28 June 2013

Crowdfunding is the wind power of science

Base load or baseline power comes up in most discussions about energy and energy policy. The baseline is the amount of power that must be available at any and all times. You need something that can generate power constantly.

The argument from base load power is typically used to argue that we must pursue nuclear power and not renewables like wind and solar. Wind and sun are not constant, so therefore not dependable enough for base load power generation.

But base load power generation has problems. They put lots of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (e.g. coal), or depend on unevenly distributed resources that are difficult to transport and require expensive initial outlays (e.g., nuclear). And despite these problems, we can’t seem to get off these, particularly fossil fuels. So we get projects like the Keystone XL pipeline project and mountaintop removal mining.

I get a very similar vibe when I hear a lot of people talking about crowdfunding. There are a lot of concerns about whether crowdfunding science is “sustainable” (which obviously has a very different meaning than in energy). It is the same argument as base load power: people want there to be some stable funding that they can always count on.

For science in the United States and many other countries, the base load funding has been from federal government agencies. But like energy, base load funding has problems. Getting money is time consuming. Worse, it’s arguably falling below the minimum to keep things running efficiently. And sometimes it feels like everyone will just keep trying to work the same system instead of trying to establish any new ones.

In energy, many conclude that regardless of how you deal with the base load problem, there needs to be a portfolio of energy options. No, wind can’t do it alone... but in some places, maybe it can do a lot. In some places, solar might make more sense, in other places, geothermal may be an option. And they may all have to be built in concert with nuclear or something that can address the base load.

We should view crowdfunding in science like we do wind power in energy. It’s one part of a range of options for funding science. It won’t work equally well for every lab. But it shouldn’t be denigrated because of that. Because it won’t work for everything does not mean it won’t work for anything.

It is true that we still need to see more examples of projects brought to fruition because of crowdfunding. These things take time. But Alex Warneke will be presenting a poster with this on it:

It’s a good start.

P.S.— I started writing this post before I learned of a crowdfunded science project that raised one million dollars.

Additional: #SciFund has now racked up its first peer-reviewed paper! This is a huge milestone. I can’t wait to see more crowdfunded research hitting the journal pages.

External links

ARKYD: A Space Telescope for Everyone
How much can you get with science crowdfunding? How about ONE MILLION DOLLARS!
The First Fruits of #SciFund

Turbine photo by andre.vanrooyen on Flickr; mountaintop photo by nrdc_media on  Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

27 June 2013

Hazing in academic careers?

People (including me) sometimes describe academic careers as one long “hazing ritual.” Being on the other side of the process, I think there may be a better description of the discomfort that people sometimes go through early in their academic career.


When I first took this job, I showed up to all the grad student seminars I could. At other universities I had been to, this was just what you do. I asked questions after their seminars. Routinely. I heard later from other faculty members that this was freaking out our master’s students, because they weren’t used to that.

The next year, I was joined by two more new faculty members who had similar mindset and approach to grad seminars as me. The three of us went to a lot of grad student seminars, and we asked questions. They were often critical. I remember pointing out to one student that experiment she wanted to run examining four or five variables simultaneously and in combination with each other would require thousands of plants to get at any meaningful result.

For our interest and asking questions, the grad students dubbed the three of us “the axis of evil.”

I am sure that some students thought I was hazing them. In fact, students later told me that they’d heard I “went after” grad students “really hard, for no reason.” That I made students cry. (For the record, it is possible that students cried after their seminar, but not in front of me.) Put like that, and it sounds like the very definition of hazing.

But it wasn’t the case. I take no delight in making students squirm. Every question we asked, we asked because we were interested, and more importantly, we wanted the science to be good.

What students saw as hazing, I saw as culture shock.

Academic science has a distinct culture. If you were to sum it up in a word, that culture is “critical.” The brownie points get awarded to the people who are best at exposing the flaws in other people’s research. The names on the trophy cases are for the people who anticipate criticisms so adeptly that they design their experiments to answer all possible criticisms before they can be raised.

Students were not used to a culture of continual criticism. Most people outside university settings are not used used to the culture of criticism. It feels destructive and rude to a lot of people.

Immersed yourself in a different culture can be hard and scary, so even though our world is increasingly cosmopolitan, not many people do it. For instance, I live in South Texas, but I am only vaguely aware of the Hispanic or Mexican culture of the region. I don’t watch the television shows or listen to the music of that culture. Knowing that culture would take some concerted effort on my part.

In theory, students should know something about academic culture from their undergraduate degree, but let’s face it, the undergraduate experience is the wading pool in terms of the academic cultural experience. People who enter grad school are often jumping into the deep end for the first time, and, unsurprisingly, struggle to swim.

Just like there are signs marking the depth of the pool, we have to let prospective students know that it is a different and distinct culture in academic research.

Photo by VasenkaPhotography on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license; axis of evil from here.

25 June 2013

The cheetah and the hare: the great muscle match-up

There is one fact that everyone knows about cheetahs.

They’re adorable.

Actually, the one fact that everyone knows about cheetahs is that they are the fastest land animal. A recent paper came up with new estimates for just how fast (26 meters per second!), but didn’t answer the question of exactly how it is these animals outperform every other beast on land. So let’s do a quick stretch before taking a run at the answer...

Ultimately, the ability to move depends on muscle. There are different types of muscles: some generate lots of power fast* but tire easily, while others are not as explosive* but won’t tire easily. A forthcoming paper by West and colleagues compares cheetah muscles to another species to see if there is something exceptional about the cheetah’s muscles that can help explain this lanky cat’s stunning sprints.

In this corner, we have the undisputed speed champion, Acinonyx jubatus.

And in this corner, we have the challenger:

A bunny.

