22 October 2014

Should you reply to spamming students?

A colleague, who is a new assistant professor, asked on Facebook, if he should reply to an “endless” stream of emails from international students.

I know the kinds of letters this person is asking about. Many show the candidate has extremely limited ability to express him or herself in written English, the tone is often obsequious, and the letters are often clearly “form” letters sent to who knows how many institutions.

What’s the right course of action? On the one hand, there is an actual person on the other end. A person who has probably gotten bad advice, but still. On the other hand, it can take up a huge block of time to reply to all of these.

If someone sends you a cut and paste inquiry, it’s okay a cut and paste response. Signs of a cut and paste from a student include the opening, “Dear Sir / Madame,” or discussing research interests that are nowhere near the kind of stuff you do.

Only if someone has clearly written a personalized inquiry to you, that shows they understand what you do, should you spend the time to write a personal response.

I don’t have an endless stream of these letters - and I am the grad program coordinator - so I do reply. I send links to our entry requirements and program FAQ, and answer any direct questions in the letter.

21 October 2014

Tuesday Crustie: Welcome wagon

It’s always polite to welcome a new family to town! Nicolai Roterman tweeted about his new paper:

If you like fossils and yeti crabs, then this is definitely for you!

It’s like he knows me!

Nicolai’s new paper in Scripta Geologica erects a new family, Pristinaspinidae, to accomodate the fossil Pristinaspina gelasina, shown as a line drawing in the upper left corner here. The other four pictures are its living relatives, yeti crabs, which remain in the family Kiwaidae.

And yes, this is another excuse to remind you that I curate a dancing yet crabs playlist on YouTube.


Ahyong ST, Roterman CN. 2014. Pristinaspinidae, a new family of Cretaceous kiwaiform stem-lineage squat lobster (Anomura, Chirostyloidea). Scripta Geologica 147: 11. http://www.scriptageologica.nl/16/nr147/a11

20 October 2014

Tracking one hundred students

I am a romantic, I guess. I would like to see universities as places where everyone can thrive regardless of their background. A leveler, if you will, which provides an opportunity for people to improve their lot in life. My current university helped do that: UTPA has been credited with creating a middle class in South Texas.

So this graph is important:

It shows that American universities are more often than not reinforcing existing class structures instead of minimizing them.

It’s also important in thinking about in terms of our graduate programs, and the sort of people who make it through the bachelor’s to have the chance to earn a higher degree.

Additional: It just so happens that the New York Times has an article about the “glass floor problem”, which is related to the article above. It emphasizes that the affluent have opportunities to hoard resources, preventing a leveling of the playing field.

“(U)npaid internships... have become more commonplace and, in many cases, an important first step on a lucrative career ladder. As they are unpaid, they automatically favor the affluent. Effectively unregulated, they can also be handed out to the children of clients or friends.”

View the interactive version of this graph here. Hat tip to Joshua Hatch.

The Zen of Presentations, part 66: What do you want your audience to feel?

A common piece of advice for technical presentations is to figure out what your “take home message” is. People will only remember one or two things, to you should figure out what those will be. “The elevator pitch” is also about focusing down your information to a concise, under a minute format.

This is good advice, but it is typical of academics: it focuses on the “head.” It’s a question about information. Lots of people who have thought about presentations have concluded that if all you are doing is relaying information, there is no point to having a presentation. If all you want to do is convey information, send an email. A presentation should be about more than that.

Besides figuring out what you want your audience to remember about the information you presented, ask yourself what you want your audience to feel about what you presented.

Do you want them to feel happy? Sad? Inspired? Amused? Agitated? Concerned? Horny? (Okay, maybe that last one is a little unlikely to be a goal of a presentation.)

This does not mean that you can’t have multiple feelings in a talk. Something can be funny one minute and heart-rending the next. But like your take home message, you should think about the main emotion you want to convey.

Once you’ve decided what you want them to feel, you can start taking steps to enhance that emotional core of your talk. For instance, do you have slides with dark, sober colours? Probably not what you want if you want people to leave feeling uplifted.

This might not be a critically important consideration if you are giving a scientific talk to other scientists, who are also very “head centered.” But this could be very important when you are talking to people from outside your particular research field. Emotions are understandable to everyone, and are so much more contagious than concepts.

There is an quote from Maya Angelou that’s overused, but appropriate:

(P)eople will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Photo by Nic Walker on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

16 October 2014

When your name changes

People change their names for all sorts of reasons. Marriage is only one. What can you do to make sure people can find your scientific papers if you change your name?

When you’re talking about your own CV or website, the task is trivial. All it takes is a note mentioning the name change.

The problem is that many people look for papers through search engines: Google Scholar, Web of Science, PubMed, and so on. If they only know you by one name, they will not find papers you authored under the other name.

