Friday, July 25, 2014

A Nice Surprise from a Former Student!

There are many things I enjoy about teaching and doing research with undergraduates (and yes, there are challenges, too) here in the Biology Department at the University of Puget Sound.  

From time to time---always a pleasant surprise---a student will send me a "thank you" note after graduation.  Such notes are very nice to receive, and to hold in reserve for those difficult times all academics face periodically. Maybe as a deposit to our virtual "I'm okay at my job" emotional bank account, for those days when we have doubts.

By the way, isn't it interesting how we as a culture have no trouble sounding off when things are not to our liking...but seem to have problems telling others when they have done something well, or have had some kind of positive impact on our lives?  Why is that?

Anyway, meet a young lady named Ariana, a transfer student to the University of Puget Sound.  She was assigned to my advisee caseload, and we worked together for a bit over two years.  Ariana was always quiet and a little nervous.  It was great to see her gain confidence over the next two years.  She even did some research with a colleague of mine, so I was able to work with Ariana a bit in the lab last summer.  Ariana graduated in May, and is off to a library science M.S. program in Chicago (she always did love libraries!).

Ariana came to visit the lab this morning, and look at what she made me!  It was a nice surprise, to say the least. Ariana poses with her knit bacteriophage here.


Also, the bacteriophage was happy to consume a donut at morning lab meeting.  And yes, Ariana stitched my first name onto the knit face of that icosahedral head (which made some of my current students snicker that Ariana was implying that I am a virus).

But heck, to misquote the Bard of Avon, "...all the world's a phage...," right?


Here is a nice photo of the impressive knitting project, with a hand for scale.


I don't know exactly what pattern Ariana used.  This is a possibility.  I'm currently thinking about use thick wire to stiffen the phage legs and body, so that I can find a place to hang up the item in my lab or office.

This is why I have a job that is nearly perfect for me, right here. The surprises that let me know what I do and say matter to people mean more than I can easily express. 

Such a nice surprise!  Thank you, Ariana.  It was a pleasure working with you while you were a student at the University of Puget Sound.  I really appreciate the gift, and the kind words. Good luck in Chicago!


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Fame versus Impact

Just a quick post, and kind of a somber one. Hopefully, it will have a bit of impact as the new academic year approaches, and get educators like myself thinking.

Imagine a classroom of 100 freshmen students.  Some eager, some nervous, some world-weary and cynical, and some half-asleep.  In other words, a slice of the college age, university attending, population.

Ask them if they know the name "Norman Borlaug."

Then ask them if they know the name "Kim Kardashian."

I think you can tell where I am going with this post. You haven't done it yet as I have, yet you can---each and every one of you---predict the responses. 

Kim Kardashian is an inexplicably well-known media celebrity. Come to think of it, she first reached the public eye in a somewhat tacky fashion (though she is far from the only celebrity to use that route to notoriety).  She grabbed at her fame and has monetized it heavily, leveraging a career of sorts.  Can you blame her?  It's all about getting noticed.

By the way, feel free to insert the name of any male celebrity if you wish.

But Norman Borlaug is a name everyone should know.  I don't want to go over his accomplishments.  What I want is anyone reading this post who doesn't know about Borlaug's life and work to read the first link I posted.  Then watch Penn and Teller talk about Borlaug here.  Read this.  Then go on to read this.  Or even watch the whole documentary on Borlaug here

I don't know many people who spearheaded efforts to save a billion human beings from starvation, successfully.

But he didn't get his own reality show, did he?

Perhaps you want something more media-savvy and hip about Norman Borlaug.  How about this?




Isn't that a fantastic way to publicize what Borlaug did?

Did you know all that about Norman Borlaug?  The only reason I did was from debating on scarce world resources in high school, and my plant science professors at UCLA.  

Tell your friends.  And use Borlaug's great comment: 


I'm not one to sit idly by...I'm going to play that card, and play it hard.

Indeed.

I sent a friend of mine this "Scientist Rock Star" poster celebrating Borlaug recently.  



I recommend you order a Borlaug poster from Megan Lee, and post it in your office or lab or classroom.  Do the same with other scientists who need the PR.  For example, this is something I have posted on my office door, not that it surprises anyone.



