30 December 2005

Hi. My name is Zen. I'm a workaholic.

I was looking around the department a lot this week. I was alone most of the time. Usually the only one there. I made a joke to one of the graduate students about there being too many lazy people in the department. But. I'm getting a little upset. I am starting to wonder if I have a problem. Am I a workaholic? I sort of associate the term with people who really want to work all the time, and I don't feel like that. But too much, it seems like all I have is work, and there's less and less to look forward to outside of work. And I'm not sure what to do about it.

Happy New Year.

28 December 2005

More "No"s

Rejection for the holidays! It's all so soap opera-y. Yes, I have had yet another grant application turned down, this one from the National Science Foundation. I'd asked for $147,500.

Meanwhile, what did I spend yesterday and will spend all of today doing? Writing a recommendation letter to the NSF for a student. I hope I do better for my student than I do for myself.

26 December 2005

No snow, no science

My parents have been visiting for Christmas, and we spent Christmas eve at the World Birding Center, and saw lots of things I hadn't seen before: lovely green jays, javelinas, leaf cutter ants, and ant lion pits, and various other things. Warm and pleasant and well worth it.

Christmas was very relaxed and enjoyable. No repeat of last last year's freak snow fall.

Now things start winding up again. I have a letter of recommendation due at the end of this week for a fellowship for my graduate student Sandra, and we start getting ready to go to the SICB meeting next week. (Eeeek! So soon?!)

23 December 2005

Big as a really big thing

Things are looking up, for the most part. After several weeks of clouds -- to the point where I only has vague sort of memories about some blazing ball of fire that used to inhabit the sky -- the sky has cleared up and we have some lovely sunshine.

Yesterday was also good for work related reasons. My student Sandra and I were preparing to print our poster for the upcoming Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting. This is actually part of a student presentation competition for The Crustacean Society, so the urge to have a good poster has a slightly greater importance than normal. We also have the luxury of lots of poster board space, if the SICB website is to believed -- so we took full advantage of that. In other words, we have a big poster. I mean, really big. Longer than I'm tall. By many inches. And I'm sort of pointlessly tall.

I was convinced that we were going to spend all day trying to print this poster. After all, it is coming up to Christmas, almost nobody's around. Even though Sandra did check that George, the computer lab manager, would be around to help us, you always sort of worry that you'll find a problem that could be fixed if only person X was in their office and not off in another state visiting family for Christmas.

Plus, there was the possible complicating factor of this poster being so big. We decided that it was, in all likelihood, the single biggest poster ever printed in the lab. The file was many megabytes -- 13.6, to be precise. And being an old school computer user, there was a time when working with a file that big was just asking for trouble. And while it's less of a problem now, it's always a concern in the back of your mind.

But we almost got it printed in one shot. We had to abort the first attempt after a couple of inches, because there was still some tape at the end of the paper roll. But the second attempt came off without a hitch.

Now all we have to do is to hope that the poster boards are actually as big as advertised. Because if not, we could kind of be screwed. And I have to put a few finishing touches on my own talk. This is pretty exciting -- two presentations at one meeting. It's been a while since I've been able to boast of that!

19 December 2005

More rejection

Today I was informed that a pre-proposal didn't make it past the internal review for a "limited submission" grant program from the Department of Defense. Friday, I got back a letter of rejection on a letter of intent I had written. I was one of 116 applicants, and the foundation invited twenty of those to submit full proposals.

Additional: And I found out this afternoon that I was kicked back for an internal Faculty Development grant proposal.

Fighting for simplicity

On Friday, I received the proofs for my latest article; this one will be going into the journal Crustaceana. Luckily, this one seems to have made an errorless transition from manuscript to proof. I was unable to find a single error. Of course, this probably means that I will find a devastating one when the article is actually in print.

The funny thing about the two articles I currently have in print is that both of them had some editorial changes that are symptomatic of a bigger problem.

In one paper, the editor recommended changing “leg” to “pereiopod.” Of course, if you look up pereipod, you’ll see they’re defined as “legs,” essentially. I made the change because it’s a small thing to fight with an editor about. And “pereiopod” is slightly more accurate. But I have had papers published using the word “legs" instead of “pereiopods.”

In the other paper, a similar event occurred. The editor changed “abdomen” to “pleon.” “Pleon”? Heck, even I had to look that one up. I thought “abdomen” was more than technical enough; it is certainly a more precise anatomical term than "tail," which is essentially what most people would think of if I pointed to the abdomen / pleon of a lobster or crayfish or such. This one was during the editorial changes for typesetting, so I had no idea it was to be done until I actually received the proofs.

In his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell proposed several simple rules, one of which was “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” I try to follow that sort of advice when I write, with a little success (I think). After all, I do want my papers to be read somewhat widely, and as a relative latecomer in biology, I am always conscious of just how much technical terminology is out there.

Is the extra level of precision really worth making the paper just that little bit more obscure, just that extra step more arcane and unreadable without a dictionary by your side? I.m obviously inclined to believe that it’s not, otherwise I wouldn’t have picked the words I did in the first place. But getting a paper published is hard enough as it is, so it is very difficult to justify hardcore battles over this sort of terminology.

When my papers comes out, I’m giving permission to everyone to go in to their library copy and replace “pereiopds” with “legs” in indelible marker. Strike out “pleon” and put in “abdomen” – or maybe even “tail.”

12 December 2005

Misery gets company

Still feeling tired and wobbly and not well at all. Apparently, though, I'm not the only one. A whole mess of the people who were at Chap's (our happy hour pub) on Friday got sick. Me, Jason, Fred, Kristy, Jon... I guess someone was infectious.

10 December 2005


I am regretting going to happy hour yesterday. When I came home, my throat hurt fairly badly and I got about two hours of good sleep. I would have liked to stay at home, but I got an email saying, "Your grant application hasn't been submitted correctly." Again. So here I am in my office trying to upload a silly little PDF file for the third time. I hope this one works as it ought.

Meanwhile, my grad student is taking the GRE. Fingers crossed for her.

08 December 2005

Doing something right

Because it's the end of the semester, I always encourage my students to rate me, not just on the standard class forms, but through websites like Pick-a-Prof and Rate My Professors. This morning, I was tooling around on the latter site, and clicked on "highest rated schools"... and found that my institution is ranked second highest out of almost 800 listed.

I'm gobsmacked. I mean, when you face so many problems at a place like this, you sometimes wonder if anything is going right. It's nice to see some evidence that something is going right, in the minds of our students, at least.

Incidentally, Rate My Professors is worth checking out for the funny reviews if nothing else.

07 December 2005

Another semester done

Today was the last day of class. Yesterday was actually a more significant day, though. It was a day with a lot of mixed emotions for me. First, it was my mom's birthday (happy birthday again, mom!). But since 1989 (the year I started grad school), that day has marked a less pleasant anniversary. That year, a gunman went into L'École Polytechnique in Montréal, specifically sorted out the women in a engineering classroom at gunpoint and shot fourteen of them dead and wounded many more before killing himself.

Every country has its own scars, and that was one of Canada's. I was listening to CBC Radio yesterday, and there was a comment on the event still, all this time later. I wish the story was better known outside Canada.

That awful, awful event of females being specifically targeted because they were studying for technical career had more weight on my mind than usual, because yesterday was the preliminary oral assessment for my graduate student, Sandra. She was supposed to do it the week before, but had been rather ill. She completed her prelim and jumped through the hoop -- not a real graceful jump, but then again, few grad students make graceful jumps through that hoop. (Heaven knows mine was not.) After it was over, we talked quite about about what we needed to do to help her succeed in graduate school, and further her career in biology.

I guess I felt a little more of the weight of responsibility for being a good supervisor yesterday, because of the calendar coincidence.

05 December 2005

Worth a trip to the library

"Composition, morphology and mechanics of hagfish slime" by Douglas S. Fudge and colleagues has just been published in The Journal of Experimental Biology. Volume 208, pages 4627-4639, to be precise. You can read the summary of this research here. Because didn't we all get into biology for the slime?

The authors conclude:

These results are consistent with the hypothesis that the slime has evolved as a defense against gill-breathing predators.

To which I’m tempted to amend to, “... a defense against gill-breathing, or really squeamish, predators.”

I can just picture some shark taking a run at a hagfish and going, “EeeewwWWwww! Ick!”

29 November 2005

It sounds so cliche

I was all set to give my graduate student, Sandra, her preliminary oral assessment today, and she calls in sick with the flu. Now, to anyone who doesn't know her, this would smack of something suspicious. Fortunately, I do know her and am not suspicious, but I can't help but to raise an eyebrow mentally over the bad timing. On the plus side, it cleared up a couple of hours in which I wrote two recommendation letters (one for Sandra, actually), and am off to the library to try to digitize some video sequences. Also submitted yet another grant proposal. Sigh. Now the waiting.

At least waiting princesses get a song. Alas, scientists have yet to find a tunesmith who can equal "One day my prince will come."

