Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Our special guest post this week comes from Dr. Liz Clark of Yale University (you may have heard of it?) in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. She is bringing some biomechanics-fu to echinoderms– the weird marine critters like seastars and sea urchins. Did you see her 9-awesome-things-about-echinoderms blog post on Anatomy to You? You should. And you should check this out– and check out our new paper on this topic, which just came out! Remember: all images below can be clicked to zoom in. That’s so fun!

Eversible Stomach-Churning Rating: 2/10; no Uni sushi here.

I remember the first time I saw one. I was at the Duke Marine Lab staring at a chunk of dredged-up oyster shells in a glass dish, when all of a sudden a mass of big, black spines obscured my view. I looked up from the microscope to see a creature with a round body the size of a nickel and a flurry of long, skinny, spiny arms skulking hurriedly across the dish. It wasn’t quite a spider- the five-fold symmetry gave its echinoderm affinity away- but it wasn’t quite a starfish, either. Starfish appear graceful as their tiny tube-feet make hurried and unseen movements underneath them to transport them slowly across the sand- appearing nearly motionless to the naked eye. This animal, on the other hand, was making rapid, whip-like strikes with its arms so that it clambered forward, rapidly and fearlessly scaling the uneven terrain of the shells in a bold attempt to escape the dish. I was hooked. I had to know who this monster was, and learn as much about it as I could.

Brittle star arm set up to study its ossicle-joint mobility with CT scanning (below).

That was the day I was introduced to the brittle star. The name “brittle star” is a bit of a misnomer, since they are really anything but. Brittleness implies rigidity and stiffness, suggesting they have a delicate nature with the impossibility of repair or to adapt, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Their long arms are incredibly flexible, each made of around 100 tiny segments that allow them to bend in any direction or loop them around in circles. I bet that their name comes from the ease at which they can cast off their arms, which they do intentionally to escape predators or pesky researchers trying to grab them, which deceitfully suggests fragility when in fact their arms are incredibly sturdy and packed with powerful muscles. They can flawlessly regenerate their arms, and, in the meantime, even after they lose several of them, they adjust their strategy for locomotion so that they keep prowling across the seafloor unphased. Their physical flexibility and ability to repair and adapt in the face of damage makes them anything but brittle. The Japanese name for brittle star roughly translates to “spider-human-hand,” which I think much more accurately captures the ethos of this group.

Brittle stars have internal skeletons, and each segment of their arms are made of a cluster of small skeletal elements (ossicles). Researchers in the past have made the assumption that differences in the shape of these ossicles between species change how they move, but I wasn’t so sure. So, John and I decided to work together to figure it out.

We didn’t dive into the freezer for this one- sorry to disappoint all of the diehard fans of John’s freezer out there (but in my defense can you imagine how tough it would have been to even find them in the sea of rhinos, giraffes, and crocs?!). [JOHN: awwwwwww!! It’s more of a wall keeping in the wildlings, than a sea right now though!] Instead we ordered some brittle stars off the internet! The first thing we did was make some measurements of how flexible the arms of brittle stars are when they’re alive. Then we digitized their skeletons by micro-CT scanning them so we could see the articulations between the ossicles and the segments in 3D. We scanned them in a few different positions so we could see the articulations between the ossicles as their arms bend. Then we incorporated all of that data into a 3D model that allowed us to visualize what’s going on in the inside of brittle star arms as they move them around.

We made several different models using this strategy to see if different ossicle shapes change how their arms move. We looked at the differences between arm ossicles in two different speciesOphioderma brevispina and Ophiothrix angulata, which represent two of the three different major morphologies of brittle star arms.  We also looked at the difference in the movement mechanics at the tip and base of the arms in O. brevispina, since the ossicles at the tip are thin and elongated compared to wide and flat at the base.

We found that the tip of the arm of Ophioderma brevispina was more flexible than the base due, at least in part, to the shape of the ossicles. We also found several major differences between the two species, including the location of their joint center and the degree to which they could laterally flex. However, none of these differences were easily attributable to any specific morphological feature that set Ophiothrix angulata and O. brevispina apart, which cautions against making assumptions of brittle star functional capabilities by only looking at the shape of the ossicles. We also found that some of the smaller ossicles within each segment shift their position to accommodate arm flexion, when they were originally thought to limit the motion of the arm! We only looked at a few individuals of two species, but the methods for model-building we developed provide a framework to incorporate a broad sample of brittle star species in the future. We’re curious if the results we found stand when more brittle stars are brought into the mix!

It was incredible to take the journey from initially being surprised and captivated by the movement of these animals to eventually building 3D digital models to discover how they are able to do so. It made me realize that opportunities to be inspired by the natural world are around every corner, and that there are so many interesting questions out there that are still unanswered. Thanks to John and our other team members Derek Briggs, Simon Darroch, Nicolás Mongiardino Koch, Travis Brady, and Sloane Smith for making this project happen!

Advertisements

I had a spare hour in Cambridge this weekend so I dared the crowds in the revamped UMZC’s upper floor. In my prior visit and post I’d experienced and described the lower floor, which is almost exclusively mammals. This “new” floor has everything else that is zoological (animal/Metazoa) and again is organized in an evolutionary context. And here is my photo tour as promised!

