28 December 2004

Once in a lifetime

I've learned from this article this this was the first white Christmas in the Rio Grande Valley ever recorded, and the first measurable snowfall since 1895! I thought there was about an inch, but it was more like 3 inches in some places. Wow... I'm awestruck. While nothing compared to Canadian winter, withing the context of the region, this must ranks up there with the ice storm of 1998 (also here) as the most memorable weather I've encountered as an adult. This one was considerably more pleasant than the ice storm, though!

26 December 2004

After the (snow)fall

I was probably up for a good half hour before I looked out the window yesterday. I wonder what my face looked like when I realized what I was looking at.


Not just a dusting, not just frost, but an honest-to-goodness few centimeters of snow covering almost everything. In the tropical Rio Grande Valley? On not just any day, but Christmas morning? I knew the night before, it was cold, the roads were treacherous icy (nobody's prepared for it here), and someone had said something about ice coming down, but I never in my wildest dreams expected there to be snow.

Admittedly, it was melting fast even then, and I soon realized that this was probably a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. According to one of the local papers i quoted a couple of days ago, the last measurable amount of snow anywhere in the Rio Grande Valley was 1924. I got dressed, threw on my much-loved-but-seldom-needed leather bomber jacket and my hat from Alice Springs, grabbed my digital camera, and started to walk over to uni.

On the way over, I started to get a little emotional. I'm Canadian, and so snow and Christmas are inextricably linked. I hadn't really been feeling much in holiday spirit for lots of reasons, but no matter how much your rational mind is telling you, "This is just an improbable coincidence of freak weather," the little kid inside is going, "Santa came and brought snow just for me."

(Later in the afternoon, I realized that I don't think I'd seen snow for over five years. I haven't seen any here before yesterday, and I sure didn't see any in Australia.)

I walked around campus and took a lot of high-resolution pictures. I saw a family drive up and get out of their SUV and run around throwing snowballs at each other. I saw some grackles and feral cats that I suspected were mighty confused. I saw the melting snow falling like rain from the tree branches, and even some actual, factual, no kidding, icicles. It was really beautiful, and I felt fortunate to be there to see it. Because I was. And I kept telling the part of my brain that was reminding me of the economic damage caused to crops and the likely number of accidents on the road to shut the hell up.

Partway through my walk around campus, I realized that there was something I just had to do. One last requirement before I walked back home and watched the snow melt from the comfort of the inside of my apartment. I didn't have gloves, so it was chilly work, but definitely worth it to create something that few people will ever have a chance to make or even see.

A Rio Grande Valley snowman.

By mid-afternoon, there was almost no trace that there had been snow at all.

But I'll remember.

24 December 2004

At least it's trying to feel like Christmas...

It is, according to The Weather Channel and The Monitor, 0°C outside. Freezing. I'm not sure I believe it. I see rain, not snow, and no ice on the ground. But it is closer to what I think of as Christmas weather than two days ago, when I wore shorts to uni and back.

As for me, I am enjoying the luxury of working on my grant proposal at home. I don't pretend I'm making great progress, but it is progress.

23 December 2004

A Christmas miracle!

Perhaps a slightly over the top headline, but I am pleased to report that I've continued with my track record of securing small internal grants. I've been awarded $998 for one of my undergraduate students, brunnette Anna, as part of UTPA's Undergraduate Research Initiative.

Now I have to get back to working on a grant proposal to pull down some "real" money from an external source. I'm already feeling, with the deadline some weeks away, that this one is going to go right to the wire.

In case I don't think to add to my journal in the next few days, I wish you in both of my official languages: Joyeux Noël. Merry Christmas.

21 December 2004

Just think of a monkey, it'll cheer you right up!

I always had such high hopes for those people who chased after the Loch Ness monster, sasquatch, and Ogopogo. Unlike lots of other fringe ideas that violate the laws of physics flat out, these critters seemed at least plausible: that there were just big, undiscovered animal species out there. Indeed, the finding this year of the species Homo floriensis in Indonesia -- and that we may have missed seeing them by only thousands of years, which is nothing in biological time -- adds a certain plausibility to the idea. I always thought finding something like Cadborosaurus (from my old stomping grounds of Vancouver Island) would be so good for conservation and people's awareness of the natural world.

Sadly, the field of cryptozoology (which more or less means "hidden animals") has yet to yield one single noteworthy finding. Nonetheless, I still find the idea of new species unknown to science a thrilling one. Of course, new species are still being described every day, but the vast majority of them are small invertebrates. And while I have a great and deep appreciation of small invertebrates myself, I still have to admit there's a certain appeal in finding a new species that's a big vertebrate.

Today, I read this story about the discovery of a new species of monkey being discovered in India, one of the most heavily populated countries on the planet. Very, very cool. Maybe there's hope that we'll find a lake monster yet...

20 December 2004

Celebrate the times, come on!

Congratulations to my colleague and friend Anita Davelos Baines on the birth of her third child, a baby girl. This makes her (the child, not Anita!) a monkey in the Chinese calendar and a Sagittarius in western astrology. [This information is provided purely for entertainment purposes and should not be construed as an endorsement of any scientific validity of astrology. Astrology is goofy.] And this new girl will share a birthday with Thomas Graham (1805), the founder of colloid chemistry (a very stately portrait can be found here). (I know that's a little obscure. But hey, this is a science journal. Surely more appropriate that pointing out that she shares a birthday with KISS's Peter Criss.)

19 December 2004


This has nothing to do with science, but I helped a friend this weekend and I'm damn proud of it. I think I accomplished a great deed.

