28 February 2005


I finished a revision on a manuscript today and sent it back to the editor. It looks like it will be published without any more fuss, which is a very good thing.

Many other tasks will get completed this week. I have two presentations to give; one on teaching, and one scientific. I'm looking forward to giving both talks. The teaching talk is tomorrow; I'll let you know how it goes.

22 February 2005

Let the reign of terror commence

I just became the Graduate Program Director in waiting for our department. The change was confirmed in a faculty meeting that ended a few minutes ago. The current director, Tim Brush, continues until the end of this semester, and I'll be taking over this summer. I will apparently get some teaching release time to deal with this responsibility. And it's a pretty substantial one. There's a lot to do. I might talk more about this later, since graduate studies are intimately tied to research (which is, of course, the main point of this journal).

19 February 2005

Snapping my suspenders

Storyteller and game author John Wick once wrote a column about how the audience members watching fiction engage in willing suspension of disbelief, but sometimes, the storyteller messes up and something happens that yanks you out of that willing participation; he said that such moments "snapped his suspenders."

After having written positively about the verisimilitude of the television crime show Numb3rs, which features an academic, mathematician Charlie Eppes, as a lead character. And then, the last episode, "Prime Suspect," goes and snaps my suspenders.

In this episode, we learn that mathematician Charlie is a tenured faculty member, who buys a big house from his father—at full cost, mind you—that is being sold because property values are skyrocketing, and that he is almost 30.

"Snap!" "Ow!"

Okay, I know that mathematicians typically have an earlier career start than biologists; many mathematicians do their best work when they're younger. But just for comparison, I was incredibly proud that I defended my doctorate just before my 30th birthday. In the spirit of the show, let's run the numbers. Average age for entering university is 18. Four year degree puts you at 22. Average length for a doctorate in mathematics—let's say four, putting our protagonist at 26. Not sure chow common postdocs are in mathematics, so I'll give the benefit of the doubt to the writers and omit that step of most academic careers. The average tenure-track period at most universities is probably five or six years; let's give the benefit of the doubt and say five years, which puts Charlie at around 31 to make tenure.

Even if I could get around the age thing, which I almost can, what the heck do the producers think assistant professors make? The episodes made mention of some academic awards, but even given that, I know of no assistant professor on one income who could manage to afford a two story house in prime real estate in a major city.

Maybe there's more money in applied mathematics than biology. Hm. Expression of sincere doubt.

17 February 2005

Lifting a curse and beating the hydra

My week started to turn around a little today. First, my student Anna and I finally got some fluorescent antibodies to label some neurons in some long preserved ascidian embryos. This is a pretty big deal, because I have been struggling for literally two years trying to get something to glow from any fluorescent technique. I really felt I had some sort of curse with me and these techniques, because they are widely used by so many labs, and I'd had such trouble. I hope to post a picture of this later, if I can figure out why the camera is colouring things purple on the screen that are green through the eyepiece.

In between meetings with students of various sorts, I composed a remarkably restrained email to the director of the Helpdesk; copied to his boss (Director of Academic Computing), my department chair, and the Vice President for Research, about my recent computer problems. I said that I thought the response time was poor but I could live with that, but that messing with my computer operating system settings so that I couldn't use it as I saw fit was unacceptable. To my surprise, I had a staffer from the Helpdesk in my office before the day was out, fixing the problem that needed to be fixed. While he was finishing up, I had a phone call from the Director of Academic Computing, who apologized and explained why they had made the changes they did.


Tomorrow, I will write a follow-up email to those same people saying thanks for taking me seriously. I wasn't sure if I could get someone to pay attention to the problem without me flying into a blind rage in someone's office. Other than me venting in my own office... I got plenty mad, visibly upset, but! Not at the support staff. I didn't lose my temper with any of them.

The Helpdesk hydra is not dead -- I know I will be tangling with them again, probably over installing software on classroom computers -- but the head has been buried under a rock, where it will lie dormant and not spawn new heads. For now.

16 February 2005

Round the twist

I got my computer back today. The screen is now working. I should be happy, but I am instead incredibly angry.