This is not something that you, as the author, can solve, as far as I can tell. A stopgap is to create as many profiles about your research as you can, so that if someone finds your research on through your own website or similar, they are more likely to see the complete list of papers.

It should not be your problem to solve. This should be a problem for the search engine services to solve. It seems that if there was widespread adoption of ORCID, there is a shot at making this a non-issue.

Comments for first half of October 2014

Terry McGlynn looks at external reviews for tenure and promotion decisions. This has been a contentious addition to our procedures at UTPA recently.

Neuwrite San Diego blog looks at science crowdfunding, and has a list of websites.

15 October 2014

How Gilmore Girls changed my teaching

More than a decade after it debuted, Gilmore Girls is experiencing a renewed burst of interest after arriving on Netflix this month.

When I saw Gilmore Girls, I was impressed by the speed and density of the dialogue. Joke, pop culture reference, joke, joke, pop culture reference... the writing kept coming at you, at a rapid clip.

But it did so in a way that you never lost track of the plot. Even if you didn’t get any particular one-liner, you were able to follow the story. And there would be another clever bit in a minute or two.

It just so happened Gilmore Girls started just before I took up the position I had, and I was teaching classes from stem to stern for the first time. When I started, students were always kvetching about slides going down before they could finish transcribing them. So I ended up going slow.

Watching Gilmore Girls, I realized that people could handle a lot of information quickly. And that I could talk faster. I could put in more jokes, references, tangents... as long as I kept the main point that I was making front and center. If someone didn’t get one reference, I didn’t worry, I just kept on going.

My lecturing strategy become to make a point quickly, but repeat it often, rather than make a point slowly and ponderously just the once.

I don’t know if my lecturing style is better because of Gilmore Girls, but it certainly made it a lot more lively and fun for me. I just hope that my greater enthusiasm is contagious, and that students pick up on it.

Hat tip to Gilmore Girls fan Ed Yong, whose tweets about the show prompted me to write this.

Remain calm

Calm people solve problems. Panicked people cause them.

(Inspired by Adam Savage, who said, “Calm people live,” in the Mythbusters episode, “Duct tape canyon.”)

14 October 2014

Tuesday Crustie: Hoax

Does this need to be said?

Yes, apparently, someone does need to say that there are not crabs wider than two or three cars are long. And that someone was Dr. Verity Nye:

(I)t is not inconceivable that new species could be found, but I laughed when I saw this picture.

The news article is being kind to call this a “a well-doctored hoax.” A good hoax should have some plausibility to it. This one is ridiculous.

External links

Is 'Crabzilla' real or not? Leading marine biologist rules picture of giant crab lurking in shallow waters must be a HOAX

Hat tip to Carin Bondar.

13 October 2014

“We’d probably have [insert thing needed now] if not for budget cuts”

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said about the prospects for an Ebola vaccine:

Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready.

Collins's statement gives me the heebie-jeebies. I kind of doubt that an Ebola vaccine is something we’d “probably” have by now, funding or not. (Though I am too far away from vaccine development to have a good sense of the state of play - maybe research on Ebola is more advanced than I think.)

We should not base arguments for science funding on specific promises for specific goodies, because a lot of things science promised never materialized. People will never stop asking where there jetpacks and flying cars are. More seriously, people ask why we still can’t cure cancer, more 40 years after President Nixon started what became known as the “war on cancer.” Unmet promises burns scientists.

Perhaps a better argument (which I saw on Twitter, can’t recall who): We need the NIH to develop things like Ebola vaccines, because private industry probably has no profit motive to do so.

Additional: Of course, I wrote all of the above before I saw that a Canadian-led Ebola vaccine is now in human trials. Maybe Collins’s statement was based on better knowledge than I had.

But darn it, it still sounds like a fairly calculated ploy to use current events to lobby for a bigger budget.

More additional, 14 October 2014: Michael Eisen reaches a similar conclusion to mine:

(I)t’s time to call this for what it is: complete bullshit. ...

(E)ven if you believe the only thing holding up development of the Ebola vaccine was funds, it’s still false to argue that with more money we’d have an Ebola vaccine. Vaccine and drug development just simply doesn’t work this way.

Update, 16 October 2014: Justin Kiggins points out that Collins’s argument backfired in an entirely predictable way. A major international newspaper and an American politician has pulled a trick American politicians have used for years:
  1. Look through titles of grants.
  2. Find grants that look obvious or silly.
  3. Do not contact researchers in charge of grants or read grants.
  4. Argue that agency wastes taxpayer money.

