An invasion biology skeptic meets an invasion biologist: A hopeful dialogue.


Setting-  Back porch in Dayton, Ohio.  Belgian Stout and a beagle mix present. 

Invasion Biologist:  “Thank you so much for coming, I hope this will be a useful exchange…Shall we begin?”

Skeptic:  “Shoot!”

Invasion Biologist: “So you are telling me there is an ash tree standing right in front of the porch?”

Skeptic: “What do you mean?  I don’t see anything but grass… a seedling?”

Invasion Biologist: “No a large ash tree!  It’s 50 feet tall with a large crown?”

Skeptic:  “This is a bad way to start a dialogue – – I have no idea what you are talking about!”

Invasion Biologist:  “There was an ash tree in my yard, 50 feet tall; it stood right there in front of us.  It died because of an infestation of the Emerald Ash Borer…a well-known exotic, invasive, insect.  As an invasion biology skeptic, are you saying that tree actually didn’t die?”

Skeptic: “Come on…”

Invasion Biologist:  “Okay, so we agree that my tree was killed by this insect?  After all the larvae were present and abundant…I chopped the wood by hand once the tree was cut, I saw them!  Can we also agree that I have lost the $1,300 that I spent to have it cut down?  That money is not actually in my wallet?”

Skeptic: “…” frowning, checks his watch.

Invasion Biologist: “I could use $1,300- the AC in my car is broken, are you sure I don’t have it.”

Skeptic: “…” scowling.

Invasion Biologist:  “Okay, so we can agree that the Emerald Ash Borer killed my tree, and also virtually every member of the genus Fraxinus across a large swath of the Midwest?”

Skeptic:  “Hmm, that is a leap- A lot things can cause a tree to die.”

Invasion Biologist:  “Yes, but these mortality rates are exponentially greater than background rates, and the causal factor is well-known, empirically, to be this particular insect”

Skeptic:  “Alright, sure, these trees are killed by the borer.  Can we get on with it?”

Invasion Biologist:  “Please just go along with me for a bit here…. We agree that the tree was killed by the borer and it’s expensive?  My tree cost $1,300.  After talking to the very person who writes the checks, I know for sure that a small park district here in Dayton is spending $250,000 just on ash removal in the next year.   They did not have that money sitting around, it cuts them deep in other areas to deal with those trees, and those are only trees that might fall outside their parks onto streets or houses, not including inside the park trees which will be dealt with in future years.  Everyone living in the region, the municipalities, the people, have trees to deal with along streets or in yards and so forth, it is *extremely* costly for the region.”

Skeptic: “Fine”

Invasion Biologist:  “Okay, so this borer is well known to have arrived in the US via cargo, probably in pallets.  This is known to be a relatively discrete event, and resulted from the insect being transported across the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane.  Fraxinus where the borer normally resides do not suffer mortality to this extent, but the ash trees here in the US have no resistance, resulting in it sweeping through our populations.  The insect was accidentally moved by airplane right into the middle of a vulnerable population.  It could not have leapt over the Atlantic on its own…”

Skeptic: “No, I am not going to agree to this, what about some kind of wind storm or other event, it surely is not impossible for them to have crossed the Atlantic. The adults can fly at least some distance.”

Invasion Biologist: “Yes they fly, but the distances are infinitesimal compared to crossing the Atlantic Ocean with no stopping spots.  We know that dispersal curves have very long tails, but this is almost beyond imagination…can we call it getting here instantaneously, without human help, “exceedingly unlikely?”

Skeptic: “Okay, fine”

Invasion Biologist: “There are a great many insects and other critters that utilize ash trees for some portion of their life cycle.  I am not sure anyone has done a comprehensive survey, but would you agree that at least dozens of insects and animals is a reasonable minimal number to assume (although the number may be very much higher)?  And, can we assume that the origin of this menagerie includes species both from local environment and those that have been transported in by humans in various ways?

Skeptic: “And some of the species that have been moved to the US, and are using ash, are causing no harm, and may in fact benefit the tree!”

