31 December 2013

Best of 2013

Things have been crazy around here. In the last couple of weeks, I have submitted a book chapter (never again, no more book chapters), and am preparing for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting in Austin later this week, where I shall be:

And I have a manuscript due in January and another due in February. So yes, blog posts have suffered a little.

To make up for this, here are the top five most popular posts from 2013!

  1. All lobsters are mortal (by a wide margin of victory)
  2. Sasquatch DNA: new journal or vanity press
  3. What we know, and don’t know, about crustacean pain 
  4. “I’ll be brave after I’m tenured”
  5. When to pack it in

30 December 2013

Save the Day essays #8: The world turns

The whole world turns upside down in ten years, but you turn upside down with it(.)
- Spider Robinson, 1977, “The Time Traveller,” The Callahan Chronicles

As it happened, I got a Doctor Who anniversary story for Christmas. Not “The Day of the Doctor,” the fiftieth anniversary story that was released on DVD this month... but the fortieth anniversary story.

Unavailable for years, “Scream of the Shalka” was an animated story that played on the BBC’s Doctor Who website. Richard E. Grant was the Doctor, though he’s now become a villain (Dr. Simeon / the Great Intelligence).

Watching “Scream of the Shalka” again impressed upon me how much can change in a decade.

In 2003, Doctor Who hadn’t been on television for years. It had died in the 1980s, had a failed comeback attempt in the 1990s. It appeared on the BBC’s website under a section labelled as “Cult TV.” There were new stories as books and audio, but for me, they weren’t anywhere near as satisfying as the show had been. And judging from the “Making of” featurette on the “Shalka” DVD, only a few dedicated fans were actually that keen to commemorate that anniversary with a story. “Scream of the Shalka” is a good story, but it wasn’t very outward looking. It wasn’t aimed at bringing the Doctor to new audiences.

It’s almost hard to believe that Doctor Who has been back on the air for almost eight years now. When Doctor Who did come back on the air in 2005,the way I experienced the show was perhaps less than convenient. There was initially no plans for airing it in the United States. But... it was a co-production with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), who showed it very soon after it appeared in England.

Being Canadian, I reached out to a few of my contacts in fandom... oh, who am I kidding. I pleaded with my parents to record it for me. They were nice enough to do it, and sent me VHS tapes – tapes! – through snail mail. Every few weeks, I got new tapes that I devoured. It was so, so good. I loved it.

Then it showed up in the US on the SciFi channel (before it became SfFy). And something amazing started to happen: Americans started to fall in love with Doctor Who: the eccentric little English show that even other science fiction fans viewed as fringe. People started recognizing the TARDIS in my office. I couldn’t believe it.

I was mildly annoyed when the show moved to BBC America, because I didn’t have it as part of my cable package, and because I get cable through my apartment, I didn’t have an option to add it. I started begging a colleague with an extended cable package to record it for me, this time on blank DVDs. I was again indulged. But I was pleased that the delay between the British broadcast and the American broadcast got shorter. I remembered in the 1980s when it could be years between a season in England and it being purchased by a local public broadcasting station. Being a North American fan was always to feel a little disconnected from the show.

Then, I started getting the show on iTunes, so I no longer had to beg for my fix. And the show went to high definition.

And the culmination of all this? This year, I can watch Doctor Who within a day of anyone in the world. And the show is so successful that it ran in North American theatres, in high-definition 3-D. It’s wonderful.

The world does turn upside down in ten years. But even though you turn with it, sometimes, you can notice.

Related posts

Approaching 40...

Save the Day essays

Save the Day essays #1: Restoration
Save the Day essays #2: Recovery
Save the Day essays #3: Family
Save the Day essays #4: Rewatching the rebirth
Save the Day essays #5: Playing favourites
Save the Day essays #6: Anarchy in the U.K.
Save the Day essays #7: How the Doctor made me better

Hat tip to Tom Scott’s brilliant “Flash mob gone wrong” Ignite! presentation for drawing my attention to the Spider Robinson quote.

25 December 2013

Christmas wishes 2013

From this year's Hidalgo Festival of Lights.

And here's a song from an artist whose first album was big when I was living in Australia...

24 December 2013

Tuesday Crustie: La Sfogliatella

If you’re looking for a holiday treat, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to live someplace that makes these:

The powdered sugar may alert you to this not being an actual lobster tail. This is a pastry called La Sfogliatella, or lobster tail that bears a not bad resemblance to its namesake. It’s been renamed from La Santarosa, which I learned at this delightful pastry history page.

Hat tip to Mary Mangan. Picture from here.

17 December 2013

Texas politicians backing illegal education

The Texas Tribune reports that every candidate for the Lieutenant Governor position in Texas wants to teach creationism in public schools. Never mind that it’s repeatedly been found illegal.

(Jerry) Patterson did not mention creationism in his response directly but said he thought schools had focused too much on political correctness out of what he called a mistaken belief that the U.S. Constitution mandated the separation of church and state.

“Show me where that’s in the Constitution, because it’s not in the Constitution,” he said.

Apparently, Mr. Patterson is unfamiliar with the Establishment Clause.

External links

Texas Lt. Gov. Hopefuls Voice Support for Creationism

16 December 2013

Comments for first half of December 2013

Namnezia asks how much work you should do for a doctorate.

Michael Tomasson exposes anti-blogging bigotry.

Small Pond Science talks about how big universities view “partnerships” with minority serving institutions. Usually, it just means, “Send us students!”

Everyone should go to job talks, but particularly those who want to continue in a career need to see what good and bad ones look like. Thanks to Bashir for bringing that up!

What will you miss about the eleventh Doctor? I’ll miss ideas tumbling out faster than his mouth can say them.

