Monday, August 17, 2009

Always put off for tomorrow what you can do today (Part 3)

In time-honoured fashion, I bring you the final instalment of my list of top-10 time wasters. Now you may have lots more new ideas for great procrastination. No, no, don’t thank me...

7. Part time work. This is a pearler because it gives you the illusion of productivity and it generates an essential output: cash. The time spent doing part time work seems very productive because there are either clear goals to aim for or a boss making sure that you are on track. The deadlines MUST be met! Hang the PhD, I’ve got 80 undergraduate lab reports to mark instead.

8. The weather. This sounds like a weird one. But I am an avid fan of the Bureau of Meteorology’s website and sometimes check it at least three times a day. I'm not especially interested in the weather either but I do like to know if I'll have to walk home in the rain...

9. Stationery. Visit Officeworks (conveniently located two minutes walk from the Sydney campus) and pick out manila folders, highlighters, and those snazzy in- and out- trays that you’ve always wanted and that will make you super-productive and organised. Officeworks also has a very efficient cooling system. The Gunn building is not air-conditioned, so on the swelteringly hot summer days (when all of the undergraduates are cavorting on the beaches for three months while the hapless postgraduates slog it out in a sweaty office), you’ll often run into some of your friends deliberating over the range of liquid papers in aisle three.

10. List writing. This is my all-time favourite. When I’m feeling like my PhD life is completely out of control and I have a billion things to do, I like to write to do lists. This is good because it gets the amorphous cloud of scary impending deadlines and small yet essential tasks down on paper and in some sort of order. However, if the list is particularly long (which it mostly gets if you’ve had a really bad week of procrastination or you’ve been out of the office on fieldwork or at a conference for a few days), I do the old chestnut of writing out a weekly schedule, which takes a long time in itself to do. This would be fine if I could stick to the schedule, but inevitably it is unrealistically punishing and it ends up being tweaked, rejigged, reworked, and finally scrapped when its demands cannot be met.

That’s it. Thank you to all of my lovely postgraduate friends for furnishing me with such shining examples of time-wasting, and hopefully not minding that I’ve posted them up here for all and sundry to see!


Friday, August 14, 2009

The postgraduate student’s guide to procrastination (Part 2)

As you know, it's a serious issue that every postgraduate (particularly research postgraduates, who have three-plus years of what seems like unlimited unstructured time on their hands) must face. This week I bring you the continued results of my time-wasting by extending my fabulous list of top-10 ways to procrastinate.

3. Podcasts (eg. from Nature and Science). Jo likes to download and listen to them whilst doing her lab work. Not sure that it makes her more productive but I'm it sure makes the hours fly by! Unfortunately those of us with the attention span of a flea (ie me) are not able to listen to these and concentrate on our experiments at the same time.

4. Thesis formatting. Don’t get me wrong, this is an important thing to do. Hannah Siddle (who, incidentally, survived her PhD), advised “Do not try to format your thesis the week before it is due. This will have an adverse effect on your relationships with loved ones”. The day before her thesis was due she turned up at the office wild-eyed and muttering about outline levels. So we are all well advised to format our theses in advance. However, I have already spent at least a whole day creating a template for my thesis in lieu of actually writing any of it.

Another friend in the Psychology department took two weeks trying to find the perfect quote to put on the fly leaf of her thesis (the quote ended up being from Oscar Wilde: "I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.", which kind of sums up the procrastination process perfectly). Definitely time well spent.

5. Backing up. Again, this is an important thing to do and you should do it religiously as Kao says. However it can get out of control, for example “I’ll back up the entire 4 GB of data on my computer onto this external hard drive. This will take an hour but I really must be here watching it the entire time to make sure nothing goes wrong.” I have also spent hours at the photocopier making duplicates of all of my laboratory notebooks. Jo did point out that without copies of these, you may doom yourself in the unlikely event that the lab somehow goes up in flames. However, I've found that it is also great for that “I’m doing something really constructive” feeling without having to do any actual thinking .

6. Socialising. Postgrad lunches and regular coffees are augmented with our weekly ‘bakeoff’ afternoon teas and Friday night drinks in Sydney and pizza and movie nights in Camden (haven't come along to these yet? You should, they are lots of fun!). Have a moan about how your lab technique didn’t work. Gossip about what such-and-such got up to at the last conference. Talk about your weekend. Plan to have lunch and then have a detailed discussion about what time it should be. Ask for advice on the colour you should bind your thesis in, should you actually manage to finish it.

Next week... that’s right kids, I’m going to 10! Stay tuned...


