Stat 21 (W): Quantitative Paleobiology
Fall 2011
Prof. Steve C. Wang


FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Thanks for your interest in Stat 21. As this is a new course, I expect that you might have questions about what the course will be like. Here I attempt to answer some questions that might arise. If you have other questions, don't hesitate to email me.


What will the course be about?
Here is the course catalog description:
This course will explore current areas of research in paleobiology and macroevolution. For instance, does evolutionary change generally occur gradually or in short bursts? How reliably does the fossil record preserve information about ecosystems? What factors make species more likely to go extinct? To answer these and other questions, paleobiologists use a range of statistical and mathematical techniques. We will emphasize conceptual understanding and applications of such quantitative methods, rather than their underlying theory or proofs. Class meetings will include a combination of lectures, discussion of journal articles, and conversations with leading paleontologists via skype.

What will the format of the course be like?
The course will alternate between lecture days and discussion days. On Tuesdays, we will discuss one or more papers on some current research area in paleontology. These papers will typically use quantitative methods that will be new to most students. To provide background on these methods, I will give a lecture on the previous Thursday, explaining conceptually what these methods are trying to do and how they work. After that Thursday, you will read the paper(s) and prepare to discuss them. The next Tuesday, the class meeting will be devoted to discussing the papers and visiting with one of the paper's authors via skype.

What are the prerequisites?
I'm listing Bio 2 or Stat 11 (or equivalent; e.g., AP Stat), but I intend to be open-minded about prerequisites. I would like for people to have taken either some science course, or some stat course. Many other courses besides Bio 2 and Stat 11 would be fine as well -- for instance, geology or another lab science course would work, or Stat 61 or Econ 31. Basically, if you're interested in the course, don't let a lack of prerequisites prevent you from signing up.

Is the point of the course to learn about paleontology, or will it be more like a regular stat course with paleontology examples?
Definitely the former. The goal is to learn about current research areas in paleontology, more so than to learn about statistical methods. We will be reading research articles from the primary literature in paleontology, many of which use some kind of statistics. Thus, we will be learning the statistics needed to understand these articles, but the focus will be on the paleontological conclusions drawn in the articles, rather than on the statistical methods per se.

So will we be reading about dinosaurs?
Actually, probably not. The course will focus on marine invertebrate fossils, such as trilobites, brachiopods, sand dollars, clams, etc. Why marine invertebrates? Because there are a lot more of them. Many kinds of dinosaurs (and other terrestrial vertebrates) are known from only a few specimens, sometimes only a single specimen. With such small sample sizes, it's difficult to do any kind of statistical analysis. Marine invertebrates, on the other hand, are often much more plentiful. So most of the people who do quantitative research in paleontology work on these types of animals, rather than terrerstrial vertebrates such as dinosaurs.

Will we look at lots of fossils?
This course will be about the fossil record, rather than fossils per se. So we will look at lots of datasets about fossils, but this is not a lab course in which we will examine specimens. The main goal is to learn what the fossil record tells us about how evolution has shaped life on earth. So we will focus on large-scale questions about the fossil record as a whole and how reliable it is, rather than on individual animals or species.

I've already studied evolution in my bio courses. How will this course be different?
As a broad generalization, biologists often study microevolution, looking at how gene frequencies change at the level of populations or species. Paleontologists more often study macroevolution, or evolution above the species level. Macroevolutionary questions tend to encompass large time scales and large groups of species.

Can you give me an example of the kinds of questions we'll be looking at?
Sure. A major focus of the course will be mass extinctions, which happens to be my own research area. How have mass extinctions shaped the history of life? Are there characteristics shared by species that tend to perish in mass extinctions? Are there characteristics shared by species that tend to survive such extinctions? And are the characteristics that make species susceptible in mass extinctions the same as those that make species susceptible to extinction at other times? If so, then mass extinctions may just be larger version of regular extinctions, which are always occurring on earth. But if not, that would suggest that mass extinctions may be a qualitatively different phenomenon than regular "background" extinction.

Stat 21 is designated as a Writing course. What kind of writing will we be doing?
The main goal for the semester is for you to work through all stages of writing an original research paper. First, in groups of 2-4, you'ill write a project proposal; scientists often write such proposals when they submit requests for funding to agencies like the National Science Foundation (3 pages). The grant proposal will be "reviewed" by a review panel consisting of myself and the other students in the class, so that you'll get practice in constructively giving and receiving feedback (1 page).
     Each group will then complete a draft of a research paper (10-15 pages) on an original topic relevant to the course, requiring analysis of a real dataset. This paper may include revisions of material from the grant proposal. This paper will then be "submitted" to the "Journal of Stat 21", whereupon the "editor" (me) will assign the manuscript to be reviewed by anonymous referees (your classmates), just as you would do for a real journal submission. Each referee will then write an anonymous review of the manuscript (1 page). Finally, after the referee reports and editor's decision have been received, you will revise the manuscript and submit a final version (10-15 pages). At each stage of the project, I will also meet with each group in person to discuss how to effectively revise the paper. Note that the proposal reviews and referee reports will count towards the grade of the writer, not towards the grade of the person whose writing is being reviewed.
      Finally, you'll write weekly response papers, a short response to a research paper to be discussed in that week's class (1 page each).

How much work will the class be?
The class will be more work than, say, Stat 11, but a different kind of work. There won't be weekly problem sets, but there will be a fair amount of reading. In a typical week, you might be reading two or three research papers, reading a chapter from the textbook, writing a 1-page response paper based on your reading, writing a review for a classmate's project proposal or project draft, plus working on your own proposal or project.

Conversations with leading paleontologists? Really?
Each week, we will be reading and discussing papers by notable paleontologists. In most weeks, one of these authors will join us via skype so we can ask them questions and learn more about their work.

Will there be a textbook?
Maybe; I haven't decided for sure yet. Here are a couple of books I'm considering:
Donald Prothero, Bringing Fossils to Life
Carl Zimmer, The Tangled Bank (see excerpt here)
A couple of other books I am considering:
Stephen Jay Gould, Full House
David Raup, Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck?

Is there a syllabus?
Yes, right here.

Wait, I have more questions!
No problem; just email me.



Return to the Stat 21 page.

Return to Steve's home page.