Unisexual Ambystoma

Unisexual Ambystoma

Sunday, September 28, 2014

What's Going On in Science, September 2014

Why student evaluations of teaching are worthless
"The paper compared the student evaluations of a particular professor to another measure of teacher quality: how those students performed in a subsequent course. In other words, if I have Dr. Muccio in Microeconomics I, what's my grade next year in Macroeconomics II?
Here's what he found. The better the professors were, as measured by their students' grades in later classes, the lower their ratings from students."

"This class should start an hour later in the morning. Also, the
teacher shouldn't wear sandals."
This NPR article summarizes a new study that tackles a problem that teachers in academia would love to talk your ear off about: teaching evaluations are horribly broken. If you get high scores from students in teaching evaluations, are you a good teacher? Maybe, but probably not. I've noticed the phenomenon of teaching evaluations (like product reviews on Amazon) consisting of only the most extreme opinions resulting in teachers who just don't care about the feedback.

Wildlife is culture, and culture deserves your tax money
"I mostly write about wildlife. So here is how it typically happens for me: A study comes out indicating that species x, y and z are in imminent danger of extinction, or that some major bioregion of the planet is being sucked down into the abyss. And it’s my job to convince people that they should care, even as they are racing to catch the 7:10 train, or wondering if they’ll be able to pay this month’s (or last month’s) rent."

This lovely New York Times Opinion eloquently states why biologists constantly have a lingering pressure to justify their research in terms of benefits to humans. 

Understanding genetics for the future of medicine
"Various efforts are underway to interpret mutations and compile them in publicly available databases; one of the latest is an online registry to which patients can upload their own data. Eventually, they will be able to see how many other people have the same mutation, and how many get cancer."

Genetic testing is becoming a more and more prominent aspect of individualized medicine. Unfortunately, the pace at which genetic tests are increasingly used is racing ahead of the general understanding of genetic tests and how to interpret them. Until better education about traits, alleles, and heritability can permeate into the public, doctors will continue to be limited by their ability to educate their own patients.

Salamanders: forest vacuum cleaners
"On an average day, a salamander eats 20 ants of all sizes, two fly or beetle larvae, one adult beetle and half of an insect called the springtail. And in doing so, they collectively affect the entire course of life in the forest — and perhaps far beyond."

This article is from back in April of this year, but I can't leave a nice salamander study out in the cold on this blog. You may not see them, but in most woodlands in North America, there are salamanders that make big differences in how ecosystems manage nutrients. While they make look cute and cuddly, salamanders are ultra-efficient, insect-seeking torpedoes:

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How We Work: Dr. Paul Hurtado

Throughout my travels around academia, I've always been very interested in how other scientists work. Scientists in particular make for a great study of working habits for two main reasons: they typically juggle a variety of tasks and they largely determine their own work schedules. This results in a huge variety of work habits: night owls, early birds, multitaskers, focus-taskers, and on and on.

I've been a long-time reader of Lifehacker's "How I Work" series, an interview format in which folks from various organizations detail the secrets behind their work habits. I've always loved this idea: getting a peak into the habits of someone who's work you admire. As I've read more and more "How I Work" articles, I began to think that this format would work really well for scientists. So, in the same vein as the previous "Get to know a grad student" series, I'm bringing you a series of interviews that showcase how scientists get stuff done. I'm calling it "How We Work". 

A big thanks go to the inspiration for these questions, and to Andy Orin for giving me permission to use them. Go read Lifehacker for more neat stuff.

The first subject for How We Work is Dr. Paul Hurtado. I met Paul through OSU's Evolution and Ecology Club, and have since learned he is our resident statistics guru, birding expert, and all-around smart guy. Paul's work focuses on using mathematical models and computational techniques to answer large-scale biological questions (see his research page). In simple terms, Paul is a statistics wiz that thinks of new ways to analyze tricky data.

Location: Mathematical Biosciences Institute (MBI), OSU, Columbus, OH

Current Position: It’s complicated. Technically, I’m unemployed, however I just finished a postdoc at OSU in August and I’m currently negotiating a faculty position at a university out west that would start January, 2015. Fortunately my wife has one more year of funding for her postdoc position, which gave me some flexibility in hunting for jobs.

One word that best describes how you work: Inertia. Hard to get started sometimes, and also hard to stop once I get rolling.

Current mobile devices: Galaxy S4 smartphone

Current computer:
1. Desktop: Windows 8.1 (64-bit) 3.1GHz Intel i7 CPU with 8GB RAM.
2. Laptop: An older Dell Latitude D630 with too little storage capacity and speed.
3. I also have access to a multicore linux server through the MBI which I use occasionally.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?
Because I interact with biologists and mathematicians, I prefer to use free (or widely used) software so that licensing issues and/or software costs don’t get in the way of communicating and sharing content.

