Archive for: July, 2011

Teachers don't appreciate irony

Jul 31 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

With the new week ahead, I thought I might take two seconds to reflect on the completion of last week's workshop for teachers. It was an interesting experience and in some way exactly what I expected, whereas completely unexpected in other ways. This was not an easy assignment, based on the huge range of teacher experience and the grade range. We had everything from 6th grade science teachers who graduated undergrad with a business degree to 12th grade AP Bio teachers with an MSc. Suffice to say that lecturing to the median alienated both extremes, but we worked with it as best we could. Some quick observations:

1) Teachers complain about getting homework! I found this hilarious, since this was a course for graduate credit and we only asked the to read one article on each of the two nights. Despite this minor load, probably 40% of the course evaluations made a comment along the lines of "the course would have been better without homework". WTF?

2) Some things never change. The "students" who needed to pay attention the most where the first ones to check out and do things like play games on their phones.

3) Teachers are largely unaware that university faculty are willing to either host students for a lab field trip or go to classrooms. Although I wouldn't do this on a monthly basis, I would certainly be up for student interaction a couple of times a semester. One of the teachers actually asked me what the hourly rate is for me to come to classes. Hmmmmmmm.

4) Teaching this class with a grade school teacher has been tremendously helpful. I don't think the teachers would have gotten nearly as much from the course without the mix of our experience.

5) Overall, the group was engaged and asked really good questions. I would say that if the class populations was a reasonable representation of the local teachers, our kids are in pretty good hands.

6) Even when I am struggling a bit, I can convince a room of adults that I know what I'm talking about. Some of the questions that came up were on things I haven't thought hard about for over a decade. Between having to access the far reaches of my brain and having some out of class issues on my mind (a post for another day), there were a few points where I felt I stumbled a bit with the information. Despite this, the class evaluations were pretty supportive, which was nice.

7) No matter what the course is, the first time around is always an experiment. I was teaching in a new environment to an unusual group of students on material slightly outside of my work with a person I had no experience teaching with. Given all the unknowns, it is surprising how well it went.

Now we make our adjustments for round two and tackle that this week. Looking forward to tweaking the course and seeing if we can improve on the groundwork we laid last week.

7 responses so far


Jul 25 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

Amazingly, this is the 600th post on the blog, which is about 580 more than I ever thought I was likely to write. As much as blogging gives me a forum for writing and to sometimes dump the thought tornado in my head, I probably wouldn't still be doing it without the conversations that happen as a result. Be they here or on other corners of the interwebs, it's the interactions and discussion* that keep me writing even when I am up against a deadline or have other things going on.

So thanks for reading and thanks to those of you who join in, either frequently or less so. Well over 5000 comments have been logged along the nearly three years the blog has been around and I have gained tremendously from the insights of this community and hope that I can give back in my own small way.

*Alright, it's also my lack of concentration.

8 responses so far

Teaching teachers teaching

This week should be chock full `o irony for me because I get to spend much of it teaching K-12 teachers how to teach K-12 students. Mind you, I have no formal teaching training, no experience with this grade range and almost certainly less hands-on teaching time than everyone I am charged with, um, teaching. But I have rhythm....

Luckily I am not being thrown to the wolves. I have a specific roll in terms of designing the science that will back the course material and will be providing a specific module and the background necessary to implement it in the classroom. Perhaps more critically, I have been working with a grade school teacher who will be joining me in the classroom to lead the implementation discussions. He will also be employing several common (so I am told) group teaching techniques to help keep the group focused and attentive.

My big secret is that I think I may learn more than many of those looking back at me. Part of my motivation for participating in this outreach program is to pick up bits and pieces of teaching philosophy and methodology that I can begin to bring back to my own classroom. I've tried the straight-up lecture approach and added in some student participation activities, but have been unimpressed with the results. At the same time, I haven't been committed enough to go out of my way to learn new teaching styles in the face of my other obligations at work. This program allows me to contribute to the schools in my local area, while hopefully learning a lot about different approaches for engaging students.

