Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Imagination and Reality: Thoreau’s journal and objects

Posted by Richard B. Primack


“I have as much property as I can command and use.” -Thoreau in his Journal

The Concord Museum has a new special exhibit that combines Henry David Thoreau’s journals and objects, highlighting many facets of his life, such as being an observer, a writer, a naturalist, a surveyor, and a writer. The exhibit reunites journals from the Morgan Library in New York with objects from the Concord Museum and elsewhere that are normally housed separately. The exhibit will continue until January 21, 2018.



Thoreau’s flute and one of his journals

A box of pencils from the Thoreau family business along with a journal

A yearly table made by Thoreau showing important weather events

A herbarium specimen of blue irises made by Thoreau; note that the specimen does not have a date or label, which limits its value for phenological research

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Congratulations Dr. Amanda Gallinat!

Posted by Richard B. Primack

“If one advances confidently in the direction of [her] dreams, and endeavors to live the life in which [she] has imagined, [she] will meet with success unimagined in more common hours.”  -Thoreau, in Walden. 

Amanda during her final thesis seminar


Congratulations to Amanda Gallinat for the successful defense of her doctoral dissertation “Effects of climate change and species invasions on autumn phenology and bird-fruit interactions in Massachusetts, USA.” Amanda’s thesis was notable for the strong connections between successive chapters, and her large number of collaborators and co-authors both at BU and elsewhere in the USA and internationally. Also, the first chapter of the thesis, “Autumn, the neglected season in climate change research” has already been published in the high-impact journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. And the second chapter on using herbarium specimens to monitor fruiting phenology was accepted for publication in the American Journal of Botany two hours before the defense; great timing!

Amanda with her committee members after her successful defense!

Monday, November 13, 2017

An International Network of Trees, published in Silva

Posted by Amanda Gallinat

"Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes" -Thoreau in a letter, May 22, 1832

For the last five years, the Primack Lab has been part of a collaborative effort to monitor leaf-out, leaf senescence, and fruiting times at a network of seven international botanical gardens. We recently published an overview of this collaborative work in the Arnold Arboretum's magazine, Silva

Richard Primack carefully monitors leaf senescence at the Arnold Arboretum

In the article, we describe how the living collections of botanical gardens have allowed us to monitor the phenology of an enormous range of species; with our colleagues, we have monitored >1600 species for leaf-out, 1360 species for leaf senescence, and several hundred species for fruiting. Our lab conducts our observations right here in Boston, MA, at the Arnold Arboretum.

Young leaves of Acer japonicum observed on April 24th at the Arnold Arboretum

The group's observations across botanical gardens and years have demonstrated that species leaf-out and fruit in a consistent order from year to year and place to place (and related species have similar timing), while the order in which species change color and drop their leaves is not consistent across space and time.

I record fruiting times for plants in the vast Viburnum collection at the Arnold Arboretum

Uncovering these and other patterns in the spring and autumn phenology of many species has given us new insight into the rich natural history present at the Arnold Arboretum (our home site) and other botanical gardens, and helps us understand how plant schedules will respond to climate change.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Humidity does not appear to trigger leaf out in woody plants

Posted by Lucy Zipf

Leaf-out phenology in woody trees and shrubs is considered to be strongly controlled by a combination of spring warming, winter chilling requirement, and photoperiod. In 2014 researchers suggested that humidity, rather than temperature itself, might be also be a main trigger of the spring leaf-out of woody plants – with plants leafing out earlier in higher humidity environments. We tested this hypothesis in our recent paper titled “Humidity does not appear to trigger leaf-out in woody plants.”


Gathering dormant twigs from the Hammond Woods in Newton, MA 

We gathered dormant twigs from 15 species of woody plants and exposed twigs from each species to four humidities ranging from 20% to 94% relative humidity. We then monitored the twigs daily for a month to see if twigs in higher humidity treatments leafed out before those exposed to lower humidities.


Twigs of the 15 study species in the highest humidity treatment halfway through the experiment 

The title of the paper gives away our main result: We did not find any consistent, measurable effect of high humidity advancing leaf-out. We also did not see patterns of progressively earlier leaf-out in successively higher humidities. Given our results, humidity does not appear to be a determinant of spring leaf-out in these New England plants.

