Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The last post of 2008…hopefully it doesn’t suck. The holidays come unexpectedly every year, but especially this year. A large experiment prevented me from doing normal Xmas stuff, like visiting a Xmas market, drinking Glühwein, and actually going shopping (the internet saved me). So I never really got into the Xmas mood. On the 22nd, after 3 long days of dissecting the copepods, I finished working for the year (at least in Plön). The next day was spent traveling. I went by train to Leipzig, met Ines, and then we drove to her parents in Spechtsbrunn. The next day, Santa came to visit, as he traditionally does in Germany. All I actually wished for Xmas was a few quiet days, much to Ines’ displeasure. Well, I must have been good this year, because in addition to some quiet, work-free days, I got some new underwear, a new guitar hero game, and a new cell phone (it even has a camera…what a technological upgrade for me!). As far as I could tell, everyone in Ines’s family was more than satisfied with their gifts, so I am left to conclude that Xmas was a success. Ines got a new video camera from her family. She has been happily filming everyone. While I am glad she is enjoying herself, I cannot shake the feeling that there are going to be a large number of embarrassing recordings of me in the near future. The scenery in Spechtsbrunn was also appropriately wintery. Despite temperatures well above 0 in most of Germany, there is a decent amount of snow on the ground in Spechtsbrunn. We even went sledding. After Xmas, Ines and I came back to Leipzig and were both immediately sick. I spent an evening puking my guts out, but then made a relatively quick recovery. Ines, on the other hand, has had a cold that she can’t seem to shake. I actually expected to get sick during the holidays. Once the stress of work is gone and I finally relax, I get sick. That is just what happens. Anyways, now we both seem to be in good enough condition to orderly celebrate the New Year. We are going to our neighbors for a James Bond-themed party. I asked the party hosts, why James Bond? As a big fan, I was curious about the inspiration behind the theme. Sadly, there was no real inspiration; they admitted to having hardly ever watched a Bond movie. It was just a good way to get people dressed up. Yeah, so Ines and I (and friend Lena) are bringing in the New Year in style (pictured).

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Many parasites have complex life cycles in which they require their current host to be eaten by the next host, e.g. a tapeworm cyst in an undercooked sausage. To facilitate transmission between hosts, parasites often alter the behavior of their hosts. For example, an infected host may not hide as often uninfected hosts or they may not act afraid of predator odors. These behavioral modifications presumably increase the parasite’s chances at getting eaten by the next host in its life cycle. There are a lot of examples of this phenomenon, and besides making for good cocktail party conversation, this is a fascinating and active area of research in parasite evolutionary ecology. All 3 of the papers I published in 2008 deal with host manipulation. I’ve been working in this field since I got into professional science; my undergrad thesis was on the photic behavior of amphipods infected with duck acanthocephalans. For my stay in Finland, I did not plan to do any work on host manipulation. I intended to learn how to make molecular phylogenies. I did a bit of work in this direction, but the endless pipetting associated with DNA work bored me somewhat. With the blessing of my advisor Tellervo and the urging of my collaborator Otto Seppälä, I planned some small experiments dealing with host manipulation. Those initial experiments snowballed and eventually became a major component of my PhD thesis. We somehow squeezed 4 manuscripts out of that work (2 published this year, 1 coming out next year, and a fourth hopefully next year too). While I am proud of this work, I think that I am sick of host manipulation. Maybe it was the painful peer-review process that did it to me, but maybe it is simply time for something new. I have worked on host manipulation on and off since I started in science 5 years ago. Next year, I want to focus on a whole new direction. Lately, I have been trying to understand the evolutionary forces acting on larval parasite growth and development. This is extremely interesting, but it is actually quite similar to the whole manipulation business, i.e. host manipulation usually only begins when parasite’s reach a particular developmental stage. The new field that I intend to delve into is the evolution of mixed mating in hermaphrodites. All tapeworms have both male and female sexual organs, and can thus fertilize their own eggs or accept sperm from other worms. Fertilizing one’s own eggs is generally a bad idea, because it represents an extreme form of inbreeding. In the tapeworm I am working with, it has been shown that inbreeding is costly; inbred worm eggs hatch very poorly. Thus, worms should avoid fertilizing their own eggs. They don’t, however. Even when a partner is present, worms still self-fertilize a small portion of their eggs. This seems wasteful, so it is puzzling why they do it. Starting next year, I intend to work towards an explanation for this paradox. Consider it a nerdy new year’s resolution.

