23 August 2016

Memory whiplash: “Baby eat that chicken slow...”

I’m far from the first to note how music locks us into times. You can’t control what songs are playing and popular in any year, and they become indelibly associated with that time in your life.

For me, I can’t think of The Tragically Hip without thinking of grad school. 100.3 The Q, the local Victoria rock radio station, declared The Hip to be their “house band,” so they were kind of ubiquitous on the airwaves when I was doing my doctorate.

When I moved out of the country, I didn’t hear their music any more. I’d heard about Gord Downie’s diagnosis of terminal cancer. But I happened to be in Canada this last weekend, and caught a bit of the Hip’s final show on CBC. I saw people’s reaction on Twitter. Even with my tiny little familiarity with the band and the music, I was awestruck by how they touched people last Saturday night.

I was never actually a big fan of the Tragically Hip’s music. But I always liked this one a lot.

Thank you, Gord.

11 August 2016

Master’s theses should be published

Mark Humphires has a nice post about the difference in research conducted at private organizations versus universities. His argument is that universities have screwed up scientific research because of those pesky wrong-headed incentives. (You know, the ones that scientists create for themselves.)

In the middle of a good article, I find this aside:

(Last semester, we even got a Faculty-wide email encouraging us to write up our Master’s students’ project work for publication. Because what science needs right now is more unfinished crap.)


It’s terrible to characterize master’s theses as “unfinished crap.” It shows how little regard you hold for master’s students and their work. What have master’s students done to warrant their research being treated with such contempt?

I wish I could say this was surprising, but I have seen over and over again this disinterest in master’s students, their work, and their degrees. Research universities view master’s degrees as the exit route for bad doctoral students. Funding agencies don’t want to support them, because they buy into the “failed doctoral student” narrative, and because master’s are not terminal degrees.

This is another one of those biases that works against the stated aim of many institutions to increase diversity in science. As Terry McGlynn has often noted, under-represented students come from under-represented institutions. Many of the under-represented students we say we want to recruit may not have immediate access to an institution with a doctoral program. They may want to gain research experience in a master’s that may not have be available to them as undergrads (but that undergrad students at the more swanky universities may have already had).

In my role as grad program coordinator, I have been the person sending those emails asking, “Why we are graduating so many master’s students with thesis, but we are not seeing papers being published based on that thesis research?” I send them because we have always had in our program’s guidelines that a master’s thesis should represent a publishable peer-reviewed journal. My rough and ready guide is that a master’s thesis represents one paper, and a doctoral dissertation represents about three papers.

If you think your students’ work is “unfinished crap,” let me suggest to you that it is not always the students’ fault. Maybe it’s the fault of professors who didn’t mentor the student, didn’t support the work, and can’t be bothered to do their job right.

Related posts

The cages we scientists make for ourselves

External links

How a happy moment for neuroscience is a sad moment for science
Disadvantaged students come from disadvantaged universities

10 August 2016

Emily through the aquarium glass: The Dragon Behind The Glass reviewed

Ahab had a great white whale.

Emily Voigt had a great red fish.

Then a great batik fish.

Then a great silver fish.

In every case, Voigt is pursuing the arowana. She first hears the name from a law enforcement who is talking to her about the exotic pet trade in New York. She learns that the arowana is a large fish prized by a certain kind of aquarium owner: usually Asian, male, and rich. The latter is the most necessary feature for many arowana owners, because single individuals are fetching hundreds of thousands of American dollars.

That’s not a typo. It’s no surprise that you find arowana gracing the landing page of Aquarama, a trade show for the aquarium industry that Voigt visits early in the book.

Even by the time Voigt visits Aquarama, it’s clear that the arowana is the center of an unusual market, often shrouded in secrecy and both threats and acts of violence. Again and again throughout the book, arowana are stolen, smuggled, and fought over, both in the professional and literal sense of the word.

The strangeness of it all is compelling for the reader and Voigt, who ends up pursuing this fish through multiple countries and jungles. She’s accompanied by a memorable set of other people, who I found myself constantly googling to see by the time I reached the second half of the book.

