Archive for: April, 2012

At Sea, Part 2: The #1 rule

Apr 19 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

The #1 rule for being at sea is pretty simple:


If you don't want it to break or hit you in the head, tie it down.


As I've said before, being out at sea is sort of like experiencing  a two-week long earthquake.  And you plan accordingly.  (For those of you who have experienced actual earthquakes before, I should say that it's like two weeks of s-waves, no p-waves at all.)


The ship is built for it:  drawers in the staterooms all have secure latches, the armchairs in the staterooms are strapped to the wall, and the doors all have magnetic catches to keep them from swinging back and forth if you don't close them properly.


In the science lab, everything large gets strapped down.  Everything.

Bring lots of ratchet straps with you when you go to sea.

Even the fridge is strapped down and the door bungeed shut.


Of course, not everything is big enough to secure with a ratchet strap.  But there are other ways of holding those things down.


Duct tape is your friend.


Trying to do science while everything is rocking back and forth makes for an interesting ride.

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Cooperative Culture in Teaching

Apr 18 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I’ve mentioned before (on my blog, anyway) that I used to be an instructor for my city’s CERT program.  I got a glimpse of some of the other CERT programs in the county, and I have to say, ours was superior.  (The county emergency manager agreed with my assessment.)

Because who wouldn't want to do this sort of stuff for fun?


And why was that?  It wasn’t because we had a different course of study: that was pretty much dictated by FEMA.  No, it was superior because of our instructors.


And why did we have superior instructors? Not because “the boss” (our city’s emergency manager) hand-picked only the best teachers, but because of the way we instructors were trained.  We were, first and foremost, interested in making sure we were the best instructor team around.  Here’s how that worked.


First, new instructors had a training period of one class series—eight sessions—in which they were observers.  They would help with hands-on stuff (when you have 35 people trying to practice splinting an arm for the first time, many helpers are a good thing) but otherwise they were told to focus on the way the material was being presented, and how it could be improved.


After each session, after the students had left and we’d cleaned up, we’d all sit around and discuss how the class had gone.  The first order of business:  “What worked?”  Only after we had talked about the positives did we get around to the second part, “What didn’t work?”  I’ll get more into detail about this discussion later.


The point was this: your first duty as an “instructor” was to pay attention to the students, to see how they reacted to lecture/activities/whatever.  From the beginning, it was established that the students’ learning was the number one priority.


During their second class series, instructors either got to teach, or team-teach, a topic.  If it was a big topic (like ‘Incident Command System’), they’d usually get a smaller—but still distinct—part, whereas a smaller topic (‘Assessment of Building Safety’) would be completely theirs.


Several weeks before teaching the instructors would get a copy of the old Powerpoint, and they were free to tweak it as they wished.  Usually the first draft would be evaluated by the boss—she had to make sure we were meeting FEMA standards—but instructors were given considerable leeway in how they taught.  (I know that I ripped apart the presentation I was given and completely revamped it.)


And after teaching your class, there was (of course) the post-class evaluation.


“What worked?”


The instructor committee members were very free with praise.  “I like the way you…”  “You did a great job with…”  “The changes you made to that section really clarified things.”


“What didn’t work?”


And this was where, I think, the culture of our instructor committee really encouraged growth.  Because, you see, the answers were phrased like this:  “People seemed to be having a hard time understanding [a particular section].  How can we tweak it to make it more understandable?”


In other words: praise was given freely to you as an instructor, because you had accomplished something good.  But if there was a problem, it was the whole team’s responsibility to fix the problem.  The more experienced instructors would coach you through your difficulties.


For example, one of the more experienced instructors said, after my first go around, “You seem to say ‘OK’ an awful lot when you’re pausing to think.  How can we help you get past that?  I’ve found that practice helps me to avoid phrases like that.  Would you like me to be your audience when you practice?”


