29 October 2010

MythBusters and the ultimate neuromyth

The myth that you only use 10% of your brain is pervasive, but I never expected to see it on MythBusters. After all, it’s a very – dare I say it? – cerebral myth. I didn’t see much chance for blowing stuff up.

On this week’s episode of MythBusters, it was tested and busted. But I was puzzled by the way they interpreted their results to bust it.

For the second test, they gave Grant and Tori questions while they recorded the brain using magnetoencephalography. (Forgive me if I write that as MEG from here on in.) This is a brain imaging technique that isn’t used as commonly as, say, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), but as far as I can understand, the logic of how it works is somewhat similar.

In brain imaging studies, brain “activation” is usually the difference between a task where you’re asked to do something, and a control situation where you’re asked to do as little as you can. The important thing is that you’re making a comparison to some baseline activity. And that baseline isn’t zero. I fully admit that I may be misunderstanding this, and MEG may just be that much different than fMRI.

The segment made it sound like we use only about 30% of our brain, rather than 30% of our brain was more active than normal when given these tasks.

It’s like comparing your heart rate during exercise to your resting heart rate. Your resting heart rate isn’t zero, because if it was, you’d be dead.

In some sense, I suppose it doesn’t matter, since the original myth is about how much of our brains we “use” – which is a surprisingly slippery wording. And it’s still good to have information out there that might help make a dent in the undisputed heavyweight champion of neuromyths.

I’m do worry, though, that people will end up thinking that 70% of our brain is just filler. It isn’t.

P.S.—The dramatic tablecloth pull on the same episode also flubbed the explanation of the physics.

28 October 2010

Growing big brains

We think that good environments make for good brains, particularly when people are young. Parents have been known to obsess a little about whether their kid is getting the right kind of experiences.

If this is true, this guy must have read a looooooot of books.

Joking aside, we normally think about early experiences as influencing subtle things about the brain. Those early experiences might give you some extra connections, tweak a little wiring here and there. But would you expect someone’s brain to get significantly bigger, a la The Leader?

ResearchBlogging.orgBrain size is normally the domain of comparative vertebrate neuroanatomists rather than developmental psychologists. It’s actually a major preoccupation for comparative neuroanatomists, who typically trying to explain differences in brain size of different species, usually by relating some aspect of brain size to the differing ecology and behaviour patterns of those species.

But that differing ecology might not only affect brain sizes of different species, but brain size within the same species: individuality.

We know that being in natural environments can affect the formation of new neurons (here). It’s less clear if that could make for significantly bigger brain regions, or overall brain size, though. And “lab versus wild” is a fairly crude comparison. It would be nice to narrow down to a couple of relevant ecological factors.

Gonda and colleagues are working on this problem with these little guys and gals:

These are tadpoles for Rana temperaria, a fairly common frog in Europe. The experiments are pretty simple. Divide up a group of tadpoles into four tanks, a simple two by two matrix:

  • Half the tanks with predators (contained, so it could not eat the tadpoles) and half without.
  • Half with 50 tadpoles and half with 10.

Let simmer for three and a half weeks. Then, check bodies and brains.

Tadpoles in low densities grew larger than those in high densities; predators also made for smaller tadpoles. All tanks were given the same amount of food per tank, not the same amount of food per capita, so this may just reflect food availability.

Brain size is more complicated. The smallest brains were in animals kept in low densities with predators. This is a bit of a surprise, since one might expect that little competition would mean more food for brain growth. Different effects occurred at different brain regions, too. The authors say, “tadpoles had relatively larger optic tectum and smaller medulla oblongata at high tadpole density.” This suggest these two regions have different roles in processing the cues that occur in high versus low density situations.

How general might ecological effects on brain development be? I wonder if the amount of plasticity might be greater in amphibians than many other animals. Amphibian tadpoles may be particularly liable to have their brains reshaped. They grow fast, and their brains still have to undergo a metamorphosis. These factors might make tadpole brains more plastic than species where the little one are basically miniature adults.


