Unsustainable growth

In the last post, I listed some numbers describing the rapid and unbalanced growth at Florida International University. I follow that up here with some numbers for just FIU’s Department of Biological Sciences.

Over the last 5 years:

  • The number of biology majors at FIU has increased from 1821 to 4219.  This is an increase of 132%.
  • The number of FTEs (full time equivalents) has increased from 978 to 1422.  This is an increase of 45%
  • The number of biology faculty has increased from 48 to 51.  This is an increase of just 6%!!

The one positive thing in the numbers is our diversity. 84% of biology majors at FIU are minorities and 66% of FIU biology majors are women.

How a university (mis)spends its money.

The Center for Labor Research and Studies at Florida International University just released a report documenting changes in the number and salaries of faculty and administrators at FIU over the past decade.  The report can be downloaded HERE.  Some of the bullet points that I came away with:

From 2004 – 2013:

  • the number of students at FIU increased 51.7%.
  • the number of administrators increased by 44.3%,
  • the number of non-tenure track faculty increased by 56.9%
  • the number of tenure track faculty increased by just 7.3%!!
  • The student to faculty ratio increased (a bad thing) by 21% from 24:1 to 30:1 (and that includes all faculty; the student to tenure faculty ratio increased by >35%)

In terms of salary, from 2004 – 2013:

  • the average salary for non-tenure track faculty increased by 4.5%.
  • the average salary for tenure track faculty increased by 9.2%.
  • the average salary for administrators increased by 9.5%.
  • the highest paid person at FIU is the former president, Modesto Maidique, with an annual salary of 515k (why?).
  • The top 30 highest paid persons at FIU are all administrators.

Tution now stands at $6,506 per year for in-state students and $18,905 per year for out-of-state students. This is approximately double what it was in 2003.  Is this tuition increase justified given the rapidly increasing student to faculty ratio?  Is the increasing student enrollment sustainable?  I will leave it up to the reader to make their own conclusions.

Note: The report did not include information on graduate students.  Other data I have seen indicates that the number of graduate students and their salaries have remained stagnant.

Can better conference location planning reduce science’s carbon footprint?


The 2014 International Biogeography Meeting in Miami, FL, attracted 409 attendees from > 40 countries. Photo: K. J. Feeley.

The 2014 International Biogeography Meeting in Miami, FL, attracted 409 attendees from > 40 countries. Photo: K. J. Feeley.

One of the most important aspects of science is networking and information sharing.  But this is becoming an increasingly difficult activity to justify given the potentially large ecological costs of attending international conferences.  Indeed, air travel – much of it associated with attending meetings – has helped to push the personal carbon emissions of scientists well above average.  As scientists, we should strive to not only educate people about the negative impacts of increasing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions through our studies and publications, but also through the examples that we set as responsible citizens ourselves.  As such we need to be aware of the potential ecological costs of meetings and consider different strategies to minimize these costs.

Using attendance data from the past four conferences of the International Biogeography Society (IBS) as an example, we estimated GHG emissions for all attendees using the shortest possible direct flight distances to the meetings sites (Canary Islands in 2007, Mexico in 2009, Greece in 2011 and Miami USA in 2013) from their home countries.  Using these data we estimated the amount of GHG emissions which could have been avoided if these meetings had been held in other locations.

Average GHG emissions associated with travel to the meetings ranged from 2.5-3.0 tonnes CO2 per attendee, with an average of 857.1 tonnes CO2 emitted per meeting. For all four meetings, the average travel distances to the actual meeting locations was significantly shorter than to random meeting locations, equating to an average saving of 3402.8 km of air travel per attendee and 324.1 tonnes CO2 per meeting.  If meetings had been held at their optimal locations, there would have been additional average savings of 1866.6 km of round-trip air travel per attendee and 162.3 tonnes CO2 per meeting.

The IBS is scheduled to hold its next meeting in Bayreuth, Germany in January 2015.  We predict that the attendees to this meeting will be responsible an average of 2.5 tonnes CO2 emission each. This is 0.2 tonnes CO2 more per person than would be incurred if the meeting were held at an overall optimal location of London, UK.

Society meetings allow for the rapid dissemination of new ideas and are a necessary part of science.  We do not suggest that meetings should be done away with, but as responsible academics, serious efforts clearly need to be made to minimize the ecological costs of these meetings.  One relatively easy way to minimize ecological costs is to make travel distances and GHG emissions explicit considerations when choosing meeting locations.

Air travel routes of attendees to (left) actual meeting locations, and (right) the respective optimal (i.e., lowest possible total Greenhouse Gas emissions) meeting locations of the biennial conferences of the International Biogeography Society. Line colours indicate number of attendees per travel route; Black = 1, Red = 2-5, Green = 6-10, Blue = 11-20, Turquoise = 21-40, Purple = 41-60, Yellow = 61.120, Gray = 121-200. Average per person round-trip air travel distances and meeting-total GHG emissions that would have been saved if meetings were held in their respective optimal locations are indicated below the panels on the right.

