18 December 2002

Well, dang!


In the bad news column, just checked my emailbox and found this:

"Dear Dr. Faulkes:

"I regret to inform you that the National Science Foundation is unable to support your proposal..."

For those of you scoring at home, this is the answer to a proposal I submitted back in early July.

Two grant proposal rejections in one week. I haven't yet checked what the reviewers have to say; don't think I'm up to it tonight. There might be a chance to rewrite this and resubmit it.

In the meantime, I shall simply make the occasional Grinch-noise from my small office overlooking the town of Grants-ville.

13 December 2002

Bugger.


In the bad news column: My "letter of intent" for the Whitehall Foundation won't be continuing into a full grant proposal. The rejection letter said they got 81 letters that might lead into grants, of which they gave the nod to 17. They eliminated 79% of the applications in just that first stage of screening. Those remaining 17 now have to write full grant proposals.

Back to the old drawing board, as the saying goes.

;;;;;

In the good news column: All my marks for this semester got handed in yesterday.

12 December 2002

Symposium poised for publication


And in the good new column: The Animal Behavior Society symposium I've been organizing looks like it's found a home where the talks from it can be published as proper scientific papers. If all goes well, the symposium will be published in the Journal of Comparative Physiology A.

It's all very encouraging. I feel like I'm watching a cocoon, and starting to think that a bird might emerge instead of a butterfly.

;;;;;

In the bad news column, I'm trying to finish the marking for my students, but the class website won't let me log in, and I need some of that information to finish! Grr. This is what I get for embracing computers. They turn on me in my hour of need.

09 December 2002

Manual labor


For this I spent six years in grad school?

I was planning on getting out of the office early, when one of my colleagues walked into my office and asked if I wanted to help clear out lab space. I said, "No." It was the honest answer -- I really didn't want to move stuff. But I'm a pushover, and did it anyway.

There are several unfinished lab spaces in our building, and they're about to start construction for our two newest faculty members, Mike Persans and Chris Little. Unfortunately, as with so many empty spaces, they became magnets for unwanted junk. In the case of Chris's lab space, this was a bunch of stuffed animals and a number of huge, heavy glass cabinets on very skinny metal legs.

Whole lots of no fun to move. It took six people to handle one cabinet.

The cabinets were so tall, we couldn't get them out of the room without tipping them over. We broke one of the legs when we tipped a cabinet over, because the leg was just too flimsy to take any pressure. And we had a couple of scary moments where the cabinets started to tilt, but we caught them before they went over.

We got halfway through, and should finish clearing the spaces out tomorrow.

04 December 2002

Classes done for the year


I just gave my last lecture for the year! Huzzah!

The work for this semester's teaching is not done, though. My students still have quizzes to complete, and I have to calculate and hand in their final marks. But still, having the lectures complete is a nice feeling.

Meanwhile...

I should be hearing back from the Whitehall foundation around the end of next week if they like my "letter of intent" enough for me to submit a full proposal.

My revised proposal for an Animal Behavior Society symposium has been given the thumbs up. Word about it is now getting around under the name, "The neuroethology of decision-making." The title isn't exactly what I had in mind, but it's certainly snappy. I even had a colleague from Germany contact me, asking if there might be a way he could participate as a speaker. (We'll have to wait and see.)

The next major thing I intend to do for that symposium is to see if I can rustle up a little more cash, and maybe find a place to publish the papers.

Seeing that this symposium thing seems to be working out all right, I submitted a proposal for another symposium today. This one, if it goes, would be for the annual Karger Workshop held by the J.B. Johnston Club. But with ABS symposium next year in 2003, I'm suggesting this workshop for 2004.

02 December 2002

Review of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory

I threatened I would do this. But seeing Gould's book on the general science section on the shelves of Barnes & Noble decided it for me. I feel I must warn the general public: If you are not a professional biologist, you are absolutely barking mad if you are thinking about reading this book.

It's not because the book is big (so obviously so that it's impossible not to mention it), or because it's boring (it isn't). It's just because this book is not aimed general readers, not even well-informed ones. Gould doesn't define a lot of the technical terms he uses. (Know what anagenesis is? How about formalism or internalism?) He even makes the occasional comment like, "And we know how the data for that turned out." And sure, I know what he's referring to, because I'm a professional biologist with an interest in evolution -- but it's the sort of comment that seems designed to frustrate a casual reader.

I suspect many copies sold in general bookstores will be left on shelves, unread, as a subtle ad to convince friends and visitors of how smart the buyer is. (Many people explain how Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time spent so long on the bestseller lists this way.)

That said, because I think this book is interesting and important -- people will be discussing it for years, literally -- it's good for those of us who've read it to try to summarize and comment on it.

So here we go.

In Chapter 1, Gould has two contentions. First, there are three basic things Darwin proposed that make natural selection an important and powerful theory. Second, all three of those basic ideas have been substantially expanded by recent research. Darwin wasn't wrong about natural selection, but it is not the whole story. I'll paraphrase Darwin's idea in bold and the expansion that Gould suggests after in italics.

1. Natural selection works on individuals.

Selection occurs at many levels. In particular, punctuated equilibrium implies that selection of species occurs and is important for macroevolutionary patterns.

2. Selection for small, adaptive features in organisms is the major source of evolutionary change.

There are limits to how much organisms can change over time.

3. There was nothing special about the past. We can use what happens around us today to extrapolate what happened in distant yesterdays.

Sometimes, a really big rock falls out of the sky.

Gould spends the rest of the book's first half exploring historical ideas about evolution. Gould is clearly in his element here, and the scholarship is impressive. In fact, it comes out that Gould owned many key books. Several pictures were taken from his own collection of antique books, some of which had never been published before.

Chapter 2 discusses (or, to borrow one of Gould's stylistic tics, "presents an exegis of") Darwin's Origin of Species. Considering that Origin of Species is one of the most famous books in science, is it worth it? "Darwin said..." gets said a lot in biology. Gould's agrees that Darwin said many things, but makes it his mission to disentangle comments made in passing versus the major themes that Darwin revisited over and over.

Subsequent chapters discuss the historical counterclaims to Darwin's three major ideas. Gould is not aiming to revive these older criticisms of Darwinism, but he clearly does want to show that the expansions to evolutionary theory he's discussing have a long and serious intellectual history.

Chapter 3 discusses point 1, above (individual vs. hierarchical selection).

Chapters 4 and 5 focus on point 2 (which Gould variously typifies as "functionalism vs. formalism," or "externalism vs. internalism." He never clears up the difference between these terms, if he intends one). I found these to be quite fascinating. Gould points out that there was a long tradition of treating the evolution of species the same way as the development of individual organisms. Some workers went so far as to argue that species had predictable stages of birth, development and growth, and inevitable weakening and death.

Chapter 6 looks at geology, and how strongly the idea of uniformity of events impressed itself on Darwin (point 3 above).

Chapter 7 covers the so-called "Modern Synthesis" of the mid-20th century. Gould emphasizes how utterly confident researchers at the time were in the all-powerfulness of natural selection, and in the completeness of natural selection as a theory.

Chapter 8 leads the second half of the book, and it's a lengthiest slice, laden with digressions. The Table of Contents entry for this chapter alone spans almost three pages! You might call this the "punctuated equilibrium" chapter: punctuated equilibrium clear has pride of place in Gould's efforts to develop a theory for species selection. Gould freely and frequently admits his bias: after all, he developed the idea of punctuated equilibrium with Niles Eldredge.

Gould spends many pages examining studies designed to provide evidence (pro or con) for punctuated equilibrium, and concludes that punctuated equilibrium occurs at relatively high frequencies. This is a major starting point from which Gould develops a hierarchical theory where natural selection can occur at any biological level, from the small to the large.

This chapter is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating, because it is so personal for Gould. Gould does not mince words in describing how biologists responded to punctuated equilibrium. He claims that some of the controversy around the idea was due to professional jealousy on the part of some colleagues. On the other hand, I could have done without the long sections where Gould examines how others have used or misused the idea of punctuated equilibrium outside biology. While it's hard to criticize digressions in such a huge volume, laden with footnotes that span multiple pages, these sections have little to do with the book's self-declared purpose.

Where are we again? Ah, Chapters 10 and 11. I group these two chapters together because they are both concerned with the ideas that there are constraints upon natural selection, and that not every biological feature is an evolutionary adaptation.

I also think of Chapter 10 and 11 and "the spandrels chapters." What's a spandrel? Biologists probably know (or know about) a paper co-written by Gould (with Richard Lewontin), partially titled "The spandrels of San Marco." For you non-biologists – or non-architects – a spandrel is a bit of architectural space. Specifically, when you put two arches next to each other, there's going to be a space between them. You can use that roughly triangular space for decoration, although the space wasn't made for decoration. Gould and Lewontin argue that many features in living organisms are spandrels: they weren't custom made for anything (just as architectural spandrels weren't made for decoration), they were just conveniently... well... there for other reasons. The idea of that biological spandrels are commonplace expands traditional Darwinism, argues Gould, because in most conventional Darwinian explanation, pretty much everything is argued to be "custom made;" that it, every feature has some sort of adaptive function.

