That time of the month again: tomorrow being the third Wednesday of February, I’ll be going on the ‘tubes at my usual gig with Virtually Speaking Science for a conversation with Katie Hinde — biologist at Harvard and major-domo of the world-class awesome blog, Mammals Suck…Milk!
You can listen live or as a podcast later here. If you’re virtually real, you can join us in the live studio audience at the Exploratorium’s joint in Second Life. (I’ll get the SLURL up in an update and/or tomorrow’s reminder. We kick off at 6 p.m. ET.
Mother’s milk has an organizational effect on infant outcomes, not just by providing the energy that sustains growth, but by also contributing to immunological, neurobiological, and behavioral development.
Guided by evolutionary theory, we investigate how variation in mother’s milk and behavioral care influences infant outcomes from post-natal life into adulthood and subsequent generations.
Her research has centered on primates, but as Ed Yong discusses here, she’s a marvelously agile opportunist, and in one sweet move she managed to turn what has been a field developed on the back of very labor intensive, small sample size studies into something approaching big milk data. Her trick? Taking advantage of the detailed record keeping American dairy farmers perform for obvious reasons to acquire 2.4 million lactatation records from 1.4 million cows. Now that’s some statistical power!
Technique is one thing — asking good questions of data is another, and that’s what makes Hinde such an interesting scholar. She’s been looking at differences by gender of the offspring in the composition and delivery of milk. The answer is (a) the details are all in all; different species with different evolutionary histories and behavioral landscapes exhibit different lactation patterns in the context of different behaviors exhibited by daughters and sons, and (b) seemingly obvious evolutionary stories often fail to fit what actually happens at the udder or the breast — and after, through the life of the nourished children. You can get a sense of the field and a whiff of Hinde’s own work in her review chapter here. [PDF]
We’ll talk about all that — what the story is for cows, as compared with rhesus macaques, for example, and then we’ll talk about that research as it hits the wider world. That’s in Hinde’s mind because of a very recent encounter with the inimitable (thankfully) Daily Mail. We’ll talk about that monument to crap science writing, but with this twist: a look at the importance of social media for contemporary scientists. Hinde was able to mobilize correctives to the disastrous reporting on her research only because she has a robust presence across a number of networks — and we’ll use her experience over the last week to think about the shifting power structure in media. A long way — but not really — from the milking shed.
And last, burying the lede as usual, we’ll get to Hinde’s annual mammalian extravaganza — her own bracket of mammals taking on each other in a nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw competition that makes the NCAAs look like toddlers in sandboxes. Just to give you a taste, last year she pitted (inter much alia) the honey badgers against the wolverines. Now, there is simply no mammal around that matches the wolverine for sheer, incomprehensible bad-assery (see, e.g., the tale of M3 Hinde often cites). But Hinde is an honest bracket-builder, so home field matters. Wolverine could wreck Honey Badger on any neutral field, but in HB’s home turf — Africa — the heat and humidity negated the advantages of stamina and ferocity, leaving one of the pre-tourney favorites a loser as the Madness played out.
Hinde will be running a new Mammal Madness this coming March — and that’s where the conversation tomorrow will come to rest.
As you may have gathered, I’m looking forward to this one. Join in the conversation tomorrow.
Image: Winslow Homer, Milking Time, 1875.