Cubic Wombat Poop

One of the many reasons why I love biology is when a great and weird story gets told about some kind of living phenomenon. This week I was surprised to learn that wombat feces are cubic. Evidently it’s been known for quite some time that the wombat’s poop is cube shaped and it is hypothesized that wombats use it to mark their territories and the fact that it is cubed means that it doesn’t easily roll away, but it more likely has to do with attempting to conserve water and the structure of their digestive tract.

Dr. Patricia Yang and co-workers investigated the physical properties of the wombat intestine and determined that variation in the amount of stretch in different sections (by using an inflated balloon no less!) resulted in the cubic feces. As you can imagine, the wombat poop finding is receiving a lot of attention in the popular media. In my opinion the best headline goes to Vice.

Fun fact: Dr. Yang won the 2015 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for testing the biological principle that most mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds.

 

Advertisements

Planning a New Course in Science Communication

Next term I’m launching a new 4th year undergraduate course in Science Communication. I’ve wanted to teach a course on this topic for a while as I think that teaching our students how to communicate science to a range of audiences will be useful to them. Ideally we’ll get to a point where they can enter into dialogues with others about science, rather than having the interaction be one sided.

It’s been fun to think about what topics to cover in the course and what order to present them to the students. I’ve also been developing assignments for the course that I’m hoping will be useful for the students to complete and am aiming to have them be interesting and enjoyable too. Several months ago I sent out a call on Twitter to crowdsource resources and ideas and I was not disappointed!

My own relationship with science communication has been an ever-changing journey. I recognized its importance when I was a plant biology graduate student during the mid-90’s and consistently found myself at parties having conversations with people about genetic engineering. Most of these conversations were frustrating for me as I felt that I wasn’t very effective at articulating my viewpoint and was very shocked by the beliefs (true or not) that other people held about the technology. I’d like to think that I’ve become a better communicator since then, but I recognize that I still have a lot to learn. I’m looking forward to my new class next term and will be learning a great deal of new content and ideas alongside my students.

I received very little explicit instruction or education about how to be an effective science communicator. I think that this is a skill of increasing importance, not only in academia, but in other career paths that my students may choose once they leave the university. I think that I have an obligation to engage with various audiences about my science and science in general due to the fact that my research is funded by the public. I also think that if we as scientists do not have a role in crafting the narrative about science and the process of doing science that other incorrect or harmful narratives will be offered up by others. I’m hoping that by teaching this course I will be giving my students some of the tools that they will need to be effective and engaging ambassadors for science and that this is a worthy endeavour.

 

Movies from my childhood: Not as awesome as I remember…

More often than not on Friday evenings my family has a movie night at home. My kids are 15 and 11 and we are finally at the point where we can regularly watch films that are rated PG rather than G. This has been pretty neat and recently we’ve been introducing our kids to several films that my husband and I really enjoyed from our own childhoods.

The first one up was The Last Unicorn. That movie really made the rounds at birthday parties in 1982/1983 and I saw it a lot as a kid. My family wasn’t particularly impressed and watching it recently made me aware that there are many themes in the movie that aren’t really kid friendly. I remember being terrified of the Red Bull (no, not the energy drink) when I watched it as a kid.

Our next film was Labyrinth starring David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, and a bunch of awesome muppets. It’s full of catchy musical numbers (Dance Magic anyone?) and the Bog of Eternal Stench. My kids enjoyed it, especially my daughter.

Recently we watched the entire Back to the Future series (1985-1990) which gets worse as you go along. The first film has a really clever premise and we all really enjoyed it. I seem to recall that numbers II and III were filmed back to back which was pretty revolutionary at the time, but is more common today for large productions like Lord of the Rings and Marvel movies.

After that we watched The Dark Crystal (1982). It has a somewhat complicated plot and my daughter was thoroughly confused by the ending of the film.

Our most recent selection was Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) . This film does not hold up well over time. It’s funny to see Keanu Reeves actually emoting in a film and I found myself wondering whatever happened to Alex Winter. The fashion choices in this film are epic.

A few things have happened while we’ve watched these films. The first is the recognition that we have come a long way as a society in terms of social justice since the 1980’s. Some of what is in these films is hard to watch and literally had me cringing in my seat at times. Many of the above films are products of their times and feature harmful racial stereotypes, homophobia, sexism, etc. Rather than attempting to “protect” our kids by pre-screening these films, we’ve been watching them together and having conversations about disturbing and disappointing content as it comes up. My son in particular has been really appalled by some of the scenes in these films (especially a horribly homophobic one in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure).

I’m almost scared to watch The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink…

 

Putting Dog Waste to Good Use

Our dog Sullivan turned 9 this past weekend. Sullivan is awesome, but like all other mammals, he generates a good amount of biological waste. When we moved to Waterloo, we were happy to see that a green bin program was in operation. We used biodegradable pet waste bags to collect his waste and put them in the green bin. Unfortunately, many weeks the bags weren’t accepted by our waste collectors (not sure why) and we switched to disposing of the waste in the garbage. We live in the Beechwood part of Waterloo and there are many dog owners in our neighbourhood. The public garbage cans in McCrae Park were essentially repositories for dog waste. While it was good that most pet owners were being responsible and picking up after their pets, it wasn’t great that all of that dog waste was going to a landfill.

About a month ago, we saw a large concrete structure sitting near the road in McCrae Park. A few days later this pit had been installed as part of a pet waste station. Waterloo had invested in and installed a Sutera in-ground pet waste system. The waste is collected and transported to an organic waste plant and is converted into electricity. Our site was added after a successful pilot program in other parts of Waterloo. Since the installation of the Sutera unit, the city has been able to get rid of two public garbage cans in the park. I think that this is an awesome initiative and have been very pleased at the success of the program. It’s convenient, easy, and is no doubt diverting large amounts of dog waste from the landfill. Kudos to the City of Waterloo for being so forward thinking!

 

Quick Tips for Improving Writing at the Level of Sentences

This term in my course I am having my students write short reflective pieces in response to a writing prompt. As they have gained experience in completing these assignments, the writing pieces have become more reflective, and are usually interesting and engaging. There are a few common problems that I continue to see as the term has progressed and these issues are found at the level of individual sentences. These include typos, switching between tenses, plural vs. possessive words and the correct use of apostrophes, and awkward sentence structure. I’ve been sharing a few tricks with my students in order to help them improve their writing at the level of the sentences in their work. I’ve listed these quick tips below:

1) Most word processing programs contain a spelling and grammar check function. This is an easy way to find out if you have made a basic writing error and to fix it.

2) After I’ve read something a few times on a computer monitor, I often can’t see my mistakes. Print out your assignment on a sheet of paper and go through it line by line with a pen in your hand. Correct your mistakes on this hard copy and then make the corrections in your electronic version.

3) Read your assignment out loud. If you have difficulty reading a sentence, it means that it is not written well. If the sentence sounds odd or is confusing, rewrite it. If a sentence doesn’t make sense to you, it will certainly not make sense to your target audience.

 

Writing for a Media Organization

I’ve always liked writing as an activity. When I was in Grade 5, my awesome story about a young chicken was published by the school board in a collection of children’s stories. Writing style needs to change with your audience. The majority of my writing for the past 20 years or so has been writing academic projects for fellow scientists.

Several years ago I attended a great workshop by Shari Graydon who is the founder of the organization Informed Opinions. Her goal is to increase the representation of women’s voices in Canadian media. After the workshop I started thinking about what kind of writing I could do as a scientist that would reach a broader audience.

At the end of summer 2017, I came across a posting in my Twitter feed about a cool article written by Dr. Thomas Merritt at Laurentian University published by the online newsite The Conversation. He’s a fruit fly biologist and had written an article on how to kill fruit flies and the article had an incredible number of people read it. The model for The Conversation is that the articles are written by researchers or academics who work at a university or research institution.

I decided to give this kind of writing a try. In December of 2017 the new Star Wars movie “The Force Awakens” was coming out in movie theatres. I decided to write an article about some of the biology concepts present in the Star Wars universe . It was a lot of fun and the entire process took about 4 hours. Amazingly, the article has been read over 19,000 times! I wrote and published an article earlier this month on the symbiotic/parasitic concepts present in the new Venom movie  which has been read over 4,600 times. I’ve gotten faster, as the second article was completed in about 2 hours.

If you are an academic looking to get your feet wet in media writing and wanting to reach out to a broader audience I can highly recommend pitching your idea to The Conversation. The editors are efficient and reasonable and it’s a lot of fun to see your article come to life!

 

Paying for convenience: what is your time worth?