These two chapters also has Gould discussing recent developments in genetics, which showed that regulatory genes that control some aspects of growth have stayed more or less the same in a wide variety of animals for a very, very long time. This was a startling finding, because Darwinians argued that given time, almost everything would have been fine-tuned and replaced through natural selection. This field, as Gould himself admits, is moving so fast that this chapter is probably going to be outdated before any of the others.

Almost done...

Chapter 12 is relatively short. It asks, "Doe the processes driving evolution stay the same throughout evolutionary time?" Darwin counted on that fact. Gould argues that the answer is "No," citing as his major example that we now have a prime candidate for the extinction of the dinosaurs: a meteor hit the earth and upset the applecart. A meteor strike is sufficiently unusual that it can't be counted as a routine event, but it definitely had an important impact on the face of life on this planet. Gould notes, though, that although the planet has had several mass extinctions, it doesn't seem that meteor impacts explain any extinction except the one at the end of the Cretaceous. So, while Gould applauds the fruitful science that lead to the discovery of the meteor impact, he does seem wistful that it hasn't led to a more wide-ranging theory.

The final epilog (which Gould calls, "honest to God, a true end to this interminable book") is quite affecting. Gould pays tribute to his hero, Charles Darwin, in a moving way. Gould writes that even without Darwin, biologists would have a theory of evolution – eventually. But, "we would have experienced the same biological revolution without the stunning clarity… of a complex central logic so brilliantly formulated(.) In this alternate world, we would probably be honoring a different and far less compelling founder by occasional visits to a statue in a musty pantheon, and not by constant dialogue with a man whose ideas live, breath, challenge, taunt, and inspire us every day of our lives, more than a century after his bones came to rest on a cathedral floor..."

We were pretty lucky to have Darwin, Gould says.

And we were pretty lucky to have Gould, too. While there are lots of criticisms to be launched The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (particularly that some editor should have reigned in Gould's excesses), the ideas presented within will be rich grounds for discussion for years to come.

27 November 2002

Role reversal!


Today's top in Edinburg, Texas: 9 degrees C. (Felt like 5 degrees C, according to the meteorologists.)

Today's top in Calgary, Alberta: About 14 degrees C.

26 November 2002

What's on the plate?

This comic pretty much says it all.

Otherwise, how are things? I'm in the last two weeks of classes. Luckily, by having my classes taught partly online, and using weekly quizzes instead of huge tests, there's no massive rush to finish things at the end of the semester.

I'm now getting more worried about next semester's classes, when I'm supposed to teach my new Neurobiology class and redo a graduate student class in Advanced Cell Biology. Two new classes in one semester. Could be... interesting... in the Chinese sense of the word.

Just sent off a revised proposal for the Animal Behavior Society symposium I've been toiling away on. It's one of a whole slew of little things I've been meaning to get to that I think I'll get done this week. This week may hold a holiday for all these Americans around me, but for me, it's just a chance to work in my office without interruptions...

22 November 2002

Policing


Walked into my second lecture this morning, and was puzzled to see men in uniform with microphones attached to their shoulders. Turns out they were police, and they had a warrant for the arrest of one of my students. Said student was not in the class, which I was rather happy about, as it avoided any potentially awkward situations.

Makes the computer in the lecture theatre not working seems kind of a small in comparison.

20 November 2002

Ad busting


A few entries back, I mentioned that I had an ad appear in the middle of one of my classes. The ad was for a university diploma, as it happened.

To see the exact irksome ad I was talking about, and -- more importantly -- how to prevent these stupid things, check this article.

16 November 2002

Consulting


On Thursday and Friday, spent some time with a consultant. Some branch of the University has hired him to help people turn in more competetive grant applications. I was a little disappointed by one of his last comments, which was basically, "Change your research interests to something funding agencies are interested in, so you can get some money."

I hope it won't come to that. Ever.

I also had some very interesting words with our VP Research, Wendy Lawrence-Fowler, when I went by her office for something totally unrelated. Seems the University is investigating research partnerships with universities in Vietnam. Lot of interesting animals in Vietnam, I'll bet.

14 November 2002

Equipment arrives!


A delivery man finally rolled into my office with two packages from the U.K. Specifically, two packages from CED: my analogue/digitial board, an amplifier, and a lot of bits of cord and documentation and styrofoam. It all seems to be in good working order. Or at least, the little lights in the front went on when I plugged them in, which is a step in the right direction.

It all puts me a step closer to getting my first nerve cell recordings. I'm pretty excited about it.

It almost makes up for my voice being scratchy, my throat feeling congested, and this stupid ache in my right hip. I've felt better...

13 November 2002

Society for Neuroscience 2002, Part 5


Tuesday, 5 November: SFN 3
We have a late afternoon flight, which means I get to spend half a day at this meeting. I bring Sarah along just to have a peek at the vast huge expanse of science. She's a good sport and pretends to be mildly interested before running off and doing other things.

While walking around with Sarah, I come across my favourite quote of the meeting:

"If the brain were (sic) so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn't." - Lyell Watson.

(I saw this written under a quickly sketched human brain on a white board in the History and Teaching posters).

It's good to see that even in a room full of people with many, many advanced degrees, the fate of a stray piece of paper isn't much different than elementary school...

paper plane

But even though there are still two days left in this meeting, some people are already worn out. But if you've spent too long in front of posters talking science, it's good to know you can get someone to give you a quick rubdown.

massage stand

Though I did overhear some other members attending comment, "It'd be weird to have a stranger massage your feet..."

We get back to the hotel, spend a lot of time waiting for the shuttle to the airport. We have enough time to look through all the airport stores, then spend a fair amount of time waiting around in the airport lobby. We get back late, and the process of catching up begins...

Hm. Now that I'm all caught up with my web journal (only took me a week), I may be caught up on everything. Or at least as caught up as I ever get...

Tracking equipment

No, I'm not talking about equipment for tracking, I'm talking about tracking equipment that's coming to me. One of the last major pieces of equipment I need for my lab -- which I ordered back in June or July -- is finally on its way here. According to FedEx, my analogue/digital board and amplifier from Cambridge Electronic Devices is in Memphis.

What is this equipment for? It takes an electrical recording (from a nerve, neuron, or muscle) and converts it to a signal that my desktop computer can understand, store, and manipulate. Physiologists used to (and probably some still do!) use reel-to-reel tape recorders to store their recordings. I did much of my doctoral work that way, but I'm thoroughly pleased to be past that point.

Of course, how long it'll be before I physically touch this equipment. I had two phone calls about its entry into the country yesterday, so who knows how long U.S Customs will hang on to it.

12 November 2002

Caption contest!


"And a little of this applied once a day will remove wrinkles virtually overnight!"

Maybe that what's the goof in the center is thinking.

I was a little surprised when a student showed me the new graduate catalogue, since I wasn't expecting to be in it. I did know my picture was being taken in front of our Coastal Studies Lab. They had a professional photographer taking publicity pictures with a bunch of volunteer students. The photographer asked if I had any equipment that we could pose the students with, and I said, "I have a shovel." Not quite what he had in mind, I think.

So we went out to the beach and I dug for my sand crabs. I'm pretty sure I hadn't found any when this picture was taken. So I just had to pretend that the sand I was pulling up was mighty interesting...

I eventually did find some crabs, but they didn't use that picture.



11 November 2002

Society for Neuroscience 2002, Part 4


Monday, 4 November: SFN 2

One of the fun things about a meeting like this is stumbling across little creative touches in posters.

poster logo

I spend the day looking at people's posters and talking to folks. Lots of interesting conversations. One is so interesting, I miss a scheduled meeting with Paul Stein, a possible speakers for "my" Animal Behavior Society symposium. Fortunately, I run into him that evening at a social and do a few mea culpas for missing him.

social sign

Socials are another fun thing about the Society for Neuroscience meeting, and is another way to make the meeting feel smaller and more intimate.

Notice the motto in the upper right corner of the sign? "It's about the science." I'm a little relieved by this. Last year's motto bugged me: it was, "Unraveling the mysteries, delivering the cures." Maybe I wasn't the only person a little put off by a slogan that seemed to ignore (or maybe even alienate) people not doing medical research.

;;;;;

After the social, Sarah and I went out to dinner at a place called Jungle Jim's. Good food, excellent service. Sarah tries a burger called "Peanut Butter Bet." Yes, it's a burger with peanut butter, and if you don't like it, they scratch it off the bill and don't charge you for it. Waitress Aurora says the peanut butter reminds her of a Thai peanut sauce. Aurora rocked; we have fun being her customers. She's intrigued by my job description, and practices saying "invertebrate neuroethology." When she reads my credit card ID, we get to commune about our weird names.

Interruptions


Spam. Every time you think it couldn't get more annoying, somebody proves you wrong.

I was in the middle of a General Biology lecture on genetics. I use PowerPoint as part of my lectures, so the computer is on and projecting on a screen.

