Goodbye to a friend

About a month ago, I was checking my e-mail while on vacation, as academics are notorious for doing. A new e-mail popped up while I was writing, with a forebodingly vague subject: “sad news”. If I ever have to write an e-mail like the one I’d received, I know I’d agonize over the subject for ages, and probably end up leaving it blank. One of my mentors had died, suddenly and unexpectedly.

When I was just starting my PhD, my supervisor encouraged me to study lizard brain evolution. I was in a lab that studied lizard evolution, and I had studied neuroscience in undergrad. I thought it was a great idea, but I quickly realized that studying neuroscience in a department where no-one else worked on brains was an immense challenge. I did a lot of reading scientific papers, trying to figure out what to do and feeling incredibly lost, and I kept coming across a name: Jeremy Ullmann. Some Googling told me that me had recently completed a PhD on fish brain evolution.

I had no connection to Jeremy, and he had no reason to help me. He was doing a postdoc at the University of Queensland and had pivoted away from evolution and towards medicine. But I sent him an e-mail out of the blue one day in 2011, asking for help. He responded almost immediately, asking for more details about my project and seeming genuinely interested. I answered him as best I could. It didn’t satisfy him, he responded immediately again with more questions: “have you thought about doing this?” “what about trying this"?” etc. Finally, after a few more back-and-forths, during which it must have been painfully evident to him that I had no idea what I was doing (despite my best efforts), he suggested I call him, so we could have a proper conversation. And so I did, and it was one of the most useful and inspiring conversations I’ve ever had.

Jeremy mentored me throughout the rest of my PhD. I’m sure it couldn’t have always been easy for him, I was so intimidated by him that sometimes it took me weeks to answer his e-mails. I looked up to him because he was young, sharp, and ambitious. He gave the impression of total confidence and control, and at times during my PhD, particularly when I’d reach out to him for help, I felt like a total failure, completely out of control. He’d set me straight, solve problems over the phone, and remind me to contact him whenever I needed. I learned not only practical skills from him, but people skills as well. The way he was with me, I strive to be that way now, with others. I usually fall short.

Since I graduated, I’ve seen Jeremy at conferences. We’d go out for dinner if he wasn’t too busy networking, or we’d just hang out amongst the posters. He insisted on introducing me to one of my neuroscience heroes, Charles Watson. I learned that he’d gotten married, and last time we spoke he had just had his first child. I still looked up to him, wanting to know what he was thinking of doing next, how he was strategizing, so I could emulate him.

Jeremy died last month climbing Mount Washington. He was 37 years old and leaves behind his wife, Kylie, and their three-year-old son. My heart breaks for them. Despite the fact that we really didn’t know each other that well, he had a profound impact on my life. Jeremy was good at everything I wanted to be good at. He was smart, an agile thinker, confident and charismatic. Science is worse off without him. The world is worse off without him. I feel extraordinarily lucky that he touched my life, however briefly, before we lost him.

Jeremy’s wife and son are stranded in the United States, where Jeremy was doing a postdoc, far away from family in Australia. They have started a Go-Fund-Me to cover the enormous cost of moving back to Australia and rebuilding their lives.

Jeremy’s obituary is here, and his death was also covered by the news.

Thoughts on leaving

Nothing lasts forever, not the process of getting a doctorate, and especially not the process of getting a doctorate in Australia. So recently I had to wrap up my research at the Australian National University (ANU), hand in my thesis, and find a new job. I’ve updated my contact page and my Twitter bio, and I’ll have to do the same with my about and research pages. I’ll get to that eventually, but at the moment I’m feeling a lot of mental inertia towards anything that cements my move or announces it to the world. I’m feeling rather down about my move. Moving cities, even countries for work is thought of as common, even normal, and certainly I hear about it a lot. My parents did it forty years ago. If the impression I’m getting from Facebook is accurate, just about all my friends are doing it now. However, in reality it’s really rare. The average American lives 30 km from their mother. And more people are homebodies now than in previous generations: moving cities during one’s lifetime is actually becoming rarer over time. Most people are born, grow up, live, work, and die in the same place. 

This is not true of academics. Generally, if you want to work in the Ivory Tower, you have to be willing to travel far and wide from tower to tower to tower. This is because even the largest cities generally have, at most, five or so academic institutions (towers), which are usually universities and colleges but can also include museums, government research organisations and even some privately-run research organisations. There is no such thing as a Jack-of-all-Trades academic, all of us have to specialise, and the longer you’ve been doing research, the more specialised you become. Each academic institution is going to have very few positions in any particular area of specialisation, and that makes it near-impossible to choose a place to live and then find a job in academia. Usually, the process is reversed: you have to scour the world for available positions, then go wherever will have you.

I was actually really lucky. I didn’t have to scour the world for positions, and I didn’t have to beg and plead, go through umpteenth interviews and continually update my CV. I was offered a position in a lab that I had worked in before. The lab leader wanted someone she knew and trusted, and I wanted a job doing what I love: trying to figure out why the brain is structured the way it is. Turns out she needed someone to ask just that question within the context of her overall research subject. Lucky me! That was the good part. There’s also a bad part: leaving.

