31 July 2015

Connections in my scientific career

If you’ve never seen the television series Connections by James Burke, you are missing out. Whereas most histories of science emphasize a “march of progress,” Burke’s series emphasized contingencies: you couldn’t have this if there hadn’t been that, and how those this and that were related were not obvious or predictable. In episode 9, “Countdown,” for instance, Burke connects the divorce of Henry VIII to the invention of television.

I got thinking about this with the publication of my most recent paper, which was nexus point between a couple of different research projects. I’ve joked with people that I have “science ADD,” but there are relationships between my projects. They just might not be obvious to people who are not me.

As an undergraduate, I worked on a project about walking by octopuses. This got me interested in locomotion, and I looked for a related project for graduate school. This led me to do a doctoral project on sand crab digging.

Sand crabs dig with their legs, so this led me into looking at the leg motor neurons of crustaceans. I’d found a discrepancy between the description of leg motor neurons in spiny lobsters and everything else that had been looked at. I wrote a post-doctoral fellowship proposal to study that, and got it. I went to work with David Macmillan in Australia for a post-doc.

David’s students had some projects on crayfish escape responses going on while I was there. Meanwhile, spiny lobsters were hard to get and hard to work with, I moved to working with slipper lobsters. I remember standing in David’s office, chatting about trying to get as much use out of the slipper lobsters as possible (they weren’t super cheap), and saying something like, “We’ll do some sections of the abdominal nerve cord, just to look at the giant interneurons and see that they’re there.”

Except they weren’t there.


Discovering that some species were missing a major set of very well-studied neurons was a completely unplanned observation.

That led me to working on the escape response in crustaceans. Because I was seeing substantial differences between species, I thought I needed to see how those neurons developed; take an “evo devo” approach to the problem.

I got very interested in marbled crayfish as a developmental model for the escape neurons from chatting Steffen Harzsch at the Neuroethology congress. I got some marbled crayfish for my lab, fully intending to start working them up as an experimental model. I started the Marmorkrebs.org website.

While I was thing about things to post on the Marmorkrebs blog, it became obvious that there were quite a few Marmorkrebs in the pet trade in the U.S.. Those crayfish were a potential problem if they got loose. This led me to doing research on the pet trade, and about the same time started doing species distribution models. All of this led me to be co-author on a forthcoming book on crayfish (out next week!).

I was also looking for a way to get the relatives of marbled crayfish in my lab. That led me to participate in the #SciFund Challenge, which became a scientific experiment in its own right.

Meanwhile, I was still plugging away on the escape response. I’d studied slipper lobsters, spiny lobsters, and had moved on to shrimp. While I was looking at the backfills of the shrimp, I saw things moving in the nervous system. And those moving things were parasites.

Finding parasites in the nervous system of shrimp was another completely unplanned observation. And before you know it, I’m helping Kelly Weinersmith co-organize a whole symposium on the subject at an international conference.

And the sand crabs? I still liked those guys, and recognized that we knew almost zero about most species. So with the incentive of finding a field project for an undergraduate student, I started collecting very basic natural history data for the ecology of the local sand crab species.

So you see, it all makes perfect sense. (Well, most of it does: there are a few papers that don’t fit neatly into that narrative.) But you are not likely to recognize the “this happened because of that” connections by skimming the titles of the papers.

The moral of the story? One is that it’s absolutely worth doing exploratory experiments and keeping your eyes open. I’ve had two findings (interneurons missing in slipper lobsters, parasites in shrimp) that came about not because there were hypothesis driven experiments, but that I got by happenstance, and those opened up whole new lines of research and resulted in multiple papers for me.

What a strange trip it’s been.

28 July 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Hasta be Shasta

Not this kind of Shasta...




This kind of Shasta:


Chris Lukhaup posted this on his Facebook page earlier today, describing it as the rarest crayfish in North America. It’s the Shasta crayfish, Pacifastacus fortis. This is a critically endangered species. It’s got a tiny range of only a few square kilometers. It’s been under pressure from introduced cousin, the signal crayfish (P. leniusculus) and damns (Light et al. 1995). It needs really pristine water. It’s not doing well, but I hope that with people like Chris making the effort to show how beautiful these animals are in their natural habitat, we can make things better for this beastie.