Plus, I'm really interested to see if teachers revert to the student-like behaviors they try and stomp out of their own classes the second they are on the other side of the desk.

6 responses so far

Can n00bs be trusted to review?

Jul 22 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

As many readers know, the bulk of my research falls under the purview of NSF, but I have begun to shop some of what we do to NIH. As an initial foray into NIHland, we've actually done respectably considering I thought there was little to no chance I could make the case that NIH should fund our particular brand of science. I'm not prepping an R01 for October and looking to take a full swing at the NIH pinniata.

But in a lot of ways, NIH remains a bit of a mystery to me because it is set up in a very different way than NSF at almost every level, from day-to-day business to the philosophy that drives how the money gets distributed. Perhaps because I don't run in the circles that counts NIH as the only funding game in town, it all has a foreign and unwelcoming feel, even if that sounds ridiculous.

But part of that philosophy is what has Drugmonkey all giddy today. Apparently NIH is considering actually allowing n00bs into the inner review sanctum.... sort of. I guess that participation of Assistant Professors in review has been something that NIH has recently been trying to reduce even further than the <10% of reviews they have gotten from that population in the past. In an effort to change that trend this year NIH is now saying that they will bring in as study section reviewers, investigators who have not yet attained NIH funding. BUT, there shalt only be one per study section, they shalt not take on more than 2 reviews and will not be given primary status on even that review load!

NIH gives n00b reviewers their first chance to get on the review highway.

While I will admit that getting the experience of being in the room is a valuable thing, WTF is that? In my NSF panel experience, POSTDOCS had more review responsibility than that and there were two of those on the panel. I know that NIH loves to trot out the mantra (as quoted in DM's post) "And even though we generally use more senior and experienced reviewers on our panel because they have the depth and breadth of expertise that allows them to give a more knowledgeable assessment of the applications", but this is a bit fucking ridiculous.

People who do not have NIH funding might certainly need some assistance when it comes to things like feasibility in the time frame or maybe even broader picture significance, but is it really the case that they can't even be trusted to review the science of more than two proposals as a non-primary reviewer? Puleeez! It's not hard to understand why NIH has so much trouble with discrimination against the ESI crowd when it is actively propagated from the top down.

17 responses so far

NSF data management plans

Jul 20 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Roughly a year ago the NSF instituted a requirement for a Data Management Plan to be included in every research proposal. Fresh on the heels of the Postdoc Mentoring Plan, this was yet another document outside the proposal narrative to think about. A few universities stepped up with some resources right away (summarized here at Book of Trogool) and the rest of us looked around to try and figure out what this was all about. BIO recently came out with some guidlines for proposal writers (PDF here) but the DMP is new to many reviewers.

Two rounds have passed and reviewers are starting to figure out the difference between a good and bad DMP. Much like the postdoc plan before it, it has taken some time for the expectations to settle in. So what do we know so far about the types of things reviewers are looking for? Here are 5 things that have surfaced in my experience as a writer and reviewer of proposals.

1) Samples. If you work in an area where collections are made in the field or lab, will there be representative collections available to others? If the work involves DNA or RNA, will the next scientist be able to request the exact DNA you used or even some material from the exact organism you extracted it from?

2) Distribution. Will there be publicly available off-site storage for key samples? If so, where? A museum? Herbarium? Repository? Secret sub-subterranean liar?

3) Raw Data. So where DO those lab books end up? How about digital data like gel or blot photos and sequences? Will they be available? Are they stored in a safe way?

4) Back up. Related to point 3, what is your data back-up strategy? Are you relying on a 5 inch floppy disk to keep your data safe or do you have a more comprehensive plan? Is there off-site storage or would a fire wipe out the whole project and all unpublished data?

5) Publication. Are you making your publications available by paying for open access or choosing open access journals? How broadly disseminated is your science?

