It is the last day of the semester!

Yay! Although I had to spend the morning in a search committee meeting, and then I had to get a final exam in rough shape. Class today is going to be a discussion of what everyone needs to know for the final exam, so I figured I’d better have it organized more or less.

Next up: I have a whole hour to do spider work.

This weekend I plan to put my feet up, relax, and recover. My one final isn’t until Thursday, so catching up with being alive for a while is high on my priorities.

We have a valuable export in this country!

It’s blood.

America is one of the only developed countries in the world that pays people to donate blood, much of it sold abroad (70% of the world’s plasma is of US origin), and as commercial blood donations have soared, blood now accounts for 2% of the country’s exports — more than corn or soya.

There’s more growth ahead for blood products, expected to “grow radiantly” according to an analyst who was cheering 13% growth between 2016-17.

I had a hard time believing that, so I checked the source, and sure enough, 2.3% of US exports are of human or animal blood and vaccines, and it’s more than the value of our corn and soybean exports. To put it in perspective, though, our exports of refined petroleum are worth more than twice that.

So, I guess, there’s a market for American blood and oil.

If inequality continues as it has, perhaps there’ll someday a market for other human biological products. Pig meat products are only .36% of our exports, we could expand that by adding long pig.

We could also hope for a big boom in the vampire population.

The worst Christmas song while grading is…

The mountain of papers have been graded! The grades have all been posted on Canvas! The students can now put down their pitchforks, and instead begin their pleas…”I’m only 0.2% away from a B+! Can’t you just bump me up a little bit?” Fortunately, I planned ahead: the final exam in this course is optional, and the score on it will replace their lowest exam score for the semester, so I can just tell them to go earn those extra points by doing well on the final. Then, after the final, I will vanish into a spider hole, they’ll all vanish to spend the break with their families, and I will be spared!

Now, though, I have to recover…I’m Christmas Caroled Out. I had to go to a dentist’s appointment first thing this morning — they were playing Christmas carols. I went to the coffee shop to buckled down and get my grading done — they were playing Christmas carols. I stopped at the grocery store on the way home to pick up a few essentials — they were playing Christmas carols. I’ve had enough. I hate Christmas carols, we’ve had enough of them for this year.

I have, at least, concluded empirically that the worst Christmas song to be forced to listen to while having your teeth scraped, or grading, or buying kitty litter is, without question, Ave Maria. Fight me.

We could probably dicker over whether the Andy Williams version or the Celine Dion version blows hardest.

Pitter patter — the beginning of the end

I have a mob of slavering students with pitchforks and torches demanding that I finish grading their lab final so that they can see what their ultimate grade in cell biology will be. I have a pile of papers to get through today. They are bracketed by a dentist’s appointment this morning, and a poetry reading by Chrissy Kolaya. My fate is predetermined on this day: sharp pointy things tearing at my teeth, followed by a long day of coffee and red ink, and ending on soothing poetry. I hope my students don’t track me down to the coffee shop where I’ll be wielding my cruel pen.

None of them ever read this stupid blog, I’m sure. I should be safe. I will get it all done.

And then…freedom! The light! Until late January.

Imagine how much the spiders hate it

I have to go pick up a colleague who is returning from a talk in California.

It’s -27°C outside. There may be a bit of transition shock.

Gosh, I sure hope the shuttle van has working heaters. I had to make that trip one time with no heat at all in the vehicle, on one of the coldest days of the year, and it was not pleasant.

On the optimistic side of things, this probably will not be the coldest day of the year here.

How to make your professor cry

This is the last week of the semester, and I have been buried in grading, nonstop. Term papers were due this week, lab reports, a quiz, etc., and they all have to be done by Thursday to clear the decks for finals next week. That doesn’t make me cry; it’s in the syllabus. This final surge of work for me was planned.

Here’s what kills me.

One third of the cell biology lab grade comes from a big final lab report, describing an independent project they’ve been working on for the past month. I spelled out for them that 75% of the grade on that report is based entirely on reproducing the structure of a formal scientific paper. You know the drill: an introduction that explains why you’re doing the experiment; a methods section that describes how you did the experiment; a results section that describes what you observed; a discussion that interprets your result; and a few other little things, like an abstract and proper citations, etc. I told them that 75 points come literally from just following the form, before I would even dig into the content of their work. (This is a sophomore class, with students who may not have even read a scientific paper, let alone written one, before this year, and simply mastering the structure of the scientific literature is a goal.)

I’ve gone over all this in class. I’ve given them a big ol’ handout I wrote, titled “How to write a scientific paper”, that spells out that structure. I gave them a talk on the subject.

