27 June 2002

Clearly a man with too much time on his hands...

My Bacon number is 3.

I was an extra in the movie Eastern Condor, directed by and starring Sammo Hung Kam-Bo (or just Sammo Hung). According to the Oracle of Bacon, Sammo Hung was in Long feng zei zhuo zei (1990) with Agnes Aurelio, who was in JFK (1991) with Kevin Bacon.

Not sure how to calculate my Erdos number. Not sure I care too much, since mentioning my Erdos number would be a lot more likely to be rewarded with blank stares at social functions.

I was thinking that many biologists would be interested in knowing, say, a "Darwin number" or "Mendel number" detailing their ties to some of the more famous biologists of the world. I suspect that those might be difficult to calculate: neither Charles Darwin nor Gregor Mendel had students.

The way of the future?

Oh, great. So now I'm being blamed for killing a really good web site: Salon. All right, not me personally, but web journals (“blogs”) like this one.

Maybe this thing really can work... In any case, projects like this are gaining prominence.

Oh! I have to mention that this is the first journal entry from my new computer with a new internet connection in my new lab. Huzzah!

Six degrees of D'Arcy Thompson

A lot of scientists are interested in just how tightly linked communities are. One popular version of this idea is the pasttime sometimes called "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," where the goal is to shows how many links there are between any actor and Kevin Bacon. If you're just curious and not a movie geek, type in the name of your favourite actor here.

An academic version of the game concerns wide-ranging and prolific mathematician Paul Erdos.

I recently mentioned I had a book on my desk by biologist D'Arcy Thompson, who died in 1948. My colleague Garry Jolley-Rogers informs me that I have a "Thompson number" of three. I did a post-doc with David Macmillan, who was a colleague of Michael Laverack, who knew D'Arcy Thompson.


Hurry up and wait

Now that I've finished writing my proposal (I hope), and all the paperwork is out of the way (I hope), what now?

I wait. For about six months.

Oddly enough, the next round of deadlines is six months away; 10 July and 10 January are the two main deadlines for my particular research area. That means I may not know if I'm going to get funding, or even get any feedback on this current proposal, before my next shot at putting in another proposal.

How likely am I to get funded? It's a long shot. I don't have the rate of success for my particular area of research, but in a related field of animal behaviour, about 15% of proposals get funded. If I'm not mistaken, most major funding agencies have rejection rates around 70-90%.

26 June 2002

No conflict of interest!

The "Conflict of Interest Certificate" I mentioned previously did not take five days. Huzzah! It's back in my hot little hands, I've made some final fixes based on suggestions from a colleague, and I think this baby is about ready to hand over to the Office of Sponsored Research. The toothpick is coming out of the cake clean...

Just in time for me to take a trip to San Antonio this weekend, and enjoy the Canada Day weekend (though I'll be back by Monday, not in San Antonio). At least, I'll enjoy Canada Day as much as it's possible to do so in south Texas. :(

Meanwhile, I'm trying to get a bit of reading done. I'm currently working through a volume titled The Way of the Cell by Frank Harold. Also on my desk is D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form, which I haven't opened yet. Looking forward to this, because I've heard this book is full of graceful and elegant prose, which is not the sort of thing you normally associate with scientific writing.

Back to the current volume. I'm reading The Way of the Cell to see if it might make a serviceable textbook for a graduate-level class I'm slated to teach next year in cell biology. This should be an interesting experience, since I am not a cell biologist. Okay, I admit that neurons are cells, but that's about as far as it goes! New challenges are good, though; there's a lot positive to be said for a job that always requires you to learn new things.

25 June 2002

Eek! More paperwork!

I am so glad that I left myself considerable leeway in submitting my grant proposal. The deadline for when the electronic "papers" have to be submitted to the NSF is 10 July. But that's not my deadline, because my proposal has to go through the university's Office of Sponsored Research.

I was preparing a form that has to go to the Office of Sponsored Research, and noticed a small little line saying, "NSF & HHS Grants must submit Conflict of Interest Certificate." Fine. I look that up, and discover that the Dean of my College is supposed to have that paperwork five days before I submit my proposal to the Office of Sponsored Research. I'm hoping it won't take that long, but it's more lead time that I hadn't anticipated. Okay, "overlooked" is more accurate; but it's difficult to be aware of, and track, all this when you're doing it for the first time.

