This is the worst academic presentation in the world … tribute

Conference season is fast approaching, and around the hallowed halls of academia frantic graduate students are rushing around trying to cat herd committee members for thesis drafts and preparing the capstone to all of their recent study and research: the thesis defense. For the past two weeks my life has largely been back to back student presentations, and on the whole they were excellent. a couple of moments when nerves got the better of presenters, but generally high quality.

Then I went to an academic meeting, and I was reminded again why we are struggling to communicate environmental issues to the general public. I had forgotten quite how excruciatingly dull and painfully constructed academic presentations can be.

The presenters were completely unaware of the effect of their talks on the audience, who were checking email, napping and in one case just staring blankly at a wall, which was obviously more entertaining than the presentation at hand.

It really was a master class in how to ensure that your presentation was as dull, dense, and obtuse as possible. So for the benefit of those who what to ensure that they can give the most perfectly dull academic presentation, here are some tips:

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To co-author or not to co-author?

Writing an academic paper with multiple authors can be problematic at times (for examples see this article and comments on the article), but when do you even make people a co-author?

There are problems across scientific fields with co-authors being added who did not contribute significantly to papers, for example heads of labs or departments, or prestigious individuals (so- called “honorary authors”). Some laboratories even have a policy of adding everyone in the lab who even passed by a manuscript, in order to bulk out resumes.

Individuals who warrant co-authorship, but who are left off the publication (so called “ghost authors”)  are also an issue. One of the most common examples of this is when an ambitious faculty member leaves off a student who conducted majority of the work (or who possibly even came up with the idea) because they want first (or possibly sole) authorship for the paper so that they can further their academic career. In the biomedical field ghost authors are often pharmaceutical industry representatives who may rewrite sections of manuscripts to show their product in the best light, but exclude themselves from authorship and thus obfuscating conflicts of interest. Such conflicted ghost authors are not unique to the biomedical field though, and industry, military or governmental ghost authors have frequently been known to substantially rewrite (and change the conclusions of) marine environmental science papers, especially when they deal with controversial topics.

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I bet James Bond never had to put up with this … why are there so many “experts” on biological issues?

In the film Notting Hill, the character Max (Tim McInnerny) turns around in his car to face the passengers squabbling about the route to take, tells them to shut up because he’ll decide the route, and exclaims:

I bet James Bond never had to put up with this $%&#!”

This is something to which many biologists can sadly relate.

Thanksgiving has just finished in the US, and many scientist friends and colleagues have returned with tales of relatives (who have no science expertise) expounding to them on why scientists are wrong on a myriad of issues such as: MMR vaccines causing autism and other medical issues, the non-existence of evolution and, currently, their opinions on how to deal with Ebola.

Why is it that Americans have such a poor understanding of biology, and have so little respect for the opinions of those that are trained in the field?  You don’t hear members of the public weigh in on the nature of mesons, bosons, or string theory, and we would certainly not take their opinions seriously in a policy setting when set against the opinions of a trained physicist. So if, like James Bond, physicists and mathematicians don’t have to put up with this, why do biologists? The media often give equal credence to the opinions of the general public, with only a high school level of biology, compared to expert scientists. Even worse, policy makers with little understanding on biology weigh in with opinions on biological matters with confidence, despite a lack of training and understanding. Read More

Marine Ecology via Remote Observation: an update from #ROV2PNG

Note: we’re home after an exceptional 3 weeks of work in Papua New Guinea. Sadly, the course was so intense that we weren’t able to produce updates during the program. Instead, please accept these time-shifted updates from .

After more than a week of building robots, developing research proposals, presenting and defending their proposals to the class, and refine their methodology, it’s finally time to enter the field, sending our small fleet of robots out to explore marine ecosystems around Kavieng in New Ireland Province.

One of the more sophisticated ROV control vans.

One of the more sophisticated ROV control vans.

The fantastic student projects include: a survey of hard coral coverage around Nago Island to assess reef health; an assessment of garbage dumping around the Kavieng marketplace and other related areas; a test to determine if the electromagnetic fields of the OpenROV might attract sharks; a study of seagrass distribution and abundance of related seagrass species; a survey of seastars around Nago and Nusa islands; and an assessment of commercially important sea cucumber species in Kavieng Lagoon. All in all,an impressive array of diverse and challenging projects.

And these projects were challenging. Students weren’t just learning new fieldwork skills, they also needed to master flying the ROVs. Navigating through the rough surf, maintaining a straight and stable heading, controlling depth, recording video, watching for passing boats, and taking copious notes were all required of these 3 to 5 person teams.

Our youngest student tries the ROV on for size.

Our youngest student tries the ROV on for size.

They rose to the challenge, fixing robots in the field, adapting their sampling design to account for changes in the weather and unforeseen obstacles in the sea. The robots were not without their own problems. One robot flooded and needed a rebuild, others lost access to their IMUs (the internal sensor bank which feeds environmental data to the operator), some got tangled and needed a manual rescue. But after 3 days of heavy use, all six ROVs returned battered, but functional.

We ended class on the last day with student presentations. Each group presented their results, an impressive display of tenacity, teamwork, curiosity, and adaptability, the heart of what field science is all about.

Newly-build robots face many sea trials: an update from #ROV2PNG

Note: we’re home after an exceptional 3 weeks of work in Papua New Guinea. Sadly, the course was so intense that we weren’t able to produce updates during the program. Instead, please accept these time-shifted updates from #ROV2PNG.

Students prepare for Pilot Academy.

Students prepare for Pilot Academy.