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ode to an Allen Key

Greetings from the USA! I made it here safely and have been settling in to my new lab. I could tell you about all of the cool new lab toys that I now have to play with, or the interesting research that I will be doing here to finish off my PhD, but first things first... My apartment that I will call home for the next 8 months or so.

After more than 24 hours in transit, I dragged my slightly hallucinating self to my new apartment building. One small incident with my keys (which, it transpired, were not actually my keys) later, I crashed my way into the flat, dropped my two very heavy bags (a total of 300g under maximum weight, yessssss!), and found... a small mountain of flat- pack furniture and packaged dinnerware/bedding etc stuck all over with labels like “Gosa Vadd Schlewovski”.

Yes, you guessed it, back in Australia when I faced with the problem of having to fill a whole overseas flat with furniture, I thought for a while, before, leaping up and shouting “Jag ha som!*... Ikea!”. This is why, at 3am local time, I found myself sitting on the floor puzzling over cryptic diagrams of smug cartoon men effortlessly putting together stylish furniture.

My first mistake was not just unwrapping the mattress and collapsing on it, leaving the unpacking for later. Instead, I decided to put together the bed first (which, I discovered later, was probably the single most complex bit of furniture in the whole flat).
My second mistake was continuing to put it together despite the fact that the diagrams clearly showed a lone cartoon man looking unhappy with a big cross next to him, and then two cartoon men looking jovial, with a tick next to them. Not having my own cartoon man, I decided to persevere alone.
My third mistake was not having any tools. I thought Ikea furniture came with tools but it turns out that they are fairly allen-key-centric over in Sweden and so I found myself without a drill, screwdriver or hammer. Have no fear though, as I utilised my PhD student resourcefulness by MacGyvering it up with a swiss army knife and a shoe. What transpired next was itself cartoon-like. Step one, balance piece A on piece B. Step two, run over to piece C and try to put it under piece B before A+B collapse. Step three, watch A+B+C collapse in a heap. Step four, repeat 500 times.

Voila, it’s one week later and I finally have all my furniture together. It all seems to work and I have not yet accordioned myself up in the folding sofa or jammed any of my limbs in the gateleg table. There’s just one problem... I have 14 screws left over and I have no idea where they go...


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Welcome to Procrastinationsville, population you (Part 1)

A big (and, I feel, under-discussed) issue in the lives of postgraduate students. As a sacrifice to you, dear readers, I am now going to air some dirty laundry from postgrads at the Sydney campus and tell you about some of our favourite time-wasting activities. However, I must insert here a disclaimer- have you got an impending deadline? A paper due? A talk to write? Exams to study for? Marking to do? An actual job? If so, DO NOT read on. You have been warned!

1. Number one would have to be the internet. For the avid procrastinator, this offers a wealth of ways to whittle away the weeks*. Here are a few of my faves:
News websites.
Reading blogs. If it’s related to your field then it’s still work, right? Writing blogs (yes, like this one) is also another good one.
Silly celebrity websites eg (the psychologist postgrads love it. “You don’t know psychiatry. I know psychiatry!”).
Ebay. Sure I need a wireless mouse/second hand motorcycle/lava lamp/pair of those hot shoes Britney wore last week, only in suede/...
Email. You know this already, but this is a MASSIVE time waster. Particularly when you check it in the morning, answer all of the new ones, then check back every five minutes to see if anyone’s replied yet.
Youtube, especially when it’s semi-related to your research (geneticists, have you seen the new BioRad PCR song? Funny in a molecular-biologist-humour kind of way).
Facebook. I don’t use this (clearly for a good reason as I am already an accomplished procrastinator) but going on the amount of time I hear people talking about it, I’m assuming that this tool would also help you to waste a good chunk of your day.
icanhascheezburger. I don’t like cats. But I do love this website. Every now and then they have a captionated cat photograph that makes me kill myself laughing (tip: only the evil cat ones are funny and the captions have to be spelt wrongly). Amazingly enough, this coincides with the other postgraduates the office wanting to kill me for laughing when they are trying to concentrate.

2. ‘Helping’ with other students’ research. We have to look out for each other, so why not spend a day labelling a million sample tubes for a friend? Naturally they’ll then help you out too when the time comes. Last month, I experienced the ultimate in procrastination, when I ‘helped’ Hannah Salvin with her research into canine behaviour. She spends several hours each week taking a dog through a ‘sand maze’ with buried liver treats in order to test its memory (about 30 times per dog!). Feeling she might need some human company during this, I went with her to clip and unclip the dog from its leash. Clearly I was an integral part of her research team.

Right! I really have to go and do some work now. But come back next week to read on...

