On the other side of an experiment

I’m three weeks into having type 1 diabetes (T1D) and very grateful that it’s 2017. If it were 1919, I’d have a painful year and a half to live while slowly dying from starvation. That’s a scary thought.

Today, my endo says I have a normal life expectancy and she wouldn’t expect me to ever need anything amputated. That’s a relief. She also says that within my life time there will be a cure. “I’m a pessimist, Jo. And even I think there will be a cure in the next ten years,” is how she phrased it last week. Continue reading

Time management

There is a saying that the only thing that unites academics is a common interest in parking. I think we are also united by a common interest in time management.

Megan Duffy drew my attention to this absolutely fabulous article. It is well worth the 30 mins it will take to read and think about. Following my last post, a snippet about how we might proceed:

“…we might try to get more comfortable with not being as efficient as possible – with declining certain opportunities, disappointing certain people, and letting certain tasks go undone. Plenty of unpleasant chores are essential to survival. But others are not – we have just been conditioned to assume that they are. It isn’t compulsory to earn more money, achieve more goals, realize our potential on every dimension, or fit more in.

In a quiet moment in Seattle, Robert Levine, a social psychologist from California, quoted the environmentalist Edward Abbey: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”


michael-lewis-the-undoing-projectI just finished reading The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. He’s the guy who wrote Moneyball and The Big Short, riveting books about the arcane subjects of choosing baseball players and the subprime crash of 2008. This latest book is even better. The Undoing Project is one of the best science books I have ever read. It has fascinating science as well as love, obsession, envy, triumph, failure, self-doubt, arrogance, humility and war. It’ll make a fantastic movie and might do more than even The Double Helix to explain to non-scientists how science gets done — and how it is such a human endeavor.

Ultimately the book is about the triumphs (and failings) of two scientists, Danny Kanneman and Amos Taversky, and their studies of human failings. Much wisdom emanates from them. One Taversky line particularly resonated, I guess because my frantic semester finally ended, it’s the Christmas break and sabbatical is beckoning:

The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.

I think there is something to that. My best, most creative thinking happened when I was on sabbatical or research leave, or in the early years at Penn State before fund-raising, teaching and institutional nonsense caught up. The Undoing Project is really about identifying important problems. Hyper-busyness gets in the way. New Year’s resolution: Just say no.

Reflecting on the election results as a scientist

Jessi and I were heaving deep sighs over our post-election coffee on Wednesday morning. Neither of us were happy about the election results: a president-elect that (among other things) denies the science of climate change and endorses misogyny. How is a woman in science supposed to feel after an election like this? I think the answer is “fired up.”

Highly educated women in science make up a minority of the electorate. How much of a minority? Earlier this week, the New York Times published a map of voter turnout (from 2012) by American education demographics, broken down by race and county. The map looks mostly blue: meaning mostly whites with little to no college education. It’s not only highly educated women that appear to be a minority here, but highly educated any-gender people that appear to be a minority.


Looking at the map, no one would want to run an election campaign relying on a college-educated demographic. College education looks rare in the United States, dark tan appears as a small minority of geographic voting groups. However, college education is not really that rare. Roughly 65 percent of people over 25 in the U.S. have had some college, but this majority becomes hidden on maps like the one above when the 65 percent clusters geographically, mostly in and around urban centers.

How does education influence election outcomes? I ran the question by Jessi and she agreed it would be interesting if I over-layed the map of the education demographics by county with the election results by county. This is the map of the election results by county, also from the NYT.screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-1-50-00-pm

Overlaying the election results map with the education voter demographics map, looks something like this:



The overlay map looks very pink and purple. Lots of white people with some or no college education voted for Trump.


I think the map hints at a greater problem though, the clustering of people with similar backgrounds, education levels and ideology. This makes us diverse-phobic. When we are used to seeing people like us, we don’t know how to interact with people not like us.