My personal opinion, based on absolutely no research and incorporating many unjustifiable assumptions, is that humans are not made to move. We are pack animals, family-oriented and social, and have not evolved to easily change social groups and reintegrate. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t feel that way. There is a sense in academia that if you want to survive, to have a career, you must be so devoted to the research, to the questions, to the quest for knowledge that you’d be willing to give up everything else in your life to continue your pursuit. Wherever is best for answering your particular question, that’s were you have to move to, if you want to be a scientist. Being sad about it means you aren’t devoted enough to the work and you should probably quit now, before you’re denied tenure. The choice is increasingly move and have a chance at staying on the academic career path, or stay and get off the academic road. Giving up your career to stay in a place you love? In academia that’s the same as failing the profession.

In Australia the process of getting a doctorate is particularly fast-paced. You are expected to complete your thesis in three years, although most people take three and a half years, the maximum amount of time you can get Australian funding for. Four years is the absolute maximum time you can take to hand in your thesis, and that’s the amount of time I took. Funding from Canada allowed me to support myself those last six months. At the end of that time I handed in my thesis, but the journey to getting a doctorate was not over. My thesis was sent away to be marked, a process that can take up to six months, and rarely even longer. I was lucky, my thesis was marked in less than two months. Once the marking process is over, the university allows a year to make any corrections the markers demand and hand in a corrected thesis. So, the whole process can take up to five and a half years. In my case, it took four years, ten months. This was tricky for me because my Australian student visa was valid for only four years, so I had to leave the country and return as a business traveller just to finish the darn thing.

Maybe my move would have been easier if I had just up and moved, ripped off the bandaid the way adults always told me to when I was a kid. Instead I moved the way I ripped off bandaids when I was a kid, slowly, painfully, millimetre by excruciating millimetre. First, I moved from Canberra, where I’d lived for five years, to Sydney, where my girlfriend lives. This step involved the painful process of leaving my friends behind, as well as my academic mentor. The Department of Evolution, Ecology and Genetics at the ANU is a phenomenal place to work, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The group of people there is incredible. Not only are they amazing scientists who do an incredible array of very interesting things, but they are also all genuinely great people who quickly and easily became my friends. I credit this in part to building design: the department is housed in a building that makes sure we have many opportunities to meet each other. I’ve written about the courtyard before, but this also includes the phenomenal tea room where we have discussion groups, meetings, social events, and lunches when it’s raining or cold, and the first-year PhD office, which makes sure each new PhD student in the department has ample opportunity to be integrated into the PhD community. But it’s also the people themselves. The researchers in the department, from PhD students to senior academics, work hard to make sure newcomers feel welcome and comfortable. The result of this is that we form strong friendships, friendships that feel like they could last forever. And so it is difficult when friends leave, as they always do because this is academia, and are replaced with new people, who then become friends, and then they leave, and the cycle continues. Until, finally, I was the one who left, and it felt like all those friendships ended at once. Yes, there’s Facebook, Twitter, and Skype. If I’m lucky I’ll see some people again at conferences or by chance. But it’s nothing like being part of a tight-knit community.

Generally in our department when someone leaves there is a big farewell party. I’ve attended many and I’ve always left early because I find them too sad, and I can only mask that for so long (each drink brings it closer to the surface). When I moved away I purposefully avoided a farewell of any sort because it’s not really possible to duck out of your own farewell party early, and I didn’t really want to bawl my eyes out at some nice restaurant or the house of a well-respected professor. So I tried to go quietly. People still noticed and walked me to my car, and that was almost enough to set me off. Having “Boys of Summer” come on the radio during a particularly scenic part of the drive out of Canberra wasn’t helpful, but felt appropriate for the moment. It’s funny how the radio can do that sometimes.

The next stage of leaving was to spend five days in Sydney with my partner, to say goodbye to her and a few friends of mine who live in Sydney. Though my partner was there, she was living in a place I’d never stayed at before, with roommates I’d never met before, so I felt like I was mostly gone from my life of the past five years, and only hanging on by one thread. We tried to make the most of my short interlude between lives, but ultimately time goes way too fast. On my last day in Sydney, and in Australia, for the foreseeable future, we rented a car and went somewhere I hadn’t been in a very long time. When I was 18 I came to Australia as a backpacker. I stayed with some family friends in north Sydney for my first five days in the country, and the very first sightseeing I did was to the America Bay trail in Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park. I hadn’t done that walk since December 2004, so it seemed somehow fitting to bookend my time in Australia this way. My partner and I did this walk and found a nice, secluded place next to a water hole to have a picnic. A water dragon, a member of the same group of lizards I spent my PhD studying, tried to steal our food, something that is a regular occurrence in my department at the ANU. It seemed appropriate.

The America Bay walk is very short, and we spent the rest of the day further exploring Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park. We saw Sydney’s most spectacular lizard, the lace monitor, and even ran into an old friend of mine that I hadn’t seen in years. I went swimming in the ocean one last time, had one last dinner at a “modern Australian cuisine” restaurant and took one last opportunity to look for some of Sydney’s spectacular snakes. The pictures interspersed in this post are from that last, great day exploring the Sydney wilderness with my best friend.

And then I had to do the rest of the leaving. The following morning I had to get up early to get to the airport on time. I said one last goodbye to my partner, then another, and another, and another after that, and then I drove off with all my worldly possession that aren’t currently in a container somewhere on the Pacific Ocean. The Sydney airport, without getting into specifics, was a shitshow. Suffice to say that at one point I wound up being that guy running while pushing a cart of bags through the airport crowds yelling things like “Excuse me!” “Coming through!” and “Sorry!” I didn’t want to leave, and I almost wasn’t able to. But I did. I spent 14 hours on a plane over the Pacific, and another seven on two more planes over the continental United States. My total transit time, Sydney-door to Montreal-door, was 33 hours. When I left, I left home. When I arrived, I arrived home. It’s a strange feeling. Montreal at the beginning of March is a desolate, freezing place. The job I’ve arrived to is exciting, stimulating and exactly what I want to be doing. For that, I’m grateful. The city it’s in needs a couple more months to warm up.

