28 December 2004

Once in a lifetime

I've learned from this article this this was the first white Christmas in the Rio Grande Valley ever recorded, and the first measurable snowfall since 1895! I thought there was about an inch, but it was more like 3 inches in some places. Wow... I'm awestruck. While nothing compared to Canadian winter, withing the context of the region, this must ranks up there with the ice storm of 1998 (also here) as the most memorable weather I've encountered as an adult. This one was considerably more pleasant than the ice storm, though!

26 December 2004

After the (snow)fall

I was probably up for a good half hour before I looked out the window yesterday. I wonder what my face looked like when I realized what I was looking at.


Not just a dusting, not just frost, but an honest-to-goodness few centimeters of snow covering almost everything. In the tropical Rio Grande Valley? On not just any day, but Christmas morning? I knew the night before, it was cold, the roads were treacherous icy (nobody's prepared for it here), and someone had said something about ice coming down, but I never in my wildest dreams expected there to be snow.

Admittedly, it was melting fast even then, and I soon realized that this was probably a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. According to one of the local papers i quoted a couple of days ago, the last measurable amount of snow anywhere in the Rio Grande Valley was 1924. I got dressed, threw on my much-loved-but-seldom-needed leather bomber jacket and my hat from Alice Springs, grabbed my digital camera, and started to walk over to uni.

On the way over, I started to get a little emotional. I'm Canadian, and so snow and Christmas are inextricably linked. I hadn't really been feeling much in holiday spirit for lots of reasons, but no matter how much your rational mind is telling you, "This is just an improbable coincidence of freak weather," the little kid inside is going, "Santa came and brought snow just for me."

(Later in the afternoon, I realized that I don't think I'd seen snow for over five years. I haven't seen any here before yesterday, and I sure didn't see any in Australia.)

I walked around campus and took a lot of high-resolution pictures. I saw a family drive up and get out of their SUV and run around throwing snowballs at each other. I saw some grackles and feral cats that I suspected were mighty confused. I saw the melting snow falling like rain from the tree branches, and even some actual, factual, no kidding, icicles. It was really beautiful, and I felt fortunate to be there to see it. Because I was. And I kept telling the part of my brain that was reminding me of the economic damage caused to crops and the likely number of accidents on the road to shut the hell up.

Partway through my walk around campus, I realized that there was something I just had to do. One last requirement before I walked back home and watched the snow melt from the comfort of the inside of my apartment. I didn't have gloves, so it was chilly work, but definitely worth it to create something that few people will ever have a chance to make or even see.

A Rio Grande Valley snowman.

By mid-afternoon, there was almost no trace that there had been snow at all.

But I'll remember.

24 December 2004

At least it's trying to feel like Christmas...

It is, according to The Weather Channel and The Monitor, 0°C outside. Freezing. I'm not sure I believe it. I see rain, not snow, and no ice on the ground. But it is closer to what I think of as Christmas weather than two days ago, when I wore shorts to uni and back.

As for me, I am enjoying the luxury of working on my grant proposal at home. I don't pretend I'm making great progress, but it is progress.

23 December 2004

A Christmas miracle!

Perhaps a slightly over the top headline, but I am pleased to report that I've continued with my track record of securing small internal grants. I've been awarded $998 for one of my undergraduate students, brunnette Anna, as part of UTPA's Undergraduate Research Initiative.

Now I have to get back to working on a grant proposal to pull down some "real" money from an external source. I'm already feeling, with the deadline some weeks away, that this one is going to go right to the wire.

In case I don't think to add to my journal in the next few days, I wish you in both of my official languages: Joyeux Noël. Merry Christmas.

21 December 2004

Just think of a monkey, it'll cheer you right up!

I always had such high hopes for those people who chased after the Loch Ness monster, sasquatch, and Ogopogo. Unlike lots of other fringe ideas that violate the laws of physics flat out, these critters seemed at least plausible: that there were just big, undiscovered animal species out there. Indeed, the finding this year of the species Homo floriensis in Indonesia -- and that we may have missed seeing them by only thousands of years, which is nothing in biological time -- adds a certain plausibility to the idea. I always thought finding something like Cadborosaurus (from my old stomping grounds of Vancouver Island) would be so good for conservation and people's awareness of the natural world.

Sadly, the field of cryptozoology (which more or less means "hidden animals") has yet to yield one single noteworthy finding. Nonetheless, I still find the idea of new species unknown to science a thrilling one. Of course, new species are still being described every day, but the vast majority of them are small invertebrates. And while I have a great and deep appreciation of small invertebrates myself, I still have to admit there's a certain appeal in finding a new species that's a big vertebrate.

Today, I read this story about the discovery of a new species of monkey being discovered in India, one of the most heavily populated countries on the planet. Very, very cool. Maybe there's hope that we'll find a lake monster yet...

20 December 2004

Celebrate the times, come on!

Congratulations to my colleague and friend Anita Davelos Baines on the birth of her third child, a baby girl. This makes her (the child, not Anita!) a monkey in the Chinese calendar and a Sagittarius in western astrology. [This information is provided purely for entertainment purposes and should not be construed as an endorsement of any scientific validity of astrology. Astrology is goofy.] And this new girl will share a birthday with Thomas Graham (1805), the founder of colloid chemistry (a very stately portrait can be found here). (I know that's a little obscure. But hey, this is a science journal. Surely more appropriate that pointing out that she shares a birthday with KISS's Peter Criss.)

19 December 2004


This has nothing to do with science, but I helped a friend this weekend and I'm damn proud of it. I think I accomplished a great deed.

16 December 2004


I hate the day I post final grades and the day after. Because it doesn't matter how often I tell people that there's no extra credit and marks are rounded, I still get every person with a sob story wanting me to change their grade just because. "I need this to graduate." "I'll lose my scholarship." "I'm on academic probation." "I won't get into medical school." And so it goes.

So I hide until people get over the initial shock. Typically, after 24-48 hours, people realize that they have no grounds for me to change anything. But darn it, I still hate having to tell people, "No, I'm not changing your score, and I'm not paid to care about your personal dramas." Only I don't put it quite like that. I save the brutal honesty for my journal.

14 December 2004

Not scary fast, but still pretty fast

I got the announcement for the spring semester competition for an internal Faculty Development Grant about 3:11 pm on Friday. I just finished phtocopying the required five copies and stuffing the final proposal in an envelope, at about 3:40 pm today.

From learning proposal to completion: four days and half an hour. And I didn't really work on it over the weekend. Admittedly, this was a fairly short proposal: a form cover page to fill in and four typed pages outlining the project. Still, I'm pretty pleased that I was able to turn that around so fast. I think I may reward myself by quitting a little early and getting ice cream. I need to go to the post office anyway, and if there's ice cream on the way... heh.

If this one hits, it'll provide me with about $1,900 to travel to Houston to visit a lab that works on a sea slug called Aplysia, and have a couple of people come down to visit my lab to show me some tricks in working with the slugs. Aplysia is a widely used organism in many neurobiology labs, thanks mainly to the extremely aggressive promotion by Nobel laureate Eric Kandel. We have one species, Aplysia brasiliana in fairly large numbers locally. It's not much to look at when its still, but it is amazing to see when it swims. It unfurls some flaps that normally cover its gills, and swims along by undulating these flaps, a little like a skate or ray does. It's graceful in a way that only animals without bones can be. (A short video of this is here.)

I've worked a little bit with slugs, but not very much -- so I want to go get some help in learning how to care for, handle, and record from the brains of these beasties.

09 December 2004

Urge for money... rising

Just noticed that Google wants to run ads on blogs. Like this one. (Okay, maybe not like this one—maybe one that's actually popular...). Funny how my mild annoyance with ads a surfer doesn't stop me from being awfully tempted to try to sign up. But considering that this is supposed to be an academic / scientific site, with the goal of letting people know about the various stresses of running a scientific research lab, having "Buy this beaker" on the site seems contrary to my stated goals. Even if the ads are somehow related to whatever it is I'm writing here.

Bad to worse

December 7th, 2004... a day that will live in suckage...

Yeah, it's been a pretty naff week. Tuesday was, as you've gathered, particularly bad. I drove out to the Coastal Studies Lab to collect some mud shrimp. The waves were considerably higher than I expected, and the tide was high. I spent a couple of hours getting wet and messy and ended up with one small mud shrimp to show for it. Well, one and a half, really, but the half wasn't of much use to me. And that one shrimp didn't manage to make it through the night.

Then, I worked on an ascidian experiment. My student Anna and I went though about ten animals trying to get some eggs and sperm, but they were all pretty much spawned out. That was very depressing, because the species we're working on isn't available year round, and those were the last animals of the season. And we didn't get all the experiments done that we wanted to do. They're not even hard experiments -- but there are just so many other things to do that we didn't get them done in time. Yes, this means that I'm probably going to have to wait nine months or so for the next opportunity to do finish the experiments. Crap.