24 November 2005

Past poems

I've spent the last while digging around files on old CDs, looking for some digital versions of figures from my doctoral work. It turns out there's a couple of pictures I want to use in an upcoming presentation I'll be giving early next year at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting. Luckily, I've been using the same graphics program for all that time, the amazing CorelDraw!, so I'm still able to open and use those old files from my thesis.

While tooling around those old files, I found a few other things. One was this little piece of artistic expression I did at another meeting. I still like it.

Sand crab poetry
(Inspired by J.M. at A.B.S. meeting)

A colleague asked, “Do sand crabs think?”
I don’t know if they do
But the matter their thoughts caused me to think
And this is what I conclude:

Sand crabs are truly poets —
In the tide they bide their time
Composing lyrics, sonnets, sestinas;
Counting metres and perfecting rhymes.

They might write verse of sand crab wars
And other epics of their race
(Though they excel in tales more personal:
Broken heart and molted carapace)

Now I myself am a skeptic, too.
“Where’s the evidence?!” I hear you say
Alas, they write their stanzas on the beach
And the waves wash them away.

26 July 1994

22 November 2005

Boneless chicken

The ulcer in my mouth in healing, but not yet healed. My dentist, Dr. Kent, went into the back of my jaw with a probe, pulled out a little white sliver, and said, "Feel that." Yup; it's hard. Just like bone. 'Cause that's what it was. Then he went back in and pried loose another splinter of bone, and said to his assistant, "It's like a boneless chicken." Wheee.

So here I sit, with gauze in my mouth again. At least it's getting better, I'm planning on going back in three weeks for another follow-up, by which time I hope it will have completely healed up. On the plus side, though, I'm getting damn good at making fruit smoothies. I haven't really been having anything more solid than ice cream for a couple of weeks now, in an attempt to not rip it up by chewing.

And now for something completely different...

What Is Your Battle Cry?

Rampaging along the mini-mall parking lot, swinging a studded crowbar, cometh Zen! And he gives a gutteral scream:

"For the love of beatings, I swear that on this night, you shall dine in hell!!!"

Find out!
Enter username:
Are you a girl, or a guy ?

created by beatings : powered by monkeys

21 November 2005

Next crack at the post

Finished off another small grant proposal, this one for nine grand and change, for SOMAS. This is the second year I've submitted to this program. It's not anything like the same project as last year, which is probably a good thing, because I got hammered last time out. I think my proposal was ranked in like the bottom 20 percent or something of all they received. So I'm trying a different project this time. If I can crawl into the middle third of proposals, I'll be a little bit happy. I'd be much happier if I can get someone to actually give me money, though.

18 November 2005

More annoyance

Came in this morning to find another rejection email from the National Science Foundation over one of my grants. I don't think the ulcer in my mouth is getting better either.

13 November 2005

Everyone hates proofreading

I've pretty much spent all of today in my office proofreading. It is a task that all authors hate. It is tricky and time-consuming and requires deciphering an arcane set of proofreading marks. And not all journals use the same marks! It is still kind of amazing that in this digital age, it seems that a lot of journals are still being typeset by hand rather than taking the author's digital manuscript and importing it. I did not spell "coral reef" with three "e"s, for example. I'm just glad that this was a short paper --- only four pages. Yet those four pages contained at least nineteen typos.

Nineteen that I found, anyway.

Still, the drudgery is compensated by the fact that working on a manuscript for publication is a good thing. It helps me believe that I am making some progress.

12 November 2005


Due to storage limitations, this journal is now hosted by Blogspot at http://neurodojo.blogspot.com instead of my own server. The transition should be seamless if you were visiting via http://dojo.shorturl.com.

10 November 2005

Where have all the Lepidopa gone?

I went to the beach today to collect animals. I got some mud shrimp, but again, sand crabs are proving incredibly elusive. I have no idea why.

09 November 2005

Love a reason to move back to Canada

Because I really don’t want to live in a country with a state as stupid as Kansas. This is completely depressing.

The US state of Kansas has ruled that science classes in public schools should include the teaching of intelligent design and the doubts it casts on Darwinian evolution. The move has dismayed the nation’s scientific community.

08 November 2005

All manner of things

Wow. Where have I been?

Santa Fe, New Mexico, for one. The dentist, for another. (There is no causal connection between those places.) And many others. So let's get started on some of the significant events that have happened in the last while...

I received my green card this weekend, so I am now officially a permanent resident of the U.S. I am still somewhat surprised at this development in general, and completely astonished at how quickly the process went. The attorney we we working with was sort of gearing us up for a process of a couple of years. And they're not actually green.

I was in Santa Fe end of last week for a biology workshop, which was fun. Actually, got into a fascinating conversation with an artist on the shuttle to Santa Fe from Albuquerque. That alone was worth the trip. I was glad not to be driving out of Albuquerque, since I've heard from a very young age that it's very easy to get lost there. Apparently, you have to make sure you take that left toirn in Albuquerque.... Anyway, the hosts (W. H. Freeman publishers) fed me well, and put me in a very cozy little hotel room, and I met plenty of other cool biology people. It was really interesting to talk to people who were all really thinking hard about teaching introductory classes.

Two things of note today. First, I made a trip to the aforementioned dentist office. I learned I have an ulcer in my mouth. Probably explains why my jaw was hurting a while back. It is pretty bad -- there was a bit of exposed bone in my jaw. The dentist scraped off some of the dead bone, trying to get a blood clot so that the gum tissue would grow back over it. Trying to get it to heal is probably going to mean a mostly liquid diet for a while.

Final weird thing of the day. A while back I submitted a grant proposal, which I've done many times before and will do again. Only this time, I got a letter from our university president, Bambi, thanking me for submitting the proposal. Not sure why -- whether this one caught her attention, some random act, or whether she's doing it for all proposals now.

24 October 2005

At long last, fall

It's great out today. I got to wear long pants and a jacket! I could be really warm walking home this afternoon, but walking to uni this morning was great.

But I'm going to spend the rest of the day mired in university bureaucracy. The Dean didn't approve some policy changes, I'm trying to get some colour printing done, but while checking that the computer files would work, I learned it has to be approved by university relations, and so on, and s on.


Thought of the moment: "Carefree" and "careless" both mean "not having a care," but one is a good thing, and one is a bad thing.

18 October 2005

Overdoing it?

Last week, I said I should have gone to the beach. Today, I wasn't planning to, but I ended up going. I'm not sure if it was a success. I was mainly looking for sand crabs. I found one, and it was in two pieces (I cleaved it with the shovel). After about an hour digging and looking for sand crabs, went in for a break, then went back out to look for mud shrimp. That was more productive -- they were pretty easy picking, though a lot of them were very small. That might not matter for the project I have in mind, though.

But now I'm looking at my hands and hoping I didn't overdo it. I'm pink. More than usual. Ugh.

12 October 2005

Should have gone to the beach

Yesterday, I had originally planned to go to South Padre Island to collect animals. But when I got up in the morning, it was raining heavily. I looked at the weather forecast, which predicted thundershowers on and off for the whole day. I though about it, and decided not to go, since I didn't want to have to spend hours shoveling sand in the rain. Of course, things cleared up and most of the rest of the day was fine. I so should have gone.

There was good news yesterday, though. I got a copy of my latest actual printed article, in the Texas Journal of Science. About the first thing I saw was that "status" got spelled with an "i" in one table, but what the heck. You can't have everything. I worried this would happen, because it was a change the editor suggested at the proof stage, so I knew it was going to get typeset again without me checking the pages.

I was rather enjoying having three papers in press. It made me feel so productive. I still feel pretty good about having two papers in press, but I really need to have more getting into journals this year if I'm to succeed.

04 October 2005

Rip! Boom! Score, baby!

Just opened an envelope less than five minutes ago and found out I've got another manuscript accepted and now on its way into press! That officially makes today a good day. I am even more pleased than normal (which is already a high level of being pleased), because this paper had actually been rejected once by a different journal.

I've already gloated to about three of my colleagues and a post-doc. I don't think I'll be able to stop for a couple of hours. Better get back to work while I'm motivated!

Music for the moment: "Rolling Sevens" by ABC.

03 October 2005

Zero day weekend

After a wonderful weekend off last week, I was back at uni on both Saturday and Sunday this week, due entirely to the monster event that is now known as HESTEC. HESTEC week ends with community day on Saturday, wherein we throw open our doors, have booths, presentations, funnel cake, music, and Cheech Marin(?). I was involved in organizing a few things, mainly student posters, and was in helping. After a slow start (which rather panicked my colleague Jon, who was the main organizer), things picked up late in the afternoon, and we had a couple of display rooms packed to the gills. We actually ended running about an extra longer than we planned. (This rather messed up some plans for the evening, but that's another story.) It was actually rather good, and this morning I got some ideas for something we might do next year.

