Mmm, nerds <3

Dilbert explains it all:
Though I have to say, I’m having a horrible track record with all the computer nerds I’ve dated. I hate to propagate the stereotype, but they’ve all had the emotional capacity of a nematode. Next time I’m aiming for a biologist.

Speaking of nerdiness, here are the classes I’m taking next semester:
– Senior Seminar in Genetics (One hour a week of discussing genetics. Woo?)
– Sex & Evolution (I’ve been dying to take this class since I got here, but it’s only offered every other year. I’m psyched! Why do we have sex? Why do (most) species have two sexes? Weeeee!)
– General Physics 2 (Oh god, so close to being done…Sorry for all you physicists, but it’s just not my thing. Now, if it was Elegant Universe kind of theoretical wacky physics, I’d be all in. But I hate doing nothing but math filled with trick questions, bah!)
– Population Genetics (This may be a mistake. I’m taking this as my “fun” elective…yeah, a 500 level graduate course. Oh boy.)
– Senior Biology Labs (Protein Expression and DNA Sequencing. Still waiting to hear back if I can get out of DNA sequencing, since I just spent a summer doing an independent research project where I was sequencing. I’ll be sad if I have to do it all over again.)
– Honors Thesis Research (Still have to pick my topic with my advisor…there are too many ideas floating around now!)

The masochistic part of me still wanted to TA one of the intro biology labs to get some teaching experience before grad school, but looking at my schedule, that may be a bad idea. I guess it really depends if I get out of that one lab or not. I could still TA in the spring, but I’d sort of like to be able to put teaching experience on my resume for when I’m applying. Any thoughts? Other than the fact that I’m a giant nerd?

Sperm Bank Sued for Supplying Bad Sperm

I don’t have any professional training in ethics or law, but I can tell this is sure going to open up a can of worms. A 13 year old girl with Fragile X syndrome, which can lead to varying degrees of learning disability, is suing a sperm bank under product liability law. The sperm she was conceived with, which her mother bought from the bank in question, carried the genetic disorder (genetically, it’s fairly easy to show it didn’t come from mom).

“Donovan does not have to show that Idant was negligent, only that the sperm it provided was unsafe and caused injury. “It doesn’t matter how much care was taken,” says Daniel Thistle, the lawyer representing Donovan, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.”

According to Wikipedia (which we know is infallible), sperm donors may be subjected to various levels of genetic testing. Does anyone know if there are laws requiring them to test for certain disorders? I’d imagine some would be a good idea to test for, especially if they’re dominantly inherited and late-onset like Huntington’s*. Most recessive alleles are rare enough that there’s not as much reason to test – that is, the odds of two random people carrying the same allele is incredibly low. At first glance you may think it’s a good idea to hold sperm banks responsible for testing. I mean, you’re selling a product, and you don’t want to give someone a horrible disease, right?

Well, things aren’t as simple as they seem. No two sperm are identical, and errors do occur. A single point mutation that occurs at extremely high rates is the cause of the most common form of dwarfism. A one in a million occurrence isn’t going to show up in any sort of genetic testing you may do on a semen sample. The same holds true for any sort of disorder that results from aberrant chromosome number (Down Syndrome, Klinefelter’s Syndrome, etc).

Even family history can’t always alert us to a problem. This girl’s situation is the perfect example. Fragile-X is a dominant X-linked disorder, so you should be able to see it in males, right? Well, not exactly. Fragile-X is caused by having too many trinucleotide repeats, much like Huntington’s. Trinucleotide repeats like to do this thing called genetic anticipation, where in every generation they expand and make more and more copies. So while daddy’s repeat number (and all of his family members’) may be in the “normal” range, after expansion, there may be enough repeats to cause the syndrome. The number can also vary from sperm to sperm, so there’s no good way to test this.

So you can see why if she wins, this is going to set a scary precedent. Sperm banks can screen like crazy, but there’s always the possibility of getting some bad sperm. It’s ridiculous to think you can sue them because something turns out wrong. Anyone who’s ever reproduced is taking that same risk. In fact, it’s probably lower because most people don’t do genetic screening unless there’s reason to be afraid. Sperm bank sperm is probably a safer bet than your man. So, should you be able to sue your spouse for providing bad genetic material? I certainly don’t think so, but who knows…maybe the ensuing paranoia over reproducing would help fight our overpopulation problem.