Friday, December 05, 2008

I missed yet another Thanksgiving. As a kid, I thought Thanksgiving was just the prelude to Xmas, but as I aged, I realized what a great holiday it is. No presents or religion to complicate things, just food, family, and football. Lovely. It also prevents (somewhat) the annual Xmas hysteria from amalgamating prematurely. Unfortunately, without the time off from work, Thanksgiving has become just another day of the year for me. On Thanksgiving, I worked until about 8 helping our potential PhD student analyze some data (yeah we seem to have finally found one, but that’s another story)…didn’t leave much time to cook a turkey. In 2006, I actually gave my interview talk in Plön on Thanksgiving, which might make it my most stressful, yet memorable, Thanksgiving. Now that Thanksgiving is over, we can all focus on the obligatory Xmas shopping. I really dislike the mandatory consumerism in which I partake every year; I just do not want to go shopping. Moreover, I believe it has gotten more challenging in recent years. For example, I have to ship presents to my family in Nebraska, which limits the size of gifts that I can buy. The list of people that require a present also grows from year to year. My girlfriend’s family now is included on that list, which is a pretty sure sign that this relationship is more serious that I ever imagined. It is not just finding the right gift for the right person. It is also finding time to look for gifts. Stupidly, or diligently depending on your perspective, I started some rather large experiments last week that will run until Xmas and involve about 2500 copepods. All that copepod infecting, checking, and dissecting doesn’t leave much time for Xmas shopping. I am convinced that the answer to my problems lies on the internet. Quick and easy point-and-click shopping. Hopefully, I can manage to do it soon, so that everything ships on time. It is quite embarrassing saying ‘um, your gift is in the mail…merry Xmas’. As a follow up to the previous post, I am happy that Obama won. Amazingly, he even won Omaha, so my vote mattered! I have a renewed faith in democracy and my landsmen. That is like an early Xmas present.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Back in fall 2004, I had just arrived in Finland, and was surprised to see how much of a topic the U.S. elections were. I wondered, why are they so interested in American politics? After all, Americans don’t pay much attention to the domestic politics of other countries. The majority of Americans probably have no idea who leads Germany, China, or other large, “important” countries. It just doesn’t affect them. So, I naively thought that Europeans would show, at the most, mild interest in the U.S. elections. I was wrong. Interest was intense. Many people told me how they thought the American elections would affect them (military and environmental issues were often cited in this regard). As an American, my opinion was often sought. Who would win? My answer was usually something like this: the last four years were not good ones (wars started, reputation destroyed, worsening domestic situation), and I imagine most people will realize this and vote for Kerry (or against Bush…however you want to see it). In the end, America proved me wrong. I lost a lot of faith in my countrymen because of that election, and at that time it was hard for me to be proud of my citizenship. I kidded with several people that now I have to stay abroad for the next four years. I never expected that joke to be a kind of prophecy. I have in fact lived abroad for Bush’s entire second term. In 2006, much faith in my countrymen was restored when the Democrats took over Congress. People seemed to finally realize that the "Bush doctrine" was not good. So, finally, Election Day 2008 is here, and everyone seems excited about it. People have again been asking for my opinion. Who will win? I say Obama, but I normally add the anecdote about the 2004 elections. My prediction was wrong then, and it could be wrong again. To be honest, my residence abroad is primarily because of love, not as a protest against Bush’s politics. This time, however, if we end up with a McCain-Palin White House, then I am really going to consider staying in Germany. No joke.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Two weekends ago was Ines’ birthday, and we hosted a party to celebrate. Everything went more or less according to plan; the guests came, ate, drank, and were merry. Between 1 and 2 most people started going home, which was a surprise. I expected that the party would move to a club. At least, a few years ago this would have been the case (this could be selective memory at work, though). So, I couldn’t help but wonder are we getting old? No more desire to dance the whole night through? When I am completely honest with myself, nowadays I would often rather get a full night of sleep than party like a rock star.

Nonetheless, the party-lust has not been completely vanquished. Time to time, I really want to just go out and have fun. This week, Ines provided me with an extreme example how to do this. She and a girlfriend went to Belfast to see Oasis play. A flight to Dublin, bus to Belfast, one day there, and then turn around and go back…all to see a band that peaked in popularity 10 years ago? She isn’t even a mega-Oasis fan. I thought they were crazy, and I believe that I said once or twice “aren’t we too old for such trips”. Obviously, I am with a still young and spontaneous woman, and I love it. She pushes me to do things that I wouldn’t do when left to my own devices. That keeps me from worrying (and complaining) about getting old.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

We are still in search of a PhD student to help me unravel the mysteries of life cycle evolution in parasites. Our top candidate took a position somewhere else, so, a while back, I was forced to return to the original applications we received. Some were really bad. Just to demonstrate this, here are some real examples of stuff that was in CVs and cover letters:

I send you CV

The valuable keywords that inspire me to go ahead with my allotted task are “Determination, Dedication and Diligence”

For me 'Science is the Life time mission'.

Sir, working in the field of Molecular Evolution is my burning dream.

Inspiration is an instinct behind every successful effort and this can be achieved by functional objective of doing work, gain vital knowledge so as to make significant contribution to the field of biology.

I believe that if we believe on self, honest to time for work with full determination then surely this time also remain honest from its side and gives us uncountable strength in completion of that work.

i am hard working person and will do my work with enthusiastically. i shell be very thank full if u give me a chance to do work under your kind control and experienced environment. I believe studying and developing new and different strategies that help us in finding the logical answers to the hidden queries would be quite fascinating

As mentioned on the link I am sending my CV along with my CV I am also sending my all necessary certificates.

I am very interesting to your tapeworm parasitology position
Because of gene flow may limit the genetic differentiation and some genetic marker has deviation from Hardy–Weinberg equilibrium. Only with DNA marker we may be hard to uncover the evolutionary parasitic mechanism through individual tapeworm and host based approaching.

