26 September 2003

A role model returns

One of the reasons I wanted to be a scientist was because of fictional characters rather than real people. Mr. Spock, science officer? Cool. Buckaroo Banzai? I decided that I wanted to be him. Renaissance man, who was both brain surgeon and lead singer of a rock and roll band. Living life to the max, going in 20 directions and once, doing many things and excelling at all. That was my goal. To some degree, I’d like to think I succeeded. My career in science has taken me around the world, and I've got a chance to use lots of different skills. Still working on the rock and roll band, though.

One of my favourite science role models is making a return. Finally. Doctor Who is coming back to telly! (Okay, I never really say “telly,” but I'm going for that British feel, since Doctor Who is a British show.)

Dr. Who, for those who don't know, is the world's longest running science fiction show. This year is the 40th anniversary. I was introduced to the character in Starlog magazine around 1978. I saw my first episodes – The Seeds of Doom, parts 3 and 4 (yes, I am a such a geek) – on a family vacation in Texas (of all places) after a long night in... Houston? – where we'd spent rather more time than we expected trying to find a hotel. And I was lucky enough that one of the local PBS stations that broadcast into southern Alberta took up the cause to show the series routinely. I made lots of friends though watching Dr. Who, and wrote a feature article for The Meliorist when the show hit its silver 25th anniversary.

The Doctor represented so much of what I thought a scientist should be. Adept in solving problems of all sorts, whether it be preventing a Dalek invasion or a patching a piece of broken equipment. That “Renaissance man” aspect in particular is one I love (see comments about Buckaroo Banzai, above). Not taking the word of authority (scene from The Five Doctors: Soldier: “Sir, you’re not allowed in there.” Doctor: “Me? Not allowed? I'm allowed everywhere!”). Travelling the universe. Good companions. (And, incidentally, it is total coincidence that one of the longest running Dr. Who companions and my SO are both named Sarah. Though I do have a lot of fun when I get to say, “I'm the doctor, and this is my companion Sarah.”) And it's one reason why I sometimes suggest people call me “Doctor Zen” – it has the sort of same slightly cool ring as “Doctor Who.” At least it does to my vain ears.

I’m happy.

Oh yeah, I also got the revised version of a manuscript off in the post today. That also makes me happy (I’ve been working on getting this thing in print for two years and counting), but I’m holding off on any major celebrations until I get the thing accepted.

Big crusty

This news makes my crustacean-loving flesh tingle. Note, though, that what are typically called "crayfish" in Australia and New Zealand are known as "spiny lobsters" here. Although there are some Murray River freshwater crayfish that get pretty big, this beast would be a saltwater animal.

25 September 2003

Why was I...?

...standing in Staples, spending money out of my own pocket to photocopy the latest version of a manuscript I've been trying to get published for, oh, two years now?

Our department decided to get a new photocopier. The old one had served well, but apparently had reached the end of its usefulness. The photcopier came, and worked well... until the ink ran out.

The shelves next to the photcopier are filled to the proverbial brim with toner cartridges -- for the old machine. Apparently, nobody thought to order new toner cartridges at the same time they ordered the new photocopier.

Yet another case of a piece of equipment that we kind of need to do research -- but it's not working. Between this, the ice machine, trying to order anything in a timely fashion, I'm reminded of the old observation that even a lion can be eaten by ants.

Take this job...

One of my current tasks is running this year’s Search Committee. We have four shiny new positions here in UTPA Biology (see here for more details). It’s a challenge, but so far, I’d have to give ourselves a pat on the back, because I think we came up with a better job ad than this one.


Hey, I'm on the "Professors who blog" list! Actually, I think I asked to be put on that list back when the Chronicle of Higher Education article ran. Shameless self-promotion. It's the only way to go.

24 September 2003

Back from the brink

The topic of endangered animals is important and interesting to me, so I was heartened to read this article about a small mammal that's been rediscovered.


One month ice free! Whoo-hoo! What a milestone! Or it would be if we hadn't gone through this several times before...


Spent yesterday working mostly on search committee and other committee things. Have to get back to writing my own science. Off to do that now, with a letter of intent for the Whitehall Foundation.

20 September 2003

Movement on the ice front!