Inviting, soft lighting perfuses the exhibits from the entryway onwards.

All images can be clicked to mu-zoom in on them.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 5/10 for spirit animals, by which I mean dissected/ghostly pale whole specimens of animals in preservative fluids.

The exhibits are on a square balcony overlooking the lower floor, so you can get some nice views. It does make the balcony crowded when the museum is busy, so take that in mind if visiting. Strollers on this upper floor could be really difficult. But the ceiling is very tall so it is not cramped in a 3D sense. The lower floor is more spacious.

Like phylogenies? You got em! Tucked away at the beginning of each major group; not occupying huge valuable space or glaringly obvious like AMNH in NYC but still noticeable and useful. To me, it strikes a good balance; gives the necessary evolutionary context for the displayed specimens/taxa.

Introductory panels explain how names are given to specimens, how specimens are preserved and more.

The exhibits give due focus to research that the UMZC is doing or has been famous for. Hey I recognize that 3D tetrapod image in the lower left! 🙂

There is ample coverage of diversity throughout Metazoa but my camera tended to be drawn to the Vertebrata. Except in some instances like these.

Some larger chelicerates.

Some smaller, shadowy sea scorpion (eurypterid) fossils.

Watch here for more about ophiuroids (brittlestars) in not too long!

A BIG fish brain! Interesting!
Before I go through specimens in evolutionary “sequence”, I will feature another thing i really liked: lots of dissected spirit-specimens that show off cool anatomy/evolution/adaptation (and technical skills in anatomical preparation). Mostly heads; mostly fish.

Salps and other tunicates! Our closest non-vertebrate relatives- and some insight into how our head and gut came to be.

Salp-reflection.

Lamprey head: not hard to spot the commonalities with the salps; but now into Vertebrata.

Hagfish head: as a fellow cyclostome/agnathan, much like a lamprey but never forget the slime glands!

Shark head. Big fat jaws; all the better to bite prey with!

Lungfish (Protopterus) head showing the big crushing tooth plates (above).

Sturgeon vertebrae: tweak some agnathan/shark bits and here you are.

Worm (annelid) anatomy model, displaying some differences from/similarities to Vertebrata. (e.g. ventral vs. dorsal nerve cord; segmentation)

Dissected flipper from a small whale/other cetacean. Still five fingers, but other specializations make it work underwater.

Wonderful diversity of tooth and jaw forms in sharks, rays and relatives. I like this display a lot.

More of the above, but disparate fossil forms!

On with the evolutionary context! Woven throughout the displays of modern animals are numerous fossils, like these lovely placoderms (lineage interposed between agnathans, sharks and other jawed fish).

Goblin shark head.

I seem to always forget what ray-finned fish this is (I want to say wolffish? Quick Googling suggests maybe I am right), but see it often and like its impressive bitey-ness.

Bichir and snakefish; early ray-finned fish radiations.

Armoured and similar fish today.

Armoured fish of the past; some convergent evolution within ray-fins.

Convergence- and homology- of amphibious nature in fish is another evolutionary pattern exemplified here.

Gorgeous fossils of ray-finned fish lineages that arose after the Permian extinctions, then went extinct later in the Triassic.

Note the loooooong snout on this cornetfish but the actual jaws are just at the tip.

Flying fish– those ray-fins are versatile.

Diversity of unusual ray-finned fish, including deep-water and bottom-dwelling forms.

Can you find the low-slung jaws of a dory?

Recent and fossil perch lineage fish.

It’s hard to get far into talking about evolution without bringing up the adaptive radiation of east African cichlid fish, and UMZC researchers are keen on this topic too.

Lobe-fins! Everybody dance!

Rhizodonts & kin: reasons to get out of Devonian-Carboniferous waters.

A Cretaceous fossil coelacanth (skull); not extremely different from living ones’.

Let’s admire some fossil and modern lungfish skulls, shall we? Big platey things  (here, mainly looking at the palate) with lots of fusions of tiny bones on the skull roof.

Eusthenopteron fossils aren’t that uncommon but they are still great to see; and very important, because…

OK let’s stop messing around. The UMZC has one of the best displays of fossil stem-tetrapods in the world! And it should.

Another look at the pretty Acanthostega models.

Acanthostega vs. primate forelimb: so like us.

Ichthyostega parts keep Acanthostega company.

A closer look at the “Mr. Magic” Ichthyostega specimen, which takes some unpacking but is incredibly informative and was a mainstay of our 2012 model. Back of skull, left forelimb, and thorax (from left to right here).

Eucritta, another stem-tetrapod.

Closer look at Eucritta‘s skull.

Weird stem-tetrapod Crassigyrinus, which we’re still trying to figure out. It’s a fabulous specimen in terms of completeness, but messy “roadkill” with too many damn bones.

The large skull of Crassigyrinus, in right side view.

Early temnospondyl (true amphibian-line) skulls and neck.

Nectrideans or the boomerangs of the Palaeozoic.

Cool fossil frogs.

Giant Japanese salamander!

