Trading blue collars for scarlet robes, my working-class experience of academic life

More people are going to college, graduate school, and obtaining PhDs in STEM fields than ever before (Figure 1), and a growing minority of these PhD candidates are non-traditional or not white affluent males. While we celebrate this change, let us not forget that academia was built by – and for – the “traditional” student. My favourite analogy to explain this type of ingrown privilege is bicycles on USA streets. Bicycles are legally allowed to be on streets, some streets even have extra space just for bicycles, but streets were designed for automobiles. You may be allowed and, in some areas, encouraged to get on the street with your bicycle, but biking a street is going to be intrinsically more difficult than if you were driving a car.


Like Marconi and La Bamba in a city built on rock and roll, you will inevitably end up in situations that conflict with your way of life. You will not receive a warning before you stumble upon these bumps, and you will be judged by how quickly you accept traditional standards (if you can).  I remember a conversation with traditional tenured and tenure-track scientists discussing proposals for a large grant scheme. One tenure-track scientist was lamenting the process of shopping for editors for his proposal. He talked about it freely, how there were two companies that charged different rates and he was in talks with one but that company felt a conflict of interest that he had worked with another rival editing company. The rest of the traditional scientists nodded in mutual understanding. Finding good, cheap editors to improve your work is hard. My working-class ethos was busy screaming inside my head.  How can hiring someone to edit and improve written works that you will ultimately be rewarded for be so blithely acceptable? You’re not allowed to hire editors for any task throughout your training. You learn how to write from earning disappointing grades (or failing grant applications). You read more, you study written works, you develop a voice, and you try again. The results get better until you are at an appropriate level to move up another notch on the ladder, right? Not for traditionals.

Here are some more bizarre “traditional” customs you should expect if you are biking down the academic street:

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My favorite story about Craig McClain



Today marks the last day of Craig McClain week for our friends over at Deep Sea News. We’ve celebrated his science, his outreach, and his tremendous spirit. Over the last decade, I’ve been lucky enough to co-author two papers with Craig: Digital environmentalism: tools and strategies for the evolving online ecosystem and Sizing ocean giants: patterns of intraspecific size variation in marine megafauna, both of which have quickly become seminal in their related fields. Craig is a titan, and my one regret is that I didn’t try hard enough to convince him to determine the author order for Sizing Ocean Giants by our respective sizes.

One time, in New Zealand, he tried to impersonate a Sasquatch.  Read More

Why scientists sometimes need to be a bit more Sith and a bit less Jedi


Darth Maul

Being a scientist can be very frustrating, even infuriating. It might well be because of the inequalities and unfairness of academic life (such as incompetent administrators, a lack of funding, poor career prospects, or academic bullying and harassment ). However, if you work in the conservation field, the frustrations will positively abound. In addition to the depressingly high likelihood that you will see your study habitat or species disappear before your eyes, there  are potentially the vexing roadblocks of your science being ignored  – or being actively distorted  – by policy makers, other scientists actively working against your efforts – either through their naivety or by deliberate design  – or being attacked by crazy whacktivists because they think your approach is the wrong one .

Stress is often high among scientists, especially those involved in conservation. However, I have found one of easiest solutions to relieve the stress is to write about your problems. Putting all the anger and frustrations down on paper (or on screen) can be sublimely cathartic. You can feel your blood pressure literally dropping points with every word you write.

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Singing Science: Weather vs. Climate with lyrics for teachers

The month of February 2016 just broke a global temperature recordpreviously held by… January…2016.

While the Trubama climate plans are being praised, the comments section of this Guardian article was still inundated with “Well, it’s cold where I am” posts.  Perhaps we need to create more awareness about the difference between weather and climate…

I know, I’m not supposed to talk about this, but I love to sing.  Every neighbor, flat mate, and unwilling car passenger knows this.  In fact, the only thing I love as much as singing is teaching science, but the metaphorical light bulb didn’t come on until I attended a SciComm workshop in Portugal.  Why not sing about science like many others?  Maybe even weather and climate??

Adele songs were the obvious choice, both for singability and availability of karaoke versions on YouTube, so I began my research.  I asked facebook if this would be a valuable addition to the internets, or best not to talk about it ever again, and the response was significantly positive.  Thus, #SingingScience was born and with it a commitment to do more of these when I have free time.