Late Autumn Colors

Posted by Richard B. Primack

“Live in each season as it passes - breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit & resign yourself to the influence of each.” -Thoreau, in his Journal, 1835

During the past 100 years as global temperatures have risen, the date of the first autumn frost has gotten a week or more later, as reported in an Associated Press story by Seth Borenstein, entitled "Science says: Jack Frost nipping at your nose ever later". Late autumn frosts combined with early springs result in a growing season that is now several weeks longer in much of the United States. This year’s warm October temperatures have delayed Boston’s autumn, with night-time temperatures above freezing through November 1. Across the northeastern United States, the mild weather has held back the the vibrant leaf colors associated with the autumn season, as described the Popular Science article, "Where the heck is autumn?" by Rachel Feltman. 

At the end of October, our Newton garden was still green and productive (photo by Margaret Primack)

As November begins, many trees and shrubs in the Boston area are still covered with green leaves, many ornamental plants are still flowering, and bees and butterflies are still flying. Closer to home in our garden in Newton, we are still harvesting tomatoes, lettuce and other salad greens, parsley, beans, and zucchinis as November starts. Most surprisingly, we are eating fresh figs every day from our fig trees. We are in eastern Massachusetts, but the weather and the season seem like somewhere hundreds of miles to the south.

We are still harvesting tomatoes from our garden in early November 

Friday, November 3, 2017

Last Days at Biological Conservation

Posted by Richard B. Primack


“Men do not fail commonly for want of knowledge, but for want of prudence to give wisdom the preference.” 
-Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack

After nine years, I recently stepped down as Editor in Chief of Biological Conservation. I supervised a team of 9 Editors, handling over 14,000 submissions, and eventually publishing over 3,000 articles that advanced our knowledge and provided practical value for people protecting biodiversity in the field and developing policy. 

In this staged photograph, four co-authors are having a disagreement; in one Biological Conservation editorial, my co-authors and I describe problems co-authors can encounter, and provide some recommendations for happy co-author relationships

We published many Special Issues on topics of current interest. For example, articles in the special issue on environmental DNA showed that the presence of rare species and newly arrived invasive species in lake or river could be detected from a few molecules of DNA in small water sample. And our Citizen Science issue described how to work with networks of volunteers in conservation projects. 

We examined the editorial process of the journal, finding there was no bias in acceptance rates of papers submitted by female authors, though individual editors had different acceptance rates. We learned that Chinese and Indian scientists often worked on weekends, Japanese and Mexican scientists often worked at night, and European scientists tended to work typical office hours. We evaluated how reviewer recommendations affected acceptance rates, and determined that a “Reject” review was like the “kiss of death.” And finally, we described problems that co-authors sometimes encounter in working together, and provided constructive suggestions for co-authors. 

This confused editor tries to make a decision based on four very different reviews! In fact, our analysis showed that reviews tend to be consistent from reviewer to reviewer

As Editor in Chief, I always tried to recognize that authors needed to be treated as individuals, and in many cases I could assist them with particular issues. We helped many young scientists to publish their first paper in an international journal, and establish their careers. In the end, we were able to create a community of authors, reviewers, editors, and readers, who could cooperate to advance our knowledge in the field of conservation biology.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Wildflowers on the Charles River

Posted by Richard B. Primack

“There is just as much beauty visible in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate.” 
-Thoreau in Autumnal Tints

The Charles River is a natural history treasure for the people of Boston. In July, my son Dan and I went kayaking and observed the most astonishing display of rose mallow plants flowering along the banks of the Charles in West Roxbury, Dedham, and Needham. There were thousands of gigantic plants, many of them with dozens of 6 to 10 foot tall stems, and covered with huge saucer sized pink blossoms. The most impressive display of flowers was on an island in the Motley Pond region of the river. 



Tall multi-stemmed rose mallow plants along the banks of the Charles

Flowers of rose mallow are astonishingly large

Large patches of dying purple loosestrife plants could also be seen along the river. This beautiful European ornamental plant has been an aggressive wetland invader over the past 4 decades, out-competing native species. In recent years, European beetles that specialize on purple loosestrife have been released as a biological control program. And by the looks of these highly damaged plants, the beetles have won the fight. 


Stands of purple loosestrife turning brown with damage

Beetles have damaged this purple loosestrife plant

Monday, October 23, 2017

Coring the Past

posted by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

“I live in the present.  I only remember the past – and anticipate the future.”
 Thoreau in his Correspondence.  1848.

