Adventures in empathy: allergies, mental health, & hard days in academia

Last week, in the midst of my 50s, I discovered the delightful horror of allergies. When I got the sore throat, I assumed it was a cold. And then my eyes caught fire. And then I got all the other symptoms from those antihistamine commercials. I did not like it. I searched the pharmacy, through unfocused, weepy eyes, to find where they keep the allergy drugs. I found a brand name that I recognized. I…

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The last lecture: 6 things to keep for 5 years

I finished my final class for the year in Evolution & Phylogeny the other day. The students wrote their final exam yesterday. By today I figure some of the course content has already hit its half-life and it’s on its way to being overwritten by other things in their minds. I’m ok with that; I’m a realist. In that room of 104 faces, am I really so naïve/disconnected to think they’ll all become evolutionary biologists?…

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New flies in new places

When taxonomy makes the news, it’s usually because somebody’s just described a new species. But there’s more to taxonomic research than just discovering and describing new species. A new paper from our lab that’s been published on-line in early view is a nice example of some of the other aspects of taxonomy. In this paper, former Lyman student Christine Barrie and I revised the North American species of the genus Dicraeus, in the fly family…

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Open spaces: A new species of fly from the Yukon

There’s a little genus of small, rare flies that live in bird nests. They’re called Neossos, and a few years ago one of my former undergraduate students, Gregor Gilbert, pulled together what was known about the taxonomy and ecology of Neossos in North America and published a nice paper on the group. The three described North American species of Neossos are known from a few locations in northeastern USA and Quebec, and scattered records from…

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Suburban biodiversity: surprising flies in the neighborhood

Christine Barrie, a grad student in the lab, found a fly she couldn’t put a name on. Other students in the lab had trouble too. So did I. It looked familiar, but it didn’t key out in the standard North American keys. I eventually realized I’d seen it before, but not around here. It looked a lot like a European species we have in the museum collection. And that’s exactly what it turned out to…

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Fading walls: Communication, conferences, and sharing science

The front walls of the convention center are mostly glass, but you’ll need your name badge to get beyond the lobby. I was at the 100th annual conference of the Ecological Society of America in Baltimore last week. I saw some great science, I reconnected with some friends, and I spent some time thinking about communication in science. This post is about that last part. Much has changed in the 30 years since I went…

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Learning to sharpen your scythe

My grandfather used a scythe to cut hay. Yes. A scythe: big blade, long curved handle, Grim Reaper scythe. I remember watching the mathematical, poetical way he’d arc the blade, pivoting from the waist, mowing down a strip, stepping forward on the backswing, mowing down another strip. He’d pick up the scythe stone every now and then and swish it along the blade to sharpen the edge. I watched him carefully. I knew these were…

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What makes a good collecting trip good?

“Have a good trip! How’s the trip going? How was the trip?” These are things people say to me before, during, and after fieldwork trips. I go into the field to collect insects. I do this because that’s where a lot of my research data comes from. So, over the past couple of days, as I wind up my sixth summer of arctic fieldwork, I’ve been thinking that all my answers to all those questions…

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Lines on a map. Dots on a map.

I’m crossing some lines in the Yukon. I’m searching for dots. Several lines drawn on maps define the Yukon for me. There’s a straight line across the bottom of the Territory that marks 60° north latitude. To many Canadians, “north” is what’s beyond that line. It’s a line mostly drawn by politicians and mapmakers, but it’s also a line that defines the way people view part of this giant country. In Canada, “North” is a…

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Why the Yukon? My love of northern entomology

I’m north of 60° again. Back in Whitehorse, Yukon for the fourth time in five years, and getting ready to head north. Beyond Dawson City, beyond the trees, up the Dempster Highway to the tundra. I’m going to collect insects. Again. Many of my entomological colleagues and friends head for the tropics when they want to collect insects, especially unknown new species. I can see the appeal — I’ve collected in Jamaica, in Costa Rica,…

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