Enjoy, Weather vs. Climate set to Adele’s “Hello”

**Note (because evidently it’s not obvious):  This is not real meteorological data.

Here are the lyrics for any science teachers who would like them: Read More

A year of 3D printing in the home: does it live up to the hype?

3D Printing. No new technology in the last decade has been heralded with as much hope and hyperbole as the promise of desktop replicators fabricating whatever object you need at the push of a button. 3D printing has made huge steps forward, with more sophisticated machines at lower prices, new materials that vastly expand the printer’s capabilities, and the breathless optimism that foresees a printer in every home, as mundane and easy to operate as a conventional printer*.

A Printrbot in the home.

A Printrbot in the home.

And yet, for all the hype, most personal 3D printers are pressed into service fabricating plastic tschotskes — low quality, low function items of little to no utility. While the raw potential of 3D printing continues to expand, the promise of personal printers seems mired in the sandbox: an expensive toy for grownups. A toy that produces heaps of plastic detritus that will eventually find it’s way into the environment.

I posit here that, while it is true the the vast majority of people currently have no practical need for a 3D printer, under the right circumstances, a personal 3D printer can be an incredibly useful tool in the modern home.

A little over a year ago, we bought a personal 3D printer. It’s a Printrbot Simple Metal, a tough, no nonsense machine that works as well in my home office as it does at sea. Its footprint is small, and it can handle object up to 150 mm by 150 mm by 150 mm. Not huge, but big enough to be useful. And yes, this printer has primarily been used to fabricate parts for Oceanography for Everyone and other scientific endeavors. You can read more about that here: A 3D-printable, drone and ROV-mountable, water sampler and Oceanography for Everyone: Empowering researchers, educators, and citizen scientists through open-source hardware. I’m not talking about the scientific utility of the printer, but rather, how it fits into our homestead.

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Playing against the slaughter rule

My middle school baseball team was bad. Really bad. Ball droppingly, bat throwingly, pitch ditchingly bad. It was a good inning if four of our batters made it to the plate. A great inning if the other team didn’t rotate through it’s entire line-up, twice. Our MVP was the kid who caught a ball. And if you think this is going to be one of those articles about how one tough player (me?) turned a bunch of scrappy underdogs into winners, it is not. I played right field, and not particularly well. We lost, often.

In peewee sports, at least in the US, there’s something called a “slaughter rule”. The slaughter rule ends the game if a team is losing by more than a certain number of points. In our case, it took something like a 20 run difference to trigger a slaughter. The slaughter rule exists so that outmatched teams don’t have to slog through 7 innings of a brutal losing streak, racking up demoralizing 112 to zero defeats. Once, we got slaughtered in the first inning.

Were it not for the slaughter rule, I would probably still be out somewhere in right field, wondering if maybe I should sign up for the Latin team next year.

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In the future all scientific research will be funded by Taco Bell …


At my university, we recently received a missive from the academic powers that be that faculty research productivity (and thus promotion, raises and tenure) will primarily be measured by the “amount of research funding (direct and indirect) received by the department and the college”.

I think this is a major problem and is a common one across universities.

It’s well known that some fields have lots of research funding available, while other fields don’t (for example). So effectively the above missive means that academic hiring and promotion decisions will not be done on a level playing field. Read More

Graduate minions vs masterminds

The other day I overheard an academic tell an upcoming graduate student that they should pick a PhD project by finding an advisor who already had a project set up and who had funding and that they should do research where the funding was rather than where their interests lay. This was so totally contrary to my PhD experience it left me reeling.

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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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Dipping a Toe in the Confluence

North Carolina is well known for both its distinctive barrier islands (making Pamlico Sound the largest lagoon in the U.S.) and highly productive fisheries.  Both of these features exist in large part because North Carolina sits that the point where two of the largest ocean currents in the Atlantic meet. From the north, the Labrador Current meanders from the Arctic Circle along the Canadian, New England, and Mid-Atlantic shorelines and crashes into the Gulf Stream at Cape Hatteras, deflecting this warm current off its own shore-hugging course from the south and out across the Atlantic Ocean.  Aside from literally defining the shape of the Outer Banks, the collision zone represents the boundary between temperate waters to the north and subtropical waters to the south.  This presence of this border means that, depending on the time of year and local weather conditions, you can catch just about any marine fish native to the Northwest Atlantic Ocean off of the Outer Banks.

This satellite image of sea surface temperatures shows the Gulf Stream (warm red current coming from the south) meeting the Labrador Current (cold purple current coming from the north). Image from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (

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