27 March 2020

Notes from a pandemic: Inching closer

Illustration of SARS-CoC-2 virus

Fifteen days, huh? Longer than I thought.

It was fifteen days ago that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, my university announced it was extending spring break and moving all instruction online for the remainder of the semester and until further notice after that.

At the time, there were no confirmed cases in our area. But based on what I knew and based on conversation, I thought, “There are people infected here.”

And predictably enough, people testing positive started to pop up in the lower Rio Grande Valley. But today things went to a new level when one of our Brownsville students and a faculty member tested positive for COVID-19.

Friday, March 27, 2020 :: Office of the President

Dear Campus Community:

UTRGV learned today that one of our students and one of our faculty have each tested positive for COVID-19 (coronavirus). Our student tested positive after traveling out of state and our faculty member after returning from international travel. Please join me in sending positive thoughts to these Vaqueros for a speedy recovery.

Meanwhile, a few people in the science online community are starting to say, “Hey, I’ve got COVID-19.” Folks like Clement Chow and Adam Rutherford.

It’s an epidemic when people you don’t know get sick. It’s a pandemic when people you know get sick.

External links

UTRGV COVID-19 Case Update

Notes from a pandemic: Misanthrope report

Occasionally, when someone I know asks how everyone is doing (particularly on social media like Facebook or Twitter) how they’re doing working from home / self quarantined / social distancing, my response is usually something like:

“Misanthrope reporting in. What is everyone bitching about? Social distancing is the best thing ever. I’ve never been happier in my life!”

This statement is about:

  • 50% true.
  • 40% joking for the sake of joking (also known as me being a smartass).
  • 10% false bravado.

I am pseudo-extrovert. I can dial up the energy level and sometimes even charm for a presentation, conference, or teaching, but it takes it out of me. I recharge by getting away from people. This is one more reason why, as I said before, my life has been disrupted much, much less than many other people.

Part of me is digging the fact that nobody expects me to go to meetings in person. That traffic is now relatively light all the time. I don’t have to generate as much small talk.

That false bravado, though, is real. As in, really false.

Not long ago, I stumbled across the TV series Alone, and watched season 2 - partly because it was set on the north end of Vancouver Island, Canada, which is close to where I used to live. (Victoria is on the south end of the island.)

Participants film themselves. They have no film crew. They have nothing but a “panic button” to connect with the outside world.

The show is kind of an ode to boredom, punctuated by rare moments of crisis.

Watching the show, what became obvious was that for some participants who made themselves reasonably secure physically did not mean they were okay psychologically.

One participant said something like, “If you have an unresolved issues, they are going to bubble up and consume you, because there is nothing else to distract you and beat them back down.”

I’ve felt a very tiny little bit of that in the last couple of weeks.

Now, to reiterate my point earlier: I’m all right! But even we introverted, slightly misanthropic human beings are usually social animals, and we need something to keep ourselves occupied besides our own thoughts.

I am super glad for the internet and my pocket friends. I’ve said for years, “Online conversations are real conversations.” Online friendships are real friendships. This will be something that will save a lot of people from falling into bad places in their own minds.

25 March 2020

Notes from a pandemic: “Research that actually matters”

On Monday, a now deleted tweet from Andrew Timming said something along the lines of, “This crisis is a wake-up call. COVID-19 shows how much academic research is just castles in the sky. ‘Moving forward, let’s do research that actually matters to the world’.”

Andrew has deleted the tweet, so I can’t confirm the exact wording. That last part – “research that actually matters to the world” – is an exact quote. I don’t think Andrew deserves hate, which he says he received, but I do think his comment deserves commentary. Maybe even critical commentary.

I get the sentiment. I do. In times of crisis, a lot of people feel useless.

Animated cave painting of mammoth huntTimming was making a variation of an old, long-running argument about “basic verus applied” research. Now, I’ve heard a lot of retorts to this. I like, “If we only ever did applied research, all we’d have would be better mammoth traps.”

According to (probably untrue) legend, a politician once asked Michael Faraday what good electricity was.

There are two versions of the story of Faraday’s reply.

