traditional name (pre-phylogenetics), but nonetheless correspond to a group with some distinctive features, like the Opisthokonts.  Thus, taxonomy and classification return to the same principles that have long guided the field – that names function to convey information about organisms – about their evolutionary history (their relatedness to other organisms) and their traits.  In this sense, naming is a choice -- about which information we think is interesting or important to communicate. I always think if bacteria were doing the taxonomy instead of humans we would have many fewer named nodes within the animal clade and many more along branches in their part of the tree.

P.S. The title 'naming nodes' will only be entertaining to those of you who are also fans of Best in Show.  Taxonomy is a far more valuable endeavor than naming nuts, but certainly less funny.