Reference

Light T, Erman DC, Myrick C, Clarke J. 1995. Decline of the Shasta crayfish (Pacifastacus fortis Faxon) of Northeastern California. Conservation Biology 9: 1567-1577. http://dx.doi.org/10.1046/j.1523-1739.1995.09061567.x

24 July 2015

This calls for a celebration


This is the remains of my treat to myself after a paper I co-authored was published in spring.

Back in February, when I went back to Canada for the first time in years for a training workshop, I picked up a stash of Canadian chocolate bars at the airport. Extra large sizes when possible. There are a lot of these things that are just about impossible to get in the U.S., so these are precious things to me. I didn’t want to just snarf through them. No, these are something to savour. I wanted to keep them for special occasions. I decided that I would only eat one what a new paper was published. Not just accepted – published, with the final thing out there in the world available for people to read.

This is the aftermath of the celebration of the publication of my new paper in PeerJ this week:


I think I have enough to celebrate the publication of four more papers, and I’m already trying to decide which I’ll have when my next paper comes out. But I’ll probably be saving the Crispy Crunch for last.

What do you do to celebrate success in your lab?

23 July 2015

Shrimp FFMN FAC: social media exclusive!

Yesterday, I talked about the shrimp neurons that I think are the most beautiful thing I’ve imaged in science (right). It’s in my new paper in PeerJ.

But PeerJ didn’t get everything I did in this project. Not even for this particular stain that I like so much.

The nerve filled in this image has axons that project both forward and backwards. Most of the neurons’ cell bodies are forward from the fill. This anterior ganglion is more interesting scientifically, because it has the key motor giant neurons with their weird structure. It’s also hard to show all all the neurons’s cell bodies, because several of them are almost right on top of each other.

Consequently, I have a lot of images of the anterior ganglion in the paper; it takes up a bunch of space in Figure 2. I also created a “cheap confocal” movie that combines several images at different depths of field, and that went in as supplementary information.

The posterior ganglion... didn’t get that much love in the paper.

In crayfish, there might be two or three neurons on the left and right sides in that posterior ganglion (4-6 cells total), and these are grouped together in the FAC cluster. In white shrimp, only one cell body on the left and one cell body on the right get stained (2 total). The structure of those shrimp FAC cells is not terribly complicated, either. I didn’t think that scientifically, it was necessary to show the shrimp FAC neurons in the same level of detail in the paper as the other clusters of neurons in the anterior ganglion.

But before I reached that decision, I took a lot of pictures. And I had made another little movie to show the three dimensional structure of the FAC motor neurons within the ganglion.

And here it is!


I did make a few other “drive through the ganglia” movies, but they aren’t quite as nice as the ones I got from this one spectacular stain.

Related posts

The most beautiful thing I’ve made in science

Reference

Faulkes Z. 2015. Motor neurons in the escape response circuit of white shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus). PeerJ 3: e1112. http://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1112

22 July 2015

The most beautiful thing I’ve made in science

Truly, this is the social media age. I learned my latest paper had been published when the journal tweeted the article.

This paper contains probably the most beautiful thing I’ve made in my scientific career:


These are shrimp fast flexor motor neurons stained with a technique called backfilling or sometimes axonal filling. This technique can show you a lot. You can do colour coding, as shown here (cells filled from the left are yellow, those from the right are blue).

Backfilling has one problem: it’s unpredictable. To figure out what neurons are connected to the nerve you’re filling, you have to build up a composite picture from a lot of fills.

That’s why this image is so beautiful to me. It’s not just one fill, but two – left and right sides – and it is complete. Every neuron filled, so they are all there in one image. The only thing I could have wished for was to have the axons filling darker so they would be more visible. It’s no accident that this preparation appears in two figures and a movie in the supplemental information in the new paper: you can see a lot.