Invasion Biologist: “Ohh yes!”

Skeptic: “Fine, I agree.”

Invasion Biologist:  “Okay, so the way this particular insect interacts with ash trees is VERY different from those of the existing menagerie.  Radically different.  It has swept through the range of ash, killing the tree with unbelievable effectiveness.  In some areas where it first arrived the kill rates were nearly 100%.  The genus Fraxinus, which is a very important part of both urban forests and wildlands, is in big trouble in the region.”

Skeptic:  “Okay….”

Invasion Biologist:  “The spread has been rapid, and it seems, so far, wherever the insect gets a foothold, it grows explosively.  It is penetrating into whatever insect communities exist in these habitats with ease, defeats whatever defenses the ash trees have, and establishes populations that drastically reduce the ash populations.  Tens of thousands of trees are dying in here in Dayton OH as we speak…in fact, if you don’t treat your ash tree with insecticide it can safely be assumed that it will perish in the next 5 years or so.”

Skeptic:  “I am familiar with the insect… this is terribly tedious”

Invasion Biologist:  “Humor me?”

Skeptic:  “Fine….”

Invasion Biologist:  “You’re too kind, would you like another bottle?  There….now, can we agree that the biological action of this borer is relatively unique?  That the insect is acting in a way that is different from the menagerie of organisms already here when it arrived?”

Skeptic: “mmmm, not totally comfortable with that…what do you mean unique, that’s vague?”

Invasion Biologist:  “Fair enough, but we can assume Fraxinus was doing just fine living with the menagerie, but when this one insect arrived it has experienced precipitous crashes in population, so in that way this biological action seems clearly unique”

Skeptic: “Go ahead…”

Invasion Biologist:  “Can we say about the biological action of the borer that it is characterized by: rapid population growth and spatial spread and widespread detrimental impact to a long standing member of the local biological community?”

Skeptic:  “Sounds reasonable”

Invasion Biologist:  “Can we agree that this biological action is economically important (if not, can you give me $1,300?)”

Skeptic:  Yes (and no)

Invasion Biologist:  “Can we agree that this biological action is scientifically interesting?  And that studying the reasons why this particular insect acts this way, and members of the menagerie do not, could have both scientific impact and help human society?”

Skeptic:  “Sure that sounds true.”

Invasion Biologist:  “Can we agree that there are other species that seem to exhibit a similar biological action?  Some species act this ways, and others don’t, and figuring out why is a useful goal for science”

Skeptic:  “I will go along with that”

Invasion Biologist:  Can we call this scientific study “Invasion Biology”

Skeptic:   “No:  First of all, the language is jingoistic…it suggests actual hate of all species that were not here when Daniel Boone arrived here in Ohio…

Invasion Biologist:  “… Okay how about we call this area of science: Newly Arrived Organisms With Rapid Population Growth and Spatial Spread and Widespread Detrimental Impacts to Longstanding Biological Communities… biology?”

Skeptic: “Now you’re just being a jerk.”

Invasion Biologist: “Sorry, how about we use initials:  N.A.O.W.R.P.G.S.S.W.D.I.L.S.B.C Biology?  Sounds like a good name for a journal, no?”

Skeptic: “grrrrr”

Invasion Biologist:  “Well maybe we can come up with something better…but in the meantime, we agree on every key issue!”

Skeptic:  “You want to wrap up so early…why – Do you need feed your nativist fever by reading Desert Solitaire for the 14th time and staring at some Ansel Adams photos?”

Invasion Biologist: “arrgh…!”

Skeptic: “Relax man, just kidding…but look, seriously,  you have missed the whole point: Not all “exotic” species are harmful and..”

Invasion Biologist:  “…Hold on…that is a Straw Man- you know damned well that Invasion Biologists have always taken as a central tenant that very few exotic species become invasive.”

Skeptic: “Fine, but even the concept of “native” is terribly arbitrary.”  In fact, with the planet rapidly warming the whole idea of “native” is rapidly losing meaning.”

