Tuesday, August 30, 2011

When Designing an Experiment, Creativity is the Key!

In the next few days I'm going to try and start 'mobile blogging' - that is, start blogging from my smart phone. I'm hoping this will keep me on track with remembering to do updates on the right days. Unfortunately, I've got schedules in 3 places right now (desktop calendar, google calendar and iPhone reminders) and none of the are quite synced up. I'm working on this, too - the first couple of weeks back at school are always crazy with commitments, and I clearly need a better way to keep track of it all. But enough about me, let's talk about science!

We're gearing up to start the first set of trials with the Lubbock toads next week, so this week has been mainly about getting the arena set back up. As you may know, the arena we used in Panama was considered 'semi-outdoors' (since it was under a concrete block house, with a concrete floor), however the arena we use in the lab is in a completely controlled environment. Our lab is actually in a basement, so we control everything; temperature, humidity, light, and noise. This can be good, but it can also be time consuming to set up. For example, I need to make sure that the lighting during arena trials is as close to natural moonlight levels as possible. Clearly, it is challenging to mimic the moon! Lucky for us, you can purchase light bulbs that 'mimic' moonlight - that is to say, they should have the same light intensity as the low levels of light that radiate off the moon.
I purchased two of these bulbs and two light fixtures, and I plan to get those set up in the next couple of days.

If you've got your 'scientist hat' on, I bet you're thinking, "but how do we really know if these bulbs are the the same as the moonlight in Panama??" Well, that is a great question. Unfortunately, we don't know..... but we can test it! We can use a spectrophotometer to measure the intensity of the light emitted bythe moonlight bulbs(usually measured in watts). We can then compare this to measurements of actual light intensity from the moon taken in Gamboa. Since moonlight is actually a range of intensities, from dark nights with no moon to nights that are very bright with a full moon, it is likely that the moonlight bulbs will fall somewhere within that range. I'll post pictures as soon as I get the bulbs set up, and show you how it's done!

Meanwhile, back at the lab, we have another slight logistical problem.You see, a long time ago, way back in April, I met with my committee to discuss my research proposal. When I talked about comparing data between the Panama and Florida toad populations and using the same arena in both places, one of my committee members asked me if cinder blocks in Panama are the same size as cinder blocks in the U.S. "Of course they are!" I said, and he chuckled and shook his head. Fast forward 2 months, to early June when I am setting up my arena in Panama, and low and behold, the blocks are differently sized! Luckily, they are the same in height and width, but Panamanian cinder blocks just so happen to be 1 1/2 inches (approx.) longer than American cinder blocks. Now I know, and you do too, in case that shows up on Jeopardy one day. So anyways, I knew this was going to be an issue I would need to deal with, but I put it out of my mind and told myself I would deal with it when I returned to Lubbock.

So, here I am, back in Lubbock and dealing with the issue. I checked out a few masonry companies around town, but it seems the standard is 16" long for cinder blocks (I need 17 1/2"). Then I had one of those rare moments of genius - extend the blocks I already have! But how? I looked into clay and plaster, but most of these materials are messy, expensive, and apparently don't hold up well in moist situations. What to do, what to do. Then, I had yet another moment of truth: 

Concrete! Of course! I used concrete in the past to make pretty sturdy stepping stones, so why not make little block-extensions? So with that, I ran my idea by my advisor, and was off to Home Depot for supplies. I found fast-drying concrete, some 1"x3" unfinished wood, wood screws and a circular saw (that I bought on my own - every lady needs power tools). Two days and a lot of measuring and cutting later, and here's what I got: 

Modifying some instructions I found online for making pavers, I made wooden frames and filled them 1" deep with sand. Then I marked off where I should fill the cement to, and coated the wood in vegetable oil (to keep the cement from sticking). Here's what the frame looks like full of concrete :

I made 5 total frames and filled them up. I need 13 total extenders, so I'll need to do this 2 more times. 

After about 24 hours of setting, we'll see what the concrete blocks look like, and if they're usable, then we're good to go! 

Sometimes, all you need is a little inspiration, and something that seems like a problem can turn into a craft project. :)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Life, through the eyes of scientists

While perusing the internet this afternoon, I found an amazing blog and some great posts about humanity and the self, and psychological research in general. While most of it would probably bore or confuse you, I think this whimsically beautiful video is definitely worth sharing.

A Record Of Life from Owen Gatley and Luke Jinks on Vimeo.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Well, I've already messed up my schedule. I apologize. I will post Thursday's message at noon today.

Until then, please enjoy this video that was posted on my labmate's Facebook account this morning:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Research: What's in it for me?

Since school starts this week for most of the country (including us at Texas Tech!), I thought I'd use this week's posts to talk about the value of research. We always hear about research related to cancer or stem cells or new cures for disease, and often we will read about this study or that study that found medicines safe to use. But what about all of the other research that goes on outside of the medical field? Occasionally we'll hear about a new, innovative behavior that we've never seen before, but often times these discoveries are buried under tons of headlines about medical research. I'm definitely not putting down medical research or casting aside its importance, but I think the public (aka you guys and gals) should be made more aware of the different kinds of research that go on. If you are interested in science but aren't interested in medicine, there is still a TON of stuff you can do, and many possible careers out there for you!

Often times when I'm out with a new group of people and I'm asked what I do for a living, I say "I'm a behavioral ecologist". Now, I think we can all agree that most people have no idea what that is, and so they ask what I do. Then I say, "well, I study frogs". Sometimes it's left at that, but sometimes they want to know more. I usually explain a little about my research and about what I'm looking for in the toads. Usually people are satisfied with that, but once or twice I've had people say, "OK, so then what? Why should I care if toads are smart?" Well, you know what I say to them? "BINGO! I wish everyone asked me that question!"