Because, you see, the computer helpdesk didn't simply fix the problem that I had (broken screen). No, they took it upon themselves to made some changes to my operating system. All my settings for my programs? Gone. I can't access some of my files. And I certainly can't install new software. They managed to give my office computer a lobotomy. I hate to think how much time I am going to waste trying to get things put back to the level of functionality I had before the helpdesk "helped."

So what can I do? I have to call the helpdesk and my request goes to the bottom of the queue.

Dealing with our helpdesk is like fighting a freaking hydra. For every problem you kill, two more rise to take its place.

I can't get any Sex happening

I want to create a new course on animal courtship and mating and sexual selection. First, I submitted it as a fourth year undergraduate course, simply titled, "Sex." The department's curriculum committee asked me to revise it, on the grounds that other departments (Psychology, Health, Sociology, maybe) were too likely to argue that it was a topic they should be teaching, not biology. So I took it back and changed the title to "Evolution and sexual reproduction" and resubmitted the proposal.

The departmental curriculum committee met again yesterday and I ran into a whole bunch of new objections that weren't raised in the first meeting. One of the reasons for creating the course was that we have our courses grouped into five areas; students need at least one class from each of the five areas. I wanted to create a class that would fill out the smallest section, which has only three classes. The first objection was that this course would draw away students from Genetics. I said, "There's a prerequisite; students can't take this instead of an existing course in the group, because you need a lower-level course to get into this one."

From this, it comes out that there is actually no way of enforcing prerequisites on this campus.


Yes, it turns out that pretty much all of those course requirements are apparently not enforced, or even enforceable.

Being curious, I ask if the goal was to pump students into genetics why the course is not a requirement. After the meeting, I learn that the reason it's not a requirement is that many, many years ago, the person who taught genetics was so bad and so unpopular, he drove people away, so there was resistance to making the course a requirement because of this one instructor's unpopularity. Although the reason for not making the course required no longer remains, it would be hard to make the course required because it is argued that there would be complaints from pre-med students about adding more courses they have to take to finish their degrees.

Anyway, whether this course would pull people away from genetics or not, the second suggestion from a committee member was that I make the class a graduate course instead of an undergraduate course. I say, "Not what I had in mind, but I'll consider it." In the afternoon, I go away and write up two versions of a course description, for the third time.

After the curriculum committee meeting, I was left wondering if it was "appropriate" or "ironic" that my course on sex keeps getting screwed.

15 February 2005

Ignorance may not be bliss, but perhaps it is painless

Making the rounds on the Associated Press wire service is this news article on what is arguably the question we crustacean neurobiologists get asked: does it hurt a lobster when you boil it? It's a topic I've dealt with in this journal before (see comments here and here). I am bitterly disappointed to see people saying that lobsters don't have brains. Again. "No brain, no pain," one Mike Loughlin is quoted as saying. I won't comment on the pain portion, but as to the claim that a lobster has no brain? It is wrong. It is false. It is incorrect. It is untrue. I don't know how much more flatly I can say it. Lobsters have brains. So do crabs and crayfish and other crustaceans. So do insects (insects also get slapped in the article with this quote: "...the lobster's primitive nervous system and underdeveloped brain are similar to that of an insect."). So do other arthropods. They all have brains. But because this is a wire story, probably being sent around the world, there's not much I can do to try to set the record straight. I just don't have time to fire off emails to every newspaper and media outlet that runs the story. Alas, as Darwin once noted, great is the power of steady misrepresentation.

Furthermore, there is good evidence that at least some arthropods have nociceptors (sensory neurons that respond preferentially to tissue damage): see this abstract in the prestigious journal Cell here or here. That said, nociception is not pain, though the two are obviously closely related concepts. In this specific case of crustaceans, there is no published evidence I am aware of for or against nociception in crustaceans—and I've looked more than once. But then, it was only recently that the findings on nociception in the intensely-studied fruit fly (the Cell article above) were published.

