29 July 2011

Taxonomists as science survivalists

ResearchBlogging.orgJust over a week ago, a vote by botanists at the International Botanical Congress decided to allow species names to be considered valid if they are published only electronically. Nature talks about this in this editorial. (Not only were botanists wedded to paper publication, but having species descriptions in Latin. Latin? I had no idea.)

Zoologists, from what I’ve read so far, think that botanists made a bad decision.

Because zoologists are bitter about their floppy disks.

Okay, perhaps not floppies specifically, but many people arguing against electronic publication have some variation of, “I used to have stuff on this kind of electronic media, and now it’s unreadable.” (One person went back to punch cards.)

This is a valid concern. I wrote about the importance of stable archiving less than a year ago. But there is a huge difference between personal archiving and institutional archiving. No, you may not be able to get information on your old floppy disks. But why would you want to?

I have floppy disks sitting within arm’s reach of my right now. I haven’t need them in years because I’ve transferred the files over. For instance, I have a quote file with favourite quotes. I’ve had it running since the mid-1980s, which is a pretty decent track record for longevity. And it’s surprising how many things that I once thought to be inaccessible to me forever more have returned, in some cases better than ever. Video games. Movies and television (seeing some movies restored is a revelation). Arguably, moving to digital will give us more fidelity over time, not less.

If we understand that archiving is important, we will plan for updating to new formats as we go. The commitment to archiving is what matters, not the archival medium. To say something counts as factual knowledge because it’s on paper in a building someplace is to give too much weight to the medium.

A complete insistence on paper is an academic version of survivalism: “Yeah, but what do we do when the zombie apocalypse hits? What if civilization collapses and we have to rebuild society with no modern infrastructure and power? We need to stockpile supplies and ammo. It could happen. When there’s no more Internet and the electrical grid has collapsed, then we’ll be really glad we put all this important stuff on paper in libraries.”

To play devil’s advocate, what has paper done for name stability, really?

I’ve been writing up a sand crab project the last couple of weeks, and have been consulting a monograph on the group (Boyko 2002) frequently. One obscure genus in this family is Stemonopa. Yet it has also been identified in the peer-reviewed scientific literature as Stemenopa, Stemenops, and Stomonopa, leading Boyko to comment:

Given the limited number of times this genus has been cited in the literature, it is remarkable that three incorrect spellings have been given.

Then we have Albunea symmysta, whose species name has also been listed in the literature as symnista, gymnista, lymnista, Symniste, symnysta, symnestra, and symmista.

The counter-argument is that because all of that is on paper, people can still go back and check all those original records. And that’s fair. The concern over stability is valid. But I think there is far too much trepidation about moving into the millennium by taxonomists.

As it is, they’re already a day late and dollar short.

Additional: Speaking of archiving, the man who created the Internet Archive wants to create an archive of one copy of every book ever printed. Ambitious, to say the least.

Related posts

Scientific publishing and tree-shaped frosted sugar cookies


Anonymous. 2011. Origin of species. Nature 475(7357): 424. DOI: 10.1038/475424a

Boyko CB. 2002. A worldwide revision of the recent and fossil sand crabs of the Albuneidae Stimpson and Blepharipodidae, new family (Crustacea, Decapoda, Anomura, Hippoidea). Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 272(1): 1-396. http://dx.doi.org/10.1206/0003-0090(2002)272<0001:AWROTR>2.0.CO;2

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

28 July 2011

Taking roll, and then what?

Ray Paredes, the Commissioner of Higher Education for Texas, thinks that making universities more like high school will help more students graduate with their bachelor’s degree. In this article (also San Antonio Express-News), he is quoted as saying:

Paredes said institutions must find cheap ways to improve student retention, such as taking roll and requiring students to visit professors during office hours.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that we take roll and say, “Come to office hours!”

Then what?

What are we supposed to do if half the class never comes to “mandatory” office hours? Fail them? Somehow, I don’t think that’s the outcome Paredes is looking for.

I can tell the commissioner that at my institution, we require third- and fourth-year students to come to us professors to get advisement before registering. We see only a small fraction of the students we are supposed to advise.

