11 February 2019

The weekly science news cycle

In politics, there is constant referencing to the “news cycle”, which is generally considered to be 24 hours. The next day is not quite a blank slate, but things older than that are not “news.”

In science, there is also a news cycle, it’s not a daily cycle. It’s a weekly one.

The scientific news cycle starts on Wednesdays, with the release of that week’s issue of Nature. It continues Thursday, with the releasee of that week’s issue of Science. Love them or hate them, the papers dropped by these two journals in mid-week drive much of the media coverage for science – whether newspapers, television, radio, or something else – for the rest of the week.

These journals are well tied into the traditional news ecosphere. Journalists often have advance notice of the big stories dropping by embargoed press releases, so the most connected media outlets are often dropping headline stories about Nature and Science papers in the middle of the week.

Social media discussions are also heavily influenced by these two glamour magazines. You often see early reaction on science Twitter the day of release, and longer reactions (blog posts, for instance) before the weekend is out.

Friday and Saturday are days for continuing, slightly longer and more in-depth coverage. Many science radio shows (also available as podcasts) air on Friday or Saturday, and they almost invariably feature interviews with authors who had a publication in Nature or Science that week. I’m thinking of NPR’s Science Friday, CBC’s Quirks and Quarks, and ABC Radio National’s The Science Show on (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not the US TV network).

These are also days where websites and media companies that don’t have their own science reporters learn about stories from other reporters. A large amount of media coverage of science says, “As reportedimn The New York Times...”, not “A new paper in Nature...”.

Sunday is the day for deep dives and long reads about science. Newspapers and magazines often put out their long form feature articles or investigative pieces. It’s the day for things that “not news, but still important.”

Monday and Tuesday are reaction days from the some in the scientific community, particularly those who are low-key users of social media. They are the catch-up points for people who heard about some story that broke last week, but they maybe heard about it by listening to a radio show or reading a New York Times article. But they didn’t really tweet or comment about it because they weren’t at their desk until Monday.

05 February 2019

Second letter in Science!

I have yet another story of a publication that started because I was wasting time on the Internet. I say again: blogging is one of the best ways for an academic to work out ideas.

This new publication is my second brush with the realm of glamour magazines in my career. It’s a letter again and not a research article, but I’ll take it.

Blog readers and maybe some of my Twitter followers might recognize the arguments. They are the same ones I made in this blog post previously. Somewhere along the way, I found myself referencing it in tweets that I thought, “Maybe I can bring this to a wider audience.” More people read the glamour magazines than my blog. I chose to try for Science because it seemed to me that GRE discussions were most relevant to the US.

While the letter is short, it actually expanded from what I originally submitted. Letters editor Jennifer Sills pushed me to expand the last paragraph to include a few sentences about possible solutions. This was a good push, and the letter is better because of it.  I’ll quote Clay Shirky again (emphasis added):

(W)hat are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them. Editing, we need, desperately.

While blogging is one of the best ways I have found to develop and work through academic ideas, an editor who genuinely edits is invaluable in fine tuning and honing ideas.


Faulkes Z. 2019. #GRExit's unintended consequences. Science 363(6425): 356. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw1012

Related posts

Letter in Science!
I come to bury the GRE, not to praise it
Publishing may be a button, but publishing isn’t all we need

04 February 2019

“We need to do a better job training PhDs in...”

I went looking for how many ways people completed the some version of the sentence, “We need to do a better job training PhDs in...”:

And that is with a couple of very trivial searches. I daresay many more entries could easily be added to this list.

As an educator, I never want to be the person to be the person saying that we shouldn’t train people. Heck, one of the entries on the list above is from me! But there is a finite number of things we can expect to teach people in a finite amount of time. I see two problems..

First, faculty tend to think, “We can do this in house.” They underestimate the complexities of fields, and they don’t reach out to experts in other fields. So the training risks being done by amateurs.

Second, long lists like this tend to encourage superficial “box checking.”

It may be that this “Train them in everything” is a symptom of the loss of support jobs in universities. Faculty are increasingly expected to do everything. If a department doesn’t have a staff photographer, who will do it? Faculty. Professors have to be one person bands, capable of playing every instrument, because universities don’t want to hire an orchestra (so to speak).

This is not a realistic expectation by academics. We should not expect to train grad students to be experts in everything, because nobody can be an expert at everything.

If I had the ability, I would rather see departments try have many more staff positions for some of these task above. Expand the pool of staff experts so that faculty don’t have to try to do everything.