Hey, they've actually done something about the ice machine...

At this point, a copper pipe sticking out of the wall is a sign of progress. It only took us twenty-six days to get this far...

I freely admit this my obsession with this piece of equipment is a sad, sad commentary on me. But everyone needs a hobby.

19 September 2003

What would they do if it snowed?

They're closing the university today due to weather. Hurricane? No. Tornado? No. Tropical storm? No. Thunder and lightning? No.

It, uh, rained.

It's not even raining right now.

I did my first two classes, and they announced just as I was finishing my second class, that the university was cancelling classes for the rest of the day. Yeah, it is a little soggy outside, but there's no wind to speak of, and I found the outside air temperature to be quite pleasant. It's so nice not to have sweat forming when you walk outside! My students were still giving me a hard time for wearing shorts, though.

Sheesh. I though this was science, not a baseball game.

16 September 2003

The other side

Hey, my new computer wasn't stolen last night! Hoody hoo!

I was paranoid enough, though, that I took several steps to avoid getting it stolen. I didn’t just leave the boxes in the hall. I personally carried the boxes out away to the dumpster, so that there wouldn't be any hint that a new computer was in this office. Another advantage of this new computer is that it looks like just a flat screen monitor. All the computer “stuff” are located behind the screen. They’ve basically taken a laptop design, and stood it on end. I’m hoping that by leaving the old computer “box” and keyboard where it is for a while, a thief might just think, “Oh, he’s just got a new monitor.”


Day 22 with no ice. So, so hot...

The other side

Hey, my computer wasn't stolen last night! Hoody hoo!


Over 3 weeks with no ice.

15 September 2003

See you on the other side

This will be the last post journal entry made on my hand-me-down Pentium 2, 4 gig hard drive computer that I inherited from Dr. Ortega (who'd been the last to retire before I joined here). My new computer has finally arrived. And that's definitely been the best thing to happen in a day that has otherwise been riding on the edge of crisis from the word "go."

After I got out of my two early morning classes, I got back paperwork concerning the searches for new faculty positions. We were approved to search for four new faculty; paperwork came back listing only three. Bad. Apparently, some of the paperwork got "lost" between the Dean's office and the Provost's office.

Then, the editor for one of my manuscripts emailed me asking when I would have the revisions done. Ugh. I've got to do that pronto, or the whole process starts from scratch.

On the plus side, that revision will be much faster once I set up my shiny new computer.

Hm. On second thought, I should add one qualifier to my first paragraph. This will be the last journal entry on my old computer. I hope.

14 September 2003

Another working weekend

Spent both yesterday and today in my office. Of course, I wasn't the only one. Plenty of other tenure-track professors (and even a couple of tenured ones!) were in at various times, too (though I think I was there longest of anyone on the second floor).

Fred Zaidan was there. I was chatting to him about what he was doing (because he's not single like some of the other new guys. it's less typical for him to be in on weekends). He mentioned he'd spent the day working on his Faculty Research Council grant -- a small grant that's internal to UTPA. I'd planned to submit one, too. He commented, "I really hate the six page limit."

I look blankly and ask, "Six page limit?"

"Yeah, for the project description."

I rushed back to my computer and discovered that I'd filled in all the forms, but there wasn't any form for the project description -- you had to write it yourself on good ol' plain white paper. I'd completely and utterly missed it. I hastily retrieved my proposal from the department chair's mailbox and started writing. This proposal was due tomorrow, and I had to teach, so I had to finish it toute suite.

It was about 4 pm, and I had five pages done just before 7 pm. Whew! Luckily, a few things were in my favour. Those 6 pages had to be double spaced, and I needed to have references. I must remember to thank Fred for unwittingly pulling my fat out of the fire.

One of the interesting things about doing this proposal so quickly was that I finally got to use a software program I'd bought a few months back, EndNote.

Oh. My. God.

