Quick Questions for Richard Karban, author of How to Do Ecology: A Concise Handbook (Second Edition)

Richard KarbanDr. Richard Karban is a professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis. He is a recipient of the George Mercer Award, presented by the Ecological Society of America for outstanding research (1990) and was a 2010 Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dr. Karban received a B.A. in Environmental Studies from Haverford College (1977) and completed his Ph.D. in Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania (1982). He is the recipient of nearly a dozen research grants, whose focuses range from population regulation to plant resistance of insects and pathogens. He is the author of How to Do Ecology: A Concise Handbook (Second Edition).

Now, on to the questions!

PUP: What inspired you to get into your field?

Richard Karban: I grew up in an ugly and dangerous neighborhood in New York City. Natural history and natural areas were highly romanticized in my mind. Being an ecologist seemed like an exciting way to escape this life.

What is the book’s most important contribution?

Doing ecological research successfully requires a considerable amount of insider knowledge. We don’t teach these tips in academic classes. This book attempts to provide a simple set of guidelines for navigating the process of generating hypotheses, testing them, analyzing your results, and communicating with an interested audience. In my opinion, this is what we should be teaching ecology students, but aren’t.

“Indeed, confidence and persistence are the most important attributes that separate successful projects from failures.”

What was the biggest challenge with bringing this book to life?

The biggest challenge getting this book to happen was not allowing myself to get discouraged. I teach a graduate-level course in which each student develops an independent field project. The book started as a series of handouts that I gave my students. Each year, I revised my pile of materials. After a decade or so of revisions, I submitted a manuscript but was told that it was too short and lacked interesting visuals and other tools that would make the material accessible. Okay, so much for that, although I continued to add and tweak the content for my class. My wife, Mikaela Huntzinger, read what I had and convinced me that it would be useful to students; she also volunteered to add figures and boxes. Most of all, she encouraged me not to give up on the thing. Indeed, confidence and persistence are the most important attributes that separate successful projects from failures.

Why did you write this book?

I had a terrible time in grad school. I didn’t attend a large research university as an undergrad and I arrived with little sense of how to do research or thrive in an environment that valued research, publications, and grants above all else. Figuring out the culture was a painful process of trial and error. My experiences made me acutely aware of the “game” and made me want to share what I had learned to spare others the same pain.

Who is the main audience?

This book is intended primarily for young ecologists who can use some help posing interesting questions, answering them, and communicating what they find. Undergrads who want to do research and grad students doing a thesis are the two populations who will find the book most useful, although we hope that our colleagues will also get something from it.

How did you come up with the title and cover?

The title is a little presumptuous, but also conveys what we hope to provide in a few clear words – perfect.

The cover reflects my long-standing interest in streams that cut gently through landscapes. The first edition had a photo taken by my collaborator, Kaori Shiojiri, at our field site along Sagehen Creek. This edition features an abstraction of that image that I painted. If we write future editions, they will have further abstractions of that same theme done as a mosaic (Mikaela’s favorite medium) or as a stained glass (one of Ian’s).

Check out Chapter 1 of the book, here.


Richard Karban is the author of:

6-6 Ecology How to Do Ecology: A Concise Handbook (Second Edition) by Richard Karban, Mikaela Huntzinger, & Ian S. Pearse
Paperback | May 2014 | $24.95 / £16.95 | ISBN: 9780691161761
200 pp. | 5 x 8 | 8 line illus. | eBook | ISBN: 9781400851263 |   Reviews Table of Contents Chapter 1[PDF]

HOW CLIMATE WORKS (Part 9) — The Q&A session

Our video series on the HOW CLIMATE WORKS symposium held at Princeton University this past fall concludes with the Q&A session following the final talk of the day. We hope you have enjoyed your symposium vidoes. For furthur reading, check out our Princeton Primers in Climate series.

HOW CLIMATE WORKS (Part 7) — Shawn Marshall on The Cryosphere

Part 7 from the How Climate Works symposium features Shawn Marshall of the University of Calgary on the cryosphere. We published his excellent book on the subject in the Fall or 2011 called THE CRYOSPHERE.

HOW CLIMATE WORKS (Part 6) — Michael Bender on Paleoclimate

Continuing with our series on talks from Princeton’s HOW CLIMATE WORKS symposium, here we see Princeton University geoscience professor Michael Bender discussing Paleoclimate. His new book PALEOCLIMATE will be availble July 2013.

HOW CLIMATE WORKS (Part 5) — David Archer on the Global Carbon Cycle

Renowned University of Chicago geophysicist David Archer discussed the Global Carbon Cycle. We published the book of the same name, THE GLOBAL CARBON CYCLE, in the Fall of 2010.

HOW CLIMATE WORKS (Part 4) – The Morning’s Q&A Session

For those following our HOW CLIMATE WORKS symposium videos, our latest addition is the morning’s Questions & Answers session.