Gonda A, Trokovic N, Herczeg G, Laurila A, & Merilä J. (2010). Predation- and competition-mediated brain plasticity in Rana temporaria tadpoles. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 23(11): 2300-2308. DOI: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2010.02066.x

Photo by Paul and Jill on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

27 October 2010

Rally ’round your nerd

Regular readers may already know Nerdy Christie Wilcox. I am a big fan of hers. And it’s not just me: she’s been in Open Lab twice, a finalist in 3 Quarks Daily contests twice, and much more.

Christie is a finalist in another blogging competition, but this one is different: this one has cold hard cash dollars up for grabs. $10,000, to be exact.

Now, in case you don’t know, Christie is based in Hawai’i, which is probably not exactly the cheapest place to live. She’s also a grad student, not exactly known for high wages, either.

But the scholarship is determined by an online poll. Which means this one is all about networking.

You should vote for Christie right now by clicking here.

And spread the word!

P.S.—As of this moment, the leader in this poll is a cosmetics blog. This prompted this musing at A Leaf Warbler’s Gleanings.

Shell shock, revisited

Almost a year ago, I wrote about a device being marketed as the “Crustastun” that was touted as being a more human way to kill a lobster than the traditional boiling. Today, a new article updates the story and talks more about the evidence that the device kills rapidly.

Professor Douglas Neil of the University of Glasgow said that studies he has performed for the company that makes the machine demonstrate that electrocution is the quickest way of ending any signs of nervous activity in edible crustaceans – an indication of a clean death.

"It eliminates all activity that is truly from the nerves. The story becomes quite simple: we see silence in the nervous system, both the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system," Professor Neil said. ...

A study this year by Bjorn Roth of the University of Bergen in Norway compared many different methods of killing crustaceans, such as superchilling, gradual heating, boiling, gassing and salt baths. He found that electrocution produced the quickest death.

I recognize the name of one of the researchers mentioned, but, as is too often the case, there is no indication of whether the studies mentioned have been published or not.

An editorial comment by a chef is completely skeptical.

The Crustastun sounds like another gadget that's going to get broken and relegated to the back of a kitchen cupboard. ... The old-fashioned ways are a sign that a chef is confident in their skills.

I have never experienced objections to having lobster on the menu.

The constant peppering of questions about boiling lobsters, though, suggests people aren’t entirely cavalier about the whole thing. I also think that there’s a certain amount of self-selection going on in this person’s comments, since he is a fairly highly rated chef. (A Michelin star is good, right?)

A companion piece is... well, I’m not sure what to make of it.

According to Professor Douglas Neil of the University of Glasgow, electrocution is the most humane way of dispatching crustaceans. All the other methods, apparently, result in a protracted death for the creature.

Professor Neil deserves our gratitude for establishing this. But would it be unreasonable to hope that he does not turn his attention next to the most humane way to peel a potato? Some of us are too set in our ways to cope with further ethical revolutions in the kitchen.

Hat tip to Graham Farmelo.

26 October 2010

Who are the Society for Neuroscience bloggers?

My eyebrows went up when I saw the list of officially sanctioned bloggers for this year’s Society for Neuroscience meeting.

I didn’t recognize a single solitary one.

I don’t pretend to read all the neuroblogs, but I would have thought that I would have recognized somebody.

Luckily for me, Tideliar has investigated these bloggers, thus saving me an afternoon and evening of obsessive work. And his results are much like my first reaction: “Are you serious?”

As a dues-paying member of the society, I thought, “I wonder who I could give my input to to improve this?” But there doesn’t seem to be any clear contact point on the society’s committees.

Tuesday Crustie: Ten-hut!

Solider crabs (Mictyris longicarpus, I think) on the march.

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

25 October 2010

Don’t feed the BEAR

The Wall Street Journal has a nice article on moves made to increase transparency and accountability of universities.

It focuses on Texas, and starts with one of the most controversial acts so far. Texas A&M publicly posted a “cost / benefit” analysis of each department and faculty. The implication seemed to be, “Everyone should be pulling their own weight, and that means each professor should bring into the university more money than they cost.”

We’ve had similar documents internally at our institution for some time, and I imagine other universities do to. Ours is called the break even analysis report (BEAR). I came out fairly well in one of our last ones, because I teach introductory biology. Biology in general comes out well, because we have a lot of majors.

I don't like the attitudes I've seen such reports engender. They do not promote collegiality.

