Technology at the interface of science & art

It seems you can’t escape today’s constantly evolving technological platforms and the resulting data deluge from their use. Whether we’re using a smartphone, or a sophisticated piece of scientific instrumentation, the storage capacity and price continues to rise with increasing demand for productivity (tech and commercial needs) and connectivity (social media). Does this mean we’re overwhelmed? tuned-in? or stressed-out from all these tools at our fingertips?

“The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.” —Joseph Priestley

Perhaps some aspects of this are true. Yet, the more tools we create and utilize, the more we increase the need for meaningful relationships and real communication. This calls for integrating different technological platforms across fields such as science, music and art.

How can we accomplish this?

If you’re not familiar with the acronyms being tossed around, you’re more than likely to understand that STEM is used in the sciences to describe  Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. In the United States, students are being encouraged to pursue their interests that fall within the STEM disciplines. STEM education initiatives have replaced the “no-child-left-behind” policy of our former President predecessor. 

In addition to science and technology education reaching the forefront of educational policies and teaching efforts, the arts have entered the picture to produce STEAM. In reality, no separate discipline deserves to be excluded from the educational curriculum. As an educator myself, I’m very pleased to see these approaches.

So, this is one example of how technology can serve as a tool to interface between disciplines. There are other less concrete but “teachable” approaches we can use:

  • Authentic conversations
  • Encouraging dialog through writing
  • Fostering positive models of professional success
  • Providing leadership opportunities

What I hope to see emerge from the focus on technology and interdisciplinary education is a more authentic conversation. Despite having intelligent devices at our fingertips, the need for intelligence, creative and critical thinking to apply our knowledge is growing more and more. We need to encourage face to face dialog and peer interactions in classrooms and public spaces. Let’s use the creative thinking power of people and the efficiency of technology to drive the next level of leadership in our society.

full STEAM ahead!

IPCC report: comments on the Guardian (UK)

I have yet to devour the entire IPCC report and comment thoroughly, although I do have the document on my to-read list. I just want to note that it was encouraging to see today’s Guardian highlight the impacts of climate change on wildlife in this story.  Examples include range shifts in polar species such as snow leopards, polar bears and a bird species (less known to me) called the dotterel. Changes in the latitudinal ranges of other bird and insect species have also been studied and in most cases, species that are acclimatized to colder temperatures have been forced to move further northwards to account for higher temperatures.

More alarming are the changes in phenology which have been measured in earlier occurrence or “spring advancement” of flowering and migration in plant species and birds. Amphibian reproduction is occurring earlier and small mammals are emerging out of hibernation earlier.

The extent of change covers terrestrial and aquatic species from trees and mammals to aquatic organisms such as marine turtles and crabs. When we link these ecosystem wide changes together, the impacts of climate related changes appear severe. Ecologists and organismal biologists have the capacity to measure species-level responses to climate pressure but only organized efforts on the human-scale can impact effective management and mitigation steps to contain future change.


Observations on phenology through the eyes of Aldo Leopold’s daughter.

This is a wonderful short video produced by the Aldo Leopold Nature Center that highlights the beauty and importance of tracking long-term phenological events.

Rare UK butterflies are later this year

In today’s BBC Nature news:

After a cold spell, British scientists are concerned about the late arrival of rare butterfly species.

Threatened pearl-bordered fritillaries finally emerged at the end of April.

Although my current research is focused primarily on marine plankton phenology, dramatic examples of year to year changes in terrestrial biology are interesting to mark. The recorded observations of flowering events, leaf-out, ice-out and annual migratory patterns comprise phenology across many different ecosystems. Shifting phenological timing due to climatic conditions is difficult to track unless long-term records of both climate and species occurrences are marked.

In contrast with previous year’s observations, the timing of this year’s insects was up to a month later. What role do rare species play in this complex ecosystem interplay of phenological timing and response to environmental conditions?

Zoo photo of the day: Chaetognatha (arrow worms)

Zoo photo of the day: Chaetognatha (arrow worms)

Photographer:Peter ParksRights:© Image Quest 3-D

Chaetognaths are an ecologically important and abundant group of predatory marine zooplankton. These taxa have been routinely found in our zooplankton sampling since 1984. In the Gulf of Naples, Chaetognaths reach their peak abundance in October after the peak of summer copepods occurs.

Using mechanoreceptors, chaetognaths are able to sense their prey and utilize ambush feeding behaviors! These sensitive receptors also determine the size of their prey catch based on the size of their mouth. Pretty amazing stuff!