  1. “One might as well as what good is a new borne baby.”
  2. “One day, sir, you may tax it.”
(I like the second one.)

But the next day, I was listening to Maddie Sofia interviwing Ed Yong on ShortWave. It shows the COVID-19 pandemic itself shows the problem of focusing research on what “actually matters in the world.” (My emphasis.)

SOFIA: So one thing that I found really interesting in your article was the state of coronavirus research in general and how that plays into how prepared we are right now. Like, this is a big group of viruses that cause a decent bit of disease throughout the world. But one researcher you talked to said that until recently, not that many people were studying coronaviruses.

YONG: Right. So a very small group of people - maybe, you know, several dozens of researchers - have focused on coronaviruses for a few decades now. But it really has been a very, very niche field, even among virologists. When SARS classic first emerged, I think coronavirus researchers were really shocked that the things that they were studying were suddenly of public health importance.

SOFIA: Right.

YONG: And they are even more flabbergasted now.

SOFIA: And so because of that - because even after SARS, there wasn’t a huge uptake in how many people were studying this, we don’t necessarily have surveillance networks in place for coronavirus like we do for the flu.

YONG: Right. A lot of our preparedness measures in general have been focused on flu as the most likely next pandemic - and for good reason - because flu actually is the most likely next pandemic. It just so happened that this time, it was a coronavirus. And we don’t have surveillance for coronaviruses. We know, actually, surprisingly little about coronavirus biology. And all of those deficiencies have contributed to this dire situation that we’re facing when we don't know enough but we're forced to act as quickly as possible.

Arguably, the situation we now find ourselves in with the COVID-19 pandemic is not despite the view that researchers should do work “that actually matters to the world,” it’s because of it.

From a rational assessment of risk, need, whatever, I’m sure people argued in grant agencies that we should not invest much money and resources in coronavirus research. The best estimates were that coronaviruses didn’t pose much of a threat, so we should put that money into influenza or something else.

This isn’t even the first time we’ve seen this happen in the last decade.

Remember when people were freaking out about zika? (I know, it seems like something that we read about in history books instead of only four years ago, in 2016.) The CDC director tweeted this picture of every paper about the zika virus published in the world to that point.

Short stack of scientific papers

It was pretty short freakin’ stack of paper. And the headline was that scientists were caught “flat-footed.”

I’m sure that on September 10, 2001, there would have been a lot of people in the US arguing that universities should think about shuttering programs in, say, contemporary Islamic thought or Arabic language studies.

Movie poster for "Metero" (1979)If we discovered an comet, asteroid, or meteor on a collision course with Earth tomorrow (and given how 2020 is going, I feel like we should be watching the skies more), the headline would probably again be that scientists were caught flat-footed. Even though people have known this is a possibility for decades.

Hell, Hollywood knew this well enough to make a movie about it in 1979. And Sean Connery disaster from space movies are the best disaster from space movies. (Don’t @ me, Armageddon and Deep Impact viewers.)

Things are only irrelevant until they’re not. And then people complain, “Why wasn’t anyone studying this?!” Society pretty much told us not to. Society told us that we weren’t doing research that “actually matters.”

External links

Why is the coronavirus so good at spreading?
One tweet that shows how the Zika virus caught scientists flat-footed

Notes from a pandemic: Coronavirus campus


These pictures of UTRGV were taken Monday, 23 March 2020, when I went to campus to feed my crayfish. You could be forgiven for thinking they were taken the first day of spring break rather than the first day after spring break.


There were a few people on campus, but not many.

And frankly, I’ve always loved campuses when there are not many people around. I like the calm, and it was kind of beautiful.


Through a weird series of events, I am probably one of the people least affected by the COVID-19 pandemic I know.

Because I had spent the better part of the last two years mainly working on the Better Posters book:

I had been teaching online courses for the last couple of years. My teaching load was anywhere from mostly to exclusively online for the last few semesters. I had only one face-to-face class this semester, my neurobiology class. That course didn’t have a lab component. I had a good idea of how to move its course content online from my other online class experiences.