*writing alliterative sentences is also a form of procrastination


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Adventures in England

I've just gotten back from the 8th International Horse Genome Workshop, which was held last week in the English countryside north of London. The people that have come to this and previous meetings often call it the Havemeyer Workshop, because it's funded and supported by the horse-friendly Havemeyer Foundation.

The workshop spanned one evening and two full days, and had a really full-on social and scientific program. The workshop venue was Ickworth House, a venue with plenty of history, and one of the ugliest central architectural features I've ever seen: a giant rotunda. This enormous round structure (pictured in the most flattering way possible in the web site link) was apparently requested by a family member who'd travelled to Italy - great inspiration, but the execution left something to be desired! It's questionable charms provided an excellent aesthetic foil to the simple and elegant wings of the house, and the extensive and well-designed gardens on the estate.

The final night of the workshop saw us all living the high life at Newmarket Nights: horse racing followed by a show. The Newmarket main straight is really hilly compared to the Australian race tracks that I've been too, and it's also really long. The horses almost disappear from view in the low parts as they come down the straight, which takes a while, because it's also really long. Anyway, I'm delighted to say that I came out even in the betting, with one win and one... not-so-win. The band that played after the races was Status Quo.

The social side of things at the workshop meant plenty of stories and anecdotes. One of the strangest involved feeding vegemite to possums, something that I must say I've never tried personally. I'm not sure that the possum had either, at least before the event in question...

But to continue with the adventures: after the workshop, Professor Claire gave me a lift to Cambridge, where I met up with my ex-desk neighbour, Dr. Hannah. Our plan for the day was a punt and a pint, which we managed beautifully. Hannah demonstrated her punting technique first, and then Carl (her husband) and I gave it a go. Ten points for each of us, because none of us fell in! We didn't even see anyone else fall in either, which was kind of disappointing. After out exertions, we were parched, and headed down the river to one of the pubs near Han and Carl's apartment. What a perfect way to spend the day!


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Five side effects to being a postgraduate student

There are many wonderful things about being a postgraduate student. A personal computer! A sandwich toaster! Bakeoffs! Bliss! However, we've thought of a few side effects that we've come across in our efforts to get educated. We're sure you can think of more!

1. Judgement based on your subject area. I study platypus venom, which is strange and obscure, so it naturally follows that I am a little odd, and at risk of becoming an eccentric-professorial-type later in life.

2. Novelty T-shirts. It’s your birthday coming up. Your friends can’t afford to buy you that art deco teacup/Shetland pony you’ve always wanted. Instead, “Great, he/she studies X”, your friends think, “why not get him/her a novelty t-shirt?”*. Luckily, when I describe my area of study no-one has yet listened past my description “I study platypus venom...” to hear the next bit “...genes”, or else I would be at risk of drowning in a sea of double helix tops.platypus_tshirt-p235758194011346976y8gh_400.jpg

3. Your subject area everywhere. On birthday cakes (especially if you study cars, squares, or cakes, or if your friends are very clever like mine are (see pic). More difficult if you are studying pi or Greek furniture of the 3rd century).plat cake.jpg
On statues (especially if you are studying an Australian animal/explorer, or any fruit. Again, if you are studying pi then you might be ok). You won’t be able to get away from it!

plat statue.jpg
4. Unstructured days. Sure I can go shopping on Tuesday. Whoops, I slept in and it’s noon and I’m still in my PJ’s, is it even worth going to uni?

5. Becoming an expert in procrastination. As an undergraduate, you thought you were pretty good at this already. But you thought wrong! Until you became a postgraduate, you were a most productive individual. In fact, this is such a big facet of postgraduate life we feel that an entire procrastination-themed blog post is due in the near future.**

*Author's note: You know I love the platypus t-shirt you gave me, Kao!
** No, reading The Appendix does not count as procrastination.


Proof that we are better than trained monkeys

We have heard several PhD students over the last few years complain about how a trained monkey could do 95% of their work. Happily, Jo Griffith has pointed us in the direction of this book excerpt, which begs to differ.

Extract from Complications – a surgeon’s notes on an imperfect science by Atul Gawande, (2002, Picador: New York) on training surgeons.

"As one professor of surgery put it to me, given the choice between a PhD who had painstakingly cloned a gene and a talented sculptor, he'd pick the PhD ever time. She, he said, he'd bet on the sculptor being more physically talented; but he'd bet on the PhD being less "flaky." And in the end that matters more. Skill, surgeons believe, can be taught, tenacity cannot. It's an odd approach to recruitment but it continues all the way up the ranks, even in top surgery departments. They take minions with no experience in surgery, spend years training them and then take most of their faculty from these same home grown ranks.

