Ronin Institute Research Scholar Brent Ranalli has had two articles published recently in the Thoreau Society Bulletin. Both also appear on the Society’s blog. The first, co-authored with naturalist Cherrie Corey, seeks to identify the mystery mushroom that Henry David Thoreau describes in his journals as resembling a traditional New England “election cake.” The second uses literary sources to reconstruct Thoreau’s walking gait and asks what the gait reveals about the man.
Mickey von Dassow is a biologist who is interested in exploring how physics contributes to environmental effects on development and recently joined the Ronin Institute as a Research Scholar. Here is a edited version of an interview I did with him from last year (full version).
Can you describe your background?
My background is in biomechanics and developmental biology. My Ph.D. asked how feedback between form and function shapes marine invertebrate colonies. During my postdoc I worked on the physics of morphogenesis in vertebrate embryos, specifically focusing on trying to understand how the embryo tolerates inherent and environmentally driven mechanical variability. Since then I have been independently investigating interactions among ecology, biomechanics, and development of marine invertebrate embryos, as well as teaching courses.
Tell us more about Independent Generation of Research (IGoR) ?
IGoR is a wiki for sharing research ideas, skills, and resources among novice, amateur, and professional scientists. The goal is to make it easier for everyone to do scientific research, regardless of how they make a living. One of the main motivations was that I often need devices that are just beyond my own skills to make, but which hobbyists with other skills could easily help me make. This got me thinking that I could do more and better science if there was an easy way for me to build collaborations with amateurs who have different skill sets. I also realized I would have much more fun doing science if I had a way to keep doing it whether or not I get the next grant or research job. Amateurs, such as Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, or Grote Reber (the inventor of the radio telescope), used to be major contributors to scientific research. Today’s technologies should make it much easier for people to do science outside of a career, but we need ways to pool people’s talent and experience.
Where do you see “citizen science” going in the next 5 or 10 years?
I should say that IGoR is inspired by “citizen science,” but is a bit different from most citizen science. At the moment, most (but not all) citizen science seems to follow a model in which a few experts design a way to obtain a lot of data by getting many volunteers to do some low-skilled, repetitive task. However, there is a lot of interest in community-generated approaches (such as Public Lab, iNaturalist, OpenROV, and others), and approaches where there is real feedback between professionals and citizen scientists, involving creative and intellectual input from citizen scientists.
How does citizen science relate to the “open-science” movement?
As far as I can tell, the open-science movement seems to be focused mostly on open data and open publication models, but there are a lot of other strands to it. One strand that IGoR is definitely a part of is trying to move away from a status quo in which research is almost all done by people employed as researchers by big institutions. Open science, open source generally, citizen science, and the Maker/Hacker movement, all seem to be pushing against the divide between the professional and everyone else….
Are there particular kinds of research areas or projects that tend to fall through the cracks of traditional funding agencies (NSF, NIH etc.)?
Yes. Funding agencies and universities like high-tech science. If you use a big machine that goes ping to do it, you have a much higher chance of success than if you just need to watch something with your own eyeballs, even if the intellectual merit is the same or better. Funding agencies are also driven by fashion, so in biology anything “omics” is in, and organisms seem to be pretty much out for the moment. Finally, they are not good at funding brand new projects, or new or unknown researchers. For example, researchers often say you need to do the project before you can get funding for it, and then use the funding for the next step. This makes perfect sense: your best bet with limited money is the big lab, with lots of toys, piles of preliminary data, and oodles of publications to prove they can do the job. However, that makes it hard for new researchers, small labs, or people trying new directions. Cutting those researchers out reduces the diversity of research questions and perspectives.
My hypothesis for why “omics” and traditional model organisms dominate (even when there are better ones for particular problems) is positive feedback. If approach or field X is fashionable it will garner higher profile publications and more funding, so people doing X will have more opportunities, and other people will pay more attention to X, hence X seems even more exciting and an even better bet for funding or new hires. But, attention and funding are limited, so the more those go to X, the less they go to everything else. As I write this, it suggests that the answer is to make funding, and also publication visibility, a non-zero sum game. That gets back to finding new ways to support science, and to tell people about it, which encourage diversification of questions and approaches.
What kinds of changes in the institutional structures of science (e.g., peer review, publications, promotions etc.) would encourage more citizen science, open science or independent scholarship?
I think one of the biggest things that academic institutions could do is to teach students that independent scholarship is possible. There will never be enough funding for everyone who wants to do research (and is skilled at it) to make a living doing it. However, we all know that some of the deepest conceptual advances, notably Darwin and Wallace’s theory of evolution, came from people who were not employed as scientists. There are still many of important questions that can be addressed by an individual investigator on a shoestring budget.
So, if we value science (or scholarship generally), we need to create an environment in which research can be an avocation rather than a career. The most important parts of that are to make that choice socially acceptable within the scientific community, and to teach people – starting in undergrad and going through all career stages – how to make it work. There are many resources describing how to succeed in academia (or whatever other career one might choose); but, there are few, if any, guides to doing research successfully when one is not doing it for one’s job.