I’ll try and post images of the taxa I study so we can put some names with all the numbers.

Change in timing of central tendency

FIP: Figure in progress!

This plot is based on a figure in the 2004 Edwards and Richardson Nature paper in which the timing of central tendency was used to estimate a change in timing by calculating the difference between the start and end timing values in a time series. In that case, the data considered plankton data from the continuous plankton recorder (CPR) time series. In this case, we are considering a different time series spanning from 1984-2010 with a 4 year gap.

A negative difference between the start of the time series (1984) and 2010 indicates that the phenological timing of a taxa is anticipated or their season is starting earlier. A positive difference is interpreted that the species season is delayed or later.

The taxa considered here have been evaluated at species level, but for the sake of this plot are depicted into plankton classes. In total there are 30 taxa (in this study) with a distinct unimodal season that include phytoplankton (n=14 species) and zooplankton (n=16).


Edwards, M., and A. J. Richardson. 2004. Impact of climate change on marine pelagic phenology and trophic mismatch. Nature 430: 881–884.

The importance of writing it down -or- the magic recipe for becoming a better writer!

When we think of science writing or research in science, “we” (meaning myself of course but perhaps a general collective) think of publishing results, data, hard and fast truth.  What many people don’t realize is that science also involves some highly creative, original writing.  In fact, what I didn’t realize when I started my doctoral research was just how much writing I would be doing!

This is normal they assured me, it will be helpful for your thesis, it will produce manuscripts!

I didn’t realize that the writing would become such an integral part of the process throughout the rest of my research efforts.

Read More…

Zen and the art of finding your purpose

This week I realized how some of my work will contribute to the “long/term” efforts of timeseries (herein referred to as ts) research; at least at this laboratory. If you consider the multitude of graduate degree projects and theses, post-doctoral projects and other contract positions, these are often highly productive time periods (despite the slow start and learning curve time-lags), but relatively short-lived. Once a student or post-doc completes this project, the grant funds have dwindled, and it’s time to move onto another project.

There may be drawbacks to completely setting aside the previous work. For example, in ts research, the project continues; data collection is often a long term committeemen or research priority for an institution and there are often long range goals that direct the research objectives within the laboratory. However, I see an area within this type of research where the day to day work of a specialized project (either a graduate student or post-doc) can benefit the entire project.

I’m going to use the work I’m currently doing as an example. I’m learning several new computational and statistical tools which I can apply to analyze this ts dataset. Once I complete this research, the skills I’ve obtained from learning how to use these “tools” will reside with me. Effectively, when someone finishes a job, there is always a period of time where knowledge-transfer (I like to call it the “brain dump”) occurs. I’ve been on both sides of this equation, acting in the role of the person receiving the information from a previous employee or student, as well as the information-provider.

So, you may be asking where does zen come into this?

Read More…

armchair oceanography, “data science”, or stats is the new black

I cringe at the thought of calling myself an “armchair oceanographer” because in my mind it equates to less and less time spent in the field and more and more time spent in the confines of an office.  At some point in our careers, there comes a time when we face the music.  From a fellow colleague and well seasoned oceanographer in the field, I’ve been told there isn’t anything wrong with doing armchair science.   What this all means to those of you not familiar with this terminology is that rather than being a field-based ecologist with manipulative experiments or extensive survey plots to count, I spend my days in front of large data sets and experiment with a vast array of working hypotheses to test associations and relationships within my data.

This branch of computational science or biology is now being termed “data science”.  A recent NYT article discussed the future job prospects of this field and from what I’ve seen it seems data scientists are going to be a hot commodity in the marketplace.   I should be happy right? The immediate answer to this question is both yes and no.

An interesting “infographic” from presents the application of data science to various fields from social networking to time series. While I agree that data science is the new black, I would urge caution about how it is applied. The mechanics of how data science is carried out are fascinating and involve everything from cloud computing to hacking, programming and high level statistics. This part is the “science” in my opinion. The other side of this equation is the why, or experimental approach if you will. Why do data science? What does it tell us? Do you really want to data mine every facebook profile and related tweet to find out what the next generation is thinking, buying and saying? The philosophical side of me thinks this new branch of science should be grounded in a guiding approach to manage not only the accumulation of data but whether it’s truly worth our data-mining efforts.

Regardless of the ethics, data science is the new sexy. Now, let’s test the significance of this statement… off to the reality of science!


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