I like to think of myself as technologically savvy, but I have been pretty slow to jump on the online purchasing bandwagon. There have been a couple of reasons for this and the main two have been that I like to actually touch and/or try out a product before I buy it, and the fact that I don’t like some of the employment practices of the larger companies that almost have monopolies in the online space.

My partner and I are pretty good about minimizing the time and effort spent putting food on our table to feed our family. We meal plan most weeks in advance and generate a shopping list, which definitely saves us a lot of time during the week. We usually select meals that are quick and easy to prepare and have recently increased our use of the Instant Pot (a hybrid slow cooker and pressure cooker) which saves us a lot of time.

A while ago, one of the large grocery store chains in our area started offering its customers the option of ordering their groceries online, having a store employee pick out and pack the items, and then bring them out to your car at a pre-selected pick-up time. In some ways I am ridiculously frugal, so the $3-5 cost associated with this service struck me as silly, due to the fact that I can shop for groceries in person in the store for free. We recently realized that a competing store offers the same service, but it is free of charge if you spend $50 or more. Thus began our foray into online grocery shopping.

A few caveats to be upfront about; we did not purchase any butcher meats or produce on this order. Those are two categories of items that we are very picky about and we didn’t want to end up with mushy apples or cuts of meat that were too fatty for our liking. There are 3 main advantages to this service that we identified after using it:

1) It takes considerably less time to select and order our items online off a shopping list than it does walking the store aisles. We probably saved ourselves about 1.5 hours.

2) You are able to keep a running tally of how much your groceries cost as you add items on line. If you need to stay within a weekly budget for groceries this is incredibly useful.

3) Random items that are wants and not needs do not find themselves mysteriously leaping into your shopping cart. This is a huge perk, especially if you have small children who have an obscene love of Laughing Cow cheese, Brisk iced tea, or pretzels. It is also useful if you have an obsession with cinnamon coffee cake.

A few disadvantages:

1) Price matching is difficult to do and not worth the effort when shopping online. I assume the same goes for using coupons.

2) You need to plan and order ahead. The booking of a pick-up time generally occurs 12-48 hours in advance of actually picking it up at the store.

We feel a bit late to the party on this one; but will certainly use the service again. We easily spend more than $50 in groceries and associated items per week in our household. This is an easy way to get back some of our time on the weekend so that we can use it for more valuable activities.

Doctor Al Digest 28

A few things that I’ve found interesting in the past few weeks:

A nasty case of alleged sexual harassment drives home the point the dangers that are inherent in a system where a graduate student has only one faculty member as their research advisor. It’s important as a grad student to develop a network of mentors.

In some cases, it is worth your time to improve a skill that you are poor at, especially if it is a required skill for your career. In many cases though, it is a better use of your time and efforts to capitalize on your strengths.

The “Dear HBR” podcast is excellent, but the Harvard Business Review “Women at Work” podcast is phenomenal! The podcast has recently returned for its second season and is better than ever! Honest, frank discussions of the challenges faced by professional women in their workplaces and practical advice on how to navigate this minefield. I can not recommend it enough!

I’ve written my second column for The Conversation Canada on the Venom movie that opened last night. The focus is on symbiosis and how an alien could go about hacking a human host.

 

 

Book Review: When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink

When

This is the first book that I’ve read by Daniel Pink, but it likely won’t be the last. I read it because I’m interested in being efficient and effective using time-management techniques and the book certainly has much to offer in this area. It also contains lots of other interesting insights into human relationships with time.

The book is divided into three parts and each has its own focus. The first part focuses on daily rhythms of the human body and the need for recharging and replenishing. The second part takes aim at beginnings, midpoints, and endings and why each is important and can be influenced for positive outcomes. The final part discusses working with others and how people think about and are obsessed with time.

Something that I really liked about this book is that there is a “Time Hacker’s Handbook” at the end of each chapter that is full of hands on advice and tips that are extremely useful. You can think of it as the Cliff Notes version of each chapter. One thing that I did not like about this book, likely because I am a scientist, is that only scientific research that supports each thesis is presented. No results are presented that refute the author’s hypotheses. This comes across as rather one sided.

The writing style is easy to follow and I learned a lot of interesting things by reading this book. I know that a book is engaging when I’m constantly sharing little facts from it with my immediate family members (much to their chagrin!).

This book would be useful for people who have some time-management systems and habits already in place and are looking for improvements and ways of tweaking what you are doing to improve your productivity.