I am guilty of this. I am scared of talking to people that don’t think like me. A real life example: a few weeks ago (before the election) I saw a flyer at Saint’s. img_4010

I was upset. Here’s a flyer for events to tell people why evolution is a myth. AND where are the events being held!!?!! A public high school. A public library. Places that are supposed to endorse facts and science and progressive education. Hosting a creationist!! I vented to friends at the coffee shop. I got really angry. I turned the flyers upside down so I wouldn’t have to look at them. But did I do anything? Did I go anywhere where I might have to listen to a crazy creationist and hear what they have to say? Nope. No way. I didn’t even want to imagine sitting in the room and having to listen to what they had to say. Not for a second.

And that is what I think the problem is. As we get divided on issues, like evolution, like climate science, like the fifty other things the Trump platform stands against, we have a tendency to treat disagreement with ignorance. I talk to people that also study evolution, that also work similar jobs, that also believe in the things I already believe in. I ignore the things I don’t want to hear. I stay in my comfortable echo-chamber. How do we make change? By voicing our opinions to people that might not agree with us, by listening to the “other side” so we know where their opinion comes from, by doing what’s difficult instead of what’s easy.

I feel guilty about not going to the “Busting Myths” events and voicing an alternative opinion. Was that my obligation as a scientist? Is it all of our obligation to speak up now? Or do we continue business as usual…

A chicken in every house?

As a new method for malaria control, a brief glance at the abstract of this article in Malaria World / Malaria Journal this week seems to suggest keeping a chicken in your house will prevent An. arabiensis from coming near.diaperOnChicken

This is both a case for house chickens (they do sell chicken diapers) and for outside of the box thinking for new mosquito control ideas.

And the final question was…

… name four of the six best-selling deodorant brands of 2014. It was trivia night last night for the Read-Thomas lab and it was a good thing most of us work inside Convirons set to 80 degrees. We know our deodorant brands. 1. Old Spice, 2. Secret, 3. Dove and 4. Degree. The remaining two were Suave and Axe. It was a good thing we didn’t say Speedstick! (or my suggestion of Arm and Hammer to which Jessi reasoned “That’s a hippie brand, Jo”).

The team won by a single point after wagering our entire point count on the final question. “Go big or go home,” Mike said. We went big and we did go home but we went home with a $25 gift card to Pickle’s to pay for the next trivia night.

Trivia night is like scrabble, it helps if you have smart people on your team but it’s also a game of luck. Categories last night included U.S. Presidents, Science & Medicine and U.S. states. Most fun was having interesting conversation, watching Jessi run back and forth to the table to deposit our answers, eavesdropping on the table next to us chinking glasses to capitalism, and having Lillian dominate with the number of answers she knew.

Shelley managed to snap a picture of us all on her phone with help from some people at the bar. Here’s the winning team:

trivia night

My morning in the slaughterhouses

Over the course of the past few months, the majority of my work-related conversations have been on developing artificial diets to mass rear mosquitoes. The result has been heaps of suggestions for what to use as an alternative to live blood meals. People have suggested an array of alternatives. Some alternatives have been strange, e.g. coconuts, raw eggs, cheese. Some less strange, e.g. milk, whey, salt solutions. But one thing that repeatedly comes up is the idea of using salvaged blood from the meat industry. Salvaged blood would presumably be less expensive than the cost of purchasing live animals or blood from a blood bank, and might pose less disease risk if it is considered food-grade. My argument for using insects over all of these other alternatives has been that insects are easy. Insects are less regulated, faster to rear, cheap, less prone to giving us disease and contain hemolymph presumably more similar to mammalian blood than, say, a coconut. But after what felt like the ten-billionth time I’d been asked the slaughterhouse question, I felt I needed to see for myself — how hard is it to collect slaughterhouse waste?

That question is what led me to find myself on Wednesday morning covered boots-to-neck in a yellow rubber apron, one hand holding onto a turkey head, and the other clinging to a ziplock bag. I was collecting blood from a turkey slaughter at the Poultry Education and Research Center (PERC). The center is not far from the insectary, found by a small store that sells eggs and packaged meat. The slaughter house is just beyond the store, behind a biohazard gate. If you’re looking for locally sourced meat, this is the place. I had emailed the manager of the PERC, Scott Kephart, a few weeks back asking whether Penn State salvages any of the slaughterhouse waste for research purposes. His short answer was no, but he was willing to let me try.