Update, 19 October 2014: Other officials in the NIH are disagreeing with their director. This quote is from Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, this morning:

“I don’t think you can say we would or would not have that. Everything has slowed down but I would not make that statement” that higher funding would have led to a vaccine by now(.)

Related posts

Promises versus trust

External links

Ebola Vaccine Would Likely Have Been Found By Now If Not For Budget Cuts: NIH Director
NIH Director Francis Collins’ ridiculous “We would have had an Ebola vaccine if the NIH were fully funded” meme
NIH Director throws basic research under the bus to score Ebola points. It backfires.

Watch out for UTRGV’S Phase II

Inside Higher Education has an article about the hiring process for University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Twenty-five faculty from UTPA and UTB did not get offered their jobs back yet.

The article goes into quite a bit of detail about the Phase I hiring process, and list all the reasonable concerns about the new university being used to remove tenured faculty for questionable reasons.

What the article barely mentions is that there is a Phase II in the hiring process. I sat through quite a few discussions about this, and I got the impression that Phase I was more or less a rubber stamp. Not being selected in Phase I was certainly not the end of the process. It just indicated a little more vetting would be done. That doesn’t strike me as crazy or unreasonable, though it certainly could be implemented in an unreasonable way.

The outcome of Phase II will be a much better indicator of the direction that UTRGV is heading than Phase I.

External links

Voted off the island

Opening the funnel to make “better citizens of the world”

Fellow crustacean neurobiologist Eve Marder has an opinion piece in eLife arguing against the notion that we should limit the number of doctoral students.

Why might we have a discussion about limiting the number of doctoral students? Because the number keeps expanding. Here’s a relevant figure from about a year ago.

Marder argues we should not try to reduce the number of doctoral students, because some of them will be great scientists, and we can’t pick who will be those awesome scientists in advance.

(I)f we significantly decrease the number of entries into PhD programs, we risk losing some of the most exciting, dedicated and creative young scientists(.) ... Admissions committees are bad at predicting who will end up deciding to stay in science.

If admissions committees are bad at picking prospects, perhaps we should follow this logic through. An open door enrollment policy for graduate school probably wouldn’t work because faculty resources are limited. Maybe we could just admit students by a lottery system. It would save students all that arduous writing and transcript tracking needed to complete an application, and save faculty the time spent reviewing them.

Marder has an academic variation of the “sales funnel” in mind:

Big scientific discoveries are like business sales: there are steps that lead up to the sale, but every step suffers from attrition. Businesses try to widen the funnel through advertising and marketing. All other things being equal, more people entering the funnel means more sales at the end.

“A wider funnel means more world-changing discoveries!” has some logic to it. But the analogy to the sales weakens substantially. Advancing through every step in the academic funnel is long, and thus costly, to the people in the funnel.

And whether you advance in the sale funnel is almost entirely dependent on you as a customer: sales people don’t try to block you from buying their product. Whether you advance in the academic funnel depends on other people (glamor magazine editors, hiring committees, promotion committees, deans, administrators), who may well try to block you from going into the next level of the funnel.

Marder tries to put a bright shiny face on the personal costs of pursuing a doctorate that leads to a career that doesn’t need a doctorate:

Society would be enriched if more of the people making decisions in industry, law, medicine, education and politics had lived through the rigors of a PhD program, and knew first-hand how difficult it is to extract knowledge from our imperfect measurement and analytical tools. ... (G)raduate students will be better citizens of the world because of whatever time they spend confronting some of the deep mysteries of the universe.

“You didn’t get the job you thought you were being trained for and worked hard for over a decade to get. But it’s for the greater good!”

That’s cold comfort.

In biology, most people start doctoral programs because they want to be academics. I would far rather have a win-win situation where the type and amount of education and training people receive matches the career they eventually end up in. Underemployment – people in positions that do not require the higher degrees they have – is a lost opportunity as surely as keeping someone out of a doctoral program could be a missed opportunity.

I might agree with Marder that it would be great to have more people in decision making positions with research experience. But does that have to be a seven year doctoral degree? What if the recipient of a two year master’s degree with thesis could accomplish 90% of that societal good done by the average doctoral recipient? If you think that number is too high, what if a master’s degree could even achieve 50% of that societal good?

In fairness, Marder seems to recognize this:

Of course, we could devise a much shorter curriculum to enhance those skills, and probably should.

My impression, however, is that graduate programs want to add to the amount of formal training, not reduce it. (Ethics! Patent law! Accounting! Presentation skills!)

In any case, I suspect Marder need not worry about the number of doctoral students being restricted. There are far too many incentives now for faculty, administrators, funding agencies, and politicians to keep recruiting and producing more doctoral students.


Marder E. 2014. Looking out for future scientists. eLife 3: e04901. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/elife.04901

Hat tip to Bjorn Brembs.