31 March 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Made in Taiwan

Even though I’m nominally an expert in crustaceans, I’m embarrassed by how little I know about them. If I was walking down a beach and saw this little guy, I would recognize it as Emerita – which I should, since they were one of the species in my doctoral thesis! – but I would be completely oblivious to this being a new species.

I might, and I stress might, clue into to the colour. The blue patch at the front around the eyes is something that is different than in other mole crabs, but it’s still quite subtle.

Of course, I’m unlikely to spot this walking down a beach, since its name, Emerita taiwanensis, indicates where it’s from: Taiwan. They’ve been found only at two locations, and only once from one of those two.


Hsueh P-W. 2015. A new species of Emerita (Decapoda, Anomura, Hippidae) from Taiwan, with a key to species of the genus. Crustaceana 88(3): 247-258. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/15685403-00003413

17 March 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Pinch me, I’m Irish

Something for St. Patrick’s Day! (I get to celebrate, because my grandmother’s original name was Murphy, which is about as Irish as you get.)

This green crab (Carcinas maenas) can be found in the waters around Ireland. Unfortunately,it’s been distributed around the world, and is no one of the world’s worst invasive species.

However, Ireland also has its own problems with unwelcome visitors. My most recent paper looks at this.

If St. Patrick were alive today, his job should be casting out alien crayfish, not snakes.

13 March 2015

Jobs at UTRGV

The Department of Biology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley has put out the call for two tenure-track assistant professor positions!

Applications close 23 March 2015.

If you have questions about the institution, department, and so on, you can find all my pertinent contact information on my home page.

Come work with me!

12 March 2015

The Zen of Presentations, Part 68: Literally too literal

I’ve been trying to teach my biology students about the importance of narrative in presentations. As part of their task, I’ve been using two parts of the techniques elaborated in the book Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking (reviewed here).

Summarize your talk in a single thematic word.

Summarize your talk in a single, “And... but... therefore” sentence.

Students are finding this a much harder task than I expected. I was particularly surprised by how many of them stumbled over drilling down their talk to just one word.

Over and over again, students are submitting just be something that is in the paper. If I give them a paper on coral reef ecosystems, their word is, “coral.”

It would be like someone asked to write a single word for last year’s movie Guardians of the Galaxy, and saying, “spaceships.” Or worse, “galaxies.” Sure, there are spaceships in the movie, but that isn’t the theme of the story.

Basically the movie is about characters with a traumatic family history getting over their trauma to forge a new family. Sure, the movie uses the word “friend” but the point is still clear. Drax lost his whole family; Gamora’s family was abusive; Peter Quill’s dad abandoned him, his mom died, and he was adopted; and Rocket and Groot are orphans who’ve never really had parents. The movie is all about these characters learning to surmount their history, communicate, and forge a new family. (From here.)

“Teamwork” or “family” or “trauma” might be better.

This literal take on their topics carries through the main presentation. Over and over again, students get focused on the minutia. They spend an enormous amount of time on minor points. When presenting a singe scientific paper, a large number of students spend a lot of time on methods, up to and including which institutional board did the ethics review for the experiments.

It may be that the sort of education that science majors get tends to be way focused on details, and seemingly irrelevant details are often exactly the sort of knowledge students are tested on. I don’t know how to get them out of their heads and stepping back to see more “forest” and less on “every leaf on every tree.”

Related posts

Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking review

11 March 2015

“What’s our Nature paper?”

A few years ago, a candidate interviewing for a gig in our department said that he routinely asked people in the lab, “What’s our Nature paper?”

I have severe concerns about chasing after glamour magazine publications. But that question stuck with me. I may hate the way the question is phrased, but I understand what the question is asking at a deeper level. It’s asking, “What research will do you do that would be important, not just to your narrow field, but to science generally? What research would you do that would change the world?”

And when I thought about my own work, I didn’t have an answer.

It’s a well known thing in psychology that when things go wrong, we blame external influences. (But when things go right, we credit ourselves.) And it’s increasingly easy to say, “I can’t have a manuscript worth sending to Nature because grants are hard to get these days, my teaching load is too heavy, the best students won’t apply to my program, we don’t have a doctoral program...” and on and on and on.

And then I asked, “What if none of those were problems? What if I had no other commitments, and all the supplies and cash and colleagues I needed? What would be my Nature paper?”

And I still don’t have an answer.

Maybe as you go on in your career, you get complacent. You have a line of research, and you know what the next experiment is for the next few papers. And you don’t stop to ask yourself, “Forget about external limitations, do I have an question or an idea that – if I could answer it well and before anyone else – would shake things up?”

Ambition has a bad rap in science. There are a lot of people with massive egos who are very ambitious. But ambition is not all bad. You can achieve a lot of positive things if you are ambitious. So maybe it’s worth asking yourself, “Am I being ambitious enough?”

