28 November 2006

More than medicine

When I was at a textbook focus group near Austin recently, one of the things I said to the authors and others present was that "Relevance is overrated." A lot of people think that students will only be interested in something if it's somehow relevance to their lives. Most instructors spend a lot of time talking about medicine.

Personally, I think this is a short-sighted approach. At the workshop, I said that we should not be afraid to say that we study things and research them because they are beautiful. (Actually, I used the phrase "fucking cool" at a few points. (Under the influence of Kevin Broidy's post, which I found though the always enlightening Kathy Sierra.)

Steven Pinker has written an excellent op-ed piece that articulates this idea much better than I did on the fly at the workshop. Some turns of phrase I particularly like:

(S)urely there is more to being knowledgeable in science than being able to follow the news. And surely our general science courses should aim to be more than semester-long versions of An Inconvenient Truth. ...

(T)here are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified.

I believe that a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated. And I think that some acknowledgment of the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge should be a goal of the general education requirement and a stated value of a university.

Though I do think he could've at least slipped a "cool" in there somewhere.

23 November 2006

Catch up day

This last week has been absolutely non-stop.

It's at least partly due to Thomson Higher Education, who invited me up to the Austin area to take part in a focus group for their upcoming textbook, Biology: The Dynamic Science.

If an out-of-town weekender wasn't enough to be distracting, that Friday, just before leaving today, I get a nice new piece of swag: a pocket PC. An HP iPaq hx2495, to be precise. I got it from... um... it fell off the back of a truck, as they say. Not that I got it through any nefarious means. No students' grades will be changed as a result of my receiving this. Completely legitimate. But I don't want other people to put pressure on my gift horse, so to speak. I had been looking at pocket PC as a possible alternative to a new laptop, since laptops are getting to be such a nuisance to travel with, particularly through airports. And lo, I get this just before a trip -- a nice test drive.

So, for instance, shortly after entering my room, I was able to write a few notes:

This is interesting. Eight pillows. Who needs eight pillows? Flat screen, Hi-Def tv with digital channels. Sweet!

It's actually rather scary and a little intimidating.

Downsides: Can't connect to the internet to blog. They have wi-fi, and I'm connected, but I'm not a T-mobile user. Drat.

As you might tell, it is extremely swanky in the Hyatt Lost Pines resort and spa where we had the workshop. I had a bit of a heart stopping moment when I saw the "max room rate" on the inside of the hotel door: $595! And I was there for two nights! (Note to the Hyatt management: If you're charging someone that much, don't you think you could spring for free wi-fi?)

The day got off to a bit of a missed start when I walked into a room with my breakfast that I thought was mine. I wasn't quite paying enough attention to realize the sign outside said, "Thompson" instead of "Thomson." So I accidentally went into a room full of lawyers, I later found out. Luckily, I was not the only one to make that mistake. They laughed and said they'd met a lot of my colleagues.

It was a lot of fun meeting with other instructors, and they had three of the textbook authors there to listen to our comments.

After we finished, the lot of us got in a little bus and headed to dinner at Eddie V's. It was very good. And parts of it were -- there are not other words for it -- fucking awesome. Among the things I had were excellent hot bread, superb steak, some excellent potatoes au gratin, and (here we ramp up into awesome) a Lady Godiva molten chocolate cake with Mexican vanilla ice cream.

Anyone who knows me even casually knows I love my desserts.

That molten chocolate cake is in my lifetime top 4 list now.

It nearly robbed me of the power of speech.

By the end of the day, I felt a lot better about attending the workshop. The day before, when I was only halfway to Austin and tired and knowing I had a lot of work to do, I was doubting whether it was a good idea to go. I felt much better about the decision on the drive back. Pretty much all I was able to do after getting back was a quick round of exercise.

But then Monday, of course, the weekend away caught up with me. I forgot I had a demo to attend on some grad program recruiting and application software the university it looking at buying. I didn't quite get a quiz done for my neurobiology students.

