Monday, April 14, 2014

The importance of knowing and recognizing the limits of your knowledge

From Dynamic Ecology

Posted on April 9, 2014 by duffymeg

At some point in every qualifying exam, there will be a question that the student doesn’t know the answer to. Actually, that’s not quite accurate – this doesn’t happen just once; it happens repeatedly, in every qualifying exam. That’s part of the point of the exam: to explore what the student knows and what they don’t know.* What I will argue here is that it’s essential in this case – and, indeed, in science in general – to realize when you don’t know something and to admit that. To put it into Donald Rumsfeld’s framework: scientists need to know their unknowns.

If we go back to the scenario of the qualifying exam: Ideally, when asked about something they don’t know, the student says something like “I’m not sure about that topic, but what I think might happen is that…” That is, the student acknowledges that they are moving beyond the limits of their knowledge, and are beginning to speculate. (Usually, in a qualifying exam, the faculty are interested in that speculation, to see how the student works through a new idea or problem. Speculating is fine; BSing and trying to pass it off as knowledge is not.)

While trying to bluff your way through a qualifying exam isn’t a good strategy, it’s also not going to harm anyone else. In other situations, though, failing to recognize and/or acknowledge what you do and do not know is really important, with the potential to cause harm.

Read the full blog post by Meg Duffy

Hooray for spring! Or not?

From Ecological and Evolutionary Medicine, a blog by students in Bio 120 at UMich

Posted on April 14, 2014 by svdevuys  

So here we are, spring time, and it feels like 70 simply because it’s 10 degrees above freezing for the first time in 5 months. But as we pull on our shorts and t-shirts, before we know it, we’ll be catching a bug or two, some of us getting really sick. When we call mom from our beds in our dorm rooms, she’s probably going to say that we need to dress warmer. But is the all-knowing mom wrong? Are there unstoppable bugs, or worse, that come with this warm weather that hits us hotter and hotter each year?

In past years, there have been rare and uncalled for health problems within certain areas for seemingly unknown reasons. We’ve heard of fungal diseases and outbreaks of viruses, we’ve had large numbers of people fall ill for reasons that seemed unjustified. Just a few years back, there was the outbreak of West Nile in Texas after an unusually wet spring and dry summer(1). What does this mean? It means that global warming isn’t only killing the icecaps and polar bears, it’s killing us. Shifts in our climate are unraveling new and extraneous health problems around the world. We have a huge problem when it comes to facing this threat though, we can’t see it coming and we don’t know what “IT” is.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Vaccines and autism: a great scientific hoax

From: Ecological and Evolutionary Medicine: a blog by students in Bio 120 at UMich

Have you ever wondered why the parents of young children are so adamant when facing the decision to vaccinate their child? Throughout my years in elementary school, middle school, high school, and now even college, I have encountered individuals who refuse vaccination of certain infectious diseases. However, I’ve never understood exactly why.

During our class discussion on Wednesday March 19, we conversed the idea of vaccines, herd immunity, adverse reactions to vaccines, and refusal to vaccines. After reading the assigned Atwell et al. article and WBUR’s story on vaccination, one question echoed in my head: Why would parents of young children and teens intentionally decline a vaccine that is intended to improve immunity to a particular disease? Are the risks significantly dangerous? In class, we touched on the subject of vaccines relating to autism.

In 1998, a study was performed by Dr. Andrew Wakefield claiming a link between the administration of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination and the appearance of autism and bowel disease (Cohen). A paper was published in The Lancet identifying the asserted relationship between autism and the MMR vaccine. For his study, Wakefield specifically, not randomly, selected twelve children.

Read the full blog post 

What do you think is the biggest recent conceptual advance in ecology?

From Dynamic Ecology

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

National Conferences on Undergraduate Research (NCUR)

By Micaela Martinez-Bakker
April 7, 2014

This year I was the Rackham Graduate School student representative at the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) held at the University of Kentucky April 3rd – 5th in Lexington. I was excited to head to Kentucky. My flight was full of undergrads traveling to Lexington for the NCUR conference with posters in hand. Listening to college students’ chatter with more fervor about science than the NCAA basketball tournament was refreshing.

On Thursday I did five hours of recruiting at the graduate fair along with the other two UM representatives, Paula Hathaway from the LSA Dean's Office and Veronica Falandino from the School of Information. Paula and I were recruiting for all of the Rackham graduate programs as well as the School of Engineering. I spoke to students interested in broad array of subjects from PhDs in Creative Writing to Neuroscience. I was very excited when students came up and asked if we had a PhD program in Ecology!
I didn't have anyone ask for Evolution specifically, but there were a handful of students interested in EEB. On Friday morning we had a second recruiting session. There were many students inquiring about medical school, I encouraged these students to think about PhD programs in biomedical sciences, and try out summer research programs, which there are a large number of across UM departments.

There were a range of student posters and talks at the conference, presented by undergrads from all over the country. The poster sessions were so large that they were held in the university basketball stadium! Overall, it was a great trip. Hopefully some of the networking we did will have a positive impact on the lives of these young scholars.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Save the Frogs Day at University of Michigan

I'm what you might call a "frog freak." I've been enamored with these jumpy little creatures with big beady eyes and wide smiles for as long as I can remember. I spent endless summer days catching as many lithe leopard frogs, tiny toadlets, and giant bullfrogs as I could from the pond in front of my family's house in upstate New York. This love of frogs was just a fond pastime until one pivotal research trip to Costa Rica during my undergraduate career, when I learned from a resident PhD student that herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) were in dire need of research because of enigmatic declines occurring all over the world. Realizing I could turn this passion for amphibians into a meaningful career, I resolved to champion the slimy, creepy animals that cause many to recoil in fear or disgust, and proudly informed my loved ones that I would be a Herpetologist, and I would do everything I could to help save the frogs.

But why do frogs need to be saved? Many amphibians, as their name suggests, lead a dual life: they spend some time in aquatic environments and some time on land. In our part of the world, many of these species proliferate by breeding in ponds or vernal pools, developing from aquatic larvae into terrestrial froglets, growing up in damp, relatively stable environments, and then starting the cycle all over. They also have very permeable skin (giving them their famous slimy appearance), which allows them to efficiently respirate and osmoregulate cutaneously. This feature is key to why these creatures are declining and why they tend to be a popular study animal for many conservation biologists: amphibians (as well as many of their ectothermic reptilian relatives) are extremely vulnerable to habitat alteration, including fragmentation, climate change, pollution, and disease introductions. For this reason, many have suggested that these sensitive animals may serve as important biological indicators of ecosystem health. Furthermore, recent research suggests that the loss of these animals may have cascading effects throughout their native ecosystems, due to their central position in food chains as well as their roles in connecting aquatic and terrestrial nutrient cycles.

So, now you’re all ready to hop on the frog conservation train, right? Well, lucky for you, the new UM Herpetology Club will be holding a “Save the Frogs Day” next Friday, April 4th from 12-5pm. Save the Frogs (STF) is an international organization aimed at raising awareness and funding for amphibian conservation. Visit our table  in the Dana Commons to learn more about the issues facing frogs worldwide, sign petitions that benefit local frog conservation, buy “amphibious” baked goods or STF merch (all donations go directly to frog conservation projects), and even craft your own frog costume! Following this event, we will take our party to Mash (211 E. Washington) for a “herpy” hour where we can show off our frog costumes and celebrate our web-toed friends. Go to for more information. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

To breastfeed or not to breastfeed

From Ecological and Evolutionary Medicine: A blog by students in Bio 120 at UMich: