Category: Uncategorized

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!

 

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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.

DoctorAl Digest #26

Word from a psychologist that the productivity advice to “Eat your frog” first thing in the morning doesn’t match well with how human brains actually function.

An amusing piece from the journal Inorganic Chemistry on “The Five Stages of Rejection” when it comes to submitting a journal manuscript for peer-reviewed publication.

Equity, inclusion, and diversity requires that work must be assigned fairly. A great article in Harvard Business Review.

The Special Challenges of Being Both a Scientist and a Mom

Modest Advice for New Graduate Students

 

 

Angry Women

Angry Women

angry woman

Today is International Women’s Day and it seems timely to publish something about a topic that I’ve been wrestling with all of my life, but that I’ve been thinking about deeply for a few weeks. Doing science as a woman is tricky business due to the societal and cultural constraints on what constitutes appropriate and professional behaviour in academic settings. These rules aren’t written down anywhere and often the only way that you find out that you’ve violated them is by being told (explicitly or implicitly) that you’ve behaved inappropriately.

I’d like to start by challenging these rules and to suggest that they are not correct. I believe that there are many ways to be a scientist and to do science and that showing strong emotions can be appropriate and professional. We are people first and scientists second. Emotions are not a minor inconvenience that should be supressed at every turn; they often serve as warnings that something is not right with our world.

I’d also like to unpack the gendered lenses that we all use to view the emotions of others. Single emotions do not belong to only one gender. Women are not the only people who experience sadness; men are not the only people who experience joy. The scientific enterprise is full of moments of various emotions, and I would argue that these emotions are not good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, professional or unprofessional.

I think what matters is not so much the emotions themselves, but what we choose to do in response to them. I have also recently realized that I am not responsible for managing the emotions of other people and I refuse to bear that burden any longer.

Many times in my career I have been an angry woman. This is natural and fine. It is not an inherently bad thing that I need to be ashamed of. I am allowed to feel, experience, and embrace my anger. That anger has allowed me to do great things in the face of adversity. Anger has permitted me to speak my truths. Anger has enabled me to right some wrongs and to help other people when I have identified injustice and discrimination. If I’m angry, believe that I have good reasons for being so.

I do not need to be tone-policed, mansplained, put in my place, given “friendly” career advice, or concern trolled. I am not in fact uppity, bitter, man-hating, or need to be told I can catch more flies with honey. I’m good.

Doctor Al Digest #22

A great post over at the Conditionally Accepted blog entitled “Latinxs in Academe: Rage about “Diversity Work that effectively articulates the anger that is generated and internalized when one is assumed and expected to speak for an entire group.

This beautiful piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a must read. I am in awe of this man’s ability to use English prose. The lovely turns of phrase in this piece are surprising given its subject matter. I read it several weeks ago and it’s haunted me ever since.

I had previously avoided reading anything authored by Margaret Wente on purpose. Her column on Sept. 19, 2017 about students with disabilities was ignorant, unkind, and poorly researched. I won’t do it the dignity of linking to it here. I’ll warn you not to read the comments either; most of them are equally gross and lacking in empathy.

 

Book Review-The Martian by Andy Weir

My husband read this book last year and was raving about it, but I didn’t get around to reading it until this week. The book is excellent and very engaging! It tells the tale of an astronaut stranded on Mars when his crewmates leave him behind after an accident because they believe him to be dead. The writing style is very different in that it changes between the first and third person throughout the novel. During portions of the book narrated by the astronaut Mark it is written in the first person as a personal log, but for scenes involving NASA headquarters on Earth or the other astronauts it is written in the third person.

Two things that I really liked about the book is that it manages to make science interesting and I think that this would be the case even if I wasn’t a biologist. I love fiction books that make science accessible for everyone. The second thing that makes this a great book is that there were several points when I laughed out loud while reading it!

This book is a great read and I hope that the author will write more books in the future.

 

A New Hope

This is not a post about Star Wars; sorry if you saw the title and came here expecting something else. It is instead how I felt last night once I had a chance to look at the new cabinet selected by our Prime Minister (PM).

