A few years ago we began what we hoped would be a long-term study of how urban water policy and water use by people affects the diversity and distribution of other species that share the city’s habitats with us. The “city” in question is the Fresno-Clovis metro area in California’s Central Valley, and the “we” in question refers to the multidisciplinary team I pulled together to successfully compete for one of the Urban Long-Term Research Area (ULTRA) – Exploratory Award grants given by National Science Foundation and US Forest Service. That grant was how my research directly benefited from President Obama’s stimulus package in his first term, and the relatively small two-year award came with a great deal of (eventually dashed) hope that there would be money to actually grow it into a real long-term research network.
We had a unique opportunity in Fresno-Clovis to study how human water use in cities influences biodiversity in a “found experiment” since the City of Fresno had just begun installing water meters in this quite large arid southwestern city. We were able to survey the city for birds, plants, and human perceptions of water before water metering went into effect in 2013, and stretch our NSF grant dollars to continue studying them in the years after. It has been fascinating to watch this urban ecosystem change over these years, and grapple with the challenge of tracking how people’s choices have changed and how biodiversity is changing in response to what people do in their yards and throughout the city. Our challenge became further complicated by another unplanned perturbation of water in this system: the onset and deepening of the drought over California in these recent years. The NSF grant funded a number of graduate thesis projects (and undergraduate students helping with the research) at Fresno State, and their work has opened up new questions for us to pursue, even as we look for other ways to fund the work for the long-term.
Today I am back in Fresno (having recently moved to North Carolina State University to join a new interdisciplinary faculty cluster for Leadership in Public Science, in case you missed that news) for the culmination of another Masters thesis from this project. My student Stephanie Slonka will defend her thesis today, where she has conducted the first detailed analysis of how bird species diversity and abundance have changed in Fresno-Clovis over recent years by comparing data from bird census (from the Fresno Bird Count) and habitat surveys from several years before water metering went into effect and more recent post-metering years. The increased cost of metered water combined with the drought (and calls from the California Governor) has caused people to reduce the amount of water they poured into their yards, creating a more “effective drought” with much less water available in the landscape. Meanwhile, the bird community in Fresno has also changed significantly, showing lower number of species and smaller overall population in recent post-meter/drought years compared to the pre-metering period. What does this mean? If you want an answer to that, you can come to the Fresno State campus today to hear Stephanie defend her thesis where she explores these dynamics.
A thesis defense is a landmark event both for the student and the advisor, and I am proud to see another student achieve this today. Stephanie’s thesis exit seminar will happen at 4:30PM today, in Science II, room 110. Here is her seminar flyer with further details if you wish to attend.
Congratulations on taking another step closer to having a woman break the ultimate glass ceiling in your country, with Hillary Clinton being declared the presumptive nominee of one of your two political parties. We look forward to welcoming you to the large community of nations that have been electing women leaders to head their government for decades now. It may surprise your citizens—especially those rooting for the big orange loudmouth presumptive nominee of the other party—to find that even a number of Islamic nations have elected women to their highest offices. But don’t be embarrassed about joining this group now. When it comes to matters of democracy and human rights and equality, “better late than never” always applies. Long arc of history and all that considering, you know?
I imagine you know that your presidential election tends to capture the attention of the rest of the world, and this one in particular has the world in its thrall like a spectacular car crash that one cannot look away from, even though the outcome may be disastrous for occupants of the cars and spectators alike. The popularity of the orange loudmouth with the strange hair alternately baffles and frightens the world’s citizens who can scarcely believe that so many citizens of this superpower nation, known for your leadership in science and technology, for crying out loud, are falling for the dubious charms of a globally well-known con-man. That one of your two parties, half of your entire political spectrum (seriously, America, how on earth do you do democracy in such a big diverse country with just two political parties? But let’s leave that question for another time!) has been hijacked by a narcissistic demagogue happy to use bombastic nationalism and xenophobia laced with racist and sexist slurs to score television rating in this election turned into reality show, is…incredibly depressing.