Are there other new models of doing research, outside of mainstream academic research institutions, that you have seen out there that inspire you?
Community labs are one that excites me a lot, and is an inspiration for IGoR. They could be great for getting novices, amateurs, and independent professionals working together to do substantive research; their main limitation is that they are few and far between. The Ronin Institute aims to create a more flexible approach to being an independent scholar, so that more professional-level scholars can do research. Even simple things like providing an institutional affiliation for applying for grants could be very helpful.
What’s your favourite organism?
Do I have to choose just one? Ctenophores might be it right now. The way they glide through the water with waves of iridescence running down bands of beating cilia, is incredibly beautiful. I love the fact that they coordinate a lot of their motion and sensation using interactions among cilia: a very different approach than most animals. They also have some very cool developmental features. For example, some of them can regenerate half or more of their body as adults, despite the fact that (for the most part) each embryonic cell forms a particular part of the body, and cannot be replaced when lost. There is a point in their development where they gain the ability to regenerate. However, I love lots of invertebrates, and I can’t look at ciliates without wondering why I don’t study them.
Read the full interview
Research Scholar Michele Battle-Fisher is always out there championing the importance of systems-level approaches to thinking about health. Here are just the three latest places where you can find her.
Check it out!
Following the success of our first round of conference support funding, the board authorized that allocation of additional funding to support travel to academic conferences, as well as research-related travel. So, in addition to our first round of awardees, we offer our congratulations to Michael Clarage, Michelle Coughlin, Ruth Duerr, Vicenta Salvador, and Eleanor Wynn.
Michelle Coughlin’s award helped to support her trip to the UK to do research for the her next book, The First First Ladies, about the wives of America’s colonial governors. She sent along a number of gorgeous photos of the homes related to Penelope Pelham Winslow, who was married to Plymouth Colony Governor Josiah Winslow. It is great to be able to see the impact of the conference scholarship program.
Our next round of funding is scheduled for January 2017. In the meantime, we are raising funds to continue — and expand — this program. The members of the board have pledged to contribute an additional matching $1000 if we are able to raise $3000 for this program by the end of 2016. So, please consider helping us by making a contribution. You can donate online: select “Conference Scholarships” to direct your donation specifically to this program. To find out more, check out our donation page.
Here’s a clip from First Peoples, a 2015 PBS series about the prehistory of the human race. This clip features archaeologist (and Ronin Institute Research Scholar) Jeff Rose talking about his field work in Oman and the very earliest expansion of anatomically modern humans into the Arabian Peninsula, the first step out of Africa in our rapid expansion around the globe. Check it out!
Headlining the awards ceremony was Ruth Duerr’s receipt of the Martha Maiden Lifetime Achievement Award for Service to the Earth Science Information Community, which recognizes “individuals who have demonstrated leadership, dedication and a collaborative spirit in advancing the field of Earth Science information”. Ruth has held numerous leadership positions within ESIP, where she has been a consistent champion of data accessibility and stewardship. The nominating committee noted that “Ruth’s dedication to the principles of Earth science information access and sharing are exemplified by her service as an ESIP liaison on many community initiatives, both nationally and internationally, that have led to improvements in capabilities and understanding of the issues necessary to facilitate access to and sharing of Earth science information”.
Soren Scott received the ESIP Catalyst Award, which “honors those who have brought about positive change in ESIP and inspired others to take action”. Current ESIP President Peter Fox noted that Soren “was able to make stagnant and dormant ESIP initiatives become active again in a very short period of time”.
Congratulations to both Ruth and Soren for this well deserved recognition!
There’s a new paper out in PNAS (available here) by Ronin Institute Board member and Research Scholar Steven Orzack. It’s also been covered briefly by NPR (listen here). Steven is the founder of the Fresh Pond Research Institute, which is one of the inspirations/models for Ronin, and he played a critical role in helping to get Ronin up and running. So congratulations to him!
But also, it’s a cool paper, where they (Orzack and colleagues from a few different institutions) assembled a crap-ton of data on the sex ratio at various stages of pregnancy, which has allowed them to chart out how that sex ratio changes over time (due to differential mortality of males and females).
So why is this interesting? Well, if you know one thing about sex ratios, you know that there are equal numbers of boys and girls. In humans, sex is determined by the sex chromosomes (X and Y). If you get two X chromosomes, you’re female, but if you get an X and a Y, you’re male. At reproduction, you inherit an X from your mom, and either an X or a Y from your dad. The 50/50 sex ratio follows naturally from the fact that half of his sperm carry his X, while the other half carry his Y.
