Archive for: April, 2009

Commitment follow-up

Apr 15 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

While I do appreciate everyone's encouragement with regard to moving forward with mentoring UgS, I think the real point of my post (and what I want to emphasize) was the fact that it took me so long to figure out the difference between "knowing" something and putting it into practice. I should have realized when UgS first started that I would need to take some extra time to ensure that they succeeded early and that not doing so was likely dooming UgS to fail. In fact, my knee-jerk reaction when UgS did not flourish after being tossed into the mix was that they had no interest or did not get it, in the same way that someone can have really good grades and be a travesty in the lab. The reality was (I think) that this student was not going to react the same way as an undergrad student who sought out the research opportunity through more conventional means. So, despite my claim of support for the program, I wasn't actually doing it or the student their deserved justice because I didn't take the time to think about the differences. I want to spell this out in case someone else finds themselves in the same position.

Does this mean that I plan to hold hands with every undergrad that comes into the lab through this program? No. But what it does mean is that I need to be in communication with these students from the very beginning, find out what their strengths and weaknesses are early and come up with a plan that allows them to succeed that takes advantages of their strengths while shoring up some of their weaknesses. As much as that sounds like a decent amount of work, I believe it can be done relatively easily with a short meeting each week. Also, the time it takes to troubleshoot things when someone in the lab has screwed something up in a big way is probably greater. This way the student does well and gains confidence while producing useful data.

No responses yet

What does it mean to be committed?

Apr 14 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

I've been thinking hard about the situation I described last week with an undergrad student (UgS) who is looking to work in the lab over the summer. The fact is, I think I jumped too quickly to a decision based on my immediate goals, without stepping back a bit. Obviously, as a new faculty member my main focus is getting things DONE in the lab and writing grants. From this perspective it is easy to say that anything that does not specifically lead to producing data that can be used for publications and grants is not worth my time right now. I'm stretched thin enough as it is and as such, should strive to minimize any more distractions at all costs. Right?

Well, the situation with UgS is not so cut and dry. As I mentioned earlier, UgS came to the lab as part of a specific diversity program and would be supported over the summer by this program. This same program is one that I have started a relationship with and written into grants as something I am committed to supporting. Grants aside, I am committed to the goals of the program and want to see it succeed, both as a whole and in my own lab. What I had not taken into consideration was that these students require more work from me than typical undergrad researchers and it is unreasonable for me to hold them up to the same light that I do some of the other students in the lab. I think I realized this on some level, but did not fully appreciate it until I sat down to think about the situation with UgS. This is the point of the program. This is what I have committed to.

Sure, there are flaws in the program in terms of interaction between the coordinators and the mentors and there has to be more support for the mentors in terms of being prepared for the various students who we are sent, but I still think my expectations were in the wrong place. Unfortunately, with everything that has been going on this semester I did not take the time to reflect on this until now, which is entirely my fault. Having spoken to several people in the program and UgS directly, I now feel that I need to be more involved with this student than other undergrads and very carefully set up a plan so that UgS will succeed, despite their limitations. If it means that I need to spend a bit more of my time working with UgS and that one of my grad students needs to watch UgS for longer than they would normally monitor an undergrad in the lab, that's the price I am willing to pay for the goals of the program. After all, what is commitment without being willing to shoulder some cost?

9 responses so far

Confessions of a day care survivor

Apr 13 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

It's taken three weeks, but we're finally into a day care groove. The first week was a bit of a disaster and the Wee One had no idea why we kept abandoning her in the care of strangers. Wife-like Substance started crying each morning just about as soon as we got in the door, so it was up to me to do the dirty work of handing the Wee One over. As soon as the exchange was made she realized that we were leaving and would start to howl. It's no fun leaving your screaming child in the hands of someone you don't even know, but I knew it was something that we needed to do. By week two, the Wee One would initially cry, but be over it even before we left the building, which was encouraging. At the same time, WLS was starting to be able to keep her composure at least until getting back in the car. Fewer tears all around!

Last week was totally different. We did all of the normal routine, but when I put the Wee One down she didn't cry. Instead, she looked up at me with a sad expression, waved and said "bye". I thought "this is great, I think she's finally okay with all this and I won't have to deal with anyone crying in the morning!" Then, as I was walking out the door, she turned to me and blew me a kiss (which she rarely does) and damnit if one of us didn't have tears in their eyes. Unfazed, she went to play.