I couldn’t write such nonsense if I tried. Who knows, maybe they just stuck their CV into Google translator and sent around whatever came out. In any case, this gibberish reinforces the lesson I’ve learned: it is bloody difficult to find a good PhD student.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Last weekend, I visited Ines. It was something of a special occasion because I had not seen her in a month and because it was a holiday weekend in Germany. We spent one day of the long weekend in Berlin visiting a friend of Ines’. Berlin is probably my favorite city in Germany, and as usual, I was not disappointed by this visit. The city is just so vibrant and alive. The cafes and bars are generally well-populated with young people (not like the retirement community that is Plön). Moreover, you can do all kinds of cool stuff. When I was in Berlin with Ines and friends in early September, we started the evening at a kitschy Arabic café where we smoked shisha, before having dinner at an Italian pizzeria (horse meat on my pizza!), and then ended up in club, frequented by Americans, in which a British electro duet was playing. You can’t do that in many other cities. The trip this past weekend was considerably more laid back. Ines met up with several friends from her school days, so there was a lot of reminiscing. Happily, beer, the ultimate foreign language enhancer and social lubricant, helped me converse in German. A 3 am currywurst completed that lovely evening in Berlin. Multi-culti restaurants, indie discos, greasy fast food joints that never close, kitschy cafes, laid-back and tolerant attitudes…these are some of the cool things that I associate with Berlin and with living in Germany in general. I think I would really miss this stuff if I move back to the U.S.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Last month I dissected nearly 300 copepods that had been in the freezer since June. Freezing specimens is great because it allows you to procrastinate and put off data collection until you have nothing to do (which of course never really happens). So, I spent a whole week sitting at a microscope, which of course was not easy on my back. I have convinced myself that the ordeal was worthwhile, though I am not yet sure if the data is that spectacular (at least spectacular enough for the effort of dissecting 900 copepods). Main result: a lot of worms can share a single adult copepod and not increase the risk of host death or suffer from reduced growth rates. This is interesting because it suggests that the worm is exploiting its host well below a “risky” level. I suspect that the worms do this to enlarge their host range (so they can infect both small and big hosts), but I cannot rule out the possibility that they do it to reduce their developmental time and thus be transmitted earlier before their hosts die a natural (not parasite-induced) death. Perhaps I need a mathematical model to separate these two hypotheses. Lately, I also collected some cool data on tapeworm growth in copepods. There appears to be genetically based variation in worm growth, which is hard to explain. If there is directional selection on growth, i.e. faster is always better, then there should not be much variation at all because selection should have “picked” the best genotypes. I am still working hard trying to get at the potential costs associated with parasite growth rates. This is probably gonna be the first manuscript I produce from my work here, but I am still testing some alternative hypotheses. Excited to get the data. Yeah, sometimes science is exciting, at least for those doing it.

Onto something of more general interest, or perhaps not. Rock. The last three CDs I bought were all electronic-oriented: Mindless Self Indulgence, Ladytron, and the Japanese Popstars. Mindless Self Indulgence is one of my favourite bands. As a teenager, I saw them open up for Korn and remember thinking ‘what a stupid band’. When my musical tastes widened in college, I downloaded (those were the lawless Napster days) their first album (30 tracks arranged in alphabetical order). I and several of my friends were hooked for life. Ladytron is an indie electro band from England. ‘Destroy everything you touch’ was their hit, and their new album is full of similarly catchy melodies. Finally, the Japanese Popstars was an impulse buy in Dublin. They are an Irish band (which makes their name confusing) that is straight electronic, yet with funky enough beats to keep them out of the ‘techno’ bin. After all this electronic kick, I thought to myself ‘man, don’t forget about the guitars’. Therefore, I ordered some pure rock/metal albums to stay true to the musical roots. They are the latest from Slipknot and Every Time I Die, as well as the debut album from Scars on Broadway. The strange thing is that from all these albums, I had listened to about one song from each. I never used to buy an album before listening to at least half the songs, usually via downloading. Perhaps I have gotten too lazy or scared to download music, or perhaps I just started spending money more freely since I finished my PhD. Weird…I have not given up the student lifestyle altogether (I still eat a lot of frozen pizza and live in a cramped little apartment with crappy furniture), but more and more I realize that I have an adult lifestyle. Perhaps maturity is something inevitable. I just hope that I don’t start enjoying music considered ‘oldies’, ‘classics’, or ‘easy-listening’.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

I spent last week in Norway on "business". Actually, it was the most holiday-like business trip I ever took, as promised by my colleague. We went there to catch sticklebacks infected with a particular tapeworm (Schistocephalus). People here have been working with this parasite for several years, and it is my duty to carry on that research. Unfortunately, the worm seems quite rare in N. Germany, though all the necessary hosts occur in adequate abundance. So, instead of catching several thousand fish to find a few German worms, we went fishing in Norway. We visited a colleague of ours in Bergen. He has consistently found a high prevalence of infected sticklebacks in several freshwater lakes in W. Norway. Apparently it was a good year for worms, because it was actually difficult to find uninfected fish. The worms grow extremely large relative to their hosts, and they cause fish to have highly distended abdomens, so the infected fish can be clearly recognized. Such a virulent growth strategy probably helps the parasite get to its bird final hosts. We managed to smuggle about 300 fish back to Germany, at least half of which were infected. Next week we'll begin the big dissections. The fishing was made even more enjoyable by the scenary around he field site (pictured). In W. Norway, the mountains meet the sea, a lanscape which usually leads to a lot of rain. But we had nothing but sunshine for 4 straight days. Yep, very holiday-like indeed.

