OTS Winter 2015 or An Introduction to the ART of SCIENCE

This experience in Costa Rica was amazing: tons of adventures in the Tropical forest and a bunch of awesome strangers who became friends. Throughout this course I felt almost like in a good lucid dream, mixed with a reasonable lack of sleep and an incredible amount of work. Really, who would not feel in a sort of fantasy with these characters!!IMG_9613IMG_9611IMG_9612


After one month I finally understand what I learned from this challenging experience: behind good science there is always a good story, and this story becomes effective only when the reader audience gets it like clear crystal. In that sense, a scientist’s success is valued in the light of novel knowledge, and how that knowledge impacts the bigger picture of the research framework.

So as scientists, almost like novel writers, we need to motivate our audience by setting the ground so it gets why our questions are so awesome, and how our complicated methods can lead us to test our hypothesis and answer those questions. To facilitate this, most of the times our story needs to be outlined even before we start collecting data. In other words, we need to have a good idea of how our figures will look like, because they are key components of the clarity of our story.

We all love our study systems, and in our stories they should be the protagonist characters, i.e the ideal subject to test out hypothesis on. However, like in many novels, our stories usually have an open ending, because there is always so much more to investigate. A good science story should open the door to create new stories! Maybe I kind of knew this already, but after this course it became clearer than ever.

OTS Winter 2015 or An Introduction to the ART of SCIENCE

During the course I was very Tico happy and excited about the tropical forest. I almost felt like inside a lucid dream, mixed with lack of sleep and an enormous amount of work. I worked my way through and survived, thanks to a group of strangers that now have a special place in my heart.

I took one month to finally understand what I think I learned from this beautiful, yet challenging, experience:Your

Potentially Treacherous Science Adventures with Liz and Whitney

It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Liz Schotman and Whitney Hoot are finally posting the podcast from their independent project at Las Cruces Biological Station. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll scratch you’re head and wonder who would ever admit these two intrepid young scientists to a graduate program. Without further ado, please enjoy “Science is a Process, Not a Product,” the first (and perhaps only) episode of Potentially Treacherous Science Adventures with Liz and Whitney.

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Well I guess we clipped this fish's fin for nothing... But hey, I've heard that busted caudal fins are all the rage this year!

Well I guess we clipped this fish’s fin for nothing… But hey, I’ve heard that busted caudal fins are all the rage this year!

Whitney collects data in a third order stream. All science should be conducted barefoot.

Whitney collects data in a third order stream. All science should be conducted barefoot.

Liz catches invertebrates, measures depth (with a carefully marked meter stick... it was a stick), and lays transects. All while looking like a boss.

Liz catches invertebrates, measures depth (with a carefully marked meter stick… it was a stick), and lays transects. All while looking like a boss.

When we got back to the lab, this gorgeous megaloptera was the only invert in one of our sample bags. Huh. Maybe he got hungry...

When we got back to the lab, this gorgeous megaloptera was the only invert in one of our sample bags. Huh. Maybe he got hungry…

A Day in the Life (Part 1: Morning to Midday) #LasCruces


Jarred from sleep, what time could it be?

The bunks are still filled, go back to sleep.

License to count, a few more sheep.

Did I dream, or was that merely, an extended blink?

I didn’t have any time to dream,

My eyes reopen, beds vacant, and colleagues unseen.

Them the early birds, always first on the scene,

Eating my worm, and leaving me not a thing.

Keep my worm, I can still make it to breakfast,

It ends in 10 minutes, I can make it if I run fast.

But first I have to get down from this wooden mast,

The top bunk blues, I always get to pick last.

At the breakfast table I settle down and reassess.

My swollen eyes feel like an abscess.

Give me intravenous coffee, its liquid rest.

Three steaming cups later, I’m close to my best.

But just last week it only took two,

It’s an arms race between the fatigue and you.

The good ol’ days of a full night’s rest are through,

If sleep were a currency, I’d be beyond destitute.

