30 May 2003

Who ya callin’ “small”!?

This article is a rather standard account of SARS research. I think it’s quite amazing that they list how, in three months, SARS has gone from nonexistant to a completely described virus whose entire genetic code has been sequenced and whose origin has been pinpointed...

...and then they title the article, “small victory.”

The petty part of me is shouting, “What the #311 else do you want?”

29 May 2003

Why I’m sometimes short on details...

I was thinking that my discussion of what I was doing – and will be doing a lot more of in the coming months – may sound a bit murky. Short on detail. Just what am I doing in this lab with that lobster I brought in yesterday?

I'm aware of that, and while I'd like to be more forthright, there are a few reasons why I0Æm not.

Ultimately, my research is meant to be published in journals. One of the basic rules of journals is that they don't take papers where the results have already been published, and for most, that includes reporting on the web. Like in this journal.

There's also the problem that science is a competitive business. Now, I am not in one of the most competitive fields – far from it – but the fact remains that I'm one person just starting a research career with no grant (yet) to buy things and no students to help out. If I blab what I'm working on and what I suspect, it's possible (though unlikely) that another researcher who is currently funded could jump in, set a couple of Ph.D. students, and get the paper out before I could say boo. It's one of those things that you just don't want to have happen, because priority matters in science, just like it does in mountaineering. (Quick – who led the second team to reach the top of Mt. Everest?)

These are just a couple of factors that prey in the back of my mind. As much as I want to go all out to tell people what cool stuff it is that I do, I'm just too chicken about where I am in my career right now to be assured that I'll get it done first.


Speaking of science communication, this story makes some interesting points about media coverage of science controversies. Should one “maverick bucking the establishment” get equal coverage as “the establishment”? Very tough call, especially in medical research, where so much is at stake and there are lots of people out there with downright loopy ideas.

(One of my current pet theories is that the human brain is capable of infinite credulity. No matter how weird or outlandish the proposition, no matter how much evidence to the contrary, someone out there will believe it.)


Whoa! Science facts are useful! If you can listen to mp3 files, you absolutely, positively must hear Tripod's song for scientists, written as part of their regular "song in an hour" challenge on Triple J. Look for the "Tripod - Boffin' boffins" link fairly far down, here.

28 May 2003

I got to do an experiment!

And any day you do an experiment is a good day.

The story is as follows: I got up and drove out to the Coastal Studies lab on South Padre Island. I thought it would be an uneventful drive, but to my surprise, ran into a couple of massive cloudbursts. The sheeting down, "Can't-I-make-the-windshield-wipers-go-any-faster?" kind of cloudbursts that slow even normally aggressive Texas drivers down to 30 miles an hour. I'm sure there are other places in the world that matches the southern U.S. for the ferocity of cloudbursts, but I haven't been there yet.

Fortunately, while the burst is intense, it's quite small, and I'm out of it fairly quickly. I get to the Coastal Studies Lab to pick up a juvenile spiny lobster that they had been showing off to the public. They had two small lobsters, so I left one behind, so that the public wouldn't be deprived of the viewing pleasure of seeing Palinurus argus. (Couldn't find a link to a decent picture of the beast, sorry.)

Then I scampered back to the lab to look at this beastie's nervous system. This gave me the first real chance to test out my nifty microscope (that cause so much trouble to order... but I won't rehash old details). It worked well, although I may have to see if I can do something to get a slightly larger field of view. Sometimes, even the lowest power magnification is still a teensy bit too high.

The exciting bit is tomorrow, though. Some preparations have to sit before you get to see the results, and this is one. Tomorrow I get to see if it gives me a definite answer to my question... or not.


Irrelevent recommendation: Down With Love with Ewan McGregor and Rene Zellweger.

27 May 2003


I'm surprised. Revamping a manuscript for submission to a new journal didn't take as long as I thought. I now have four copies of the manuscript in two envelopes (three to an editor and one to an associate editor) waiting to be taken out with the morning mail.

It feels good to have a manuscript in the works again. I have to push and get one or two more out in the coming months.

But first, I have a symposium to organize (today) and make a trip to pick up an animal from the Coastal Studies Lab (tomorrow).

26 May 2003


One of the most annoying things about preparing a scientific manuscript is the references. They are fiddly. They are long. And every journal wants them a different way.

For example, I'm revising a paper that I had originally written for one journal for submission to another. The first journal wanted the list of references to look like this:

Paul DH, Then AM, Magnuson DS. 1985.

Very clean, very "Europoean" in its approach to punctuation. Now, however, the journal I'd like to submit this paper to wants the references to look like this:

Paul, D.H., Then, A.M., and Magnuson, D.S., 1985.

