Category: Biological Musings

DoctorAl Digest 7

This list by John Dupuis is a great summary of why as a scientist I will not be voting Conservative in the upcoming federal election.

An effective piece by Kausik Datta pointing out some authoring issues with ResearchGate and the algorithms used.

A great piece by Leigh Honeywell on making bingo cards to call out cluelessness about the challenges faced by women in tech.

The hottest tool in biotechnology these days is CRISPRs. A great blog post on the ways that phages have evolved to deal with the CRISPRs used as bacterial defense over at Eat, Read, Science.

DoctorAl Digest 6

Quite a bit of excitement for me this week as I participated in my first radio interview with the local CBC station on challenges faced by women in science. I posted on my preparation for the interview here . The link to the interview with myself, Anne Wilson, and the researcher who was the driving force for the display, Eden Hennessey is here.

A very informative and interesting article on the phenomenon of “plant blindness” from the guardian. Despite the fact that I’m a plant biologist, I’m as guilty of having this disease as the next person.

A cool gallery of contenders for the Agar Art contest being run by the American Society for Microbiology. Some of the images are quite stunning!

Stephen Heard has a neat post up on his blog about “The one thing I teach that nobody ever forgets. Perhaps as teachers this is worth thinking about?

DoctorAl Digest 5

As a person with a hearing impairment this article talking about exploring the positive effects of having a hearing disability was very interesting. I strongly agree with the finding that having a hearing impairment leads to increased empathy for others as this has been my personal experience as I outlined in a previous blog post.

Based on Jeremy’s book review over at the Dynamic Ecology blog I`ve put this book on reserve at our university library. I’ve always been interested in how movies hire and use scientific consultants.

Ed Yong asks a question important to Moms everywhere. Foetal cells hide out in Mum`s body, but what do they do?

A weird article about giant fruit contests and using DNA to ensure that the winner is confirmed as belonging to a particular variety of tomato.

A very cool story of how parasitized bees may self-medicate with nectar.

Bat poop and spiny lips

The first cool story came out a few weeks ago. In my 4th year undergraduate course “Environmental Stress Biology of Plants” I teach a few lectures on low nitrogen environments and the various ways that plants have adapted to get around this problem. In one of these lectures I cover the many neat types of carnivorous plants that eat animals as a way to obtain nutrients. A few years back I stumbled across a neat photo of a bat hanging around inside of a pitcher plant. This was a great example of a symbiotic relationship; presumably the bat gets a safe place to camp out during the day and the plant obtains nitrogen in the form of bat guano (feces). Biology is so awesome! The story gets even more interesting with the publication of a research paper a few weeks ago that figured out how the bat locates these potential nesting spots. It turns out that the shape of the plant’s opening takes advantage of the bat’s echolocation abilities and tells the bat exactly where to go in order to safely sleep in the plant.

The original article can be found here.

The second story is about frogs which are my favourite animals. While many frogs are poisonous (they produce toxins, but lack a delivery mechanism), this is the first description of frogs that are venomous (they produce toxins, and have a delivery mechanism). Two species of frogs were recently discovered in Brazil that have bony spines on their skull that pass through poison glands and there are some stunning photographs in the article. One of the authors had the unfortunate luck to experience the effectiveness of the toxin first hand while collecting a frog and experienced 5 hours of intense pain. The authors note rather dryly that this defense mechanism would be even more effective if delivered into the mouth of an attacking predator.

The original article can be found here.

Both of these articles likely had their genesis in a scientist noticing something really weird during field work. I always emphasize to my students that one of the best skills that a scientist can develop is a keen sense of observation.

DoctorAl Digest 3

Interesting reads and posts that I’ve stumbled across this week…

DoctorAl Digest 3

Thinking about having kids as an academic and want to do it with a partner? Yes, yes, yes to everything in this article! One of the most honest and frank articles that I have read on this topic.

During graduate school I participated in the thesis support group that was helpful in so many ways. I’m thinking that I might need to start a faculty writing group where I am.

A great overview of social media tools by Bonnie Zink that has been helpful to me as I become more savvy with these platforms.