This ocean cleanup story just won’t die, despite people with expertise in the field expressing... severe doubts. I strongly suspect that if the person making the suggestion was even one year older, 20, it wouldn’t get so much attention. “Teenager has idea!” is so much more powerful then “Person in 20s has idea!”

13 December 2013

UTRGV reaction

After the announcement yesterday, I did three interviews about the name of the new university. This is what happens when you sit in the front (pic from here) and jump up when the choice is announced.

I was quoted in this KVEO story:

Some waited even longer than twelve months for the name of the university to be changed to UT RGV.

“When I went elsewhere in the country and I would talk to people ‘I'm from UT Pan Am,’ you know they didn’t know us,” said Zen Faulkes, Associate Professor of Biology. “They didn’t know about our institution, and part of that was the name. So I’m just really pleased that everyone finally caught up to what I was saying years and years and years.”

And I’m quoted in this story:

UTPA biology professor Zen Faulkes, who has taught at the school, said he is very happy with the name chosen. Faulkes has been part of a conversation that has evolved over the last few days of what the name should be.

“I think the name is the name that really reflects the region,” Faulkes said. “It connects with the community.”

In the future, Faulkes said, he hopes the name Rio Grande Valley will be synonymous with research and a rich learning community.

The reaction on Twitter was interesting. It was obvious from the earlier discussions that every name had its detractors. But I was surprised by how many people from UTPA, both current and former, resented the name change. I did not see many similar comments from individuals at UT Brownsville.

Our university president, Robert Nelsen, earlier joked that he would be relieved that he wouldn’t have to answer, “What will the new university be named?” any more. That question will no doubt be replaced with, “What will the mascot be?”

I wonder if I can convince them we should be the UTRGV Crayfish... Procambarus regiomontanus is a local species!

Related posts

Naming a new university
New uni, same as the old uni? A last look at possible names
We are UTRGV!

External links

Board of Regents votes to name new UT in South Texas The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley UT System press release

UTPA, community welcome UT-RGV
UTB Students Pleased with New University Name Chosen by Regents UTB

Valley's newly merged university to be named UTRGV KGBT (video above)
Regional University to be Named UT-RGV KRGV (video)
Professors Celebrate New University Name KRGV (video)
UT Board of Regents combines, renames local universities KVEO
UTB reacts favorably to new university name KVEO
Name chosen for "Project South Texas" KVEO (cameo by me)

New university to be named the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley Pan American Online
Regents name new school ‘UT-Rio Grande Valley’ UTB Collegian

Regents name university: UT-RGV The Monitor
The name is: The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley Brownsville Herald
Reaction to new UT-Rio Grande Valley name Brownsville Herald
UT System officials unanimously approve identity of regional school Brownsville Herald
Name for merged university is UT-Rio Grande Valley My San Antonio
New school named UT-Rio Grande Valley Austin American Statesman
New university is named UT-Rio Grande Valley Valley Morning Star
Board OKs New Name for New School: UT-Rio Grande Valley Texas Tribune
UT regents unveil new name for Rio Grande Valley university San Antonio Business Journal
Valley leaders support new university's name, UT-RGV Rio Grande Guardian

12 December 2013

We are UTRGV!

When the name was announced, I got to my feet and yelled, “Yes!”

In Fall 2015, I will be a charter faculty member of University of Texas Rio Grande Valley!

It was exciting and suspenseful to be in the viewing party. At first, I was a little annoyed because they moved it to the student union building food court, which seemed to lack a certain, I dunno, sense of occasion. I think they powers that be didn’t expect many people because it’s late in finals week, and they wanted to put as many people in a small space so it would look good on video.

As the announcement of the vote got closer, the live stream from the UT Board of Regents video feed started getting choppy. You could hear the audience getting antsy. I joked that if we weren't careful, we might be “UT Buffering” or “UT Paused”.

I was half expecting to learn the news on Twitter, but the MC announced it over the PA system: “The vote was unanimous, we will be University of Texas Rio Grande Valley!”

I jumped to my feet.

That earned me two television interviews as the watch party ended.

I was so relieved, given that we saw names proposed that honestly should never have made it to the public consideration stage (“University of Texas International”; this tweet put it best) and the last minute consideration of keeping the name as The University of Teaxs-Pan American (prompting bad feelings from Brownsville).

Just after I got to UTPA, the university celebrated its 75th anniversary. Sometimes, I wondered if I might be here to celebrate the 100th anniversary of UTPA. I’m a little sad that that won’t happen, but I’m excited to be one of the first faculty to teach at UTRGV. Maybe I’ll be part of a few anniversaries with the new instiution.

Related posts

Naming a new university
New uni, same as the old uni? A last look at possible names

11 December 2013

New uni, same as the old uni? A last look at possible names

I get to find out the next university I’ll be working at tomorrow! The name of the new south Texas university is being announced tomorrow morning here on campus. I’m excited.

One paper reports former Texas politician Roberto Gutiérrez has been plugging for the name of the new university to be the same as my current university: The University of Texas-Pan American. The Brownsville Herald reports that UTPA has been put back into the running due to community requests.

I don’t agree with the arguments by Gutiérrez, though. According to the article, the main reason to keep the name is “devalue the diplomas of upwards of 70,000 alumni.” Unfortunately, if changing the name is devaluing a degree, then someone is losing out. What about alumni with degrees from UT Brownsville? Admittedly, there are fewer of them than UTPA graduates, but they deserve consideration, too.

The Twitter feed has for the #ProjectSouthTX hashtag has seen a lot of negative reactions to this. Words like “insulting,” “unfair,” “appalled,” “sneaky,” “disgrace” are being tossed around.

