Sunday, March 30, 2014

It's a hard knock life for nerds

I love Wil Wheaton - and I'm not just saying this because I look like him, but I love that he completely embraces the fact that he is a huge nerd/geek and proud of it.

When I was a kid, pretty much until my mid-teens I was was teased and bullied for being a nerdy kid. It was particularly bad before I hit an early growth spurt in my tweens (I was the second tallest kid in the year when I was 13, my best friend, who I played dungeons and dragons with, was the tallest - this did reduce the amount of teasing, but when it happened it tended to be packs of kids ganging up on me). Much of my elementary school life was hellish because of constant teasing and bullying because of being the clever kid, who was into animals and Doctor Who and who read books in the playground instead of playing football with all the other boys during recess. The fact that I was from a working-class background in a run down, impoverished factory town nestled in a rural area, did not help things. I really stuck out. I was already telling people that I was going to become a marine biologist or dolphin vet when I grew up when all my male peers were going to be "professional footballers". Even having aspersions to university was seen as getting above one's station, almost as if you were being a traitor to your community. My sister got similar treatment being told "don't be stupid, you won't go to university, you'll have to get married and have a family" - by one of her teachers! Luckily I had a few fantastic teachers who supported me, gave me science and natural history books above my age category to read, and gave me extra assignments that were exciting and stimulating. The worst bullying incident I faced, which I still remember vividly, was when I got stones thrown at me by a gang of close to 20 kids, but beatings, and having my stuff taken or broken was a pretty common occurrence. Consequently, I had issues with depression, and became very withdrawn and introverted, as one would expect. I think my adult exuberance and extroversion may even be the result of my childhood experiences, compensation perhaps?

So at a recent convention when a young girl asked about being a nerd, I felt the pain, and thought that Wil Wheaton's response was spot on. Now I'm older I am totally out of the "nerd closet" and glad so glad I didn't buckle to peer pressure when I was a kid, and as Wheaton says it "gets better as you get older", it really really does.  Being a nerd is awesome. But it's tragic that so many of us suffer for it, in our childhoods. I wish someone had told me what Wheaton told this young girl when I was a kid. Good on ya Wil !

P.S. Here's a follow up video - a message by Wheaton to a child for when she grows up on why it's awesome to be a nerd - it made me tear up.
P.P.S. I have the exact same scarf ... 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

When I grow up, I'm going to work at Hogwarts !

When I first went to university, it was to an ancient one with towering spires and gargoyles, looking like Hogwarts, without the grim Scottish weather. Now I'm in a modern university, no cloisters or wood paneled dining rooms, but none the less there are still many features like Hogwarts...

Dumbledore: We have at least two in our department at the moment. Gracious gentlemen (or gentlewomen) patriarchs who quietly help and guide the young faculty and grad students to reach their potential.  But the Dumbledores are beset by the Lucius Malfoys who want them removed because they are 'behind the times', or always butting head with the Ministry who try to force intemperate political decisions on them, that would subvert the quality of teaching.

MacGonnegal: the Matriarch(s) who knows where everything is, and really who is ensuring that everything is running correctly, because quite frankly, Dumbledore is too caught up in his own head. Come to think of it, several of my grad students treat me like that.

Snape: The quiet schemer. Could describe a lot of faculty. Outwardly quite quiet and does their job, but who are actually  secretly scheming behind your back to oppose your new position/funding/tenure approval etc. because for some reason, completely unbeknownst to you, they hate you with a passion.

Delores Umbridge: Seems harmless on the outside, but on the inside is evil incarnate. Offers polite suggestions at faculty meetings, that will actually lead to staff being fired, pay cuts, disenfranchisement of junior faculty, harder conditions for TAs etc. Often end up becoming a Dean, VP or Provost.

Gilderoy Lockhart: Great at promoting themselves and are always in meetings with the Deans or the President and/or posting to the university website about their slightest accomplishment (post to everyone:  Gilderoy Lockhart has given a talk at a conference !) disguising the fact that they actually have precious few ideas or achievements of their own. May even produce materials with  ideas actually stolen off of better minds, usually their grad students or fellow faculty, and claim credit. Probably will end up being a Dean in charge if something special, yet hand-wavingly nebulous so they can never be called on how little work they actually do.

Sirius Black: When you arrive at the university, this is the one faculty member you hear all the bad gossip about. When you get to actually know them you find out that they are in fact, pretty awesome people, but they have been the focus of a lot of spiteful malicious gossip over the years by jealous Snapes and Umbridges. If there isn't someone in your department like this, it's probably because it is you who is the Sirius Black and everyone is gossiping about you.

Dobby and the House Elves: Otherwise known as Adjunct faculty. Tragically grateful  for the tiny stipend the university gives them, and the fact that they are allowed to teach, whilst not realizing they are being hideously exploited.

Howlers: The faculty member who has a melt down tantrum over email over something or other - 90% of the time because  they misread or misunderstood something.

Owl Mail: let's face it, strapping a form or memo to a passing owl would probably be more reliable than internal mail.

