Category Archives: science

AAPA and the March for Science

I am just back from the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in New Orleans. As always, it was great to catch up with colleagues and friends. I’m never quite sure about how I fit in to AAPA, but I certainly know a lot of people there (and, of course, I’m never quite sure about how I fit in to nearly any academic conference I attend!). I was struck by what seems like a pretty dramatic demographic shift from previous incarnations of AAPA. Overall, the assembled conference-goers seemed quite a bit younger. The image I have in my mind of AAPA is a bunch of stodgy old dudes wearing polyester-mix sport coats. Not so much this year. So much ink! There was even a bit more diversity, which is an encouraging sign for a field dedicated to the study of human diversity. I really appreciate that AAPA is taking an active part in changing its heretofore woeful diversity problem and I’m looking forward to seeing the payoff from the new IDEAS Workshop (thanks on that front to Ripan Malhi and Susan Antón for getting the grant to make the workshop happen).

I have to admit, I didn’t see that many talks. This is kind of my idiom at scientific meetings. There are so many people to meet and talk to that it seems a bit wasteful to spend hour after hour listening to podium talks of, let’s face it, rather mixed quality. However, I did spend a lot of time in the poster hall. I saw a number of really interesting posters. A couple that stand out in my memory: Saige Kelmelis, together with her advisor Jim Wood and my former student Mike Price, had a terrific poster describing the use of multi-state demographic models to infer the effect of leprosy on survival in medieval Denmark (lesioned skeletons had an overall increase in the estimated mortality hazard in excess of a factor of six!). Adam Reynolds at Emory, along with Paul Hooper and a bunch of co-authors, had a poster describing a dynamic-state model for herd management in Mongolia that looked really innovative (and left me with so many questions — a good thing in a scientific conference). Alaina Schneider, a student in Herman Pontzer’s lab, presented awesome work measuring the energetic costs of immune function in a mouse model. Emma Pomeroy of Liverpool John Moores University had a neat poster on the ancient origins of chronic disease risk in South Asian populations. That was one of those great ones where I knew nothing going in and felt like I actually learned something new after our chat.

I presented in one of the human biology sessions organized by Aaron Blackwell on some recent insights we’ve had into the statistical modeling of network data collected in the field using ethnographic methods. Be on the lookout for forthcoming discussion of ethnographic porcupines and how to deal with them. Current post-doc Ashley Hazel presented her great work on the epidemiological effects of isolation and mobility on HSV-2 infection among pastoralists of northern Namibia.  Ashely is also instrumental to the work that I presented and I’m excited about what should be coming out of our work in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future.

AAPA overlapped this year with Earth Day and the March for Science. In a statement of solidarity with this national movement, AAPA president Susan Antón and the conference organizers decided to cancel the standard plenary lecture and instead lend our support to the New Orleans satellite march.

I was an enthusiastic participant in the march, but I ended up having a bit of an adventure that I’ve come to think of as a metaphor for my own scientific career. Alan Rogers and I had gone to lunch at the House of Blues (quite a distance from the start of the march at Duncan Plaza). We got kind of lost in a wide-ranging conversation that included a discussion of fair productivity metrics for anthropologists to numerical calculation of eigenvalues to genetic algorithms to graph theory and Markov chains. At one point, Alan looked down at his watch and realized that we were late for the march. Having missed the  exodus from the conference hotel, we figured that we would just walk straight from the restaurant to the starting point of the march. The problem was, we thought that the march was starting from Jackson Square, not Duncan Plaza. I should have known that this wasn’t right because Jackson Square is more or less ground-zero for New Orleans tourism. It fronts St. Louis Cathedral and is across Decatur Street from the world-famous home of late-night beignets, Café du Monde. Seems hard to imagine Decatur Street being shut down for a political march on a Saturday in April!

When we arrived at Jackson Square, it was obvious that we were in the wrong spot. A quick search on my phone under the shade of the trees in Jackson Square and we realized our mistake. Unfortunately, we were unable to figure out the route of the march, since by this time, it had almost certainly started. We guessed and headed out for Duncan Plaza, figuring we might manage to intercept the march if our guess was right. Well, our guess wasn’t right. We walked the mile-and-a-half, didn’t encounter the march en route, and found ourselves at an empty Duncan Plaza (having acquired a couple other stragglers we encountered on the way) with no evidence of which way the thousands of people had gone!

A bit dejected — and very hot and sweaty — we figured we’d just head back to the conference hotel and get a drink and cool off in the hotel bar. As we approached the Marriott, I said “hey, I think we found it.” Alan , with a note of surprise in his voice over my seemingly terrible spatial cognition, said “yes, we’re nearly at the hotel. Don’t you know where we are?” I replied, “No, we found the march!” Sure enough, there they were, assembled in front of the Marriott, chanting, waving signs, and jamming out to the brass band which had accompanied the march.  Natalia Reagan captured a bit of the atmosphere in this tweet:

While it was a bit frustrating to miss much of the march, it was great to hang out with Alan while we comically tried to find a couple thousand of our closest friends as they marched, chanted, and made a whole lot of noise on the streets of a pretty small city, and I came to think of this as a pretty apt metaphor for my life as a scientist. I bumbled around, not entirely knowing what I was doing or where to look for an answer, mostly failing, but ultimately finding a modicum of success. That sounds like science to me. On this particular day, I enjoyed the great honor of bumbling around with one of my major scientific role models and fellow autodidact, Alan Rogers. We talked about a ridiculous array of technical and theoretical issues as we wandered, which is half the fun of science. Sure, maybe we felt a bit isolated from the field — perhaps even wondering if we actually belonged. This, again, is pretty par for the course of doing interdisciplinary science for me. But in the end, we managed to find our way into the field again, enjoy a sense of connection with the community and the history of our discipline, and let our voices be heard on some of the central issues of our time.

On the Uses of an Interdisciplinary Ph.D.

Today, I participated in a panel — along with super-smart colleagues Alex Konings and Kabir Peay — for the first-year Ph.D. students in the E-IPER program, an interdisciplinary, graduate interdepartmental program (IDP) at Stanford. As is the idiom for any E-IPER event, we spent a lot of time fretting about interdisciplinarity: what it means, how you achieve it, what costs it entails for jobs, etc.

I expressed the slightly heretical opinion that we should not pursue interdisciplinarity for interdisciplinarity’s sake. What matters — both in terms of the science and more instrumental outcomes such as getting published, getting a job, getting tenure — are questions. Yes, questions. One should ask important questions that people care about. Why are there so many species in the tropics? Where do pandemic diseases come from and how can we best control them? Does democracy and the rule of law provide the best approach to governance? How do people adapt to a changing climate?

Where the interdisciplinary Ph.D. program comes in is it provides students the opportunity to pursue whatever tools and approaches are required to answer the question in the best way possible. You don’t need to use a particular approach because that’s what people in your field do. Sometimes the best thing to do will be totally interdisciplinary; sometimes it will look a bit more like what someone in a disciplinary program would do. Always lead with the question.

Answering important questions using the best tools available is probably the best route to managing the greatest risk of an interdisciplinary degree. This risk, of course, is the difficulty in getting a job when you don’t look like what any given department had in mind when they wrote a job ad. The best way to manage this risk is simply to be excellent. If your work is strong enough, the specific discipline of your Ph.D. doesn’t really matter. Now, there are certainly some disciplines that are more xenophobic than others (anthropology and economics come immediately to mind), but if your work is really outstanding, the excuse that you don’t have the right degree for a given job gets much more tenuous. Two people who come immediately to mind are my colleague David Lobell and my sometime collaborator and former Stanford post-doc Marcel Salathé.

Is David a geographer? Geologist? Economist? Doesn’t really matter because he’s generally recognized as being a smart guy doing important work. Similarly with Marcel: population geneticist? Epidemiologist? Computer scientist? Who cares? He has important things to say and gets recognized for it.