New Biology Catalog

We invite you to download and browse our 2012-2013 Biology catalog:

Be on the lookout for these new and forthcoming titles (just to name a few):

Nature’s Compass: The Mystery of Animal Navigation
by James L. Gould & Carol Grant Gould

Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life
by Enrico Coen

Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture
by R. Ford Denison

Solid Biomechanics
by Roland Ennos

How and Why Species Multiply: The Radiation of Darwin’s Finches
by Peter R. Grant & B. Rosemary Grant

Atmosphere, Clouds, and Climate
by David Randall

The World’s Rarest Birds
by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash & Robert Still

and more. There are too many great titles to list here. You’re just going to have to check it out online: http://press.princeton.edu/catalogs/bio12.pdf

If you are attending the First Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology in Ottawa, stop by and visit us at booth #105!

How warfare and altruism go hand in hand

Whether one is for war or against it, humans generally agree that warfare is a terrible thing.  Wars happen when people are unable to settle disputes using our higher faculties, the capacity to reason and compromise that differentiates us from animals.  War is, therefore, a degenerative act for humanity.  …right?

Nicholas Wade’s article in the New York Times this week explains that over the course of human history war may have been the strongest factor in promoting the evolution of human altruism, the trait on which human societies have been founded.  It’s the same problem proposed by Rousseau in The Social Contract: “The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.”  Humans are a strangely independent and dependent species.  Evolutionarily speaking altruism is nonsense: why should I sacrifice my own self interest to yours?  How would that help an individual survive?  And yet humans are constantly sacrificing their own interests for those of another–a spouse, a family unit, a community, or in the case of modern warfare, a vast nation of strangers.

The seemingly paradoxical evolutionary development of altruism is easily resolved if you consider natural selection as a group effort.  By banding together, people were more easily able to promote their own survival, and thus the instinct for group preservation developed in conjunction with self preservation.   As Wade notes, “Warfare may not usually be thought of as a form of cooperation, but organized hostilities between chiefdoms require that within each chiefdom people subordinate their individual self-interest to that of the group.”

Wade concludes with the conjecture proposed by A Cooperative Species authors Bowles and Gintes: that warfare “may have contributed to the spread of human altruism.” Communities that are successfully able to organize and raid others gain advantageous resources that increase their potential for survival.

The article is well worth a read.  And pick up a copy of A Cooperative Species–you may be surprised by what you learn about the human race!

New Biology Catalog

We invite you to browse our new 2011-2012 biology catalog at:

The catalog’s cover image is Pale-madibled Toucan (Pteroglossus erythropygius). The beautiful photo is by John Kricher, author of Tropical Ecology, one of the many great books featured in this year’s catalog.

Check out these favorites in new paperback editions:

The Origin Then and Now:
An Interpretive Guide to the Origin of Species

By David N. Reznick
With an introduction by Michael Ruse

How and Why Species Multiply:
The Radiation of Darwin’s Finches

By Peter R. Grant & B. Rosemary Grant

A Mathematical Nature Walk
By John A. Adam

Be on the lookout for these new and forthcoming titles (just to name a few):

Honeybee Democracy
By Thomas D. Seeley

Pollination and Floral Ecology
By Pat Willmer

Chemical Biomarkers in Aquatic Ecosystems
By Thomas S. Bianchi & Elizabeth A. Canuel

The Cryosphere
By Shawn J. Marshall

The Crossley ID Guide:
Eastern Birds

By Richard Crossley

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs
By Gregory S. Paul

There are too many new and forthcoming titles to list here. You’re just going to have to check it out online: http://press.princeton.edu/catalogs/bio11.pdf

Avian Architecture praised in the New York Times

Last week the New York Times ran an article on Peter Goodfellow’s Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer, and Build, and the public response has been positively overwhelming!  Yesterday the article was at number 11 on the NYT online list of most emailed articles.  Here is what some fans have had to say:

Star Tribune author Jim Williams, the “WingNut” columnist, writes: “I read “Avian Architecture” cover to cover without putting it down. I’m fascinated by nests, being built, in use, or abandoned at season’s end. Goodfellow now has me actively looking for nest constructions I haven’t seen…”

From the blog No Charge Bookbunch: “…a book review about Avian Architecture caught my interest in the New York Times today…the author’s scientific explanation of Australian bowerbirds’ nests gave a good model to emulate…”

The design-oriented blog zee. writes “I love books that make you look at the world a little differently…I never thought of birds as builders and engineers (no offense, birds), but they clearly are, in their own right,” while notcot, a blog of “ideas+aesthetics+amusement” was taken with this photo of a hanging nest:

The blog Co.Design also praises both the imagery and content of Goodfellow’s book.  “This isn’t a lavish coffee-table book — information is privileged over visuals — but there’s plenty to marvel at… Our favorites are the examples of biomimicry — instances of us mirroring nature in our own architecture. But most of the nests are remarkable feats – especially when you consider that they’re built with the assistance of a single tool — a beak — which, as Goodfellow writes, is a little like “trying to make a ham and cheese sandwich with one hand behind your back.”” (That would be very tricky!)

