Field of Science

Berry Go Round #66

The latest edition of the plant carnival Berry Go Round has been posted at Notes of Nature

 Here in California the weather has been unseasonably warm, so I have not been going through much plant withdraw. However, this carnival might be especially good for folks in the eastern half of North America or other locations with winter in full swing. It may be quite a while before you all see any green plants peeking through the white snow. My favorite is Chris Martine's article in the Huffington Post. 3 Awesome Things We Learned About Plants in 2013. Enjoy these blog posts about plants to help you make it through this chilly season!

Thanks to Notes of Nature for including me in the lineup! 
For more about blog carnivals and my posts about the earlier editions of Berry Go Round, click here.

Addressing the Gender Issue

***Spoiler Alert***
This post may contain plot details and quotes from The Signature of All Things

It may seem unsurprising that a female bryologist in the early 1800's would disguise her gender on her initial publications. At the time women were not welcomed into scientific circles. Thus Alma's first publications were authored A. Whittaker. Later in the book, with age and time she publishes under her full name, Alma Whittaker. 
"No initials were appended to the name - no evidence of degrees, no membership in distinguished gentlemanly scientific organizations. Nor was she even a "Mrs.," with the dignity that such a title affords a lady. By now, quite obviously, everyone knew she was a woman. It mattered little." 
The reason she says it mattered little is that the world of bryophytes is not a competitive domain and thus she had been allowed to enter with little resistance. This is not just a casual statement. It is supported by the data (Special Report on Women as Academic Authors, 1665-2010 - Chronicle of Higher Education). From 1665-1970 only 8.4% of Ecology and Evolution articles were published by women, whereas in the field of Bryology almost twice as many female authors published (16.3%). Unfortunately disparities in publication rates between the sexes still remain (see the report's data from 1991-2010). 

Why do these disparities still exist? Could it be that our innate biases against women in the sciences negatively impacts women's publication rates? It has been shown that both male and female scientists are significantly biased against female applicants for research positions (Moss-Racusin et al. 2012). This article is behind a paywall. If you do not have access and are interested in reading the full study drop me an email. I could see this spilling over into the realm of scientific publication. It is often easy to tell whether someone is male or female by their first name, opening the door to inherent biases, which could influence both editors and reviewers. 

Inspired by the research of Moss-Racusin and others, professors in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Connecticut are carrying out a gender-blind faculty search. Both applicants and reviewers are requested to use initials or refer to the person applying as 'the candidate'. In an earlier experiment, they attempted to redact all gender-identifying information from applications, but one committee member was able to guess the applicant's gender by the difference in space he vs. she takes up in a sentence (Jones and Urban 2013). They outline and give detailed examples to guide the removal of gender-identifying content. 

Even with these detailed guidelines, there is seemingly no way to address the potential issue that recommendation letter writers typically use different words when describing men vs. women (Madera et al. 2009) [HT to M.T-T. for bringing this point up at lunch]. An example might be using action words such as "independent" and "confident" to describe a man and communal words such as "nurturing" and "helpful" to describe a woman. Hopefully letter writers that are writing for a gender-neutral application will be more aware of gender-biases and thus some of these language differences will disappear. I wonder if they could use this gender-blind search to study that? They could address the question: Do recommendation letter writers use less gender-biased language when they are writing for a gender-neutral job search, compared to a job search where gender-neutrality was not explicitly mentioned in the job advertisement? I would be really interested to know if a gender-neutral job search could also influence recommendation letter language. 

Overall I think that this gender-blind faculty search is a progressive undertaking that will help raise awareness about gender-biases that still exist in the sciences and I am really interested to hear how the process goes. I feel positive that the steps they are taking will decrease bias. What I still wonder is whether this type of job search will result in an increase in the number of female faculty hired? Unfortunately this job search only gives us a sample size of one. Similar efforts are needed nation-wide before we will see if decreasing gender-bias results in more women faculty in the sciences. 