We need to have a world where we recognize people for their accomplishments.

By the way, don't think that a Microbial Supremacist™ like me is going all plant-centric on you!  Read this American Academy of Microbiology 2013 report, titled "How Microbes Can Feed the World," available here.  The Small Masters are always in my thoughts.  And brain, apparently.

All of this discussion of media popularity versus significance reminds me of the quote by Oscar Wilde:  "I would rather be infamous than not famous at all."  That is how most of our celebrity culture works.  But should it?

We need to find ways to make things better, not "sit idly by" as Norman Borlaug put it.  And when we find it, we need to "play that card, and play it hard."

I'm with Penn Jillette in considering Norman Borlaug one of the greatest human beings in history---and saddened how few folks know his name.  Penn puts it this way, here:
"Norman is the greatest human being in history, and you probably never heard of him."
Tell a friend today about Norman Borlaug, and other real heroes, rather than what's in the National Enquirer.  Honor the people who labor anonymously to make things better for all of us.

Play that card, readers, and play it hard.




Friday, July 4, 2014

Have a Happy and Bioluminescent 4th of July!

You know, I keep meaning to post more often to this blog.  But, as John Lennon famously observed, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."  So I will try to do better.  I have several interesting posts cooking, to keep readers up to date.  Hard to say how often people read these posts, but they have some value for me at least (in getting my thoughts down and events remembered).  Thus, onward and upward...

But today is the 4th of July, a mixture of holiday and history.  Many Americans celebrate with fellowship, food, and fireworks.  With the help of some of my summer research students, we created our own "fireworks" of a more biological nature, using our favorite bioluminescent bacterium, Photobacterium leignothi.  Since I recently dropped and damaged my "regular" camera (a Canon G12), I am doing my best with my wife's camera.  The more I think about the relationship between science and art, and how much I enjoy thinking about images (microbiological or otherwise), the more I think I need to upgrade my camera.  

Yes, yes, after I hit the lottery...

Anyway, this is the best I could do this morning using the great plates my students "painted" with a bacterial culture yesterday afternoon.


 Have a happy, safe, and restful 4th of July, everyone!  That goes for your microbiota as well as your eukaryotic cells.  

After all, we each and every one of us are "anthology" organisms, made up of a vast and various community of living things.  But I hope that "all of you individually" agree with me that microbial supremacy is both wonderful and here to stay!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Freshman Biology and Creativity!

Teaching is often its own reward, but also has its compensatory challenges.  The two main courses I teach (introduction to cell and molecular biology for freshman biology majors, and microbiology for junior and senior biology majors) have different audiences, different challenges, and different joys.

I know that helping students to engage the topics in class through "different eyes" and different strategies can help improve retention and outcomes (meaning exams, on one level).  One method to accomplish that is to encourage students to approach concepts from class based on their interests, using their own skill sets.  I find that most students have impressive talents and special interests that we just don't find out about within the context of a crowded introductory course.  

Nothing motivates students quite like points (he said, cynically), so I often offer "extra credit" for "creative" projects in some of my classes.  This has created some wonderful products in the past, as can be seen in my freshman course last Spring here, and my microbiology course last Fall here.

This Spring, I offered my freshman biology students the same "deal."  They had to talk about their project with me first, to get verbal approval.  Then I needed them to write a one page proposal, to lay out the basic parameters and concept of the project.  I did both of these things to keep students from doing something overwhelmingly last minute (which is in my opinion non-optimal in two ways:  last minute efforts are generally underwhelming, and I also worry that the project might take away from their studies in general).  

The results in the past have been gratifying (as seen in the prior links), and this Spring was no different.  Here are some examples of what these students can do, when they are in the "driver's seat" of their studying and preparations for final exams.  Also note that, for every project, the act of putting these projects together helps students with concepts central to my introductory course. This approach helps the students in an enjoyable and positive manner.

It works.

First, a "piratical" approach to a dihybrid cross that would make Mendel smile.  I hope.