Rabbits are quick, but they are not in the cheetah’s league for speed. West and colleagues tried to compare the power output of the muscles from these two mammals, predicting that the cheetah’s muscle power would easily outstrip the rabbit’s power.

The rabbit won.

It wasn’t just that the the cheetah’s muscles and the rabbit’s muscles had comparable power, which would have been unexpected enough. The rabbit had significantly more power on a straight-up muscle fibre to fibre comparison.

This may not be the last word on this subject. The cheetah sample posed some problems. The team got the sample when a captive cheetah died unexpectedly, so the authors had to preserve the cheetah’s muscle tissue instead of working with fresh tissue. Estimating muscle power from preserved tissue is not a straightforward “put it in the machine and read out the number” measurement. There are assumptions in estimating power, the types of fibre, and so on.

All of these mean that it is possible that the muscles of cheetah’s produce more power than a rabbit when the muscles are in an intact, living cheetah. The authors suggest cheetah muscle power might be half again what they measured here, due to factors like the temperature of the living animal.

Even so, it may be that the secret to the cheetah’s speed is not so much in the physiology of the muscles, but how those muscles are attached to the skeleton, how the skeleton is shaped, or other factors.

And maybe, just maybe, like pro sports announcers keep telling us in races, it all comes down to just how bad the cheetah wants it.

* Dear physicists: Yes, I know I may be using this imprecisely. I will accept any rebukes in the comments.


West TG, Toepfer CN, Woledge RC, Curtin NA, Rowlerson A, Kalakoutis M, Hudson P, Wilson AM. 2013. Power output of skinned skeletal muscle fibres from the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). Journal of Experimental Biology: in press. DOI:

Related posts

The elephant and the shrew, an axonal story
The costs of being tall: lessons from giraffes

External links

Collars reveal just how extreme cheetahs can be

Cub by Tambako the Jaguar on Flickr; cheetah stretch by RayMorris1 on Flickr; cheetah against sky photo by RayMorris1 on Flickr; rabbit by Robobobobo on Flickr; all used under a Creative Commons license.

Tuesday Crustie: Clayoquot crab

From a joint blog from a couple of people I've known for a long time, Jim Murray and Russell Wyeth.

24 June 2013

Pleasure and procreation

“Lie back and think of England.”

Queen Victoria, by most accounts, did not enjoy sex. And yet, she had nine children. It’s a reminder that pleasure and procreation may not be closely correlated.

Yet there is an hypothesis that is (dare I say) seductive in its simplicity. Orgasms make sex feel nice for women, causing women to have more sex, and therefore more babies. Therefore, female orgasms provide a fitness advantage, and are adaptive.

Whether female orgasm is adaptive or not has been an ongoing scientific controversy, because it it very difficult to provide evidence for it. After all, people generally don’t track their orgasms very closely over the long term, even if they did like talking about their orgasms with scientists. Now, for a feature like female orgasm to be an adaptation shaped by by natural selection, a few things have to be true: female orgasm would have to be:

  • Variable across the population;
  • Heritable;
  • Make a difference to reproductive success. 

A short new paper provides presents more evidence about the last of these three.

Zietsch and Santtila used survey information from female twins in Finland, both identical (same genes) and non-identical (50% of gene shared). They reproduced some previous research the propensity for women to have orgasms has a genetic component.

They found a “weak but significant” correlation between orgasm rate and fertility. How weak? Correlation scores vary from 1 (perfect) to 0 (none), and the score here was closer to 0. Specifically, it was 0.06. This means whether woman have orgasms explains about one third of one percent of the variation in number of children (correlation score squared is how much variation is explained).

Furthermore, the correlation was weaker in identical twins, which was the opposite of what you would expect if orgasm rate caused the change in number of births. The authors found that how long the women had been in a relationship, and how often she had sex, were confounding most of the initial (tiny) relationship between female orgasm and number of children.

So even though there is variation and heritability, it is highly unlikely female orgasms make any difference to reproduction. Thus, this evidence suggests female orgasm is not adaptive: instead, it may just be a happy accident (very happy).

The body’s reaction to sex is not a sign of an increased chance of getting pregnant. This may be good news for women who are highly orgasmic: it means they do not need to double down on their birth control. No need for both the pill and a condom.


Zietsch BP, Santtila P. 2013. No direct relationship between human female orgasm rate and number of offspring. Animal Behaviour: in press. DOI:

22 June 2013

Squished squid, or: noci-ceph-tion

If you’re hurt, a physician doesn’t give you an IQ test to figure out how painkiller to prescribe. (“Oh, you knew the meaning of ‘lugubrious’ and solved this trigonometry question? Take another aspirin for that sprain before you go to bed.”) But this is sometimes the approach to determine if we should be worried about caring for animals like this:

This is a squid (Doryteuthis pealeii, formerly known as Loligo pealeii). It’s a cephalopod, related to cuttlefish and octopuses. Anyone who has studied cephalopods is always impressed by how clever they are, which I have documented many times on the blog before. No doubt part of the reason they have big brains is so they can coordinate all the muscles that let them control their colours, like in this video from Michael Bok:

So many people are so impressed with their braininess that, among all the millions of species of invertebrates, cephalopods are routinely singled out as deserving “special consideration” in ethical decisions about their care and use.

But, as I pointed out above, “intelligent” doesn’t necessarily line up in any meaningful way with “pain.” Pain is a hard to get a handle on, scientifically, but a first step to answering whether an animal might experience something like pain is to look for neurons that fire specifically when the tissue is damaged. Neurons tuned to damage are nociceptors.

The quest for nociceptors in the spineless has been incredibly patchy, with very few clear cases until the last decade or so. Despite the amount of interest in the brains of cephalopods, nobody had shown they had nociceptors. That’s where a new paper from Robyn Crook and colleagues come in.