Related posts

All scholarship is hard

18 January 2019

Low on “agreeableness”

Grumpy prof is grumpy (low agreeableness score) just because, not because he’s stressed (low negative emotion score).

Test results of the “Big five” personality traits. Take the test here.

Hat tip to Adam Calhoun.

External link

Most personality quizzes are junk science. Take one that isn’t.

14 January 2019

How to fix a lab fail

I did my fair share of physiological experiments with neurons when I was a trainee.

The experiment was an attempt to get a handle on whether a particular pathway between sensory neurons A and interneurons B had few neurons (maybe even only a single connection; monosynaptic) or many neurons (polysynaptic).

One way you can test whether you have few connections or many is by messing with the physiological saline the neurons are sitting in. Physiological saline is a solution that mimics the inside of the animal they are normally found in. Different species have different mixes of salts and other chemicals that keep the neurons alive and firing. There is usually a lot of gold ol’ sodium chloride (table salt), potassium chloride (salt substitute for some people), and so on.

Normally, that physiological saline contains some calcium, because calcium causes neurons to release neurotransmitters. If you change with the amount of calcium in your saline, you make each connection between neurons more and more likely to fail. Using some ions that mimic calcium (like magnesium) make this plan even more effective.

Pathways with single connections between will often keep working with this altered saline: hen you stimulate A neurons, you still see the response in B neurons.

Pathways with many connections usually stop working with this altered saline. When you stimulate A neurons, you are unlikely to see activity in B neurons.

I was doing this experiment, and the results kept being... disappointing. I couldn’t understand the results. And the neurons seemed to keep dying faster than usual. I talked to my supervisor about these experiments. We went back and forth a bit, and at one point, my supervisor asked,

“What did you mix the solution in?”

I replied, “I mixed it in...”

Freeze frame. Record scratch.

It was at that precise, exact instant – after that exact word but before I said the next – that I simultaneously recognized and solved the problem that had been vexing me in the lab. If I was a cartoon, a lightbulb would have clicked on above my head. If I was in a modern movie, I would have had a high speed montage run in front of my eyes showing the key moments I went wrong.

All of this happened in pause that lasted about a second.

But I couldn’t stop myself from finishing the sentence, even though I knew that I was about to reveal myself as having made a dumb, amateur, “I should damn well have known better” mistake.

“...distilled water.”

My supervisor laughed. Not loudly. A chuckle, I think would be the appropriate description. I think the laugh was not only because he knew the solution as soon as I said it, but because he saw the look on my face that revealed I’d experienced “Aha!” and “D’oh!” moments simultaneously.

I’ d put the calcium substitutes in pure water. Not saline with all the other salts that were needed. No wonder the neurons kept dying.

I fixed the saline and went back to trying the experiment. The neurons were much happier, although it turned out the results of the experiment were so muddy and hard to interpret them that we never published that data in a paper. (It appeared on a couple of conference posters.)

And the moral of the story is: Whenever you have a problem in the lab, make sure to tell someone else. Because sometimes, you might just solve your own problem.

P.S.—I told this story on video as part of the SICB lab fail contest in 2018. I did not win. I wonder if the video is kicking around someplace...

P.P.S.—I didn’t know it until years later, but I was using a technique “Rubber duck problem solving.

P.P.P.S.—In the original account, the duck was stuffed (as in, a hunting trophy, not plush fur), not rubber.

P.P.P.P.S.—When I was deep into CCGs like Legend of the Five Rings, I talked a game company staffer who answered the phone. Her name was Mindy. Mindy would get players calling in with rules questions all the time. If you know CCGs at all, you know there are many complex rules questions that arise, because there were a lot of possible interactions between cards. Mindy said she would often get people really wanting to ask detailed questions about the Ninja Shapeshifter or something. But because Mindy was customer service and events, not game design, she didn’t have all the cards memorized. She’d ask the person on the phone to read the card out loud to her.

She said she lost track of the number of times the person would start reading the card to her, pause, and then say, “Oh.”

They answered their own question just by reading the card out loud.

Say stuff out loud, people. I’m telling you. It works.

03 January 2019

When side projects take over

It's probably fair to say that for the last few years in the science community, the thing I’m best known for is the poster blog.

I was on my Google Scholar page a few days ago, and noticed I had a new “most cited” paper: a paper I co-authored on science crowdfunding from the #SciFund days.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with both of those projects and I’m glad they’re successful. But I don't think they are representative of my professional work on brains and crustaceans. And that is a little frustrating.