I also had two students who were interested in what I had presented about endosymbiosis, and followed up with Elysia, the chloroplast harvesting sea slug.  In their hands, this topic became a children's book, as you can see from the following two sample pages.




Several students became fascinated by mitosis and meiosis (and well they should!).  One student "cross-stitched" her version of mitosis (very "crafty" as my late mother would have said) as can be seen here. 


Another created a flip book (I am still trying to create a YouTube video to demonstrate, but cannot get the angle quite correct) showing meiosis in action.



Another student created a fun "mini-comic book" about Mendel as her project.  The student pointed out to me, correctly, that the founder of genetics was born "Johann" and only took "Gregor" as a friar in his religious order. 



There was a great deal of creative writing that appeared in this year's "creative projects" offering. Here is a poem about "mitochondrial love" and central metabolism.


  
Another student created an ode to a phospholipid that I think emphasizes some important points.



One student came up with a charming idea I had not anticipated. She told me that she loved the idea of "visual puns" involving biology.  This student created a series of cartoons that mix humor and first year biology pretty well. 

For example, a "Barr Body" takes on a whole new meaning in this student's artistic vision:




 And don't get me started about cell phones in class:



Another student had a more traditional artistic bent, and created this lovely piece of art on canvas that I will hang in my office or laboratory:



I'm not usually surprised by student choices with this kind of assignment, but one student created a "bingo" game that one can use to create a dihybrid Punnett Square.  That is certainly one approach to creating a random selection of alleles during gamete formation!  She included lots of apparatus and instructions.  I can't wait to try it out! 



Another rather shy student wrote a fun poem about the ribosome, that emphases the basic structure and function.



One student asked to do something more "short story"-"creative writing" for her project.  In particular, she wanted to write about Rosalind Franklin.  What the student produced is a ghost story with a slapstick edge.  Here is an excerpt:



Another student had quite an interest in 1930s Gothic literature, such as that of H.P. Lovecraft.  For her project the student produced an analysis---1930s style---of some rather odd families in the H.P. Lovecraft universe, complete with pedigree analysis.  

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah-nagl fhtagn  




Which brings us to some more...theatrical...extra credit productions.  First, three of my students decide to rap a bit about mitosis:
  

Here is their lyric sheet, exactly as they presented it to me.



Another student tried her hand at also being raptastic about mitosis, as you can hear in this audio file:



I don't know how to add an overall cover image, so this is the only way I could determine to upload audio to this blog!  Apologies for the kludge-y approach.  Here are the lyrics to the rap, anyway:



And finally, two students with traditional musical talents put together a pretty fun parody, and do their best to emote for the camera...about mitosis.



Well, I hope that the "creative extra credit" project had some positive aspects for the students.  I know that I was impressed by skills and interests among the students, aspects of them about which I was unaware! And if this kind of project helps the students prepare for their final exam next week, all the better.

I will leave the students with a microbial "good luck" wish, as you can see:



And I recorded this on the last day of class.  I like to think they were clapping because they enjoyed some of the class, not simply that it was over!



I hope you enjoyed this post, as well.  I'll keep trying to merge their creative sides with their studious sides in my classes, never fear!  Give it a try in your classrooms, educators---the students always surprise and impress me!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Art and Biology Work Well Together!

Well, my freshman-level Biology 111 course ("The Unity of Life") is now officially over at the University of Puget Sound, leaving only the final exam. Gulp. As usual for the class, there were high points and points that...well...could have gone better.  But isn't that true of most things in life?

As I plan out the cumulative final exam (double gulp!) and begin thinking about summer research with students, and my classes in the Fall (still far away, but the glittering battlements of those challenges are visible across the summer months before me), I like to reflect a bit about the semester past.

One thing that I particularly enjoyed this semester was working a bit with Katie McKissick, better known of as "Beatrice the Biologist."  Katie is a teacher/artist/science enthusiast, and we share a similar quirky sense of humor (I don't know that she would find that observation a compliment, by the way...sorry, Katie!).

Katie's artwork is awesome (and I don't often employ that unfortunately overused word), and you should check it out for its mixture of humor, accuracy, and ability to provoke some pretty deep thinking.

