Tuesday, December 20, 2005


... Non-Denominational Festive Season to All!

Tomorrow we're off to the in-laws to celebrate Hannukah etc. It's likely that I won't post again until the New Year. So, to all my readers (both of you) have a great festive season and here's wishing for a wonderful New Year!

And for those who get upset with people like me who won't go around wishing everyone a Merry Xmas... Get over it. It's been decades since this season has really had anything to do with a major religious event. Heck, churches around here (including a mega-church) have even decided to not hold any services Christmas day. And I'm in the so-called Bible Belt. Before you get upset with others, perhaps you should set your own houses right.

See you in the New Year!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Google and plagiarism

Educators today are well aware of how easy it is for students to plagiarise. There are even web sites out there set up so that students can buy papers and assignments... What students don't seem to be aware of is how easy the internet has made it for educators to catch them. Find a suspicious phrase/sentence/paragraph? Type some of it into Google, press return and, ta-daa!, the original source pops up.

A graduate student found that out today. The hard way. During his dissertation defense.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Stockholm here I come!

No, no. No big, Nobel-winning breakthroughs. Yet.

I'm reading "The Beginner's Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize" by Peter Doherty. He's an Australian who won the 1996 Prize in Medicine or Physiology for his work in immunology. My older, piratical brother gave it to me. I think he's trying to give me some kind of hint... Anyway, it's not the best written book - Doherty tends to ramble - but it is a fascinating look at science as a career. I can't wait to get to the part where he tells you how to win the Nobel Prize... I only hope I get to that part before too many other people do. Otherwise I might end up with too many people on the waiting list before me and the Nobel can't be given posthumously. Who'd want it when they're dead anyway?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Life is good

There are lot of reasons to be pessimistic at work nowadays. My department is in danger of having five faculty not make tenure over the next three years. That's a lot, which will make us look really bad and probably lead to a fall from favor with the administration. The department chair is thinking of retiring in a year or so, but Big State U. here doesn't have the money to recruit a new chair. We may well end up with a current member of the department as the new chair. The problem with that is that the people who would be good at the job don't want it, while the ones that want it would be disasters. On top of that the US government, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to cut back on science funding at the NIH and NSF. This is not so much in the form of cuts, but rather increases so low that just maintaining current commitments chews up almost the entire budgets of the two institutions. (I won't go into a discussion of the wisdom of cutting programs that benefit society at this point in time.) This level of funding has lead to extremely low success rates for people submitting grants. Single digit success rates. And it looks like this will continue for a few years. That means even less chance for our struggling five faculty to obtain tenure. Also less chance that the rest of us will be able to renew our current funding, leading to some labs struggling to stay afloat. And less money for the department (and Big State U.), leading to increased financial problems...

And yet, life is good. I remain curiously optimistic. In part this is fueled by the fact that my own laboratory is pushing ahead and being very productive. In part it's fueled by the peculiar euphoria that comes only from discovery. This euphoria is, I believe, unique to those who pursue discovery, such as scientists. My current euphoric state has come about because I think I know the answer to a big part of the major problem I'm studying. Don't get me wrong, I haven't proven anything (yet), and I'm not about to go out and buy an expensive bottle champagne for when the Nobel committee calls. I have a long, and no doubt hard, road ahead of me, but I think I know where that road leads. I study protein structure, and in particular how proteins adopt their various structures. This is important because protein structure leads to protein function, and protein function leads to life (DNA isn't all it's made out to be). I don't know how proteins get to their various structures (we call that folding). I do however think I know where they start (unfolded proteins). I think I know what unfolded proteins look like. That won't mean much to most people, but I think it's pretty damn cool. I'm excited and will continue to be until I manage to prove myself wrong, I can demonstrate to everyone else that I'm right, or someone else beats me to either of those outcomes. Now I must off to the lab to work out the crucial experiments...

But first, another cup of coffee.

Monday, December 05, 2005

We have entered the Twilight Zone...

This is just BIZARRE. Not even Karl Rove would be this heavy-handed. Would he?