Other fields likely have additional or different requirements than BIO, but these are the major ones that I have come across based on the proposals I see. Although the requirements are still in flux, reviewers are narrowing in on the expectations and you are better off including too much rather than not enough. Much like the PDM plan before it, it is unlikely that a mediocre DMP will have an enormous effect on where the proposal ranks, but POs are asking panels to comment on the DMP specifically in the summary statement, so there is a clear record of whether you are doing a decent job on it. Likely in this round or next, this will be a more critical piece of the puzzle and you'll get the hammer if you slap something together.

5 responses so far

A day of quick meals for the over-committed

Jul 19 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

I was out of town last week, which leaves the rest of the family juggling more balls on the home front than when I am there. This is not ideal, obviously, but got me thinking about some of the ways we try and make our lives a bit easier without succumbing to sacrificing things like home cooking. There are a few meals that we cook on a regular basis these days that require little effort, but are still delicious. We also tend to cook dinners that several double duty as lunches, to avoid paying for meals out.

With that in mind, here is a day of favorites. Bear in mind that all quantities are approximate because I cook by the force, not by book.

It still surprises me how many people roll out of their houses without eating anything before they get to work. This is a no go for me and I need to get some food before any work is getting done. We typically have a full breakfast as a family, but I can understand that this might not work for everyone. But, you DO have time to make a smoothie to at least get some nutrients into your system. All you need is to have some fruit kicking around, even in your freezer if that works better for you.

Dust off your blender and add the following:
One chopped banana
1/4 cup yogurt
1/4 cup each, of two other fruits (whatever you have that would taste good together; melon, blueberry; strawberry, kiwi; etc.).
Enough orange juice for everyone to get however much smoothie they want.

Blend everything on medium for 2 minutes. Don't cheat on the time unless you want a chunky that separates in 5 minutes.

Pour and serve. Done. You can even chop the fruit during the weekend and individually freeze the portions if you are really that rushed.

Well if you cooked extra last night, you don't need this. But, we find it helpful to keep a package of prewashed salad in the fridge. You can grab some greens and toss just about anything on top, from a can of tuna to whatever meat or starch you ate last night.

Get out your slow cooker! Place six chicken thighs, or if you want to get crazy, a whole chicken breast side down (remember to pull out the bag of bits in there), and add a jar of salsa. Put it on low in the morning and come home at night to half a meal ready to go. Bust out some cheese, lettuce (our washed salad mix makes another appearance), tomato, hot sauce and tortillas and you're ready to go. If you're day is longer than you want the chicken to cook, buy a cheap light timer (the ones people use to turn lights on and off when they are not around) and set it so that the crock pot will go on 6-8 hours before you get home.

The Speedy Mojito! This whole section will probably drive resident mixologist, Dr. Becca, into a rage, but sometimes you want a refreshing cocktail and don't have 10 minutes to make it. The only kicker here is that you have to have mint around, but if you toss some in your garden it'll be there for times like these. Pick the tops (about 6 leaves) of two mint plants and crush them a little in the bottom of a 16oz glass with the handle of a wooden spoon. Add clear rum to desired amount and some ice. Pour a whole 8oz can of tonic club soda in the glass and fill the rest with... limeade. No melting sugar or trying to get the right ratio of sugar to lime, just let the good people of Newman's Own, or whatever limeade you buy, to do that for you.

Simple and tasty, that's the basic goal. Easy meals at home keep us from hitting take-out on the way home or ordering pizza every night. After a long day you may not feel like cooking, but if there's a meal waiting for you it is less likely you'll give in to less healthy options.

Anyone else have quick meal "recipes"?

21 responses so far

Is North Dakota the new Pluto?

Jul 18 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

There's a chance you're gonna need to go pull a star off your flag soon, but I'm not ready to lose that accent from our national identity. Despite a sixteen year campaign by 82 year old "keen historian" John Rolczynski, North Dakota doesn't seem to be taking seriously his claims that the "state" is merely a territory. Write to any North Dakota you know and plead with them to approve the amendment to the state constitution. States don't let states be territories.

