Learn to ‘Think Like a Scientist’

Transitioning grad students and young researchers to think like scientists is a daunting task, especially given the typically subsumptive style of undergraduate and high school education.   At this upcoming lecture, Nobel prize winner Carl Wieman shares his thoughts on how to better train scientific thinkers based on insight from recent psychological research.


Reflections on the ISA 2018 conference

Back in early April, I was invited to present the results from the Data Science for Democracy project at the 2018 International Studies Association conference, a premier conference for international relations academics.  Over 7000 attendees filled the halls of the Union Square Hilton in San Francisco for the 4 day event.  Topics spanned political science, international relations, military planning, etc, on issues ranging from military privatization,to free trade, conflict deescalation, election monitoring, populism, the role of science and technology in policymaking, as well as many others.   The types of research also varied, from highly technical, quantitative studies based on large datasets laden with mathematical models, to more anecdotal, interview-based research, which was often presented as an oration at the podium without any accompanying media.   Being a physical scientist with a quantitative background, it was very exciting to see how social and political issues were being tacked in these fields, and to learn about the diversity of problems that were being investigated.

I presented the paper on the noise in the electoral college in an illiberal democracy panel, which was part of a series of panels focused on discussing varying degrees and types of illiberal democracies around the world.   It was an honor to be presenting these results alongside researchers who spent time interviewing the electorate in the Phillipenes, Haiti, and eastern europe.  A very insightful presentation on this panel was lead by Prof. Henry (Chip) Carey from Georgia State University, who discussed the populist right movement and recent transition of some stable democracies towards ‘sultanism’ and the loss of influence or integrity of important democratic institutions (e.g. CIA, FBI, EPA, courts, etc) which traditionally balance government in these states – essentially a transition from a more complex society of institutions designed to prevent authoritarian rule, to a simpler one with less checks and balances.   I received thoughtful comments feedback from Chip as well as many others and overall the paper was very well received for its empirical value and given its quantitative nature, was rather unique for the field.   By attending the conference, I’ve been able to put the paper in a larger context than before, as well as incorporate the thoughts and feedback from leaders in the field.

I’ve edited the discussion to include the feedback from the conference, and I will be uploading the latest version of the draft here soon.  I want to thank the wet lab for the thoughtful discussion when writing this paper as well as the donors who support the project and provide a means for traveling to conferences and exchange of ideas with leaders in the field.

California is Reviewing Proposals to Import Seawater to the Salton Sea

The California Natural Resources Agency is reviewing proposals for importing Seawater to the Salton Sea, as a means to maintain current lake volume.  Proposals to the agency for seawater import were due on March 9th, 2018.

Seawater import can be an effective mechanism to maintain lake volume, but it is also associated with many ecological side effects such as the increased salinity levels and the loss of aquatic biodiversity.   To learn more, about the opportunities and issues associated with seawater import, check out our whitepaper Ecological Restoration Potential of Management Strategies at the Salton Sea

Thank You Journal Club

Thanks so much for the thoughtful discussion about the Data Science for Democracy paper at the journal club last week.   I’m incorporating your feedback into the paper and I believe it has improved the quality of the paper and its content.  Thanks so much for the thoughtful insights and discussion!  Submitting it in a couple weeks to the conference.  Looking forward to the next JC!

Data Science Apprentice

We are looking for a data science apprentice volunteer for the Data Science for Democracy project.  As part of this position you will learn about and help to:

  • run ANOVA analysis and update figures with latest result
  • run statistical analyses
  • edit visualizations in Tableau and post to Tableau public
  • discuss and interpret results
  • convert document from word to Latex
  • There may be additional data analysis opportunities for other components of this project as it grows.

Ideally we are looking for an undergraduate student or more experienced candidate, who is interested in developing analytical skills while working on a pragmatic problem.

If you, or someone you know, are excited to learn more about data science and/or are interested in solving problems in Political Science please contact us.

Salton Sea Ecology Working Paper is updated

Edited typos,  added more acknowledgements, and also posted the paper on authorea for public comment


Water Redirection away from Salton Sea Is Underway

As of January 2018, Imperial County water managers are no longer adding water to the Salton Sea as part of a deal to sell Colorado River water to San Diego.   This is expected to result in various hydrological and ecological changes to the region, as well as air quality issues.

Learn more about how these hydrological changes influence the resulting ecological changes at the Salton Sea from our working paper – ‘Ecological Restoration Potential of Management Strategies at the Salton Sea

The Future of Bird Ecology at the Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake, located 85 miles northeast of San Diego.  More bird species visit the wildlife refuge at the Salton Sea each than any other wildlife refuge in the western United States each year, but imminent water-loss and water quality decline threaten the future of this ecosystem. The lake is expected to shrink to almost half of its current size by 2030, resulting in ecological impacts at the Salton Sea that mimic future climate-change scenarios in regions across the planet, but on a much faster timescale.  Many management solutions have been proposed to address the diversity of issues facing the Salton Sea but, among these, bird ecology is often not the
central focus.

Black-necked Stilts and Pelicans along a receding shoreline at the Salton Sea. Photo credits: Gerry Worley, The EcoMedia Compass

The Project

This project is led by David Forney in collaboration with AGESS, an environmental restoration management company, and the EcoMedia Compass. 

Bird ecology is likely the most complex issue facing the Salton Sea, as changes at the Salton Sea have the potential to impact bird populations across the west, from Canada to Mexico.   Numerous solutions have been proposed by many different organizations with varied interests in order to manage bird ecology as well as a myriad of other issues at the Salton Sea.   Understanding how these proposed solutions benefit bird groups at the Salton Sea is important for both determining the efficacy of strategies, as well as projecting possible ecological scenarios in the future.  But the interactions between numerous popular solutions and bird ecology are unclear, and merging all of this information together to provide a clearer view of these relationships is challenging.