Last month I returned to my dissertation research site at Acadia National Park. But instead of hiking the ridge of Sargent Mountain to record this year’s flowering and leafing times, I plumbed the depths of Sargent Mountain Pond for evidence of past plant life that once fringed the granite kettle hole. I’ve traded historical ecology for paleoecology, and in my new postdoc position in Jacquelyn Gill’s BEAST (Biodiversity & Environments Across Space and Time) lab, I will focus on pollen grains trapped in ancient lake sediments.

Coring Sargent Mountain Pond: Caitlin pushes the corer into the lake sediment below the raft while Jacquelyn ties off the cable connected to the corer's piston.

I timed this fieldwork to coincide with a Sierra Club project: all week a group of Sierra Club members volunteered in Acadia. On Tuesday, they joined me and the BEAST lab as we hauled coring equipment — including giant inflatable pontoons and two 4x8’ plywood deck pieces — up to Sargent Mountain Pond. We carried in giant inflatable pontoons for a raft and two 4x8’ plywood decks: a major feat on a challenging trail. We hiked it all in, assembled the raft and inflated a kayak, and then launched our floating field site on to the pond. From our raft, we extracted cores of sediment from the deepest basin of the pond — over 11 feet deep — using a piston corer. The piston corer allows us to push deep into the lake bottom and pull up 1 m of sediment in each drive. Over the course of three days we cored nearly 9 meters of sediment. These cores represent a journey through over 4 meters of organic material under Sargent Mountain Pond, into the grey sands of a glacial landscape. We cored 4 meters deep twice: two overlapping records will give us a continuous chronicle of pollen through the last 15,000 years.
Caitlin celebrates with her first core!

We cored Sargent Mountain Pond because it sits just below treeline in Acadia and subalpine plant communities grow at its edge. As the Laurentide ice sheet retreated, Sargent Mountain Pond emerged as the “first pond in Maine”; the rest of its limnological siblings were under still ice. Previous coring research at Sargent Mountain Pond has confirmed this and sediments in the basin are over 16,000 years old.

The pollen trapped in the pond’s sediments will help us to answer questions about the history of the subalpine plant communities around Sargent Mountain Pond. How dynamic is treeline on Acadia’s granite ridges? Have Mount Desert Island’s subalpine communities persisted here since the last ice age? How have these species responded to past climatic changes?

It was lovely to be back in Acadia for fieldwork and I’m looking forward to splitting open our cores to study the long ecological history of this site.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Swimming (Illegally?) in Crystal Lake

Posted by Richard B. Primack

“Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” 
-Thoreau in Resistance to Civil Government

It is a hot summer day, and dozens of young people and families with children are enjoying swimming and wading in the two coves of Crystal Lake in Newton Center. All this is taking place in areas with large, clearly posted “No Swimming” signs, and warnings that swimmers can be arrested for trespassing. What exactly is going on? In a recent issue of the Newton Tab, I address this topic.

For decades, Newton residents have enjoyed safe swimming in the lifeguard-supervised area of Crystal Lake. But over the last six years, adults and children have increasingly been swimming illegally in the nearby coves. The advantages of swimming in these areas are obvious: they are quiet, with a relative lack of crowds, they are available when the official swimming area is closed, there are no restrictions on food and drinks, and there's no need to pay for a permit.

Signs posted at Crystal Lake clearly state swimming is not allowed

In 2012, some Newton residents petitioned the city to allow swimming at your own risk in the coves; similar policies are in place at Walden Pond State Park in Concord. But the Newton government was unwilling to allow cove swimming and it remains illegal. Enforcement by police, however, is weak or nonexistent.

What are the main arguments against allowing swimming in the coves? First, swimming in the coves violates posted regulations, so it might contribute to disrespect for the law. Second, there are no lifeguards, and the city might be liable for injuries and drowning. And third, noise and parked cars disturb some local residents.

Thus far, the city and residents have been unable to develop a consensus solution to deal with cove swimming. Such a consensus would include policies that enhance swimming opportunities, swimming safety, residents’ rights, and the lake’s health. This is easier said than done, but it provides a goal to work toward. If Thoreau were around today, what would be his advice? Transgress unreasonable laws? Or head into the woods and avoid the crowds?