Nociceptors can be tricky to detect using physiology. Their response often overlaps with the responses of other neurons. For instance, high temperatures might fire both regular thermoreceptors and nociceptors. But these two classes of neurons are still different, and convey different information to you. After all, a burn is perceived as more than just high temperature.

One of the common properties of nociceptors is that once active, they work overtime. Repeated stimulation causes greater response in the neurons. For instance, the barest touch a feather, which might have been pleasant normally, can be agony against sunburned skin. Crook and company showed very clearly that there are neurons in the fins of squid that respond to mechanical stimulation that way.

In the top trace below (“pre-crush”), you can see the spikes of sensory neurons that are responding to increasing pressure (red bars; 100 g always damaged the tissue):

After injury (“post crush”), the pressures that originally gave no spikes are responding with big spikes. Pressures that generated spikes before injury are creating even more after injury. This is one of the signs that these neurons are not just touch receptors that respond to pressure, but are nociceptors.

Another feature of nociceptors is that they often (though not always) respond to several different kinds of stimuli. In mammals, nociceptors might respond not only to a pinch, but to high temperatures (usually over 40°C) and acids. The squid nociceptors Crook and colleagues found don’t respond to high temperatures, though no word on other kinds of stimuli. Before you argue, “That makes sense, because squid are aquatic,” trout have nociceptors that are fired by high temperatures (Sneddon et al. 2003).

They also show that these nociceptive neurons become spontaneously active after injury in the whole animal. This is the first time that spontaneous activity of nociceptors has been shown in an invertebrate.

This is an important paper in the study of nociception. And these results are a reminder of the diversity of neural responses. That  high temperatures set off our nociceptors does not mean that they do the same in all other species.

Pain is what most people are interested in when they are talking about animal care concerns, but pain is not the same as nociception. Crook and colleagues are (rightfully) cautious about about what their research implies about pain:

Our findings do not directly address the speculation that cephalopods experience pain-like states(.)

These findings don’t answer the question of whether cephalopods feel pain as deeply as a mammal does. It is surely giving us some hints, though.

Full disclosure: I know first author Robyn Crook, having had her as a speaker at a symposium on nociception I co-organized.

Additional: Sea Rotmann asked about how the experiments were done. This is an excellent question. Nociception is related to pain. When you study nociception, you have to give extra thought to whether what you’re doing is needed.

The paper notes that the squid were treated the same way that vertebrates (probably fish) would be. They limited the number of animals used in live experiments, on the assumption that any effects would be large, and made injuries that were smaller than injuries the squid naturally got in their normal routines. Most of the experiments were on isolated fins removed from anaesthetized squid.

All of these say to me that Crook and company exercised due care in they way they carried out their research.


Crook RJ, Hanlon RT, Walters ET. 2013. Squid have nociceptors that display widespread long-term sensitization and spontaneous activity after bodily injury. Journal of Neuroscience 33(24): 10021-10026. DOI:

Sneddon LU, Braithwaite VA, Gentle MJ. 2003. Do fishes have nociceptors? Evidence for the evolution of a vertebrate sensory system. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 270(1520): 1115-1121.

Related posts

Do octopuses feel pain as deeply as mammals?
Tenth International Congress for Neuroethology, Day 5

Photo from here.

20 June 2013

The Zen of Presentations, Part 60: You can’t hear a paragraph

There’s a joke that academics speak in paragraphs.

It’s poking fun at the stereotype of academics being long-winded, but it brings up a good point: we don’t talk in paragraphs. Generally, written language follows spoken language. Paragraphs are unusual because they only exist in text.

I like to write scripts for presentations. But what you can see on the page is not necessarily something an audience can hear. For example, if I was to talk about several related topics, it would make sense to describe each one of them in their own paragraph. For instance, if I were writing about family pets, I might have three consecutive paragraphs starting like this:

“Cats are...”

“Dogs are...”

“Fish are...”

The line spacing and indenting of the paragraph would make it clear to a reader that each one of these was a separate bundle of ideas and claims. The typesetting alerts the reader to the change in topic.

In a presentation, though, only the presented can see the script. A presenter working from a script could easily barrel through cats, dogs, and fish without missing a beat, and mushing the three topics all together. Itwouldbeliketryingtoreadasentencewithoutspaces. Sure, you can do it, but it’s harder than it could be.

In a presentation, you need to develop verbal cues to let audiences know when you’re shifting from one topic to another. You might say, “That’s all I have to say about cats. Now, let me talk about dogs.” You might add in a few phrases to indicate change of topic; instead of saying, “Dogs are,” you might say, “On the other hand, dogs are...” or “Secondly, dogs are...” While these are phrases I might actively try to cut out of an essay, they might serve a much better purpose when someone is speaking out loud.

But you might not even have to write in specific phrase in a script. You could indicate the change in topic with just a pause, or a change in intonation, if you do it well.

Related posts

The Zen of Presentations, Part 55: Script doctoring

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

19 June 2013

Believing in imposters

A while ago, I was at a graduate program workshop that was geared towards recruiting under-represented minorities in science. One of the participants didn’t know what imposter syndrome was.

This surprised me. I’ve read a lot about this phenomenon, how it affects many people in academia, and how it is particularly hard on under-represented groups.

I explained what imposter syndrome was to the gentleman. “It’s when you think that you have lucked your way into a situation, and that you have no real talent or ability. You keep thinking that any second, people are going to find out, realize they made a terrible mistake, and take it all away from you.”

I saw a few heads nodding in recognition from a couple of other people in the room who had obviously heard of the term. Surprise turned to astonishment when this man refused to believe that doctoral students would ever suffer from imposter syndrome. He said something like, “When you’re a Ph.D. student, you have to have the confidence that you are going to make original and valuable contributions to science.”

