How to run a successful science blog

I have been running my blog Avian Hybrids for a couple of years now. This blog has grown over the years, attracting a loyal readership and getting some attention from scientists and bloggers. In my humble opinion, it has become a successful science blog. Or to rephrase it, I am happy with the current status of the blog. In this blog post, I would like to share my ideas and experiences on how to run a successful science blog (i.e. a blog that makes you feel satisfied).

 

1. Don’t do it for the clicks

There are many (science) blogs out there. The competition for ‘clicks’ is fierce. If you want to create a blog to attract visitors, you can start writing about food, fashion or celebrities. To me, this feels like selling your soul to the devil. It is okay to write mindless posts about your favorite pasta dish, but will you feel satisfied with this?

I once wrote a blog post on how spoonbills manage to eat big frogs (they actually break their limbs one by one). I posted this article – with the catchy title “Break a Leg” – on Reddit. The result: more than 700 views in one day! But somehow I did not feel satisfied. Most readers just glanced over the article without really being interested. My goal is to teach people something new, not to support them in their procrastination.

clickbait

 

2. Find your niche

As I wrote above, there are many science blogs. There is a lot of information on the internet. If you want to stand out from the crowd, you will have to find your own niche. For example, there are so many blogs on evolution. My first blog – Evolutionary Stories – could not compete with the more established ones.

Luckily, I managed to find my audience with my blog on hybridization in birds. To my knowledge, I am the only person blogging about the scientific papers on avian hybrids. There is another blog – Bird Hybrids – that focuses on how to recognize certain hybrids, but we cover different topics and that blog is not so active (last post is from 8 May 2017).

'See, Baldwin? It's all about finding your niche.'

 

3. Content, content, content

If you want to establish your blog, you will need to create a lot of content. This will be very difficult in the beginning. You will write several blog posts, only to see that nobody is reading them. My advice here: keep writing. Eventually, people will find your blog and start reading it on a regular basis. Some of my earliest posts are still being read to this day. For example, my first blog post on Avian Hybrids (in 2014) – Thrush Migration and Speciation – has attracted four readers this year. Not much, but it’s better than nothing.

Another benefit from a lot of content is that you can refer to previous blog posts in your writing. I always to try to add links to related posts so interested readers can click and check out older stories. Make sure that a new window pops up when readers click on your link. You don’t want them to get lost while browsing through your blogging history.

type_fast

 

4. Sharing is caring

Just writing a lot of posts won’t attract a lot of readers. You will also need to actively advertise your blog. The best way to do this is through social media. Share your posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, … Again, in the beginning, this might not attract many readers. But keep sharing!

In addition to social media, I also contact the authors of the papers I blog about. I have only received positive reactions when doing this. Scientists feel proud when their work is picked up by other people. They appreciate the effort and often send you other papers to blog about. Not only will you attract new readers, you are also expanding your network.

social media

 

5. Write positive

My final tip is more personal. During my years in the blogosphere, I have noticed that I prefer to add a positive vibe to my writing. It is easy to write critical posts about how someone else is wrong. For instance, I used to regularly write articles about the flawed arguments of creationists. They often misrepresent evolutionary biology and spread lies. But attacking creationists did not make me feel satisfied . The negative tone of the posts bothered me (and there were other issues, you can read about that here). So, I decided to focus on positive things, namely the latest findings in research on avian hybrids.

So…I wrote a fantasy book

I sat down behind my laptop and looked out the window. It was dark outside. “Just fifteen minutes,” I told myself. I started the timer on my cellphone and let my fingers brush over the keyboard. At first, the words came out slowly, but after a few minutes the sentences were almost magically appearing on my screen. I drifted off, totally immersed in the developing story. Suddenly, my writing flow was broken by an annoying beeping sound. My cellphone was vibrating. The fifteen minutes were over. I put my cellphone aside and continued typing. About an hour later, I closed my laptop. 