I don’t know that any business operates under a scheme where every item must be equally profitable. In every business, some items subsidize the rest. Not every movie in the theater recoups its costs. Not every TV show is a hit. Some things fly off the shelves, while others sit there unsold even when there’s no other choice.

Another potential problem with releasing such a report publicly is that it doesn’t emphasize variation over time. Just like a business, some times are profitable, and some are not. If one department is down a million dollars this year, it might be in the black by an equal amount the next.

The article also discusses other laws the Texas legislature (which is, you might recall, largely dominated by a party that advocates small government) has imposed on universities.

As someone working under these new laws, some of them are well intentioned but I’m not convinced they will help either students or taxpayers more generally. For instance, we now have to have a class syllabus up months before the start of classes. We have until next Monday to get ours up for the spring semester.

It's questionable how important students think a syllabus is. Put something up that far in advance often means that you can't put in very much detail. Because we're busy with the current semester, we don't have a heck of a lot of time to figure out what we're going to do next semester. So it encourages a minimal, generic syllabus.

Similarly, we now have to put up a curriculum vita. Again, I wonder what the average undergraduate, or their parents, for that matter, is going to get out of a listing of my publications. I have no problem with people knowing (it's all over my home page), but how does it help them? How does it help the typical student pick classes, or decide what university to attend, or any of the other routine decisions that they make?

Picture by jepoirrier on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

22 October 2010

When is yawning contagious?

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s a little embarrassing.

Despite being about as familiar and as commonplace as you can get, we still don’t have a clear understanding of why humans yawn.

We know we start yawning early. We know we yawn when we’re tired. We know we yawn when we’re bored. And we know that yawning can sometimes be contagious. But the function, the why, has been elusive.

A new paper by Giganti and Zilli ties together a couple of yawning’s features: that the amount people yawn varies throughout the day, and that yawns can be contagious. But does the contagiousness of yawns vary throughout the day?

First, their got subjects to record their sleepiness and yawns over several days in a logbook. Now, self-report data always has concerns about accuracy (do people remember right, record immediately, or write things to make themselves look good), but because this is just baseline data on a fairly neutral subject, we’ll move on.

Second, they tested their subjects several times on a single day, showing them either people yawning or smiling, and recording the yawns generated in response.

Most of the results are not surprising. More yawns when people report their feeling sleeping. More yawns when people are shown pictures of yawns compared to smiles. The main finding of interest is that they claim there is a significant interaction between the time of day and how contagious yawns are.

Yawns are most contagious at 7:30 pm.

At every other time they tested during the day, the spontaneous yawns (determined from the logbook) were greater than the yawns triggered by the experimental stimulus of watching yawning people. Only in the early evening did the triggered yawns exceed the expected rate. They didn’t perform any post-hoc tests on their groups, however, so it’s not clear if any of the other four times had significantly more spontaneous yawning than induced yawning.

Interaction effects have a reputation as being unstable, so it would be very interesting to see these results replicated.

These results might nudge us a little closer to understanding why we yawn. The paper suggests there are at least two kinds of yawns. A spontaneous yawn and a yawn in a social setting may well be entirely different beasts that need different explanations. Maybe the reason yawns have thwarted our efforts to understand them is that a single explanation for yawns you make alone completely fail when you try to apply it to yawns you make around other people.

P.S.—Yawns during the writing of this post: At least three. I hope that if you yawn during this post, it’s a contagious yawn, and not one triggered by boredom!


Giganti F., & Zilli I. (2010). The daily time course of contagious and spontaneous yawning among humans Journal of Ethology. DOI: 10.1007/s10164-010-0242-0

Tiger photo by by Tambako the Jaguar on Flickr; baby photo by Twob on Flickr. Both used under a Creative Commons license.

21 October 2010

Interesting is overrated

Scientists are usually cerebral people. We live in our heads. As Randy Olson has argued, that doesn’t help us. One of his main pieces of advice is, “Don’t be so cerebral.”

Bono helps make this point in this interview:

If you take musicians away from the stage too much, they become quite abstract in their heads. They start to use words like “interesting.” But people don’t want to see you do something interesting. They want something passionate or wild.