Arrival at Hogwarts: Because just simply stepping off of the train would be too easy, students have to sail across a monster-infested lake, or be carried by invisible creatures from your worst nightmare. Likewise entrance into the university is strange, unusual and terrifying - whether it be the admissions office, being called for interview or GREs. The arbitrary nature of many decisions that will effect the rest of your life make riding on the back of an invisible thestral  seem tame in comparison.

Health and Safety: Classes at Hogwarts often have sometimes the topsy-turvey attitude to health and safety that  universities do. On one hand the university requires a 60 page document and committee review for a somewhat innocuous substance that might pose minor health problems, but they don't care about factors that could actually kill or injury  - e.g. dangerous field trips, unsupervised labs, serviced minibuses with brakes that don't work, pedestrian crossings that are death traps and (in the US) ensuring students are drunk driving because there are no campus bars or public transport into town (because that would encourage drinking...). Compared to some of the activities at universities zooming around at high speeds on a broomstick at a Quidditch match, seems pretty safe in comparison.

Dementors: nebulous creatures that circle your department and drain your away happiness and even your soul. We call them university administration. Any one of those administrative departments that are set up to 'help' you but actually result in three times as much work than if you had done it yourself because of convoluted forms that make taxes seem simple and staff that make the DMV look chipper and perky.

The Houses: Let's face it, all university Departments aren't created equal. Some have all the power players, all the full professors allocations, and new staff positions, better funding for faculty and TAs/RAs, and the most expensive toys. Departments of Conservation/Environment - OK we're Hufflepuff, need I say any more.

Goblet of Fire: Otherwise known as Tenure. You have to perform a series of strange, unusual and artbitrary tests, that finishes with everyone who was involved being scarred, with even the winner being traumatized, and potentially even one or more corpses. 

Costa Rica

Two weeks back from Costa Rica and I'm still wading through photos from this pretty awesome trip. If you haven't every been, you really should go. To paraphrase Bubba Gump... it's got rain forest, it's got dry forest, it's got cloud forest... Really a plethora of biodiversity and pretty easy to access. Here's a few animal highlights form this most recent trip:

Friday, March 28, 2014

Coming out of the nerd closet

I should have known at an early age, when I was not attracted to Daphne in Scooby Doo, unlike all my hot blooded male friends, that there was something different about me, because I had the hots for ....Velma.

Despite her wearing the same orange outfit all of the time, it was the little nerdy know it all who got  prepubescent me hot under the collar, not the stylish and elegant Daphne. Looking at my later TV crushes reveals a similar pattern - Willow in Buffy, Dana Scully in the X-files. My biggest crush in my formative years was Anne (of Green Gables) Shirley. The imaginative, awkward redhead who got top grades and scholarships, coming first in math while getting into scrapes, and ended up becoming a teacher and writer <Sigh> She was my dream girl. Had I been born a couple of decades later, it would have probably been Hermione Granger. Thinking on it, I realize I've sequentially dated, befriended and surrounded myself with nerdy female friends in a quest to find and hang out with a modern day Anne Shirley or Velma - an impassioned discussion on the behavioral ecology of some animal species ("wow a nudibranch - how cool is that"); a debate on the problems of international marine conservation treaty law; or a science-based joke that you need 6+ years of college to get,  are guaranteed ways to capture my attention, my friendship and, occasionally even, my heart. Others need not apply. Jinkies !

Anne of Green gables Reading Anne of Green Gables...still my beating heart...

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Missing the warm sunshine ...

Last week I was in Costa Rica surrounded by people and wildlife, now I'm sitting in a cold dark room, surrounded by "to do" lists that aren't getting to done. I'm missing the warmth of Costa Rica... so here's some sunshine....

Don't diss the dolphins

I was at a meeting of marine biologists recently where a speaker made a comment  that they hated dolphins. This got a big cheer from the audience, and seething from the small group of dolphin conservation scientists that were there with me. This got me thinking about issues related being a dolphin biologist and some of the prejudices and biases we face, and my friends over at southern Fried science encouraged me to do a guest blog. So without further ado - here it is:   "Don't diss the dolphins"

Are dolphins intelligent ? Of course they are duh!

I've been very lax in keeping this blog up to date, oops.

Recently I've been involved in a lot of arguing about the ethics of keeping captive dolphins, mainly in the wake of the documentary Blackfish. My grad student and I organized a workshop at the recent Society for Marine Mammalogy conference on the science behind intelligence in dolphins, and what it means in terms of ethics and laws. For example, studies showing that they are self aware and have other cognitive skills equivalent to a 4-6 year old human child, yet the US government can allow permits for capturing, harassing and these injuring animals with little consideration for implications of this level of intelligence. The primate science community has been addressing similar concerns, and laws have been passed that basically shut down much invasive great ape research, and requires the retirement of great apes to "sanctuaries". But not so with cetaceans.

Just prior to this a book came out that basically posits that dolphins are not especially intelligent - at least that's what all the press coverage claimed. I had to weigh in:

And encouraged my friend Mel to write a critique of the book:

So if you have any thought about saying that dolphins are dumb, you'd better think twice.