28 August 2015

Bronc bouquet

This is it, folks. This is the last full business day of The University of Texas-Pan American. On Monday, we will be The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

RIP, Bucky.

Picture from here.

26 August 2015

This is not the image you want, UTRGV

Seen on the UTRGV home page this morning:

Plastering the home page with an image of a space shuttle is a bad idea, considering that all the space shuttles have been retired and stopped flying over four years ago.

So we’re advertising the launch of a new, twenty-first century university with a picture of obsolete 1970s technology. Great.

Why not an image of the Falcon 9, particularly as UTGRV likes to tout all the anticipated benefits of having a SpaceX launch site in the lower Rio Grande Valley at every opportunity it gets?

I’m using this as an excuse to link to Karen James’s awesome personal account of the last shuttle launch.

Low points

Professionally, I have had a good summer. I’ve had two papers and three book chapters land, and got a little attention on the national media stage. And next week, I’m being promoted to full professor.

I was watching this talk by Bradley Voytek, who reminded me that it’s important for us not just to talk about successes, but our failures, too. I shouldn’t pretend that it’s all been easy.

The idea of talking about failure is something I’m familiar with. I’ve done it a little bit on the blog from time to time. And a large part of many stories behind the papers is, “Why did this take so long?” But I think it’s worth revisiting this to give perspective to what’s be coming down the pipe recently.

I’m not sure what I’d consider my lowest point, professionally. There are a few candidates.

My first few years of grad school were not good ones. I had a psychology degree, had switched into a biology department, and I didn’t have a lot of background knowledge that others grad students would have. Some things were easy: I was well prepared to think about experimental design and statistics (better than some biologists, I’d wager), and a philosophy of science class was a breeze. But leveling work in undergraduate physiology? Cellular physiology? I was way out of my depth there. I got a conditional pass on my qualifying oral examination.

As a teaching assistant, I was moved out of one section of an introductory biology lab to one later in the week because of student complaints about how I was handling the class. This meant I had to replace another instructor, who had been quite popular with the students. And they never let me forget that.

In one post-doc, I didn’t connect at all well with one of the other people in the lab. It was never mean or angry from my point of view, just distant. At one point, my supervisor said to us, “You guys should be talking to each other, not to me. You have very similar projects.” I was never able to do that, and we continued to run along parallel lines, rarely intersecting. That was a missed opportunity.

I had a rough road to tenure, too. The department recommended giving me one more year. After that extended year, I came within a hair’s width of not making tenure. A last minute REU grant changed one committee vote from one recommending against me to a one vote majority recommending tenure.

Even after tenure, there have been projects that got rejected, rejected, and rejected some more before getting published. The low point was one review that said, “I don't believe it,” without specifying any flaw in methodology, analysis, or reasoning that would leave the reviewer not to believe it.

These things happen. And I know they will happen again. That’s how it goes. I may not have ever had a “rock bottom” moment professionally, but there are always low points.

And I think it’s important to pull those out when, to an outsider, you might look like you’re having some measure of professional success. Because it’s easy for those moments of success to look unattainable to others, particularly incoming students. And it’s also important for me myself to not forget the screw-ups, so that I might improve.

Related posts

You do not know the end of your story
Now part of the problem
Abandonment issues

External links

Building a shadow CV
My shadow CV

25 August 2015

Living the Matthew effect with kiloauthors

The word “kiloauthors” is getting some traction. Wow.

I make a cameo in this article in Times Higher Education (which is affiliated with the Times newspaper in London, not New York) about journal articles authored by large numbers of people.

It’s been interesting to see the Matthew effect at work. Getting attention in one high profile venue lead to another, and another, and another. While I knew intellectually that these journalistic outlets are copying from influencing each other, it’s something else to see it in action with your own stuff.

And it’s been a little weird to see how this post in May has rippled out past the usual confines of this blog’s limited readership, and how it compares to other stuff I’ve put out in the same time. Since March, I’ve had four data-driven papers (including one I thought might get some media attention), three book chapters, helped edit a book, and what gets the most attention? A quick blog post.

