30 October 2006

Seen at the gym: profession assassination

I seldom watch news channels, but when I'm at the gym, I can't really help it, because they have televisions in almost every place you might look. Despite the wonder that is TV B Gone, they're usually silent with subtitles, so they're not as annoying as they could be.

This Sunday I was reminded again of why I dislike news channels so much. Great vast chunks of airtime filled with pundits, people who offer opinions on anything. This time around, CNN was featuring college costs. And right before a commercial, one of the panelists talked about tenured professors who make $100,000 a year, teach two classes a week, and take the entire summer off.

Then there was some comment about how this would be fixed right up if someone with real management skills could take over.

First, most professors do not make $100,000 a year. Not even tenured full professors. Some surely do, but this is a little like saying actors make millions for a movie. Some do, but most don't.

Teaching two classes a week is probably about right for a lot of institutions. But professors do more than just teach classes. They do research, advise students, serve on committees, and much, much more.

And would you work for free? If professors take the summer off, it's probably because they have a nine month salary, and don't get paid to be around during summer. I have no information on how many "take the summer off," but many professors do work for free during summers.

Not sure how the impression of the profession can be raised, but maybe it needs it.

27 October 2006

The negative pressure continues

This week just keeps sucking. There's not too much I actively look forward to in a week. Doctor Who is one. And the stupid Sci-Fi channel has to go change the schedule without notice, so I miss part of the episode. Drat and double drat.

Back in Texas

And it's been downhill ever since.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) regional conference was okay, I suppose, but I was the wrong person to send to it. It was very much geared to people who had little to no experience dealing with the NSF, and that's not me, given that I have a dozen rejection letters to my credit. I will probably write more about it later.

Speaking of rejection, I came back to find a rejection letter waiting for me on my most recent manuscript. The reviewer claimed the experiments I did repeated some done 50 years ago. But I looked for precedent and couldn't find them, and did the reviewer provide me with a reference for the experiments? NoooOOOooo...

I am thwarted at every turn.

21 October 2006

I'm off!

To Washington, D.C. for this little NSF Regional conference. No idea how much internet I'll have over the next few days, but promise to tell you all about it when I get back.

17 October 2006


This week's Raised Eyebrow Award goes to the editors of the brand new issue of PLoS Biology. One of the very interesting new articles in this release is, "Morphological evolution is accelerated among island mammals" (my emphasis) by Virginie Millien, who works at McGill, one of my old stomping grounds.

To illustrate this article on the table of contents, the editors put a very nice picture of a tortoise.


There's just one little problem.

Tortoises are not mammals.

And if that wasn't puzzling enough, try making sense of this sign.

16 October 2006

Grey October day

And when you see that headline, you probably think brown leaves, a jacket, maybe a light pair of gloves and a scarf...

Not in Texas. Still sweating like pigs here. Worse than usual, somedays, because the large amounts of rain we've had in the last month have made it very humid. Not to mention enough standing water to make it mosquito breeding season.

Looking forward to leaving this weekend for the NSF conference. I don't particularly have great expectations for the conference, but it would be nice to get out of the ever-present heat.

12 October 2006

A sudden departure

Rather unexpectedly, our Research Office offered me a chance to go to a National Science Foundation conference in Maryland. Only a week and a half away -- which is rather fast. This will be the first time I'll have flown since they've cut down on carrying liquids and such on board. Electric razor, no contacts, buy toothpaste at the other end...

Another new species

Wow, the second new vertebrate species in a week! This time, a mouse in Europe. I like the point that the article mentions: "it was generally assumed that the European biodiversity had been entirely picked over by the natural history pioneers of the 19th century."

We are heavily ignorant of our natural world and the creatures that live in it. Which makes it all the more maddening that most biological research is focused on four or five species for which we have the most genetic information: mouse, fruit fly (Drosophila), the plant Arabidopsis, a little nematode worm C. elegans, and maybe zebrafish (Danio) now being the fifth.

10 October 2006

Driving birdos bonkers

Because now there's just one more for their life lists.

I love it when new species are found, particularly "charismatic" species, like this gorgeous little bird found in South America, whose discovery was announced today. I just keep hoping that these findings will drive home the point about how liitle we know about our natural world. And what behaviours might these guys have that have never been described before? A Ph.D. is just waiting for someone...


I was listening to this weeks's Ockham's Razor podcast , and had one of those "Aha!" moments that are always so cool: where you connect two previously unlinked facts. This episode described eminent eighteenth century scientist Francois Peron, who, when he was my age, had been dead for five years. (Apologies to Tom Lehrer for pinching that joke.) Peron did a lot of very intereesting science in many areas, not the least of which was biological surveys around Australia. The presenter mentions in passing that "many Australian species bear Peron's name as specific epiphets" (e.g., "sapiens" in Homo sapiens).