Practical thoughts on leaving:

Leaving a country in order to apply for a new visa to reenter the country you just left (known as a “visa run”) is generally frowned upon, though it’s not illegal (and I personally don’t see the problem). Generally the way this is done is to drive to a neighbouring country, spend the weekend at a hotel, and drive back. Australia, being an island, is a little trickier. Flying to New Zealand, Fiji or Indonesia (particularly the resort island of Bali) for a quick holiday and renewing your visa while over there may seem like a good idea, but non-advertised agreements between Australia and these countries mean that if you don’t have a valid visa to reenter Australia, you won’t be allowed to enter any of these countries if you’ve got a return ticket to Australia. You won’t even be allowed on the plane! The best and most reliable way to do a visa run is to go back to your home country for your holiday. Your family probably misses you anyway. However, I was able to do a successful visa run to New Caledonia in March 2015. What other countries it’s still possible to do a visa run to from Australia, I do not know.

The things I packed with me from Sydney to Montreal included a 27-inch iMac. I had saved its original box from all those years ago, and I used that to ship the computer in. I used clothing to cushion it on all sides. Because Delta bans computers in checked luggage, I simply labelled it as “fragile” and had it wrapped in protective plastic. When airport employees asked me what was in it, I said “all my worldly possessions” and when that wasn’t good enough, “electronics”. The computer seems to still work fine, though if I’m not mistaken it’s louder than before. I'm curious to know if anyone has an idea of what could have happened to it so that it still works fine, but is louder.

Pack food in your carry-on. I never used to do this, but airlines have significantly cut back on the amount of food they give out. On the 14 hour flight from Sydney to Los Angeles we were only offered two meals: one right after take-off and one just before landing. Mid-way through we were offered a "snack". If you're lucky the flight will have a self-service snack-bar as well, but the snacks aren't very good. I was lucky enough to have fresh-baked cinnamon cookies made by my girlfriend as well as left-over trail mix from our Ku-Ring-Gai Chase adventures and some fresh fruit. It made a world of difference on that seemingly endless journey.

For the love of God, please please please don’t pee standing up in an airplane, especially not on a 14 hour flight. Also avoid peeing standing up on buses, trains and any other moving vehicles. It’s disgusting and completely avoidable. Sit down and pee, your sense of manhood will survive.

A Journey of Many Otters

Part of doing science is going to conferences where people present their research and everyone gets updated on the state of the art, as well as the identity of the artists. At an ideal conference a broad cross-section of researchers attends, from grizzled veterans who wrote their PhD theses on typewriters to undergraduate students who address everyone as Dr-so-and-so and generally act like they're attending extended office hours for their advanced biology course. This is what makes conferences so wonderful. Not only do you get to see the latest research, but you also get to meet people you admire from all professional levels at what approaches an even playing field. No polite knocking on office doors, no staying up until 1am to Skype with someone on the other side of the world. Last (Northern Hemisphere) summer I went on a 'round-the-world conference tour. This was made possible because three conferences I wanted to attend were taking place in the Americas in quick succession: the International Behavioural Neuroscience Society conference in Victoria, Canada at the beginning of June, the Evolution conference near Sao Paulo, Brazil at the end of June, and the International Brain Research Organization conference in early July in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Finally, the Behaviour conference was at the beginning of August back in Australia.

Otters are charismatic members of the weasel family, Mustelidae. They're well known for their personable, funny behaviour such as sliding down waterfalls, play-fighting, and generally being pretty cute. When I was a kid my parents would take me to the Buffalo Aquarium, where their river otters were among my favourite exhibits, and I always loved watching them slide down their artificial river. Although otters are probably the most well-liked members of the weasel family, they're not the easiest things to observe in the wild. I'd been lucky enough to see wild otters only three times over the course of my life, despite North American river otters (Lontra canadensis) being native to my native southern Ontario. I'd seen the aforementioned river otters once in the wild, during a spring break trip to the Everglades in Florida. I'd also seen a neotropical river otter (Lontra longicaudis), a closely related species native to Central and South America, once while surveying birds in Panama. Finally, I got a fleeting glance at a family of spot-necked otters (Hydrictis maculicollis) on safari in the Maasi Mara in Kenya. That's three otter sightings in 28 years. I would get just as many sightings of otters in the two months I spent attending conferences across the Americas. 

An Otter Surprise

Conference number one was the International Society for Behavioural Neuroscience (ISBN) conference in Victoria, Canada. Victoria is the beautiful capital of British Columbia, the westernmost province of Canada and is located on Vancouver Island. The conference was held at a particularly spectacular waterfront hotel in Victoria (picture below). Each conference has its own flavour, and the Behaviour Neuroscience conference was a strange mix of low-key and formality. The low-key aspect came mostly from the younger attendees, the graduate students and early postdocs. The conference started with a student-mixer, and I was surprised by how easy it was to meet new people and make quick friends amongst the students attending the conference. There weren't too many people and everyone seemed quite approachable and friendly. Smaller conferences and student-only mixers are good for this sort of thing. Meeting people is one of the main benefits to attending conferences, and the way this conference was organised really promoted getting to know people.

