Riverside Insect Fair: Kids Love Coloring

The 3rd Annual Riverside Insect Fair was held last Saturday, April 29, 2017, 10am-4pm in downtown Riverside. This free community event is a collaboration between the Entomology Graduate Student Association at UC Riverside and the Riverside Metropolitan Museum.

This year I hosted my own educational booth at the event – an Invasive Insect Species Coloring Table! I created coloring pages featuring invasive and pestiferous insects, and my friend & colleague Tessa Shates contributed a few too! I’m quite pleased to say that coloring was a popular activity, and these coloring pages were a fun way to introduce children (and their parents!) to locally important invasive insects, and the field of invasion biology.

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All of the coloring pages that Tessa Shates and I created are available for personal and educational use for free here.

Active Teaching: Ecology in 5 weeks! (or, How to turn future Doctors of America to the dark side…)

Ecology & Conservation Biology discussion in action: groups of 4 students each worked together to solve iterative equations and make predictions about their populations.

Earlier this summer, I TA’ed Ecology & Conservation Biology bi-weekly discussions, an upper division course for Biology majors, in the accelerated summer session. Five week summer courses are great: intense, fast-paced, and immersive. I was excited to implement, for the first time, recently acquired active learning approaches in my efforts to engage a class of predominantly pre-medical students with the subjects I myself am passionate about. Teaching pre-medical undergraduates is a familiar challenge at UC Riverside – fellow ecologists, evolutionary biologists, geneticists & physiologists joke about turning students to the dark side, i.e. not pre-med. Here I describe the active learning strategies I used each week- (spoiler alert): scroll to the bottom for my biggest success!

Week 1: Remember & Recognize

After 4 lectures (reminder: 5 week classes are INTENSE!), students had learned how abiotic variation creates environmental diversity globally. So we headed to the UC Riverside Botanic Gardens to find plants representative of dominant biomes around the world. Students explored the gardens, photographed representative plants, and submitted their photos to the Riverside NatureSpotter app for local citizen science. Each observation is stored on iNaturalist.org, with a description indicating the plant’s native biome.


Week 2: Interpret & Solve

No ecology course is complete without math; Lotka-Volterra equations are integral to population ecology (pun!). In groups, each student assumed a group role from the POGIL (Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning) model to calculate changes in population size through time, and to predict the outcome of competition between two species. Also, everyone was quite happy to stay indoors during the record-breaking heat wave!

Week 3: Defend & Infer

After completing roughly half of the course, students applied their ecological knowledge in a class-wide debate, arguing for and against a series of 8 Ecological Maxims, listed below. Each student came to class prepared to argue both sides for every maxim, and students were then randomly selected on the spot to present their arguments. This class-wide debate also served as an interactive review session for the next day’s midterm: students used course material and examples from lecture to support their arguments.

8 Ecological Maxims –

  1. You can never do just one thing
  2. Everything goes somewhere
  3. No population can increase in size forever
  4. There is no free lunch
  5. Evolution matters
  6. Time matters
  7. Space matters
  8. Life would be impossible without species interactions

Following the midterm, students paired up to apply their ecological knowledge to one of my favorite subjects: invasive species! Each pair made inferences about how & why some species become invasive, & whether more diverse habitats more or less susceptible to invasion.

Invasive species ecology figures from: Shea, K., Chesson, P. 2002. Community ecology theory as a framework for biological invasions. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 17, 170-176.

Week 4: Be an ecologist & Meet a conservation biologist!

As Pokémon Go took the world by storm, students practiced catching real-life critters for Team Citizen Science! Students set out pecan sandie cookie traps around UC Riverside campus for the School of Ants project. Most samples were dominated by invasive Argentine Ants, Linepithema humile, but most students also caught Pikachu! Win win!

Bagged samples of field-collected ants for the School of Ants citizen science project.

Bagged samples of field-collected ants for the School of Ants citizen science project.