At the same time, though, what’s happening in the other party offers more hope for the world. A fierce battle over liberal/progressive ideology between, gasp, a woman and an old school socialist? Who could have even imagined this in America a decade ago? Now it appears that the woman may be winning the party’s nomination to become the first female presidential candidate ever in your long and storied history as the world’s leading democracy? And a majority of your citizens might well retain their senses to elect her to follow your first Black President? How wonderful of you to finally move into this new phase in this new millennium! (Let’s set aside, for now, the more touchy subject of how they both have continued to rain bombs on much of the world – but we must address that too, soon, after you send the lunatic orange man packing.)
What took you so long?
So many younger nations, often learning about democracy from your own history, have lapped you and surged so much farther ahead in how they run their elections now – you really should feel embarrassed. Looking at you from the polling booths of some of these younger nations might feel like looking at a venerable but arthritic old man who is too set in his eccentric ways and unwilling to adjust with the times to learn how to run things in this new millennium. We hope that you will pay attention to and build on the energy of your younger citizens, many of whom have been involved in this election campaign with no little passion, calling out the injustices of the really bizarre ways you still run your elections. Like it is still the 18th century and you are still an agrarian nation deeply mired in social, economic, and cultural inequalities spread across a vast and mostly depopulated continent.
But never mind that for now; let us be cautiously optimistic that you just might follow up on your first Black Man in the White House with your first Woman President! What a way to make another grand entrance on to the world stage, two hundred and forty years after your birth as a democratic nation! So please: don’t throw this opportunity away, and for Earth’s sake, don’t let the narcissistic con-man steal this election too, like his predecessor did at the turn of the millennium.
You still have much work to do in fixing your democracy and bringing it up to date though, all the way from the design of ballots to drawing of voting district maps to how votes are counted in different states to who actually oversees and runs your elections to these myriad and ludicrously convoluted ways your parties hold primaries… to who pays for the whole circus… the list is so long and so hilariously tragic! You really do have a lot of work to do – which may be why you show so little enthusiasm for actually cleaning up the mess! It is like the aftermath of a centuries old frat party (or democracy rave) in your living room when you just can’t summon up the energy to throw all the trash out and start a new day afresh. Yet that is what you need to do! And you might start with the odd thing that happened tonight, and keeps happening every election – when your media gives away the results of the game before the last votes have been cast! What’s up with that?
While we are getting ready to applaud this apparent imminent shattering of the glass ceiling in America, many of us are also baffled at how your much-lauded free press decided to declare the winner before so many states have even held the vote for their primaries! How does your free press, which is supposed to be such a crucial pillar for democracy in a free society, continue to undermine the most basic process at the heart of democracy: the casting of votes to elect representatives? How does this make any sense? I mean, sure, the press has an obligation – and more, a competitive drive – to report whatever it deems newsworthy, so some of the fault lies with those who release these results that can tip the electoral scales. Still, surely this is something that could be fixed by reminding the media of their serious responsibility and making them keep their megaphones switched off until the last vote has been cast? That’s how some other democracies do it, to protect the sanctity of every vote.
While there is much you should learn from studying how other nations run their elections, at least in this one instance, you might consider the Most Populous Democracy in the World: India. Did you know that the press there, while invited and encouraged to closely observe and report on the entire election, is nevertheless restrained from announcing any results until after all the votes are cast and counted? And mind you, restraint is not likely to be the first word—hell, not even among the first 100 words—to come to mind when one thinks of / observes the Indian media these days; they are a cacophonous, obnoxious, loud-mouthed, argumentative lot, are India’s TV talking heads, who seemed to have learned too well the ratings game from your television networks. Yet, when it comes to election results, they exhibit remarkable restraint (or pay the price of jumping the gun).
In order to bring as much transparency as possible to the electoral process, the media are encouraged and provided with facilities to cover the election, although subject to maintaining the secrecy of the vote. Media persons are given special passes to enter polling stations to cover the poll process and the counting halls during the actual counting of votes.
Doesn’t that sound like something for your press to try, at least for the general election?
