It’s smart to admit when you’re wrong.

An article by Business Insider recently highlighted the “five most fundamental differences between smart and stupid people,” and it doesn’t read like the success self-help book you’d expect.

“In a situation of conflict, smart people have an easier time empathizing with the other person and understanding their arguments. They are also able to integrate these arguments into their own chain of thought and to reconsider their opinions accordingly.”
-Lisa Schonhaar, Gisela Wolf: Business Insider 

My mom and I have recently been discussing the sticker (and t-shirt) she gave to me as a birthday gift, both of which include this exasperated saying: I Can Teach It To You, But I Can’t Understand It For You. She shared this article with me, which highlights empathy, cooperation, critical thinking, and honesty as some of the most telling characteristics of smart people.

How smart is your attitude?

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Memorizing Poems

It’s easier to learn things when you’re young. Take advantage of this!

I just started a monthly poetry memorization challenge, and realized that I still know a poem that I learned sometime in middle school (c. 1997-2000).

For October I’m learning “A Chemist Looks at Parasitology.
I still remember most of “The Dark is Rising,” from Susan Cooper’s series.

“When the Dark comes rising six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; Water, fire, stone;
Five will return and one go alone.

Iron for the birthday; bronze carried long;
Wood from the burning; stone out of song;
Fire in the candle ring; water from the thaw;
Six signs the circle and the grail gone before.

Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold
Played to wake the sleepers, oldest of old.
Power from the Green Witch, lost beneath the sea.
All shall find the Light at last, silver on the tree.”

― Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising series 

Aside

Mini “Huzzah!” Moment

It’s always a great moment…
…to see evidence that my students are paying attention in class.

  • The general Beer’s Law equation in the lab manual: Molecule Concentration = Absorbance(at a specific wavelength) * Constant
  • The general Beer’s Law equation I wrote on the board: [molecule]=A??? x constant
  • What several of my students put on the postlab: [molecule]=A??? x constant

There’s nothing really wrong with writing the “book” version, but it was nice to see that my simple version stuck with them.

Since you asked… Soap!

A student in Principles of Biology asked a question today that I didn’t know the answer to – are phospholipids the molecules in soap that facilitate its ability to dissolve both polar (carbohydrates, nucleic acids, and some proteins) and nonpolar (lipids and some proteins) materials?

The short answer: Nope! Soaps aren’t using any of the 3 major types of lipids, it’s a modified single fatty acid chain.

The longer answer: Sodium salt and potassium salt versions of fatty acids are the main active component of soaps. In fact the process of saponification serves primarily to separate the glycerol backbone from the fatty acid chains. This process results ionized chains in the solution, which then form ionic bonds with Na+ or K+ ions when salts are added to the mixture.

E.g. Sodium oleate: 

Salt form, found in soap

Comes from lipids containing oleic acid

1200px-oleic-acid-based-on-xtal-1997-2d-skeletal

Fatty acid form, found in phospholipids or triglycerides

Cheers for science & research!

 

The book-length answer: 
https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Structural_Biochemistry/Lipids/Soap

Nervous? Excited? So is your neighbor.

From freshman to returning grandmother, everyone has to go through that first day of a new class.

I asked my Principles of Biology I students this semester to share “Any concerns that you have about the class” after the first day. Here’s a peek at what y’all said, and some help!

General worries…

  • Finding the textbook – Armstrong bookstore, the textbook broker across from campus, Amazon.com, Chegg.com, Half.ebay.com … Just remember, you’ll need this book again for Biology II. Renting might not actually be the best option.
  • Staying organized / Managing my time – Find someone to help you be accountable. Meet, text, or email each other when you’re supposed to be reading the book/your notes. “This chapter’s killing me… are you doing any better?”
  • Keeping up with notes during lecture – Focus on added explanations that I mention in class. Don’t try to write down every word – outline & use short notes – especially if it’s already on the slide (I post them on the course website for you!).
  • Not sure what/how to read effectively – Don’t highlight everything. Skim the chapter first, looking for unfamiliar ideas. Mark those sections for extra time, and take notes about what you don’t understand.
  • It is a really big class – Well, you have the option to either stand out or blend in, but anyone is welcome to ask questions. There are also more options for who to study with! Also, my office is 50% less intimidating than most professors’ offices. Come by during office hours and ask for help.
  • Memorization – Know the story, memorize the details. Biology is always integrated, so make sure you can put the pieces together. Example: Facts – electrons are negatively charged. The valence shell is involved with bonding. Story – sharing & stealing electrons is the basis for constructing molecules, and the valence structure tells you how an element will bond.
  • This is my first college class / I have first year jitters… / It’s been 10 years since I was in school – Ask questions, and don’t panic. Use D2L/E-classroom to keep an eye on your grades. Ask for help early: Office hours (free…), STEM tutoring (free), Supplemental Instructors (free), making friends (okay, you might buy them lunch sometimes).