Another politician is plugging for “UT Las Americas,” citing “the bigger picture.” As I said before, being ambitious is fine, but we are, and will remain for a long time, a regional university.

Still, idea has some merit. The University of Texas at Brownsville used to be part of Pan Am. So there is an argument that creating a new university of the two represents a re-integration of the two campuses, and the thread of continuity can be traced through the main Pan Am campus.

Another point in favour of keeping UTPA is the UT System seems to be favouring something concerning the “Americas”. They had “of the Americas” in the background when they announced the formation of the new university, and two of the proposed new names incorporate “Americas” in some way.

The politicians have also been very clear that they consider this a new university, not a merger. Indeed, the bill says the two existing universities shall be “abolished.” I don’t see any way that they will let the current name stay.

Apparently, the lead contenders for the name are UT Rio Grande Valley (first poll results from here; second from The Monitor; third from Valley Central) and UT South.

I’ve already argued why I think it should be UTRGV.

Related posts

Naming a new university

External links

Gutiérrez petitions UT System regents to keep name The University of Texas-Pan American for new Valley-wide university
UT System sorts through input on school name
UT Regents to name new university on Thursday
UTPA, UTB plan watch parties Thursday for naming of new university
New university name battle causes dispute

10 December 2013

Tuesday Crustie: You may be taking Christmas decorations a bit too far

I am guessing this is a decorator crab. At least, photographer Marc AuMarc swears there is a crustacean under all this.

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

09 December 2013

Asking about awards

Just got an email from our administration. They are asking faculty to list awards they’ve won. Awards like being names a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators, MacArthur Foundation Fellows (the so-called “genius award”), being elected to the National Academy of Sciences, getting a National Medal of Science, a Pulitzer prize, or a Nobel prize.

Because, apparently, our university wouldn’t know if a faculty member won a Pulitzer or Nobel unless they specifically asked. “What was the trip to Stockholm in your travel request for, anyway?”

I find it a touch offensive. But I was told I’m being thin-skinned about it.

Lessons from Bar Rescue for academics

I’ve been watching Bar Rescue. It’s a business makeover show featuring bar expert John Taffer.

There are two things that this show has got me thinking about that are related to science.


It is possible to make something you are not interested in, interesting.

I do not drink. I am not a business owner. Bars are not my habitat. But I like watching Bar Rescue. I thought much the same about Top Gear. I’m not interested in cars, but I keep watching that show. And I keep watching Bar Rescue because there is something compelling about it.

When someone says, “But people aren’t interested in [insert academic discipline here],” they’re giving up too soon.


Can yelling be the right thing to do?

There is the old saying that conflict is the essence of drama. And there is a lot of conflict in Bar Rescue. Taffer routinely tears strips off of staff, managers, and owners alike. In one episode, he almost comes to blows with an owner.

Taffer is often mean. But that doesn’t make him wrong.

While I am always wary of reading too much into “reality shows”, it does seem as though there are times his approach works. Sometimes, Taffer gets through to people, and I wonder how much of that is how forcefully and loudly he expresses himself.

In our department, we sometimes say a student needs the “CTJ” talk. “CTJ” is short for “Come to Jesus.” It’s a talk that is meant to get a student back on track with their project. It’s rarely pleasant. By the time you get to that talk, it’s because things have already deteriorated.

Are there times when you absolutely need this unpleasantness to get through to people? I wonder, though in general, I hope not. In scientific settings, it takes a long time to build up confidence, and this sort of action could destroy someone’s sense of self worth. I know that the power dynamic is much different in an academic setting than in a reality television show. Ultimately, the bar business people work with Taffer for a few days, but in academia, things tend to be much more long term.

06 December 2013

Apply for prizes

I am indebted to The Science Show for this piece of advice from the late Fred Sanger, who was asked about how to be a successful scientist (my emphasis):

I tell them the first thing is to get a prize, and it’s much more difficult to get the first prize than to get the second one because if you’ve already got a prize then you can get facilities for work and you can get collaborators and everything is much easier. And I think I was lucky in that respect, that I got my first prize when I was rather young, about 40.

The prize that Sanger got at 40 was the prize the makes me cross, so it’s not exactly practical career advice to try to get that particular prize. But Sanger is right in pointing out the Matthew effect operates in science: people who have a lot often get more (classic analyses of this in science are here and here). One prize makes it easier to get another.

This is a danger of this advice. Follow the advice too literally, and you get to an absurd infinite regression. To get into the right tenure-track position, you have to get into the right post-doc, which means you have to get into the right doctoral program, which means you have to get into the right undergraduate program... and so on back to preschool.

If you decide on embarking on a professional career, however, you can put Sanger’s advice into action: make it your business to apply for any prize, scholarship, or award, that is awarded on a competitive basis. Try and win some awards early in your career; it might grease a few wheels.

I see a lot of students who don’t apply for prizes. This is despite that programs are desperate to reach them, judging by how much I am inundated with requests to pass information along to students. Often, I think students don’t put in the effort to look for prizes and scholarship because they don’t think they are going to be competitive; another example of how imposter syndrome can hurt careers.

Students, don’t take yourselves out of the pool by not applying. Make the selection committee take you out of the pool. That’s their job.

External links

Science Show for 23 November 2013

Picture from here.

04 December 2013

Things that are always “in the future”

Things that are always being talked about as being in the future, but never seem to arrive:

  • Clean, sustainable energy from nuclear fusion.
  • A safe, simple male contraceptive pill.
  • A doctoral program in biology at my university.

When I  interviewed for this job, I was told a doctoral program in biology was probably about 5 years away. I’ve started my third “five years” here, and the goal seems further away than ever.

03 December 2013

Tuesday Crustie: But isn’t it a red rock crab?