After trying on the role of ecologist for a day, several real-life ecologists & conservation biologists visited class for a personalized Career Day. Each shared their job description, career back-story, lots of advice, encouragement, & hard-won wisdom.

Career Day Panelists:

Steven Su: Scientific Programs Director at West Valley Mosquito & Vector Control District, tsu@wvmvcd.org

Molly Peters: Biologist at Edith Read & Associates supporting Southern California Edison, molly.peters@sce.com

Grace Hartt: Seasonal Assistant at Orange County Mosquito & Vector Control District, grace.hartt03@gmail.com

Aaron Echols: Field Ecologist at Inland Empire Resource Conservation District, aechols@iercd.org

Korie Merrill: Supervisory Biologist at Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands, koriecm@gmail.com

Nicole Stutzman: Land Steward at Riverside Lands Conservancy, nicole@riversidelandconservancy.org

Week 5: Critique & Create

In that last home stretch just before summer-time freedom, students presented their final projects –

  1. An independent critique of a media story related to ecology and/or conservation biology;
  2. A group website of their own design, presenting a management plan of their own creation for a southern California endangered or invasive species.

Brown-headed Cowbird  California Condor  Humpback Whale

San Joaquin Kit Fox  Zebra Mussel  Green Sea Turtle

These are amazing – in just 1 month, students applied their classroom knowledge to a real-world problem, integrating textbook concepts with independent research – then presented cohesive, carefully constructed management plans, in visually pleasing websites! Watching my students present their work filled me with pride in them; learning that most actually enjoyed the process of creating their websites and recommended I implement this assignment into future classes… left me feeling pride in myself. I had achieved something remarkable – I created an opportunity for learning to become fun and to feel useful. And hey, let’s hope I may have even turned a few to dark side!

Writing along the Scientific Method (A message to aspiring scientists!)

Scientists write. A lot.

That’s the message that my colleague Amelia Lindsey and I shared yesterday with UC Riverside undergraduates nearly finished with their English course requirements.

We visited students in Liz Gumm‘s Applied Intermediate Composition course on the penultimate class of the quarter with a (hopefully) exciting and (definitely) enthusiastic lesson: “The writing never stops! You will continue to communicate with others, and it is important to do it well!”

Intrigued? I hope so! Check out our visual aids here.

Riverside Insect Fair: Insects are food, science, art and FUN!

The Second Annual Riverside Insect Fair was this past Saturday, April 30, 2016! This event, co-organized by the UC Riverside Entomology Graduate Student Association and the Riverside Metropolitan Museum, brought together scientists, artists, chefs, educators, conservationists to inspire the local community with the diverse and wondrous world of insects! Early morning rain subsided just before the Insect Fair got started, and the day was a wonderful success!

The Insect Fair had it all: vendors selling insect pets like millipedes and tarantulas, a tie-dye station with ground-up cochineal scale insects used to create pink dye, educational and informational booths from UC Riverside Entomology graduate students  with live & preserved insects & awesome displays of close-up pictures, a Bug Chef demonstrating techniques and recipes for fine insect cuisine, zookeepers from the San Diego Zoo and their animal friends, a fantastic line-up of family-friendly educational presentations, the always-popular Riverside Metropolitan Museum Nature Lab, the Northwest Mosquito and Vector Control District brought their hoverboat, the California Department of Food & Agriculture shared how to protect our city’s iconic citrus trees from invasive pests, and the UC Riverside Entomology Outreach Program brought lots of friendly insects to pet and hold!

The expansive world of insects and entomology was on full display all day, take a look at the highlights here:


Insects as food

Insects as art

Insects as fashion

Insects in science

Insects in nature

Insects as pets

Insects on household pets

Insects around our homes

Invasive insects


What a great day! A huge thank you to everyone who made the Riverside Insect Fair possible through donations, participation, and volunteered time! The second Riverside Insect Fair was a huge success, and I can’t wait to do it again next year! See you there!

On regret and loss in graduate school.

