Perpetual emergency

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, ID coordinates and supports US wildland firefighting efforts.

Our nation’s forests are in crisis. Wildfire. I suspect few are unaware of this situation, which seems to grow more intense every summer. Our forests are old and packed full of fuel, ready to light up in an instant. So ready, in fact, that sparks flying off a flat tire were enough to ignite what became the Carr fire, a catastrophe that consumed more than 229,000 acres, 1,600 structures, and $158 million.

Last week 22,000 government personnel were devoted to the fire-fighting effort. I was one of them. Several agencies work together to provide people and resources, some permanent and some temporary, like me, for what is loosely termed an emergency. With about 100 large wildfires currently burning across the US, contributing to a count of more than 46,000 for the season so far, resources and people are stretched thin. They work long hours, some for months at a time, with few days off. At the point of physical exhaustion, they search deep inside for resolve to continue. They find it, in reserves long-programmed in the human genetic code, a remnant of the perseverance needed when the struggle to survive was an aspect of daily life.

For me, the initial excitement of participating in this massive forest-rescue effort induced an opioid-like high that lasted several days, eventually transforming into exhaustion. I found a rhythm in 12-hour night shifts dictated by details and updates from the previous day’s fires. Night after night, my adept counterpart from the BLM and I carefully combed each fire’s report for information on growth and impending threats to people and infrastructure. By 5:30 am, we compiled the relevant numbers and key phrases into a quantitative, narrative report that summarized the day’s fire activity across the US. As we left for bed at dawn, the day shift arrived, ready to review the report. Experts in fire management, they made decisions on how and where to distribute limited resources and personnel. By the end of the day, fire reports flood in, and the process begins again. This was my world for only 14 days. For others, and for the fire-ravaged landscape, the rhythm continues until winter, when cold and precipitation put an official end to fire season.

In the literal sense of the Forest Service mission, we care for the land and serve people by fighting wildfire. Fire is by far the greediest program. It overshadows others, many of which are sustainable approaches to manage forested land. Fire itself, of course, is not the enemy. We are. We leveled the continent’s trees when we settled and expanded, then refused to let fire reset forest ecosystems for nearly a century. Now, as a result, we’re in a perpetual state of emergency. I saw the solution communicated best on a bumper sticker; it said “use fire to fight fire”. Prescribed fire is an offensive move that we can’t quite seem to use effectively…maybe because we’re constantly on the defense?

We’re fighting a dragon that we created. Can we win?


Academic and government careers are popular for both men and women in the natural sciences

Dr. Maureen McClung (far right) with students next to an observation bee hive used for studying the impacts of anthropogenic noise on bee foraging behavior. Image credit: Rose Thurman.

Following the thread of a previous post, I explore the career types of graduates reported by the faculty and mentor respondents. Most of the time faculty knew what their former students were currently up to, and reported career type for 1304 of the total 1704 students I examined in the previous post.

I first examined where graduates ended up relative to peers of the same gender; then in a later post, I will look at gender occupancy within each career type.

By field, trends were similar for men and women, for most career types. Academic careers were most common among both women and men in biology and ecology (see Fig. 1), and for men only in entomology (see Fig. 2). In biology, nearly half, 43% and 46%, of female and male graduates, respectively, ended up in academic careers (research-, teaching-, or administration-focused). In ecology, very similar percentages, 47% and 45% of female and male graduates, respectively, resided in academic careers. In entomology, 29% and 41% of female and male graduates, respectively, held academic positions. In forest entomology, government careers were most common, especially for men, with academic careers being second-most common. Thirty-eight percent and 43% of female and male graduates, respectively, of forest entomology held government positions. Thirty-six percent and 34% of female and male forest entomology graduates, respectively, held academic positions.

The largest difference between men and women was in entomology, where far more women (37%) were no longer in science than in any other career type alone (Fig. 2).
Fig. 1. Percentage of female and male biology and ecology graduates in each career type.
Fig. 2. Percentage of female and male entomology and forest entomology graduates in each career type.

These trends likely reflect a combination of availability of jobs and personal career choice. Availability of different careers likely varies among the four different fields. For example, there may be more government and industry jobs in sciences that are heavily influenced by application, such as entomology and forest entomology, rather than ecology, which may offer fewer of those positions. Also, the time of graduation may be influential, since these data span 4+ decades of graduates, 1970 – 2015, a time period that encompasses social and economic change at national and international scales. For example, there was less competition and more funding for academic positions in the 1970s and 1980s than in the 2000s (see this study, this one, and that one).

It is more difficult to assess the role of career choice and whether it changed over time. In recent years, the prestigious allure of the ivory tower has soured many graduate students by the traditional perception that it’s a profession that demands one have no personal life and devote all time and energy to a career. Women were particularly concerned about this (see this study). Government positions are often seen more favorably than academic positions when work-life balance is considered (see this study). Salary can also play a role, and may influence graduates (especially those with debt) to choose industry over other career types (see this study).