Slaughters happen at least once a week, sometimes turkeys, sometimes chickens and sometimes pigs and sheep in the other meat labs on campus. Wednesday happened to be turkey. So on Wednesday morning, I woke up early and headed to the campus slaughter house to meet Scott, an accompanying veterinarian, and a guy named Steve who would actually do the slaughtering. We walked through the education center, stepping through a foot wash on the way in and a foot wash on the way out, crossed a gravel parking lot and headed into a barn-like building, the abattoir. The turkeys came in. They walked around the enclosed room, while we suited up into blood-splatter-proof aprons. Turkey slaughtering goes something like this: (1) the turkey is grabbed by her feet, (2) in one sweeping motion, the turkey’s flipped upside down and her talons are slid into a ceiling foothold, (3) the turkey gets dizzy from being upside down and passes out, (4) a trained professional makes one deep slit in an external jugular vein, and (5) the turkey hangs until the blood drains out before butchering.

The slaughtering process is quick, clean and efficient when done by people who know what they are doing. The turkeys didn’t move and showed no signs of suffering, no lugubrious sounds, no attempts to resist. The room was quiet when the necks were slit. The only sound came from the sound of the blood coming out. Blood drains fast from the jugular. The force of the heart is surprising, more energetic than the word draining implies, the blood rushes out, gushing in one thick stream. My gallon bag was empty and then it was full, filled with enough blood to feed at least a thousand mosquitoes, one turkey’s worth.

I had brought with me an anticoagulant, CPDA, aliquoted into tubes. I then transferred blood from the collection bag into tubes and shook to mix the anticoagulant into the blood. So far so easy. I brought the tubes back to lab and did my first turkey feed on Wednesday afternoon. Some mosquitoes supposedly lay more eggs off of bird blood than mammalian blood, possibly because of extra nutrients found in nucleated red blood cells. Small boosts in fecundity could make a huge difference in the success of mass rearing efforts. For results on whether Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes also lay more eggs off of slaughterhouse-salvaged bird blood vs blood-bank-sourced human blood, stay tuned at the next lab meeting.



The Powerball jackpot is now in excess of $1 billion, which means that there is a flurry of popular press articles discussing the lottery, statistics, odds, and expected value.  All of the articles use slightly different numbers and logic but basically come to the same conclusion: the lottery is a poor investment because the expected payout is less than the cost of a ticket.

I take issue with this claim.  Sure expected value can be an important consideration, but another important consideration that is often neglected is the variation in outcome.  Variation is what gamblers pay for.  Nobody would use a slot machine if it returned exactly $0.95 after each $1.00 pull.   But slot machines don’t work that way.  They return $0 most of the time, and large amounts much more rarely.  So if I pull the lever once, I will likely walk away a loser, but I may walk away a big winner.  People who gamble enjoy this variation, because any given person on any given day may be able to start playing with very little money and leave with very much.  The lottery takes this idea to the extreme.  For $2 you can become a pre-tax billionaire.  It is by definition a high risk investment, and whether the expected return is positive or negative is essentially irrelevant in deciding whether the investment is good or bad.

Consider a thought experiment.  What if the fraction of each ticket sale that went towards the jackpot were increased such that the expected return of the lottery were positive?  You are still you, and so you still only have enough money to buy a small number of tickets.  The odds of any ticket winning are still unchanged, and so you would almost certainly still end up with nothing.  Even if the long term expected return were positive, it would likely take hundreds of lifetimes before you realized that positive return.  That doesn’t sound like a very good investment to me.  In other words, the expected return is not the key factor in determining whether a lottery ticket is a good investment — the perceived value of variation in outcome is.  People who feel like they have enough see this variation as a cost.  People who feel like they do not have enough see this variation as a benefit.