Before I started my tenure as a CERT instructor people told me I was a good teacher, and I never disagreed with them.  But after two years working in this sort of cooperative, uplifting environment, I had improved immeasurably.  I’m not saying that I’m perfect now when it comes to teaching; far from it.  But in addition to having better pedagogical skills, I also have become very self-evaluative.  At the end of a lecture, I’m aware of what worked for the class and what didn’t work, and I ask myself how I could make it better next time.


This cooperative teaching culture is something I’d like to see more of in academia. But when, before starting grad school, I mentioned this to my father (an award-winning teacher/professor himself), he rolled his eyes and told me not to get my hopes up. “That’s just not the way things work,” he said, shaking his head.


So, OK, that’s not the way they work right now.  But why can’t they be that way in the future?  What would it take to transition to that sort of culture?  I think there are four crucial components:


(1) It would help if professors spoke a common language.


I’m not talking about English vs. Spanish:  I’m talking about pedagogical jargon.  It would be nice if there were a few key papers on educational theory that everyone in the department had read.  Or maybe a short book. (McKeachie’s “Teaching Tips” comes to mind.)


(2) The teacher must be willing to change, must have a desire to improve.


Some people, when faced with the cold hard truth that they are imperfect, get very irritated.  Folks, lighten up.  We are all imperfect.  Accepting that does not make you weak: it makes you human.  And acceptance of your flaws is necessary before improvement is possible.


(3) Evaluators must learn to give honest praise.


This is true not only when evaluating teachers, but also learners.  Always begin evaluations with a list of things you liked.  I have yet to see a performance in which nothing has been done right.  It’s theoretically possible, but highly unlikely.


Beginning with a list of what went right will not only reinforce those good behaviors, but also make the one being evaluated more receptive to hearing criticism later.  (This is very related to a past post of mine in which I gripe about people who say they're just being honest.)


(4) Evaluators must learn what the phrase “constructive criticism” really means.


Most people call any criticism “constructive”—because, if you listen to all the things that are wrong with you, you’ll change for the better.  Right?  Um, no.  In most cases, criticism works to alienate the one being criticized.  It does not inspire change.


The key to making criticism constructive is to make sure that you, the evaluator, are helping with the “construction.”  You are not trying to tear the other person down, you are just helping them to see another point of view.


It helps to explain that part of the problem may be a fundamental mismatch between two thinking styles:  “You did a good job showing the derivation of the Nernst equation, but I kept getting caught up in what the terms meant from a physical point of view.  I think there might be students who feel the same way.  Is there a way you could add that information to the lecture?”


Unspoken subtext:  It’s not that you’re not smart.  It’s that those things don’t come as intuitively to me as they do to you.


It also helps to get the person’s input on how improvement can be made:  “I noticed that a lot of students were scratching their heads and looking puzzled in that middle section.  Did you catch what, exactly, they were confused about?  How might you fix that?”


Unspoken subtext:  You are smart and capable enough to figure out how to do things yourself.  I’m just here as a facilitator.


Finally, remember that you are there to help build, not tear down.  “What can I do to help you fix this problem?” is a good generic question, but I like offering specifics instead:  “Would you like to have a brainstorming session sometime on analogies you could use to explain entropy?”


Unspoken subtext:  You could probably figure this out on your own, but I would love to help you.


In short, creating a culture of cooperation in academia is going to take a heck of a lot of work.  But I think it would be worth the effort.

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At Sea, Part 1: Science

Apr 17 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I thought about calling this Science at Sea—how’s that for a vague title?


Of course it would be a fairly misleading title, since there’s actually a huge variety of science done at sea.  For example, MyU has a large geophysics program, one that uses a lot of remote sensing devices.  And most people who talk about “science at sea” are thinking of people who study whales or dolphins.  But I don’t know anything about that sort of science.


The scientists I want to talk about are the ones I know: people who study water (or microbes in the water).  If you are one of these scientists, you can skip this blog post altogether because it will all be very  basic to you.  I am writing this because it’s rather surprising how little people (even many scientists) know about how the science of oceanography works.