Related posts

When does authorship stop meaning anything useful?

External links

Is mass authorship destroying the credibility of papers?

Tuesday Crustie: Justice, and freedom

It wasn’t that long ago I posted this on Twitter:

And it’s already out of date! Yesterday, a new paper came out with another new crayfish that had appeared in the pet trade before it was formally recognized in a new paper.

I know I’ve posted quite a few crayfish species in this feature, but it’s impossible to resist such a beauty! Like most of the other species being described from the pet trade, this one is from the island of New Guinea in the Pacific.

The common name is the “orange tip crayfish,” but this didn’t factor into the scientific name.

Naming a species after a well-known person is hardly new, and it often raises eyebrows when the name is for someone who is reasonably well known. “Celebrity species names” sometimes gets some criticism due to its perception that it’s a bit of a publication relations attention getter, and not done with due deference and respect and blah blah blah.

It’s Cherax snowden, so named after Edward Snowden. This name may raise a few more eyebrows than usual, as Snowden is not universally loved, shall we say. The paper says this about the choice of the choice of name:

The new species is named after the American freedom fighter Edward Joseph Snowden. He is honored due to of his extraordinary achievements in defense of justice, and freedom.

I updated my little infographic:


Lukhaup C, Panteleit J, Schrimpf A. 2015. Cherax snowden, a new species of crayfish (Crustacea, Decapoda, Parastacidae) from the Kepala Burung (Vogelkop) Peninsula in Irian Jaya (West Papua), Indonesia. ZooKeys 518: 1-14. http://dx.doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.518.6127

External links

There’s a new crayfish species and it’s named after Edward Snowden 
New Species of Crayfish Named After Edward Snowden 
Researchers name new crayfish species after Edward Snowden

24 August 2015

Laptop bans in classes: better learning environment or tool of oppression?

I got into a discussion over the weekend about taking laptops out of classrooms. There is a reasonable amount of evidence that laptops are not enablers of note-taking, and they generally harm student performance in traditional lecture settings. Counterpoints appeared in my timeline this morning. First:

I can’t handwrite w/o significant disabling pain. Having the only comp in class made my disability obvious.


If you’re teaching and think banning laptops will make students more successful, you’re just flat wrong. And ableist. Bad form.

When I asked if there was any published research showing that laptop use did not affect student learning, the answer was, “No.” The reply thread went straight to, “They’re adults, and it’s their problem if they can’t focus.”

There are a lot of issues at play here. First, you have the instructor’s responsibility to provide the best learning environment possible. If an instructor knows that laptop use has a negative effect on learning, she or he would negligent if I did not discourage their use. It would be like a high level professional coach not requiring an athlete to train or eat right.

That university students are adults does not remove that professional responsibility. “You’re on your own” and “Sink or swim” are rarely good teaching practices, regardless of a student’s age. The issue is about attention and memory formation, which has not very much to do with age. Similarly, distracted driving laws don’t allow people to talk on phones in cars after a certain age because, “They’re adults.”

There are reasons to make exceptions to rules, and a student who has difficulty using a pen absolutely should be one of them. That’s a perfectly reasonable accommodation to make. That an accommodation makes a physical limitation obvious to others may not be ideal, but may be unavoidable. That’s how compromises work.

This is where dialogue needs to happen. Telepathy still doesn’t work, and students need to let instructors know what their particular situation is. My particular institution has an office devoted to helping students and instructors reach a reasonable solution.

That some students may need exceptions to a rule is not necessarily a reason to abandon the rule at the outset. It depends on how many exceptions you might expect, and how critical the rule is to creating a good learning environment.

As with so many things, the reality is more complicated than, “Ban laptops: Y / N?”

