Oribatid mites–plunging into the dizzying diversity of the brown food web

November 24, 2011

BrittanyB, a tuba-playing entomologist extraordinaire, has been tasked with developing methods to catalogue the diversity of our oribatid mites–little fungal grazers in the brown food web. Brown food webs convert the dead into minerals and carbon dioxide; they are nature’s cleanup crews, and a subject of endless fascination for us here in the AntLab. Our latest big project will explore how these food webs work at six sites, from the rainforests of Oregon to the alpine forests in Colorado,  from the diverse forests of the Smokey mountains to even “diversier” forests in Panama.

So, after years of splashing around in the kiddy-pool of ant diversity–our first love, but relatively well known–we in the AntLab are moving into the calm, dark waters of the soil’s meso- and micro-fauna, starting with collembola (springtails) and oribatids (box mites). This requires a dive into the baroque literature of each group’s taxonomists–the high priestesses of biodiversity–and to learn the the secret language of the guild, the road marks and way signs embedded in form. We also must o photograph the little darlings, using cameras attached to microscopes.  This involves fidgeting with lights, angles, magnification, and embedding media (some in the lab were relieved to know that the K-Y Jelly experiment was a flop, sparing them the embarrassment of a tube at every microscope station). Then these images must be stitched together and further manipulated with software. Lotsa variables, lotsa play, lotsa art.

For me, this is magical. For years, having simply counted petri dishes  of “collembola” and “oribatids”, pushing them around into little grey piles before plopping them into centrifuge tubes, it is unimaginably exciting to finally get a good look at what I’ve been squinting at.

So here are a few of Brittany’s first attempts. This is gonna be fun.


Happy Thanksgiving from GTDA

November 24, 2011

Looks like Aunt Edith was getting a little rowdy.

Mashup by Bob Staake as revealed at BoingBoing.


7 steps toward making headway on that manuscript

November 20, 2011

Let’s face it. Writing is sometimes a joy. Especially after the fact, when you’ve finished something.   Your three hundred words for the day.  A particularly troublesome paragraph. Or, that holy of holies: a manuscript, newly proofread and, through the magic of the interweb, now sitting in the inbox of some unsuspecting editor. Huzzah.

But starting work on those three hundred words, that paragraph, that manuscript, is tough for all of us. I have an almost cartoonish capacity to dither before launching into writing. All the little OCD’ish behaviors–straightening out my desk, aligning the keyboard and monitors, checking my email, adjusting the chair, checking my email, scratching my…beard, writing blogposts, checking my…OK…you get the picture–that inevitably precede any writing assignment. But once I get to work, I can usually make some progress. Here’s my recipe for getting some serious writing done.  Read the rest of this entry »


Happy Thursday

November 17, 2011

When you invent the music video, you can deconstruct the music video.


Grad school is…

November 17, 2011

fostering time away from your work.

One of my mentors as un undergrad at the University of Nebraska, John Janovy Jr., wrote eloquently of time spent in the lab at the end of the day, washing glassware, his hands in the warm sudsy water, his mind adrift. It is not a coincidence that ideas pop into your head when you least expect them, on a long walk, in the shower, …

It is all the more important in these days of iPhones, iPads, iPods, and iThink, to find time away from social media, away from the web, lost in your thoughts. So volunteer to do the dishes, clean the house, mow the lawn. You get a karmic two-fer: time with your thoughts, and somebody–your housemates, your spouse, your cat–will think better of you.

Image from “Mr. Natural does the dishes” by R. Crumb.


Will Youtube replace lectures?

November 16, 2011

Imagine a course where your read articles and watch videos at home, then come to class to work on problem sets. We’ll have more to say about this in the future, but I suspect if you want to work on your teaching chops, focus on how you interact with small groups, say, leading an exam review.

I mean, can you imagine a more succinct introduction to the alkali metals (love me some Na and K)?


Grad school is…

November 15, 2011

learning to become comfortable with ambiguity,