Similarly, it is not at all clear what tracking attendance is supposed to accomplish. Again, I do this all the time for my classes using clickers, and it does not perceptibly dent attendance rates. I haven’t run statistics or done a trial, yet, though. Students have told me that they think they are more likely to come to class if I track attendance, but there is a well-known difference between what people say they will do and what they actually do.

Students in universities are adult human beings, there of their own free will. (Maybe with some persuasion from relatives.) University education is not compulsory. People are still allowed to stop going to university, right? There are a lot of reasons that people stop going to universities, and many – I daresay most – are not something that the institution, or the state, has a lot of control over.

I bet a lot of the reasons why students drop out are financial. One of the best things the state could do to increase completion rates is just to keep higher education affordable. Texas has a mixed record in affordability.

Moving along, Paredes also noted:

Soon, a portion of state funding will be linked to graduation and retention rates.

Well, at least it’s only a portion of funding. The College Guide blog has been examining the many states looking to link funding with graduation rates across the U.S. Their conclusion: No evidence that it works.

The effectiveness of the performance-based funding for state universities shouldn’t be a total mystery, however. According to the article, “at least seven states - Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Washington - use performance-based goals in their funding formulas for higher education. Some of the plans, such as Tennessee’s, date back three decades.”

Three decades? Interesting. Well how well is that working out in Tennessee? Did performance-based funding satisfy tax critics and increase the percentage of adults with college degrees? Only 24 percent of Tennesseans have college degrees, that’s below the national average.

27 July 2011

Ground squirrel manor

Saw these cute little juveniles walking into work this morning.

What to do when plagiarized?

When I set up my Google Scholar profile last week, I found a new paper that cited on one mine. Curious, I went and read the paper to see how and why it had cited mine.

I was disappointed to read two citations to my paper and see that both sentences liberally adopted the phrasing from my paper. I saw this degree of similarity between a research paper and one from one of my students, I would fail them.

I was plagiarized.

It’s a small amount, but it’s the principle of the thing. I want to do something about it, but after thinking about it, it seems there is little I can do. Email the editor? To do what? It's not like it's enough to warrant a retraction. Email the author? Just the thing to make me seem small and petty.

It seems all I can do is be disappointed.

Authors! Have you found others who have lifted your sentences out of your papers and plunked them in front of a reference in their own paper? Did it matter to you?

26 July 2011

Post-mortem on Texas science supplements hearings

Just a couple more retrospectives on the latest Texas State Board of Education hearings, which ended with the most decisive win for teaching evolution seen for Texas K-12 in quite some time.

Thoughts from Kansas details how a single creationist in a review panel gave a list of “errors” to one publisher, Holt McDougal, that weren’t (mentioned before). Josh also talks about the importance of personal connections:

The really fun and effective parts of these hearings are the parts I can't talk about, the behind the scenes negotiations, the quiet conversations, the preparatory outreach and research that makes it possible for friendly board members to ask the right questions at the right time, to resist bad deals and to forge good ones.

A Dallas Observer blog, Edumication News, also has details on the creationist “errors” here.

But when it came to a biology panel making its recommendations, an evolutionary skeptic named Dr. David Shormann – who happens to run a Christian math and science education software company and authored the book “The Exchange of Truth: Liberating the World From the Lie of Evolution” – appears to have had a lot of input.

The Dallas Observer has another article bemoaning the lack of transparency.

Normally the board would be undergoing a lengthy public process to adopt new textbooks, but the state blew all that book money on tasers for Rick Perry’s security detail. You could have seen some of the proposed supplemental materials if you'd bothered to file a public records request. You did that, right? No? So much for “let there be light.”

Additional: Supportive editorials from the Corpus Christi Caller Times, Beaumont Enterprise, and Austin American-Statesman, and San Antonio Express-News.

Tuesday Crustie: Withdrawn

A hermit crab (identified by photographer as Coenobita clypeatus) that is probably very ready to get out and move to a higher quality shell.

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

25 July 2011

I will give you a reason to fear the night

The lion wasn’t roaring.

It was making sounds, all right, while I was sitting next to the lion enclosure in the Melbourne Zoo. Metal fences separated the lions and me when one started vocalizing.

