Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Many hats

25 July , 2014

I moved my research lab this week. From a space it sat for ten years, to a somewhat larger space, but with a smaller exhaust hood, and on a different floor. As I moved everything, it was like going through time, all of the different projects that have taken place there.

Sometimes, I find it hard to be an ecologist in a smaller school. When I came to this place, I was the only organismal biologist who actually worked on entire living organisms. My background is in insect-plant interactions, so I could talk about insects, other animals, and even plants. I usually end up teaching as many different classes as classes, which does not make the most efficient use of my time. It also means I have even less time to put into research.

Over the past ten years, I have accumulated a number of research projects. Some work better under circumstances that others won’t work at all. Some can be worked on in the winter, others cannot. Some projects get stalled when there are no plants or insects available. And some get stalled when something like a maternity leave (or a trip to China) kills off all of the plants… So many of these are still in progress. Chemical ecology of the black swallowtail, pollination of tree of heaven, allelopathy of tree of heaven, preference and performance under different nitrogen and phosphorus treatments with two different pairings of insects and plants, color learning in butterflies, sampling and collection of insects in and around campus, and, most recently, pollination in China. My lab has thus accumulated the materials and supplies to study all of these things. Cages of all sizes, insect drawers and cabinets, pins, models of flowers, leaves, and plants, all kinds of chemistry equipment… to inventory my lab, it would look like the combination of at least one each of chemist, systematist, behavioral biologist, field ecologist, botanist — oh, and photographer as well.

Such is the danger of going to a small school, and wearing many different hats at many different times. I have yet to decide what hat will be worn in the lab when classes begin again in the fall. Perhaps I can make a project of identifying the insects and plants we saw in China. Probably more sensible than trying to find the time to restart a project with plants, caterpillars, and butterflies or moths — what with another trip in the works for next summer.

Someday, perhaps when my part-time administrative role is up, I need to take a sabbatical and try to catch up with all of the data and projects that have accumulated… For now, it works as it ever does — triage reigns, and that which must be done is, and that which can wait does. (Oh, there are way too many things in that ‘waiting’ bin…)



All moved out of the old space

All moved out of the old space

New space, insect drawers visible

New space, insect drawers visible

Better view of the new space. More floor space...

Better view of the new space. More floor space…



22 July , 2014

I’m still recovering from the weekend. I know that many others are as well, certainly anyone who made it past the reunion proper, and the closing of the speakeasy bar, and the continuation into a couple of the hotel rooms. The room I ended up in reportedly had 25 people — fitting for a 25th reunion, I think. We were part of a group who had spent three years of high school together, and who had then gone on to amass degrees a-plenty from a very impressive list of schools. But, we all hung out into the way wee hours of the morning and talked. Talked about our kids, our plans, our lives. Reminisced about old stories, some of which only one or a few could recall, some of which only one or a few ever had any prior knowledge of.

A spouse in the room who also happens to be a colleague (same field, different school, but in a consortium with the school I am at) asked me how many in our class went into academia. I don’t know the number offhand, but a quick Facebook question turned up at least 10% of the class fitting that description, and I know we’re leaving people out. I suspect that’s higher than the usual high school class.

A word that was used to describe the group attending the reunion by one who knows us well (and has known us since the first fateful day nearly 28 years ago) was “unpretentious.” I like it.

While “what do you do?” was a common question at the reunion, it was not a loaded question. The answer was not judged, as far as I can tell. I talked to surgeons and professors and stay-at-home moms and all sorts of others, it was all good.

And to think, some 28 years ago, we saw ourselves on the pages of the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, and countless other local Illinois papers — the best and the brightest, they said. Here’s part of the mission — of a high school!

...igniting and nurturing creative, ethical scientific minds that advance the human condition

part of the mission statement

But today — this weekend, at least — gathered together to celebrate 25 years that we were not all together in the same building on the same campus — we were ourselves, and we were not merely the sum of our degrees or of our titles. I’d like to think that it extends beyond this weekend. While yes, I have invoked my degree in certain circumstances, I generally feel uncomfortable doing so. (I am made uncomfortable when my CV gets scrutinized in China, and much made of where my degrees were earned — which has happened much more than I would like.)

Perhaps it’s age-related. But I think it’s more than that. As a group, we have been good at learning things. And I think that many of us have learned how to be comfortable with who we are as individuals. And if you’re comfortable with yourself, you’re less likely to have to rely on that title or that degree to prop yourself up.

That’s enough philosophy and psychology from a tired ecologist.

Bees and butterflies, oh my!

10 June , 2014

If you want to follow along on my journey in China, check out our Benedictine Faculty Abroad blog!