Even the one thing that was nominally good news was a double edged sword at best. I got a letter in the post from our Office of Sponsored Research informing me that I have been given the opportunity to submit a grant proposal for the NSF's major equipment grant program. This program only accepts a small number of proposals (three, I think) from each institution, so there's an advance selection process to pick which get sent forward. I am trying to get our department a confocal microscope. The downside to all of this is that it means I now have two grant proposals due in January with the deadlines a fairly short period apart from each other. In short, I've been told, "Yes, Zen, please go ahead and do even more work from now until when classes start again in January."

And I was still trying to track down money that people are owed from August.

And there were a few other things. I just generally felt like I sucked on Tuesday.

I'm not sure that getting into the car at 4:00 a.m. this morning to put my S.O. on a plane back to Canada for Christmas is entirely an upbeat development, either. Stupid early flight.

03 December 2004

Fast and dirty

Yesterday, I banged out a short proposal for an internal program they're calling the "Undergraduate Research Initiative." If successful, it'll bring in about $1,500 for one of my undergraduate research students. It's done (a full week ahead of the deadline, I note with some pride), and waiting for my student to drop by my office to sign it.

Then, last night and this morning, I zapped out an abstract for the Texas Academy of Science annual meeting, which UTPA is hosting next March. It's some of the work done by one of my Honours students, Anna, from last year, so it'll be good to give her a small presentation of her work. Hopefully, we'll be able to work it into a paper, but in the meantime, this isn't a bad start.

Also finished and printed off copies of the proposal by my most recent Honours student, Yajaira. Got that out of the way, and now we're good to go to pick up the tempo on her research project. Did a few little initial tests which look promising.

Oh yeah, President Bambi officially went through her investiture today. Community access cable will be thrilled. They'll be able to show those hours of people standing around in robes on cable for months. Me? I wasn't there, because I have real work to do. Like writing proposals, abstracts, and supervising students.

Another noteworthy event today, at least for a geek like myself, is that the new email program Thunderbird is now more or less ready (version 1.0 candidate release). After becoming a convert to Firefox a while back, I've been waiting for this for some time now. Lots of people have been using it steadily for a while, but call it a quirk: I still want to use software that is labeled "1.0" at least.

30 November 2004

Slower even than grant applications!

Remember the Hulk movie from last year? Lots of hype, impressive in lots of ways, stuck with a confusing ending? There was no shortage of advertising tie-ins, one of which was run by Hershey's. I received an email today informing me that I'd won a Hulk T-shirt in their sweepstakes.


I admit, I need some new scruff around the flat on the weekend shirts, but wow. The movie was out, like, a year and a half ago, and just now they're giving out promotional T-shirts?

Maybe Hershey's should make molasses in January in addition to chocolate.

It was a dark and stormy day...

I drove out to the Coastal Studies Lab today to pick up some ascidians and mud shrimp. I only came back with ascidians. A bit of a storm blew in overnight, so it was wonderfully chilly (only 10 degrees C!), and not so wonderfully windy. A tarp that had been proecting our ascidian tank from rainwater, extreme sunlight and the like had blown off the rails and was flapping around in the tank. I pulled out what animals we had, and turned around and headed back to the main campus. I decided that going out on the beach and trying to pump out mud shrimp on my own was, frankly, not worth it in this weather.

In other news, I've just submitted my most recent NSF proposal. That's two to the NSF this year, which is double what I've submitted the previous two years. These, however, are both teaching grants rather than research grants. Let's see, though: that's five external grants I've submitted for the year so far, of which I'm waiting some word for four.

My next research grant I'll be working on over December to get ready by January. I'll probably start work on it in earnest next week, when classes end.

25 November 2004

Is there anybody out there?

I've been getting odd looks from the Americans surrounding me this week. They've all been wishing me a happy Thanksgiving, and I keep telling them, "That was last month. Thursday's just another day to me. I'll go into my office and work." That was pretty accurate description of my day. The one thing I didn't expect was just how quite it was going to be here! You can come in at night, on Sunday afternoon, Saturday morning, and there's usually someone else around. Not today. The only other soul I saw was my student Sandra, who had to come in to do a couple of steps in some tissue processing.


Miscommunication of the week: I set an appointment with my student Yajaira yesterday for 8 in the morning. I got to my office on time, and waited. And waited. Did quite a bit of work while I waited. Finally ran into her late in the afternoon: she was waiting for me in the lab. D'oh!


So long to Triple J's Adam & Wil, who've amused me for many an afternoon with their morning show. (Isn't live streaming radio on the Internet a grand thing?) In particular, I'll miss listening to Adam Spencer, who shows how funny a bloke with a Ph.D. in mathematics can be. And who is also a shining example of someone get a job not in their chosen field, because the field in Australia is too small. I'm not sure if his success in being one of Australia's most recognized doctorate holders is the sort of thing that gives academics hope or despair.

22 November 2004

Research Google

It's fair to say that search engines have revolutionized how people use the internet, and in fact, much of their lives. And the 900 pound gorilla on the search engine block is, of course, Google: the only search engine whose name has entered the language as a verb. One of my colleagues said to me at a meeting, "I solve all my problems with Google now. 'Daughter annoying'? 'Common problem' comes the reply." (The name of said colleague will not be revealed on the off chance that his daughter Googles his name and hits this blog.)

I've just learned from this article in Nature that Google has put up a scientific version of its search engine called Google Scholar. It's still "beta testing," but usually these test versions work fine.

I bookmarked this page as fast as I could. This is going to be an amazingly powerful work tool. There are other science related search engines, chief among them Pub Med, but they tend to be focused on single areas of specialization (biomedical research in the case of PubMed) or run by publishers. Google Scholar will probably avoid those issues.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm just going to wipe the drool off the corners of my mouth now. OoooOOoooooh, it even links to articles that cite the ones you're interested in....

21 November 2004

Wanna sauna?

I'm working today (as usual), walked into my lab, and was just about bowled over. It was hot! Way hotter than Mike's lab next door. (While I was typing this entry, he walked into my office and said, "Your air conditioning's FUBAR.") I took a temperature reading, and it was 27 degrees C in there. I called Physical Plant and was surprised that there was actually someone there to answer my call. He claims he can adjust the temperature from where he is (some central building somewhere on campus). I suspect a thermostat or other control device has gone and someone's going to be crawling around in the ducting to fix things.

Luckily, most of my animals should feel quite comfortable with 27 degree C temperatures. But I sure don't! Heck, it's just reaching the time of year now where I can enjoy lower temperatures outside. Now I'm being forced to deal with them inside? Unfair!

17 November 2004

Frustration defined

Frustration (n): Losing your glasses and not being able to look for them—because you've lost your glasses.

Yes, I am experiencing this right now. My nose is very close to the computer screen. I took my contacts out, put them in the disinfectant, and started looking for my specs and couldn't find them. And I can't take my contacts out of the disinfectant, because that stuff stings if it hasn't been neutralized.

Still no word on the teaching award.

Edit: Got my glasses! My S.O. walked out of the apartment with them in her purse, thinking they were hers.

16 November 2004

One and a half proposals done, and recruiting for science

I've tidied two things off my plate (more or less) today, both related to the NSF. I sent off a preproposal for a major equipment grant and an almost complete proposal for a course improvement grant. The latter is just missing a couple of letters of support, but those can go in while the administration is busy signing forms and worrying about whether I've committed institutional support that they didn't know about (or whatever it is they read those things for, because I sincerely doubt they're reading them for the science).

Another thing I did today that was kind of fun was to chat at a meeting of the new Biology Club on campus. This is a new student group on campus. It's so new they just announced at the meeting that they just got their constitution approved, and it's not on the October 2004 list of organizations. The Bio Club is trying to do a few things for the general biology students (i.e., those who don't have their eye on a career in the health professions). With the help of my colleagues Fred and Kristi, and a few grad students, we talked to the undergraduates about what graduate school is about, how you get in, and why you might want to stay in a university even longer. I think it went over pretty well (people laughed at the right bits), and I think it was pretty useful and informative for the students.

The one small thing that I didn't expect was how much it sounded like we were dumping on medical school -- which was not what we were trying to do! But around here (like many biology departments), med school is the 900 pound gorilla: you may like it or hate it, but you cannot ignore it.

In retrospect, given how many people have dramas with completing grad school, I sort of feel a little like a science pusher. "Hey little girl, want some... data? It'll make you feel really good..."

15 November 2004


Still no news on the teaching award. I notice that it's listed on the agenda for the upcoming faculty council meeting for Wednesday, so maybe I'll find out then. I don't think I got it, though. I suspect having a chemist and a biologist nominated means the vote among scientists will be split, leaving the door wide open for the French instructor.

10 November 2004

Grants, grants, grants

It seems like I'm spending the vast majority of my time trying to get people to give me money. I am currently working on three grant proposals, all for the National Science Foundation (NSF). I'm just putting the finishing touches on a Course Curriculum and Laboratory Instrumentation grant proposal, worth just under US$100,000 if it hits. Second, there's a "basic" research grant, which isn't due until January, but I have to get working on it now if I hope to finish in time. Don't know how much cash that'll end up being requested in that one. Third, I'm working on a preproposal for a major equipment grant. This program only allows an institution to submit three applications to the program, so we have to put in a short paper to our research office saying why we should be allowed to submit our proposal instead of those pesky engineers (or whoever).