“Interesting” is the moment musicians scratch their chin. It ruins great and dramatic music. You listen to the Sex Pistols or Nirvana or the first MGMT album and you don't scratch your chin. You say, “Wow, that’s extraordinary.”

And I know that scientists are always saying something is interesting. I’m guilty of it myself, and I know because one of my research students told me flat out, “‘Interesting’ is overrated!”

Sharp edges and soft science

I was vaguely aware that some store tried to change its logo, and it backfired. This is not surprising. These things happen. New Coke, anyone?

What is surprising are some of the reasons that a consulting firm, which is supposed to be informed by neuroscience, offered for why the new logo failed. I was stopped dead by this one:

Our brains, being hard-wired to avoid sharp edges, react negatively to the sharp edges of the blue cube cutting into the round curve of the letter "p".

What evidence is there that our brains are hard-wired to avoid sharp edges? What would that even look like?

I tried looking in Google Scholar for "sharp edge avoidance" and I got ecology papers about animals avoiding the edge of their habitats. "brain sharp edges" gave me a mish-mash of articles, none on target. Can anyone provide references that would support this claim?

Now, it is definitely true that many visual systems are wired to be very good at edge detection. Keffer Hartline won a Nobel prize for showing how the eyes of horseshoe crabs would enhance edges using lateral inhibition, mutual inhibitory connections between parts of the eye. Similar things happen in mammalian eyes, which I might say suggests that our brains think sharp edges are not sharp enough! But detection and enhancement of visual edges is not avoidance.

To take another tack, our ancestors got us where we are in part by careful creation of sharp edges, making tools of flint and obsidian. Would that have been possible if we were hard-wired to avoid sharp edges?

It’s also a little insulting to argue that our brains are so stupid that we can’t distinguish visual overlap from actual, physical, cutting objects.

Other elements of the analysis of the logo are better. But if this is representative of the level of science offered by this consulting firm, it’s not encouraging. That this is being put out by a press release is also indicative of what’s going on here: someone with a start up is trying to drum up business. Pity that New Scientist took the bait.

Additional: Mo has another take.

20 October 2010

Science editorials and buyer beware

(With sincere acknowledgments to Sts. Murray and Kern)

If you are a science reader, you hope that scientific journals are grounded in fact. As scholars publishing in scientific journals, we value the importance of known authors providing empirical evidence that has been vetted by peer review. We know, however, that journals are interested in retaining their readership and may resort to various manipulations to increase their so-called “Impact Factor.” By extension, editors could inflate Impact Factors by explicitly publishing controversial articles; mundane articles could result in a reduction of impact. The practice of looking for papers that are known to be of interest to the general media is well known. I firmly believe that this system does not serve science well and has to tendency of corrupting scientific literature.

The lay public – people outside the scientific profession – receives a murky mixed message from scientific journals. The usual empirical papers may be mixed with opinion and conjecture and policy recommendations, sometimes only peripherally related to science. We science scholars should be very concerned about how the others might perceive these ideas.

Given the above, the current phenomenon of “editorials” should be of serious concern to scientists. Editorials often allegedly present the journal’s “position” (more properly, random stuff). With the increasing move of journals onto the internet, these unvetted rantings can find a much larger audience than was possible in the past. The issues with credibility are obvious: a) They often have no references. b) They are often anonymous. c) In some journals, they refer to breaking events that occurred in the previous week, which hardly makes it plausible that they have gone through a thorough peer review process. Who fact-checks these? They could be written to promote an agenda—to encourage insane working hours, to denigrate trainees for their lack of “passion,” to make sweeping generalizations about the quality and reliability of writers using particular kinds of software, etc.—without the constraint of truth. Where are the journal’s feedback loops the publish criticisms of the positions that border on the laughable or outright balmy? A letter that is often limited to a tiny fraction of the original article?

I would warn everyone to beware. But I’m a blogger with no published cancer research, so am clearly unreliable and uncommitted.

19 October 2010

Tuesday Crustie: Valleys and mountains

Valley folds and mountain folds, that is: the basic origami folds that were probably used many times in creating this lovely paper hermit crab.

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

18 October 2010

Octopus awareness with Jennifer Mather

My former undergrad supervisor, Jennifer Mather, is interviewed at Cephalove.