Suddenly, a window appears spontaneously, advertising university degrees. You know the pitch. For a low price, you can get a degree from a "prestigious non-accredited institution." (Now there's a contradiction in terms!) "No one turned down!" "Degrees based on life experience..."

Yeah, like this is a message I want thrown up in the middle of a lecture to a bunch of first-year students. You might as well make up a degree in your own graphics program, print it and tape it to the wall -- it has about the same value.

I wasn't surfing the net (though the computer was connected) or using any program that is advertising supported. I reckoned some sort of adware is on the computer. These annoying little programs are often bundled and installed -- without warning -- as part of a larger program you want.

After the lecture, I downloaded Ad-Aware, software designed to get rid of ad software. Sure enough, it found an ad program installed on the computer. I took great pleasure in getting rid of it. I hope that solves the problem.

;;;;;

Society for Neuroscience reports coming back soon.

10 November 2002

Society for Neuroscience 2002, Part 3


Sunday, 3 November: SFN 1

The main event gets cracking on Sunday in the Orlando Convention Center, where the privilege of having a medium bottle of pop will only set you back... $2.50?!

vending machine

The same sized bottles are 80 cents outside my office. The sad thing is, there are obviously people who pay that much, or those wouldn't still be there.

The thing that invariably impresses me about the Society for Neuroscience meeting is its sheer size. Non-biologists are always stunned when I tell them how many people come to this. They keep a running tally near one of the entranceways.

Tally board

And remember, this is only a single branch of biology... (And students still don't think you can get a job in biology besides teaching and being a physician.)

I'm always forced to compare the main poster session room to an aircraft hangar, because I don't really know of any other building that has the same sort of proportions as these massive convention centers that the SFN meetings are held in.

main room

There are scientific posters and vendors in this room all the way to the back. And the posters change twice a day. And there are presentations in tens of rooms outside of this one.

And yet, paradoxially, despite this meeting being so big (or perhaps because of it), you run into people you know very often. Because you simply can't even begin to hope to see even a fraction of the work on display, people are very focused about what papers they want to see. You begin to learn who's in your field of research because you keep seeing in front of the same posters you're interested in.

Note to new students in neuroscience: This is prime networking territory! Ask questions of the poster presenters, and strike up as many conversations around these posters as you can. These are the people who will be looking at your job applications and reviewing your grant proposals.

Society for Neuroscience 2002 Report, Part 2


Saturday, 2 November: Hookey and ISN Executive

The main item on my agenda, the ISN Executive Committee meeting, doesn't start until 2 pm, so Sarah and I go to Universal Studios for a while.


We have great fun. Sarah kicks butt in the Men in Black: Alien Attack ride. You get to shoot at rogue aliens in that ride and earn a score. Sarah was easily first in our car (160,000 points!), more than double my score (and I was in second place of four; over 60,000). If you ever take that ride, my tip is: pay attention to the dialogue!

I have to leave midway through the day, but Sarah stays and has a blast.

I make my way back to the ISN meeting, in my role as Chair of the Web Committee. This is the first time I've been in any meeting like this, so I find it all quite interesting. I get a lot of good suggestions about the Society webpage, some of which I've already started to put into motion.

Midway through the meeting, we go out to a very nice steak and seafood restaurant. It's so good and there's so much that I don't order dessert (which is pretty unusual for me!).

After that, my contribution to the meeting is done, so I go back to the social of the J.B. Johnston Club and chat to a few more researchers about things, particularly my planned ABS symposium.

While I'm at the J.B. Johnston Club social, I get to see Mary Sue Northcutt (a founding member of the club and super lady) take a jump into the pool -- completely clothed -- to raise money for student researchers.

09 November 2002

Society for Neuroscience 2002 Report, Part 1


31 October: Travel.

Air travel is fast and efficient... once you're in the air, that is. We spent a lot of time hanging around in airports, most particularly waiting for a shuttle in Orlando to take us to our hotel. Still, Hallowe'en is always fun, and we saw a few staff in the Houston and Orlando airports in a little makeup.

;;;;;

1 November: Karger Workshop

The Karger Workshop is an annual symposium held by the J.B. Johnston Cub, and sponsored by the Karger publishing company. This year workshop was titled something like, "The Comparative Evolution of Cognition." I thought the title was a bit of a misnomer, because most of the meeting focused on only one topic: spatial memory. It was a much narrower symposium than the title indicated.

I have lunch with Phil Stoddard, the junior Program Committee for the Animal Behaviour Society, to discuss the symposium I'm hoping to hold next year. Phil is a thin, intense invididual, and I often think he's more gung ho to hold this symposium than I am. He talks about wanting people to leave the symposium thinking, "That's how I want to be studying behaviour!" While I think convincing behaviourists to go back to their labs and pick up microelectrodes is a tall order, I do appreciate Phil's enthusiasm and support.

Lunch with Phil is a good push to one of my major goals for this meeting: to find speakers and topics for my symposium.

To be continued...

06 November 2002

Back to the grindstone...

I’m back in Texas, and catching up on the pile of work the accumulated in my absence. It was definitely worth it, though, as I had many interesting and useful conversations. I’ll talk a bit more about some of these in days to come.

One conversation of personal interest was that I talked to someone who belonged to a department which got one of my 40-50 job applications. When I was doing a post-doc in Australia, I applied for many positions, and always worried that I would tend to be written off early because of the cost of my traveling to North America. I found out that I almost got short-listed for a job, but I didn’t make the final cut mainly because I was in Australia.

It’s unfortunate that overseas applicants are at a disadvantage, especially given how small the job market is for specialized research.

03 November 2002

Update from Florida


The J.B. Johnston Club meeting and the executive committee meeting of the International Society for Neuroethology are behind me, and today was the first day of the Society for Neuroscience proper. Attendence is down a little from last year... as of 1:00 pm today, "only" 20,000 odd people have attended.

;;;;;

During the J.B. Johnston Club meeting, one talk mentioned Stephen Jay Gould, whose last major work, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, I just finished. When I mentioned in a question after the talk that I had just finished the 1,349 pages of the book... someone applauded.

29 October 2002

The BIG meeting is coming soon


The biggest annual event in my field is undoubtedly the Society for Neuroscience meeting, which I expect will crack 30,000 people this year. It starts this weekend in Orlando, Florida.

I'll be leaving for it on Thursday. I'm leaving a few days before the meeting because this meeting is so big, it spawns little mini-meeting offspring. More officially, they're called "satellite meetings." The logic is, "Look, we're all going to the Neuroscience meeting anyway, so rather than trying to find another time that everyone can make it, let's just meet a couple of days before / after Neuroscience."

In particular, I'll be attending a meeting held by the J.B. Johnston Club and attending the Executive Committee meeting of the International Society for Neuroethology.

I'll be taking my laptop with me, so I hope to have updates from the meeting. A lot depends on just how well equipped my hotel room is, and maybe how quickly I can figure out my new dial-up settings that SBC Global gave me.

27 October 2002

Decisions, decisions...

Buying a microscope is like buying a car.

For one thing, the price range is about the same. I’m not kidding; the cheapest car these days is running just under U.S.$10,000. That's the budget I have to work with to buy one stereo microscope.

And, like buying a car, the more you look, the more difficult the decision gets. You are presented with a huge range of options, and a fairly substantial range in price. Yet they all do basically the same thing.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time the last couple of days looking at three quotes for microscopes: from Nikon, Olympus and Zeiss. I’m not having fun deciding between them.

25 October 2002

Stupid of the Week!


Last week on my campus saw many events held as part of HESTEC. The idea of the week was to encourage Hispanic students to enter careers in science and engineering.

One such event was a Congressional roundtable, featuring heavy hitters such as a Nobel laureate, director of the NSF, and various executives of high-tech companies.

And what do we hear about the value of science and technology?

"Science and technology in the country let us survive WWI, and the Cold War."

So David Swain, senior Vice President of Boeing, is reported to have said.

Cripes.

"Gee, what do we researchers do when there isn't a war on?" I think to myself.

And how nice to know science won the Cold War. And here I was all this time thinking the U.S.S.R collapsed because of poor economic policies operating under governments that included arguably the most brutal dictatorship in history. But no, it was our sleek transistor radios. Or something.

Why science gets the nod for WWI, but isn't credited with helping to end World War II is a bit of a puzzle. I would have thought the development of the atomic bomb surely represented a major technical achievment.

Now, I'm willing to entertain the notion that Swain was quoted out of context, in which case the "Stupid of the Week" goes to the writer of the article, not David Swain.

But in either case, it's exasperating to hear a quote like this about science education. It is about the furthest thing on the minds of most scientists I know. Some are drawn by the beauty of the natural world, some by the challenge of intellectual puzzles, some by the desire to improve the lot of others. But "Science wins wars" -- while undoubtedly true in some ways -- is about the last thing I'd use as a selling point for my field. It seems so far off the mark.

24 October 2002

Done.


Pages read of Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 1,343. That, my friends, is the last text page. After that, references and an index, and I don't feel any great need to read those.