The more formal aspect of the conference came from the more senior attendees. I find people working in neuroscience have a higher level of professional dress, in general, and suits, ties, pleated pants and dress shoes were common amongst the attendee's attire (notice all these items, save the shoes, are stereotypically men's formal wear; science is still very much a male-biased profession). The talks also felt more formal, both in their structure and their delivery.

Behavioural neuroscience is a broad field to which I am only tangentially related. I would call what I do more evolutionary neuroscience or, if you want to get more specific, evolutionary neuroanatomy. I do try and relate my work to the behavioural work of others, but it's still not directly what I would consider "behavioural neuroscience". I like attending these conferences because they are significant horizon-broadeners. I come away from them feeling like I know better where I fit into the rest of the neuroscience field, even if nothing presented was directly what I work on.

Victoria is a spectacular place to hold a conference, and my jet-lag resulted in my being awake bright and early, allowing for scenic strolls along the waterfront each morning before the conference started. Along Victoria's waterfront there's a particularly kitschy wharf where tourists can buy raw fish to feed a particularly friendly and obese seal (picture above). I'd heard that they've been having problems recently with sneaky otters stealing the fish meant for the seal. I wasn't so interested in seeing the seal, harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are common along both of Canada's coasts and seeing one being fed by tourists didn't sound like a particularly wild experience. I was, however, very interested in trying to find the sneaky otters. Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) were, until recently, extinct in British Columbia due to over-harvesting for the fur industry. However, they had recently recolonised the coast of Vancouver Island and I was eager to see this endangered species in the wild. I walked down to the seal-feeding spot around sunrise, expecting to find some wily sea otters because, after all, this was the Pacific Ocean. However, I was surprised to find North American river otters instead! This just goes to show that you shouldn't make assumptions on the biology of animals based on their names. River otters can actually be found in lakes, streams, marshes and even coastal shorelines, as well as rivers.

An Otter Disappointment

Because of my failure to find sea otters in Victoria, I joined some friends I had just made at the Behavioural Neuroscience conference on a quick road trip up to Tofino, a small town popular with hippies and surfers on the seaward coast of Vancouver Island. This trip was good for me because I was able to cement some friendships with people I had just met at the conference in Victoria. I came to the conference knowing only one person, and yet I was able to mingle, make friends, and establish new contacts, particularly with people at the same career stage as I am.

I wanted to go to Tofino because it is a good place to see two mammals, both spectacular conservation success stories. In additional to the recently-recolonised sea otters, I was hoping to see Pacific Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus). The gray whales, or at least the population that lives along the Pacific coast of North America, is believed to be the first whale population to have completely recovered from whaling. The number of gray whales is what it was before humans started hunting all the great whales to extinction. Conservation success stories are relatively rare - much rarer than species in dire situations in need of conservation - and it's always nice to see a wild animal that represents human's ability not to kill animals, but to save them (as long as we care to). To have the opportunity to see two such species in one place is a rare treat.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. The sea was too rough and we weren't able to get out to the rafts of sea otters, who live quite a ways out from shore. This caution on the part of our captain was definitely a good thing. Just a few months later a boat capsized and six people died doing exactly what I was doing. The gray whales, however, were also sheltering from the rough seas. They were in a (relatively) calm bay and we were able to see five of them up close, including a calf playing around its mother. The whales almost made up for the disappointment of missing the sea otters.

An Otter Success (but Jaguar Disappointment)

The next conference on my tour was the Evolution conference in Guaruja, Brazil. Guaruja is a coastal resort-city get-away for the wealthier residents of Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest city. It's also, I learned later from some Sao Paulo residents, not the safest place on Earth, or even in Brazil. Rumor had it that on the first day of the conference a few attendees were mugged, and it's the only conference I've ever attended with police and an ambulance stationed out front. 

Out of all the conferences I attended last summer, the Evolution conference had the most people I knew. Entire labs from my department (Evolution, Ecology & Genetics) at ANU were attending, and there were additional people from my department and from around Australia whom I was friendly with. It was surprising, therefore, that this was the conference at which I felt the most like an outsider. Many people come back from conferences, particularly conferences at which they are the only members of their lab in attendance, reporting feelings of isolation and loneliness. Although that doesn't necessarily have to be the case (see my experience at the last conference), it was my experience at this conference. When I think of the two conferences, and compare their structure and my experiences, I think a lot of the differences in my experience can be found in the size of the conferences, and in their organization.

The Evolution conference was much larger than the ISBN conference, and had in attendance many more "Big Cheeses". The Evolution community is a relatively small one, however when everyone is at the same conference it can feel huge, and moreover most people are already friends with each other. I'm a relative outsider in the field of evolution, and I found this conference relatively cliquey, with most people sticking to their previously-established social groups and not much room for new interactions.

This brings me to my second point. There weren't many opportunities for socializing set-up by the conference organizers. The ISBN conference's very first function was a meet-and-great for PhD students only, and those sorts of socials can help outsiders find their way in. In their absence, I was overwhelmed and lost.

That's not to say I didn't meet anyone interesting. I made a point of looking people up and talking to them if their work related to mine or was something that I was particularly interested in. On a few occasions I was able to connect people with other people I knew who were interested in the same things, which I hope was useful. However I left the conference feeling like I hadn't been able to integrate or become part of the evolution society.