Of course, after having tens of thousands of people on campus Saturday, what does that mean for Sunday? Clean up on aisle three! I came in and was taking down the posters and doing a few other odds and ends. Wasn't here for long, but I was here.

I'm hoping that now that this unexpectedly hellish September is over, I can move on and start getting a few other long delayed tasks done in October. And now I've found a secret weapon. On Sunday, I found a clip on the 'net that I can play at those times when I need to dig deep to keep going. I have 14 minutes and 55 seconds of a soul-stirring, make-you-believe-you-can-go-on, video of... a pick-up truck. (Requires RealPlayer to view.)

Yes, I know this sound terribly "new laddish" or "bloke-ish." But it's wildly out of character for me -- I don't even like pick-up trucks! Always been more of a sports car driver myself. But this really must be seen to be believed. It's a clip from the BBC's car show Top Gear (now showing in the U.S. on the Discovery Channel), which I've taken to watching for its incredible good humour and inventiveness, even though cars don't interest me much.

I hope there won't be too many days where I feel the need to watch that video. But it's nice to have something to rev you up, so to speak.

28 September 2005

An honest to goodness sea monster

Now this is cool. Giant squid! They've only been known from corpses -- until now. Finally, a television crew has seen and recorded a live one. The story is here.

26 September 2005

Me time

I didn't work at all this weekend. No going to the office. Didn't even check university email. After seven day work weeks for the last month, I felt by the end of last week that I was working incredibly inefficiently. And this time, I didn't even feel guilty about it. Not at all.

So what did I do with this time? I watched the AFL Grand Final. Not a visually exciting game, because it was low scoring, but it was a very intense, close game that could have gone either way, right down to the last three seconds of the game. I saw two movies: Transporter 2 and Corpse Bride, bnoth of which I rather enjoyed. Got to go out one night, shop a little, watch some anime, and generally decompress and try to clear my head.

Didn't spend much time outside, because... let me put it this way. There was a penny on the ground outside the theatre. I try to pick it up. And suddenly I was doing a Gollum impersonation. "Aieeee! It burns us!" It was just freaking hot from sitting in the sun on the pavement. It was screaming hot, record highs out both days, with temperatures around 42°C both days. It was dificult to handle the sunscreen and seatbelt in the car, and I felt like my bum was burning a little when I sat in the car seat. I didn't like it. Temperatures cannot drop soon enough for me.

I think my efforts to clear my head worked at least a little, as I was able to quickly pull together a short letter of intent for a grant today and get it into the mail before the mail guys picked up the outgoing mail. I also got a few other things finished, and was actually able to start planning ahead for a meeting I want to go to in a few months time.

23 September 2005

Great graphics

One of the things I'm very interested in is scientific graphics. So to find a link to the winners of a 2005 competition in scientific visualization in my mailbox this morning is really delightful. And a neurobiology image took top prize!

22 September 2005

Catch up

September has continued to work its own peculiar magic (translation: butt whupping) on me. Around Tuesday, I finally managed to put out most of the immediate fires, and have started turning my attention to projects that have been sitting around waiting for two, three weeks or more.

An unexpected invitation came my way a couple of days back. A textbook publisher invited me to an workshop in New Mexico on improving biology education. I'm going to try to go, if I can make arrangements for my class. The workshop's on Friday, which is one of the days I teach.

Oh, although I'm in Texas, hurricane Rita is looking to sweep far north of here. The effects on us locally are probably going to be minimal.

This time.

Yet even though I know we're in almost no danger and will have no disruption (apart from a jump in gas prices -- I wish we could have got that hybrid!), it's almost an obsession to check the track of the storm, just in case it does an unexpected pirouette.

16 September 2005

How is science like playing limbo with guitar strings?

Because you're always just getting in under the wire.

I am not sure if my last second remembrance of an abstract deadline for today means that I'm good -- i.e., I reminded Sandra and got it in in time -- or that I'm really naff -- i.e., because I didn't think to ask until five minutes after Sandra left, and then had to spend a while messing around with last second corrections. But it's done, and it's in.

But far too many things right now are just getting done one moment before it has to, or turns into a crisis. I don't like working this way. But this month is sort of forcing me to work this way, because September is just kicking my ass. Usually August is my bad month. (And that wasn't so great this year, either.)

12 September 2005

Dealing with flies

They say you will catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Maybe so. But sometimes don't you just want to crack open a can of Raid and see their little corpses on the floor?

This has been a Random ThoughtTM.

11 September 2005

More weekend projects

I'm having a Beowulf kind of day. Recap of the poem: Boewulf kills the monster Grendel. But does he get a break? No. He learns he has to go kill Grendel's mother (equally monstrous, natch).

Having slaughtered the tenure and merit annual review monster yesterday, today I am faced with not one bigger monster, but two slightly smaller ones. Unfortunately, they're both rather pernicious. The first beast was getting a quiz set up and a few other updates for my Neurobiology class. The second was this NIH proposal I've mentioned before. I am not enjoying the first-time introduction to NIH writing. The forms are horrid, and very difficult to work with. I think I've got that one under control -- at least as much as I could given circumstances. I'm pretty amazed I managed to get anything ready.

I did receive one perk while sitting an fighting the digital and paper monsters, though: I got the final proof for my upcoming paper in the Texas Journal of Science. It's a little number by Lambert, Faulkes, Lambert, and Scofield, "Ascidians of South Padre Island, Texas, with a key to species," set to appear in Volume 57, number 3, pages 251-262. Accept no substitutes.

10 September 2005

Weekend project

Today’s project involves trying to avoid getting fired for another year. I’ve been working on my annual tenure binder. Mine is 4 cm thick this year. It seemed easier to measure in thickness rather than attempting to count pages. Or perhaps I should just toss the thing on a scale. Every year I try to improve on tracking my annual achievements as I go, but every year, I find things I forgot.

Right. Lunch, then back to work on the NIH proposal. Or maybe a quiz for my neurobiology students.

09 September 2005

The expanding blogosphere

I've become a member of a blogging team for FUNFaculty. This is blog run by the Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience, which I belong to. New Orleans has hosted the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting many times, so that is, of course, one of the initial topics for discussion.

I don't think I've mentioned it, but in fact, New Orleans hosted the 1991 Society for Neuroscience meeting, which I attended early in my graduate career. That was only the second meeting at which I presented my doctoral research, and the first national / international one I'd presented at.

08 September 2005

Selling out

Now that I managed to submit my most recent NSF proposal on time, how did I spend today?

Writing another proposal.

This time, though, I'm writing up something for the American National Institute of Health (NIH). I feel like a complete sell out. NIH is all about human medicine and applied research. That's not what I do. Yet I will attempt to pretend I am something I'm not to try to get money. I feel dirty. The sort of filth that could be pleasantly washed away by a few thousand dollars.

That's how many roads to ruin starts off, don't they?

07 September 2005

Sock monkey of science

I am kind of feeling like a floppy little kid's toy at the moment.

This week is kicking my butt. Again. But the good news is that I managed to get a $260,000 grant proposal submitted by the deadline. Now, all I have to do is finish off my tenure and merit folders by Monday so I don't get fired, modify a grant proposal for another program and finish that by Monday, prepare for class, coordinate student trips so we can get more animals for experiments, pull together a poster session for HESTEC, fix the graduate program, and take the fight to the high ground.

04 September 2005

02 September 2005

Credit where it's due

Although I think it's a symbolic gesture more than anything else, it's a good gesture nonetheless: UTPA is opening up enrollment to students whose universities have been hit by Katrina. You have until 9 September to grab onto this, if you happen to be a hurricane-hit student. Additional: See here for more details.

I've been to New Orleans twice, attending Society for Neuroscience meetings, and there were a lot of things I liked about it. That said, I learned a lesson on my trips there: Never bet a shoeshine in New Orleans. I've been to lots of places, and nowhere else have I encountered so many people so quick to hustle you out of your money. I have to say that I think the city was definitely predisposed to the scary, ugly turn it's taken in the last couple of days, with looting and worse. New Orleans was never exactly known for being law-abiding place. But as was said on the TV series Red Dwarf, "They say that every society is only three meals away from revolution." Or anarchy, apparently.

01 September 2005

Blowing the whistle

Old joke: Guy runs a stop sign. Cop pulls him over and says, "Didn't you see that stop sign?" Driver replies, "Sure. But I didn't think it was meant for me!"

One of the things I dislike about this university is that there seem to be a lot of people who don't think the stop signs are meant for them. I've said sometimes, only half-jokingly, that a policy is a rule when applied to a faculty member, but a guideline when applied to an administrator.

Yup, I've got an example.

The universities in Texas are subject to the policies of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. They set rules for university curricula. One of those rules (Chapter 4, Subchapter B, Section §4.29: Core Curricula Larger than 42 Semester Credit Hours, if you're curious; click here for a PDF of that chapter) is that a university can't have more than 48 hours of core courses. Core courses are defined as courses that are required of every student (Chapter 4, Subchapter B, Section §4.23c).