Some people say the lottery is a tax on people who don’t know math.  I disagree.  The lottery is a tax on dreaming of wealth.

Why do we eat what we eat?

A few weeks ago Eleanore shared with me this gem of a paper. It’s a case study of a 456 lb man who fasted for 382 days, eating nothing but a multivitamin with “no ill effects”. It’s content possibly only rivals this one in terms of uniqueness in the diet literature: an 88-yr old man who eats 25 eggs per day and has normal cholesterol levels in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The question of why we eat what we eat has a lot of proximate answers. We eat the foods we eat because the taste and textures appeal to us, or some combination of appeal and availability, price or season. Presumably, the 88-yr-old egg eater really likes eggs. But that doesn’t explain why all humans don’t like eggs this much. And why certain foods that appeal to me seem less appealing to others. Shouldn’t we all need to eat the same things? What does an “optimal” diet look like and why might there be variation in what we eat or want to eat?

It’s a question my grandmother was wondering the year my mom made tofurky for Thanksgiving and one I’m often asking with mosquitoes. In both systems, taste preferences seem to lack ultimate answers. We (and mosquitoes) don’t always prefer to eat things that are “healthiest” for us. If I could increase my fitness by eating watercress, why can’t watercress taste a bit better? If mosquitoes can lay more eggs off of eating mice than eating me, why don’t they eat more mice?

A few weeks ago I was chatting with an insect mass-rearer named David. David said that even if we could provide a perfect, optimal diet with all the nutrients an insect needs to live long and make lots of insect babies, it would only be a good diet if the insects wanted to eat it.

“Imagine,” he said, “that a bunch of insects were developing an artificial human diet and they watched us for a while and said ‘Hmm’ humans eat this hamburger stuff. Live cows have the same nutrients. Let’s feed humans the live ones, it’s less work.”

A live cow diet to rear humans would likely fail because most humans wouldn’t take a bite of raw cow if they were put in the same pen. I don’t think this is because we couldn’t survive a long time eating steak tartar, but because much of what we eat might be learned behavior rather than instinct (as a non-anthropologist, I have no idea if this is true). It’s strange to me that the cravings of our sensory system may be out of sync with what our other bodily systems crave. If my digestive system wants fiber and my vascular system wants iron and my skin wants fats and my teeth want calcium are my cravings for different foods loosely reflecting the needs of various systems? Or are we all captives to vestigial cravings to seek efficient high calorie foods that led to fitness optimums in scarce resource environments of the past? Optimal foraging theory in humans suggests that cravings derive from reducing risk of energy-depletion but that one other way we can reduce risks of having too little food is a strategy called sharing — a holiday-appropriate result.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! And happy foraging to an optimal micronutrient intake.

Holiday season

Everyone seems to have a different favorite holiday.  My favorite happened just this past weekend.  Just to be clear, I’m not talking about Halloween, I’m talking about the end of Daylight Savings.  This holiday is simply the best.  In addition to always getting the day of Daylight Savings and the day before off from work, it is a holiday that provides the most valuable gift of all — the gift of extra time.  A lot of people I know use their extra hour right away, choosing to drink for an extra hour on Saturday night, or sleep for an extra hour on Sunday morning.  But that seems like such a waste to me.  I like to save my hour and use it as needed.  So far, I’ve spent 15 minutes on Monday sleeping in, and another 5 minutes writing this blog post.  That leaves me with 40 minutes.  I look forward to seeing how I’ll spend the rest in the weeks to come.  Happy holiday!

Infectious cancer and contagious heart attacks

Paul Ewald has lots of interesting ideas, but this one got me thinking. He theorizes that the common diseases are are plagued with (from cancer to heart attacks) will be found to be caused by infectious organisms. (Cartoons lifted from this awesome site)


At first I was skeptical, but it does make some sense that chronic low-level infections could be missed for years while doing damage to our bodies. Examples of cervical cancer (HPV) and ulcers (H. pylori) are convincing, not to mention more obvious examples like Tazmanian devil facial tumors.