According to Sid Kelly, these are all the same species! These are all juvenile red rock crabs, showing a variety of colouration. Spotted on Twitter.

02 December 2013

Student preparation and the industrial-education complex

Last week, we had a visit from Kati Haycock from The Education Trust (video of her talk above; I have a cameo at the end when I ask a question). She says lots of smart and useful things, but one thing that got me thinking was she talked about whether students are “adequately prepared for university.” It’s not Haycock alone who talks about this: I hear the phrase all the time.

As an instructor, when I’m working with a student individually, I don’t care how prepared a student is. If I can teach a student at an advanced stage, then surely I can back up and teach them the beginner stuff if that person does not know it. I don’t (or shouldn’t) get upset by a student’s ignorance. I should view them as one of today’s lucky ten thousand.

Of course, the problem is that I rarely have the luxury of working with students individually.

The phrase “prepared for university” is an excellent example of how education is an industrial process. Ken Robinson (video here) often talks about this:

Public schools were not only created in the interests of industrialism — they were created in the image of industrialism. In many ways, they reflect the factory culture they were designed to support. This is especially true in high schools, where school systems base education on the principles of the assembly line and the efficient division of labour. Schools divide the curriculum into specialist segments: some teachers install math in the students, and others install history. They arrange the day into standard units of time, marked out by the ringing of bells, much like a factory announcing the beginning of the workday and the end of breaks. Students are educated in batches, according to age, as if the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. They are given standardized tests at set points and compared with each other before being sent out onto the market. I realize this isn’t an exact analogy and that it ignores many of the subtleties of the system, but it is close enough.
― Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

Every time you hear the phrase, “prepared for university,” replace it with “meets factory standards.” If student age is comparable to their date of manufacture, university preparation is comparable to quality control. I suppose I should be grateful that students aren’t sent to university with tags like this in their wallets:

Once I realized that, I thought about how much of the language about improving university education mirrors industrial concerns. “Student success” is measured in the same ways that factory production in measured, by efficiency: time to degree, percentage of students who graduate with a degree, and so on.

From a certain point of view, my job as a university instructor is not to teach, but implement processes that minimize loss of product.

01 December 2013

Comments for second half of November 2013

Timoth Bussey asks why people are anonymous on the Internet. It might be a safe thing for him to do, or me to do, but it might not be a safe thing for everyone to do.

I make a cameo appearance in this Storify about getting scooped in science.

29 November 2013

Editors retract paper claiming GM food caused cancer in rats

The wheels grind slowly, but they do grind.

Last year, a paper by Séralini and colleagues came out that claimed eating genetically modified (GM) food caused cancer in rats. The online reaction was swift and sharp: the samples were too small, too many data were not shown, the statistics were odd or missing. The reaction that made it to the journal’s printed pages was almost equally critical.

The journal editors have now unilaterally retracted the paper, Nature reports.

The journal editor went back, got the raw data, and had the paper reviewed again. The press release claims the small sample size was seen as a shortcoming of the paper in the first round of reviews from peer-review... unfortunately, given that the journal follows the normal editorial process of keeping all reviews secret, there is no way to verify this claim. We have no idea how many reviewers saw the paper, who they were, or what they said.

The press release says:

The peer review process is not perfect, but it does work.

What I would have liked to read following that statement was something to indicate that peer-review could be improved. This is a good example of how peer-review could be improved easily by making peer review more transparent. Publishing the reviews with the paper, for instance.

The press release goes on:

Ultimately, the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive, and therefore do not reach the threshold of publication for Food and Chemical Toxicology.

Interesting. I am not sure whether “conclusive” results should be the threshold for publication. I have never seen “conclusive” listed in the requirements for publication in any journal. Indeed, Food and Chemical Toxicology’s own guidelines don’t include such words:

Papers submitted will be judged on the basis of scientific originality and contribution to the field, quality and subject matter.

If “conclusive” is truly a criterion for publication, we should probably have much more stringent criteria. We should probably demand larger sample sizes or insist on power analyses, lower p values from 0.05 to 0.005, and demand independent replication from another lab before publishing.

The press release doesn’t talk about of the important role that the online community played in drawing attention to this paper. No, it was only the published letters in the journal that were valuable:

Likewise, the Letters to the Editor, both pro and con, serve as a post-publication peer-review. The back and forth between the readers and the author has a useful and valuable place in our scientific dialog.

I get the distinct notion that Elsevier would rather not acknowledge the online community. I wonder if the editors would have gone back and re-reviewed the paper were it not for the Internet shitstorm that erupted?

I’m interested that the press release, in the quote above, specifically points out that there were “pro” letters. But this is classic case of “false balance,” a rhetorical trick to make a one-sided situation look less like a rout; the vast majority of the letters they themselves published were highly critical.

When the paper came out, I argued against retracting it:

The anti-GM would revel in the retraction, and see it as proof of a cover-up by the establishment.

The initial reaction from the authors suggest my prediction was correct:

Séralini and his team... allege that the retraction derives from the journal’s editorial appointment of biologist Richard Goodman, who previously worked for biotechnology giant Monsanto for seven years.

I will be following the reaction to see if my take on this was correct. For a certain kind of conspiracy-minded individuals, I suspect this will be the sort of move that constitutes “proof” of nefarious efforts to hide evidence, rather than clumsy moves to “correct” the “scientific record.”

Additional: In Forbes, a surprisingly comprehensive article for appearing so soon after the news broke. Also shows anti-GM food advocates are not saying, “This is normal science”:

Claire Robinson, editor of the anti-GMO activist site GM Watch and a separate website set up to promote the Séralini study, GMO Seralini, blasted the move as “illicit, unscientific, and unethical,” the first salvo in what will no doubt be a vigorous defense of the study in the weeks ahead.