And it works. There have now been many studies of elite performers - international violinists, chess grand masters, professional ice-skaters, mathematicians and so forth - and the biggest difference researchers find between them and lesser performers is the cumulative amount of deliberate practice they've had. Indeed, the most important talent may be the talent for practice itself. K. Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist and expert on performance, notes that the most important way in which innate factors play a role may be in one’s willingness to engage in sustained training. He’s found, for example that top performers dislike practicing just as much as others do (that's why, for example, athletes and musicians, usually quit practicing when they retire). But more than others they have the will to keep at it anyway."


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Why you (a scientist) should use Twitter in your work

Postgrads are people that have gone back to uni to do an advanced degree. We're not paid much, and we're nerds. Outside of our work at Uni, I like to think that we all have friends and family that aren't academics... or know one or two non-scientists, at the very least.

Despite this, we show an amazing divorce from mainstream culture, and especially from the way most people communicate with one another. Most of the postgrad students that work next to me are Generation Y. You'd never know it though - one is an avid fan of Radio National, another does craft in her spare time, and out of the twenty or so that I see most regularly, exactly one has a Twitter account that she opened without being paid to do so.

WHY? That's the question. There's no point in finding a cure for cancer if you don't tell anyone about it! In the Vet Faculty, where we work on animal health, it seems especially strange that we don't usually use mainstream communication channels to let animal lovers know what we've found.

Unfortunately, there's a very strong culture in science that drives home the message "If you can't prove it, don't say anything". This is a very damaging point of view, because it contrasts so strongly with the way the rest of our Western culture works. Earlier today, I read about some Patti Smith - or somelike her at least - you know, very cool and not, on the face of it at least, a complete idiot - getting injections of black sheep fetus to make herself look younger. WTF??? There was some deranged quote about how she thought it made sense that injecting young tissue would make her look younger. (Leaving my main topic on a tangent, but why did she not go on to think that it's going to make her black, or look like a sheep, or cause her to grow wool??? Maybe she really has done too much blow.)

Science has to compete with the fraudulent clinic that sold poor Patti this stuff. That means we can't wait until we're sure! We need to loudly and constantly declare "SCIENTISTS SAY: To the best of our knowledge, injecting yourself with sheep fetus is IDIOTIC and probably DOWNRIGHT DANGEROUS!". If, by some twist of fate, this turns out to be AOK, it's perfectly OK to update the message: "SCIENCE ADVANCES! Injecting yourself with sheep fetus is just fine and it DOES make you look younger!!!"

So, to answer the questions in the title directly:

Twitter: with messages of just 140 characters, young scientists can learn to keep it short and sweet. A laboratory Twitter channel would be the perfect place to put updates about equipment condition, who's around and who's away, new primers, that a protocol did or didn't work, that you found a piece of the puzzle, had mysterious results, or even that you've just got a paper published in a scientific journal...

REMEMBER: there's no point in doing science if you don't tell people what you found!!!


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Imagine being one of 100,000 fully sequenced people

What they say:

"The Personal Genome Project is an open-ended research study that aims to improve our understanding of genetic and environmental contributions to human traits. We are enrolling members of the public who are willing to share their genome sequence and other personal information with the scientific community and the general public."

Although I know some people will leap to point out the privacy issues that could come as part of this project, it seems like an incredible opportunity to contribute to our understanding of biology, way beyond the personal sacrifice of lost privacy about health data. And without having to work hard either! They're only requesting USA-ians at the moment, but I for one will be keeping my ears open in case this goes world-wide at some point.


Friday, May 15, 2009

Expand the gene pool

No, we're not advocating gettin' jiggy with it, instead we're talking about a new competition that is being run in conjunction with Evolution - The Festival, which is being held to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.

Join project Gene Pool, where you can creatively explore what evolution means to you either in any medium or by attempting to "mutate the ABC archives". We're not exactly sure what this means but, like evolution, who know where it might lead? Entries will then be naturally selected (ha, ha). Bad puns optional.


Best and brightest (that's us!) kept dirt poor

A piece this week in The Age newspaper has revealed that this year's budget has done little to alleviate the financial woes of PhD students:

Thursday, May 7, 2009

It's just a little bit of G-T-C-A...

Remember last year we posted about the "Dance your PhD competition"? How about going one better and adding some catchy lyrics to give you this year's hottest dance song? Ok that's an exaggeration but it really is a giggle... see it here. Turn up the volume and get grooving, labtastic people!

If you come across any other great youtube videos we'd love to see them. What's one more item for procrastination in a PhD student's life?