I ran over to consult with my colleague Debbie Cole about her guest lecture to said neurobiology students, and she invited me to visit her grad class in linguistics. I did, and it turned out to be a good night to visit, as she was also hosting David Garcia Ordaz, who was reading from his book of poetry, You Know What I'm Sayin'? (available from El Zarape Press). David is a superb reader of his work -- lively, energetic and funny. Light years away from the formal, stilted way that poetry often gets read.

And that was just Monday. I had meetings Tuesday and Wednesday. I had students coming to see me. Trying to fix a figure I was helping my colleague Anita with. I have a backlog of paperwork that I'm still not through with. Barely time to think.

Today is my chance -- I hope -- to put out a few smoldering fires of work. (And blog!) The building is empty because of American Thanksgiving, and let's just say I relate to today's cartoon in Ph.D. comics. I can work through some student evaluations, play the Doctor Who Children in Need concert on my desktop speaker very loud without disturbing anyone else, you know, that sort of thing.

Enough blogging for now...

16 November 2006

I just want the proofs

Page proofs for my upcoming article came in the mail today. There do not appear to be any typos or problems (yay!) except one or two sentences that we could have written better (oops).

They came just in time, because tomorrow I'll be driving up to the Austin region for a workshop put on by a textbook publisher for one of their forthcoming textbooks. It's just a quick trip: drive up Friday, come back Sunday.

Accidents will happen

My grad student Sandra is pretty much fine.

I just thought I'd put that in first before mentioning that she got in a car wreck that totalled her car. Luckily, all involved walked away. And as Launchpad McQuack always said, "Any crash you can walk away from is a good crash!"

Fortunately (?), if you had to be in a grad student in a car wreck, now is not a bad time to do it. Next week is the fall semester break (a.k.a. American Thanksgiving), which means she only has her lab classes to teach today, then has a week break, then simply has to give and mark tests. It may put a rather interesting spin on her annual committee meeting next week, though.

And the moral of the story is: Always remember to wear your seat belt!

Science rocks!

Now this is cool (in a geeky-pretend-to-do-something-because-you-have-no-actual-talent kind of way). Basic research... put to geek use. More here.

13 November 2006

In the pipeline

My next article is now listed in the upcoming table of contents for The Biological Bulletin. Which reminds me that I should be seeing page proofs any day now.

Ironically, my new paper is right after a paper on octopus arm movements -- which is how I got my start in research as an undergraduate student in Jennifer Mather's lab in Lethbridge.

Busted over cleavage

None of my developmental experiments worked this weekend. As a sort of last ditch effort, I tried to extract some DNA from the animals while the tissue was still fresh. Now I have to runs some tests to see if I succeeded, but since I never planned on being a molecular biologist, I yet again have to rely on the good will of my colleagues to let me scam a bit of their material.

One guy assured me that I must have DNA. When I told him I was using a Qiagen kit, he said, "That's the Mercedes of DNA kits."

"Maybe," I replied, "but a Mercedes driven by a giraffe is not going to be a smooth ride."

I am not convinced of the foolproofness of the kit. As Mark Twain wrote, it is impossible to make anything foolproof because fools are so ingenious."

11 November 2006

I want to see some cleavage!

Early ascidian embyroCell division, that is.

It's 4:00 p.m. rather than a.m. this time, but otherwise, the story is much the same as my last post. I'm here again, trying to get an little experiment to work with my tunicates. I got plenty of eggs and sperm from the adults, but for some reason, the fertilized eggs are just not dividing. I must have done something wrong, but cannot think of what it might be.

It is absolutely maddening, because the number of animals is running low now, so if I don't get the data today or tomorrow, I'm back to my waiting game. When will the next rack of animals come in so I can try to do this experiment again...?

10 November 2006

Latest post ever?

It's now about 3:15 a.m.

Yes, I'm running an experiment.

About a week ago, I went out to the Coastal Studies Lab, and to my surprise, there were adult tunicates (Ascidia interrupta, to be exact) on the racks. I brought them back to my lab, and to my surprise and delight, they were reproductive! This is the first year since I started working with them that I've been able to get animals at two different times of the year and have them be reproductive so I can do experiments.

My work with these animals is very much hot and cold: either the animals are out in abundance, or they seem to have vanished from the Laguna Madre. Plus, they don't tend to live in the lab for terribly long periods of time. And my other commitments -- teaching, meetings, and so on -- don't conveniently stop because I have animals to work with.