End Note is a bibliographic program. In order to really use it effectively, you have to enter all your references into the database, which I've been doing very slowly. The beauty of this thing -- which I'd known intellectually but hadn't really grasped in that "in your bones" kind of way -- is that all you have to do is select a database entry, and it creates your reference list automatically. In the format of your choice. This is fantastic, because every journal in the world wants references a different way. Some want a numbered list (so if you move one reference, you have to renumber everything), some want them alphabetical, some want the year behind the author's name, some want the year closer to the end... and so on. The reference list is an absolute time-killer, because it is so fiddly that it almost invariably generates a mistake somewhere.

Once I start to get more entries into the database, this software is going to save me so much time...
Rephrase: Once I start to get more entries into the database, and get my new office computer... My current computer is just about ready to enter a new and rewarding career as a doorstop, so I've been busily awaiting arrival of a replacement. Given the recent theft of Chris's computer, though, I'm really nervous that it'll be stolen before I have a chance to do anything with it. Hope I'm wrong.


OoooOOOOOoooh! Soon -- not yet, but soon -- it'll be three weeks with a busted ice machine!

12 September 2003

The Coolest Thing in the Universe

No, it's not an MP3 player. (Though those gizmos are pretty darn cool.)

No, it's not Chow Yun-Fat. (Though he is arguably the coolest man in the universe right now.)

No, it's not even a working ice machine. (Though it would be extremely cool if day 18 was the last ice free day on this floor.)

Nope, as of today, the coolest thing in the universe -- officially -- is a cloud of ultracold sodium atoms at MIT. They were cooled to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. You can read about it here.

11 September 2003


My colleague Chris Little just had his "sweet" new iMac computer stolen from his lab this afternoon. Bugger. I gave him a hug, but was annoyed that there wasn't more that I could do except express sympathy. Was also worried. I heard about this as I was walking to my lab to check on some data for Anna S., and panicked for a moment. His lab is only four doors down from mine.

And what's worse is that he already had scientific data on that machine. Computers can be replaced. So can data, I suppose, but having to redo experiments is not something a tenure-track person wants to be wasting time on.

Unfortunately, his computer is the latest in a string of computers that have been stolen from this building. Several were taken from the Chemistry Department upstairs -- I think this is the first from Biology recently.

Keeping up with the ladies

I try to make it a policy not to ask others to do things that I wouldn't do myself. This is particularly true of my students. The downside is that when you have a really motivated student -- or colleague-- you have to keep up with them or risk looking bad.

Virginia (L) and Anna (R, who realized I was taking a picture)

My student Anna S. (blonde Anna) is pretty motivated. And so is my colleague Virginia Scofield. To finish up some tunicate development experiments they started yesterday in time for Anna to get to her classes, they decided that they should meet in my lab at 7:00 a.m. And considering that Anna was willing to drive to Edinburg from Harlingen, which is about 45 minutes away, I wasn't about to back out and not show up. And even with my short walk in, Anna was still in the lab before me!

In other good news, a set-up for a study Anna A. (brunette Anna) did yesterday with sand crabs also looks like it will work. We still need some fine tuning, but we're convinced it will work.

Meanwhile, my poor colleague Fred Zaidan borrowed an old Wal-Mart styrofoam cooler from my lab to take some things home last night. While he was walking in to return the eskie, someone stopped him and asked, "Are you selling tacos?" This rather took him aback. I think he had some problems grasping the idea that someone would be looking for a wandering taco salesman...

10 September 2003

Sometimes, it's a breeze

Today has been a good, but busy, day.

My colleague Virginia Scofield has been in working with my student Anna (blonde version) and myself running experiments, and we've getting very nice and clear results. I was joking with them, "So, you reckon we can have a letter to Nature out by, what, end of October?"

And I had my student Anna (brunette version) in setting up an experiment. And Gloria and Nisha in the lab were in doing things. too.

I had a bit of a concern this morning when my students started to tell me that there was a problem with one of the questions in their online quiz, but it turned out to be a relatively trivial issue.

Today definitely beats yesterday, when I got sidetracked several times before I got to do anything. First, I tried to put in my new contacts, and could barely see out of one eye. I wear monthly disposible contacts, and this was a new batch, so I was convinced they'd just given me the wrong prescription. Turned out not to be the case, but that took two hours to fix in the morning before I even stepped into my office. Then, I got email from the Dean concerning the job advertisement for the faculty positions we're hiring -- that took another hour. Then I had a meeting at lunch. That meant I really didn't get anything started until 1:00 pm, and I was expecting Virginia to arrive around 3:00 pm to start some experiments! Fortunately, I somehow managed to finish the major tasks (writing a quiz) I had to do by the time Virginia arrived.

