Ecology Is A Failed Science

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If the World Wildlife Fund is to be believed http://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/world-has-lost-half-its-wildlife-past-40-years-wwf-n214486, and I have no doubt that their claims are largely accurate, then it is time to admit that the science of ecology has failed in the past century.

We live on a planet where science has given us tehnological marvels. I can now hold a small box in my hand and access all the information the world has ever acquired.

Anywhere I stand.

I can circumnavigate the planet in an airplane in about the same period it takes the earth to revolve a couple of times. We know roughly how old our universe is and can travel to other planets if we want. Many diseases that once terrified us are being held at bay or are extinct, if we have the money to afford the cures. I can look in the sky and sort of see the stars because of the light pollution, but by God, I can see a satellite or the international space station go streaming by without a problem.

But life on earth is dwindling rapidly.  At least the life we know is going away, which is comprised of the big animals and plants that are most obvious to us. Goodness knows what’s happening to the millions of plants and animals that we have not yet categorized, because natural history is so 20th century. We may be altering the diversity of viruses, bacteria, and fungi as well.

At our peril.

What does this mean? It means that the mature sciences like physics, chemistry, geology, and physiology are excelling and translating to great things for humanity. Conversely, the science of ecology is failing miserably.

I am an ecologist, although some colleagues may beg to differ.

I have had the luxury of time and experience to consider the matter. (That means I am old).

 

My conclusion?

Ecologists continue to spend too much time trying to look for general patterns and search for the great unifying theory of life than applying what they know and saving the dwindling life support system known as earth. We are using too much of our precious resources talking and not enough time acting.

I place part of the blame squarely on the academic market and funding system. The best ecologists spend their most productive years trying to find a job, get tenure, and then retain the job so hardly sought in the first place. The currency of job security continues to be publishing, although most politicians, leaders of industry, and Joe public are never going to read a single sentence, even in the very best journals we academics have to offer.

What would happen if academia, in its critical place in the fabric of our society’s embrace of technology and knowledge, might encourage our junior faculty and budding scientists to engage in policy and reward them for doing so? I have no idea of the metrics of success, but perhaps it might be number of pieces of informed legislation supported, presentations before civic groups and law makers, or trade publications converted to plain English for general consumption.

Or I might be wrong.

Perhaps the problem is that ecologists do a terrible job of translating their findings to what most humans really care about, which is money and the status that follows. If you don’t believe me, count the number of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and other muscle cars in the streets of Beijing, the capital of a country with a lot of people who have more pressing problems than choosing which expensive, beautiful car to acquire.

Each ecologist should be paired with an economist to show the hidden monetary value of all those vanishing species, so that the world will listen.

Because, after all, it is not knowledge gained that really speaks. It is the human need for gain that gets our attention.

That is, until the water and air run out.

Carp: It’s What’s For Dinner

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Carp are the most cultured fish in the world. Period. There’s a reason for this. Prepared correctly, they taste good. The meat is high in protein and good fats. And the suckers are easy to raise in ponds.

Ask the Chinese.  They’ve been raising these fish for food for thousands of years.

The dish in the picture is a common carp, prepared with a scrumptious sweet sauce. I’m not lying. This was a centerpiece of one of my recent dinners in China, and I remember it fondly.

Most folks complain that carp caught in the US and Canada have a bad flavor or are full of bones. Part of the problem is that these fish are not being prepared correctly. The chef who made the dish pictured above is a genius. Admit it. The plate is beautiful and highly creative.

The bone thing is just silly. Americans have no problem picking the meat off of chicken at KFC or BW3. Why not carp?  These fish have huge Y bones that are easy to maneuver around.  No risk of getting them stuck in your throat.  Well, at least, no more risk than getting a chicken bone stuck in your maw.

So, we Americans need to move past the stigma and eat these fish. They are invasive and damaging to the environment. So, not only are you getting a healthy meal, but you are doing the rivers and lakes of the US and Canada a favor.