The University of Texas - Pan American has 48 hours of core courses, which is the maximum allowed by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Click here for a PDF of the UTPA catalog, hop to "Requirements for a Bachelor's degree" over on page 66, and you'll read, "3. Core Curriculum Hours and GPA: 48 hours of University core curriculum requirements must be satisfactorily completed with a minimum GPA of 2.0. (See page 95-98 for specific coursework.)"

But wait! Read down a couple more paragraphs. You'll see another requirement. "8. University Requirement: All entering freshmen with fewer than 30 completed semester credit hours are required to enroll in the UNIV 1301 – Learning Framework course during the first year of college (Fall, Spring or Summer). Transfer students with fewer than 30 completed semester hours will be required to take the course, unless they have completed an equivalent course at another institution." (Emphasis added.)

What's "UNIV 1301"? It's a sort of "How to study at the university level" class. An "Introduction to university" or "Survival skills" package designed to prepare the students, many of whom are not adequately prepared by their high school education for the tasks they'll face in their first year. Fair enough. I've given enough failing grades in introductory biology to attest that many of our students need some sort of help, because they are not effective at studying.

Back to the point. If everyone has to take UNIV 1301, then by definition, it's a core course. But we're already at the maximum allowed. In other words, we're requiring more than is allowed by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

How is the university getting around this little problem? They're going around asking (strong arming) each individual department and telling them to make this UNIV 1301 class a requirement for their major. That way, the university can claim, "It's not a core course, because a core course is a university requirement. It's just that every department made it a requirement."

And a lot of the departments have capitulated. The new catalogue has this UNIV 1301 class listed as a degree requirement for English (pg. 111), Health and Kinesiology (pg. 154), Mathematics (pg. 197). To date, my department has resisted the pressure that's been applied for the better part of a year. I hope we continue to do so.

The goal of this class is to increase student success, which I'm all for. But they've gone about implementing in absolutely the wrong way. Rather than removing some other requirement, they're trying (and largely succeeding so far) in sneaking it in the back door. It's going to make every student take longer and spend more money to complete their degree.

My university's breaking the rules. Shamelessly. It's absolutely cut and dry. It's days like this that I'm embarrassed to work here.

Luckily, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board website has a page where they invite comments. And there's a little place to check off if the comment is a complaint, including complaints against an institution. I've already sent one. We'll see if it gets a response.

Additional: I did get a reply. Apparently, even a class that is absolutely required of every student is not necessarily "core." "Core" means something else. So the university isn't running afoul of rules.

27 August 2005

A mysterious scratch: the tone of the week

I woke up last Monday morning with a big scratch on the left side of my face that was not there when I went to bed Sunday night. And that has sort of set the tone for this week, which has been not a very fun one.

Tuesday was marked by an interminable college meeting. It when on for about 2 and a quarter hours, and I got about two or three useful pieces of information from it. Luckily, I was smart and was working through the President's address in the morning, which I heard went on for an hour and forty minutes, and had about the same amount of useful content as the afternoon meeting.

I think one good thing I learned around this time was that the first stage in our green card application went through. And quite a bit faster than I was expecting. Now, we begin phase 2: which means more money, medical exams, pictures, and more paperwork. But it should be worth it, as it should make it possible for my S.O. Sarah to get a job, which would be a huge difference.

Wednesday was marked by more meetings, although these were my own fault, because I called them! I'm the graduate program coordinator, so I wanted to meet with our Master's students. I ended up with a two hour meeting in the morning, and a one hour meeting in the evening (for part time students with day jobs). They were good, but draining. Plus, I had people one after the other in my office, again mostly talking about the graduate program.

I think Wednesday was also the day I got a rejection letter for one of my manuscripts.

Thursday was the first day of class. I didn't have any classes to teach, but it's always a ratty day, so I went to the beach with my student Michael to collect mud shrimp and sand crabs. The sand crabs have become scarce: only saw one that I hit with a shovel. The mud shrimp were more plentiful, though. It was a good trip, but again, a couple of hours in the sun and heat on the beach meant I came home with a bit of pink on my skin and was again pretty tired.

By Friday, half the mud shrimp we collected the day before died. It was also my first day of my class, plus I was presenting a paper for our Journal Club. I was also running around trying to deal with a variety of administrative things. Like a graduate student who is apparently missing one class to graduate, and I could have sworn I'd checked he had that requirement. Don't know how that happened. Went to the pub for a bit afterwards, but had to leave when Chris and Jason started smoking their foul cigars. Luckily, by then Sarah was there to rescue me. Again, just a long day.

And this morning I wake up to find Port Adelaide won their match over the Dockers, which means tomorrow's match with Essendon is a must win if my team the Demons are to make it to the AFL finals, and break the odd-year hoodoo that has plagued them for years now. Go the Dees!

And I spent most of the day at work because there's so much that needs doing. And more mud shrimp died. And I'll have to go again tomorrow to try and get a little more work done in time to meet some Monday deadlines.

Oh, something I've been forgetting to mention: I have a little technical essay up at the International Society for Neuroethology website. It harkens back to my first post-doc.

18 August 2005

Almost like a real scientist

It's so cool to have two papers in the works that are coming out. As I mentioned earlier, I received news this week that I've had a paper accepted (though I don't think I mentioned where: Journal of Crustacean Biology). This morning I received the proofs from the Texas Journal of Science for an article I have coming out with them, which looks like it might be out in the September issue. Just to give you an idea of how long this process is, it was just over a year ago that we did the work that this paper was based on. The manuscript was written and submitted over Christmastime in 2004. Reviews came back at the end of February, 2005. Revisions completed in March, 2005. And the proofs this week.

I feel like an actual productive scientist on weeks like this. I wish I had more weeks like this.

Proofreading always ranks high of writer's least favourite things to do, with good reason. It is tedious, particularly for technical writing. I can only imagine what it must have been like when typesetting was done by people with scientific training. Simply transposing the technical text and references always introduced errors not present in the original manuscript. Yet Fortunately, since most publishers can simply download Word processor files, there are usually fairly few errors that get added to papers in the typesetting process. Yet even now, it still happens. In this most recent paper, I found one error that wasn't in the original manuscript: somehow, a degree sign got inserted where a space should be. Hm.

Of course, that wasn't the only error I found, but all of the others were ones I'd made before they went off into the production process! No one to blame but myself.

15 August 2005

Good news at last

I was moping a little over thwarted plans this weekend, thinking I really hadn't gotten any good news in a while. And wouldn't you know it? Fortune smiled.

First, one of the three manuscripts in the hands of editors came back with reasonably positive reviews, and it's going forward for publication. Alright, that's two articles accepted for this year, and there are two more out there that might be accepted.

Second, I got a phone call from my colleague Anita, who was bubbling with some excitement over her good news. She got a pre-proposal past the first elimination round at the National Science Foundation, and now she's gets to go ahead and submit the full on proposal. And only 30 people can say that in this round. I get to be pleased not only because she done good, but because I helped a little, so feel I can take a little bit of reflected pride in her accomplishment.

11 August 2005

Go inverts!

I started my research career working with octopus (under the guidance of Jennifer Mather), so I was tickled to see this video clip. (Spotted at fellow blogging biologist Mike The Mad Biologist's blog).

Lost in translation

I had an intermittent smirk on my face last night. I mean, how can someone look at the captioning for this Japanese Elmo toy and not laugh? The enthusiasm of bad translation has a charm all its own. It's that mix of absolute earnest sincerity of people trying to do their best and an end product that is wildly off the mark and hysterically funny to the fluent speakers.

I think much of the same problem affects scientists and the general public. Science, much like a language, has its own words and a distinct way of thinking. So when non-scientists try talk about scientific issues, the results are often very much like the examples of bad translation you might find on Engrish.com or Hanzi Smatter. A recent example concerns the American president's comments where he endorses teaching "intelligent design." In brief, intelligent design argues, "Living organisms are so complex, someone or something must have made them." Unstated but implicit is that the Christian God is that someone or something. It's an old, old argument, whose best known formation came from William Paley, though I suspect variations of it existed before.

His comments drew severe fire from scientists worldwide (see, e.g., this related article), and Bush's own science advisor was trying to put the best light on his boss's comments (i.e., backtracking, disagreeing, what have you). In fairness, today's editorial in Nature gives a more optimistic reading of Bush's statements (text from Pharyngula).

I would definitely see the humour in the situation if the consequences were not so serious. Intelligent design is not science, and that is widely known in biology. So why do so many people buy into the proposition that it is somehow legitimate science? I think there's a similar occurrences when non-scientists try to talk about scientific matter as when foreign corporations try to put English on their packages. Complete sincerity and incomplete knowledge producing a laughable result.

10 August 2005

Odd times, and; They're so cute!