When I entered the Entomology Ph.D. program at UC Riverside in 2012, I signed up for the Graduate Student Mentorship Program, a program designed to provide support and encouragement to new graduate students during that intense first year. I was paired up with a mentor, an advanced graduate student, to facilitate my transition into graduate school. We met regularly over meals and coffee breaks and discussed the various “how-to’s” of graduate school: how to manage time for research and classes and life, how to optimally plan the chapters of a dissertation, how to maintain positive relationships with faculty and with lab-mates, how to successfully apply for grants, how to prepare for qualifying exams and choose the best committee, how to make the most of attending a conference. My mentor’s job throughout my entire first year of graduate school was to make sure I was doing okay, that I was adjusting well to the expectations and demands of the Ph.D. program, that I was on track to succeed, and that I felt supported by my academic community.

That first year seemingly flew by. I acclimated to the program, I did well in my classes, I was awarded a great fellowship, and I tried out a lot of research ideas (most of them fizzled, but that was okay), I made several friends, and I got married. Meetings with my mentor were a regular occurrence, and as I look back now, I am ashamed to say that I took them for granted. I was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and I had an entitled sense that I was important to science. I would not have admitted it at the time, but my ego swelled with self-importance: I had been admitted to join the ranks of the upper echelons of intellectualism; I was on track to have a Ph.D., to make important contributions to science, to discover something novel. Despite my obnoxious demeanor, my mentor never said an unkind thing to me. He offered positivity and encouragement, he took interest in my ideas and generously supported a confidence that perhaps he knew would waver as graduate school wore on.

And it did. My second year was filled with the anxiety of producing: getting experiments going after several failed attempts, collecting and analyzing as much data as possible, applying for grants. I spent untold hours preparing a research proposal that would satisfy five distinct faculty members into believing my ideas were good enough, all in the endeavor to be as prepared for my qualifying exams as I could be. The work progressed, data accumulated, and my research plans grew far beyond what was reasonable until a year-end meeting with my committee members deflated those ideas and brought me back down to Earth. My dog died, at home with my husband and I, following a heart-breaking month-long fade that left us devastated and our home empty.

My third year began with dread and a nauseating anxiety, followed by an exhausted relief as qualifying exams came and went with only a few tears, some humiliation and rattled nerves. The work progressed, data accumulated, I started analyzing complete datasets, started writing manuscripts instead of proposals. My grandfather died, Alzheimer’s delivered unto him a precipitous decline following years of slow degeneration. The year ended watching so many friends, colleagues, and my sister move away from southern California as I jealously stayed behind. I adopted a new puppy.

Year four began with a pipe dream of finishing early for a job that I was not offered. The work progressed, data accumulated, and I continue data analysis and writing. Halfway through the year, I learned that my mentor had passed away. He had given away everything he owned, cancelled his cell phone, and erased his online presence. He removed himself from all means of communication and wandered away, alone.

Following that first year, I would occasionally pass him walking through campus, we had mutual friends, we’d occasionally attend the same parties. After a year of regularly meeting up a few times a month, we mostly fell out of touch. Through mutual friends, I heard about how things didn’t seem to be going well for him. At nearly the very end of his own Ph.D., he had been offered a post-doctoral position, but then something happened and everything seemed to fall away. He moved out of his apartment and gave away most of his possessions. I accepted a foosball table and didn’t ask questions. I invited him to our Halloween party and didn’t ask where he was headed, both literally and figuratively.

This inaction, this failure to show compassion or concern, this willful ignorance – this is one of the deepest regrets I hold in my heart. I feel that I squandered an opportunity to return the generosity that he paid to me, to offer support and encouragement, to show kindness during an intense and difficult period. As I’ve grown from the exasperating newbie into an exasperated Ph.D. candidate, I’ve come to appreciate the extreme psychological stress of enduring graduate school, of finishing the Ph.D., of finding a job afterward – particularly if the job desired is an academic one. I’ve watched those who came before me traverse this path, watched them lose sleep, fall into depression, gain weight and gray hairs. Some lose friends and relationships to their stress and mood swings. Others manage, and are lucky enough to have understanding and sympathetic supporters.