This short story describes one of my successful writing sessions. Getting into the zone and producing several paragraphs. Unfortunately, not every evening went this smoothly. There were times when I barely filled the fifteen minutes with writing. But if you want to write a book, you cannot wait for inspiration to strike. Flashes of real inspiration are rare. So, I forced myself to write for at least fifteen minutes every evening. It paid off. I finished my first fantasy novel a few months ago: The Dragon with the Blue Scale.

de draak met de blauwe schub

The cover of my fantasy book.

 

Why?

Why did I want to write a book? It felt like to logical thing to do. A large part of my time involves writing. For my work –  as a postdoctoral researcher – I write technical papers on the evolution of birds. In my free time, I write blog posts about bird hybrids. And occasionally, I contribute to the Dutch popular science website Scientias.

I have always dreamed about writing a book. It seems like the ultimate goal for a writer. So, I didn’t think about it too much and just started writing. The main story for my book has been in my head for some years. It was just a matter of putting it on paper.

 

What?

What is the book about? It is difficult to describe because it contains several disparate elements. You could describe it as a detective story in a fantasy world with some elements from science fiction. Hopefully, the synopsis will bring some clarity.

On the planet Hodra, dragons and people live peacefully together. But the quiet society is shaken up by a series of kidnappings. Several children disappear without any trace of the culprit. Detective Charlie has almost given up until someone sees a dragon flying away with a child in its claws. The dragon is pitch black with a striking blue scale. The intense search of Charlie – assisted by the clumsy trainee Freddie – suddenly becomes even more difficult, when a civil war breaks out on Hodra and General Oana commits a military coup.

What follows is an action-packed adventure in which several characters travel across Hodra – and even to other planets – to solve this mystery.

 

And now?

The book will be published this year (in April or May) by Beefcake Publishing. This publisher works with crowdfunding: the more money we collect, the more books will be published. The crowdfunding is also reward-based, meaning that you get something in return. For a contribution of 20 euros, for example, you will get a copy of my book. If you donate 50 euros, you get two extra books from the publisher.

The only issue for my international friends is that the book is written in Dutch. Perhaps there will be an English version some day. I can imagine you don’t want to buy a book you cannot read, but perhaps you have some Dutch friends or you just want to support my book project. All support is welcome.

Here is the link to the crowdfunding:

https://crowdfunding.beefcakepublishing.be/product/de-draak-met-de-blauwe-schub/

 

New publication! A review paper on hybrid speciation in birds

Last week, I published my first single-author paper in a peer-reviewed journal. In the paper, entitled “Exploring the hybrid speciation continuum in birds”, I review the evidence for several hybrid bird species and propose a new way of classifying hybrid species. Here is the abstract.

Hybridization is increasingly recognized as a creative evolutionary force contributing to adaptation and speciation. Homoploid hybrid speciation—the process in which hybridization results in a stable, fertile, and reproductively isolated hybrid lineage where there is no change in ploidy—has been documented in several taxa. Hybridization can directly contribute to reproductive isolation or reinforce it at a later stage. Alternatively, hybridization might not be related to the evolution of reproductive isolation. To account for these different scenarios, I propose to discriminate between two types of hybrid speciation: type I where reproductive isolation is a direct consequence of hybridization and type II where it is the by‐product of other processes. I illustrate the applicability of this classification scheme with avian examples. To my knowledge, seven hybrid bird species have been proposed: Italian sparrow, Audubon’s warbler, Genovesa mockingbird, Hawaiian duck, red‐breasted goose, golden‐crowned manakin, and a recent lineage of Darwin’s finches on the island of Daphne Major (“Big Bird”). All studies provide convincing evidence for hybridization, but do not always confidently discriminate between scenarios of hybrid speciation and recurrent introgressive hybridization. The build‐up of reproductive isolation between the hybrid species and their parental taxa is mainly driven by premating isolation mechanisms and comparable to classical speciation events. One hybrid species can be classified as type I (“Big Bird”) while three species constitute type II hybrid species (Italian sparrow, Audubon’s warbler, and golden‐crowned manakin). The diversity in hybrid bird species across a range of divergence times also provides an excellent opportunity to study the evolution of hybrid genomes in terms of genome stabilization and adaptation.

