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This is The End

Earlier this week I completed my Twelve Days of 2019 Ecology Literature challenge. I read the last paper on my list, drained my mug of tea, and blew out the candle. I started my advent of reading because my To Read Folder felt out of control and it seemed like the year was slipping away from me. Just as the reading ritual of sweats, tea, candle forced me to slow down and sit with some wonderful, thought-provoking papers, creating an advent calendar gave me an excuse to sit with my best intentions — I had tagged all of these papers #ToReadPile at some point in the year — and sift through the abstracts, build a ranking system, and select a top twelve to fit my end-of-the-year energy. I wrote earlier that this was the real gift. The 24 Days of Tea is pretty great (I was so enamored with it that I bought a second one and gave it to my postdoc lab) and I love a good sweatshirt (12 is not the limit of my collection), but taking the time in late November to create the list really made my December.


The list is a reflection of my twitter feed — every paper on it came from my #ToReadPile hashtag — and so it is by definition an incomplete accounting of the must-read ecology and conservation papers of (the second half of) 2019. There are way more animal papers than I, a plant ecologist, would have imagined, but apparently animals are doing interesting things. Two of my friend/mentor/colleagues wrote papers on subjects close to my heart, but with a slight twist and I enjoyed reading their work because it made me think about my own research and teaching in new ways:

  • Meghan Duffy teaches a unit on climate change in a large (VERY large) intro bio course. I teach a whole course on the science of Climate Change to 35 non-science majors. Framing the learning objectives of these courses as “writerly climate literacy” has given me a powerful new vocabulary for talking about my teaching philosophy.
  • Auriel Fournier, Easton R. White and Stephen Heard* wrote a great paper on the overlooked and understudied bias in site-selection where scientists start working at a particular site because that’s where the study organism lives (and don’t work at sites where the study organism is rare). Later, re-surveys predictably record population declines since there are no re-surveys at sites that were not a part of the original study, where populations may have increased. While my floristic change studies tend to bypass this bias (I looked at resurveys of whole floras, which include taxa that were common and rare at the first time point), I just think this would be a wonderful paper to teach in a field methods or statistics class.


I also predictably read conservation papers:

  • I turned to The conundrum of agenda‐driven science in conservation to think about science and advocacy. This letter encourages the scientific community to talk about values, biases, and science communication. We need this kind of discussion to navigate the challenges of working in conservation — a field defined by values, where “success” is often measured by how well our work translates to managers and policymakers outside of our academic bubble — but also to parse the nuanced arguments in this piece. The authors advocate for scientists to be advocates for science, but condemn advocacy-related bias in conservation science. The discussion is not over.
  • As my Climate Change class reached the end of the semester I guess I didn’t feel depressed enough about the climate crisis, so I read Delach et al.’s Agency plans are inadequate to conserve US endangered species under climate change. The conclusions are rough (the title is a spoiler), but the sheer force of cataloguing the climate sensitivity of every endangered species and poring through their agency management plans is weirdly inspiring. The paper is so well-written and clearly illustrated that I feel slightly better knowing that the authors at Defenders of Wildlife are keeping tabs on this.
  • To round out these papers on the failings of conservation, I read a literal literature review of project failures in conservation. As with the Delach paper, the experience of reading Catalano et al’s Learning from published project failures in conservation was paradoxically reassuring. I like knowing that there are very smart people out there thinking about this and shaping the discourse around how conservation moves forward —or, to put it in Auriel Fournier twitter terms, how conservation can #FailForward.


And that was my December reading list. My countdown is complete. Somehow now I’m closing in on 36, the grades have been entered, the holiday bags are half-packed, and the ADVENT folder in my reference manager is just the twenty-two other 2019 papers that barely missed the top-twelve list. It’s a messy definition of complete, I’ll admit, but very true to form. Also, it’s not just the Twelve Days of Reading that are closing; this is the end of my run as a PLOS Ecology Community Editor. PLOS is closing the community blogs, including Ecology, at the end of the year and so this is also my goodbye post. Cue the Ghost of Paul Revere’s ‘This is the End’: I’ve been playing this song on a loop while writing this post, and I’m looking forward to seeing them live later this month. The Ghost of Paul Revere puts on a great show, and there is just something incredibly cathartic about stomping and yell-singing “I’M NOT OKAY” with a bunch of kids from the North Woods. As the lyrics says, “Well pour yourself a glass, we’ll reminisce about the times we had.”


It has been a privilege to write from this platform for the past two years. Thank you to Victoria Costella and Jeff Atkins, who first gave me an opportunity (and a travel stipend) to write here as an ESA reporting fellow at the 2016 Ecological Society of America meeting. In fall 2017, when there was an opening for a Community Editor here, Jeff (a fellow Ghost of Paul Revere fan) reached out and offered support and a sounding board as I found my blogging voice. David Knutson at PLOS provided big-picture vision and small-problem trouble-shooting. Thank you, PLOS! I’ve loved the extra excuse to read beyond my typical plant ecology/mountains/paleobiology conservation key words and to think deeply about research that at first glance is, at best, tangentially related to my own work. I’m constantly amazed that I can cold-email scientists and ask them to tell me more about their research; this seems like an important lesson both in networking and in generosity. Thank you to all the researchers who have talked with me and let me share the scientific equivalent of a VH1 behind-the-music story here. Finally thank you, readers, for tagging along on this journey. It’s been a pleasure to share my thoughts with you — beyond my research and field work on public lands in Maine, you’ve shared my imaginary responses to reviewers, my penchant for breakfast foods, my complicated love for 19th century naturalists, and my struggles as a mom in academia. Thank you!

This is the end.



Banner image: Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie pulling in the raft at the end of a backcountry coring expedition in September 2017, the same time she started this Community Editor gig. Seemed on theme for a post about endings.


*I am forever in debt to Stephen Heard’s book The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. I started reading it during the last field season of my PhD, but I went into overdrive when I received a postdoc fellowship (yay!) four months before my very ambitious defense date (um…). At that point, three of my four chapters were at best half-completed (one was literally just an outline), and yet, I graduated with a finished dissertation! Two and half years later, all four chapters are published! The book was my lifeline.

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