Interview: OSU’s Anne Devan-Song, Changing Research Models
Sometimes, the old way of doing something isn’t the best. When Oregon State University doctoral student Anne Devan-Song brought her frog-spotting training to the US, she busted a myth about the not-so-elusive eastern spadefoot toad – and taught American researchers to rethink their methodology.
TCA: Hi, I’m Sally Lehman, and I’m with The Advocate. Today, I’m speaking to Oregon State University doctoral student Anne Devan-Song about a paper she wrote that is somewhat involving the eastern spadefoot toad. Thank you for being here.
Devan-Song: Thank you for inviting me.
TCA: So you are a graduate student at Oregon State University. What is your field of study?
Devan-Song: I study wildlife biology by and large, but I dabble in a lot of other things that are unrelated to my field as well.
TCA: According to an OSU press release, you “upended the conventional wisdom” of a century on how to determine how many eastern spadefoot toads there are in an area. Can you tell how they used to count toads?
Devan-Song: It’s not really about the numbers. I think people in that range understand that they can occur in really high numbers and you can find them on certain nights. But I think people were looking for them only when really heavy rains came about so they would migrate to ponds and start breeding and making a lot of noise. The males call out to attract females for mating. And that’s how people find the large numbers of them.
But I was finding them on dry nights with no precipitation. And it was just hundreds and hundreds of these in weather that you’re not supposed to find them. The sort of prevailing wisdom is that you can find them easily where the weather conditions are optimal, and I was finding them almost every single night.
TCA: And you did this using something called spotlighting. Can you describe that?
Devan-Song: It’s super simple. I think most of us have done it in our cars and we see deer looking back at this. So it’s exactly what it is where you shine the light and it reflects back from the animal’s eyes and you would see nocturnal animals.
For frogs it’s a little bit harder to see. You have to train your eyes to detect them. You need to put the headlamp – just a regular headlamp anyone would use – scanning near your eyes so that it will reflect back to you in a way that it’s obvious. If the angle or placement is wrong, sometimes you just see spiders and insects and you don’t see frogs.
TCA: Why did you try this different methodology?
Devan-Song: That’s how I learned how to do it, actually, so I didn’t know that people out here didn’t really do it to find frogs.
Back home, I’m from Singapore and I have done a bunch of work in Southeast Asia on frogs, and that’s how I was taught to find them. And by and large, it’s hard to find them in the canopy with high vegetation and a lot of plants if you don’t spotlight. So that was just natural to me. I just did it and I assumed everyone else did as well. So when I came out here to the US, I was surprised that spotlighting isn’t usually used for finding frogs in the forest.
TCA: Changing the method of finding them, what were you able to prove about the frogs?
Devan-Song: So they are not as secretive as they are widely believed to be. So the idea is that they’re subterranean, they hide out underground and dig burrows – which is true. That’s what they do. They live in burrows, but they actually come up from the ground far more often than people thought.
Researchers have found a few sites where they do come up very regularly, but they actually track them and these have been published in the past decade. But even with those publications, people sort of didn’t get the idea that they come out really regularly on the surface and you should be able to find them. You should be able to just pick them off the forest floor if the habitat is suitable.
TCA: The eastern spadefoot toad is listed as a conservation concern in the northern regions of the east coast of America. Has this changed at all with this new methodology?
Devan-Song: Unlikely, too. I think that they will still be endangered in those ranges, still very difficult to find, and they just might be quite limited in the northern areas.
My sites were in Virginia, where they’re not threatened. So I don’t think that there will be a change in status or anything in the Northeast. It’s just that we should now have the methods to find them more and actually monitor the populations. Most of the listings on this species are not based on population estimates, but they usually go out and sample and count the numbers. We don’t have population estimates. They’re listed based on [the fact] they would be a difficult thing to find rather than actual numbers.
TCA: The spotlighting happened in Rhode Island and Virginia. Yet you are receiving additional recognition here in the Pacific Northwest for teaching a lesson on confirmation bias. Can you define that?
Devan-Song: The confirmation bias is sort of interpreting your data or information that you see in a way that confirms what you previously needed [it to say]. So for these frogs, confirmation bias in the sense of people finding them very easily once they’re in breeding pools, and you can find them very easily when it’s raining. The fact that people are not spotlighting so they don’t see them outside of the rainy season, it just sort of propels this myth that they’re only findable in rainy conditions.
That sort of additional confirmation – that you do see them in rainy seasons, don’t see them when it’s not raining – it sort of confirms the bias that they’re difficult to find outside of rain, which our study proves is not true.
TCA: Your paper ended up being more about why researchers should keep an open mind.
Devan-Song: I think we all should. I mean, I welcome people to read my paper and tear it apart and criticize it as well, and nothing would make me happier than for any of my research to be proven wrong. And I think we should open our mind to not everything you read or that is “prevailing wisdom” is correct. You should always just poke away at it and see if it’s true or not. That’s how science works. It’s very innovative.
Tried and true methods that may have worked in the 1940s, we shouldn’t stick to them as our bread and butter. We should explore as many different options as possible.
TCA: What are you pursuing as your doctoral thesis?
Devan-Song: I’m looking at the spread of information and disease in animal networks. So I work on a few different systems, including frogs, these frogs out here and African Buffalo with the lab that I’m at in integrated biology, and also looking at drivers of the global wildlife trade networks.
TCA: I also heard that you are involved in a group about writing policy for sexual harassment on campus. Can you tell me about that?
Devan-Song: Yeah, I think the policies on campus and countrywide [and] statewide should be continually examined to make sure that they meet the requirements of what the laws say and also treat people ethically. So I’m very involved in trying to make sure that we match our commitments to following these rules and compliances with action.
TCA: Previously, we spoke with Dr. Ana Spalding about the inequality and racism that tends to happen within the STEMM fields. Have you faced anything like that?
Devan-Song: Yes, for sure. I think any person of color, especially if you’re a woman or have other minoritized identities, have experienced this to some varying degree.
But at the same time, I have fantastic support and networking within my own lab at OSU and in the College of Science. So I would say it’s like a lot of good and a lot of bad. And anybody who enters the STEMM field with a minoritized identity, I should expect to face these areas. Unfortunately, it’s not going away for quite some time.