Invasion Biologist:  “Okay…its a fair point…however, would you agree that figuring out why some **tiny fraction** of exotic species become catastrophically harmful while others just nestled down into the biotic community is a useful endeavor?  After all, this work could help us predict or mitigate negative effects, and as we established already, a few invasive species (like Emerald Ash Borer) end up being economically and ecologically devastating.”

Skeptic:  “Sure, of course, but what does “exotic” even mean at this point in history where habitats are such a mess due to human activities (eutrophication, landscape structure changes, etc.) and with the climate changing very fast.  In fact, defining “native” as some date in time, such as 1750, is completely indefensible and arbitrary”

Invasion Biologists:  “Yea, we can agree that a specific year is hard to defend; however, surely you would agree that humans moving species around the globe was influenced by the internal combustion engine, industrialization, and the eventually growth of air and sea traffic such that in modern times the probability of any particular species dispersing across the oceans, and long distances over land, has been unfathomably increased.”

Skeptic:  “Sure, but that just makes the point for me- the native vs. exotic definition is a mess in modern times!”

Invasion Biologist:  “If we agree that dispersal has massively increased due to human commerce (which we did) then picking a particular date to demarcate native vs. exotic is trivial.  The point is that species are moving around the planet in a radically different way than just 200, much less 500, years ago…which is a very short time ecologically!  These terribly Anglo-centric dates such as 1492 or 1776 do not stand up to scrutiny, and deserve your skepticism; however, the Columbian Exchange detailed by Alfred Crosby is a real Biological event and radically increased global dispersal patterns, especially post WWII, in relation to human commerce DOES stand up to scrutiny and IS biologically meaningful.  Right?”

Skeptic:  “Sure, but how can you base policy or management activities on arbitrary definitions.  You have people spraying herbicide from airplanes in order to remove species that are defined as “invasive” only because they are “exotic”, but your definition of “exotic” is weak if not arbitrary.”

Invasion Biologist:  “I am worried about herbicide being sprayed from airplanes and other spillover effects of control…very worried…however, we agreed that some of those species dispersed due to commerce will cause bizarrely massive devastation, and we agreed that the existing menagerie do not cause the same kind of damage, and we agreed that figuring out which species act that way and which do not is a useful scientific pursuit and agreed on the need for Biological research on this phenomenon.  I believe it is an *urgent* task for Invasion Biology to verify harmful effects of species that we are calling “invasive” and further to discern the ramifications for non-target species and overall ecosystem function of various control options for Invasive Species.  These are URGENT problems… within the field of Invasion Biology.

Skeptic:  “Well we agree on the urgency of these issues – so why aren’t you working on these things?!”

Invasion Biologist:  “Yes we agree…and actually, as you can see, we agree on all the issues and always have underneath the semantics.  And, I AM working on verification of negative effects, and issues related to spill-over, but continue to be mighty distracted by arguing with you!  It would be a big boost if you would help me with the difficult and *urgent* tasks ahead of us.  Could we set aside the semantics and get to work on these basic biological questions?  Will you help?”

Skeptic: …(to be continued)


Maternity, timelines and seeking a career in Academia: An overview and 10 action items


A woman in Academia* with her Little One

The path to a tenured faculty position, the first point in the academic career at which you can feel real stability, is arduous and fraught with potential for getting off track.  The process also takes a long time:

Process Years
Undergraduate Degree 4
Master’s Degree/ Other Experience 2
PhD 5
Postdoc 3
Pre-tenure period 6
Sum 20

If you begin as an undergraduate at age 18, then you will finish this process at approximately age 38.  Perhaps one could quibble with some of the details; however, an estimate of 20 years as the length is about average, and going significantly faster than this is unlikely.  So, this is a long and difficult process for anyone; however, it is particularly challenging if you have, or are planning to have, offspring.  When in this process is a good time to have child(ren)?  The only choices are (a) before starting the PhD, (b) during the PhD, (b) during the Postdoc, or (d) during the tenure process.

