Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Friends, Graduate School, and a Spoiled Dog

Friends and Graduate School

I love graduate school! It's intellectually stimulating, fosters creativity and problem solving, and provides platform for me to express my love of arthropods! In addition to these positive attributes, I get to do it all around other people who are equally excited about research and arthropods (these traits are hard to come by outside of a biology department). Someone I met recently said that being in an academic environment is great because people talk about ideas not about people. This statement struck a chord with me. I have definitely worked in other environments where the main topic of discussion during lunch revolved around co-workers or other people and their lives. There's nothing wrong with this. After all, most people I know enjoy a good snippet of gossip now and then. However, I feel lucky to be able to discuss various cool insects, hiking trips, and the latest discoveries in science during lunch or social events after work. Graduate provides the ideal environment for my neediness to shine and be embraced by all of the other nerds surrounding me. What more could a girl ask for?!

As with any career, there are pros and cons to a career in academia. One of my least favorite things is the transient lifestyle that most of my colleagues are required to undertake. In fact, the transient lifestyle of academia was the inspiration for our blog address! Most master's students take 2--3 years to finish their degree and most doctoral students take 5-6 years (this is all assuming they don't encounter any lab or field catastrophes along the way). After a doctoral degree, most people continuing on the academic path will embark on one or more postdoctoral fellowship positions, which last at least one year and can last more. Following completion of the postdoctoral phase, lucky individuals can hope to get a tenure-track faculty position. I have made friends in all of these stages of academia and watched them move on to the next phase. Ted and I attended a going away party last weekend for a friend that finished his PhD and is moving on to a postdoc. It was bittersweet as it always is. He's going to be starting a great postdoc, and we'll most likely see each other at meetings in the future. However, we probably won't roam the same halls again. I've stayed in touch with some of the closer friends I've made in grad school and lost touch with others. It's always sad when someone from our nerdy little community moves on to a new place. The upside of this situation is that someone new is always wandering in, and I hope that one day I'll have tenure and remain a permanent fixture in the halls of a building serving as home to a bunch of enthusiastic scientists.

Spoiled Dog

As many of you know, Fritz is the equivalent of our child. This isn't unusual among dog lovers. We spoil him much more than we probably should, and it's debatable as to who is really in charge around our house. As a result of our affection for Fritz, our parents have also adopted this view of him. He receives Christmas gifts from them (wrapped of course) and other surprise gifts from time to time. When Ted's parents visited in the spring, they brought him a stuffed lamb chop. Fritz carried it everywhere with him! He used it as pillow while also removing all of its stuffing and squeakers. It had reached the point where there was nothing left but the outer shell. The largest of the five squeakers was still inside and giving Fritz a bit of trouble. When we mentioned this to Eileen (Ted's mom), she purchased a replacement for Fritz and mailed it to us here in Arizona. Fritz has taken to the new lamb chop and has already removed one of the squeakers. Below are pictures and video of Fritz opening his new gift. Yes, our pup unwraps his own gifts. He'll even help unwrap yours if you let him!

This photo doesn't include lamb chop,
but I love Fritz's expression and wanted to share!

Watch Fritz open his new toy!

The lamb chop on the left is the old one. The new one is on the right.

Fritz likes to use lamb chop as a pillow.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Animal Behavior and Life in Tempe

Standing by my poster at the ABS meeting
Ted and I just spent a week in Boulder, CO, at the Animal Behavior Society meeting (ABS 2013). We had the opportunity to learn about some great research and some not so great research. While there, we made quite a few new contacts and rekindled some old ones. I also came up with a new research direction that I'm really excited about and looking forward to starting. Juergen (one of my advisors) was also excited and encouraging, which is a definite bonus. I'll be investigating some the proximate mechanisms involved in nestmate recognition. This involves determining how an ant knows what her colony smells like versus another. For  those of you that haven't reached the level of enthusiasm about ants that I have, it's important to know that ants use cuticular hydrocarbons that are smeared all over their body kind of like a lotion to identify nestmates from non-nestmates. So, I want to know how they know what their colony smells like. It's kind of like learning what your house smells like versus your friend's house and being able to determine who lives in each house using only that smell. Some of you may be yawning at this point, but I'm excited and hopefully if you're reading this post you are at least somewhat interested by proxy.

Unfortunately, the meeting kept us pretty busy, and so we didn't really get to explore Boulder. It's a pretty small city with a hippie/outdoorsy vibe to it. I'm glad I got to visit, but I'm not sure I'd add it to my list of places to vacation or live. However, it is surrounded by some gorgeous mountains, which are known for their amazing hiking and rock climbing opportunities.

Fritz likes to help Ted while he's working at home.
We came back to Tempe to pick Fritz up from PetSmart Pet Hotel to find him emitting a squeaky, tiny bark. Apparently he enjoyed playing with the other dogs and barking so much that he lost his voice during the visit. There's no need to worry though; he quickly regained his voice and is as talkative as ever!

We've been having a few overcast and rainy days in Tempe, which I am finally coming to appreciate. Initially I loved that every day was sunny here and disliked the occasional grey sky. However, once in awhile it is nice to walk around outside without feeling like some giant being is holding a large magnifying glass above you and directing a beam of sunlight straight at you. After living here, I'll be sure to encourage all children to avoid partaking in this activity which many of us did with ants when we were young.

Because Ted and I haven't posted on our blog for a couple of years, I thought a longer post was needed. I'll try to update it more often so that friends and family living far from us can keep abreast of our adventures. To start this off, I thought I'd post some photos of the ants I work with. Enjoy!

Below are pictures of the Environmental Growth Chamber that many of our ant colonies live in.


Here are photos of two of the species of ants I work with.

Camponotus festinatus

This is a typical nest box made of dental plaster.
 has a nest area and foraging area.

This is a close up of the nest area.

These are some workers (both majors
and minors) and brood.
This is a C. festinatus queen.

Aphaenogaster cockerelli

Aphaenogaster cockerelli queen
Workers and brood in the nest area

This is a typical nest box for
Aphaenogaster cockerelli.

Here is a video of the Aphaenogaster queen in the nest.
 Note the egg stuck to her gaster (i.e., her butt). :)