Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Rick Santorum on Science Education

It is my firm opinion that people like Rick Santorum should be kept as far away from writing ANY policy. This clip illustrates why.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Is Humanity Frozen in its Current Form?

Professor Michio Kaku shares his thoughts.

I need your help...

Your mission should you choose to accept it is to help me become a better writer and a better teacher. I am currently applying for an Assistant Professor position in evolutionary biology and am drafting my first "teaching philosophy." If you are so inclined and would like to read what I have come up with so far I would appreciate your comments and criticism.
Thank you for your time and help.

Teaching Philosophy

Draft as of 11/17/2011

"Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution"   ~Theodosius Dobzhansky - 1973

I am aware that access to knowledge is not always the barrier to obtaining an education. More often, the barrier is the ability to maintain enthusiasm for learning. It is my intention not only to give my students the tools to gather the information they need to excel in my class, but also the critical thinking skills to analyze that information, and a genuine interest in doing so. By the end of my course I intend students comprehend the mechanism of evolution and have a clear understanding that evolution is a unifying idea in all fields of life-science.

In addition to understanding the mechanism of evolution I think it is important that students be able to explain it to non-scientists. The lack of dialogue between scientists and layman is one of the biggest hurtles in academia, leading to skepticism toward science in general. To promote dialogue, I plan to incorporate an extensive writing assignment and small-group problem-based-learning assignments along with regular midterm exams for a well rounded student assessment.
 I appreciate that there will be students with various backgrounds in my classes. I hope to unfold the story of evolution in a way that is challenging yet entertaining and infused with enough variety so that students from all backgrounds may find something worth further investigation. I realize that evolutionary biology as a topic may be difficult to reconcile with some cultural beliefs however I will present the physical evidence in a matter-of-fact way such that class discussion remains in the realm of the observable world. This being said, I will not tolerate any form of disrespect to anyone in my classroom and will make that clear at the onset of all courses I teach.

When I think about my time as a student the best instructors I had were those who had an infectious enthusiasm for the subjects they were teaching. When a professor has this ability it is apparent by the number of students that rush the lectern after class. I plan on using all tools at my disposal to garner this reaction from my students. I will carefully use punctuated theatrics to bring life to my lectures. As a student I could always remember the content of a class better if it were wrapped in a story. Whether it was a professor’s dance interpretation of mitotic spindle attachment or the bumpy feeling of a fossilized trilobite being passed around the class while learning about the Cambrian explosion, a unique presentation was always more memorable. I plan on utilizing a wide range of sensory-stimulating techniques in my class to reach as many students as possible. 

Accepting that scientific knowledge is not stagnant, some of the most important lessons a student can walk away with are not necessarily the content of a lecture or a class, but the lessons which teach us how to use the tools that keep us learning. It is a Professor’s obligation and opportunity to give students the keys to unlock the scientific literature enabling them to expand their independent thoughts. By actively thinking about the current understanding in a given field and then identifying the new knowledge a journal article brings into the public sphere, students will be able to assess for themselves whether they think the conclusions made are valid or not. It is my goal in teaching evolutionary biology to work up to a group discussion on a current paper in a reputable peer-reviewed scientific journal. These conversations are not only lively and entertaining but also provide the keys for students to independently investigate questions they have outside the core content of my class.

Providing sufficient feedback to students will be high on my priority list. I plan on staying personally engaged with students inside as well as outside scheduled class time and office hours. Recently the use of online discussion forums, assignments, and online grades has become more and more pervasive. My experience with the blackboard online learning system, science blogs, and scientific journal clubs gives me the ability to communicate with students fast and effectively. Maintaining a presence online, both an open discussion forum and an anonymous forum, benefits the entire class as well as future classes. In an open forum students are free to identify themselves and take credit for their work in helping their classmates, while an anonymous forum provides the space and freedom for students to ask questions they may feel intimidated not to ask otherwise. In all cases I want to maintain transparency in my classroom while concurrently respecting students’ right to privacy.

At the end of my course I hope students feel eager to continue investigating topics in evolutionary biology by taking one of many available paths; whether it is picking up an issue of the latest scientific journal or joining a research lab so they might make the next discovery in the field. I hope students see how understanding evolution provides a unified logical framework to build on research interests in all biological fields.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Whenever I need a genuine moment of Zen I watch this.

The known universe.

The Janus Cat

We were sitting next to the ocean in Newport, OR the other day when Amelia showed us a newspaper clipping of a two-faced cat aka a "Janus" cat. Named for the Roman god with two faces - Janus. This is where we get the name for our month "January" which makes sense since it was thought the two heads of this god were looking into the past and the future at the same time - like we look back at the year gone by and make resolution for the year to come on January one. 

Looking into this condition I found that the likely cause of this is an over-expression of a gene dubbed "SHH" or Sonic hedgehog. I'm not kidding on the name - fruit-fly geneticists historically had a sense of humor in naming their knock-out flies.

Comprehending the mechanism of action of the SHH protein in development is an excellent exercise in seeing how there is no greater "plan" from God but rather an "apparent plan"  that manifests because of our relatively complacent evolutionary era.  There is nothing unethical about a genetic disorder. It is what it is and the affected either lives or dies. This cat was not cursed by God. Its existence is a window for mankind into one possibility of mutation.  One out of a million might be useful. On a long enough timeline that one doesn't just become more likely but rather inevitable. 

One of the coolest things I can think of in the age of you tube and Facebook is our collective ability to rapidly be aware of rare occurrences.  This will not be the last cat in history to have this rare condition. What interests me is the subtle differences in expression of this gene from human to human as the SHH gene also regulates the organization of the human brain. There are clinical examples of babies born with the Janus condition who did not live. Thinking about this leads me to speculate that a viable two-faced human may have actually lived to adulthood at some point in history. Is such an individual responsible for the depictions of the Roman God Janus? We may never know. But a viable two-brained adult would be a marvel to have a game of chess with :)

Koseoglu K, Gok C, Dayanir Y, & Karaman C (2003). CT and MR imaging findings of a rare craniofacial malformation: diprosopus. AJR. American journal of roentgenology, 180 (3), 863-4 PMID: 12591714

What is Thunderf00t up to these days?

Does this qualify as civil discourse?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Carl Zimmer tells his story

I listened to this RadioLab episode last night on highway 5 here in Oregon. Carl Zimmer wraps enlightenment around the hard truths of his life in this week's RadioLab short "Sleepless in South Sudan" Worth a listen.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Eugenie Scott tells her story

Eugenie Scott remains on my short list of heroes. In the video below I hope you can see why.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Save the Children!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Full Circle

This is a phenomenal story and worth the 17.5 minutes required to watch it. Jana Levin - Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College - tells an unlikely story of romance while researching. I was in the room for this and she certainly has an electric personality. The story was told at the Player's Club on Manhattan as part of the 2010 World Science Festival in association with The Moth - probably one of the most ingenious non-profit organizations of our time. The Moth is a story-telling series where all stories are true and told live, without notes. I have listened to hours and hours of the most real entertainment I've ever been exposed to. Usually I listen to The Moth on my iPhone through the Stitcher Radio app. From Nobel Laureates to high-ranking politicians to prison inmates, the Moth has featured story-tellers from all walks of life. If you have never heard of the Moth, Tom Paine's Ghost highly recommends their content.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Daniel Radcliffe performs Tom Lehrer's "The Elements"

I missed this last year. I'm amazed if he really memorized this in one night!