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Morton Arboretum: Meeting an old friend

Posted by Richard B. Primack

“Nothing makes the earth so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.” 
-Thoreau, May 22, 1843 in his correspondence

In August, I visited the Morton Arboretum in Chicago. For the past seven years, we have collaborated with Robert Fahey and other Morton researchers to monitor leafing out times, leaf senescence times, and fruiting times as part of an international network of botanical gardens. The Morton, founded in 1922 by the owner of the Morton Salt Company, is a scientific institution with taxonomic collections similar to the Arnold Arboretum and with a special focus on urban street trees. The Morton also has strong outreach to the public, as indicated by flower displays, a visitor center, and appealing exhibits such as the origami sculptures scattered around the grounds. 

Origami horses in the conifer collection

My host Chuck Cannon, Director of the Center for Tree Science, has many interesting parallels to my own career, having studied at the same universities, worked in Malaysia and China, and shifted from tropical ecology to climate change biology.

Chuck Cannon and me next to an origami sculpture in front of the visitor center

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Libby Ellwood's Sept 12th @TerriersAtWork twitter takeover!

Posted by Amanda Gallinat

Libby Ellwood, Primack Lab alumna and researcher extraordinaire, will be taking over the @TerriersAtWork twitter account next Tuesday, September 12th! She will walk us through a day at her fascinating job at the La Brea Tar Pits and answer questions along the way. 



I asked Libby a few questions in preparation for her big @TerriersAtWork takeover:

Amanda: Hi Libby! What are the La Brea Tar Pits, and why are they special?
Libby: The La Brea Pits are located in urban Los Angeles, California. Technically, the tar pits are asphalt seeps. Asphalt deposits from deep underground have found their way to the surface due to tectonic activity along the San Andreas Fault. The asphalt forms viscous pools which become covered in leaves, dirt, and water. Unsuspecting animals get trapped in the asphalt, then predators attack the trapped animals and become trapped themselves. The asphalt has preserved the dead organisms, leaving us with an incredible record of plants and animals from the late Pleistocene epoch, 40,000-11,000 years ago. There are very few places in the world where this combination of geologic history has occurred to produce asphalt seeps. Also, fun fact: La Brea is Spanish for "the tar", so The La Brea Tar Pits can be translated to the the tar tar pits!

Mammoth sculptures in the La Brea Tar Pits

A: So, what is your job at The The Tar Tar Pits?

L: I'm a Research Fellow working on a National Science Foundation-funded project to reconstruct ancient food webs. For a long time, scientists were mainly interested in the saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, mastodons, and other macrofauna -- and who can blame them, those are really cool animals! In order to get a more complete picture of ice age ecosystems though, we need to take a closer look at the smaller organisms. In this project, we are piecing together smaller elements of the food web, like plants and small mammals, to better understand why species go extinct and how species cope with climate change.

My part of the project is to develop citizen science activities that engage students in sorting microfossils as they learn about food webs. With a little bit of training, non-scientists can sort through fossil materials, pull out plant and mammal bits, and therefore directly contribute to piecing together ancient food webs!

Microfossils awaiting sorting under a microscope

A: If you had to choose, what would you say is the best part of your job?
L: La Brea is an active excavation site. Every day, scientists are chipping away at blocks of asphalt and are uncovering all kinds of fossils, everything from rabbit teeth to ground sloth ribs. A short walk to the excavation area makes for a thrilling lunch break! And after excavation, I get to share the thrill with citizen scientists and volunteers, who play an important role in evaluating the massive amounts of excavated material and readying it for direct application in research.

A volunteer excavating fossils!

A: What skills from your time at BU and in the Primack Lab do you use most now?
L: My time at BU, and specifically in the Primack Lab, prepared me well for the highly collaborative and cross-disciplinary research that I am currently undertaking. I regularly work with paleontologists, ecologists, educators, geologists, and citizen scientists, to name a few. My experiences at BU provided me with a solid foundation from which I feel comfortable learning about new areas of research, working with people from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, and collaboratively working towards a common goal.

A: We are very excited for your Terriers@Work twitter takeover! What will your main message be?

L: In the twitter takeover, I'll have a few related messages. I'll be tweeting about La Brea and the awesome research that takes place here. I'll also be providing information about our food webs project, the amazing researchers involved, and our plans for the work. And I'll be tweeting about the citizen science aspects of the work at La Brea. More broadly, I'll be encouraging people to take part in citizen science projects near them. Contributing to scientific research is a great way to be active and make a difference in your community. I'll be answering questions along the way, so please ask away!

To hear more from Libby Ellwood, and to ask her your questions, follow @TerriersAtWork on twitter to catch Libby's takeover, all day on September 12th!