The timeline is tricky for any potential parent in academia, fundamental differences between being a partner to a woman having a child and being the woman going through gestation, birth and the postpartum experience, make this a unique challenge for a female academic.  Women experience physiological changes during the 9 months of gestation, and sometimes these prevent a full work load.  These changes are separate and apart from the time spent breastfeeding, diaper-changing, keeping them from cracking their heads on the table edges, and all the things partners can help with.  Thus, to achieve a “level playing field” for women in science means, necessarily, creating opportunity for maintaining career momentum while supporting leave time during pregnancy.

Not all parents have partners and not all single parents are female.  There are myriad potential parenting situations, including grandparents taking over primary responsibility for raising a grandchild, adoptions by both heterosexual and same-sex couples or by a lone individual. 

In any case, if you have child(ren) during the the time leading up to tenure there is a chance of reduced productivity in relationship to potential competitors without children or with mates bearing the primary biological or caretaking responsibilities.  Because only women get pregnant and, in general and historically, women have carried the majority of childcare responsibilities, there has been a systematic disadvantage for women in Academia.  A recent article from Slate outlines this very clearly.

So what is to be done?

 Action Items:

(1) Health insurance for graduate students including dependent coverage.

Many universities provide health insurance options for graduate students, and in some cases this includes coverage for dependents.  There is a lot of ongoing change in health care related to The Affordable Care Act and other socio-political forces and we don’t know all of the implications for academics having children.  Whatever the case may be with national policy, we strongly urge all universities to ensure that graduate students have health insurance, including maternity coverage and coverage for dependents.  University administrators: Stop talking about how you value diversity in hiring until you remove this kind of basic barrier for women to enter and succeed in academia.  Graduate students: it is entirely appropriate to ask about health insurance prior to joining a university graduate program!  Faculty: find out for yourself what health care options exist for graduate students and be prepared to present that information to students you are recruiting.

(2) Maternity leave for graduate students.

Graduate students should/must be given maternity time off.  We would imagine in many programs there is enough inherent flexibility that maternity time can be assimilated into the program without particular rule changes; however, some policy statement of support could and should be adopted by graduate programs.  Graduate Program Chairs and Faculty Mentors should be ready and willing to help graduate students modify their projects to accommodate leave time.

(3) On-site child care or child care stipends for graduate students.

Once maternity leave is over there are many more years in which child care is a necessity.  It is a tremendous burden to find child care that is acceptable, psychologically difficult to drop off and leave your little buddy; and, it is absurdly expensive if you are living on a graduate student stipend.  Many graduate students have traveled far from their families (many international students are, literally, oceans away) so informal support is lacking.  These barriers to professional success are unique to those who have children, and most of the time women disproportionately bear these burdens.  For this reason, one action that would help equalize the “playing field” for women in academia is institutional support for child care. This policy is also very basically “pro family.”  Support for child care could take the form of on-site subsidized child care or a stipend for off campus services.  Indeed, we recommend that if a particular university cannot provide on-campus child care, they establish relationships with off-campus operations and provide aid for students in finding quality child care. 

(4) Time-line assistance for post-docs (grant extensions, university support).*

A postdoctoral appointee is usually categorized as a full-time “staff” member and will typically have access to health insurance and leave policies that are provided to all other full-time employees.  Even so, a postdoc almost always depends on the availability of grant funds to cover the salary and fringe, and the money itself nearly always has an end date within about 3 years.  Universities and funding agencies need to recognize this reality by adopting maternity leave policies that address these timeline issues.  One straight-forward action would be for major grant funders to create timeline extension policies for grants that include a postdoctoral associate.  Indeed, NSF now requires a postdoctoral mentoring plan be included in grants that seek funding to hire such a person, so infrastructure is in place for: (a) identifying grants that include postdoctoral funding and (b) assessing the quality of mentoring.  A simple additional step is to include a maternity contingency agreement between the award winning faculty and the granting agency.  We further recommend that large granting agencies set aside special funding to help bridge project delays associated with maternity leave.  For instance, any grant that includes postdoctoral funding can promise 6 months additional salary and an automatic one year extension of the grant to cover maternity leave if needed.   