1. R is my go-to platform for data visualization, stats and model simulation.
2. I occasionally use R Studio – a front-end for R – but I tend to prefer the multi-window configuration of R and use Notepad++ to edit and run R scripts via NppToR.
3. Matlab is usually my second-in-line computing platform
4. MatCont (a Matlab add-on; although I really need to try Auto or XPP-Auto).
5. Maple and sometimes the free software Maxima for computer algebra (i.e., symbolic manipulation of algebraic expressions instead of crunching numbers)
6. I also use Python, Perl, and C from time to time, so access to a Linux command line is a must.
7. PuTTY and WinSCP for connecting to remote servers via SSH.
8. TeXstudio is my new favorite editor for writing manuscripts and other documents in LaTeX
9. Google Calendar is my primary means of scheduling everything.
10. “To Do” lists help me keep my days organized, so I also use apps like Google Keep (or emails to myself) to jot down important ideas and to organize and schedule tasks.
11. Facebook and Twitter have proven to be useful platforms for “crowdsourcing” technical problems, and soliciting advice or other information from friends and colleagues (Facebook) as well as people I've never met (twitter).
12. I can’t seem to go without Microsoft Office, despite my preference for using free software.
13. The internet, so I guess that means my web browser belongs on this list!

You need big screens to display big data

What is your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?
Talk with the right people, at the right time. Sometimes, I need to spend a lot of time wrapping my head around a problem and thinking it through carefully. But more often than not, I’m stuck on something mundane. In those cases, it can really pay off to just seek out someone with the right expertise who can either point me towards an existing solution, or who can help bounce around ideas until we figure it out. Especially when it comes to doing research, it pays to be selective in how you spend you time.

How do you organize all the stuff you have to do?
I should first admit that I've never considered myself to be a well-organized person, and over the past few years I've been spoiled by the flexible schedule that comes with being a graduate student and postdoc. That said, I have found some nice ways of staying somewhat organized:

1. Simple “To Do” lists – either in a smartphone app, a text file on my desktop, in an email, or written out on some scratch paper next to my computer keyboard – are a primary tool I use to prioritize and schedule most of my day-to-day tasks.

2. Software helps immensely with scheduling. I rely on Google Calendar and a note taking app on my phone to help with scheduling.

3. When I comes to organizing my work, a lot of it takes place on my computer, so I have a simple system of keeping work projects in their own folders, and using cloud-based software (e.g. Box, Dropbox, etc.) to sync content across my laptop and other computers. I incorporate “To Do” lists in code comments, text files and emails, etc. as needed. I’ve tried using version control software like Git to manage code revisions and manuscript drafts, however I’ve abandoned them in favor of just saving copies (with the date appended to the file name) and keeping those in their respective project directories. 

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
For work, my phone and computer are pretty much all I need! I suppose my coffee mug is the next most essential gadget in my arsenal. Outside of work, however, I am a fairly serious bird watcher (Rob: Paul is probably being modest here. Check out his birding resources page and note that he is one of the top 50 birders in Ohio). I rarely venture outside or do any traveling without bringing along a pair of binoculars. Especially during spring and fall migration! 

The first Kirtland's Warbler in central Ohio. Spotted by Paul in 2011.

What do you listen to while you work?
It depends. My musical interests are pretty broad, so if I want music I’ll just leave Pandora on and let it play from a mix of different channels. But, I can get pretty distracted by music. I’m usually better off with a lot of silence or a lot of ambient noise that won’t draw my attention away. For example, I used to be most effective at getting my math homework done as an undergraduate by bringing it with me to the Biology Club’s weekly bowling night and working on it one or two problems at a time. It was pretty effective, but definitely a compromise between getting my homework done and hanging out with friends.

What are you currently reading?
I've most recently been trying to finish up Writing Science by Schimel, which was the book the Aquatic Ecology Lab chose to read for the summer.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I’m closer to the extrovert side of the spectrum, but definitely somewhere in the middle.

What is your sleep routine like?
I have a two and a half year old who loves to sneak into bed with us in the middle of the night, so lately my sleep has been pretty variable. I probably average around 8 hours a night but often with at least one interruption during late morning, which takes a toll. Now that I’m a parent, I definitely go to bed earlier (and probably sleep about the same or slightly more on average) although the interruptions definitely take their toll.

I’d love to see _____________ answer these same questions.
Libby Marschall (Ohio State), Liza Comita (Yale), Amy Downing (Ohio Wesleyan)

What’s the best advice you've ever received?
Work hard, play harder.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Salamander Snapchats

With the school year starting up again, it means that the undergraduate crew that I work with in the laboratory at Ohio State are back on campus. They are great to work with. Really great. One of my favorite things about them, aside from their work ethic and trustworthiness, is that they have a fantastic collective sense of humor. Because levity is a big part of my own personal work environment, I encourage joking around extensively while doing scientific work. 

One of our salamander caretakers, Paul, is particularly fond of updating me regularly about how the captive salamanders are doing. However, instead of coming to my office or sending me an email, Paul chooses to accomplish this through funny snapchats. If you don't know what Snapchat is, it is a messaging app for phones that allows the sender to create picture messages that are only viewable for a few seconds.

I thought I'd share some of Paul's work (with his permission). These messages are irreverent and silly and very funny to me. I hope you think so too.