Now, alas, we can’t all be David and Marcel, but we can strive to ask important scientific questions and let these questions lead us to both the skills and the bodies of knowledge we need. These then form the foundation of our research careers. Interdisciplinarity then is about following the question. It is not an end to itself.

Integrating the Social Sciences with the Environmental and Earth Sciences

Seven years ago, I was invited to participate in a panel at NIH in Bethesda charged with evaluating the joint NSF/NIH interdisciplinary program on the Ecology of Infectious Disease. While there was an explicit call for the participation of social and behavioral sciences in the call for proposals, very few social scientists were getting involved in this remarkable program. Having participated in a wide array of similarly interdisciplinary panels, I knew that this was a common dilemma: the architects of the panel (whether it is a panel evaluating grant proposals, an interdisciplinary symposium, or an edited volume), who are typically natural scientists of some sort, make a good-faith effort to bring social scientists into the fold, but generally have little luck. Through a series of slightly hilarious miscommunications and travel snafus, I was unable to attend the meeting in Bethesda. I holed up for a weekend in a cottage in Santa Fe (where I had been participating in an panel the previous week) and wrote a document on how researchers working on the ecology of infectious disease could engage the social sciences and social scientists. As I contemplate my new role in the School of Earth, Energy, and the Environment at Stanford, it seems like a propitious time to revisit this white paper.

The stakes for involving the social sciences in environmental research – broadly construed – are high. Massive – potentially existential – problems like climate change, emerging pandemic disease, and large-scale extinction have both human drivers and enormous consequences for human welfare. This said, there are precious few social scientists – people charged with understanding human behavior and societies – who are engaged in research on environmental problems. This problem is particularly acute at elite institutions such as leading research universities.

Since human behavior is central to many aspects of most environmental problems, the contributions of social scientists to work on environmental problems is important and, quite possibly, necessary for dealing with the major problems associated with this domain of research. Understanding environmental problems such as climate change is obviously of major significance for state actors (e.g., governments, regulatory bodies)  and, ultimately, people more generally. Why then is it so difficult to engage social scientists in these research questions? This seems all the more puzzling given the amount of money potentially available for this research, particularly when compared to the funding available within the social science disciplines. There is clearly a collective action problem here: the generation of a public good that could come from the cooperation of social scientists and natural scientists is being inhibited somehow. Presumably, there would be benefits for social scientists who chose to collaborate with natural scientists on important environmental problems. Why then are we stuck with the collective action problem?

Sometimes, there is an explicit attempt to get social scientists to do the bidding of natural scientists in promoting social or cultural change for their desired ends. The eminent Stanford ecologist, Paul Ehrlich  has called for research into the mechanisms that change social norms, suggesting that there is an urgency to changing norms because of mounting environmental problems. The irony here, of course, is that in trying to engage social scientists in research on the environment, Ehrlich and other interested natural scientists needs to induce a change in social norms.

In an essay reviewing models for changing social norms,  Ehrlich and the great Princeton ecologist Simon Levin note that they did not even attempt to address how asymmetries of power or social networks affect the spread of social norms. Unfortunately, this is exactly the problem facing natural scientists trying to engage social scientists and models that fail to acknowledge these factors are doomed to failure. Within both the academy and society more broadly, there are distinct power asymmetries across scientific fields and, in general, social science fields are on the losing end of such power asymmetries. The great majority of social scientists can not compete with natural scientists with respect to research funding or the prestige (or volume) of of their publications.

When power/prestige gradients are steep, disciplines are likely to become insularized. An adaptive response to a collective’s inability to compete across disciplines is to, consciously or not, collude in agreeing that the only relevant opinions about the quality/volume of individual scholars’ research are other members of the scholars’ discipline. There are institutional practices that can facilitate this (e.g., the manner in which promotions are managed). I suggest that insularized disciplines will also fetishize theory above all other intellectual outcomes. Theory becomes fetishized at the expense of answering interesting and important questions or developing new methodologies for answering important questions. There are few checks on the degree to which theory can become abstruse and convoluted when its development becomes decoupled from answering questions. There comes a point where only very narrow specialists can ever hope to understand the intricacies of a particular theoretical tradition and be successful. Emphasizing theoretical development above all else within a discipline is thus a path toward disciplinary insularity and is the enemy of both interdisciplinarity and problem-focused research.

Social science disciplines do not gain prestige or other within-field benefits from engaging in the substance of human-environmental interactions. This arises in part because of the dynamics of differentiation from higher-prestige science disciplines engaged in these questions. There is also a positive feedback. Way back when I first came to Stanford, I was at a party where most of the other party-goers were political scientists. At the time, I was struck by the fact that there didn’t seem to be anyone in the department who studied environmental politics. I took the opportunity that this party afforded to ask a fellow assistant professor in that department why this was the case. His answer was simply “because no one could ever get tenure at Stanford studying environmental politics.” This conversation piqued my interest and I have now had a similar conversation with quite a few economists and political scientists. While not everyone is as blunt as my interlocutor in 2003, most have agreed broadly that working on environmental questions is not the route to professional advancement and these topics are therefore avoided by promising junior scholars trying to forge research careers.

I should probably note that economics provides an interesting exception to the power/prestige hierarchy. It’s really a topic that deserves its own post, so I won’t get into it too much here, but I think that economics is an exception that proves the rule. While the discipline is certainly more prestigious than, say, anthropology (!), I think that it’s hard to imagine a more insular discipline that fetishizes theory – and its mathematical accoutrements – more and in which professional incentives are absolutely not aligned with the interests of interdisciplinary, problem-based science.

Another phenomenon that has become a barrier to genuine interdisciplinary engagement for social scientists is the tendency for scientists from high-prestige disciplines to dabble in social science. The hilariously half-assed surveys that some scientists field when they want to get at the “human dimensions” of their problem come immediately to mind.

At a more structural level, I think about network science. When one attends the Sunbelt Social Networks Conference, one can frequently hear grumbling about how a bunch of physicists have swooped in and created what is sometimes known as a “new science” of networksIt is rare to find citations to the substantial social science literature on the topics many physicists write on other than the token citations to Milgram or possibly Simmel. New terms for well-described phenomena are invented and go largely to cultural fixation. Prior work (often 20 years old) is ignored. Papers on social networks get published in Physical Review D rather than established technical journals like Social Networks, Computational and Mathematical Organization Theory, or the Journal of Mathematical Sociology. Within-discipline citations are circular. Concepts having little interest to social scientists (for good reason) go to fixation and demand being addressed despite dubious relevance (e.g., “scale-free” networks).

I am actually of two minds about this phenomenon. On the one hand, it would be nice if this “new science” did a better job acknowledging that smart people have been working on these topics for quite a long time. On the other hand, I think that we need to have more more than the small handful of methodological innovators who work on social network analysis from within social sciences departments. The volume of quality work coming out of the physical sciences is almost certainly greater than that coming out of social science departments. A big part of this is the social organization of science (see below), but surely part of this is about getting smart people to work on important problems. We need to have more social scientists who are willing to engage in the general science literature where the visibility is greater (e.g., compare the citation patterns and general visibility of Science vs. CMOT!). Social scientists need to be willing to take the risk of publishing their strongest results in high-prestige general science journals like Science, Nature, PNAS. Yes, we will usually get rejected, but that’s no different from the experience of natural scientists, and we are certain to never get into these high-impact journals if we never even try.

I do not, in any way, want to decry the engagement of high-prestige natural scientists with the social sciences. Indeed, this is something we desperately need! But it needs to be real engagement rather than either dilettantism or intellectual imperialism. Three examples of physicists who switched disciplines and had enormous positive effects come immediately to mind: Harrison White (Sociology, Columbia), Bob May (Epidemiology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Oxford), and my sometime mentor, Shripad Tuljapurkar (Demography/Population Biology, Stanford). These are all scholars who took the substance and the history of their new disciplines seriously and have made enormous contributions. My amazing Ph.D. student Mike Price is a physicist-turned-anthropologist who is poised to make some truly fundamental contributions to anthropology, evolutionary biology, and economics.