One of the things I told them is that a paper is a text narrative with a formal structure, and every section of the paper is a tightly focused short essay, with rules. Your intro references prior literature in the field, here’s how to write a citation. Your methods are detailed enough that another student could replicate what you did in the lab. The results section includes your data, which may be in the form of tables, graphs, and illustrations, but it also must be a text narrative that summarizes that data and references any figures you use.

I emphasize that bit. I tell them that every year, some students will turn in a lab report that has a results section that is just a jumble of figures after the word “Results”, and that without an in-text reference those figures don’t exist as far as I’m concerned, and without any kind of narrative, they have basically turned in a major section of the paper as a blank, and they get zero points.

There is a section of my write-up on how to write a paper that specifies common problems. This is the very first one.

Missing results. I say it over and over again, but still students turn in a results section that is a jumble of figures and tables and contains no coherent narrative. Write a story about the results! Tell me what you saw, don’t make me try to extract it from a pile of data.

I pound the white board. I tell them “DON’T DO THIS”.

They turn in their lab reports. Most are fine. But again, there’s a group that turn in an empty results section, just a hodge-podge of disconnected charts.

I weep.


I give them so many opportunities. The week before it’s due, I set aside every day from 9-1 for office hours; I tell them, “Please stop by with your rough draft, I’m happy to look it over.” Some do. I caught one report with the cursed empty results section last week, and I was overjoyed to explain to them what they needed to do to fix it, and they did! Their lab report this week was lovely. Lots don’t. I spent many lonely hours in my office, away from my spiders, but at least I got some grading done then.

I even tell them that while it’s due at the end of the lab period this week, I am willing to look it over at the beginning of the lab period for any egregious problems, and they could patch it up and reprint it for submission. Curious fact: it’s the students who are fairly confident of their work who ask me to check it over. The ones who assembled it at the last minute don’t bother. Really, I don’t judge at that point! I just want them to get it right and do well.

Later, I judge. Unfortunately, I tend to judge myself more, and a little tear trickles from the corner of my eye.


This is student evaluation week. Also predictable — students will complain that I didn’t explain this essential component of their lab grade well enough, that I wasn’t available in my office when they needed help, that they didn’t get any guidance from me.

At least at this point there are no more tears, my heart just hardens a little more.

Next year…what do you think will work better? Getting down on my knees and begging, or breathing fire and rage, to get that one little point across? I would love to see one year before I retire in which every student pays attention to this one simple requirement.

Yikes, Silverman is SLAPPing some more

Look upon this document and moan.

It took me a moment to interpret this thing. OK, Silverman is suing American Atheists…isn’t that old news? Wait…this is about Silverman’s lawyer withdrawing from the suit, and substituting…David Silverman, who is now going to act as his own attorney.


This is not going to go well for him. I am almost feeling some sympathy for the guy, since someone seems to be ruthlessly and persistently fucking him over. It’s just that the someone is David P. Silverman.

Wait! The end of the semester isn’t all that bad!

There are a few good things going on right now — they’re all extra work, but it’s the kind of work I don’t mind.

We’re in the midst of a job search — we’re hoping to hire an ecologist. Last night, and twice next week, we get to experience the dreaded Job Seminar, where some poor candidate gets to suffer through a long day of meetings and then present their work in an intense environment where we’re going to judge them and possibly reward them with employment, or not. It’s utterly miserable for them, as I recall from the long ago days when I was in the hot seat, but it means I get to sit back and listen to cool, interesting stuff from a candidate who has worked long and hard on their presentation. Also, I’m not on this search committee, so I don’t have as many responsibilities. So I got to ‘work’ a bit late and be entertained by a fine seminar on prairie ecology and diversity.

Then, today, I volunteered to teach a course for a colleague who has a lot on their plate right now. This wasn’t just generosity — I’m a developmental biologist who rarely gets to teach developmental biology, because in these small departments we have to be responsible and teach obligatory courses outside our main discipline a lot, and this year and next year I’m all about nothing but cell biology and genetics…which is fine. I usually smuggle in a few lectures on developmental genetics in both. But today I get to talk to first year students about the philosophy and history of embryology! Easy, I can do it in my sleep, but I also hope I can inspire the new students to want to join a lab where they can explore development, too. Which is only my lab here.

Both of these things are additional work on top of a heavy load, but I’d rather do that than make students suffer through the grueling end of semester grind. How about if I just tell all my students to forget studying, I’m handing out free As on the final, and we just have to hang out and talk about cool science for the next week? (I don’t think the university administration would approve, unfortunately, and there’s also the obligation to make sure the students are prepared for the next course in our curriculum.)

I got a suggestion to have a Q&A on YouTube. Would anyone else be interested in just talking about science informally this weekend?