Ben U Faculty Abroad

I am not a morning person. That is, I am not a morning person until I leave the US and head off to another part of the world. In Beijing, I awoke at 6am daily — at least an hour before any alarms were set. This morning, our first in Shenyang, I awoke at 5am, with the sky already fully lit.

I putzed around the room for a while, with 3 and a half hours before any commitments and no internet with which to waste away the time, or make any alternative plans. Eventually, it was 7am and I was fully clothed and ready to explore. I began by walking around the floor of the campus hotel — the 13th floor. (In China, 4 is an unlucky number, and 13 is just the number between 12 and 14.) Shenyang Jian Zhu University is in the suburbs, so there are not…

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Thank you, and goodbye

7 June , 2014

I am still in China.

This morning, 13h ahead of Illinois, I checked my email before leaving for another part of the country. (Woke up early in Shenyang, spent several hours on a bumpy flight, and am now in Chengdu, under cloudy but bright skies, with probably several hours of daylight remaining.) Immediately, I saw notifications of posts in the several IMSA alumni groups to which I belong. Not reminders of coming reunions… but news of the passing of one of the many remarkable leaders of a remarkable place I had the great fortune to attend.


The picture above was taken four years ago: November 2010. It was Veterans’ Day, and I visited IMSA that day because they had invited a classmate, Ron McKenzie, to give the address.

I didn’t know it until later that day, but when I took this picture, Eric McClaren had already received a diagnosis of ALS, or Lou Gerhig’s disease. It would be a few weeks or months yet before this diagnosis was shared with the IMSA community. I do not recall the first time I met him, but it must have been in the fall of 1986, as I first arrived at IMSA. At that time, he was a resident counselor, but by the time of this picture, he had earned a PhD and was now the principal. He was always a tall, athletic figure, the sort you would never predict to suffer from a dehabilitating disease. But in the past four years, he did so, I think with grace and dignity.

Enough will be written about Eric today, and in the days to come. I know that he was working on a book, and I hope that he was far enough along with it that it will yet be published.

But I want to thank Eric, and what he did to make IMSA what it is today. He is one of many role models in my life, although I’m not sure I realized how much so. But Eric had a drive, a drive to make things better, even when there was a personal cost involved. I can only hope to live up to the standards he set for himself, and challenged others to reach.

One more note: When Eric’s diagnosis became public, the IMSA community pulled together in amazing ways. I once visited him at the Rehabilitation Institute in the city, and there was an alum there who was checking in on him. I heard more stories about alums, no matter where he went, seeing to his medical care and other needs — others will likely share these stories as the news spreads.

But, I am today thankful to be a part of this community, and to have had Eric as an influence in my life.

Here is one remembrance, posted to the IMSA web site:–-june-6-2014

May is for leaving

26 May , 2014

This May, the theme in my life is leaving.

I leave for China in two days. It’s a four week trip, away from my husband, my kids, my pets, and my home for longer than I have attempted in a very long time. It will be an amazing trip: field research in multiple sites, sprinkled with sight-seeing and experiences, for the primary benefit of the five students who will make the flight with me. A colleague, in whom I have the utmost in respect and trust, will be meeting us in the airport. A scholar of Chinese language and literature, his support is invaluable, from making connections and arrangements to being able to give us context for our experiences in China.

I will be coming home again, but not in May.

This morning, I said goodbye to a minister who will be leaving while I am away. She told us this morning that, in order to ease the transition to a new minister, she will be cutting off everyone in the congregation, even on Facebook. She was our first contact in the church community, and her welcoming words four or so years ago brought us to a congregation with whom we feel we have found another home.

The week before last, I finished grading exams and attended events to celebrate and say goodbye to six colleagues and two administrators. A provost who was the department chair who hired me, a CIO with whom I worked closely, and several colleagues who I feel privileged to be able to call friends. Unlike my minister, they will stay in touch. But, they have all left their regular roles in the university — this month, in May.

And long ago, eleven long years ago, I said goodbye to one who cannot ever be replaced. Moms are special… I am reminded of that as my trip comes near, and my five year olds hold my hands in stores — of their own accord, and take every opportunity to touch and cuddle with me. (The ten year old is more subtle, but he also needs his mom…)

And so May is for leaving; this May, at least.

I will come home, to my husband, my kids, my pets, and my life.

But not until June.

Summer classes

6 July , 2013

I’m often asked if I’m teaching during the summer. As a full-time tenured faculty member, the answer is “no” in the traditional sense, but that’s not entirely true. Every summer, I take on one or two summer research students. Sometimes one of them has already been at work in my research lab, on a part-time basis the summer before. But sometimes it’s a brand new student or students, who take time to learn how to care for all of the organisms involved (just keeping plants and insects alive can be a challenge) and then the experiments… and as our department only teaches undergraduates, we do not have continuity provided by graduate student workers. 

