Book Review: How To Do Ecology

How To Do Ecology in its natural habitat

How to Do Ecology: A Concise Handbook, by Richard Karban, Mikaela Huntzinger, and Ian S. Pearse
Princeton University Press, 2014
200pp. $25.95 paperback
Princeton University Press
I’ve often heard that there are two career options for young birders: go into ecology or biology and spend your working hours birding, or go into a more profitable field and use your spare time to bird. For many young birders, the former sounds much more appealing: in the fields of ecology or biology, you can have a direct impact on the human relationship with nature, whether by making an interesting new discovery or furthering conservation. You can also get paid to bird. However, the fields of ecology and biology include much more than just birding; they require performing research about species or systems. Performing research involves a seemingly insurmountable amount of menial (non-birding) work–everything from repeating experiments and monitoring controls to running data through complex statistical calculations to presenting your research in front of the scientific community and being critiqued on it. In How to Do Ecology, Richard Karban, Mikaela Huntzinger, and Ian S. Pearse aim to provide “nuts-and-bolts advice” on performing and presenting ecological research: “As students of ecology, we take classes in ecological principles and ecological theory…. But rarely do we explicitly try to figure out how to do ecology ourselves. What are the skills that are required to do a good job?….In a nutshell, this book is an attempt to provide a concise set of suggestions for how to do ecology well.” The book does an excellent job of meeting this goal, providing a concise yet complete set of instructions for performing research.
How to Do Ecology is laid out as a step-by-step guide, beginning with picking a research question and progressing to planning the experiments or observations and presenting the research. Each chapter analyzes a part of the research process, discussing various pitfalls and offering tips for how to proceed. For example, “Picking a Question” offers tips on coming up with an interesting, creative, and scientifically valuable hypothesis to look into, while “Experiments to Test Hypotheses” lays out important elements to include in manipulative experiments for the most reliable results. By categorizing the process into simple steps and substeps, How to Do Ecology essentially creates a flowchart to follow, which makes performing research much less intimidating.
How to Do Ecology goes into more detail, but it still feels this easy.

How to Do Ecology goes into more detail, but it still feels this easy.

In addition to the main body of text, How to Do Ecology also has several helpful boxes with anecdotes, including “The importance of research for people who aspire to non-research careers,” and more specific step-by-step procedures, such as “How to calculate effect size.” These boxes are like flashcards–principles that can be referred to quickly and easily while in the middle of research. There are checklists for journal articles, oral presentations, and poster boards to help with effective communication; lists of alternative causes to consider when interpreting data; and even a few helpful formulas for calculating the magnitude of the experimental effect in a variety of formats. These boxes contain a wealth of condensed information for reference during the process of research.
Because research tactics can vary widely, “how to do ecology” is a very broad topic to cover in a slim paperback, but this book does an excellent job of summarizing, characterizing, and explaining its suggestions. In general, the book covers two main categories: the human aspect of research, including coming up with a research question, getting a job, and presenting your results; and the actual research, including designing and executing the study. College classes do not usually cover these human aspects of research, and so the guide focuses on the skills required for these overlooked steps. The sections on writing a journal article, presenting a talk, interacting with other ecologists are particularly useful, as they are superb guidelines for writing, speaking, and networking in any field. Some parts of the book read like a self-help book rather than a guide to research. This approach is understandable, as the authors are giving advice on basic principles, and it does not detract from the book as a whole. Many of the most interesting tips are in the self-help sections, such as the discussion of different approaches to reading (based on how you interpret and react to the reading) or the suggestions about writing a little bit every day (an easy way to produce a great quantity of written material with relatively little effort). There are guides to help you relax and think creatively, specific websites to help you find jobs, and even suggestions on pursuing a career that you want to pursue. I found these sections some of the most relevant to aspiring scientists, as they focus on valuable life lessons and skills that can be developed at any point in time.
The book’s guide to designing a study divides research approaches into three broad categories: manipulative experiments, observations of patterns, and models. It then discusses the advantages and disadvantages of each of these methods, as well as examples of how to combine them for maximum effect. It also explores more specific considerations when designing an experiment, including randomization of treatments, variations in sample size, and replication. To supplement the information provided and to keep the book light, the authors reference other books and papers with more detailed information on wide-ranging topics such as statistical analysis, examples of different experimental approaches, and even finding a job. Because these outside references eliminate detail and context, it can be tough to understand certain parts of the book; the sections on different types of generalized least squares (GLS) models give references rather than explaining how to perform GLS, making it a little difficult to understand what GLS is exactly. Young birders and people who have not taken a statistics class to understand GLS might find these sections less useful than the rest of the book, although I found them informative nonetheless.
Birds in fragmented populations sing less diverse songs. The study is an excellent example of an observational ecology study. Photo credit Andrew Reding, Flickr Creative Commons.

Birds in fragmented populations sing less diverse songs. The study is an excellent example of an observational ecology study.
Photo credit Andrew Reding, Flickr Creative Commons.

The book is written for graduate students and therefore uses scientific terminology that might be confusing to younger students; however, I found the book relatively easy to decipher. Most of the concepts are introduced in high school level courses, and the book itself gently introduces terms. For instance, while I am familiar with the principle of covariance, others may not be, and the book defines the term in the text: “to covary (be correlated)” (88). This approach makes the book much more readable to anyone. Even sentences that might be difficult for younger readers can be interpreted based on context further on, such as this one: “Unambiguous interpretation of causality is dependent on several requirements: 1 appropriate controls, 2 meaningful treatments, 3 replication of independent units, and 4 randomization and interspersion of treatments” (37). While this sentence may initially seem overwhelming, it’s simply discussing experimental rigor: the most trustworthy experiment should have a control group that isolates only one variable; experimental tampering that has as few side-effects as possible; multiple test individuals; and randomly applied, dispersed experiments to minimize misleading results. As the book elaborates with clear explanations of each of the requirements, including plenty of examples and diagrams, these concepts become easier to comprehend.
How to Do Ecology is an excellent resource for new graduate students, but it’s also useful for undergraduate students or high school students looking for advice on performing research, whether for a lab project or a science fair competition. Many of its tips about approaches to reading and writing habits “may take some time to train yourself,” (104) so an early start is encouraged. Young birders interested in studying the world as professional scientists will find a wonderful manual in How to Do Ecology.