Archive for: May, 2011

Rule #392 & 393 of owning a fish tank

May 16 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

392 - You will only ever want to catch the smartest fish in the tank, that hide the most effectively.

393 - You will accidentally catch every other fish in the tank ~4 times while trying to capture the one fish you want.

5 responses so far

Monday Morning Music

May 16 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

Lots going on this week, but I thought I would take a second to mention how much I'm digging the new album from The Airborne Toxic Event. Their first release in 2007 featured the song "Sometime Around Midnight".


Check out the drummer's mustache! You could lose a full meal in there.

As much as I liked that tune at the time their 2011 release "All at Once" has an entirely different feel (and no more mustache). The first single, Changing, is solid and much of the rest of the album rocks as well.


Nothing like an homage to your previous hit to start out the video.

In all honesty, any band that mixes in a healthy bit of strings with their rock sound has the short track to my heart, but check them out for yourself.

3 responses so far

What are teaching awards awarding?

May 13 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

We recently had our year-end meeting of the college my department belong to, and with that, the various annual awards for "excellence" in one thing or another. Of the awards open to faculty, I'm often interested in the teaching award and what kind of person wins it. This is not because I have any remote possibility (or aspiration) of winning, but more because I am ever curious how one's teaching is evaluated.

Research excellence is fairly easy to define. We have metrics, we have concrete things that can be used as a measure of one's success, even by people less familiar with your field. Teaching evaluation, OTOH, is more nebulous. We have some subjective ways to assess teaching, but few of us employ rigorous evaluation methods of our teaching. In the particular case of this award, it is often the students who make the case for the award, which brings in a new set of problems.

It's traditional for the award presenter to read some snippets from the nomination letters and I listened carefully this year to what were the key things that set this particular professor (who I have never met) apart in the eyes of the students. "Enthusiasm", "commitment" and "depth of knowledge" were terms that certainly surfaced, but well over half of the student comments were along the lines of "This professor got to know us on a personal level", "the professor made a strong connection with their students", or some such statement implying that the students place a large value a professor's interest in them as more than students. Perhaps as friends?

Fair enough. I get how student engagement is key to getting their investment in a course and I'm not advocating for situation where the totality of student/professor interaction is with a podium in between. However, I have to admit that the level of "personal" interaction that the students seemed to revere left me a bit uncomfortable. I often joke with the students in my classes, make conversation with them while setting up before class and encourage the promising ones to get involved in research, but I don't see it as my role to go much beyond that.

I'm sure someone will pull out the trusty "students today just want to be spoon fed and coddled and get offa my lawn!" in the comments, but I doubt that has changed as much as many "remember". But sitting on this side of the desk, I wonder where the different expectations are in terms of getting "invloved"* with one's students and whether I should even care. I have no plans to be more aggressive about getting to know my students, but can I get them to respond to the class as well without going the extra (overly-personal) mile?

*In the non-creepy way.

16 responses so far

The almost-theres

May 11 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I think everyone who teaches runs into some sort of almost-there, but they are impossible to avoid when you teach an upper-level course in the spring. I'm talking about the students who earn a grade that is oh-so-close to what they need to graduate (or in other cases, keep a scholarship, stay on a team, etc., etc.). In my particular case, it's the students who are majors and need a "C" in my course to get their diploma on time. Every year I have a few hovering around 70% that are on pins and needles at the end of the semester.

On the one hand, they've made their bed. Should I be giving them bonus points based on a need that seemed far less important to them during the semester than at the end? Certainly that would be unfair to the other students.

But, is it worth it to hold a kid back and make them do a summer course over a few percentage points? Seems kinda, I dunno, douchey.

What say ye?

33 responses so far

NSF, feasibility and impact

May 10 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

If you've been on an NSF panel recently, you may have seen a figure that had the same axis as the graph above. It's what POs are showing panelists as they consider the proposals on the table. I've added in my own details to reflect what I'm hearing from both POs and people coming out of the spring panels. The green oval represents proposals ranked as "Outstanding", the yellow "Superior" and the red "Meritorious".

At least in the 4 panels I have heard about in BIO, funding lines are coming in around 6-9%. The continuing resolution and 1% cut in the new Fed budget mean that things are tight and this is certainly no surprise. Knowing this was going to be a slim year, POs have been urging panels to wield I mighty hammer when it comes to putting proposals in the black in the above graph and 80% of proposals ending up "non-competitive" is not unusual this year, in stark contrast to previous years.

So what is getting the nod? Based on the graph above that panels are asked to consider, the implication should be pretty clear - ensure your methods are tight, have the preliminary data to cover your ass and be thinking hard about the bigger implications of any work you are proposing. This holds true for any year, but going forward in our financial climate, in particular. NSF's fav word right now is "transformative"... but only when it comes via proven methods.

11 responses so far

Blog Rolling: The Pipetting Diva and Periodic Boundary Conditions

May 09 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

Providing a platform for people to highlight their blogs has given me a good amount to read over the last little while, and hopefully some readers have been following suit. Today I would like to draw your attention to a pair of student blogs, the first, Periodic Boundary Conditions, written by Ms. MSE, and The Pipetting Diva, written by Lab Rockstar.

