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Tracking the Migration of a Strange Animal: The Scientist

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We have a lot of outdated notions of what a scientist looks like. Among them: that scientists stay in one laboratory room, bent over the same Bunsen burners, for decades. Now a new study suggests that researchers are far more mobile than we realized—and that this mobility is hugely beneficial for science. The research is part of a special issue of Science focused on human migration.

“Ideas do not carry passports,” the Science editors note in their introduction to the issue. “But lines on maps, as well as policies and pressures that influence who does or does not cross them, can be powerful determinants of whether and how ideas and skills align to advance scientific discovery and technological and economic progress.”

Like the naked gecko, which squirms out of its skin when cornered, the movements of individual scientists are often difficult to keep hold of. There are so many of them, many with the same names, often affiliated with multiple institutions. And while there have been studies of scientists’ travels, these are conducted anonymously, which makes it impossible to track any one person’s migration patterns.

Fortunately, a nonprofit organization called ORCID is now making the process a whole lot easier by offering each researcher their own unique ID code. In the nine years since its launch, ORCID has registered more than 3 million scientists, each with their own story and dashed line across the globe.

This is great for researchers with common names. It’s also great for social scientists, who used the data to survey 17,852 scientists working in 16 countries to find out where their careers were taking them.

Graphic: G. Grullón and J. You/Science; Data: ORCID

The answer seems to be “everywhere, man.” Survey respondents were highly mobile, often moving among several countries as their research progressed. Many of these moves were driven by necessity, author John Bohannon writes in Science. “You spend your days at the border of human knowledge. Depending on the topic, only a dozen people may deeply understand your research—let alone help you push it further—and they are scattered across the world. For many, completing a Ph.D., doing postdoctoral research, and landing a permanent job all in one country is impossible. And so you wander.”

But rather than disrupting the scientific enterprise, the researchers found, migration actually seems to enrich the quality of research. Survey respondents who moved more often were more successful in their research and publication, and departments with higher proportions of migratory researchers thrived. Conversely, countries hostile to immigration—including a post-9/11 U.S.—have taken a hit.

More research is needed to confirm these findings. The survey participants were not a representative sample, rather a self-selected group of researchers who use ORCID. Like many online database users, they’re younger than average, and it’s not clear how this affects the study results.

But individual researchers say the trends mirror their own experience of migration and its benefits, both professional and personal.

“Living and working in another country … makes you more humane and understanding,” biological engineer Helena Pinheiro told Bohannon. At the same time, she says, “crossing borders has always left me with the wish that borders would cease to exist.”

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Tracing Vladimir Nabokov's 1941 Cross-Country Road Trip, One Butterfly at a Time
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Vladimir Nabokov is most famous as a writer, but the Russian scribe was also an amateur—yet surprisingly accomplished—lepidopterist. Nabokov first began collecting butterflies as a child, and after moving to the U.S. in 1940 he began volunteering in the Lepidoptera collections at the American Museum of Natural History.

The following year, the author took a cross-country road trip, driving 4000 miles from Pennsylvania to California. Along the way, he stopped at kitschy roadside motels, which provided atmospheric fodder for his 1955 novel Lolita. Nabokov also collected hundreds of butterfly samples at these rest stops, most of which he ended up donating to the AMNH.

Nabokov would go on to publish multiple scientific papers on lepidoptery—including the definitive scholarly study of the genus Lycaeides, or the “blues”—and produce perhaps thousands of delicate butterfly drawings. Multiple butterfly species were also named after him, including Nabokov’s wood nymph.

In the AMNH’s 360-degree video below, you can trace the author's 1941 cross-country road trip state-by-state, see some of the specimens he collected, and learn how museum curators are using his westward journey to better understand things like species distribution and migration patterns.

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Trying to Save Money? Avoid Shopping on a Smartphone
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Today, Americans do most of their shopping online—but as anyone who’s indulged in late-night retail therapy likely knows, this convenience often can come with an added cost. Trying to curb expenses, but don't want to swear off the convenience of ordering groceries in your PJs? New research shows that shopping on a desktop computer instead of a mobile phone may help you avoid making foolish purchases, according to Co. Design.

Ying Zhu, a marketing professor at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan, recently led a study to measure how touchscreen technology affects consumer behavior. Published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, her research found that people are more likely to make more frivolous, impulsive purchases if they’re shopping on their phones than if they’re facing a computer monitor.

Zhu, along with study co-author Jeffrey Meyer of Bowling Green State University, ran a series of lab experiments on student participants to observe how different electronic devices affected shoppers’ thinking styles and intentions. Their aim was to see if subjects' purchasing goals changed when it came to buying frivolous things, like chocolate or massages, or more practical things, like food or office supplies.

In one experiment, participants were randomly assigned to use a desktop or a touchscreen. Then, they were presented with an offer to purchase either a frivolous item (a $50 restaurant certificate for $30) or a useful one (a $50 grocery certificate for $30). These subjects used a three-point scale to gauge how likely they were to purchase the offer, and they also evaluated how practical or frivolous each item was. (Participants rated the restaurant certificate to be more indulgent than the grocery certificate.)

Sure enough, the researchers found that participants had "significantly higher" purchase intentions for hedonic (i.e. pleasurable) products when buying on touchscreens than on desktops, according to the study. On the flip side, participants had significantly higher purchase intentions for utilitarian (i.e. practical) products while using desktops instead of touchscreens.

"The playful and fun nature of the touchscreen enhances consumers' favor of hedonic products; while the logical and functional nature of a desktop endorses the consumers' preference for utilitarian products," Zhu explains in a press release.

The study also found that participants using touchscreen technology scored significantly higher on "experiential thinking" than subjects using desktop computers, whereas those with desktop computers demonstrated higher scores for rational thinking.

“When you’re in an experiential thinking mode, [you crave] excitement, a different experience,” Zhu explained to Co. Design. “When you’re on the desktop, with all the work emails, that interface puts you into a rational thinking style. While you’re in a rational thinking style, when you assess a product, you’ll look for something with functionality and specific uses.”

Zhu’s advice for consumers looking to conserve cash? Stow away the smartphone when you’re itching to splurge on a guilty pleasure.

[h/t Fast Company]

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