11 responses so far

Reader Poll: teaching evolution

Apr 09 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

Last week I criticized a video put together in an effort to get people talking about evolution. The makers of the video have contacted me to take issue with my comments and contend that it is an effective tool to get kids to think about evolution in it's native language, German. While that may be so, they have tried to internationalize the video with the English translation I previously embedded and I feel as though they may need to add more content to their English site in order to get their points across. So, if you have three minutes, (re)watch the video and answer the following to questions with one sentence each:

1) What is the main lesson about evolution you take away from the video?

2) What would be the one thing (in the form of an accompanying explanation) that would help you better understand what the creators of the video want to get across?

3) If you were a kid watching this video, what would it make you think science was like?

I have deliberately not included the link to the site here because I am interested to see what the reaction is to the video on it's own. They would appreciate the feedback on the English version of the video, but if you know German it would be interesting to hear whether you think there is a distinct difference between the two. Once you answer the questions, you can search for "Darwin Rocks" to read more about the project and see whether or not you are understanding what they would like to get across. So far, the video makers and I are not seeing eye-to-eye, but I'm just one guy with an opinion.

Teaching evolution to the public is a critical issue for anyone working in life science and if we can help those trying to accomplish this goal, let's try to do so.

16 responses so far

Pain. For Free

Apr 07 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

It's the time of year where undergrad summer fellowships are being announced and I was contacted by an Employment U foundation yesterday to let me know that one of the undergraduates working in my lab has made their list of students to fund for the summer. Ordinarily this would be a good thing, but I was shocked that the student had applied to continue working in the lab because, A) Undergrad Student (UgS) appears to be going through the motions every day and seems to have no interest in what is going on in the lab, B) UgS never even told me they were applying, and C) UgS is an unmitigated disaster in the lab.

For these reasons, I have no idea what to do with this student. The complications are that this student originally came to the lab when I partnered with a diversity mentoring program in an effort to recruit diverse students to the lab and provide research experience to those who might not otherwise get it, which makes me feel a certain obligation to try harder with this student. At the same time, this is not just a case of inexperience in the lab. Everyone has mentored a student who just can't do lab work, for whatever reason and UgS is just the kind of person who doesn't get it. If one of my grad students spent a substantial amount of time with UgS for half of the summer, it might mean that UgS could perform mundane tasks in the lab unsupervised, but do we have 40 hours a week of mundane tasks and is it worth the loss of the grad student's time?

I haven't made a call on whether to take on UgS for the summer yet, but I need to by noon tomorrow. If I thought UgS really wanted to go to grad school and just needed training, I would take them in a second. However, it is pretty clear that they are just applying for the things that they are being told to apply for and not because they see it as a career-advancing opportunity. The flip side is also that the opportunity will not be available to another student who really does want it if I take UgS on for the summer. I can argue myself in circles, but in the end it comes down to whether I want to invite a giant time-sucking vacuum into the lab in the name of making every effort to promote science diversity, even if I think this particular student will not continue in science in the long-run. On this, I am conflicted.

12 responses so far

You have GOT to be kidding me!

Apr 04 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

I just got an email that started thusly:

Dear all,

A small team of evolutionary ecologists from Tuebingen, Germany, just finished a rock music clip about evolution which is called "Struggle for love", together with a computer program that allows the user to "select and evolve" music tunes following biological principles. This program was also used to generate the underlying tunes for the song.

Both the clip and the program are meant to attract the attention from non-biologists and make them think and talk about evolution. Hence, if you like it, please feel free to share it with your friends, relatives and students.

Okay, I thought, I'll check it out and see what those crazy Germans have been up to. Here's the clip.

Where to even fucking begin? I think my favorite moment is when the lab gathers to watching hyenas having sex on TV (though I don't know what your lab meetings are like), but a close second is the absurdity that a bunch of white people (with all men in charge) get together to engineer something involving mice, bacteria and soccer players, eventually get what they want then drink in the lab. Seriously? This is how we want kids to think of science and evolution? That it's a cross between video games, playing God, soccer, awkward German expressions of emotion and beards? I've watched it three times now and it upsets me more each time. It's like that Alanis Morissette song that is called "ironic", but all of the examples in the song have nothing to do with irony... maybe that was the irony, I don't know. In any case, I can't believe that 4 evolution professors had a major hand in putting this together and it is the worst travesty I've seen since Subaru put out the Baja. Dude! Fuck. Sigh....

p.s. I am TOTALLY having my whole lab gather around to watch my back, in green light, the next time I work at the microscope.

