7 Questions with... Zen Faulkes

Here at Thoughtful Animal headquarters, we are conducting series of seven-question interviews with people who are doing or have done animal research of all kinds - biomedical, behavioral, cognitive, and so forth. Interested in how animal research is conducted, or why animal research is important? Think you might want to do some animal research of your own someday? This is the interview series for you.

Dr. Zen Faulkes (website, twitter) is Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Texas-Pan American, where he studies the evolution of behavior and nervous systems, particularly the origin of new behaviors. He is currently working mostly with decapod crustaceans, with a particular emphasis on the unusual crayfish Marmorkrebs. In addition, he writes the blog NeuroDojo, the Better Posters blog, and organizes Markmokrebs.org, where there is also an award-winning blog.

I realize I haven't yet written about any of his research, technically, but I did write about a paper on spatial learning in octopuses that he contributed to as an undergraduate research assistant.

zen faulkes.jpg

Figure 1: Doctor Zen in front of one of his better posters.

Jump behind the fold for the interview, and enjoy!

1. To start out, could you tell my readers something about yourself? Could you tell us a little about your academic and/or scientific career trajectories?

I did a lot of stuff that hinted that I might be a biologist. I grew up in the country in rural Manitoba, chasing snakes and reading dinosaur books. I had a great biology teacher in school, who taught me a lot about science and introduced me to Tom Lehrer.

I started my research career as an undergraduate working with octopuses in the middle of the bald-headed prairie at the University of Lethbridge. In a psychology department. (My career's always had a sense of the absurd about it.)

I went to the University of Victoria, and did my doctoral work there with Dorothy Paul, where I started the transition into biology. Post-docs with Gerry Pollack at McGill University and another with David Macmillan at the University of Melbourne followed, before I was hired at my current institution in south Texas.

2. Some people decide that they want to work with animals, and then find a particular research program they like. Others are interested in a particular empirical question, and discover that animal research is one of the best ways to approach that question. Why did you decide to become involved in animal research?

I was shanghaied by Jennifer Mather.

I was taking an undergraduate class from Jennifer, and I stopped into her office to talk. She mentioned that she going to get some octopuses shipped in from a colleague, and that she was thinking about studying octopus walking.

I said, "That sounds interesting."

Before I know it, the door is closed behind me, I've been seated in a chair, and I'm being told, "Right, here's what we're going to do...," and I was unexpectedly swept into the world of cephalopods.

(It may not have happened exactly like that, but that's what it felt like.)

3. What have been some of the most interesting or challenging projects you've worked on, in the course of your animal research?

My doctoral research was challenging, because I didn't have an undergraduate degree in biology when I started working towards a graduate degree in biology. That was doing things the hard way. It was worth it, though.

I'll nominate research on the loss of escape-related neurons in slipper lobsters under the "interesting" category, because that project arose from pure luck. I said, "Let's just have a look at these neurons," and they weren't there.

4. Can you tell me a little more about the non-existence of escape neurons in the lobsters? Why should they have been there, and what did you find out from the fact that they weren't?

Escape-related giant neurons had been found in a lot of different crustaceans, and there were obvious advantages for having them, mainly predator escape. Based on those two facts, people predicted that any decapod crustacean with a large tail should have these escape-related giant neurons.

You can make reasonable explanations for why some species wouldn't have some of these escape neurons. Hermit crabs live in shells, so are unlikely to attacked from behind. It makes sense that they don't have escape-related neurons that respond to attacks from behind like crayfish do.

In some species, though, it's very hard to come up with good hypotheses for why some species are missing these neurons. I did publish a review where I suggested that the loss of these neurons may have been a catalyst for new "experimentation" during evolution. But I'm still trying to sort out what it all means.

5. What do you think these sorts of "non-findings" (or more precisely, negative findings) contribute to the literature?

"Non-findings," as you put it, are undervalued and misunderstood. Let me give you an example of each.