Related posts

Ban tech, or why I am such a hypocrite
Use your laptop, lose a letter grade
Earning it versus enforcing it

Photo from Brett Jordan on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

A plea for pluralism in science

When I was heavily involved in L5R, there were recurring arguments between players about the “better” way to play the game. Probably the most common was between players who would use whatever cards they thought would win, and players who were also concerned with the story, who often imposed limitations on what cards they would play: using only cards from a certain faction, using no “evil” cards, and so on.

Wizards of the Coast did research on what people enjoyed about role-playing games to feed into their relaunch of Dungeons & Dragons, and came to a similar conclusion: there are a lot of reasons people play a game.

It took me a while, but in L5R, I came to the conclusion that there is no right way to play the game. What gives one player enjoyment may not give another player enjoyment.

And that’s okay. You shouldn’t denigrate people who play a game differently than you do.

Arguments in science sometimes remind me of those gamer discussions. Some accusasions of, “You’re doing it wrong!” are more reflective of the critic’s priorities than a wide view of the multiple ways there are to do science.

We need to be very careful about criticising particular forms of scholarship as “better” than one another.

External links

Breakdown of RPG players (Image source)
Whose problem is the reproducibility crisis anyway?

23 August 2015

Creation myths for universities

It’s weird to watch my new institution create stories about itself. It has to convince everyone that it is going to be a big deal, not just more of the same.

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) launches in just a little over a week, and it’s already trying to create its own creation myths. This headline in The Monitor local newspaper on the creation of UTRGV declares the forthcoming university to be:

(T)he first university created in 21st century

I think this myth is originating from incoming president Guy Bailey. I recall him making that statement in a town hall, and I used something close to it here.

Except that, at best, UTRGV is the fourth university created in the twenty-first century, according to this list. In this century, before UTRGV, we have:

  1. Soka University of America – Private university founded 2001, accredited in 2005
  2. University of California-Merced – Public university founded in 2005, accredited in 2011.
  3. Ave Maria University – Catholic university founded in 2007, accredited in 2010.

And that’s only the American universities. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were more universities founded since 2001 in that small place known as the “rest of the world.”

As a new university, it would do us good to show we value good scholarship by getting simple, verifiable facts right.

Related posts

In search of an identity for UTRGV, or: why Bucky must go 
External links

The road to UTRGV, the first university created in 21st century
The Youngest and Oldest Universities in the U.S.

You published a paper! What happened next?

Caitlin Vander Weele asked on Twitter:

Is a CNS (Cell, Nature, or Science - ZF) paper in PhD that beneficial long-term? Other than securing (post-doc)?

What this question speaks to is the typical way of evaluating research by number of papers and where they are published. Increasingly, I think this is the wrong way to tackle the question.

I would like to see a lot more emphasis placed on the aftermath of publication. Publishing papers is great, but did other people find it useful? Did people talk about it? Did it make a dent in the field?

This may hard to show in the short term, but the question is specifically about the long-term benefits of a paper in Cell or Nature or Science. If you’re lucky enough to be given that prominent a platform, and you can’t show that things changed because of your paper, the paper will give you little benefit, career wise.

But there are obviously papers that light a fire under other people, who get to work expanding the results, using them, or drive people to try to prove you wrong. In the long term, that should be the benefit of publishing in those high profile venues, and that should be the thing that you are looking to demonstrate to hiring committees.

21 August 2015

Time to practice those dance moves

I just promised to learn how to dance to this song with jellyfish biologist Rebecca Helms the next time we’re at a conference together.

It might be SICB in Portland in January.

Oh well, it couldn’t be any worse than when I rapped “Indestructible Sam” at Science Online.

You may not be wasting time. You might be laying foundations.

A great post by Matt Might on the difficulties of his tenure process is making the rounds on social media. Spoiler alert! There is a happy ending to his story – he got tenure. I wanted to highlight this bit:

I also started blogging a lot. Blogging, much like answering questions on Quora, doesn’t count for tenure at all, and in fact I was cautioned against doing it, since it was “a waste of time.”