3 responses so far


Jul 18 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Et Al]

I had to go through my calendar today to look something up from 2008 and I noticed something. Two weeks prior to starting my job was the last time a vacation appears in my schedule where I had to take more than one or two normal workdays off. I have traveled plenty in that time and had a lot of fun, but almost always related to work. Part of the reasoning here is because of being busy and also because we have been banking vacation/sick time to compensate for a draconian family leave policy at my wife's job, but that is a long time to go without getting away in a real sense. This is not a good thing.

16 responses so far

This is why we do it

Jul 08 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Today was not a good day. I spent the majority of it dealing with bullshit and herding cats to make sure that my NSF proposal gets submitted before I leave this weekend. It was one of those days where you end up getting that feeling in the back of your throat that means you've been on edge all day, when the whack-a-mole game puts up two moles for every one you smack. Some of you will know what I mean and others won't. It doesn't really matter.

But certain days just work out funny, and one lab member was back from a workshop today. I asked them to round up a dataset for me and, based on things they had just learned in the workshop, they took it a bit further. As the day was winding down and the moles were mostly retreating, I had a figure slapped on my desk. On the surface, it was interesting, but it needed context, which I asked for and went about finishing some things up. What came back was another ordinary graph, but together they told a story that has become something familiar to me.

When I first started the lab, I probably navigated a bit recklessly. That's not to say that we were a ship adrift (and I did keep one sure fire project in my back pocket that has netted us funding), but rather that I had an idea that I pursued in the absence of direct evidence. I knew it should be true, but it wasn't a tangible thing that I could wave in the face of doubt. I naively put my ideas out there in proposals and got knocked back for lacking preliminary data. The familiar refrain became "you can't demonstrate that this actually happens" and I heard it a lot. We did a considerable amount of hand waving and got people interested, but we couldn't push it over the edge.

But as I was headed out this evening I had the two datasets in front of me and they fucking fit! There's still plenty to do, but a whole lot of work just came together and it makes sense. What we had predicted would show up is staring us in the face. It's validation of a major thrust of the lab and a giant relief to me that I'm not leading a bunch of folks off a cliff, singing the whole way.

This is big for us. Huge.

16 responses so far


Jul 08 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Sometimes saying "I told you so" is satisfying - like when your kid gets scratched by the cat after you told her for the fifth time to stop poking the damn animal - but most of the time it comes with a sigh. I feel this way every time I hear a story about how Jenny lost her whole thesis a week before the deadline when her computer crashed or Johny lost a year's worth of data analysis when someone stole his laptop. We may not have flying cars yet, but damnit people, if you don't have an automated back-up of your computer that contains anything important to your work, you deserve what you get.

When I started my lab I was determined to make data back-up a central theme and something that did not require someone to manually make it happen. Afterall, who remembers to back up their data every couple of days? Instead, I set up every computer in the lab with some sort of hourly automated back-up system. The Mac time capsule is a great way to do this for everyday computers. It updates any changed folders and files every hour and builds an archive of snapshots that get progressively spaced out in time as they go further back. For instance, you'll have hourly back-ups for the past week, daily for a few months further back and then weekly and monthly.

In cases where we have workhorse computers, we've set up dedicated external drives that back up hourly in the same way that the time capsules do. Since we don't want to depend completely on local data storage (you can back-up ten different ways, but if it is all in one location a fire will still leave you SOL), raw data and key analyses are regularly backed-up at an off site data storage cloud.

Whereas this might sound like a lot of work, the key is that nearly all of it is automated. My desktop is backing-up right now while my laptop is in the queue and I don't need to do anything. Additionally, the cost of the external and wireless drives is minimal compared to the cost of our data and the person time that goes into analyzing it.

Backing-up data and work is not something to be messed with. Do. It. Now.

*I've always thought about writing a small program that would beep like a truck backing-up every time the computer backed-up, but then I realize it would only be funny the first three times and then I would want to rip out my speakers.

8 responses so far

Older posts »