Category Archives: College

The three scientists

I just got done schmoozing with the people who funded my summer research. It was two minutes of trying to dumb down complex ecological and population genetics concepts to the level a couple of 70-something former liberal arts majors could understand, and an hour of waiting for them to look at the other student researchers’ posters. In other words, purgatory. On the other hand, I got a chance to look around at how the other students were presenting their research. I like to put things into categories (sort of the hallmark of a biologist) and I started developing an idea of what makes science so diverse. I think there’s three basic types of scientists.

First, there’s the Tinkerer. The Tinkerer is interested in finding out what makes things tick, but mostly in figuring out how to put things together. The three chemistry student researchers fit into this. They’re playing around with some funky cyclic molecules, trying to synthesize them more efficiently and in a more environmentally friendly way. Dr. Frankenstein was a Tinkerer, as are the chemists that design drugs and agronomists that breed or genetically engineer crops.

Then you’ve got the Puzzle Solver. Puzzle Solvers look at the universe as a giant sudoku puzzle: they start off with a curious observation, and try to find the variables that make the data work. These are the people for whom “the scientific method” was made. Science is a series of hypotheses and tests, but the puzzle solvers treat it as an end in itself; the journey is the thrill, the endpoint an afterthought. It seems like Puzzle Solvers occur in all disciplines. Watson and Crick were certainly puzzle solvers, as were, I think, Marie Curie and Elizabeth Blackburn and her collaborators.

Finally, there’s the Story Teller. Storytellers are interesting because neither the result nor the test is particularly interesting on its own. A fact or even a truth can only illuminate a historical pattern which is itself of interest. We might call these people natural historians. Darwin is an excellent example: his theory of natural selection was the common thread in all the smaller stories of how the multitudes of organisms came to be in their current forms, habits, and locations. Jack Horner is another of my favorite scientific Story Tellers. Each fossil is a bit of a story about how dinosaurs lived.

Of course , most scientists have aspects of some combination of the three. I am predominantly a Puzzle Solver, but I’ve got aspects of a Tinkerer and Story Teller as well.


Beware the College Republicans

I just saw this poster from the Willamette College Republicans. They were going for “superheroes,” overshot, and landed in “crazy vampire stalker.”


How to recognize a geek

There are occasions when I wonder if I’m cut out for the life in academia I’ve been planning for the last two years. This usually happens when I’m reading a depressing post by the grad student cum blogger extraordinaire Scicurious, or an experiment isn’t working, or I have a flareup of fibromyalgia, or I despise the subject we’re studying **cough**molecular genetics**cough**. But then something happens to bring me back.

This happened last night. I was insomniating, which happens far too often, and I decided I might as well make the skeleton of my research proposal for my molecular ecology class. I kinda hate doing field work in November, so I’m doing some modeling to try to explain the time-dependency of molecular clocks. (If you can’t understand the linked article, don’t worry; it’s not important.) I was looking over the manuals for the programs I’ll be using and papers of previous attempts (failures all) to explain it. As I read and wrote out a tentative procedure, I had this conversation with myself*:

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To the asshat in my econ class:

The Asshat

You are an asshat. When the professor says to ask any questions you have, she did not mean leading questions. Your knowledge of economics is not sufficient to perform the Socratic method on a lima bean, let alone a professor. Having read The Communist Manifesto and being, like, so into socialism does not make you qualified to comment on the interaction of supply and demand. Especially if you have your history so ass-backwards that you think that the USSR surpassed the US in military production.



Happy Labor Day America, fuck you Nestle

Today’s Labor Day in the U.S., and while the rest of the country is off to the beach or having barbecues, I’m sitting in front of a computer. I’ve got to finish the abstract for my presentation (how, exactly, are you supposed to explain an entire project in 250 words?) and the presentation itself. Presentations are always a problem for me because I have that horrible trait combination of procrastination and perfectionism. I finally sat down to make the PowerPoint on Friday, and discovered that I needed to make or steal 30 figures. Ugh.

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I’m going to the mojave this summer!

This is where I'm spending my summer vacation. Bleak, ain't it?

This is where I'm spending my summer vacation. Bleak, ain't it?

As my inaugural post (other than my old Collegian articles) I’m going to gloat a little. I just got accepted to work with one of my biology professors this summer as part of Willamette’s Student Collaborative Research Program (SCRP). SCRP pays professors to take on students as research assistants and students to do research. (I’m getting $4000, plus food and housing stipends, compared with the ~$3000 most other programs give.) My team (Professor Chris Smith, a freshman biology student, and me) are going to be studying two aspects of Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) ecology. We’re going to Tikaboo Valley (which happens to be right next to Area 51) for three months after classes end, and then we’ll spend about a month and a half in the lab. We’ll present our results to everyone at Willamette, and then head down to Gonzaga in November for a conference.

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The promise in the purchase of Zena Forest

Originally published in the Collegian on November 5, 2008

I won’t disguise my bias toward scientific research; I believe that if a project discovers anything about the world, it is worth funding. Of course, in the real world funding is limited and its holders must prioritize. This is why I applaud the university’s administration, especially Dr. Bowersox and President Pelton, for their work on Willamette’s purchase of Zena Forest. It is one of the greatest opportunities in Willamette’s history to foster work not only between departments, but also between the College of Liberal Arts, the Atkinson Graduate School of Management, the College of Law, and the School of Education. And, almost as important, it represents the obvious culmination of Willamette’s relationship with Oregon’s forests.

I did a quick poll of my friends who haven’t been involved in sustainability on campus to find out what they thought about our acquisition of a whopping 305 acres. The almost universal response was “cool, but why spend that much money to benefit one department?” and I imagine that many of you reading this are asking the same question. To answer it, I turn to the goal of a liberal arts college: integration of art, science, and philosophy.

In a world where specialization is omnipresent, there is often little conversation between biologists and lawyers, environmentalists and economic theorists, or geologists and novelists. This is a loss for both the specialists and society as a whole, as tunnel vision sets in and each person forgets the impacts of their work on others’ fields of study. Willamette has done an excellent job of countering this by requiring both science and art credits to graduate, but that is not enough. Mere exposure to multiple disciplines is not enough to make one a rounded student, any more than taking Spanish classes qualifies one as an expert on Hispanic culture. It is the collaboration with students and faculty of other subjects that rounds out education and life.

And therein lies Zena’s promise. In addition to the obvious projects on habitat restoration, the small mill run by Sarah Deumling and her son offer the chance for business and economics students to explore the theory and practicality of running a profitable, eco-friendly business. The oak savannah, one of Oregon’s rarest habitats, offers Walden-like opportunities to writers and endless landscapes for artists that do not share our Arts editor’s aversion to en plein air painting. And, of course, Zena Forest’s beauty and proximity offer Willamette’s future teachers the opportunity to teach young students ecology and grow a new generation of environmentalists.

I will not lie, however, by saying that our purchase of Zena Forest does not center on forest restoration. But that is as it should be. One fact that few students today seem to know is that Willamette was built using money donated by loggers: Hallie Ford and her husband started Roseburg Lumber Company in the 1930s, and donated millions of dollars to Willamette. The Collins family (no relation), after whom the science building, the law building, Goudy commons, and a substantial scholarship are named, similarly made their fortune in lumber. Willamette owes its existence to Oregon’s forests, and now they are in trouble. Decades of poor management by timber companies and the state, local, and federal governments have left forests across the state vulnerable to disease, overcrowding, and fire. The only thing that can save them for future generations is protection informed by knowledge of natural forest ecology. This is what Willamette has, through the purchase of Zena Forest, to offer Oregon.