Ecology meets immunology at the biggest insect conference in the world

In late September, as the UK was enjoying the last vestiges of summer I was lucky enough to head to Orlando in Florida where the 25th International Congress of Entomology was being held under the banner of “Entomology without borders”. This year, Orlando welcomed over 7000 delegates working in all areas of entomology; the largest gathering of entomologists at any one time – as far as we know! I first attended this enormous event, held every 4 years, as a young PhD student in 2000, in the beautiful city of Iguassu Falls in southern Brazil. I have been able to attend 3 of the 4 subsequent meetings, and co-hosted a session on Ecological immunology of Insects in each one, first in Brisbane, Australia (2004), then in Durban, South Africa (2008), and finally in Orlando. Much as I would like to have a clean sweep, maternity leave put paid to my plans to attend the 2012 meeting in Seoul, South Korea.

cotter-blog-post-fig-1

The number of hits for the terms “ecological immunology” or “eco-immunology” in Web of Science from 2000 to 2015. The red dots represent the percentage of papers with the word “ecology” that also used the word “immunology”.

Ecological immunology aims to understand how ecological pressures have shaped the evolution and expression of the immune system.  In 2000, this was a very new concept that was just gaining ground in the ecological literature. Over the last 16 years this has grown into an established field. A quick search on Web of Science for the terms “Ecological immunology” or “Eco-immunology” shows a steady increase in publications over time. Of course, this does not find all of the papers in the field of eco-immunology, just those that specifically use that term, but it is indicative of how the field has rapidly grown. Continue reading

The role of ecology in managing vector-borne diseases: Zika and beyond

fenton-aThe recent re-emergence and spread of the Zika virus, coupled with the link to a surge in microcephaly cases, has gripped the attention of the global health community, the general public, and professional golfers alike.  Of course Zika isn’t new – it was first discovered in 1947 – however the scale of the outbreak in 2015 was unprecedented.  Given that there are currently no effective vaccines or medicines against Zika, suggested management efforts have mainly focussed on vector control (e.g. through traditional insecticides, the use of microbes to control pathogens, or genetic manipulation or selective breeding of mosquitoes to reduce vector population sizes or otherwise prevent them from transmitting the virus).  To deploy these vector-targeted methods effectively it is clearly essential to understand vector ecology.  Indeed, recent attempts to explain the patterns of infection and predict the likely number of cases in the future highlight the importance of ecological processes such as: heterogeneities in transmission, the magnitude of herd immunity, seasonality in dynamics, seasonal forcing or other environmental drivers, and the potential for the virus to circulate within reservoir populations etc (see here and here).  Of course, these processes aren’t unique to Zika – they are fundamental aspects of the ecology of any vector-borne infection.  As such these ecological processes have been well studied in many vector-borne disease systems, whether they relate to human diseases or not.This breadth of ecological research across vector disease systems is reflected in a recent Virtual Issue compiled by Wiley including papers from Journal of Animal Ecology and other BES journals. Continue reading

Solving the skewed sex ratio on science journal editorial boards

On this blog in October 2014, Senior Editor, Tim Coulson presented an argument for solving the sex ratio problem in scientific academia. He proposed that we should mandate that universities and institutes appoint equal numbers of men and women at each professional level from faculty positions though to full professors. Whilst the skewed sex ratio in academia has been long recognised and discussed, there is another bias much closer to home that has received significantly less attention: the male-bias on many science journal editorial boards. To coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8th, I thought it would be useful to highlight this important issue.

Back in 2014, just 13% of Journal of Animal Ecology Associate Editors were female, and none of our Senior Editors were. Whilst sex ratios on other ecology journals were generally much better than this, none of them were anywhere near to sex ratio parity. So, why was this and what have we done to try to remedy this?

Journal of Animal Ecology has four senior editors, three of whom (Ben Sheldon, Jean-Michel Gaillard and Nate Sanders) have been appointed in the last 2-3 years. During this period, we strongly encouraged women to apply, but we received only a small handful of applications from women. Did we do enough to encourage experienced women to apply? Evidently not. Each of the Senior Editors involved in the shortlisting processes did informally encourage good candidates to apply – both female and male – and all of our Associate Editors at the time were also encouraged to apply. In addition, the advertisements for the positions, specifically suggested that we wanted applicants who would add to the ‘diversity’ of the Senior Editor board.

So what can we do to address this issue? We could pledge to always interview at least one female applicant, regardless of where they rank overall on our shortlist (a sort of female Rooney Rule). But based on previous pools of applicants, I am sceptical as to whether this would be of help in the ultimate goal of recruiting female Senior Editors. A different approach is required. Perhaps the solution to our Senior Editor problem is to appoint more female Associate Editors, in the hope that it will promote a stronger pipeline to the senior positions.

Correcting the male-bias of the AE board is a laudable goal in itself, of course, and for the last 2-3 years we have been taking positive action to appoint more female AEs. This is not to say that we have exclusively appointed only women, but we have followed a policy of first exhaustively considering a pool of potential female candidates. In so doing, we have improved the sex ratio from 13% in 2014 to 36% in March 2016. This has been a relatively easy process, but has not been without issues. From personal experience, I have found that when we approach suitable male candidates for AE positions, the first response is generally very positive and mostly they accept without further discussion. In contrast, female candidates are much more likely to either decline immediately due to other commitments (this is especially true of non-tenured professors in the US), or to request further information about the role and the time commitment involved. Of course the latter is a very sensible approach and perhaps just reflects a difference between the sexes in common sense!

