Matthew Aiello-Lammens Ecologist at Work

Thoughts on the 2016 North American Congress for Conservation Biology

I started graduate school in 2007 with the intention of becoming a conservation biologist. I don’t think I had a good sense for what that meant at the time, given my lack of experience, but I knew that I wanted to work toward science that protected natural places and the organisms in them. So, it seemed logical that the first scientific meeting I would attend would be the Congress for Conservation Biology - the 2008 international meeting in Chattanooga to be exact. I went again in 2010 when it was held in Edmonton, CAN, but hadn’t been to an international or North American section meeting since. Partly this is because it’s been hard for me to go to more than one big meeting a year, and that meeting has been ESA. To be truthful, I’ve chosen ESA over CCB because I have a sense that the basic science presented is more interesting at ESA. After attending the NACCB in Madison this year, I think I still feel that way, but that doesn’t matter to me as much.

To be clear, I saw a lot of great talks at NACCB and a lot of great science. Last week I sat down and wrote out a few notes on the talks I saw and was surprised by the number of talks I actually attended. And as expected, I got a lot of great ideas from these talks. Some of the most interesting were those dealing with the theme of the meeting, Communicating Science for Conservation Action. Communicating science is a hot topic right now, and personally, I feel it should be. It’s important that we do this well, and it was interesting (and sobering) to see research on the effectiveness (or lack there of) of communication efforts. But considering all of the talks I saw combined, I came away thinking, ‘yeah, this is the kind of work I want to be doing’. In a few weeks I start my second year as an assistant professor at Pace, and I’m continuing to work to develop my research program and figure out what it will look like. The projects in my lab this summer have all been ‘in my backyard’, in the region around our campus. And each of them has a conservation angle and I feel really good about that. These project might not be addressing any of the grand questions in ecology at the moment, but what they tell us about conservation in our region feels important. And that’s the type of work I like seeing at CCB.

Setting the bar and expectations of my students

I like to think that I have high expectations of my students. Admittedly, being a novice teacher, I’m open to the idea that I’ll find out the truth after a few more years. Regardless, in my mind setting a high bar for what my students should learn and understand, and having high expectations of them, have been synonymous. Over the course of the year, I’ve begun to question this. Here’s an example - at the beginning of this semester I set out to teach my biostatistics course in much the same way that it was taught to me (and that I later helped TA) at grad school. I knew this course was rigorous and that’s what I was aiming for too. But the reality is that all of my students work part-time or full-time AND most are taking a full load of courses. Sure, I was a TA or a RA while a grad student, but there was a lot of flexibility in those jobs. And most of the times the work was at least related to my studies. So it it fair to expect performance of my students that I’m not sure I could have reached? On the other hand, is it fair to cover the material in a less rigorous manner to compensate for the time my students can give the class? I don’t have any answers to this question as yet, but it something that I’m keeping in mind as I go on. I was having a very hard time forming anything coherent on this topic until I read this very good piece by Ben Casselman at FiveThirtyEight. I owe a lot to that piece, and perhaps my students will too.

Does e-grading lead to less student engagement with feedback?

For one of my courses this semester I’m using Blackboard Grade Center to have students submit their assignments and for me to assess them. I actually prefer to assess/correct assignments with old-fashioned pen and paper; I think it’s a bit quicker. But every semester I’m faced with a pile of correcting, whether electronic or physical, I try to start by using e-grading. One thing I’m noticing is that my students don’t necessarily seem too engaged with my feedback I’ve provided through the Grade Center. Admittedly, it’s a bit clunky. They have to download a pdf and click on my comment bubbles. It’s entirely possible that I’m misusing this Blackboard feature, after all, I’m pretty new to it. Nevertheless, I’m left wondering if handing back a physical copy of an assignment, with my ink on it, results in the students who wouldn’t necessarily bother downloading the pdf having a look at what I had to say about there answers.

NYBG native plant symposium

A few weeks ago I went to the New York Botanical Garden for the Native Plant Symposium. Overall, it was a good experience. The organizers put together a great line-up of speakers, and I thought each presentation was interesting and thought provoking. One aspect of this symposium that was interesting to me was that it was targeted towards a fairly general audience. The talks were not like those you would see at ESA, though in a few cases new research was presented. The symposium was part of the adult education department at the garden, and it was clear that many of the attendees were individuals who were especially interested in plants in a more general sense. All of the talks are available on YouTube, and they’re worth having a look at. Each of the presentations contained something that made me stop and think about my current research or teaching, envisioning it in a slightly different light. That was great for me. The one downside of the conference (for me) was that is was so big (400+ attendees I think) that I didn’t really have an opportunity to chat with other local plant ecologists. I probably could have, but events this size tend to make me recede a bit.

There’s another symposium coming up, focusing on invasive plants. I’m planning to got to that one too, and hoping it’s as informative as the native plants one was.

South Africa 2015

A little less than a month ago, I took my second trip to South Africa. Last year I spent nearly seven weeks there, collecting field data that we’re currently in the process of analyzing. It was an amazing experience, and given the length of time I was there, I felt like I was pretty immersed in the region. In contrast, this year I was in country for only seven days - two teaching a Software Carpentry workshop, one playing tourist, and three at a symposium our research group organized. In this post, I’d like to focus on the symposium a bit.

The title of the symposium was Plant Diversity in the GCFR: From Genomes to Biomes. The motivation for organizing and hosting this symposium came from the fact that our research group has been largely funded by a NSF Dimensions of Biodiversity grant for almost five years, putting us in the final year of funding. (Note: I’ve only been involved with the group for the last two years.) So this symposium was a way for us to share what we’ve found over the last few years, to bring together other scientists investigating similar questions, and as a way to acknowledge and thank the many South African scientists who helped various members of our group over the years. In total, just under 100 people participated in one way or another. In my opinion, all of the talks were interesting and thought provoking. And the Q&A and conversations during breaks and meals demonstrated that there was both a lot of synergism among those who attended. For sure, lots of great ideas were exchanged. Personally, I had several great conversations about the results I presented on community assembly in the Baviaanskloof region, which have me re-thinking some of our initial interpretation. I also talked with several of the speakers and other attendees about ideas outside of my immediate interest, such as what explains the evolution of such a large number of plant species in this region.

One thing I thought particularly interesting is that the talks were about a 50/50 mix of scientists directly supported by the dimensions grant and some of the prominent scientists whose research largely, or partly, focuses on the GCFR. That meant that dimensions supported scientists were a mix of graduate students, postdocs, early career faculty, and established faculty, while to other talks were all given by very well established scientists. I don’t really have the ability to remove myself from the situation enough to say that this made a difference in quality of talks or importance of the ideas presented, but it was at least something that stood out to me.