Information worries…

  • Making the best grade that I can / Making an A – Shoot for the stars, and at least you’ll land on the moon. Read the study guides along with the textbook chapter, so that you know what the most important topics will be. Always aim for that A, and back up that ambition with solid, productive work.
  • I might not catch on as fast as other students – Positive thinking + Positive action = Positive results. Reality check might be that you need to ask for help: Office hours (free…), STEM tutoring (free), Supplemental Instructors (free), making friends (okay, you might buy them lunch sometimes).
  • Not learning as quickly as I did in high school – Find out how you learn. Does it help if you draw everything? Do you need music in the background while you study? Take notes in class. Answer the questions at the end of the chapter – I’m not going to assign them like your teacher used to, but it will help you learn if you do them.
  • Have I forgotten my high school biology? – Maybe so, but don’t panic. Khan academy might be helpful, or CrashCourse. I post extra videos and activities that will give you another run through of many of the crucial topics. Send me an email or stop by during office hours.
  • Worried about the topics that I struggled with last time – Don’t psych yourself out, psych yourself up! You are going to knock them out of the park this time, because you are planning ahead, asking for help, and working hard. Remember to still study for the topics that you understood well, as it’s easy to forget the basics. What’s the mitochondrion do again?
  • This class will be a lot of work / will be difficult – Maybe so, but you can plan ahead. Do the assignments, be prepared, and find out why/how you answered wrong when it happens. This class is designed to prepare you for amazing upper level courses – such as parasitology, applied microbiology, environmental chemistry…
  • The comprehensive final exam – Study Guides on D2L are already posted! Come to office hours and review exams I-IV after they are graded so that you understand why/how/when you chose the incorrect answers.

It helps to remember that you’re all in this boat together, even if your seats (your lives/backgrounds) are different!


Featured image: Science scarf and epic purple shirt – cool things from my mother-in-law and mom, both of whom love that I’m a college professor.

New Semester, New Technique?

Humans love stories, but get bogged down by information.

“Shrimp wisely divide their time between eating, hiding from predators, and finding mates.”

“Shrimp respond to variable changes in their environment in order to optimize their caloric intake while minimizing predation risk and maximizing reproduction.”

Let’s be honest – it’s much simpler to understand the first sentence, but as scientists we’re expected to write the second sentence. The content is basically the same, although the details are variable.

Why do readers relate to the first version?
1 – less jargon (technical language)
2 – intuitive phrasing that connects the main ideas

Why is the first version problematic?
1 – less information, fewer details
2 – teleological (the shrimp has goals)

In teaching, can we reconcile the two? Can we use stories to help our students build mental models of the topics?

In an attempt to utilize one of the ideas that we discussed in our faculty reading round-table last semester, I am incorporating the idea of narrative sensemaking, or storied truths, into my biology lectures. The idea is to use sensible, intuitive stories to understand realistic, complex, patterns in the real world.

Good stories don’t just have to come from fantastical imaginings, rooted in the mythos of our ancestors. Scientific facts don’t have to be clinical and hyper-accurate in order to be useful. Just like a good teaching model, we can incorporate the best parts of both.

Why am I doing this?

Students are often frustrated by exam questions that require critical thinking skills, and say they are “too hard” or “not based on the lecture.” I am hypothesizing (Yep, I’m a scientist – I do this all the time.) that part of this problem is a mental disconnect from the material.  Many of the extra study materials that I direct my students to use are youtube videos (Hello, CrashCourse) or activities that have a clear, succinct, and entertaining story – they are more likely to mentally interact with the information more intuitively than if I were to simply remind them to “review section 7.3 in the textbook”.

Understanding connections is key to successfully studying increasingly complex topics in science, not simply rote memorization. Without the ability to think on their feet, analyze available information, and reach sound conclusions, they also are not productive, scientifically literate citizens. They can’t make connections if they don’t understand how the story works in the first place.

How am I going to do this?

I’m adding “What’s the story?” pieces to my existing lectures, in an effort to regularly remind students of the larger picture. My goal is to create 1-2 sentence story bits that aren’t just summary, but illustrate the narrative thread running through the past few topics for the section of material that we’ve just discussed.

For example, Chapter 1 of our Campbell Biology textbook discusses overall themes in biology. The first topic is the basic properties of life vs. non-life, moving on to where it is found. What’s the story? Life has adapted to deal with a wide variety of conditions.

What are the results?

I’ll let you know!


Featured image: Stalactites and stalagmites at Carlsbad Caverns (July 2016)

Aside

Nightingale Woman

“Nightingale Woman” was a poem by Tarbolde, written in 1996 on the Canopus Planet. It was said to be one of the most passionate love sonnets of its time. An excerpt of the sonnet from page 387 is all that is known from Star Trek lore (the first two lines).