A key issue that has not been sufficiently addressed in the differential funding, productivity, and status within universities is the social organization of science. The natural sciences are generally structured for productivity: organized labs, large groups working toward a common research goal, substantial division of labor. This social organization of science certainly interacts with institutional structures. For example, the allocation of teaching load and the manner in which activities (i.e., lab meetings, co-taught classes) are credited often differs systematically between the natural and social sciences. For the most part, social scientists still follow a more individualist model of scholarly production. Papers may be written with students, but research groups, if they exist, are not necessarily structured for production toward a common research goal. My own situation is instructive on this topic. As an anthropologist, I have always had more of a natural-science culture to my research group. This said, my “lab” has always been more a loose confederation of people more or less interested in similar things, than a group focused on a clearly-articulated research goal.  There was a point not that long ago when I had Ph.D. students simultaneously working on the following topics:  bushmeat in Cameroon, sex workers in China, malaria ecology in the Colombian Amazon, water security in Caribbean Colombia, sago horticulture in West Papua, disease transmission networks in Uganda, rodent population cycling and hantavirus transmission, TB in South Africa, food sharing in Nunavik. Now that I’m based in a natural science department, there is hope for some more coherence.

Really Inviting Social Scientists to the Table: A Power-Inversion Strategy

We have a situation where lower-prestige disciplines effectively opt out of competing with high-prestige ones, where runaway theory fetishism institutionally insulates scholars interested in similar phenomena from each other, and where substantive applications to problems of human-environment interaction are institutionally blocked. How do we get social scientists engaged?

The simple answer is that professional incentives of social-science researchers (particularly junior ones) and the institutional and societal priorities of solving vital problems involving the environment and human well-being need to be aligned. The first step is to get social scientists to the table to foster an environment of collaboration. Being mindful of the power dynamics across fields, collaboration opportunities need to be framed in terms of categories of thought and research questions of intrinsic interest to social scientists.  This may sound trivial, but it is key that this framing be consistent with the autochthonous development of ideas within the social sciences, rather than (even well-intentioned) natural scientists’ conceptions of what social science is. Even though an RFP or other invitation may seem like something in which social scientists should be interested to natural scientists and program officers, it may not obviously address institutionally important or interesting questions, theories, or methodologies from the social scientists’ perspective.

Remember, the system of professional reward works reasonably well from any individual social science researcher’s perspective. We expect agents to be risk-averse and such risk-aversion in this context leads to the collective action problem that we are forgoing a public good of increased understanding – and maybe even the ability to positively intervene in – significant environmental challenges of humanitarian, social, and economic import. By framing questions in terms of existing research themes in the social sciences, we may be able to overcome the risk-aversion because properly framed research opportunities should not be professionally risky.

Some areas within social science of relevance to the environmental sciences include:

  • political economy, global-to-local political relationships, the development of power asymmetries – particularly in regard to access to resources, health, etc.
  • equity, justice, property rights, and social movements
  • trust, governance, conflict
  • consumption, social, cultural and symbolic capital
  • institutions
  • migration, indigeneity, and ethnicity
  • markets, commodities, motivations, values and cosmologies, and time horizons

In brief, if we want social scientists to become engaged with research generally seen as beneficial from a societal perspective, we have to let them “do their thing” first and let the natural science do the complementing. Rather than asking how social science can contribute to natural science research agendas, we must sometimes ask how natural science can contribute to social science research agendas. Some examples from infectious disease ecology: How can thinking about the emergence in the western hemisphere of Zika virus help us understand the development of trust or its implications for governance? How do neoliberal economic policies promote the emergence of Nipah virus of Japanese encephalitis? Why does the Indonesian government refuse to provide H5N1 samples to the US CDC or WHO? This certainly doesn’t mean that it always has to work this way, but it must work this way sometimes if progress is to be made.

I do think that natural scientists and social scientists need to be able to sit down and put together intellectually strong, multi-disciplinary research projects together. However, the way to get social scientists engaged in the first place is to frame the research possibilities in terms that are relevant to them. From here, real interdisciplinarity can be achieved.

AAA Post-Mortem

Well, it’s been a long time and there are bunch of things I should really catch up on here. I spent last year on sabbatical in the very remote location, at least half a mile from my house, of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where I was working on various book manuscripts that seem to grow in number the more I write. Then there’s the fact that I changed Earth Systems Science. This is a topic that clearly requires a bit of explication at some point, but now is not the time. I figured I’d break back into the blog by doing my semiregular, highly-selective review of the American Anthropological Association meetings.

The meetings this year were in Minneapolis, which is a lovely city, but maybe not the best place for a conference that meets in mid-November. Apparently, the weather was beautiful for the first couple days. However, I had spent the beginning of the week in Atlanta at the meeting of the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (that was a very interesting meeting, but this post is about AAA). This meant that I had to fly in late Friday evening before my Saturday session. By this time, the weather had changed to something slightly more horrifying. While my flight seemed like a relatively long-haul (4.5 hours from SFO), we nonetheless flew in a regional jet. A storm had moved into the Twin Cities area by Friday afternoon and our little plane got tossed around quite a bit in our approach to MSP. In fact, we flew in a holding pattern for about an hour before the pilot came on intercom and said that we “we’re going to try to land” Try? It was a white-knuckle landing in which we experienced more yaw than I care to remember. There are many reasons that I’m grateful that our try at landing was successful, and high among those is the fact that I didn’t relish the thought of climbing back through that unsettled air if we had failed on our first pass.

Once safely on the ground, I was able to take the lovely (and cheap!) light rail straight to downtown, about three blocks from the conference venue. I don’t know what one calls the precipitation that was falling at this point (sleet? freezing rain? wintery mix?), but it was quite a shock for this adopted Californian.

The meeting was held in the Minneapolis Convention Center, a cavernous space that the 5,000 or so anthropologists didn’t come close to filling. This gave the conference a bit of a ghost-town feeling. Adventitious encounters were minimal and I definitely saw far fewer anthropologists of different stripes than I have at past meetings. The registration process was surprisingly efficient (maybe because I was registering on what I thought was the last day and there wasn’t much of a crowd). Rather than the standard canvas bag, we were given fluorescent green plastic (?) bags. I have actually wondered whether I hallucinated this, since I threw mine out immediately and have been completely unable to find a picture on one on the internets, but Rex over at Savage Minds has also commented on the bizarre bags (alas, I don’t think they were soy fiber, Rex).

Then there were the conference badges. Not so much badges as they were bibs — a bonus to the messy eaters in our midst! They were bright red (if you are lucky enough to be a AAA member) and were reminiscent of those travel wallets that are designed to fit a passport and shout “I’m a tourist, please harass me!” Too bad I left my fanny-pack at home. Once again, AAA astounds me with its tone-deaf marking of outsiders. Oh, you’re not a member of our club? Then wear this other-colored bib to display your status for all to see! I’ve been to many different societies’ conferences and AAA is the only one where I’ve experienced this practice.

If we’re being perfectly honest here, I’m not big on conference talks. I generally try to minimize the number of attend. Let’s face it, most conference talks are not great and when you have to submit your talk nine months before the conference, freshness of material tends not to be super high. I spend most of my time at conferences meeting with people: planning a paper with co-authors, strategizing with program officers, meeting with editors, catching up with former students, dining and drinking with colleagues I haven’t seen in years. This is the really productive work of an academic conference. Nonetheless, I was curious what AAA had to offer. I found the online program so difficult to use that I gave up on even trying to find talks I wanted to see (this is another topic that Rex takes up hilariously — I couldn’t agree more on his review). This tool was clearly not designed by anyone who actually attends academic conferences. The more I use it to write this piece, the more comically dysfunctional I realize it is. Who thinks it’s a good idea to hide the author names in a search result? See the screenshot below for an example of what gets returned from a search for Anthropology and Environment Society talks:

screenshot of online schedule search

I organized a session for the Evolutionary Anthropology Society entitled, “Evolutionary Anthropological Approaches to Inequality.” It seemed to me that there is a group of human behavioral ecologists out there doing long-term ethnographic work, measuring economic and demographic variables, and thinking hard about how people adapt in a rapidly-changing world, and that these scholars might have some real insights into the mechanisms generating economic inequality. I was right.