Scientist’s oath

Of all the many, many forensic crime shows on television right now, Bones is my favourite.

I recognize more of myself, and the people I work with, and the jobbing scientists I meet at conferences, in the characters in Bones than in any other police procedural. Sure, the show’s characters are caricatures of scientists, but like all good caricatures, they work because they accentuate what is genuinely there.

I get Temperance Brennan and her literal-mindedness and her bluntness. I get Hodgins and his slightly goofy excitement over running the experiment that gives you the answer.

The Bones writers have a better grasp on the mentality of scientists than most other shows. On most other shows, the scientists seem more like a mouthpiece to show off the writer’s clever research. Sometimes they’re good characters – even great and engaging ones – but they don’t generate that same feeling of recognition that I get all the time watching Bones.

Case in point: The most recent episode, “The Body and The Bounty” (Season 6, Episode 4), has a B story where Brennan is asked to appear on a kid’s science show with Bunsen Jude the Science Dude (a clear nod to Bill Nye the Science Guy). In the end, we see the show, and Brennan leads an audience of kids in a “scientist’s oath”:

We see big stars
Tiny atoms, too
Because that’s what scientists do
We get the facts
And say what’s true
Because that’s what scientists do
We use our minds
And praise what’s new
Because that is what scientists do

And damn it if that didn’t get to me just a little bit. They got it. They managed to encapsulate a lot of the things that matter to me as a scientist.

You can watch the episode online. It’s worth watching all the way from the beginning to get the payoff at the end.

15 October 2010

Comments for first half of October 2010

Weinersmith asks what doctoral project will land you at a big and fancy research institution. I don’t think one exists.

Malaria, Bed Bugs, Sea Lice, & Sunsets has a poster to share.

Can you beat my time on the circle puzzle that Amanda posted on her Astropixie blog? Probably.

Casey Rentz at Noticing / Science ends a post on blindness and neural plasticity with a quote from Darwin. Or does he?

13 October 2010

It’s National Fossil Day!

It’s National Fossil Day here in the United States! What a wonderful idea!

How many people have been inspired to pursue science in part because of fossils? For some, seeing those massive skeletons of prehistoric beasts in museums. For others, it might have been finding fossil shells out in their backyard.

In honor of this, I’d like to share a fossil I keep handy...

My parents gave me this after mentioning on this blog I wanted a fossil I could carry around in case of emergency.

My trilobite taxonomy is a little weak, so I can’t tell you anything about the species. If anyone can say anything more specific about it, I’d love to hear from you!

12 October 2010

Texas State Board of Education candidates on teaching evolution

Just a quick pointer to Houston Chronicle coverage of a debate by candidates for the Texas State Board of Education. As is often the case, candidates are asked specifically about their views on evolution.

Republican Marsha Farney, of Georgetown, and Democrat Judy Jennings, of Austin, both of whom have doctoral degrees in education, meet in the Nov. 2 election to replace the retiring Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond.

The social conservatives already lost one of their leaders — Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, in a GOP primary election earlier this year. McLeroy calls himself a “young Earth creationist,” who believes dinosaurs coexisted with humans.

“No, I don’t believe that dinosaurs and humans walked the earth at the same time. That’s outrageous,” Jennings said during the debate. “This is what our state board of education has become — an object of ridicule.

“If you want to teach creationism, you can teach it in church; you can teach it in a philosophy class. You can teach it in a world religion class, but it has no place in science,” she said.

Farney, also rejecting any possibility of dinosaurs and humans sharing the planet, said parents should be responsible for teaching faith and values.

On the face of it, it looks like both candidates would me more moderate on the subject of evolution than the woman they would be replacing, Cynthia Dunbar.

Tuesday Crustie: World traveller

An impressive little copepod, Ceratonotus steiningeri, half a millimetre long, that lives in both the Atlantic and Pacific.

From a New Scientist gallery.

11 October 2010

Should sprinting shape scorpion’s stingers?

ResearchBlogging.orgWe may think of scorpions as all bad ass, but scorpions still have to be careful. They have a painful sting, but some animals have evolved immunity to that. Even if they can drive off a predator with a sting, a scorpion close enough to sting its attacker is close enough to be damaged by its attacker.

In many cases, the best bet for a scorpion is to run away.