Do click on that link and look around the helpful website of the Election Commission of India: all the fascinating details of how that rambunctious cacophony of a democracy, with over a billion people scattered densely across a varied landscape with poor infrastructure and much less money than you, manages to run its parliamentary elections—featuring thousands of candidates from dozens of political parties vying for hundreds of millions of votes cast at nearly a million polling stations—with much less of a fuss and a bother. Imagine, for example, running your entire presidential election, from the first primary to the general election, in just a couple of months instead of the years-long and practically never ending campaigns you force your candidates to run now! Wouldn’t that be refreshing? And conducive to the actual business of governing the nation for the public good?
Of course there is much that is also wrong with the running of elections in India – just see who they elected Prime Minister in the last election. Has any nation figured out a fool-proof way to conduct the messy business of democracy? Shouldn’t they all be talking to each other and borrowing from each other the best ways to make things work most impartially and openly and fairly?
There is a great deal more we could tell you about how to improve and modernize your elections, to bring you up to date in the 21st century. If you really put your mind and considerable resources to it, you might even come up blazing the trail again for the rest of the world, showing us how to get it done properly. Many other nations would love to help you with that, even as you claim to be the designated driver of democracy around the world. It is past time you got your own house in order, and we would love to talk to you about that. Perhaps after you’re done with this most insane of your recent elections, and are able to take a breather. Hopefully.
For now, let us raise a glass to the sound of all that tinkling glass, beginning to fall down slowly from that almost shattered ceiling… the world may hold its breath waiting for the final blow that breaks it fully apart come November. Until then, you do you – in the best way you know how!
– from a humble representative of your friends and well-wishers, citizens of other democracies.
I discovered Hope Jahren and her writing via Twitter a few years ago, before she even had a blog. Instantly hooked, I added my voice to the rising chorus of #hopejahrensurecanwrite urging her to start a blog so we could get more from her virtual pen. I am constantly blown away by the astonishingly precise emotional power of her writing.
As you may have heard or read, Hope Jahren has a new book out, one that had even the notoriously hard to please Michiko Kakutani gushing praise at the New York Times, comparing the precise poetry and scientific imagination in her writing to that of the late great Oliver Sacks and Stephen Jay Gould! Other reviews of “Lab Girl” are unanimous in saying that Jahren’s writing will change the way you look at plants and at the world of science and nature.
My own amazement at plant lives, shaped in some part by Hope Jahren, has been exploding in recent years, as I read more about the astonishing things we continue to discover about their far from dull lives. Just this past week, I found myself urging my Intro Biology students out of their post-lunch lethargy by telling them to contemplate the life of a plant. Boring… they responded, before I started telling them about some of the incredible things plants do. Luckily, I had this passage from Lab Girl to read to them:
“It might strike you as fantastic, but you really can hear plants growing in the Midwest. At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of cornfield on a perfectly still August day.”
And today, when we start the unit on Fungi, I expect to share this gem of an observation:
“You may think a mushroom is a fungus. This is exactly like believing that a penis is a man.”
Somehow I was one of the lucky ones to receive an advance reader’s copy of Lab Girl, and have been meaning to write a review here. But this post ain’t it. Fan as I am of Hope Jahren’s writing, her book landed in my mailbox smack in the middle of the semester in an exceptionally busy and stressful year. I’ve started the book, but haven’t finished it yet, for… reasons…
I get the feeling that I may have pulled back from Hope Jahren’s book just a bit mainly as a perhaps misguided attempt to protect my time for things I must get done. And I don’t mean that Lab Girl isn’t something I must read – in fact I feel quite the opposite, that this book is more important than anything else right now, and therefore is something I must finish before anything else; and paradoxically, given the urgencies of other things, I’m forced to delay the gratification of immersing myself in this fantastic book because I have chores to finish. Why must one deny oneself such simple pleasures as reading a richly complex thing? Poorly structured procrastination? Lame excuse, I know, but I will allow myself to be swept away by Lab Girl very soon…
Meanwhile, my teenaged daughter S has swooped in and is devouring the book, savoring it slowly and reading particularly well-turned phrases and passages out loud to me from time to time. A budding writer herself, S delights in being swept away by Hope Jahren’s tales. After telling me more about it this weekend, and asking me how I could keep from finishing reading this book, S asked me to reread another thing which is her favorite from Jahren’s amazing blog: her open love letter to millennial women, which contains such passages as this:
“I finally understand why my mother was so adamant that I should not pierce my ears. Us old ladies have been disappointed to find that we are not so different from our male masters after all, when fear rotted our love into control. Your freedom terrifies us. In our day, if you admitted to being a lesbian, men tried to rape it out of you. For us, forty years of financial safety pragmatically trumped romance, and rendered purity before marriage one of many survival techniques. I struggle and hold my tongue, knowing deep down that you know best how to live in the world that you are creating. When you have time and pity, you are teaching me. You are better with people than I’ve ever been, naturally friendly and sweet.”