The lion wasn’t growling, either. It’s hard to describe the sound it was making. It was a raspy, open mouthed sound, almost like someone breathing hard after exercise. But the lion was just walking slowly, not in any way winded.

But that sound had so much power.

I think I almost stopped breathing when I heard the lion, and blew out a “Whoa”-like sound when it stopped. The phrase “spine tingling” described the sound and my response to it. You could feel the size of the animal making that sound.

I never felt so vulnerable in my entire adult life.

When I heard that sound, I stopped thinking of myself as a fairly tall man in an urban setting, and suddenly imagined what would be different if that metal didn’t separate us. I understood as I never had before, in that deep in your bones kind of way, how completely helpless a human faced with a lion would be. No wonder that lions made such a deep mark on human culture.

ResearchBlogging.orgThat experience sprung back to my mind when I saw the title of a new paper on lion attacks on humans. The authors compiled over 20 years of data on lion attacks on humans and other animals to figure out when lions pose the greatest threat.

After sorting through over 1,000 attacks in Tanzania – including what must have been a slightly distressing task of following up and doing interviews about 500 of the attacks – Packer and colleagues found a pattern that is surprisingly easy to describe.

First, lions are most likely to attack humans right after sundown.

Second, the risk increases in the nights after the full moon. The authors claim this pattern claim other lion prey suffer elevated risk both before and after the full moon, not just after it as with humans. (This conclusion is based on observations of lions’ belly size rather than actual attack records.)

This part of the research is sold and interesting, albeit perhaps slightly plagued by some strange decisions in the graphics. For instance, Figure 1 has regression lines that the authors say are “only presented to provide a visual guide to the overall trends.” I’m not sure what that means, but I suspect it means those lines are meaningless and could have been left out.

The paper disappoints in the introduction (one paragraph) and discussion (two paragraphs). The paper is a super short four pages, excluding all the supplemental materials, so it’s not as though the authors didn’t have the space to elaborate a little.

The authors make the speculative claim that these results explain two human behaviours: Why humans are afraid of the dark, and why people associate the full moon with trouble.

The first one is certainly the less controversial idea of the two. Let me put it this way. This is not a mistakes our ancestors could not have made if they wanted to survive:

I will note that for centuries, human attacks on other humans were also widely reported to have occurred at night. Any unease with darkness we inherited from our ancestors could certainly have been enhanced by other dangers.

The idea that these patterns might explain why humans associate the full moon with trouble is not well supported. Packer and colleagues rightly note that lions used to have a wider range, but they say:

(T)igers, jaguars and leopards still co-exist with people in Asia, Africa and tropical America.

They are implying that all those big cats are likely to have the same preference for attacking humans in the nights following the full moon, just like lions. But there are no data supporting that. Different species are different. Humans aren’t like other prey species to lions, so it may well be that lions aren’t like other predator species to humans.

Although we are safest from lion attacks during well-lit nights, the full moon accurately indicates that the risks of lion predation will increase dramatically in the coming days.

But that’s not any “attitude” or “superstition” about the full moon that I’ve ever heard. The superstition isn’t that monsters come out after the full moon goes away, it’s that humans act differently during the full moon. It’s rather odd to offer an explanation for attitudes that people don’t believe.

That said, I freely admit I have not completed an exhaustive cross-cultural study of human superstitions regarding the moon. But the paper is rather light on cultural references in that regard, too.

I’m puzzled as to why the authors wanted to play up this strange evolutionary psychology angle to the story. Speculative “just so” stories of adaptation seem so insignificant in a project about humans getting attacked and eaten by lions.

Just like I felt looking across the zoo at that lion.

External links

Other takes on this paper:

Moon wanes, Leo rises by Ed Yong
The lion eats tonight by Scicurious


Packer C, Swanson A, Ikanda D, Kushnir H. 2011. Fear of darkness, the full moon and the nocturnal ecology of African lions. PLoS ONE 6(7): e22285. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0022285

Photo by by jsohn1@pacbell.net on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

23 July 2011

The new Texas State Board of Education

It seems that the change of several Texas State Board of Education members in the last election is having an effect.