Monday, August 28, 2017

National parks in China and the United States: Different paths to protection

Posted by Abe Miller-Rushing and Richard B. Primack

“Every town should have a park . . . where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.” -Thoreau in his Journal, 1859

You may have missed some big changes happening in conservation in China. While the international media focuses on China’s difficulties with pollution, the government is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in improving and expanding its system of national parks and other protected areas. This is a huge and welcome change for one of the world’s largest and most biodiverse countries.

Chinese authorities are investing in their protected areas in a characteristically Chinese manner—with big infrastructure investments, strong top-down control, and an emphasis on economic development. Will this approach be good for the conservation of biodiversity?

To answer that question, in a recent article in Biological Conservation, we compare the development of protected areas in China to their development in the United States, where the concept of national parks originated. We take a particularly close look at Wudalianchi National Nature Reserve in northeastern China and Acadia National Park in the northeastern United States. 

Wudalianchi National Park in China has a magical landscape of volcanoes and lakes

Despite the huge investments, a suite of obstacles make it difficult for protected areas to truly protect the natural resources within their boundaries in China. The situation is better, although not without problems, in the United States, which has a much longer history of creating and managing protected areas. Of most consequence, financial investments are insufficient to meet the needs for protected area science, management, and education in both China and in the United States. 

The Chinese government has undertaken massive economic development in the area, including tourist facilities and hotels

Both countries are, however, experimenting with techniques that could improve things. For example, in places the Chinese government is working to improve relationships with local communities through formal agreements with displaced people or cooperation among local, provincial, and national governments. The US government is using citizen science and volunteerism to engage new audiences.

Infrastructure includes an elaborate system of boardwalks around the rim of craters and across lava fields, allowing access for large numbers of tourists

In the end, we conclude that each country's approach to protected areas has strengths and weaknesses, but that the Chinese and US protected areas programs have structural deficiencies, particularly related to the allocation of funding, that undermine their ability to achieve their stated missions over the long term. We hope that both countries continue to work to improve their conservation programs and protect their rich natural resources.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Newton’s Lost Wetlands and Buried Brooks

Posted by Richard B. Primack


“As in many countries precious metals belong to the crown, so here natural objects of rare beauty should belong to the public.” -Thoreau in his Journal, 1861

Until about 120 years ago, Newton, MA, was filled with wet meadows, marshes, and swamps, connected by miles of brooks. Where did they go? In an article published June 7 in the Newton Tab, I explain how over the past two centuries, as Newton changed from farming to industry, and then to a Boston suburb, developers and town workers buried brooks in culverts or put them into channels. Wetlands were filled in and became the sites of playgrounds, schools, other public buildings, and residential neighborhoods. The forgotten brooks and wetlands of Newton are periodically remembered when basements, streets, and playgrounds become flooded after heavy rains. 


Modified 1892 drainage map showing the main brooks and associated wetlands, with the current position of some schools and village centers and the Newton Library. Map by Matt Rothendler.

Many New England towns are revisiting past decisions to bury and channelize brooks. Some towns are uncovering buried streams and removing the vertical walls of channels, allowing streams to re-integrate with wetlands. Restoring brooks to something closer to their original condition and adding natural vegetation could help clean the brook’s water, reduce flooding, provide natural water features, and improve the recreational value of playgrounds, parks, and neighborhoods. 


Cheesecake Brook appears wild and well-integrated with the surrounding forest along Fuller Street.

Returning brooks to their natural state is expensive in the short term, but in the long run the economic, environmental, and recreational benefits to the people and businesses of Newton might be worth it. After a long history of channelizing and burying brooks and filling in wetlands for development, Newton’s future could benefit from undoing some of its past. 

Cheesecake Brook is channelized and separated from natural habitat along Albemarle Road. 


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Leaf Longevity at the Arnold Arboretum

Posted by Linnea Smith and Sarah Pardo

Hi! We are two new members of the Primack lab: Linnea Smith (yes, like Carolus Linnaeus), an undergraduate at Boston University who’s joined the Primack lab for the summer with funding from the BU UROP program; and Sarah Pardo, a rising senior at BU Academy.

Linnea and Professor Primack doing fieldwork at the Arnold Arboretum

We are investigating how many years evergreen plants at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum retain their leaves, and why. Ecological theory suggests that a leaf stays on the branch, photosynthesizing, until it’s made a profit on the energy that went into making it. We want to determine if the amount of time a leaf remains on a plant is more influenced by the original environment in which the plants grow, or their evolutionary history.


