Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fast Learners or Slow Movers?

Well, I'm excited to say that the actual experiment part of my research project is slowly coming to a close. Our last set of toads is in controlled feeding right now (that reminds me, I should feed them....), and next week we'll begin our last set of trials! I'm a little amazed that it's almost over. I mean, I've got 2 weeks left, and then all of my experiments will be done. Now, on to that video data collection and statistical analysis (gulp)......

During the trials we've conducted this fall, I've noticed a strange trend with the toads here in the lab. You see, they just don't move around as much as the toads in Panama. Why do I think this? Well for one thing, the toads here never try to escape the area. Never. The toads in Panama tried all the time! Are the toads here just beat down from living a life in cattle tanks? Do they no that there's no escape? Or is there something more to it?

The toads here that go through control trials really don't move around a lot. After the first one or two trials, when the realize there's no incentive to explore the arena, they all pretty much hope to one corner and sit. What's really interesting to me is that even the toads who have food in their trials, if they don't find it in the first one or two trials, express the same behavior. It's like they just don't care enough to look anymore. It's definitely an interesting phenomenon, and something I'd like to explore further.

The last learning trial of a control toad from Panama:

Compare that to the last learning trial of a control toad from the lab:

Kind of a big difference, huh? It's a very interesting phenomena, but right now, it's just making me frustrated. If a control toad doesn't even bother to move around the arena, how am I supposed to test to see if he can locate bowls on his last trial? The spatial component of this experiment just isn't working out - 4 of the 5 control toads never even moved to a bowl location, whether they be new or old.

What do you guys and gals make of this?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Grad School: It's not JUST about research...

Sometimes, life gets ahold of you and blocks of time disappear that you can't account for, no matter how hard you try. For example, it's October 27th - OCTOBER. Where did the semester GO? Where did 2011 go, for that matter? People always say that time speeds up as you get older, and I really think that's true.... I remember an hour seemed like forever when I was a kid, but now an hour is a blip on the radar and goes by in a second.

The theme of this busier-than-ever semester seems to be writing; aside from writing this blog (which I really, really try to make time for, I promise!) I have 2 manuscripts in progress, another 1 or 2 manuscript ideas waiting in the wings, several writing projects for my actual courses, and a wonderful surprise article for a Canadian museum magazine, which I was totally unprepared for but really excited about writing. This fall I also planned to attend 2 conferences, which means preparing a poster and a presentation as well. One of those is over and behind me (and was an INCREDIBLE experience), but the presentation is still to come, next month. I am also deep in the process of writing a fairly prestigious grant (which I probably won't get) and applying to a PhD program for next fall (which I probably -and hopefully- will get). With all of this going on, I am also spearheading a graduate student effort to revamp some of the teaching components of the TAs in our department, including a complete revision of an evaluation form and working with a doctoral-candidate-turned-post-doc to develop an inclusive training program for new graduate students. Oh, and also.... there's my research to work on. Whew.

This is by no means a "let's brag about my accomplishments" post, so I hope it's not coming off that way so far! My goal here was to show you that graduate school is definitely not just about the research. There are so many other things that you can get involved in, whether you plan to or not. A lot of the things I am doing are more for me because I love them and feel passionately about them, rather than actual requirements. Graduate school is a very unique time in a person's life. You have the opportunity to get involved in a lot of different things and try them on for size, see what you like and what you don't, and strategically plan your next move as an adult. I really feel like this is the time in my life where I am finally growing up. There are things I do now and opinions I have that are drastically different that what they were 2 years ago. I feel like I am ready to take on the next challenge - but first, I need to finish my research thesis and graduate!!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fine-scale behaviors vs. Coarse-scale movements

One of the central things I am focusing on with the toad experiments, besides learning, is exploratory behavior. This is something that has been very challenging to think about, because toads aren't usually thought of as 'explorers'. Most animals used for these types of experiments are mammals and birds, who have very specific behaviors that can be characterized as 'exploratory' (i.e. a mouse moving it's whiskers and sniffing an object, or a bird turning its head to look about itself). Toads, however, don't really have fine-scale movements that are historically classified as exploratory. From watching them for so long, I know that they will re-position their heads and bodies to see an object or area better, but it's very hard to tell if they're doing that from the camera angle that we have, which is what we need to get the entire arena in the video frame. It's a trade-off I had to make at the very beginning of the experiment - I couldn't have fine scale video that would capture all of the toads' behaviors, AND coarse-scale video that could capture the entire arena. Clearly, I chose coarse-scale. In the end, I'm more interest about the movement of the toads around the arena, rather than their movement in a specific area or context.