Yesterday, the Board adopted the supplemental K-12 science materials recommended by the Texas Education Agency. The proposal that included intelligent design materials got nowhere. The charge that one publisher’s material contained “errors” related to evolution (apparently merging from one reviewer, a Creationist, not a consensus of reviewers) was worked out. It is being sent back to the Texas Education Agency for review and revision, and won’t be subject (as far as I can make out) to the Board’s penchant for last-minute copy-editing.

It is being declared a complete victory for correct scientific information. This is a big change from the last time the board talked biology.

But while it seems the tide has turned, this is, of course, not the end. This article details the various strategies that fundamentalist Christians have taken to attack teaching of best available science in public schools.

As always, Steve Schafersman and Texas Freedom Network have summaries, live-blogged from the event.

22 July 2011

Supplemental debates in Texas: Good news

Yesterday, the Texas State Board of Education reviewed some of the proposed supplemental materials for the sciences in K-12 classrooms in Texas.

The supplemental material from International Databases, which was explicitly teaching intelligent design (see previous posts: first, second, third), was voted down. Unanimously. That is good news.

Slightly worrying, however, are reports of one publisher getting a list of last minute “errors.” One of the “errors” was telling, as Thoughts From Kansas reports:

(T)he reviewer objected to the passage: “Darwin observed anatomical features of organisms and hypothesized that organisms that appear similar have a more recent common ancestor than do organisms that do not appear similar. Modern biology proves on the molecular level what Darwin noticed on the anatomical level. The number of amino acid differences in homologous proteins of different species is proportional to the length of time that has passed since the two species shared a common ancestor. Thus, the more similar the homologous proteins are in different species, the more closely related the species are thought to be.”

Instead, they wanted the second sentence and after replaced with: “Yet modern biochemical phylogenies often contradict Darwin's anatomical phylogenies.” (There may have been more after that, but if so, it was cut off in reproduction.) This is rather dramatically different. The first is true and justifiable scientifically, while the latter means essentially the opposite, and is not true.

The problem is the weasel word “often.” I can find plenty of cases where morphology and molecules generate different suggested relationships. I will probably be blogging about some in crustacean taxonomy at some point. But there are a lot of trees out there, and morphology and molecules agree far more often than not.

Yesterday, the board voted against a representative from the publisher to address the board regarding the alleged “errors.”

What will happen with this publisher will be determined today. This may be where the sparks fly.

Reviews of yesterday’s events can be found at Texas Freedom Network, Thoughts From Kansas, and Steve Schafersman.

20 July 2011

Google Scholar profiles

Google Scholar (which I ♥ to no end) has a new feature. You can create a profile about you and your research publications. It lists your papers and some citation metrics, and you can add in affiliations, a picture, and so on.

My profile is here. There are problems, of course, in anything generated by an automatic process. I had to delete a couple of entries that were “Index to authors.” Some of the citations are blog posts rather than genuine journal articles. But it’s an interesting tool for something still in the early beta testing phase.

Click here to get started making your own profile.

Hat tip to Jeremy Yoder.

19 July 2011

Tuesday Crustie: Spherical

 An unindentified terrestrial crustacean. Some manner of isopod, I should think.

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

16 July 2011

Comments for first half of July 2011

DrugMonkey reviews a case up the road from me, in San Antonio, about a professor suing her institution for not keeping its promises on start-up. We both hope she wins.

PostDoc Forum has a list of networking tips.

GertyZ has done a great service by starting a list of female speakers who will rock your seminar. She also delves into the mysteries of the indirect costs of American federal grants, which I just know you’re interested in. Right? Right?

Namnezia asks where project ideas emerge from. And there is a celebration of one year of blogging.

ProfGears wonders how people decide to not review a paper.

Travis at Science of Blogging asks if scientists who give TED Talks can be trusted. Of course not – none of us can be trusted. Especially not me.

Canadian Girl Postdoc ponders academic charisma.

The Dangerous Experiments guest blog discusses how to give a good thesis defence.

Jarrett Byrnes talks about how his newest paper on kelp bed food webs came to be. I’m a sucker for those kinds of stories.

petermr’s blog asked, “What is the reason for having Impact Factors in 2011?