Friday, August 29, 2008

It may seem like I forgot that I have this blog. I didn’t. July was just very hectic. My excuses for not posting thus far in August are ending an experiment and attending a gay wedding, but those are admittedly bad excuses. July started out with a trip to Switzerland. I visited a colleague in Zürich and gave a talk about complex life cycle evolution (to a huge audience of about 20 people). The opponent at my PhD defense works in Zürich, and after my defense he offered his lab facilities to me if I can secure some funding. I would have nothing against moving to Zürich, but we’ll see if I manage to find funds in the coming year or so. Zürich is consistently rated as one of the best cities in the world to live in, and my impressions give no reason to doubt this…nice landscapes, beautiful architecture, reliable transportation, nice Swiss social benefits etc. The strange thing was that I barely heard any German there. Apparently, 21% of the entire Swiss population is foreigners, and in a big city like Zürich that number is probably higher. That definitely gives the city a cool, cosmopolitan feeling.

After Switzerland, it was back to work for a week, before the next trip. Ines and I went to Turkey for a week long tour. We did a package bus trip, because we did not have time to plan a trip ourselves (and we were a bit lazy too). We flew to Istanbul and then took a bus to most every tourist site in west Turkey, mostly ruins from Antiquity, but also some beautiful hot springs and a beach or two. After a week of riding the bus, we flew from Antalaya back to Hamburg. The highlight of the trip was probably Istanbul. It is a huge city with a rather convoluted history due to its geography; it is a gateway between Europe and Asia and thus a boundary between the Christian and Islamic worlds. The history of the city was not the only thing that impressed us. We were also struck by the vibrance of the city. There just seemed to be a lot going on. Unfortunately, we only had one day there, which was not enough to really experience the city. Consequently, shortly after the trip began, Ines and I decided that this was our first and last package tour. We just missed the freedom to set our own agenda. Every part of the trip (food, hotels, destinations) was well planned, making the whole thing rather stress free. Even a case of food poisoning (involving me) could not disrupt the group’s itinerary. At the end of the trip, Ines and I both had positive impressions, and would someday like to return to Turkey.

After Turkey, Ines and I returned to Ploen together. I, naturally, went back the lab. While I was working, Ines was terribly bored in Ploen, so she invited some friends of hers to visit. To be specific she invited a couple and their 3 year old daughter (Ines’ godchild). Now, let me just say that my apartment is meant for one person. When Ines stays with me, we manage, but on a more long term basis, we would need a bigger place. Given that we crammed 5 people into my little flat, the whole visit was a bit stressful. As an aside, I would just like to emphasize how happy I am to have no children.

The day our visitors left, Ines’ parents arrived. The next day the four of us (me, Ines, and her parents) flew to Dublin. This was probably the most proper “adult” holiday I ever had, and was accordingly one of the most expensive. We stayed in a nice hotel (instead of a hostel), rented a car (instead of trying to get around via cheaper alternatives), and ate out twice a day (instead of going to the supermarket). That said, Ireland was pretty cool. We spent the first day in Dublin. My personal highlight was a trip to the Guinness brewery and of course drinking a few pints of the world famous stout. I have to say, the Guinness did taste better in Ireland, though some subconscious bias may shaped my impressions. The next day we drove into the Wicklow mountains south of Dublin to visit some ruins from medieval Ireland. Everything was how you would imagine it…stone ruins, green meadows, bogs, rain, and of course sheep. On the third day, we drove all the way across the island to the east coast to see the Cliffs of Moher. I was surprised how small the island is; it only takes about four hours to drive all the way across. The cliffs themselves were impressive, but teeming with tourists. Actually, Ines and I both thought that the whole island was like a big tourist attraction, but this may have been because we basically just did the stuff in the tourist book. The most negative thing I can say about Ireland is how similar it is to America. The greasy food, big cars, citizens that talk without hesitation…all very American. Of course, that is not inherently negative, but when I travel abroad, I want to experience something novel and exotic. When I want American culture, I’ll visit Nebraska.

So, that was the summer holidays. Now it is back to work until Xmas. Hopefully, I manage to collect some interesting data about parasite life history strategies.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

When I tell people what the weather is like in Nebraska, I like to mention that tornadoes are common. Tornadoes are rare in most of Europe, so the idea of being confronted with severe weather year after year is a bit strange for people here. I assure them, though, that tornadoes affect very small areas and therefore rarely do any damage in highly populated areas. I might have to stop saying that for awhile, because on Sunday a tornado touched down in southwest Omaha. Here is the article from the local paper. In my 22 years of living in Nebraska, I cannot remember another tornado that came this close to my parent's house. A few miles further north, and the tornado would have touched down on top of my parent's house. Wild.

Friday, June 06, 2008

No risk, no they say. Several researchers here at the institute are doing experiments in which they erect fish enclosures in the Groesser Ploener See, the large lake in Ploen. Basically, they raise the fish in the lab, then stick them in these enclosures in the lake to see which parasites they get and how well the reproduce. While erecting the enclosures for this year's experiments, they came across a WWII-era bomb (see pic). Apparently, towards the end of the war, a whole heap of ammunition was dumped in the lake, and bombs and other explosive knick-knacks periodically wash into the shallows. The chances of this bomb exploding were very slim. It had been underwater for over 60 years. Nonetheless, bombs in the lake do add a tad bit more excitement to experiments in fish evolutionary biology.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

