Comparing Scars and Stories

I was going to do a blog post about the psychology behind fascination with scars and minor injuries (bruises, scrapes, etc), but all I can find on the internet are articles encouraging people not to be ashamed of scars, social commentary on blemish-free models, advertisements for scar removal, and stuff to do with the Lion King. A Web of Science search of “injury” and “pride” wasn’t helpful either, though interestingly there was a remarkable number of articles about injuries on fruit.

Example of an article hit from Web of Science when you search “injury” and “pride”

This has made me wonder. Is it unusual that I find (my own) injuries fascinating (even if they’re annoying, debilitating and often embarrassing)? I’m definitely not alone in being proud of scars; I’ve had countless discussions comparing scars or bruises and their stories. People do it in films and stories all the time.

Comparing scars seems like a pretty human thing to do. I think I remember a phrase “Every scar has a story.” So why is there so little literature or internet content on it? Maybe my google-fu just needs more work.

All this was spurred by a recent (and foolish) injury I had rock climbing. The injury itself is annoying and embarrassing (in some ways), but it DID lead to me getting some X-rays. It’s the X-rays that I find fascinating. This is what the inside of my foot looks like!!

X-ray of my right foot.

Peter and the Spider (belated)

During this past June I was browsing my Facebook feed and found a highly amusing status update from my friend Peter Christian about an imaginary interaction he had with a spider over his lunch one sunny afternoon.

In reply, I drew this comic while eating my own lunch sitting in a pub near UC Davis (where I was visiting for field work at the time). You’ll have to excuse the dismal quality; I drew it in my field notebook and digitized it using my cellphone camera.


I’ve renamed my website from “Something Clever [Here]” to “A Biologist Walks Into A Bar…”. This is because there are several other sites on the internet that are called Something Clever Here (or some variation on that). There’s even several other blogs by that name. It turns out that the name I thought was tres original is actually not that original at all.

I think this new name is more versatile anyway. If everything works out, this site may metamorphose into a site where more people are contributing and then the title can be morphed to suite the new contributors. E.g. “A Biologist and an Astronomer Walk Into A Bar…”, or perhaps “A Biologist, an Astronomer, and a VFX Programmer Walk Into A Bar”. You get the idea.

Hopefully the new branding doesn’t turn out too confusing. It’s still!

Life Dailies

I’m working on getting a new feature working.

Every day (or almost every day) I’ll draw a little cartoon that represents something that happened in my life on the previous day. I started doing this in high school, making great use of my agenda. I stopped when I moved to Japan, started again briefly as an undergrad, and this fall, I’m revisiting the project as a graduate student.

I’ll be posting these cartoons one day at a time as “A Life Scientist’s Life Dailies”. On the right side of the home page there is a photo of the day called “LSL Daily” – that’s the most recent cartoon, and it links to the album with the rest. There’s also a new tab between “Home” and “Research” called “A Life Scientist’s Life Dailies” where the daily drawing can also be found.

I normally draw these while riding the train and/or bus, so they often have a sketchy, shaky quality about them. If they don’t, I might departed from tradition to draw it over a coffee. If I have extra time or am extra inspired, I may ink them (on the page or digitally), but in general they will be in pencil to keep the amount of time the project takes down to a reasonable level.

Drawing Daily

Departing from tradition (drawing while on transit) to draw my daily while eating breakfast at SFU.

The first one I’ve posted is for Labour Day (Monday September 3rd). Tomorrow I’ll add the cartoon for Tuesday September 4th and so on, maintaining the ~2 week buffer just in case I miss a day or two and have to go back. The image itself is currently a photograph of the original drawing. When I get my hands on a scanner, the image quality and clarity will increase.

I’m experimenting with the best way to post these in WordPress. Right now it’s all powered by a photo album widget, but for some reason I’m having trouble getting the album itself to display on the page. Instead, there’s a lot of link-clicking to get the to album itself. Sorry about that. Persevere! You’ll find the content eventually.

Seeking Volunteers!

We are looking for volunteers in the Roitberg Lab!

Are you looking for experience in a research laboratory? Are you interested in ecology, evolution, pest management and/or insects? Are you enthusiastic and hard-working?!?!

Are you willing to commit to 4 hours per week between September and December?

If so, please check out this opportunity to volunteer with us Roitberg-ians. I’m looking forward to meeting you!!

TIPS Wrap-Up

Part of this blog was written on the flight between Sault Ste Marie and Toronto, sipping complimentary sprite and eating complimentary pretzels. The other part was much more mundanely written from a coffee shop in Vancouver on August 29th.

The TIPS conference turned out to be a mix of policy, management, and scientific presentations. I was expecting more scientific content, but I really enjoyed it this way. I met people I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet otherwise; people from various levels of government agencies from Canada, the USA and Mexico, parks and urban managers, scientists in government and academia. I heard about exciting cutting edge research, as well as the adventures of the people on the ground fighting invasives.

The talks that stood out most for me were those on pathogens and biocontrols. This is where invasion biology researchers seem to be closest to the ecological and evolutionary theory.



