28 October 2014

Tuesday Crustie: Yeti crab crushes Kremlin!

It’s fair to say I’m a fan of yeti crabs, since I’ve had the yeti crabs on this feature a few times before. (And then there’s the dancing yeti crabs playlist...)

I’m also a big fan of the SyFy series FaceOff, which has its season finale tonight. Last week, make-up artist Cig got into the finals with this kaiju creation:

Cig had never seen a yeti crab before, and decided to make something decidedly more simian than crustacean, keeping in the giant monster tradition started by King Kong.

While I did enjoy Cig’s take on the yeti crab, I have to confess that I am pulling for Dina tonight! She captured my attention with this creation on episode 1 of this season.

And she’s held it ever since. I particularly loved her aquatic Aphrodite (middle row, third from left):

22 October 2014

Should you reply to spamming students?

A colleague, who is a new assistant professor, asked on Facebook, if he should reply to an “endless” stream of emails from international students.

I know the kinds of letters this person is asking about. Many show the candidate has extremely limited ability to express him or herself in written English, the tone is often obsequious, and the letters are often clearly “form” letters sent to who knows how many institutions.

What’s the right course of action? On the one hand, there is an actual person on the other end. A person who has probably gotten bad advice, but still. On the other hand, it can take up a huge block of time to reply to all of these.

If someone sends you a cut and paste inquiry, it’s okay a cut and paste response. Signs of a cut and paste from a student include the opening, “Dear Sir / Madame,” or discussing research interests that are nowhere near the kind of stuff you do.

Only if someone has clearly written a personalized inquiry to you, that shows they understand what you do, should you spend the time to write a personal response.

I don’t have an endless stream of these letters - and I am the grad program coordinator - so I do reply. I send links to our entry requirements and program FAQ, and answer any direct questions in the letter.

21 October 2014

Tuesday Crustie: Welcome wagon

It’s always polite to welcome a new family to town! Nicolai Roterman tweeted about his new paper:

If you like fossils and yeti crabs, then this is definitely for you!

It’s like he knows me!

Nicolai’s new paper in Scripta Geologica erects a new family, Pristinaspinidae, to accomodate the fossil Pristinaspina gelasina, shown as a line drawing in the upper left corner here. The other four pictures are its living relatives, yeti crabs, which remain in the family Kiwaidae.

And yes, this is another excuse to remind you that I curate a dancing yet crabs playlist on YouTube.


Ahyong ST, Roterman CN. 2014. Pristinaspinidae, a new family of Cretaceous kiwaiform stem-lineage squat lobster (Anomura, Chirostyloidea). Scripta Geologica 147: 11. http://www.scriptageologica.nl/16/nr147/a11

20 October 2014

Tracking one hundred students

I am a romantic, I guess. I would like to see universities as places where everyone can thrive regardless of their background. A leveler, if you will, which provides an opportunity for people to improve their lot in life. My current university helped do that: UTPA has been credited with creating a middle class in South Texas.

So this graph is important:

It shows that American universities are more often than not reinforcing existing class structures instead of minimizing them.

It’s also important in thinking about in terms of our graduate programs, and the sort of people who make it through the bachelor’s to have the chance to earn a higher degree.

Additional: It just so happens that the New York Times has an article about the “glass floor problem”, which is related to the article above. It emphasizes that the affluent have opportunities to hoard resources, preventing a leveling of the playing field.

“(U)npaid internships... have become more commonplace and, in many cases, an important first step on a lucrative career ladder. As they are unpaid, they automatically favor the affluent. Effectively unregulated, they can also be handed out to the children of clients or friends.”

View the interactive version of this graph here. Hat tip to Joshua Hatch.

The Zen of Presentations, part 66: What do you want your audience to feel?

A common piece of advice for technical presentations is to figure out what your “take home message” is. People will only remember one or two things, to you should figure out what those will be. “The elevator pitch” is also about focusing down your information to a concise, under a minute format.

This is good advice, but it is typical of academics: it focuses on the “head.” It’s a question about information. Lots of people who have thought about presentations have concluded that if all you are doing is relaying information, there is no point to having a presentation. If all you want to do is convey information, send an email. A presentation should be about more than that.