A good, quick article on disruptions and distractions (and the differences between them) and some strategies on how to deal with them by Natalie Houston.

Having been at the cottage last week and thinking about West Nile Virus, here is a great blog post on how mosquitos look for their next meal by Betty Zou. Her summaries of scientific papers are always well written and interesting!

Happy reading!

DoctorAl Digest 2

An overview of neat things that I’ve found on-line in the past few weeks:

1. Some great tips on handling stress as a graduate student or post-doc. (Also applicable to faculty members!)

2. A very thoughtful post on ignorance and privilege. Confronting My Own Racism on the Women In Astronomy blog.

3. As usual, Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s advice is spot on!

4. We hear about microaggressions, but this blog post very succinctly outlines the threats of micropromotions for those who don’t fit the typical mold.

5. An exceptionally cool paper talking about eye-like structures in dinoflagellates that are assembled using mitochondria and chloroplasts. I especially liked the idea that “hidden organelle networks could be widely overlooked in nature”.

PhD Tree: The website that lets you see how incestuous research science is

Last week I received an unusual piece of spam in my email inbox. It was from a website called PhDtree.org . Evidently someone thought that it would be an awesome idea to spam email addresses acquired from PubMed in order to publicize the site.

The concept behind the website is an interesting one. The idea is to follow the academia genealogy of scientists through their research careers. It’s an idea that I’ve joked about with colleagues at conferences and it’s therefore interesting to see someone attempting to make it a reality. It’s somehow been auto-populated as I haven’t added anything to the site, but two entries from my M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees are present. Sort of a 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon for researchers. It would be interesting to identify people who are hubs in the network. Someone has even decided that it’s worth doing an Academic Genealogy of Nobel Prize Winners .

At the moment the tree and most of the entries are very heavily skewed towards one sex. It would be interesting to see if an analysis of the data could highlight leak points in the leaky pipeline or identify particular PIs that exhibit biases in the trainees that they take on.

Not sure if it will take off or not, but it’s an interesting idea.

Jurassic World’s Portrayal of Women and Scientists

*This post contains some spoilers, do not continue reading if you wish to protect your future movie viewing experience.*

Last weekend my son and I went to see Jurassic World. I enjoyed Jurassic Park when it came out and like science fiction movies in general and was pretty excited to see the film. I’m also a biologist and dinosaurs are cool so I was stoked!

I generally have low expectations for many films as a feminist scientist and many fail to meet the Bechdel test . Female characters are often relegated to the sidelines or only talk about dudes and romantic relationships.

I was therefore happy to see within the first 30 minutes of the film that four female characters were introduced. Judy Greer plays a mom sending her two sons off for a visit to see their aunt who is in charge of the daily operations of Jurassic World. She’s a lawyer and it’s revealed later in the film and she and her husband are contemplating divorce and it seems like they’ve shipped the kids off for a fun adventure while they work out the details of their split. One of the sons, Zach, has a girlfriend who has come to see him off. Aunt Claire is played by Bryce Dallas Howard as a highly driven, emotionally unavailable career woman. When her nephews arrive she foists them off on her assistant Zara played by Katie McGrath. The fourth female character is a technical support worker (Vivian) in the command centre played by Lauren Lapkus. The film passes the Bechdel test because it has greater than two women in it, several of these women talk to each other, and these conversations involve something other than talking about men.

Unfortunately the female character development isn’t stellar throughout the rest of the film and features many tropes such as the frigid, type A, career woman who has no time for family (Claire), the highly emotional mother (Karen), the put upon younger assistant (Zara), the token techie woman (Vivian), and the overly clingly girlfriend who needs constant assurances about the status of her romantic relationship (Zach’s girlfriend).