The Dragon Behind the Glass is not an academic work, but it almost could have been. Voigt’s research on the pet trade and the science is flawless. There is lots of solid biology and scientific history. For instance, we learn one species of arowana was collected and drawn by no less than the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, on an expedition to the Amazon that was ultimately doomed. (Sean Carroll’s Into the Jungle describes why in more detail than here. It’s about the only example in the book where I felt Voigt missed a good story.)

I came to this book because of my own research on the aquarium industry. But I was an armchair investigator. I was frustrated by my inability to get a handle on much of the supply chain for aquarium animals (crayfish in my case). Voigt provides that inside view of the production and wholesale end of the aquarium trade, and has many thoughtful asides about the pet trade. She considers the pros and cons of collecting from wild populations, CITES listings, and the paradox of the arowana being “a mass produced endangered species” (a term that applies perfectly to some crayfish in the pet trade, too).

While I was originally interested in this book because of its relevance to my own research, I kept reading because it was intertwined with the personal stuff, and her own jungle adventures, in such an entertaining way. Voigt is self aware enough to realize that her interest in this fish is... not normal. There’s a recurring, “Why am I doing this and is it worth it?” that I think anyone deeply invested in a project will recognize.

The Dragon Behind the Glass is part exposé, part travelogue, part scholarship, and part descent into madness. It’s a combination as addictive as a skillfully made desert.

External links

Emily Voigt
The Dragon Behind the Glass (publisher page)
The Dragon Behind the Glass (Amazon page)
The deadly trade around exotic fish
Aquarama trade show
Early evolution pioneers’ artwork now online

Talks at Google:

09 August 2016

Tuesday Crustie: Enunciate

It’s trivia night at the pub! Because I am a non-imbiber, the most fun alcohol ever gets for me is enjoying the names and the bottle designs. I was tickled by this name when I saw it on the menu: “Evil crawfish.”

This was the art before all the brewer’s insignia got added.

Another version of the tells the story behind the name. The same company makes “Eagle Claw Fist.”

Once upon a time a man walked into a bar where a friend of our’s was tending the taps. He tried to order an Eagle Claw Fist, but got it wrong and asked for an Evil Crawfish. When we heard the story, after much laughter, we knew one day we’d make the beer. Finally, here it is, built off of ECF, but cleaner, meaner, less bitter, and dry hopped with Citra, El Dorado, and Mosaic.

Related posts

Building a winning trivia team

External links

Clow Shoes Beer: Meet the label artist

08 August 2016

Research is more than bench work and field work

I sometimes get emails from undergraduate student here asking if there are research opportunities with me. Partly because I have some bottlenecks in my lab (microscopes are a limiting factor), I can’t have a lot of students in my lab.

I’ve started offering them research opportunities to do data extraction or analysis, rather than data collection. I ask them to extracting data from websites or journal articles, and get them into an analyzable form. For example, getting latitude and longitude coordinates for species locations in the literature. Or compiling weather data.

I never heard from those students again.

I can only speculate as to why they never follow up. But, at a guess, I think they don’t consider working with spreadsheets “real” research. For them, “real” research means having a lab coat on and a pipette in hand, or getting a sunburn out in the field with a notebook in hand.

Students are shortchanging themselves.

First, I suspect that by the time you’re asking someone to compile and analyze data from some other source, it may be more likely to result in the student getting their name on a publication than bench or field work.

Second, extracting existing data and putting into a form that can be analyzed is far, far more likely to be a skill that these students will use throughout their professional career. Lots of professional level jobs require working with spreadsheets; very few require running gels.

01 August 2016

Campus carry day

August is rarely a happy month for academics. Summer is more than halfway gone, we haven’t done as much research or as much writing as we wanted, and classes are going to start gearing up again very soon.

At my university, and public universities across Texas, today marks the start of an even less happy month. Today, 1 August 2016, is the day Texas’s campus carry law goes into effect.

