It’s another exam day!

I’ve been terrible about updating everyone about my class the last few weeks — we’re coming up on the end of the semester, so I’ve been going a little bit mad. We’ve been focusing on vertebrate development lately, and right now we’ve got a few dozen fertilized chicken eggs sitting in an incubator and developing embryos. Maybe. It is always a real pain to get these things delivered to remote Morris, Minnesota — I delayed this part of the lab to the very end of the semester, hoping the sun would emerge and warm the hemisphere enough that when UPS took their sweet time getting them to me, they wouldn’t freeze in the back of the truck. As usual, though, next day delivery turned into two day delivery, and we haven’t seen Spring yet. So we’ll soon know whether they survived their harrowing journey through the frigid Northlands, and if they haven’t, I’ll have to throw up my hands and cry.

Or I could torture my students to ease my frustration. Yeah, that’s the ticket. So it’s exam day.

Developmental Biology Exam #3

This is a take-home exam. You are free and even encouraged to discuss these questions with your fellow students, but please write your answers independently — I want to hear your voice in your essays. Also note that you are UMM students, and so I have the highest expectations for the quality of your writing, and I will be grading you on grammar and spelling and clarity of expression as well as the content of your essays and your understanding of the concepts.

Answer two of the following three questions, 500-1000 words each. Do not retype the questions into your essay; if I can’t tell which one you’re answering from the story you’re telling, you’re doing it wrong. Include a word count in the top right corner of each of the two essays, and your name in the top left corner of each page. This assignment is due in class on Monday, and there will be a penalty for late submissions.

Question 1: One of Sarah Palin’s notorious gaffes was her dismissal of “fruit fly research” — she thought it was absurd that the government actually funded science on flies. How would you explain to a congressman that basic research is important? I’m going to put two constraints on your answer: 1) It has to be comprehensible to Michele Bachmann, and 2) don’t take the shortcut of promising that which you may not deliver. That is, no “maybe it will cure cancer!” claims, but focus instead on why we should appreciate deeper knowledge of biology.

Question 2: There is an interesting tension in evo devo: on the one hand, we like to talk about the universality of molecular mechanisms, but on the other hand, we’re also very interested in the differences, both in phenotype and genetics. This is an old debate in evolutionary theory, too, so it’s not unique to development, but how do you reconcile unity and diversity simultaneously?

Question 3: When I told you about axis specification in Drosophila, the story was relatively straightforward: maternal factors switch on a chain of zygotic genes that set up the pattern. When I told you about the same process in vertebrates, though, I didn’t give you the same level of detail—I gave you buckets of transcription factors and said they had various roles. Dig deeper. Pick ONE of these vertebrate dorsalizing factors out of the bucket and tell me more about it: noggin, chordin, frizbee, goosecoid, pintallavis.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    It has to be comprehensible to Michele Bachmann

    Sheesh PZ, if your going to tease your students with an impossible task, why not just ask them to calculate pi to the last digit?

  2. IslandBrewer says

    Gah, moarscienceplz beat me to it.

    Comprehensible to Michele Bachmann – does that mean the students have to draw pictures and pantomime?

  3. cicely (Were-dolphins are TOTALLY a Thing!) says

    It has to be comprehensible to Michele Bachmann,

    Do they even make words that small?

  4. azportsider says

    I submit that #1 is a trick question. There can be no answer that would be comprehensible to Michele Bachmann.

  5. Rich Woods says

    I wonder how many students will feel compelled to write an answer to Q1 in crayon?

  6. llewelly says

    Surely Bachman could be made to understand that production of anointing oil requires protecting olive crops from a devastating pest?

  7. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    I’m going to put two constraints on your answer: 1) It has to be comprehensible to Michele Bachmann

    ….that’s a little unfair. Will they have time to draw enough pictures?

  8. Sili says

    Why don’t you just get your own chicken coop?

    With a nice cock to rival the annoying fake carillon at the cemetery.

  9. Khantron, the alien that only loves says

    noggin, chordin, frizbee, goosecoid, pintallavis.

    Biologists are good at naming things.

  10. Nerdette says

    If a student answered #1 in picture-book format, I would give them full credit despite not satisfying the word limit. I think pretty pictures would be the only way to make it understandable at the congressperson level.

  11. stonyground says

    Regarding what appears to be pointless scientific research, I would cite Carl Sagan who wrote, in his book ‘The Demon Haunted World’, about the research carried out by James Clerk Maxwell, into the nature of the electro-magnetic spectrum. At the time, the new knowledge that he presented us with, lacked a single practical application.

    Since then we have come up with TV and radio, mobile phones, Wi-fi, microwave ovens, Sat-nav, and a host of other technologies that are totally dependent upon Maxwell’s work.

  12. noastronomer says

    Although just about every one beat me to the punch on the ‘has to be comprehensible to Michele Bachmann’ requirement, I would be interested to hear how many, if any, students accepted this challenge. And what creativity was displayed in answering the question?


  13. Hairy Doctor Professor says

    RE: #12: stonyground.

    A similar case can be made for the work of mathematician G. H. Hardy, who was extremely proud of the fact that his work on “pure mathematics” had no practical use, or even expectation thereof. Of course, modern cryptography depends critically on his work, without which we couldn’t securely order neat stuff on-line.

  14. Kristen White says

    Can I suggest that you change “congressman” to “member of Congress?” The answer is actually discussing a congresswoman, not that I particularly enjoy sharing a gender with her. Perhaps you mean that the person answering should assume s/he is talking to a specifically male member of Congress who isn’t Michele Bachmann, but she’s the only one named.

    Even in journalism, “congressman” isn’t considered non-gendered–the AP Stylebook allows for the use of “congressman” or “congresswoman” to refer to a specific member of Congress who has been previously named, but not “congressman” as a general term for an unnamed member of Congress.

  15. JohnnieCanuck says

    My favourite example would be Joseph Fourier. The transfer of heat around an iron ring was a puzzle that had caught the attention of many intellects because of its counterintuitive results. Intriguing, but of no practical application whatsoever. Fourier devised a mathematical method that allowed analysis and prediction of the strange behaviour.

    Applications of Fourier analysis have included most anything associated with a spectrum. Maxwell’s electromagnetic waves, tides, X-ray diffraction including the discovery of the DNA double helix and many more.

    It’s use is now ubiquitous and invaluable in applied science.

  16. shouldbeworking says

    Exam/quiz. My fallback lesson plan. The Bachmann requirement is an interesting one. I may borrow that idea and rename it the. ‘Johnson Maximum’. No answer can exceed the comprehension of the Minister of Education.

  17. ibyea says

    Lol, I was thinking the same thing about the comprehensible to Bachmann thing as everyone else.