One of my goals for this session was to beat the bushes for contributions from scholars other than the usual suspects. Don’t get me wrong; I’m very fond of the usual suspects in EAS, but there is a lot of great work being done that is both relevant to our section’s mission and engages different communities of scholars. I had some success recruiting different people in the initial call for papers. Unfortunately, when these new folks saw how much it costs to present a paper at AAA (the conference is very expensive, particularly when you adjust for the overall quality of the scientific program), they backed out. Fortunately, we had enough people still signed up that we were able to retain our session (apparently, you only need four speakers to stay on the program). When faced with a sparse session, the organizer has a few options: add a discussant, give speakers longer slots, open up a discussion. I decided to opt for yet another strategy. We wildcatted three late-breaking talks by junior researchers. Obviously, these talks didn’t make the program (not sure that’s much of a penalty though, given what a mess the program was), but it still gave the speakers the opportunity to present their research in front of a crowd of at least 50 (we had a great turn-out for the entire session).

The line-up for the session included a number of stars from EAS (well, and me):

  1. Paul Hooper (Emory), “If You Know What Feeds Hierarchy, then You Can Starve It”
  2. Siobhán Mattison (UNM), “Market Integration, Kinship, and Social Inequality Among the Mosuo of Southwest China”
  3. me (Stanford),”State-Dependence, Uncertainty, and the Economic Rationality of Poor People”
  4. Katie Starkweather (MPI), “Subsistence Strategies: Risk, Reward and Gender Roles for the Boat-Dwelling Shodagor of Bangladesh”

We missed Tamas David-Barrett, who had to deal with some emergent business back home. Our late-breaking talks were contributed by Elspeth Ready (Stanford), E’lana Jordan (Stanford), and Dave Nolin (Missouri). All were great. This was E’lana’s debut, as she is just back from the field, and she killed it. Elspeth was, as ever, dazzling in her analytical sophistication and the general bad-assery of her fieldwork.

The other EAS session, “Finding Insights in the Field: Ethnographic Experience and the Scientific Process,” organized by former student and current Omidyar post-doc at SFI, Elly Power, was also terrific. All the talks in this session were very good and the attendance was excellent. Naturally, I was particularly partial to the incredibly sophisticated analysis that Elly presented to close out this excellent session.

This has now happened enough times at AAA that it has tweaked that paranoid part of my brain. Our EAS session was scheduled at the same time as a great-looking session sponsored by Anthropology and the Environment Society called “Emergent Landscapes, Disturbance Ecology, and New Approaches in Ecological Anthropology.” Friends and colleagues involved in this session included Mark Moritz (Ohio State), Steve Lansing (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore), Brian Codding (Utah), Sean Downey (Maryland), and Kathy Galvin (Colorado State), among others. This session would have been of great interest to many in EAS, but, unless you’re Hermione Granger, you can only be in one session at a time. It was particularly frustrating because the editor for the new journal, Nature Human Behavior, also had to choose between sessions. These are constituencies who have natural affinities and we should work on getting them to coordinate somehow, AAA scheduling be damned.

Once again, there was apparently nothing newsworthy at AAA, as a Google news search turns up no hits from the actual meeting. This is a big difference between AAA and other major professional meetings, where new discoveries or novel analyses make their way into different quarters of the news media. The usual defensive response to this critique is that anthropology is more a humanities discipline (which, of course, is itself debatable) and, as such, doesn’t lend itself to “discoveries” or press releases. I don’t buy that. A similar search for the MLA, for example, turns up quite a few stories. I think it’s something about which we should be concerned as a discipline. While I am heartened by some of the work I saw at AAA (or from which I was structurally blocked from seeing but about which I heard in conversations with speakers later that evening), I really wonder about the relevance of our discipline as a whole. In principle, I believe the world really needs anthropology — perhaps now more than ever. But, in practice, I’m not sure what anthropologists are doing is what the world needs.

Among other things, I wonder if we really need to have meetings in convention centers. The public spaces seemed particularly sparse this year and many of the sessions I walked by looked like they had more speakers than audience members. I know it’s hard, but maybe we need to conduct a bit of quality control. Of course, I should be careful what I ask for. Given the fact that EAS is not a powerful section of AAA, we would almost certainly lose, even though our sessions are very well attended. This may sound heretical, but maybe we should collect data on session attendance and factor that into which sessions get included. Surely, the number of people who actually attend a session is a better measure of interest than the number of people who belong to a given section. In my experience, both EAS, BAS, and Anthropology and the Environment would do quite well on that criterion, even if they are relatively small sections.

I will probably keep going to AAA, at least occasionally, not because I think it’s a good conference in general. I will go because there is a core of great young researchers in EAS and I want to continue to support them, even if AAA is, at best, an uneasy home for them.

Seriously, People, It's Selection, Not Mutation!

I just read an excellent piece at this morning by Benjamin Hale. He notes that the scariest, most insidious thing about Ebola Virus Disease is that the disease capitalizes on intimate contact for transmission. While diseases such as influenza or cholera are transmitted by casual contact, frequently to strangers, via aerosolized droplets (influenza) or fecally contaminated water (cholera). Caretakers, and especially women, are hit hard by EVD. Hale writes,

…the mechanism Ebola exploits is far more insidious. This virus preys on care and love, piggybacking on the deepest, most distinctively human virtues. Affected parties are almost all medical professionals and family members, snared by Ebola while in the business of caring for their fellow humans. More strikingly, 75 percent of Ebola victims are women, people who do much of the care work throughout Africa and the rest of the world. In short, Ebola parasitizes our humanity.

True, and tragic, enough. But this article falls prey to one of my biggest frustrations with the reporting of science, one that I have written about recently in the context of the current EVD epidemic ravaging West Africa.

In the list Hale presents of the major concerns about EVD, he notes: “The threat of mutation,” citing concern that Ebola virus might become airborne in a news report in Nature and the New York Times article that got me so worked up 10 days ago. Earlier this week, there was yet another longish piece in Nature/Scientific American that mentions “mutation” seven times but never once mentions selection. Or in another Nature piece,  UCSF infectious disease physician Charles Chiu is quoted: “The longer we allow the outbreak to continue, the greater the opportunity the virus has to mutate, and it’s possible that it will mutate into a form that would be an even greater threat than it is right now.” True, mutations accumulate over time. Not true, mutation alone will make Ebola virus a greater threat than it is now. That would require selection.

While the idea of airborne transmission of Ebola virus is terrifying, the development of the ability to be transmitted via droplet or aerosol would be an adaptation on the part of the virus. Adaptations arise from the action of selection on the phenotypic variation. Phenotypes with higher fitness come to dominate the population of entities of which they are a part. In the case of a virus such as Ebola virus, this means that the virus must make sufficient copies of itself to ensure transmission to new susceptible hosts before killing the current host or being cleared by the host’s immune system. While efficient transmission of EVD by aerosol or droplet would be horrible, equally horrible would be an adaptation that allowed it to transmit more efficiently from a dead host. It’s not entirely clear how long Ebola virus can persist in its infectious state in the environment. In a study designed to maximize its persistence (indoors, in the dark, under laboratory conditions), Sagripanti and colleagues found that Ebola virus can persist for six days. Under field conditions, it’s probably much shorter, but CDC suggests that 24 hours in a reasonably conservative estimate.