What is all the more frustrating about this matter is that it is easily solved. Lobsters can be anesthetized by placing them on ice for a while. I have never heard anyone say that this affects the taste. Thus, it would be easy enough to ease any guilt one might feel over boiling an alert animal.

14 February 2005

More rejection

Almost forgot to mention that I received another grant rejection letter over the weekend. This one from the SOMAS program. Since I am not succeeding, I am left to try, try again. Back to the old drawing board. Once more into the breach. Etcetera.

On-screen scientists

How scientists are portrayed in film and TV has been an interest of mine for a while. Today, I came across this quote (in the New York Times (1 February 2005, "A conversation with: James Cameron; Filmmaker Employs the Arts to Promote the Sciences"), requoted in Science) from film maker and fellow Canuck James Cameron talking about his IMAX film, Aliens of the Deep:

"One of the things we tried to do with this film was to show what scientists are really like. ... They're not driven by a materialistic value system. They're seeking something else, something more important."


My man Jim doesn't come out and say what that "something else" is, at least not in that quote. I don't know. I find most scientists are just as interested in taking home a regular paycheque as anyone else. In fact, given that a large chunk of this journal seems to have become devoted to detailing the amount of time and effort I spend trying to find money to do my research, perhaps Cameron has a slightly romanticized view of a scientist's lot. This wouldn't surprise me; probably everyone romanticizes careers other than their own.

I've also been interested in watching Numb3rs, which may be the regular first U.S. television show to feature a mathematician as its main protagonist. Of course, the other main protagonist is a law enforcement official (FBI), because what else is there to do in an hour of TV except solve a crime? My annoyance about math being joined with a standard police procedural drama notwithstanding, there is something in the portrayal of an academic (applied mathematician Charlie Eppes, played by David Krumholtz) in an academic setting that I quite like. On last week's episode, two instructors were talking about teaching evaluations; a nice little touch that will be familiar to anyone teaching in a university.

I'm also curious to see how Reed Richards, a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic, will be depicted in the upcoming Fantastic Four movie this summer. An old friend of mine described his character in the comics well: his real superpower was his intelligence, and the stretching was just a bonus. It'll be really interesting to see if Reed is portrayed as truly intelligent, rather than the typical approach films often fall back on, which is to make the smart guy boring! The original comics, in fairness, often fell into this trap themselves, especially in the hands of weaker writers. But even when handled by Stan Lee or other top writers, Reed Richards certainly never got the fan devotion of Ben Grimm (a.k.a. The Thing).

I'm still looking for a depiction of a scientist in contemporary film that really seems to ring true. It's a mistake to underestimate the impact these depictions have; if I'm not mistaken, recent record-winning Jeopardy! winner Ken Jennings said in a TV Guide interview that much of his interest and knowledge about science was sparked by reading none other than Fantastic Four comics.

10 February 2005

Workload reassignment

I had a quick peek through the campus newspaper today, and it looks like President Bambi's more or less confirmed that there is going to be a reduction in teaching load, which was being discussed in the fall. Only instead of fall 2005, which was bandied about as a possibility, it looks like it'll be in place by fall 2006. Can't be soon enough for me.

09 February 2005

Chugging along

I've managed to get my butt into the lab the last couple of days and do a few things. First, I received some ascidians from Wood Hole Marine Biological Lab for some genetic experiments I'm doing with my student Joe. Luckily, these animals are reproductive, which means I might be able to get double duty out of them. Have also been working with my student Anna to try to get some labeling done with preserved ascidian embryos -- we'll see tomorrow if it has worked. Fingers crossed.

In other news, I have somehow manged to get myself slated to give three talks in as many weeks. First, I'll be giving a teaching and technology lunchtime seminar about my experience with wireless polling on 1 March. At the end of that week, I'll be giving a presentation (co-authored by my student Anna and my colleague Virginia) at the annual Texas Academy of Science meeting. Two weeks after that, I've set the wheel in motion to give a public lecture on neurobiology as part of Brain Awareness Week. I'll make it work, but I didn't quite realize how these were all going to pile up. This is what happens when my computer program, with my scheduling software, gets taken away... (No, my computer still isn't fixed. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.)