Here’s an animated image of the anterior ganglion, that runs from ventral (where the cell bodies are) to dorsal:


The sad thing is that I’ve waited about eight years to share this image with you. Ieee. Here’s why.

Based on work in my last post-doc, I’d published a paper on the fast flexor neurons of slipper lobsters (Faulkes 2004). Slipper lobsters didn’t have some of the giant neurons used for escape that had been so well described in crayfish. This lead me to looking for other variations in this set of neurons.

I knew from decades old research that shrimp motor neurons in the escape circuit differed from crayfish in a few ways. One neuron, the motor giant (MoG) had fused axons. Some of the escape neurons were myelinated, which is unusual for an invertebrate. (I stunned one neurobiologist when I mentioned this in a conference talk.)

Nobody had re-examined these shrimp motor neurons with newer techniques, even simple ones, so I went looking to see if there was anything different than crayfish, and to confirm that those anatomical features in the old papers were correct. This is often derided as a “fishing expedition” in grant reviews: you cast your line and see what you get. But the thing about fishing expeditions is that sometimes, you catch some fish. I caught some fish (so to speak).

Here’s a graphic summary of some of the differences between the white shrimp I studied, the old research on prawns, and the best studied species, the Louisiana red swamp crayfish:


The biggest surprise was the massive MoG cell bodies in the white shrimp, which were completely unlike those in crayfish or other shrimp that had been looked at.

That’s where I got stuck.

I looked at those huge MoG cell bodies and thought, “Those look like a bunch of little cell bodies fused together.” When I went to the International Congress of Neuroethology in summer of 2007 and the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting in early 2008, most people I showed my pictures to either volunteered that idea without me suggesting that idea, or agreed that the idea of neuronal fusion was plausible.

I tried a lot of different ways to show that the MoGs were fused cells. And I kept not getting anything definitive. I knew that the paper would be so much cooler if I could show that the cell bodies were fused. I kept playing that game of, “If I was the reviewer, would I be satisfied?” And the answer was always, “I would want to see evidence of cell body fusion.”

Meanwhile, all this stuff about the escape circuit that was rattling around in my mind turned into a review article (Faulkes 2008). It included a coy mention that I had more to publish on this subject, citing my SICB conference abstract:

Additionally, the MoG cell bodies have an unusual appearance in the dendrobranchiate shrimp species Litopenaeus setiferus [Faulkes, 2007], suggesting that there is yet more diversity in the escape circuit to be described in the non-reptantian decapods.

I think at this point, I had the fast flexors, and went back and did a few more fills on the extensor side to see if I was seeing similar patterns (fewer neurons than other species).

But I still couldn’t get evidence on whether the MoG cell bodies were fused or not. I kept telling myself, “I’ll just wait and see if a student wants to pick up the project to finish off.”

Meanwhile, I picked up other projects, not the least of which was figuring out that weird things I saw in the nerve cord while looking at shrimp motor neurons were, in fact, larval tapeworms (Carreon et al. 2011, Carreon and Faulkes 2014).

Sometime earlier this year, I just realized, “Zen... it’s been a long time. No student has picked up this project. You should try to find a home for this instead of waiting for even more years to get that one last bit of evidence.”

So during spring break this year, I reached that breaking point where I decided, “I want to submit this.” A flurry of work ensued, and I pushed the “submit” button on the afternoon of last weekday of the break.

One of the benefits of waiting on a project for eight years is that entirely new publishing options open up for you: in this case, PeerJ.

PeerJ didn’t exist when I’d started this project. I’d bought a PeerJ membership very early on, because I was very interested in the journal’s ideas, but hadn’t been able to take advantage of it before now. (And that was not for lack of trying! Anyone who suggests it’s easy to publish in open access journals is wrong.) That PeerJ doesn’t review for “significance” made it a logical place to submit, because my own gut instinct said that any journal that reviewed for “significance” would want evidence showing whether or not the MoGs were fused. Just like I did.