Following the conference I decided to visit a place that was always very high on my "must-visit" list: the Pantanal in far western Brazil. Circumstances had conspired to force me to miss the Pantanal on both my previous trips to Brazil, and I wasn't going to let that happen again! I rented a car in Cuiaba and spent a week driving up and down the Transpantaneira, the only road that penetrates deep into the Pantanal, looking for animals.

The Pantanal is not the Amazon. It's a giant, flooded grassland very similar to the Everglades. The Amazon is full of animals but they are very difficult to see owing to all the massive trees that are in the way. As a grassland, the Pantanal is a much easier place to see animals, and it is well-known particularly for mammals. I went to the Pantanal seeking four animals in particular: hyacinth macaw, lowland tapir, jaguar and giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis). The Pantanal is definitely the best place to see all four, and the only place to reliably see hyacinth macaw and jaguar.

To find jaguar and giant otter I drove to the small village at the end of the Transpantaneira called Porto Jofre. Porto Jofre is idyllically located on the bank of the Cuiaba River. There's a campground there, and I have to admit that camping on the edge of the river looked pretty spectacular, especially as the sun went down. However, after dark I discovered the dark side of this particular campground. For no discernible reason the campground had massive lights that bathed all the campsites in artificial light all night long. To power these lights they ran a diesel generator, a very noisy machine, for the WHOLE NIGHT. What could have been a spectacular experience listening to the river flow as I fall asleep admiring the stars through the mesh of my tent turned into a horrible experience in which a face mask and earplugs were necessary to get any sleep at all.

One of the benefits of the generator was that I had no trouble getting up in time to watch the sunrise. I also discovered that there was a giant river otter den right next to my tent. I got to watch four of the massive animals play and catch fish as the sun rose and I drank my morning coffee. Giant river otters are not only the longest of the otters, but are the longest of the Mustelids, and can get almost 2 meters long! They are huge.

Unfortunately, I was not nearly as lucky with the jaguars as I was with the otters. I hired a boat to take me looking for jaguars all day on the banks of the Cuiaba River. Porto Jofre is known as the only place in the world to reliably see jaguars in the wild, but even there it's not easy. The jaguars are seen when they come to the banks of the river to sunbathe, drink, hunt and bathe. They often don't hang around very long, so the trick is to be in the right place at the right time to see them. Working to the advantage of hopeful jaguar-spotters is the sheer number of people who want to see them. Many boats patrol the river ever day, looking for jaguars. If one is seen, the driver of the boat that spotted it gets on the radio and lets all the other boats know where it is. All the other boats race over to where the jaguar is to try to get a glimpse of it before it disappears back into the bush. Two jaguars were spotted the day I hired a boat to go looking for them. Unfortunately, I had not thought about horsepower when I hired the boat. My boat had the weakest horsepower motor available (60 hp, I think) and it was depressing watching all the other boats zoom past us on the way to see the first jaguar. My boat was left far behind and by the time we got to where the jaguar had been, it was long gone. By the time the second jaguar appeared, in the late afternoon, we had already run out of petrol and had returned to Porto Jofre. Credit to the driver of the boat, though, he really tried to find that jaguar. He searched for so long that we ran out of petrol in the middle of the river and had to wait for more to be brought from Porto Jofre. Hiring that boat cost R$600, more than I was expecting. I would have hired a (faster) boat again the next day, but I hadn't taken out enough cash before heading down the Transpantaneira. There is no ATM, and no credit card facilities, in Porto Jofre.

An otter that belongs in the sea, but not the one I wanted to see

After a week in the Pantanal I flew to Rio de Janeiro for my second Brazilian conference, the world congress of the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO). On paper, this conference and the last conference I attended, Evolution, were very similar. Both were large international conferences put on by big academic societies in large Brazilian cities. However, they couldn't have felt more different. 

I think the major difference between the two stems from their relative importance to their fields. The Evolution conference is probably the biggest, most important conference in the field of evolutionary biology (though there are other conferences that would argue this point, it's definitely one of the biggest). Because of this, I think it attracted a great majority of the players in evolutionary biology from around the world. Had the conference been held in America, Europe or Australia, most of the same people probably would have shown up.

The IBRO conference, by contrast, was noticeably made up of mostly researchers from Brazil and around South America. I think this is because the IBRO conference is definitely not the principle neuroscience conference. That would be the annual Society for Neuroscience (SfN) conference, which takes place every year in one of three American cities and attracts over 30 000 attendees. The IBRO conference was big, but not even close to THAT big. 

I also think it has to do with the number of people in the field. Neuroscience is one of the largest academic fields period and so the pool of people that can be drawn on to attend the conference is huge. Evolutionary biology is a much smaller field and even its largest conferences struggle to have an attendance a tenth as big as SfN. So a neuroscience conference could be decently sized and still only host mostly researchers from South America, while an evolution conference of only South American attendees would be noticeably smaller. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing; many people prefer smaller conferences and I know lots of people who refuse to attend SfN due to its overwhelming size.

I really enjoyed the IBRO conference. The only neuroscience conference I regularly attend, SfN, is dominated by North American and European researchers, and it was great to see all the interesting but relatively unsung work that's being done in South America. Rio de Janeiro is also home to one of my favorite research groups, the lab of Prof. Suzanna Herculano-Houzel. This lab is consistently coming out with cool research in the field of evolutionary neuroscience, and is one of the few labs in the world doing so. Dr. Herculano-Houzel herself is an excellent speaker and advocate for Brazilian academia, and has written several books on neuroscience-related topics in Portuguese. I am lucky to be friends with several of the people in her lab and was invited to her lab's celebratory dinner before the conference's closing party. In addition to Dr. Herculano-Houzel's lab I got to visit with a future lab-mate. It's always nice to make friends with lab members before joining a lab, as joining itself can be a jarring and disorienting experience. It's nice to have people that already know you and can help you adjust.

