Doctor Al Digest #24

The #reviewforscience Twitter hashtag has been cracking me up this week. Highlights include gluing trackers on bees, using a body massager to attract spiders, nooses for lizard collection, and the winner: using nail polish for killing bot fly maggots prior to extracting them from your own body.

Looks like the #MeToo movement has caught up with Canadian politics and they’re clearing house (the House of Commons that is!)

Tooting my own horn a bit…myself and several other bloggers were interviewed by the Nature piece “Why science blogging still matters”

A very elegant and thorough study by Chrétien et al. that suggests that the mitochondria in human cell lines operate at ~50°C when at maximal capacity  and a thoughtful critique by Dr. Nick Lane . I suspect that some paradigms are about to be destroyed in the near future in mitochondrial and thermal biology.

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Book Review: What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Like many people, I watched the results rolling in on U.S. election night in 2016 in disbelief. The major question that I had that night was what happened? This book starts to put together some answers to this question and it will be interesting to see a few decades out what historians will say about this particular election and time in U.S. politics.

I was really impressed by this book and its author. She is an intelligent and hard-working woman who has been the best-qualified person ever to run for the office of president. I was constantly amazed by her restraint in this book. It would have been much easier and satisfying for her to let loose a wave of vitriol at the Republican party, the media, and Donald Trump. She also accepts responsibility for some campaign missteps that contributed to her defeat. She is a class act.

The book is a fascinating look into her personal and professional history and I can only assume that many Americans that read it will be disappointed that this woman is not their current president. There was a bit too much focus on policy for my liking, but at least this was a candidate with a plan for her time in the White House. Her and her campaign team expected that this electron would be an uphill battle for a variety of reasons, but nothing could have prepared them for the constantly shifting ground during the election and the roles that racism, misogyny, Russia, and the media would play in the outcome. Given the circumstances, her resilience is to be applauded.

Working women will find much here that resonates with them. Here is a woman who has faced everything that professional women have ever faced in the workplace, but had to do it on a national stage and while subject to double standards and ridiculous scrutiny. This is the reason that her loss to Donald Trump felt so personal. I hypothesize that it was a very large contributing factor to the #MeToo movement last year.

The book is well written, but I found it a difficult read because it brought forth strong emotions in me as I turned the pages; namely unbridged rage and sadness. She gave it her best shot, it’s now up to others to pick up the torch and cross the finish line (or more realistically, to break the glass ceiling).

 

Why 2017 was so hard for many of us

I’m still processing all of the revelations and feelings associated with #MeToo and the tipping point of the Harvey Weinstein exposure. It was like a dam broke in society and in me. It brought up a lot of memories that had been locked up tight that I choose to think of infrequently. I think it’s now safe to say that if you ask any women or female presenting person if they’ve experienced sexual harassment or assault the answer is going to be yes. In the past that response would have been oftentimes followed up with a disclaimer that it wasn’t that bad, but the fact that it happened at all says everything.

2017 was validating. When these things are happening to you it’s hard not to think that they only happen to you or that you are somehow bringing it on yourself through how you look or act. I refuse to think this anymore. That’s been liberating. I’m not going to accept excuses from other people to justify the poor way that someone’s behaving. I’m done with “he didn’t mean anything by it”, “that’s just the way he is”, “he’s just socially awkward”. I’m now firm in my belief that if he’s treating me that way, it won’t be the first time he’s done it, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. I’ll react accordingly.

The processing of all of this has been emotionally draining, but ultimately it’s been helpful. I was angry for most of 2017 about a lot of it, most especially that it seemed to be such a revelation for most men. Women weren’t especially shocked by the most egregious of behaviours in the same way as men. Given what’s happened to us and our sisters not much shocks us anymore. The fact that it took a movement and millions of voices in order to be heard was heartbreaking and rage inducing.

The sexually harassing and assaulting men who have been exposed are just the tip of the iceberg. We are no where near to cleaning house. Predators still lurk. Systems and policies are still in place that protect perpetrators and silence victims. It’s always been about power. Some men are worried that they may have behaved inappropriately. That worry that they feel is but a fraction of what women have had to bear for years.

I move into 2018 hopeful. There is power in speaking our stories. Power in solidarity. Power in ally ship. I think of all the amazing women I know and how fantastic and accomplished they are. I hope that the emotional burden, time, and energy that has gone into navigating dangerous shores has been lessened. I’m impressed with what we have all managed to do with anchors holding us down. I look forward to seeing what will come with self-assurance and freedom to be our full selves without fear of retaliation or shame.

 

Attendance at University Events

This blog post is a vent about people who don’t show up for events for which they have registered. This is easily one of my biggest pet peeves in both my personal and professional lives. I think that I find it especially irritating due to the fact that I grew up in an era when cell phones didn’t exist. I long for a return to a time that when you made plans your word was worth something. You couldn’t easily back out at the last minute because “something came up” or because you got a better offer for some other activity that you’d rather do. If we made plans to go to a movie on a particular date and time, then you’d better show up unless you had an emergency. There was a respect for people’s time and co-ordination efforts. Perhaps this makes me overly rigid and I need to learn to go with the flow.