Let’s hope the judge on this case has some basic understanding of genetics.

*Of course, then you get into the whole ethical debate about whether or not to notify the donor or his children if he does have Huntington’s…but that’s a whole other issue.

Do not date a scientist

Unless you weren’t convinced by xkcd the first time:I laugh, but then I remember the time during field work when my professor found a rattle snake eating one of our study organisms, and he poked the snake with a foot long ruler until it barfed it up to check if it had ear tags or not. In the name of science! (I at least got cool photos out of the deal)

I promise I’ll try not to link to SMBC every day, but it’s a little too amazing for me to control myself.

Evolution 09, here I come!

I just found out that I was accepted for the Undergraduate Diversity Program for the Evolution 2009 conference. Woohoo! They’re going to cover my registration fees/travel costs/etc so I can attend and present my poster, along with 14 other individuals. This is a pretty big conference (and I’m a huge evolution nerd), so I’m really excited! Hopefully this helps me figure out what I want to do for grad school, since that’s approaching quickly.

Though I sort of wonder what “diversity” aspect got me in. Is it because I’m female, or because I’m an atheist? Not too sure if “atheist” is in the minority at an evolution conference, ha. Well, I do participate in a lot of diversity-related clubs and stuff, so I’m going to tell myself it was the whole package.

Idaho*, here I come!

*Seriously, first Nebraska, and now Idaho? I’m not quite sure how you biologists pick your conference locations.

Repetitive Learning

Today I walked into my upper-level Eukaryotic Genetics class and saw we were going to be studying Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium for the bajillionth time. One of my biggest pet peeves as a biology undergraduate is learning the same stuff over and over again. I understand there’s some need for review – sometimes you didn’t learn it well the first time, or maybe you’re just rusty and need a refresher. But eventually it becomes a tad bit ridiculous. If you’re a junior or senior Genetics major (aka, people in this class), I would hope you’d have the basics pretty fucking down by now. Let’s see the running total on how many classes have had me review these concepts for far:

Basics on DNA:
Pre-College: 5
College: 13

Mitosis and Meiosis:
Pre-College: 5
College: 10

Mendelian genetics:
Pre-College: 4
College: 7

Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium:
Pre-College: 2
College: 9

Even if you came from the worst high school ever, you should have been taking the college classes. Granted, I’ve taken some electives that go towards these totals…but at least 4-6 of those classes are mandatory for biology majors. The sad thing? Some people are still confused or lost about these topics. Really? I mean, I understand needing help with three-factor crosses, or elaborate signaling cascades or something…those can be confusing even if you’ve heard it once before. But it’s beyond me how you can get to your final years in a biology program and still not understand the fundamentals. How the hell have you made it this far?

If you’re a upperclassman undergraduate and don’t know what’s wrong with this picture, plz drop out of biology now kthx

We spend so much time reviewing concepts we should have mastered already that I hardly feel like I’m learning anything new from my classes. Most of my intellectual growth has come from working in a laboratory for the past two years, or reading up on science at my own leisure. We’ve yet to cover a new topic in Eukaryotic Genetics, and there are only four weeks of class left. I want to say that I absolutely love the vast majority of my biology Professors, including the one for Eukaryotic Genetics. I don’t blame them for the review, because it seems like so many people need it. The problem is our educational system is catering to the people who are lagging behind, and they end up dragging everyone down with them. I guess I was spoiled being in honors/accelerated programs in high school, but I wish there was some sort equivalent for biology courses here.

This also leads to the scary realization of how low the requirements are in order to get your degree. While I’m at the top of my class, I still feel like there is so much about genetics and evolution that I don’t know yet. I still read journal articles with some difficulty because I’ve never been taught most of the concepts they talk about. In fact, to be a Genetics major you only need to take ONE upper level genetics class, in addition to your “core” introductory biology courses. Same for the Evolution degree – just take the one upper level evolution class, and you’re done. You have to take other upper level biology classes as electives from a list, but you can pick some that aren’t directly relevant.

I realize this post may come off as pretentious/whiney, but I can’t help but be annoyed. It just scares me that I, along with my classmates, will be considered qualified in our field when we’ve learned so little. What’s even scarier is that while I recognize how much more there is to learn and I want to go to graduate school, there are people who still don’t understand punnett squares and they want to become doctors. Yikes. Let’s just hope there’s a difference between “want to become” and “will become.”