I'm done. Earlier than I expected. Maybe I'll post a small review later.

Time to clear that tome off my desk, and get back to writing lectures for my new courses.

17 October 2002

Hey! A picture!


If this works, I'll be livening this journal with a few more visuals from here on in.

Ascidian tadpole larva

If I've done this right, above this text is a picture of a little baby ascidian tadpole larva. It's not exactly publication quality, but I reckon it's pretty good... considering that I just held up my video camera to the eyepiece of a microscope.

The head is on the left, and you can see the tail on the right. It's about 1 mm long. The clear line running down the middle of the tail is a notochord. In us, the notochord becomes a spinal cord. A notochord lets us know that this little guy is actually a fairly close relative to humans within the animal kingdom.

If you think it's not much to look at... you're right. And that's the whole point. This little guy has about 1,000 cells or so. A thousand is a manageable number for biologists to work with (compared to however many billions in a mouse or cat).

Despite being small, this critter has a big task. In very short order, it has to pick a spot to settle. There, it undergoes metamorphosis, and spends the rest of its life in that spot. Imagine trying to pick the home where you'll spend the rest of your life at the age of 2, say, and you'll start to get an appreciation for what this guy is up against.

;;;;;

I have my first underlings!

Or, if you insist, "Undergraduate research scholars."

Back in September, I had applied for a university program designed to give undergraduates a bit of research experience. I found out today that I got it, and will have a couple of first year undergraduate sudents working with me. These two will be helping me out in the lab, analyzing older videotape and who knows what else. They get a bit of $$$, and so do I. Looking forward to working with them.

15 October 2002

Everyone's favourite little blue pill


Everyone has something to say about Viagra. But easy jokes aside, this article suggests Viagra might finally end the centuries-old demand for all manner of animal parts that were supposedly aphrodisiacs and/or cures for impotence.

14 October 2002

I have data! Nyah-nyah-nya-NYAH-nyah!


I'm a-doin' the happy dance.

The little experiment I mentioned in my last entry was a rousing success. There's a result worth investigating more, which is just the sort of thing a dude wants as preliminary data for grant applications.

I wish I could show the picture of the results, but I'm going to hold on t it until things are a little further along.

11 October 2002

Experiment 1


I'm excited. After over a year in my current job, spending a lot of time teaching and waiting for equipment, I am running my first little experiment, on ascidian tadpole settlement. Can't say too much about it, but whatever I find could become some early data that I can then use in grant applications.

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Although I spend a lot of time talking about my research, in most universities, the bulk of the research is done by graduate students. The Biology Department here at UTPA has a Masters program, but no doctoral program. We are taking steps towards that goal, though. The department was recently asked to submit a pre-proposal for a new doctoral program.

Unfortunately, there is a major disagreement in emphasis desired by some of the interested parties. Within the Biology Department, the general feeling seems to be that we have a strong case for some sort of Subtropical program, because we are located in one of only two subtropical locations in the U.S. (south Texas and Florida). Our Vice-President of Academic Affairs, however, tells us the University President is strongly interested in a Biomedical doctoral program -- a crowded field, with competition lured in by the scent of money.

I reckon it's a case of the Cool Hand Luke problem: "What we got here is a failure to communicate." Today, we asked to have a meeting with our VP of Academic Affairs. We'll see how it goes.

I may have to wear a shirt with buttons to that meeting. 'Cause I really want this place to move to a Ph.D. program.

08 October 2002

Great Moments in Science: The Funniest Joke in the World

It brings to mind a classic sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. (If you've never seen it on television, let’s just say that the transcribed link isn't anywhere near as funny.) But even humour isn't immune to scientific inquiry, so if you want a joke that’s been scientifically tested to stand above the rest, you might want to read this article.

The article notes that Canadians don’t get it.

And hey, the Nobel Prizes for this year are being announced. This year’s winners for Physiology and Medicine went to researchers who started intensive work on a millimetre long worm, C. elegans, which has been used for all sorts of groundbreaking research, particularly in development of tissue and genetics. The winners got the Nobel for Medicine and Physiology, because there is no Nobel prize for Biology. :(

(Aside: There's no Nobel prize for Mathematics, either. But at least the mathematicians have an interesting myth concerning the prize’s founder to explain why they don't have one.)

07 October 2002

Back to the beach


I'll be spending the next couple of days out at South Padre Island at the University's Coastal Studies Lab. I'll be testing some rough and ready experiments so that, if the Whitehall Foundation lets me apply for a grant, I'll have some preliminary data to include in it.

But, you might ask, "Isn't the entire point of writing grants so that you can get money to do experiments? Why are you having to do experiments before you send in the application for grants?"

The reason for needing to do experiments in advance is that funding agencies want a pretty good indication that the research they fund will be successful. Given competition for funding is very tight these days, it's a funder's market, so a funding agency can set very high demands for their applications. So... you have to show some indication that you can do the work, and the best way to do that is to include some real examples.

The complaint that "You have to have the work done before you can get funding for it!" is a common one among researchers, but I've seen very few practical solutions for it.

05 October 2002

Mo' money


I finally received word yesterday that I will be getting another quarter of my start-up money from the Dean's office. I'll be using it to buy a microscope. Currently, the lack of a microscope is largely holding any research I might do to a standstill.

(Recap: When I started here, the Vice President of Academic Affairs promised money to start my lab. But his office only provided 5/8 of that money, and said the Dean of Science & Engineering would provide the other 3/8. The Vice President of Academic Affairs didn't tell the Dean this. Not surprisingly, the Dean had no money in the budget for it until the start of the new fiscal year, about a month ago.)

03 October 2002

Germination

A couple of seeds that I planted some months ago have begun, while not to bear fruit, at least poke a few green shoots into the air.

Received a phone call concerning a proposal for a symposium I had submitted to the Animal Behavior Society. My initial idea was to highlight some recent development in neurobiology and suggest how they might impact on people studying behaviour (since "making behaviour" is the job of the nervous system, after all!). Qualified success. They like the idea, but are suggesting I try to refine it a little more into something a little less wide ranging.

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Also got a piece of equipment today that I submitted the purchase order for back in June! Even with that, I'm still waiting on a couple of more "big ticket items" that I kind of need to make a working lab.

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Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 1069! I'm finally into Chapter 10, and have moved well past the 75% mark.

02 October 2002

On your mark...


Just received a confirmation letter from the Whitehall Foundation. They recieved my "letter of intent" in time for their current grant deadline. I'll find out if I have to write a full proposal on 16 December 2002. If I do, well... so much for Christmas "break"!

I'm hoping that I'll have The Structure of EVolutionary Theory finished by then. Pages read: 986!

01 October 2002

Drawbacks


Ah, fall. It's here now, and temperatures in southern Texas have become "pleasant," rather than "oppressive."

Nothing comes free, though. Cooler temperatures, higher winds. Possibly a lot higher. Living on the Gulf Coast means that my plans to make trips to the Coastal Studies Lab are frequently tempered by whether a hurricane or tropical storm is brewing in the Gulf of Mexico or south Atlantic, and whether it decides to hit Mexico, Florida, Louisiana, or Texas. If all goes well, the current storm -- Lili -- won't keep me from my next trip.

I'm also hoping that such storms won't mess up my currently planned trip to this year's Society for Neuroscience meeting, to be held next month in Orlando, Florida. It happened before, when the meeting was held in Miami in 1999. I didn't go that year, but it was apparently not pretty.

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I realized earlier this week that some equipment I ordered back in June hadn't arrived yet. A query to purchasing led to some phone calls, and the company is apparently shipping it now. I hope to see it by the end of the week.

And the morale of the story is: Pay attention.

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Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 958.

26 September 2002

New directions


I shipped off my "letter of intent" to the Whitehall Foundation today. If they okay it and I get to submit a full proposal, the full proposal will be due 15 February 2003. (By that point, I expect to have the results of the NSF grant application.)

Although the Whitehall letter was only three pages long, it was an intense three pages to prepare. Most of my research to date has been on crustaceans and insects. I'm looking to "expand my horizons" and see if I can start doing some work on ascidians. As adults, ascidians are the kinds of critter that people tend to mis-identify as "sponges" (i.e., anything non-mobile on marine piers, boat bottoms, that's not a plant or barnacle).

When they're young, though, ascidians have a little swimming tadpole that swims around to find a place to live. And when you look at this tiny little tadpole, it turns out to be a reasonably close relative to us (a chordate, if you want the technical term). These tadpoles swim around and find a place to live with a positively miniature nervous system: there are about 100 nerve cells in the entire animal. The small number of cells makes them fairly attractive for researchers.

And it just so happens that the University's Coastal Studies Lab is a great place to study these guys. These animals do not like to be away from the ocean, and every effort so far to rear them inland for any length of time has failed miserably. Yes, folks, research and real estate have something in common: Location, location, location.

I have two problems facing me in trying to start ascidian research. First, I don't know the animals very well, but I've been working hard to remedy that. Second, I've never worked on anything remotely this tiny. The whole animal is about 1 mm long. So I'm going to have to develop a whole new set of skills to do research on this beast.