It was weird, and a shock to the system for me, that two conferences that looked so similar on paper, held in almost the same place and only one week apart, could have produced such opposing experiences for me.

After the IBRO conference it was time to head back to Australia for the final conference on my tour, the Behavior conference in Cairns. The only flights from South American to Australia are from Santiago, Chile to Sydney, Australia. I could have gotten a flight from Rio to Santiago, but they are shockingly expensive and the flight from Santiago to Sydney was already expensive enough. Instead, I got a much cheaper flight from Rio to Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, and spent the next two weeks traveling overland to Santiago and my flight home to Australia. I think that entire two-week trip cost less than the Rio-Santiago flight, and produced many more memories. 

Some of those memories were produced at the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve north of La Serena, Chile. The reserve is not only an excellent place to see Humboldt penguins (of which we saw several) but is also probably the best place north of Santiago to see one of the world's least know otters. The sea otter of North America is the most well-known otter-that-lives-in-the-sea, and it's the only one that has a truly pelagic existence, where it needs little to no contact with the land to survive, but there is another otter species, much less well known, that lives primarily in the sea. The marine otter (Lontra felina) is native to the Pacific coast of South America and lives in the littoral zone (the area close to shore) of the coast. It's very specialized to this area and rarely enters fresh or even brackish water. And yet it looks almost identical to the two American freshwater Lontra otter species. That it's internationally listed as endangered just adds to its air of mystery. Seeing the marine otter in the wild was an excellent way to end my overseas conference tour that started with a failure to see the sea otter.

An Otter Australian

The final conference on my tour was the Behavior conference in Cairns, Australia. Sadly, Australia is otter-free, the closest otters living across Wallace's Line in places like Borneo. However, I went to Cairns the weekend before the conference to try and see some of the cool wildlife that does live there, such as tree-kangaroos, green ringtail possum, and golden bowerbirds. To see these animals I travelled to a town not far from Cairns called Yungaburra and hired Alan Gillanders of Alan's Wildlife Tours to help me find these amazing but hard-to-find critters, which we did successfully. Particularly spectacular was the nighttime spotlighting portion of Alan's tour. Rare possums and gliders were illuminated in bright red light from special spotlights. Red light is used instead of normal white light because the possums and gliders can't see it, and so are not disturbed by our tour.

However, one animal that I didn't need Alan's help to find was Australia's version of an otter, the spectacular platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus). Yungaburra has its very own platypus hide, and at dusk I visited it along with some backpackers and was able to watch as a platypus emerged from its burrow for its nighttime forage. Now, platypus are very easy to see in the wild in Canberra, where I live, but it's shocking to see just how much smaller they are up Australia's north compared to the south. Up in Yungaburra they're like adorable mini-platypuses.

After my wildlife tour it was time for the Behavior conference. Behavioral ecology and evolutionary biology are ostensibly different fields, but the people who do them are generally interested in both to the point that I don't think I could tell the attendees of the Behavior conference from the attendees of the Evolution conference in Guaruja based on research topics. 

Interestingly my experience at the Behavior conference was the opposite of mine at the Evolution conference. At Behavior I felt integrated, got to know people, and had great conversations with a wide variety of people about lots of science topics, including with people that I had not known previously. Here, I think the big difference was that I not only had friends in attendance, but also more senior academics who knew me and had an interest in my academic progress. In particular, my co-supervisor Prof. Martin Whiting, chief of the Lizard Lab, was in attendance. Martin made sure that I met people who had interests relevant to mine and opened doors in terms of talking to the right people. And it wasn't only him. Other senior academics in attendance were great in helping me meet people and feel included in the society. This made me realize how important it is to have good supervisors. Especially in the absence of the right social functions at conferences, they are key to meeting the people you need to meet as an early career researcher in order to become part of the academic world.

Epilogue: An Otter Jealousy

After the Behavior conference my tour was over. I had to get back to my office, to the grind of analyzing data, making sense of the results and writing papers. However, at the same time my partner got her first taste of conference travel when her supervisor sent her to a conference in the United States. After the conference she went to visit her aunt who has a house near Monterey Bay, California, and low-and-behold she sent me the picture below. They may just look like little specks in the ocean, but she made sure I knew what they were: real, live sea otters!

Ode to a Courtyard

It's amazing how much seemingly minor things, things that never occurred to me before I moved to Australia, matter so much in determining my quality of life. There is a trend right now for "open plan" offices in academic environments. The idea seems to be that by preventing people from being in small offices, and instead having a desk in a large room with many, many other people, you foster communication and collaboration. I have worked in both small offices and large, open plan offices and in my opinion this is complete baloney. Offices are for doing work, which often requires concentration and a lack of disturbance. In my experience, open-plan offices just breed frustration and resentment for one's co-workers and ultimately creative ways to isolate one's self in a crowded environment, such as wearing headphones, erecting blinders around your desk, and even not coming in at all and instead working from home. In the end that has the opposite of the intended effect: people, especially introverts, deliberately isolate themselves from the academic community at the university. Even a coffee shop is easier to work in than an open-plan office. At least at a coffee shop the din is constant and consistent and the people are strangers - very unlikely to break your concentration by coming up to talk to you. I am being a little too harsh here, I've worked in open-plan offices that work well, but these have false walls (basically, cubicle walls) that give you a little privacy and the desk space allotted to each individual was large enough that we weren't touching elbows all the time. 