He insisted that doctoral students must have healthy egos, kind of by definition. I think his view was that this was the only reason you would enter a doctoral program in the first place. (It was not surprising that this individual seemed to have a very healthy ego of his own. He was a very active speaker at the workshop.)

If anyone should know about imposter syndrome, I would have hoped that it would be someone in a workshop about recruiting minorities to grad school.

It was so disheartening to see him deny something that causes many people much stress. It was even more disheartening to hear such a dismissal in a forum devoted to improving recruitment and retention of students. And it was disappointing to hear it from a man, because “guys trivializing other peoples’ problems” is so clichéd.

If we are to ever improve academic careers, and get more diversity in our departments, the first step will have to be that we believe what people tell us. If someone tells you they have a problem, responding with, “You can’t actually have that problem” is not helpful.

Bonus! Me speaking at a recent graduate fair about the kind of program I help to run. I talk about 30 seconds in.

Hat tip to Scicurious for reminding me to finish this post with her own article on imposter syndrome!

External links

Imposter syndrome: beating the blue-eyed monster
Athene Donald: I still suffer from ‘Imposter Syndrome’

Photo by Erwin Verbruggen on flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

18 June 2013

Sight sighing: This is an embarrassment

Our university is going to merge and grow with the aim of becoming an emerging research institution, and is going to establish a medical school in the process. Given that these are the state goals of our institution, that this appeared in my inbox this morning was a bit of a shock.

I am very pleased to announce that Braco has accepted our invitation to come to South Texas and share his talent of “Gazing” with the community at large and the UTPA community starting this Wednesday, June 19th, at 2 p.m. with a FREE web live streaming, we can all have access via a computer, iPad, iPhone, etc., from all over the world. ...

The weekend of June 22nd & 23rd, Braco will be at the Holiday Inn Airport McAllen, TX doing group sessions for all who want to experience firsthand from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. for the community at large. ... During the event, Spanish/English translation will be available for each session.

Then for his last day in Texas, Braco has accepted to allow FREE access to all UTPA staff, faculty and students of the web live streaming at the Student Union on Monday June 24th from 11 – 5 pm. Just bring your UTPA ID with you to get in! Come and be engaged with the gazing of Braco hourly for 5-7 minutes!

I also want to take this opportunity to extend this invitation to South Texas College (STC) and University of Texas-Brownsville (UTB) nursing & other health-related field students & faculty to join us for this event. Bring your school ID with you! Not open to the public in general!

This is an embarrassment to our university. Although most of the material concerning Braco (pronounced braht-zo) tosses around the word “healer,” a better one is “charlatan.”

Braco normally charges $8 for him to gaze on you for about five to eight minutes. He does not speak in public. And there is a distinct lack of promises:

Braco also comes with many disclaimers. He does not call himself a healer or guarantee any results. He does not consider himself a prophet or a religious leader, does not espouse a particular philosophy and does not want anyone to follow him. The impact of his gaze may be sudden or gradual, subtle or profound. If there’s any impact at all.

Another article also uses the word “healing,” and notes:

A promotional video features many followers who attest to experiencing healing miracles, and one who claims to have seen Braco shape-shift. (Disappointingly, this follower does not say what shape Braco shifted into.) ...

Less mysterious – he also says he’s got an advanced degree in economics – is the Braco line of 14-karat gold jewellery.

Karen Stollznow notes in a CSICOP article:

Braco makes many claims for someone who claims to not make any claims.

As Skepchick put it:

Best. scam. evah.

Why has Braco agreed to do this for the university? I wager that he will use this to promote his credibility: “Braco has been invited to the prestigious University of Texas system!” Because the email describes this as being sponsored by our Department of Nursing. The email concludes:

This event has been sponsored by the University of Texas-Pan American Nursing Department and Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing Pi Omicron Chapter 397.

Why would a Nursing department sponsor this? (Additional: In an email to me, the department chair says, “We are not providing any financial support or ‘supporting this event’ in any way other than providing an announcement. ... The nursing honor society Pi Omicron has organized this event.” That’s a very limited set of activities, and I wouldn’t normally call it “sponsorship.” ) The email again:

“At UTPA Nursing Department, we strive to prepare our graduates to meet the health care needs of a culturally diverse society. We do so by preparing our students to develop critical thinking skills in order to provide holistic (mind-body-spirit) care to people who have interwoven spiritual, biopsychosocial, and cultural characteristics. Although these unique people are viewed as being ultimately responsible to act in their own best interests, our students, as client advocates, can help people maximize their mind-body-spirit wellness. As such, it is imperative to expose our students to many myriad complementary approaches to wellness and wellness-restoration from the lay, folk, and professional health sectors.”

The word “holistic” appears a lot on the department’s description of “BSN Philosophy,” too. Poor “holism”; a perfectly good word ruined by overuse by those practising pseudoscience. The degree philosophy purports to be in favour of critical thinking, but this is very much not in evidence here.

If you found out another department in your university was promoting this, what would you do? (Additional: As noted above, the Department’s involvement is minimal. It is a student honors society organizing it, which is almost as disappointing.)

External links

Braco the gazer
Gazing balls: I’m looking at you, Braco
Braco The Gazer: A New Age Guru With Nothing To Say
Braco brings his healing gaze to Arlington
Braco Gazing Event: Long-Haired Croatian 'Healer' Will Stare At You For $8 At Crystal City Sheraton

Tuesday Crustie: National Lobster Day, 2013

This past Saturday was National Lobster Day (15 June every year), and I thank Kayle Goff for her devotion to the cause:

17 June 2013

It’s the law! Governor signs off on new Texas university

This snuck by me on Friday: Governor Perry has signed the bill that will create a new university in South Texas.

