Friday, November 30, 2012

Botany picture #7: Parnassia palustris

Parnassia palustris (Celastraceae) from the European Alps, 2004. It is trivially easy to recognize in the Alps by the beautiful glands on the flowers.

How to assess publication records

Publish or perish has become such a well-known expression that it should be nothing new even to those who have never played with the thought of pursuing an academic career (see Wikipedia, or, more cynically, SMBC). The idea is that there is ever increasing pressure on academics not necessarily to produce work of high utility and quality but simply to produce lots of publications in renowned journals.

Academics are evaluated on the basis of their publication record in nearly all professionally relevant situations: when applying for a job, when considered for a promotion, when applying for a research grant. By extension, research groups within an institute, institutes within a university, and universities among universities are evaluated based on the publication record of their researchers. So, how does one assess publication records?

There are different ways people do this, and they are listed below in order of decreasing stupidity.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Botany picture #6: Pinus sylvestris

Pinus sylvestris (Pinaceae) seedling in Germany, 2012. A seed plant embryo consists of the primary root (radicle), the embryonic leaves (cotyledons) and a small stem connecting the two (hypocotyl). While flowering plants have only one or two cotyledons, conifers like this one have several.

Continuing opposition to Phylogenetic Systematics in botany

I will write more about other stuff, but as mentioned before, I would like to write this all out for once in case I ever want to refer to it. Warning: long and technical, although perhaps even a non-biologist may find the last part amusing.

As indicated in my introductory post on the topic, Phylogenetic Systematics (PS) is today the dominant paradigm in biological classification. Perusing the pages of the major journals of systematic botany, such as Taxon, the Botanical Journal of the Linnaean Society, Plant Systematics and Evolution or appropriately named Systematic Botany, we will always find numerous publications either suggesting that a plant group be recircumscribed to make it monophyletic or expressing satisfaction at having confirmed the monophyly of a group in its traditional circumscription. And the latter happens more often than many people assume, by the way.

Still, a vocal minority of botanists remains opposed to the requirement to accept only monophyletic supra-specific groups. This might appear surprising: should scientists not be able to figure out amongst themselves what is the best approach and then be reasonable enough to all follow it? Well, most of us think we have done so.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Botany picture #5: Baccharis rhomboidalis

Baccharis rhomboidalis (Asteraceae) from the vicinity of Bariloche, Argentina, 2009. Baccharis is a large genus of shrubby daisies in the Americas. It is considered to be taxonomically very difficult, i.e. many species are hard to identify or tell apart (not this one though). The English Wikipedia, as of this writing, calls it the largest genus of the daisy family with 500 species despite also writing that the genus Senecio has 1250 species. Ah, the joys of crowd-sourcing.

Scientists' CVs

After comparing the application procedures in different countries, maybe I could write a bit about scientists' curricula vitae*, again with the idea that a young scientist at the beginning of their career might consider this useful and find it with some applied Google-fu. But it could also be interesting, as a kind of ethnological excurse, to curious non-scientists. Again, this is not professional career advice, so take it just as my personal opinion.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Botany picture #4: Aragoa abietina


Aragoa abietina (Plantaginaceae), at the Páramo de Chingaza, Colombia, 2007. This species was still in the Scrophulariaceae when I went to university, but phylogenetic studies found the family in its old circumscription to be polyphyletic. Essentially, the Scropulariaceae used to be a wastebasket where many genera went that did not fit into better defined families around it.

Addressing a common misconception about Phylogenetic Systematics: Species do not have to be monophyletic

In my previous post introducing Phylogenetic Systematics (PS), I explained that its criterion for the recognition of supra-specific taxa (groups of species in the formal, scientific classification of life) is monophyly. A monophyletic group is one that includes all descendant species of its common ancestral species, as opposed to only some of them.

Unfortunately, the way many people memorize this, and the way they are even sometimes taught it as students, is as follows: "All taxa have to be monophyletic". This makes no mention of grouping species into supra-specific taxa, and so they may come to assume that PS demands that species also be monophyletic.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Botany picture #3: Melittis melissophyllum

Melittis melissophyllum (Lamiaceae) from south-western France. This is one of the most spectacular representatives of the mint family in Europe, but from what a botanical garden curator once told me it is a bit demanding in cultivation. Another interesting aspect is that the distribution of colours on the corolla is extremely variable in this species, even within the same population.

Introduction to Phylogenetic Systematics

As indicated in my first post, one of my professional interests is Phylogenetic Systematics (subsequently PS). As a reference for future discussion, this and perhaps a few follow-ups will provide a concise introduction. However, there is a limit to how concise one can be and still make sense, so this post will necessarily be quite long.

First, what is PS? 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Botany picture #2: Equisetum giganteum


Thicket of Equisetum giganteum (Equisetaceae) in the Bolivian lowlands, 2007. While of course the extant species are not the same as the ones that existed during the Mesozoicum, there is supposedly not a lot of difference in appearance between this and the fossil genus Equisetites, meaning that dinosaurs would already have stomped through very similar vegetation.

Job applications and selection procedures in three different scientific communities

In the course of my career, young as it still is, I have nonetheless already had some experiences with job applications and selection procedures in three different scientific communities: (1) Central Europe, especially Germany and the German-speaking part of Switzerland; (2) the United States; and (3) the United Kingdom and Australia. (I lump the latter two for present purposes because of similar procedures, but of course they are really two communities.) Because this might be of interest to young scientists who are willing to look beyond their home country in search for new challenges, be it permanent employment or a postdoc, and who might happen upon this from a search engine, I thought it would be a good topic to write about.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Botany picture of the unspecified time unit #1

Cynanchum diemii (Apocynaceae: Asclepiads). In 2009, I was on a conference trip in Argentina with a German colleague, and we stayed a few days longer to explore the area around Bariloche. We were walking through a forest where nothing much seemed to be in flower - it was essentially very late winter - when we suddenly walked through a cloud of intense, sickly sweet scent. Searching around us, we finally located this delightful vine with small yellow flowers as the source.

Welcome

Hello, in case you have just found this. I do not expect this blog to become very popular or well-noted, but start it merely to have a place to write about some of my thoughts and experiences, and who knows? Maybe it will in due course contain something that somebody will find interesting or useful.

I am a systematic botanist of German origin who is now working outside of his home country. What you can find to expect here are posts of varying length and quality on the (non-personal) topics that are of greatest interest to me. In order of decreasing narrowness:
  • Botany. This aspect will be covered with regular postings of photographs of nice or interesting plants, especially from the time before I took up duties at my current institution (the photographs from my current work ultimately end up on a searchable database anyway), and discussions of relevant work or publications that I find interesting. At some point in the future I may also life-blog from a conference if I get the feeling that somebody has started to follow the blog who might be interested in that.
  • Cladistics and phylogenetic systematics. I am fairly sure I will, at some point, feel inclined to grumble about what is known as "evolutionary" systematics.
  • Science in general, especially our habits and work culture as a scientific community.
  • Freethought and the importance of using evidence and reason to inform our view of the world.
It should go without saying, but the views and opinions I express on this blog are mine and mine only, and not necessarily the ones of my employer, colleagues, or family members.

Enjoy - or feel free to search for greener pastures elsewhere!