At some point, I'm going to have to lift my head up and look in my lab again. But if I don't get some cash soon, it's going to be very hard to get anything done.

In other news, voting for the teaching award was supposed to end yesterday at 5:00 pm, but no word yet on who won.

04 November 2004

It's bigger than I thought

When I last checked the tally board at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego, attendance was around 25,000. Of course, I left early, but I suspected that it wouldn't hit 30,000, guessing that most of the people would have arrived for the start of the meeting. Wrong! Email from the Society says final attendance for scientists was a staggering 31,549!

One of the concerns that I have when I see a number like that, though, is where will the growth end? And, as my former Ph.D. committee member Craig Hawryshyn once mused in my presence, "Who's going to fund all this research?"


Another thing I forgot to mention about Tuesday: autumn arrived! It was the first day that I stepped outside the door and thought I might actually be more comfortable in long pasts instead of shorts. I'm going to enjoy the next few months of less than screaming hot temperatures...

03 November 2004


I had a ballot delivered to me yesterday—with my name on it. I'm one of three finalists for the UTPA Chancellor's Award for Teaching Excellence. The winner is chosen by a vote of all faculty. If I win, I get an honorarium (not sure how much -- the paperwork didn't say), a nice siny line in my CV, and I then become the university's nominee for the state-wide Minnie Stevens Piper Award.

I also got a ballot in the mail to elect the new councillors and executive committee for the International Society for Neuroethology. It's as though someone up there has decided, “I don't care that you're a Canadian living in America, you're going to vote for something!”


But that was yesterday. Today was good because I submitted a grant proposal, this time to a new program called SOMAS. It's not for a lot of money, but every little bit helps. This was just the first of several that are coming up. In the next two and a half months, I have three big grant deadlines for the National Science Foundation that I'm trying to meet. One deadlines early December, the other two in mid-January. The ones in January will be tough, since the university slows down so much between semesters.

But I'll worry about that tomorrow. Lots of writing to do!

01 November 2004

Letter from the President

I was interested that we got a memo from our new President, Bambi Cardenas, today. President Bambi has been meeting with representatives from various groups in the university (I described Biology's encounter with her previously). Today, a memo comes out saying that she's of the opinion that there's an urgent need to review teaching loads, and associated issues with merit and tenure. There's a task force being formed to put a new policy in place by Fall 2005.

Given my discussions with colleagues here and at other universities, I suspect / hope that this will translate into lighter teaching loads, and that merit and tenure requirements in other departments will be brought up to Biology's levels. Apparently, our department has the highest standard of any at our university, and they're not all that high compared to a lot of other places, particularly with regards to research.


So I'm almost all caught up from the madness that was preparing for the Neuroscience meeting, attending the Neuroscience meeting, and catching up on all the work that I couldn't do while I was at the Neuroscience meeting. Which only leaves me with my regular insanity to deal with.

Like, for instance, teaching, finishing a grant due on 2 December or so, reviewing someone else's grant application, tracking down where my last grant proposal is in the UTPA great chain of signatory paperwork, teaching, and making a trip to the Coastal Studies Lab to deliver a much-needed new computer and take back a much-needed fresh batch of ascidians and other critters.


Nobel laureates spotted at Neuroscience this year: One. Eric Kandel, who won the prize around 2000 for his work on learning and memory in a sea slug, Aplysia californica. I learned that his bow tie really always does seem to be that crooked. He's also doing some fascinating new work on how prion-like proteins might be involved in memory.

I think this brings my total number of Nobel sightings to two: I once heard David Hubel give a talk at McGill University.


Best thing about Neuroscience meeting: Getting to present my poster, explain my work, and have generally positive response to it. Now, if I could just turn that positive response at meetings into a positive response when I'm trying to get a grant funded.

Other good things: The ability to eat good food at restaurants, knowing it will be reimbursed. Seeing old friends. Making new friends. Networking. Being able to visit the Chuck Jones Studio Gallery in old San Diego. Finding a little cafe across from the convention center still stocks Violet Crumble from Australia.

Most disappointing thing about trip to Neuroscience: That there was so much interesting stuff to do, and not enough time to do it.

Second most disappointing thing about trip: Having White Chicks be the in-flight movie on the way out, and Dodgeball be in the in-flight movie on the way back. One stupid movie in a trip is just unlucky, but two is Just Not Fair(TM).

Other disappointments: Motel charging for internet. Long shuttle bus trips back to the hotel (sometimes well over an hour between waiting for the bus and the drive). Having to come back to Texas heat.

Spent a large portion of Sunday and today day feeling awful for a completely uncalled for comment I made to a friend over the weekend. I can't wait to apologize.

27 October 2004

Word of the Day

A well-known grad school phrase has now been codified as a draft entry into the Oxford English Dictionary: ABD.

To wit: "All but dissertation, an unofficial qualification recognizing that a student has completed all the work required for the award of a doctorate, except for the dissertation (also Ph.D. (ABD)); (also) a student who has achieved this status."

26 October 2004


Back from the Society for Neuroscience meeting, and am girding myself for the inevitable catch-up process. I took a loaner laptop with me to try to stay caught up, but it did no good at all. Too much stuff, not enough time! (And the hotel charged for internet access.)

More later.

19 October 2004

It's raining ads

A little later this week, I'll be flying to San Diego to attend the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting. I know the meeting is coming up, because I have so many people trying to meet with me.

I got no less than twelve "Come visit out booth at Neuroscience" flyers in my mailbox yesterday afternoon. Twelve. And I wasn't counting the ones that came last week. I wonder just how many get sent to the 25,000+ members who will probably attend. Strikes me as an awful use of paper.

17 October 2004

Canadian prairie girl makes good

My latest hero and role model: Atomic Betty. I was watching a recent episode on Cartoon Network, an American cable station. I was surprised when I heard one of the characters mention Edmonton – capital of my home province, Alberta. Then at the end of the story, they showed Betty's school, with a red and white flag with a maple leaf in the center. And once I visited the official website, I learn that Betty's neighborhood is none other than Moose Jaw Heights. And the street she lives on is Maple Lane.

Canadian prairie girl by day, Galactic Guardian -- also by day. Go Betty!

15 October 2004

Aftermath 2, or, "Maybe we aren't screwed"

We met with President Bambi (Blandina) Cardenas today. Most of the people in our department who went there are convinced that we managed to accomplish something. I think the most significant portion of the meeting was when we were discussing teaching assistant (TA) salaries. In most universities, graduate students take up the bulk of teaching assistant positions.

President Bambi asked what we paid TAs, and named a number that was about twice what we pay TAs. She was clearly taken aback when we told her what the actual pay was. And that students were expected to pay tuition out of that, whereas many other universities have some sort of tuition waiver scheme in place for graduate students.

14 October 2004

I've been looking at cleavage today, and I'm very excited by it

By "cleavage," I mean "cell division." I'm running an experiment on the development of ascidian embryos. What did you think I meant?

Lots of promising things have been going on. The ascidian species I was working on last year finally showed up again, about a month later than last year. I was getting so scared that they wouldn't, and my student Anna and I wouldn't be able to complete the experiments we started last year. But they've shown up, we have plenty of animals, and I'm feeling optimistic that we'll be able to pull together the experiments and get a manuscript together in fairly short order.

And I actually had supplies get ordered and arrive promptly for once. The supplies were things necessary to do the experiments I mentioned above. Some of the material arrived packed in dry ice. I never get tired of tossing it into the sink, turning the water on, and watching the fog roll over my lab bench. Also very fun to scoop up the mist in beakers and laugh maniacally. (I mean, you've got what looks like a smoking beaker in your hand, what else are you going to do?)

And I had some promising staining results last week with a new technique I have a student trying.

And two of my students got selected for Howard Hughes Medical Institute undergraduate research fellowships. Only one can officially work with me, but it's a good thing for both of them, and will be a good thing for me.

And I finished a short grant proposal for a new program called SOMAS. My grant paperwork is now making the rounds for institutional approval.

And I'm meeting with our new president, Bambi Cardenas, tomorrow, as part of a representative group from the Biology Department.

And my student Sandra is just about ready to provide me with some final data for my neuroscience poster (if all goes well).

The frustrations I have? One is that my colleague Virginia will be down next weekend, just when I have to leave for the Society for Neuroscience meeting. ANd all of my students who are working on our collaborative projects are also going out of town for things like medical school interviews.

And I have to finish a bunch of marking before going to the Neuroscience meeting.

And I've been waiting a week from someone from the computer helpdesk services to come and type in a password on a class computer so that I can install a simple driver for software.

And there just aren't enough days in the week to get things accomplished.

30 September 2004

Aftermath, or, "We're so screwed" (even if they want to help)

It's hard to know what came out of the meeting yesterday. The Biology Department conveyed in no uncertain terms why sticking our stuff in the RAHC is not acceptable as far as we're concerned. But in terms of what we will do about our animal facilities, and how soon, and everything else... well, that's still up in the air. The big problem is that even if we get what we want – a new facility – it's several years away, and we have users in a substandard facility trying to run projects now. Even renovating the current building (short term solution) will probably result in a substantial interruption for the current users.

