An upside-down arch

I have the feeling that a lot of research projects follow this familiar pattern, where the investigator starts with a burning question and lofty ambitions; solving a problem that’s never been examined before, potentially reaching a breakthrough that other scholars will cite for years and maybe even change the trajectory of your area of study. But then as you actually start working, you run in to all of these obstacles; how to do this, how to do that, whether you can collect enough data, whether all of your methods are correct, whether your background information and assumptions are correct. Every step you take forwards, it seems like you get further away from an answer because of all of these unforseen problems and difficult questions you come across. You start out high, then your spirits start flagging once you realize how hard what you’re doing is, until something finally clicks and you maybe end up with some sort of meaningful result. It’s like descending into a valley and trying to come up the other side; it’s like looking at an upside-down arch.

Two weeks ago I had a lot of questions. In my bird population modeling project, there are a ton of different variables to measure. If you are looking at patches of habitat, how does the spatial configuration of patches affect spread of migration loads?  What about different dispersal behaviors? How do source-sink dynamics play into evolution of adaptive genes? Will a gene for mercury tolerance be wiped out by incoming unadapted birds, or will the gene become more frequent in nearby uncontaminated sites due to dispersal? I had vague, unfleshed out ideas about how one would study such a question.

But then my “hows” stopped being about biology and started being about the way we answer the questions. How do I mathematically express change in allele frequency and population abundance together over the course of generations in a simple set of equations? Do I assume that the local density of a bird population stays the same while its allele frequencies are changing? What are realistic parameter ranges to explore? Is it possible to get away with accurately representing the effects of mercury on bird populations without using stage classes? Even simple questions, like, how many variables should we use? For some of these questions, there are papers and people who know the answers: I was wondering earlier this week whether or not the clutch size of a mating pair depends on the genes of the mother and father or just mom (according to Professor Cristol, it’s mom alone). But other questions require assumptions that there are no clear answers to. In some cases, according to Professor Lamar, you answer the question of which of two options is better by trying both and seeing the difference between them. And that’s potentially a lot of work.

I think I’m sitting at the base of my arch right now. I’ve spent the last week struggling to make an equation for the change in offspring alleles from generation to generation, but I think I have something that makes sense. My model right now is very simple; it has only one population (no dispersal) and doesn’t even have density dependence (meaning with the right conditions our populations can grow to infinity). That will need changing. But slowly I’m making something that works and building on it, improving it with little pieces here and there until it resembles something we might see in the while. That takes a while, but soon I will be going uphill.


  1. Dahanah Josias Sejour says:

    This is a great entry! I think you perfectly put into words some of the difficulties ( and quite frequently frustration) that come with research projects. It’s one thing to have an idea or a question but it’s a whole other thing to actually develop an effective method to answer your question. Sometimes just when you think you have found the answer to one thing (and even after the data is collected) , something else comes up causing more questions to develop! I hope everything works out with your project and know that you are not alone ” sitting at the base of the arch” 🙂