I didn’t have a lab to shut down. Because I was writing from home, I wasn’t taking students. My lab space (with my consent) got reassigned to another group of researchers from another department. I didn’t fight it because I wanted to be a team player, and I was working on the book anyway. So I thought, “No problem, I’ll get lab space once the book manuscript is done and out of the way.” Getting new lab space had taken longer than I expected, and I was getting antsy about it. But this has turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since I didn’t have to go through a process of putting everything away, worrying about trainees, and so on. I only have some crayfish to feed occasionally.

Unrelated to book writing, there’s one more thing that makes my life much less disrupted than many other people.

I don’t have kids. I feel for people who suddenly have kids at home and not at school.

Which is to say:

I’m all right!

Look after yourself and others.

It’s going to be a rough ride.

20 March 2020

Find me on Amazon!

I am getting ready for the forthcoming release of the Better Posters book! I now have my own author’s page on Amazon!

Find me at: https://www.amazon.com/author/zenfaulkes

My Kindle edition of Presentation Tips and the Freshwater Crayfish anthology I helped edit are already there.

13 March 2020

@IAmSciComm next week!


From 16-21 March, I will be hosting and curating the IAmSciComm Twitter account!

My schedule:

Date Topic
Monday, March 16, 2020 Why posters matter; show me your poster!
Tuesday, March 17, 2020 Planning your poster
Wednesday, March 18, 2020 Designing your poster
Thursday, March 19, 2020 Presenting your poster
Friday, March 20, 2020 SciComm while sciencing
Saturday, March 21, 2020 The randomizer!

When I signed up months ago, I was thinking primarily about starting to do content that would enhance awareness of my upcoming book about posters from Pelagic Publishing. And I have decided to stick with that original plan, since that was my pitch to the Twitter account’s head honchos.

Little did I know that the US would be in the grip of the global COVIC-19 pandemic. It is going to be an interesting time to talk about science communication. Crises are times where the need for excellent communication becomes absolutely life-saving. And we are not seeing from many offices and institutions that have traditionally done much better.

External links

I Am SciComm home page

30 January 2020

Time Higher Ed feature article on authorship disputes


I’m busy copyediting the Better Posters book and grading and teaching, but I wanted to stick my head out of my hole to point to a great feature article in Times Higher Education on the subject of authorship disputes.

I have a few quotes in this article. It’s clearly an outcome of the paper on authorship disputes I published over a year ago now. (Sometimes, you’re so busy with one project you forget about the “long tail” of earlier projects.) I was also lucky that I’ve talked to journalist Jack Grove before and was in his email contact list

I’m rather amused that while I chose to illustrate these conflicts with a picture of chess pieces, the Times chose... hockey. As a Canadian, I can do nothing but approve.

External links

What can be done to resolve academic authorship disputes?
Whose Paper is it Anyway? A Discussion on Authorship (Illustration)

Related posts

You think you deserved authorship, but didn’t get it. Now what? 
How wasting time on the internet led to my new authorship disputes paper


25 January 2020

What’s worth stealing? Academic edition

I heard someone ask this recently at a conference, “What if someone steals your ideas?”

I have good news:

Nobody wants to steal your ideas.

Especially in academia. As I’ve said before, ideas a cheap. Not worthless, but not worth much. Once you have been in academia a while, there are so many ideas floating around that you will quickly realize the list of ideas you want to put into action vastly exceeds the ones that you can put into action.

I think this is why concern about “stealing ideas” surfaces with early career individuals or novices. They are still at the point where they don’t know the map of the territory. They don’t know what has or has not been done, so they don’t have a clear idea of where the fertile ground for ideas lies or what is practical. It’s sort of like kids who think “Everything has been invented already.”

Stealing ideas isn’t worth it.

When you look at what problems around intellectual property in academia, it’s usually about someone stealing completed work.

Stealing data, plagiarism, duplicate publication, or insisting you be added as an author to a paper you did not contribute to – all of those stealing completed work. That’s what you need to worry about and protect. Not your ideas.

Related posts

Ideas are cheap