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Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 882. That's halfway through chapter 9, which is 279 pages long! Yes, a single chapter in this baby is longer than some entire books.

24 September 2002

Hi! I've been negligent!


Whew. I knew the start of the semester would slow things down on this journal, but I didn't quite realize how much. The other reason that I haven't updated much is that not much has happened on the research front. I'm still waiting for money and some significant pieces of equipment.

The only major research-related thing on the go now is that I'm drafting a "letter of intent" for the Whitehall Foundation. They have a somewhat lengthy proposal process, wherein you have to let them know you're planning on submitting a proposal before you actually submit a proposal. If the initial letter gets past the screening, you get the paperwork.

Luckily, the letter is limited to 600 words. Of course, finding the right 600 words is not a small problem... In particular, I'm going to use this proposal to (I hope) open up a fairly new line of research work for me, so it's more work than it would be otherwise.

11 September 2002

Factoids

I hate the Internet.

One of the downsides of communication technology, like e-mail, is that its just as easy to circulate untrue things as true things. After jokes, another popular type of e-mail that makes the rounds between friends is the “Did you know...?” variety, usually with a list of short one-line “factoids.” No references, no explanations.

I got one of these yesterday, and spotted a couple of alleged “facts” that, fortunately, other people had already taken the time to puncture. For instance...

“A duck’s quack doesn’t echo.” Fortunately, Straight Dope columnist Cecil Adams dealt with this one here.

One that really grabbed my attention, because I'd never heard it before, was the claim that all polar bears are left-handed.

Wow. The mind reels with questions. For instance...

Who thought that one up? This page suggests this was derived from native folklore; this is apparently supported in this article on, of all things, transgendered bears.

Would this “fact” be making the rounds if the claim was that all polar bears were right-handed? Probably not; I suspect that a difference from what’s typical in humans is part of the fascination with the claim.

Is it true? polarbearsalive.org lists it as a myth, here. This page claims there’s real scientific observations to support this, but gives no references, which makes me mighty suspicious. One thing to consider, though: would you really expect all bears to be left-handed? There's definitely handedness in humans, but nobody would say we're all right-handed.

How would you know? In humans, we normally take “handedness” to mean the hand we write with; care to try to get a bear to pick up a ballpoint and scribble a few words? Seriously, though, how you would show that sort of preference is an interesting problem.

Is it scientifically plausible? Okay, I have an advantage on this one, because I have a fair amount of training in animal behaviour and neurobiology, so I remembered reading an article about animal handedness. This short article from Scientific American backs what I vaguely recalled: handedness in behaviour of an entire species is not well documented for any species besides humans. Handedness in humans is thought to be related to the specialization of the two halves of our brain (see here).

I was able to find all this info to stick pins into this claim, while I’m tempted at this point to reverse my earlier statement and say, “I love the Internet.” But I’m still a little depressed. A search for “polar bear” and “left handed” yielded dozens of pages saying, “All polar bears are left-handed,” but nothing else, which far outnumber the few more substantive articles I collected above.

I am a little sympathetic to people for buying this claim. After all, it”s not as though most of us have ready access to polar bears to watch for a few weeks and record what they do with their paws.

But there are still a lot of untrue things that people believe, even though they are shown to be untrue easily. Ever hear that you can only balance an egg on the day of the equinox? Try it today, while the fall equinox is still over a week away. It takes some doing, but it can be done.

The morale of the story? For me, a factoid like “left-handed polar bears” reminds me of one of, if not the most useful questions I have as a scientist: “What is the evidence?”

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Good sites for tracking down common urban legends include The Straight Dope and the Urban Legends reference pages.

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Correction to earlier entry: Previously, I talked about the costs of accrediting an institution. Apparently, I misread – the application fee is for the initial accreditation for the institution. A “substantial change” may only require a fee of $300 – plus 125% of the cost for an accreditation committee to visit the campus.

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

05 September 2002

The cost of being recognized

Most scientific research is done at universities who train doctoral students. But have you ever thought about what sets apart universities from the “diploma mills” who spam your e-mail, offering to give you a Ph.D. without ever attending a class?

Part of the difference is accreditation, which is essentially a review system that says, “Yes, this institute meets the minimum accepted standards for its field in teaching and awarding degrees.” There are various accreditation agenies associated with different regions. Texas, for instance, is part of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

I discovered that starting the accreditation process for a new degree plan will set you back U.S. $8,000. That’s the application fee. If you make it to the point of inspection, that’ll be another U.S. $2,500, thank you.

Of course, something like that is a drop in the bucket for most institutions, but still, it's hard not to see something like that and evaluate it in terms of your personal finances.

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Journal entries are being slowed, of course, by teaching. On the plus side, a new crop of students means new possibilities for getting research help. The University has a program called the “Undergraduate Research Scholars Award,” geared mainly at first-year students. I’m planning on putting in an application for that, which could let me have my first minion – I mean, research assistant.

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Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 702. Hey, I’m past the half-way mark!





27 August 2002

Don't call me "Sir"!

This is a short essay that I wrote for my introductory biology students. A lot of them call me “Sir.” I'm trying to get them to stop.

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I really dislike being called, “Sir.” I have a few reasons for that: a couple of minor ones, and one major, serious one.

First, “Sir” is for knights. Heck, I’ve never even met the Queen! (Though, as a Canadian, I am her loyal subject.) Never bent down on one knee, had the taps on the shoulders with the sword, none of that. So don’t call me “Sir”: I haven't earned it.

Second, imagine if almost everyone around you started calling you, “Your Honour” or some other honorific title. It’s not a bad thing, but it's rather unexpected. I’ve worked in universities around the world for years, and was on a first-name basis with everyone. I come here, and suddenly I got hundreds of people calling me, “Sir.” It just feels weird.

Third: Joking aside, there’s a serious reason not to call me “Sir,” and it has to do with science. I’ll bet a lot of you had it drilled into you that you have to “respect your teachers.” If you’re going to understand science in a “deep down in your bones” kind of way, you're going to have to let go of that.

Science tells me, you, everyone to take a flying leap.

Science doesn’t care if you’re famous. Science doesn’t care if you have a degree. Science doesn’t care if you wear a necktie. Science cares about ideas and the evidence supporting them.

To paraphrase an anonymous quote, “Science stones rebels. Science also stones conformists. Only the ideas that survive the constant barrage of rocks deserve attention. (Science often gets upset with its critics, not because it’s being criticized, but because those critics so often throw marshmallows.)”

And that quote points out that criticism is vital to doing science. When I write a research paper or research grant proposal, it goes out for review. That means other practising scientists have a chance to examine what I wrote, look for bad ideas or bad experimental design, and generally take it apart at the seams. That sort of criticism corrects mistakes and weeds out bad ideas (nobody’s perfect, after all), so that science can improve, and create theories that predict, control, and explain better than our current ones.

If you’re going to be involved in science – which you are by taking this class – you've got to be able to ask critical questions. You’ve got to feel that you can pick up a rock, chuck it at an idea, and see how it holds up.

I honestly do not believe you can tap into that scientific mindset while you’re calling someone, “Sir,” all the time.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for politeness. But a lot of people go way past “respect” to “deference,” “kow-tow,” and “don’t argue.” Look at the military; “Sir” is used to reinforce a chain of command where the lower ranked officers follow orders quickly and without question.

Science is partly about constantly questioning and challenging authority. Too much respect is bad for science.

So don't call me, “Sir.” It’ll make you a better scientist.

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Still at page 652 on The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

25 August 2002

Last day of freedom!

Yes, that's an overly melodramatic way of saying, "Classes start tomorrow."

Being an academic is a two part job: you're researcher and instructor both. This is the time of year when the instruction tends to take precedence over research, but I'll be working hard to ensure that research doesn't grind to a halt.

Made yet another trip out to the Coastal Studies Lab yesterday, both to learn a bit more about ascidian development, and to show the lab (and the bee-yoo-tiful South Padre Island beach) to one of our new hires in the department, Chris Little.

Also on my agenda these days is that I am putting together a proposal for a symposium that might run at next year's Animal Behavior Society meeting. This proposal has to go to the meeting's Program Committee, then the Executive Committee in mid-September. Fortunately, the bulk of work for me consists of finding good speakers with interesting things to say.

I'm sure many other interesting things are happening to me, but I'm ignoring them for now.

Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 652.

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Additional: This article on "cam girls" gives me pause about this project, and wonder about my own motivations, to some degree. Did I run this journal as a method of public outreach about science and research -- or I am just a narcissist? Needless to say, I hope I'm the former.

21 August 2002

Watching the odomoter

Pages read of Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 595. I've reached the beginning of Part II of the book! Unfortunately, Part II is longer than Part I, so I'm only 44% of the way through the book.

19 August 2002

The "I wish I'd done that study" Department

The girls really do get prettier by closing time. And so do the boys, according to this study.

Don't be sad...

This article in The Scientist (free registration required) has a quote from someone saying that assistant professors (like me) are expected to write 3 papers a year.