The last few days have been strange. Every time I turn around, I have people in my office talking to me, mostly about the graduate program. Monday was the worst; I have one incoming and two prospective graduate students in my office, one after the other after the other. Then a colleague came in and talked to me. When I finally looked at my watch, it was 1:30 pm and I hadn't eaten lunch, and I realized I must have been talking for three or four hours pretty much non-stop.


I'm fascinated by finding new large species. And I have to agree that these guys are pretty darn cute.

04 August 2005

Nothing stinks like dead sea creatures

Bad news. Some lobsters I had ordered for my graduate student arrived D.O.A. And the prospects for those that remain do not appear rosy. Ugh.

New graduate student, you say? You never mentioned anything about a new graduate student! Why, thanks for noticing. I've been working with a Masters student, Sandra, over the summer. Because I wanted to give her a chance to consider whether she wanted to work with me (because, hey, I can be difficult sometimes), we've been holding off on putting in committee formation paperwork that would make me her supervisor officially. But she's decided she wants to continue working with me on her thesis, and that's a good thing.

29 July 2005

Science is a doozy

I was channel surfing a couple of nights ago, and came across a show about Jay Leno’s discovery of a rare, vintage Duesenberg car (described by Leno himself here). Apparently, Duesenbergs were so opulent that the name was the origin of the term “doozy,” meaning extravagant. During the show, Leno was explaining the difference between early cars and those made now, and said, roughly, that it used to be that technology was expensive and labour was cheap. Now, technology is cheap and labour is expansive.

It occurred to me this morning that science is one of the few areas in the modern industrialized society where that isn’t true. The production of scientific “product” (data) is generated by expensive technology and cheap labour. Even standard pieces of equipment will often cost tens of thousands of dollars. Most actual research is physically carried out by graduate students, whose pay sucks. Because of that, I’ve read articles calling successful scientists modern “plantation barons.”

The most successful areas of biology right now are arguably cell and molecular biology, and I don’t think it’s any accident that those are areas where the most automation has occurred. I’ve talked before about robots that can run experiments, for instance. I wonder if other areas of biology can catch up. In my own area, neurophysiology, the task of placing electrodes and getting recordings is sufficiently delicate that automating data collection seems a long way off. Automating data analysis, however, is more feasible. And I worry about whether those areas of science that have the luck of being more automated are going to out-compete those kinds of science that aren’t able to do so. Er. Perhaps I should say more than they're already out competing those non-automated sciences.

Of course, making that transition in the manufacturing industry (particularly the automotive industry) was not easy. I remember a lot of grief kid over massive layoffs and job becoming obsolete. Perhaps one good thing is that because the cheap labour in science is driven by short-term labour (students), rather than people who were counting on a particular industry to provide a livelihood for decades.

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

28 July 2005

Another cryptozoology disappointment

To me, the interesting thing about this story (also here) isn't that the alleged sasquatch hair turned out not to be, but how people could mistake a bison for a three meter tall human-ish looking creature walking upright...

The trip to the Coastal Studies Lab yesterday was a mix. Found some mud shrimp, though not a lot. The beach was not terribly busy, and the water was wonderfully warm to be mucking around in. The down side was that even after considerable digging, I found no sand crabs.

27 July 2005

The high cost of publishing

Once, I had a conversation with an aspiring writer of fiction who simply could not wrap her head around the idea that scientists write all these technical articles, submit them for publication, and don't get paid for it. She has "cash per word" as her model for writing and publication, which is a standard one in much of publishing.

If she had problems understanding that, I wonder what she would make of these things called "page charges."

A brief digression into the economics of publishing. Publishing is kind of weird, because the more copies of something you make, the cheaper it gets per copy. That's because the initial set up of printing presses, proofs, and so on require a lot of work and chew up the bulk of the expenses. But once those are set up, running more copies off is pretty much an automatic process with little extra cost.

This little fact of printing matters a lot for scientific journals. Even some of the top journals, highly read and cited around the world, print only a few thousand copies. To make matters even worse, the level of quality expected is phenomenally high -- archival, acid free paper, often requiring high resolution photographic plates (sometimes in colour), highly demanding typesetting and proofreading requirements for mathematical formulae, and so on. How do journals manage to continue publication? For one, they often charge institutions subscription rates that astonish people outside the field (think the cost of a new truck or so). Some are subsidized by a scientific society. A few have sufficient readership to run ads. And some have these things called "page charges." Essentially, pages charges are a fee the author must pay to have an article published. That's right, you have to pay the publisher instead of the publisher paying you, the standard model for most of the rest of the publishing world.

I mention all this because I'm having my first real run-ins with page charges for a couple of manuscripts I've submitted. I received a letter from one journal informing me that my article, if accepted, was estimated to run 13 pages, and I would be expected to fork out 700 Euros should my paper be accepted for publication. My first response was, "What the heck's the exchange rate on a Euro?" A quick internet search later, I was sucking in breath as I realized I had put myself on the hook for US$841 and change.

At this point, the paper hasn't been accepted, so I might not have to pay. But if it does, I'm not sure where the money to pay the pages charges will come from. Many granting agencies allow "publication costs" as an allowable expense, and even have a line item in proposal budgets for it. But if you don't have a grant (like me), well, things could get a little tricky.

In other news, I'm off to the beach this afternoon to collect animals and check on this season's crop of ascidians. If they're at the point I think they are, I will suddenly be very busy very quickly with those guys.

25 July 2005

Swinburne’s wager

Once, while watching a TV series about the Bible called Testament, the presenter talked about the efforts to find archaeological evidence for the exodus Moses led from Egypt. The evidence was so paltry that efforts to do so, he said, reduced the wonderful, epic story of the Exodus “to a few Hebrews mucking about in the desert.” I sort of got the same sense of diminution when I read this article, in which a mathematician argued that Christ’s resurrection could be proven mathematically.

To me, the first part of the argument is old and unconvincing. There’s an old philosophical argument called Pascal's wager. The argument is thus: “There either is a God or there is not. If there is, and you break His laws, you will suffer for all eternity in Hell. If there isn’t and you follow His laws, nothing ill will befall you. So you’d better convert.” When I first heard Pascal’s wager as an undergraduate, I argued then that it treats the existence of God like two two heads of a coin, ignoring that there many be many other reasons to believe in or doubt the existence of God. And the first point of Swinburne’s argument is to set a probability of God’s existence as being 50-50: there is, or there isn’t.

Robert Sawyer actually has written a book about this called Calculating God (which is definitely on my “to read” list), so I sent him a link to the article. He responded with alacrity. Hi analysis was much the same as mine, writing that an asteroid might hit the Earth tomorrow or it might not, “but the odds of it happening are billions to one against, not fifty-fifty.”

The strength of faith can be an awesome thing. And it always seems to me to be lessened by mucking around with numbers to support it.

22 July 2005

Quoted for truth

The Panda's Thumb is one of my favourite blogs, because it deals with evolutionary biology, and non-scientific alternatives to it, primarily intelligent design (ID). I loved this quote by Jason Rosenhouse, who is reporting on a recent creationist conference:

You know what scientists do when confronted with nature's complexity? First they spend five years or more in graduate school, living in near-poverty, having no life, studying all the time while being used as cheap labor by the university, just to get a PhD. Then they go out into a job market that presents the very real possibility of unemployment as the reward for all that hard work. If they're lucky they'll land a post-doc, and bounce around the country for a while struggling to find a permanent position. Even if they are lucky enough to land a permanent position they could very well find themselves in some two by nothing town in the middle of nowhere. They spend years trying to get a research program off the ground, scrapping for grant money, and fighting with ornery referees to get their research published. ...

And why do they do that? They do it because they know that's what it takes if you want to understand nature's complexity just a little bit better. That's what it takes to make the tiniest dent in the sum total of human ignorance.

Perhaps I like this quote because it so closely parallels my own experiences.

20 July 2005

Tunicate 3

It's been a week since I left Santa Barbara from the Third International Tunicate conference. Long past time for a report.

I left in plenty of time on Saturday. Went up to Houston, as usual, then had over an hour layover at Los Angeles in LAX, wherein I had plenty of time to contemplate the outrageous prices for things in the store. (Tip: If you want some chocolate bars or snacks when you're traveling, get them before your plane stops at LAX!) And I missed my plane to Santa Barbara.

This is one of those awkward points where one is torn between being honest and knowing someone is going to read it and think, "This guy is too stupid to live."

The deal is this. I get into the airport. Check the gate. The gate says 62A. I'm at gate 62A. There's a sign up saying this is a shuttle to other gates. "Ah," I think, "we wait here until an agent comes to gather all of us going to that flight in one go." I sit there and miss I don't know how many opportunities to got the right gate I don't really realize how the shuttle works until it's too late. There's no sign saying how often the shuttle is supposed to run. I later realized the driver had been in a few times, but didn't say anything! So unless you were looking up at the right moment, you wouldn't realize anyone was there to take you over to another gate.