Fire salamanders: not as colourful as the real thing, but here revealing their reproductive cycle in beautiful detail.

Closeup of oviduct in above.

Sexual dimorphism in Leptodactylus frogs: the males have bulging upper arms to (I am assuming) help them hold onto females during amplexus (grasping in mating competitions).

Did I forget that Leptodactylus has big flanges on the humerus in males, to support those muscles? Seems so.

An early stem-amniote, Limnoscelis (close to mammals/reptiles divergence); cast.

Grand sea turtle skeleton.

One of my faves on display: a real pareiasaurian reptile skeleton, and you can get a good 3D look around it.

Details on above pareiasaurian.

Mammals are downstairs, but we’re reminded that they fit into tetrapod/amniote evolution nonetheless.

Let there be reptiles! And it was good.

Herps so good.  (slow worm, Gila monster, glass lizard)

A curator is Dr Jason Head so you bet Titanoboa is featured!

Crocodylia: impressive specimens chosen here.

It ain’t a museum without a statuesque ratite skeleton. (There are ~no non-avian dinosaurs here– for those, go to the Sedgwick Museum across the street, which has no shortage!)

Avian diversity takes off.

Glad to see a tinamou make an appearance. They get neglected too often in museums- uncommon and often seemingly unimpressive, but I’m a fan.

I still do not understand hoatzins; the “cuckoo” gone cuckoo.

Dodo parts (and Great Auk) near the entrance.

Wow. What an oilbird taxidermy display! :-O

There we have it. Phew! That’s a lot! And I left out a lot of inverts. This upper floor is stuffed with specimens; easier there because the specimens are smaller on average than on the lower floor. Little text-heavy signage is around. I give a thumbs-up to that– let people revel in the natural glory of what their eyes show them, and give them nuggets of info to leave them wanting more so they go find out.

Now it’s in your hands– go find out yourself how lovely this museum is! I’ve just given a taste.

I’m a few months late on the six-year anniversary of this blog but finally found some time. (For year 5 go here) It was seemed to be another quiet year on the blog because it was not a quiet year for work or other aspects of life. The DAWNDINOS project got into full swing and there will be a lot more about that soon on that website and maybe here, too.

Freeezersaurus 2 has been mostly vacated now; and Freezersaurus 3 is in place, with the contents shifted– and a mad rush in action to get rid of (boil down + varnish bones of) as many specimens as I can! I have way too many… of course, mostly elephant bits. Here are the last big bits left in Freezersaurus 2; we are intimidated to move them…

Stomach-Churning Rating: 3/10 until the opossum-digested-by-gator at the end, then 9/10, so hang tight!

Year 6 began with a post about a new paper! We published a big synthesis of data on what mammals turn their kneecaps into bone (or not), and how those states evolved. The story turned out pretty interesting and we are still pursuing some angles that it inspired, so stay tuned! Otherwise, the kneecap project (i.e. Leverhulme grant) has ended and staff/students have moved on (but published all their papers on it– well done, Sophie, Kyle and Viv!!), so it will fall quiet on that topic for a while.

Then we published another paper, and it happened to involve more sesamoid-y stuff! But with birds and their ankles, and some tantalizing evidence of soft tissue and organic biomolecular preservation. I’m still a bit amazed this paper happened and am pleased we got to collaborate on it.

Next, I got to ramble on a bit, about another serious topic related to science– this time, on blame.  I had forgotten about that post, and now on re-reading it it has fresh new relevance to me. All the more reason to keep blogging!

Smaller but better: Freezersaurus 3, part of a proud dynasty!

But then, what do you know, we published another kneecap paper! And on ostriches! With some simple but ambitious finite element analysis. We are meaning to get back to this approach… it just scratched the surface of some super cool “mechanobiology” that could shed light on “evo-devo”.

And next, BOOM! The dinosaurs dawned. By which I mean my current ERC grant “DAWNDINOS” began. Do take a look– the website now has some lovely NEW palaeo-art by Bob Nicholls, John Conway and Scott Hartman, with more to come! This project’s inception led to an inspection of caeca in tinamous; the following post.

I managed to have some summer holiday in the midst of the year, and that made an extremely memorable “pilgrimage” to a fossil site possible– “Experiencing the Irish Tetrapod Tracks” was the blog post that emerged from the waters. (That post needs a little revamp in light of some other literature; I will get around to that soon)

DAWNDINOS got a nice new 3D printer and we’re gradually printing up some archosaurs to show.

Holiday ended and back to the freezer I went, to post about how we thaw specimens (and how odd wallaby legs can be). Then we published three papers in quick succession and I played catchup posting about them (Mussaurus forelimbs; mouse vs. human hindlimb simulations; and tetrapod forelimb musculature).

Speaking of mouse hindlimb simulations, I didn’t blog about this related paper that we published earlier in 2018, but it’s very relevant. And GIF-worthy!

But I couldn’t stay away from bird legs for long, and so soon enough I posted “The Bird Knee Challenge“, which still stands.

Jumbo the elephant loomed into view at Christmas-time (plus a documentary about T. rex with Chris Packham, and another about Hannibal’s elephant excursion over the Alps– the latter also playing on PBS in USA); all featuring cameos with me, so I posted about the Jumbo/Attenborough one. That’s another life experience I will treasure.