Thursday, April 16, 2009

2009 Science and Innovation Awards for Young People

  • Do you have an innovative idea that will boost Australia's rural industries?
  • Do you need up to $50,000 for make your idea reality?
  • Do you want to kick start your career and build professional networks?
  • Do you want media training to help promote your ideas?

For more information and to download an application form, visit or the Science Awards Manager on 02 6272 5039.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Animalwatch bucketlist #1 Numbat

New regular segment, as inspired by Garbutt et al (2007) “100 animals to see before they die”.

Myrmecobius fasciatus
• Walpurti
• Banded Anteater

Under 25 words:
A colourful 20-30cm marsupial found in Western Australia with a pointed muzzle and bushy tail, their days are synchronised with their main food source termites.

To see a Numbat …

By car…
1) Drive 12 hr 33 min (1150km) from Usyd through Sturt Hwy to Scottia Sanctuary (south of Broken Hill, near the border of SA/NSW)
By plane
2) $199 one-way to Perth 2hr, hire a car ~$30, drive to Perth Zoo, $16 entrance,
Total cost ~$450

If you have taken a photo of a Numbat, please email it to so we can tick it off the appendix bucketlist!

By Quintin Lau

Friday, March 20, 2009

How to catch a lizard

Come on, admit it, it's a skill you've always wanted to learn. Bridget Murphy is a PhD student studying the reproductive physiology of Eastern water skinks. She first learnt to catch lizards in her backyard as a kid when her mum squirted them with the hose to slow them down! Here she shows us how it's done sans hoses.

Step 1: Decide what type of lizard you want to catch and figure out where to find them .

Lizards are all different shapes and sizes and live in a range of habitats. Many lizards bask during the day, so you are likely to find these lizards in the morning lying on surfaces that will warm up quickly. By the middle of the day in summer, these surfaces usually get too hot and lizards will find a cooler shelter to wait it out until the late afternoon.

Top: A rainbow skink (Lampropholis delicata).

Some lizards don’t bask and are fossorial. They normally live in the soil under rocks, logs and leaf litter and may only come out at night. Fossorial lizards have a specialised body shape that makes them suited to their life underground. They are long and streamlined and have reduced legs. Through evolution, some have completely lost their legs and these are usually called 'legless lizards'.

Burton’s legless lizard (Lialis burtonis).

Lizards that live in the desert are adapted to living in a hot, dry environment. Spines on the skin of the thorny devil, for example, are arranged in such a way to redirect rainwater that may collect on its back to its mouth. Pygmy blue tongues were thought to be extinct until one was found in the stomach of a road-killed brown snake about ten years ago. These lizards escape the heat in inland South Australia by living in holes created by spiders.

Thorny devil (Moloch horridus).

If you visit your local suburban creek, you are likely to find a range of lizards that make the creek bank their home. Water dragons can be locally common and like to bask on trees that overhang the water, leaping into the water and swimming to shelter if frightened. Similarly, water skinks like to bask on partially-submerged rocks to beat the heat in the middle of summer.

Eastern water dragon (Physignathus lesueurii)

Step 2: Figure out how to catch them

Generally, unless the lizard is in your backyard and/or is injured and needs treatment, you cannot capture lizards unless you have a valid reason. National parks and local councils have big problems with people catching lizards to illegally breed and sell for the pet trade. Scientists need ethics approval and a license from National Parks and Wildlife Services to work with or capture lizards.

So if you have the right licence, or if you find a lizard in your backyard and want to take a closer look, you need to first decide on a method to catch the lizard. This depends on the type and size of the lizard. Fossorial lizards can be caught by hand by looking under rocks and logs. Any rocks or logs that are moved should be replaced in the exact way they were found, since reptiles and other animals that live under these rocks will be disturbed. Basking lizards become very fast and sometimes impossible to catch after they have warmed up in the sun. Therefore, it is best to attempt to catch these types of lizards in the early morning or late afternoon. Small lizards can be caught by hand, or lured into your hand using an insect on a string tied to a long stick. Larger lizards can be noosed using silk string and a slip knot on a strong stick or fishing rod. Pitfall traps can be used for cryptic lizards or to measure the density of lizards in an area.

Step 3: Keeping your lizard healthy until release

If possible, lizards should be put in a dark cool place after capture. This minimises stress and prevents dehydration and overheating. Lizards should be kept in captivity for as short a time as possible. In captivity, lizards should be kept in aquaria with a source of food (usually insects and other invertebrates) and clean water in an accessible dish. Lizards are ectotherms and cannot generate their own body heat. Therefore, lizards in captivity will need a source of heat, such as a heat lamp, at one end of the aquarium to create a thermal gradient along which they can thermoregulate during the day. Lizards kept in captivity for long periods of time require a UV light or need to be taken out regularly into natural sunlight.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"No good fish goes anywhere without a porpoise"...