However, in fairness to Robinson, she raises an excellent point, which echoes mine above:

Robinson also claimed that the retraction violated scientific guidelines laid out by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). COPE guidelines state that the grounds for a journal to retract a paper are: (1) clear evidence that the findings are unreliable due to misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error; (2) Plagiarism or redundant publication; or (3) Unethical research.

Note that “inconclusive” is not a reason to retract a paper.

More additional: Retraction Watch covers this, and the comment thread is lively.

Additional, 1 December 2013: P.Z. Myers characterizes the retraction as “belated”. This raises a question: what is the right speed for a retraction? Retracting the paper as soon as criticisms appeared (which was was the journal posted the manuscript as “in press”) would have been rash. While I might fault the editorial board for many things, they did due diligence on investigating the paper before deciding whether to retract it or not.

When you visit the article on Science Direct today, however, there is no indication of the retraction. Why put out a press release about the retraction without immediately putting the retraction into effect and marking the paper accordingly?

Update, 6 December 2013: The Ecologist blog reports on a group letter to the Food and Chemical Toxicology editor, which contains this high-handed passage:

This arbitrary, groundless retraction of a published, thoroughly peer-reviewed paper is without precedent in the history of scientific publishing, and raises grave concerns over the integrity and impartiality of science.

“Arbitrary”? When many people call for a paper to be retracted, I don’t think you can call it entirely arbitrary.

“Groundless”? The letter itself describes the paper as “published, thoroughly peer-reviewed paper”, but it doesn’t go out of its way to say the paper is any good. As far as I can tell, and in the opinions of many, the paper is deeply flawed. Also, given that the authors did not specify conflicts of interest, there is a case for it to be retracted for being unethical, although the editor did not take that position.

“Without precedent”? That’s overkill. One of the first times I wrote about retraction was for a paper for which there were no concerns about the quality of the science. There was also this controversial statement statement from PLOS ONE:

If a paper’s major conclusions are shown to be wrong we will retract the paper.

That’s close to what the Food and Chemical Toxicology editor is doing, it seems to me. There are probably many other examples.

Update, 11 December 2013: The editor has a response to the decision to retract the paper. It is an interesting peek “behind the curtains” of the editorial process. In particular, the editor says the guidelines for retraction were followed, answering Claire Robinson’s concern in Forbes. Hat tip to Nathanael Johnson.

Related posts

Why not retract the rat cancer / GM corn paper?
What did you think those film crews were doing in the lab?
Fallout from “GM food causes cancers in rats” paper

External links

Elsevier Announces Article Retraction from Journal Food and Chemical Toxicology
Study linking GM maize to rat tumours is retracted
Notorious Séralini GMO Cancer Rat Study Retracted, Ugly Legal Battle Looms
Controversial Seralini GMO-rats paper to be retracted
Belated retraction of Seralini’s bad anti-GMO paper
Scientists pledge to boycott Elsevier
Food and Chemical Toxicology Editor-in-Chief, A. Wallace Hayes, Publishes Response to Letters to the Editors

25 November 2013

Identifying a mentor

Recently, I spoke at a “Mentoring matters” panel here at my institution, and I was asked to speak about “identifying a mentor.” (Picture at right; apparently I was saying something so ironic that it needed scare quotes.)

I realized before I started talking that I was a good example of what not to do. I didn’t see out a mentor in research; I was shanghaied. I was only rarely proactive. I was god’s fool, and made it through unscathed.

Sure, it worked for me, but I can’t recommend to students, “blunder through the minefield, it’ll all work out.” That’s not a plan, that’s just hoping.

In my own defence, it is much easier today to be proactive about identifying a mentor than it used to be. Because Google exists.

Students know that when applying to grad school, or research programs, or scholarships, they will be scrutinized by faculty before being allowed to join. Students should scrutinize their prospective faculty mentors first, before they will allow themselves to be recruited.

(Yes, I’m advocating you Google stalk potential mentors.)

When you look up a prospective mentor, look for someone productive. Grad degrees are research degrees, and you want to look at faculty’s recent track record in their research. You want someone active in their research field.

I emphasize “recent” because it’s easy to confuse “fame” with “productivity.” Some researchers may be famous for work they did years ago. It’s only when you look at their publication record that you realize they haven’t done much for ten years.

Similarly, you should look at their publications and see how many of a faculty’s papers have student authors. Try to work out how many papers their students get out, how quickly they get those papers out..

I hope that it goes without saying that any student should talk to potential mentors. In person is great, but even a phone call or Skype call can go a long way in establishing a dialogue.

If at all possible, talk to other students who have that person as their mentor. You can learn how that person works, what their expectations are. And you might get some early heads up on potential pitfalls, like any unpleasant personality traits. (Sadly, many faculty have these. Remember, research culture is not a utopia.)

Another online resource I wish I had when I was blundering through grad school was peers and faculty on social media. There are blogs written by students and faculty at each and every career stage, and they contain so many honest insights into the process of working through academic training. There are scientists on Twitter in every research field.

A good tactic might be to try to find some people who are in your peer group, and some people who are in just ahead of you. If you're an undergrad, find some grad student blogs; if you're a post-doc, read some blogs by people who have just started their tenure-track positions.

The amount of expertise, and mentoring going on through social media, is nothing short of staggering. Why wouldn't you take advantage of that?

23 November 2013

Would you like a jelly baby?

I’ve done a “What Doctor are you?” quiz before, but since today is a special day for Doctor Who, I am sucker enough to try another version of the quiz...

Your result: Congratulations! You’re the Fourth Doctor

Do people refer to everyday events in your daily life as "mad schemes"? Do they sometimes call you "impossible," but happily accept the sweets you are quick to offer round as soon as you meet new people?