Next, back to musing about science and humanity– and who’s a more big-name, very relatable human scientist than Darwin? Well, we could debate that endlessly but I posted about Darwin’s human nature for Darwin Day.

That takes me through to March 2017. I’ve posted a little more since then but that counts as Year 7 of this blog, so we’ll catch up with that then. Looking back on ~2017, I posted more blog posts than I thought I did! Maybe it’s just that 2018 feels very quiet to me blog-wise. We’ll see how it shapes up though.

Years ago, my team dissected an alligator (for Allen et al. 2010,2014 papers if you are keeping track) that had an opposum in its stomach, during winter when feeding wasn’t supposed to be happening much. So that came up again this year; and hopefully it does not make anything come up from your stomach. But this is real anatomy in action.

 

If you’re in London, you still have almost one week left to hurry to the Valence House in Dagenham and see a great exhibit on Ray Harryhausen’s dinosaurs and other cool “Dynamation” stop-motion models and art!

This blog post is a photo tour of what I saw, in case you cannot go.

Like it? Click it. Bigger pic.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10 nice stop-motion animation models. Medusa won’t hurt you here.

I loooooooooooove Ray Harryhausen’s work, ever since I was a child and saw “Jason and the Argonauts” and many other films, plus “Clash of the Titans” once it came into theatres. There is the attention to detail in anatomy and locomotion, and the wondrous fantastic nature of even the more mundane creatures he animated, and the rich mythology that he drew from to inspire his creations. Modern CGI is great in a different way, but nothing I can think of in recent special effects truly beats (1) the skeleton battle in ‘Jason, and (2) the Medusa encounter in ‘Clash (to name what might be my top two faves). And so when I learned that several of the original (restored) models from those films were on exhibit in northeastern London, I requested to go there with my family for Fathers Day. Results:

Boom! Ole’ stony-gazed, snaky-haired gorgon of yore.

No deadly bow here, but the rattlesnake tail is.

Medusa concept art by Harryhausen; the “bra” was there for American censors but Ray thought it looked wrong and removed it in the final version.

Look out, Jason! Here come the Children of the Hydra! Yep, original (restored) articulated models. Joints are visible. They look ready to kick some Iolcusian butt!

Context of the exhibit- local chap befriended Harryhausen and convinced him to let him restore his models; and so here we are. On with the dinosaurs! (and other palaeo-things)

Gwangi model made in resin; non-poseable but made around time of the “Valley of Gwangi” film to help design the poseable models.

Gwangi climactic scene in church; concept art by Harryhausen.

Other ‘Gwangi characters: “Eohippus” (Hyracotherium), Ornithomimus and boy.

Cowboy lassoing an Ornithomimus as per the movie scene in ‘Gwangi? Yes please. (Harryhausen original)  Jurassic Park had its T. rex lurching out of a forest to grab a Struthiomimus, intentionally mirroring the scene in ‘Gwangi where the titular AllosaurusTyrannosaurus hybrid chomps the Ornithomimus.

Poseable “Eohippus” original- with real fur! Great Dynamation too; very lifelike in the film.

Original Harryhausen concept art of the “Eohippus” show demo.

Suddenly, Ceratosaurus! (from “One Million Years BC”)

Styracosaurus original resin model. (from “One Million Years BC”)

Old school Polacanthus art by Alan Friswell. SPIKEY!

Old school Iguanodon art by Alan Friswell. MUSCLEY!

Panoply of archosaurs by Alan Friswell: pterodactyl, Tenontosaurus (made for the Frame Store special effects company in 2001) and tyrannosaur head (made at age 9).

Pterodactyl made at age 12, so don’t laugh.

Back to the fantastic beasts– original poseable hydra from ‘Jason!

Original Pegasus from ‘Clash! What a seamless blend of fur and feathers.

Original R2, I mean Bubo, from ‘Clash!

I forget the scene (the 1-eyed fates in ‘Clash?) but I like it. Original Harryhausen concept art.

Lunar leader from “First Men in the Moon.” (original)

Non-original (but based thereon) model by Alan Friswell, of nautiloid thingy from “Mysterious Island”.

Fiji mermaid by Alan Friswell.

“Hand of Glory” by Alan Friswell.

Pithecanthropus by Alan Friswell. Very Harryhausen in spirit.

Oddly, but somehow appropriately, there are ?350 year old whale bones on display in the hall next door, with a mysterious history.

WW2 bomb shelter in a “Victory Garden” outside the House. And the house is supposedly haunted. So take care when you visit…

What can I say? I loved it! Almost a religious experience; like seeing holy relics. Awesome in every sense of awesome.

Downside: you cannot grab the precious Dynamation models and play with them hands-on. I wanted to enact a furious Hydra-Gwangi battle. But alas, only in my imagination…

One of my favourite museums in the world, and certainly one of the best natural history museums in the UK, is Cambridge’s Museum of Zoology, AKA “University Museum of Zoology at Cambridge” (UMZC). It is now nearing a lengthy completion of renovations; the old museum exhibits and collections were excellent but needed some big changes along with the re-fabbed “David Attenborough Building” that houses them. As a longtime fan of the exhibits and user of the collection (and microCT scanner), I hurried to see the new museum once it officially opened.

