New Year in Michigan, New Start and New Project

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As of today, I am officially starting on my own fellowship, with support from the Swiss National Science Foundation for the next 18 months.

Continuing to study Icelandic sticklebacks in collaboration with Janette Boughman at Michigan State University, I will come back to questions closer to my PhD interests, studying gamete interactions between sexes and populations, with a special focus on cryptic female choice and how environmental conditions affect reproduction in this externally fertilizing species.

Looking forward to going to Iceland again in a few months to sample new fish, and to starting behavioural experiments this summer, as well as some new collaborations down the line.

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Entering the microscopic world of a fish brain

I am just coming back from a 3 weeks stay at University of Texas at Austin in the Hofmann Lab at the department of Integrative Biology.

It looks like I chose the best timing to avoid the mid-west capricious winter weather and this year’s polar vortex, and had a lot of fun meeting collaborators I only communicated with over email before, and enjoying Austin’s exceptional climate, food and music!

I did not quite travel alone, but instead brought with me a cooler full of dry ice and stickleback brains, carefully dissected either in Iceland last summer after behavioral trials or at MSU during 4 months of processing of sensory organs.

The purpose of the trip was to get trained on performing micro-dissections and extract RNA from different regions of the brains. We are interested in studying potential differences in sensory organs in response to adaptation to different marine and freshwater environments in Iceland, and the corresponding regions in the brains of these fish that control these senses.

PhD candidate Mariana Rodriguez was an amazing teacher, taking me through the different steps that involved learning to recognize different brain regions, sectioning the brains using a cryostat – the cold version of a microtome, or microscopic version of a meat slicer, that keeps your samples frozen at -20˚C to not degrade genetic material- and finally learning to perform micropunches, each 300 µm in diameter, using a tool that looks like a pen with a big needle at the tip. Because all of this has to be done on still-frozen samples on a cold block, the micro-punches were done using my bare-eyes, and I would only later assess the precision of the punches under the microscope.

To be honest I did not think that I would manage to trust myself doing this accurately enough within the short time-frame I had while in Austin, the stickleback brains are sooo tiny! But over 60 brains later, I think that I got the hang of it! It was really fun to learn a new technique and I am looking forward to my next visit and the gene expression analyses on these samples!

I am going to Austin to learn new techniques

I was just awarded an NSF RCN travel grant from the Genetics and Genomics of Social Behavior network to visit Hans Hofmann´s lab at UT Austin next Spring!

I am looking forward to visiting collaborators there and learning brain micro-dissections, RNA extractions and transcriptomic analyses!

More on that at the start of next week, as well as some other good news on their way! 2019 already promises to be full of new adventures!

Merry Fishmas to you all!

My thoughts on the Travel Dilemma

I was contacted a few weeks ago by Together Science Can , a campaign aiming at supporting international collaborations in Science, to share my views on academic travel with kids. 

In the article, “The Travel Dilemma: Stories From Parents and Carers in Research”, I share my personal experience about traveling with kids during my PhD for international conferences and collaborations, and mention the page on my website, #academicmum , where I list conferences and funding agencies supporting child care. Two other mums also share their stories about the difficulties of traveling with children, for conferences as well as for longer appointments. 

This article followed a recent survey on mobility in science, showing that international movement positively and importantly impacts researchers’ careers, but that costs of relocation and short-term travels and family obligations are major obstacles to academic mobility, disproportionately so for younger researchers, and with varying levels of supports in different regions of the world. 

What I like about this project is that it not only identifies current needs and obstacles to academic mobility, it also focuses on potential solutions for all scientists. The recent blog post describing recent reports on caregivers in academia is a great example of this, with the following very strong conclusion:

” A range of initiatives which are run by organisations and individuals to facilitate the mobility of carers, from offering ‘care bursaries’ to circulating information in advance and running events during standard working hours. While carers may sometimes benefit from policies which address their ‘specific’ needs, tackling the issues they face will not happen unless we revisit policies which assume that academics are care-free and organise more care-friendly events and mobility schemes.”