Some icky things that happen during the film:

  1. Claire’s wardrobe choices. That white suit and pumps are awesome and powerful for the boardroom. For tromping around in the jungle searching for kids and avoiding dinosaurs? Not so much. There’s actually a scene at the top of a waterfall in which Claire modifies the suit that pokes fun at the ridiculousness of the situation.
  2. Zach says a prolonged good-bye to his girlfriend at the start of the film. He then proceeds to stare/ogle other young women at various places around Jurassic World to the point where the younger brother calls him out on it. Creeper alert!
  3. There is a thoroughly creepy sexual harassment incident as the central command of the park is being evacuated. The male technician (Lowery) who has decided to valiantly stay behind to hold down the fort attempts to kiss the female technician (Vivian) as she’s leaving and is firmly rebuffed. Turns out he assumed that she would welcome his advances because she’s never stated that she has a boyfriend. Turns out that she does have a boyfriend, but hasn’t talked about him because she’s a professional and doesn’t talk about that stuff at work. What a stunning concept! This was doubly uncomfortable because the situation garnered huge laughs from the audience.
  4. The assistant Zara dies, but doesn’t do so quickly. Nope, the flying dinosaurs play around with her a bit first up in the air, then play with her in the water and try to drown her, and she finally meets her end when the flying dinosaur that’s gobbled her up is itself eaten by the gigantic, aquatic Mosasaurus dinosaur.

The scientists don’t fare much better. Dr. Henry Wu (played by BD Wong who was also in Jurassic Park) is still working in the lab, still engineering new dinosaurs, and evidently didn’t learn anything from the experiences in the first film. He’s portrayed as having no moral compass and is part of a larger military conspiracy effected by Hoskins (played by Vincent D’Onofrio). He gets to be the evil scientist who is in it for himself and leaves the island on a helicopter with a mysterious briefcase which we assume contains plans and genetic material for a new crop of dinosaurs that we’ll no doubt see in the next film.

Overall the movie is a fun romp and the special effects are amazing. Unfortunately the portrayal of women and scientists in the movie leaves a lot to be desired.

DoctorAl Digest

Here’s a list of links that I’ve found interesting this week:

  1. Octopi are cool creatures. A lovely video of new species looking for a name (h/t Malcolm M. Campbell)
  2. Women in Science calling out the whole Tim Hunt debacle using the cheeky #distractinglysexy hashtag on Twitter.
  3. A thoughtful post on making decisions over at the Beyond Managing Blog.
  4. I’m currently reading the book “I Know How She Does It” by Laura Vanderkam. Her website has focussed on associated issues of the work/life mosaic for women the past few weeks.
  5. Jacquelyn Gill’s tweets this week (@JacquelynGill) on her field work have been fascinating!
  6. Tanya Golash-Boza pushing back against the workaholic culture of academia with her refreshing post “Summer Hours: Enjoy your summer and be productive too!”
  7. The importance of “Finding new definitions for career success” over at Tenure, She Wrote.
  8. A reminder that some academic departments are toxic over at the Conditionally Accepted blog

A thank-you to Mr. Leonard Nimoy

I was sad to hear on Friday that Leonard Nimoy had died. I remember discovering Star Trek (the original series) in Grade 7 while channel surfing one day after school. I was amazed by the show in terms of its positive setting in a universe where humans explored the vastness of space in the Enterprise. I also thought it was amazing that the ship had a Science Officer and that he was an alien. The use and study of science was interwoven with the issues explored in each episode and Mr. Spock generally played an important role in the plots. It was, as he would say, fascinating.

From that point on I realized that you could make a career out of doing science and that it could lead to the exploration of new frontiers and places. Mr. Spock helped me to see the usefulness of logic and generating hypotheses to explain phenomena in the universe around us. Star Trek helped me to see science as something useful, cool, and exciting and it is truly one of the reasons that I’m a biologist today. Spock had a highly successful career and had many friends on the show despite the fact that he was an outsider and continuously struggled to find out where he belonged. The child of a human mother and a Vulcan father, he wrestled with honouring both civilizations while making his way in the world. I have a great deal of respect for that and it was one of the many things that I liked about Mr. Nimoy’s nuanced portrayal of the character.

Thank-you Mr. Nimoy for opening a young girl’s eyes to the possibility of a life of science and the hope that the future can be a bright one for humanity.