Lucky for me, within this month I have a new technical article coming out in Marine and Freshwater Behaviour and Physiology (you can read a summary here) and a book chapter in Crustacean Experimental Systems in Neurobiology, published by Springer Verlag. (You can find a description of the book by searching Springer's on-line catalogue for the title or the main editor: Wiese.) I will follow Meat Loaf's advice and not be sad, 'cause "Two out of three ain't bad."

I spent a good chunk of Friday and the weekend at the Coastal Studies Lab, learning more about tunicates from Virgina Scofield. She took a couple of animals and extracted eggs and sperm and fertilized them on Saturday morning. By the afternoon, they had divided several times and were starting to make their guts tails. When I came back Sunday morning, we had a bunch of tiny, but complete, little swimming tadpoles with complete nervous systems and behaviour, looking for places to settle. When I say tiny, I mean it; the swimming tadpole larva is about the same size as the unfertilised egg.

Also picked up a few more sand crabs.

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Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 480.

15 August 2002

We now return to your regularly scheduled journal...

Bad news: Vacation is over.

Good news: It was very fun, thanks.

Bad news: I didn't get quite as much work done along the way as I hoped. I had forgotten how difficult it can be to read in a moving car.

Good news: Most of my crabs are alive and well even after another 10 days of benign neglect. They've been surviving reasonably well for six weeks with no intervention on my part, which is highly encouraging. Animals that require large amounts of care are not on the agenda right now.

Bad news: U.S. Customs rejected our application to import some equipment from the U.K. duty-free. Disappointing, but not a surprise.

Good news: My colleague Virginia Scofield will be making a trip to the Coastal Studies Lab tomorrow, so I will probably be going out to meet her. I hope I finally see some active ascidian larvae!

Good news: My on-line material for my General Biology class has passed muster from one of the folks in our Center for Distance Learning. There are still improvements to be made, but they're relatively minor.

So overall, there's more good news than bad. And that alone is good news!

04 August 2002

Science takes no vacations!

But scientists sure take vacations.

Probably no updates until 15 August due to vacation. I won't be completely inactive; I'm taking along a copy of a neurobiology textbook with me to read, so I can start preparing for the new neurobiology class I'm slated to teach in January.

02 August 2002

Nothing to do with science

Poor Carlton.

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Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 352 (part way through Chapter Five).

01 August 2002

Hallway fauna

Was just walking into my lab to play around with a DVD (tranferred from video I shot in Australia), I saw something running along the wall. Being a biologist, of course, I bent down to have a look at it, thinking it was probably an insect of some sort.

To my surprise, it was a gorgeous little gecko!

I popped into my lab, grabbed a beaker, and coaxed it in. A little tricky, since these guys can walk over anything, up to and including smooth, dry glass, and it was pretty quick for its size. It almost looked like a little demented wind-up toy when it ran.

It was only about 5 cm long from nose to the tip of its tail. I was disappointed I don't have any microscopes or even magnifying glasses sitting in my lab to have a closer look. I could see its famous feet: close enough to see the pads, but not close enough to make out the hairs that allow this animal to bond to surfaces using sub-atomic forces (see Reference 57 in this list if you're interested). The skin on its underside (easily seen, since it was in a glass beaker) was so thin you could make out some of the shadings from its internal organs and blood system.

After admiring this beastie for a few minutes, and wondering how the devil he got on the second floor of the Science building and managed to survive (can't be much food up here!), I took him outside and set him on his merry way, running off through the grass.

A small benefit of living in a tropical climate: you just don't find cool little critters like that north of the 49th parallel very often. (Not that it makes up for the oppressive heat, mind you.)

29 July 2002

If I had a witty heading, it would go here

Like everything in academic circles, even a set of talks at a meeting needs a proposal. That's why I spent a good part of today working on a proposal for a symposium that, if approved, would take place at next year's annual meeting of the Animal Behavior Society. The idea for the symposium is to review recent developments in the field of neurobiology that bear on what animal behaviourists think about.

Or, to put it more glibly, to line up a bunch of "neuro" types in front of the "etho" (or behavioural) types and see if I can get them to talk to each other (ha!).

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Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 250 -- the end of Chapter 3! (The book has 12 chapters.)

27 July 2002

Zen's Law of Time

I hate paperwork. I especially hate customs paperwork, which is what I spent a good part of the last two days dealing with. It's like this, see... I'm trying to buy scientific equipment from a U.K. company. I put in a purchase order for the equipment back in mid-May, and it's been held up over who's going to pay the customs fee. (At least, that's my understanding of what Purchasing told me.)

So they've got a customs broker involved. And now I have a set of government forms to get this stuff sent duty free. The forms ask a long series of questions like, "What is the research you plan to do? Why is this better than any domestic equivalent product? Did you contact domestic vendors? Did you ask for bids? Did you ask if they could modify their existing equipment to meet your needs?" And like that.

I thought this was a consumer society and that free trade was all the rage.

Anyhow, I'm going to keep trying to get the equipment I want, and hope I'm not committing the Concorde fallacy ("too much invested to quit;" a logical error a lot of gamblers fall prey to as well as British and French engineers).

Everything is following Zen's Law of Time: "Everything takes longer than you expect."

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Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 200. I expect to be finished by December. We'll see what my Law of Time does to that date...

25 July 2002

Ah, bureaucracy...


Got an e-mail today from one of the NSF directors about my recently submitted proposal. One of the things the proposal asks for is "Current and pending support." In other words, just how much cash do you have from other agencies, and how much time are you going to be spending on these other projects?

Being new to all this, I have none.

They want me to submit a page that says "None."

I guess I don't think enough like a civil servant.

In any case, I have to get some help from the NSF to figure out just how I'm going to do this. Although the director gave me permission to make this little addendum, it's not an easy thing to do. Let me rephrase that: I can't do it myself, because -- as I've mentioned previously -- the entire proposal process is electronic. After a proposal has been officially submitted, you normally can't go back and make changes, for obvious reasons.

Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 145 (1% of book).

24 July 2002

Briefly...

More equipment arrived (huzzah!), but still lacking bits necessary to perform an actual experiment.

Spent part of the afternoon starting to learn the many, many rules and regulations governing small purchase orders.

Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 133 (<1% of book).

23 July 2002

Common thread


Yesterday, two books arrived in my apartment that couldn't look much different physically.

The first is a magnum opus by Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. It is massive. It's a book that should probably be measured by thickness or weight rather than page count. If you include the index and references and such, this sucker is well over 1,400 pages long.

I'm halfway through page 33. Wish me luck.

The other book to come in was a slim volume of poetry titled Eunoia by Christian Bök. I can't remember the exact page count, but even that's deceptive, since each page contains a single paragraph with a lot of white space. The concept of Eunoia is that each of the five chapters is written using only one vowel. You just gotta hear it read out loud; the effect is stunning.

What links these two books that look almost nothing alike? My favourite virtue: persistance. Gould mentions that he was working on his book for 20 years. (That he died so shortly after its publication makes you wonder if the desire to see the thing finally out in print was one of the things that kept him going against cancer.) Bök's task took seven years to finish. Bök probably invested more time per word than Gould!

And the moral of the story is: Do not stop and do not quit and do not give up.

22 July 2002

Still kicking

The sand crabs I collected way back at the start of the month (5 July) are still alive and well, as far as I can tell. A few have kicked the bucket (unsuccessful moults, and those that got clipped by a shovel when we were digging), but by and large, they seem to be doing all right. It's a little surprising, considering that I've pretty much just left them alone.

It bodes well for research, though: I'm not a big fan of research animals that require intensive care. I am in utter awe over the effort that some researchers have put into looking after their animals. An excellent example is Irene Pepperberg's outstanding work with her parrot Alex. Dr. Pepperberg has described the demands of her parrot as being akin to having a baby in the terrible twos for decades...

19 July 2002

Still writing

Spent an enjoyable day doing more research for the manuscript I'm working on. Actually went to the library, and took bound journals off the shelves to read the papers in them. It's a little unusual for me to do research with real paper in my hands now, because so many articles are available in PDF on the Web.

But it was quite and empty in the library's journal section, and I enjoyed getting out of my office.

And I'm finding all manner of interesting things to work into the article.

18 July 2002

Reflections and ideas

I consider myself a little lucky in that I enjoy writing, and I seem to be reasonably good at it. A lot of scientists don't like writing. And it shows.

Granted, technical writing is not easy, since reviewers tend to reject humour, colloquialisms, and pretty much every technique that writers in other fields use to engage a reader. But I still get the impression that for many researchers, the only reason they write their articles is because grant money would stop without them.

I was reminded today of one of the reasons I like writing, and consider it integral to my research. You're confronted with, "Just what the heck am I going to say?" While there have been some famous one and two page papers (the structure of DNA, by James Watson and Francis Crick, is one of biology's most famous: just over one printed page), most of us need to elaborate.

Filling blank pages gives you time to mull things over. While doing that today, I got a couple of nice ideas I hadn't thought of before. I doubt I'd've come up with them if I wasn't thinking, "This section has got to be more than two paragraphs!"