What else is making demands on my time? There are two candidates for the position of Dean of College of Science and Engineering interviewing this week. Faculty get a 45 minute chat session with each.

24 June 2002

Science in fiction

There are couple of interesting articles in the most recent issue of The Scientist. (Viewing these articles requires free registration.) They concern public perception of science, particularly what people take away about science when they go to films.

One article concerns scientists working as consultants to film and television. Anne Simon, science consultant for the recently completed television show The X-Files, says, “[W]hen scientists try to explain their work, they generally come off as condescending or have trouble communicating on the right level.” Sigh.

The other article describes a panel discussion, “Making Science More Sexy” (at least they gave us credit that we’re already at least a little sexy, and we just need to be more sexy) that occurred at a New York film festival. I like this article because it added a new phrase to my vocabulary: “weather porn.” Paula Apsell, who produces the science show Nova uses the phrase to refer to “hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis” that are offered in shows ostensibly about science.

22 June 2002

In the “Will we ever really know?” dept.

After the American move to recognize Meucci as the inventor the telephone, my fellow Canadians are responding.

This points out how tricky the business of assigning priority and credit for discoveries and inventions are. It might be more difficult to protect those discoveries today than in the time of Bell and Meucci, particularly for publicly-funded research. This proposal I'm working on now, for instance, is going to be reviewed by fellow scientists ("peer review"), who'll will recommend whether I get the cash or not.

The reviewers are not just other biologists -- these specifically go to people in my field. These are arguably my best competitors, and the ones most likely to be able to scoop me: carrying out research I'm proposing before I do.

People are aware of this possibility, and there are safeguards to ensure that ideas stay with the people who proposed them. For instance, I can influence who reads my proposal – to a degree. I can suggest reviewers, and I can also suggest people who I do not want to review my proposal.

Knowing who to avoid isn't always easy, however, because most reviews for journals (not sure about grant proposals yet) are anonymous. I'll stop there, since I'm sure the issue of anonymous peer-review will come up again later.

I can't imagine what it must be like for people who are working on "hot" projects with immediate and substantial commercial and / or medical applications. The competition is immense. If we've learned one things from big global sporting events like the Olympics, intense competition does not always bring out people's most noble and selfless sides.

21 June 2002

First draft done

I just finished uploading my working draft of my budget and its justification to the NSF web site. Whew. I'm going to sit on it for the weekend, proofread it Monday, and maybe turn the Office of Sponsored Research loose on it Monday or Tuesday.

Mysterious beast

It's a pity the sasquatch or Nessie enthusiasts are never able to produce a picture like this.

Makin' it purty

I'm redecorating the site a little. You'll notice the couch is now facing the opposite wall, and that ceiling fan just had to come down...

I'm changing the title, and want to make the page a little more distinctive. This was prompted after I visited someone else's web journal. This in itself is not unusual, as I'm an incorrigible surfer, except that this was a subject that does not interest me at all: weddings. I got sucked there due entirely to the clever title: Going Bridal. I thought, "My page is dull. Got to start fixing that."

I thought a lot last night about what I could use to replace the bland "Neuroethology" title. While neuroethology is what I do, it's not exactly what the journal is about. I wanted to keep the "Neuro-" in the title if I could, because it's such a great prefix. It worked for William Gibson, whose break-out novel had the wonderfully tantalizing title of Neuromancer.

"NeuroDojo" seemed to fit. A "dojo" is a place of training and practice, much as a research lab is. It gave me an excuse to put up the "Constant improvement" quote, which I say to students a lot. And the term has assonance.

I think I'll have to learn a bit more HTML before the place really looks the way I want it. Just a little more constant improvement for me to undertake.

20 June 2002

Individuals and institutions

Apparently, good things don't come in threes. No equipment today.

Meanwhile, I've got a first draft of my proposal budget. I think this project is getting pretty close to being handed over to the Office of Sponsored Research.

Hm. Methinks that term, "Office of Sponsored Research," might need a little explaining.