The lack of a strong relationship between host survival and pathogen transmission is why cholera can be so devastatingly pathogenic. The cholera patient can produce 10-20 liters of diarrhea (known as “rice water stools”) per day. These stools contain billions of Vibrio cholerae bacteria, which enter the water supply and can infect other people at a distance well after the original host has died. The breaking of the trade-off between host mortality and the transmissibility of the pathogen means that the natural break on virulence is removed and the case fatality ratio can exceed 50%. That’s high, kind of like the current round of EVD. Imagine if the trade-off between mortality and transmission in EVD were completely broken…

Changes in pathogen life histories like increased (or decreased) virulence or mode of transmission arise because of selection, not mutation, and this selection results from interactions with an environment that we are actively shaping. Sure, mutation matters because it provides raw material upon which selection can act, but the fact remains that we are talking primarily about selection here. Is this pervasive misunderstanding of the mechanisms of life the result of the war of misinformation being waged on science education in the US? I can’t help but think it must at least be a contributor, but if it’s true, it’s pretty depressing because this misunderstanding is finding its way to some of the world’s top news and opinion outlets.

EEID 2014 Wrap-Up

It’s been a long time since I’ve written in monkey’s uncle. Life has gotten pretty busy and my seeming inability to write brief entries has led me to neglect the blog this year. However, I am freshly back from the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease Conference in Fort Collins, Colorado and feel compelled to give my annual run-down. The conference was hosted by friend and colleague Mike Antolin, Sue Vandewoude, and my erstwhile post-doc, now CSU researcher, Dan Salkeld. Nice job, folks, on a very successful conference.

EEID is pretty much the best meeting. As I noted in last year’s post, I love its future-orientation. EEID is a meeting that foregrounds the work of junior scientists and there was, as ever, a tremendous array of human capital on display at this meeting. This drives home to me the importance of investment in professional training and research programs that specifically develop human capital. This community exists in large measure because of the innovative program jointly offered by NSF and NIH. Thanks as ever to the vision and hard work of Josh Rosenthal, Sam Scheiner, and all the funders (e.g., support from The Gates Foundation can be found all around this conference) for this area. It’s always great to catch up with smart, fun friends. Plenty of time was spent talking science and drinking craft beer (what a beer town Ft. Collins is!) with the likes of Peter Hudson, Jessica Metcalf, Ottar Bjornstad, Aaron King, Mike Antolin, Tony Goldberg, Issa Cattadori, Maciej Boni, Marm Kilpatrick and, of course, Dan Salkeld. It was nice to meet and chat, if only briefly, with my sometime remote collaborator Paul Sharp, who gave what I understand to be an extremely stimulating keynote on the complicated and surprising evolution of malaria (alas, I missed it as I was delayed getting to Ft. Collins). I also spent some quality time learning about acquired immunity in dogs with Colin Parrish. This may come in handy for some ideas that Jess Metcalf and I have been playing around with.

There is a great tradition of the EEID hike and closing banquet/dance. Ft. Collins provided a beautiful and challenging hike out in Lory State Park. The view from the top of Arthur’s Peak was pretty amazing.

View from the top of the trail on Arthur's Peak, Lory State Park, Ft. Collins.
View from the top of the trail on Arthur’s Peak, Lory State Park, Ft. Collins.

At Wednesday’s banquet, I’m afraid to say that Princeton once again dominated the dance floor as we all rocked out to the amazing Denver funk/rock/jam band Kinetix (great choice, Mike). The Stanford showing was disappointing in part because of the early departure of some of our most enthusiastic dancers. Don’t get cocky though, Princeton. We’ll be gunning for you next year.

The entirety of Tuesday morning’s session was given over to communicating science. Dan Salkeld warmed up the crowd with some hilarious examples of the reporting frenzy that ensued following the publication of our paper on plague dynamics in prairie dog towns or, more recently, Hillary Young‘s work showing that excluding large ruminants increases rodent density in Kenya. Wow. Dan also used my Stanford colleague Rebecca Bird‘s work as an example of how an unexpected story can engage readers and listeners. My collaborator Tony Goldberg gave a talk that was also not lacking in ridiculous headlines thanks to his “viral” nose-tick work. David Quammen, author of outstanding popular science books such as The Song of the Dodo and Spillover (which Bill Durham and I use for our class on environmental change and emerging infectious disease), gave a terrific presentation in which he consolidated a lot of nice, practical advice on the craft of writing engaging work into 18 points, amply illustrated by anecdotes of characters from our field. Sonia Altizer from the University of Georgia introduced the crowd to the opportunities (and pitfalls) of citizen science and suggested that it might just be possible to engage the public in disease ecology data collection. Some examples she identified included the granddaddy of citizen-science in the US run by the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell, the ZomBee Watch at SFSU, and her own Project MonarchHealth. If I had to summarize this session in one pithy phrase, I think it would have to be “Yay, ecologists!”

Quammen took to Twitter to call us out for being behind the curve with respect to social media.

While there were, in fact, a few of us tweeting the occasional tidbit from the conference, I think his general point is valid. This stuff is intrinsically interesting and we can do a much better job communicating to broad publics.

Some talks that really caught my attention.

Ary Hoffmann gave a great talk about the complexities of using bacteria of the genus Wolbachia to control the Aedes mosquitoes that transmit dengue in Australia (and elsewhere). Wolbachia infects mosquitoes and can have a variety of effects on their biology. The reason artificial infection of mosquitoes wit this bacterium seems so promising as a means of biological control is that the offspring of crosses between infected and uninfected mosquitoes are not viable. This is obviously a very substantial fitness cost to the mosquitoes and this creates serious challenges for getting the infected mosquitoes to persist and take over local populations. Hoffmann presented a cool result about the invasibility of infected mosquitoes wherein in the early phases of introduction there is an unstable point in the mosquito dynamics. At this point, if the infected mosquitoes are above a threshold, they will successfully invade, otherwise, they will die out because of the inherent fitness costs of the Wolbachia infection. One policy challenge that arises is that to get a local population of mosquitoes above the invasibility threshold, researchers and vector-control specialists have to sometimes introduce a lot of mosquitoes. This means that the number of mosquitoes locally can increase substantially and, as you can imagine, this isn’t always popular with communities.

Fellow Anthropologist Aaron Blackwell from UCSB gave a fantastic talk on our “old friends”, the helminths (cue the freaky electron micrograph of a helminth’s mouth!). Aaron participates in the Tsimane Health and Life History Project which was started by colleagues Mike Gurven (also at UCSB) and Hilly Kaplan (New Mexico). Using sophisticated multi-state Markov hazard models (go Anthropology!), Aaron showed that co-infection with helminths and Giardia is less frequent than expected among this population that experiences ubiquitous exposure to both pathogens and that, in fact, infection with the one appears to be protective against infection with the other. One of the most provocative results he presented showed that helminth infection actually lowered systolic blood pressure in men by an amount equivalent to the increase that comes from aging ten years. Chronic helminthic infection may be a reason why Tsimane men’s systolic blood pressure does not rise precipitously with age as it does in the US. This result, which may provide fresh insights into the mechanisms of hypertension, a major source of morbidity in the US, struck me as particularly poignant given the demeaning comments made about NSF funding for work among the Tsimane from none other than Lamar Smith (R–TX), the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Anna Savage, a post-doc with the National Zoo in Washington DC, gave an awesome talk on the comparative immunogenetics of of frogs with respect to infection with the devastating fungal infection, chytridiomycosis. Chytridiomycosis has been identified as a major cause of amphibian extinction worldwide and Anna showed surprising heterogeneity in immune response across frog species. This is a subject with which I have only passing familiarity, but her talk demonstrated an amazing sophistication in integrating different levels of biological organization and making sense of a dauntingly complex problem. I would wager that Dr. Savage is one to keep an eye on.

The organizers tried a scheduling format that was a bit different from last year, wherein each session started with two half-hour talks generally given by somewhat more senior people. The second half of each session was then given over to brief ten-minute talks, typically delivered by more junior people. This format is nicely in keeping with the great EEID tradition of promoting the research of junior scientists. A few short talks that I found especially interesting included one by Sarah Hamer, from Texas A&M, on Chagas disease in the United States. She presented sobering data from national blood-bank surveillance showing a surprising number of Chagas-infected samples coming from donors with no history of travel to Latin America. When pushed by a questioner, she suggested that she would consider Chagas to be endemic in the US, at least in dogs and possibly even in people. Carrie Cizauskas, formerly of Wayne Getz‘s shop at Berkeley and now with Andy Dobson and Andrea Graham at Princeton, give a nice talk on the role of both stress and sex hormones in mediating macroparasite infection in wild ungulates in Etosha National Park, Namibia. Romain Garnier from Princeton described a very nifty image-processing approach to scanning large volumes of histological slides for indications of infection.

