Some startling data about the scourge of acronyms

There’s a lot to dislike about the way we write scientific papers. They’re often tedious and impenetrable, and they get that way at least in part because we make poor decisions as we write. We overuse big fancy words when short simple ones are available (“utilize”, anyone?), we just can’t let go of our fetish for the passive voice, and we apparently love nothing more than replacing some actual English words with an acronym. And so on. Continue reading

This new flag is even better than you think

This November, there are a lot of very consequential elections and referenda in the United States. Most of them I won’t comment on here (although it wouldn’t be hard to infer my thoughts about the highest-stakes one). But one referendum, in one state, is – perhaps surprisingly – right up Scientist Sees Squirrel’s alley.  The people of the state of Mississippi will vote, I hope, to approve the new state flag pictured above.

The proposed flag won a design competition and will be on the ballot for approval in November.  It will replace an older flag that included an inset Confederate battle emblem, and I hope everyone knows why its time is (more than) up.* Continue reading

Student responsibility for online learning, the prescriptive battles the descriptive

Like most of my colleagues, I spent dozens upon dozens of hours this summer converting my university courses to an online format.  I showed you the result, for my 3rd year Entomology course, in last week’s post – and to be honest, I think the result is pretty good.*  Of course, what I think about it doesn’t really matter – what matters is what my students think about it.  Or maybe that’s what matters.  I’m not sure, and a seemingly minor decision puts the question in sharp relief for me: one long video, or a bunch of short ones?

My university made an early decision to go online for fall (both going online, and calling it early, were very good decisions).  That meant that our Centre for Enhanced Teaching and Learning had time to put on a course in online pedagogy and logistics, and I had time to take it. (Well, by “had time”, I mean “made time”; anyone who thinks that the move to online made professors’ jobs easier is, shall we say politely, incompletely informed.)  One recommendation got a lot of stress in that course: for the presentation of content, chunking material into short videos.  Five minutes! Four minutes! Three minutes!

This was a bit startling.  Three minute videos? Continue reading

What my online Entomology course look like

Warning: this got kind of long.  If you’re not interested in the online course delivery – here’s an unrelated but much shorter post instead. It’s kind of fun.

Like most university instructors, I’m teaching online this fall – 3rd year general Entomology, in my case.  Also like most university instructors, I had (before this summer) no training in pedagogy for online teaching, limited experience with the necessary technology, and a certain amount of skepticism that I could teach entomology – with a lab – without ever seeing my students in person.  But needs must, as they say; and here we are. Today, for those who are interested: a glimpse at my course.  I poured an enormous amount of work into this, and I’m hopeful that the product is pretty good. (In some ways, it may be better than the face-to-face version.) But, since it started just last week, you’re seeing an attempt of uncertain merit, or if you prefer, an experiment in progress. Continue reading

A year of books (5): where did the summer go?

Time now for the fifth instalment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do.  Here’s why I’m doing this. This strange pandemic summer went by in a blur.  Thank goodness for the books along the way. 

Rotherweird (Andrew Caldecott, 2017). What a marvellously indescribable book – urban fantasy, I suppose.  It’s the story of a strange town, in but not part of England, populated by eccentrics both evil and good (it takes a while to figure out which are which).  There’s a portal to another world, a mysterious threat to that world and to the town, and a generous helping of other oddnesses (for instance, a scientist who pole-vaults across the town’s rooftops at night). There’s a strong flavour of Ghormenghast, somehow leavened with a little AnkhMorpork, and… well, I did say indescribable, right?  But hugely enjoyable, and the two sequels are absolutely on my reading list. Continue reading

The perfect margarita and the perfect scientific paper

Everyone needs a summer project (or sixteen), and among mine was mixing the perfect margarita.  In pursuit of the perfect margarita, I read a lot of recipes, and a lot of opinions.  I finally made progress when I realized something important: the way to make a perfect margarita is to ignore everything anyone else has ever said about what makes a perfect margarita.  That realization, and a little fiddling, and there it was in my hand: my (not “the”) perfect margarita.

That last little tweak of the wording is key. My perfect margarita might horrify a margarita purist – no, never mind “might”, it’s sure to.  But because I’m mixing a margarita for me, it makes absolutely no difference what anybody else thinks.  It’s my perfect margarita.*

I have not yet written the perfect scientific paper. It turns out that’s harder. Continue reading

How art met science in “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider”

I’ve written a lot here on Scientist Sees Squirrel about my new book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider.  That is, I’ve written a lot about the book’s subject (eponymous Latin names; or, those Latin names that honour people).*  I haven’t written as much about the illustrations. It’s time to rectify that, and I’m thrilled that I can point you to a new online exhibition of Emily Damstra’s wonderful illustrations, and an interview with Emily and me about our experience working together.

I knew from the start that Charles Darwin’s Barnacle needed illustrations. Continue reading

Grading, correcting, and mentoring writing: learning on both sides

I’ve been working on writing with grad students, and other early-career writers, for a startlingly long time now. It’s the usual way for scientific writers to learn their craft: the more junior writer produces drafts, and the more senior writer receives and comments on them.  But the process isn’t as simple as I used to think.  Instead, there’s a developmental sequence that both parties go through – junior and senior – and I think it’s useful for each to think explicitly about this sequence: about their own position in it, and the opposite party’s.  This is the sequence I have in mind: from grading writing, to correcting writing, to mentoring a writer.

Let’s work with a simplified cartoon of this.  Imagine that my brand-new (and fictional) grad student Jane has given me a draft of a manuscript about biological control of citrus scale insect.  Throughout, she’s spelled “lemon” with a double m.* I notice this.  What Jane and I each do next, and what we each expect from the other, depends on where each of us is along that the sequence.  When we don’t understand this, frustration ensues. Continue reading

Drosophila, exponential growth, and the power of evolution

A few weeks ago I blogged about the way the universe is doomed by the exponential growth in readership of an old post here on Scientist Sees Squirrel.  That exercise was a bit silly, but I used it to make a non-silly point or two about biology.  My blogging example reminded me that I used to use an almost-as-silly fruit fly example in my undergrad ecology courses. I thought you might enjoy it – so here it is. (And if you’re teaching, and want to borrow it, be my guest.)

Imagine that you return from the grocery store with some bananas.  Unbeknownst to you, a single (inseminated) female fruit fly* has stowed away in there.  If all her offspring survive, how many fruit flies will your kitchen have after just one year? Continue reading

Moby Dick and scientific writing

Call me Ishmael.

It’s one of the most famous opening lines in English-language literature, and it starts one of the most famous books.  Like everyone else, I knew about Moby Dick.  Like a very large fraction of everyone else, I’d never read it.*  I’ve just finished it, and you know how each reader comes at a book in their own way?  I found that Moby Dick made me think about scientific writing.

I know, that’s a little weird, and I’ll admit that scientific writing is something I obsess about a tiny little bit. But as I settled into Moby Dick, and thought about what Melville was doing in the writing, I kept noticing things.  Moby Dick, I claim, has things to teach us about scientific writing – both in the ways that it resembles good scientific writing, and in the ways that it does not. Continue reading