The first thing that struck me is that the cabinet and the PM arrived together on a bus and that members of the public were welcomed to the grounds of Rideau Hall to take part in the event. This is a great change from the closed door policy of the previous government and the previous method of having each minister arrive separately. These new ministers look happy to be there. I was also pleased to see that the PM included his partner and his children in the events of the day. I have hope that this will be a functional cabinet where ministers are free to be themselves and express their opinions.

The second reason that I have hope is because of this photo.

new cabinet image

Image copyright CBC

This is an awesome photo! This photo matches what I think of when I think about being Canadian. People who have different genders, gender identities, sexuality, ancestry, religion, personalities, regional affiliations, experiences, life realities, challenges, and motivations. It is so wonderful to see people who look like me in this photo; it makes me feel like I belong in this country and that a version of my voice will be heard in Parliament.

Several other things that give me hope…

We have a Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development. This highlights the key role that science and technology play in a financially successful Canada.

But wait! There’s more! We have family doctor who is the new Minister of Health. We have a Minister for the Status of Women!! We have a Minister of Environment and Climate Change!!!! We have a newly created position of Science Minister!!! All of these portfolios are held by individuals who have impressive credentials, life experiences, and the ability to get things done. They are all women. We have for the first time in this country a cabinet with a 50:50 sex ratio that is truly reflective of the Canadian population.

Today, I am very proud to be Canadian.

An excellent start Mr. Trudeau!

Jill of All Trades and Master of None?

I have a confession to make. I am a scientific wanderer. I haven’t wandered as much as Darwin, both in terms of his areas of interest and his physical journeys, but I am easily distracted by new and shiny ideas.

My undergraduate and M.Sc. thesis projects were spent looking at the phosphate-starvation response in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae and the influence of the commercial fungicide phosphite on those responses. I learned sterile technique, how to grow yeast strains and supplement media, how to do enzyme assays and kinetics, and gained a general understanding of 31P NMR. I did all of this in a plant biochemistry and metabolism lab and was the odd person who worked on yeast.

For my Ph.D., I moved to a plant physiology lab where I learned molecular biology, how to transform tobacco plants using Agrobacterium, how to grow diatoms and cyanobacteria, mitochondrial isolation techniques, SDS-PAGE, Western blotting, and a smattering of bioinformatics. Mid-way through my degree I switched gears a bit and started working with oysters. I gained a huge appreciation for the theory of serial endosymbiosis and the diversity of life forms on the planet. I studied the alternative oxidase of mitochondria, but also did some work on the plastoquinol terminal oxidase of chloroplasts.

My post-doc took place in an animal comparative physiology and biochemistry lab where I continued to practice my skills in molecular biology, bioinformatics, mitochondrial isolations, and picked up a better understanding of respirometry. I mostly studied oysters, but also worked with tissues from wide variety of other animals including nematodes, sea urchins, lamprey, hagfish, scallops and also worked on non-flowering plants including pines, spruces, ginko, etc. I also developed a heterologous yeast expression system at the end of my post-doc. I continued to work on AOX and PTOX, but in a new set of organisms.

Since starting my faculty appointment, my students and I have worked with yeast, moss, bacteria, tobacco, and a copepod. I continue to use a variety of techniques in the lab and am contemplating using CRISPR in the near future. Most of the time I think that having such a varied background has been a huge advantage to my career and for the science that I do. I attend both animal and plant science conferences and am thinking about adding bacterial meetings to the mix. Every once and a while my imposter syndrome gets the better of me and I envy my colleagues who work on a single model organism, pursue a very focused set of research questions, or use tried and tested techniques. My diversity of interests makes it difficult to write focused grant applications, but it allows me to qualify for a wider range of funding opportunities. I sometimes feel that I’m lurching around in the dark, but this approach has allowed me to make some significant contributions to my research field.

Are you a Jill or Jack of all trades? Or a master or mistress of a particular type of science?