So what does, in my opinion, foster collaboration and camaraderie? Common areas. Nice, welcoming places that you can go to eat lunch, look over a paper with your colleagues, or have a meeting over coffee. These allotted areas are often looked down upon for being wastes of space, social areas where you can go to waste time, but again I think this is baloney. These are the areas were you meet the people you work with: over lunch, during a discussion group, or if you happen to be reading the paper at the same time as someone else. A common area to have lunch is important: if everyone leaves the building for lunch, people will arrange to go with their friends, and new people who haven't met anyone yet will often feel awkward and left out, simply because no-one yet has their phone number and it's always hard to remember to include everyone. And nothing breeds resentment for your coworkers like eating fish for lunch at your desk in a shared office. This I know from experience. Meeting people and building relationships in a neutral space is, in my experience, extremely important for fostering professional relationships and developing collaborations. When academic buildings have been designed in the past, it seems the architects have agreed. The building I work in at the Australian National University (ANU), the Banks Building, has a large indoor meeting/tea room and an even larger outdoor courtyard. The courtyard in particular has been a major contributor to both my job satisfaction and community-development within the Evolution, Ecology & Genetics department at ANU.

The courtyard in the Banks Building at ANU as seen from Google Earth (left) and the second floor balcony (right).


The primary reason the courtyard is such a large part of what makes me happy at ANU is not just because it is pretty (though it is). It's because this is the place to go for lunch and get a little vitamin D. I've met countless people from the department I wouldn't have otherwise met because they were looking for somewhere to eat their lunch and came to eat it outside with us in the courtyard. It's also the place were we have barbecues once in a while. Barbecues are also excellent ways to celebrate milestones like thesis submissions, retirements, and Fridays. Having an eating area that's welcoming and large enough for everyone does wonders to foster these positive feelings towards our academic community at the ANU. This sense of community helps us all get along and also to do better science through collaboration and team work. THIS is how you get to know people and their science. Not with building a tunnel between two buildings, not with open-plan offices or labs. I've been to many working environments that have tiny, gross, entirely unwelcoming common areas that are completely unsuitable for meeting people. These places are also often filled with people who complain about feeling isolated and alone at work (in my experience, at least). 

Our courtyard in the Banks Building at ANU is a great place for meeting people and fostering community and collaboration. Here we are celebrating... something... (possibly a thesis submission*) on the left and in the middle, and meeting in the morning sunshine on the right. Photos kindly provided by Cat Young (who's soon getting married to the guy in the picture on the right, which I cannot, even though I would love to, credit to meeting in the courtyard).


The courtyard is a particularly wonderful common space because the trees and pond within encourage the presence of wildlife. Several of the wild animals mentioned in this post about wildlife on campus have been seen in the courtyard. Particularly, the large Banksia tree in the courtyard has been home to both ringtail and brushtail possums, and its flowers and seeds attract a wide variety of animals including flying foxes, honeyeaters, and at least five species of parrot (including my favourite, gang-gangs). For about a year a pair of ringtail possums decided a notch in the Banksia tree was an ideal bed, and we'd check every day to see if Yoda and Yodette were around. Word quickly spread amongst us if they were. Later, a possum nesting box was affixed to the tree and ever since we've had a rotation of brushtail possums using it, including one memorable female with her baby. The more confident possums will even come out of the nesting box at lunch time to try and steal a midday snack.

Brushtail possums have been occupying the courtyard since a possum nesting box was installed. Photos by Cat Young.


In addition to the wild animals that wander through, our courtyard is home to some departmental "pets". They are mostly unwanted pets that we've accumulated over the years. These are species that live in the local Canberra area, and are therefore perfectly happy to live in the courtyard year-round. Though we greatly enjoy having them around, they seem to be even more appreciated by visiting scholars, especially those from overseas, for whom they provide a way to see some local wildlife while having meetings about science. This is advantageous because scientists are busy people and often only visit for one or two days, not long enough to squeeze in some wildlife viewing on top of all the meetings. In our courtyard we have quite a few native animals wandering around which often crawl over their feet while in the midst of technical discussion. The slight loss of productivity and focus is mitigated by the increase in joy. 

The most charismatic "pets" living in the courtyard are the Gippsland water dragons. There were eight dragons in the courtyard last time I counted, seven of them male. Each male has their own territory, but they all want the same territory: the one which contains the picnic tables at which we eat lunch. Whichever dragon holds this territory gets a free lunch almost every day. The free lunch also attracts the courtyard's only female dragon, allowing the territory's male exclusive access to her. For years this territory was held by Stumpy, the oldest male dragon, who bore the scars he got keeping his prize territory. However, last year Stumpy got too old and fell from grace: there was huge upheaval amongst the courtyard dragons (this is starting to sound like Game of Thrones) and a new, young upstart beat Stumpy in battle and took the female and free lunches for himself.

Stumpy the old dragon king on the left and his young usurper on the right. Photos again kindly provided by Cat Young.


