The day all the graduate students talked

We study mutualisms, cooperation, invasions, and diseases. We study lemurs, birds, ants, frogs, grasses, trees, and amoebae. We come from China, Mexico, Madagascar, San Antonio, and Michigan. Two of us plan to welcome babies soon. We work in Michigan, Samoa, Texas, Mexico, China, Madagascar, Germany, and Brazil. Three of us use Chris as our first name, yet we have only one Maria. And that is not the half of it. We are EEB at Rice University and could have celebrated our 20th anniversary recently.

Once a year our graduate students give presentations of 15 minutes each, and we love to listen to them. I guess it’s like being a doctor in training and working 100 hours a week to listen to talks from 8:30 until 4:30, with only short breaks. There were 23 talks, and would have been 26 if we hadn’t graduated three students before Thanksgiving. And to think back to the days in the early 1980s when Paul Harcombe and I were the only ecologists in the department (they didn’t have anything they called evolution back then). If we were lucky we had 4 students between us. And now it’s a lovely bunch, pushing against the darkness with multifactorial designs, replicates, PCR, and null hypotheses.

How could I capture for you what it felt like to listen to these dedicated but playful students? Well, maybe Haiku? Let’s give it a try.

Ecologists put / frogs in 30 gallon pools./ Nymphs eat the tadpoles.

We can kill all rats, / except the resistant ones. / Why do we want to?

Sixty-eight lemur / species. Do they cluster well, / or are they fading?

Brownsville yellowthroats / do not know the border yet. / In marshes they sing.

Only a hundred / pairs of yellowthroats are still / along the border.

Yellowthroats sing on / the Rio Grande, but its / neither source nor sink.

Ants guard plants fiercely, / killing weeds, bugs, some mammals / for sweet, sweet nectar.

When flour beetles / can’t find flour, they eat their young / and pass on the trait.

Plants use R genes for / defense and have a back-up. / Their motifs puzzle.

OK, maybe this is silly, but I only wonder why I didn’t think of Haiku for seminars a long, long time ago? Another interesting thing is who asks what questions. I love the questions. I wrote all of them and their answers down. It is so much easier to take notes on a computer, since I can type without looking. Who thought I was looking at Facebook? Well, maybe for a second or two? Mark Zuckerberg told me to.

Michael Kohn asked the most questions, 13, followed by Dave Queller at 7, then Tom E. X. Miller at 6. Among the grad students, Juli Carrillo, Chris Gabler, Amy Savage, and Ben Van Allen were tied at 4 each, but I could have misattributed some of the Chris questions. I was too busy taking notes to ask, and am always curious if someone else will think of the question I have.

I should go more into the science, for that is the whole point, but it is late, and so I’ll just share a few photos.

By the way, I had no trouble naming everyone asking questions behind my second-row seat from their voices alone. How soon will this be true in St. Louis? What will the graduate students at WU be like? Will we have a Valhalla?


Kerri Crawford has plots in what may be my most favorite place in the whole world, Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, in my beloved Michigan. Why couldn’t I figure out how to work there?

201012062141.jpg  201012062131.jpg

Jeff Ahern studies cockleburs in the Katy Prairie, another magic place, and much closer than Michigan.


If this were Facebook, Juli might untag. Brian and Amy don’t usually look so serious.


Sharing of the peanuts.


Our handsome top questioner, Michael.


Handsome Dave, looking thoughtful (or tired).


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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