And just in general, the reluctance by administration to work on research space is angering me and a few of my colleagues.

We have a meeting with our new president, Bambi, in two weeks. I hope we can get some of these issues on the table then.

29 September 2004


The latest kafuffle between the biology department and upper administration is about to come to a head at noon. Here's the lowdown.

The Biology Department used to be in a different building (now the Health and Human Science Building). But when the Biology Department moved to the new digs, the Science Building, around 1996, one building containing the department's animal facilities got left behind. It's called the Biology Annex.

The Annex is in pretty bad shape, and because it's halfway across campus, it's underused. Initially, we were talking about renovating – fixing the air conditioning, etc. Then, at a meeting, our new president, Bambi Cardenas, suggested, "Why don't we tear it down and rebuild it?"

But somewhere along the way, something changed. Now administration wants to move our animal facilities into the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio's Regional Academic Health Center research division (this is the RAHC that I've shown pictures of in this journal before).

From my point of view – and everyone else in the department I've talked to – this is just an all-around bad idea from every angle. Nobody has seen a positive side.

We're having a meeting about it with some administrators today. Not sure which ones yet. The meetings at moon. About 90 minutes from now. I fully expect there to be – what's the politician's euphemism? – "a full and frank exchange of views." (Personally, I'll be trying to restrain myself from asking the administrators present what the hell they've been smoking.)

I could have a very interesting second post today...

23 September 2004

Give it back!

Spent most of today trying to undo the damage that was foisted upon me by having my file munched by computer or software. Ran into a new problem with importing text – no matter how much I insist that I am importing English (a.k.a. "Latin") text, not Asian text, it still keeps marking the text as Asian with a limited font range. I got around it by importing plain text, but had to redo all the formatting. Annoying. But I think I'm almost back to where I was yesterday.

22 September 2004


I spent a good chunk of the day working on my Society for Neuroscience poster today. The meeting is next week, and I like to have these things done in advance as much as possible.

And something went wrong. The drawing software crashed. I couldn't open the file with my poster on it any more. "Ah, that's okay," methought. "I'll open the automatic backup that's created every time I save the file.

And that wouldn't open either. Oh, no, no, no... ARGH!

I lost a lot of work. Nothing irreplaceable, but... damn. Just... damn.

21 September 2004

Hot off the (virtual) press

Just got email in the last couple of minutes that my latest paper is now available online.

Now, let's see here... (opens file cabinet, pulls out folder, pulls out papers and scans them closely.) According to the publisher's "Copyright transfer statement," before I can link this page here, I have to mention that Springer-Verlag is the copyright owner, and this text must accompany the link:

"The original publication is at springerlink.com"

Although there are a couple of linking options for this article, I'm supposed to use one with a digital object identifier (DOI).

I think that covers all the legalese. If you have a subscription, you can now jump to my latest paper, "Mechanisms of behavioral switching," here.

(I wanted it to be "Mechanisms of behavioural switching." The editor for this set of articles was American, and I lost that argument.)

16 September 2004

The proof of the paper is in the correcting

It's still mid-morning, but today is already a good day. I received the proofs for my latest (short) article that is forthcoming in Journal of Comparative Physiology A. For those who have a subscription to this journal, the article should be up about one week from today in the "Online first" section. It won't be much, as it's a short introduction to a special series of papers, but it's a publication. And according to tenure requirements here, a publication is a publication is a publication. It doesn't matter if its a one page comment in a journal that nobody's heard of or a massive magnum opus that makes the cover of Science or Nature -- it's still one publication for tenure purposes.

The proof also contained an order form for reprints, and I couldn't help but notice the cost of reprints. Now, I like reprints. It's nice to have something professionally printed on acid-free, archival paper. But for a short article like this (probably 2 pages, tops), it's so not worth it. The cost of 50 copies is...

(Wait for it!)

US$275! And the reprint order form notes, "If you order offprints after the issue has gone to press, costs are much higher." The mind boggles at who could actually afford reprints then. The guy who owns Wal-Mart, maybe. It's one of those things that makes me very glad that scientific publishing has gone digital. Most people will be able to get PDFs and print their own copies at a fraction of the cost of what the publisher can offer.

But... having to do something like this makes me feel good. It reminds me that I have actually accomplished some stuff this year. And that's an important thing when so often, I feel frustrated at my inability to get things done fast enough.

15 September 2004

The animals do what they please

One of the logical corollaries to Murphy's Law is known as the Harvard Rule of Animal Behaviour. It goes something along the lines of, "You can have the most beautifully designed experiment with the most carefully controlled variables, and the animal will do what it damn well pleases."

That is currently one of my biggest problems. I changed my entire teaching schedule on the idea that the ascidian species I was working with last year would be back again this year.


These little babies just have not shown up again. Whether it's En Nino, sunspots, bad luck, or whatever, I'm sort of stuck without the animals I wanted to work with. 'Tis a quandry. It wouldn't be so bad if I didn't have a student who worked with me last year ready to do a series of follow-up experiments. Eeep! So now I have to think of a back-up plan.

Still, I find this problem less aggravating than my other major problem, which is the seeming inability of getting anything I order here promptly.

14 September 2004

A surprisingly good day

A few positive things happened today.

First, free food! We had a social with our graduate students today (a suggestion of mine, as it happens), and they brought in some food for the students. I was reasonably pleased. We got about a dozen of our students there, and I met two new ones for the first time. It was good to have a chance to chat to them a little. And there was pretty good cake.

Second. I whipped off a quick letter of intent for a grant that's due at the start of October. I wouldn't bet on my chances, as I've submitted to these guys several times before and have yet to go to the full proposal stage. The problem with this particular grant system is that they only provide you with a rejection, and no indication of why they're not asking you to submit a full proposal. But I keep kicking at the can nevertheless.

Third, I finally got some supplies that I ordered back in... June? April? May? It's been so long I honestly don't remember. But it has been months since I tried to order it – not days or weeks. But it is here, which means I actually have something for one of my students to start working on now.

Fourth, I got word from a copy editor asking for fixes to one of my upcoming manuscripts. Now, "fixes" usually aren't a good thing, because it reminds you of the mistakes you've made. In this case, though, the fixes were easily done. This is good, because it means the paper is in the production pipeline, and hopefully will be out either at the end of this year or early next. Right now, anything to do with a manuscript coming out makes me happy, because it makes me feel a teensy bit like a waste of space, scientifically.

There might have been one or two other things that went right today. But for the moment, I'll just savour those little pleasures.

08 September 2004

People unclear on the concept?

This morning, I got an email asking if people would be willing to teach classes between Christmas and New Year.

Our university has a traditional fall and spring semester, and two summer sessions. This year, they experimented with a "mini term" in the few weeks between the spring and summer sessions, which apparently was reasonably successful. Administration is now asking about the possibility of a winter mini term between the fall and spring semesters. It would run December 20 to 11 January, with three days off for Christmas and two for New Year's.

My reply was, "You have got to be ****ing kidding."

I cannot help but wonder at the split personality of administrative decisions. On the one hand, we hear, "We want to become a research university." On the other hand, we get this email that says, "More classes. More, more, more!" When are faculty supposed to be doing research? Writing grant applications? Having a chance to even think about these issues?

Now, I don't want to give anyone the wrong impression here. It's not like faculty would be forced into teaching these mini terms. They'd be an opportunity for extra money for those faculty who wanted to teach them.

Still, I think it amply demonstrates how far administration's mindset is in thinking about research. This university has grown on the back of ever increasing student enrollment, and has chugged along quite nicely on student fees. I think university administration smells an opportunity for more tuition, and are chasing that with far more seriousness than they are talking about investing in faculty's ability to write and secure major external research grants.

07 September 2004

Mysterious deaths, 7 day work weeks, and other reasons for cheer

I drove out to the Coastal Studies Lab last week, and brought back many animals. Some hermit crabs, ghost shrimp, sand crabs, and tunicates. All had survived well in tanks recently. But for some mysterious unknown reason, just about all of the hermit crabs and ghost shrimp keeled over in less than a week this time! About half died on Sunday, the other half on Labour Day.

This is one reason I was glad to have come into the uni every day this week. It would have stunk to high heaven – both literally and figuratively – to have come in to all those corpses after a long weekend.

The tunicates didn't die prematurely, but the work I was trying to do with them was not encouraging, either. They're about as easy to dissect as old boot leather.

On the plus side, I'm more glad than ever that I live within walking distance of the university.

31 August 2004

In which the author is reminded of his numerous limitations

Late last night I get an email from the National Science Foundation advising me that my latest grant proposal was missing a section and I had one day to fix it. It was easy to fix; I had written the section, but for some strange reason, I hadn't uploaded it.

At today's faculty meeting, I'm afraid the entire faculty got lectured because I forgot to turn in paperwork. Consequently, the Dean's secretary spent a couple of minutes, in a huff, telling everyone that it's not her job to remind us when we need to submit paperwork for travel. Which was pretty much aimed squarely at me.

And I'm up to six independent study students this semester. I must surely be mad.

