GTDA Poll: What book inspired you to choose science?

March 27, 2008

x17381.jpgThe things that motivate our life’s path are often only clear in retrospect. But on occasion there are those singular moments that light a fire. For me, an amazing number of those moments come with my nose buried in a book–in a coffee house, on a beach, in an airport. Something crystallizes.

I remember clearly my freshman winter at Nebraska, picking up John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez.The book is an account of an expedition to map the organisms that live in the bays and beaches of along the Baja peninsula. The characters are Steinbeck, his colleague the marine biologist Ed Ricketts,  a crew of sardine fisherman, and the variety of critters they collect along the way.

I read Log over Xmas break while hunkered down in my basement room. I fell in love with Steinbeck, whose lucid prose revealed a person with deep regard for the human race. But I also fell in love with idea of field biology: the romance of exploration and the drudgery of wading through the muck. The solitude of peering into a tidepool–miles from any other human soul–and the comraderie of the team, plowing through burlap bags of specimens while drinking cheap beer. I didn’t just want to become a biologist, after reading Log. I desperately wanted to become a biologist.

That book, and the idea it planted, helped get me through that first year of college–the huge classes with the (mostly) bored professors. And as the years passed, and I got my shot, it was with considerable delight  that I found Steinbeck had pretty much nailed it.

So, dear readers, dish. What book helped point you down the path you are on?


One project: one project log

March 26, 2008

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Lab scientists are all over the concept of keeping a laboratory notebook. This is your one-stop summary of a given project, from near-conception through publication. We field biologists, not trained at the lab bench (which tends to be conveniently flat and relatively protected from rainstorms, mud, and leeches) often find ourselves compiling the notes and assorted detritus associated with a given project in computer folders, desk drawers, and refrigerators.

Which is not to say that, at the very least, a logbook, or diary, isn’t extraordinarily useful when you find yourself juggling a variety of projects.

My protocol is to open a new file, named “_Log_projectname” in Word or (now) Omni Outliner–any program that allows you to timestamp a given entry.  The “_” at the beginning of the name is an old trick to make sure this file sits at the top of the folder, along with the manuscript files, figures, data files, etc.

Then, whenever you do something substantive on that project, you make a dated entry describing what you did. My rule of thumb?  If you open up the manuscript, work on a figure, add new data, or perform some analysis, that deserves an entry.

As an added bonus, at the end of that entry,  type out a few of the next steps you foresee in turning that project into published manuscript.

Once you have this habit down–opening up, and adding to, a “_Log” file for every project–you can confidently set it aside for a short time to work on something else. When you return, just read the “_Log” file from beginning to end to get yourself back up to speed.

Just don’t wait too long…

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QotD: Jack Lalanne’s recipe for happiness

March 21, 2008

Exercise, avoid man-made foods, and smile, fercryinoutloud.

Lalanne is 93, btb.

h/t Boing Boing


Happy Friday from Executron

March 21, 2008

h/t Boing Boing


QotD: How your writing reflects the quality of your thinking

March 19, 2008

“People who cannot distinguish between good and bad language, or who regard the distinction as unimportant, are unlikely to think carefully about anything else.”

B. R. Myers The Atlantic April 2008


The grad school challenge: balancing diversity and depth

March 19, 2008

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Last spring, Carlos Martinez del Rio visited our program. After one discussion, I asked (as I am wont to do) if he had any advice for beginning graduate students. I recall at the time many of the faculty nodding, and some of the students looking at Carlos, looking at each other, looking at Carlos again, then looking down at their notes, slowly transcribing.

I might be mistaken, but I could have sworn I heard the muted buzz of molars grinding.

His remarks, and my commentary, below. Read the rest of this entry »


The brain from the inside out

March 13, 2008

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(Actually, you have to click here to go the TED site and watch this video).

Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who experienced, and recovered from, a stroke, gives an impressive talk. Her insights on right and left brain function, and their meaning to your life, are worth considering. I’m just sayin’.

The TED site is a terrific place to browse if your 1) want some fascinating talks on a variety of topics, and 2) want to learn/steal some tips and techniques on giving excellent presentations.


Damn! But it’s not like I didn’t have my suspicions.

March 9, 2008

Regina Spektor Begin to HopeI get emails:

Just want to warn you that Spektor might be a witch who messes with your experiments.
I did a pilot study, got a very clear trend, and then did the full on study and got nothing, except very weird variance.

It could be because I listened to her album 3 x in a row while setting up the experiment.

2 days ago I repeated the experiment and just as I began to set it up, my finger was hovering over the play button on my fancy new Christmas ipod, to hear Regina again…and then I switched the artist to someone else. I was feeling superstitious.
Lo and behold, the experiment seems to now be confirming the pilot study.

She is a witch! Albeit loveable.

iPods (and the Walkmans, and boomboxes before them) have made some parts of field/lab biology more bearable. But it never occurred to me that some artists might insert random numbers into your results.

This is serious.

Any other artists to avoid while doing science?


5 books on design for every graduate student

March 9, 2008

pillar1.jpgI’ve added five great books to the Reading List page on the importance of thinking like a designer. Too often when scientists communicate–in seminars, lectures or in journals–they assume content will carry the day.

But quality, as we all know, equals good content * good design.

One big plus: these books practice what they preach. They are a joy to read, browse, flip through, or pore through. They belong to that rare class of books that you will always keep at hand, a perfect companion to revisit when you have 30 minutes and a steaming cup of coffee.


QotD: Creativity 101

March 8, 2008

200px-leonardo_self.jpg “”Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works.
You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it.
Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else.”
Leonardo da Vinci

Update 8 March 08–Gads, this may be a quote from Tom Peters. Either that or Mark Twain. Outside chance that it’s H. L. Mencken.  😉

More about Peters soon.

h/t Full Grown Single