One of my entomology colleagues, Brittany Dodson, and I were recently discussing the idea of starting a blog. I had commented that I rarely post anything in my actual blog, and the most recent post I had done was something about pinning beetles (it was actually about a Facebook game a few of us had tried to start about “bugsies”, but regardless, they were both brief). Brittany responded by saying that she was (surprisingly!) interested in knowing more about how I get through “all of [my] samples” in the lab. This is an interesting question, because so much of my time is spent in that esoteric place–the lab–and I take it for granted that people know what I am actually doing in there. The short answer: Listening to podcasts and taking many, many, many instagrams, of arthropods, me, the scope, data sheets, me and data sheets, etc. (say what you will about selfies, but they really are the easiest way to tell people how I sometimes feel about being in the lab on a Saturday afternoon). There’s also the counting of specimens, which I do in between the podcasts and selfies. The long answer, of course, is that I am actually generating data for use in my dissertation.
While this series of selfies may mostly indicate otherwise, I am actually pretty enthusiastic about being in the lab and identifying specimens from my projects. Obviously, it is quite common for people to ask what I do, and I give them the elevator speech, generally involving something like “I study the conservation of arthropod generalist predators in sustainable agricultural systems.” Even for those that are interested in knowing more, or are able to engage with the term sustainable agricultural systems, I always leave the part out about how one collects data to actually study such a thing. People seem to understand that I spend a lot of time “in the field” in the summer, collecting samples and such, but the issue of what I do with those samples never really comes up.
Well, I count things, lots of things. And I identify them. Counting is easy, but the identifying can be more difficult, and I mostly do it to family (This is the moment you should think back to your Ms. Frizzle-like, high school environmental science ROP teacher who taught you that King Phil Came Over For Good Sex. Family is the “For” level). When I came to Penn State, I had a good grasp on the arthropod orders, but I had never worked with anything below that previously. Thanks to our lab tech, and later, an amazing course by one of my scholarly idols, Dr. Andy Deans, I feel like I have a relatively decent handle on the families I commonly see in my projects. The beauty of studying arthropods, though, is that there is constantly something interesting to learn, to the point that sometimes it seems like I have to forget something about one group (you blow my mind, peppermint sticks!) just to fit more that I need to know in. And while I jokingly make grumpy faces in the lab, I get super excited when I see something new to me (black tiger beetles!), or something I see all the time (sminthurid faces!).
There’s a whole slew of other things that happen in the lab in order for me to generate data (the labeling! WHY DOESN’T ANYONE TELL YOUNG SCIENTISTS ABOUT THE LABELING!), but, for the most part, I sit at the microscope. I am fortunate in that I have a great support network in the lab, so by the time I see the samples for my main project in PA, the collembolans and mites have already been sorted and counted for me. I just get to work with the big stuff, ground beetles (which I ID to species), spiders, millipedes, daddy longlegs, lady beetles, rove beetles, and so on. In terms of my dissertation data, I already have 1 field season of data from Mexico done, and 2 of 3 years of Pennsylvanian samples identified. I have 12 of 15 sample dates from the third year in PA still, 192 samples. This is not an insignificant amount of time, meaning there are still quite a few lab selfies between me and graduating. Luckily, there is plenty “This American Life” to keep me otherwise occupied.