Is this a biology specific problem, or do other majors experience this?

Creationists make Jen's brain go boom

This gem of a letter was published in the opinion section of our student newspaper today. It’s kind of hilarious until you realize that it probably isn’t a Poe, and this student is attending a Big Ten university that prides itself in science.

Evolutionists fear possibility of God’s existence

In reference to Ms. DeWeese’s March 31 column, thank you so much for writing on an important subject. Unfortunately, Ms. DeWeese’s approach does not permit open debate about the origin of our universe and of mankind. Evolution has many gaps that should be openly discussed in the classroom. The Darwinists are terrified of scrutinizing evolution and fear the possibility that God exists. Fossils don’t even prove that an organism reproduced, let alone evolved. Evolution is a theory that argues that everything came from nothing. Knowing this, they are justified in their fear of debate.

I thought that the foundation of science was questioning. If schools insist on teaching the philosophy of evolution, then there should be an open discussion. Darwin’s book was not called “Adaption of Species”; it was called “Origin of Species.” If you choose to believe that you came from nothing, where did you get your value? If evolution is true, then people are just an accident. Evolution says the strongest should live, and the weak should die. I believe that all people have intrinsic value because they were created by God. I recognize that my belief in the Bible is faith, just as evolutionists’ belief in “Origin of Species” is faith. If evolutionists are so confident that their theories are factual, then wouldn’t they encourage discussions about the weaknesses of evolution?

As a high school student, I bought into the ideology of believing in God and evolution. After exploring opposing arguments, I realized that belief in God and evolution are logically incongruent. A director cannot use an undirected mechanism to create. While this discussion cannot be settled in 300 words, it’s a reminder that there are two sides. Even though evolutionists will attack the intelligence of theists, there is another side of the story. It’s worth considering.

John Westercamp
Junior, School of Management

I don’t even know if it’s worth replying any more, but I feel duty-bound. I’ve had about three pro-evolution letters published since I started school here. The idea that people can spew this kind of imbecilic bullshit and not have someone lay the smack down on them saddens me. At the same time, I have physics homework to do, and the only response I can come up with is “You are an ignorant baffoon, please do not procreate.”

I have a feeling that wouldn’t help the situation much.

Creationists make Jen’s brain go boom

This gem of a letter was published in the opinion section of our student newspaper today. It’s kind of hilarious until you realize that it probably isn’t a Poe, and this student is attending a Big Ten university that prides itself in science.

Evolutionists fear possibility of God’s existence

In reference to Ms. DeWeese’s March 31 column, thank you so much for writing on an important subject. Unfortunately, Ms. DeWeese’s approach does not permit open debate about the origin of our universe and of mankind. Evolution has many gaps that should be openly discussed in the classroom. The Darwinists are terrified of scrutinizing evolution and fear the possibility that God exists. Fossils don’t even prove that an organism reproduced, let alone evolved. Evolution is a theory that argues that everything came from nothing. Knowing this, they are justified in their fear of debate.

I thought that the foundation of science was questioning. If schools insist on teaching the philosophy of evolution, then there should be an open discussion. Darwin’s book was not called “Adaption of Species”; it was called “Origin of Species.” If you choose to believe that you came from nothing, where did you get your value? If evolution is true, then people are just an accident. Evolution says the strongest should live, and the weak should die. I believe that all people have intrinsic value because they were created by God. I recognize that my belief in the Bible is faith, just as evolutionists’ belief in “Origin of Species” is faith. If evolutionists are so confident that their theories are factual, then wouldn’t they encourage discussions about the weaknesses of evolution?

As a high school student, I bought into the ideology of believing in God and evolution. After exploring opposing arguments, I realized that belief in God and evolution are logically incongruent. A director cannot use an undirected mechanism to create. While this discussion cannot be settled in 300 words, it’s a reminder that there are two sides. Even though evolutionists will attack the intelligence of theists, there is another side of the story. It’s worth considering.

John Westercamp
Junior, School of Management

I don’t even know if it’s worth replying any more, but I feel duty-bound. I’ve had about three pro-evolution letters published since I started school here. The idea that people can spew this kind of imbecilic bullshit and not have someone lay the smack down on them saddens me. At the same time, I have physics homework to do, and the only response I can come up with is “You are an ignorant baffoon, please do not procreate.”

I have a feeling that wouldn’t help the situation much.