It is my hope to achieve equality on the AE board in the not too distant future. Once we achieve this target, we hope that it can be maintained in the long term, but this will probably not happen without continued positive action, as the pool of suitable individuals (mostly experienced early-mid career faculty) is consistently male-biased.

To stimulate further discussion on these issues, I asked one of our Associate Editors, Sheena Cotter, to think about them from her personal perspective as an early-mid career female academic. Her response is below and will, I hope, encourage others to enter the discussion.

One final thought. Gender, of course, is not the only diversity issue academic journals face. I write this blog from the Universidade Federal de Viçosa in Brazil, where I have just given a presentation to staff and students on ‘How to Get Published’ from an Editor’s perspective. For my audience, an equally pressing issue is how we address the geographical and ethnic imbalance of the editorial board (and, indeed, of the papers we publish), which is still overwhelmingly in favour of white Europeans and North Americans. If we can simultaneously address all of these issues, we will be doing very well indeed.

Let us have your thoughts.

Ken Wilson, Senior Editor
@spodoptera007

A response from one of our female Associate EditorsCotter, S

When Ken told me that the editorial board of JAE had been just 13% female when he took over as Senior Editor, I wasn’t particularly surprised. The pool is smaller. The number of women in ecology is very close to parity at undergraduate, PhD and postdoctoral levels, but then starts to decline dramatically. To be approached to be an Associate Editor, a woman would have to have a certain level of experience, and by lecturer level there are already fewer females than males. I also suspect women may be less prominent than men at the same stage of their career. If the choice of who to approach is determined in part by who you are aware of in a certain field, then this may be driven by how much scientists promote themselves via networking at conferences, organising meetings and seminars, sitting on grant committees etc. It is likely that women with young families spend less time on these activities than men as they typically require time spent away from home.

There is also “unconscious bias” associated with gender. We are all susceptible to it, I don’t recall a single female lecturer when I was an undergraduate and I doubt I remarked upon it, because scientists were always men. I’m still sometimes surprised when an ambiguously named scientist turns out to be female, my default assumption is male. This may seem fairly harmless until you are in a position to recruit and you may inadvertently prefer a male candidate over an equally, or better, qualified female one. So to increase the percentage of female AEs you just have to identify suitable candidates and approach them, right? Well, apparently not, because it seems that women are more likely to say no. This was a surprise.

When I was approached to take on the role of Associate Editor for JAE, I was delighted and jumped at the chance. However, at that point I was a NERC fellow with minimal teaching duties and no children. The potential extra workload didn’t cross my mind. But many potential female candidates for AE will be trying to balance a heavy workload and a young family and may be loath to add to that burden. Before I had kids I couldn’t understand the claim that having children was the reason that women dropped out of academia, because most women don’t have children on their own, they have them with men, and presumably there are as many men with young families as there are women. So what’s going on? Of course, I don’t really know the answer, I can only talk from personal experience.

First, the physical act of carrying and then delivering a child (or two – I’m lucky enough to have twins…) is physically exhausting. I couldn’t work as hard while I was pregnant as I could beforehand. Second, it takes over your brain in a way that it doesn’t seem to for the father. Babies become real to women much earlier on in the process than they do for men. I spent so much of my time thinking and reading about pregnancy, the birth, new babies, what we’d need to buy, how our lives would change etc., that I really got hardly any work done at all. Once the baby is born, something happens to your brain, at least in the short term, and this is something that highly intelligent female colleagues have also experienced. I found it incredibly difficult to concentrate on science when my children were babies. I don’t think this really happens to men. They might still be very involved and do their fair share around the house and take their turn at night feeds (if possible) but I don’t think they experience the “brain melt”, and this takes a while to get over.

Now that my children are a bit older (2, 2 and 4), I think my brain functions just fine, but my priorities have definitely changed. I used to quite regularly stay late at work during the week and at the weekends, but now I always leave work by 5pm and only work in the evening on weekends if I absolutely have to. I am not prepared to miss the evening with my children during the week. At the weekend, I spend the day with my children and running around after 3 small ones from 6am to 7pm is pretty exhausting so working in the evening is a challenge. Shouldn’t this be true of men too? I’m sure it is true of many men, but I have also worked with several male colleagues at the same career stage as me, with young children, who regularly stay late at work. I’m not aware of any women who do this. So if I was asked to be an AE now would I jump at the chance? Of course I would, but I know what to expect; if I didn’t, given my massively increased workload since becoming a tenured lecturer and the increased priority of time with my children, if I didn’t know what to expect I’d certainly ask!

So how do we increase the number of female AEs? We approach suitably qualified female candidates and make it clear that the workload isn’t onerous and you can balance it by reducing the numbers of papers you accept to review. It is a prestigious position, increases your profile and looks good on your CV. It is vital to increase the visibility of female scientists as this can help to redress the unconscious association of “science” with “men” and increasing the pool of experienced female AEs will hopefully result in one of us applying to be a Senior Editor in the near future – watch out Ken!

Sheena Cotter, Associate Editor