“Watching you from a distance, I like to think that you were born of the pain of my generation, of our punitive divorces and meager unfair paychecks and deadly IUDs. You are the precious daughters of the Revolution that we wanted, and of the broken-parts-missing Revolution that we got. When I am old and sick and ugly it will comfort me to know that you are the ones running the world.”
Indeed. Go read the whole love letter. Now. And then read the rest of her blog and bookmark it and add it to your RSS feed or whatever other device you have for keeping up with blogs. And buy and read her book “Lab Girl“.
I love these wintry days in the Central Valley when its dirty brown air has been washed out by the infrequent (but not this winter, gracias El Niño) rain and wrung out to dry with cottonball clouds hanging as if on invisible clotheslines across an impossibly blue sky. Days like this I can even see snow on the mountains of the Sierra Nevada from my office window, pulling my gaze away from the computer screen to wander off daydreaming…
View from my office window, drawing me away from my screen to the snow-frosted mountaintops of the Sierra Nevadas in the distance. This iPhone’s camera doesn’t do justice to what my eye sees…you may have to squint into the middle distance to glimpse the mountains underneath the floating clouds.
Such days I imagine were the norm in this valley a century ago, before our vehicles and agricultural industry started filling up the air with so many of our effluents as to turn this beautiful air into some of the least breathable in the nation, a murky brown veil hiding the mountains on most days of the year. Yet the people keep coming to fill up this valley, remaking it in our own industrial image, flattening the topography and bending the natural and ancient rhythms of this land and atmosphere to our will. Days like this remind me of those rhythms, of what once was, what might have been, and what could be again in this beautiful place, even as the vision of those mountains seems to melt away the grimy sealed glass pane on my office window out of which I goggle at that impossibly blue sky like a goldfish trapped in a bowl.
Urban conifers against that impossibly blue winter sky. There be Great Horned Owls in some of these trees…
That window glass is not thick enough to keep out the occasional soft hooting of the young Great Horned Owls hidden in the branches of those conifers, where they were raised a summer ago. And this morning, as I stepped out onto the external staircase, I was startled by the liquid burbling notes of a song that is common throughout the spring and summer around here, but shouldn’t be so loud so early in the year. A House Finch was sitting high up in one of the trees singing his heart out against a background humming with the urban noises of building atmospheric devices and traffic in the distance, and roaring with an occasional airplane flying over.
Looking out east from his high perch, I wonder if the House Finch noticed the snow on the mountains, or heard the chirping of the winter migrants in the trees nearby, but even if he did, these weren’t enough to dissuade him from following whatever internal hormonal clock was telling him it was time to start singing to attract a mate. Already, and it isn’t even the middle of January yet. Global warming, is it, or just the local warming effect from the urban heat island? No matter, this boy is already serenading the ladies about the bountiful spring to come.
Meanwhile, the chipping sounds you hear at the end of the sound clip above might well be the mild panic setting into the heart of the migrant Yellow-Rumped Warbler foraging in the branches nearby, perhaps wondering if it was time to leave its winter ground already even though the air felt cold and the clouds spoke of more rain to come.
Its been a topsy turvy winter (or a few) in California, and living in these disconnected urban landscapes beneath the gaze of those parched snow-covered mountains must be discombobulating even to the wild creatures trying to make this ever stranger land their home. I know the feeling well.