But coffee we have, so coffee I’ll do,

No matter how many cups, I have to consume.

It helps me get data, and lead my platoon,

The science doesn’t sleep, so why should you?

More human now than gargoyle, I’m out of my cave,

And begin to notice the first sounds of the day.

Cacophonies and choruses of the widest array,

Creatures from a novel, what is this place?

Things you could only imagine at best,

Organized in clean coats, this colorful mess,

Birds sing opera as they zip overhead,

Already hours into their metabolic quest.


You’re more alert now to these feathered friends peeving,

Once unrecognizably tired, you drowsiness is leaving,

A price must be paid for anything worth seeing.

The morning hours are the golden hours, optimistic and redeeming.

Fresh fruit is surrendered in plain view,

Melons of neon, electric hue,

These curious winged assailants, red, green, and blue,

Besiege what we offer, and voraciously chew.

The sun is higher now, more hot and more certain.

Scientists sit, reticent to draw the curtain,

Theres a full day of field work out there just lurking,

Waiting for you to come along and start working.

We long to hold on to this feeling all day,

The limbo in between the work and the play,

But I better get out there before my buzz goes away,

And leaves me more grumpy than the work force on Monday. 

Time to suit up. Put the gear in the truck.

Start from the bottom to get polainas laced up.

In your hurry don’t let the zipper get stuck,

Did I wear this outfit yesterday? Ah, who gives a….

Now for the gear. Grab whatever is near.

Binoculars, camera, and something to steer,

Your way through the forest like a compass or mirror,

If your prone to get lost then consider a peer.

Sign out on the sheet so the jefas don’t fear,

That you’re lost in the jungle without a cohere-

-ent idea of how to stay clear,

Of Bushmaster venom there is not a cure.


All set now, ready for data collection,

Don’t forget to grab a lunch from the reception,

Heed my warning and learn from my lesson,

The peanut butter jelly sandwich is nothing impressive.

Now finally on the trail, marching along,

Wondering why to get out here it took me so long,

Time spent indoors is inherently wrong,

Compared to the classroom, this place is the BOMB!


I hop and I tromp and I climb and I swing,

I duck and I dodge and I yell and I sing.

Conquering verbs I’m an action figurine,

Going full speed until the lunch bell rings.

A sea shanty farewell…

It’s been a week since I left Costa Rica, and just wanted to check in. I’m sure it’s been crazy for everyone since we last all saw each other, catching up with classes and everything else in our lives that we put on pause to tromps about in the tropics and do awesome science. But if anyone else is feeling a little sentimental or is missing the social bond that such an intense experience begets, here’s a little something to listen to:

One of my fondest memories of our times together was gathering round in Cuericí to decompress and make music. Whether listening, playing, or singing along, what happens when you share music is beautiful. (Also, scientifically cool: hearts beat together discovery article, original journal article)

Liz, thank you for sharing your soulful voice, and this song. I’ve had it stuck in my head constantly, and it totally resonates with us all parting ways at the end of the course. May we all have many more adventures in the future and keep our friendships close at heart!

In this recording, Liz is playing guitar and singing melody, and I’m singing the harmony.

¡Pura vida!