When I was 12 or so, I tried out for a 'select' basketball team for the first time. A select team was composed of the best 10-12 players out of all the kids trying out, unlike the teams in which everyone could play no matter how terrible they were. This was how I crossed paths with a real basketball guru, Herb Welling. Herb was my coach for the next 2 years, before I went to high school and joined the school team. He was not a stereotypical coach; he was a big guy who, as far as I could tell, rarely held down a steady job. Nonetheless, he probably knew more about basketball than anyone I ever came across. As a team, we were a mix of urban and suburban kids, and we definitely did not belong to the elite teams of the city. Like most of the basketball teams I ever played for, we didn't have a winning record (hmmm, maybe that’s why I’m not in the NBA…). Herb got us involved in urban (=black) leagues deep in N. Omaha. Playing against the inner city teams was a great experience. Basketball games there were not just a competition, they were a community gathering where people could yell, hoot, holler and make any noise they wanted. It was like the stereotypical black-white difference in the expression of religious faith (bombastic versus solemn) was transferred to the basketball court. Herb also got me to five star basketball camp. Five star is a set of week-long summer basketball camps that take place all over the country and attract some of the best high school players around. Herb was always involved in the camp in some way or another. He wasn't really a coach there, more of an assistant, helping out wherever necessary. I got the impression that he just wanted to be there so as to soak up the atmosphere. With his blessing, I went one summer to the five star camp. I just remember bits and pieces of my week there. I remember being tired the whole time (it was outdoors in Virginia in summer...brutally hot and humid). I remember the 'all-star' game at the end of the camp. The best players in the camp (better and more athletic than I could ever hope to be) had a dunk fest. It was amazing. I wish I still knew the names of these players, because most of them were gonna end up playing for D1 colleges. I also remember being rather terrified and intimidated the whole time, a feeling of inadequacy that is not too different from my current stay at Max Planck. Back to Herb, he is currently enjoying his moment in the sun. A new type of dribble drive offense, which appears quite chaotic at first glance, was making waves in the coaching community. Herb, being the junkie that he is, figured out this offense by endlessly watching video tapes. Then, he made an educational video demonstrating the offense using teenagers from Omaha Central. That video is the hottest selling basketball video on the net. His video sells more copies in a week than famous coaches like Roy Williams and Bill Self sell in a month. Amazing. Here’s the story from the Omaha newspaper. I almost want to buy the video based on how Sports Illustrated described Herb. In the video he wears a purple t-shirt and the well-known magazine compares him to Grimace, the McDonalds figure. Funny, but maybe not worth the 80 bucks for the video.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Hiring someone seems like a trivial task, but lately I have discovered how difficult a job this really is. A few weeks ago we posted an advertisement for the PhD position that we hoped would have been filled a few months ago. Curious readers can check the ad out here. So, the past weeks, I’ve been receiving CVs in my email inbox. Most of them are rather good, yet not outstanding. That is what makes this so difficult…how can you differentiate all these people with good grades and varied experience in research? Somewhat unexpectedly, the majority of the applications are from East Asia, mostly India, but also China and Pakistan. These applicants have respectable CVs…but in the wrong field. Most of these people are working in applied fields like molecular biology and biotechnology; none of them seem to have much background in evolution. So why would they be interested in my basic research? My only conclusion is that they desperately want to come to work in the west. Though this probably sounds prejudice, I doubt I’ll give them that chance. I think I could only hire someone after actually meeting and talking with them. This is only reasonable, because I’ll be working closely with this person for the next couple few years. Next week, I think I’ll make a short list and try to invite some people to give talks. We’ll see how that goes…

A miscellaneous addition to this post, I watched a great movie last weekend, Bubba Ho-tep. This is a strange, yet awesome movie, and it happened to be on TV last night when I came home from Edgar’s Cocktail bar (“hippest” bar in Plön). The story is brilliant. Elvis is not dead; his impersonator is. Elvis stopped performing after his career peaked, let himself be replaced by a gifted impersonator, and then lead a quiet life outside of the limelight. Now, he is stuck in a Texas retirement home, depressed, impotent and waiting for death. What could bring back a little rock n roll back into his life? A soul sucking mummy. Yeah, awesome. As residents start dying in their sleep, Elvis teams up with Jack to stop the mummy and thus be free to die with an intact soul. Jack is a black retiree living in the home, who believes he is JFK (they painted me this color!). More awesome. Elvis is played by Bruce Campbell, a cult hero for his performances in Evil Dead and Army of Darkness. It comes highly recommended from me (as if that meant anything).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I think we skipped spring here in Germany. A couple weeks ago, I made the yearly decision to switch from wearing my winter coat to wearing my rain jacket. This is always a tough call…is it gonna stay warm enough or is it get really cold again? This year, though, I seem to have switched directly from a winter jacket to no jacket at all. As soon as I began to wear my rain jacket, it was so warm that coats of any kind became unnecessary. So, I ask, what happened to spring? Not that I’m complaining, the warm temperatures are enjoyable (though they also hamper productivity…who wants to work when the sun is shining?). It is just peculiar to go from a winter jacket to t-shirts in a matter of weeks. I expect those kinds of apocalyptic weather swings in Nebraska (they had quite a nasty snow storm a few weeks ago and now it is tornado season), but not in boring, predictably dismal N. Germany.