Professor Primack and Sarah examining pine needles in the field

When tree branches begin growing in the spring, a scar is formed on each twig where bud growth had halted the previous winter. By counting the number of scars, we can determine the number of years of twig growth and leaf formation on a tree branch. For example, say a twig has leaves on seven scar-separated segments and no leaves on the eighth segment or beyond. This tells us that leaves stay on that twig for seven years. So far we have evaluated 173 species including conifers such as pines, firs, spruces and hemlocks and other evergreens like rhododendrons and hollies.


Showing seven years of growth on tiger tail spruce at Arnold Arboretum

We’ve both really enjoyed our work in the Primack lab so far and appreciate the warm welcome we’ve been given!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Old Plants, New Tricks: Phenological Research Using Herbarium Specimens

Posted by Amanda Gallinat

Herbarium specimens offer a unique opportunity to measure changes in plant phenology over broad time periods and geographic ranges. Many of the specimens currently housed in herbaria were collected in the 19th and 20th centuries, but in just the last decade there has been a huge increase in herbarium-based phenology research-- particularly addressing modern questions about how plants are responding to climate change.


Panchen et al., 2012 used herbarium specimens, combined with field notes and photographs, to show that 28 plant species in Pennsylvania are advancing their flowering over time.

Earlier this year, Richard Primack and I were co-authors on a review paper led by Charlie Willis entitled "Old Plants, New Tricks: Phenological Research Using Herbarium Specimens." The review, published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, provides a thorough assessment of how herbarium specimens have already been used in phenology research, with most studies focusing on flowering, in northern, temperate biomes. 


Willis et al. (2017) Figure 1, shows where previously published herbarium-based phenology studies have been located (studies are indicated with blue circles; the larger the circle, the more species sampled). The heat map shows the source of digitized specimens (available via the iDigBio portal), which included 1.8 million specimens as of February 2017! 

We also discuss the future of herbarium specimens, with a special focus on the widespread digitization efforts currently underway. Digitized specimens are already being used by researchers to access more specimens in more locations than they could visit in person, and to use citizen science efforts to identify phenological stages online. Lastly, we review the biases inherent in using herbarium specimens, from those that arise during collection, to digitization, to observation. 


CrowdCurio is a web-based platform for identifying phenological stages on digitized specimens. In this case, citizen scientists could identify buds, flowers, and fruits on a lowbush blueberry specimen.

For our part, we plan to continue using herbarium specimens--including digitized specimens--to improve our understanding of species-specific effects of climate change, in both spring and autumn!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Primack Lab in the News

Posted by Richard B. Primack

Here are a few recent pieces relating to Thoreau, climate change, and the Primack lab.




On July 12, Richard Primack was interviewed on National Public Radio for the program Morning Edition by Bob Oakes about research in Concord.



On June 28, Primack was interviewed on National Public Radio for the series Climate Change in Massachusetts by Carey Goldberg about the new program at the Cemetery using citizen scientists to monitor tree phenology. 




A picture of Primack taken by Sam Walker was a featured on the New York Times Learning Network. 510 people submitted comments on what Richard Primack was doing in the picture shown above. Most people thought he was mourning his dead wife. In fact he is recording the flowering time of bluets. The picture is staged as Primack always wears a hat in the field, and he never lies down when doing fieldwork, in part due to concerns about ticks.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Thoreau as a Scientist

Posted by Richard Primack

“Science is always brave, for to know, is to know good; doubt and danger quail before her eye.”
-Thoreau, in Excursions

Walden Pond has still many things to teach us about science and beauty

In the article Thoreau As Naturalist: A Conversation With Four Authors from the July-August issue of American Scientist, Dianne Timblin interviews four authors, including myself (author of Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods), on the importance of Thoreau as a scientist and naturalist. The other authors are:

Richard Higgins, author of Thoreau and the Language of
 Trees

Geologist Robert M. Thorson, who recently wrote Thoreau, The Boatman

Laura Dassow
 Walls, author of the new book Henry 
David Thoreau: A Life

A key theme of the article is that Thoreau clearly wrote about the connections between science and larger social, political, and intellectual subjects. His views remain highly relevant to important issues facing modern society such as human health, sustainable development, environmental protection, and climate change.


Richard Primack and group of BU freshmen discuss the importance of Thoreau to climate change research

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Should you be using a professional editor?