Coarse-scale: The whole arena is in the picture, but you can't really see what the toad is doing
(can you spot the toad in the picture?) 

Fine-scale: A great view of the toad's body position, posture and behavior, but we can't see the whole arena
(not good for pinpointing location within the arena)

BUT.... I'm still interested in exploratory behavior. So what to do, what to do?

Do you have any ideas for me? How can we still look at exploration without being able to see what the toad is doing up close?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Supporting Toads in California!

This week I'm heading to Anaheim for the National Association of Biology Teachers Professional Development Conference (NABT for short). This is my first national conference by myself; I'm really excited! Better yet, I will be presenting a poster about Adventures in Toading, and it's use for connecting research to education. I'm hoping to reach a new audience and make some new contacts, and also learn about what science teachers really need from outreach programs such as this one.

I'm heading out on Wednesday afternoon and won't be back until Sunday night, but you can definitely expect a post about the conference next week. Until then, here's a great resource that I just linked on my main page:

The Texas Parks and Wildlife website for amphibian conservation and outreach - they have a ton of information about Texas frogs and toads, how to go "frogging", and how to get involved with amphibian research. You can read my synopsis at the bottom of this page.  They also have a PowerPoint presentation with great slides highlighting the most common anurans in Texas. Check out two of my favorites here:

That's all for now - see you in California! :)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

And so it goes...

So the research is a'going - nothing new to report this week, just more of the same. We're a little over halfway done with set 2 toads, and they're doing basically the same things that the Panama toads did... which is good, I think. I won't really know until I get all of the data collected and analyzed, which will be sometime around the winter break... so we'll see what happens!

For now, this great website appeared in my inbox this morning:

SpongeLab has all sorts of great games and simulations for learning about STEM fields. You have to register to use the resources on the website, but it's free so far as I can tell, so it's totally worth it. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Data, data, everywhere, and not a trend to believe!

Am I talking about my data? No, thank Darwin.

Today I'd like to talk about a problem that we're continually facing as a society; the overload of information that reaches our ears and eyes - especially in the form of numbers! It seems like I can't turn on the TV these days without seeing some new statistic about what will kill me or what kind of food I should eat. Seriously people, do I eat the egg yolks or not?? Make up your minds!

I'm currently taking a statistics course taught by a brilliant biological statistician at Texas Tech. He's one of those teachers that you just sit and absorb; I imagine if I was a scholar at the School of Athens, I would feel the same way about Plato or Socrates, but I digress. Statistics is what I want to talk about today. Numbers. It's hard to know what numbers to believe; how do we tell the fact from the fiction?

Unfortunately, the only way to find out what's real is to fact-check every piece of information you see. The best way to do this is get on Google Scholar and find the primary resource. Thankfully in science, the peer-review process of publication almost always weeds out those claims that are based in fiction or "noisy" data. But sometimes, those papers still slip through the cracks. We only know as much as those who've done science before us, and we can only do as much as the current technology allows us to. Sometimes it's hard to believe that at one time it was commonly thought that the Earth was flat - and that notion was probably based on something science-like!

So why am I taking the time to talk about this? Well, I think it's important that I (and you and everyone else) don't just absorb all of the information we hear, no matter what the source - with popular media, you never really know the source of the information. The only way to find the true meaning behind all the numbers is to look at the numbers yourself!

And on that note, an interesting email came through my inbox this morning; a post about using climate change and other "hot" environmental topics' data sets to boost inquiry learning in the classroom. Don't worry, I have a link: Macroecology Environmental Education. This website, funded through the ESA (Ecological Society of America), has valuable information about how to use data sets in the classroom, and some resources and links to example data sets. This sort of resource exemplifies one of the hardest parts of science to translate for students; we know what we know because of numbers. Mind effectively blown.

How do you feel about data sets? Do large batches of numbers make you want to scream and run away? Don't worry, you're not alone! :)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Working overtime - good stuff :)

This week's post is going to be short and sweet - I've been hard to put some finishing touches on my personal portfolio website. Without further ado - here it is! :)

Website Link:

Please leave me comments on things you'd like to see, or ways I can make the information easier to access. Enjoy!