The same, you think? Oh no. 10 periods and commas and the word "and" have to go in the latter version that weren't required in the former. One journal wants abbreviated titles for journals and the other wants all titles spelled out in full. One wants colons separating the volume number from the pages, the other wants a comma.

There is software to do some of this stuff automatically, but it's rather expensive. So, back to my word processor I go, putting in periods and commas...

It's noon now. I'll let you know how long it takes.


About an hour! Lot less than I thought, thankfully.

21 May 2003

The grant gauntlet

I'm starting work on a pre-proposal for something called the Advanced Research Program grants, which are put up by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Feeling masochistic, I looked up their funding rate, and discovered that my field, Biology, is the most competetive of anything they fund. Less than 7% of applications get funded.

Why do I do that to myself?

Enough wallowing. Back to writing the proposal...

19 May 2003


Here’s what I sent to the letters section of The Age in response to the article mentioned in the last entry of this journal:

“It’s unfortunate that over a century of high quality scientific research has escaped notice, judging by the article, ‘Pain test to rock lobster fishermen’ (16 May 2003). I was stunned by the statement, ‘Aquatic scientists have now begun examining lobster tails for evidence of nerve tissue.’

“I can save someone a lot of time by saying that not only do lobsters, yabbies, and their kin have nerve tissue in their tails, that nerve tissue has been well studied by neurobiologists. Crustacean nervous systems have been and still are important models for understanding how nervous systems work in all sorts of animals, including humans.

“The question of pain in other animals is an important one, and deserves a higher level of scholarship.”

Doubtful that it’ll see print, but there's no point in letting errors stand uncorrected.

15 May 2003

Fighting the forces of ignorance...

We crustacean neurobiologists are frequently asked the question, "Do lobsters feel pain?" (Usually the context seems to be, "Am I a bad person for tossing them live into a pot of boiling water?") The question is being revived in Australia, according to this article in The Age, spurred on by recent research that suggests fish may feel pain (which is sure to be hotly debated for some time yet).

It's not that I don't think the question of invertebrate pain is unimportant -- on the contrary. But I was utterly gobsmacked by this sentence in the story:

"Aquatic scientists have now begun examining lobster tails for evidence of nerve tissue."


We've known the answer to that question for well over a century. There's been about a zillion papers on the neural tissue in the lobster tail (I've had a hand in writing a couple).

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. All I can say is: Nobody better be getting a grant for that research!


I've handed in my final marks for my classes this afternoon. Have started to receive the usual contacts from students who just missed making a particular grade. Their transcripts don't show percentages. Two students with different letter grades (e.g., a C at 79% and a B at 80%) can actually be closer in performance than two students with the same letter grade (80% and 89.4% are both B students).

I always feel crummy for them. The disappointment that I know I'm inevitably handing over to some students always tempers what an otherwise happy day of completion.

12 May 2003


This is always a tricky time of year for me, because I'm going from an established routine to a situation where my schedule is totally total free form. I always find those sorts of switches to be quite difficult. Unfortunately, I tend to sputter and not use my time very well for a few days before I get reorganized.

Considering how tight things have been for the last couple of months, though... I think a bit of sputtering around to reorganize might not be entirely unwarranted.

Among the mess of things on my plate are writing grant applications, organizing a symposium at this summer's Animal Behavior Society meeting, finishing manuscripts from my Melbourne work, and, of course, doing entirely new research.

Scary thing? Based on some conversations I've had Friday with our College Dean and today with our Department Chair, it looks like they're interested in getting me involved in preparing a Howard Hughes Medical Institution grant application. It's worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars... if you can get it. I'm a little nervous, because if I get involved in what's really a grant for the college... when will I find time to do the stuff I need for me?

06 May 2003

The end is near... end of semester, that is

Haven't been blogging much because there hasn't been a lot of movement on the research front. That should change soon, because today is the last day for this semester that I have to give lectures. Hoo... ray. (You can’t quite see the slight look of exhaustion in my eyes when I see that. I’m sure there's been dark circles under them more than a couple of mornings this month.)

In other news, our Department is putting in requests for new faculty positions. I got tapped to write up the justification for a position I had suggested (which is only fair, I reckon). I suggested we hire a developmental biologist.

In justifying the position, though, I was instructed to play up any possible “biomedical” aspect to the work. I didn’t suggest the position because I thought it was biomedical – quite the opposite, in fact. But in a few short paragraphs, I was able to work in a whole slew of buzz words. I started off mentioning last year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine was for developmental biology. Then I got on a roll.

“Cancer research!” “Spinal cord injury!” “Aging!” And I even brought in the big ace-in-the-hole new bite star: “stem cells.” OooooOOOoooh. AaaaAAAAaaah.

Writing it all made me feel like such a sell-out.