Air travel routes of attendees to (left) actual meeting locations, and (right) the respective optimal (i.e., lowest possible total Greenhouse Gas emissions) meeting locations of the biennial conferences of the International Biogeography Society. Line colours indicate number of attendees per travel route; Black = 1, Red = 2-5, Green = 6-10, Blue = 11-20, Turquoise = 21-40, Purple = 41-60, Yellow = 61.120, Gray = 121-200. Average per person round-trip air travel distances and meeting-total GHG emissions that would have been saved if meetings were held in their respective optimal locations are indicated below the panels on the right.

Twitter: @jamesTstroud


The Fairchild Challenge

On Wednesday, some graduate students from The Feeley Lab participated as mentors in the Fairchild Challenge’s Environmental Immersion Day at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden. The purpose of this event was to introduce high school students to the many disciplines of biology.

The activities offered were presented under the following cathegories: Biological imagery, Environmental professionals, Functional ecology, Plant–animal ecology, Tropical biodiversity and Growing, propagating and conserving. Each group of students had the opportunity to visit three “research stations” of their interest. High schoolers got hands on experience with an array of research, from watching birds with Alex Levin to observing microscopic fungi with Johana Weremijewicz or even catching lizards with our lab’s very own James Stroud. (More about Fairchild’s Graduate Students: http://www.fairchildgarden.org/Education/Graduate-Studies/Graduate-Students).

Tim Perez, Catherine Bravo and I introduced students to climate change and its relationship with functional leaf traits. After discussing functional traits, students hypothesized which leaves would be most adversely affected by high temperature. Students then measured leaf fluorescence as an indicator of plant stress and discovered that increasing environmental temperatures will decrease photosynthetic ability. For the first time, these students got to practice making and testing hypotheses of the climate change-related research! By the end of our activity, students understood that plants must migrate in response to climate change to avoid extinction.

Another important goal was to present Biology as a possible career. We encouraged the students to explore avenues of biology through coursework, and internships that can help them figure out a path to their vocation. We gave them useful advice and support as, a few years ago (for some more than for others), we were in their same position.

With this initiative, Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden and the graduate mentors helped to bring some new students into the biological career. We may have planted the seeds for the next generation of Biologists.

Who cares about plants?

As a botanical grad student I love to have plants around the house. I love to see them, to take photographs and share them on social media. I really enjoy showing off my plants; the more bizarre, the better. I can speak about the species natural range of distribution, and even predict how it is going to be affected by climate change. I know what kind of water they need, what nutrients, where is the best place in the house and why. However, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of horticulture, if I am honest, I don’t care! Surprisingly, I am not the only one in that situation; it seems a common pattern among botanical graduate students. We are the worst people at taking care of plants. I am not sure if it is because we are busy, because we already take care of the Amazon in our research or because we don’t have kids -having kids is highly correlated with plant caring ability.

Having plants is worse than having a pet; if you have a dog you just walk, clean and feed it, but plants require an individualistic treatment and dedication. This one needs a certain kind of water, that other one another kind, this one here can be flooded but the other one only needs to be sprayed. It can get worse if you have orchids. I know of people waking up earlier in the morning to move the plants around the house. A dog is simpler; if it doesn’t move, it is ill, but plants require constant examination for diseases, nutrient deficiencies or water stress. I am in grad school and so I do not have time for that.
That is why I make sure I always have someone around who does it for me. My mother keeps my collection of plants that I built during my undergraduate studies (althought she is now claiming them as her own!). Now that I have completed my first few months of grad school, I am hoping to look for a roommate like my mother who has enough free time (and a green thumb) to care for the new accumulation of plants that I have unintentionally started.
So what will happen with my plants next? What dark future awaits for the unfortunate plants of grad students? We are nomads. We move from one house to another one because it is cheaper, we move from one country to another because we have to do research, we travel for a week to a symposium. The true sufferers of that are our plants; they will inevitably be abandoned or dead.
We were not allowed to have dogs when we were kids because of our lack of commitment with walking, cleaning and feeding them, but now we can´t even have plants.

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On social media and the need for effective broader impacts

health science social network

image from: http://joannapenabickley.typepad.com/on/2010/11/on-social-media-icons.html

The first post by the new upwithclimate team member, Tim Perez:

If you are remotely in tune with current scientific buzz-words or lingo, you’ve probably come across this catchy binomial: broader impacts. Broader impacts are one of two ways the U.S.’s National Science Foundation critically judges a grant for merit. You can read all about it here and here. In sum, broader impacts are the effect your research will have on your scientific discipline and in society.  One way for scientists to have broader impacts is to increase engagement with the public, and social media provides easy access to large public audiences. This blog is a case in point. Of course, social media isn’t the only way for scientists get their message ‘out there’, but like the term broader impacts, it sure is popular.