Luckily, the fine folks get me on another plane and I'm only a little late to Santa Barbara. Missed registration by a few minutes, but not the opening night reception. There are all of three people I know at this meeting. When I get back from the reception, I look into my suitcase (actually a fine backpack designed for air travel by Mountain Equipment Co-op, which I love), and realize I forgot my bag with toothpaste, shampoo, shaver, and so on. (Wondering "How does this guy manage to live?" yet?)

The next morning (Sunday), I wake up well before breakfast is served. Fortunately, Santa Barbara is the only university in North America built on a beach, so I go walk around the beach. I've been to the campus before, almost exactly 10 years ago, and am reminded how nice it is. I'm also reminded throughout my visit about how environmentally conscious California is compared to Texas, where I think "environment" is considered to be a dirty word. Electric cars, notices up encouraging water conservation, signs noting that recycled water is used in the toilet, recycle bins, and much more -- none of which I ever see a hint of in Texas.

So I spend the day sitting in talks. For the night, they've put us in student housing, with various games (ping pong, pool, foosball, air hockey, those sorts of things.) I stay up quite late goofing around and talking to people.

The next morning, I wake up very early again, and go to talks with only a few hours of sleep. The big thing is that posters are Monday night, which I have. I get my poster up. I'm up late again talking about my poster and socializing. The response to the poster is good, although I wish there were more data on it. Basically, the sort of questions I get convince me that I'm on the right track with the project.

Tuesday morning, I can't sleep in again. The talks that are further afield from my work -- well, I zone out a bit during some of those, I'm afraid. But the nice thing is, they've only scheduled a half day's worth of talks. During the afternoon, they give us an excursion to the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, which is really excellent. It's got some great research programs and excellent exhibits. Some of the highlights include a real blue whale skeleton, the only woolly mammoth hair on display in North America, and a butterfly house. Much more besides! I wish I'd had another hour or so there. That night, I think this was the night they had a roundtable discussion. I got up and talked a bit about what we're trying to do with the Coastal Studies Lab. I kind of feel it's important for me to promote the lab, because the two other people associated with it who were supposed to come, couldn't. My colleague Virginia was recovering from minor surgery, while the lab's director had his reservations fouled up.

After the roundtable, yes, I'm up late again. Not quite as late as the previous nights, but I still don't think I'm in my room before midnight. I learn that the European's love for soccer seems to carry over to foosball. An Italian woman named Lucia positively slays at foosball, much to the surprise of many. I lose at pretty much every game I play at; I think I win one game of ping pong. Another Italian researcher, Paolo, tickles the ivories and plays a few things like "O Solo Mio" on the upright piano in the room. Down the hall, I hear some spirited alcohol-enhanced discussion about ascidians and Hox genes from the conference organizers and a couple of of bigshots in the field.

The last morning of the conference, we take a picture of attendees during the coffee break. I think there's about 100 people total, which is a good size for a conference. I don't go to the last couple of talks so I can get ready to catch my plane back.

All in all, a very good conference. The major complaint I had (which I posted to the Tunicata email discussion list later) was how few people kept their talks to the scheduled 20 minutes. If people had kept on time, I could have done a few other things (like write blog entries, deal with email from the office, etc.), but I was kept running pretty much nonstop during the day.

Hurricanes: Just the way I like 'em

Which is to say, innocuous -- at least the local effects were. I certainly have sympathy for those in Mexico who have been harder hit. We had some rain, some wind, probably around the worst at 5:00 am (at least, that's when it was strong enough to wake me up). It's just spitting very little now, and I expect we might even get direct sunlight before the sun sets.

The only visible effect of Emily was that we had no cable for the morning and early afternoon. But that's nothing a director's cut DVD can't solve...

19 July 2005


Just when I thought I would start getting some stuff of my own done in the lab, along comes Hurricane Emily. The University is closing at 5:00 pm and will stay closed tomorrow. Some of the experiments I wanted to start today I can't, because they would have to be stopped tomorrow. On the plus side, it did give me a push to clean up a few things in my lab, as I moved a lot of material off benches away from the windows. Yep, kind of sad that it takes a hurricane to get me to clean!

18 July 2005

Definition of the moment

cane-toading, v.

A reference to cane toads, an exotic introduced for pest control in Australia that did no control the original pests and became a much bigger nuisance than the one they were imported to solve.

1. Making a problem worse or ending up with two problems because you didn't analyse the first one properly. (Spotted here.)


Have been busy and sleep deprived the last week, and hope to have a report on the Tunicate conference soon. Real soon.

07 July 2005

For good or ill...

My conference poster got reprinted, and while it was printing, I found another small typo. Aiieeeee! They won't die! They just won't die! No more changes now. I'll be curious to see how many people I actually get to talk to about ti, because I saw today that the poster session runs at the same time as a conference party. My experience in the past has been that the partying tends to get a little more emphasis than the poster viewing. But maybe this group is more sedate than the crowd at other meetings I've been to.

Also not planning any more changes to my latest grant proposal. I had to make quite a few this morning. The research office made some changes to my budget, which caused a little spillover to changes on other pages of the proposal, which I hope I've tidied up and taken care of now. Unless there's something tomorrow, that one is also done and in final form, for good or ill.

Once I get back, I'm hoping I'll finally be able to get into the lab to do research. But this conference, these grants, all this stuff has kept me stuck to my desk for the first half of this summer.

06 July 2005

Why is it that...

You can read something on the screen a dozen times, but don't spot the typos until you have a printed hard copy in front of your eyes?

Not such a big deal when it's a simple sheet of letter paper. Slightly more annoying with it's a 2 x 1.25 m colour poster for the conference I'm going to this weekend. I spotted one typo literally as it was coming off the printer roll. I thought, "I'm not going to reprint it for one lousy typo. If there's a scientific error, or two other typos, I'll reprint it." And while showing it to my student Michael, I found one more and he found one more. Dang! Back to the printer once more tomorrow, hopefully for the last time.

I'm also hoping to get the paperwork finished on my latest grant before I leave this Saturday. The deadline for submission is Tuesday -- while I'm out of town. Which is just a touch nerve wracking. But I was assured by the people responsible for such things that they would have the paperwork done by tomorrow. Fingers crossed.

02 July 2005

Canada Day 2005

I celebrated Canada Day by submitted another grant proposal. This one, as usual, is to the National Science Foundation. It's called a research initiation grant, and it's worth US$147,500 if I get it. But it's getting harder and harder to get grants from the NSF, because their budget hasn't been increased very much under the Bush administration in the last couple of years.

Also played hooky part of the day to watch War of the Worlds. Genuinely scary. The Martian war machines are true to the novel's original description and their enormous size really comes across (See this one on the big screen if you can; it won't be the same on a video screen). And there are some nice nods to George Pal's classic 1950s movie, too (but not, sadly, the memorable "heat ray" sound).

30 June 2005

Post(er) it notes

Yesterday was sort of another day that got away from me in terms of research. The morning was spent getting my annual eye check-up, then back to work in time to celebrate a colleague's birthday (fellow chocoholic Anita received a big, deadly triple choccy cake), then I spent most of the afternoon chatting with our new faculty hire, cell biologist "Crazy" Jon Lieman, about teaching technology. (I didn't dub him Crazy Jon, by the way; his buddy Mike did.) About the only thing I managed to do, research-wise, was to straighten out my travel arrangements for the upcoming Tunicate Meeting, which is just a little over a week away. Eep!

That put me in sufficient panic that today was spent preparing the poster that I'm supposed to present at said meeting. And I pretty much finished it! Ha! Luckily, I've been writing all this stuff up for not one, but two grant proposals, so it's all very fresh in my mind, and all the information was pretty much all at my fingertips. Plus, I had the power of the newest version (12) of CorelDRAW!, one of my favourite pieces of software, working for me. I made up a small version of the poster (i.e., not the two meter long version I'm going to print next week) and sent it off to my colleagues and students to review in case I did anything stupid with it.

I'm getting closer to actually being able to spend time in the lab generating data. Soon. But not yet.

27 June 2005

Nuthin' but news

I found out this afternoon that all my teaching release requests for next year have been granted. This is great news, because it means I'll be moving from six classes per academic year to four. Which is (best Chris Eccleston voice) fantastic, because it means I can slate just one for the fall, when I need to be doing research on animals that are only available then, and do the rest of the courses in the spring. It reduces the chance of my head exploding sometime later in the year, too.

I am largely finished another grant proposal for the NSF. This one will be a bit of a risk, because it's venturing into a new area of research for me, getting away from the emphasis on neurobiology and behaviour that has been my mainstay to date. But you live and learn, or you don't live long, as Heinlein said.

Next writing project is my poster for the International Tunicate Conference in California next month. The news there is that my co-author on the poster, Virginia, informed me today that she's had minor surgery on her arm and can't go with us as planned. So our travel plans have been completely thrown up in the air. It just isn't easy going anywhere this summer! Louisiana visit falls through, California trip all wonky, and loose plans for other trips are still just that -- loose.