 

Link to the paper: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ece3.4558

My blog post about it: https://avianhybrids.wordpress.com/2018/12/07/how-many-hybrid-bird-species-are-there/

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Red-breasted goose, a hybrid species?

 

How to be a prolific writer? Try the Asimov Approach

September started. The summer break is over. Soon my weekly schedule will be filled with lab meetings, journal clubs and seminars. During July and August I have taken advantage of my empty agenda to focus on writing. Here is a quick overview of the output: 25 blog posts for the Avian Hybrids Project, 5 pieces for the Dutch popular science website Scientias and two submitted manuscripts (one has been accepted, the other is currently in review). And I finished another creative writing project on the side. Not a bad summer…

 

Asimov – A Prolific Writer

I managed to produce so much content by following the writing approach of Isaac Asimov. This American author and professor of biochemistry is the textbook example of a prolific writer. He wrote and edited more than 500 books, and he published in nine of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification. Science fiction fans probably know him for the Foundation series and the Robot series. An impressive body of work.

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Isaac Asimov – a prolific writer

 

A Foundation for Productive Writing

How did Asimov manage to write so much? Here are three reasons:

  1. Write every day, also if you don’t feel like it. Asimov believed there was no such thing as writer’s block. His father had a candy store in Brooklyn and opened his doors at 6 am every day. And he never complained about ‘shop keeper’s block.’
  2. Use a simple (but clear) writing style. When Writer’s Digest asked Asimov the secret to his prolific writing, he replied, “I guess I’m prolific because I have a simple and straightforward style.”
  3. Don’t care about your critics. You can keep editing your text, but at some point you will have to publish it (or submit it to a journal). There will always be people to comment on your work. Don’t think about the criticism too much and just get it out there.

These three writing tips have definitely contributed to my summer output. This does, however, not mean that they will work for you. But do give them a try, you never know…

Embracing Diversity – Academia and the Refugee Crisis

In my home country Belgium – like the rest of Europe – there is currently a big debate on giving shelter to refugees. The biggest political party in Belgium, the NVA, is advocating a policy to close the borders and evict illegal immigrants. Refugees are not seen as human beings. They are supposedly threatening ‘Belgian culture.’

However, in the entire discourse nobody has ever defined ‘Belgian culture.’ Are these refugees going to take away our fries and Belgian waffles? Or are they planning to overthrow our Christian values (although the majority of Belgians – understandably – does not attend church services any more)? In my mind, Belgian culture is a social construct. You happen to be born within the artificial borders of one of the smallest countries in the world.

Politicians are creating an unrealistic straw man of refugees: uneducated criminals that come here to take over our culture and steal our jobs. Every society has criminals. Some refugees might have a criminal record, but the same holds true for many Belgians. But does this mean that you have to close the borders for all refugees?

Working in academia exposes you to many different cultures. Over the years, I have worked with people from numerous countries (see the list below) and from different religions and ideologies. When talking with someone, we would always find some common interest. It makes you realize that they are all interesting people regardless of where they come from. I urge the politicians to talk with refugees and see them for what they really are: fellow human beings.

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My current research group with people from Belgium, Latvia, United States, Sweden, Poland, Austria, China and Iran.

 

The List of Nationalities

  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Bolivia
  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • China
  • Colombia
  • Costa Rica
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Ecuador
  • Egypt
  • Ethopia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Ghana
  • Guatemala
  • Hungary
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Iran
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Kenya
  • Latvia
  • Mexico
  • Nepal
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Panama
  • Peru
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Russia
  • South Africa
  • South Korea
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Tanzania
  • Turkey
  • United States
  • Uruguay

 

Why I Write…

Many scientists do not like writing. They enjoy doing fieldwork or fiddling around in the lab, but they dreadfully await the day when they have to start writing. I actually enjoy writing. And I try to do it as often as possible (whether it is for my blogs or for a paper). Here are the main reasons why I write.