I perhaps didn’t see as many posters as I should have. The problem with the poster sessions is that one keeps running into various people one wants to talk to. I did manage to check out the poster of my former freshman advisee and current Princeton EEB student Cara Brook. She’s got an awesome PhD project studying the multi-host ecology of infectious disease in Malagasy fruit bats.

I’m looking forward to next year’s meeting at the University of Georgia already. I’m also looking forward to resuscitating the pedagogical workshop that used to be a signature feature of this EEID meeting. More on that later…

AAA Recap, 2013

I guess it’s that time of the year. You know, when I recap, in my bittersweet way, the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association? I am an anthropologist, yes, but I am deeply torn in my feelings for my discipline, my department, and my flagship (?) professional organization. The question mark arises because I am also a physical anthropologist and a demographer, so an argument can be made that my flagship professional organization is actually AAPA or PAA, but there is something about the unmarked category that is AAA. It’s supposed to represent anthropologists, broadly construed. I honestly don’t think that it does a very good job at this, but the reasons behind that are complex and I’ve only allocated myself a bit of time to blog since I’m desperately trying to catch up from all the travel I’ve done recently.

The meeting this year was in Chicago, which is a pretty amazing town. I stayed in the the Blackstone Renaissance Hotel, which was recently renovated in a lovely Art Deco theme. We did Chicago stuff. Tube steaks were eaten, the quantity of cheese that can be crammed into a deep-dish pizza was marveled at, beer was drunk.

AAA is a pretty bizarre scene. For starters, it’s at the weirdest time. It seems like the peculiar timing of AAA during November must be disruptive for just about every academic anthropology department, particularly because it is nearly a week-long endeavor. It seems that the life in an American university carries on just fine without the anthropologists around for a week in the middle of the Fall term, thank you very much. A couple innovations this year struck me as particularly incongruous, given the content of much current scholarship in anthropology. First, anyone who registered for the meeting as a non-member was given a yellow badge holder to mark them as outsiders. This seemed a bit gratuitous. I’m not sure what’s gained from such marking — they already pay a substantially higher rate for the privilege of attending, do they also need to be shamed for their lack of faith? Second, in the hall outside the main bunch of conference rooms, there was a television that played a loop of anthropologists talking about how important anthropology is. This struck me as unnecessarily propagandistic and it’s not at all clear to me who the target audience for this performance was. Presumably, those of us who were there already think that anthropology is a worthwhile endeavor. Seems to me that it’s the rest of the world we need to convince. Once again, there appears to be almost nothing considered newsworthy to emerge from this meeting of 6,000+ scholars with the exception of a paper on the similarities in street-scanning behaviors by police and fashion scouts.

Another strange feature of AAAs is that computers, cables, remotes, laser-pointers, etc. were not provided in the conference rooms but needed to be provided by the session chairs. This is the first time I’ve experienced this in years at a major conference and it definitely slowed us down quite a bit at the start of our session. I’m not sure what was going on with that. Maybe the budget to pay for AV services was already spent on the fancy video production that reminded us how important we all are?

This year, I organized and chaired a session, which was sponsored by EAS, on social network analysis in evolutionary anthropology. Unfortunately for the EAS party-goers from the previous night, the session ran at 08:00 on Saturday morning. Despite this challenge, the room was packed and the audience generally seemed into it. We had great talks by Stanford’s own Elly Power and Ashley Hazel. Elly talked about her amazing dissertation research on using social capital to understand costly displays of religious devotion in southern India. Ashley talked about her dissertation work in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment on mobility and the changing landscape of STI risk in Kaokoland, northern Namibia. David Nolin, one of our discipline’s most talented young methodologists, presented a very clever test of generalized reciprocity using dichotomous exchange data from his work in Lamalera in Indonesia. Ben Hannowell, yet another talented methodologist to come out of the WSU/UW IGERT program, discussed his collaborative work with Zack Almquist on inferring dominance structure from tournament graphs. The always marvelous Rebecca Sear talked about her recent synthetic work on the effects of kin on fertility (kinship, of course, is the classic application of networks in anthropology since genealogies are just special cases of graphs). John Ziker presented a network-based approach to understanding food sharing and reciprocity from his terrific ethnographic work in Siberia. I closed out the talks with my own combination history of anthropological (and ethological) contributions to social network analysis and pep talk to encourage anthropologists to be confident about their methods and have the courage to innovate new ones the way people like John Barnes or Clyde Mitchell or Elizabeth Bott or Kim Romney or Russ Bernard did!

After schmoozing for a bit post-session, I headed over to the Saturday EAS session on methodological advances in experimental games. While I didn’t see all the talks, the ones I saw were pretty cool. In general, I have mixed feelings about experimental economic games. There are lots of results and some fairly convincing stories to go along with some of the results. However, absent of context, I really wonder what they are measuring and, if they are indeed measuring something, whether it is actually interesting. This session made some real progress in dealing with this question and I think it really highlighted the comparative advantage of anthropologists in the multi-disciplinary landscape of twenty-first century behavioral science. While economists such as Loewenstein (1999) might lament the fact that there is no way to play context-less games and that this jeopardizes the validity and generality of such experimental games, anthropologists are experts in thinking specifically about context and its effect on behavior. Furthermore, anthropologists are still the go-to researchers for providing contextual diversity. In this session, we heard about experimental games played in Bolivia, Siberia, Fiji, and on the streets of Las Vegas. One talk in this session that particularly impressed me was given by Drew Gerkey, who is currently a post-doc at SESYNC in Annapolis, Maryland (and soon to be an assistant professor at Oregon State University — Go Beavs!). I was at SESYNC earlier in the week and got a chance to talk pretty extensively with him about this work. Drew makes the point that seems obvious now that I’ve heard (a sign of an important idea) that, in the evolution of cooperation literature, the counterfactual scenario to cooperation is frequently untenable. One does not simply go it alone when one is a hunter/fisher in Siberia. Drew also designed a number of very clever experimental games that fit the types of social dilemmas faced by his Siberian interlocutors. Very nice work indeed.

In addition to the sessions I attended, it was nice to see and chat with various smart, fun people I know who sometimes find their way to AAAs. I missed my partner in crime from last year’s AAA, Charles Roseman, who left the day I arrived, probably too bloated from the binge on Chicago’s amazing food he no doubt shared with Fernando Armstron-Fumero to be of much use to anyone. However, I got to see Siobhan Mattison, Brooke Scelza, Brian Wood, Rick Bribiescas, Mary Shenk, Aaron Blackwell, Pete Kirby and, briefly, Shauna Burnsilver and Dan Hruschka. Despite my general misgivings about the conference, it is nice to have an excuse to see so many cool people in one place at one time.

Should You Get a Ph.D.?

I wrote this as a long email to a list this week and, based on the feedback I’ve received, I thought it would be worthwhile posting it here. This is a topic to which I have given a lot of thought over the years, starting as a fellowships tutor at Harvard during my own grad school years and, more recently, as an undergraduate advisor and resident fellow at Stanford. While the specific context that elicited this essay was whether getting a Ph.D. in anthropology is worth the cost given uncertain job prospects, I think that the approach applies more generally.