Submitting to PeerJ was smooth, yet still challenging. The submission process for the figures and tables in particular is quite different from many other biological journals, so I messed things up in quite dumb ways. Sorry, reviewers and Fabiana (editor of the article).

Once the manuscript was accepted, I was very impressed by how fast I got page proofs to check. It’s one of, if not they, quickest turnarounds I’ve had. It’s nice that something in the creation of this paper was fast.

Of course, I still want to know if those neurons are fused. If anyone reading this has some ideas as to how to test it, I’d love to provide them with the shrimp you’d need!

References

Carreon N, Faulkes Z, Fredensborg BL. 2011. Polypocephalus sp. infects the nervous system and increases activity of commercially harvested white shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus). Journal of Parasitology 97(5): 755-759. http://dx.doi.org/10.1645/GE-2749.1

Carreon N, Faulkes Z. 2014. Position of larval tapeworms, Polypocephalus sp., in the ganglia of shrimp, Litopenaeus setiferus. Integrative and Comparative Biology 54(2): 143-148. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/icb/icu043

Faulkes Z. 2004. Loss of escape responses and giant neurons in the tailflipping circuits of slipper lobsters, Ibacus spp. (Decapoda, Palinura, Scyllaridae). Arthropod Structure & Development 33(2): 113-123. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.asd.2003.12.003

Faulkes Z. 2007. Motor neurons involved in escape responses in white shrimp, Litopenaeus setiferus. Integrative and Comparative Biology 47(Supplement 1): e178. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/icb/icm105

Faulkes Z. 2008. Turning loss into opportunity: The key deletion of an escape circuit in decapod crustaceans. Brain, Behavior and Evolution 72(4): 251-261. http://dx.doi.org/10.1159/000171488

Faulkes Z. 2015. Motor neurons in the escape response circuit of white shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus). PeerJ 3: e1112. http://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1112

21 July 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Classy and glassy


The transparency of shrimp can be both a blessing and a curse when doing experiments. You can see what you’re doing, but sometimes they are so lightly built that it’s difficult to work with them.

I picked this picture today not just because it’s a lovely colourful image, but because the species shown, Litopenaeus vannamei, is a close relative of a shrimp species studied in my new paper at PeerJ! I’m working on a “behind the scenes” post for tomorrow.

Photo by Santi DeFerrol on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

15 July 2015

Anticipation

Not too many journals do this: list papers that are “forthcoming” without page proofs or accepted manuscripts.


It’s nice to see acknowledgment of one of my new papers coming out someplace besides my own website.

External links

Knowledge and Management of Aquatic Ecosystems

14 July 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Before the Internet, there was the Weekly World News

From the Weekly World News, 17 September 2002. You must click to enlarge to fully appreciate the photo...


I’m surprised that nobody has taken this as evidence of immortal lobsters. I do want to use the “lobster facts” call out the next time I talk about crustacean nociception:

They have no cerebral cortex – which means they feel no pain.

Hat tip to Neil Gaiman.

10 July 2015

Glorifying overworking: another self-inflicted crisis in Science Careers

Here we go again.

I like to work hard and be productive. But I’m stunned by this article by Eleftherios Diamandis in a careers website:

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

Let’s count all the ways this one paragraph is terrible, in the order they appear.

First, sixteen hour work days are crazy. That statement should come with a warning: “Do not attempt.” Maybe some people could do this for short bursts, and maybe a rare few people could do this for extended periods, but this is not how most people are going to turn out their best work.

Second, there’s the glorification of “high impact journals” as the path to career advancement. You mean the paywalled ones where retractions correlate more strongly with their Impact Factor than their citations?

Third, and probably worst, the “woman gives up career so man can have his.” As Alice Gorman pointed out:

She ‘worked far less’ sounds a hell of a lot like ‘worked far more’ to me.

I understand that this is the decision some couples make. People have their private discussions and make hard decisions about how to live. This may have been the right choice for these particular two people. But again... to blithely drift past this as, “This is what I did to get ahead” suggests that Diamandis thinks this is easy, and normal, and acceptable. It’s hard, and exceptional, and crappy.