At Molecular Love, Brooke LaFlamme saved me the trouble of writing a blog post about a new paper on spider sex.

15 July 2011

Excuse me, your lobster is buzzing

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s easy to think of sounds when you think about many animals. Singing birds. Whining cicadas. Roaring lions. Vibrating lobsters.

Okay, maybe that last one was not so familiar.

There’s a series of quite elegant papers on sound in spiny lobsters, mainly coming from Sheila Patek’s lab. They make squeaking sorts of sounds in a way like running your finger over a wet plate.

Clawed lobsters are different line of crustaceans from spiny lobsters, and they make sound in a different way. What is clear is that clawed lobsters make the sound by vibrating their exoskeleton. It’s a very different way of making sounds than spiny lobsters and most other arthropods, most of which rub two limbs together. The sound made by clawed lobsters was first described 45 years ago, but there hasn't been a lot of research on it since.

Ward and colleagues took up the challenge to answer what the function of the sound is. And I say “challenge,” because while clawed lobsters can make sound, they are reluctant to. It’s rare for lobsters to vibrate; only about 7% did so in a previous study.

Freakin’ divas.

For these experiments, the authors went through 1,000 lobsters and picked out those that vibrated when tested twice, ending up with just 47 out of that thousand.

Ward and colleagues placed their young lobsters in tanks alone (control), with other lobsters, with one of two species of live fish, and fake fish.

The lobsters would make sounds in all conditions. But the two conditions where the lobsters made sound the most often, by a long shot, was when they were with the fish. And the lobsters didn’t sound off just any old time when the fish were in the tank, but were much more likely to do it when the fish approached the lobster.

Then, the lobster would “buzz.” The sound is loud, too – 118 decibels sound pressure level, which is around pneumatic drill volumes. The lobster would do this without typical “claws up” aggro behaviour that lobsters make.

And the fish would back off. For striped bass, the few fish they tested (a grand total of three) would stay away from the lobster for half an hour.

The lobster would do the same thing to fake fish, too. This strongly suggests that the main function of this sound is predator deterrence.

Why this sound is effective is mysterious, as is why the lobster seem to make it so rarely. I would like to have seen recordings of the buzz played back to the fish to ensure that the sound alone ward off the fish. Here, all the sounds were made by the lobsters as far. The fishes used were pretty small, too, so the fish might not have been much of a real threat to the lobsters. Would the sound would be enough to deter a bigger fish? Would the lobster be more likely to “buzz” when confronted with a bigger fish?

Why the lobsters made sounds to each other is also not at all clear. Lobsters seemed not to do anything in response to the sound, though they can probably here it.

Even more mysterious are those rare times that the lobsters were alone. What would lobster be doing that for?

Maybe just because it felt gooooooooooood.


Ward D, Morison F, Morrissey E, Jenks K, Watson W. 2011. Evidence that potential fish predators elicit the production of carapace vibrations by the American lobster. The Journal of Experimental Biology 214(15): 2641-2648. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.057976

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

14 July 2011

Should a tortoise take advice from a mayfly?

A memo came in that stated that we faculty had to take account of “the political reality.”

I couldn’t help but think of the saying, “A week is a long time in politics.” Their horizon of concern is usually about four years long. Political fortunes wax and wane.

Faculty, on the other hand, can have a career at an institution that runs about thirty years from associate professor to retirement at 65. They’ll typically see deans, chairs, provosts, and presidents turn over with about the same frequency as elected officials.

Should a tortoise take advice from a mayfly?

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

13 July 2011

Bats marry the night

We know what Bruce Wayne picked as a “creature of the night”: a bat.

But why are bats so strongly nocturnal? Why don’t we see bats out flying around in the daytime (besides a few out on remote islands)? After all, most people can quickly think of one line of birds that is largely nocturnal.

If a bird had flown through Bruce Wayne’s window, we might have had a very different character in stately Wayne Manor.

ResearchBlogging.orgVoigt and Lewanzik test an hypothesis that bats fly at night because they can’t take the heat during the day. Bats face particular problems dealing with high temperatures. First, flying is hard work! The energetic cost of flying is about 10 times more than resting levels. Second, bats’ dark wings soak up a lot of light energy and have no sweat glands for cooling.

