Tuesday, August 28, 2007

I'm flying to Rovaniemi, Finland tomorrow for the meeting of the Scandinavian-Baltic Society of Parasitology. Three days of talks about parasites taking place on the arctic circle. Should be fun. I'll give a talk about how parasites alter the behavior of their hosts through time. The talk is right after a coffee break, so if I notice people nodding off, I'll know my talk is very, very boring. Let's hope a few people stay interested. I'll be in Finland most of September, so I may not be posting too often.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Ines and I were at the Games Convention here in Leipzig yesterday. It is the biggest games fair in Europe and it was wild. Tony Hawk was even there promoting his new game. Things sure have come a long way from Pong. I was a rather big "gamer" until high school, but after I went to college there just seemed like too many other things to do (note: there was one exception, Conker's Bad Fur Bay for N64...we played that game, perhaps the best of all time, quite frequently in the dorms). In college, I started to view video games as a time waster, something more for bored kids than high-strung students. So, I have not really been paying too much attention to the gaming world. Yesterday, though, I saw how much the industry has grown. The graphics are wildly life-like, most everything can be played multiplayer online, there are controllers with built-in motion sensors, and many games push the boundaries of decency (to view one game, Ines had to show her ID to prove she was 18). All the attending "gamers", mostly male of course, were being wooed by the game designers and console manufacturers. For example, at the booths of many games or demos, scantilly clad women were willing to (read paid to) pose for photographs with any given nerd. It was like a car show for geeks, but cool none the less. In fact, Ines and I want a Wii after playing one for all of two minutes.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

When it comes to human behavior, I have a tendency to look for biological explanations, i.e. it's in our genes. Not that I discount cultural explanations, but they just seem weaker in my eyes. I suppose that shouldn't be a surprise...I am a biologist and I like to think most traits evolved to serve some kind of purpose. Anyways, in the nature vs. nuture continuum, I would suppose that something like color preference would lie on the nuture end of things. I mean, why would someone's favorite color be innate? Well, here is an interesting piece of research that shows that females have a clear preference for red/pink, yet males and females do not differ in their preference for blue. The study was conducted using adults, so genetic and environmental influences are indistinguishable; they need to do a similar study using infants to show that the preference is innate. Nonetheless, I find it fascinating that pink may be inherently more attractive to females, which would just further demonstrate the extent that our biology unconsciously affects our decisions. Makes me almost feel a bit guilty that I bought a pink shirt awhile ago.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The other day, I was watching a nature documentary on deep sea research. Of course, it was very interesting, because our knowledge of this ecosystem has exponentially increased over the last few decades. In this show, the researchers were studying the ecology of whale falls. Whale carcasses are like oases in the desert of the ocean bottom, and a wide variety of bizarre critters seem to find their way to the buffet. Amazingly, some described species of worms seem to be found exclusively on these rare but bountiful sources of food. There are many valid and interesting research questions being asked about whale falls, like how these critters manage to find whale carcasses and how they travel the vast distances between carcasses? While I find these questions intriguing, I could not help but wonder about the logistics of this work and how it is funded. After working in science for a good 6 years or so, I’ve learned this fundamental lesson: money does not come easy for basic research (i.e. research that doesn’t obviously have an application that will benefit people). There are lots of curious scientists that want to do basic research, and they all tend to think their ideas are interesting and exciting enough to deserve loads of funding. But, like most any other pursuit, there is never quite enough money to go around and make everyone happy. I’ve accepted that, and it is part of the reason that I try to do research that is relatively light on spending, e.g. paying my salary and buying me a bit of equipment. My applications appear to have a good profit ratio in the eyes of the granting agency (hopefully); they think they will get a lot for their money. To do this kind of deep sea research, on the other hand, the budget must be huge. There are projects in which dead whales were towed out to sea, and then regularly visited to study the progression of the ecosystem on the carcass. To do something like that, you need to pay for a ship (a big one), deep sea submersibles (which I can only image are expensive), a crew, numerous scientists and graduate students, and the equipment for the any desired analyses (e.g. DNA sequencing of collected critters). And you got to pay for those ocean voyages a couple times per year. What do the funding agencies get in return for this huge investment? Well, they will be acknowledged in a variety of papers reporting the expedition’s discoveries, perhaps even in rather good journals given the uniqueness of such studies. Nonetheless, that hardly seems like a reason to fork out hundreds of thousands of dollars. Actually, I think the clearest justification for this work is that it captures people’s imagination. If they can make a TV show out of it, some non-scientists must find the work fascinating and worth doing. That can not be said about most basic research, which is almost totally inaccessible to non-scientists. Just take the name of my thesis for example. Does this seem inviting: “Larval life history, transmission strategies, and the evolution of intermediate host exploitation by complex life cycle parasites”? Sometimes I think, not too seriously, that I should have been a paleontologist, my dream job when I was a dinosaur-crazed 6-year old. Then I’d be able to receive grants to travel to Siberia, East Africa, China, etc. to excavate dead animals and go on TV to tell people about my amazing discoveries. But then I wouldn’t get to work with living worms, a much more exhilarating, although equally useless (in the eyes of laymen) experience.

Friday, August 17, 2007

We had a surprise visit from an old friend of mine this week. Eliot, an acquiantance from my college days, wrote me an email on Monday saying "hey, I'm in Germany, where do you live?". I was a bit shocked, but happy to find time to host a wayward American. He happened to be in Berlin, which is just an hour from Leipzig, so on Tuesday afternoon I picked him up from the train station. You can read about some of our activities on his blog, which happens to be much more active than this one. Ya see, Eliot is an internet "somebody", just check out his list of blogging and editing duties. Other internet nerds know of him, though they may have never met him in the flesh. In fact, he was in Germany to attend a computer camp and learn about hacks, new technologies, and other things that he explained, but I didn't really understand. He did manage to enlighten me in one respect though. Apparently, during my three years abroad (yeah it was 3 years this month), I have picked up some kind of indistinguishable accent...not American, not Finnish, not German. Oh well. I'll start to worry when Germans tell me that I speak funny English.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

This is interesting. Exertion sweat (from exercise) has a chemical composition different from stress sweat (from anxiety). The stress sweat seems to result in a worse smell. I reek regularly of both varieties, but I think the stress stench will be more common in the next 2 months. I'm rapidly finalizing my thesis and preparing for the events and party thereafter. I think it is a bit like planning a shotgun wedding...