I was reminded of this particular irritation yesterday because I attended our university’s Teaching and Learning Day. I attend this event most years and I always find it useful and insightful. This year I ran a one-hour workshop for educators to swap course assessments or active learning activities. I was fortunate to have enough participants (8) that the workshop could run. Unfortunately, I know of several colleagues that only had 3-5 participants for their sessions which made facilitation challenging. I was shocked to find out over lunch that 80 people had registered for the event, but easily half of them did not show up. This resulted in low attendance at several sessions and a huge amount of left over food (that ended up feeding random students, so it didn’t go to waste) due to the no-shows.

When I make a commitment to attend a university event I show up. It’s not hard, it’s respectful, and demonstrates that I have integrity. This is doubly true for events that require registration; anyone who has organized a conference knows the importance of having an accurate head count. Failing to show up for something that you’ve registered for is thoughtless and rude; you’re an adult-do better. It’s called time management.

 

Lady of the Flies: Attempting to ID the infestation in my office

A couple of weeks ago I started noticing a large number of flies in my campus office. They are a mild nuisance as they get trapped between my blinds and windows and the buzzing noise is distracting. The large number of fly corpses is also gross, but I’m a biologist, so I’m taking it in stride.

Due to the fact that I’m a nerd, I’ve been attempting to solve the mystery of where these flies are coming from and what type of fly is in my office. I was quickly able to rule out the blowfly, which means that my fear of a rotting animal in my ceiling is likely unfounded. So it’s a toss up between the common house fly and the cluster fly. Based on the fact that the flies are pretty sluggish and have golden hairs on the thorax my best guest is that they are cluster flies.

Cluster flies feed on earthworms as maggots and move into buildings when it comes time to hibernate. I’m guessing that because September was so warm, it’s only recently that the flies have started to move into my building and invade my office. I’m guessing I’ll see a second wave when they all wake up in the spring.

 

Podcasts I’m Currently Listening To

I’ve been listening to podcasts for several years now. I listen to them while I run with my Couch to 5K app going in the background. The ones that are in my current rotation are:

The Productive Woman

Laura McClellan is a real estate lawyer with several grown children who talks about productivity for professional women. I always get a few tips or gems from most episodes of this show.

Organize 365 Podcast

Lisa is a professional organizer who shares here tracks for killing clutter and organizing your home and work life. Each episode focuses on a particular issue; there are some that I skip because they are not relevant to me at this life stage, but the ones that I have listened to are quite useful and are a great place to get new ideas.

The Productivity Show

This podcast is hosted by the Asian Efficiency website and dives very deep into exploring productivity. I’ve applied several things that I’ve learned here to my working life as a professor that have saved me time and have improved my ability to get things done.

Hannah and Matt Know It All

Han and Matt do a weekly round-up of questions answered by online and newspaper advice columnists. The questions are bananas, and just when you think you’ve heard it all…a question that you can’t believe is real gets addressed. This podcast is tough talking, realistic, socially aware, and compassionate. It is also vastly entertaining.

My Favorite Murder

This podcast is hosted by two comedians who each take turns giving rundowns of true life murders. It’s fascinating, very dark, and often creepy. The hosts employ gallows humour frequently and go down rabbit holes and tangents that sometimes go on a bit too long, but it’s very entertaining and I’ve laughed out loud several times while listening.

 

Star Trek Discovery: Initial Impressions and Review Based on the 1st Two Episodes

WARNING: This review contains spoilers about the first two episodes of Star Trek Discovery. It also contains references to plot points from other Star Trek series.

 

My induction as a Trekkie occurred in Grade 7 when a TV station in my area started running the original Star Trek episodes in syndication. From the first episode I was hooked. I’m currently watching all of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes with my son on Netflix. I have therefore been anticipating the launch of a new Star Trek series for quite some time (12 long years) and I have very high expectations for that show given the fact that I wasn’t a huge fan of the series Enterprise.

I watched the two-hour premiere of Discovery last night and must admit to having mixed feelings about the show. I expected the show to be a bit dark in terms of story line and to exhibit “cowboy” space exploration as the show is set 10 years before the original series and space is still likely to really be a somewhat unexplored final frontier.

Many of the details were super cool and nerdy to a Trekkie like myself. These included the transporter effect, the phasers, the Starfleet uniforms (especially the number of pips on the Starfleet badges used to indicate rank), and the bridge of the Discovery. These visuals were permutations of what we’ve seen before as an audience, but with a novel spin which was interesting.

It’s clear from these episodes that the story arc will be continuous and that it will heavily include the Klingons. I’ll be honest that the Klingons as presented in this show are unfamiliar. This includes multiple changes to their physiology, language, and culture. These could all be very interesting over time, but they were rather jarring last night. While the Klingons are still presented as a warrior race, some of them appear to be content to rest on their laurels, some are religious zealots, and others are outcasts due to previous power struggles. They are also pretty sneaky which is exhibiting a distinct lack of honour in my opinion. There is a treasure trove of information to dive into here, but there does exist a danger in unravelling Star Trek cannon a little too much for my liking. My biggest beef was that my husband and I were constantly brought out of the story and show by the guttural delivery of the Klingon language which is much harsher than that spoken by Klingons from any of the other series. I’m intrigued by the fact that the Klingon forehead bridge is highly variable in the Klingons seen on the series thus far depending on their house and I suspect that this might be important as the series develops.