I had promised on this blog a long while ago that I would scan and make available online a copy of my article “Are Warblers Less Important Than Tigers?”. This article was published in the long-out-of-print (but update: still available via Amazon) book “In Danger” edited by Paola Manfredi (with photographs by Joanna van Gruisen who was the one who spotted my essay and solicited it for the book) for the Ranthambhore Foundation in India. To my continuing pleasant surprise and gratitude, this article continues to resonate with people in India (and elsewhere). It has been reprinted and anthologized several times. I keep getting requests (two in the past week) from people who want to reprint it, distribute it among students or citizens interested in conservation, and continue to share it widely. For what I was then told, as a Ph.D. student, to consider a rather frivolous bit of writing because it was not SERIOUS SCIENCE published in a PEER REVIEWED JOURNAL, this essay has probably had a much broader impact than many of my more seriousscience papers. Depending on how one measures such impact, of course, and something for my more seriousscientist colleagues to consider as some of them keep looking down upon time spent writing for a broader audience outside of peer-reviewed journals.
Anyway, pardon me for being late in keeping my promise, but I have finally scanned the original article, and invite you to read and share it as you please. Do let me know what you think of it too, if so inclined.
But, really, this IS the Worst Allergy Season ever:
Worst Allergy Season ever! (image via Comedy Central and Salon)
How can that be, you ask, even as you stare at that rising graph? Watch the full Daily Show clip (below), which is a brilliant example of how to communicate science—in this case a statistically observed pattern—in a hilarious fashion that will nevertheless have you scratching your head and make you go “hmm…” (and perhaps sneeze).
As funny as Jon Stewart is in that report, he is also brilliantly accurate in demonstrating the statistically and biologically valid fact that each year of the past decade has, in fact, seen the WORST ALLERGY SEASON yet on record! That correlation showed by the spokesman for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America is a result of, you guessed it, Global Warming / Climate Change!
Well, more accurately, that correlation is a result of increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere, thanks to all the fossil fuel we’ve been burning up like there is no tomorrow. Experiments with plants grown in the controlled environments of greenhouses show that if you increase the amount or concentration of CO2 in the air, plants will increase the amount of pollen they produce, This is part of the broader growth response of plants to increased CO2 levels. More specifically, some plants (like the notorious ragweed which is one of the biggest allergen producers) make more (if smaller) flowers, and invest even more in producing pollen as CO2 levels increase. Now that we’ve turned the whole planet into a giant greenhouse with ever rising CO2 concentrations, this is what we can look forward to in terms of pollen production:
This means, unless we start bringing CO2 levels in the atmosphere down (listen to the Pope, for god’s sake!) quickly, we will continue to face allergy seasons that get worse every year, along with the real danger that television news programs will run out of dire metaphors to describe the rising tide of pollen that will kill us all!!!
Meanwhile, let’s celebrate all the other plants which have enlisted the services of dedicated pollinators to carry out their mating rituals. Make the most of this high CO2: go plant some non-allergenic flowering plants which will attract some lovely pollinators to your yard and add a dash of beauty to your day.
As excitement builds for tonight’s opening of the new Jurassic World, I (like many of you no doubt) am remembering the magical experience of our very first visit to see the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, several decades ago
My experience of Jurassic Park, though, was somewhat unique, because I enjoyed it in two vastly different theaters on opposite sides of the world, and at opposite extremes of the cinema-viewing technology (and audience) spectrum.
I vividly remember the visceral experience of seeing it for the first time upon release, in one of the then brand new dolby surround sound equipped multiplexes in San Diego. I was a graduate student in the University of California, San Diego at the time, and on campus in between field seasons in southern India when the movie came out on this very date in June 1993. As a biologist (studying dinosaurs, very tiny ones, as it turns out), and a cinephile, of course I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of watching dinosaurs come to roaring life in crystal clarity on the big screen, in one of the newest theaters, stadium seating and all! I remember the sheer thrill of seeing this for the first time:
This must be everyone’s favorite scene from the movie, surely! What had Steven Spielberg unleashed upon the cinematic world?!