I just enjoy writing. Plain and simple.

Writing helps me to understand often complex concepts. By writing it out for other people, I am also teaching myself about the subject. In some respect, I am applying the Feynman Technique.

Sharing knowledge with the general public is an important part of being a scientist. However, most scientists rely on journalists to inform the public. Although there are many good science journalists out there, they can make mistakes. You are the expert in your field, so write about it.

Writing also helps me build a scientific network. I often share my blogposts with the authors of the paper I wrote about (by mail or Twitter). It’s a nice way to introduce yourself to the scientific community and get into touch with “the big names”. For example, when I started my new job in Uppsala, someone asked me: “Are you the guy behind the website about bird hybrids?”

The scientific publishing process is glacially slow. It takes some time to write the paper, taking into the account the comments and wishes of your co-authors. Once submitted to a journal, it can take several months before it gets accepted (if it gets accepted). I don’t have the patience to wait for this. That is why I like to write blogposts or short article for the Dutch website Scientias. You write and it quickly appears online. Instant gratification!

By writing a lot, I also improve my writing (at least, I hope so). So, here I can give you some very simple and straightforward advice: if you want to improve your writing, just write…

Why do you write? Or why do you hate writing? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section below.

writing

How I (try to) get things done

What is the best way to achieve your goals? There are numerous books, websites and Youtube videos dedicated to this question, but in the end it is something personal. My advice would be to try out different things and see what works for you. Over the years, that is exactly what I did. Here is a brief insight into my strategy.

 

1. Don’t try to remember things

How often does is happen that something pops up in your head: “I should water the plants” or “I need to respond to that e-mail.” The moment those thoughts fly by, you decide to remember to do it later. And what happens: you forget…

To avoid this from happening, I follow the advice of Daniel J. Levitin in his book The Organized Mindwrite it down! Our minds are constantly being bombarded with information. So, we need to keep our mind clear. To get rid of all the excess information, I use the software Wunderlist. Every time something comes to my mind, I write it down in this app (which I have on my phone and my computer).

I actually used this strategy before, but I kept forgetting to look at the list of things to do. And I could not add “look at the list” to my to-do-list, because well… Therefore, I have made Wunderlist the homepage on my internet browser. The first things that pops up is my to do list!

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Wunderlist: a great app to keep a to do list.

 

2. Keep track of your progress

When you are doing research, you are constantly juggling several projects at a time. In my case, I am currently dividing my time over these subjects:

  • Finishing my project at the Karolinska Institutet
  • Starting a new project at Uppsala University
  • Managing my blog Avian Hybrids
  • Popular Science writing (mostly for Scientias)

You can image that it can be difficult to keep track of all these different projects. To have an overview, I use the app Trello, which allows you to make ‘boards’ for different projects. The nice thing is that you can subdivide tasks within each project into sizable chunks so you don’t get overwhelmed by the work ahead of you. Below is a screenshot of Trello.

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Trello: keep track of your projects.

 

3. Have a plan for the day

Did you ever arrive at work not knowing what to do, although you have mountain of work waiting for you? So, you start checking Facebook and Twitter instead. To avoid procrastinating (also see number 4), make sure you have a plan for the day. Ideally, you write it down the day before.

I use the two apps mentioned above (Wunderlist and Trello) to get an idea of what needs to be done. Which tasks are urgent? Or quick? Do I have a deadline for a certain project? Based on urgency, priority and time, I make a plan for the day. And then: just do it!

If you need some extra motivation, just watch this video…

 

4. Avoid distractions

When things get difficult or boring, your mind tends to wander off. Before you know it, you are surfing the internet. Scrolling through Facebook. Watching cat videos. Or reading random news websites. It also happened to me. Unconsciously, I would open my browser and start exploring the internet. To avoid this from happening, I use a website blocker, preventing me visiting certain websites. Very effective!