But speaking of writing the poster, how am I able to do all this writing? All thanks to the power of having minions! My two students, Michael and Sandra, have been given the task of going to the beach today. They get to muck around in the warm water and collect animals while I stay in my office and write, and write, and write some more. I'm not sure which of us is getting the better deal. Sunburn or repetitive strain injury? Hmmmm. Decisions, decisions...

Here's the new Dean, same as the old Dean. Literally. After we lost Michael Eastman, who went back to University of Texas El Paso, the assistant dean, Ed LeMaster, stepped in as interim dean. There was a search, and Ed put his hat in the ring. Somewhat to my surprise (surprise not because I think the less of Ed, but for other reasons), he got the gig and will be the real, actual, factual Dean for a while. I think that means the university now has two colleges (out of six!) with actual Deans instead of interim Deans.

Additional: I believe I noted some time ago that a kid's magazine, Spider, was doing a story about sand crabs (or, as they called them, mole crabs). I supplied them with some photos for that. I just now received the copies of the July issue that feature the article. I'll see if I can't get a small thumbnail scan up here a little later.

And that's just some of the stories we're following this week.

26 June 2005

Sometimes it's good to miss things

In the last entry, I mentioned I was a little disappointed that I missed the afternoon mail on Friday, because my manuscript wasn't on the way out. Of course, now I'm kind of glad it didn't, because here I am this afternoon, fixing two trivial little things I forgot to do. One was that the author's instructions for this journal tell you to put where figure should go in pencil in the margin. Forgot that. While I was doing that and looking at the instructions, I realized that they want tables numbered I, II, III and IV instead of 1, 2, 3, and 4. So I fixed that, too. Neither is a big deal, but I should get as many of them right as I can.

24 June 2005

Back into the fray

I missed the afternoon mail. Drat. I just finished up the revisions on my recently rejected manuscript, and was hoping to get it physically out of the building with the afternoon mail. But at least it's now in an envelope, off my desk, and ready for the next go round in the great game of scientific publishing. I think I did a pretty good job the turn around time for the revision, and I think (hope?) that the paper is a tighter overall. We'll see what the reviewers think.

23 June 2005

Rejection and obsession

... Or, how writing a scientific manuscript is a little like dating.

I always get wound up reading reviews for a paper or grant proposal I submitted. Even after all this time, I still get little shakes and trembles and a weird feeling in my chest. That was as true of this most recent manuscript rejection as anything. So what is the normal behaviour following rejection? Well, my entry title kind of gives it away. I have been obsessing about revising this manuscript, and getting it into the hands of another journal editor. After sitting on the paper for years, literally, I feel more than a little desperate about not losing momentum.

Get back on the horse. Plenty of other fish in the sea. Get over it!

Contender for best scientific paper title of the year

Scientific papers are far too often dry affairs. So I respect and appreciate authors David Ayre and Richard Grosberg for giving me a research paper title that made me laugh out loud. Their new paper in Animal Behaviour is, "Behind anemone lines: factors affecting division of labour in the social cnidarian Anthopleura elegantissima." This link to the article may not be available to all readers (due to subscription blackouts).

22 June 2005

Short turnaround, at least

One of my three recent manuscripts was rejected. The reviewers suggested it was more appropriate to a different journal, so back into revision it goes.

21 June 2005

The perversity of the Universe

I was supposed to be in Louisiana today, giving a talk. I canceled the trip, because my passport was getting renewed, which meant that I didn't have my passport or driver's license. No ID is not a happy thing for a foreigner traveling in the U.S. Of course, the perversity of the Universe demands that the day I was supposed to give my talk, my passport and other paperwork arrives. :(

20 June 2005

The day that got away

Odd day. I ended up spending most of the morning in an impromptu meeting about a new graduate class, then spent a good chunk of the afternoon talking to a prospective new graduate student, actually missed a meeting in the middle of the day (oops), and just didn't quite manage to close in on any accomplishments.

Yesterday, on the other hand, was refreshingly non-science. Went shopping with a little "windfall" cash. Spend pretty much all day buying about six items. But luckily, we came in at a good weekend, with lots of semi-annual sales. About three of our purchases were 50-60% off, which was good news.

16 June 2005


I've talked a little bit before in this journal about the aesthetic pleasure of realizing that something you thought were two things are actually only one. That "A-ha!" moment. It's often small, but it's always nice. I had one today, working on my latest grant proposal. I wanted to include two sort of separate projects that I've been working on -- one on the experimental animals' responses to stress, and the other on the animal's decision making. I was thinking and thinking about which to include, or how to link them together somehow. And I thought of one! I was very pleased. Sadly, the nature of the proposal process is such that I can't go into more detail than that right now. Can't give the game away yet!

In less thrilling news, a trip I had planned for next week to Louisiana State University is now in serious jeopardy, because I haven't got back paperwork from Canada yet. I'm having my passport renewed, and I want my passport back and some associated paperwork before I travel. I wasn't planning on flying, but because I'm nudged right up against the Mexican border, there are road checkpoints, mainly for drugs and illegal immigrants. And I have been pulled over and asked for my passport at one of these things before. So Finagle's Law says if I try to travel without this stuff, I will end up needing it.

More time to work on grant proposals. And manuscripts. And supervise students. And update courses. And fix the graduate program. And... and... and...

15 June 2005

Odd measures we have known

I learned today, from our university's Stats at a Glance booklet, that UTPA has 66 students per acre. Why anyone would want to know that is completely beyond me. The sheer oddity of the figure makes me want to find a way to work it into my next grant proposal. Just because. I'd have to convert it into students per hectare, though, since scientific writing demands metric.

13 June 2005

"Dang" minimization

I just had a look at the reviews for the last proposal I submitted, and am encouraged. Sure, it's a rejection, but it's one of the most positive rejections I've seen so far. Strong encouragement to revise and resubmit the proposal, which is exactly what I'll aim for.

12 June 2005


Can't escape rejection even on the weekends. I got notice today that another grant proposal, this one for equipment, got rejected. Oh well, I'll read the reviews to see how much they hated it and see if it can't be fixed. I kind of expected it, truth be told, since it was the first crack we'd had at this particular program.

11 June 2005

The end of an era (sort of)

I just printed off and am ready to stuff in an envelope my third manuscript in as many weeks. Wow. I'm very, very pleased about getting all those out.

I do have a confession to make, though, about something of which I'm not so proud. All of those manuscripts were based on my last post-doc, which I finished slightly over four years ago. Ouch. Those really should have been put into the hands of editors a lot sooner, but when you become a new assistant professor, trying to find uninterrupted time to concentrate and finish these things is sometimes hard to come by. That said, my colleague Virginia told me research has shown that if a scientist didn't write a paper about their research before they left the institution, the chances of it ever getting done were vanishingly close to zero. So I am a teensy, tiny bit proud that I've bucked the trend.

In other news, my recent ascension to graduate program director has come with an unexpected side effect. I now seem to be one of the people in the short-list to substitute for the Department Chair when he can't make a meeting. I'll be going to a meeting about faculty credentials (yawn) this Tuesday. Turns out that UTPA is getting ready for re-accreditation, and one of the big things is to show that all the faculty are 24 carat, bona fide, certified academics with degrees. Somewhere along the way, some documentation was never asked for or got lost.

In fact, I was one of the ones they asked to provide with a new undergraduate transcript. I was prepared to be quite miffed at this, and was prepared to ask who was going to pay for all this documentation that apparently administration lost. It turned out, though, that the missing transcript from my undergraduate institution, the University of Lethbridge

, was free for the asking. And I can't get too upset when it doesn't cost me anything.

I doubt other faculty will be so lucky, though.

08 June 2005

Write, write, write...

After working hard on the beach to collect animals yesterday (with no much payoff, sad to say), today I've spent almost the entire day earning chairsores (they're like bedsores, but from inactivity in a chair instead of a sickbed). I have been writing, and writing, and writing some more, working on a manuscript that is long overdue. As in, the data were all collected at least four years ago. Sigh. It's amazing what a teaching job keeps you from getting done in a timely manner. The good news is that I've very pleased with the progress I've made today. I think I'll have a draft I can ship off to an editor in the not too distance future. The end is in sight!

05 June 2005

I'm not myself...

I am, apparently, Isaac Newton. This according to ABC's "Which scientist are you?" quiz. I was rather disappointed to find out I wasn't me...

04 June 2005

Summertime, and the living is... hectic

A lots gone on in the last little while. I've got a new research assistant, a graduate student named Sandra who I've worked with as an undergraduate. She's decided to complete a Masters degree. I'm very pleased I was able to find her some cash as my research assistant to get her started.

That's if the university decides to pay her like they're supposed to, that is. My HHMI undergraduate student, Michael, informed me last week that none of the students in that program have been paid since December. Wha—? It's not like there's no money, it's over a million dollar grant. But a big chunk of the institution doesn't seem to care if we treat what are ostensibly our best and brightest students like rubbish. I wrote an email to our university president today informing her of this situation. Don't know if it'll do any good, but at least I can say I tried.