There was recent NPR coverage about surgical instruments used in the brain potentially spreading a prion-type protein causing Alzheimer’s. Prions are scary.

madcowLooking into it further I found that the American Cancer Society has a publication on infections that cause cancer, ranging from viruses to parasitic worms. This is really something to think about. 

SyFy in Science

Lately I’ve found reading Science and Nature to feel a bit like reading science fiction. On September 18, an article in Science reported the invention of “An ultrathin invisibility skin cloak for visible light,” which, as the title suggests, describes how to construct an invisibility cloak (albeit for very small objects, not yet usable for human-scale disguises). This came a day after Nature published a neuroscience article on using laser beams to erase memories, and a few weeks after PLOS ONE published an article demonstrating human mind reading via brain-to-brain interfaces.

The next generation of humans is going to be high-tech. I like to think that in general I support new and improved technologies. And for the most part I do, especially in respect to the technologies that have been used for benevolent functions, e.g. the Internet and social media’s positive impacts on housing international refugees, alleviating hunger and disease, and increasing education. But mind-reading, invisibility cloaks and very literal brain-washing: Is this for the better?

My grandparents likely asked the same question when they first heard the Beatles, and my mom, when I started a Facebook account. Reading scientific journal makes me wonder what will dig the next generation gap. Will it be kids with brain chips and cyberthinking skills? Brain chips or no brain chips, new technology comes with the prospect of a new and often scary future.

What I find most interesting is that the “scary” part of this future might have less to do with the nature of the technology and more to do with our conception of it’s normalcy. Go ask someone on the street about his or her opinion on brain chips, and most of the responses will be vague, related to concerns about brain chips being not “normal” or not “natural.” Very rarely will someone discuss logistics such as where the on/off switch would be. Or do they cause headaches? Or would a chip change one’s sense of creativity? In many ways this parallels the arrival of airplanes, telephones, iPhones and other technological devices that revolutionized communication and connectivity. Initial response is apprehension, secondary response is a revolution. Welcome to the world invisibility, mind reading and mind cleaning. I’m apprehensive, but so was my great-grandfather about indoor plumbing.

Supermoon eclipse this Sunday night

I love this stuff.images-2

There will be a full moon this Sunday appearing about 14% larger than average. On top of this Supermoon (already darn cool), there will be a lunar eclipse! How awesome is that! And it won’t be this big and awesome again until 2033, so make sure to watch. It will start a little after 9pm, and be fully eclipsed at 10:11pm the night of Sunday September 27th.

It’s a bonus that the eclipsed supermoon with its reddish tint looks a bit like an oocyst in a mosquito midgut. There, now this is relevant information.


All the news that’s fit to tweet

There are two twitter feeds that I follow mostly for entertainment value. The first is the Centre Daily Times. My all time favorite tweet by the CDT is a link to “Details about the Incident at the Waffle Shop”. I think this would make a great title for a novel. If you were wondering, the incident was somebody’s pepper spray going off in their bag.

The second twitter feed shouldn’t even be in the same league. And yet, the CDC routinely tweets things that elicit exactly the same sense of bemusement as central Pennsylvania’s finest news source. For example, there was recently a tweet urging me to celebrate National Girlfriends’ Health Day. What is National Girlfriends’ Health Day, you ask? It’s a day when, as a lady, you speak to your lady friends about being healthy. Things like exercising, getting a pap smear, and eating right. Split an entree, suggests the CDC.

Did the CDC really just suggest that I shame my friends into eating less? This advice comes at the top of the page, but I have to scroll all the way to bottom of the page to find the National Domestic Violence Hotline number, which seems somehow more important. Maybe it’s just that, despite being a lady with lady friends, I’m not the target demographic for this particular message. But it seems so poorly thought out that I can’t imagine who the audience is here. It strikes me as a public health intervention devised by somebody binge watching Sex in the City. Or maybe a cliche stand up comedy routine? Women, always talking to each other. Am I right?