;;;;;

Also did some phoning around to see if anyone could convert some PAL video I brought back with me from Australia.

[Explanatory digression: there are a few TV formats in the world. PAL is used in most of Europe and Australia; it has higher resolution but lower frame rate. NTSC is used the North American standard: low resolution, higher frame rate, and colour values that are so loose that the ancient joke is that NTSC stands for "Never The Same Colour."]

This conversion may be trickier than I thought, because I not only have PAL videotape, I think I have PAL Super VHS (S-VHS) tape, which is not as popular a format as plain old VHS. I may have to bundle up the tape and send it through the post someplace far away.

On the plus side, I realized that when I converted the video, I could have it all burned onto a DVD. This would be fantastic for research. DVD images are still when you freeze-frame them, it's easier to jump from one place to another, and the images are already in digital format, so it should be easy to grab them for slides and publications.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: I love living in the 21st century.

17 July 2002

Back to research, sort of

After having done a decent once over on my on-line class material, I'm now bored enough with it that I've decided to set it aside for a few days.

I'm currently revisiting a manuscript about research I did while in Australia. That's over a year ago now (shudder). The task at hand is to convert graphics into journal format, which is straight forward but tedious.

This will be at least the third time I've worked over these images. I've put them together once for a PowerPoint slide presentation, once for a poster to hang up at a conference, and now for print. The results are worth it, though. I've sat through too many talks where someone has taken a slide directly from a printed journal, and while it may look fine on the printed page, it looks like absolute rubbish on the screen.

12 July 2002

Time out from research

I've spent the last couple of days mostly working on revamping material for a course I'll be teaching this fall, which will be partially on-line. While I've used some on-line material before, this time I'll be taking it a little further. Instead of meeting with students three times a week, we'll meet twice a week, and the students will have assignments to do on-line the remaining day I'd normally lecture. This requires the on-line material to be a little more beefy than I've had before.

11 July 2002

Consumer choice

The latest drama slowing down the establishment of my lab is that I'm trying to order some equipment from a company in England, Cambridge Electronics. This is an order for many thousands of dollars (U.S. dollars, no less), and the purchasing department here and the company can't agree over who's going to pay the import duties and taxes, which amounts to a couple of hundred bucks.

I do have some options. I could look for equivalent equipment here in the U.S. Alternately, I can wait.

[Zen whistles to pass the time]

I have few virtues, but patience is one of them.

I mean, I'd already done my comparison shopping. I still think this stuff is the best suited to my needs. Considering that I'll be using this equipment for some years, a few extra weeks for what I want is not a big deal. Just an aggravating one.

If I'd known all the hurdles this process would throw up in front of me, I'd have started earlier. I bet if I were a private individual with a few thousand bucks in my pocket, I'd have my equipment by now.

10 July 2002

Funded!

Good news: my colleague Hudson Deyoe informed me that the NSF will be funding a much-needed renovation of the seawater system at the Coastal Studies Lab, where I plan to do a fair amount of research. More details later.

08 July 2002

In the lab

I spent the end of last week on South Padre Island at the Coastal Studies Lab, enjoying the company of colleagues Virginia Scofield, Baruch ("Buki") Rinkevich, and new department hire Mike Persans. Lot of good conversation, and I successfully collected some sand crabs (mostly Lepidopa -- I'll explain what those are later) and brought them back to the lab. We all got to see the American Independence Day fireworks from the water, which was a definite bonus.

Today has been good too, as I've spent most of the day working in the lab. A few more equipment odds and ends arrived. I spent part of the day setting those up, checking on my sand crabs, and making a few things I'll need in the coming weeks. Also had a former student drop by with a couple more sand crabs for me, which was a nice surprise.

03 July 2002

One week early

My Office of Sponsored Research has informed me that they've now received all my paperwork. They helped me fix my last couple of mistakes and omissions, and the proposal is going to be signed off a full week before the deadline.

So let's talk money. Just how much am I asking for, and what are the biggest expenses?

The total, for a three year project, is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Specifically? Let's say in the $200,000-300,000 range. Needless to say, I've never handled or been responsible for that much money in my life. Yes, it is a little intimidating. While I expected a difference in the dollar values you worry about when you're a graduate student or post-doc compared to a faculty member, the division is sharper than I expected.

The biggest expense? Each of the three years is a little different, but more than half of the budget for every year is one just one line item: salary. Equipment? Supplies? Purchasing animals? Small potatoes. You want a post-doc to help in the lab, now you're talking dollars.

Besides asking for funds for a post-doctoral research fellow, I can also ask for money for me. Because many academic institutions (like mine) do not appoint you for a full year, asking for a salary for yourself is an acceptable cost. In some cases, I believe, it is possible to "buy" your way out of teaching by having grant money salary that you'd normally earn in the academic year.

And people wonder why researchers are so gung ho to apply for grant money.

Yet more chemicals continue to arrive. Today's delivery: alcohol! Not stuff you'd want to drink, though: this is 100% ethanol.

Tomorrow, and possibly Friday, I will be on South Padre Island doing science. I'm going there to meet Doctors Virginia Scofield and Baruch Rinkevich, the latter visiting Texas from Israel (!). Both Virginia and Baruch work on small little animals known either as tunicates or ascidians. For most locals, they're probably just the bane of boat owners, because they're colonial animals that grow on exposed surfaces and will foul the bottom of boats. They're very interesting scientifically, though, and are actively being studied as a model connected with AIDS.

02 July 2002

Bits and pieces

Packages of chemicals and the like continue to arrive in dribs and drabs. My favourite this week so far has been a box that was probably 30 cm long by 10 cm high by 15 cm wide. When I opened it up and took out all the packaging, it had a single box of glass slides that fit in the palm of my hand.

And you thought the guy who packs your bags at the supermarket was bad.

27 June 2002

Clearly a man with too much time on his hands...

My Bacon number is 3.

I was an extra in the movie Eastern Condor, directed by and starring Sammo Hung Kam-Bo (or just Sammo Hung). According to the Oracle of Bacon, Sammo Hung was in Long feng zei zhuo zei (1990) with Agnes Aurelio, who was in JFK (1991) with Kevin Bacon.

Not sure how to calculate my Erdos number. Not sure I care too much, since mentioning my Erdos number would be a lot more likely to be rewarded with blank stares at social functions.

I was thinking that many biologists would be interested in knowing, say, a "Darwin number" or "Mendel number" detailing their ties to some of the more famous biologists of the world. I suspect that those might be difficult to calculate: neither Charles Darwin nor Gregor Mendel had students.

The way of the future?

Oh, great. So now I'm being blamed for killing a really good web site: Salon. All right, not me personally, but web journals (“blogs”) like this one.

Maybe this thing really can work... In any case, projects like this are gaining prominence.


Oh! I have to mention that this is the first journal entry from my new computer with a new internet connection in my new lab. Huzzah!

Six degrees of D'Arcy Thompson

A lot of scientists are interested in just how tightly linked communities are. One popular version of this idea is the pasttime sometimes called "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," where the goal is to shows how many links there are between any actor and Kevin Bacon. If you're just curious and not a movie geek, type in the name of your favourite actor here.

An academic version of the game concerns wide-ranging and prolific mathematician Paul Erdos.

I recently mentioned I had a book on my desk by biologist D'Arcy Thompson, who died in 1948. My colleague Garry Jolley-Rogers informs me that I have a "Thompson number" of three. I did a post-doc with David Macmillan, who was a colleague of Michael Laverack, who knew D'Arcy Thompson.

Cool.

Hurry up and wait

Now that I've finished writing my proposal (I hope), and all the paperwork is out of the way (I hope), what now?

I wait. For about six months.

Oddly enough, the next round of deadlines is six months away; 10 July and 10 January are the two main deadlines for my particular research area. That means I may not know if I'm going to get funding, or even get any feedback on this current proposal, before my next shot at putting in another proposal.

How likely am I to get funded? It's a long shot. I don't have the rate of success for my particular area of research, but in a related field of animal behaviour, about 15% of proposals get funded. If I'm not mistaken, most major funding agencies have rejection rates around 70-90%.

26 June 2002

No conflict of interest!

The "Conflict of Interest Certificate" I mentioned previously did not take five days. Huzzah! It's back in my hot little hands, I've made some final fixes based on suggestions from a colleague, and I think this baby is about ready to hand over to the Office of Sponsored Research. The toothpick is coming out of the cake clean...

Just in time for me to take a trip to San Antonio this weekend, and enjoy the Canada Day weekend (though I'll be back by Monday, not in San Antonio). At least, I'll enjoy Canada Day as much as it's possible to do so in south Texas. :(

Meanwhile, I'm trying to get a bit of reading done. I'm currently working through a volume titled The Way of the Cell by Frank Harold. Also on my desk is D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form, which I haven't opened yet. Looking forward to this, because I've heard this book is full of graceful and elegant prose, which is not the sort of thing you normally associate with scientific writing.