Perry highlighted the Valley university legislation as some of the most important to emerge from this year’s session.

“This session will expand opportunities for success, and help us keep our state the best place in the nation to live, work, raise a family and run a business," he said in a statement.

UT System said a ceremonial bill signing in the Valley will happen sometime in the next few weeks.

Relevant to my interests are these:

In the more immediate future, is nearly $200 million for construction at UTPA and UTB; $100 million of that earmarked for a new UTB campus, the rest for a Science Building II at UTPA.

Time ran out on securing the funds this regular session in the Legislature.

The science building, where I work, was not completed and had much empty shell space when I arrived. But it has been full for several years now, and there is a desperate need for new research and office space.

External links

Perry signs bill to merge Rio Grande Valley universities

16 June 2013

Comments for first half of June 2013

Inkfish covers a paper that asks people at various stages of education to draw neurons. Hey, did they copy from me?

I make a cameo appearance on Surprising Science, a Smithsonian Museum blog, about that idea that lobsters are immortal. I say again: lobsters are not immortal, despite what the Singularity blog claims. I have my severe doubts about the other four, too.

You gotta see this fish. Deep Sea News covers the first video of the elusive oarfish alive and in the wild. Just amazing stuff.

Undergraduates, Charles Lin has done you a favour in compiling a great list of advice on how to get involved in undergraduate research.

Terry McGlynn about going to conferences as a researcher from a not well known for research university at Small Pond Science.

14 June 2013

“Exploit your size”

Nina K. Simon is one of those writers who writes about one thing on the surface, but has lessons that apply to many areas. In her list of what she has learned in reviving a museum, a few things resonated with me:

Exploit your size. There are unique advantages to every budget level. Big organizations seem comfortable with this – they make big plays based on their scale. But many small organizations seem to spend too much time trying to emulate big organizations rather than exploiting the opportunity to be more personal, more idiosyncratic, and less bureaucratic. No one opens a small coffeeshop and thinks, “we’ll really be successful if we are just like Starbucks.” The whole point is to not be Starbucks. Instead of apologizing for the “lack of professionalism” of small institutions, we should celebrate the ways that our programming can lead to stronger engagement on an individual level. My first year at the MAH, I would often say that we are a “no money, no bullshit” operation. We may not have funding for your project, but we won’t tie it up in red tape either. You want to have an artist collective sleepover at the museum? Sure. Want to give visitors sledgehammers and invite them to help make a giant metal sculpture? Sounds great. Want to give free admission spontaneously as a gift to visitors who need it? No problem. Just as a large organization can exploit its resources, we can do the same in a different way as a small organization.

This made me think a lot about #Scifund, crowdfunding, and “small science” as I have dubbed it. It may have been Nina’s “no red tape” comments. I see many people who say “crowdfunding can’t work,” when what they really mean is, “crowdfunding can’t work for me.” They may be true, but maybe others have different goals and advantages than you do.

Unfortunately, at an institutional level, there often seems to be little interest in supporting this kind of diversity. This is why her last tip also matters:

Remember why you got into this. The reason that we do this revolutionary work is in service of a bigger mission(.) Whatever your personal focus, it’s worth thinking about whether you are working on a problem that you consider to be truly important. ... Find a problem that is truly important, and you will find a revolution worth fighting for.

Go read the rest if you are at all interested in making positive change.

External links

Memo from the Revolution: Six Things I’ve Learned from our Institutional Transformation

13 June 2013

Is this good advice?

Things that a student heard at a workshop for students wanting to go into doctoral programs:

  • A 3 page CV is too long.
  • Ph.D. programs are looking for “well rounded students”, not people who are just focused on research, so not appearing “well rounded” is a weakness in a CV.
  • Don’t include relevant classes that you have taken.
  • Include clubs in your CV.
  • Include community service in your CV, and volunteer activities.
  • Don’t put so much research activities.
I think this is terrible advice. This sounds like advice from someone used to industry resumes (which usually are limited to 1-2 pages), not academic CVs. And especially not CVs from students looking to get into grad school in STEM fields. Less emphasis on research?


Additional: Reactions from Twitter:

Neuroscience doesn’t need a grand theory to advance

In a new post on the planned BRAIN Initiative, the National Science Foundation characterizes neuroscience as:

Desperately seeking a theory

Not just seeking, but desperately seeking.

In other words, scientists lack a basic, overarching theory about healthy brain function that would explain how memories, thoughts and behaviors emerge from dynamic activities in the brain – any brain.

That doesn’t sound like a theory of the brain. That sounds like what is desired is a theory of consciousness. This does not surprise me; it’s the big hairy audacious goal for many neuroscientists. I have a message for my fellow neuroscientists about this.

People, chill out. You don’t need a theory to make excellent progress in understanding how any of those things work.

Let me draw a parallel. Consciousness is a network property of certain combinations of matter. Life is also a network property of certain combinations of matter. We want to explain what are the conditions necessary for those network properties to appear. So, the task of understanding consciousness for neuroscientists is very similar to the task of understanding of life for biologists.

We do not have a theory of life in biology.

By this I mean no theory predicts what configurations of matter are capable of life. Could you have a silicon based life form? A life form that exists in liquid methane instead of water? We have no idea. We have been surprised by extremophiles on Earth that live in conditions that were generally predicted not to be able to support life.

In my estimation, one of the last hopes for a unifying theory that separated life from non-live was vitalism: the idea that all living things had an “essence” that non-living ones did not. But we now know that there is no clear distinction between animate and inanimate matter, and vitalism is dead.

Of course, we may develop a theory of life, particularly if we can ever discover other independent origins of life, whether it be “shadow life” on our planet, evidence of life on other planets, or develop artificial life.