Testing this idea is not difficult – in theory. Fly bats by day. Fly bats by night. Measure their metabolic costs in both conditions and compare. Testing this idea is much trickier in practice. Bats are small and they need a lot of room to fly. I had a tough time understanding the methods they used to determine the metabolic costs of the bats. They involve a lot of chemical isotopes. Also math.

They authors used short-tailed fruit bats (Carollia perspicillata). This species live in the tropics near the equator, and so is one that would not be expected to face great extremes between night and day temperatures.

At the end, the authors found that the bats’ metabolism went up 15% when they flew in the day compared to when they flew at night. Daytime body temperature went up a couple of degrees, too, which is noteworthy considering that we usually think of mammals as regulating their core body temperatures very closely.

The authors do note that all of their results don’t mean that dealing with heat is the one and only reason that bats are nocturnal. Several factors could be working in combination to keep bats married to the night.

The authors mention that bats might be able to reduce their metabolic costs of daylight flight if only they didn’t have such dark wings. If they had light coloured wings, so much more energy would be reflected off the wings that the energetic costs might be manageable. Mammals can have light fur and skin, but the authors suggest that this might make them easier targets for predators to see.

Plus, if bats were light coloured, we might have had this:

Barely registers on the “striking terror into the heart” scale.


Voigt C, Lewanzik D. 2011. Trapped in the darkness of the night: thermal and energetic constraints of daylight flight in bats. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences: In press. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2010.229

Bat photo by guppiecat on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.What if Bruce Wayne had not become the Batman? from here.

12 July 2011

Walking out

I just walked out of a meeting.

I was mightily aggravated by an individual first calling for dialogue, then some time late making a statement that basically indicated to me that he was not prepared to listen to anything contrary to one point and that there was not going to be any discussion on it.

I said, “Okay. Bye.” And I got up and left.

I’m probably going to take some heat for that. But when one side is not going to move, I couldn’t see any point in sitting there any more.

Tuesday Crustie: A fifty year wait for a name

This picture appeared in a wonderful gallery in The Guardian about life on the island of New Guinea a couple of weeks ago.

But in the original paper, you will find another spectacular picture. And before you ask, yes, this is actually the same species:

ResearchBlogging.orgThis second picture is probably more representative of the colouration of the species in the wild. In the paper describing it formally, the authors say its colour is, “Pinkish to orange and sometimes pale yellow.” My understanding is that many species of crayfish have a recessive gene that can result in this bright blue colour. This means that it is easy for pet owners to get a true-breeding strain if you have two individuals with the trait.

The story of the discovery of this species sows the long and roundabout route of basic species descriptions. These species started to show up in the pet trade in Europe and Japan (where have I heard that story before?), with information coming that there were collected in the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya on New Guinea.

The authors went into the extensive archives of a natural history museum in the Netherlands... and found the museum had samples of this unnamed species that were collected in 1952. These wonderful animals have been waiting for a science to name and describe them for over fifty years.

The museum the specimens were found was where the late carcinologist Lipke Holthuis worked. (He was eulogized at The Crustacean Society meeting I attended last month.) The crayfish now bear his name, Cherax holthuisi.

The text that accompanied the Guardian gallery article scares me, though.

Although new to science, wholesalers have already introduced the species to the European and Japanese pet market; however, the biology of the species in the wild, its distribution range, its conservation status and its value to local communities remain unknown.

Grabbing crayfish and shipping them as pets around the world when we are ignorant of their basic biology natural habitat is dangerous and irresponsible. It’s reasons like this that I started the Craywatch project.


Lukhaup C, & Pekny R (2006). Cherax (Cherax) holthuisi, a new species of crayfish (Crustacea: Decapoda: Parastacidae) from the centre of the Vogelkop Peninsula in Irian Jaya (West New Guinea), Indonesia. Zoologische Mededelingen 80(1): 101-107. http://www.repository.naturalis.nl/document/41228

11 July 2011

“Can you teach this class?”