Funding administration varies quite a bit from country to country. In Canada, grants are generally awarded to an individual. Nobody else can touch a nickel of the money that's awarded to a researcher (or researchers, in cases of collaborative grants).

In the U.S.A., grants are generally awarded to institutions. This is actually a fairly substantial difference. First, this means not all the money goes to the researcher. Institutions get a cut of all grant money in the form of "indirect costs." It's worked into the proposal in advance, and it can be a big cut. On my campus, it's over 50%, and I think that figure is higher on other campuses. The indirect costs are supposed to feed back into the university so that they can provide infrastructure like secretaries, buildings, janitorial services, and so on. I'd feel better about these "indirect costs" if there weren't a set of unfinished labs in my building...

But I digress.

The habit of making grants to "institutions" instead of "individuals" also means that "Sponsored Research" offices play a sizable role in grant application. I cannot submit my own grant application to the NSF; I have to submit it first to the Office of Sponsored Research, who vets the application, and they ultimately submit the proposal to the funding agency.

One reason why I want to get this proposal in early is because, not having been through this process before, I want to leave plenty of time to fix any foul-ups that the Office of Sponsored Research points out to me.


After two straight days of receiving equipment packages, I'm pretty excited to see if good things really do come in threes...

19 June 2002

Christmas in June!

Yesterday, paper. Today, plastics. Tomorrow, the WORLD!

Just kidding about that last one.

Yes, another bunch of boxes of equipment arrived this afternoon. Mostly plastics and glasswear: beakers, graduated cylinders, carboys, disposible pipettes, petri dishes, and so on.

The biggest arrival, both literally and figuratively, was my new lab computer. It's got plenty of computing power, decked out in black and silver (you gotta approve of a colour scheme that matches much of your wardrobe), CD burner, DVD player, and a slim, flat screen. My techno-geek side is pretty excited about all this.

I'm still a long way from recording that first action potential, but the lab is starting to look like someone works there. And that someone is me. Which feels pretty good.


In today's mail, a special offer from scientific supplier Fisher. Free, with your $500 (!) order of chemicals, you get a free copy of the classic board game Monopoly. But not just any copy of Monopoly, but a special edition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the company.

While I have no intention of ordering all those chemicals just to get the game, I am very curious about what it looks like. The picture of the game box on the flyer appears to show tokens in the shape of a microscope and a flask. I wonder if you build research labs on Oxford instead of hotels on Boardwalk. Is there a card in "Chance" that says, "Your research grant is funded! You get $100,000!" or "You are found guilty of plagiarism! Go to jail!" The mind boggles...

There's a bigger point here, though. I've had a fair number of students ask me, "What can you do with a degree in biology?" The possibilities they can see are medicine, maybe research, and not much else. They don't realize that science is Big Business. Advertising is indicative of that: small companies with no competition don't have their own customized games made for their customers.


And here we are in the middle of summer, with weeks of 30-40 degree C weather on either side of today...

And I have a cold! The sore throat became a cough which became the runny nose and I don't like it at all.


18 June 2002

First goodies arrive!

After weeks of waiting, I just received my first lot of goodies from my start-up funds.

I got a hot plate.

And a lot of cleaning material. Mostly paper.

The vast amount of paper products is due to an oddity about this particular campus: there isn't a central store for the Biology Department. On other campuses I've been in, routine consumables that everyone uses are kept in a central storeroom, and you can sign out what you need. Not here. I literally had to order paper towels and Kim-Wipes by the case.

(Aside for non-scientists: Kim-Wipes are somewhere between paper towels and kleenex; "delicate wipes," I think the box says. Their distinctive white and green boxes decorate pretty much every biological or medical lab in the world. One review of Jurassic Park gave the film points for verisimilitude for the Kim-Wipes visible in one of the film's laboratory sets.)

It's going to be a long-range goal to get some sort of central stores here. Because buying these sorts of minor consumables in bulk for one lab is inefficient at best and just plain dumb at worst.

I'm still waiting for slightly more interesting equipment to arrive. But in the meantime, I'll rest easier knowing I'm well prepped to handle any spills from my new hot plate.

What are little proposals made of?