It’s not that we lack theories in biology; we do have them. Evolutionary theory and cell theory are the two main (some would argue only) theories in biology. But neither of these do the job of predicting what configurations of matter have what properties of life, and which don’t.

Similarly, neuroscience does have has theories: neuron theory, for instance. It doesn’t explain the “consciousness, but then again, its biological relative, cell theory, doesn’t explain “life,” either.

Yet this lack of a theory has not prevented an explosion in our understanding of biology. Inheritance and the development of complex multi-celled embryos from single cells were once viewed as great mysteries. Work on DNA and stem cells and gene regulation and so much more means that we have extremely good understanding of these processes. We did all of that without a “theory of life,” and there is no end in sight for biological discoveries. Biologists are not complaining that not having a “theory of life” is limiting their research. Almost nobody in biology is worrying about it.

I am not saying it wouldn't be nice to have a grand unified theory for consciousness. Theories are wonderful things to have. With the Society for Neuroscience meeting being one of the biggest scientific meetings in the world, it seems that neuroscientists are not being limited in making discoveries by their lack of an overarching theory.

Hat tip to Erin McKiernan.

Related posts

When is neuroscience not neuroscience? When it’s neurobiology
Nominees for the Newton of neuroscience

External links

Prying open the black box of the brain

Photo by FunGi_on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons licence.

12 June 2013

How could it be there’d never been a woman in charge of Science before?

On a Science magazine policy podcast, incoming editor Marcia McNutt was asked about being Science’s first woman editor (5 minutes into the podcast). She replied:

Well, I think it’s perhaps rather remarkable that here in the year 2013, I would be the first, because in my view, there have been stellar women who have been the backbone of Science magazine for many, many years. If you look at  the top editorial staff members, and the top brains behind the business of Science magazine, it has been largely a female enterprise for many, many years. So the fact that it has taken this long to have a female editor-in-chief is somewhat perhaps unusual.

Sadly, I’d argue that never having a woman in a top editorial job before is neither “remarkable” nor “unusual.” It’s called sexism. And this is not a problem of the past, it is a current problem. I’m not saying Science has been sexist. What I am saying is that women are still poorly represented in leadership roles in scientific societies and journals in science generally.  That a journal has never had a female editor before is not surprising. I hope that a journal not having a more equal representation will be surprising now and in the future.

Don’t whitewash the long history of sexist behaviour in science.

External links

Marcia McNutt interview

Sharing responsibility for bad papers

When you read a bad paper, whose fault is it?

Robert Horvitz (quoted in Box 1 here; hat tip to Mike Taylor) and Fred Schram (who I quoted a couple of years back) both put the burden squarely on the authors. This bothers me, as I started to articulate yesterday.

Journals routinely take credit when things go right. Journals and publishers love to talk about how they “add value” to papers. Journals talk about “attracting” high quality submissions. They have “rigorous” peer review. When impact factors go up, it must be due to the good job the journal’s editorial board is doing.

But when things go wrong, and a journal is faced with charges that a paper should not have been published, it is all to easy for editors to wash their hands of the whole thing and let the authors twist in the wind. For instance:

Peer review does not end with publication. In the event that an accepted manuscript is questioned by the scientific community on the basis that the authors acted unethically, plagiarized, or where there are queries relating to the data or interpretation of the data, the editors will contact the authors to investigate unethical/fraudulent/plagiarized works or the journal editor will invite or accept letters to the editors.

Notice anything there about acknowledging a bad decision? About apologizing? About ensuring that reviewers are not asked to review for a journal again? Anything about investigating the process that led to a bad decision? I’m not even saying it was necessary in that case, but it exemplifies the “we followed procedure, we did nothing wrong” arguments that are routinely pulled out in response to criticism.

Some journals are quite good at critical self-appraisal of their overall processes. For instance, Nature showed some good reflection about sexism in their editorial process. But it is much rarer for a journal to show the same reflection over any single paper, except perhaps for clerical errors. Again, I struggle to think of cases.

I know it’s human nature to want to take credit and avoid blame, but mature people suck it up and take the heat as well as the glory. Editors and journals should share some of the load when poor papers get through their editorial decision making. I would also like it if reviewers would admit some culpability, but am not holding my breath, given the reviewing procedures at most journals protect anonymity to the extent they do.

Related posts

The Crustacean Society 2011: Day 3
Back room science

External links

Caustic volleys and the sting of peer review: what’s the solution?

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

11 June 2013

Tuesday Crustie: Up periscope!

Fiddler crabs’ eyestalks let them get a peek above the waterline.

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

10 June 2013

Back room science

We now return to one of our regular features, “Let’s impugn all the bloggers.” Let’s start with Geoffrey North, using the pulpit of Current Biology.

But there is also, I think, a danger here, which lies in the very speed of response, and the way that blogs are essentially “vanity publications” which lack the constraints of more conventional publishing — they are not reviewed, and do not even have to pass the critical eye of any editor.

North is not alone. Fred Schram, the Journal of Crustacean Biology editor, recently wrote much the same, as a closing note in a piece mostly about open access (albeit in a society newsletter rather than an editorial in the journal itself):

One can already see what lies down the road beyond that point, something truly (open access) – the blogosphere! But do we want to collect our scholarly information by monitoring personal blogs. There will be no peer review, no quality control of data presentation, no fixed PDFs, no assurance that what we read represents actual work has been done as claimed.

What strikes me about both North’s and Schram’s comments is they reflect a desire for there to be a back room. You know, the place where work gets done, out of sight. Then, after all the real deals are made, a glossy fait accompli version that lacks blemishes is presented for “the official record.”