Advertisements for faculty jobs usually describe them in terms of the research expertise that the job candidate is specialized in. Sometimes, people get so focused on their research that they forget about the teaching component of the job. When prospective faculty do think of teaching, they tend to think about the wonderful new classes about their research field that they’re going to create.

Very often, faculty positions aren’t always created because the department wants a particular kind of researcher. Sometimes they’re created because there are particular classes that need teaching. Are they are rarely the “niche” research classes about your field.

For instance, contemporary biological research is often centred around cells or molecules or one of a small number of model organisms. Some of the people doing that research probably couldn’t even guess at the number of bones in a body. Biology classes can’t stop teaching anatomy and physiology classes, though, because so many students who want to go into the health professions need them. Consequently, you have cases of paleontologists working at medical schools, because they know vertebrate anatomy better than anyone else.

In my case, one of my supervisors told me that many people in my field got jobs at institutions “because they always need someone to teach invertebrates.” As it happened, I didn’t end up teaching the invertebrate course. But the job was created because they wanted someone to teach neurobiology far more than they wanted someone to do research in neurobiology.

In physics, I don’t know if there are active Newtonian researchers. But there is still an ongoing need for someone to teach those mechanics.

Another reason that you might be expected to pick up existing classes is because there are a whole bunch of classes on the books that were created by an existing faculty member, who has retired or quit.

Job seekers, try to think about some of those core classes that you might be able to teach. Get some experience teaching them if you can. And when you’re asked about whether you can teach those classes, don’t sniff and ask how soon you’ll be able to get out of them. Often, the point of the hire is to get someone who will teach them for a good, long while.

Related posts

The truth about teaching statements

08 July 2011

Friday Weird Science: Will this spoil the surprise?

Note: I am unabashedly ripping of the title of this thread from Scicurious, who normally ends the week with a “Weird science” post. She’s been on vacation, and so I thought I’d pick up the slack for this week only...

Have a look at this graph. tell me what the relationship between these two variable is. Not what you think the variables are, but how would you describe them?

I don’t want to spoil the surprise. More about this graph when you click here for more.

07 July 2011

Critical Wit #15

I do a little chittin’ and chattin’ with host Chris Lindsey on the fifteenth edition of Critical Wit podcast. Go listen!

It was much fun to do. I hope to do another one that will be even funner!

06 July 2011

Improving Impact Factor

Impact factor is kind of like this:

Like a giant gorilla, you may love it, you may hate it, but you cannot ignore it.

This was particularly driven home to me last month listening to a panel of editors at The Crustacean Society meeting. They all kept talking about impact factors. You can see the same obsession with publishers quick to crow over any increase in impact factor, regardless of how trivially tiny it is.

Woo! Up a whole 1.5%!

One of the well-known flaws is that it’s an average. It doesn’t tell you anything about the individual articles.

In science, we report averages all the time. But one of the fastest ways to draw a criticism is to put an average value on a graph with no error bars.

Impact factor is an average with no error bars.

Impact factor would be improved by reporting some other measure of distribution (e.g., standard deviation). Then you would get some idea if the impact factor for a journal was being driven by a few powerhouse papers, with most sitting getting little attention, or whether the journal was consistently publishing solid performing papers.

Journal bragging pic by Functional Neurogenesis on Flickr; gorilla by Lady/Bird on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

05 July 2011

Tuesday Crustie: Rock lobster

You can find this carving somewhere on the grounds of the Waikiki Aquarium. Yet another picture from The Crustacean Society meeting last month.

Additional: Speaking of The Crustacean Society meeting, there’s a gallery of photos here. If you look closely, you can see the back of my head! How often do you see that, the back of your own head?

04 July 2011

Can evolutionary psychology walk the walk over walking?

ResearchBlogging.orgRobert Kurzban recently defended evolutionary psychology by asking the rhetorical question:

If you think that we can discover the function of fever, puking, and pooping at the base of a tree, why are other patterns of behavior not susceptible to a similar analysis?