 

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I hope these tips are useful. But remember, some of these things might not work for you. Just give it a try and find your best strategy to get things done!

Scientific Publishing: Failure is also an option

Yesterday I recieved the confirmation that my manuscript for the Dutch journal Limosa will be sent to the editor for the final touch. Four years ago, I tried to publish a similar paper in the same journal, but it got rejected (and rightfully so!). Looking through my old mails, I discovered many more rejections. Most people only see the published papers and don’t know about the several rejections and revisions leading up to the final publication. So, I will give an overview of my rejected manuscripts during my PhD. My published papers are highlighted in bold:

  • Patterns of hybridization in geese (Wildfowl, 2013)
  • The generic concept in ornithology: Monophyly and introgressive hybridization as criteria (Ibis, 2013)
  • A generic classification of Anatidae (ducks, geese and swans) based on monophyly and introgressive hybridization (The Auk, 2013)
  • Hybrid geese in the Netherlands (Limosa, 2013)
  • Hybridization to distinguish between natural and anthropogenic hybridization between goose species (Ardea, 2013)
  • A generic classification of Anatidae (ducks, geese and swans) based on monophyly and introgressive hybridization (Journal of Ornithology, 2013)
  • Hybridization in birds: an update (Science, 2015)
  • The Avian Hybrids Project: gathering the scientific literature on avian hybridization (Ibis, 2015)
  • A Modern Synthesis of Avian Hybrids Zones and Patterns of Introgression (Biological Reviews, 2016)
  • Hybridization in Geese: A Review (Frontiers in Zoology, 2016)
  • A Tree of Geese: A Phylogenomic Perspective on the Evolutionary History of True Geese (Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 2016)
  • A Modern Synthesis of Avian Hybrids Zones and Patterns of Introgression (BMC Biology, 2016)
  • Birds in a Bush: Towards an Avian Phylogenetic Network (The Auk, 2016)
  • A Modern Synthesis of Avian Hybrids Zones and Patterns of Introgression (Journal of Avian Biology, 2016)
  • A History of Hybrids: Genomic Patterns of Introgression in the True Geese (Evolution, 2016 – cascaded down to Ecology and Evolution)
  • A History of Hybrids? Genomic Patterns of Introgression in the True Geese (BMC Evolutionary Biology, 2017)
  • Avian Introgression in the Genomic Era (Avian Research, 2017)

 

As you can see, I suffered many rejections before publishing my first paper in Ibis. All my publishing attempts in 2013 – with a manuscript on the use of hybridization in taxonomy – can be seen as a wild goose chase. The idea was interesting but not feasible (I now realize). However, my fruitless attempts introduced me to the peer-review system of plublishing and helped me improve my scientific writing skills.

In 2016, I published several papers in quick succession. There was, however, one big manuscript that kept haunting me. A long review on avian hybrid zones and introgressive hybridization was rejected three times (Biological Reviews, BMC Biology and Journal of Avian Biology). The rejections were mainly due to the summarizing nature of this manuscript. The reviewers wanted to see more future directions. So, this year, I decided to shorten the paper and focus on the use of genomic tools. This manuscript – Avian Introgression in the Genomic Era – was published recently in Avian Research. A lesson in pragmatism.

This overview of failures nicely illustrates that scientific publishing is not easy, but that you can learn how to increase your chances of getting a paper accepted. As Winston Churchill said: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

 

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A Trilogy of Goose Papers

With the publication of ‘A History of Hybrids? Genomic Patterns of Introgression in the True Geese’ in BMC Evolutionary Biology, the three goose papers from my PhD thesis have made it into scientific journals. The trilogy is complete, but the story continues…

During my PhD, I studied the evolutionary history of the True Geese. This bird group contains about 17 species (depending on which authority you follow) and is traditionally divided into two genera: Anser and Branta. At the start of my PhD, I was surprised to find out that the phylogeny (i.e. evolutionary tree) of the geese was still unresolved. The failure to resolve the relationships between these bird species is probably due to high levels of hybridization. My goal was to solve this phylogenetic conundrum and further explore the influence of hybridization during the evolutionary history of the True Geese.