*Thanks to Natalie Wright for bringing this issue into focus for us.

(5) Maternity-related leave and tenure-clock flexibility for tenure-track faculty.

Regardless of industry or occupation, women should get time off to have a baby and be home in the early days.  So it should be a normal expectation that women in academia are offered at least one semester leave from *all* university-related activity as “maternity leave.”  In combination with a summer either prior or following that semester this constitutes a strong maternity leave period.  We further recommend that this policy be extended to include post-adoption periods for new parents.

Some (most?  all?) universities provide faculty with the opportunity to negotiate tenure timelines in response to the development of unique and potentially problematic circumstances.  For instance, if you typically come up for tenure in your 6th year and some significant event occurs, you could argue for a one year delay on the decision and instead come up in your 7th year.  We propose that this be an automatic “offer” that accompanies maternity.  An extra year, with no change in criteria, simply provides for parity in candidate bids for tenure.  Moreover, having it as a built-in policy would remove any “stigma” of having to petition for extra time.  That extra time could be declined by the candidate if pre-tenure reviews indicate success is inevitable, or taken to bolster the case for tenure.  We further recommend access to this policy for anyone involved in a new parenting situation (including adoption).

(6) University-level support for departments to cover maternity leave.

With an obligation to provide one semester leave for maternity and new parents (as proposed above), departments need institutional support to cover the missing activities.  For example, funding to hire instructors or other staff to fill in this gap should be provided.  If it is not provided, and the department is left to bear the burden of the missing faculty member, the pressure will inevitably shifts back to the parents involved because it will be strongly in the best interests of the Department to have the Faculty member decline the offered leave.  This would de facto invalidate the leave policy.

(7) Research assistant support for tenure-track women on maternity leave.

If the new parent is in a research heavy department with high expectations for publication and grant writing, the idea of leave seems absurd…because absence from the research endeavor kills momentum, endangering the program and, thus, the upcoming tenure bid.

This one is extremely hard to manage from an institutional/policy perspective as nothing the university can do can fully replace the research activity of the person on leave.  One thing that may help would be institutional support for a research assistant for the maternity leave period.  Again, that person cannot possibly replace the function of the PI; however, it may be a way to create a bridge.  For instance, it may enable the faculty member to retain a finishing PhD student in a 6 month post-doc position who could get some papers out and maintain lab momentum while that parent is snuggling and sleeping with the new little one (which she should feel free and happy to do!)

(8) On-site child care or child care stipends for faculty.

See the above argument for grad student child care.  Of course, faculty members have a much stronger financial base than graduate students for paying for child care, and yet, the basic issues remain.  It’s very expensive, time consuming, psychologically draining, and logistically complicated to land a child care scenario that works for parent and child.  Universities should seek to develop on-site options and support for faculty in finding child care outside the university if necessary.  If no child care options exist on campus, we suggest universities create a stipend program to cover child care for parents in academia that is separate from salary and a set of relationships with off-campus providers.

(9) Mentoring programs for tenure-track faculty

All faculty need tenured mentors and advocates in their program that can help them navigate the tenure process, especially in cases that involve the maternity experience.  Departments need to make sure this support is available.

– – –

**We realize these 9 action items address but a small part of the social infra-structure that has yielded a male-dominated academy.** 

Even so, we feel strongly that they are structural components to a long-term solution.  Further, these basic items are not only pro-women, they are pro-family, and, to that end, are in everyone’s interest.

One final item that we recommend (10) is that everyone involved in mentoring in academia take part in creating conversations around the issues of gender equity and balance, and parenting in the Academy.  Getting these issues on the table in front of both males and females, starting during the undergraduate experience, will help transform discourse and policy in the future.

This post was co-authored with *Amy L. Goff-Yates, PhD