I sense a problem with undergraduate education

A lot has been said about job prospects of biomedical graduate students and the ever-declining percentage of Ph.D. graduates who are ultimately able to find academic faculty positions. Indeed, the importance of exposing graduate students to a variety of scientific career options has become recognized in recent years. Many graduate programs, including my own, now require students to annually complete an Individual Career Development Plan (IDP).

These are positive developments, and as chair of my departmental (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) graduate and admissions committee, I warmly embrace this change in attitude. As a department, we have even gone further and have begun annual career development meetings with each year’s crop of students, and we are trying to arrange occasional lectures and workshops from invited scientific speakers whose careers lie outside of academia.

However, I believe that it’s important to remember that even by preparing students for a variety of non-academic scientific careers, there is unlikely to be a demand for the increasing number of Ph.D. graduates currently being pumped out by the system. In reality all of the non-academic science jobs being discussed and courted have existed for years. It’s not that science journal editors and staff, science policy makers, teachers at undergraduate colleges, industry, science writers and grant review administration have become highly abundant positions all of the sudden; it’s merely that students are now being encouraged to seek out and obtain qualifications for such positions (if they show interest) in the course of their Ph.D. studies.

These non-academic positions are probably just as competitive as academic ones. Without a major change in policy – such as encouraging Ph.D. graduates to teach high school students (with financial incentives and an understanding that science is crucial for the advancement of the human race) – it is unlikely that there will be a major change in demand for Ph.D. holders.

However, it’s important also to remember that despite the lack of good jobs that properly reward Ph.D. holders for their years of study, unemployment is extremely low for this sector. Indeed, it was estimated that even for those carrying a bachelor’s degree that unemployment was below 4%, and this is likely significantly lower for those with a Ph.D. in the sciences. These data are likely a result of the ingrained motivation, independence and critical thinking that are part and package of a Ph.D.

There are many articles that discuss what should be done to “fix” the problem, including awareness at the national level that there are too many Ph.D.s being granted, and even altering the grant system so that institutions will admit many fewer students. I fundamentally disagree with this idea, and think that a greater number of Ph.D. students and graduates represents a culture that is more literate in science and one that will be better equipped to have the brightest, most talented and determined go on and lead scientific research in the next generation.

In the past, when voicing my ideas of “the more the merrier,” that Ph.D. holders who have become solid critical thinkers can contribute to society in a variety of important ways, both directly in science and in other occupations, my main detractors complained that having people go through all this labor and study only to find that great and well-paying jobs aren’t readily available “isn’t fair.” Is it fair?

I agree that it isn’t fair, but as I frequently point out to students, life isn’t fair. We were not all born wealthy, or with advantages. We were not all born with equal opportunities. Some parents can afford to send their children to outstanding private schools, or spend time teaching them on their own. Other parents work hard just to feed and clothe their kids. Some kids work during high school and on through college. Others can afford to focus exclusively on their studies.

It is also important to note that fewer and fewer career choices lead to “guaranteed high paying jobs” for graduates. In the US, I think that dentists, physicians, pharmacists, and engineers can reasonably assume to find well-paying jobs at the end of their training. This is not necessarily true any more for lawyers (as more and more graduates vie for jobs), business degree holders or any Ph.D. graduates from what is generally known as “the liberal arts.” So whether the system is really so slanted against biomedical Ph.D. graduates is not altogether clear.

There is another very good reason why I think dramatically decreasing the number of graduate students would be harmful to science. As chair of our graduate and admissions committee, it’s clear that we rely heavily on a combination of undergraduate grades, Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores and personal interviews to select our students. Recommendation letters can also make an impression (one way or the other). But it’s obvious that the top grade scorers don’t necessarily make the best researchers. Sure, overall there is an extremely vague correlation, and certainly students have to have a grasp of science to succeed. But I’ve seen many average students (from undergraduate studies) who have truly excelled in the lab and have gone on to do outstanding research – and continue on to academia. By limiting the number of Ph.D. students accepted into graduate programs, we could be losing an outstanding crop of potential researchers. My point is that success in research (or lack of it) should be the factor limiting researchers from continuing on to academia – not something less meaningful such as undergraduate grades.

Finally, I would like to point out that I am not sitting in my academic ivory tower, oblivious to the problems of today’s students. My goal is not to sacrifice 5 or more years of many students’ lives just to seek out the very best fitted ones for academia. Although I noted that life isn’t fair, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to make it as fair as possible. For this reason, I believe that perhaps the most important thing that can be done for potential future graduate students is to provide them with career advice and information early on in their undergraduate years.