For those of you engineers out there who are often complaining that there are no blogging engineers, it's time you go over and say hi to Ms. MSE. You can check out her pair of posts on engineering fellowships (Part 1, Part 2) or get some wedding advice from an engineer. Or maybe you just really want to know how to get capsaicin out of your eyes. Any way you cut it, you should check out this relatively new blog and keep an eye out for upcoming posts.

When Lab Rockstar is not falling in a river with a sparkley pink fishing rod or finding creative ways to give extra credit, or keeping HCl off her boobs, she describes herself as "Evolutionary Biology. Also a twenty-something divorcee who loves science. I mean, I really love it. I would even let science be the little spoon."

I have to admit that I was reading both blogs before they checked in last week. Both offer a good mix of science, humor and advice for their peers that warms my cold, cold heart. Pop on over and look for yourself.

2 responses so far

Poll: The giving tree

May 05 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Et Al]

One thing that took me a bit to get used to at my institution is the regular emails and mail fliers to give money to the institution. I can understand that the development people want to turn over every stone in their constant cash search, but ffs, really? My donation last year was the raise I didn't get.

But perhaps this is a common practice that I am unaware of. So, to the polls!

19 responses so far

Teaching. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

May 04 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Like many in my position, I have about as much formal teaching training as I do formal gardening or cooking training. That's not to say that I can't cook a mean meal from stuff I've grown myself, but I've learned through seeing what works for others and trial and error. Teaching is no different, but I've been doing it formally (as in, full control over an entire course) for a shorter period of time. And whereas I see teaching as important, there also remains the fact that it can't be a priority for me at this stage of my career.

That said, for a variety of reasons (most notably, Broader Impacts, yo) I have gotten involved in a program aimed at producing teaching modules for grade 6-12 science classes. For each module there is a team of one person who teaches at a university and one person who teaches at either the middle or high school level. Nearly everyone involved has a formal background in education and is well-versed in the jargon that goes along with that training. In addition, the 6-12 teachers have an array of state requirements and testing that they have to conform with, creating a new layer of complexity.

The meetings we have as a group often make me feel a bit like I do when traveling in a country where I have a semi-decent grasp on the language - I know enough to follow the conversation and can clumsily contribute, but spend much of the time just trying to keep up. It's a fascinating experience for me seeing the approach to teaching that is taken at the 6-12 level and there's no shortage of elements that I could see employing in my own teaching. For that reason, I really think that I'm going to be taking as much or more out of this experience than I will be contributing, which is not necessarily what I thought when I agreed to join in.

Sometimes it's the unexpected benefits of starting a new project or collaboration that make the biggest impact.

5 responses so far

I won't be celebrating

May 02 2011 Published by under [Politics]

Osama Bin Laden is dead.

Many Americans have and will rejoice over this event, seeing it as some form of I-don't-know-what that closes a small chapter in what will undoubtedly be a many volume tome that has become warfare in the new century. Whereas I can understand why people view Bin Laden's death as some sort of victory, I sincerely hope it will rekindle some thought about WHY the 2001 attacks occurred.

No person, group or country sets about to terrorize or destroy another group or country for no reason. It's not a sport or hobby, it comes about through dedication to a cause worth dying for. While many of us spend our lives oblivious of what is going on in many other parts of the world, our country's foreign policy speaks for us in regions we will never see ourselves. Our flag is staked in the heart of global conflicts without our input and it becomes the face of our nation to those who will never set foot on US soil. It behooves us to understand the policies that speak for us and the reasons they can result in the global conflict we are now facing. No foreign policy is perfect and some group will always feel slighted when you meddle in foreign conflicts, but there are reasons why the US was the primary target for something so massive, and it certainly wasn't convenience.

Beyond that, I can't shake the parallels between the celebrations that arose around the world when the towers fell and those that arose around the US at the news of one man's assassination*. What would I tell my daughter if she were a little bit older and asked me why people were celebrating? Should I say "because armed men stormed a compound and killed a few people, including their target" or "our country finally killed someone they had been looking for"? If I've raised her well, she would probably follow her question up with "Isn't it bad to kill people?" I suppose this is why 34 states still have a death penalty - because people feel the need for blood vengeance.

So what have we accomplished in our state ordered assassination? Have we changed anything about the global terrorism structure or have we simply done the functional equivalent of knocking off the Queen in the hopes that England will fall**? Have we sent a message? If so, what is that message and who is receiving it? Is the message one that will discourage people from attacking the US in the future, or have we just penned the newest Al Qaeda recruitment brochure? I understand why the US felt compelled to "bring him to justice", but he likely does more for his cause in death than in life at this point.

Like most Americans, I will always remember where I was on the morning of September 11, 2001, and watching events unfold, but the act of killing the man accused of masterminding the attack is not something I relish.

Have we learned anything from the last decade and all the lives lost during that time? Have the billions of dollars spent to get us to Sunday's "victory" been worth it? Time will tell.

*Let's not kid ourselves about it being a mission to capture. Even CNN is reporting the mission was to kill him, as if there was any doubt.

**Simply an analogy, I have nothing against England or their Royal family, despite wanting to scrub my brain of wedding imagery.

67 responses so far

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