Myself, I have the ambition to live 300 years. I will not live 300 years. Maybe I will live one year more. But I have the ambition.
Why will you not have ambition? Why?
Have the greatest ambition possible.
You want to be immortal? Fight to be immortal. Do it.
You want to make the most fantastic art of movie? Try.
If you fail, it’s not important. We need to try.
Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jodorowksy’s Dune (2014)

10 March 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Young but old

This is a baby crab, therefore young.

This is also a reconstruction of a 150 million year old fossil, therefore old. Huag and colleagues show this is the oldest baby crab in the fossil record (150 million years!). That it’s the oldest may not be as impressive when you consider that it’s only the second baby crab in the fossil record ever found. So it had a fifty-fifty chance to be oldest!

What a spectacular find.

For more on this discovery, read here. I’d like to direct you to the original paper, but despite Nature Communications being an “open access journal now,” not all of its papers are open access - including this one. Sigh.


Haug JT, Martin JW, Haug C. 2015. A 150-million-year-old crab larva and its implications for the early rise of brachyuran crabs. Nature Communications 6: 6417. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ncomms7417

04 March 2015

Can civil servants defuse a bomb? An Irish crayfish problem

There are papers you write for your self.

There are papers you write for your colleagues.

I wrote my latest paper for civil servants.

My newest paper on the sale of marbled crayfish is short. I bet that some people reading it might wonder why it’s not just a blog post. I debated with myself a lot whether I should try to get it in a journal. (I assure you, it would have been much easier to blog about it that publish it in a journal.)

It started when I was checking my email, and saw one of my regular alerts for “marbled crayfish.” I don’t think I can recreate the sound I made when I read one of my alerts and saw the link was from Ireland. It was a sort of sharp, squeeky inhaling – probably close to an “Eeep!”

I panicked.

When I describe the situation native European crayfish, the phrase I almost always use is, “horror show.” It was just so obvious to me after I went to the International Association for Astacology conference in 2010 (blogged here). Between introduced crayfish species and crayfish plague, things for native European crayfish species are bad.

Ireland has been an exception. There’s only one native species, the white-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes, pictured above). And those Irish crayfish populations are in pretty good shape, relatively speaking, mainly because there aren’t any exotic invasive crayfish species in Ireland.

Ireland and Marmorkrebs – a cloning species that needs only one to start a population, and carries crayfish plague – would be a spectacularly bad combination.

I wanted to get this into a journal because documenting occurrences like this is important for policy and enforcement purposes. Ireland is ostensibly doing everything right. Importing crayfish into Ireland is already illegal. Ireland has public awareness campaigns about crayfish. And yet people are still selling Marmorkrebs publicly.

I hoped that for anyone who had some power to do something about Ireland’s crayfish, a scientific article in a peer reviewed journal might have more clout than a blog post.

After I decided that I wanted to publish this in a journal, it was not smooth sailing. Finding a home for this article was not easy, because it’s not exactly a traditional biology article.

While my article was being reviewed, I panicked again. A scientific society newsletter article scooped mine: it also reported Marmorkrebs were for sale in Ireland. I thought, “There goes my paper’s reason for uniqueness.” But there were enough differences that I thought my paper would still have something new and important to report. More importantly, a couple of sentences in the middle of a society newsletter was still not part of the mainstream literature. Because one goal was to make sure that the sale of exotic crayfish in Ireland was not overlooked, I still believed a paper was necessary.

And I found a third case of Marmorkrebs for sale in Ireland at the page proofs stage. Adding things at this late stage is always tricky, but the editor was cooperative and it went in, so the article became at least a little more substantive than what I initially submitted.

The final challenge was institutional rather than editorial or scientific. I was hoping to have this paper out at the end of 2014, but the article processing fees did not get paid in time. Sigh. Paying a bill should be routine, not be something to celebrate. But I did celebrate when it was paid, so my article wasn’t pushed back a second time.

Now that the article is out, I hope that it will make a few people aware that Ireland has a great resource in its crayfish. And maybe it will act as a slight nudge to stop non-native crayfish, like Marmorkrebs, from getting loose in Ireland’s rivers and lakes and streams.


Faulkes Z. 2015. A bomb set to drop: parthenogenetic Marmorkrebs for sale in Ireland, a European location without non-indigenous crayfish. Management of Biological Invasions 6(1): 111-114. http://dx.doi.org/10.3391/mbi.2015.6.1.09

Top crayfish picture from here.

03 March 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Crabz n the Hood

A new paper by Kim and Christy (2015) gets ace graphic treatment in a BBC summary.


Kim TW, Christy JH. 2015. A mechanism for visual orientation may facilitate courtship in a fiddler crab. Animal Behaviour 101: 61-66.

External links

Crabs build ‘temples of love’

02 March 2015

The “Texas transcript” is a good idea, but won’t solve grade inflation

“Devastating crisis.”






