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


Fatty acid form, found in phospholipids or triglycerides

Cheers for science & research!


The book-length answer:

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,,, … 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)

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.


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.

Food for Thought – And Eating.

A discussion of biodiversity and the role of fungi as decomposers turned into a chat about “expired” bread today, and afterward (while making a sandwich with “expired” bread) I decided that they could probably benefit from a little bit more concrete advice to back up our discussion. One of the students asked how they [the bacteria and fungi] got to the food after you put it in the refrigerator. We talked about what preservatives are and the balance between safe consumption and preventing organisms from growing in the food, and about the fact that the fungal spores and bacteria are in the air and on the surfaces all around us. After a few incredulous looks after discussing moldy bread, I threw up my hands and gave in. “Look, I couldn’t tell you just how many products in my fridge right now are past their printed dates, and they are perfectly safe and good to eat. There are plenty of other foods that don’t have expiration dates on them either because – for example – it’s just a raw carrot.”

This is what I shared with them after class, and is generally my guide for why I continue to buy short-dated products and tear moldy bits off of bread and eat the rest.

Since I wouldn’t want to provide advice without evidence… a bit more information about so-called “expiration dates” on perishable products such as bread. 

My version: The dates are advice from the manufacturer and/or a regulation agency, and their purposes are two-fold: Sell products that you are pleased with, and reduce the chance of you from being harmed by the product. Use dates as guidelines for how fresh a product is so that you can plan to use the food within an appropriate amount of time. The dates are more likely to be indicative of food quality and how quickly it should be sold, and is not a deadline for using the product.


Evidence: Bread with a March 01 “Sell-by” date, which was slightly dry but still delicious and not the slightest bit moldy. 

Learn about food safety, especially the types of foods that tend to develop harmful bacteria or fungi that are likely to be hazardous to your health. And you should always know how to handle your food safely! Safe cooking is just as essential as safe storage. Keep in mind however, that all of this information from the USDA below is based on customs and policies in the US and is general advice covering a range of foods and people, and additionally does not always reflect the rest of the world.

Use good judgement, and know your own body. I have a strong immune system from years of living in the country on a farm and I have an in-depth working knowledge of how organisms live and survive, so I’m likely to make good decisions about the safety of my food. If you don’t exercise good judgement, there will often be consequences – just as there were for our early human ancestors 2,000,000 years ago (Yes, 2 million years ago).

Info from the USDA about labeling: 

Are Dates for Food Safety or Quality?
Manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality. Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by Federal law.

How do Manufacturers Determine Quality Dates?
Factors including the length of time and the temperature at which a food is held during distribution and offered for sale, the characteristics of the food, and the type of packaging will affect how long a product will be of optimum quality. Manufacturers and retailers will consider these factors when determining the date for which the product will be of best quality.

For example, sausage formulated with certain ingredients used to preserve the quality of the product or fresh beef packaged in a modified atmosphere packaging system that helps ensure that the product will stay fresh for as long as possible. These products will typically maintain product quality for a longer period of time because of how the products are formulated or packaged.

The quality of perishable products may deteriorate after the date passes, however, such products should still be safe if handled properly. Consumers must evaluate the quality of the product prior to its consumption to determine if the product shows signs of spoilage.

Food Safety Tips from the USDA: 

Featured image: Perfectly safe, delicious bread that was discounted 3 weeks ago because of the March 1st sell-by date. 

How to “Do well in class”

Students ask this question often, especially when they are taking a class in an unfamiliar subject, or when they have existing anxiety about the topic from previous experiences (of their own or from classmates).

It isn’t a bad question to ask! It shows that you are thinking about making a Plan for Success. In response, expect to hear 1st: some of the tried-and-true recommendations that you might already know, and 2nd: advice specific to that class/professor/subject.


  1. Have a growth mindset! Dedicate yourself to improvement and success, instead of reinforcing old prejudices about your skills. Positive thinking + Positive actions = Positive results.
  2. Take notes in class. Write down more than what is written on the slide instead of thinking that you can look back at the slides and remember everything the professor said.
  3. Come by office hours with your questions or set up a meeting with your professor. [See video below]
  4. Be engaged in class. Not everyone is outspoken, but you should all be willing to challenge your classmates’ comments, guess, or give your opinion when the professor opens the floor during class. You’ll remember more by being engaged with the material instead of passively listening.
  5. Do the review/practice exercises in the book. Think about them, and don’t just look up the answer online.

Science Focused

  1. Use your critical thinking skills! Many science courses are not about memorizing a lot of facts, even though you will be learning a lot of new terminology as well. The most challenging questions on exams will often require you to demonstrate that you can apply what you have learned.
  2. Find out how/why we know. Science is a process of understanding the world, so successful science students need to understand this methodology for inquiring about processes over the course of scientific investigations. Sometimes these answers will be the focus of more advanced courses than you are currently in, but asking the questions puts you in the right frame of mind.
  3. Make connections between old and new facts, as well as the processes linking them together. Few things occur in a vacuum, which means that interactions and changes are a normal part of our dynamic environment. Everything is connected!
  4. Be open-minded about new ideas. You don’t learn anything by refusing to consider facts that contradict your current beliefs & ideas about the world. Every single idea was new at one time.
  5. Understand the value of “I don’t know.” Why do we conduct experiments? Because we don’t know what results we will get. So why would you think that admitting you don’t know is a problem?

featured image: a giant bee in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, Socorro, NM (July 2016)

Idiotic Intelligence

This year I’ve been part of a faculty Reading Round Table that is studying a book by digital education guru James Paul Gee – The Anti-education Era.

One epic quote in the preface grabbed my attention immediately, and I knew that this was going to be an interesting book.

After many years of studying people I have become intrigued, as have many others, by how a species named for its intelligence (Homo sapiens: wise or knowing man) can sometimes be so stupid. Depending on how you look at it, humans are either marvelously intelligent or amazingly stupid.
– Preface, pg I

Gee’s point here is about the ways in which people can use fabulously helpful information and incredibly sophisticated tools in ways that are ultimately destructive.

Knowledge in itself is neither good nor bad – it is the way in which we use our knowledge that is consequential.

featured image: The Rocky Mountains near Denver, CO (July 2016)

Exercise your mind – Criticise!

Use your mental muscles every time you consider a decision or read an article.

Impress your friends, professors, and supervisors with your ability to analyze a situation instead of simply reacting and/or following someone else’s directions.

Image not showing?
Go to the Source: National Geographic Press

featured image: Autumn in Georgia, Armstrong State University (Fall 2016)