Here's a quick overview of what goes into a NSF grant proposal:

  • Information about the "Principal Investigator." That's me. It's simple and boring information, like mailing address and contact info. Nothing as interesting as, say, Bernard Pivot's questionnaire.
  • A one page summary, where I have to promote both how good the science is and describe all the good things this will do for society ("broader impacts," they're called).
  • The description itself. Up to 15 pages, single spaced. Again, it has to both encapsulate the science and say how great it will be for society at large.
  • The references included in the description of the project.
  • A so-called "biographical sketch," which is essentially a short curriculum vitae.
  • A budget.
  • A list of all the other funding you currently have. Easy for me, because I won't have any!
  • A list of equipment and resources I have available to carry out the research.

Currently, I have a decent draft of everything but the budget. Ug. Drawing up that budget is turning out to be an uphill battle.

17 June 2002

Quick! Who invented the telephone?

I bet you probably didn't come up with the name Antonio Meucci. Apparently, the U.S. Congress today recognized Meucci as the inventor of the telephone.

I suppose it's stories like this that make me glad that I'm not involved in research that has any immediately apparent commercial applications.

Paper trails

It's been over a month since I started sending out purchase orders for my lab equipment. I still haven't seen any of the equipment (drat), but things are at least starting to move. I'm starting to get back copies of requisitions detailing what's been ordered, the final prices, and so on.

I had held off buying equipment earlier in the year, mostly because my lab wasn't finished completion, and I was worried about having no place to put purchased equipment. If I'd known this process was going to take so long, I wouldn't have waited. Ah, well. Just more advice I can give to the next people who join the Biology Department here.


I'm still working on my NSF grant proposal. Interestingly, submitting a proposal is completely paperless for the researcher. You literally cannot submit a hard copy, printed on paper, of your proposal in the mail; it has to be submitted on-line.

On the whole, I think it's great. I love living in the digital age!

Only one thing that makes me nervous. The agency is very stringent about meeting their print guidelines. A proposal can be rejected flat-out if your margins are too skinny or type is too small when they print them off. What's making me twitch a little is that I'm trying to incorporate pictures into my proposal, and graphics sometimes have a perverse sense of humour. They sometimes appear in unexpected places when printed.

14 June 2002

Science marches on!

One of my first published articles (in Skeptical Inquirer) concerned extraterrestrial intelligence. At the time, there were no planets known outside our solar system.

Now, the first solar system that seems to resemble ours has been described, here. The researchers estimate that in maybe 10 years, there will be good, solid estimates for whether solar systems like ours are highly unusual or not.

This doesn't dramatically affect the argument I made in the article, but it's neat to see some of the blanks being filled in.

13 June 2002

Why buy that?

The good news is that purchasing is making moves to procure some of my equipment. The bad news is that it means more paperwork.

Some of the specialized recording equipment I want is available only from the manufacturer. That means I have to fill in another form justifying the purchase, because there's only one source for the equipment.

This would seem to be useful for keeping costs down when you're buying standard consumer goods. You don't want someone saying, "You must buy this DVD player at Circuit City, and not Wal-Mart, K-Mart, or Radio Shack, regardless of the price."

But when you're talking about high-end, specialized scientific equipment, is it really worth it? For one thing, who's going to argue with my justification? If I wrote, "I want this equipment because it allows me to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow," is anyone in purchasing going to know that I'm quoting Doctor Who rather than giving a serious scientific reason?

I could go on, but I'll save it for later.

12 June 2002

No microscopes, part 2

Earlier in this journal, I wrote about how I had gotten messed around with my start-up funds. According to information at the time, I thought I would have enough cash to get one microscope. There must have been some other purchase orders in the pipeline, because the purchase order for my one microscope got refused; I'd used up too much of my funds from the Vice-President Academic's office.

I suppose not being able to order a microscope isn't that big a deal right now, since not a single piece of equipment I've ordered is here yet. No use worrying about not having a spark plug when you don't have a car to put it in.

It's just annoying.

