About Us

We are members of the Andrew Gonzalez lab , in the Biology Department at McGill University.
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Friday, January 28, 2011

The downside of blogging

I was recently at a dinner party where I was talking to a fellow who was very anti-blogging. His position was basically that communication is context dependent, and the internet is the antithesis of context dependent communication. I'm sympathetic to his position; in a broad, context-free setting like the internet I think it is nearly impossible to make statements that aren't somehow naïve or asinine, and as a result I have been increasingly attempting to communicate with images. I have always appreciated Barthes' assertion that photos say nothing more than "this has been," and I find the notion that photos offer a 'silent discourse' attractive, or at least intriguing (thus my fascination with Edward Burtynsky's pictorial/textual ambivalence to ecological disaster). Ultimately, however, I acknowledge that attempts to communicate with images are no less naïve than attempts with text in the internet's context free environment. Images without textual anchors may be considered silent in one sense, but, as Susan Sontag has noted, in another sense they make extremely loud ethical statements. Finally, even if images could be considered truly 'silent', there are hefty ethical implications to the act of silence.

I started this post describing a personal conversation about the importance of context in conversation. Ironically I have now transported that conversation's content from a closed-format communication into an open-format communication (this blog). If I have done so I think it must be because I still believe there are important things we could be saying to people outside of our immediate spatial and social environments, and one of blogging's strong points is that it allows us to do just this. So here is my resolution for this blog: to return to textual communication, and to speak to whomever wishes to listen. Just don't take what I write out of context.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why We Blog

The Ecodrift blog has been quiet lately, but there's been a lot going on in our lab: PhD students defending (hopefully, that will include me someday), new students joining the lab, and the launch of the Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science.

In my own little corner, I've been learning a lot about R while coordinating a series of statistics workshops in R for our department. I hope to post more about this soon, but I've been thinking a lot recently about my workflow in R, and how to organize all my files (aka Project Management).

While reading other blogs about R and workflow, I found a link to Drew Conway's list of ten reasons why grad students should blog. Hey! We're grad students (& Post-Docs)! We Blog! Ok, we share a blog, but this has advantages over trying to forge an individual identity on the web:
  • We can provide more content as a group than individually
  • We don't have to try to compete for readers' attention: because there really aren't enough blogs already out there (*sarcasm*).
  • We can collaborate on content, or provide direct feedback, even having discussions all in one place!
Why do members of our lab blog? Many of the reasons mentioned in Drew Conway's list certainly apply, but I would add that it also serves as a record of progress along our scientific journey in various areas: snapshots of how we were thinking at the time. Like an academic paper, but less rigorous and not peer-reviewed (and therefore faster but less reliable). It reminds me of a McGill yearbook I recently found from 1978 in Thomson House, including a summary of News from that year, and major events on campus: I was struck my how little some parts of lower campus have changed even since then (McGill is OLD), and how much the fashions and administrative issues have changed. There was an article from one professor predicting that the paper publishing business was going to get too expensive, compared to microfiche cards that cost pennies and could easily be used by students with a microfiche reader for a mere $100! Ok, maybe he hadn't heard of the internet yet, but that just goes to show that even expert predictions often fail. I prefer to stick to explanation rather than prognostication, but Your Mileage May Vary.

Scientific knowledge is characterized by historical facticity, and today's truth may become tomorrow's urban legend: do we act on what we know, or keep waiting to resolve uncertainty? Blogging provides a record of the thought, reasoning and discussion process that eventually turns into peer-reviewed publications, media reports, etc. and becomes part of the public record. So, blogging provides more fodder for historians and philosophers of science and provides people a peek into the developmental process of "Scientific knowledge".

This also suggests another reason to blog: to spark philosophical discussions that are difficult to publish in a forum read by scientific peers. It sometimes feels like scientists take the philosophical aspects of their work for granted all too often, despite a few of us jumping up and down about how your philosophical approach can affect the way you interpret results, or even the questions that you ask in the first place. Science - at least academic science - is just as social and cultural as it is academic. I may not have anything novel to say about it, but it is something that occasionally bears repeating to provoke thought in others.

So, blog away my fellow Biodiversity Scientists, and join the party. I'm waiting for you to blow my mind.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Life as a Postdoc

After several years of jobs being scarce, this year has been promising for those of us looking for a full time job in academia. But interviews have come and gone, and no golden ticket yet.

I am preparing for my next interview which includes not just the job talk, but also a chalk talk. I’ve never seen a chalk talk, and as far as I can tell, it is like a round-table discussion on your future research projects, but with timelines, goals, and funding strategies outlined on a board. I’m terrified.

I have plenty of preparation done, as I’ve though a lot about my future research and success of my lab, but mostly it’s in the form of written proposals. And it’s written down for a reason – 2 actually – firstly, I have a horrible memory, and second, I’m a better writer than I am a salesman.

The fact that this interview is also in the States means that there is a whole other level of insecurity; not being totally sure of how NFS grants are awarded (versus NSERC), what grad student culture is like, or what do you do for 3 months if you have a 9 month appointment.

The lab has been great in supporting me though. On Monday many Gonzalites showed up to eat donuts and hear my job talk. If only the hiring committee could be bought as easily. Mmmmm donuts!