30 September 2006

29 September 2006

Posters and symposium

Despite that my student won the poster competition for the HESTEC Science Symposium, the symposium this Monday was very disappointing. The big problem was a huge disconnect between the speakers and the audience.

The organizers and speakers had the idea that this was an research symposium geared to fellow academics.

The organizers had masses of high school students carted in to the symposium.

Those poor high school students. They were basically prisoners a our symposium, being forced to listen to talks on the spinach principle: "It's good for you!" The speakers did not speak to things that interested the students, so the students were bored and noisy and constantly getting shushed. It was like being back in a high school auditorium.

The speakers were average at best, and they projected their slides in such a way that they got distorted (too wide).

Then, after the morning talks, it was time for poster viewing. After being advertised there would be free lunch during the poster viewing sessions, organizers decided to tell student poster presenters and faculty that the food wasn't for them. Apparently, it was only for the high school students.

One student got told she had to provide her own mounting board for her poster because the organizers had run out.

The afternoon roundtable was not bad, although the speakers admitted that they were expecting to be talking to university students rather than high school students. And when the moderator said a couple of times they wanted to give students the chance to ask questions, Congressman Hinojosa decided to get up and talk for several minutes instead, cutting into the actual discussion that should characterize roundtables.

Finally, it was time for the students who had won the poster competition to give their talks. And shortly after that started... most of the audience left. The imported high school students had to get back on their buses and leave. So these poor students were giving these talks (the sort you'd hear at national academic conferences) to mostly empty rooms with a few stragglers who probably didn't have the background to understand a lot of what was being said. Heck, I'm an academic, and I didn't understand large chunks of most of the student talks.

The day left me very sad to have seen such a missed opportunity.

But at least my student won a laptop for her poster.

A quick tip

West Coast vs. Sydney: I don't have a strong feeling for which way it'll swing, but I'm betting that it's going to be a blowout instead of a close game like last year. That was certainly the case the last time two teams (Collingwood and Brisbane) faced each other in back-to-back premierships: a close match the first year, a blowout the second.

28 September 2006

Another step towards administration

Today I found myself elected as secretary of PAUF, the local branch of the Texas Faculty Association. Being secretary also puts me on the Executive Committee for the group. I try never to pass up a chance to seize power -- I mean, work collaboratively with fellow faculty members.

Joining the YouTube craze

YouTube is one of the websites of the moment, so who am I to argue? I've been meaning to put up some video to supplement one of my recent articles, and this seemed as good a way as any.

The video shows slipper lobster digging, which I wrote about in this article in Journal of Crustacean Biology.

The video is also archived here.

Additional: But mayhap I spoke too soon...

24 September 2006


For the second time in as many weeks, we've had horror movie thunderstorms. Flashes of light followed by huge, explosive cracks, sheeting rain, long rolls of sound that go on and on... In my barely awake state around 7:00 am this morning, I found myself thinking, "Wow, that's really thunderous."

Well, duh. It's thunder.


In the cosmic coincidence category, I mentioned in my last post that I was lecturing about Otto Loewi's discovery of chemical neurotransmission on Friday. And that little science story was mentioned later that night on the season premier of Numb3rs. Eerie. I'll have to ask my students if any of them caught it.

Speaking of Numb3rs, I had previously made fun of the show for the lead character, Charlie Epps, being a professor at what seemed to me to be a ridiculously young age (26, when most academics are about half-way through grad schools). I have since learned, courtesy of the ever informative Science Show, that Epps is based on Caltech's Alexei Borden, who became a full professor at the age of... you guessed it... 26.

Math careers just aren't like biology, I guess.

Numb3rs is just one fraction (pun intended) of the reason why, in America, Friday is becoming the biggest night for TV geeks since X-Files left Fridays. Not only do we have Numb3rs, one of the few shows featureing academic science, but there's the amazing Avatar: The Last Airbender. Weeks to come will see the return of the revived Battlestar Galactica, and best of all, the second season of the new Doctor Who series. My geek cup runneth over.

22 September 2006

I wish I was surprised...

...When I ran into my colleague Anita on the walkway, fuming. As I've mentioned previously, she was lead on a successful equipment grant we received earlier this year for a DNA sequencer. The agency gave the university the money, the university set up the account, and then didn't give Anita the right to spend it.

She was on her way to about the third consecutive office that morning, trying to get permission she needed to spend her grant money. Yup. They created an account for her but didn't give her access to it. Unfortunately, incidents like this don't surprise me any more.