I had a blast at Biology on Tap

It was my first ever experience giving a purely outreach talk, aimed at a public of “slightly inebriated adults” , as the organizers put it.

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Preparing for it was more challenging than I anticipated: the general theme of the evening was “Birds” , but as I wanted to talk at least a little bit about my research, I realized there were quite a few concepts I had to try to introduce to people with potentially no prior knowledge of biology. And while I really like presenting my research and have been trained to give conference-format talks for years, I felt totally unprepared to explain some of those concepts in more accessible terms.

Coming up with a title that might sound funny and would somewhat inform on what I was going to talk about was very hard. I noticed after moving to Michigan and working almost exclusively with native speakers that I am far behind in being comfortable coming up with jokes and playing with words, something that somehow wasn’t that obvious during my PhD in Sweden, where most of our department had English as their second language.

With assistance from my friends, I settled on talking about “the birds and the bees” and found a perfect picture of a “bird-bee” (thanks to the wonderful local tradition of Halloween pet costumes of all kinds) to illustrate speciation and different kinds of reproductive barriers, or why there is no bird-bee flying around.

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The Loft was really packed that evening, but my whole lab came to support me and seeing some familiar faces in the audience definitely helped. What helped most is the amazing talk of the first speaker that evening, Olivia Utley, telling us about all the ways in which birds are jerks, and preparing the audience for more”non-politically correct” bird stories.

Once on stage I had a lot of fun and felt much more comfortable than I anticipated talking about sex, cheating, crazy duck penises (credits to Patricia Brennan for that part, that most in the public that night probably won’t ever forget), sperm competition and cryptic female choice.

I don’t know if it is the never ending questions of my 5yo about everything and anything that really got me used to explaining these things or if we are generally more prepared than we think to share our passion with a larger public, but I definitely recommend trying something like that at some point, I had a blast and hope to get to do more if it!

The processing of the 2018 Icelandic fish is over!

Victory!

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After 15 consecutive weeks of processing fish, counting neuromasts on their lateral lines and dissecting sensory and reproductive organs, we have sampled all 15 populations that we brought back from Iceland this year!

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Thanks to Greg Byford for his amazing help on this, organizing and executing all this work, and to all the students that helped making it possible!

Looking forward to analyzing some of the results within the next few weeks!

On the importance of mentorship in STEM

When I just arrived to the IBIO department at MSU, two of my fellow postdocs, John Phillips and Helen McCreery, had just started a new group, assembling 12-15 of the postdocs at our department. We have been regularly meeting since last Spring, working together on academic job applications and discussing topics that are relevant to all of us at this career stage.

At our latest meeting Helen presented her recent paper with @AmandaHund , @LizScordato et al. on the importance of mentorship in STEM and how to remediate to the current lack of guidance on how to be a good mentor.

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I loved every bit of that paper! This is something that should really be spread to all institutions and read by grad students, postdocs and PIs alike! Read it, spread it, get discussions started at your department!

Starting with a survey of mentors & mentees at US research unis: 70% of mentees experienced breakdowns in mentoring relationships at some point, affecting their mental health , 39% reported frequent poor mentoring, but 70% of the mentors say that they rarely mentor poorly! The paper advocates for mentorship training at PhD and postdoc level already, to be prepared for when supervision opportunities come up, as noted by 1 participant:

“Grad students need training in mentoring so that if we become professors or bosses we don’t suck at it.”

The paper describes what makes a good mentor, and gives concrete advice on how to train for it. It can be learned!!!

“the best advisors strive to model excellent scholarship and provide sponsorship, collaboration, and encouragement to build student skills and confidence”

This one is a vey important and tricky one, but essential to retain diversity in STEM :

“An effective mentor must be able to adapt mentoring strategies to the needs of different students and to a single student over time”

“In contrast to academia, companies in the private sector have long recognized that good management practices increase employee productivity and retention and have consequently made management training a priority.”

“Communication skills can be taught and improved, [it] requires effort and investment from both parties , and mentors trained in communication best practices can subsequently help mentees improve their communication skills.”