Choosing to go to grad school is a decision that is fraught with uncertainty and a degree of risk. There are plenty of nightmare stories to go around about great teachers/scholars who get trapped in an exploitative cycle of perpetual adjuncting. However, a Ph.D. can also be a platform from which to launch a productive and rewarding career both within the academy and outside of it. Here are some of the issues that I think any student approaching a Ph.D., especially in anthropology, should consider:

(1) Are you passionate about research and communication of your research? For better or worse, the rewards within the academy accrue to research and publication. Some professional schools have made substantial progress in developing teaching (and clinical) tracks for faculty that reward teaching and other applied work, but this is typically not the case in disciplines housed in colleges of arts & sciences, as anthropology typically is. You need the passion for your research question to get you through the inherent tedium of research and the many obstacles to successful publication. A commitment to research does not mean giving up on teaching or other activities (such as organizational or other applied work). The NSF career awards, for example, require applicants to coherently weave their research interests with their teaching. However, research requires a commitment and, based on my rather unscientific sample, it seems that the people who are most productive in research are the people who are really driven to answer questions and are committed to publishing not because they want the professional rewards, but because they care about communication of their results. You have to be willing to write at night when you’re exhausted after you’ve put kids to bed and your grading is done. You have to write on weekends, etc. A passion for answering questions goes beyond a fascination with ideas, a love of social theory, or a commitment to education. There is a certain obsessive quality to the top researchers — answering questions and communicating your results becomes almost a compulsion. This is what helps you deal with the inevitable (and frequent) obstacles and allows you to succeed.

(2) Are you enrolling in a program that will pay for your Ph.D.? Given all the vagaries of the faculty job market, you do not want to go into debt doing a Ph.D. The financial details of different Ph.D. programs have become more critical than ever. Make sure you are informed! Ph.D. programs should pay their students’ tuition and a livable wage since Ph.D. students perform vital services for research universities. These services include the obvious things like teaching and doing the grunt work of research assistants but includes some less obvious, but perhaps more important, things like providing prestige to their institutions. The Ph.D. graduates of an institution are the people who go on to get prestigious jobs and write important works and garner fancy awards and societal recognition that reflect positively on their mother institution. It is difficult to over-state the importance of prestige for the functioning of the top research universities and Ph.D. students play a fundamental role in constructing this prestige. Many programs will pay for a Ph.D., but they are very competitive, as you can imagine. Big grad factories that provide little in the way of resources to their students — either financial or human capital investments — do no one any favors.

(3) If you choose to matriculate in a Ph.D. program, take advantage of the opportunity to gain some concrete (and portable!) research skills. Anthropologists have developed some really amazing methodologies that can be applied broadly. I think that anthropologists sometimes have an inferiority complex about our methods. It never ceases to amaze me how often I hear our students say that anthropologists don’t have methods! To get a sense of the potentially far-reaching impact of methodological innovation in anthropology, check out the many students of Kim Romney and Russ Bernard as just two examples. Ethnography is a very trendy idea in industry now. Having a slightly more tangible skill in addition (e.g., survey design, statistics, GIS, the use of qualitative analysis software like Atlas.ti or NVivo, social network analysis) improves not only your academic job prospects but your ability to secure a job in an NGO or industry.

(4) Communicate with people outside of your small disciplinary circle. The ability to communicate across disciplines increases the number of job opportunities both within the academy and without. With an anthropology Ph.D., you may expect a job in an anthropology department. However, if you are able to communicate with a wider audience and, crucially, convince people why your research is important, you might be able to land a job in a department of environmental studies or ethnic studies or women’s studies or urban studies or community health or … you get the idea. The academy of the future is far more interdisciplinary and interdisciplinarity places a premium on the ability to communicate across traditional disciplinary lines. Talk to people outside your department, write journalistic pieces for local media outlets, or even write a blog. I’m continually surprised how many people with whom I make professional connections who know me from the blog I write in about four times a year!

(5) Are you mobile and flexible? Many people who get sucked into the vicious cycle of perpetual adjunct teaching get that way because they are tied to a specific geographic location because of partner, family, or other obligations. There are good graduate programs all over the country and there are actually jobs but many would require you to move to some place you might not have considered. This includes overseas. Sometimes you take a job that may not be your ideal if it provides you an opportunity to get the work done that then allows you to trade up. If you are constrained to remain in a very specific geographic location, I would think twice about matriculating in a Ph.D. program.

I suspect that this is a step in the professional development process where we lose a lot of outstanding potential first-gen faculty. Mobility and flexibility are easier if you are an upper-middle-class grad who has been financially buffered by your parents and, importantly, when your social support derives from a mobile nuclear family. I think there are many ways that modern professionals resemble hunter-gatherers more than their more recent agricultural forebears and the key commonality is mobility and flexibility: emphasis on the nuclear family as the unit of production, bilateral kinship, high logistical and residential mobility, an ethos emphasizing individuality over group identity. Hunter-gatherers follow prey across a landscape while professionals follow job opportunities. People who are tied to a locality, whether for livelihood-based reasons or persistent social ties, will find this type of flexibility more difficult.

Getting a Ph.D. can pay off, both intellectually and professionally but it takes some planning and, frankly, quite a bit of luck if you’re going to make it in the academy. What is less up to luck is the fallback. Have a fallback plan; think strategically. It won’t hurt your chances within the academy and, in fact, will probably help. There are great opportunities for anthropology Ph.D.s with excellent research and communication skills. I have former students who work for major conservation NGOs (e.g., WCS, WWF) and public health organizations, and who have even started green businesses. I have friends who have gone into industry and done very well. Sapient and Olson, for example, are two companies I know that get major input from anthropologists and anthropological methodologies. Anthropological insights and, yes, methodologies are in demand if you are willing to look outside of the usual channels for employment for anthropologists.

It’s easy to get depressed by the academic job market (and many other job markets for that matter). However, with a little bit of planning and flexibility, getting a Ph.D. in anthropology (or any discipline really) can be an excellent ticket to a rewarding career both within and outside of the academy.

Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease

I am recently back from the 2013 Ecology and Evolution of Infections Disease Conference at Penn State University. This was quite possibly the best meeting I have ever attended, not even for the science (which was nonetheless impeccable), but for the culture. I place the blame for this awesome culture firmly on the shoulders of the leaders of this field and, in particular, the primary motivating force behind the recent emergence of this field, Penn State’s Peter Hudson. Since I had attended the other EEID conference at UGA earlier this Spring (another great conference), I had no intention on attending the Penn State conference this year. Then, one day in late March, Nita Bharti asked me if I was going and mentioned, “You know it’s Pete’s 60th birthday, right?” Well that sealed it; I really had no choice.  I simply had to go if for no other reason than to pay my due respect to this man I admire so greatly. Pete has the most relentless optimism about the future of science and a willingness to make things happen that I have ever encountered and, in this way, has provided me one of my primary role models as a university professor and mentor. He has played a role in developing so many of the brilliant people who make this field so exciting, it’s amazing (just a sample that comes immediately to mind: Ottar Bjornstad, Matt Ferrari, Nita Bharti, Marcel Salathé, Isabella Cattadori, Jamie Lloyd-Smith, Shweta Bansal, Jess Metcalf…). Of course, even as I write this, I realize the joint influence of another major player in the field, Bryan Grenfell, formerly of Penn State but now at Princeton, becomes obvious. A great scientist in his own right, Pete is the master facilitator, providing the support (and institutional interference!) that allows young scholars to thrive. He is a talent-spotter extraordinaire.