January 2014 Desktop Calendar

We went out on a hike this weekend to Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, about an hour outside of Davis into the coastal mountains to the west. Unfortunately the rainy season here in the central valley has been anything but rainy. It is still warm and dusty. A little cooler than the summer, but otherwise not much has change. Thus the mosses that we saw on our hike were quite crispy and dry. Fortunately I found a few that were photogenic no matter their state of hydration. Hopefully January and February will have some rain, but I am not actually very optimistic. This is what the global climate change models predict. Dry places like the central valley will get drier and we are experiencing it first hand.

(IDENTIFICATION UPDATE - 14 April 2014 - This
 is the moss Dendroalsia abietinaI met this species on the SOBEFREE foray at the end of March.)

1 - Single click on the image to open it up in a new window. (If you use the image directly from the blog post you will lose a lot of resolution.)

2 - Right-click (or ctrl-click) on the image, and chose the option that says, "Set as Desktop Background" or "Use as Desktop Picture". The wording may vary.

3 - If the image does not fit your desktop neatly, you may have to adjust the image (Mac: System Preferences - Desktop and Screen Saver - Desktop; Windows: Control Panel - Display - Desktop) and choose "Fill screen" as the display mode of your background image.

Just the Tip of the Iceberg - Part 3 The Signature of All Things

***Spoiler Alert***
This post may contain plot details and quotes from The Signature of All Things

The first five pages of Part 3 focus on mosses with an intensity that covers a wide breadth of topics. 

We are regaled with the fact that mosses are "effortless to transport". They are not only small and light, but easily dried and thus avoid spoilage. Due to these qualities, mosses have been used as packing material for goods and other plants for centuries. The Whittaker botanical company also took advantage of these mossy features, using them to ship plants. Thus Alma not only traded and imported mosses herself, but she was able to mine the crates stored in her family's warehouses, which were filled with dried mosses from around the globe. 

After years of study, Alma accumulated an extensive herbarium. She collected over 8,000 species of mosses, which seems to me a pretty high number considering Alma is written to have worked about 150 years ago. Currently the number of species of mosses is close to 12,500, so that puts Alma at having collected and identified 64% of present day moss species diversity. All without leaving her home in Pennsylvania. I wonder how many species of moss were described by 1848? I am not sure where I would even go to try to locate that fact? A species count from Hedwig would be too early, whereas Brotherus would be too late. Who would have been a contemporary bryologist of Alma Whittaker, living and working during the first half of the 1800's? I will have to do some digging around to see what bryological history I can uncover. 

Alma also writes several books that as a bryologist I would most certainly have on my shelf. By 48 years of age she has written The Complete Mosses of Pennsylvania and The Complete Mosses of the Northeastern United States and has just begun work on The Complete Mosses of North America. The titles of the books could have been a little more creative or perhaps variable, but the sense of her productivity is firmly established. 

In leu of these imaginary books, I would recommend these real identification guides for exploring mosses in Pennsylvania and the Northeast: Outstanding Mosses and Liverworts of Pennsylvania and Nearby States and Common Mosses of the Northeast and AppalachiansAs for a good field guide that tackles mosses across all of North America, there are not any that I particularly like. Also a book covering mosses across the entire continent would be a pretty large tome to tote around in the field. My personal preference for identification is a regional guide with a more limited set of species to sift through. If you have a smartphone and internet access, a light field option with wide coverage could be the online Bryophyte Flora of North America. A key to the genera is posted here. Unfortunately all the links are broken and thus it is not connected to the descriptions. The full descriptions are arranged by family here, but you need to know the connections between the two to make them work together. The key is preliminary, so hopefully they will be linked in the final version.

Mosses back from the holidays

I am back from the holidays and some moss photography and blogging is on the menu for my upcoming weekend. 

In the meantime, check out this great post by Juan Carlos Villarreal on Peat, Whiskey, and Genomes. It is jam packed with fun moss facts, references, and lovely photos.