In any case, with warm weather, people begin to strip off their layers of clothes, making their figures more and more visible. Most of my adult life, I have inhabited so-called college towns, in which a substantial part of the population was rather young. Thus, at the risk of sounding chauvinistic, summer was always a pleasant time of year to observe women in far more revealing outfits than one was accustomed to after a long winter. Now, though, I am living in Plön…population 13,000, hardly anyone between the age of 20 and 30, and a disproportionate number of people over 60. Not much to get excited about. In fact, in my subjective opinion, I find the residents of Plön to be rather unattractive. Maybe in small towns there is less incentive to stay fit or to wear clothes bought in the last decade. I could imagine that there is a real relationship between average attractiveness and city size...though I’m too lazy at the moment to search the literature databases for such a study.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

For any parasitologists (or science enthusiasts) who happen to read this, I am posting this link to a recent paper on which I am a co-author:

I really can't believe we got this experiment published in Proc. B. So, out of pride, I felt compelled to post this.
One great thing about Germany is the overabundance of holidays. They have not given up their religous holidays, even though, like most West European countries, the population is relatively secular. In the U.S., it seems like we just forgot about a lot of holidays, probably in the name of productivity. There were actually two holidays in Germany on Thursday, himmelfahrt (religious holiday) and labor day (secular). Labor day here is something like a father's day, in that men can do whatever they want, and, not surprisingly, they want to get wasted. Traditionally, groups of men carry around cases of beer on carts, all the while drinking and being merry. In Finland, the first of May is also a labor-day of sorts called Vappu. However, the workers are not the only ones celebrating on Vappu. High school students are graduating, and they wear horrendous white hats to mark that achievement. So how do many Finns spend their labor day? They pull out their old white graduating caps and get obliterated. It might be the number one drinking holiday in Finland, though a lot of boozing happens on midsummer as well (secret confession, I did not drink on either of the two Vappus I spent in Finland...oh, the regrets). So, after experiencing labor day in both these countries, I have to ask myself, why is the American labor day such a sober holiday? That social stigma associated with alcohol in America just won't go away, even on holidays. If anyone is curious, I spent my labor day in the lab. I started an experiment a while ago that involves daily duties, namely checking to see if my animals survived the previous night. Though parasites are cool study organisms, they unfortunately are not great drinking buddies, so my labor day was a sober one.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

For all those folks that have lived in Jyväskylä, only to eventually leave, here is a nice video to bring back the old memories. In my opinion, a video shot in winter would have been more appropriate.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

I have now been back in Germany for about a week following a successful trip to Nebraska. Overall, mission accomplished. I relaxed, spent time with my folks, saw old friends, partied a bit, soaked in March Madness, ate various fattening American foodstuffs, and I even saw the migrating sandhill cranes. As with previous visits, there was a pleasant mix of change and familiarity. My parents house is mostly as I remember it, but with some new floors, countertops, appliances, etc. Friends are still friends, but with perhaps more or less hair. Roads have widened, but they still lead the same direction. Our cat got lazier, but is just as irritable as ever.

My favorite part about visiting home is re-discovering things that I have missed. I've long since become accustomed to living in Germany, and I don't spend much time longing for things that are uniquely American. After awhile, the things that I miss become difficult to even recall. So, when I return home, I am constantly proclaiming "oh yeah, I remember this!". Take, for example, drinking fountains. These water dispensing devises are ubiquitous in America, but unheard of in Germany. Now I admit that these things are probably extremely unhygenic, but they are certainly convenient for quenching a spontaneous thirst when on-the-go. Actually, Americans must hate being thirsty, because drinks there are enormous (in many cases bottomless) and cheap. The first morning in Nebraska, I went to the gas station to buy some coffee; the smallest size available was 16 oz (about 0.4 L). That is a lot of damn coffee. The same overindulgence applies to soda. In a restaurant, you can get as much soda as you can drink for less than two you would generally pay over two euros for exactly 0.4 L of soda. Though I tried to avoid too drinking too much soda, I did enjoy some old favorites that are unavailable in Germany...mountain dew (so ungodly sweet), dr. pepper (so unique), and root beer (most Germans I know hate it, but why?). America also remains king of processed foods, some of which I truly miss and thus happily devoured while home. Here are a few examples with parenthetical help for anyone that hasn't been in the U.S: doritos (nacho flavored tortilla chips), mac & cheese (just as it sounds, macaroni covered in unnatural, liquid cheese), frozen waffles (warm waffles just a toaster away), and toaster strudels (some kind of fruit-flavored jelly in a flaky pastry). I should actually take the effort to remember this stuff, because "things I miss" is something of a small talk topic. I should also note the cultural, not just culinary, differences for use in casual conversation, but perhaps that is a topic that could be given attention in a separate post...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The visit from the second prospective PhD student was in some ways far more successful than that of the first one, though the end result was about the same. This student actually survived two full weeks of working with me, and we did some fairly tedious, boring work (depending on your prospective), stuff that will, apparently, drive many people to flee. He could handle our tiny animals, which was a necessary skill to demonstrate. Such skills, however, are only part of a PhD; there is an academic component as well. Unfortunately, he did not convincingly demonstrate his abilities in this regard. From the outset, it was clear that he was a really shy guy. Though this is not necessarily a bad thing (lots of intelligent people are withdrawn), it made it difficult to evaluate whether he understood what I was telling him. After spending a lot of time giving monologues, I began asking questions, perhaps excessively, so as to get him to open up, share ideas, and demonstrate understanding. On his last day in Plön, I even had a colleague help me in this task of pestering him with questions. All for not. His responses remained limited to things like 'interesting', 'yes', 'maybe', etc. We were really left with a difficult decision; he could manage with the system, but would he be able to develop his own ideas and pursue them semi-independently? Well, luckily, in the end we didn't have to make this decision. He emailed us and said that he had decided against doing his PhD in Plön. So, happily, we avoided a tough decision, but, unfortunately, after taking about a month of time to deal with unsuccessful prospective PhDs, I am back where I began. Oh well. Perhaps Frosty is right (see comments on previous post), I may be a tapeworm nazi that no one can bear working with. Strangely enough, just last week, we received another unsolicited application of a prospective PhD student keen to work with Schistocephalus. He'll visit next week. Hopefully, I won't collect my third strike.