Do you have clothes in your closet that other people simply would not wear, but somehow you make them look pretty good?

And are they always on the alert, in case you are seized by an alarming impulse and suddenly have to dash off out of the room?


Related posts

Great balls of fire!

External links

‘Doctor Who’ Personality Quiz: Which Doctor Are You?

Save the Day essays #7: How the Doctor made me better

The man who makes people better. How sanctimonious is that?

– The Master, “The Sound of Drums,” Doctor Who, 2007

Doctor Who helped make me become a scientist.

True, I might have been a scientist if I never watched Doctor Who. I had a lot of personality traits that helped pushed me towards being some sort of technical career. I was always inclined to science as a kid (dinosaurs and spaceships littered my rooms), I consumed a lot of science fiction, and I was a “smart kid” who got good grades in school.

But there’s a big difference between things that you do when you’re playing as a kid, and sticking out a long haul in graduate school to make science your life’s work. Grad school is tough. It has a high attrition rate. Lots of people do not make it. To make it, you need something to look forward to that can keep you going.

When I introduce myself to students, I joke that, “I went to grad school so I could be called Doctor Zen, and sound like the villain from a bad kung fu movie.” That gets a laugh, but it’s not true. (Though I am prouder than you know that “Doctor Zen” is a role-playing game villain; see here and here.)

The truth is that one of the things that kept me going in grad school was that if I made it, I could be called, “Doctor.” Just a little bit like one of my heroes.

Doctor Who made the title conferred by a Ph.D. important to me in a way that nothing else ever did.

For most people, “doctor” means “physician.” I never, ever, had any interest in going into the health professions. Of all the other scientific characters that I loved from science fiction, none of them really brought the title to the fore. Spock from Star Trek was always, “Mr. Spock” (I guess Spock only ever finished his master’s). Buckaroo Banzai was just, well, Buckaroo Banzai.

Doctor Who made me want to be a doctor. So I could be called “Doctor Zen.”

I didn’t have direct inspiration from the TV series when I was in grad school.

“Survival,” the last episode of the classic series (above) aired the year I started grad school. A series of books (“The New Doctor Who Adventures”) rarely satisfied me. The TV movie (right) aired after I defended my dissertation. I became a doctor when the Doctor was missing.

I wrote back in 2003 when the show’s rebirth was announced:

The Doctor represented so much of what I thought a scientist should be. Adept in solving problems of all sorts, whether it be preventing a Dalek invasion or patching a piece of broken equipment. That “Renaissance man” aspect in particular is one I love... . Not taking the word of authority ... Traveling the universe. Good companions. .. And it’s one reason why I sometimes suggest people call me “Doctor Zen” – it has the sort of same slightly cool ring as “Doctor Who.” At least it does to my vain ears.

It’s not just me:

I see so many children in schools who, because of their love of this silly old show, want to act, write, record music, sing or become scientists.

And it’s not just Doctor Who. Jacquelyn Gill wrote:

Watching The X-Files again reminds me of how big of an inspiration Scully was to me. Bigger role model than any living scientist.

I mentioned Spock before. The actor who created the character, Leonard Nimoy, has met lots of scientists that trace their lineage back to him.

(B)ecause Mr. Spock and Star Trek have inspired so many young viewers to become scientists, researchers who meet him are always desperate to give him lab tours and explain the projects they’re pursuing in peer-to-peer terms. Mr. Nimoy nods sagely and intones to each one, “Well, it certainly looks like you’re headed in the right direction.”

There is a lot of concern in the scientific community to provide scientists with role models and mentors. Those are important. But let’s never forget how many people are inspired by heroes from fiction. Dare I say, those made up characters might matter more in making decisions about what kind of person we want to become.

We tell the tale of heroes to remind ourselves that we also can be great.
- Tao of Shinsei

The Doctor is one of my heroes. I have yet to fight monsters or save the day, but I do love that in my job, I get to imagine and discover new things. The Doctor taught me that there’s a whole universe out there to explore.

Come on. We’ve got work to do!

Save the Day essays

Save the Day essays #1: Restoration
Save the Day essays #2: Recovery
Save the Day essays #3: Family
Save the Day essays #4: Rewatching the rebirth
Save the Day essays #5: Playing favourites
Save the Day essays #6: Anarchy in the U.K.

Related posts

A role model returns

External links

Carrying the torch – Doctor Who at 50

22 November 2013

Save the Day essays #6: Anarchy in the U.K.

A lot of fictional heroes are either police, or very thinly disguised police. And this was probably more true in the 1960s than now. Go back to that time, and you won’t see Batman as a vigilante, but a hero often working closely with Commissioner Gordon and the police.

When you strip away all the glamour – the cars and booze and women – James Bond is a civil servant. He’s an authority figure who’s working for “the man.”

The Doctor is an unusual hero because he doesn’t fit that mold.

In story terms, Doctor Who starts with a rapid succession of crimes by the show’s ostensible hero. Off screen, before the first episode starts, the Doctor steal his TARDIS (not “the” TARDIS, because there was originally more than one in the story) and goes on the run with his granddaughter Susan from his own people. This is promptly followed by kidnapping his granddaughter’s teachers, Ian and Barbara. Then, he’s hefting up a rock in an (unsuccessful) attempt to kill a caveman.

While the fugitive aspect of the Doctor was toned down even during Hartnell’s era, the Doctor remained, perhaps not a criminal or an anarchist, but certainly an anti-establishment character. In some of the classic series, it seemed that “toppling oppressive regimes” was a very close second to “stopping alien invasions” on the Doctor’s to do list.