On a more positive note, interesting thing that happened today was meeting with some folks from the graduate school of the University of Texas Medical Branch, who have some support money for Masters students from our university who want to continue on into a doctoral program at their university.

27 August 2004

Ripe for the picking

Our building has had an amazing rash of thefts the last few weeks. We've lost about five or six computers and other equipment, including two last night. So far, I have been fortunate, but I've backed up the most recent stuff on my desktop computer just in case. I'm really worried. It's not the computer that concerns me, but losing data is a huge issue.

In other news, classes have started yesterday. I've tried to lighten my teaching load this semester (two classes) so I could get some more research done, but it's going to be an uphill battle. I will be supervising five students in research projects, and have many manuscripts and grant applications that need to be completed. My major concern is a repeat of the summertime issues with ordering supplies (as in, having only half of them actually show up).

21 August 2004


When I walk to work every morning and when I walk home every night, I pass right by the baseball stadium that is home to the Edinburg Roadrunners. Have done so for the past three years. Heck, we live so close that we get the fireworks displays on Saturday for free. I rather like baseball compared to most other sports, and I've sort of meant to go for three years. Of all things, Sarah got given a pair of tickets, so we went to the ball game last night. The Roadrunners were playing the Jackson Senators.

And a good game it was, too. The lead went back and forth, and at the top of the ninth inning, it was a 9-9 tie game! The Roadrunners managed to strike out the batting Senators in the top of the ninth, and I was sitting thinking, "This could go extra innings, but there's only one hit in it."

Edinburg player Ryan Webb gets up to the plate. First pitch...


Over the fence! Home run!

I just had to laugh. Great, great way to end the game. They have a thing here where they pass out a tip bucket for the pitcher for striking out a player, or a player for hitting a home run. I put in a contribution for the batter for the one pitch, one hit end to a tie game.

17 August 2004

The proposal has left the building

Despite a form getting stuck in the Dean's office, my latest National Science Foundation proposal has been submitted this afternoon on time. Huzzah! Now comes the waiting – I should find out the results around January or February. This is my third kick at the can with a major proposal for the NSF, so here's hoping this one actually hits.

Intellectual environments

You know, it occurred to me that I haven't been talking a lot about what my job ostensibly is: being an academic. I am anticipating making some progress on that front. At the end of last week, the majority of the tenure-track faculty got together at my urging. We decided to form a Biology Journal Club. The idea is that each week, we'll gather with our advanced students, some munchies and a recent scientific paper in hand -- probably something from Science or Nature, and see what we make of it. I'm really looking forward to it. I did a little bit of this with my colleague Fred Zaidan last semester, and discovered how much I missed it.

Of course, the main reason I don't talk about my tasks as a public intellectual is that I am spending so much of my time trying to get other people to do their jobs. Today is the deadline for a National Science Foundation grant that I've been working quite hard on this summer. To have the grant submitted, there's supposed to be a "transmittal form" signed by the department chair, the college dean, and probably a couple of vice-presidents. I sent that form on its way last Thursday or so – and it hasn't showed up in the Office for Sponsored Projects. The grant can't be submitted without it. So now we have to spend (waste) time tracking down this wretched piece of paper.

I would so much like to be spending more time on the former and a lot less on the latter.

16 August 2004


I got reimbursed for attending Western Nerve Net today. It's "only" a month after the meeting. Yet again, anything involving money at this university is an instant headache. I currently have about four things I have to be reimbursed for, each worth several hundred dollars. But I don't get reimbursed if I have to pay interest charges on my credit card.

In fairness, I should say that I haven't been reimbursed by Louisiana State University either for my trip there. But that was only a couple of weeks ago.

10 August 2004

The Lamberts have left the Island

The Lamberts

Charlie (standing) and Gretchen Lambert (seated, perhaps obviously). Merci beaucoup to both of you!

Yesterday was another good day for my attempts to push forward with ascidian research. Gretchen Lambert was able to identify some more species. I think our final total is something like 15 species from a large number of genera, maybe 10 or 12. Interestingly, all of them seem to be invasive species that have been brought in on the bottoms of boats. This is a worldwide problem: many ports and harbours have lots of invaders.

Also, my colleague Virginia was finally able to locate some little baby tadpoles of her tunicates. She had been frustrated for some time because she couldn't find reproductive animals, but it turned out she was looking for baby tunicates in the wrong place. The species she had worked on previously turns out to have a reproductive system that is unique to that species, not common to all the species as Virginia had assumed. Now we can rear "clones" of ascidians from a known individual. This gives us the advantage of being able to work with a bunch of animals that all have the same genetics.

All of this slightly offset the crummy collecting I had for sand crabs. I turned over a lot of sand to find very few animals! I did find a mud shrimp (Callianassa, I thought, but apparently has been renamed as Lepidophthalmus louisianensis), though. This was the first time I'd ever pulled up one of them in one of my shovels. Also found two sand crabs with egss, which I'd not seen before in my collections.

08 August 2004

More identifications

Day two of the Lamberts' visit went quite well, up until the very end when I got a speeding ticket coming back from the Coastal Studies Lab. We reckon we're up to about 15 species that we've found so far.

Visiting scholars

Day one of the visit by Gretchen and Charlie Lambert went well. So far, we've found 11 tunicate species in the waters around the Coastal Studies Lab, with positive IDs for six of them. And we've got two days left to collect and identify mroe critters.

06 August 2004

Ringing phones

I have been getting a series of weird phone calls today. People phoning up with totall random question. The weirdest was some fisherman phoning up asking what I know about flesh-eating bacteria. Which, being a neurobiologist, is next to nothing.

A little while ago, I had some physician asking if there's anyone doing cancer research here, because he's going to have access to various kinds of tumours in his research. Considering that this is a basic biology department with strengths in ecology and plant science, that was also a big no.

And then there's been the series of calls from students who seem to be unable to read the university catalogue and are asking for "advisement." Most of the time, advisement is about as much fun as reading the rules on Oscar night. (I may be dating myself, since reading the rules got dropped from pretty much every awards show years ago because it was so tedious. But all those awards shows used to do it.)

And people wonder why I don't like phones.

Drowning in molasses

Three weeks and two days ago, I handed off a small purchase order for some supplies for one of my students, who is doing an independent study class with me. Because this is a summer class, the entire course only lasts five weeks. Today I learned that the company I wanted supplies from won't sell to this university, because they won't accept the terms of our small purchase order (payment in 30 days). In short, I spent 60% of course waiting to be told "We can't buy that."

The two major components of my job are teaching and research.

I can't teach if I can't get supplies.

I can't do research if I can't get supplies.

So just what am I doing here?

05 August 2004

Dye killer; early weekend

In the lab, I am getting irritated. I've been trying to get various flourescent dyes and labels to work. These are new techniques to me, but are pretty routine stuff everywhere else. But I seem to be the jinx of dyes. I've tried four or five of them now, and none of them seem to want to work for me. I do not understand it at all.

Meanwhile, with the visit of Gretchen and Charlie Lambert, two of North America's foremost ascidian experts, to the Coastal Studies Lab coming up this weekend, I reckoned I would take the day off today to ruins some errands that kept getting put off, and to do a little relaxation, too. Because tomorrow I'll spend getting ready for their visit, and I know I'm going to be working like a dog for the three and a half days that they'll be here. I'm betting that by this time next Tuesday, I'll be very tired. I just hope I'm also very happy and that we'll have made good progress on identifying what we have to work with here.

04 August 2004


It's official, according to the Finnish army: the internet can be addicting.

My other favourite recent news piece was on the library of unwritten books.

31 July 2004

Piccies from LSU

They like their football at Louisiana State University. Their football stadium is huge, seating about 90,000 people. And it's only going to get worse at LSU, because...

...They were national champions last year. You might be able to see that the name of their stadium is "Tiger Stadium," so called after their mascot, Mike the tiger.

This is the fifth tiger named "Mike" to serve as LSU's mascot. I have severe reservations about keeping an animal like this on campus, but I was pleased to note that they are collecting money for a new home.

Yes, they make and sell their own water at LSU: "Tiger Water." As I said: they like their football at LSU.

I will never cease to be baffled by the emphasis Americans place on university sports. It is insane.

One of the beautiful things about the campus is that they have many, many live oaks planted around the grounds. They are huge, beautful shade trees, perfect for studying underneath them. Many are "endowed" oaks, with plaques next to them paid for by someone or other, often in memory of a dead relative.

Another favourite thing I came across was that they have an open-air Greek theatre. Would be very cool to see something staged there.

Of course, the real reason I was there was to interact with research students. Thursday was presentation day for a lot of undergraduate researchers. I think there were 90 some posters, all told. It's very fun and interesting talking to the students, who are pretty sharp and knowledgeable about their work.

And I have to show off the one UTPA student who part of the LSU Undergraduate research program, Amanda Aguilar. She was litterally the first in the program for the 90 or so students.

29 July 2004

Louisiana update

I spent a good chunk of yesterday with fellow neuroethologist Jim Belanger, commiserating over Provost woes, etc. I also stuck my nose into other people's neurobiology labs and talking to students about their research projects. And envying how LSU labs are about three times the size of UTPA labs.