Be green and eat a carp today.

Bag of Frogs in Shanghai

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Yes, this is a bag of live frogs. And, indeed, they are going to be eaten soon. I ran across these in a fish market in Shanghai, China earlier this month. If I am not mistaken, these are, in reality, North American bullfrogs. Just like me, they were out of place in the market.  Luckily, I was not going to be butchered and eaten for my tasty legs.

American bullfrogs are considered a delicacy in China and are aquacultured.  Like Asian carp in North America, they are also a problematic invasive species, outcompeting natives and consuming other species. Yes, China has invasive species problems just like the rest of the world.

http://sites.duke.edu/writing20_12_f2010/2010/09/26/american-bullfrogs-in-china/

The fish market was thriving with all kinds of live aquatic organisms both from the sea and freshwater.  The Chinese relish being able to choose a live animal and either have it cleaned before their eyes or take it home and do it themselves.  This is like the lobsters in many US supermarkets, but taken to the extreme.  The Shangahi market had crabs, snakeheads, jellyfish, snails, all sorts of fish, shrimp, and things I only recall vaguely from my invertebrate zoology course during undergrad.

It was something.

Strangely, I wasn’t in the mood for seafood after my visit.

Why Are You Looking At My Gonads?

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This particularly disgusting photo was taken by one of my MS students, Brittany Szynkowski, whose name I may still be butchering. Anyway, these are the gonads of female Asian carp in various stages of reproductive “ripeness” in the Illinois River. So you are looking at Brittany’s gonads, not mine. Well, actually, they belong to the fish. But you get my point.

Why on Earth would anyone want to look at carp ovaries? Yuck.

Not yuck. Good.

The stages of reproduction are important to know because they tell us when the female carp are ready to spawn and when they have spawned. The first panel (a) is of an ovary that hasn’t developed yet. In panels (b-d), eggs are developing in the ovarian tissue. If you catch a female with (d) gonads, she and her kind are going to spawn soon. Panel (e) shows an ovary after it has expelled all of its eggs…the girl has spawned. And panel (f) is a gonad “resetting”, which will be ready to make eggs again.

Of course, to see these stages, you’ve got to whack the fish and cut it open. For carp, this is no problem because they are readily harvested and don’t belong in the US to begin with. They were introduced from Asia about 40 years ago and pose a real problem for the environment. For rare fish, we can’t just cut them open, so we use a technique familiar to most expecting parents -

An ultrasound!

 

Vader in the Sack

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A year ago, I awoke to my wife smacking me upside my head telling me to breathe, dammit. Apparently, my snoring had reached that epic point where I stopped respiring for a few seconds as my airway became blocked with my aging uvula and my slack tongue.

Ah, aging.

Actually, I’ve always snored.

I remember once in high school that I snored so loud that I woke myself up.

I was so tired that I fell asleep on my back, which I never, never do. Sleeping on my back has always made me have weird dreams and sleep paralysis, which I would never wish on anyone. Sleep paralysis is a condition where you have a waking dream – for me, that means I’m convinced that something is in the room ready to kill me, but I can only move my eyes. I don’t recommend it. When I finally snap out of it, my heart’s racing and it takes hours to calm down.  I’d reckon that there’s a relationship between that bit of fun and my congenital predisposition to snoring.

Or I might just be getting old and saggy, inside and out.

Back to the matter a year ago with my wife.

Off to the sleep clinic I went, sitting in the waiting room with people who were on average 15 years older than me. After a tortured night with a mask and about three-thousand wires attached to my head, the nurse said, “Yep, you have sleep apnea. You’re going to get a CPAP.”

What the hell was that? It didn’t sound particularly cool. And it isn’t.

A CPAP is the current version of the helmet that Darth Vader wore in Star Wars to stay alive. The thing blasts air down your throat while you are sleeping (or trying to sleep).