Back to the current volume. I'm reading The Way of the Cell to see if it might make a serviceable textbook for a graduate-level class I'm slated to teach next year in cell biology. This should be an interesting experience, since I am not a cell biologist. Okay, I admit that neurons are cells, but that's about as far as it goes! New challenges are good, though; there's a lot positive to be said for a job that always requires you to learn new things.

25 June 2002

Eek! More paperwork!

I am so glad that I left myself considerable leeway in submitting my grant proposal. The deadline for when the electronic "papers" have to be submitted to the NSF is 10 July. But that's not my deadline, because my proposal has to go through the university's Office of Sponsored Research.

I was preparing a form that has to go to the Office of Sponsored Research, and noticed a small little line saying, "NSF & HHS Grants must submit Conflict of Interest Certificate." Fine. I look that up, and discover that the Dean of my College is supposed to have that paperwork five days before I submit my proposal to the Office of Sponsored Research. I'm hoping it won't take that long, but it's more lead time that I hadn't anticipated. Okay, "overlooked" is more accurate; but it's difficult to be aware of, and track, all this when you're doing it for the first time.

What else is making demands on my time? There are two candidates for the position of Dean of College of Science and Engineering interviewing this week. Faculty get a 45 minute chat session with each.

24 June 2002

Science in fiction

There are couple of interesting articles in the most recent issue of The Scientist. (Viewing these articles requires free registration.) They concern public perception of science, particularly what people take away about science when they go to films.

One article concerns scientists working as consultants to film and television. Anne Simon, science consultant for the recently completed television show The X-Files, says, “[W]hen scientists try to explain their work, they generally come off as condescending or have trouble communicating on the right level.” Sigh.

The other article describes a panel discussion, “Making Science More Sexy” (at least they gave us credit that we’re already at least a little sexy, and we just need to be more sexy) that occurred at a New York film festival. I like this article because it added a new phrase to my vocabulary: “weather porn.” Paula Apsell, who produces the science show Nova uses the phrase to refer to “hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis” that are offered in shows ostensibly about science.

22 June 2002

In the “Will we ever really know?” dept.

After the American move to recognize Meucci as the inventor the telephone, my fellow Canadians are responding.

This points out how tricky the business of assigning priority and credit for discoveries and inventions are. It might be more difficult to protect those discoveries today than in the time of Bell and Meucci, particularly for publicly-funded research. This proposal I'm working on now, for instance, is going to be reviewed by fellow scientists ("peer review"), who'll will recommend whether I get the cash or not.

The reviewers are not just other biologists -- these specifically go to people in my field. These are arguably my best competitors, and the ones most likely to be able to scoop me: carrying out research I'm proposing before I do.

People are aware of this possibility, and there are safeguards to ensure that ideas stay with the people who proposed them. For instance, I can influence who reads my proposal – to a degree. I can suggest reviewers, and I can also suggest people who I do not want to review my proposal.

Knowing who to avoid isn't always easy, however, because most reviews for journals (not sure about grant proposals yet) are anonymous. I'll stop there, since I'm sure the issue of anonymous peer-review will come up again later.

I can't imagine what it must be like for people who are working on "hot" projects with immediate and substantial commercial and / or medical applications. The competition is immense. If we've learned one things from big global sporting events like the Olympics, intense competition does not always bring out people's most noble and selfless sides.



21 June 2002

First draft done

I just finished uploading my working draft of my budget and its justification to the NSF web site. Whew. I'm going to sit on it for the weekend, proofread it Monday, and maybe turn the Office of Sponsored Research loose on it Monday or Tuesday.

Mysterious beast

It's a pity the sasquatch or Nessie enthusiasts are never able to produce a picture like this.

Makin' it purty

I'm redecorating the site a little. You'll notice the couch is now facing the opposite wall, and that ceiling fan just had to come down...

I'm changing the title, and want to make the page a little more distinctive. This was prompted after I visited someone else's web journal. This in itself is not unusual, as I'm an incorrigible surfer, except that this was a subject that does not interest me at all: weddings. I got sucked there due entirely to the clever title: Going Bridal. I thought, "My page is dull. Got to start fixing that."

I thought a lot last night about what I could use to replace the bland "Neuroethology" title. While neuroethology is what I do, it's not exactly what the journal is about. I wanted to keep the "Neuro-" in the title if I could, because it's such a great prefix. It worked for William Gibson, whose break-out novel had the wonderfully tantalizing title of Neuromancer.

"NeuroDojo" seemed to fit. A "dojo" is a place of training and practice, much as a research lab is. It gave me an excuse to put up the "Constant improvement" quote, which I say to students a lot. And the term has assonance.

I think I'll have to learn a bit more HTML before the place really looks the way I want it. Just a little more constant improvement for me to undertake.

20 June 2002

Individuals and institutions

Apparently, good things don't come in threes. No equipment today.

Meanwhile, I've got a first draft of my proposal budget. I think this project is getting pretty close to being handed over to the Office of Sponsored Research.

Hm. Methinks that term, "Office of Sponsored Research," might need a little explaining.

Funding administration varies quite a bit from country to country. In Canada, grants are generally awarded to an individual. Nobody else can touch a nickel of the money that's awarded to a researcher (or researchers, in cases of collaborative grants).

In the U.S.A., grants are generally awarded to institutions. This is actually a fairly substantial difference. First, this means not all the money goes to the researcher. Institutions get a cut of all grant money in the form of "indirect costs." It's worked into the proposal in advance, and it can be a big cut. On my campus, it's over 50%, and I think that figure is higher on other campuses. The indirect costs are supposed to feed back into the university so that they can provide infrastructure like secretaries, buildings, janitorial services, and so on. I'd feel better about these "indirect costs" if there weren't a set of unfinished labs in my building...

But I digress.

The habit of making grants to "institutions" instead of "individuals" also means that "Sponsored Research" offices play a sizable role in grant application. I cannot submit my own grant application to the NSF; I have to submit it first to the Office of Sponsored Research, who vets the application, and they ultimately submit the proposal to the funding agency.

One reason why I want to get this proposal in early is because, not having been through this process before, I want to leave plenty of time to fix any foul-ups that the Office of Sponsored Research points out to me.

Threes

After two straight days of receiving equipment packages, I'm pretty excited to see if good things really do come in threes...

19 June 2002

Christmas in June!

Yesterday, paper. Today, plastics. Tomorrow, the WORLD!

Just kidding about that last one.

Yes, another bunch of boxes of equipment arrived this afternoon. Mostly plastics and glasswear: beakers, graduated cylinders, carboys, disposible pipettes, petri dishes, and so on.

The biggest arrival, both literally and figuratively, was my new lab computer. It's got plenty of computing power, decked out in black and silver (you gotta approve of a colour scheme that matches much of your wardrobe), CD burner, DVD player, and a slim, flat screen. My techno-geek side is pretty excited about all this.

I'm still a long way from recording that first action potential, but the lab is starting to look like someone works there. And that someone is me. Which feels pretty good.

Promos

In today's mail, a special offer from scientific supplier Fisher. Free, with your $500 (!) order of chemicals, you get a free copy of the classic board game Monopoly. But not just any copy of Monopoly, but a special edition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the company.

While I have no intention of ordering all those chemicals just to get the game, I am very curious about what it looks like. The picture of the game box on the flyer appears to show tokens in the shape of a microscope and a flask. I wonder if you build research labs on Oxford instead of hotels on Boardwalk. Is there a card in "Chance" that says, "Your research grant is funded! You get $100,000!" or "You are found guilty of plagiarism! Go to jail!" The mind boggles...

There's a bigger point here, though. I've had a fair number of students ask me, "What can you do with a degree in biology?" The possibilities they can see are medicine, maybe research, and not much else. They don't realize that science is Big Business. Advertising is indicative of that: small companies with no competition don't have their own customized games made for their customers.

;;;;;

And here we are in the middle of summer, with weeks of 30-40 degree C weather on either side of today...

And I have a cold! The sore throat became a cough which became the runny nose and I don't like it at all.

Pout.

18 June 2002

First goodies arrive!

After weeks of waiting, I just received my first lot of goodies from my start-up funds.

I got a hot plate.

And a lot of cleaning material. Mostly paper.

The vast amount of paper products is due to an oddity about this particular campus: there isn't a central store for the Biology Department. On other campuses I've been in, routine consumables that everyone uses are kept in a central storeroom, and you can sign out what you need. Not here. I literally had to order paper towels and Kim-Wipes by the case.

(Aside for non-scientists: Kim-Wipes are somewhere between paper towels and kleenex; "delicate wipes," I think the box says. Their distinctive white and green boxes decorate pretty much every biological or medical lab in the world. One review of Jurassic Park gave the film points for verisimilitude for the Kim-Wipes visible in one of the film's laboratory sets.)

It's going to be a long-range goal to get some sort of central stores here. Because buying these sorts of minor consumables in bulk for one lab is inefficient at best and just plain dumb at worst.

I'm still waiting for slightly more interesting equipment to arrive. But in the meantime, I'll rest easier knowing I'm well prepped to handle any spills from my new hot plate.