Before I head back tonight, I'll be spending most of the day at the final poster presentation for the LSU undergraduate researchers, which should be a lot of fun.

Which reminds me: I have to think of a project for one of my own undergraduate students, who I put off a little until I got back on Friday. Which is tomorrow. A lot will depend on whether any supplies came in for me while I was away. We'll see.

28 July 2004

Time, time, time, look what you've done to me

Yup, it was all about time yesterday. Like looking at my watch when the pilot of my plane to Houston announced that there was a light on in the cockpit that wouldn't go off, so they had to bring in a mechanic, turn off the electricity, deplane the aircraft, fill out some paperwork, and bring us all back on board, all of which had us taking off over an hour later than planned. I was sweating bullets as to whether I would make my connecting flight. It was supposed to board at 9:05 am. I got off the plan at about 9:15 am. I ran across the airport, caught the monorail, and made it. Barely. But I did get there on time.

But time wasn't done playing tricks with me yet. On the way in from the airport to Louisiana State University, I asked my host Sheri Wischusen how long I had for my talk. She said, "About 20 minutes." Ulp. I had reckoned on about three times that much. Fortunately, I'd given a 20 minute version of the talk a couple of weeks back at Western Nerve Net, so I was able to improvise, adapt, and overcome.

It was an interesting talk to give. Very multimedia. They had one student who was watching by remote, but I could see her on the screen behind me. She could see me and my slide, which were also projected up on the screen.

In any case, the students laughed in the right bits, and were good sports about me giving a 50 minute talk in 20. I finished about on time.

Them went to lunch at a place called The Chimes, which is a very good pub with various flags in its window, including Canada's (so I approve heartily). Then spent the afternoon walking around campus and doing some research at the library before going to dinner with fellow invert neuroethologist Jim Belanger at a great Cajun restaurant called... um... Boutin's (I think). Good food, live Cajun music, and a small swamp in the back with lots of turtles.

As for today, I'm planning on doing lots of networking and visiting with LSU faculty.

27 July 2004

Can't sleep

My inability to sleep before a trip came in handy again today. I had changed the alarm to the right time, but forgot to set it. But I woke up well before the alarm was supposed to go off, so should have no problems making my flight.

Next post: from Baton Rouge, Louisiana (I hope!).

24 July 2004

Did I mention the gods hate me?

Yesterday, I was just about done everything I could do that day, and was thinking of going home a little early, around 5:00 p.m. (6:00 p.m. is a more typical end of day for me). My wish to go home obviously displeased some deity or another.

I was working on my talk for Louisiana State University next week. This PowerPoint show is getting to be a big file, so I decided to move it into a directory of its own.

And for some mysterious unknown reason, a whole bunch of pictures suddenly swapped positions with each other in my presentation. Where there was supposed to be a neuron, there was s distored picture of a hermit crab. And on. And on. Scattered throughout the talk. A few places just had white boxes with a big red "X" in the middle, indicating the program couldn't find the picture at all. Cussing ensued, followed by a determined effort to fix this before I went home. Fortunately, enough of the slides were still intact that it wasn't like I was starting from scratch. A couple of pictures were very insistent about not being fixed, leaving me to stare angrily at big red Xs over and over. I think I've finally got them beat down, but making all the repairs took me until -- you guessed it -- sometime after 6:00 p.m.

All those trials aside, I think it's going to be worth it. This talk has grown into something rather different and more comprehensive than what I planned, and I'm real excited about it. In fact, I think I may be able to squeeze a good review paper based on the preparation for this talk.

22 July 2004

Staying in business

A few weeks back, I went to see a movie, which is something I try to do every week if there’s anything remotely interesting. This particular week, right around the long weekend, most of the munchies were sold out. (Spider-Man 2 had just opened and was doing boffo boxoffice.) There were no Reese's peanut butter cups, no Twizzlers, no chocolate, no lemon drops... just row after row after row of Hot Tamales.

Why raises the question: why does the theatre stock the things at all, if people won't buy them even when there's nothing else to eat? Heck, how does the company that makes Hot Tamales stay in business?

Mysteries of our time. Clearly, more research is needed.

20 July 2004


My student Sandra and I made a run out to the Coastal Studies Lab today to pick up some animals, examine a few plots I set in motion, and got at least one new experiment set up. Because, hey, I needed a few more plates that I have to keep spinning...

19 July 2004

More comics

Link of the day: Ph.D. Comics. I love it. It was one of the best things I learned about at Western Nerve Net. One of the best non-scientific things, that is.

Note that "Ph.D." is not short for "Doctor of Philosophy," but "Piled Higher and Deeper." This is an old joke that a "B.S." (usually Bachelor of Science) degree is short for... um... male bovine excrement. The joke continues that "M.S." didn't stand for "Masters of Science," but for "More S***".

The overall message of the comic: grad school is a weird thing to do. I've got news for grad students: so is a post-doc. And so is being an Assistant Professor.

18 July 2004

Texas Weather Report

Today's weather: Heat that, when you walk out of an air-conditioned building, sucker punches you behind the head with a sock full of pennies than rolls you for your wallet and leaves you for dead.

The Twilight Zen

Cell phone.

14 July 2004

Number 18

My eighteenth scientific paper got accepted at the end of last week. I finally had a chance to sit down today and make the few small required changes, so it will be off to the editor this afternoon. This one is significant because it’s the first one exclusively from UTPA, so its counts towards my tenure requirements. Sure, it’ll probably be only a page or two when it finally sees print, but a publication is a publication is a publication, as far as the tenure guidelines go. That is to say, a comprehensive 400 page monograph counts the same as a 2 page short communication in this tenure game.

I have mixed feelings about that, personally. There really isn’t much incentive to do quality work, but on the other hand, it’s not always possible to do work that’ll make the cover of Nature.

In other news, after agonizing about my species name error, I was pleased – no, relieved is a better word – to see the Society for Neuroscience had to send out a correction. I got an email saying that the time they scheduled for my poster was probably wrong, please disregard it, and they'll be sending another email soon. Heh. It's always good to know that everyone makes mistakes. My poster ended up being Saturday afternoon after all, which I'm happy about.

I was less pleased about getting a hotel for the Neuroscience meeting. The State of Texas – of which UTPA is a part – only pays $110 per night for a hotel room in San Diego. But that's actually pretty low for the hotel rates for this meeting. $150 a night seems to be more common, particularly if you're anywhere within walking distance of the conference center. So guess where the difference has to come from? That's right: my wallet. Most of those low-cost hotel rooms are already snapped up. (One colleague commented that getting a Neuroscience hotel was a “Darwinian” process.) I reserved a room that cost $115 a night, which means I'll only be out of pocket about $30, luckily.

12 July 2004

Freakin’ taxonomists

I just got confirmation of when I’m supposed to give my poster at this year’s Neuroscience poster. I’m pleased that this year, I’m giving my poster on Saturday! First day of the conference before people are burned out! Yay!

But I’m red-faced now. I just realized there’s a mistake in my title: I have the species name wrong. I put the name of my lobster as Palinurus argus, when it is, in fact, Panulirus argus.

Now, in my defense, I am not the first person to make this mistake, nor will I be the last. You see, both names are scientifically vaid and describe genera of spiny lobsters. Apparently, back in 1847, a taxonomist named White decided to split the spiny lobster genus Palinurus into three genera. For his new genera, he chose anagrams of the original name: Linuparus, which is fairly distinct from Palinurus, and Panulirus – which darn well isn’t. And thus is was that Dr. White ensured my confusion, not to mention the puzzlement of many others, for years to come.

I would submit a revised abstract to correct the title and add an author (my student Alana contributed work to this project after I submitted the abstract), but the deadline for that was back in May. Fortunately, this is just an abstract, but it is pretty embarrassing to have to put in “sic” next to the poster title in my curriculum vita.

Western Nerve Net

Santa Clara sign

As I mentioned before, Santa Clara is a very pretty university, with a long history and Jesuit tradition. The mission (below) is very attractive, and has a wonderful rose garden next to it.

Santa Clara mission

We had our Friday dinner in a faculty club slighty in back of the mission, and our first speaker on Friday night was the magesterial Ted Bullock, delivering a talk called "In praise of natural history."

Ted Bullock

Ted Bullock had to leave on Friday night, which I was disappointed with on the one hand, because he's got so much experience and insight. But on the other hand, it meant that my nightmare of Ted dissing my talk couldn't come true. Whew.

The meeting itself was small. There were only about 30 people all told. But apparently the organizers broke even, and all went well. I'm pretty sure I was able to have a conversation with just about everyone at the meeting. I was pleased that my own talk was fairly well-received. At the end of the day, we had dinner out in the residence courtyard.

Beer crowd Food crowd

Note the large number of people around the the beer, and the small number of people around the trays containing the barbeque...

Thanks to John Birmingham for reviving a great little meeting. And I look forward to doing it again next year! (Right, Megumi?)