In other news, for those that are not already aware, next week I'm flying to Nebraska to visit my folks. It has been over 2 years since I was there, so I am pretty excited about it. This trip was quickly put together; I just bought the ticket about two weeks ago. A few of my experiments did not work, so instead of trying to start new ones, I simply decided to take two weeks and fly to Omaha. It is a bit strange actually. Instead of taking a vacation because I had planned to or because I felt as though it was earned, I am taking a vacation because it is convenient…there is time to get away, so I'll take advantage of it. A bit weird, and I actually feel somewhat guilty about it, which is probably not healthy. On the other hand, my timing is pretty good. For the first time in two decades, Omaha is playing host to some opening round games of the NCAA basketball tournament. My Dad, being the high roller that he is (sarcasism intended), managed to score some tickets for me. So, instead of watching the games via a low quality stream over the internet, I will be there in person! Very cool. This won't, however, help me fill out the my brackets for the family pool, which Ines will probably win again this year.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Check this out. Apparently, there is a law in Germany that states that only people with doctorates from European institutions can call themselves "Dr.". So, for example, someone with a PhD from the U.S. can be charged with providing a false identity, when they introduce themselves as Dr. whoever. Good thing I got my degree in Finland, so I am not breaking any stupid laws on the rare occasions that I use my hard-earned title.

Friday, February 15, 2008

I had a strange experience last week. Last Monday, an Italian guy arrived in Plön to spend 2 weeks working with me. He had contacted us and expressed interest in doing his PhD in Plön on parasites. Prospective PhDs in our department are required to spend 2 weeks in a practical course, in which they more or less have the chance to exhibit their capabilities. For example, to work on parasites, one must be able to manipulate and handle very small organisms. So, I was given the task of assessing whether this guy could work with our in-house tapeworm species and their miniscule planktonic hosts. We knew the answer to this question after two days, not two weeks, and it was a resounding NO. Just as a side note, it is really difficult to keep someone occupied for 10+ hours a day, especially when you have to show them how to do everything. Management is much more difficult than you'd think. Makes me glad that I usually work independently. Anyways, the Italian and I spent two days sorting and infecting copepods, work that involves moving small amounts of liquid (containing living things) between containers. This is typical, mindless work for me, but he was having a tough time with the little beasts. I pointed out his mistakes, which probably didn't help his self-confidence. But, hey, this isn't's science and it should be done right. On Thursday morning I came to the office looking forward to another hectic, managerial day. Instead of finding a motivated Italian, however, I found a note on my desk that said "I have realized that I am not interested in this type of research and have decided to leave. Here are the keys". Quite a surprise, especially since he was supposed to present his Master's work to our department that morning. Actually he had to give this presentation to receive reimbursement for the trip (the Institute reimburses invited speakers, but not students). Thus, by skipping out of it, he essentially forfeited the money for plane and train tickets to and from Plön. Stupid decision. Even stupider considering that his return plane ticket was 2 weeks away, so he must have had to find someplace to stay for a week and a half or buy a new ticket. I hope that his straightforward explanation for leaving (i.e. not interested in the work) is actually the honest truth, and that my perhaps dictatorial managerial style was not responsible for his departure. In any case, next week we get another potential applicant, also from Italy strangely enough, so I have another chance to try being a manager.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Time to say something about rock n roll. Sometimes, when doing mindless work, we listen to the radio in the lab. Though the banter of radio DJs can often be annoying, it does give me a chance to learn German as spoken by the young, cool kids. For example, the phrase "geile Mucke" can be heard relatively frequently. Basically, this translates to something like cool music. To my foreigner ears, though, Mucke sounds a lot like Mücke (the u and ü are bloody difficult for me to distinguish). Mücke is mosquito. The adjective here, geil, literally means horny, though nowadays its use is more akin to the word cool. So, when I hear geile Mucke, it is easy for me to think horny mosquito and not cool music. Yeah, language can be endlessly entertaining. The other night I had a long discussion with a colleague about the use of formal and informal forms of the German pronouns for you (Sie and du), but that topic could be a whole post in and of itself.

Back to the point, I have some geile Mucke to share. In the last few weeks, I've bought (or received for my bday) a number of CDs. Top of the list: HORSE the band. I got their "new" album (from early 2007), and it is great. It is hard to imagine a better mix of 8-bit nintendo sounds and death metal. Though that may sound awful, even Ines admitted that their track "Sex Raptor" was nearly spinnable. High praise indeed. I also finally bought their Pizza EP, a record featuring all pizza-themed songs. There is even a tribute to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; we all know how much they love pizza. As an aside for any German readers, the actual CD looks like a pizza, which raises the possibility that die Ärzte stole this idea for their recent album. I also bought the debut album from Polkadot Cadaver. This outfit rose from the ashes of Dog Fashion Disco. Happily, the eccentric and creepy tones of DFD live on in Polkadot Cadaver. If you want to impress (or alienate) your friends with some original music, this band would be an appropriate choice. I also picked up few albums that would appeal to a more broad audience. For example, the new Tegan and Sara album is a mainstay on my mp3 player. The songs are clever, punchy, and great for singing along. I must admit that enjoying a girl, indie pop band is something of a guilty indulgence. Also along the lines of pop indulgences would be the band Freezepop. Strangely enough, I first encountered this band in Guitar Hero. For whatever reason, playing the electronic chords on their track "less talk, more rokk" (which obviously originate from a synthesizer, not a real guiter) suckered me into buying their album. While entertaining, I wouldn't rate the album as a HTB. Two other recent buys: Fair to Midland and Shiny Toy Guns. Though I got the CDs in the mail earlier this week (there would be no way to buy these CDs in a German shop, let alone in Plön), I haven't had time to listen to them yet. I discovered these bands on myspace, so there is a certainly a chance for disappointment. If you want to know if this Mucke is geil, then you are gonna have to write me or berate this blog with comments.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