I gave her a hug. Unfortunately, that was about all I could do at the moment. Later, she told me that the problem would be fixed by the end of today. We'll see if the DNA sequencer shows up next Friday as it ought.


Meanwhile, something that really did surprise me... My student Veronica won the award for best poster for next week's HESTEC Science Symposium. I was slightly nervous about sending out the announcement to our department, because I was also the departmental representative for the symposium, and I was worried about someone giving me a bad time about fixing the result. Not that I think anyone would say that in anything other than a joke. Because if I'd wanted to fix things, my students would have won last year's competition, too.

So now Veronica has the weekend to dust off a talk she gave at the end of summer for her HHMI symposium, hopefully improve it, and give it on Monday.


I was lecturing today about Otto Loewi, the Nobel laureate who first proved that neurons communicated by releasing chemicals from their synapses. The idea for the Nobel winning experiment came to him in the middle of the night on Easter Sunday. He wrote it down, got up in the morning, but couldn't read his own handwriting. He spent the day trying to remember, but couldn't. The next night, he woke up again and remembered, rushed to the lab and did the experiment in about two hours.

Great story.

I, on the other hand, spent last night dreaming about the best chess scenes in science fiction movies and television. The three that come to mind: the 3-D chessboard from the original Star Trek TV series, one of the astronauts playing chess with HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Professor Xavier and Magneto playing chess at the end of X-Men.

Hm. Don't think I'm going to get a Nobel prize out of that dream.


I'm afraid this article -- "Conspiracy theorists must face the truth of Mars hill" -- is a triumph of hope over experience. Conspiracy theorists do not change their minds in response to evidence. This is one of the things that make them both fascinating and scary at the same time.

It's an excellent example of why, if I were still in psychology, I'd probably be studying the psychology of belief. I find it absolutely fascinating that we have some beliefs based on experience and evidence, some beliefs for which there is not evidence either way, and how some people form beliefs depite evidence to the contrary.


In an earlier post, I mentioned I had a paper accepted for pulication this week. For what it's worth, it'll be:

Espinoza SY, Breen A, Varghese N, Faulkes Z. Loss of escape-related giant neurons in spiny lobsters, Panulirus argus. The Biological Bulletin: in press.

No big surprise there, as I've had abstracts about it published in 2004 (Society for Neuroscience meeting) and 2005 (Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting). I'm expecting it'll be out early 2007. Ack, that means I'l have been working on this simple project for how long? Four years?

One thing I'm pleased about it that the three first authors all worked on the project as undergraduates, and the first, Sandra, has also worked on it as a graduate student.

18 September 2006

Papers and puppies

It's a good day today for my student and myself. First, we got a final acceptance letter on a manuscript we'd been working on, and revising for what seems like forever. It means that I made some work for myself, because I had to update my tenure binder, which was supposed to be "set" and submitted last Friday. But that's a nice problem to have, because it pushes a "key performance indicator" (number of papers published) away from the minimum.

Second, she'd had her apartment broken into late last week, and had lots of things stolen, not the least of which was her new puppy! Stealing a puppy? That's low. Fortunately, police work were able to catch suspects, and much of her stolen goods -- including her puppy -- were returned.

(Who says I never write feel goods stories on my blog?)

15 September 2006

Breaking my heart

It's been heavy on my heart to read about the Dawson College shooting the last couple of days. There are just so many little ties and memories... I used to live in Montreal. I was going to graduate school when the L'Ecole Polytechnique shooting occurred, and was so sad to hear about another shooting at a institute of higher learning. One of the things I hate about living in Texas is seeing signs on building about carrying guns into it. I hope I never see those signs when I go back to Canada.

Time's up

In my email box today:

This is a friendly reminder that your tenure "folders" are due by 5:00 PM today.

My tenure clock has now timed out. I either get tenure and promotion or I get fired.

Looking at where I was hoping to be when I interviewed and where I am?

I was expecting that we would have a Ph.D. program by now. When I interviewed, several people said, "Ph.D. in biology in about five years." Here it is, five years later, and we're further from a Ph.D. than when I interviewed.

I really thought that I would have an external grant by now. I suppose I sort of do, since I'm co-PI on an equipment grant, but I thought I would have some sort of money of my own. Unfortunately, I have no promising leads in that department. No encouragement at all.

I thought I would have more research papers published. I've been publishing consistently, but a lot of that was getting stuff out where the data were actually collected during my highly productive last post-doc. I've published two papers based on stuff since moving to Texas (which is the minimum required), and only one of them has actual data. I do have two papers on editor's desks under review, however, and that makes me feel a little better, though not much. I had expected to have the final word on one of them by now; it would be nice to be slightly higher then the minimum. Apparently, I can update by folder before final review.