The Troughton and Pertwee stories often played with the Doctor as a defiant figure. The Doctor was in conflict with the Time Lords, the established authorities on his planet. And how the Doctor resented the times he was yanked around like a dog on a chain to carry out missions from the Time Lords.

On top of that, the Doctor was forced to work with the authoritarian military (U.N.I.T.). This conflict led to some of the show’s most interesting relationships, the Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. There were frequently sharp words between the pacifist Doctor and the military man. That conflict never really died away even, as the characters became close. The Doctor respected the Brigadier personally, but never what he did professionally.

That slightly anarchic side of the Doctor continued through the classic series, whether in large strokes (the season-long battle when the White Guardian yanked the fourth Doctor’s chain, much like the Time Lords had before) or tiny details (the eighth Doctor pulling an alarm, being asked why, and responding, “To liven things up!”; the second Doctor being told, “You”re not allowed in there!” and saying, “Me? Not allowed? I’m allowed everywhere!”). The Doctor’s suspicion of Time Lord authority had been proved to be well-founded, as later stories showed an a system rife with political corruption and backstabbing.

I don’t think it’s any accident that many of the show’s biggest, best, most popular, most effective villains are authoritarian military regimes (the Daleks, the Cyberman, the Sontarans) and a despot, who name is authority incarnate (the Master).

When the show returned, the Doctor couldn’t be the tamed agent working for the Time Lords any more. They’re gone. The Doctor couldn’t rebel against that authority. The series played with the Doctor becoming the voice of power. In “New Earth,” he says:

I am the Doctor. If you don't like it, if you want to take it to a higher authority, there isn't one. It stops with me.

That theme goes even further in “The Runaway Bride” and “The Waters of Mars.”

Adelaide: Little people? What, like Mia and Yuri? Who decides they're so unimportant? You?

The Doctor: For a long time now, I thought I was just a survivor, but I'm not. I'm the winner. That's who I am. A Time Lord victorious.

Adelaide: And there's no one to stop you?

The Doctor: No.

Adelaide: [Noticeably angry] This is wrong, Doctor! I don't care who you are! The Time Lord victorious is wrong!

It might have been easier for the Doctor to be a rebel in the 1960s when he was young (so to speak; the show was young, in any case). It got more complicated the Doctor for the Doctor to fight powers when returned in the twenty-first century, middle-aged (the show as in its 40s).

But... But! The point of those stories is to show that the Doctor rejects having that much authority. The point of those stories is that he realizes he needs to be stopped from doing whatever he wants. He doesn’t become the thing he hates.

After you’ve watched your hero for a long time, you can lose track if some of the elements that resonate with you are because you have those character traits to begin with, or whether you picked them up from watching your hero.

That deep uneasiness with authority is something I share with the Doctor. I don’t automatically respect people in the military. I enjoy (sometimes more than I should) rattling cages and pushing back against overly rigid system. I like to rebel just a little bit. To liven things up.

But, like the Doctor, as you go, you tend to accrue more authority. You’re given responsibility, and the chance to make decisions that genuinely affect other people’s lives. The question becomes what you do with it: embrace it completely and wield it like a club to suit your own ends? Or do you try to use it sparingly, to genuinely improve the lot of others?

In the end, the Doctor is never part of “the system.” He’s powerful, but never “the power.” He’s one person in a box.

Related posts

Save the Day essays #1: Restoration
Save the Day essays #2: Recovery
Save the Day essays #3: Family
Save the Day essays #4: Rewatching the rebirth
Save the Day essays #5: Playing favourites

21 November 2013

Save the Day essays #5: Playing favourites

When the matter of a favourite Doctor comes up, for fans of the classic series, Tom Baker is usually mentioned. For fans of the new series, it’s David Tennant who is usually mentioned as a favourite.

My favourites from the old series and the new?

In theory, Tom Baker should be “my” Doctor, because he was the first one I saw, in Episode Three of “The Seeds of Doom.” And yes, I did have a very long scarf. But now, when I watch his stories, there is something that is just a little too self-indulgent about the performance.

For a while, I thought of Colin Baker as a favourite. I liked the uncompromising nature of his Doctor... and I liked him partly because others didn’t. It was a shame he never got a chance for some of the long-term plans he had for the character to be played out.

Classic series favourite: Jon Pertwee

As time has gone on, though, I think I have settled on Jon Pertwee’s portrayal of the Doctor as my favourite from the original series. His performance, with its elegance and charm and slightly over-the-top-costume, solidified the character of the Doctor, and the Doctor’s been that way more or less ever since.

Some of the moments I remember most strongly about Pertwee were the moments of moral outrage. His Doctor had a strong sense of right and wrong. Given that much of the third Doctor’s tenure was spent in the company of the military, the Doctor, a pacifist action hero, often had a lot to be angry about, railing against the blunt methods the soldiers around him favoured.

But Pertwee’s Doctor was also kind and generous, even to those who often exasperated him, like Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. And he would turn from exasperated to warm in second... and you believed those two emotions were both just there under the surface.

The third Doctor was a bit more of a straight scientist than most of the other portrayals, and as a working scientist today, that’s another element that appeals to me. Maybe it’s one reason why a personality quiz said this was the Doctor I most resembled.

Third Doctor video playlist

New series favourite: Christopher Eccleston

He saved the show.

If Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor hadn’t worked, Doctor Who would have had one season in 2005, died, given classic series fans one more DVD boxed set for their collection, and that would be that. I am absolutely convinced of that.

I’m also convinced that the show wouldn’t have been as successful if it had launched with David Tennant’s Doctor. It’s a worldwide hit now, but I remember when even within science fiction fandom and the the geek community, Doctor Who was a tiny specialized fan niche. The show was viewed as something of an embarrassment by a lot of people: too convoluted, obsessed with its long history, and too eccentric.