First, I should say that if you want to do oceanography, you need a ship.  That sounds like a dumb thing to say, but getting ship space can be one of the hardest parts of doing oceanography.  Dr. Hand-Waver says it’s a catch-22: when you write a grant, they want to know which ship you’re going to be going out on; but when you try to reserve space on a ship, they want you to be funded before they actually write your name in for sure.  It helps if you are at a university with a research vessel.  Alas, Dr. Hand-Waver and I live and work in Colorado, so we get on board whichever cruise we can.


A research vessel in dock.


If you don’t work for a university that owns a ship, you reserve ship time through the UNOLS system.  And hopefully they grant it to you.


So now you’re at sea.  To do chemical oceanography, you definitely need water samples.  Most people use a CTD-rosette, more commonly called a CTD.



A CTD rosette.


Each rosette is a little bit different, but they all have the same basic parts: a cage to hold everything together; a bunch of Niskin bottles around the outside; and some sensors that measure the Conductivity, Temperature, and Density (hence the name “CTD”) of the surrounding water.  The Niskin bottles are programmed to open at given depths—yes, each individual bottle can be opened at a different depth—which is determined by density.


The CTD is lowered into the ocean by cable.  If you attempt this when the seas are too rough, you take the risk of the cable snapping: bye-bye CTD, bye-bye 1.5 million dollars.  Calm seas are a good thing.

CTD overboard!


When the CTD comes back on deck, everyone gets their water.  Usually there’s some sort of pecking order; you’re told which bottles you can sample from, and who gets water from that bottle first.

Getting water out of the CTD. I did not intentionally fuzzify the picture--that just tends to happen a lot at sea if you have a mediocre camera.


If you just need a few bottles’ worth of water, you can attach Niskin bottles directly to a line—which is definitely not as efficient as a CTD, but quite a bit less unwieldy.  You can use also use Go-Flo bottles the same way; these are close cousins to Niskin bottles but are designed to minimize trace metal contamination, which makes a huge difference for some analytical methods.

Go-flo bottles hanging in the lab. These are the smallest size--some are almost as large as I am.


That really is me on the right, getting the GoFlo bottle on the line.


Go-Flo bottles (and individual Niskin bottles) have no depth sensors attached.  Instead they’re triggered by “messengers”—basically, weights that slide down the line and hit the button that snaps the sampling door shut.   It’s actually a rather ingenious system.


So now you have your water.  Now what do you do with it?  Obviously, it depends on what sort of science you do.


There are people who look at nitrate and nitrite production.  There are people who look at primary production (i.e. turning CO2 into organic carbon).  There are people who look at how global warming affects ocean acidification.


There are folks who do DNA analysis on the microbes in the water.  I love these people: I want to know what’s doing chemistry in the water, but I only have theoretical knowledge of how to determine who’s there.  So it’s good to be on a cruise with people who will do the DNA analysis for you.


And of course there are people who look at—well, what I look at.  But as far as I know, there are only about four groups in the world who do that at sea, so I’ll keep my mouth shut.  Just suffice it to say that I think that what I do is really, really cool and cutting edge.  I love what I do!

4 responses so far

UnlikelyGrad intro

Apr 16 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Howdy, all!  I consider it a great honor to be asked to blog here at Scientopia.


I’m a grad student known online as UnlikelyGrad.  Regular readers of my blog (found here) can easily figure out my real name, but for the sake of my kids (and especially my advisor) I try to keep things 100% pseudonymous.  (Conveniently, my real name is relatively common, so that Googling it is likely to turn up someone else.)


My moniker reflects the fact that many people thought I didn’t have a chance in hell of getting into grad school, except maybe a master’s program at a dinky state university.  I used to be one of those people, too.  But I worked my butt off and proved them wrong: I ended up getting into a top-10 program, though I decided in the end not to go there.