Still, a day at the beach might relieve some of the stress. I was able to do that last week, when Sandra and I went out to collect mud shrimp on the beach at South Padre Island. It went well; god day, low tide, animals coming up quite easily. We're planning on making another run out this Tuesday, only this time, the whole lab (Sandra and Michael and incoming HHMI student Veronica) will be heading out for an afternoon trip to our Coastal Studies Lab to collect and plot and plan.

Of course, I still have other irons in the fire. As new graduate program coordinator, I'm meeting with our dean to talk about the state of the program. I've spend the last couple of days chewing through some data so I'll be able to convince him of a few things (I hope). No shortage of things to fix in our graduate program.

25 May 2005

How did that happen?

Rather unexpectedly, I submitted a manuscript today. Another one, not the one I mentioned I finished yesterday. Admittedly, it has been close to completion for a long time (way too long), but I really didn't expect to get it into the editorial pipeline today. The reason why I did so was that I discovered the journal I submitted it to had a new submission process for manuscripts: 100% online and electronic. No printing out a copy, writing in pencil the figure numbers on the back with an arrow pointing up, making two or three photocopies, plus an electronic copy on floppy disk, plus a cover letter. Because I was close to finishing, I just started tinkering with the submission process... and did some more... and some more... and by the end of the day thought, "Hey, I could get this sucker off now!"

As I said, this one had been almost done for a long time. I had keep thinking about putting some more work into it, but I finally realized I hit the point of diminishing returns quite some time ago. (A.k.a., "It's amazing what you can accomplish when you just give up.") The fastest way to improve this paper is going to be to get it in the hands of reviewers who can tell me what extra analyses, if any, they want to see.

Two manuscripts submitted in two days. My god, the pressure is on for tomorrow...

Nostalgic for spam?

Spam (the emails, not the food product) is bad enough. "Phishing" scams and identity theft are a little scarier, but luckily most of them are easily detectable when you recognize the signs. But this is a little more scary, particularly for those of us for whom computer work is essential: holding computer files hostage. I wonder if we'll reach the point where we look back at spam as innocuous and quaint.

24 May 2005


I finished off a short manuscript and stuck it in the outgoing mailbox a couple of hours ago, to be shipped off to a journal editor. I'm quite please for several reasons. First, finishing a manuscript is always pleasing. Second, I thought I would need a few more days to finish this one off. Third, although this manuscript is short, it's a case of "It could have been nothing, but it got made into something." I like how it came out more than I thought I would.

19 May 2005

A good week (so far)

I like how this week is turning out so far. I got my broken lab fridge fixed. I had an appointment with an immigration lawyer and made good progress towards the first major hurdle in getting a green card. I've got to spend some time in the lab with one of my students doing research. I've had a chance to analyze some old data and am getting very close to finishing a manuscript using it. I'm particularly pleased about that last one, and hope I might have something ready to go into the post to an editor... well, I don't want to say when. Am I being superstitious? Worried I'll jinx myself? I'm not sure.

16 May 2005

Kickin' it old school

I just received something I haven't seen in a long time. A reprint request card. It's a little postcard from someone, with a form asking me to send them a copy of a recent paper (in this case, one that came out in Journal of Comparative Phsyiology A). Without getting too nostalgic, they were something I saw a reasonable number of in graduate school -- not so much my own, of course, but there was a reasonably steady stream of them coming into the department's mailboxes.

You don't see reprint cards much now, because people will typically either send out an email, and the revolution in electronic publishing typically means that most people who are interested can just download and read the article electronically. While I'm very pleased for the increased accessibility of electronic publishing, one of the things I do miss is knowing that other people are actually reading the thing. And -- even better -- to learn that it's someone that I don't actually know personally. Sometimes, the field is so small, you wonder if you are making an impact on those outside of your own circle of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. Reprint cards gave you a little peek at who's reading your work in a way that electronic publishing typically doesn't.

We also finished moving the last of the herbarium cabinets today. No bruises this time, thanks to having a proper dolly to move those suckers.

Oh, and I should also mention that I am now officially the Department of Biology's graduate program coordinator. Ah, the power...

Hm. Not feeling the power yet. Hang on, is this plugged in?

13 May 2005

Best use of time

The first day of no class-relayed responsibilities, so I get to...

Move freakin' heavy cabinets.

All of this relates to a big, $1.3 million dollar grant we got from the HHMI. Included was a budget for a core facility. The rooms we're going to build this facility in are currently in use for a herbarium and invertebrate museum. According to someone, work on renovation begins Monday, so we're supposed to clear out these two rooms by then.

So we had three people with Ph.D. degrees doing grunt labour. I don't mind the task (much), but the fact is: This is not my job. I could be using this time to write grants, manuscripts, work on all manner of things. We have Physical Plant guys. But they're not clearing out these rooms, because they're occupied setting up chairs for moms and dads for a graduation ceremony tomorrow.

12 May 2005

Copious free time

I just handed in my final marks for the semester, which means that I have a bunch of free time. In theory, anyway. Of course, there are always a couple of students who have little dramas about there marks, always asking if I can pull a couple of percentage points out of thin air ("Damnit, Jim, I'm a scientist, not a magician!").

On my agenda now are the takeover of the biology graduate program, writing grants, writing manuscripts, preparing for summer meetings, supervising undergraduate researchers... which reminds me, I have a final draft undergraduate thesis to review. Must dash!

10 May 2005

Never a dull moment

Lectures are done, but there's been no shortage of things that need doing the last couple of days. I've spent both afternoons the last two days interviewing undergraduate students for our HHMI undergraduate research program. I was really pleased that we had a bunch of good applicants, and it was kind of fun to talk to them all. And the interviews didn't stop there. I met with a candidate for Dean of our college this morning. Plus I was running around, getting passport pictures taken care of, and picking up birthday cake for fellow faculty member.

One of the most unusual tasks I was working on over the last couple of days, though, was writing letters. Some weeks back, as a spin-off of my Brain Awareness Week public lecture, there was a feature story in The Monitor. Some teacher apparently took that and ran with it in her grade five class, so I had this stack of letters from kids asking about the article, my research, and so on. Yesterday, I sat down and wrote individual replies to each one in the stack.

Interestingly, I also had another student who had come to my Brain Awareness Lecture, and was intrigued enough to come in and talk to me about neuroscience. It's great, because often you do these sorts of things and wonder if anyone notices at all. It's been a bit of ego boost this week to find out that my quickie jury-rigged talk made a ripple.

08 May 2005

How to lie with statistics

We had a departmental seminar on Friday. It was good, but the speaker got under my skin with one silly claim. She was discussing how life expectancy is 36 or so in a region in Africa where she works. So she asked for a show of hands of everyone in the room who was over that age. After a fair chunk of the room did so, she said, "All dead."

Rhetorically effective, but wrong. If average height is 5'8", does everyone stop growing at 5'8"? An average represents the middle of a sample. Some people will be above average and some are below average. Heck, depending on the distribution, the majority could be above average!

And she knew better, which was the most annoying thing.

05 May 2005


Not much of note happened today, but who can resist making a post on 05/05/05?

Although yesterday was the last day of classes, the pace of my days has not slowed down. I tested a new oxygen meter for a research project, met with one of my undergraduates, had a meeting about our new textbook, took care of a shipment of new crayfish, filled out some forms and a few other odds and ends.

04 May 2005

Better than expected

There was a meeting on the workload policy I mentioned recently. And huzzah! From the criticisms on the draft, they put back the various ways to get teaching release, and even recommended increasing the maximum release (thus lowering the teaching load, potentially). Whew.

03 May 2005

No good deed goes unpunished

Our university is trying to move more towards research. As part of that movement, there's a move afoot to reduce the standard teaching load across the board. This is good. A draft version of the policy, however, all but removes any possibility of teaching release. This is bad. The short version is that under the new plan, the hardest working faculty will have to do more work (because the release they had been granted won't exist any more), whereas people who haven't done anything get the benefits of a reduced teaching load. Fortunately, this is a draft document, so there might be a chance of changing it. I hope!

Speaking of teaching, my last lectures for the semester were yesterday. Time now to do some grade bookkeeping and start figuring out what projects I'm going to try to do over the summer.

Finally, in these days where getting research published is quite competitive, I found this story to be highly interesting.
(W)hen the Brown University researcher's paper was recently rejected from an occupational medicine journal, he simply bought two pages of ad space and printed the entire article in the same journal.

26 April 2005

Next time, try not to cut it so close...

Proposal done with less than 11 minutes to spare. Required some fairly elaborate racking down of some other people, since two people involved in some way were both out of town today. Just awaiting electronic submission now. But it looks like this proposal is going to make it in, albeit under the wire. Whew...

Additional: Submitted with 4 minutes, 29 seconds to spare.