Whether you are a bird nest enthusiast, architecture fan, or just enjoy beautiful and inspiring images, Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer, and Build is well worth picking up!

Bobbi S. Low, co-author of An Introduction to Methods and Models in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology

HP_ecology Effective, accurate models matter now more than ever, especially in ecology, evolution, and conservation biology. Princeton University Press is privileged to publish the most up-to-date textbook on quantitative models and methods in these fields. Pioneering an “active-learning” approach that encourages hands-on experience, Bobbi S. Low and her co-editor Stanton Braude have assembled a top-tier group of contributors to delve into an array of topics ranging from Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium and population effective size to optimal foraging and indices of biodiversity. 

Biology and Earth Sciences editor Alison Kalett spoke with Dr. Low about the new textbook and the benefits of “active-learning.”


Your new book takes an “active learning” approach to teaching key ideas in biology. Can you say a bit about what that means?

There is a wealth of evidence by now that students learn better if they are engaged with the material, no matter what the topic. Rather than being talked to for an hour, if we can find ways that students can (individually, in pairs, in small groups) question and discuss the material, propose inferences from it, take apart case studies, even role play—they are likely to understand and remember the material better.

Why do you think the approach you take in this textbook is a particularly good way of teaching students ecology, evolution, behavior, and conservation?

These are some of the most “engaging” topics in all of biology. Getting hands-on experience is important, and it helps (if done right) to engage and remember the theoretical aspects correctly. In behavior, for example, you can start simply, with having students do an ethogram. They must figure out what constitutes “a” behavior, and how to describe it in a completely reliable, repeatable way. Watching, say, mallard ducks, and then discussing what everyone has seen, then collaboratively putting a “list of behaviors” together—all that engages students cognitively (and usually physically, as well). They don’t forget what they themselves have put together. It is true, tough, that almost any subject, no matter how abstract, can probably be taught this way by someone who really understands it deeply

How did you come to teach biology in this way? Why do you find it effective?

Oh, my. Well, first, the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching has a number of biology/ecology specialists who really know this approach. And Stan Braude, the senior author, independently had begun to work this way. So we were both doing in-class short collaborative exercises (<5 minutes)—small inference problems like optimal group size for werewolves hunting humans or cows (the data, of course, are on wolves with smaller and larger prey). Or, though solving a problem together, to discover why a dominant Groove-Billed Ani might kick her sister out of a collaborative nest, but not evict a stranger! And in discussion, because groups are smaller, one can do even more (and more types) of collaborative work. Last week in my behavioral ecology course, for example, groups of 3-4 presented their research (begun the week before) on the life history of some particular species, and what that life history implied for management and conservation.

More broadly, it’s probably useful to know that the Ecological Society of America, and the American Biology Teacher have good resources on why active learning is a useful tool, and how to do it effectively.

Can you talk about one example from the book to illustrate your approach?

Well, each exercise is structured this way! One I particularly like is one that Stan devised: for optimal foraging, it uses Halloween trick-or-treaters. The problems are all there, but every student has been a trick-or-treater. It’s hard to discover your early foraging was sub-optimal! All the exercises begin with some individual work, then sharing and critiquing all the ideas individuals have raised. Then the group interaction expands, and students must master many details for the final part, which may be a proposal, judging proposals, role-playing as an environmentalist or a hunter, and more. We find the approach really helpful: students think it is fun, and they learn and remember a lot!

Princeton Global Science, Issue 5

With the excitement of Halloween this weekend, I am a little delayed in getting this “issue” of Princeton Global Science published, but there are plenty of goodies this time around.

Just this morning, I’ve posted two terrific math problems drawn from A Mathematical Nature Walk and Guesstimation. We had terrific feedback to last issue’s pumpkin guide, so I hope you enjoy John Adam’s ruminations about fall foliage and rain.

Thomas Seeley, author of The Honeybee Democracy, contributes the 5 rules of democracy we can learn from honeybees and Tom Tyler is interviewed about his new book Why People Cooperate.

Physics and Astronomy editor Ingrid Gnerlich provides an overview of the In a Nutshell series and we also have a relevant excerpt about global climate change from the Princeton Guide to Ecology.

Birders will rejoice because we’ve posted another sneak preview of Joseph Forshaw’s new guide to Parrots of the World.

Like Princeton Global Science? Subscribe to our RSS Feed here: http://blog.press.princeton.edu/category/pgs/feed/.