During the past semester, I was able to commission a bit of artwork from Katie, twice.  You see, I am trying to soften her up as a possible illustrator for a book project I have in mind (I'm thinking of calling this future endeavor "Matters Microbial" after the famous mathematics book, or even "Microbial Supremacy"). Not that she needs my help in that whole book-writing area, incidentally:  do check out her insanely great (miss you, Steve Jobs) book "What's In Your Genes?" that mixes good information with her own unique artwork.  Here is a peek of Katie's view of genetics, and her book.

A must read for genetics fans.

Getting back to Biology 111, I first commissioned Katie to create a piece of artwork demonstrating that students---even while gently dozing in class---are actually quite busy on a molecular level. Heck, they are veritable overachievers, as Katie puts it!


She wrote about the artwork on her blog, here.  

I don't know about you, but I intend to use the phrase "It's ATP go time!" often because of this cartoon.  I like this more than the more often seen "On a cellular level, we are all quite busy" meme, because it really does employ some concepts from class directly!  So there is education in the artwork, which makes Katie's cartoons of genuine pedagogical value, I think.

One of my big interests in biology is how we are more communities of organisms rather than simply one creature.  Just as the poet John Donne wrote that "No man is an island," I am with Thomas Miller, as seen in this slide from one of my microbiology lectures.

Indeed, we are metaorganisms or superorganisms, as Margaret McFall-Ngai and her collaborators suggest:  collections of myriad organisms that make up the "whole" that we visualize as "the" organism.  We are "crowdsourced" organisms, in a manner of speaking.

In any even, I have become extremely interested in how parasites and symbionts can alter the behavior of their hosts, often in outlandishly cool ways.  Here is a very serious book on the topic, and here is a nice overview with great examples.  Now, this topic will be the focus of a freshman writing seminar I am teaching next Fall (triple gulp), but I find it really grabs student attention.  

In Biology 111, I reminded students how mitochondria and chloroplasts were once bacteria, and how eukaryotic cells and symbionts have shaped one another over evolutionary time. But I do hint at the students that some microbes alter the behavior of their hosts.  

Because it is beyond cool. That's just how I roll:  I cannot help but enthuse over the weird and wonderful in biology, and I do not apologize for my excitement over those things!

So with some communication, and some back and forth, Katie came up with the following:


Katie blogged about this illustration here.

The cartoon brings up the question: who is in control?  As I often tell my long-suffering microbiology students, there are about ten times more bacterial cells in and on you than...well, you.  So who is speaking?  Doc Martin or the microbial aspects of that metaorganism?!  Microbial Democracy Now:  One Cell, One Vote!  It's not science fiction; the numerical superiority of microbes is fact.  

And the idea of behavior of an insect controlled by a nematode worm is accepted fact.  And the idea of worms' behavior controlled by a bacterium also a fact (and the study of weird and wonderful Wolbachia is SO worth your time, by the way---Seth Bordenstein's lab is a great place to start).  And the concept of a bacteriophage altering how the bacterium works is true, as well.  What's next?  IS elements inside the bacteriophage DNA?

So IS elements control phage, phage controls bacteria, bacteria control worms, worms control insect...  

It makes you wonder if any of our behavior is controlled by parasites?  And perhaps it is!

In any event, my interactions with Katie over the past semester remind me of the emergent properties that occur when science and art mix:  both benefit.  I hope that my students felt that way.  Ditto Katie. 

So, educators:  try to use artistic approaches in the classroom or in your laboratory.   I know that I have some new insights and approaches, courtesy of this synergy.  Thanks, Katie!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Happy Birthday to my Brother, Jack...

I have to say "happy birthday" to my big brother Jack, though I am sadly a couple of days late. Like the saying goes: time does not fly; it flees. Jack Sevard Martin, Jr's birthday is May 1st (which is amusing, as my brother has ever been the Cold Warrior). May 1st used to be celebrated with parades and tanks and missile launchers from the Eastern Bloc.  

Now, we can celebrate my brother!

Growing up, I always doubted myself.  That was courtesy of my late and much missed mother's psychological Amishness; she was always so worried that her sons would be egotistical.  The result was that I am extremely uncomfortable with self-promotion of any form.  And my path through academia has not been, um,  simple and smooth. 