Thrilled as I was with every scene bringing dinosaurs back to vivid digital life, though, I was also left disappointed at the rather one-dimensional caricature almost every human character had been reduced to from the already limited dimensionality in the source material. Yeah, yeah, we scientists like to complain about how poorly we are represented on film, and I could rage at a long list of cinematic transgressions against science and scientists, not just in the Jurassic Park movies. Nevertheless, that scene when we first meet the dinosaurs grazing on the plains remains indelible in my cinematic memory – even without the help of YouTube. And for that we must all be grateful for the wizardry of Spielberg and his crew.
A year later, the film finally reached the distant backwaters of rural Tamil Nadu in Southern India where I was doing field research on these migratory Green Leaf Warblers (little dinosaurs, as we now know them to be, true) on Mundanthurai plateau:
My local field assistants invited me to join them on an 8 km bicycle ride out of the woods and down the hill into the nearest town, for an evening at the cinema that could not have been more different from the experience in San Diego.
The amazing Sankaran and Kumar who made many a Ph.D. possible. Seen here with our toddler daughter, and a Slender Loris they had just caught for Kaberi.
This “theater” in Ambasamudram, the only one for many miles around, was in fact a massive warehouse / barn building, with a cloth screen strung up at one end, flanked by big box speakers sitting on the floor, and no seats! Instead of seats, the enormous bare floor curiously had a rope running right through the middle, dividing it into two long halves facing the screen. The mystery of the rope was solved after we had rushed in with the throngs waiting in long lines outside: it was a barrier to keep the male and female members of the audience separate. Obviously, with no seats, the cinema owners could squeeze in (and I do mean that literally) as many viewers as was physically possible. The cacophonous crowd quieted down as soon as the projector was turned on, for this was an audience in perhaps the most cinema-crazy state in India, having elected multiple film stars as chief ministers of the state.
The audience reaction to what followed on screen left me even more astonished than the film itself.
For in that rustic “theater”, packed in like cattle, watching a film entirely in American with no subtitles or dubbing, this Tamil-speaking audience reacted almost identically to the one munching popcorn in the plush stadium seats in California. The gasps of awe at the dinosaurs were, of course, to be expected and relished, but what really surprised me were the reactions to the human characters speaking largely incomprehensible American. The naughty chaotician’s cheesy jokes were laughed at, the old grandpa admired and then critiqued, and the T. rex cheered enthusiastically – especially when it ate the lawyer! Even though lawyers were seldom as prominent or despicable in rural Tamil Nadu as they are in the States.
That is when the true cinematic genius of Speilberg hit me: for he had, in reducing the human characters to simple tropes, turned them into human universals that anyone could relate to (or revile) – something that would likely not have happened had he worried about satisfying the picky nerd audience like me instead. My hat was therefore off to Spielberg as, indeed, a truly great B-movie director.
As we cycled back in the night, high on the adrenalin rush from the movie – and from having battled the throngs in exiting that crazy cinema hall – Sankaran and Kumar could not stop talking and asking me about the movie, and about dinosaurs, and how they had made them come to life on screen. We talked about them for days afterwards, while catching warblers in mistnets, or just walking through Mundanthurai’s forests. Hard core committed local conservationists as these two were, their newfound love of dinosaurs turned into wishful thinking: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could actually release one of the monster dinosaurs into this forest, sir? That will take care of all the poachers killing wildlife here! That’ll show them!”
The film also spawned perhaps the cleverest bit of political art I have ever seen. At the Tirunelveli bus station some months later, I stood and marveled and laughed silently at a poster mocking the then Chief Minister (and ex movie superstar) Jayalalitha (Jaya-Amma for short): it mimicked the iconic film poster, the one with the profile of the T. rex with the words “Jurassic Park” across it:
Except, the profile was that of Jaya-Amma, and the banner read “Jayassic Park“! To my eternal regret, I did not have a camera with me that day, nor did I think to peel the poster off the wall and steal it at the time. Jaya-Amma herself has had a remarkable political resurrection recently, having survived corruption scandals and jail time, only to come roaring back to devour Tamil Nadu politics again. Just as the dinosaurs are back on the big screen this weekend.