10 July 2004

Feel the chill

There is no hot water in the showers where I’m staying. This makes for a rather rude awakening, especially after a night of poor sleeping. I never sleep well in a new bed the first night, and this bed is not particularly comfortable. It has a very spongy pillow. I also dreamed about giving my talk, and getting patronized at the end by Ted Bullock, who (in my dream) said something like, “It was a good effort.” I’m hoping the reception for my talk will be a little warmer. Warmer than the showers, at any rate.

In the waking world, Professor Bullock gave the opening talk last night, which was very good. I'll describe him in a little more detail later, but for now I'll just mention that he is in his seventh decade (!) as a practicing scientist, but still active and still sharp as a knife.

Unfortunately, I’m unlikely to be able to post any pictures until Monday. I realized that I don't have the right USB cable to hook up my camera to a computer, alas.

09 July 2004

Feel the burn

Ah, the mild California weather has played its evil trick on me. Because it’s nowhere near as hot as Texas, I spent most of the afternoon wandering around campus and nearby environs, taking pictures, checking things out. Looked in the mirror tonight, about ready to go to bed, and realized that my skin is pinker than usual. And it’s been a few hours since I got out of the Santa Clara fitness center. Argh. I’m just hoping that this is a mild sunburn, and that the only consequence will be that I look slightly goofy when I give my talk tomorrow morning. I could rather do without any pain or peeling skin tonight, thanks.

Been up since 4:20 a.m., and it's now past 11 p.m. Texas time. Well past time to go to bed.

California dreamin’

I’m typing to you today from Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California. The first university in the state, apparently – and it sure smells nice. There are plenty of plants and flowers, and you can really smell them as you’re walking around. What particularly surprised me was catching the scent of pine – something I probably haven’t smelled in three years since leaving Canada.

It also about 7°C cooler here than southern Texas. This, and some very interesting southern California architecture and Jesuit sculptures make walking outside pleasant rather than an occasion to be avoided (if possible) or dreaded (if not avoided).

I hope to have some pictures up later. But in the meantime... food. I've been up since 4:30 a.m. (!), and it's now 3:20 p.m. back where I normally live, and I need sustenance.

08 July 2004

Well, that was unexpected...

Life is full of little surprises. Like car repairs. More examples are rolling in today.

First surprise. I am leaving to go to a meeting tomorrow. I thought I had finished my talk, and was preparing to do other things this afternoon. But while doing a little research, I stumble upon a paper that is directly related to what my talk is about. One the one hand, it’s great, because it basically answers a question which I had, and the results reported in this paper are totally in line with my own. On the other hand, it’s annoying, because I can no longer write a grant proposal asking for money to do this experiment that I had planned, because it’s already been done. On the third hand (I study crustaceans, many hands are allowed), it’s good because it adds more depth to my talk. On the fourth hand, it means I have to make a new slide quickly and revise my PowerPoint presentation again.

Second surprise. Our Dean calling a meeting on about 24 hours notice yesterday, and there was a little speculation on what it would be about. Nobody predicted that he would announce he was leaving our university in less than two months (end of August), citing personal reasons. He’d only been here for about a year and a half. He’d been the driving force behind UTPA getting a $1.3 million Howard Hughes Medical Institue grant.

I’m rather hoping that the rest of the day is sedate and uninteresting.

07 July 2004

Has it been a week?

Whoops. Guess it has been that long since I posted. I spend most of today getting ready for Western Nerve Net (my abstract is up on line now). I gave a practice talk this morning. It clocked in at slightly too long, which I expect I can fix by Saturday. The rest of the day was spent tinkering with the talk, implementing a few ideas that my colleagues gave me for improvement.

Tomorrow, I plan to make a quick (probably very quick) trip out to the Coastal Studies Lab. I just learned today that we're going to have a faculty meeting for the College tomorrow, which our Vice President of Academic Affairs will be attending. I hope to get back in time for that, since that particular VP is very rarely seen at these sorts of things, so I suspect something important might be up.

The next day, I get on a 6 a.m. plane bound for California. Ugh... I don't even want to think about what time I have to drag my sorry butt out of bed.

Speaking of talks, I've also wrangled myself a second trip this month. I'll be heading to Baton Rouge for a couple of days, and will be giving a talk to the Biology Sciences Department at Louisiana State University. This happened because LSU has a summer research program, and they have a couple of slots reserved for UTPA students. So I decided to try to take advantage of some of those existing ties and ask for an invitation. I'll be there in a couple of weeks to spread good will and cheer. Or something.

Edit: No trip to the Coastal Studies Lab for me tomorrow. Our car needs fixing. Expensive fixing. Splud!

01 July 2004

Double failure

Failure number one: I have to meet a student today. Which means I'm going to campus instead of getting a day off.

Failure number two: My most recent effort to get asked to write a full proposal for a Whitehall Foundation grant failed. Over 100 letters, of which they asked 22 people to write full proposals. And I – I was not one.

Happy Dominion Day!

Dating myself with that entry title. Call it Canada Day, if you prefer. I'm celebrating by trying to take the day off. We'll see if I can avoid going to uni today. If all goes well, a little matinee, a little shopping, and the like. With the amount of work I have to do, I know I’ll regret this decision tomorrow. But I’ll cry tomorrow. For now, I goof off.

28 June 2004


I'm here at home tonight and not exercising like I want to be. I got a phone call this afternoon from one of my colleagues, who had some bad abdominal pain last week. This guy's had heart problems in the past, so went to see a cardiologist and is going to have a bit of surgery tomorrow. It turns out there aren't too many people available who have any other expertise in the summer class he's teaching, and asked if I would do it for a day or two. Me, being a nice guys, said sure. But this means I've got a lecture to write for a (groan) 7:45 am class tomorrow.

Back to work I go...

24 June 2004

I feel pretty, oh so pretty...

Two of my students met. After they had parted, one said of the other, with a tone of surprise in his voice, "She's pretty." It apparently had never occurred to him that someone good-looking would be involved in research projects. I made some comment about being wary of stereotypes.

Obviously, there's still more consciousness raising to do.

22 June 2004

President Bambi

Our new president-designate, Blandina Cardenas, also goes by the name (nickname? dimuntive?) of Bambi.


I kid you not.


As an essayist, I have to say that it's wonderful knowing that a rich mine of comedic opportunity has just dropped into your lap.

Be that as it may, I rushed to the Coastal Studies Lab this morning, did some very quick animal collection and pick-up, rushed back to the university in time to see President-delegate Bambi's introduction to the university. I sat in the university auditorium, still with sand and salt in my shorts. My buddy Mike offered me a dollar if I went up to our president delgate and introduced myself and declared that I has sand in my shorts. Didn't take him up on the offer.

President-designate Bambi said a few encouraging things about research and workload, but I still get a vibe when I hear her speaking that makes me uneasy. Just a little too much like a seasoned politician. She has the sort of delivery that leaves you wondering how much is an act for the occasion, and the cameras, and how much is real.

How to win friends and influence people

Now isn't this an interesting way to start a new job... Our new president said some things in public that she thought was private, according to this story. It should certainly add a certain frisson to her coming into the new position with people knowing she wants to swing the axe at a few people.

21 June 2004

New President

Blandina Cardenas is our new university president. In my book, this is not great news, but it's not bad news, either. I reckoned she was in the middle of the pack in my assessment of the candidates. I was personally hoping for someone with more research experience. Instead, we get another president who's background is in education -- just like we've had for the last two decades.

Time will tell if she'll work out. It always does.


Whew. I was kept busy today with all four students working non-stop on their projects and needing guidance from me. I am pretty tired. And it'll probably get worse before it gets better; I'm planning to run out to the Coastal Studies Lab tomorrow to dig up more sand crabs and the like, which is usually fun, but not relaxing.

Less than an hour until the new President for the University is announced. The new preident will be on campus tomorrow afternoon; I don't know if I'll be back in time for the conference they're holding at 2:00 pm. Doubtful.

19 June 2004


Here’s an example of one of the "cherries" of data that lined up in my scientifc slot machine at the end of this week.

Lobster ganglion

Each one of those small black spheres is the cell body of a motor neuron. The lines extending into the center are the axons. You can’t see them go all the way out the nerve because this piece of nervous system is thick enough that the microscope doesn’t have enough depth of field to focus on everything you’d like to see at once.

This is a very good example of a technique called cobalt backfilling. The editor for one of my papers called this technique “old-fashioned,” but so what? I can see everything I need.


After grumbling in my last entry about having to work late on Thursday to work (made necessary by a couple of animals dying en route from our Coastal Studies Lab to my lab), I was working even later yesterday finishing what I'd started on Thursday.

The lobsters I was working with on Thursday were intended to be part of a project for my student Alana. I planned to have her finish yesterday what I'd started on Thursday. Alana who usually arrives in the morning, but didn't come in until afternoon yesterday. She started to finish the tissue staining I started, but didn't quite get all the way through. SO I was left to do the last few steps on my own.

But it was well worth it. Everything worked. And not only did everything work, it did so near perfectly. It was definitely a "Yessssssssss!" moment when I looked at what we'd done. I was pumped.