Not to go on a rant here (she said, mid-rant) but it adds insult to injury when U.S. senators are currently launching another attack on the health care providers that actually work to keep women (and men!) healthy. I don’t want my friends to talk to me about getting a pap smear, I want my tax dollars to fund pap smears for people who can’t otherwise afford to go to the doctor and get a pap smear.

I realize that Planned Parenthood and the CDC aren’t exactly in the same business, and not to diminish the good work that the CDC does actually do, but surely there are better ways to improve public health than National Girlfriends’ Health Day?

I am, however, looking forward to Brovember: National Bros’ Health Month.

Good old gratitude.

My dad likes to send me newspaper clippings. I’m a fan of his snail-mail tendencies. It means that, instead of a bunch of solicitations from strangers for my time and money, my mailbox is normally dominated by interesting tidbits about a random collection of topics.

The latest inspection of my mailbox produced articles on sleep rhythms, Ebola vaccine and Canadians. I particularly enjoyed the article on Canadians. It struck me as pertinent not just to Canadians, but to anyone who is part of a larger group. Be it, a member of a city, a university or a research lab.

I think the article is best summarized by its concluding paragraph (replace “the Canadian” with “our group’s” and “countries” with “groups”):

“ Gratitude, whether to God or our ancestors or the luck of the draw, requires a certain alertness to reality. It is not available to those who lack curiosity. To feel grateful we need perspective. We need to know something about the Canadian past and even more about the misery now endured by many other countries. Wisdom and peace (said the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus) comes to someone who “does not grieve for the things not acquired but rejoices for those possessed.” “

(Excerpt from article by Robert Fulford, written for the National Post.)

Of course …… we should also always strive to make things better.

Brain size and intelligence

A conversation I had the other day on the news of a new hominid species, Homo naledi, led to a comment that the species had small brains. Can brain size tell us anything about a species? Or can our fondness for our favorite organ mislead us into thinking that its size matters?

It’s tempting to think that a bigger brain is better. I think of brains sort of like I think of wallets. The bigger they are, the more valuable material I can shove in. But in actuality it never works that way: bigger wallets don’t have more money, they just end up with more receipt paper, candy wrappers and membership cards.

Similarly, bigger brains don’t seem to correlate with intelligence. Neanderthals had bigger brains than modern humans, suggesting that we evolved from cavemen to current intelligence levels despite shrinking brain size. If we compare across species, humans also have smaller brains than other members of the animal kingdom, like whales and elephants (we have almost 200,000,000 less brain cells than an average elephant). If we scale brain size by unit body mass, modern humans still get beat by ants, the tree shrew and small birds, having the same brain-to-body-mass ratio as a mouse. Even within our species, there’s inconsistent evidence on whether bigger brained people are any smarter than smaller brained people.

How do we explain differences between human intelligence and the intelligence of other animals if we can’t find a physical feature that puts us at the top of the list in brain measurements? By using Jensen’s encephalization quotient. The encephalization quotient, or EQ, compares brain size to expected brain size for similarly sized species. Here humans win out but I find the justification for this metric confusing. Why should brain size increase with body size? The metric also seems to depend on which species are we using to fit a line between body size and brain size. Using animals with more massive bodies, which could be reflecting adaptations for movement rather than adaptations for behavioral strategies/intelligence, changes the regression line. Depending on which species are selected for the line fit, we could reach a different outcome in the species with the highest EQ. For example, if we used only primates or only flightless animals with higher body masses would our brain size residual be more similar to other animals? The EQ also seems meaningless when we compare between species: are pigs less intelligent than horses? Intelligence is a hard thing to measure, and seems too complex to compare across species.

So if brain size has little to do with intelligence, what can brain size tell us?

Brain size correlates well with body size, head circumference and height. Big brains = big heads.


p-hacking and science with an agenda

I recently read this post about p-hacking (see also: data dredging, fishing, snooping). Two things that I found to be noteworthy were an interactive example of how p-hacking works, and a description of an experiment where different research teams analyzed the same data set:


“Twenty-nine teams with a total of 61 analysts took part. The researchers used a wide variety of methods, ranging — for those of you interested in the methodological gore — from simple linear regression techniques to complex multilevel regressions and Bayesian approaches. They also made different decisions about which secondary variables to use in their analyses.