The other large issue for me when watching the episodes last night was that I didn’t find myself rooting for any of the characters. There were a lot of confusing dichotomies on display that seemed unrealistic. As an example, the captain of the USS Shenzhou makes several references to having a past that is filled with pain and suffering caused by conflict, but seems rather lackadaisical about the appearance of an armada of Klingon ships suddenly appearing and the implications of that event to the Federation. The science officer is exceeding cloying. The main character’s personality is all over the place; at times stoic due to her Vulcan upbringing, and later ludicrously irrational when breaking the chain of command on the ship and especially after the death of her captain. She ends up court martialled and sentenced to imprisonment at the end of the second episode and it was a bit of a struggle to frankly care about what’s going to happen to her next. As to that, I’m pretty sure it involves redemption in the form of Jason Isaac’s character offering her a second chance based on the fact that she was the only one who felt that a show of force might have changed the outcome of the first significant contact between the Federation and the Klingons. Pulling people out of jail for a unique skill set seems to be a recurring theme in a couple of Star Trek shows (Ensign Ro Laren in Next Generation and Tom Paris in Voyager being the most obvious examples).

Most Trek series have pretty rocky starts until the cast and crew start to gel and the writing and milieu of the show comes together. This show has a steeper hill to climb based on what’s come before and the fact that they are playing in a much grittier universe than previously. Hopefully they’ll be able to boldly go where no one has gone before and get the kinks ironed out in short order.

 

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.

 

Common Problems Experienced during Graduate Student Theses and Defenses

By this point in my career, I’ve been on both sides of this scenario; I’ve written and defended 3 theses (undergraduate, M.Sc., and Ph.D.) and I’ve evaluated a number of theses and presentations from my own students and those from other labs. Here’s my 2 cents on common problems that I’ve experienced, or have heard about from others. I’m focusing on issues that can occur after the thesis has been written and submitted to the committee members up to and including the oral defense of the thesis.

Challenges for the Student

  1. Figures in the thesis aren’t as good or robust as those used in the presentation.

I’ve been in several defenses where many concepts that were challenging to figure out while reading the written thesis have been cleared up by the inclusion of additional figures in the presentation. It would be great if students just included these additional figures from the get-go as this would really improve the experience of the reader.

2. Figure and Table captions are not sufficient.

I always recommend to students that figures and tables should be able to stand on their own without any help from the written text of the thesis. This can be achieved by including an appropriate level of detail in your captions that explains what the reader is seeing as well as making any jargon and acronyms clear.

3. Interpreting questions or concerns as a personal attack.

It is very hard not to take concerns or questions about your writing, data, or presentation personally. While you should definitely not be a doormat, you should be respectful and thoughtful when receiving the feedback and opinions of your committee members.

4. Lack of knowledge on the basic theories, techniques, or information of your field.

Often committee members will ask what we see as very basic questions about your project and your field of study. If you mention something in your thesis or presentation, expect to answer questions about that content. Be sure that your focus has not narrowed so much that you neglect to explore and understand the theory or basic tenets of your research area. For example, if you are showing images of Western blots, I will likely ask you to explain the theory of how this technique works. It looks very bad if you can’t explain technique that is in your thesis.

5. Absent or inappropriate use of statistical analyses.

I’m not a statistical wizard, but even my Spidey senses start tingling when I can’t understand why you’ve chosen particular approaches, whether they are appropriate, and what they are telling you about your data.

Challenges for Examiners

  1. This is not the time to retaliate for a slight that occurred in 1999 from another faculty member on the committee.

Focus on the student’s work and accomplishments and let it go. Stop being so petty and giving professionals a bad reputation.

2. Come prepared and be on time.

Respect the time and efforts of the student and other committee members. Come with useful and insightful questions and suggestions.

3. Clearly communicate the student’s strengths and accomplishments that impressed you.

Be kind and sincere in your praise. A thesis degree is a tough slog and we don’t compliment our students enough and should celebrate their successes.

4. It isn’t about you.

Check your ego at the door. We all know that you are smart. You don’t need to convince us of this by your preambles to a question, your expositions on a particular theory, and your recently published work. Keep the focus on the student where it belongs.

What other insights can others offer about the thesis and defense experience? Leave your answer in the comments!

Doctor Al Digest #21

The Ig Nobel awards are always amusing, but they do make you think. You can go here for a list of the winners that were announced yesterday. I too have always wondered whether cats could be both a solid and a liquid.

A great post over at the blog Conditionally Accepted on Recognizing Emotional Labor in Academe

A powerful art exhibit reinforces the offensiveness and irrelevance of wondering what sexual assault survivors were wearing when they were assaulted. Trigger warning for sexual assault descriptions.