The purpose of this project is to:

1) Evaluate the qualitative relationships between various high-level management strategies and the ecological pressures facing birds at the Salton Sea

2) Clearly organize and present this information to the public, decision makers, and project management organizers.

Project Outcomes:

Working Paper

The working paper ‘Ecological Restoration Potential of Management Strategies at the Salton Sea‘ provides the public with with an overview of the issues facing bird ecology at the Salton Sea, and the variety of plans that have been proposed to manage it.  Results were obtained using a dimensional database model to compare the primary needs of birds at the Salton Sea to the potential habitats provided by management strategies.

Main contributions of this paper are as follows:

  • Reviews information for audiences unfamiliar with bird ecology at the Salton Sea and the various strategies that have been proposed to manage it.  Gives the public and stakeholders a sense of the situation at the Salton Sea and the options for moving forward.
  • Estimates the potential for prevailing high-level management strategies to relieve ecological pressure on bird groups at the Salton Sea, after water-diversion policies go into effect in 2018.
  • Results show that some management strategies, such as seawater import without appropriate salinity control, could still put ecological pressure on bird groups and species found at the Salton Sea.
  • Among the four strategies with potential to relieve the most pressure on bird ecology at the Salton Sea, results suggest that desalination
    combined with vegetated wetland creation may be the most feasible, least expensive strategy, and may also provide additional ecological benefits such as chemical compound control and increased aquatic species biodiversity.
  • Recommends more research to better assess how vegetation influences Selenium dynamics in wetlands when Selenium concentrations are moderate to high, but below EPA limits.
  • Provides a frameworks to measure the exact ecological value of the Salton Sea and considers multiple studies and approaches to do so
  • Provides recent references and studies supporting earlier studies on wetland loss in California, verifying that the state has lost around ~90% of its wetlands.

Interactive Results on Tableau Public

An interactive version of the results have been published on Tableau public, as well as a short storyboard version of the paper.

To interact with the results, click on any region of the chart to get more information about the bird species affected.

Submission to California Water Board

The paper and its recommendations were recently submitted to the CA water board for its  “Public Workshop on the Salton Sea Management Program and Draft Stipulated Order for Future Action by the State Water Board.”  to be held on Sept 7th, 2017.

Donate / Contribute

If you found this paper new, informative, and compelling, or would like to contribute to further restoration efforts at the Salton Sea, then please consider making a donation to this project!

Your donation is tax deductible and goes towards:

If you’d like more information about this project or would like to get involved, please contact the project leader, David Forney, at davidforneyc-at-gmail-dot-com

501c3 Info:

IRS The Wet Lab is a tax-deductible public charity in the state of California.
EIN #81-4247481

La Jolla Cove Microbial Diversity Project

A citizen science study by the SD Wet Lab

Attention all beach lovers! Have you ever wondered what bacteria you are swimming with?

You can help citizen scientists survey the microbial ecosystem of La Jolla Cove, an iconic swimming beach in Southern California, where humans, wildlife, and the physical environment interact in complex ways.


The Project

La Jolla Cove is an iconic swimming beach popular with tourists and locals. Known for its abundant marine mammals, sea birds, and fish, and neighboring a busy urban area, the Cove is a microcosm for the complex interactions between humans and wildlife. Although La Jolla’s marine wildlife is famous, there is still much to be learned about the micro-organisms that populate the water. San Diego County routinely tests the water for a small number of bacterial species that are associated with sewage pollution and posts advisories and beach closures when the levels exceed health standards. More information on the program can be found here: http://www.sdbeachinfo.com/

These methods are, however, just scratching the surface since ocean water is a complex ecosystem with potentially millions of microbial taxa performing diverse function. Cutting-edge genomic sequencing technologies give us a way to survey every species in the water. We propose to sample water from the Cove and nearby swimming beaches, extract DNA, and use sequencing to understand how the unique biological environment, including the presence of humans and marine mammals, affects the ecosystem.

All data collected during this project will be made available through public databases and peer reviewed open access publication. The La Jolla/Riford Library will serve as a venue for public education about the methods and results of this study. Stay tuned for opportunities to learn about and participate and in this project locally.

Where your money goes

Funds raised from this campaign will pay for sample processing and sequencing. The total scope of the project will depend on the amount raised. More donations = more samples = more data! The crowdfunding campaign will also determine which sequencing method we use. For 16S sequencing, which targets a specific region of the genome useful for classifying micro-organisms, we have a preliminary estimate of $4000 for the study. Metagenomic sequencing, which returns the entire genomic content of a seawater sample, can provide more taxonomic and functional details about the microbial community. Metagenomic sequencing for the whole study has been estimated at $15,000.


Samples will be collected at three locations: La Jolla Cove, Casa Beach, and La Jolla Shores. These three beaches are within walking distance of each other, yet differences in animal populations and human activity are apparent to even a casual observer.  Sampling will take place over a period of six months to capture variation in microbial diversity during seasonal temperature transitions. Since many micro-organisms present in the environment are not culturable in the lab, we will extract total genomic DNA from micro-organisms collected by passing seawater through 0.2 um filters. Genomic sequences will be used to catalogue the micro-organisms at each location throughout the six month sampling period. Relevant physical parameters such as temperature, turbidity, surf height, and tides will be measured or recorded from public databases to establish correlations between physical variables and changes in microbial community. Details of the methods and regular updates on the status of the project will be posted here: wetlab.org/microbial-diversity-project/

Purchases of equipment for the initial sample collection is being generously funded by the Friends of the La Jolla Library.

(photo credit: Dr. Carmen Gupta)