... But I bet Lewis Carroll didn't have these zany creatures in mind when he said this. This month, we have not one but two freaky new fish facts.

Up first is the recently discovered four-eyed spookfish. Despite the name and its appearance, this fish only really has two eyes, but each one has two parts (an upwards-looking one and a downwards-facing one). It uses a lens to focus light (from the sun) coming in from the 'top eyes' and a mirror to focus light (from bioluminescence of other sea creatures) coming to the 'bottom eyes'. This means it can focus images from above and below simultaneously!

Up next are the wacky Tapetail/Whalefish/Bignose fishes. The shallow-water tapetail has a long streamery tail. The deep-water whalefish has no scales but huge jaws. And the Bignose, which also lives in the deep sea, unsurprisingly has a large 'nose' and immobile jaws. They couldn't possibly be related, right?

Wrong! New mtDNA analyses have shown that these are in fact different stages in the life cycle of the same fish family (Cetomimidae). After museum specimens of the fish were reexamined, the researchers have also found intermediate forms of each stage, showing that a tapetail larva grows into a whalefish female or a bignose male.

“This is an incredibly significant and exciting finding,” says Dr. David Johnson, an author on the paper. “For decades scientists have wondered why all tapetails were sexually immature, all bignose fishes were males and all whalefishes were females and had no known larval stages. The answer to part of that question was right under our noses all along—the specimens of tapetails and bignose fishes that were used to describe their original families included transitional forms—we just needed to study them more carefully.”


Friday, February 20, 2009

Bake-off for the bushfires

Big props to the postgrads who baked and sold cupcakes, cookies, rocky road, muffins and mars bar slice on Thursday to raise money for wildlife injured in the Victorian bushfires. We raised over $300, which will go to Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary to help with animal care and recovery. Who would have thunk postgrads were such great bakers?!
Further donations to Healesville can be made here. Thanks again everyone!
by Hannah Siddle


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Write or Die!!!!

Stuck with your writing? Forget nailing your feet to the floor or bribing yourself with chocolate, Dr Wicked has a better idea. Why not replace your fear of writing with a fear of not writing?! Write or Die- Putting the 'prod' back in productivity!

The concept is fairly simple- you go to the website and set yourself a time and a word count as goals, and then you start writing. But the moment your mind starts to wander or you start checking your emails/the cricket score/your profile, beware... if you wait too long, the screen starts to go red, and then Dr Wicked is going to start playing you some seriously nasty sounds to remind you that you're supposed to be writing... think car horns, crying babies, and even the dreaded Hanson!!!! The only way you can get it to stop is to keep writing. You can even try Kamikaze mode, which actually starts deleting the words you've written if you wait too long!

And believe me, it's annoying. I used it to write this blog entry and I think most of the postgrads in this room now want to kill me- which was actually good incentive to keep those words coming! The nice bit is that when you reach your goals you get some nice sound effects (a fanfare from Star Wars) and even a little icon that you can download and put on your blog (maybe even your thesis if you are so inclined?) (see pic). Expect prolific writing on this blog from now on as the Editors take advantage of this new tool!

Give it a try and we'd love to hear if you found it useful! Just don't forget to copy and paste your text into a word file when you're done (the website does this automatically too but it's better to be safe!). Thanks to Peta for tipping us off about this one.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Parasitic males and fish tails

I caught a glimpse of one of those countdown shows last week about weird animals and I thought I’ll share with you their number one wackiest animal ever (!). And it is the deep sea anglerfish. This animal has a face which would easily scare a child...

(Much of this article comes from

The deep sea anglerfish has huge jaws which are well adapted to snatch any prey unfortunate to come into range. It lives in total darkness and because of the sparseness of life in these waters some species of the female deep sea anglerfish carries a stalked, luminous bait above her. The bioluminescent of the stalk is used to attract curious fish towards that mouth.