Temperature could play a big part whether scorpions get away from an attacker. Scorpions are ectotherms, so their performance is profoundly shaped by the external temperature. Daily temperatures can vary quite widely where scorpions live, particularly in desert regions.

Carlson and Rowe took a look at how temperature and drying affected bark scorpions (Centruroides vittatus). They didn’t have real predators in the lab, but instead tested how those two factors affected scorpion’s running and stinging abilities.

Cooled animals ran slower, which was not surprising. What was surprising was that scorpions that were partly dried out ran faster than normal controls. The authors speculate that this is is because animals that have lost water are lighter. It suggests that the physiological tolerance of these scorpions to water loss is fairly high, because you would expect at some point that water loss would be bad.

Tangentially, Carlson and Rowe rated the running speed of their animals, and concluded that males ran faster than females, who ran faster than juveniles. Unfortunately, this comparison isn’t very informative, because they didn’t measure the size of the animals. The authors mention that many of the females were gravid, and imply that mass could be factor. And it’s easy to imagine body size would also be a factor: a bigger body means longer legs, which means a longer stride length. All animals ran the same distance (half a meter), rather than some distance relative to their body size.

One hypothesis floated in the discussion is that the sprinting results might explain a difference in the shape of the stingers between males and females. The females are slower when reproducing. Running is not a good option for them compared to males. They authors suggest that the longer, thinner stinger of the males not be as good for delivering repeated stings as the thicker stinger brandished by females.

This hypothesis is somewhat deflated, because they found no significant differences between males and females in stinging behaviour! The authors do make the claim that some of the comparisons between males and females are “almost significant.” Sorry, but I’m hard-assed about this: you either meet the criterion, or you do not. It’s possible that a more detailed analysis, with a different threat stimuli, might reveal some differences.

Chilly scorpions took longer and stung less often than those at room temperature and up. Stinging was not affected by temperature as much as running was. These particular scorpions are not all that aggro: the authors had more success in getting them to run away.

The authors did not test whether scorpions’ stinging behaviour was affected by drying them out. This is an odd omission, given that the title of this paper promising an examination of both temperature and drying on antipredator behaviours in general.


Carlson B & Rowe M. 2009. Temperature and desiccation effects on the antipredator behavior of Centruroides vittatus (Scorpiones: Buthidae). Journal of Arachnology 37(3): 321-330. DOI: 10.1636/Hi09-06.1

Top photo by Wyatt Berka 2010 on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

08 October 2010

Keeping it pointless

Can a class ever be a game?

I’ve often tried to take lessons from gaming and apply them to teaching (or at least, thinking about teaching). This thought-provoking presentation, which I discovered via Julie Dirksen’s Usable Learning blog, suggests that this might be impossible.

You’ll have to see this one full screen to read the comments at the bottom, but it is worth it.

In addition to the points raised in the presentation, social norms may be just too entrenched for students to ever accept an instructor’s invitation to play, rather than play along.

As a bonus, check out this interview with game designer Kellee Santiago, to see why she thinks the GRE is a good example of applying gaming strategy.

Looking for new heights to climb

This is not a place I want to be.

I’m not talking about the physical, geographic place; it looks pretty there. I’m talking about a plateau in my writing and blogging.

I was trying to figure out what post I wanted to enter in the NESCent evolution blogging competition this year. (I lost last year. Rightfully so.) I entered this piece about the evolution of gluttony.

I wasn’t sure how many posts popped. None made me think, “Now that’s good. And it’s better than what I would have written a couple of years ago.”

I got serious about blogging three years ago. I’ve worked hard to see what I could do as a blogger. I aim for a post a day, and have generally made it. I worked my way onto the front page of the blogs with the most posts on ResearchBlogging.

My readership has increased (and thank you for reading), but it has been fairly flat for several months. And other blogs have, I suspect, built more of an audience in less time. And a boy starts to wonder: Should I post less? Should I be more personal? Should I be more focused? Should I go wider? Should I be more confrontational?

In an earlier incarnation of this blog, I had a tagline at the top: “Constant improvement is the samurai way. It’s also the scientific way.”

I want to keep improving. But I’m not sure how to do it now. Restlessness...