Posted by Richard Primack

“Improve every opportunity to express yourself in writing as if it were your last.”
-Thoreau in his Journal, December 17, 1851

What are the secrets or best practices to achieving balance between work and family life? A recent news article in Nature, “Workplace habits: Full-time is full enough,” quotes several scientists describing their strategies. For many scientists achieving work-life balance means getting as much work done as possible in 40 hours per week, and devoting the rest of the time to family and personal life.

In the Nature article, I am quoted saying that I hire professional editors to help me work more efficiently in my position as a professor, textbook writer and editor. My comment inspired a post at the Dynamic Ecology blog, in which Meghan Duffy asks, “Have you ever used a professional editor for a proposal or manuscript?” In a follow-up article, I share my experiences in working with professional editors, and I summarize some key points here: Got a professional editor?


In this staged photo, Primack relaxes with the family dog, while a professional editor polishes a paper

I often hire professional editors on a freelance basis to help me write scientific papers, grant proposals, chapters of my conservation biology textbooks, professional correspondence, popular articles, press releases, and oral presentations. Hiring an editor often makes the difference between meeting or missing deadlines, or handing in sloppy work or well-written papers.

In my experience the best editors are advanced graduate students, post-docs, and early-career researchers working outside of tenure-track faculty positions. They are often excellent writers who want to make some extra money.

The amount of time needed by an editor depends on the document length, how much work the document needs, and the editor’s speed. Most recently, a professional editor spent 10 hours helping me on a grant proposal, 2 hours on an editorial for Biological Conservation, and 4 hours on a research article.

Working with editors can especially help scientists for whom writing is not a strength (including those for whom English is not their first language).

I think that working with a professional scientific editor can help many people in improving the chances of a grant being funded or a paper being accepted for publication.

Monday, June 12, 2017

My #DDIGstory

Posted by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

Recently the National Science Foundation announced that the Division of Environmental Biology will no longer accept Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG) proposals, citing “increasing workload” and “changes in priorities.” DDIGs are relatively small grants (up to $13,000 in direct costs when I applied in 2014) with outsized impacts on the graduate student community: just read through the swell of #DDIGstory tweets that followed NSF’s announcement. 

My dissertation research was shaped and improved by a DDIG. The process of writing a DDIG proposal — developing the story around my hypotheses and research methods, creating a budget, working with the Research and Outreach office at Boston University —was a transformative experience. Applying for a DDIG introduced me to the inner workings of NSF proposals, revealing the process of navigating overhead and fringe benefits and planning a multi-year project. Just submitting my DDIG application felt like a major accomplishment, on par with passing qualifying exams. When I celebrated that fall, I did not realize that another notable life milestone would intersect with my DDIG.


Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie in the field at Acadia National Park

My DDIG memories are intertwined with my experience as a new parent. At my March 2015 committee meeting I announced two items of good news: I’m pregnant and my DDIG is funded! The DDIG provided my own source of support for two field seasons in Acadia National Park and allowed me to hire two wonderful undergraduate field assistants that April. Mentoring these students and teaching field methods was an invaluable experience, and though I was healthy and hiking all the way through the field season/second trimester, it was reassuring to know that my assistants were ready to pick up the slack if I needed a break. With DDIG funds, I traveled to the Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting that August to present a research talk. I was 34 weeks pregnant and my DDIG-supported conference-adjacent, air-conditioned hotel room was a perfect home base. 

The DDIG provided a kind of force field for me against the misogynist baggage that invariably strikes a pregnant grad student; it deflected questions about my commitment to a career in science or my ability to complete my dissertation. On a practical level, I had financial independence to do the fieldwork and present my research. But it was also a symbolic win, a sign that I was a serious scientist, regardless of the elastic waistband in my maternity field pants. Later, as I struggled through the haze of diapers, pediatrician appointments, sitz baths, and 3 am feedings, I could look forward to the second half of my DDIG fieldwork. The concrete plans built around my DDIG smoothed my transition from maternity leave: I returned to the field and accelerated through my last year of grad school. 

My DIGG is directly responsible for two chapters of my dissertation, two manuscripts currently ready for submission, and an unshakable confidence in my research and my ability to balance work and life, science and parenthood. I don’t think there is another fellowship or grant opportunity for ecology graduate students with the gravitas, the opportunity to engage in the full process of grant-writing, or the prestige of a DDIG. My career and my life would certainly not be the same without it. Eliminating this program is a serious error that the NSF should reconsider.