With a week of robot building behind us, it’s time to put our robots, and our newly minted robot pilots to the test. Monday began with a day of tether management and pilot training. The OpenROV does not come with its own, pre-built tether management system; operators must design their own and adapt it to the unique challenges of their field environment. So we set the team off to develop their own tether management systems and the results were astounding, artistic, and clever.

One of several innovative tether management systems.

One of several innovative tether management systems.

With tethers securely managed, it was time for Erika’s Pilot Academy. As some teams continued to perform maintenance and troubleshooting, and some worked on their ecology projects, others were led, group by group, to the test tank, where Erika and Dominik had built a challenge course for them to fly. Without looking at the tank or robot, each student had to pilot an ROV around the tank, collect a weighted target, and bring it to the surface. Even for veteran OpenROV pilots, this exercise can be challenging. We closed out the first day of pilot training with 23 skilled pilots.

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Six new robots join Papua New Guinea’s marine science assets: an update from #ROV2PNG

Note: we’re home after an exceptional 3 weeks of work in Papua New Guinea. Sadly, the course was so intense that we weren’t able to produce updates during the program. Instead, please accept these time-shifted updates from #ROV2PNG.


Students prepare to soak test their ROV.

Students prepare to soak test their ROV.

After a long week of intensive robot building, six brand new OpenROVs went into the water on Friday. Our student’s hard work paid off as their robots dove into the freshwater test tank. There are few things more rewarding than watching students, who’ve sweated over a difficult build while learning challenging new skills for 12 hours or more every day, launch their completed robots drive them around the test tank for the first time.

Of course, failure is part of our pedagogy, and two robots will require another day of troubleshooting before they can be released into the sea.

Dominik sets up the Chromebooks for their first flight.

Dominik sets up the Chromebooks for their first flight.

Amy delivers a talk on Human Ecology.

Amy delivers a talk on Human Ecology.

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Mr Darcy’s Guide to Conference Etiquette – Part 2

(click to see part 1)

It is indeed most vexing when an uninvited guest appears on one’s doorstep unexpectedly. So why is turning up at a conference without registering considered to be acceptable? When invited to dinner, one is expected to RSVP so that the host knows to expect one, and it is common courtesy to do the same for a conference – by registering early the organizers can plan in advance for catering, for transportation, for room sizes – a whole host of activities where knowing numbers in advance is helpful. If one does not register until the last moment, one cannot complain if rooms for presentations are fully scheduled with no space for additions, or they run out of biscuits at the coffee break. Late registrations are also more expensive, so unless one’s attendance at the meeting was literally a last moment decision, one has just wasted one’s own money purely because one was not organized.

Even worse is the person who “gatecrashes” a conference. Many meetings are organized by professional societies and/ or charities. Yet I have observed with mine own eyes people who exploit the open nature of conferences and attend sessions, parties and other activities without having paid, even to the extent of eating and drinking fare that others have paid for. Such people are the worst of scoundrels and are in effect stealing large amounts of money from said charities. Conferences are expensive to run and someone has to pay for the food that freeloading cad is eating. That is money that could have been spent, for example, on grants for participants who are students or from developing countries, but that now has to be spent paying for the shortfall caused by stowaway delegates. Read More

No you’re not paranoid – there is a bias against publishing marine conservation papers

How many times have you submitted a marine conservation paper to a journal only to have it rejected because it is “too marine”, of “too narrow a focus” or “of limited interest to our readers”?  Despite the oceans making up 71% of Earth’s surface and 99% of the know biosphere, it sometimes seems that there’s a bias against marine articles in some of the leading ecology and conservation journals. Well you’d be right.

Kochin and Levin (2003, 2004) noted that marine conservation got short thrift in conservation journals. For example, on average marine papers comprise less than 11% of leading conservation biology journal papers, whereas 61% were terrestrial (Kochin and Levin, 2004). Marine content ranged from less than 3% in Conservation Ecology to 40% in Aquatic Conservation – even though oceans and sea ice make up 97% of the water on the planet, freshwater ecosystems still dominated the aquatic conservation literature even then.

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The Dark Side of Academia

ParsonsDr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in research projects in every continent except Antarctica. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing the International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) (the world’s  largest academic marine conservation conference) and is currently the Conference Chair and a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 100 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation.

Listen, my Sith apprentice, strong in knowledge you are but there are those who are stronger and more intelligent than you, but to persevere and gain in status, strong in the dark side you must become. In these times funding is limited, tenured positions are few, and competition is great. Graduate students are many, and many of these have ideas for new research and new hypotheses that pose a threat to the current order. The hierarchy must be maintained with us at the apex, and no competition must be allowed.  Nurturing, cooperation, and egalitarianism -those are the characteristics of the light side and the light side is weak, and progress on the light side is slow. So my Sith apprentice, here is my advice to you to progress and succeed, especially when there are those around you who are more innovative, knowledgeable and intelligent than you.
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Education and Experience are Not Mutually Exclusive: Job Market Pet Peeves

While looking at positions that allow me to jump off the sinking ship of academia, I’ve seen plenty of rewarding, fun, and excitingly challenging job announcements out there. Most of them require two to five years of experience in the field, and I’ve looked at those, said ‘yep, I qualify’, and turned in the application. I can’t say what happens after, but here’s the type of experience I thought I could safely check off, which met with a surprisingly negative response:

  • communicating complex technical issues to a diverse audience
  • social media and online outreach
  • project management
  • volunteer coordination
  • budget management
  • community engagement
  • mentoring and training employees
  • grant management and program development

When did I learn these tasks? In graduate school. And here’s where I can feel the doors shut on interest in my application. After applying for positions doing any one of the careers listed above, I’ve met the following responses many times: Read More