Besides figuring out what you want your audience to remember about the information you presented, ask yourself what you want your audience to feel about what you presented.

Do you want them to feel happy? Sad? Inspired? Amused? Agitated? Concerned? Horny? (Okay, maybe that last one is a little unlikely to be a goal of a presentation.)

This does not mean that you can’t have multiple feelings in a talk. Something can be funny one minute and heart-rending the next. But like your take home message, you should think about the main emotion you want to convey.

Once you’ve decided what you want them to feel, you can start taking steps to enhance that emotional core of your talk. For instance, do you have slides with dark, sober colours? Probably not what you want if you want people to leave feeling uplifted.

This might not be a critically important consideration if you are giving a scientific talk to other scientists, who are also very “head centered.” But this could be very important when you are talking to people from outside your particular research field. Emotions are understandable to everyone, and are so much more contagious than concepts.

There is an quote from Maya Angelou that’s overused, but appropriate:

(P)eople will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Photo by Nic Walker on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

16 October 2014

When your name changes

People change their names for all sorts of reasons. Marriage is only one. What can you do to make sure people can find your scientific papers if you change your name?

When you’re talking about your own CV or website, the task is trivial. All it takes is a note mentioning the name change.

The problem is that many people look for papers through search engines: Google Scholar, Web of Science, PubMed, and so on. If they only know you by one name, they will not find papers you authored under the other name.

This is not something that you, as the author, can solve, as far as I can tell. A stopgap is to create as many profiles about your research as you can, so that if someone finds your research on through your own website or similar, they are more likely to see the complete list of papers.

It should not be your problem to solve. This should be a problem for the search engine services to solve. It seems that if there was widespread adoption of ORCID, there is a shot at making this a non-issue.

Comments for first half of October 2014

Terry McGlynn looks at external reviews for tenure and promotion decisions. This has been a contentious addition to our procedures at UTPA recently.

Neuwrite San Diego blog looks at science crowdfunding, and has a list of websites.

15 October 2014

How Gilmore Girls changed my teaching

More than a decade after it debuted, Gilmore Girls is experiencing a renewed burst of interest after arriving on Netflix this month.

When I saw Gilmore Girls, I was impressed by the speed and density of the dialogue. Joke, pop culture reference, joke, joke, pop culture reference... the writing kept coming at you, at a rapid clip.

But it did so in a way that you never lost track of the plot. Even if you didn’t get any particular one-liner, you were able to follow the story. And there would be another clever bit in a minute or two.

It just so happened Gilmore Girls started just before I took up the position I had, and I was teaching classes from stem to stern for the first time. When I started, students were always kvetching about slides going down before they could finish transcribing them. So I ended up going slow.

Watching Gilmore Girls, I realized that people could handle a lot of information quickly. And that I could talk faster. I could put in more jokes, references, tangents... as long as I kept the main point that I was making front and center. If someone didn’t get one reference, I didn’t worry, I just kept on going.

My lecturing strategy become to make a point quickly, but repeat it often, rather than make a point slowly and ponderously just the once.

I don’t know if my lecturing style is better because of Gilmore Girls, but it certainly made it a lot more lively and fun for me. I just hope that my greater enthusiasm is contagious, and that students pick up on it.

Hat tip to Gilmore Girls fan Ed Yong, whose tweets about the show prompted me to write this.

Remain calm

Calm people solve problems. Panicked people cause them.

(Inspired by Adam Savage, who said, “Calm people live,” in the Mythbusters episode, “Duct tape canyon.”)

14 October 2014

Tuesday Crustie: Hoax

Does this need to be said?

Yes, apparently, someone does need to say that there are not crabs wider than two or three cars are long. And that someone was Dr. Verity Nye:

(I)t is not inconceivable that new species could be found, but I laughed when I saw this picture.

The news article is being kind to call this a “a well-doctored hoax.” A good hoax should have some plausibility to it. This one is ridiculous.

External links

Is 'Crabzilla' real or not? Leading marine biologist rules picture of giant crab lurking in shallow waters must be a HOAX

Hat tip to Carin Bondar.