There’s a reason that people don’t like back room dealings. It shuts people out. There’s no transparency. David Brin has often noted that we tend to demand transparency for everyone else, but privacy for ourselves.

Blogs have allowed a bunch of scientists who don’t often get invited into the back room to start commenting on what comes out of it. It’s no surprise that those in the back room, unused to the glare, might hate this.

These arguments also seem weird to me in emphasizing “the scientific record.” While vetting and quality control are good things, they have hardly produced a pristine “scientific record” (see Retraction Watch). It’s always been messy.

North continues:

I do think there are dangers in a world where the critics are less accountable than in the more “traditional” system of peer-reviewed journals (which I well appreciate can be frustratingly slow in processing critical feedback).

How are journals, and their editors, more accountable than “critics”? It seems that more often than not, getting even egregious abuses of editorial power corrected is like pulling teeth. The arsenic life paper has been discredited, but not retracted, and there has never been any explanation of how the paper passed peer review. A weak paper claiming genetically modified corn caused cancer in rats rated responses, but not retraction, and there was never any explanation of how the paper passed peer review. An investigative journalist had to be the one to hold the feet of The Lancet and its editor, Richard Horton, to the fire after Andrew Wakefield’s untrue anti-vaccine paper was published. Editors can just say of problematic papers, “This passed peer review. Peer review is anonymous, so we can’t tell you anything about who the reviewers were or what they said.” This is a strange version of accountability.

Many journals have no “letters to the editor” section, or comments, or anything similar. And even if a journal does have such a section, who decides what is fit to see print? The self-same editors. Direct critiques of journal editorial processes in the same journals, or even different journals have been, in my estimation, rare. I am trying to think of examples. If anyone has them, please add them to the comments.

Journal editors may have a skewed view of this issue, given that they alone have an overview of the entire editorial process. Nobody else does. Everyone else is kept at least partially in the dark, deliberately so. Authors generally don’t know who reviewers are. Reviewers don’t communicate with each other. And none of them have much opportunity to have a dialogue with the editor.

North asks:

What is the solution here? How can one have a system that allows for rapid critical assessment, but ensures any such criticism is fair and reasonably based, not based on misunderstanding or ill-motivated?

Everything that North concern trolls about the blogosphere has always been happening at scientific conferences. And yet somehow, scientific discourse does not collapse at conferences. Nobody there talks about the need for “solutions” for the problems of criticisms at conferences.

We’ve been down this road before. Here’s a small sample taste of how the authors of a review in BioEssays dismissed Rosie Redfield (and anything else that might be on the Internet) blogging about on arsenic life:

(T)hese “chat room” environments are not constrained or screened and at times become ad hominem attacks, which have no place in the scientific literature.

Let us not forget that a representative of the American Chemical Society said this of bloggers:

“We find little constructive dialogue can be had on blogs and other listservs where logic, balance, and common courtesy are not practiced and observed,” Glenn S. Ruskin, the group’s director of public affairs, said in an e-mail message.

We had L. Henry Edmunds, Jr., the editor of the Annals of Thoracic Surgery, ranting against “bloggists”, telling Retraction Watch:

It’s none of your damn business.

I’m grateful to Embargo Watch for recording the reaction of the public information officer of a major university, the University of Manchester’s Aeron Haworth, brushing off Ed Yong (who told this story on the now defunct Posterous website):

I think you have all you need for a blog.

Common factors in all of these? For one, most have vested interests in the status quo of scholarly publishing: editors, society representatives, and so on. Large institutions used to be able to control attention because of the vast infrastructure needed to reach a mass audience. They are now freaking out that their infrastructure doesn’t mean that much. They face competition from people like bloggers who gain attention by doing remarkable things.

As Christie Wilcox pointed out, North’s article does not give any examples of where something bad happened. Not one. Not a single, solitary case where bloggers resulted in some poor scientists unfairly being tarnished. In contrast, North provides a positive example of where blogging had a good effect (Rosie Redfield’s critique of arsenic life).

Here’s my challenge: instead of jumping to “The Internet is bad” meme with both feet, instead of just bemoaning the blogs are bad, point some fingers. Name some names. Be specific about events that unfolded in ways harmful to the general scientific community, and not just things that make journals look bad.

Previously, I said nobody can assert they have authority. I’d like to note that the flip side is also true: you cannot dismiss authority, either. When editors and journals try to claim they have authority and bloggers don’t, they lose the very thing they want to have.

Hat tip to Malcolm M. Campbell, who asked for blogger’s response to this editorial.

Additional: Matthew Francis and Justin Kinney both counter the fetishization of journal peer review evidenced above by pointing out the success of arXiv.

I also became aware of PubPeer through this article, and reposted this piece there.


North G. 2013. Social media likes and dislikes. Current Biology 23(11): R461. DOI: ; free full text
Schram F. 2013. To be open or not to be open: That is the question. The Ecdysiast 32(1): 7. http://www.thecrustaceansociety.org/uploads/Ecdysiast_32-1_May_2013.pdf

Related posts

Wrong approach
Arsenic life, four months later: pay no attention to the internet
Arsenic life, four months (and a bit) later: Reviewers with shovels
The deal is rotten
Dear Virginia
Taxonomists as science survivalists
Retraction classic: physics and feminism

External links

On Current Biology editorial
On The Danger Posed By Non-Expert Critiques Published To Large Audiences
Speak up and matter

ACS to bloggers: Shove it
Why was that paper retracted? Editor to Retraction Watch: “It’s none of your damn business”
How to demonstrate you’re not about transparency — and piss off reporters — as a PIO

Picture by by LALLA - ALI on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

05 June 2013

How to make a zombie: The SICB symposium

Some time ago, I hatched a plot with Kelly Weinersmith. It was like this:

Yes, exactly like that. It was an idea that pinged around and got rejected once before it ultimately found a home.