Fourth, kids playing in the lobby and eating out of the microwave doesn’t sound good for your general health and well-being, even if you were working normal hours, which is not the case.

When I look at Diamandis’s website, it’s clear that this work load was not a one time thing that he did to get the position he describes in the article. He co-authored thirty papers last year alone (twenty data-driven and ten reviews). I’m concerned that this guy, in a leadership position, is making a people around him do the same things that he did, whether they want to or not.

And where do we find this? On the Science Careers website! Again! I say again, because you may recall, Science Career got stung just last month for Alice Huang suggested a women faced with a man continually looking down her shirt “you put up with it, with good humor if you can.”

I am wondering if the Science Career website has the same editor as last month. Because if so, there’s a bad pattern emerging. And it needs to stop.

Last time, the “Ask Alice” column was taken down within the day. I am willing to bet that a similar fate will happen here. Article removed, another nonpology from both the Science Careers editorial board and the author, who just don’t see what all the fuss is about.

Major hat tip for Oliver Robinson, who brought this to my attention with this bottom line summary:

Errr... message from this Science piece seems to be: success = poor work-life balance + wife to do domestic duties.

Additional: Rajini Rao notes that I didn’t hit every piece of awfulness in the article, which is true. (There was so much in just that one paragraph!)

You left out the part about walking in front of dept chair to get noticed. Which is just silly.

Yeah. That’s some preening right there. And there’s no way of telling if this did him any good, or was pure superstition.

More additional: My head is reeling at reading that Diamandis lists himself as co-author on 702 papers, and that list ends at 2013.

Related to this culture of “work and nothing but,” I’d like to point to this article about post-doc salaries in the United States (my emphasis):

This is about how, as the reaction of US postdoc shows, no one in this country actually believes in labor law anymore. No one believes that they can be protected from overwork, that pay should be proportional to hours worked as well as talent. No one even believes in the benefits their employer gives them. I have yet to meet a single person at my workplace who takes our (generous) 20 day vacation allowance. And trust me, it’s not just because they love their work. I’ve spent enough time with Americans to know how they are socialized to view vacation as a professional liability.

Still more additional: Terry McGlynn nails it:

The dudes running the system, who got in charge by exploiting their spouses, can’t be allowed to impose their values on our generation.

And even if the Diamandis’s wife did not feel she was exploited, there is no doubt that there are many women who were. And it’s not okay for people to set that expectation, even incidentally by example.

Update, 15 July 2015: Diamandis has responded, briefly and in a slightly cryptic way (not clear if that’s his email or the editing at fault):

Eleftherios P. Diamandis, head of clinical biochemistry at a hospital of the University of Toronto, said via email that he had seen the criticisms. “It is a free world; all opinions respected,” he wrote.

I’m not sure if that means that we are supposed to respect his opinion, or whether he respects other people’s criticisms of him. If the latter, it would be nice if he addressed the criticisms instead of shrugging them off.

He added, “If I stayed home, would my wife be sexist?”

To which I say:


That’s not what happened.

What might have happened and how his wife might have been viewed does not change what actually happened. A woman was asked to take over all the housework again. It’s not as a though this is a rare thing. It’s common. As I wrote above, this may have been the right choice for this couple, but in a context and culture where women disproportionately give up their career options for domestic duty, this sends a bad signal of unfairness.

So, as Dave Mellert answered, if a man’s wife took up the professional overload, and the man stayed at home to do all the housework, the woman wouldn’t be sexist. She might be bigoted or prejudiced or many other unfortunate things, but she isn’t part of a larger continuing pattern.

Hat tip to Karen James - who Inside Higher Education should have referenced when they quoted her tweet. Same with Jacquelyn Gill. Talk about making someone’s contribution invisible.

Update: Scott Jaschik has indicated that the Inside Higher Education article will link the tweets from Karen and Jacquelyn.