And that makes a great excuse to present a photo-shoot from my visit. This focuses on the “mammal floor” below the entrance- the upper floor(s?) are still being completed and will have the birds, non-avian tetrapods, fish, etc. But the UMZC is strong in mammals and so it is natural for them to feature them in this chock-full-o-specimens display. Less talk, more images. Here we go!

All images can be clicked to mu-zoom in on them.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 3/10; bones and taxidermy and innocuous jars.

The building. The whale skeleton that hung outside for years is now cleaned up and housed right inside; you walk under it as you enter.

Entrance.

First view past the entryway: lots of cool specimens.

View from the walkway down into the ground/basement level from the entry. As specimens-per-unit-volume goes, the UMZC still scores highly and that is GOOD!

Explanation of frog dissection image below.

Gorgeous old frog dissection illustration; such care taken here.

Leeuwenhoek’s flea woodcut; I think from Arcana Naturae Detecta (1695). There is an impressive display of classic natural history books near the entryway.

Dürer/other rhino art image and info.

Darwin was famed for collecting beetles when he should have been studying theology at Cambridge as a youth, and here is some of his collection. Dang.

Darwin’s finches!

Darwin kicked off some of his meticulous work with volumes on barnacles; specimens included here; which helped fuel insights into evolution (e.g. they are “retrograde” crustaceans, not mollusks).

Darwin’s voyage: fish & other preserved specimens.

I think this is a solitaire weka (flightless island bird; see Comment below). I’ve never seen them displayed w/skeleton + taxidermy; it’s effective here.

Eryops cast. More early tetrapods will surely be featured on the upper floor; this one was on the timeline-of-life-on-Earth display.

I LOVE dioramas and this seabird nesting ground display is very evocative, especially now that I’ve visited quite a few such islands.

Mammal introduction; phylogenetic context.

Monotreme glory.

UMZC is well endowed with thylacines and this one is lovely.

“TAZ FEEL NAKED!”

Narwhal above!

Rhinocerotoidea past, present, and fading glory. 😦

Ceratotherium white rhino. The horn is not real; sadly museums (and even zoos) across the world have to worry about theft of such things, given that some people think these horns are magic.

Ceratotherium staring match. You lose.

Ceratotherium stance.

Foot of a Sumatran rhino juxtaposed with a horse’s for Perissodactyla didaction.

A tapir. As a kid, I used to wander around the house pretending to be a tapir but I did not know what noise they’d make so I’d say “tape tape tape!”.

Big Southern Elephant Seal.

Squat little fur seal.

Hippopotamus for the lot of us. (baby included)

Hippo facedown.

Skull of a dwarf Madagascar hippo.

Cave bear and sabretooth cat make an impressive Ice Age demo.

It’s a wombat.

Ain’t no don like a Diprotodon! (also note its modern miniature cousin the wombat, below)

Diprotodon facial.

Diprotodon shoulder: big clavicles bracing that joint region.

Diprotodon knee: even in big marsupials, the “parafibula”/lateral sesamoid of the knee is still generally present. And why it is there/what it does deserves much more study.

Diprotodon hip. I just find this animal’s anatomy fascinating head-to-tail.

Diprotodon front foot. Absolutely freakish.

Diprotodon hind foot. Even weirder.

Your view after having been trampled in a supine position by a Diprotodon. Not a good way to go.

Diprotodon got back.

Elephant seal’s butt continues my series of photos of big animals’ bottoms.

Asian elephant’s butt view.

African elephant butt.

Sectioned elephant skull to show pneumatic resonating chambers.

Paenungulates: hyraxes, Sirenia, elephants & kin (evolutionary demo).

AND MY HYRAX!
Sorry. Had to.

Megatherium side view.

Megatherium. Yeah!

Megatherium hindlegs fascinate me. Well-heeled.

Tamandua duo.

Silky anteater; wonderful.

Armadillos.

Anteaters round out a fab display on Xenarthra.

The UMZC has everything from aardvarks to zebus. Here, conceptualized with other Afrotheria.

Golden moles: the more I read about them, the more they fascinate me.

We can all use some more solenodons in our lives!

Example of the phylogenetic context used throughout exhibits.

If you’ve got a good Okapi taxidermy, you’d better use it.

It’s a giraffe. Did you guess right?

Gerenuk showing off its bipedal capacity.

Warthogs have an inner beauty.

Pangolin. Glad to see it back on exhibit.

Nice little brown bear.

Double-barrelled shot of hyenas.

Colugo!

Nice to see some Scandentia featured.

My brain says this is a springhare (Pedetes) so I am going with what my brain says and anyway I really like this display.

When I saw this I thought, “That’s a nice… rodent thingy.” And so “rodent thing” it shall be labelled here. Enjoy the rodent thingy. Some serious taxidermy-fu in action.

Moonrats– now there’s something you seldom see a full display of. Well done!