But, blogging became a way to reach out to the world and to transmit technical knowledge, which is what academic publications are supposed to do – but don’t.

Before I knew it, my blog began attracting top-notch students to my lab.

Today, my lab is a team of talented grads, undergrads, postdocs and research scientists. I’m proud of each of them. I can’t imagine it would be that way without my “waste of time” blog.

That Matt is also at Harvard Med School might also have enhanced the effectiveness of his blog as recruitment tool. Many academics blog, but don’t necessarily have a run of students wanting to join the lab.

Continuing on:

And, perhaps my experience is a counter-example to the cynical yet sincere advice frequently given on how to get tenure.

The central theme in this “advice” is that anything that detracts from research – teaching, service, kids, health, etc. – is bad.

This resonates with me. As I noted last week, I’ve had so many good things happen because I “wasted time on the Internet.” Make no mistake, it took a long while, but I think it worked because I approached that time on the Internet with the goal of creating a professional footprint online. I approached it with the goal of trying to be available and helpful when I could be.

And it made me stronger. Blogging, for instance, honed my writing skills, and it gave me a background source of knowledge that paid off in a big way when I had two book chapters to write (this and this).

Of course, some of the stuff I did was pure procrastination and stopped me from getting other things done that I should have done. There are pros and cons, like everything else. I like to say, “Yes, it’s a waste of time... but it’s not a complete waste of time. The qualifier is important.”

I think the pressure on tenure-track faculty to keep focused on research is usually coming from a good place. Senior faculty want their faculty to succeed, and they’ve been around long enough to have seen that when there is a problem in the tenure process, it’s usually because someone’s research projects didn’t work out and fell short.

It is easy to see how “making sure you are making progress on research” becomes “do nothing but research.” The first is good advice; the latter is bad advice. If you only focus on creating academic research, you will have a very hard time accomplishing anything else. And most people are going to want to accomplish other things; and so will their institutions, eventually.

A construction project might go for a while before you see anything above ground level, because you have to put in the foundation first. Same with networking. Same with social media presence.

External links

HOWTO: Get tenure

Related posts

Lessons from Quora

20 August 2015

The chapter of surprise

I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of projects that I had worked on a long time ago come to fruition in a rapid succession the last few weeks, and the latest one is another book chapter: about decapod “evo-devo.”

The story of this chapter started when lead author Steffen Harzsch emailed completely out of the blue to ask if I could write a sidebar on a chapter he was writing. Steffen had helped me out in a big way some years ago when he helped me get my research colony of Marmorkrebs up and running.

I’ve done a few book chapters now, and the process is so long and so protracted and the payoff is so minimal that I swore off writing any more of those things.

But when someone thinks I can contribute and asks me directly to chip in, I want to help. Besides, I thought a sidebar wouldn’t be so bad. That’s practically a parenthetical aside. I wouldn’t really have to compile the hard, serious data for the chapter. Easy.

I had another leg up in the process. As with another book chapter, I benefited from many years of blogging about Marmorkrebs. Indeed, the Freshwater Crayfish chapter and this one were written close enough together that I tried to be conscious of what I had written in both so as not to repeat myself too much. I’m sure if anyone read through both closely, they would be able to see some similarities and figure out where my contributions to the Harzsch chapter are.

As it happened, the editor of the book didn’t want a sidebar. So a cocoon I thought might yield a butterfly turned into a bird instead. What I wrote got incorporated throughout the chapter, and Steffen was generous enough to list me as a co-author.

I should add that this chapter is part of a big six-volume series on invertebrate evo-devo that is quite comprehensive. If you are into invertebrate development, you are sure to find some chapters of interest to you, even if it isn’t the one I helped with!


Harzsch S, Krieger J, Faulkes Z. 2015. “Crustacea”: Decapoda – Astacida. In: A Wanninger (ed.), Evolutionary Developmental Biology of Invertebrates 4: Ecdysozoa II: Crustacea, pp. 101-151. Springer: New York. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-7091-1853-5_4