And I haven't worked on my book mauscript in months.

07 September 2006

In the "What were they thinking?" department

The Age has a report on scientific conference entertainment here.

I've been to enough scientific conferences in places like New Orleans to know that scientists are not averse to having a good time. Even good times of a decidedly adult nature. But never as part of the official conference.

I can't believe nobody said, "This may not be a good idea...".

04 September 2006

In honour of Labour Day...

I laboured. At least part of the day, anyway. I started and more or less finished a poster for the HESTEC science symposium. Then I went out and saw a movie.

02 September 2006

Nothing like the original

It's a good month for cinema geek purists.

This month sees the DVD release of a couple of movies that I've been waiting to buy in their original versions. The Japanese release of Godzilla and the 1977 version of Star Wars. Both have been available before—the Americanized Godzilla with Raymond Burr, and the special edition version of the first three Star Wars movies, but I resisted buying earlier releases, because I wanted the original.

But it's not a great month for television geek purists. I was disappointed to read plans to redo the original Star Trek series. Hopefully, they will go the route taken by Star Wars and some of the DVDs of classic Doctor Who series and have an option where you can choose to view the original version or the new version.

I'm not opposed to tinkering with works of art in all cases. I went excitedly to the theatre when the Star Wars trilogy special edition was released, and the new effects and such were cool. But I don't want the originals to be lost.

Does this post have anything to do with science? Sort of. In Beautiful Evidence, Edward Tufte talks about summarizing as a potential source of corruption of evidence. The market for summaries in science is huge. You only need to think about textbooks. They repackage and summarize.

There are many notorious cases of errors being perpetuated because textbooks copy from each other. Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay about the "fox terrier clone" about how, in text after text, small prehistoric horses were compared in size to fox terriers, rather than any other dog (Gould, 1988). In one draft of a textbook I reviewed, I spotted another error that has been perpetuated by copying: a somatosensory map of the nervous system where the homonculus has a left hand attached to the right side of the body.

But even if the information is correct, quite often important context is lost. For example, some introductory biology books talk about the "Z scheme" when discussing photosynthesis to describe the energy levels of electrons. But many well known textbooks show it like below.

The "Z scheme" is shown by the yellow.

Do those yellow lines trace the letter Z?

They most emphatically do not.

At least in my world, that's an N, not a Z.

Never mind confusing the students, I have no idea why the heck the thing is called a Z scheme when faced with a diagram like that.

I strongly suspect that the diagram in the original scientific article describing electron energy in photosynthesis was rotated 90°, but I haven't been able to track it down to confirm. So I'm left with mysterious name I have to teach that is divorced from its original context, and makes no sense as a result.

I am really pleased to see is that more and more old research articles are becoming scanned and posted to the web, thanks to sites like JSTOR. More and more, I am able to read what the original authors thought and see the original evidence.

Gould, S.J. 1988. The case of the creeping fox terrier clone. Natural History 96(1): 16-24. (Also collected in: Gould, S.J. 1991. Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History, pp. 155-167. New York, W.W. Norton & Co.)

01 September 2006

Google knows I'm typing this

This article picks up on something that has been worrying about. Many academic journals have started to use Google Scholar to link to other articles. There are similar, public databases -- like PubMed -- but Google Scholar does a lot that others don't, probably has more coverage of articles. It's worrying to me, though, that a private company has so much control over our ability to find scientific content. And nobody seems to notice. I think I will have more to say about this later, as it links up with some thinking I'm having about dispersing scientific information.

Shout, shout, let it all out

I love scientific passion, so was actually pleased to read this description (in this week's Science) about the debate about Pluto's status as a planet:

To Gingerich’s argument that the proposal rested on physical criteria, asteroid researcher Andrea Milani of the University of Pisa in Italy, literally screamed, “Dynamics is not physics?” Other astronomers protested the committee's neglect of extrasolar planets, only to be angrily silenced by outgoing IAU President Ronald D. Ekers, who declared such issues to be “out of order!”

Of course, maybe that is a little over the top, but I don't know if I completely agree with this:

“It should never have become this emotional,” says astronomer George Miley of Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Sometimes I think scientists need to be more emotionally involved, demonstrably so. It’s not like cold rational arguments have made a heck of a lot of headway against people denying global warming or evolution or other scientific matters.