But I am proud to announce that at the next Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting, to be held here in Texas, Kelly and I will be co-organizing the symposium, “Parasitic manipulation of host phenotype, or how to make a zombie.”

We’re excited to have this symposium at SICB, because this is truly an integrative topic. Trying to crack this problem requires the help of taxonomists, ethologists, ecologists, neurobiologists, and more. SICB is one of the few meetings where workings in all those different kinds of disciplines mingle together.

Mark the meeting on your calendar! It’s 3-7 January, 2014.
Now that we have embarked on a nefarious plot, we are in the market for a skull-shaped island.

Team CloneZombie... doing our part to keep Austin weird!

External links

SICB parasite symposium page
SICB 2014 meeting page
Symposium: Parasitic manipulation of host phenotype, or how to make a zombie (Co-organizer Kelly Weinersmith’s blog)

04 June 2013

03 June 2013

Carnival of Evolution #60: Party like it’s 1953

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a special edition of the Carnival of Evolution. It’s the big six oh!

In honor of that achievement, we shall share this carnival’s space with other events celebrating their sixtieth anniversary.

Trillions and trillions... if viruses were dollars, we’d all be as rich as Richie Rich (debuted 1953). Carl Zimmer brings us the story in Meet Your New Symbionts: Trillions of Viruses.

“Think of the happiest things / It’s the same as having wings...” is what they sing in Peter Pan (Disney version debuted 1953). Birds may beg to differ, having gone to hard way to evolving flight. The feathers on a new dinosaur, Auronis xui are examined at the Pterosaur Heresies.

Evolution can be fast and relentless, like a Chevy Corvette (first built in Flint, Michigan in 1953). If that’s your thing, you need to check this post on Relentless Evolution at The Molecular Ecologist.

Evolution can be fast, like the first plane to hit twice the speed of sound (Mach 2 reached November 1953). The Digital Cuttlefish has the story about how roach bait lost it sweet allure for its intended targets, who now find the traps bitter.

The physics of sound are demanding. Test pilots like Jackie Cochrane (first women to fly past Mach 1) could attest to this. An unassuming moth, like Cochrane, broke a new record in sound this month, with its ability to detect extraordinarily high sound frequencies, covered here at NeuroDojo. (But what’s the selective pressure?)

Look! In the manuscript! Is it a cladogram? Is it a phylogeny? It’s... supertree! No, this is no parody, like Superduperman (appeared in Mad magazine in 1953), but a real method in evolutionary biology. Learn more about the Supertree method at Teaching Biology.

Sometimes, the ruthless anti-hero James Bond (who first appeared in Casino Royale in 1953) is described as a bit of an animal. This means he has tight junctions and radial cleavage. (I saw lots of cleavage in the Bond stories, but not like that...) At least, that’s what Teaching Biology tells us in the examination of what it means to be an animal.

In 1953, Russell and Monroe proclaimed that gentlemen prefer blondes. However, being brunette might be better indicators of fitness, given that dark pigments are costly to produce. At least, that’s the case in for dark colour in crickets, covered here at NeuroDojo.

Many considered the first issue of Playboy magazine a scourge (released December 1953), but let’s face it, a magazine is an amateur scourge compared to the blight that destroyed the potato crops of Ireland, leaving the Irish with nothing to eat. John Hawks covers some recent work on the potato pathogen at John Hawks’ weblog.

In 1953, you could get over 70% of American households turning into watch one television show, like I Love Lucy. Mass media was here! Today, there are all kinds of media, including the pervasive podcast! Neuroanthropology tells us about a recent Neuroanthropology podcast that answers such pressing questions as, “What is it and why should I care?”

For those with a taste for live performance, Broadway say the debut of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in 1953. The Galápagos Islands have sometimes been called a crucible of evolution for all the wonderful organisms that have invaded and adapted to those hard specks of land in the ocean. Many biologists want to go there, and Eco-evolutionary Dynamics got the chance and describes the trip to the Galápagos for us.

It has not escaped our notice that the announcement of DNA structure occurred in 1953 as a trio of papers in Nature, which ultimately led to the proliferation of modern molecular techniques so widely used in evolutionary biology today. For instance, gene expression is used to examine the evolution of the eyes of cave bugs, covered here at NeuroDojo.

Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, and became the first Queen of Canada, which matters to Canadians like myself and T. Ryan Gregory. The debate over whether the monarchy is superfluous invites almost as much controversy as whether large swathes of DNA are also superfluous. Ryan examines genome reduction in the context of ongoing “junk DNA” debates at Genomicron.

Viruses were big news in 1953, particularly with the announcement of the polio vaccine. Viruses are central figures in this Story behind the paper at The Tree of Life. It’s largely about snot... or, to use the technical term, mucus.

Another evolutionary controversy... one might even say a war (though not an interplanetary war, like the one depicted in George Pal’s classic telling of War of the Worlds) concerns group selection. David Sloan Wilson has been a long-time proponent of the idea. Evolving Economics examines Wilson’s paper on intentional change.

Speaking of worlds, in the World Series of baseball, the New York Yankees were on an incredible winning streak. They won their fifth world series in a row in 1953. Did modern humans have a similar winning streak against our Neanderthal relatives? Trapped by the Box investigates the possible role of culture in the eventual extinction of the Neanderthal lineage.

And for the big finale, the pinnacle, the Everest, as it were (which was first climbed in 1953 by Hillary and Norgay), we have God and Evolution, the conclusion from John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts.

Want more? Join the Carnival of Evolution on your favourite social media site!

Want more 1953? Here is more and more and more!

What...? Sixty installments for the Carnival of Evolution, not sixty years?