 Using already available training schemes from the industry and peered reviewed literature on mentorship, the authors present a one-semester long seminar on mentorship that they already ran twice, as well as a shorter workshop format and/or a lecture. All the material is readily available for anyone wanting to implement the course at their institution, including mentorship best practices, examples of case studies, a guide for writing professional emails, and much more (lots of resources in the supp mat)!

“To make changes to academic mentorship culture and improve accountability, an objective assessment program that rewards effective mentors, provides honest and constructive feedback, and requires improvement is essential.”

They’ve done all the work for you: the numbers and data are here and compelling, all the material ready to be implemented. Let’s work on making academia a better place for all kinds of students by learning to be better, flexible mentors to future generations of academics!

Not every sperm is sacred, but every sperm could be great, depending on the male!

agressive flycatcherGetting a big family can be a difficult business in nature. If you are a male bird, you have to work hard to secure a territory where you will find food for your chicks and convince a lady that you are both good looking enough and also will be a good dad. But getting a mating partner is not the end of the story, you also need to fertilize her eggs, preferably all of them!

For this, you will need good sperm: sperm that is good at fertilizing eggs, but not only, it also has to be BETTER than the sperm of your potential rivals, that is other males your partner might be copulating with before laying all of her eggs. This happens often in nature, because females do not want to put all of their eggs in the same basket and it might be advantageous instead to have some genetic variation among your offspring.

Determining what makes a male good or attractive to a female is not always easy, and measuring what makes a good sperm is even harder. Now these two important components of fertilization success are often also measured separately, and we do not really understand how they are linked.

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We studied this in collared flycatchers (small black and white birds), by catching close to 120 different males over 4 years, measuring their white forehead patch (used to attract females), their sperm morphology (under the microscope), and their paternity success (i.e. how many of the chicks in their nests were theirs, by analyzing the blood of over 400 six-days old nestlings).

We found that different categories of males have different sperm morphology, depending on if they manage to secure a territory and have a social mating partner, but also on their age and attractiveness. But most interestingly, we found that the type of sperm that allows them to maximize the number of nestlings they father is different for different types of males. For males that have small forehead patches and are thus less dominant and less attractive, having long sperm is beneficial. But longer is not always better! For more attractive males, it is quite the opposite, and having smaller sperm allows them to sire more eggs in their nest.

Many studies have attempted to link attractiveness and sperm quality, trying to figure out if “sexier” males also have better sperm, with very inconsistent results between studies. Our study shows that what makes a good quality sperm might instead depend on how attractive, competitive, and how old a male is, so there is not one single kind of “good sperm”, and we should more often look at the full picture and actually measure which phenotypes result in the highest fertilization success.

Read the original paper here and find out more about my amazing co-authors on their respective websites: Siri Persson Schmiterlöw, now technician at Lund university,  S. Eryn McFarlane , currently postdoc at the University of Edinburgh and Anna Qvarnström , professor at the department of Animal Ecology at Uppsala University.

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From left to right: Siri Persson Schmiterlöw, Eryn McFarlane and Anna Qvarnström

 

 

First talk about my postdoc project

beacon-talk2.pngI gave my first talk about sticklebacks at the 2018 BEACON congress at Michigan State University. It was a lot more work than I anticipated to start a talk from scratch, with no slide re-used from any of my previous talks, after changing organism and study questions.

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It was really fun to talk about Iceland, the fieldwork there and our project looking at how sticklebacks adapt to glacial lakes with very high turbidity, and even to show the very first analyses on the data entered so far, as the rest of my team is still out there collecting more!

 

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I really enjoyed my first BEACON congress for the diversity of the subjects presented, the relaxed atmosphere  and outstanding organisation. In particular, I was really impressed by the free childcare services provided ! This is definitely added to my list of parent-friendly conferences on the #academicmum page of this website!

 

 

Guest BEACON blog post about my Icelandic fieldwork

I am back from Iceland and wrote a few words about it for the BEACON website. This is the excellence research center for the study of evolution in action headquarter at MSU in partnership with North Carolina A&T State University, University of Idaho, University of Texas at Austin, and University of Washington.

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Read the post here for some fun facts about this year’s field work and more photos from Iceland!