Dominance Regulated Sex Determination

Aka, “Biology is Fricking Amazing”

My Evolution of Behavior class is full of amazing, insane facts about animals. Every day I leave that class excited to share these random facts with people, so you get some of them! While I could attempt to explain things in my own words using my notes from class, I’m going to be lazy and use Wikipedia. It probably has more information anyway.

From the Wikipedia entry on clownfish:

“Each group of fish consists of a breeding pair and 0-4 non-breeders. Within each group there is a size-based hierarchy: the female is largest, the breeding male is second largest, and the male non-breeders get progressively smaller as the hierarchy descends. If the female dies, the male changes sex, becomes the breeding female and the largest non-breeder becomes the breeding male. The fish apparently form lifetime pairs, exhibit courting behavior, and depending on the size of the female spawn about 400-1500 eggs per cycle. The expected tenure of breeding females is approximately 12 years and is relatively long for a fish of its size, but is characteristic of other reef fish.

It has been unclear why the non-breeders continue to associate with these groups. Unlike non-reproductives in some animal groups, they cannot obtain occasional breeding opportunities, because their gonads are non-functional. They cannot be regarded as helpers at the nest, since it has been found their presence does not increase the reproductive success of the breeders. Recent research (Buston, 2004) suggests that they are simply queuing for the territory occupied by the breeders, i.e. the anemone; non-breeders living in association with breeders have a better chance of eventually securing a territory than a non-resident. The probability of a fish ascending in rank in this queue is equal to that of the individual outliving at least one of its dominants because an individual will ascend in rank if any one of its dominants dies, and not simply when its immediate dominant dies.”

Or as my professor said, “What they didn’t tell you about Finding Nemo was that at the end, Nemo turns into a girl.”

Wholesome Disney movie, or insidious plot to introduce transsexualism to our children? You decide.

Nebraska Trip Mini-Recap

I was in Lincoln, Nebraska this weekend for the Midwest Ecology and Evolution Conference (that’s some exciting stuff right there). It was a ten hour drive through brown, empty farmland. The only highlights of the drive were crossing the Mississippi (took a couple minutes to figure out what that giant body of water was…doh), seeing all the cool giant wind turbines, and this gas station:
Is this seriously a chain out in the great plains? That’s the most horrendous name ever. I was giggling like a 13 year old for a while over this one.

The University of Nebraska Lincoln had a really nice campus. It was a total ghost town though…not just campus, but all of Lincoln. There were no people or cars anywhere. Did they hear the evolutionists were coming and leave or something?

Anyway, the conference itself was pretty good. I got to hear great talks by David Quammen, Svata Louda, Randy Moore, and David Hillis. Randy Moore was the winner of the Discovery Institute’s Award for Most Dogmatic Indoctrinator in an Evolutionary Biology Course, and his talk was about the history of creationism in the US. Pretty interesting, since I only knew about modern figures. Since we talked a lot about people like Dawkins and PZ Myers in the Q&A, I introduced myself as the President of the Society of Non-Theists afterwards and got a loud “Good for you!” Woot!

My favorite part was that our poster session was held in Elephant Hall, a natural history museum on campus focusing on mastadons. Their statue pretty much owns our lame Neil Armstrong statue at Purdue:
It was pretty wonderfully random having a poster session surrounded by fossils and fake elephants. It’s also home to the largest mastadon statue ever discovered (at least, according to the little informational thingy). I’m really glad these things aren’t around anymore. Except for the dwarf mammoth. That thing looked adorable, and was the size of a medium dog. Apparently the ancient Greeks used to think its skull was from a cyclops, since its nasal cavity leaves a weird hole in its head. I just sort of want it as a pet <3

They also had an Irish Elk skeleton, which is my favorite story of runaway sexual selection ever. Not to mention a gigantic armadillo thing:

In conclusion, nature is fucking awesome. This is why I love being a biologist <3

Boobs and Bad Statistics

Ok, who can point out what’s wrong with the following statement from this story:

“New Zealand women are getting bigger breasts, with D cups and bigger accounting for nearly half of Bendon bras sold in New Zealand last year.”

I know there has been a trend of increasing breast size, but this particular study is correlation, not causation. Maybe bustier women just buy more bras. If you want to know if actual cup size is increasing, you should probably go measure actual women. I’m sure there’s a disgruntled graduate student somewhere in New Zealand willing to do that.