So, why do I still use that pseudonym?  Partially out of habit, I admit.  But being a non-traditional student in a generally very traditional program, I tend to stand out just a bit from my cohort.  For example:


  • I have kids.  Not infants and not toddlers, children—if you can even call them that.  One of my four is old enough to be a college sophomore, and another is on the verge of graduating from high school.  People have asked me if it’s hard to be a grad student and a mom simultaneously.  Answer: yes and no.  Of course it’s hard:  it’s just hard to be a mom, period.  But I have the great joy of sharing my passion for science with my children.  I love sharing what I do with my friends, too, but it's way more amazing to share with your kids.
  • I spent a lot of time before grad school doing non-traditional, non-academic activities. For example, my advisor (known here as Dr. Hand-Waver) regularly defers planning of outreach activities to me because I have more experience in that arena than she does.
  • I’m not afraid of the professors in my department.  Don’t get me wrong; I have a healthy amount of respect for them.  But if I think they’re doing something wrong, I tell them.  Some professors appreciate this more than others.  (Luckily, Dr. Hand-Waver is humble enough to admit that she might be wrong about some things.)


But, despite being different, I’m still a grad student with all that entails: going down blind research alleys; spending long days, and occasional late nights and weekends, in lab; tearing out my hair because my results are all screwy; and catching power naps at my desk because that’s all that’s going to keep me from falling asleep while driving home after a 14-hour day.


What do I actually do?  Again, I keep that sort of fuzzy on my blog because there are hardly any groups that do what Dr. Hand-Waver does (and all of the other PIs are men).  Suffice it to say that our group does environmental geochemistry.  Right now I’m supported on a chemical oceanography grant (!!!) which is not what I expected to be doing in grad school.  But oh well, I’m not complaining too much…even after getting seasick!


I tend to write about a variety of topics on my blog, and you can expect the same from me here on Scientopia.  Several of the blog entries for the next two weeks were  written well in advance, so I can say with certainty that you should expect several posts on going to sea, a couple of posts on teaching, and at least one post on doing outreach.  And, given where I’m coming from, at least one post about how people should treat other people.

4 responses so far

Cat-thartic Science

Apr 11 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

This amazingly hilarious thing happened over the past couple of weeks. By "hilarious" I mean the kind of funny that only other pipettor-jockeys can understand, that humor you see in situations that are so ridiculous, uncomfortable and painful that you are forced to reclassify them "hilarious" in order to get out of bed in the morning.

It just so happened that this latest episode of hilarity occurred right as I was gearing up to shower the Guest Blogge with a torrential downpour of amazingness. Like a penny on the tracks that also happens to be a landmine, it derailed my post frequency here by giving me a bunch of Real Work to do. In the same week I was told to prepare (in only ten days!?) for my maybe-final PhD committee meeting and had maybe my best shot at a first-author paper (AKA Backup Project Wars, Episode IV: "A New Hope") pulled out of the submission envelope thanks to three hydrogen atoms and a collaborator. Who wouldn't want to go to grad school, amirite?

But screw all that. I'm hereby declaring FILDI. What better to shake off the darkness than an internet retrospective of cats and science?

I don't own a cat, and I never want to. I'm not an especially big fan of real ones, either. Just indifferent, which is an ironic and very feline attitude for a human to hold towards a cat. But internet cats? I'm all over that. Here's a selection of cat/science combinations. Add yours in the comments! Continue Reading »

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Evolution in Dance

Apr 05 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the great things about blogging on Tumblr is the built-in “Ask” box function that lets other users submit questions or comments and allows the author to publish responses or reply in private. It really puts the “community” in “Most of the time the community asks me ridiculous things, but about ten percent of the questions are worth answering.”

Recently I spent a whole week answering some of the hundreds of questions I’ve gotten. Here’s one I saved for Scientopia:

Scientists use lots of methods to date things. Paleontologists calculate the decay of radioactive isotopes to help place fossils onto the geologic timeline. Climate scientists study the composition of atmospheric gases in ice cores drilled from deep beneath the polar regions.  Ecologists count rings in felled trees, and geologists probe through layers of rock to construct timelines of early Earth. But how do you date a modern Homo sapiens?