My brother Jack never doubted me. Ever. Perhaps he projected his own hopes and dreams onto me, but that didn't matter. My brother never---not once---said anything to take me down a peg, and always thought better of me than the more mundane reality. This isn't all bad. I believe it encouraged me to rise above whatever I was doing, to try to do better. No matter the reverses or difficulties, my brother's belief in and support of me was constant and unyielding. To this day, I want to be the person Jack sees when he looks at me.

My brother also insisted I learn more than my teachers required in school. Much more. It was my brother who taught me history, not my teachers in elementary school, junior high school, or high school. My brother bought me Prescott's "The Conquest of Mexico" to teach me not just history, but how Americans in the 19th Century viewed history and the world. We went over the journals of Captain Cook and his expeditions together.  My brother had me read Orwell and Churchill and Sun-Tzu and Huxley.  And he discussed these works with me, often.  

Let's not leave out his love of Gothic literature, ranging from Poe to H.P. Lovecraft; from Stephen King to Algernon Blackwood.  I still have the books he bought for me by these and other authors.

From my brother and his teaching, I learned about the bravery of Lincoln, the biting wit of Disraeli, and the perfidy of Wilson (seriously, look up Woodrow Wilson's record---I never heard any of that in school). From Jack, I learned about  Tamerlane and Genghis Khan and Shaka Zulu and William Wallace. My brother nurtured my interest in space and in science with books, discussion, and historical and political viewpoints.

He was teacher and brother and confidant. No one could ask for a better brother.  Jack is six years older than I am, but he was much more than my big brother.

This next bit says it all, though Jack claims not to remember it in his innate modesty.

I was 21 years old, a senior at UCLA, applying to graduate school. I didn't have a stellar GPA, and felt I couldn't get into a Big Name school. What would my brother know about that? He had been a political science/economics major, with a degree in law. Anyway, we went to dinner, and Jack asked me where I was applying to Ph.D. programs. I told him.

"What about Stanford or Harvard?" he asked me.

"C'mon, Jack, I'm not that good."

Jack steepled his fingers, sounding a bit like the character Niles from the old television show "Frasier."

"So you think you suck, right?" he asked.

"Well..." I replied.

"But if you are all that bad, what do you know about who they will accept or not?"

I hemmed, I hawed. I protested about the cost.

"Okay," he said, producing a checkbook. "How much?"

So with my pedestrian GPA, modest research background from Winston Salser's lab at UCLA, and an admittedly pretty good set of GRE scores, I applied to ten schools.  Jack insisted I apply to three "safety schools" where I felt I had a shot, three "next level" schools to aspire toward, and four "better than me" schools (where I felt I had little chance of being admitted).

I got into all them, and ended up choosing between Stanford and Yale. I will never forget the look of pride of my father's face when I showed him the list of acceptances, but I will also never forget my brother Jack's half-smug expression to me of "I told you so."

I owe all that to my brother Jack.

Whenever things were good, Jack celebrated with me. When things were bad, he supported me and helped me explore a way out of my difficulties. Jack never, ever gave up on me, and always believed in me. When he faced horrible reverses (the death of his much-missed wife Sonia, endless trouble at work), he never dumped on me. Jack was always most concerned about me. I honestly think that I have the better end of our relationship as brothers. And I'm not complaining. 

 I can talk with my brother Jack about anything.

I can never repay my brother for his love and support. But I can recognize him for those traits, and point out that anyone who wishes him ill will have to go through me...and I am not easy to push aside.  The world needs many Jack S. Martin, Jr.s. I would argue, in fact, that they need more of him than need more of me!

No one could have a better or more loyal friend. And I got to experience Jack as his little brother!  Here is a photograph taken of us together, in November of 2013, during his last visit.



Happy birthday, Jack.  Talk with you soon, big brother.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Happy Birthday to a Great Microbiologist and a Microbial Hero™!

Just a short post, in honor of the great Moselio Schaechter's birthday today.  


If you don't know Elio, here is a short and interesting recent newspaper article that gives a nice "snapshot" of the gentleman.  