Mingulay Boat Song

Originally written by Hugh S. Roberton many moons ago

C         G               C    G

Heal ya ho, boys, let her go boys

C             D                   C                G     Em

Bring her head round into the weather

C         G               C    G

Heal ya ho, boys, let her go boys

C             D                   C                 G

Sailing homeward to Mingulay

What care we how wide the Minch is

What care we for wind and weather

Heal ya ho, boys, every inch is

Sailing homeward to Mingulay


Wives and sweethearts on the hillside

Gazing seaward through the heather

Let her go boys, and we’ll anchor

Eve’s the sun sets on Mingulay


When the wind is wild with shouting

And the waves mount ever higher

Anxious eyes gaze ever seaward

To see us home boys to Mingulay




These last 4 weeks have been a wild ride – four projects, four papers (each with its own delightful series of revisions), four presentations, multiple multimedia projects, friends made, songs sang, beverages drank, van rides slept through… the list could   go on. Despite the rapidly changing scenery, the fast-paced work schedule, and the constant evolution of ideas and revising of projects, there was a constant feature throughout – and I’m not talking about gallo pinto (though that was a constant presence). A prominent feature throughout was the feeling of constant transition. From strangers to friends (albeit strange friends), from scientists to storytellers (and better scientists), from excited to exhausted (and still excited, just less able to express it), we each underwent a series of personal, professional, physical, psychological, and whatever other p-word transitions that (I think/hope) we’ll carry with us for a while yet.

2015-01-17 15.02.19

Tree stars!

I don’t remember those first few days of awkward introductions. I missed them because cities are awful places full of people who steal your carry-on bag with your passport and every other valuable thing you own hours before your flight. It’s probably for the better that I missed those first few days – I hear Palo Verde is awful (this is a lie I tell myself to make myself feel better). I typically don’t go through that polite period when meeting new people, so it worked out that I skipped that part of the trip. When I finally met up with everyone, I seamlessly inserted myself into the established group dynamic with sarcasm and inappropriate commentary that may have been less acceptable those first few days. Making-a-flawless-and-socially-adept-retroactive-entry-into-an-established-group is my middle name. That’s also a lie. “Socially adept” is not a phrase that’s used in reference to anything in my life. Ever. Anyway. The last few weeks was a continuous transition from a random group of science nerd strangers to a well-oiled (and well-soiled) research conducting team. The fact that we’re all like-minded save-the-world biologist types probably sped the process up, as did the close-quarter habitation mandated by field station life (nothing brings people together like the unavoidable sounds and smells of tired and dirty humans existing in close proximity). I think I can speak for everyone when I say that the bonds (and smells) we made would only have gotten stronger with time, and real life sucks for ending our journey just as it felt like it was getting started.

I know I speak for everyone when I say that we all evolved into better scientists, whether we realize it yet or not. Whether it was designing research, conducting it, analyzing and writing about it, or communicating it in various ways, we all had ample opportunities to hone these skills. Maybe not ample enough in some cases – it’s going to take me more than a month (semester, year, lifetime) to master statistics (despite the excellent advice I received). Yea, we got better at the whole science shebang. But just as importantly, I think we go better at communicating it. The transition from scientist to storyteller is a fun one (shhh….let it happen) and critical in this time of limited public perception of what science is/does/means/#climatechangeisreal. Professionally, learning how to tell our science stories and relate our research to the bigger picture may be one of the biggest takeaways from this course. What’s the point of all the mud, sweat and tears (and grant writing, and paper editing, and staring at soul-sucking spreadsheets) if nothing changes? Shout out to our videography gurus Biff and Mo (who might’ve slept less than we did, which is impressive in a medically unsafe kind of way), PodMaster Ryan (what movie can’t you quote?), and our writing/life coaches Jane and Andréa for the endless (and incredibly – frustratingly? – thorough) edits. Grading papers is exhausting, and our instructors had an exhaustive supply of them, yet never failed to provide improvements and insight with every draft. Anyway, back to transitions.

2015-01-17 09.57.53 <– This semi heart shaped leaf is how I am expressing my love for all y’all.