On the beach

Spent a very enjoyable day at the university's Coastal Studies Lab on South Padre Island. The main reason to be out there was to participate in a photo op staged by the university's public relations office. I ended up in some photos with me showing off something biological to a bunch of students. Sometimes pretend ("Okay guys, imagine this rock is actually a little crab...") and -- luckily enough! -- something real, too. I was able to pull some beautiful little Lepidopa sand crabs out of the beach, who made it into the shoot.

That was the other main reason I was out at South Padre Island: to collect some animals, and see what's out there. I spent the morning on a shrimping boat, see just what came up in their nets besides shrimp. It turned out to be quite a few things, besides shrimp, and some should be rather interesting for me, research-wise.

10 June 2002

Art and science

I've thought for a long time that there are more links between art and science than is typically admitted. For instance, author Harlan Ellison once said something like, "The overriding message or all art, whether it's books, or movies, or comics, is, 'Pay attention.'" Similarly, Neil Gaiman said of writing his fiction, "One of the great things is that you get to tell people really cool things that they didn't know before."

Either of them could have been talking about science.

Since money has been on my mind with this grant proposal, I found this story about the cost of being musician surprisingly resonant.

Animal care

It is right and proper that there be fairly strict procedures for working with animals in research. Like so many other things, though, red tape can be a problem. My favourite story came from a colleague who was told that his sea urchins had to be returned to the locations they were collected from so that they wouldn't suffer "psychological damage." Apparently, his response was along the lines of, "They don't even have a ----in' brain!"

In my case, I'm trying to find out if the University's Animal Care Committee needs to approve my research plan proposal. It's not clear, because I work with invertebrates. Apparently, different funding agencies have different rules for invertebrates.

Invertebrates are often not considered "animals" from an administrative point of view. I'm undecided on whether that's a good thing. On the one hand, less paperwork. On the other hand, the possibility of someone not taking proper care of animals.

08 June 2002

The task at hand

Although I've been a little anxious to start getting equipment, that I don't have any is probably a good thing, since it means I have fewer distractions while I work on my first grant application.

Research is not cheap. After the initial set-up, most of the money to perform research comes from external granting agencies, not universities.

The main project I'm working on is a grant application to the NSF, a U.S. government agency that funds a lot of "basic" science. The application has several parts, but there are two big tasks.

First, there's a description of the project. This can be up to 15 pages long ("That doesn't seem like too much"), single spaced ("That's a bit more than a standard double spaced manuscript, isn't it?"). The normal length of an NSF project is 3 years, so it requires considerable planning ahead.

Second, you have to present a budget. There's still a lot to do on my budget. Once I get it done, I'll talk a little bit about what the breakdown is.

The deadline for submitting this grant is 10 July. There are many other little twists and turns in submitting a grant application, which I'll talk about in weeks to come.

07 June 2002

Caveat emptor!

Shortly after I sent out a large number of purchase orders for a substantial amount of money, an article by S.T. Carmichael appears in Trends in Neuroscience about setting up new labs -- and how badly trained most new faculty members are at it.

My immediate thought was, "Where were you when I needed you?" There was a fair amount of good information in there, however. One thing I found most useful was the tip that lots of basic things can be purchased second-hand. I went to several of the recommended web-pages looking for a pH meter; something Carmichael suggests should never be bought new. To my surprise, such a basic piece of kit seemed awfully hard to find.

I ferreting around several used equipment web pages and found some. One websites didn't have prices listed, which irked me. Most were in the $300-400 range. Even then, at least one was missing a crucial part (the electrode, the bit that goes into the liquid you're measuring).

I went back to some of the catalogues strewn about my office and found a new pH meter, with electrode, for between $300-400.

Maybe I didn't get the absolute best bargain out there, but it just goes to show that "Buyer beware" is good advice in any field.

Of course, it helps that there's always some other consumer out there who helps to put these little issues into perspective.

Additional: I should add that the prices for pH meters go considerably higher than the one I happened to get. Lest anyone think I was accusing the equipment resellers of bad faith.

06 June 2002


I was waiting outside the campus weight room for a class to leave, so I could do my regular exercises. A woman who was also waiting asked, "What department are you in?"

"Biology," I said.

"What do you do over there?"

Jokingly, I said, "Not much. As little as I can get away with."

"Ah. You're faculty," she deadpanned.