So, as Stevie Nicks once sang, "Sometimes it's a bitch, sometimes it's a breeze."

Unless it's the ice machine. That's never a breeze. I saw service people looking at it today, but I'm quite sure that today is day 16 with no ice.

09 September 2003

A quick entry before bed

I'm up a little late tonight, working at home, getting a quiz ready for two of my General Biology classes to take Wednesday. My third class, Neurobiology, also has a quiz Wednesday, which I'll have to finish tomorrow -- in and around hosting a visit by my colleague Virginia Scofield, a graduate studies committee meeting at lunch (blast no, no noon workout again), meeting with students, writing budgets for students, writing an internal grant proposal, answering emails, marking off the calendar that will show we've been over a fortnight without a working ice machine, and I'm sure one or two other little tasks...

But now? Off to bed.

07 September 2003

Annual purgatory

I like my job, but I hate documenting it.

It's the time of year when I have to submit a big binder for my annual tenure-track review. While I appreciate that there needs to be mechanism to establish that someone is doing his or her job, the amount of documentation makes performing this task an absurd extravagance of time. And they couldn't find a better time to ask us to submit them than the start of the fall semester?

On the plus side, while I was in the office printing emails (more documentation), I was also running back and forth to my lab to work with blonde Anna on some simple little experiments we were doing. And whaddya know -- they worked! Still very preliminary, but it was a good sign nonetheless. Particularly since my colleague Virginia Scofield will be visiting Edinburg next week; Anna and I wanted to make sure we could get this experimental set-up working so we could take full advantage of Virginia's trip next week.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: we're up to day 13 with no ice. The ice machine is still sitting in its spot in the equipment corridor, immobile, empty, and, I'm sure, sad.

04 September 2003

My name on a T-shirt. Was bound to happen, really...

Yesterday I was talking to one of the seven (!) students I'm supervising this semester, one of my Annas. (I'm working with Anna A., who’s from here, I think, and Anna S., who’s from Germany). So we were happily discussing research plans, had been for several minutes, when I suddenly stopped, and said, “Does that shirt say, ‘Zen’?”

It was one of those bizarre, “A-ha!” moments. It was like how you sometimes you look at an optical illusion, and you suddenly see something that you didn’t see a second ago.

Her shirt was pink, with stylized clouds outline (at least, they looked liked cloud outlines to me) in slightly darker pink. Also in slightly darker pink was a sort of scaly ribbon, running and twisting around through the middle. At first, I first thought was a pink Chinese dragon. The shirt a slightly Asian feel – although the very definite pinkness of the shirt made it perhaps feel slightly less Asian than it would otherwise.

Anna hadn’t realized at all that her shirt said anything (“Doesn’t it say, ‘ZEM’?”), much less spelled out her supervisor’s name.


Today? I tracked down information I needed for my tenure folder, did some emailing regarding the International Society for Neuroethology website, made a trip out to the Coastal Studies lab to gather some tunicates, took care of the crayfish, introduced my student Anna S. to tunicates, and introduced my student Gloria to crayfish.
Oh yes, and wrote a blog entry. ;)

02 September 2003

Sympathy for the chemists

We in the Biology Department share our building with the Chemistry department. We take up the first two floors, they take up the third floor. We have a lot of shared interests, shared facilities... and shared problems.

Their ice machine's busted too.

Which sucks for us, because sometimes we in Biology have been known to nick a bit of the chilly stuff from the chemists.

In other news, I have several things vying for my attention besides getting things together for my students. I have tenure-track review and merit folders to put together. The annoying thing about the merit folder is that they're normally used to determine a merit-based raise -- but there is no such raise this year due to state budget cutbacks. Yet we go through this compilation of data anyway...

And there's also an internal faculty grant proposal that is going to be due in a couple of weeks. I'm going to try to pull something together for that, but it won't be easy. But at least it'll be easier than getting our ice machine fixed.

That's eight ice-free days in biology and counting.