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!”