I heard that little one line comment and the light bulb went off. I suddenly realized I not only knew such an animal, I had actually published two papers about it: the slipper lobster species, Ibacus peronii.

I love not only the flash of putting two previously unconnected facts together at the moment, but also that reminder of past science as something conducted by real, breathing people with great stories to tell.

06 October 2006

Tied for best professional year yet

I received some of the editorial changes to my most recent manuscript yesterday, and it looks like the new paper will be out before the end of the year. December issue of The Biological Bulletin -- watch for it!

In practice, it wouldn't surprise me if the actual issue, particularly the printed copy, weren't on library stands until early 2007. But I kind of like the cover date, because it means I will have published three papers in 2006, which is as productive as I've ever been. The only other year I've had three papers was 1997, when three papers from my Ph.D. dissertation appeared in the span of about a month. This isn't quite the same heady feeling, since this year's papers are spread over a much longer time (first published in February, second around April, and the third in December), a wider set of topics (all different species), and wider geography (data on two of the papers were collected back in late 2000 and early 2001 in Australia).

Now, if I would just get a decision on the manuscript I have in review... I actually received an apology from the editorial office saying they were trying to get it finished a while ago. For such a short paper, it's taking a fetchin' long time to hear a yea or nay.

05 October 2006

Who doesn't love meetings?

I was in three consecutive meetings today, back to back, from 11:00 am to about 3:30 pm. There was substantial overlap between them, but it still made for a long day.

First, we had a meeting about the possibility of a marine science program at our university. Things look promising there.

Second meeting was a meeting of the Center for Subtropical Studies. This is a research center that's sort of existed on paper since before I came here. But this is the first peep I'd ever heard about the center. First meeting I knew about, first time there seemed to be any serious discussion about projects we might do. To put it another way, the Center's existed for five-plus years now, and today were were working on a draft constitution that would describe how the thing runs.

Finally, a meeting about the Coastal Studies Lab. Again, some promising things are going on here. Though you still can't tell by looking at the website. (A "last updated" tag of 1999 gives an impression we don't really want.) Updating their website was one of the items we discussed.

It'll just be nice when some of the plans we talk about come to fruition. But these are slow, slow growing seeds.

04 October 2006

Sometimes chemists cop the biology prize

As I mentioned previously, there is no Nobel prize for biology. But there are a surprising number of chemistry Nobel laureates who show up in my general biology lectures, and this year seems to be another case of that. An award to Roger Kornberg for the study of how DNA makes RNA, which I also mentioned in my previous post.

Also interesting is that this is a rare case of a family with two Nobel winners -- Roger's father Arthur Kornberg won it in 1959 for Medicine, but he was also studying genetics. I knew of one other example: the Tinbergen brothers, Jan (Economics) and one of my own intellectual heroes, Niko (Physiology or medicine, but really animal behaviour). But there are several others...

02 October 2006

There is no Nobel Prize for biology

But sometimes, physiology or medicine comes close.

This year's Nobel goes to the people who discovered RNA interference (RNAi). I never knew who developed that technique, though I've certainly heard a lot about it. Here's the deal.

In my introductory biology classes, I teach this simple little mantra: DNA makes RNA. RNA makes protein. Like so many things, that's a gross oversimplification, but it's a useful starting point. In particular, this little six word summary of what DNA does really underestimates the versatility of RNA. RNA has a structure similar to DNA, and actually binds to, and temporarily substitutes for, DNA in normal cell physiology. Or, for that matter, RNA molecules can bind together.

We know a lot about DNA. The traditional way that people figured out what different stretches of DNA did -- that is, what protein that bit of DNA ultimately made -- was to look at individual organisms with mutations. Very useful, but rather unpredictable, since it was usually hard to generate mutations at one point in the DNA only.

What RNA interference does is allows you to turn off particular bits of DNA that make particular proteins in a selective, controlled fashion.

Here's roughly how.

DNA makes RNA. A sequence of DNA has a code within it for a particular protein -- that's a gene. But DNA is stored in one place in the cell, and proteins are made somewhere else, so there has to be an intermediate. RNA is that intermediate. In particular, a type of RNA called messenger RNA binds to the DNA, makes a sort of mirror image copy of that gene. Then the messenger RNA goes off to meet with the protein making machinery. My understanding is that in RNA interference, an RNA molecule (usually experimentally chosen) binds to the messenger RNA, and breaks it apart, thus first obscuring, then destroying, the message the messnger RNA carried from the gene.

The Nobel for this discovery is interesting, because at this point, it's much more of an experimental technique than it is a basic discovery the unravelled something new about how cells work. There are definitely suggestions that RNA interference goes on in actual, living cells, but I think this is getting the prize much more because other scientists are finding it useful. In this sense, the selection is reminiscent of the award for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) some years ago.

And certainly, way down the road, it's easy to start imagining this technique being used to treat genetic disorders or perhaps certain viral infections.