Survey questions that ask graduates of different time periods what influenced career decisions would help sort out this confusion.

Donna Leonard: at the helm of a world-renowned forest insect management program

ground net sampling giles
As part of the “slow-the-spread” program for gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar), Donna Leonard, forest entomologist at the U.S. Forest Service, collects data to find out where in the forest canopy the gypsy moth pheromone landed — and stuck — following aerial application, in Giles County, Virginia. (Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service, Region 8).

The tension surrounding gender inequality is palpable for nearly all of us lately. It is now well-recognized that women have been, and still are, unfairly challenged in science. Much of this focus is on the current cohort of working women and the biases and personal- or societal-imposed obstacles that they face. My unsettled mind has wandered to the women who came before me. They boldly entered the workforce years ago, as a true minority, and captured many firsts for those of us who followed. What are their stories? How did they achieve happiness and reward in their careers?

Donna , forest entomologist at the U.S. Forest Service, is an excellent example of such a woman. In her first forestry job in 1977, Donna was the only female forester working for a large pulp, paper, and building products company. The men she worked with were baffled as to how she might relieve herself while in the woods all day. In her characteristic, matter-of-fact manner that she is well-known for, she replied, “Well, I pee—what else? I have to remove more clothing than you do, but I pee!”

As entomologists, we should all pay attention to Donna’s story, for two important reasons: She has navigated a career among nearly all male colleagues and, simultaneously, piloted one of the most successful forest insect-management programs in the world for over 20 years running. Donna has consistently orchestrated a suite of forest managers, regulatory officials, and researchers across administrative and jurisdictional boundaries to implement a standardized program that always reaches its goal, every single year.

I was brimming with curiosity about this woman from the moment I met her. How does she run this famous program—and make it look so easy? What are her secrets? Where did she come from? Where does she think the program is going? Where is she going?

See the full story on Entomology Today.

When should a non-aggressive exotic species be demoted to a harmless naturalized resident?

Jack pine, Pinus banksiana, (center) in a mixed pine forest, killed by the European woodwasp, Sirex noctilio.

Exotic species that establish, spread, and cause substantial damage are demonized as foreign invaders that charge with menacing force across the landscape. Rightly so; those pests threaten to displace or eliminate native species and alter ecosystem functions. Chestnut blight, emerald ash borer, and hemlock woolly adelgid are all excellent examples. What about invaders that aren’t so destructive? Or, at least don’t seem to be at the moment? At what point do we stop monitoring a seemingly innocuous invasive species, especially one that has proved itself a serious pest elsewhere? To make this decision, it’s helpful to know how much the species has affected its new habitat, and whether this impact already has or is likely to change over time. That is exactly what we set out to do with the European woodwasp, Sirex noctilio, in Ontario.

Nearly a decade after the woodwasp was first found in a trap near the Finger Lakes in New York (and then a year later across Lake Ontario in Sandbanks Provincial Park), it still hadn’t killed pines in noticeable numbers, either in the US or Canada. Native to Europe and Asia, this woodwasp has been introduced to several countries in the Southern Hemisphere, where it has been a serious pest in forests planted with exotic pines. By contrast, in North America, it seems that only the weakest trees, those that are already stressed by something else, are killed by the woodwasp. Would forests with many weakened trees allow populations of the woodwasp to build up enough that they could then kill healthy trees in well-maintained forests? Could we find any evidence that this had already happened or would likely happen in the future?

Read the full story on the official blog of the Entomological Society of Canada.

Women have become the majority of graduates in the natural sciences

Mentor Dan Herms, surrounded by some of his former female students and postdocs (from left: Wendy Bethel, Erin O’Brien, Kamal Gandhi, Kayla Perry, Laurel Haavik; Image credit: unknown).

In my quest to learn more about how people navigate careers in science, I return to the results of my survey, first discussed here last spring. Of the 1156 respondents, 161 (90 male, 71 female) were faculty or mentors who had trained a total of 1704 students in biology, ecology, entomology, or forest entomology between 1971 and 2015. They reported the numbers of female and male students they had graduated (MS or PhD) by time period, and what type of career those graduates occupied (to be addressed in subsequent posts). These data were less biased than other questions in the survey, because they did not rely on self-reports from the students.

In the 1970s, female graduates were the minority – or non-existent in some fields; by the 2000s they were the majority in all fields (51 – 71%, see figure). In the early time periods, females were best represented in entomology, which was also the largest sample: a total of 621 students graduated from 76 mentors. In biology, no female graduates were reported until the 1990s, yet by the 2000s they represented about 70% of graduating students.

Percentage of students who were female and graduated with a MS or PhD in each time period, categorized by field.

These results were similar to those from the US Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED). The SED reported that 55% of all life science PhDs in 2015 were awarded to women (53% for biology, and 48% for the agricultural sciences). Nationally in 1996, only 44% of PhDs in the life sciences were awarded to women, a 10% increase from 1986.