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

07 October 2010

Carnivals for October 2010

Circus of the Spineless #55 is hosted by Wild About Ants.

The Carnival of Evolution #28 is at... the Carnival of Evolution!

Carnival of the Blue #41 is hosted by Cephalopodcast this month.

The truth about research statements, I hope

After last week’s posts about teaching statements in tenure-track job applications, it occurred to me that it was only fair to talk about that other thing that job ads always ask for: a “research statement,” or “research plan,” or some other bit of verbiage.

There is probably going to be much variation from institution to institution, and from department to department, on what makes a research statement stand out from the pack. So take what I say with a grain of salt. And I’d love to hear from others in the comments.

My experience has been that the research statement is only part of the research picture. The other half is the CV. That combination of CV and research statement will give a search committee a sense of what kind of scientist you are. The search committee is likely going to be concerned with how your research will “fit” within the department, as I mentioned before. Unfortunately, it can be hard to glean from a job ad what people have in mind as being a good fit.

As for research statements, the most common problem with those I read is that applicants write as though a Nobel prize level expert in their research field is on the search committee. To be safe, they not only talk about their research question, but lay out the first five years of experiments, down to the last reagent catalog number.

This makes for a document that is several pages long, single spaced, with a long reference list.

I don’t want to read all that. In all likelihood, I can’t read all that due to time crunch. And even if I could, I won’t understand it in that level of detail.

I suppose at some larger universities, it is possible that there is a Nobel prize winner on the search committee. But if you do your homework, visit the department website, you can probably figure out whether there is anyone with a high level of expertise in your work. If there is not, you can probably afford to step back a little. Paint the picture with a wider brush and show the forest, rather than drawing every single leaf on every single tree.

In extreme cases, I have only the crudest understanding of what people are working on. My characterization of candidates’ research is along the lives of, “Er, something about bones, I think” or “Was that the cell cycle guy?” (You might suggest that I don’t understand it because I am a crappy scientist with a weak mind – and these are, indeed, deep flaws in my character.)

And I hate being confused.

Meanwhile, while I look ahead to our searches, it’s refreshing to be reminded of what people think of tenure-track jobs at institutions other than Tier I Research Universities.

Additional: Academics tend to have a high tolerance for lengthy writing. Others are not so patient.

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

06 October 2010

How to regrow a limb

Humans can’t grow back severed hands. Not even a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Otherwise, there would be no need for that scene at the end of The Empire Strikes Back showing Luke getting a spiffy new cyborg hand.

What humans need med droids for, amphibians accomplish with ease. Adults can regrow entire limbs. Tadpoles, well, they don’t have limbs yet, but they can regrow their tails. A tail is a complex organ, with nerves, muscle, blood vessels, and the like, so it’s not like regrowing a patch of skin or something. And they can do all this in about a week.

Unless that tadpole is exposed to a little spritz of MS222.

MS222 means no new tail.

ResearchBlogging.orgI’d heard about MS222 before. It’s often used as an anesthetic for fish, and I’d seen it mentioned from time to time as an anesthetic for crustaceans. I didn’t know how it worked, but I learned from a new paper from Tseng and colleagues that MS222 turns out to block voltage-gated sodium channels.

When I learned that, I thought, “A-ha! So that explains why it’s an anesthetic! Because voltage-gated sodium channels initiate action potentials! If you block them, your neurons stop working: they can’t spike.”

But then I thought, “Wait, what? Why should that make a difference in tail regeneration?”

It’s not obvious. Apparently, Tseng and colleagues found this out by screening a lot of chemicals on African clawed frog tadpoles (Xenopus laevis), not because they were specifically testing for anything related to sodium channels. And the dose they were using was so low that it wasn’t acting as an anesthetic or paralytic, so it wasn’t that MS222 was stopping regeneration by knocking the animal out.

From there, the team did a series of experiments aimed at tracking down which kind of sodium channel was involved in regeneration (there are several, slightly different ones). Then, they knocking out the channel with RNA interference, and showed that also blocked tail regeneration.

But it be cooler if we can take a tail that couldn’t regenerate, and make it grow back?

Oh yeah. We can.