But it is possible that the weirdest aspect of these creatures is their mating habits. Males of the species are discovered by deep sea anglers who discovered that small "growths" on the female are actually males. In fact, when a tiny male meets a female he bits into her flesh and literally fuses with her body. They share blood supplies so the male obtains nutrients and oxygen from the female. Without any need for most of his organ systems, such as eyes and digestive organs, the male's body degenerates into essentially a pair of sperm-producing testicles. Thus the female essentially becomes a hermaphrodite with up to six or more of these tiny male parasites attached to various parts of her body. Although functionally bisexual, the eggs and sperm come from genetically distinct parents, thus providing vital genetic variability through meiosis and genetic recombination. As a functional hermaphrodite she can have sex any time or place, without worrying about meeting a male in the dark abyss of the ocean. Clinging to her body like minute, blood-sucking parasites, the males have little interaction with the female, except to fertilize her eggs with sperm.

by Emily Wong

Monday, February 2, 2009

Gen Y Science: Jo's Guide To Podcasts

If ever you catch me walking in the corridors of power, ahem, the McMaster, across the quad, or Gunn, you will see usually see me plugged into my ipod. Now you might be thinking I’m listening to music, but actually I’m “doing my reading” or at least that’s what I tell my supervisors. It is partially true. I am listening to podcasts and many of them are science based. This means I have large amounts of trivia left in my brain to regale you with at Bakeoff or Flodge Friday but just sometimes it gets me thinking about other types of science, and I guess that’s better than listening to Britney.

So I thought I’d enlighten some of you about podcasting and point you towards some of my favourite podcast.

Podcasting, for those of you who have been under a log/doing a PhD, is a form of audio broadcasting on the internet, or simply put, it’s radio downloaded from the net.

To subscribe to podcasts you need to use a program to download them to your mp3 player. The program subscribes to them and then downloads them when there is a new episode. This is very easy to use with itunes, or if you are not that way inclined, you can use “Juice” which is a freeware program which does the same thing.

I’m assuming you can get podcasts onto your mp3 player… if this is still a challenge, then collar me some time and I can show you.

I listen to a broad range of podcasts and it makes lab work so much more fun. To find any of these you can search for them in itunes, or find their homepages and click on the feed (again, if you have problems, ask me to show you).

Here are some of them:

Science: Let’s start with science, because, well that’s what we are supposed to be doing.

The Science Show from ABC Radio National
Ok, I know Kao finds Robin Williams boring but I’ve grown up with the Science show and I love listening to it. This is a one hour digest of what is new in science together with interviews with leading scientists. Robin Williams does not dumb things down, but just offers explanations. This is the most popular podcast on the ABC, which is good news!

The Nature Podcast
Nature does a podcast highlighting what is new in Nature. It’s a well thought out and slickly produced podcast. How else would I know the story behind the mammoth hair being bought on Ebay.

The Naked Scientists
Dr Chris Smith and a team of other scientists (well everyone seems to have a PhD so there is hope for us yet) answer questions from listeners around the world, and bring up to the date info on what is hot in science. This is lighter than The Nature Podcast.


The Health Report from ABC Radio National
This is a great one for discussions of some of the latest medical research. Of course it is based on people, but we can always extrapolate to our species of interest. Norman Swan has been presenting this for my entire life as well, so it takes me back…

All in the Mind from ABC Radio National
I just love this one. It is up there as one of my very favourites. Everything mind brain and mental is explored in this podcast, from autism, to brain surgery, to economic psychology. If you are interested in psychology or anything to do with thinking you’ve got to listen to this one.

Nothing to do with science or medicine
Sometimes I don’t listen to science stuff, but don’t tell the supes!

Hindsight from ABC Radio National
Ok so you are picking up a theme here and I think it must just be because I’m ancient now and have to listen to radio national or I’ll expire. Hindsight is the ABC’s history program. It mainly deals with Australian history. Recently there have been programs on the social history of the word “Cooee”, Captain Cook’s voyages to Antarctica, and changing attitudes to death and burial through time. See, nothing to do with science. It’s great.

The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe
A panel of skeptics headed by Dr Steve Novello, president of the New England Skeptical Society, take on all that is questionable in this world. The podcast has a number of sections: news – in which the panel dissects the latest news (for example recent studies in alternative medicine, Tom Cruise’s latest scientology escapades, psychic phenomona), an interview with a prominent skeptic, and finally Science or Fiction (a game). This is pretty hard core scepticism, but it makes me laugh. If you are a fan of alternative things you might not like this. If you are interested in learning to think critically, this is a useful podcast regardless of your background.

This American Life
I think this is probably my most favourite podcast. This American Life is a public radio show in Chicago, with something like 300,000 podcast listeners. The show is around an hour long and is presented in 3-4 acts. It usually has a theme (for example, poultry, the economic crisis, breaking up) and the acts are short essays, interviews or plays from some extremely funny and inciteful people (for example David Sedaris). Listen to it, you won’t be disappointed.

From Our Own Correspondent
Dispatches from BBC foreign correspondents around the world. Get transported from your lab bench to a Russian sauna for a good beating with a birch branch, go trekking on a yak through Nepal, head into Zimbabwe under cover... it’s all there.