If over half of recent graduates in the natural sciences are women, then the workforce should reflect near equality by gender. It does not (see this study and another one). Among many possible reasons for this inequality (which I will discuss more in later posts), is that the length of a career surpasses time in training (graduate school and postdoctoral appointments) by several decades. This overlap of many graduating cohorts in the workforce makes it difficult to calculate exactly what portion of current professionals should be female, based on trends of graduating students. Some studies account for this caveat; mine did not. In those that did, the workforce was still not equal by gender. In upcoming posts, I’ll examine key gender differences among career types, and potential reasons for those differences.

Quality workdays


For a long time, I measured my work by its products. By that approach I was fairly productive, some days more than others. Big accomplishments were celebratory; long stretches with no measurable accomplishments were dismal. There were too many highs and lows. I needed less intensity, and more evenness. I needed a steady state that could sustain me for the length of a career.

I’ve been prioritizing the quality of my workday lately, rather than its accomplishments. I strive to leave the day ready for something else, not ready to crash, all physical, mental, and emotional energy spent. To achieve this, I’ve been regularly trying to do four things.

One: I build essential breaks into the day, forcing myself to leave a task, even if I’m deeply entranced by it. I vary the length and the focus of these breaks to keep them interesting. The main point is to do something else for a little while. If I’m in my office (aka sitting hunched over at the keyboard and staring intently at a computer screen), I get up and wander around. Maybe I go somewhere in particular; maybe I don’t. There are plenty of physical and mental benefits to this. I stretch tightened muscles, I mobilize my spine, and I reflect on my work. Walking down the hall to sharpen my pencil now serves two purposes! If I’m in the field, I might sit or lay down if the situation permits, or simply leave the area where I’m working to reflect, evaluate the progress and direction of the work, and maybe rest. Physical exhaustion has led me to make some questionable decisions about field projects in the past. I hadn’t realized how frequently I needed to pause to gain mental perspective on the difference between planned and realized outcomes of field work.

Two: I create pauses to transition between major work tasks. This naturally engineers a way to simultaneously reflect and prepare, so all my mental energy can go towards each task – when I’m actually doing it.

Three: I sometimes seek or plan social interactions throughout the day (if they’re not already scheduled as meetings, conferences, etc.), which can force me to focus on something else long enough to feel refreshed when I return to my work.

Four: Most importantly, I exercise during the office-bound workday. For me, physical energy is a product of spent mental and emotional energy. After exercise, I can return to work with more mental clarity than when I left. I’m extremely fortunate in that my job allows me to do this. I sympathize with those who do not have this luxury.

This has all been a real game-changer. Maybe it’s easy for some, but I have struggled to slow myself down, forget about finishing, and learn to enjoy the effort in itself. The rewards are valuable, and more emerge regularly. I’ll share what I’ve discovered so far. The quality workday approach

Stimulates creativity. My best ideas rarely arrive at opportune times. Breaks in the intensity of the workday create space for clever ideas to arrive on their own time.

Improves wellness. Pauses allow me to gauge my energy and stress levels, and adjust my plans accordingly (easier to realize than do). Self-care seems to naturally become a priority.

Promotes actual quality, rather than quantity of work. I’m not in a hurry to finish tasks anymore. When I pause and naturally reflect, I then make useful improvements to projects that I would not have otherwise made had I held myself to unnecessary deadlines.

Enhances time management. I’m forced to plan my daily tasks more carefully, neatly fitting them between the essential breaks.

I’m not an 8-hour on, 8-hour off machine, and it took me more than a decade to realize that. I’m so glad I did. I find ways to do less, rather than more, these days. I imagine the benefits will still be revealing themselves for a long time to come.


Alternatives: Entomologists Who Use Their Hard-Earned Research Skills in Non-Research Careers

RK coffee table safari
Rayda Krell demonstrates her love of animals, especially insects, from her living room/home office! (Image credit: Kiril Volkov).

This is a series that peeks into the lives of scientists. See other posts in the series.

Graduate school, the traditional conduit to an academic career, trains people to conduct research. Yet, many people with graduate degrees don’t end up in research careers (see here for stats and here for thoughts on alternatives). Research experience equips people with myriad skills that are useful beyond the lab (see here for examples). There seems to be a disconnect somewhere between developing these skills, identifying them, and finding a useful and satisfying place to implement them (a job!) that many face at some point (in graduate school, or in the final months of a grant, or even well into a dissatisfying job).

What are these skills? How do people prepare for and shift away from a traditional research trajectory, especially when surrounded by academic researchers all day!? And how do people find a non-research career that’s a good fit for their interests? There is plenty of self-help literature on this topic (see here, here, here, and here). Also useful, I think, is talking with others about their experiences.

I interviewed three people who have taken unique routes to a career in entomology. Categorized as extension- or science communication-focused, these careers are essential to deliver science and the products it creates accurately to the people who will use it. Maybe more relevant, though, is that these people identified what they liked most about science, kept sight of important things and people in their personal lives, and then built their careers around these priorities.

Read the full story on Entomology Today.