9 responses so far

Reader Poll - Tattoos in Science

Apr 03 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

I am thinking about getting another tattoo these days and I am seriously considering getting something that would be visible when wearing short sleeved shirts, so it probably wouldn't be long before it was noticed in my department. I'm not exactly the type to get something offensive, so I'm not worried about that, but I do wonder a bit whether it would change the opinions of some people. Certainly tattoos are on the rise and plenty of scientists have them, but there remains a generational difference in opinion on them. Therefore, recognizing that this audience is a skewed sample, I have two questions for you today and over the weekend:

A) If a colleague in your department had a visible tattoo (which would be covered for classes, etc.) would you think of them differently?

B) If YOU got a visible tattoo, how do you think it would be perceived in your department?

16 responses so far

Ecological Succession of PANs

Apr 02 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

Ecological Succession is a process by which organisms move into an "empty" environment. It might be observed after a large-scale disturbance, such as a fire, which leaves a landscape stripped of it's previous inhabitants, or when an agricultural field is abandoned and goes "wild". Very rarely in nature is there a truly new environment, but these cleared environments happen regularly. The movement of organisms (particularly vegetation) into these areas is well documented and happens in a logical order from fast growing and high-dispersal weedy species to slow-growing hardwood forests.

At a university, the same type of process can occur when a new building is built and inhabited, but it's not the vegetation that gives it away. You can tell the stage of succession a building is at by the number of passive-aggressive notes (PANs) that are attached to anything communal. It starts with weeds - gently phrased notes in sentence case, all in black type and simple fonts, like Times or Helvetica. Eventually, the weeds create enough soil for the shrubs to take root and Bold type starts to appear and exclamation points sprout and grow. The colored text and underlines are the softwoods - they take a little longer to develop, but they have a longer run than the weeds and shrubs.

Post-doc Department was the PAN succession equivalent of a hardwood forest. Notes in all caps that threatened the very well-being of the reader. Exclamation points were the punctuation of choice and there was no roman font, only bold. The signs exclaimed WARNING! and READ THIS FIRST! and were written by people who had studied the art of condescension under gurus that lived on mountain tops in Nepal.


Fig. 1. A magnificent elm of a PAN. Apparently people were slipping on a regular basis because this note was present for the entire 4 year tenure of PLS's post-doc. The use of "further" AND "furthermore" makes this a wonderful specimen.

Now, I have a confession. I LOVE the unintentional comedy of PANs and I would be lying to you if I said that I don't appreciate a good PAN. The fact that I have had passiveagressivenotes.com bookmarked for years should be some indication of this. Though I have enjoyed moving into a new building, the new environment is virgin territory for PANs, which is disappointing on several levels.

So, I have taken it upon myself to start the early stages of succession. The autoclave on our floor consistently does not close all the way, causing the alarm to go off after about 5 minutes. My office is close to the machine and it appears that the alarm only bothers me enough to do anything about it. I took the opportunity to cast the first seed into the new environment today, with a carefully crafted "weedy" PAN - Sentence case black Helvetica, no bold font, no threats and relatively pleasant. A simple note letting people know that pushing the door up once it closes will create a tight seal. With time and a little TLC, I hope that my little seed will flourish and nature will take it's course.

2 responses so far

30 min healthy meal

Apr 01 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

This is something my wife and I like to whip up for a quick Sunday meal that feeds us and the Wee One for a few days. As long as you have a few meats on hand, it comes together quickly and since everything is already cured, it only needs to cook for about half an hour. Take ham sausage, ham slices, smoked pork sausage and wrap them in a roasted pork belly. Surround that with ground sausage shaped into a pig, wrap it in bacon and roast for 30 minutes at 400F. Garnished with chili ears and tail. Kids love it and you can leave it on the counter for a few days and pick at it when you want to.

18 responses so far

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