MacHuginn, Cleric of Deneir, completed the sonnet, writing it for his love, the kenku Karrakaniin.


My love has wings – slender, feathered things,
With grace in upswept curves and tapered tips.
In every beat she strikes a chord that rings
As true as cherished words from readied lips.

My love’s dark eyes are quick, and undismayed
To pierce the shadowed veil of deepening night.
Oh, smould’ring gaze of moonlit thoughts betrayed
By sable feathers limned in silver light.

My lover’s mind takes flight, she claims my eyes,
As wingtips brush with whispered, promised, notes.
Each silken touch, a slow caress, gives rise
To fierce, enchanted cries from joyous throats.

Her slender curves my upswept wings now trace –
Stars gasp to watch our shimmering embrace.


featured image: one of MacHuginn’s feather darts

The Artist

Being an artist can mean many different things.

For me, being an artist means that I draw, paint, play several musical instruments, photograph weird things, and occasionally sculpt clay, wood, metal, and leather. Although I actually did take university courses in drawing and sculpture at Dartmouth and in high school, much of what I know comes from self-study and working in the Claflin Jewelry Studio while I was a student.

Am I a great artist? Nope, but I’m not bad. I enjoy spending a lot of time on a piece, so that dedication usually shows through in the final product. Short, quick things are a bane, though. Why? Because I don’t draw/paint/sculpt often enough. I don’t practice flute regularly, and haven’t set a regular schedule for learning harp yet.

Even though I may not produce much art in any form, part of what I enjoy most about being an artist is being able to truly appreciate and be inspired by the work of others. To be capable of looking at someone’s painting and work out how they might have planned and executed the work, or to understand how impressive a musical performance is (or isn’t). I’m often inspired by history (Hello, Society for Creative Anachronism!) and fictional characters and places, in addition to the constant inspiration that is provided by the natural world. When I do create something worth sharing, I usually post it on DeviantArt, but I don’t photo-dump on there like some people tend to. It takes a pretty impressive or well-planned shot for me to put it on DeviantArt.

harper_unfinished_by_myrddinderwydd

The Harper, Deth

Deth from Riddle of Stars by Patricia Mckillip
Drawn in high school, based on an illustration in the edition of the book that our library had. Never really finished.

machuginn_s_feather_darts_by_myrddinderwydd-dawyz05

MacHuginn’s Feather Darts

A sketch during a Dungeons and Dragons session last year – my character MacHuginn (one of the characters in Divergent Paths) commissioned a smith in ?? to make him a few dozen metal-tipped darts out of his feathers. He also uses them for making his own quills!

leather_bracer_finished_by_myrddinderwydd-d9kx95v

My leather archery bracer, tooled leather.

Cameron taught me leatherworking last year, and I made a bracer so that I’d tear up my arm less while shooting. Since I have an Irish persona in the SCA and love Celtic knotwork, I ended up with this painstakingly time consuming piece!

claddagh_ring_by_myrddinderwydd

Claddagh ring, cast in silver. Terrible photo…

Much of my earlier work I don’t have photos of, since camera phones weren’t as common then and I wasn’t as interested in photography either. This Claddagh ring was carved in wax by hand, then molded and cast in silver in the Claflin Jewelry Studio at Dartmouth. Unfortunately, Cameron lost it several years ago… So no luck on taking a better photo.

I can take good photos though! These are from our road trip out west in July 2016. We had the Nikon 5300 with us, and had a great time visiting family and roaming around in parks, reservations, and fishing.


featured image: Raven ring, another Dungeons and Dragons sketch for MacHuginn (2016)

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Healthy Eating Plate

Sometimes simpler is better.

Eat real foods, avoid hidden calories (such as sugary drinks), and exercise so that your body actually uses the calories that you consumed.

HealthyEatingPlate

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Professors Disappear at the end of the Semester.

Well, at least I do. It’s been a very busy past 2 months, and I’ve been busy even amongst the grading and teaching too. What have I been doing? Earth Day March for Science, visiting family, cheering on spring blossoms.

Being science-y.

And being nerd-y. How? Dungeons and Dragons, of course. Can’t go wrong with the classics. My current character is a Norse skald (bard) from ~800 CE, and we somehow managed to sail from Midgard to Vanaheim – magic is much cooler there, but there are were-beasts, and two moons. I’ve been playing a lot of Dragon Age: Inquisition and Origins, especially since I turned in final grades. Solas and Blackwall are two of my favorite characters, and I’ve started writing a Solas + Inquisitor fan-fiction “A Long Hunt” to show my love for it. Later chapters of the fanfic will definitely be NSFW.

Being nerd-y

What am I up to next? I’m teaching future K-5 teachers how to “Do Science” in the course Earth and Life Science for Early Childhood Education Majors, so I’m preparing materials for starting June 5th.