16 December 2004


I hate the day I post final grades and the day after. Because it doesn't matter how often I tell people that there's no extra credit and marks are rounded, I still get every person with a sob story wanting me to change their grade just because. "I need this to graduate." "I'll lose my scholarship." "I'm on academic probation." "I won't get into medical school." And so it goes.

So I hide until people get over the initial shock. Typically, after 24-48 hours, people realize that they have no grounds for me to change anything. But darn it, I still hate having to tell people, "No, I'm not changing your score, and I'm not paid to care about your personal dramas." Only I don't put it quite like that. I save the brutal honesty for my journal.

14 December 2004

Not scary fast, but still pretty fast

I got the announcement for the spring semester competition for an internal Faculty Development Grant about 3:11 pm on Friday. I just finished phtocopying the required five copies and stuffing the final proposal in an envelope, at about 3:40 pm today.

From learning proposal to completion: four days and half an hour. And I didn't really work on it over the weekend. Admittedly, this was a fairly short proposal: a form cover page to fill in and four typed pages outlining the project. Still, I'm pretty pleased that I was able to turn that around so fast. I think I may reward myself by quitting a little early and getting ice cream. I need to go to the post office anyway, and if there's ice cream on the way... heh.

If this one hits, it'll provide me with about $1,900 to travel to Houston to visit a lab that works on a sea slug called Aplysia, and have a couple of people come down to visit my lab to show me some tricks in working with the slugs. Aplysia is a widely used organism in many neurobiology labs, thanks mainly to the extremely aggressive promotion by Nobel laureate Eric Kandel. We have one species, Aplysia brasiliana in fairly large numbers locally. It's not much to look at when its still, but it is amazing to see when it swims. It unfurls some flaps that normally cover its gills, and swims along by undulating these flaps, a little like a skate or ray does. It's graceful in a way that only animals without bones can be. (A short video of this is here.)

I've worked a little bit with slugs, but not very much -- so I want to go get some help in learning how to care for, handle, and record from the brains of these beasties.

09 December 2004

Urge for money... rising

Just noticed that Google wants to run ads on blogs. Like this one. (Okay, maybe not like this one—maybe one that's actually popular...). Funny how my mild annoyance with ads a surfer doesn't stop me from being awfully tempted to try to sign up. But considering that this is supposed to be an academic / scientific site, with the goal of letting people know about the various stresses of running a scientific research lab, having "Buy this beaker" on the site seems contrary to my stated goals. Even if the ads are somehow related to whatever it is I'm writing here.

Bad to worse

December 7th, 2004... a day that will live in suckage...

Yeah, it's been a pretty naff week. Tuesday was, as you've gathered, particularly bad. I drove out to the Coastal Studies Lab to collect some mud shrimp. The waves were considerably higher than I expected, and the tide was high. I spent a couple of hours getting wet and messy and ended up with one small mud shrimp to show for it. Well, one and a half, really, but the half wasn't of much use to me. And that one shrimp didn't manage to make it through the night.

Then, I worked on an ascidian experiment. My student Anna and I went though about ten animals trying to get some eggs and sperm, but they were all pretty much spawned out. That was very depressing, because the species we're working on isn't available year round, and those were the last animals of the season. And we didn't get all the experiments done that we wanted to do. They're not even hard experiments -- but there are just so many other things to do that we didn't get them done in time. Yes, this means that I'm probably going to have to wait nine months or so for the next opportunity to do finish the experiments. Crap.

Even the one thing that was nominally good news was a double edged sword at best. I got a letter in the post from our Office of Sponsored Research informing me that I have been given the opportunity to submit a grant proposal for the NSF's major equipment grant program. This program only accepts a small number of proposals (three, I think) from each institution, so there's an advance selection process to pick which get sent forward. I am trying to get our department a confocal microscope. The downside to all of this is that it means I now have two grant proposals due in January with the deadlines a fairly short period apart from each other. In short, I've been told, "Yes, Zen, please go ahead and do even more work from now until when classes start again in January."

And I was still trying to track down money that people are owed from August.

And there were a few other things. I just generally felt like I sucked on Tuesday.

I'm not sure that getting into the car at 4:00 a.m. this morning to put my S.O. on a plane back to Canada for Christmas is entirely an upbeat development, either. Stupid early flight.

03 December 2004

Fast and dirty

Yesterday, I banged out a short proposal for an internal program they're calling the "Undergraduate Research Initiative." If successful, it'll bring in about $1,500 for one of my undergraduate research students. It's done (a full week ahead of the deadline, I note with some pride), and waiting for my student to drop by my office to sign it.

Then, last night and this morning, I zapped out an abstract for the Texas Academy of Science annual meeting, which UTPA is hosting next March. It's some of the work done by one of my Honours students, Anna, from last year, so it'll be good to give her a small presentation of her work. Hopefully, we'll be able to work it into a paper, but in the meantime, this isn't a bad start.

Also finished and printed off copies of the proposal by my most recent Honours student, Yajaira. Got that out of the way, and now we're good to go to pick up the tempo on her research project. Did a few little initial tests which look promising.

Oh yeah, President Bambi officially went through her investiture today. Community access cable will be thrilled. They'll be able to show those hours of people standing around in robes on cable for months. Me? I wasn't there, because I have real work to do. Like writing proposals, abstracts, and supervising students.

Another noteworthy event today, at least for a geek like myself, is that the new email program Thunderbird is now more or less ready (version 1.0 candidate release). After becoming a convert to Firefox a while back, I've been waiting for this for some time now. Lots of people have been using it steadily for a while, but call it a quirk: I still want to use software that is labeled "1.0" at least.