That’s part I of this sneak peek at the evolving exhibits- I will put up a part II once the upper floor exhibits open. I highly encourage a visit!

For Mike: gimlet

As a person who has transitioned from the “simple life” (haha) of a grad student to postdoc to younger and then more experienced faculty member in academia/science, I constantly ponder how I spend my time. This is more so true lately, thanks to social media keeping me aware of how others spend their time (e.g. conversations about overwork and unrealistic expectations in academia/science), and thanks to my own experiences managing a moderate-to-large-sized group of 5-15ish scientists in the past ~10 years. I’ve had to learn to juggle a lot more than I did before and my life also has changed a lot (family, health, etc), some of which I’ve blogged about here before. Some of that excessive juggling is why there haven’t been so many blog posts here recently!

But today I want to turn the lens on the post’s title topic. What does a “typical” weekday in my life look like, with a focus on the academic/science aspects? There is no such “typical” ideal; every day is very different, but a Platonic abstraction will be heuristic. Let the clock tell the tale…

Stomach-Churning Rating: opinions may vary but I say it’s 0/10 (no gory photos).

0600-0700 I wake up and rush for the 2 big mugs of coffee that get and keep me moving, overcoming some huge side effects from medications I’m on. I feed the cats and check my email whilst having my coffee (and cereal + yoghurt). I deal with several simple messages from USA colleagues, or UK colleagues up late. Emails requiring more mindpower are saved for later. I tweet/retweet a little while skimming social media.

Nectar of the gods!

0730-0900 After shower etc. I begin my commute. 90 mins walk-train-train-walk (if no delays) and I can fit in another 60 mins or so of emails and some higher-functioning work (e.g. writing; editing papers; catching up on literature) on the train if I am feeling up for it. If I’m still too sluggish I listen to a (not-strictly-science but intellectual) podcast; e.g. RadioLab or Invisibilia; or (worst case) some rockin’ music.

0900-1000 Catching up on things in my office, with a few more emails, some organizing, quick chats with people around my office, and my day takes shape as I near my peak level of energy (and busy-ness).

1000-1200 Full steam ahead! I try to schedule my most demanding meetings to give them my full attention, or do my most challenging work if on my own.

1200-1230 John infamously gets hungry every ~5 hours and there is no stalling his need for fuel. Off to the campus restaurant he goes, for a hot meal and a little quiet time away from his office, to think/chat.

1230-1300 I like to leave this time as very flexible “me time”, whether spent on social media or whatever. I just do what suits me, maybe tidying up loose ends with smaller tasks, or just chilling (relatively) in contemplation.

1300-1400 A maybe less demanding meeting or a seminar (or a committee); in the latter case my powerful post-prandial somnolence becomes a battle now (and I don’t do caffeine >0800ish! Too sensitive). But I keep pushing on, and stuff gets done.

1400-1500 Another research-type meeting or data collection session, or writing, to fill some final, very valuable, on-campus time.

1500 Run for the train home, trying to stealthily escape campus without having any impromptu meetings that make me miss my train. My work day is not over but the commute is tiring so 6 hrs on campus and a bit more before and after are plenty!

1515-1645 Train ride and a bit of work where I feel able (50% of the time?).

1700-1800 Some catch-up emails (e.g. USA colleagues are waking up by now) and catch-up with family; juggling a lot. My activities vary a lot here: I may be inspired (even catching a second wind) to get some final work done or I may be totally wiped out and need a break. I listen to what my body tells me and also try to ensure I give myself time for non-work from here on.

1800-2100 Quality non-work time.

2100-2200  A bit of non-science reading before I fall asleep.

2200-0600 I need my 8 hrs sleep or I am a slow(er) grumpy John.

I’ve listed a “typical” day for non-teaching weeks. Currently my teaching load isn’t large by any measure, nor do I have many committee duties, and I am paid by my DAWNDINOS grant to spend 70% of my time (thru 2021) on that one project. So other than my October-November teaching I am mainly doing that 70% DAWNDINOS work, in various forms, plus a 30% that is some kind of science: a HUGE array of collaborations, some still stretching back to circa 2001 and still alive, some social media of course (although less these days than in ~2011-2012’s heyday, you may notice), and a potpourri of “other stuff”.

That “other” category is vast — travel to far-off places is a big time-sink lately, such as with 4 trips to the USA’s west coast in the past 4 months for seminars and conferences (although much of that involved DAWNDINOS presentations too). I am glad it’s all done, much as it was valuable science communication and meetings with friends/colleagues. Emails of sundry sorts fall into that “other” category too: I am not sure how many emails per day I field but I am the type of person that likes to handle a lot via email. Thereby I have a written record (my memory is patchy at times even though it can be excellent) that helps me organize my thoughts and actions. Maybe it’s 50 emails/day? Plus another 50 emails of fake conference/journal spam that seem to take more time deleting than they should (hello, spam filter)? Hosting visitors, talking on the phone/Skype with science writers, and certainly doing journal editorial/peer review duties are other big chunks. And so on; I won’t list it as most of it is normal academic life stuff. (Aside from the occasional elephant post-mortem)