Update, 16 July 2015: Times Higher Education covers the criticisms of this, and several other articles, that have appeared in Science or Science Careers. It includes several new comments from Science’s editor-in-chief, Marcia McNutt. Most relevant to this piece is McNutt’s argument:

Dr. McNutt went further to point out that the journal’s first person accounts are being mistaken as advice columns, and says that such future accounts will be paired with alternative commentary or perspective.

That’s a weak claim. Let’s look at the text on the Science Careers homepage (my emphasis):



Clinician-scientist Eleftherios P. Diamandis says that making sure you are noticed can give you the edge over your silent competition.

Similarly, there’s this line in the opening paragraph:

But a well-planned, long-range effort to ensure your visibility among those who have hiring responsibilities can be the deciding factor.

The repeated use of “you” turns this article into an advice column, not a biography. If this article was intended to be merely descriptive and not proscriptive, it’s been poorly written and edited.

Another update, also 16 July 2015: Retraction Watch is reporting on the Diamandis article and the letter criticizing Science for its multiple missteps. Down at the end, updated today, it notes that Jim Austin is no longer the Science Careers editor. He was the individual who, in response to a cover of trans women that didn’t show their faces, called moral indignation “boring.”

Related posts

Breaking brand: Science magazine’s latest self-inflicted crisis

External links

Getting noticed is half the battle
Laboratory of Dr. Eleftherios P. Diamandis
Diamandis’s faculty webpage

Grand challenges for biology


Meghan Duffy, writing at Dynamic Ecology, has a nice post about “grand challenges” in biology. The first time I heard this particularly phrase was at a Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting, where the National Science Foundation was soliciting ideas about what the “grand challenges” in biology are. In other words, this is grant speak.

I have some misgivings about this approach, of asking scientists what they big problems are. I think it’s too likely to be blinkered and limited: like asking city dwellers at the end of the nineteenth century what problems they needed to solve. They’d probably have been adamant about needed more and better horses for transportation.

The NSF has five grand challenges for biology, and so does Meghan. There is some overlap in these lists, but they aren’t quite identical.

  • Predicting individual organisms’ characteristics from their DNA sequence (NSF) / Linking phenotype to genotype (MD)
  • Understanding biodiversity (NSF and MD)
  • Understanding the brain (NSF and MD)
  • Interactions of the Earth, its climate and its biosphere (NSF)
  • Sustainable agriculture (MD)
  • Synthesizing life-like systems (NSF)
  • Origins of life (MD)

To me, “grand challenge” has a few desirable features. It should be something that many people in the discipline are actively working on. That is, it’s a question many scientists are engaged and committed to answering. There are some reasonably clear ideas for what constitutes success.

For those reasons, a couple of the proposed grand challenges leave me cold.

Understanding the brain” is, to me, is not a challenge for biology. Neuroscience is its own discipline now. The descriptions of “the brain” – singular – make it clear that people are talking about the human brain, and not the brains of the millions of other animal species.

Worse, the NSF document talks about the “emergent properties” of the brain, which is code for “consciousness.” I don’t think we have even a clue as to what an answer to that question might look like.

Origins of life” is an unanswered question, yes, and an important one. For a grand challenge, it doesn’t feel like one that a large proportion of people in biology are actively grappling with. There’s a lot of speculation, but I don’t see this as something that people think they have a clear path to make headway on it.

Synthesizing life-like systems” is a weird way of renaming a technology – synthetic biology – as a challenge. I’m not so much interested in life-like systems as I am in actual living systems studied with techniques to (say) make synthetic DNA.

When the J. Craig Venter Institute announced they had created a cell that ran from artificial DNA, Venter said one of the questions they wanted to answer is, “What’s the minimal genome?” What is the smallest amount of instructions that you can have that will allow a cell to be alive? That’s a fascinating question, but unless / until a lot more labs start pursuing it besides the J. Craig Venter Institute, I don’t think it qualifies as a
grand challenge.