 

Part 1: Goose Hybrids

Although the main focus of my research was to quantify the effects of hybridization on an evolutionary timescale, I wanted to know the current state of events. How often do birders see hybrid geese? Which species are interbreeding? Are these hybrids fertile? And why does a goose choose a partner of another species? These questions formed the basis for part one of the goose trilogy. This first story was published in Frontiers in Zoology, entitled ‘Hybridization in Geese: A Review’.

It turns out that the majority of goose species have interbred at some point (in captivity or in the wild). Hybrids are thus common on a species-level, but rare on a per-individual level. The origin of particular goose hybrids is difficult to deduce but several mechanisms, such as interspecific nest parasitism and extra-pair copulations, are possible. The different mechanisms are not mutually exclusive and it is currently not possible to discriminate between these mechanisms without quantitative data.

Most hybrid geese are fertile; only in crosses between distantly related species do female hybrids become sterile. This fertility pattern, which is in line with Haldane’s Rule, may facilitate interspecific gene flow between closely related species. This finding is important for the other stories in the goose trilogy.

nest parasitism

 

Part 2: A Tree of Geese

Before I could investigate the role of hybridization in goose evolution, I needed a proper phylogenetic framework. The construction of this framework was the focus of my second story, which was published in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution under the title ‘A Tree of Geese: A Phylogenomic Perspective on the Evolutionary History of True Geese‘.

For this study, I collected blood samples from all goose species. Sequencing the whole genome of these species provided me with a huge amount of data to resolve the phylogenetic tree of this bird group. I won’t bother you with the technical details (e.g., we opted for an exon-based approach with both concatenation and consensus analyses). Let’s jump straight to the main results!

The split between Anser and Branta was already well-established, but the relationships within these genera were contentious. Using whole genome data, I was able to resolve the phylogenetic relationships between the different goose species.

Within the genus Branta (commonly referred to as the Black Geese) there is a group of White-cheeked Geese – Canada Goose (B. canadensis), Cackling Goose (B. hutchinsii), Barnacle Goose (B. leucopsis) and Hawaiian Goose (B. sandvicensis) – and two basal splits – leading to Brent Goose (B. bernicla) and Red-breasted Goose (B. ruficollis).

In the genus Anser, the most basal split leads to the morphologically divergent Bar-headed Goose (A. indicus). Next, two main groups can be recognised: the White Geese – Snow Goose (A. caerulescens), Ross’ Goose (A. rossii) and Emperor Goose (A. canagicus) – and the Grey Geese – Greylag Goose (A. anser), Swan Goose (A. cygnoides), the White-fronted Geese (A. albifrons and A. erythropus) and the Bean Goose complex (A. fabalis, A. serrirostris and A. brachyrhynchus).

A molecular clock analysis indicated that the majority of speciation events took place at the end of the Pliocene. The approximate date of diversification coincides with the beginning of a period of climatic oscillations between 3.2 and 1.9 million years ago. This period was part of a fast global cooling trend, following the closure of the Panama Seaway and the uplifting of the Tibetan Plateau around four million years ago. This resulted in the formation of permanent Northern Hemisphere ice sheets, the establishment of a circumpolar tundra belt and the emergence of temperate grasslands, which opened up new ecological niches in which new groups of animals and plants were able to spread. The tundra habitat serves as breeding ground for geese, while the temperate grasslands act as wintering grounds where mate choice takes place. Moreover, these tundra and grassland habitats provided ample opportunity for geese to explore new ecological niches and diversify in beak morphology.

A Tree of Geese

More importantly, the comparison of different gene trees revealed that different genes tell different stories. This observation, called gene tree discordance, can be caused by rapid speciation (leading to a phenomenon known as incomplete lineage sorting or ILS) and hybridization. Disentangling the contributions of ILS and hybridization is the focus of the third story.