05 June 2002

Microscope after all

After feeling a bit bummed yesterday about the start-up cash flow, I rethought the situation this morning.

Fortunately, the quote I had received for my microscopes were really two quotes for two microscopes. A "fancy" one with a digital camera and a couple of other bells and whistles is still going to be out of reach for a while. But the cost of another scope is within my current available funds. I'm resubmitting the request for that one.

At least I'll be able to look at some small things, even if I can't take pictures of them.

04 June 2002

Yes, we have no microscopes

As a new faculty member, I received a commitment from my University for a sum of money to be used to start-up my research lab. You know, for purchasing equipment, KimWipes, a computer, stuff like that.

I got notice of a small problem today about that start-up money.

There are two sources for my start-up money. 62.5% of my start-up funds are controlled through the office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs. The remaining 38.5% of my promised start-up money is controlled by the College of Science and Engineering.

I was told repeatedly to "Use it or lose it." I had to spend my start-up money within my first year. (The exact deadline for when advanced a few times, incidentally).

I got a memo today saying that the College of Science and Engineering can't provide their chunk of cash until the start of the next academic year (September). A purchase order for two microscopes (which would have cost almost exactly the amount controlled by the College) was sent back to me. So I can't get my microscopes until fall, which may stop me from doing some of the things I wanted to do this summer.

Ah, the fun never stops in Zen's World...

03 June 2002

In which blame is assigned...

Perhaps blame is too strong a word. But I am a believer in the honoured tradition of giving credit where it's due, so I wanted to talk a little bit about where I got the idea for this journal.

One inspiration was Neil Gaiman's journal. Gaiman started the journal while writing his book American Gods to give people an insight into the process of writing and publishing. I was already interested in giving people insight into just what it is we do as scientists. I had planned on doing in a series of essays on a website. Gaiman's journal, and learning about the software he used, gave me a much better way of doing the same thing.

I was also stirred to action by the recent death of Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionist and science writer extraordinaire. Gould's writings were inspirational. One of my earliest articles, in The Skeptical Enquirer, was inspired by Gould's book Wonderful Life. We've lost one of the most exceptional science communicators in recent memory, and there's a lot of work to do in that field. I make no claim to be in Gould's league, but every bit helps.

Finally, I've learned that I'm a journalist by inclination. Not "journalist" in a "breaking news" kind of way, but I've had success with small, regular writing projects. Whether it was short, weekly entertainment reviews and cartoons in The Meliorist (newspaper at uni I did my first degree), or a weekly Usenet newsgroup strategy column for a trading card game called "Zen's Card of the Week". That gives me hopes that this journal will run for a good while.

And if I'm lucky, maybe I'll even say a few interesting things occasionally.

02 June 2002


Let's get something straight: we university types do not have summer “off.” Academics are not getting three or four month vacations – at least, the good ones aren't. Which is a roundabout way of introducing a few of the projects I have to work on from now until Labour Day, and which will be featured in this journal in weeks to come.

  • Write and submit my first full research proposals.
  • Convert an existing lecture-based class in introductory biology to a partially on-line class.
  • Work on the web site for the International Society for Neuroethology, a society of which I am a proud member and also head of the Web Committee.
  • Develop a new undergraduate course in neurobiology.
  • Rework an existing graduate-level course in cell biology.
  • Make multiple trips out to our local Coastal Studies Lab to find out what kind of critters live there.
  • Wait anxiously for ordered lab equipment to arrive.
  • Inevitable cursing with frustration over setting up lab equipment. I anticipate not having enough cables, or the right electrical connectors, etc. Plus, there's a new computer involved.
  • Work on a proposal for symposium at an upcoming meeting of the Animal Behavior Society.
  • Work on a proposal for the Karger Workshop for an upcoming meeting of the J. B. Johnston Club.
  • Help a new faculty member in our department find an apartment.

Some of these projects will certainly carry on past Labour Day, too.

That said, things are not so hectic that I didn't have time yesterday to see a movie (Spirit, if you're curious) do a bit of shopping for a slightly belated anniversary present. You know, a DVD player is not easy to sneak into an apartment without the intended recipient noticing.