Despite analyzing the same data, the researchers got a variety of results. Twenty teams concluded that soccer referees gave more red cards to dark-skinned players, and nine teams found no significant relationship between skin color and red cards.”


To reiterate, all of the methods used were justifiable. There wasn’t any fudging or fabricating data. A group of skilled analysts sat down and came up with 29 defensible methods for analyzing the same data that gave different answers. To me, this is the stuff of existential crises. To quote the article, “[e]very result is a temporary truth”. Which I think is pretty concerning if you’re working in a situation where temporary truths don’t cut it.


Joshua Tewksbury is a biologist who spent 10 years as a professor at the University of Washington before moving to a position with the World Wildlife Fund. About a year ago, he wrote a post about transitioning to an NGO position where, he writes, “[s]cience shows up as just another wrench in the toolkit.” A deeply malleable tool, apparently. On the one hand, it’s troubling to think about making decisions with temporary truths. On the other hand, and this strikes me as almost heretical to type, if you deeply believe in your cause, maybe it’s not so bad to (ethically and with full disclosure) make subjective decisions in how you analyze your data to advance your cause.


After thinking about it for a while, I’m still not sure how bad my crisis should be. In the first post, one of the project leaders is quoted as saying:


“On the one hand, our study shows that results are heavily reliant on analytic choices,” Uhlmann told me. “On the other hand, it also suggests there’s a there there. It’s hard to look at that data and say there’s no bias against dark-skinned players.”


At first pass, this didn’t help me. As somebody who takes comfort in certainty (and don’t most scientists?) the “squint at it” method of assessing data is an endless source of frustration. But I’ve also realized that we might feel confident about one other thing from the soccer data set. No groups concluded that lighter skinned players received more red cards. Maybe there are some relatively permanent truths, it’s just that they don’t answer the question we set out to answer.

In the field, eh?

Traveling internationally is good for the brain. I’m not sure which synapses are “sparking” differently, but I’ve been in Canada since last Wednesday and I’m pretty sure I think different up north than I do down south. Simple things are not simple anymore and I devote thinking time to things like speed limits and temperatures and how metric-illiterate I am. I also have to look at money very closely, wondering which size and color coin is which amount. I wait for my change in the grocery store but never get it because the country “rounds” the tab — nobody gets pennies back. The end result is that when I’m forced to think about little things I ordinarily wouldn’t pay attention to, I also start thinking about work things in a way that I wouldn’t ordinarily do.

I’m being hosted by Bill Nelson‘s lab at Queen’s University as part of a research exchange program. Bill is a biologist/mathematician who also crosses into the field-work world to look at Daphnia populations in local lakes.

Week one: I was thinking in math. Something I would ordinarily not consider myself to be doing. And when I inevitably had to email Bill after running into troubles, I received in return one of the best email responses ever written: a picture of a hand written math solution.


The simple translated email was: “You’re using an incorrect equation. Use this one instead.”

I would love if more emails were hand written. I miss seeing what hand writing looks like.

Week two: I worked in a boat. I’ve never worked in a boat before.

Field work in a boat: sampling gear laid out on the bench as we anchor in to the first field site.

Field work in a boat: sampling gear laid out on the bench as we anchor in at the first field site.

photo 2(2)

Bill samples water for Daphnia from six lakes. The only way to get to sampling locations is via rowing.

I learned science while learning how to row. The rowing learning curve was a bit steeper than expected. Sitting between the oars with Bill in the back and Shelley sitting in the bow, I swerved too far left, distracted by loons, then overcorrected right, swerving back and forth before we got to our buoy-marked location in the deepest part of the lake.

Loons. I must be in Canada.

Loons. I must be in Canada.

From there it was more non-stop learning: new biology jargon, new facts about the layers in water bodies and new terms describing aquatic species and communities.

Tomorrow, week two of learning continues! This time off-boat.