I’ve got oodles more that I won’t review but for your information here are more if you just can’t get enough:
Background Briefing
BBC History Magazine
Correspondents Report (ABC)
Digital Planet
Documentaries (BBC)
Dr Karl and the Naked Scientists
Dr Karl on triplej
File on 4
Friday Night Comedy from BBC
In Conversation
Lonely Planet Podcasts
Ockham’s Razor
Pods and Blogs
Radio 4 Choice
Science Talk (Scientific American)
Street Stories
Triple J Hack

By Jo Griffith

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Answers to questions you never thought you'd ask #3

How come you can hypnotise a chicken?

Many of you who grew up with chickens (I mean chickens as pets/egg factories of course; I am not suggesting that anyone here was raised by actual chickens...) will be familiar with the interesting phenomenon of hen hypnosis, by which one may reduce a flapping fowl to a quiescent and glassy-eyed Gallus gallus. I have heard of varying techiniques, including holding them upside-down, tucking a head under their wing, or- my personal favourite- placing them on the ground and drawing a chalk line from the beak (it has a certain mystical flair!). But how come this works?

For the record, I am not advocating anyone lining up large numbers of hypnotised chickens, but the technique could actually be useful if you wanted to easily administer medication to the feet. Do chickens get foot mites anyone?

Anyway, in search of a quick and easy answer, I consulted our resident psychologist, and we came up with a number of half-baked theories, including
1. The possibility that the technique somehow activates the circuitry that would normally cause the bird to fall asleep (plausible, since birds do sleep with their heads under their wings)
2. the bird's brain is like a very simple computer (you know, like the ones you used in primary school that ran on MS-DOS and had green font on a black screen), so simple in fact that the unusual input proves too much for the simple circuitry and the system, with no programmed response to this stimulus, crashes. (Also plausible, since you would not expect chickens to often encounter chalk lines too often in nature).
3. The 'hypnotic state' is actually a manifestation of tonic immobility, ie a defence response to a perceived predator (would a chicken hanging upside-down from a fox's mouth have a greater chance of survival by playing dead?).

The webbernet also had a number of far-out theories, my favourite being that the chicken "sees the line and visualises itself at both ends of the line simultaneously" or some such.

I also had a look for some papers (I have to admit, a very cursory look, since at this juncture I am probably better off researching things that are actually related to my thesis), and found one by some Russian researchers about hypnotising rabbits (incidentally, this is done by placing the animal in the prone position and gently pressing on the upper thoracic and sacral vertebrae). They found a difference between electrical activity between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, coupled with a general cooling. This is also a feature of human hypnosis.

So, if chicken hypnosis does indeed occur by the same mechanism as rabbit hypnosis, the reason that your mesmerised rooster is out for the count is that you have somehow managed to get it to cool its brain slightly and reduce the electrical activity in its right brain hemisphere. Aren't you clever?!


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A guide to choosing a good dog

Each year, a number of Labrador and Golden Retriever pups enter the guide dog training program. At around 14-16 months of age the hard work starts, when a 5 month intensive training regime begins. During this time each dog has their health and temperament assessed, and this is where my work begins. Not all dogs entering this training program are suitable to become guide dogs, and through the use of a number of temperament and lateralisation tests, my project aims to identify unsuitable dogs. Training a guide dog costs around $26 000, so identifying unsuitable dogs is very important to ensure that resources can be focused on dogs with a higher potential.

I’m now in my second year of study and love it! So far I have assessed three groups of dogs, totalling 72 individuals, and have had the pleasure of watching two groups graduating (the third is still in training).

One of the main areas of my project is looking at motor and sensory lateralisation. I assess whether the dogs have a significant paw preference, so if they are left or right pawed, or if they are ambidextrous. As well as paw preference, I am looking at eye biases. This is of relevance to the program since nearly all dogs are trained to exclusively walk on the left of their handler. The importance of this may come into effect if the dog has a right eye bias, since the handler may block partial vision in that eye whilst walking, subsequently affecting the dog’s overall ability to assess the surrounding environment, and hence influencing their working performance.

The temperament tests employed aim to identify dogs that are fearful of loud noises or sudden objects appearing, are distracted by other dogs, or will not settle and rest in a quiet environment.

As well as lateralisation and temperament tests, I am also looking at kennel behaviours, salivary immunoglobulin A (sIgA) concentrations (as an indicator of stress), and hair whorl characteristics as potential predictors of success in the Guide Dog Program. The relationships between these additional variables will also be assessed in an endeavour to establish the suitability of dogs for guide work at the earliest possible age. By identifying early predictors of success and failure, unsuitable animals can be removed from training, allowing time and resources to be utilised more efficiently on dogs that have greater potential.

By Lisa Tomkins