I often compare the experience of doing science to being a gambler. (Or, for you psychologists in the audience, a rat in a Skinner box on a random reinforcement schedule.) You keep pulling the lever on the slot machine, but you never, ever know when those three little cherries are going to line up in a row. The jackpot comes at random. And that, according to much psychological research, is the situation that tends to lead to the strongest drive to perform the behaviour. Rats trained on the "jackpot" schedule press their little bars for food faster than any other reinforcement schedule.

I probably shouldn't be comparing my profession to unhealthy addictions. Though I doubt I'm the first to do so.

17 June 2004

Give me strength!

I think everyone has days where they ask what it is that keeps you going. This was one for me. I had been holding some spiny lobsters out at the Coastal Studies Lab. I had three of them shipped into our main campus today. When I got them in mid-afternoon, two had died! Not again! These animals seem dedicated to being pains in my butt. This meant that if I was to get any useful information from these animals, I pretty much had to dissect and stain both of them now before the tissue started to go bad. Which pretty much shot any other plans I might have had for that afternoon and early evening.

But what might keep me going is that if I come in tomorrow, and get some beautiful stains of neurons... all will be forgiven, and it will all be worth it.

14 June 2004

More grants...

I was just informed that the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston got a major grant to help funnel students into graduate studies in research (I believe it's a Bridges to the Future grant). Why do I care? Because our university is a partner in that program. I'm one of the faculty who's listed as a participant. I should be able to get money to support some students and their research, which is good and useful.

I seem to be unable to generate a successful grant on my own, but at least I'm a small part of teams that put together successful grants.

12 June 2004

The big squeeze

After we finished interviewing candidates this week, I spent most of the rest of the week working with students on research projects. I've been really pleased: they've all entered into the spirit of things, have been attentive, and generally making excellent efforts. And because they need guidance, I've been spending time in the lab, slowly organizing and cleaning (which the place needs!).

The downside is that while I'm working there, I'm not able to write. And I really need to write grant applications and manuscripts. I'm stuck for time. And I'm not sure how I'm going to make time to do both yet. I need to train student students to generate data, but I also need to get that data on the printed page.

'Tis a quandry.

A new President

My University will be getting a new President in a little over a week. I'm quite anxious to learn the outcome of this process. One of the administrators here pointed out that at most universities, Presidents come and go with little impact on the daily routine of the institution. In this case, however, a new President will be a big deal, considering that this institution has had the same president for well over two decades. The right person now could make a huge difference to this place. Huge.

09 June 2004

The end is near

Of my job as Biology Search Committee chair, that is. That was the twelth on-site job interview since February, all of which I was responsible for overseeing. (Remember, you can't have a dozen without "Zen!") Our last on-site interview ended today, with our candidate getting on the plane as scheduled. At least something went as scheduled -- these last three job interviews have been rife with moved appointments, missed appointments, rooms that were supposed to be reserved for seminars being switched over to classroom use with no notification... argh!

With so many people coming and going, I'm just glad we didn't injure anyone.

Meanwhile, I've got four(!) students doing summer research projects with me so far: Mike, Eric, Alana, and Jessica. In typical Pan Am fashion, I had some students express interest in doing summer projects who never showed up and nevercontacted me to say, "I'm not going to be able to do this." Fortunately, a couple of the students above joined at the 11th hour, so I should be able to hand off projects planned for the deadbeats -- I mean, other students -- to them.

But for now? I'm going home after a day of getting candidates on planes and showing students techniques. I'm kind of burned out.

04 June 2004

A day at the beach...

...Is no day at the beach. At least, not when you're a biologist. I went out to muck around and dig for sand crabs for stduent projects. And as pleasant going out to dig on the beach sounds, it's hot, backbreaking work. Lots of shoveling and bending in about 35 degrees C weather. Fortunately, a CSL intern from UT Brownsville named Gibbs was there to help me out.

We managed to get our 11th on-site job candidate away without injury. Only one more on-site interview to go, at the start of next week. And one way or another, we are done after that.

02 June 2004

The week that exploded...

...and it was only Tuesday.

We're having two more on-site interviews this week. Monday, as I noted, was a holiday, so nobody was around. On Tuesday, it seemed like every time I turned around, something was going annoyingly – but luckily, not badly – wrong. The room we had reserved for the candidate’s seminar got taken over by a class (with no warning that our reservation had been pre-empted), then we had to try three more rooms before finding one that was empty where we could hold the seminar.

And it seemed absolutely everyone wanted to reschedule meetings with the candidate.

And we ran out of money for snacks at the afternoon social.

And I have about five undergraduates who want to start research projects.

And... Well, I think you probably get the idea. But by this time next week, come what may, there will be no more job interviews! No more phone interviews. No more campus visits. So my job as Search Chair will be done soon.

31 May 2004

Holiday, apparently

South Texas has begun its regular "heat that beats you like clubs when you walk outside" only slightly later than scheduled. I was greatful for the repreive, I suppose, with a cooler spring this year than last.

Today is apparently an American holiday that, being Canadian, holds no special importance for me. I was in my office trying to work bu tnot getting very far, as my main unfinished job right now is to order supplies for my students. And that means I need to get quotes for shipping costs, that sort of thing.

My major task for next month is to somehow start getting grants and manuscripts happening. I'll keep you posted.

27 May 2004

Not yet, maybe soon

I still haven't managed to get anything new started, but I think I'm getting closer. The search committee stuff, and the two on-site interviews next week, are both taking major chunks out of my time. Luckily, one way or another, those searches should be over in two weeks.

26 May 2004

Road trips

I got back yesterday from a pleasant and productive trip to the Austin area. I visited with my colleague Virginia Scofield, but more importantly, got to visit several people in the University of Texas Austin Section of Neurobiology. Although the visit was put together on rather short notice, I was able to meet a few people, and quite a few people attended a talk I gave. I was pleased that they were asking very perceptive questions, and seemed genuinely interested in the story I had to tell.

The downside to visiting the particular day I did was that UT Austin was engaged in cleaning its entire power system. Apparently, this involved blowing steam through some massive turbines. This process is going on apparently all week, and it involved noise like few things you've ever heard. Have you ever stood next to a jet engine at full throttle? Louder. They had construction guys handing out earplugs on the street corner, it was that loud. Fortunately, some areas inside the building where I gave my talk were relatively quite. The offices of some of the people I met were not so lucky.


In other news, I’ll be turning off the option to comment on this blog, even though I haven't received a single one yet. Call it a premptive strike. I visited another blog, and saw a whack of “comments” that were nothing but typical spam advertisements. Gah.

20 May 2004

When will they end?

I am still keping busy trying to finish projects that I seem unable to start any significant new ones.

For instance, I am still working on Search Committee stuff, trying to fill two more positions. We're arranging on-site interviews for two more candidates to come for the first week of June, with another one possible the second week of June. At this rate, the Search Committee work won't be done until the end of next month / early July.

I still have three of my four Honours students who have yet to hand in their final draft. One more should be done tomorrow, though.

And I still have analyses to do of my pilot project for teaching technology. And I haven't been able to find time to order teaching supplies for my summer students, which is surprisingly time-consuming. And then there are the manuscripts I should write, the grant proposals I should write... yikes!

I'm also trying to accomplish all this while I am simultaneously preparing to visit the Austin area on the weekend and early next week. I'll be visiting my colleague Virginia Scofield, then spending Monday networking with the faculty in the Section of Neurobiology, among others. I'm giving an informal seminar, so I'm prepping my PowerPoint slides right now.

People have been asking me, "Are you going to go back to Canada for the summer?" (or "on vacation," or some such). My stock response is to laugh and say, "I have real work to do."

19 May 2004

The big news

A few posts back, I hinted that there was some good news coming. Now, I can finally tell you what it was. Thanks to our College Dean, Mike Eastman, UTPA received a $1.3 million grant for undergraduate research from the Howard Hughes Medical Institution. The university even got mentioned specfically in the formal HHMI press release. (Edit: The success of this grant got noticed by the University of Texas Chancellor, who sent a congratulatory email to our president that is now making it down the line to me.)

I was involved somewhat in helping to prepare the grant application last summer (I mentioned it here), so I am hoping to reap some small benefit from it. Although a planned laboratory bus got mentioned in the press release, actually the bulk of what we'll be doing will be in the Biology and Chemistry Departments. We'll have undergraduate fellowships, a much needed seminar series, and undergraduate research symposium, and more.

I had a two-part response to hearing this news, when the Dean "leaked" it to me a little in advance. My first thought was, "Yes!" My second thought was, "How much more work am I going to have to do because of this?"

In the not so good news, the microelectrode puller request isn't going to happen, as the particular University fund I was hoping to tap into is supposed to be for equipment replacement rather than new purchases.

And several faculty in the Department had their requests for teaching release to do research turned down. I think this may be the first time anyone in the Department has had this request turned down. It's made for some very unhappy campers, and I can't blame them. It's a fast and efficient way to demoralize people.

In the better news department, I've submitted abstracts to give talks at two meetings. One in July at Western Nerve Net (the meeting I gave my first "pro" presentation at), and one in October at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting. The Society for Neuroscience abstract is always a bit frustrating, because it has to be sent in so far in advance. You often have to something based on your preliminary data, and hope that they productive experiments you do in the intervening summer don't change the story too much...