I spent two days last week in Liverpool. I was visiting two professors at the University there to discuss projects in Ploen. Basically, they are writing models about how the complex life cycles of parasites may have evolved and we are trying to test them empirically. Though I spent most of the time discussing parasites and evolution, I did manage to wander the city for a couple hours. Liverpool is one of the two European Capitals of Culture for 2008. However, after visiting the city, I'm unsure as to why. In my humble opinion, it didn't have the charm of older European cities. With the exception of the many typical, red brick buildings (often run down, see pics), there were a lot of 60s and 70s style buildings that have not aged well. In my opinion, Liverpool is a cultural capital simply because the best band ever came from there. The Beatles formed in Liverpool, and a number of entrepeaneurs are keen to take advantage of this...Beatles shops, museums, statues of Elanor Rigby, clubs that still boast "The Beatles played here". The poverty was also palpable, at least in comparison to places like Leipzig. The city (the whole region) has suffered from the slow draining of manufacturing jobs.

Other observations...a major similarity to the U.S.: unfriendly border officials. A major difference to the U.S.: language. I noticed a number of colorful phrases used by my British hosts, but unfortunately only managed to remember a couple. For example, jacket potato = baked potato, rat run = back-alley shortcut.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In a previous post, I wrote that "Guitar Hero" is crazy addictive. Here is the statistical proof.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

So it has been a couple months since I've posted anything. Here is my first excuse: science is hard. Yeah, I spend a lot of time in the lab. Some of this is simply the professional environment I'm in...people here in Plön spend a lot of time working, more than was the case in Finland. But some of the extra hours I put in because I'm still new on the job and I feel like I have to prove myself. I don't know if this pressure is real or simply imagined, but want to produce some tangible results quickly to show that I am capable of doing the job they want me to do. I also spend a lot of time in the lab because there is really nothing else to do in Plön (pop. 13,000...but there’s a movie theatre!). At least Plön is scenic…the picture is the view from my 14th floor apartment.

To stay in touch with the title of this blog, maybe I should say a few things about the project I'm working on. The project is called "evolution of complex parasite life cycles", and essentially we want to understand why parasites use so many hosts in their life cycles. Parasites commonly have up to 3 hosts, but why they do this is a bit of an evolutionary conundrum. That is, wouIdn't it be easier to survive and reproduce when only one host is used? Well, parasites that add a host to their life cycle that's higher on the food chain (e.g. a bigger fish) may actually be able to grow larger and produce more offspring. A parasite that adds a host lower in the food chain may be able to increase their probability of transmission if the new host is frequently eaten by the old host. Though interesting, these ideas are difficult to test because most parasites have set life cycles, so there is no variation that can be used to design experiments. Instead, an indirect approach is necessary, such as examining the costs and benefits of parasite traits likely related to life cycle evolution. In this vein, I plan to examine the growth strategy of a particular tapeworm species in its different hosts. Here are some of the questions I hope to test…Does faster parasite growth increase the likelihood of host death? Natural death or death by predation? If it is costly to grow fast, what do parasites gain by growing fast and large? Do these costs and benefits apply to every host, or just some of the hosts a parasite uses? Is there any flexibility in parasite growth rates and what factors influence this? By pursuing these questions for the next 2 years (maybe more), I hope to further our understanding of how parasites divide up their life cycle (why do they grow a lot in some hosts, but not much in others?). In about a week, I'll go to the
U.K. to discuss this project with some professors that are mathematically modelling the evolution of complex parasite life cycles, and, who knows, maybe we'll come up with some fantastic ideas and I'll take a whole new approach to the project.

What else has been going on the last couple months?? Ines has been furiously writing her Diploma thesis. Her deadline is in a couple weeks. Afterwards, she will be a high-earning, diploma-carrying journalist! Maybe then I could quit my job, and become a professional blogger. Or better yet, a profi gamer. I got completely addicted to Guitar Hero over the Xmas holidays. For those who don't know, Guitar Hero is a playstation game in which, using a guitar shaped controller, you have to press buttons and strum chords to the rythym of different rock songs. Here in Plön, I'm going through withdrawl. I felt a bit bad about my addiction, because I actually gave the game to Ines for Xmas. I was hoping that it would add to our playstation-based party games, such as singstar and eyetoy.

We spent New Year's in Leipzig, which was a blast. Ines and I went to a party at a friend's apartment. After
midnight, we went dancing in the most famous indie club in Leipzig. Good food, cold beer, loud music. A good way to start 2008. Hopefully this year will be as a good as 2007. Though in retrospect I did manage quite a lot last year (finished my PhD, started a new job, published 4 papers, learned to speak least a bit anyways). I didn't make any resolutions, but maybe I should have resolved to be a better blogger...