The dragons aren't the only ones we share our lunches with. If a brushtail possum is around it often gets some (see photo above right), and the courtyard's resident bluetongue skink also partakes. Possums and dragons are quick and agile enough to steal food when we aren't looking - the dragons have even been known to climb unsuspecting legs to grab a meal - but the bluetongue is neither quick nor agile and has to wait for handouts. Of course we are quite fond of all the animals and generally handouts are provided all around.

We often share our lunches with the courtyard "pets", including the dragons (left and centre) and the bluetongue skink (right). Left and centre photos provided by Rose O'Dea, right by Cat Young.


In the courtyard's centre is a large pond which provides habitat for its more aquatic residents. Two species of turtle reside in the courtyard pond: eastern long-neck turtles and Murray River short-neck turtles. The turtles are a great weather-prediction system: if they're out of the water and wandering around, it's likely to rain that day. They're also rather joyful: they constantly look like they're smiling at you. The turtles, like the lizards, are used to being fed by people, and as a result are rather friendly. If you approach the pond they'll often come to greet you to see if you have any yummy liver treats for them (they're fed raw cow liver). 

Smiling Murray River short-neck (left) and eastern long-neck (right) turtles inhabit the courtyard pond. Right photo once again kindly provided by Cat Young.


One courtyard resident has attained mythical status in our department: Gerry-lee, the courtyard eel. Many believed he did not exist. There were very few sightings of him after he was introduced to the courtyard in 2012, and most thought he was either someone's joke or had died. Those who claimed to have seen Gerry-lee could not provide proof. I myself had seen him only a handful of times, and had never been successful in photographing him. So most remained disbelievers up until earlier this year when our department's resident freshwater fish expert managed to take three pictures of Gerry-lee, proving his existence once and for all.

Gerry-lee the courtyard eel, who we are all now sure exists. Photos kindly provided by the only person I'm aware of to have successfully photographed Gerry-lee, Dr. Dan Starrs.


The ANU is not the only university to see the benefit in providing welcoming common areas, particularly courtyards. When I visited the University of Papua New Guinea last year I discovered their biology building also has a large courtyard. Being in a tropical country, their courtyard contained a spectacular mini-rainforest, complete with fawn-breasted bowerbirds and a bower! I've seen satin bowerbirds in the courtyard at ANU on a few occasions, but having a resident male with a bower would be spectacular. I also recently visited the University of British Columbia and discovered their biology department has a courtyard, and than they are committed to keeping it through upcoming renovations. Although the University of British Columbia is located on a sadly bowerbird-free continent, I did find out that their courtyard is visited regularly by the spectacular Anna's hummingbird. 

Courtyards are found in the biology buildings at the University of Papua New Guinea (left) and the University of British Columbia (right).


I strongly feel that attractive, open common areas, such as courtyards, are essential to fostering and maintaining a collaborative, productive, efficient and happy academic atmosphere. And all these things are essential contributors to my overwhelmingly positive experience working at the Australian National University.


Happy International Women's Day!

Today is International Women's Day, an awareness-raising day the world needs because many facets of society do not recognise women as equals, including (1) men and (2) Hollywood. So I thought, as a member of the former, I would share some recent experiences I've had with the latter, and in doing so try to do my own small part to promote gender equality.

The Bechdel Test is an excellent metric for women's representation in film. It's an extremely basic test, requiring only that there be two named female characters in a film who talk to each other about something other than a man. Despite the test's simplicity, a shockingly high number of movies fail the test. For example, of this year's best picture nominees, only two out of eight pass the Bechdel. It's been said time and time again that the test shouldn't be used to condemn any one particular movie, but rather as a critique of Hollywood as a whole. That this or that particular movie doesn't pass the Bechdel is no big deal, the problem is that the film industry is consistently churning out movies that underrepresent, exploit, and ignore women. 

One reason that movies often fail the Bechdel is that they generally have one main character, and therefore the supporting characters generally spend their time talking to, and about, the main character. As long as main characters continue to be mostly male, movies will continue to fail the Bechdel. The last three movies I've seen in theatre are Birdman (this year's Oscar winner), Still Alice, and Respire (Breathe). These three movies are all character studies and as such revolve strongly around their respective main characters.

Birdman's main character is a man, and it fails the Bechdel test in my opinion. The problem here is that the Bechdel test is vulnerable to technicalities. Some argue that Birdman passed based on an extremely short part of a longer conversation (about men) where two women briefly digress to talking about not-men. And then the two women kiss for no reason.

Still Alice and Respire, on the other hand, both feature women as their main characters and both pass the Bechdel with flying colours. Female characters in both these films have many varied conversations that have nothing to do with men. There is a huge difference between these movies and what some argue constitutes passing the Bechdel in the case of Birdman. There's also the added positive of no random, inexplicable female-female make-out sessions in these movies. What I'd like to point out is that both movies fail the reverse Bechdel, which means applying the metric to men instead of women (Birdman passes the reverse Bechdel). According to IMBD, very very few movies fail the reverse Bechdel.  

We should applaud movies that pass the Bechdel. To me that means we should applaud movies that have both men and women in important roles that don't exist primarily as love-interests or other gender stereotypes. However, if we recognise that a lot of movies are heavily main-character-focussed and that these movies are only likely to pass with women in the main role, maybe we should start keeping track of which movies pass the reverse Bechdel as well. Maybe, in addition to increasing the number of movies that pass the Bechdel test, we should get the number of movies failing the Bechdel to an equal number as those that fail the reverse Bechdel.