Elio is the person in charge of the American Society for Microbiology's insightful, informative, and indispensable blog about all the microbial wonders surrounding and within us, which is called "Small Things Considered."  If you don't follow this ASM-sponsored blog, you really should.  I discover things I did not know pretty much twice a week. The blog is a continuing and grand resource for me, and for my students; a microbial feast and festival of unsolvable "thought questions" (Elio's thought provoking and delightful "Talmudic Questions"), late breaking discoveries, reviews of emerging techniques and concepts, and historical perspectives.  It is easily as valuable (if not more so) than any textbook.

Elio is a remarkable person, in a wide variety of ways.  You can read a bit about his impressive scientific biography here.  He has also written about his life, which is very much worth the reading, here.  Born in Italy, raised in Ecuador, and trained in microbiology in the United States, Elio is one of a kind.  He was the first to determine that the rickettsia were bacteria by observing them divide and characterizing their cell wall.  He later studied bacterial physiology in Denmark, and spent much of his subsequent research career studying bacterial growth and cell division.  Elio spent many years at chairing the Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology at Tufts University before retiring to San Diego (where he is more active than many academics).  In his copious free time™, he received numerous awards for excellence in teaching, was President of the American Society for Microbiology, consulted with media types, wrote textbooks, worked with the American Academy of Microbiology, and nurtured his interests in mushrooms and hiking.  

I become tired just thinking about all of that, but Elio is nothing if not elegant and energetic in his enthusiasms.

I wrote to Elio quite a few years ago, admiring the weird and wonderful presentations of Matters Microbial™ (as I call them) on the "Small Things Considered" website.  His response was to ask me to write some essays of my own for the blog.  And in fact Elio (along with the delightful and insightful Merry Youle) helped me become an "Associate Blogger" at "Small Things Considered" for a few years.  I very much enjoyed writing what I did, and continue to do so from time to time.  I certainly learned a great deal from that association.

Elio has been a unwavering beacon of positivity and supportive words during both good times and bad in my life, which is remarkable given that I have only met him a few times.  That said, he looms large in my life.  I cannot easily express my gratitude, so I do so here.

Most of all, I found that Elio's insights in the development of microbiology have had a great deal of influence on me.  I recommend this essay of his, from a 2009 issue of "Microbe," as an illustration of what I mean: "Paradigm Shifts, Paradigm Drifts." My microbiology students read that essay during the first week of class, and it shapes the structure of my course. 

So in summary, I had found some intellectual common cause with Elio and his merry band.  I do my best to promote his attitudes about Overwhelming Microbial Goodness™ regarding Matters Microbial (yes, some day I would like to write a book with that title).  In conversation on Twitter one day with Jonathan Eisen, I was struck by his comment about having "Microbial Heroes."  I have mentioned some of my Microbial Heroes™in the past on this blog, including Carl Woese and Abigail Salyers.  

I can think of perhaps fourteen microbiologists who have had a large impact on my life, and I will be writing about them on this blog.  Certainly Moselio Schaechter merits inclusion in my list of Microbial Heroes!  He certainly has had a great impact on the way I think about and teach microbiology to undergraduate students.

My artistic mathematician wife, Dr. Jennifer J. Quinn, decided to help me "immortalize" my Microbial Heroes with the childhood art-project favorite of "shrinky dinks."  Jenny took a photograph of Elio from the internet, created her artistic interpretation on the plastic, and shrank it. Here is the process.  


And like my other Microbial Heroes, Elio is in my office, hopefully to inspire me from my enthusiasms wane for Matters Microbial.


The carved stone I have written about before.  It is from Pliny the Elder, and the quotation runs: "Nature is to be found in Her entirety nowhere more than in Her smallest creatures." I can think of few scientific disciplines that more perfectly delineate that sentiment than the microbial sciences.

Thank you, Elio, for all of the support and kind words.  You remain an inspiration to me in so many ways.  My very, very best wishes to you and your family, and happy birthday!  I hope to see you in Boston at the ASM General Meeting.

Readers, who are your Microbial Heroes?  Why did you choose them?