Monday, March 30, 2009

I work at a research institute. That means that I have the luxury of focusing on research, and I don’t have to teach or deal with needy students. However, each year, we run a 2-week practical course, in which we the researchers supervise students in “real” research projects. Of course, we have the ulterior motive of finding good students to work in the lab. The course is really a fantastic opportunity for any student interested to see how science actually works. The students get handed a novel, untested topic, unlike most lab courses in which the experiments have already been done millions of time, and they are then sent off to answer their question with all the institute’s facilities at their disposal. The students learn methods that I was never exposed to in my entire 4 years of undergrad work. They sequence DNA, measure gene expression, record immune activity, etc. The course probably costs the institute about as much as a small luxury sedan.

Last Friday was the end of this year’s practical course…what a relief. I worked with two girls that came across as neither motivated nor particularly bright. Not that the interaction was all negative. Sometimes it was quite humorous. They were not very comfortable with English, so we tried to communicate in German. My German ain’t bad, but I would say that it isn’t sufficient to clearly describe biological concepts such as host-parasite co-evolution, hermaphroditic mating strategies, and gene flow. Thus, we often found ourselves in the weird situation where I would explain something in English and they would respond in German. In the end, though, regardless of which language I used to explain something, the point never sunk in. They never grasped the goal of their project. While it was fun to try and share some of my eclectic knowledge (I even gave an ad hoc stats lecture during the course), I really don’t like the feeling of talking to a black hole. Perhaps, I was a poor teacher, but even after two weeks of poor teaching the point of the work should come across. That’s what I dislike about teaching; it requires patience and lowered expectations.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Yet again, several weeks have passed between posts. The last two weekends have been full of excitement, leaving no time to write, so I’ll compensate here with a long post. Two weeks ago, I was in Hannover visiting Claudia and Rico. I know Claudia and Rico from my stay in Finland, and I wanted to visit them ever since moving to Germany. The timing just never seemed to work out though. Then, at the beginning of February, Claudia sent me a clandestine email invitation to Hannover for Rico’s 30th birthday. Of course, I couldn’t say no to that. Two old friends from Finland also made the journey to Hannover to celebrate, so it was like the good ol’ days in Jyväskylä (no rock hour at Sohwi though). I had heard that Hannover was a boring town, but that was not the impression I was left with after my visit. We went out to a couple nice bars and clubs, even had a late-evening Döner (good, but not as good as in Leipzig). Between Friday and Saturday nights on the town, we took in the sights…which didn’t take that long, as there isn’t that much to see in Hannover. My personal highlight was the slanted elevator in the city hall, i.e. it doesn’t move directly vertically, but at an angle. We also spent a lot of time watching videos on youtube. Here's a highlight.

Last weekend, I traveled to Leipzig to visit Ines. On Friday, she had to DJ, and I accompanied her to the gig. The place was relatively empty and between 3 and 4 I started nodding off. This must be an indication of old age or of a long-lasting hangover from the Hannover weekend. The next day, we visited a farm house with our gay neighbors in a village near Leipzig. Those two wacky guys want to buy this dilapidated place and fix it up. I don’t really understand their motivation for this undertaking. Besides the social stigma of a gay pair living in a small village, they would need to invest a fortune into fixing it up. Ines and I spent the rest of the weekend watching movies and lying around. I finally saw Slumdog Millionaire, which deserved to win best picture. Both Ines and my mother think that I look like the main character. Besides our shared lankiness, I don’t see the resemblance…does anyone else? We also watched a Swedish vampire flick called ‘Let the right one in’. I would also recommend it to anyone looking for a novel take on vampire stories.

After the lovely weekend in Leipzig, I went to Berlin on Monday for the Max Planck Symposium for Evolutionary Biology. The goal of the conference was to explore how the Max Planck Society might encourage evolutionary research in the future (the Darwin year was likely also a motivation). To that end, there were a number of well-known speakers in the field of evolutionary biology. The schedule is shown above. Here’s my spontaneous take on the conference…Dieter Ebert’s talk was good, and the only one that dealt with parasites in depth, but I already knew much of the story he told. To me, his research shows how nature should work, as the results always seem to fit theory nicely. I can’t say that about my work. I also enjoyed Richard Lenski’s talk. He has been following the evolution of 12 E. coli cultures for the last 21 years. That’s about 45,000 bacteria generations. Sounds boring right? Definitely not, because the critters keep doing new stuff. The 12 bacteria lines have all evolved similar new traits; sometimes the same genetic changes are involved, whereas in other cases totally different genetic mutations produce the same trait change. Hopi Hoekstra told a similar tale about beach mice. These mice have colonized sandy beaches in the southern US and are lighter than their grassland-inhabiting progenitors. The change in pigmentation has occurred more than once (e.g. on the Gulf coast and the Atlantic coast), but different genetic mutations are involved. I find it very cool that there are multiple ways in which the same trait can change. This may really speed up evolution, because an adaptive peak can be climbed in several ways. Another highlight was the talk from Svante Pääbo, head of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Pääbo is always in the headlines for his institute’s attempt to sequence the Neanderthal genome. This whole effort has only become possible within the last year or two, as a new generation of sequencing technology has matured. From a few very well-preserved specimens, they get tiny amounts of degenerated Neanderthal DNA. They estimate that at most 4% or so of the DNA extracted from the bone is actual Neanderthal DNA. The rest is from bacteria and fungi. The big news: 63% of the Neanderthal genome is in hand. It will be very interesting to see what kind of insights into human evolution come out of this massive undertaking. The most entertaining talk of the conference, perhaps the most entertaining talk I’ve ever seen, was given by Robert Trivers. He has been a pioneer in the study of social interactions (e.g. cooperation and deception). He colorfully discussed a paradoxical observation: self-deception is widespread in humans. Deceiving others has obvious potential advantages (e.g. lying on a resume to get a better job), but what do we gain by deceiving ourselves? Well, self-deception in humans is decidedly in one direction, towards a positive self-image. We consistently rate ourselves as better than we actually are. For example, in surveys, when asked how we rank in our given career field, 80% of people consider themselves to be in the top half (in academia this stat is apparently 94%...we believe we’re good at what we do). Obviously, this is discordant with statistical reality, as we can’t all be right. This kind of self-inflation may help us to deceive others. We can state that we are good at something, and honestly believe it. There is no need to deal with the physiological and mental challenges of being a good liar. It is rather shocking how deep-seated this self-love is. Psychologists have, for example, found out that we subconsciously like the letters in our own name, particularly the first letter. We even tend to live in places that start with the first letter in our names. So, statistically, there are more Floyds, Freds, and Francines living in Florida than in Texas. But in Texas, there are more Tims, Toms, and Tammys. The trend is, of course, weak, but I find it amazing that there is a measurable effect at all. We are fascinating animals, and I always will wonder how important consciousness is relative to the powerful subconscious processes affecting our decisions.