Tadpoles can’t regrow their tails when they’re about a month and a half old. The sodium channels aren’t in the tail then. The research team added in a few new sodium channels: through the wonders of genetic manipulation, they added in a gene that’s normally found in mammalian hearts, and voila! Tails are regrowing. They tried another trick to get sodium inside the cells, and that also improved regeneration.

This is obviously exciting stuff. It suggests a whole new way to try to get at regenerating tissues. The authors say that many of the relevant pathways in tadpole regeneration are also present in mammals, although obviously the similarities aren’t perfect. Otherwise, Skywalker wouldn’t need that cyborg hand. Still, this has exciting potential for medical treatment.

I still don’t know why this got published in The Journal of Neuroscience, though. This isn’t a neuroscience paper. It just isn’t. That the ion channels involved are also present in neurons is probably the ostensible reason. But by that logic, you could just as well argue for publishing it in a muscle journal, since there’s muscle in the tail.


Tseng A, Beane W, Lemire J, Masi A & Levin M. 2010. Induction of vertebrate regeneration by a transient sodium current Journal of Neuroscience 30(39): 13192-13200. DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3315-10.2010

05 October 2010

Tuesday Crustie: Fighting Medusa

A fossil crab (Neptunus granulatus) locked in a defense response for some 5-20 million years.

Picture from kevinzim on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

04 October 2010

Why cure disease?

ResearchBlogging.org“Why aren’t you working harder? Don’t you know there are still people dying from cancer?!” That’s the thrust of a sanctimonious, self-righteous editorial by one Scott Kern. See below for other commentaries on it.

You know, even soldiers fighting actual wars where there is immediate and imminent danger to their comrades are given leave.

Kern has lost the plot; he’s forgotten that the main reason we want to cure cancer is so that people can lead fulfilling lives. If you Kern’s argument to its logical extreme, nobody should be doing anything besides work, ever.

As Robin Williams put it in Dead Poet’s Society:

And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

To paraphrase from another piece of pop culture, “(I)f we behave like them, then what is the point in winning?”

Related posts


Kern SE. 2010. Where’s the passion? Cancer Biology & Therapy 10(7): 655-657. DOI: 10.4161/cbt.10.7.12994

01 October 2010

The truth about teaching statements, part 2

Yesterday, I talked about how weak teaching statements by tenure-track job candidates are. I wanted to explore how teaching fits into job applications a little further.

Even in institutions with lots of undergraduate teaching, the research plan is probably going to hold greater sway that the teaching statement. As I mentioned yesterday, the research you want to do will greatly inform whether the institution can hire you. An institution might not be able to support some specialized needs.

More importantly, research statement give a search committee an idea about that intangible quality: how you might “fit” with the department. If you’re a molecular biologist who studies yeast, you might not find a good home in a department that specializes in conservation ecology.

So while a bad teaching statement can take you out of contention, you’re unlikely to get short-listed because of your killer teaching statement.

“Wait. Search committees care about teaching, but don’t invite you to campus because of it? How do they evaluate teaching?”

As I mentioned in the previous instalment, some places do phone interviews and ask teaching questions then.

The most common indicator that search committees and faculty use to evaluate your potential as teacher is your departmental research seminar. The quality of departmental seminars is the most reliable bellwether for who will get the initial job offer.

This is why you should prepare for that seminar like Steve Jobs prepares when he’s going to launch something like the iPhone. It is probably the highest stakes thing most academics will do in their careers.

It is incredibly important that you don’t try to dazzle people with your fancy techniques, but to make sure they understand you. If faculty are lost during your seminar, they are not going to believe that you can make glycolysis and the Krebs cycle clear to first year students.

Photo by icentralarkansas on Flickr, and used under a Creative Commons license.

Comments for second half of September 2010

Tideliar asks if we should teach grant writing to post-docs. That wasn’t the hard part for me.

Jerry Coyne looks at the impact of hybridization in speciation on his blog Why Evolution is True.

Juniorprof looks at a preprint describing a possible ion channel for vertebrate mechanotreception.

Jessa Gamble gives a TED talk on sleep that has many crying out for more, but anyone familiar with invertebrates is just left crying.

Robert Oakes asks if there is ever a need for a written document to have two people working on it at once.

Lisa Rau on Square Syndrome talks about how instructors keep referring to their students as “kids.”