The great work-life balancing act

Can women (or parents?) ever have it all? by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer Erin McKittrick and her daughter Lituya at remote Malaspina glacier on the coast of Alaska. Credit, Erin McKittrick,  Bretwood Higman,  Ground Truth Trekking, 2011.   The trials of balancing a competitive research career on top of the other demands and joys of life, most prominently family, is a perennial obsession of ESA’s Ecolog-L listserv. This April, a passionate conversation emerged in response to a question about taking children into the field—sometimes angry, and often heartfelt. It eventually spawned a related conversation about “work-life balance” for women on academic career tracks. A similar conversation has been storming through blogs and news columns over the last few weeks. It seems like everyone everywhere (at least among the chattering classes) has been talking about the Atlantic’s July/August cover story “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” At over 775,000 views it is the most-clicked article in Atlantic history. It ran with an incendiary cover photo of a naked toddler in a briefcase (none of author Anne-Marie Slaughter’s doing I’m sure). The “still,” Slaughter told Hannah Rosin emphatically on Slate’s June 27th Double X podcast, is essential to her thesis. Because she is not making the categorical statement that women can’t have it all. The article is a commentary on the current US situation as she sees it and has experienced it, and wants to see change.  The “still” is important “because otherwise I’m a poster-child for saying women can’t have it all, when I want to be saying women can, and men can, but we have to make a whole bunch of changes to get there,” she said in the interview. Following her dive into feminist politics, Slaughter kicks off with her personal revelation that for most of her career, she had an unusually good deal: as an academic, she enjoyed a level of control over her time that is far from universal for working parents. Her workload wasn’t exactly light as a full professor and dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, but it was malleable to interruptions for teacher-parent conferences, soccer games, family dinners, music lessons and sick children. She could work from home after hours, and work around daytime errands. Her flexible schedule, she writes, was key to having it all, but she did not appreciate her privileges until she left the ivory tower and spent a couple of years in Washington, working long days on the rigid office schedule expected of most of the American workforce. In January 2011, after two years under Hilary Clinton as director of policy planning...

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Field Talk: Termites enrich the soil in East Africa

Vertebrate fertilizer is not the only source of nutrients in the soils of East African savannahs, at least according to a study recently published in the journal Ecology. Alison Brody from the University of Vermont and colleagues found that termites actually had more of an effect on the fruiting success of Acacia trees in Kenya than did dung and urine deposition from ungulate herbivores, such as zebras and gazelles.

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Actually, you ARE walking in circles

This post isn’t quite about ecology. But it’s about a phenomenon that many ecologists have ample experience with. A study out last week in Current Biology found that when people get lost in the wilderness, they actually do walk in circles. Jan Souman of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, and his colleagues set volunteer hikers loose — without maps, compasses or GPS units — into a forest in Germany and a desert in Tunisia. They found that in the presence of a clear sun or moon, the hikers were able to walk in a relatively straight line. But on cloudy days, the hikers had more trouble. Little deviations from this straight line compounded on themselves, and the hikers ended up walking in not just one circle, but at times many loops back on themselves. In an article in The New York Times, Souman said that although the brain takes in many signals when navigating, such as visual cues and acceleration and speed cues from the inner ear, these cues are only relative to an individual’s current position. Without a landmark, like the sun or moon or a distant tower, little mistakes build up, causing people to walk in loops. The study is also evidence against the idea that if people walk in circles, it must be the built-up consequence of walking long distances when one leg is slightly longer than the other: Souman found that deviations occurred in both directions for individuals. So now, the next time you’re hiking or gathering data in the field and you get lost, comfort yourself. Walking in circles is normal behavior. And maybe, in these instances, a philosophical approach is best. As Winnie the Pooh expressed to Rabbit when they were lost in the Hundred Acre Wood and kept running across a muddy pit: Winnie the Pooh: Say, Rabbit. How would it be if once we’re out of sight of this old pit, we just try to find it again? Rabbit: What’s the good of that? Winnie the Pooh: Well, it’s just that we keep looking for home, but we keep finding this pit. So I just thought that if we looked for this pit, we might find home. Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, 1974 Souman JL, Frissen I, Sreenivasa MN, & Ernst MO (2009). Walking Straight into Circles. Current biology : CB PMID:...

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