So hat’s off again, to Spielberg, and to the anonymous local artist who designed such iconic posters! And to Sankaran and Kumar, who will no doubt go to see the dinosaurs return to the theaters in Ambasamudram (I don’t know what they are like these days, but Google tells me that that little town has more than one theater now) soon. Perhaps with their children this time. And they may again wish for some dinosaurs in their backyards to keep their beloved forests intact.
Meanwhile I prepare to see it in California this weekend, with my 10-year-old self-proclaimed paleonerd daughter who is really excited about it because, she says, “It’s gonna be so stupid! They will get so many things wrong about the dinosaurs! It’ll be fun!!” That it certainly promises to be.
I woke up this spring break morning to a bit of a buzz on twitter that seems relevant to concerns I’ve expressed here in the past, and to my job as a prof at a CSU campus (and no, it wasn’t some April Fool’s prank). Terry McGlynn (fellow ecologist from CSU-Dominguez Hills) has a new post up on his blog Small Pond Science expressing some consternation that Harvard’s 6700 undergraduates received exactly the same number of NSF’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships as did the 392,951 students in the entire CSU system this year. He then reflects on some of the challenges of helping our students succeed in science careers in the face of what appear to be larger scale institutional and systemic barriers and constraints (if not active biases).
This bit at the end of Terry’s post resonates with me:
Not that long after I started my job at CSU Dominguez Hills, a good friend of mine came to visit campus and give a talk. I was griping about a series of challenges I consistently face, like riding a bike into a very strong wind. He was telling me how he was thrilled for the potential in front of me. I remember how he said it: I had the chance to literally remake the [white] face of ecology. Every student that I send on to graduate school would have a measurable effect. If I wanted to make change, then, he argued, then this is the perfect place for it. And I’m a guy who can make that happen.
I think he’s right. As several years have passed, I draw on this conversation for inspiration. I really need that inspiration for moments like these, when I realize how hard I have to pedal into the wind, when students at more privileged institutions have the wind at their backs. If we are going to make science equitable, then it must come from institutions like mine. If opportunity continues to overpass us, then the injustice persists.
Sometimes, I really feel like I want to stop pedaling. I have that option, but my students don’t.
I know the feeling of pedaling into that strong wind. I have been pedaling into that wind for over a decade now.
Terry’s post has triggered some good (and some frustrating) discussion both on his blog, and on social media. Some agree that there is a problem, others find his analysis superficial in not really looking at the demographics of who applies for and who gets NSF’s GRFs across the board. Yes, more in depth analysis would be useful and might help us crack the tough nut of how to get more underrepresented students and groups into science. I suspect someone may be doing more of this analysis already, and will look for such. Meanwhile, there are those asserting that this is nothing but meritocracy working at its best already – or perhaps even against merit in the opposite direction, because Harvard students are, but of course, better prepared and more interested in getting into PhD programs and are therefore more likely to be applying for these fellowships. So, if anything, they are being penalized by not getting way more GRFs than the CSU students. Must be nice up in that meritocracy.
by Dr. Madhusudan Katti, Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Fresno November 2014.
What is the value of a university education? What is the price of a university education? How much does society value education as a public good?
We must pause to ponder these questions as we head into another holiday season, when we gather to give thanks for what we have, and are urged to share with those less fortunate. As a professor at a public university, I have a vested interest in how we answer these questions. For I am appalled by the fact that more and more of my students are among those less fortunate in today’s society, and yet we are not doing enough to help them.
We might as well ask students to plop down their credit cards when they arrive, as we put their diploma on layaway to be collected after they’ve paid the full price of tuition over 4-6 years. How much can or should they care about actually learning anything, on an often empty belly, given the high price-tag on that diploma? We have let education become a commodity transaction between overworked, underpaid, insecure faculty teaching overloaded classes full of hungry, indebted students facing uncertain futures.