Now, I got into academic life for what I feel are very good reasons, for me. A bit of context: I started working as a newspaper delivery boy at age 12, and continued that until I was maybe 15, then did odd jobs such as washing biochemistry dishes in my dad’s lab or fast food cashier/restaurant busboy & dishwasher until college. Then I kept up some intermittent part-time jobs like selling music CDs at Sam Goody, mixing margaritas as a “blender jockey” at Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant or tending snails at a marine ecology lab (thanks, Dianna Padilla!) until grad school. The point is, my parents had the wisdom to inculcate a work ethic into me, and that was VERY good, although I also got a strong taste of what it was like to work in a typical business, punching the clock in and out each day. And I HATED that clock-punching. It still provokes a deep visceral reaction from me. (Aside: ironically, that generous DAWNDINOS grant requires me to log my daily hours, and I hate that too but it must be done!)

In Sarasota, Florida where we spent winters with grandparents and I gleefully chased Anolis lizards (one blurry one here, I promise!).

To tie the story up, academic life attracted me (and I saw enough from my dad’s life as a professor to know) because it offered an escape from that punch-clock, 9-to-5 Monday-Friday life. The 9-to-5 strict schedule is just not for me, although I have plenty of respect those for whom it is; the world needs all kinds. I need flexibility; I need to be able to do science when Athena’s muse strikes me, not feeling chained to a rigid schedule and suffocating bookkeeping of how time is spent. In reality, in academia/science I feel now that it is impossible for me to realistically quantify how much time I spend on particular things – I may get a good idea while on the toilet, and that counts as science time doesn’t it? I am probably juggling a dozen things at once in my mind and efforts; work/other life/bullshit; at any one time, so partitioning my time is subjective nonsense. I prefer to be judged (when I must be judged) on what I do and its quality, and to be trusted to do this right by some “fair” standard rather than hours. To me, that’s what academia/science should be… (current reality be damned)

I blame the 80s.

That brings me to, how does a weekend look? In grad school I didn’t mind devoting some of my weekends – and plenty of late evenings – to work. Now, especially with a family, I do mind it. Living in Europe has helped me appreciate that quality-of-life mentality as well. It can still be a struggle within me, as I love science and sometimes I just want to do it; it may not matter if it is 6am on a Tuesday, 1pm on a Thursday or 7pm on a Saturday. Often I say “no” and don’t, and that can feel good, but sometimes I let myself enjoy after-hours work, because I live for enjoyment in all its forms in my life. That is a privileged position to be in and I do not forget that privilege. However, I’ve worked since 1989 to get here, so 29+ years of university life has to have been for some non-disposable purpose in my life. I’ve posted before about work-life integration and how I don’t personally recognize a rigid divide between these in my life, but with 24 hours in a day there is a real zero-sum game at play, so I prioritize what I do (or go with the moment).

In non-work mode: Reggie Regent (I’m the lion on the left; not the dog, who was beloved Daisy); high school mascot. A very sweaty one in that suit!

One failure I am working on is to return to fitting in ~2 gym workouts/week into my weekday schedule; that was good when I was doing it a couple of years ago. I have no great excuses for that. Nor would I rely on the “too busy” excuse for anything above — I find the “cult of busy” in academia to be tedious and repugnant (the post linked there is mainly about PhD students but at the faculty academic level such genitalia-sizing-up talk is rife). We all do what we can with our limited time, yet our life-goals are probably not identical, and we probably don’t understand what others do with their time or what constraints they work under.

Dealing with encroaching age and disability has thrown new challenges into my time-budgeting that I am still grappling with. I may want to work (or even need to, beyond the level of overcommitment I’m already in) but sometimes I simply do not have the energy. I don’t give myself guilt and grief for this if I can help it, while I expect that once I do have more energy I’ll devote it appropriately. I respect my limits, much as I confess I still don’t understand them.

As a lifelong learner, I am still learning how to live my life, one day at a time. Everyone lives their life differently. My life now is lived so incredibly differently from how I lived it 20 years ago as a young grad student that I can have a hard time recognizing myself in that scared, scarred, lost, naïve yet still very excited man.

One day that young grad student went into San Francisco, bought a huge teddy bear, and brought it home to cuddle with because he felt so alone. A blues musician on the street saw him carrying that bear and improvised a song mocking him, and he didn’t mind because it was the truth that was captured in that parody, and he was a student of the truth. It was a dark period in that man’s life—a void that was filled with work.

“How, then, can we fail to take the importance of factuality and reality seriously? How can we fail to care about truth? We cannot.”

But now my daughter has inherited that bear and it was worth every dime, every lonely tear, and every hour worked to become the person I am; the only person I can be at this moment, flawed yet ever in flux. Tomorrow will be another day and I will be grateful for those new hours, awake to their prospects and alert to their tribulations.

That was a condensed day in my scientific life and some backstory to it. Thanks for taking your time to read it.

We’ve been through a lot together.

Darwin the Human

A personal story here for Darwin Day 2018. I knew about as much about Charles Robert Darwin as any typical science-interested student when I was growing up. But eventually I had the good fortune of taking a history of science class at the University of Wisconsin as an undergrad, and it inspired me with the story of Darwin as a human being, not just some clever scientist with a long argument that changed the world.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10 unless you have Darwin’s gut-wrenching problems.