I feel I should have known better, I should have been struck by what I knew; I should not have stood idly by. This regret stands in stark contrast to the view I hold of myself as a good person, it reflects an image of indifference and disregard that eats at me.

1.8 Million Acres of California Desert

On February 12, 2016, President Barack Obama established three new national monuments in the California Desert: Castle Mountains, Sand to Snow, and Mojave Trails.

National Monuments

Map indicating the respective locations of the three new national monuments: Castle Mountains, Sand to Snow, and Mojave Trails relative to existing protected lands.

Together, these three national monuments encompass 1.8 million acres of California desert land, newly protected from development. This is a huge victory for deserts and desert enthusiasts (like myself!) and enhances the quality of existing protected lands by protecting the continuity important wildlife corridors.

Castle Mountain.jpg

In red: approximate boundaries of the new Castle Mountains National Monument. Source: biologicaldiversity.org

Castle Mountains National Monument effectively “plugs a hole” by protecting land surrounded on three sides by the existing Mojave National Preserve. Larger contiguous protected areas are critical for safe wildlife movement, and for preserving wildlife access to critical life resources (food, water, refuge from predators, and safe places to mate and raise young).

Mojave Trails

In dark green: location of the new Mojave Trails National Monument relative to existing protected lands.

Mojave Trails National Monument, similarly, “plugs” many holes in land adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree National Park, and several protected Wilderness Areas. This expands the spatial extent of protected land and improves continuity among wild habitats.

Sand to Snow.jpg

In green: The new Sand to Snow National Monument.

Sand to Snow National Monument extends from the San Bernardino Mountains in the west across Morongo Valley, nearly all the way to Joshua Tree National Park. This newly protected land comprises many strikingly different habitats in close proximity – snow-capped mountains, aeolian sand dunes, riparian oases, and the ecologically magnificent transition between the high elevation Mojave and low elevation Colorado Deserts. This is my favorite of the 3 new national monuments, simply for the diversity of ecotones (the transition and blending region between two habitat types) contained within this single land area. It’s also pretty close to a field site I’ve used extensively in my dissertation research, the Oasis de Los Osos UC Natural Reserve (also an ecotone site!).

When this historic exciting announcement was delivered by the White House, it was accompanied by a beautiful “In Photos” article on whitehouse.gov, highlighting the stunning aethetics of these natural landscapes. I’m a little ashamed to admit that despite the enormous environmental victory represented in these pictures, my heart sank a bit when I scrolled to find the second picture of sand dunes dotted by an invasive plant, Salsola tragus, also known as Russian thistle.


The offending photograph of a site within Mojave Trails National Monument, from whitehouse.gov. Each yellow-y plant in the foreground of sand dune is an invasive Russian thistle plant (Salsola tragus).

Russian thistle, Salsola tragus, has been present in California’s desert a long, long time. Tumbleweeds blowing across a dusty landscape are an iconic symbol of the California desert, despite not actually being from here. So it shouldn’t be surprising that they make it into a high-profile desert photo-shoot. And their presence in these photos may actually serve a higher environmental good, inspiring feelings of environmental responsibility in the masses, and instigating greater resource allocation to invasive species control and management in sensitive habitats. Such that, perhaps, when these national monuments follow the Joshua Tree path to National Park-dom, invasive plants will be a less prominent blight on the vast landscape.

One can hope…

Oh, the Places You’ll Go: Oasis de Los Osos Reserve

Today’s post is all about the work I’ve been doing at a University of California Natural Reserve in eastern Riverside County, Oasis de los Osos. For nearly 2 years, I’ve been visiting Oasis de los Osos regularly to monitor plants and arthropods.

