Friday, June 17, 2011

hiring blind

Working with undergraduate researchers at a SLAC, I generally only get to have the same person in my lab for about two years (and at least one semester of that is pure training with almost zero productivity - understandably). But every summer there is a glorious opportunity to attract one or more Presidential Fellows who could potentially be working with me for the next four years. The obvious downside, of course, is that they haven't yet had any college-level science courses or lab experience. But the bigger worry for me is that I need to make a decision about whether to hire them sight unseen, generally on the basis of a couple of brief email exchanges.

This summer, for example, I have three contenders. One wrote to ask some questions about my lab's research - so far, so good! - but then responded to my email in a way that showed s/he had conflated two completely different projects (which I had taken care to describe in separate paragraphs and everything). Another described his/her academic strengths and asked about the "qualifications" for working with me. I responded by describing some of the skills that it would be helpful to have - not technical ones, but rather things like the ability to ask questions, respond to constructive criticism, follow directions, and work in a team. I then asked pointedly if s/he had any questions for me about my lab, our research, etc. To which s/he replied that no, s/he couldn't think of any! *SIGH*. Is this the big red flag that I think it is?

I have no doubt that these are all bright, accomplished kids. Unfortunately I have learned the hard way that the best students don't always make the best scientists - often they give research a lower priority than grades, they are discouraged by the inevitable failures of experimental science, either they are terrified of making mistakes or they are too arrogant to ask questions when they don't understand something or to take direction or criticism... the list goes on. (Confession: I was an excellent student. And in retrospect I can't believe that my undergraduate research advisor didn't strangle me when I demonstrated my priorities by, for example, abruptly dumping all of my experiments on him at the end of the quarter because I had more important things to do like study for finals.)

Any advice for me as I seek to sort the grain from the chaff would be very welcome.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Evolutionary Confectionary Biology

One of our revered senior faculty members is retiring, and a research symposium has been organized in his honor. It's quite wonderful to see how many former undergraduates have returned for the occasion, in addition to ex-postdocs and collaborators. It's especially great to hear that this grant-getting machine (not just by SLAC standards) was also a beloved mentor to so many - something that was not said of my own brilliant postdoc advisor on retirement!

For me, the highlight of the past few days was a talent show with singing, dancing, and comedy routines, my favorite of which was a talk on the important discoveries our colleague had made in "Evolutionary Confectionary Biology." The speaker used a variety of commercial candies (Muetmu ordinalis, Almondus jocularis, etc) to illustrate sexual dimorphism, trade-offs, Mendelian genetics, etc. Hilarious! I bet that his undergraduates love him if he puts that kind of creativity and humor into his lectures. Hmm. Maybe I should be taking something away from this.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011


To the folks over at Facilities: When the power goes out unexpectedly, there is a reason why you get a series of frantic emails from our department. It's not just because we're personally uncomfortable when the A/C fails in 95 degree weather. It's actually because we have irreplaceable samples and reagents that need to be kept very very cold as well as animals who develop, behave, and even survive differentially when they aren't maintained at the proper temperature. We realize that the students pay an enormous amount of money to be here while we are mere employees, but please, please consider making our building more of a priority in these situations. Thank you.


Monday, June 06, 2011

My favorite subject is Science

I was on my way to lab on Sunday morning when three little girls, ranging between perhaps five and eight years old, tore past me in the hallway to jump up and down for joy in front of our display cases. Two middle-aged women were following them and stopped me to ask whether I was "a real science student." (This is nothing new, even though I recently celebrated my 37th birthday.) I replied that I was a real science professor, and one of the women called her daughter to meet me as though I were some kind of celebrity. "My favorite subject in school is Science," she told me proudly. (Remember the days when there was no Physics, Chemistry, or Biology, only Science?)

I ended up inviting them to come see my lab (accompanied by stern warnings from their mothers not to touch anything lest they blow themselves up) and took some pictures with them, surrounded by all kinds of exciting Science stuff.

It was pretty damned awesome.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

So Long to the Scudder Interregnum

I'm going one further - given that this is the end of an era for our country (and for me, with much less global significance but more direct personal impact), I have decided to change the title of my blog. I'm currently absorbed in Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of the Roosevelts during WWII and can't help reflecting on this time of crisis offering both grave danger and perhaps unprecedented opportunity for our President-elect. And coming out here to Pennsylvania for a new life with a new job and partner is bringing me daily challenges and rewards that I never anticipated as a postdoc despite my aspirations.

This is no ordinary time. Let's make the most of it.

