26 September 2002

New directions

I shipped off my "letter of intent" to the Whitehall Foundation today. If they okay it and I get to submit a full proposal, the full proposal will be due 15 February 2003. (By that point, I expect to have the results of the NSF grant application.)

Although the Whitehall letter was only three pages long, it was an intense three pages to prepare. Most of my research to date has been on crustaceans and insects. I'm looking to "expand my horizons" and see if I can start doing some work on ascidians. As adults, ascidians are the kinds of critter that people tend to mis-identify as "sponges" (i.e., anything non-mobile on marine piers, boat bottoms, that's not a plant or barnacle).

When they're young, though, ascidians have a little swimming tadpole that swims around to find a place to live. And when you look at this tiny little tadpole, it turns out to be a reasonably close relative to us (a chordate, if you want the technical term). These tadpoles swim around and find a place to live with a positively miniature nervous system: there are about 100 nerve cells in the entire animal. The small number of cells makes them fairly attractive for researchers.

And it just so happens that the University's Coastal Studies Lab is a great place to study these guys. These animals do not like to be away from the ocean, and every effort so far to rear them inland for any length of time has failed miserably. Yes, folks, research and real estate have something in common: Location, location, location.

I have two problems facing me in trying to start ascidian research. First, I don't know the animals very well, but I've been working hard to remedy that. Second, I've never worked on anything remotely this tiny. The whole animal is about 1 mm long. So I'm going to have to develop a whole new set of skills to do research on this beast.


Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 882. That's halfway through chapter 9, which is 279 pages long! Yes, a single chapter in this baby is longer than some entire books.

24 September 2002

Hi! I've been negligent!

Whew. I knew the start of the semester would slow things down on this journal, but I didn't quite realize how much. The other reason that I haven't updated much is that not much has happened on the research front. I'm still waiting for money and some significant pieces of equipment.

The only major research-related thing on the go now is that I'm drafting a "letter of intent" for the Whitehall Foundation. They have a somewhat lengthy proposal process, wherein you have to let them know you're planning on submitting a proposal before you actually submit a proposal. If the initial letter gets past the screening, you get the paperwork.

Luckily, the letter is limited to 600 words. Of course, finding the right 600 words is not a small problem... In particular, I'm going to use this proposal to (I hope) open up a fairly new line of research work for me, so it's more work than it would be otherwise.

11 September 2002


I hate the Internet.

One of the downsides of communication technology, like e-mail, is that its just as easy to circulate untrue things as true things. After jokes, another popular type of e-mail that makes the rounds between friends is the “Did you know...?” variety, usually with a list of short one-line “factoids.” No references, no explanations.

I got one of these yesterday, and spotted a couple of alleged “facts” that, fortunately, other people had already taken the time to puncture. For instance...

“A duck’s quack doesn’t echo.” Fortunately, Straight Dope columnist Cecil Adams dealt with this one here.

One that really grabbed my attention, because I'd never heard it before, was the claim that all polar bears are left-handed.

Wow. The mind reels with questions. For instance...

Who thought that one up? This page suggests this was derived from native folklore; this is apparently supported in this article on, of all things, transgendered bears.

Would this “fact” be making the rounds if the claim was that all polar bears were right-handed? Probably not; I suspect that a difference from what’s typical in humans is part of the fascination with the claim.

Is it true? polarbearsalive.org lists it as a myth, here. This page claims there’s real scientific observations to support this, but gives no references, which makes me mighty suspicious. One thing to consider, though: would you really expect all bears to be left-handed? There's definitely handedness in humans, but nobody would say we're all right-handed.

How would you know? In humans, we normally take “handedness” to mean the hand we write with; care to try to get a bear to pick up a ballpoint and scribble a few words? Seriously, though, how you would show that sort of preference is an interesting problem.

Is it scientifically plausible? Okay, I have an advantage on this one, because I have a fair amount of training in animal behaviour and neurobiology, so I remembered reading an article about animal handedness. This short article from Scientific American backs what I vaguely recalled: handedness in behaviour of an entire species is not well documented for any species besides humans. Handedness in humans is thought to be related to the specialization of the two halves of our brain (see here).

I was able to find all this info to stick pins into this claim, while I’m tempted at this point to reverse my earlier statement and say, “I love the Internet.” But I’m still a little depressed. A search for “polar bear” and “left handed” yielded dozens of pages saying, “All polar bears are left-handed,” but nothing else, which far outnumber the few more substantive articles I collected above.

I am a little sympathetic to people for buying this claim. After all, it”s not as though most of us have ready access to polar bears to watch for a few weeks and record what they do with their paws.

But there are still a lot of untrue things that people believe, even though they are shown to be untrue easily. Ever hear that you can only balance an egg on the day of the equinox? Try it today, while the fall equinox is still over a week away. It takes some doing, but it can be done.

The morale of the story? For me, a factoid like “left-handed polar bears” reminds me of one of, if not the most useful questions I have as a scientist: “What is the evidence?”


Good sites for tracking down common urban legends include The Straight Dope and the Urban Legends reference pages.


Correction to earlier entry: Previously, I talked about the costs of accrediting an institution. Apparently, I misread – the application fee is for the initial accreditation for the institution. A “substantial change” may only require a fee of $300 – plus 125% of the cost for an accreditation committee to visit the campus.

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

05 September 2002

The cost of being recognized

Most scientific research is done at universities who train doctoral students. But have you ever thought about what sets apart universities from the “diploma mills” who spam your e-mail, offering to give you a Ph.D. without ever attending a class?

Part of the difference is accreditation, which is essentially a review system that says, “Yes, this institute meets the minimum accepted standards for its field in teaching and awarding degrees.” There are various accreditation agenies associated with different regions. Texas, for instance, is part of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

I discovered that starting the accreditation process for a new degree plan will set you back U.S. $8,000. That’s the application fee. If you make it to the point of inspection, that’ll be another U.S. $2,500, thank you.

Of course, something like that is a drop in the bucket for most institutions, but still, it's hard not to see something like that and evaluate it in terms of your personal finances.


Journal entries are being slowed, of course, by teaching. On the plus side, a new crop of students means new possibilities for getting research help. The University has a program called the “Undergraduate Research Scholars Award,” geared mainly at first-year students. I’m planning on putting in an application for that, which could let me have my first minion – I mean, research assistant.


Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 702. Hey, I’m past the half-way mark!