The talks that made up the bulk of the scientific program were, for the most part, excellent. The average age of the speakers was about 30, maybe just a bit higher. When one attends an academic conference, one typically expects that the major addresses to the collected masses will be by geezers, er, senior scholars in the field. There was a clear play at inversion of the standard model here though. Speakers were clearly chosen because of their trajectories, not their past achievements.  That’s pretty great. When I went up for tenure at Stanford, I was told that Stanford does not really care about what you have done; it cares about what you will do. Of course, the best information that the university has about your future work is the work you have already done. This conference embodied this spirit by placing the future (and, in many cases, current) leaders of the field in the key speaking roles while some of the biggest names in ecology, population biology, and epidemiology sat happily in the audience (e.g., joining Hudson and Grenfell were Andy Dobson, Andrew Read, Mick Crawley, Charles Godfray, Mike Boots, Mercedes Pascual, Les Real, Matt Thomas, …)

The tone set by these great mentors carries through to the whole culture of the conference, where senior people attended the poster sessions, sat with students at lunches and dinners, and schmoozed at the plentiful open-bar mixers. For example, on the first full day of the conference, there was an afternoon poster session that started at 4:30 (we had been in back-to-back sessions since 8:30). This session was preceded by an hour-long poster-teaser session in which grad students and post-docs got up and presented 60-second (and, as Andrew Read noted, not one nanosecond more) teasers of their posters. Bear in mind, this session was entirely comprised of students and post-docs. It was striking that essentially every seat in the house was occupied and all the major players were present. The teasers were great – many were very funny, including a haiku apparently written by a triatomine bug and translated to us by Princeton EEB student Jennifer Peterson.

After the teasers, the conference went en masse to the fancy new Millenium Science Complex (it turns out that Pete Hudson has physical capital projects in addition to human capital ones!). There, participants milled about the 150 posters. After spending quite a bit of time doing this – and dutifully getting pictures of all my lab with their posters – I thought to check the time and realized it was nearly 6:30. The poster session had been going for two hours and nearly everyone was still there, including all the luminaries. It helped that there was free beer. I tweeted my amazement at this realization:

That is, in fact, Princeton‘s Bryan Grenfell moving fast in the middle of the picture, apparently making a bee-line for Michigan’s Aaron King. Andrew Read is in the far background, talking to a poster-presenter (he has that posture).

Scientific highlights for me included Caroline Buckee‘s talk about measuring mobility in the context of malaria transmission in Kenya and Derek Cummings‘s talk on the Fluscape Project to measure spatial heterogeneity in influenza transmission in China. I am a long-time fan of this project and it’s nice to see the great work that has come out of it. These talks were right in my wheelhouse of interest, but there were plenty other cool ones including Britt Koskella‘s talk on the dynamics of bacteria and phage on tree leaves.

Stanford was exceedingly well represented at this conference. My lab had no fewer than five posters. Ashley Hazel presented on her work with Carl Simon on modeling gonorrhea transmission dynamics in Kaokoland, Namibia. Whitney Bagge presented her work on remote-sensing of rodent-borne disease in Kenya. Alejandro Feged presented work on the transmission dynamics of malaria in the Colombian Amazon among the indigenous Nukak people. Laura Bloomfield presented her remote sensing and spatial analysis work from our project on the spillover of primate retroviruses in Western Uganda. I closed things out with a minimalist poster on simple graphical models for multiple attractors in vector-borne disease dynamics in multi-host ecologies. In addition to my lab group, Giulio De Leo (with whom I have been running a weekly disease ecology workshop at Woods since winter quarter) was there, helping to bridge all sorts of structural holes in our collective collaboration graphs.

The other thing that comes out of these meetings, especially more intimate ones like EEID, is some actual work on collaborative projects. I managed to find some time to sit down and discuss plans with collaborators as well as do some shameless recruitment for my planned re-submission of the Stanford Biodemography Workshops. I’m really excited about some of these collaborations, including one that brings together my two major areas of interest: biodemography and life history theory and infectious disease ecology.

Oh, and I’m convinced that there must be an interpretive dance component to the Ph.D. exam in the Grenfell lab. This is certainly the most parsimonious explanation for much of what I saw Wednesday night.

Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease, 2013

I am recently back from the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease (EEID) Principal Investigators’ Meeting hosted by the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia in lovely Athens. This is a remarable event, and a remarkable field, and I can’t remember ever being so energized after returning from a professional conference (which often leave me dismayed or even depressed about my field). EEID  is an innovative, highly interdisciplinary funding program jointly managed by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. I have been lucky enough to be involved with this program for the last six years. I’ve served on the scientific review panel a couple times and am now a Co-PI on two projects.

We had a big turn-out for our Uganda team in Athens and team members presented no fewer than four posters. The Stanford social networks/human dimensions team (including Laura Bloomfield, Shannon Randolph and Lucie Clech) presented a poster (“Multiplex Social Relations and Retroviral Transmission Risk in Rural Western Uganda”) on our preliminary analysis of the social network data. Simon Frost’s student at Cambridge, James Lester, presented a poster (“Networks, Disease, and the Kibale Forest”) analyzing our syndromic surveillance data. Sarah Paige from Wisconsin presented a poster on the socio-economic predictors of high-risk animal contact (“Beyond Bushmeat: Animal contact, injury, and zoonotic disease risk in western Uganda”) and Maria Ruiz-López, who works with Nelson Ting at Oregon, presented a poster on their work on developing the resources to do some serious population genetics on the Kibale red colobus monkeys (“Use of RNA-seq and nextRAD for the development of red colobus monkey genomic resource”).

Parviez Hosseini, from the EcoHealth Alliance, also presented a poster for our joint work on comparative spillover dynamics of avian influenza (“Comparative Spillover Dynamics of Avian Influenza in Endemic Countries”). I’m excited to get more work done on this project which is possible now that new post-doc Ashley Hazel has arrived from Michigan. Ashley will oversee the collection of relational data in Bangladesh and help us get this project into high gear.

The EEID conference has a unique take on poster presentations which make it much more enjoyable than the typical professional meeting. In general, I hate poster sessions. Now, don’t get me wrong: I see lots of scientific value in them and they can be a great way for people to have extended conversations about their work. They can be an especially great forum for students to showcase their work and start the long process of forming professional networking. However, there is an awkwardness to poster sessions that can be painful for the hapless conference attender who might want, say, to walk through the room in which a poster session is being held. These rooms tend to be heavy with the smell of desperation and one has to negotiate a gauntlet of suit-clad, doe-eyed graduate students desperate to talk to anyone who will listen about their work. “Please talk to me; I’m so lonely” is what I imagine them all saying as I briskly walk through, trying to look busy and purposeful (while keeping half an eye out for something really interesting!).

The scene at EEID is much different. All posters go up at the same time and the site-fidelity of poster presenters is the lowest I have ever seen. It has to be since, if everyone stuck by their poster, there wouldn’t be anyone to see any of them! What this did was allow far more mixing than I normally see at such sessions and avoid much of the inherent social awkwardness of a poster session. Posters also stayed up long past the official poster session. I continued to read posters for at least a day after the official session ended. Of course, it helps that there was all manner of great work being presented.

There were lots of great podium talks too. I was particularly impressed with the talks by Charlie King of Case Western on polyparasitism in Kenya, Maria Diuk-Wasser of Yale on the emergence of babesiosis in the Northeast, Jean Tsao (Michigan State) and Graham Hickling‘s (Tennessee) joint talk on Lyme disease in the Southeast, and Bethany Krebs’s talk on the role of robin social behavior in West Nile Virus outbreaks. Laura Pomeroy, from Ohio State, represented one of the other few teams with a substantial anthropological component extremely well, talking about the transmission dynamics of foot-and-mouth disease in Cameroon. Probably my favorite talk of the weekend was the last talk by Penn State’s Matt Thomas. They done awesome work elucidating the role of temperature variability on the transmission dynamics of malaria.

It turns out that this was the last EEID PI conference. Next year, the EEID PI conference will be combined with the other EEID conference which was originally organized at Penn State (and is there again this May). This combining of forces is, I’m sure, a good thing as it will reduce confusion and probably make it more likely that all the people I want to see have a better chance of showing up. I just hope that this new, larger conference retains the charms of the EEID PI conference.

EEID is a new, interdisciplinary field that has grown thanks to some disproportionately large contributions of a few, highly energetic people. One of the principals in this realm is definitely Sam Scheiner, the EEID program officer at NSF.  The EEID PI meeting has basically been Sam’s baby for the past 10 years. Sam has done an amazing job creating a community of interdisciplinary scholars and I’m sure I speak for every researcher who has been heavily involved with EEID when I express my gratitude for all his efforts.