Proud to be a Pennsylvanian

I've been incommunicado for many months, I know. I was busy finding a job, finishing up my postdoctoral research (or at least attempting to do so), moving across the country, and trying to keep my head above water as a new assistant professor. But I miss the blogging and I'm going to try to resume, now with a fresh post-postdoctoral perspective!

For this first post, I just want to state how proud I am of my fellow Americans this week. It was not at all clear for a long while that they would manage to ignore the smears, transcend their fears, and finally choose change in their own best interests. Truthfully, they probably wouldn't have done it if the economy hadn't exhibited such a dramatic turn at just the right time to wake them up to the consequences of many years of mismanagement. But they did do it, and I am proud. I knew as soon as Pennsylvania and Ohio were called that the election was over, and the rest of the former red state inroads were just icing on the cake.

Kudos also to John McCain for being such a gracious loser. I had lost a lot of respect for him during this campaign, particularly after his appeal to the lowest common denominator with the Palin pick. But his concession speech choked me up. I hope that he really does continue his long years of public service by supporting his new president, especially on the priorities they share like reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Barack Obama may have won a clear mandate for change from the majority of the electorate, but given the current confluence of immediate and long term crises, he will need all the help he can get.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma, Part II

I found the second half of The Omnivore’s Dilemma to be eminently readable and entertaining, but somewhat less informative than the first. Pollan’s stories about acquiring a rifle and his first pig, hunting for wild mushrooms, and freezing his fingers in search of a tasty abalone are amusing, but as he acknowledges himself, we are way past the point of supporting the earth’s population on hunting and gathering lifestyles. More interesting were further details about the efforts of local, sustainable food producers like Joel Salatin, their tricks for taking advantage of natural food webs, and their struggles with federal policies designed for the advantage of big agribusiness.

As a biologist, I appreciated Pollan’s point about natural systems having a very different sort of efficiency than industrial ones, an efficiency in which coevolutionary relationships and reciprocal loops permit the waste of one organism to sustain another (p. 214). The sort of manmade efficiency that eschews natural complexity for the simplicity of monoculture may allow for more mechanization of production and standardization of product, but it also demands both constant consumption of additional resources – notably pesticides and nitrogenous inputs – and perpetual disposal of nitrogenous outputs. But even if every person in America could see the real costs, suffering, and waste entailed by the modern food industry, would much of what happens – “the cruelty, the carelessness, the filth” – simply have to stop (p. 235)? Or would the vast majority of consumers still opt for the lowest price, even if they would strongly prefer the cruelty-free option if identical in short term cost and efficacy? If so, then sound governmental policy rather than consumer education will be most effective at changing our behavior.

While the first half of The Omnivore’s Dilemma described some of the policies designed to encourage overproduction of cheap industrial commodity crops, I had not realized how related policies actively discouraged organic and sustainably minded local farmers from competing with big agribusiness. This 3/1/08 New York Times op-ed written by a small Minnesota grower further revealed that not only will landowners lose their federal subsidies for growing something other than commodity crops, they are also penalized the market price of the forbidden fruit. The demand for local organic food is already high and growing, and eliminating the preferential treatment of big business by governmental programs would go a long way towards leveling the perceived cost differential for the individual consumer.

This change in policy is especially critical for low-income families, who are required to purchase the cheapest food options available in order to use WIC food vouchers (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). Once designed to improve nutrition, WIC encourages the purchase of high-calorie foods, especially dairy products, and only in 2006 began providing more fresh produce vouchers in recognition of the obesity and related chronic diseases now disproportionately affecting the poor. Moreover, a recent UCLA study in the American Journal of Public Health indicates that WIC mothers who shop at farmers’ markets buy more produce than those who shop at grocery stores. To promote public health as well as environmentally sustainable farming practices, we should encourage the government to increase the WIC budget and provide more than the $8 per recipient and $6 per child now allotted each month, as well as to permit local organic foods to be purchased with WIC vouchers.

While The Omnivore’s Dilemma provides a wealth of information, captivatingly conveyed, it raises as many questions as it answers regarding What to eat? As Pollan himself admits at the end of the book, the two framing meals – one a fast food frenzy from McDonald’s eaten in an automobile, the other a slow food feast of ingredients painstakingly hunted and gathered, aged, and lovingly prepared for friends – stand at the extreme ends of human eating. One might say that the main point of The Omnivore’s Dilemma is to show us that “the pleasures of the one are based on a nearly perfect knowledge; [sic] the pleasures of the other on an equally perfect ignorance” (p. 410). But if we discard both of these options as unreal and unsustainable, how can concerned consumers find some happy medium that would still allow us to know what we’re eating, where it came from, how it got to our tables, and what it really cost?