The sign above, on the door leading to the research labs, including mine, went up Friday. The law permits university administrators to set “reasonable rules” for “campus safety.” (Yes, the wording is vague, which caused no end of difficulties in drafting policy, I’m sure.) Consequently, there is a long list of exclusionary zones on UTRGV campus, including labs.

University administators, and many others, lobbied harder against this law than any other I have seen in my time here, but to no avail. It’s telling that private universities were given the option to opt out of the law, and 36 out of 37 did.

Not surprisingly, the #CampusCarry hashtag on Twitter shows the usual split of rote political talking points, just adding more fuel to me desire for blogging to be my main social media outlet for a while.

And because fiftieth anniversaries matter more than usual to me this year, I can’t go without mentioning that this law is going into effect 50 years to the day after the first major mass shooting in an American university at the University of Texas in Austin. <sarcasm> That was extra classy, Texas legislature. </sarcasm>

I don’t feel safer today. Quite the opposite.

External links

Campus carry goes into effect at UTRGV

28 July 2016

It doesn’t matter if the Ice Bucket Challenge gave us a “breakthrough” or not

We are in the middle of a science news hype cycle.

First, the inflated expectations. Lots of news sources reporting that funds from the Ice Bucket Challenge were used to make a “breakthrough” in ALS. Note that the original press release didn’t say “breakthrough” anywhere in the headline or the main text. It said a “significant... discovery” was made.

We’re now in the trough of disappointment. Serious science journalists are poo-poohing the claim that the results reported can be described as a “breakthrough.” Some are warning that just proves this whole crowdfunding thing is a dangerous idea. Boing Boing, for instance:

As useful as the funds raised by the Ice Bucket Challenge are, they can’t replace the big, institutional, steady spending that has been under assault since the Reagan era.

I’m right with people saying that neither pretentious press releases nor hyperexcited news coverage do us much good.

But I worry that downplaying good new research (which as far as I can see, everyone admits this was) because it’s not a “breakthrough” accidentally reinforces the notion that only the “breakthroughs” matter. It also implies that because the results are not a “breakthrough,” that they are trivial findings. Of course, the “not a breakthrough” article admits:

This is intriguing and important research.

Guys, if you’re going to criticize press coverage for bombastic headlines and burying the qualifiers and nuance near the end of the story, I think it’s fair to ask for the same in return.

Focusing on the resulting science also buries some of the less tangible benefits of the crowdfunding campaign. People had fun with the Ice Bucket Challenge. People might have learned what ALS was for the first time. Scientists got to do their research were less likely to shut their labs down. Those are positive benefits regardless of whether the money raised led to any particular scientific outcome.

I’ve seen the argument that crowdfunding somehow poses a threat to federal funding since I got involved with #SciFund. What’s been missing every time I see this claim is any actual evidence. I have yet to hear one politician say something like, “We’re thinking of cutting funding to ALS research because we saw the Ice Bucket Challenge was a big success.”

All I see is fear. And I get that fear. Many people’s labs and careers have depended on federal funds for so long that anything that gives the hint of deviating from the cry of “MOAR funding!” is open for criticism.

But what else are we supposed to do?

Yes, we’re supposed to advocate for our science to politicians. We’re supposed to communicate our discoveries to the broader public. We do that. And, in the United States, all that advocacy over more than a decade has yielded us... 

A set of flat research budgets in real dollars (check the “nondefense” line). Labs shutting down, and an endless stream of complaints about the amount of time spent trying to get money for research instead of doing research.

It’s frustrating to be told that scientists should not even try any other plan because it might threaten the plan that is not making any progress, even after more than ten years.

Related posts

What the Coburn report has in common with arsenic life

External links

Here's the Exact Way That the Ice Bucket Challenge Helped ALS Research (from September 2015)
Remember the ice bucket challenge? It just funded an ALS breakthrough
Ice Bucket Challenge “breakthrough”? Experts pour cold water on superficial reporting
The Ice Bucket Challenge did not fund a breakthrough in ALS treatment
Federal Budget Authority for R&D in FYs 2014 and 2015 Turns Modestly Upward, but Extent of Increase in FY 2016 Uncertain