You can. But there are too many examples of evolutionary biology being applied to human behaviour in an offhanded and slipshod way. For an example, John Bradshaw described this research on the detection of sex from movement. This subject was reviewed by Pollick and colleagues in 2005 here:

If you attach small lights to people’s major joints, and film them in the dark so that only the lights are visible, the latter do not appear to constitute a meaningful pattern, such as a person, at least until the individuals commence to move. If they walk, sit down, stand up, or act to throw something or to pick it up, the separate and apparently randomly distributed lights immediately seem to assemble and constitute someone performing a meaningful and recognisable activity. I wondered whether we could interpret such biological motion, as it is called, as being generated by a male or a female walker, whom we filmed on a treadmill. Trying it with some colleagues, I was at first very disappointed; we all felt that our forced choices, ‘male’ or ‘female’ for the various walkers, were entirely random. Yet later on analysis, it seemed that our scores were very often correct, well above chance.

His interpretation of this baffled me, however.

Presumably such a discriminative capacity is of major evolutionary or adaptive significance.

Wait, wait, wait... what? How on Earth does that follow?

A couple of the basic requirements for something to be adaptive is that it provide a selective advantage to those individuals (and their offspring!) that have it, and that the feature be heritable.

It would be easy to spin out a few hypotheses for what would be the selective advantage of detecting sex from a few points of lights on the body (which is extremely unlikely to be something our ancestors on the African savanna would have had to cope with). “Our primitive ancestors needed to distinguish under poor lighting conditions whether some unknown individual was a male or a female, because males might have been a greater threat than females.” That’s just a first pass, so we’ll let it slide despite any shortcomings it might have.

But not only is there no evidence that this ability is heritable, there is also an easy alternative hypothesis: learning. In human society, how many hours do you think you has spent seeing men and women walking? And in that time, it is possible that you learned some of the differences in gait between males and females that allows you to tell them apart.

I know that a radio editorial is not a peer-reviewed journal. I know I’m picking on a single throw-away line, not the major point of the piece. But I think it is still an excellent example of how quick people are to jump to evolutionary explanations for human capabilities, completely bypassing other explanations.

As Stephen Jay Gould and Dick Lewontin argued so famously, not everything is adaptive. Some things are by-products, or, as they termed them, spandrels. Their criticisms are as still relevant now, especially for evolutionary psychology.


Gould SJ, Lewontin RC. 1979. The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: A critique of the adaptationist programme. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 205(1161): 581-598. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.1979.0086

Pollick F, Kay J, Heim K, Stringer R. 2005. Gender recognition from point-light walkers. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 31(6): 1247-1265. DOI: 10.1037/0096-1523.31.6.1247

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

02 July 2011

Carnivals for July 2011

Carnival of Evolution #37 is up at The Lessons of Evolution.

Encephalon #88 is hosted by Cognoculture this month.

Circus of the Spineless entered diapause for the month of June, but will be back in July!

01 July 2011

Chattin’ about STEM

Here’s an interview I did a few weeks back for our Office of Graduate Studies about our STEM graduate programs.

Not sure why my sound is so quiet on this. I was wearing a microphone and everything!

Any feedback welcome!

Oh Captain, my Captain

There’s a lot of anticipation for the release of the movie about his U.S. counterpart. But this is my Captain.

Happy Canada Day!

Comments for second half of June 2011

Set aside the time to read this post on human echolocation. It’s long, but so, so, worth it.

ChemBark examines the technical comments on the arsenic life paper, and still finds major problems.

Kevin, at We, Beasties, justifies open access scientific publishing by arguing about taxes. Bad move. This led to a longer post of my own.

Tara at Aetiology discusses her disappointment about the information presented about science communication at a recent conference.

Virginia Hughes looks at the use of brain scans in detecting deception. She accurately sums up the state of the art, but I wonder about the future state of the art.

Dr. Becca is only a few weeks out from starting her new job and wants advice about what to think about.

NeuroSkeptic covers a story that I like because it is how science is supposed to work. On where people take the time to replicate findings and revise hypotheses if necessary.

Odyssey at Pondering Blather describes one researcher’s path from specialist to generalist.

GertyZ waxes eloquently about the efficiency of her institution’s purchasing department. In a manner of speaking.

Cath Ennis asks scientists to recount their most disgusting science experience.