About motivation

My wife and I are getting really concerned regarding the education system our kids are in. Ken Robinson summarises the main points in his TED talks, like this one. I agree with him that current schools kill creativity and do not set the conditions to let talent flourish. However is hard to change the system from scratch. Then I realised this scales up to higher degree education (e.g. PhD) where I do have the power to change things (at least for my three PhD students).

During the PhD, the conditions are way better than in primary school. You learn by doing. Your effort has a clear purpose of advancing Science. You have flexibility in schedules and to some degree on topics. However, is not rare that PhD students are not highly motivated. How can we set the right conditions (i.e. motivate them) to maximise the learning experience during a PhD? This is a discussion I have no answer, but we should have. A good place to start are Uri Alon talks and papers (here and here).

One thing I already talk about is the idea of self-organizing teams and adopting “agile /scrum” ideas. Frequent stand-up meetings, or encourage side-projects that reflect what you are really passionate about, are things help keeping motivation high.

Another powerful idea is the concept of “flow“. The term “flow” was created by psychologist and father of Positive Psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and I learnt about it when I used to climb big walls. You flow when doing difficult things that you master, and its great. The following graph shows the idea.

Vertical Rock Indoor Climbing Center – A Discussion Of “The Flow State” In Rock Climbing

The problem is that its tricky to suggest increasing challenges to PhD students that don’t become “boring”, but do not create anxiety. However, it’s worth trying to think with them along this lines. We are practicing to ring the alarm bell early on if they get anxious, so we can work on getting the skills first.

Any other things that work for you?

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Can functional diversity indices predict ecosystem function?

That is exactly the question Vesna and I had after reading a few papers using FD indices as proxies of function. Other than a few papers on plants (mostly experimental and with biomass production as the function studied) we couldn’t find the answer. Then is when we started a side project to gather the data necessary to answer our question. The problem is that there are many FD indexes (see previous post here) and many functions to test. So after realising that this was not a side project anymore we gathered data on as many functions as we can find (a.k.a. calling past collaborators and assaulting ecologists for data in the darker corridors of the conferences we attended) and developed a serious analysis.

The answer? Well, I wouldn’t use FD metrics to predict a single function (i.e. pollination to a single plant species or predation of a single aphid species) because their predictive power are usually below 0.5. However, it worth nothing that non-experimental single functions are usually better described by a few traits than by classic taxonomic diversity indices. It seems it depends on the function studied, but functional identity and to some degree weighted functional diversity metrics can improve our mechanistic understanding of the BEF effects, and this is pretty cool.

Plus, this is the first paper with two lead authors and lots of GitHub commits I did, and it worked really well!

Enjoy the paper here.

J.A Valverde: Memories of an heterodox biologist

A friend of mine recommended me to read Valverde’s autobiography, both because I am moving to the Doñana Biological Station, of which he was the main advocate, and because the book is really awesome. In fact, he writes really well and the book is full of fun stories and subtle puns (not sure if it’s translated to english, though).

Valverde, as I see him after reading the books, is the perfect blend between the traditional English naturalist and the Spanish picaresque. He had a pretty rough childhood including a pretty bad tuberculosis in the midst of the spanish civil war. With no official studies he learnt ecology the hard way by reading whatever book he can find and collecting observations of the fauna around his home town. While reading it I really regretted not being a better naturalist myself and now I really want to get out of my computer and just look at nature for a while. He also had a great ego (which is see as a positive thing). As an example, I love when after years of collecting observations on bird communities around his home town, he reads Elton influential book and says something like he didn’t learnt anything new in Elton’s that he had not discovered himself before, but that the book was very good to put names to familiar concepts. And I believe that is true and not arrogance. How Doñana Biological Station was created is also quite epic, and i didn’t know that they (WWF, among others) actually bought the lands to create the reserve. Really if there is a will, there is a way. However, is quite astonishing also to see its actual destruction despite the conservation efforts.

But read it, is long but easy to read (start for volumes I and IV), and you will get a glimpse of how ecology developed in Spain* since the 1930’s.

* in Valverde’s words, the two main revolutions in the field of ecology in Spain were the Peterson bird guide and the SEAT 600 car; the first allow anyone to identify birds effortless, and the second to travel around.

F1000 Research waves fees for ecologists

Quick post to say that if you are en ecologist you can try now F1000Research for free until the end of the year (just enter the code ECOL16 during submission). Other than the beauty of open access, open peer-review (yes, where reviewers get credit too for doing a good job), and fast publication, I like the freedom of formats offered. They are introducing a new format, “observation papers”, for sharing observations that will not be enough for a full paper, but you don’t want them to be lost forever. Tons of small datasets are wasted because there is no enough data to make a full story. I am thinking specially in master thesis, or studies with low replication. Achieving those in a common place can be a good practice. I see two reasons for doing that at F1000Research. It has a good search tool and they only publish papers if data is released, hence, this data can be used on meta-analysis, for example. The drawback is that it can be expensive for master students, but you can try for free now.

Biodiversity shared-blog

I am rather a chaotic blog reader. I scan some RSS feeds, check blog aggregators from time to time (R-bloggers and Ecobloggers) and rely on tweeter as a curating tool that brings me the best posts directly to my timeline. Today I discovered http://www.biodiverseperspectives.com/ and it’s clearly a must read.

Cool posts like this one a side, I think is a wonderful idea. Grad students (and faculty) around the globe can register and post about a common topic: Biodiversity (check out their diagram on the upper-right part of the homepage, which covers a lot of ground). Having a personal blog may be not for everyone (I’m still exploring it), so it’s great to have a platform to share something from time to time, and with a nice readership already built.