I devoured Desmond & Moore’s amazing biography of Darwin “the tormented evolutionist”, which was the transformative event for me. At the time I was experiencing the beginnings of some health problems that didn’t seem that far from problems Darwin suffered for much of his life, and then, as I read more about his life, I saw more features of this man that brought him vividly to life. I still think about those traits and how some parallel my life in certain ways (not that I am in any way a giant of science like him!!). And so this blog post was born, thusly:

I’m writing this post early on Darwin Day and entirely from memory, rather than doing my usual research into the post while I go; to keep the post more personal and less academic (e.g. just quick Wikipedia links below). I feel connected to Darwin’s life experience because, like him, I wandered about as a student, unsure about my direction in life and causing my parents some consternation early on. He tried medical school (Edinburgh; too bloody) and theology (Cambridge; faith just was not his thing) but found hunting for beetles on the heaths more exciting. In high school I played with ideas such as Hollywood screen-writing (too risky), radio DJ (I had no skills) and truant or criminal (I hung out with some shady characters even though I still had some morals; despite transgressions and convictions).

I then took a standardized “what is your best career fit?” test in biology class which conclusively told me that biology was best for me as a career; and that rang true. I’d always loved nature and so that was the idea I had when I went to undergrad. I signed up for the wrong college (Agriculture & Life Sciences, not Letters & Science; confusing divisions!) at the UW. I got some early research experience in that first college: I tried my hand at raising colonies of Indian mealmoths (Plodia interpunctella; I can still identify them!) and their parasitoid wasps. At that same agricultural lab I got to do my own experiments in a basement wind tunnel over my summer holiday, in which I released those pesky moths to fly down the tunnel toward various kinds of pheromone-based lures, finding that one kind seemed to work best. But I didn’t like that and frankly found agricultural science boring, for me. We didn’t connect, nor did some other lab experiences I had. But I grew from them and still value them (and respect the science and people involved) very much.

I took Evolution and also Functional Morphology courses, didn’t do great (I was young for the classes), and then finally took that history class—boom! Aha, scientists can be human! Not just hypothesis-robots! Darwin was a man of great privilege, having his estate and wealth handed down from his funky grandpa Erasmus and stern father Robert. But, in addition to his meanderings that eventually forced him (via his father’s impatient urgings) to become the Beagle’s naturalist for a five year voyage, he suffered in quite human ways throughout much of his life. The greater trials commenced during that voyage, with still-mysterious health problems and the fractious relationship with eccentric Captain Fitzroy. They continued with his marriage to cousin Emma Wedgwood (yes, of that pottery-famed lineage) in which they lost four of ten children at young ages (most critically, beloved Annie at 10 years old) and in which they struggled with Darwin’s diminishing faith and Emma’s stalwart beliefs.

Finally, Darwin struggled famously with his “big book” for >20 years, afraid of its impact and its reception, and of its need to have a watertight, evidence-based argument from many perspectives, with his hand forced by Alfred Russel Wallace’s converging ideas. Along the way, with his health and family problems, he had to contend with his mentors’ and peers’ reactions to his ideas—although one could call the acceptance of much of his main arguments to be a “happy ending” (the post-mortem eclipse of Darwinism, and its eventual resurrection + syntheses, aside). These trials that Darwin faced as a human are all relatable, and the more one learns about him the more complex, flawed, emotional and yes, tormented he becomes. He can be both a hero and a tragic figure or a cautionary tale.

When I get the chance, I like to teach students about this human side of Darwin. It is a way into the heart of the science, to show a person’s journey along with the wonder of discovery, and how such a journey is not necessarily a simple or even joyful one. I can feel the many facets of Darwin in my own life—the intensely curious, peripatetic, enthusiastic young man who loved experiencing nature in all its raw forms, the chronically suffering disabled person who sometimes could not enjoy the work or other aspects of life that he treasured, the family man who loved time at home, the explorer who treasured roaming the local heath or far-flung foreign terrain, the meticulous scientist who exhaustively gathered tiny bits of data in isolated studies to slowly build toward grander ideas, and much more.

But Darwin is a different human, too. We live in such different times, when there the world of science is far larger but the world feels far smaller, more interconnected. Naturalists today are not simply landed noblemen who can play with science in their luxurious spare time, nor do they work alone at their pursuits. Anyone can be a scientist, and a career scientist can, if they are fortunate and skilled enough, assemble their own laboratory in which they lead a team to tackle their big questions that captivate them. The individual questions in science tend to be smaller (more incremental and specialized) today, yet can overall (across career(s)) be bigger because we can tackle -and have tackled- some of the bigger ones; Darwin’s big questions being among the giant ideas we are now poised upon.

It’s not all about science, though. Darwin’s story, which I think about so often, reminds me of how we all struggle in our lives and amidst the joy of discovery in everyday life there can be considerable suffering and regret. It is a bittersweet story; an ever-so-human story. And today is a good day to reflect on that, and to celebrate life while we lament what has been lost.