Understanding biodiversity” is something that I can get behind, although I’d like it even more if it was a bit more focused. Something like, “How many species are there?” We don’t know that. It would be nice to see basic taxonomy put more in the forefront, because that stuff needs more attention. And just cataloguing all the species is a grand challenge.

External links

How many species are there?

Top ten for three months running!

Just realized that the recent crustacean nociception paper I co-authored is in the top ten most read articles for the third month running in Biology Open! It was #2 for April, #6 for May, and #6 again for June.


Thank you to all who have taken an interest and read this!

07 July 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Release the Kraken!

John Wyndham is actually a favourite author of mine. I’ve read his novel The Kraken Wakes. But I never visualized it quite like this artist behind this Italian edition...


Hat tip to Pulp Librarian and Paul Cornell.

05 July 2015

I don’t think early retirement is for me

I heard a scientist talking about wanting to retire at 55, and it’s been bothering me ever since.

First, I’m kind of amazed that anyone in academia would have the financial savvy to have enough cash to retire early. I sure wouldn't feel financially secure retiring early.


Second, it got to me because couldn’t quite wrap my head around the lost research opportunities. As I mentioned a while ago, I’m scheduled to be promoted to full professor this fall. And that has been bringing me some anxiety. Full professor means you’re no longer early career, or mid-career – even given academia’s generous definitions of those terms, which mean you can be “early career” in your 40s. Cue jokes about graybeards and deadwood.

I’ve got a paper coming out that has been sitting on my hard drive for a while. It’s a reminder to me of how hard it can be to get stuff completed, and that I’ve got a lot of questions I want to know the answers to. And it’s not likely that other labs are going to pick up those questions. Which means if I don’t answer them before the clock goes ding on my career, I’ll never know the answers.

Related posts

Nowhere to go from here

01 July 2015

The rules ain’t always all that: lessons from Battlebots

Over the weekend, I was watching remote controlled robots bash each other into scrap metal. As one does. And an interesting situation arose in one fight:


The team running a robot called Complete Control sent their robot out with a gift-wrapped present. The other robot, Ghost Raptor, runs into it in the first few seconds, rips open the box... and there’s a net inside. It completely messes up the spinning attack arm of Ghost Raptor, and that was pretty much it for the match.

Except... everyone is going, “Whaaaa...? How is that legal?”

The Complete Control team gets quizzed fast about this net. They say they checked the rules about entanglement, “It’s not in there any more.”

Now, to me, things seemed pretty clear cut at this point. Award the win to Complete Control. They followed the rules. The rest of the teams had gotten rules, because the announcers had made some comments about the weight limits for the machines (250 pounds, if I remember right).

But no! After a commercial break, the host explained:

Given the fact that Battlebots has historically always banned the use of entanglement devices, the fight has been nullified. They have agreed to a rematch.

I found this interesting, because it’s a great example of the tension between explicit rules and community standards, which is something that is a very live and real tension in science. A lot of people want standards, want explicit rules. I find this to be particularly true of early stage students: they crave structure, so they can know if they’re doing things “right.”

The Complete Control team, however, show one of the problems with this. The team was apparently known for pushing the limits of what was allowed. As Teresa Neilsen Hayden wrote:

Over-specific rules are an invitation to people who get off on gaming the system.

In this case, “It’s known in the community” won out. Somewhat to my surprise.

The downside to the community standards approach is that it sure seems uninviting to newcomers and outsiders. There was a great example on Twitter the other day when Rachel French complained about the format of an NSF proposal. Prof-Like Substance spoke up to say, “It doesn’t really mean that,” leading to Rachel and Karen James annoyed by “super-sekrit NSF in-crowd culture” (as Karen put it). And understandably annoyed, in my view. I wouldn’t have guessed that.

“Community standards” and “community practices” at loggerheads all the time in science. How authorship is assigned and interpreted is a big one. (“We know who did what on that 1,000 author paper.”)

There has to be a balance, but with so many issues floating around these days about how science is seen by many as unwelcoming, I would like to see our scientific communities push more towards creating explicit rules than “the people in the know, know that.”