As an example of undervaluing "non-findings," everyone agrees that replication is critical to science. Being unable to replicate a finding should be important, because it points out false positives or uncontrolled variable. But the editorial system is slightly geared towards protecting the published literature (see "How to Publish a Scientific Comment in 1 2 3 Easy Steps (PDF)").

As an example of misunderstanding "non-findings," some people say providing evidence for a negative statement is harder than providing evidence a positive statement. This isn't true. "There is no rhinoceros in my office" is a negative statement, and it's easy to decide if there is or isn't a rhino in my office. But if people expect a rhino in your office, then people (reviewers) can get very creative in explaining why you missed the rhino.

I understand the bias against "non-findings" at some level, because there's always an easy way to explain something "missing" or "absent": that the researcher is incompetent. When a researcher tries to get DNA for the first time and gets nothing, you don't conclude that the student found an organism without DNA. You hypothesize that this person made a mistake.

6. How does blogging (and other social media) play into your career? Given that tenure/tenure-track research scientists have so many responsibilities, why do you take the time to blog and engage with the broader online science community?

Blogging has probably hurt my career in some ways. I could have written at least a couple of books for the amount of time I've put into blogging. And a book still has way more cachet than a blog. Scientific journals review even modest books, but not blogs.

Why I started blogging are not the same reasons I continue to blog. I was inspired by Neil Gaiman's blogging, and how he demystified his writing process. It seemed to me that exposing the scientific process might also be valuable for people interested in that. I may not have done great job with that personally, but the resource created for academics by people blogging about their experiences is phenomenal. An undergraduate can find out the deal-breakers in personal statements. A scientist who has just been offered a tenure-track position can find out what you might be able to negotiate for. Tenured faculty can get new insights into what's going on in review panels for granting agencies.

I keep blogging for a lot of reasons. First, I can reach more people than I can without it. I reach a few hundred students a year by teaching classes; I can reach almost that many people in one day by blogging.

Second, the immediacy of a blog is liberating and addictive. Scientific writing is a long process with a lot of people telling you to change things. I love being able to write something and just put it up, having to please nobody but myself. If I want to change it, I can. I don't have to live with typos forever!

Third, I feel I'm engaged in an experiment in scholarly publication. I want to see what a sustained effort in blogging can do for me as a scholar. How far can I push it? Can I build a readership? Can I write something that someone will find enjoyable or useful or eye-opening? Can I (or anyone, really) create a body of blogging work that gets recognized as being as substantive as a monthly magazine column or a book?

And, of course, I have different blogs, and there are different reasons I keep up each of those.

I write the Marmorkrebs blog to try to build up a research community.

I write the Better Posters blog because it was necessary. I was and am sick of seeing ugly posters, and the blog fills a niche that needed to be inhabited.

7. What advice would you give to an aspiring scientist who would like to become involved in animal research?

I don't have advice so much as a plea.

There are so many species that we know almost nothing about besides that it exists. For instance, for one project I was working on, I tried to find what colour a species was. You would think that would be pretty basic information - but I couldn't find it anywhere in the scientific literature. And we're going to lose a lot of species before we learn anything about them.

I don't want to say we know "enough" about rats or fruit flies, because that makes it sound like I'm disparaging that research, and I'm not. But we know a lot about those species, and there's no shortage of people who want to learn more about them.

I beg you, please give some thought to studying one of the hundreds of thousands of animals that we know almost nothing about.

Thanks for your time, Zen! I hope my readers find your thoughts and experiences and interesting as I have.

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Good interview!

Damn, another couple of blogs to add to my follow list. Where am I supposed to get time to read them all?

Seriously though that's a very nice interview, and I was particularly impressed by the discussion of "non-findings" in question 5. Far too little is done to ensure that negative results are published, sometimes with serious consequences (e.g. clinical trials going ahead when they should not have), and the scientific community needs to do more to solve this problem. After all somebody has paid for this work to be done. There are serious suggestions in the UK that a register of animal experiments should be set up similar to that for clinical trials, this approach, combined perhaps with online publication, may help prevent valuable data from disappearing.