 

Part 3: A History of Hybrids

And so we arrive at the final story in this trilogy where I explored the role of hybridization during the evolutionary history of the True Geese. As mentioned in the introduction, this story was published in BMC Evolutionary Biology, entitled ‘A History of Hybrids? Genomic Patterns of Introgression in the True Geese‘.

I found indications for ancient gene flow during the diversification of the True Geese and I was able to pinpoint several putative hybridization events. Specifically, in the genus Branta, both the ancestor of the White-cheeked Geese (Hawaiian Goose, Canada Goose, Cackling Goose and Barnacle Goose) and the ancestor of the Brent Goose hybridized with Red-breasted Goose.

The reconstruction of historical effective population sizes shows that most species experienced a steady increase during the Pliocene and Pleistocene (in agreement with the conclusions from story 2). These large effective population sizes might have facilitated contact between diverging goose species, resulting in the establishment of hybrid zones and consequent gene flow.

I can definitely conclude that the evolution of goose species follows a complex speciation model high levels of gene flow during species diversification. Unfortunately, I did not have the data to determine whether this gene flow is the outcome of (repeated) secondary contact or divergence-with-gene-flow. This warrants a population genomic approach whereby multiple individuals of one population are sequenced. In fact, this is exactly what I plan to do during my postdoc with Hans Ellegren at Uppsala University.

To be continued…

Goose Demography.jpg

 

Apart from the goose trilogy, I explored avian hybridization in general, culminating in two papers (and a third one on the way). These were published in the ornithological journals Ibis and The Auk.

Dr. Jente Ottenburghs

This post has been taken from my other blog: Evolutionary Stories

After more than four years of hard work, I finally obtained my PhD. On December 8th 2016 at 11.00 am, I successfully defended my thesis, entitled Crossing species Boundaries: the Hybrid Histories of the True Geese. The thesis committee rated my thesis as ‘very good’ and my defense as ‘excellent’. After that day, I escaped to the UK for a well-deserved holiday (although I assisted my girlfriend in some lab work). Now, back on the European mainland, I am ready to reflect on one of the most memorable days in my life.

The layman’s talk

I arrived in the Aula of Wageningen University around 10.00 am to prepare for my defense. After setting up the Powerpoint presentation for my layman’s talk and getting into my fancy suit, the first guests arrived: my family. My parents stayed in a local B&B (my former room) and walked to the Aula, while my sister and her boyfriend transported my two grandmothers from Belgium. They all entered together, some of them more nervous than me.

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The family arrives at the Aula

While the other guests were arriving, I retreated to the ‘small auditorium’ where I was joined by my two paranymphs: Shenglai Yin and Yingying Wang (my two Chinese office mates). The presence of paranymphs is a tradition at certain Dutch universities. Wikipedia has the following to say about this custom:

In the Netherlands, paranymphs (paranimfen) can be present at the doctoral thesis defence. This ritual originates from the ancient concept where obtaining a doctorate was seen as a de facto marriage to the university. Furthermore the paranymphs would also act as a backup for the doctoral candidate to ask for advice when answering questions. Today their role is symbolic and seen as a position of honour similar to a best man or woman at a wedding.

A couple of minutes before the start of the defense, the ‘pedel’ entered the room to explain the ceremony to us. Then, just before the clock hit 11.00 am, she guided us to the Aula.

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The pedel explaining the ceremony to me (on the right) and my paranymphs

Once the audience settled down, I started my layman’s talk. The idea of this presentation is to present your PhD thesis (more than four years of work!) in about 14 minutes. Everyone should be able to understand it. I based this talk on my experiences at ScienceBattle, a Dutch theater show in which four PhD students try to convince the audience about their research. I managed to win this event a couple of times (being rewarded with a wooden plaque of the ScienceBattle logo and a brain in a jar. What more can you wish for?), so I was quite confident that laymen would be able to understand it.