So we’ve all become swell friends and evolved into black-belt research ninjas. In the meantime we’ve made a number of other transitions. From fresh and clean to filthy and mildewed (note to self: when visiting a wet tropical forest, bring a hair dryer. Your hair will still look like shit regardless, but your underwear might get a chance to dry, which is just divine). From wide-eyed and excited to listless and exhausted (maybe I wouldn’t be so tired if I wasn’t such a glutton and could handle sleeping through breakfast once or twice). From snapping photos of every peccary we saw to grimacing at their tangible stank without casting them a second glance (you can taste peccary on the air – it’s pungent stuff). From tenderly stepping along the path, carefully avoiding sleeping vipers, to blindly plowing through the jungle on a transect line (if it’s your time, it’s your time, right? There’s science to be done). From feeling shame about bodily noises and odors to feeling pride in bodily noises and odors (we’re all gross. The sooner we embrace it, the sooner we can transition into a new level of grossness. Together). **Sentimental music plays**

2015-01-19 21.26.28

Living Pura Vida in Costa Rica…roughin’ it in the jungle. On our laptops. Constantly. Surrounded by snack refuse.

The list could go on. I think I said that already. But it’s true. It seemed insane how much work we had ahead of us and how much time we didn’t have to do it in. Now it seems insane how it ended so quickly, and how despite ourselves we busted all that work out in a (semi)timely fashion. Grad school will feel like a relaxed stroll through academia after a month with OTS. With all the work and the learning and the sciencing, I don’t think we realized all the changes we were undergoing all the while (mostly because we were too tired to notice much of anything). Back at home, reality has struck with a brutal swiftness. Transitioning from sunny skies and green rolling mountains of Costa Rica to the cold concrete and dirty snow of College Park was bad enough. Leaving all my new friends was worse. Having to wake up the next day and go to work instead of sleeping for three days was almost too much to bear. But I regret nothing. Mostly because I’m stubborn. Also because it was an epic science adventure that I hope I never recover from.


Handstand in Cuerici – there’s a beautiful vista behind those clouds. I swear. We hiked our faces off to to see it. Dang.

I get by with a little help from my…neighbor’s enemies?

Ever have one of those new neighbors who moved into towBlog_Turfn and was so successful that they just seemed to take over your turf? Well that’s the problem that a native ginger plant in Las Cruces Biological Station is having. Over the past few decades, the habitat of the native plant, Renealmia cernua, has been slowly inundated with an invasive ginger variety, Zingiber spectabile. We don’t know exactly why these invasive species are so successful, but one compelling explanation is called the Enemy Release Hypothesis or ERH.

Here’s how it works: when the invasive species is in its own home range, it has plenty of enemies that it grew up with and has to spend lots of energy fighting them off. But when it moves away to a new neighborhood, it escapes all of its enemies and gets to spend its energy growing and reproducing instead. Which makes it hard for the native species already living in that neighborhood to compete.Blog_Compete

One way we can test this is by looking at who the plants’ enemies are. You can imagine there are two types: the personal grudges, who specifically prey on the type of plant it grew up with (“specialists”), and the meanies, who prey on just about anyone (“generalists”). Blog_MeanUnder the ERH, we expect that native plants get more grief from specialists than the invasives do (since the invasives haven’t ruffled as many feathers in their new neighborhood yet), but that both natives and invasives get the same grief from generalists.

Blog_ChompsIn Las Cruces, the ginger plants’ enemies are insects, who eat the leaves (“herbivory”). To see if the ERH holds true in this system, I categorized chomp marks on 341 leaves of both ginger species into two insect groups. One type of bite mark—small holes in the middle of the leaf—indicated beetle herbivory, which is the generalist. Edges shredded by a small insect indicated caterpillar herbivory, which is the specialist.

Blog_Fig2So what did I find? Indeed, the native Renealmia cernua was eaten more by caterpillars, but there was no difference in beetle herbivory between the native and invasive Zingiber spectabile. And overall, 24% more native gingers were experiencing some sort of herbivory than invasive gingers.

Blog_Fig1It seems that the Enemy Release Hypothesis is holding up in the Las Cruces ginger neighborhood—but what happens next? Are the caterpillars going to catch on to the invasive ginger’s tastiness, and start eating it too? Will the invasives have to defend themselves and become less productive? What if new insects move into town? We might just have to return to Las Cruces to find out.