So, why should YOU care if toads are smart? Two words: invasive potential. I may be looking at how toads learn about novel environments, but what I'm really interested in is invasive potential, or the likelihood of a non-native species to become established (breeding and flourishing on its own) after being introduced to an area that it is not normally found in. Invasive species are a huge problem all over the world; they can potentially outcompete native species, change the community structure of the environment, and in the worst cases, cause local extinction (or extirpation) of native species. If learning about potential resources and remembering their locations increases invasive potential, then we are one step closer to not only understanding why some translocated species become invasive, but to possibly predicting what species might become invasive in the future and proactively stopping that from happening. 

And so, that's why you should care if toads are smart. Are you convinced?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Learning vs. Memory: What's the Difference?

As I mentioned in Tuesday's post, I attended the ESA conference in Austin last week. It was quite a lot of fun, and I especially enjoyed the 2 behavior-related topic sessions that I was able to attend. Both of my favorite talks were, of course, about spatial mobility and foraging theory (if I were a brainiac modeling scientist, I would be a theoretical mathematician. Optimal theory makes me weak in the knees). During the Q&A of a particularly fascinating talk, someone asked the speaker to clarify a point from the presentation, which ultimately led to the question, "What's the difference between learning and memory?" The speaker stammied a bit and came up with the answer, but I left the session with a slight nagging feeling at the back of my brain.

A few days later, I was still thinking about this question. As scientists, we have a tendency to define the world around us in very discreet terms. We label things, categorize them, give them names and describe their behaviors. But when you think about the types of words you can use to describe a particular behavior or action, we seem to see a gray area. For example, one of the "hot topics" in Animal Behavior right now is animal personalities, and there are quite a few papers by several authors who attempt to define the terminology used in this field. The unfortunate thing is that everyone defines terms different, so to someone outside of the field or a novice just picking it up, it's very confusing to figure out what is actually meant by all of these different words. Are these researchers correctly identifying key differences in the words we use to think about their branch of science, or are they all just re-describing the same phenomena in a slightly different way?

If you think about the words "Learning" and "Memory" in a general way, you would imagine that they are probably the same. In the world of behavior and learning, however, they really do mean different things.

Memory is, as one would think, remembering information. For example, let's say remembering where something is located in space. When you go to Walmart you park your car, go inside and go shopping, then return to your car. But how do you get back to your car? Do you walk up and down all of the aisles looking at the different cars until you see yours? Usually we remember where we park our cars and take the shortest possible route to get back to them (because it's 100 degrees and I don't want my ice cream to melt!). This is memory. But would you say that you learned where your car is parked? Probably not.

Learning, as defined broadly, is a relatively permanent change in behavior, resulting from experience. The speaker at ESA defined learning as "constantly updating the information that you use to make decisions." Say you discover a secret parking area on the side of the Walmart building that always has a few empty spots and is a lot closer than where you normally park. If the next time you go to Walmart, you check this new area to see if a spot is open first, then that's learning. You've updated your information about available parking spots and are using the new information to benefit yourself.

It's important to define vocabulary in science writing, because concepts that are very close in meaning in layman's terms tend to have slightly different meanings than one might think. What do you think the difference is between "Learning" and "Memory"? How about the difference between those words and "Acquiring Information"?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Back in Action for Fall 2011!

Hi everybody!

Thank you for bearing with me while I took a short break - between wrapping up the last few days of trials, packing all of our equipment and gear (not to mention my own things!), and heading back to the U.S., it was quite a busy couple of weeks.

In order to keep Adventures in Toading alive and running this fall, I've made an executive decision. Instead of posting information as I get it and kind of being all over the place, I'm going to do scheduled posts twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Having a schedule will be better for me (because I will have set times and days to post, and I won't forget during the busy school year), and better for you as well (you'll know exactly when I'll be putting up new information).

On Tuesdays, I'll post about research - either mine, a lab mate's or something that's been recently published that I find interesting and relevant. I am also planning to do 2 special feature posts each month; a "How To" which will talk about how to build experimental setups, put together ideas, and create other general items and strategies for conducting a research project. The other will be a "Real World Update", which will cover information from a recent journal article that is particularly relevant to the real world, and could even influence you!

On Thursdays, I'll post general discussion topics such as Animal Behavior, careers as a scientist, the science stigma, and so forth. Feel free to use these discussion topics in class or with your friends, or leave a comment with your opinion. I'm excited to hear what everyone has to say.

Since today is Tuesday, it's time for my research update. I am pleased to report that almost everything went off without a hitch this summer; I've got complete experiment data for 20 cane toads, and 5 trials worth of data for 7 leaf litter toads. This means lots of video analysis for me in the next few weeks. I am about halfway done running the cane toad videos through Ethovision, but I still have to do all of the leaf litter toads. I didn't pay any attention to what was going on during those trials, but there were some mealworms missing from bowls, so it will be interesting to see if they actually ate, or if the mealworms were just escaping (the little ones are really good at crawling out or burrowing down into the tape that covers the bowls). So yeah, video analysis is in my future. Also, I'll be going back to Lubbock at the end of this week, and rebuilding the arena in the cane toad lab. Then, in a few weeks, we'll be starting the whole experiment all over again with the toads from the lab. Busy, busy fun times for me!

As a parting note, I'll leave you with a video from the Ecological Society of America (ESA) 2011 Conference, which was here in Austin, Texas last week. Professional conferences like these gather a large crowd - ESA usually has about 4,000 attendees! - and serve as a giant venue for ecologists to get together, talk about research, network, and do other ecology-related activities. This year's conference was in the live music capital of the world, so of course there was a local band playing every day at lunch break. And of course, no matter how old or young, in the field or not, ecologists just know how to have fun. :)