This summer, I have two new-to-the-lab students learning everything anew, which is both fun and exhausting. But, I am also trying something new: I’ve signed up for a mini-MOOC. It only runs for four weeks, and it’s on Game Elements for Learning (on Twitter as #GE4L). 

I have been working to make my classrooms more interactive for as long as I’ve been teaching, and games are one way to do this. I’ve found two board games to use in ecology–both pedagogically sound. And game theory is a gimme (in animal behavior, when I can teach it). The introductory webinar was led by Dr. Gerol Petruzella from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, who teaches a class called “Dungeons & Discourse” — introductory philosophy as a game, akin to Dungeons and Dragons. This sounds appealing, but it’s not truly possible for me — his class is one section among many, while mine tend to be single and required, leaving no options for a student who would not be comfortable in this scenario. Playing a game here and there to practice content is one thing; embedding the entire course in a game is something else. 

This was “week 0” of the course, so it’s mostly introductory material for the MOOC. I’m curious to see where it goes — my hope is to use this as an impetus to “gamily” another part of one of my courses. But, I’m not sure either that the tools I’ll learn from this will be applicable to the courses I teach or that I’ll have the time to really focus on this, with everything else going on this summer. At any rate, I’ve made an avatar Image (best I could do with the options available — if only my hair laid so neatly…) and will earn a class badge whenever they get to me, so I guess that’s something. 

On our way! (From the China Faculty blog)

11 June , 2013

On our way! (From the China Faculty blog)

Magic and the mind

5 March , 2012

I’ve started to read the Davidson book. I’m still in the introduction (hey, the discussion is next week, I have time!), but this was all over my Twitter feed last week and I think it’s worth a look:

Teller Reveals His Secrets

Neuroscientists are novices at deception. Magicians have done controlled testing in human perception for thousands of years.

I remember an experiment I did at the age of 11. My test subjects were Cub Scouts. My hypothesis (that nobody would see me sneak a fishbowl under a shawl) proved false and the Scouts pelted me with hard candy. If I could have avoided those welts by visiting an MRI lab, I surely would have.

But magic’s not easy to pick apart with machines, because it’s not really about the mechanics of your senses. Magic’s about understanding—and then manipulating—how viewers digest the sensory information.

I think you’ll see what I mean if I teach you a few principles magicians employ when they want to alter your perceptions.

It’s worth reading… cool stuff!


13 February , 2012

My husband sent a link out this this article, and I thought it had at least tangential relations to our topic of discussion today in NMFS: Retro Design Is Crippling Innovation. It is introduced with this question:

When we get to the last week of this month, open your Google Calendar and choose the month view. You will see the previous three weeks are greyed out. Only the next few days will be “active”. If you want to see what you’ve got planned for more than the next couple of days, you’ll have to flip forward to next month.

Now ask yourself this: why does Google Calendar — and nearly every other digital calendar, come to that — work in this way?

It’s a valid question — and a good one.

Is this part of what makes apps more appealing — and more useful — than the web? Is the web more tightly bound to the traditional ways of thinking about things, while the act of creating an app makes it more likely that a new approach will be taken?

Food for thought…

Planning ideas

7 December , 2011

Just a few thoughts for next semester. Open to discussion. BenU NMFS folks, please comment!

Outreach: I’d like to see us take one meeting time a month and, instead of meeting for discussion, have a small group of up to three of us presenting a technology (likely, but not necessarily) one of the ones we’ve presented to one another this semester) to an open forum of faculty and staff. This semester, the CTLE has had an iPad Brown Bag the first Monday of the month — perhaps we could take that over in the spring?

Topics: Please suggest topics and papers! I don’t have any at the top of my fingertips (too buried in grading writing-intensive labs and exam creation and Cuba plans and Christmas shopping…), but I’m sure there are some lurking on my iPad or in Instapaper.

Frequency: 2-3 times per month, instead of weekly? Or maybe one brown bag (as above), two semi-formal discussions, one open meeting?

Timing: Is there another time that would be better? I think I need to keep Wednesdays free at noontime — I’ve missed many a department meeting this semester (including one tomorrow). Do Monday lunchtimes work for people in the spring? (I think Wilson and I will both teach at 1:30.)

Wow… where did the semester go?

Oh, and little brag… I know two of the people from the Mosaic team at NCSA… got to catch up with one of them a year or so ago! (And yes, he counts among my many Facebook friends…)

And on a silly note… Tom became my 666th friend on Facebook this past week, and I’m not sure I can think of a person less fit for that dubious honor. But number 667 (an aging punk rock musician named Otis Ball) would have been fairly suited…