Biocontrols are all about species interactions. It works on the idea that when you take an organism out of one environment and put it into a new environment, you’ve left behind all the natural “enemies” (diseases, predators, parasites, etc.). By being “released” from the restraining control of these enemies, the invasive species are able to reallocate energy that was previously used for protection (e.g. thorns or chemicals that make their leaves uncomfortable or taste gross) into the growth and reproduction that make them “invasive”. This is called the “enemy release hypothesis”, or the “Evolution of Increased Competitive Ability” (EICA) hypothesis. Alternatively, there may not need to be any reallocation of energy; maybe it was enough to escape the enemies that hold population numbers of the invasive in check. Anyway, the idea of a biocontrol is to find organisms from the native range that selectively prey on the invasive species but on nothing else (or few other things), and reacquaint it with the invasive species. So like I said, research on biocontrols is really about application of ecological (i.e. species interactions and community dynamics keep the population numbers of the species of interest from overrunning local biodiversity in their native range) and evolutionary (i.e. genetic drift followed by selection for increased reproduction/vitality after being released from the selective pressure of an enemy) theory. I could (and probably should) write a whole blog post about this topic.


Tree Pathogens:

For pathogens I think it gets most interesting when there are multiple players involved. For example, beech trees are plagued by a fungal pathogen, but the fungus can only attack the tree after infestation by a scale insect. The scale insects bore holes through the bark so that they can feed from the phloem beneath. The pathogen then uses the wounds left by the insect to infect the tree. Not all trees are attached by the scale insect, and not all infested trees become infected with the fungus…

Beech Tree Pathogen, Cultured

Beech Tree Pathogen, Cultured

Another neat example (with no insect component =[ ) is the native eastern and western white pine species and their blister rust. Macedonian pine is sold as an ornamental tree, but it is more susceptible to the blight than the two native species are. Furthermore, the Macedonian pine hybridizes with the native species, and all the hybrid offspring show the Macedonian pine’s increased susceptibility! So be careful what you plant in your garden – you might be inadvertently leading to decreased fitness of the white pine species by introducing bad genes (i.e. more susceptible to the blight).

Pictoral note taking

Note taking made more fun!

All this cool tree-pathogen work was presented/discussed by John McLaughlin from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

RIP Neil Armstrong

A final TIPS conference wrap up is still pending, but I just wanted to take a quick moment to pay homage to a giant.

Neil Armstrong passed away this afternoon at 82 years of age.  I must be among tens and hundreds of thousands of kids since 1969 who built rockets and space ships from cardboard boxes, bursting forth to cry “One small step!”. At the time they certainly were small steps.

Thank you, Neil. Your name has become synonymous with adventure, exploration, and achieving dreams with science and hard work. Your excellence has inspired countless numbers, and I’m sure sure it will continue to do so.

Tonight I will be in a plane, flying from Toronto to Vancouver. I’ll be the closest to the moon and stars as I have ever been. I hope that in my lifetime, I see someone go farther than Neil Armstrong went. Maybe that someone is barefoot in a grassy yard with a cardboard box making their own little big steps right now. In this hope, and in honour of the incredible man himself, I will find the moon above the clouds through my airplane window tonight and give it a wink.

TIPS Pre-Conference Tours

Yesterday evening after more than 9 hours in various forms of transit plus a 3.5 hour layover in Toronto, I arrived in beautiful Sault Ste. Marie for the Terrestrial Invasive Plant Species (TIPS) conference.

Near Sault Ste Marie

The flight from Toronto to Sault Ste. Marie was in the smallest plane I’ve ever embarked upon before. I boarded from the ground! I was thoroughly entertained.

Boarding from the ground

Today was the unofficial first day, consisting of registration, two guided tours, and the welcome reception.

The first tour was to Whitefish Island where Sue Meades of the Northern Ontario Plant Database pointed out a number of native and invasive plants while enriching the material with stories about the land and it’s history. The most shocking to me was the number and intrusiveness of the invasive honeysuckle shrubs that lined the path.

Invasive honeysuckle

The second tour was at the Ontario Forest Research Institute. Unfortunately I was a bit late for this tour, but I did get to hear about some really really cool research that is being done with butternut and beech pathogens.

Cultured butternut pathogen and an example of the "canker" is causes.

The butternut problem is fascinating because butternut trees are endangered and protected, but they easily hybridize with similar species, so it’s unclear when people are and are not allowed to remove infected trees (for research or otherwise).

Cultured beech pathogen

I found the beech pathogen research especially tantalizing because trees only seem to become infected with the pathogen after a particular scale insect infects it first. The infection can only get into the tree through the tiny injuries caused by the insect puncturing the bark to suck from the phloem. Trees that have not been infested with the scale insect cannot contract the pathogen, but infection is not simultaneous or even in quick succession. Some trees go many years before contracting the pathogen!

Needless to say it was an exciting day. We wrapped it up with the welcome reception at the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre where I learned about the history of bushplanes and their importance to the Canadian north, women in aviation (like most things with the title “women in _______” this made me feel conflicting feelings of pride, frustration, and sadness), and Roberta Bondar (who was from Sault Ste Marie!).

Tomorrow the schedule goes well into the evening with the poster session (where I will be presenting some of my M.Sc. thesis work) and the banquet. I’ll be live tweeting the cooler things I hear during the talks throughout the day, and I’ll do a conference wrap-up on Wednesday evening or Thursday morning.

Cockroaches, Tarantulas, and Widows, Oh My!

A couple of years ago Matthew Nayman and Mike Boers helped me put together this short video for something or other. I pulled off the project-specific bumpers and now it’s just a humorous stand alone video filled with fun biological, historical, and cultural facts about Madagascar hissing cockroaches (Gromphadorhina portentosa), Mexican red rump tarantulas (Brachypelma vagans), and Western Black Widows (Latrodectus hesperus). It was loads of fun to film and put together, and since it turned out so well, it seemed like a shame to keep it in the vault (so to speak). Please, Enjoy!