Ash and emerald ash borer: how do trees defend themselves from a deadly beetle?

This is the first in a series where I peek into the lives of scientists. 

Adult emerald ash borer resting on a leaf. Image credit: Justin Whitehill

You have probably heard about a tiny green beetle from Asia that is blazing across North America, leaving millions of ash trees in its wake (see where and how many here ).  The emerald ash borer (EAB) is one of a growing number of invasive species that are able to dominate ecosystems to which they have been introduced by proliferating uncontrollably. This reduces biodiversity and can disrupt normal ecosystem functions. Invasive species can achieve this feat because they lack a shared evolutionary history with existing species in the ecosystems that they invade. EAB is one of, if not the most destructive alien species to invade North American forests to date (Annu Rev Entomol, 59, 13-30 ). EAB kills nearly every ash tree that it encounters, and it is spreading across the continent at an alarmingly rapid rate. The future for ash trees looks bleak.

But scientists are working hard to find a way to help ash trees survive EAB’s onslaught. Justin Whitehill began studying EAB soon after it was discovered in North America. His dissertation was a quest to find out exactly what allows ash species from EAB’s native home to survive beetle attack, and what defensive capabilities are lacking in North American ash species.

I interview Justin on what unfolded as he pursued the answer. Read the full story at Entomology Today.

Down with jargon!

I thought of a fun exercise we can all contribute to. It’s partly inspired by this article (see the section entitled “Inoculating against jargonitis” by Helen Sword), and partly by the multitudes of papers I read and review that are chock-full of indecipherable terms and phrases (often strings of nouns, interestingly) that I have to pause and consider for way too long before I can extract any meaning from them. Jargon bogs down our ability to communicate and instantly loses the attention of the people we are (usually) most trying to get our message across to (see Carl Zimmer’s Index of Banned Words that he uses in his science writing classes here, and Ed Yong’s perspective on scientific jargon). Of course, technical terms do have their place in explaining complex techniques to specialized audiences (see a careful analysis of scientific jargon here). The vast majority of the time, jargon is unnecessary and unwanted.

img_1337I realized when I sat down to write this, that a comprehensive list of commonly used terms and phrases that make me cringe and then go straight to Google didn’t come to mind immediately. So, let’s make that list.

Let’s raise our jargon-spotting awareness. Just thinking about which terms and phrases might be meaningless to others (anyone from our closest colleagues to laypeople who rarely think about science) is a good mental exercise. We may learn to think twice about these overly-technical words next time we are about to use them. And we can have a good laugh at the same time…

So don’t be shy; add your favorite jargon terms or phrases along with a translation in plain English to the comments section, and I’ll add them to the table below. Let’s see how many we can deconstruct!

Jargon term or phrase Plain English
significant statistically meaningful
error term variability
natural enemy parasite or predator
negative feedback inhibitory process
positive feedback self-reinforcing (or encouraging) process
bottom-up regulation food availability controls herbivore numbers
top-down regulation predators control prey numbers
primary insect plant-killing insect
secondary insect Insect that kills stressed plants
susceptible edible
anthropogenic human-caused
utilize use
employ use
demographic rate death and birth rates
normality whether numbers fit a bell-shaped curve
in situ actual location
positive correlation two variables increase together

More on jargon:

This is a humorous translation of some technical phrases commonly used in science and their most probable actual meaning.

-Another good list of scientific jargon plus some translations.

Update (November 8, 2016): A peripherally-related article reports that biologists are starting to write in a less formal style, and this could be good for building a better connection with readers.

Update April 21, 2017: New study on how science is becoming less readable over time