“Still worse is its effect on the souls.”

With language like that, you’d think the author was talking about a terrorist attack, Biblical plague,  or a new Twilight book.

Nope. This is about grade inflation in universities. A C used to be considered average, but now, the most common grade in American universities is an “A.”

The solution being proposed to this scourge? (Sorry, got carried in wanting to match the original article’s over the top descriptions.)

Texas House Bill 1196 [and] Senate Bill 499... would require schools to “place the average or median grade, as applicable, immediately to the right of the student’s individual grade” on official transcripts.

I like this idea. Letter grades alone are not all that informative. I am often asked to write recommendation letters for students, and one of the things I often try to do is to give the reviewer a sense of where that student stood relative to the rest of the class. A student might have an A but be in the bottom half of the class, or might have a B but be in the top ten percent of a class.

Author Tom Lindsay says we would need a “wait and see” if this approach curbs grade inflation. But he claims:

At the least, the larger culture would be alerted to those schools and majors that have maintained standards and those that have not.

The transcript described can’t inform “the larger culture” about universities and majors. All it does is provide information about the classes one student took. An employer, review committee, parent, or even the student still has no way of knowing how one major or one university stacks up to any other.

More seriously, the “larger culture” has deep, preconceived notions about “standards.” And people will tell their own narratives that fit their preconceived ideas.

Remember a couple of recent papers that showed that the graduates of “elite” universities locked up a disproportionate number of tenure-track academic positions? I saw a discussion of that paper on Facebook, and people immediately leaped to the hypothesis that the reason for this was that the graduates from those universities were better. People made arguments like:

Highly selective admission leads to better candidates.
Guess what schools don’t have to admit “warm bodies?” The elite schools get plenty of top notch applicants.
Higher profile or elite schools have wealthier alumni, and more resources, so that may lead to slightly stronger portfolios, giving grads an advantage.
Top-tier schools have more resources for research support.

People jumped to a “fair world” argument even though the authors of one paper (Clauset and colleagues) explicitly wrote that this hypothesis was highly unlikely:

Under a meritocracy, the observed placement rates would imply that faculty with doctorates from the top 10 units are inherently two to six times more productive than faculty with doctorates from the third 10 units. The magnitude of these differences makes a pure meritocracy seem implausible, suggesting the influence of nonmeritocratic factors like social status.

People will certainly start applying the same sorts of “just so” stories to explain differences in grades across institutions. They will say, “Well, of course students from Elite University get lots of As, because that one only takes the smartest! That’s not grade inflation, that’s just proof they are the best, and provide the best training to students!”

On the other hand, if a student gets low grades from an Elite University, people will say, “Well, of course Elite University has the most rigorous academic standards! A C from Elite University is equivalent to an A from Run-of-the-Mill University!”

So showing people the averages on transcripts seems unlikely to inform the “larger culture” about grade inflation in any meaningful way. And students at less prestigious institutions will continue to be shortchanged.

(Aside: For a long time, I didn’t understand why university administrators cared so much so much about university rankings and spent huge amounts of effort gaming the system to get their universities to be seen as “top tier.” The longer I stay in academia, the more I understand it. A lot rides on public perception of academic prestige and rigor, far more than actual rigor. It’s disappointing, but that’s the reality of the situation.)

The only way that you can demonstrate rigor across majors and institutions is by taking a bunch of students, and giving them all the same, standardized assessments. Sound familiar? It’s an approach that is rampant in K-12. It’s also an approach that has been widely criticized for not taking into account external influences like poverty and other socioeconomic factors. Do you expect a university that enrolls lots of first generation minority students from an economically disadvantaged background to have the same outcomes as a university that mostly enrolls majority students raised by professional parents?

What do “standards” and “rigor” mean to those two populations? I’m not sure they will mean the same thing, or that they should.

Linday also claims:

(T)he bill avoids seeking to micromanage the state’s institutions of higher education. It does not require them to do anything differently(.)

That’s got to be a little simplistic. While institutions have all that data, computing it, and then putting it on transcripts is probably a trivial thing, because transcripts are still stuck in the ninetheeth century. You would have to add columns, explanations, change all the typesetting, and so on. That means every university in Texas would have to retool their transcripts from scratch.

Related posts

What grades should look like 
Their grades were too... high?
Remaking the transcript
Why grade inflation is good for the GRE 

External links

The Texas Legislature looks to lift college grading standards

01 March 2015

Comments for second half of February 2015

The Molecular Ecologist has a some nifty survey results about how scientists pick which journal to publish in. Surprise! That intangible perfume of “prestige” and Impact Factor are two of the three biggest factors.

Bethany Brookshire introduces the lovely word parthenogenesis.

DrugMonkey asks readers in graduate programs about their entry requirements.

I make a cameo in an important post on scientists paying expenses out of pocket.