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The layman’s talk

The Defense

After the layman’s talk, the thesis committee entered, preceded by the pedel. They took their seats and prof. dr. Carolien Kroeze, representing the rector magnificus, opened the ceremony with a firm bang of her hammer. Then it was time for the opponents to attack my work and fire question after question on me. I cannot remember all the questions, but let me give you a brief overview.

Prof. dr. Bas Zwaan, professor of genetics at Wageningen University, was the first to challenge me. He mainly focused on several concepts in the study of speciation, such as genomic islands and Dobzhansky-Muller incompatibilities, and how they relate to the geese.

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Prof. dr. Bas Zwaan (Wageningen University)

Second, dr. Pim Arntzen (senior researcher at Naturalis Biodiversity Center) took the floor. Among other things, he asked me about the evidence for a hybrid origin of the Red-breasted Goose. And he wanted me to elaborate on one of my propositions, namely ‘Coffee breaks lead to more important insights than conferences and workshops.’

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dr. Pim Arntzen (Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden)

The next one in line was prof. dr. Bart Nolet from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology. He mainly focused on the behavioral mechanisms leading to hybridization. He also gave me a figure of the distribution of Canada Goose subspecies with the question: what is going on here? Subspecies in the north are smaller, probably because of natural selection for shorter extremeties (a phenomenon known as Allen’s Rule).

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prof. dr. Bart Nolet (Netherlands Institute of Ecology, Wageningen)

Another member of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, dr. Kees van Oers, was given the opportunity to question me. This opponent deserves a special mention. Originally, the fourth member of my examining committee was dr. Radka Reifova from the university of Prague. Unfortunately, she could not make it to Wageningen. Because she cancelled just one week before my defense, we had to rush to find another opponent. Only one day before the defense dr. Kees van Oers agreed to fill in. Thank you very much, highly esteemed opponent! Much to my delight, he started with a philosophical question: ‘What is a species?’ We had a lively discussion on this topic.

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dr. Kees van Oers (Netherlands Institute of Ecology)

My co-promotor, dr. Hendrik-Jan Megens, concluded the interrogation with some questions related to my upcoming postdoc in Uppsala. After 45 minutes, the pedel entered again and hit the ground with her stick. ‘Hora est!’ The committee withdrew for consultation and I just had to wait and see.

About 15 minutes later, the committee returned. I was invited to sign my degree. A very memorable moment (and a mandatory picture moment). Afterwards, my promotor, Ron Ydenberg, delivered the judicium and the laudatio. The verdict from the committee: my thesis was ‘very good’ and my defense was ‘excellent.’ With a big smile on my face and the degree in my hands, I walked out of the Aula.

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Signing my degree

Following the defense, all the guests had the opportunity to congratulate me and enjoy a lunch at the reception. After shaking many hands and receiving several presents, I finally made my way to the table with sandwiches, only to find out that the selection had been narrowed down to ‘krentenbollen’.

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Group picture of my thesis committee and supervising team at the reception.

The Party

In the evening, I invited my family and friends to H41, a cosy restaurant in downtown Wageningen. After several beers, it was time for speeches. Shenglai Yin opened the floor with a nice stand-up comedy routine. Then Sip van Wieren, Herbert Prins and Hendrik-Jan Megens took the microphone. I will not repeat their speeches here, but to summarize: Sip elaborated on our plans to work on goose penises, Herbert described my encounter with a Russian lady in Siberia, and Hendrik-Jan talked about my stubborn character.

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Sip ending his speech

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Herbert doing what his does best: talking

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Hendrik-Jan giving his speech

In the end, I got back at all my supervisors and thanked them with a special present: six decoy geese (the ones hunters use to lure geese).

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My supervising team and their geese

The party continued. Finally, everyone went home, including me. The next day, I woke up quite early. Staring at the ceiling, I realized that I was now a doctor. Although I did not feel different. I was still (and will be) just Jente.

Thank you all for sharing this memorable day with me. And a special thanks to Audrie for taking pictures.