The ninth Doctor was the most grounded Doctor. Eccleston’s was probably the first interpretation of the character that wouldn’t look out of place walking down a street. The Doctor’s trademark leather jacket was not such an obvious costume as previous incarnations, but it was a great symbol of a traveler. The Doctor’s eccentricities were toned down a little. Doctor Who needed that kind of performance right then for new audiences to get into the show.

Like Pertwee, when I think about Eccleston, some of his angry scenes sometimes come to mind. Like Pertwee, Eccleston’s Doctor had that sense of moral outrage, and sometimes he wasn’t kind. My favourite ninth Doctor moment is where he is maddest, in “Bad Wolf”: “It means, ‘no.’”

But it’s also when he’s his strongest and most resolute.

And when I rewatched his stories earlier this year, I was struck by how often he was grinning. Madly. With complete exuberance. While he was described sometimes as the “gunslinger” Doctor, a man who was wounded and lonelier and more vulnerable than ever (watch him meet the last Dalek), there was always that joy of exploring the universe, and being excited to see what was around the next corner.

Finally, when talking about favourite Doctors, there is always a hint of, “Which version would you most like to be, or feels closest to you?” Let’s just say I own a leather jacket and leave it at that. And that personality quiz I mentioned above? Ninth Doctor was second choice.

Chris Eccleston saved Doctor Who. He saved a show I loved and help make it into a worldwide success and ensure that I got many, many more stories from the TARDIS. And I will always be grateful for that.

Ninth Doctor video playlist


Once, when I met actor Nicholas Courtney (Brigidier Lethbridge-Stewart) at a convention, he was asked which was his favourite Doctor. He replied with a line from “The Five Doctors” that sums up my feelings, and those of a lot of fans, near perfectly:

Splendid chaps. All of them.

Related posts

Save the Day essays #1: Restoration
Save the Day essays #2: Recovery
Save the Day essays #3: Family
Save the Day essays #4: Rewatching the rebirth
Great balls of fire!

20 November 2013

Save the Day essays #4: Rewatching the rebirth

Earlier this year, I started rewatching Doctor Who from its rebirth in 2005 with someone who had never seen it before, or even knew anything about the show. I was a fan of the classic series, and had seen pretty much everything there was to see, and it was fascinating to watch the reaction of someone seeing the series cold.

I knew she was hooked when she gasped when the store dummies moved in “Rose.”

It was shocking to her when the Doctor regenerated. “I thought this series was about those specific two characters!” But even more interesting was how exactly her reaction mirrored that of Rose. In “The Christmas Invasion,” Rose says something like, “This wouldn’t happen if the proper Doctor was here,” which prompted an emphatic “YES!” from the woman sitting next to me.

Ultimately, like Rose, she not only accepted David Tennant’s tenth Doctor, but now he’s her favourite Doctor (so far).

Then we hit “Doomsday.”

My god, I had almost forgotten how completely and utterly devastating that episode is.

We kept watching though the next season with Martha Jones. She didn’t like Martha very much, and said more than once, “Why couldn’t he have Donna as a companion?” (It took so much willpower for me not to even hint, “Just wait...”.)

On re-watching the show, it was the seasons after “Doomsday” that cemented in my mind how brilliant the new Doctor Who was, and how different than before. If it had been the old series, Rose would be all but forgotten after the next story. There might be a line or two, but then a new companion would be introduced, and on we go. (Watch how Liza Shaw is written out, or how long the Doctor refers to Sarah Jane Smith, in the old series.)

This time, the Doctor mourned. And he kept mourning for a long time.

That the Doctor didn’t just “get over it” was a testament to the show’s commitment to honesty in its emotions (even as it engaged in hand-waving and frippery over the details like what the sonic screwdriver could do). That honesty was part of the reason the new series was so successful in reviving the show.

I can’t help but wonder if it was being so committed to making sure those relationships in the show mattered was why, so often, Russell T Davies would hurt his characters so deeply. He said in an interview before the new series launched, “There will be times when it’ll just break your heart.” There aren’t many happy endings when companions leave in the new series.

Maybe it’s because when we cry, Davies know he created something that is meaningful to us watching.

Related posts

Save the Day essays #1: Restoration
Save the Day essays #2: Recovery
Save the Day essays #3: Family

19 November 2013

Tuesday Crustie: Manicure Monday

It’s a ghost crab; unsure of species. But I do note that the lovely manicured fingernails in the background you see are those of Alexis Rudd.

She posted this photo yesterday as part of a coordinated effort by Hope Jahren to photobomb Seventeen magazine’s regular “Manicure Monday” hashtag game on Twitter with images of science! Hope wrote:

I have small dream: that @seventeenmag will acknowledge #Science hands to its 700+k followers. But tonight it feels like a pretty big dream.

Here’s a quick video of the results:

External links

What I learned from #ManicureMonday

Tuesday Crustie: Think you’ve seen it all?

From I Can Haz Cheezburger, of course.

Feel my power!

Cartoon Action Hour is a role-playing game of vintage cartoons. And I really want the latest one...

The series focuses on an interdimensional madman known as Doctor Zen who brings his armies to our reality to transform our world into his world. The heroes of the series are special men and women who have been chosen by the “spirit” of each of their people and given a sacred weapon to fend off the threat with. In Britain, Merlin gives a young woman Excalibur. In Africa, Anansi gives a young man his “story web.” The spirit of Baba Yaga gives a young woman her mortar and pestle. And in the United States, the spirit of Coyote gives a young man his magical cloak that allows him to transform into any animal or person.

By the inimitable John Wick. Blurb from here; cover from here.

Related posts

The empire of Zen 
Master of Ancient and Forgotten Science: 2

External links

Spectrum Games