It works. Of course, the reason it works at first is because you aren’t sleeping. The damn thing is strapped onto your face, the air tube is wrapped around your arms and neck, and a steady stream of unused air blows out the top of the mask like a blow hole for a whale. The next morning I have a giant indentation of the thing on my face to remind me of the experience.

Here’s the good news that I discovered:

After a couple of weeks, you are so tired that you don’t fight it anymore. And then you sleep.  And you don’t snore.  And you begin to feel really good, like high super energy good, like 15 years younger good.

And you accept being Darth Vader in the sack. Even if it makes you feel like an alien.

 

Perception’s Filter: My Take on Teaching and Leadership

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At the end of each semester, we faculty give out teaching evaluations to our students. Some pupils may think this is a waste of time and that we teachers don’t pay attention to their feedback.

But we do.

I dread doing this, because I never know what I’m going to find.

My scores are usually okay.  But inevitably, there are a couple of students who just hate me. This is common for most teachers.

Why?

You’d think it is correlated with bad grades, and it might be. The evaluations are anonymous, so there’s no way for us faculty to know who is critiquing us or what their grade was (which might tip off who gave us the evaluation).

Some people think I am entertaining and helpful.  Some think I suck as a human being. How can people have such varying views of me?

Anyone involved in some aspect of public life, whether they are preachers, teachers, politicians, actors, administrators, or whatever, know this is true. You can’t make everyone happy, no matter how hard you try. My hypothesis is that it comes down to how your personality, comments, behavior, humor, and demeanor and all the other traits that make you unique resonate with others. Each person has a different filter. You may seem caring to one person and a flipping butthole to another.

It could be a word that you say. It could be how someone interprets a comment you make, thinking it was intended for them when it wasn’t. A failure to notice a look of confusion or a simple mistaken name might do it. Or you might say something that seems politically charged when no innuendo was meant.

What to do? Well, you can’t be perfect, but there are ways to ensure that you are getting through as many filters as possible in the best light.

Listen and be aware. Realize that most people just want to be heard and respected.

Try to communicate concisely. Be sure to explain to the best of your ability what you are doing and why you are doing it. People may not agree with you. But at least they know that you are giving them consideration.

Show empathy. Try to put yourself in the shoes of your students. It was a long time ago.  But remember how unsure the future felt at that time and how insecure you were. Now realize that everyone feels that way, no matter what age they are.

Be proactive. If a student is struggling, approach them.  Don’t wait for them to come to you.

Don’t dictate. Professors like to lecture. This comes off as condescending and unfeeling. A conversation is necessary, no matter how inefficient it feels in the classroom.

Be kind. Enough said.

This list, of course, doesn’t just apply to teaching. Any level of leadership requires these lessons. You may still not make sense and people may disagree with you, but you’ll keep their respect.

Unless their filter is clogged.

May I Butcher Your Name?

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“Thank you, Dr. Gravey.”

I hear this a lot. Might I point out that the name is “Garvey”, which is the English version of the name Garbeigh in Gaelic.  Somehow, this comes out to some folks as a thickened sauce placed on potatoes and meat.

I’m a pretty easy going guy, but I have to admit that the sound of my surname butchered makes me cringe a bit.

Which leads me to a revelation.

In my line of work, I’m fortunate to work with folks from all over the world, with names that sound exotic to my American ear. The problem is, I have no idea how to pronounce most of them.

This is nothing new. A dear friend of mine in junior high was Indian. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that my classmates and I had butchered his name during my entire childhood. And he was gracious enough to never correct us nor scowl.

So, what to do? I am much too old and stupid to learn the correct pronunciations of the myriad cultures I encounter. My solution?

Mumble.

Yes, I mumble names that I cannot pronounce. I say them quickly and under my breath hoping to avoid detection and thusly offending the poor person I am addressing.

Is that a bad thing? At least, they might not think I want to pour their name on my poutine.