Agricultural universities like Fresno State might offer food pantries to help students, although charity is the last thing they need. The federal government may lower interest rates on student loans. Real lasting solutions, though, require fundamental changes in how we fund and run universities, to empower students. American society must do some soul searching to decide what the real value of education is, not just for the individual student seeking a job, but for a once advanced nation that has lost its way. Lady liberty may hold a beacon welcoming the hungry, tired, huddled masses to America. In my university classroom though, I urge you to send me eager well-fed students, hungry only for knowledge.
That is the broader context within which we must try to prepare our students for careers in science, encouraging underrepresented minority students with no cultural inheritance of science (or even university education at all) in their familial backgrounds to get into science PhD programs at a time when we also lament the overproduction of PhDs in the sciences! That is the context within which we must recognize the place of science/STEM education, and figure out how we can make science more representative and inclusive.
That is the wind into which we must keep pedaling our bicycles so we might help more of our students (and not just the “low-hanging fruit”) get up on that shiny hill of meritocracy.
That useful reminder comes from the main human protagonist of this beautifully told story (see video below) of how elephants and people can coexist, even in places with a relatively high density of people sharing habitat with a small but resilient population of elephants.
Over the course of but a century and a half, less than two elephant lifetimes, a rainforest-clad mountain in southern India known as Anamalai, the Elephant Hills (in Tamil), has become a mosaic of tea plantations, coffee estates, and the settlements of people laboring in those “working landscapes”. The original rainforest habitat of thousands of native species now clings to the interstices of this mosaic, with a few big patches under protection, but many smaller ones facing the vagaries of “mixed use” by humans and non-humans alike.
In most places on Earth, I daresay, this would seem like an unlikely place for a population of elephants to persist. Especially when you consider how their kin in Africa have been slaughtered in recent years even in far less populated places, to slake distant markets for ivory. Yet, here in southern India, a different dynamic is at play, for the local people worship the elephants even as they work their habitats to satisfy other human needs. The elephants too have discovered that there is often more food to be found in the human plantations than in the diminished forests.
Conflict is inevitable when two dominant species compete to appropriate the primary productivity of any landscape. When one of the species is Homo sapiens, the inevitable outcome is seldom a good one for the other species. Yet a cultural reverence for the elephants has combined with the relatively low price placed on ordinary human lives in this part of the world to allow for a tenuous coexistence of sorts. With 39 human lives lost in the past two decades, the elephant god has extracted a bigger sacrifice than might be tolerated in places like the United States.
Now Ananda Kumar and colleagues from the Nature Conservation Foundation (an organization with which I am proud to be associated since its inception, through bonds of friendship and collaboration) tell the story of this coexistence between humans and elephants, and how they have worked to find ways to reduce that human toll and keep both elephants and humans out of harm’s (i.e., each others’) way. And this step forward in the journey of coexistence has been made possible by harnessing some of the very technology that so many of us nature-lovers love to deride as alienating us from nature: cable television and mobile phones!
Watch the story (filmed by my friend Saravanakumar) of how Ananda Kumar and colleagues found ingenious ways to use modern communication technologies to facilitate an ancient coexistence between two species who have long shared habitat in southern India:
Living in harmony with nature – that phrase evokes romantic notions of indigenous people living off the land in lives we imagine to be wonderful and harmonious and wise, but may in reality have been closer to “nasty, brutish, and short”. Nature lovers and conservations love to hate modern technology and blame it for many of our social-ecological ills. This project, and its success in saving human and elephant lives, shows us that we can, in fact, reconcile human development through technology, with the conservation of nature in the constant journey towards coexistence. It is a journey that requires sacrifice, and coexistence may have to be paid for in blood, but technology can soften the blow, even for the most vulnerable among us.
I can’t tell you how glad I am, as a father of daughters growing up in today’s world, that we have Emily Graslie’s voice, inspiring them every day in ways that I cannot, building their confidence so they too can add their voices to the conversation, as the discoverers and adventurers and explorers they are, without worrying about what anyone thinks of them.