Oasis de Los Osos Reserve Sign

Welcome to the Oasis de los Osos Reserve! Source: http://www.wikiloc.com/wikiloc/imgServer.do?id=3734415

Oasis de los Osos is a small reserve (65 hectares) adjacent to the Snow Creek community of Palm Springs, CA. A perennial stream “Lamb’s Creek” runs through the reserve and supports dense riparian vegetation, amphibians, and many other critters seeking reprieve from the desert heat. The remains of a former home sit alongside the stream near the southwestern edge of the reserve; it was allegedly built in the 1930s by Denver and Lucy Ellen Lamb (see this site for more details).

Snow Creek House

The old Lamb house at Lamb’s Creek. Source: http://www.wikiloc.com/wikiloc/imgServer.do?id=3734443

My monitoring study is set up to assess the plant and arthropod biodiversity that occurs close to and distant from the perennial stream, and changes that occur along its drying portion. In particular, I aim to figure out how plants and arthropods respond to the presence and dominance of the invasive weed, Brassica tournefortii.

Twelve transects are established at every 100 meters along the stream, from the perennially flowing region at slightly higher elevation, to the seasonally wet/dry region below. Within each of these transects, five plots are set up at 0, 4, 8, 16, and 32 meters away from the stream edge. This design allows me to compare the identity and diversity of plants and arthropods that occur at varying positions along the stream, and at varying distances away from it.

Snow Creek Transect Map

A Google Earth view-map of my monitoring study area at the Oasis de los Osos reserve. Each red balloon indicates the twelve transects where plants and arthropods are regularly censused November – June.

At each plot, I have set up one pitfall trap and one platform for a set of pan traps. Pitfall and pan traps are used to passively sample arthropods that occur in the area. Pitfall traps capture critters walking along the ground, and are often used when targeting detritivores, predators, and shy critters. Pan traps capture flying arthropods that come in to land on what they likely thought was a flower; pan traps are generally used when targeting pollinators and other flower-visitors. Because they sample different kinds of arthropod critters, I use both kinds of traps at each plot to assess what kinds of animals live there.

A pitfall trap (left) in the soil, and one set of three pan traps (right) mounted on a platform above the soil.

A pitfall trap (left) in the soil, and one set of three pan traps (right) mounted on a platform above the soil.

Pitfall and pan traps are left open for 24 hours each census period. At this time, the plants growing at each plot are also censused to document variation in which species are present.

Several people help me with each census – 60 plots is a lot! We each set up traps at a few transects on the first day, carefully opening pitfall traps, attaching pan traps, and filling them with soapy water. Hiking with water jugs is made much easier with several helping hands.

On day 2, we each work at a few transects to collect all of the specimens captured in the pitfall and pan traps at every plot. The soapy water and contents are emptied from the trap cups into special baggies to be transported back to the lab, all the cups are collected, and the pitfall traps are closed and covered up to prevent any critters getting in there between censuses.

We’ve found some pretty interesting critters in these traps! There have been 30 different orders of arthropods identified (An order is a taxonomic grouping level above family but below class. For example, ants and bees are in the order Hymenoptera, while butterflies and moths are in the order Lepidoptera).

Back at the lab, all the samples are transferred to glass vials with ethanol and given labels to keep track of where and when they came from.

Once all specimens are transferred into glass storage vials with ethanol, they are ready to be examined under a microscope, identified and counted. This data will be used to understand the arthropod community at Oasis de los Osos, how it changes in response to the plant community, time of year, and other environmental variables.

Stay tuned for updates as more data is generated and analyzed!

A beautiful view of the Oasis de los Osos reserve, Lamb's Creek, and the San Jacinto Mountains

A beautiful view of the Oasis de los Osos reserve, Lamb’s Creek, and the San Jacinto Mountains

Unless otherwise noted, all photos used here are my own. Please feel free to comment or contact me with questions!

Update: Additional information and press on this research and the Oasis de Los Osos Reserve can be found here and here.