So when I get them, I really try to push to get things done. Hence a late night.

I started in the lab this morning at 8:00 a.m. The design of the experiment calls for the animals to be treated and measured every two hours until they hatch into little tadpoles, and that takes about 14-16 hours for the fast ones. My student Veronica met me then and worked until 8:00 p.m., and I took over from 10:00 p.m. to now. I had little swimming tadpoles just hatching out around midnight. Now I'm just trying to stay a little longer to see if I can get a little more data.

I was hoping I could maybe start some writing, but the measuring is taking up more of the interval than I expected. I've worked a bit on today's lecture, skimmed the new issue of Science (sea urchin genome stuff looks very cool), and had a late night snack of pretzels from a vending machine. Yum.

And due to doing all of those things while writing a blog post, it's now 4:00 a.m., which means I do my last prep and head home for a snooze. Yay!

03 November 2006

I can't believe how fast it's going

The big red column that you see in a lot of the pictures on our departmental home page has not looked as advertised for many months now. The tiles started falling down, so they stripped the entire column bare to rework it. The scaffolding just went up a couple of weeks ago, and to my surprise, the thing is about two thirds finished. It'll be much nicer to look out the window and see bright red tile than the gray exposed concrete.

01 November 2006

Conference tidbits (delayed)

Been meaning to mention a few things about the NSF regional conference in Maryland last week.

I think the tone may have been set a little on Sunday, which was a day before the conference officially started. I went to attend a workshop there. There's supposed to be a morning and afternoon workshop on the grant application system NSF uses, called Fastlane. I got told at the registration desk that the person who was supposed to give the workshop just... vanished. Went AWOL. No show, no call, no notice... nothing.

I walk around a bit, thinking maybe this will be resolved by the time the second workshop shows. I show up at the building, which -- because it's Sunday -- seems to be locked up pretty tight. I eventually find one open door, and a couple of other prospective attendees and I go into the building. The workshop room is on the fourth floor.

The elevator only lets you go up to the third floor. The fourth floor you need a special key to be allowed to access. Okay, we try the stairwells. Locked.

Eventually, the few faculty (four of us), run into a woman who was instructed to allow us to the mysterious fourth floor. She tells us she was told to let people in at 12:30 -- our notes all said workshop was at 1:30.

The speaker is still, apparently, walkabout. Nobody for us to talk to.

One of the attendees tries to get a conference organizer on her mobile phone, only to get a message that the organizers are attending the NSF region conference for the next few days. Uh-huh. Eventually, I think someone gets an organizer on a cell. They suggest we slide into a similar workshop in another building, which is mean for administrators rather than faculty, but we are assured much of the information is still the same.

One of my favourite moments was when...

Actually, to understand the next bit, you should probably view a few pictures of the buildings at the University of Maryland, where we were. Check them out here.

Go on. I'll wait.

Really, I'll be here when you get back.

Dum dee dum de dum dee dumm...

Ah, there you are. Okay. After deciding to try to hit the other workshop, we walked out and we were trying to locate the building the alternate workshop was in. The woman next to me pointed and said, "Is it that brick building?"

I just had to turn to her and say, "They're all brick!"

"Oh, wait, let's narrow it down, the brick building with the white trim!"

(They all have white trim, too.)

Another moment that made me laugh was at the very end of the conference. They gave us little conference bags to carry around notes and programs and such. The conference officially ended at 4:00 pm Tuesday.

The shoulder strap on my conference bag broke at 4:01 pm.

Things always break just after the warranty expires...

Favourite saying of the moment

"It's like I'm living in a straw factory, there's so much suckage going on."

I went out to the Coastal Studies Lab today to pick up some animals, and sort of hit two out of three. With help from a couple of the lab guys, I pulled in some fresh sand crabs, and I found brought back some tunicates.

The missing third was pretty bad, though.

All the spiny lobsters I'd ordered in from Florida died the day or two before I got there to pick a couple up. Twelve poor shelly corpses in the courtyard attracting flies instead of being studied for science.