Social media is at the disposal of everyone so it may not be surprising that it contains a lot of trash, and science media is no exception. One popular website, I F***ing Love Science (IFLS), with admittedly cool information, is just that: a website with cool information. IFLS is a hardly resource for new or pertinent scientific research. (Here is a hilarious tirade about why ‘liking’ IFLS does not mean you actually like science (disclaimer: lots of f-words))

I can’t help but wonder if websites like IFLS may actually detract from important research. The benefit of such websites is that they may ignite interest scientific research, which may trickle back to scientists in the form of more researchers, greater public support, funding, ideally all of the above. However, it is apparent that this scientific trickle-down effect is still not effective given the public’s stance on many important issues. Cough-climate change-Cough. This article from The Plant Press blog, discussing understaffed and underfunded herbariums, is yet another reminder of the academia-public disconnect. Maybe, social media promotes a superficial interest in science – Or maybe there is a time lag and science has yet to its benefits.

I’d wager on the latter being true. It seems unlikely that increased exposure to pseudo or pop-science would somehow decrease public interest. I would argue a superficial interest in science is better than none: Even armchair activists can still send an influential letter to administrators and politicians from the comfort of  their seats. A quick Google search turned up results that support the idea of social media improving the public scientific literacy, but I’m not aware of more convincing evidence.

Unfortunately, I think these videos are further evidence of the public’s lack of scientific exposure. Don’t get me wrong, I love the videos and I appreciate what they are trying to accomplish. I’m sure a lot of hard work went into them, and maybe a scientist or two was consulted during their production. Yet the videos explain the consequences of climate change and resource extraction in terms I would expect in a children’s book. If the American Public (to whom I assume these videos are targeted) need famous actors and actresses to tell them they are in deep doo-doo unless they change their ways, then it is obvious that there is still a large gap in scientific outreach and public interest. They should be listening to scientists, instead of being scolded by Hollywood!

This post does not suggest effective strategies to bridge this gap – perhaps in a following post – rather it aims to acknowledge the gap, and recognizes that the bridge building needs to occur faster. The urgency of such building should be clear, lest more closures in scientific institutions are needed, and the burden  of building falls on the shoulders of scientists. After all, it is in scientists’ best interest to promote their work and increase the trickle of support to science. Hopefully, our collective refocused efforts will trickle down to a constant stream of public support and funding.

When I think about it, it’s clear why broader impacts are heavily weighted in NSF grant proposals: The future of research may depend on it. Social media is a start, but scientists need to be on the lookout for new ways to not just to broaden their impacts, but to make them effectual.

Bermuda: Sun, Sea, and Lots of Lizards

IMG_7333 I recently took a trip over to Bermuda to explore the introduced Anolis lizard (anole) communities. Over the past century 3 species of anole have become established on the island, all originating from different Caribbean islands. Rumours were circulating of a 4th species that had newly colonised, the wonderfully adaptable and incredibly successful invasive Cuban brown anole Anolis sagrei. Joined by former FIU grad student Sean Giery, led by Bermuda’s wildlife conservation expert Mark Outerbridge, and armed only with lizard nooses and a scooter each, we set out to confirm if this was true.


It wasn’t the worst place I’ve been for fieldwork!!

Anolis grahami, from Jamaica, was the first species of anole to be introduced to Bermuda. It is a classic example of biological management gone wrong. In 1905, 71 individuals (26 males and 45 females) collected in Kingston, Jamaica, were captured, transported and introduced to Bermuda in an effort to control the fruit fly Ceratitis capitata. They were an obvious choice; voracious insect eaters, as well as being “harmless and very entertaining reptile[s]”. Within 6 weeks they had spread ~1 mile, and by 1963 the species had colonised all but an extreme northwestern tip on the island archipelago, including several small offshore islands. In 1953, an established colony of A. extremus (then A. roquet), a charmingly shy lizard from Barbados in the Lesser Antilles, was first found on Ireland Island – along the same northwestern archipelago that A. grahami had yet failed to colonise. It was most likely brought over as an accidental stowaway on a ship docking at H.M. Dockyard, the British naval base. It’s distribution remained limited, and in a decade it had hardly ventured outside of that original archipelago peninsula.


(Left) Barbados anole Anolis extremus, (Right) Antiguan anole Anolis leachi

A. grahami was then joined in the centre of Bermuda in 1956 by another Lesser Antillean congeneric, A. leachi, from the distant shores of Antigua and Barbuda. Reasons for their introduction are unknown, however like A. grahami they spread relatively rapidly, such that by 1963 they were common within a 1 mile radius of the site of their original observation. A re-evaluation of species’ distributions on Bermuda in 1991 revealed that although A. grahami and A. extremus had conserved their ranges from 1963, A. leachi had continued to expand and was now found over large areas of mainland Bermuda radiating from the original site of introduction.


Mark Outerbridge (left), Sean Giery (centre), James Stroud (right, author) docking at Nonsuch Island, Bermuda

There is only one native lizard on Bermuda, the IUCN critically endangered Bermudan skink Plestiodon longirostris. These days they are restricted primarily to small offshore islands, such as Nonsuch Island (picture below). Many of these islands are characterised by short, scrubby vegetation which provide a strong defensive structural habitat for these skinks.


Nonsuch Island – home to one of the last remaining populations of the Bermudan skink Plestiodon longirostris

And what about the brown anole? You’ll just have to read the published articles to find out!