One easy way is to discern the last organized dance craze that they remember. Still stuck on “the twist”? Congratulations on figuring out the internet! (How does this look on Internet Explorer 5?) Maybe you’re more of an “Electric Slide” era person. You’re probably worried about maturing that 401(k). “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” or “Macarena” make us yearn for the simplicity of the Clinton years, while the “Cupid Shuffle” brings us into the modern, rules-be-damned era of “Is grandma really doing that?”

If you know the next one, you’re officially pretty hip. A reader asked:

What’s the scientific explanation behind the “Dougie”?

Good question. Continue Reading »

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Laughter as Medicine: The Origin of a Meme

Apr 03 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

There are no rules on the internet. But if there were, one of them would be “Thou shalt not contradict Zooey Deschanel.” That rule is about to be broken.

She is one of the internet’s beloved, a personification of free-thinking, blue-eyed, vintage-in-all-the-right-ways cuteness in a world where too many famous females are orange-tinted embodiments of everything your parents wished you wouldn’t become. Plus, she can sing and basically do everything and dammit, just look at those eyes how can you say no??

Knowing the weight of her influence, and due to my wife-sanctioned crush on her, I was a little disappointed when I saw this pop up on her HelloGiggles internet girlhub:


The supposed power of giggles. Yay, indeed.


As any good science skeptic/happiness buzzkiller can immediately discern, this is bullshit. But are we Dementors or are we teachers? No, we are not here solely to suck the happiness out of the internet. We are defenders of reason and illuminators of the obscure. At the core of every laughable cuteshare such as this lies a genesis, because platitudes do not spring wholly formed from the ether. Sadly, in the crowd-governed Old West that we call the social web, it is more often a nugget’s sheen that determines its value rather than it is its weight.

I wondered: Where the hell did it come from, and why should we care?

Continue Reading »

5 responses so far

Howdy folks! My name's Joe.

Apr 02 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Greetings and salutations, Scientopians. It's very exciting to join you for the next couple weeks on the Guest Blogge. I've oft dreamt of one day calling myself a gentleman*, and in that spirit allow me to formally introduce myself.

My name is Joe Hanson, and I'm a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin. You may know me on Twitter as @jtotheizzoe. Or you may not. If you're wondering where that handle came from, allow me to drop the bass.

I'm completely Bubbles-on-a-bender addicted to communicating the beauty and wonder of science. I publish a blog called It's Okay To Be Smart over on Tumblr. Earlier this year I was named as one of the 30 Must-Read Tumblrs by Time Magazine. I know what you might be thinking: "Is that like a trophy for best LOLcat blog on a network of LOLcat blogs?" The answer is no. I'm going to devote some of my time here to discussing the ever-expanding forums available for science communication, Tumblr included, because it's important that anyone who wants to can find a place where they are comfortable talking about science their way. As it stands, Tumblr is dropping 15 billion page-views a month to over 100 million people, putting it in the Big Leagues alongside Twitter and Facebook when it comes to moving information.

But at the end of the day it's still a micro-blogging platform. And I do like to write wordy posts, and I've even done it well once or twice. So glad that Scientopia gave me the opportunity to share with you all.

Research-wise, I qualify as some unique hybrid of a molecular biologist and biochemist. My current brand of biology is the study of mobile genetic elements. If you think of the multitude of ways that the human genome differs from say, E. coli, one of the most striking is that our genes are interrupted by innumerable introns, a precise stoccato of fragmented information producing new orders of genetic complexity within an organism like ourselves. If we trace introns back through time, following the footsteps of their invasion of higher genomes, we discover that they likely began as a selfish RNA element, just trying to survive by splicing hither, thither and yon. These early and complex ribozymes have always reminded me of what we could term life's simplest retrovirus, and there's some evidence that that could be true.

We RNA people get very excited about this kind of stuff. I study a little piece of the intron puzzle, trying to figure out how, like House of Pain, one of the little buggers jumps around.

Ok, I can see you tapping your foot and waiting for me to stop saying hello. On with the show! If you're feeling polite, you can say hi too 🙂



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