But if you know two things about sex ratios, you know that the first thing you knew about sex ratios is wrong. In humans, about 51% of the babies that are born are male. (Naturally, that is. In places where there is a lot of sex-specific abortion, like China, the fraction of boys born is higher.) That fact has been known for over a hundred years. It has also been known for a long time that near the end of pregnancy, male fetuses suffer higher mortality than female fetuses. This combination of facts led many people to conclude that at the time of conception, the sex ratio is highly skewed, as high as 56% male, and that higher rates of male mortality during pregnancy bring that ratio down to 51% by birth. Like, maybe sperm carrying Y chromosomes swim faster than sperm with X chromosomes. This is the story that you’ll find circulating around biology departments and in a lot of textbooks.
What this paper shows, however, is that at the time of conception, the ratio is probably very, very close to 50/50. But during the week of pregnancy, there is a higher male mortality rate, so that the sex ratio actually skews female. This seems to be linked to chromosomal abnormalities (like having too many or too few chromosomes), which cause mortality in males earlier than in females. Then, for the next ten to fifteen weeks, there is a higher rate of female mortality, so that the sex ratio correct itself and then becomes male biased. Here’s a figure from their paper, which shows both the timecourse of the change in sex ratio and gives a sense of the diversity of data that was integrated for the analysis:
So what does it mean? Hard to say. There’s a lot of theory out there about the evolution of sex ratios, but much of it is hard to test without a lot of data that is hard to get, like what the timecourse of parental provisioning looks like for boys and girls. In fact, it may be impossible to get that data for the social systems relevant to human evolution (depending on how you feel about the use of contemporary hunter-gatherer populations as proxies for the human Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation).
But what it does mean is that all of that theory was trying to explain the wrong phenomenon. Now that we know what the pattern actually looks like, there are a whole lot of new mechanistic and evolutionary questions that are suddenly relevant and interesting.
Ronin Institute Research Scholar Evelyn Ch’ien is running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of 600 Chinese poems by diplomat Liao Entao. The annotated collection stands to be a real contribution to a really interesting period in Chinese history — the end of the Qing dynasty, through the Republican period, and the Chinese Civil War. Click here to check out the project, watch the video, and, of course, contribute!
Or, for the click-averse, here’s the description:
This book is a collection of 600 poems written by a diplomat (1864-1954) who lived in China, America, Cuba, Japan and Korea.
For the past 5 years I have been researching the lives of ancestors who participated in the transformation from Qing dynastic rule to the Republican period, and bore witness to the rise of Communist China. After a year in Guangzhou on a Fulbright fellowship, I returned home to find that I had a literary treasure on my hands. With co-editor Professor Puk Wing Kin at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, we created a team of literary classicists that annotated 600 poems by the professional diplomat Liao Entao (1864-1954). Notably, Entao’s brother was a major player in the 1911 Revolution and the anticipated successor to the Republic’s first president Sun Yat Sen, but sadly Liao Zhongkai was assassinated in 1925.
This collection of poems illuminates the historical events of the period and is a valuable contribution to the history of modern China, helping also to reveal the foundations of diplomacy between China and America.
These poems were originally written in Song Dynasty style and for that reason required annotations to expose its meanings in modern day language. Your participation in our artistic and diplomatic mission is greatly appreciated and will enable the successful completion of our project.
We will also be creating a website and report the progress of the translations to all our contributors, to whom we will give special access. Historical notes, sample translations of poems, and other information will be available. Gifts of $100+ include a translation of 20-30 poems, but every contributor will have access to the site and when the project is completed, the site with the translations and notes will be made public.
As of right now, the project is closing in on $7,000 of the $20,000 goal, with 22 days left. What’s the $20,000 for, you ask? Well, the Kickstarter money is going entirely to publication costs. All of the hard work of assembling, curating, and annotating the poems has already been done — paid for out of a Fulbright Scholarship and out of pocket.
Pledge gifts include copies of poems, etc. At the $200 level, you’ll get your very own copy of the two-volume set. ($50 and up for Volume I)
To be clear, the published books will be in Chinese. So, keep that in mind if you don’t read Chinese. I don’t, but I look forward to having an incomprehensible trophy on my bookshelf.
Also very cool is the translation project, which may be of more interest to the non-Chinese-speakers. The site probably won’t be up until January, but it will allow backers to follow along with the project as it progresses.
The Kickstarter is proceeding at a good pace. Maybe we can convince Evelyn to add a full set of translations as a stretch goal. 🙂 Evelyn?
So go check it out. The poems that you see in the video are some of the actual poems that will be published. This is an excellent example of the value and power of independent scholarship. Let’s get out there and support it!
Congratulations to Ronin Institute Research Scholar Joseph Kramp, who is publishing a new book, Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Psychological Biography, through Mellen Press. The official publication date is 2014, but if you’ve not yet finished up your holiday shopping, you can already preoder it.
Here’s the official description:
A new psychological, social and political examination of Emerson’s life and experience of symbolic loss that demonstrates the importance and purpose of individual and social transformation and revitalizes Emerson’s literary importance for contemporary American society.
So buy, Buy, BUY!!