I suppose that this shouldn’t be a surprise to me. As I tell people, a key part of learning to be an academic is figuring out what you don’t suck at. I realized back in grad school or my post-doc days that other people were much more skilled in the lab than I was. I’m okay in the lab, but I felt writing and communication was where I didn’t suck.

So I had a sense for a while that maybe the place I would make the biggest impact was never going to be at the bench, churning out data, or getting students to churn out data. It’s nice to have that suspicion confirmed. I actually kind of suspected I might get more involved in the editorial side of science, but that hasn’t happened, either.

The papers that I think have the most potential to advance knowledge are a pair of crustacean nociception papers. I wish a lot more people referred to the second paper when the discussion about “Does it hurt lobsters when they go into the pot?” question when it makes the round every eight to ten months or so. Because that’s still the only paper that’s really tested the issue of whether high temperatures are noxious. I don’t think that paper gets as much attention as it should.

So if you would like to make me happy, please have a look at that paper.

28 December 2018

Crayfish online: The sixth in a trilogy

I’m a little surprised to realize that one of my most recent papers, about the crayfish pet trade, marks almost ten years of “following my nose.” This is a series of little projects that I keep thinking, “This  might be nothing,” But they have not just turned into “something,” but they have been some of my more highly cited papers.

While working on my previous papers on the crayfish pet trade (Faulkes 2013), I noticed that some states and provinces have laws that would make having pet crayfish illegal. But I could still find people placing ads for crayfish on aquarium sites.

I though a lot more about whether legislation had any affect on whether people bought and sold crayfish when looking at sales of crayfish in Ireland (Faulkes 2015, 2017), since I believed at the time (wrongly) that crayfish were illegal there.

While working on those papers about Irish crayfish, I realized that whether laws work was actually something I could test using online ads. Because different jurisdictions had different laws, you had a sort of natural legislative experiment.

But while the expression “laboratories of democracies” is a phrase that is bandied about in US politics, any federal system will do. And, to my surprise, I ended up studying my home: the prairie provinces of Canada.

In looking back at this series of papers, one of the things that I am slightly surprised by, and proud of, is how I was able to improve the techniques. I know that looking at websites isn’t exactly the same as learning how to do some complex lab technique, but still, the potential for how to do some of these things are only obvious in hindsight.

I started off with a survey on my own website, moved to general Google Alerts, then to online auction site ads. The description of the trade in crayfish is more detailed and precise than I started with, and it’s more detailed and precise than I find in similar papers.

Plus, I have finally reached a point where I am using these online monitoring methods to do more than just describe the pet trade of crayfish: I’m using those hand-scraped classified ads data to test hypotheses. It’s the kind of subtlety in methodological refinement that you might not be able to get if you’re just looking at single papers.

I was also pleased the paper found a home in another journal that I had never published in before, Nauplius. I learned about the journal a couple of years ago. I may have read articles from the journal before, but never really clicked in to what the journal was. An well-established, open access society journal with no article processing fees? I’d take twenty, thanks, if I could.

Is this the end of the trilogy of six about the pet trade? I’m not sure. I think I might have an idea for at least one more paper on the pet trade paper. I might have an idea for how to test a question with even more nuance.


Faulkes Z. 2010. The spread of the parthenogenetic marbled crayfish, Marmorkrebs (Procambarus sp.), in the North American pet trade. Aquatic Invasions 5(4): 447-450. https://doi.org/10.3391/ai.2010.5.4.16

Faulkes Z. 2013. How much is that crayfish in the window? Online monitoring of Marmorkrebs, Procambarus fallax f. virginalis (Hagen, 1870) in the North American pet trade. Freshwater Crayfish 19(1): 39-44. https://doi.org/10.5869/fc.2013.v19.039

Faulkes Z. 2015. Marmorkrebs (Procambarus fallax f. virginalis) are the most popular crayfish in the North American pet trade. Knowledge and Management of Aquatic Ecosystems 416: 20. https://doi.org/10.1051/kmae/2015016

Faulkes Z. 2015. A bomb set to drop: parthenogenetic Marmorkrebs for sale in Ireland, a European location without non-indigenous crayfish. Management of Biological Invasions 6(1): 111-114. https://doi.org/10.3391/mbi.2015.6.1.09

Faulkes Z. 2017. Slipping past the barricades: the illegal trade of pet crayfish in Ireland. Biology and Environment: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 117(1): 15-23. https://doi.org/10.3318/BIOE.2017.02

Faulkes Z. 2018. Prohibiting pet crayfish does not consistently reduce their availability online. Nauplius 26: e2018023. http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/2358-2936e2018023