Again and again I see students interviewing for graduate school when they have no idea what it’s all about. Many do not understand even the very basics of the system, and frequently students have a warped view that a Ph.D. degree will entitle them automatically to a great job. Although in my graduate program we try to educate the students in the course of interviewing them, it is really not the time to do so. Students need to have qualified counselors who will answer their questions while they are still in their undergraduate institutions. They need to know the statistics for obtaining jobs in academia and other scientific careers – before they apply to graduate programs. They need to understand the criteria that make for a successful Ph.D. (not merely the minimal requirements stated for obtaining the degree). Then, and only then, can they make a calculated decision as to whether they want to launch themselves into a 5 year program. That, at least, is a fairer way to do things. And I take off my hat to those who choose to do so.




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It’s time to take responsibility – why the editor of The Lancet should resign

There are a lot of people, governments, and organizations who need to step up and take responsibility. But in this piece about taking responsibility, I call on Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, the UK’s premier medical journal, to apologize and resign. If publishing the deceitful and fallacious  “Open letter to the people of Gaza” wasn’t enough to merit his stepping aside, then his failure to allow the Israeli Medical Society and/or Israeli doctors and scientists to respond to these lies in a rejoinder article certainly is.

I have responded to the malevolent letter (saying that it is merely ‘biased’ would be giving too much credit to the authors) in the pages of The Guardian. But had I known at the time that several of the authors of this letter knowingly lied and reported that they “had no competing interests,” violating The Lancet’s “Declaration of Interests Policy,” I would have called for his resignation in my rebuttal.

As it turns out, Mads Gilberts, one of the co-signatories on this letter, made the following statement in Dagbladet, Norway’s second largest daily tabloid (I used Google translate to convert the text from the Norwegian) regarding the most horrific terror attack ever carried out on US soil:

The attack on New York was not surprising, after the policy has led the West in recent decades. I am outraged by the attack, but I am equally upset over the suffering that the United States has created. It is in this context 5000 dead people must be seen. If the United States government has a legitimate right to bomb and kill civilians in Iraq, including those suppressed a moral right to attack the United States with the weapons they had to create. Dead civilians are the same whether Americans, Palestinians or Iraqis, says physician and professor Mads Gilbert.

- Do you support a terrorist attack on the USA?

- Terror is a bad weapon, but the answer is yes, within the context I have mentioned, says Gilbert.

The first author of the hateful Lancet rant, Paolo Manduca, is the recipient of funding from various anti-Israel NGOs. For example, this abstract clearly states that the study was funded by Interpal, Gaza, London, UK. As noted in the following bulletin, Interpal (also known by another benign-sounding title as The Palestinian Relief and Development Fund) is designated by the US treasury as a terror organization. And for anyone who wants to know why Hamas is considered a terrorist organization, read the description of what Hamas has done at the bottom section.

Whether a once-respected medical journal is the place for addressing complex geo-political issues is one question. But having chosen to do so by exclusively accepting a blatantly deceitful account from several highly radical and terror-supporting physicians and researchers – while rejecting any opportunity for a rejoinder from Israeli doctors – clearly indicates that Horton can no longer qualify as a fair, unbiased editor for anything published in The Lancet.

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That’s the way science works

There have been a lot of articles published in newspapers around the world discussing a recent PLoS ONE paper published on July 23 by Harris and Provoust entitled “Jealousy in Dogs.”

Ginger, in a reflective, non-jealous mode

For those who may not have seen the paper or the flurry of newspaper articles about the paper and its findings, I will briefly summarize: The behavior of 36 small dogs was analyzed when their owners either interacted with a realistic-looking stuffed dog or with a jack-o-lantern (as an object that is not similar to another dog). For a control, the owners read aloud a children’s book that was complete with pop-up functions and music.

Based on videos that were filmed of the dogs’ behavior, and the rating of the behavior by two individuals who were not told of the study’s purpose, the researchers found that the dogs showed jealousy by either aggression to the stuffed dog, or by inserting themselves between the stuffed dog and the owner; in essence, competing for attention. This was markedly greater for the stuffed dog than the non-dog/control objects.

Many dog owners commented in the media in response to the articles about the PLoS ONE paper that this was hardly surprising; everyone knows that dogs display jealousy. From my own experiences as a dog owner, I have no doubt that this is true. I have had two dogs in my lifetime; the first was intensely jealous of any affection shown not just to another dog, but to any person or even inanimate object. If I patted the table (and especially said “good dog”), he was capable of going beserk. My current favorite canine companion, Ginger (pictured here), doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, but will show very mild jealousy if provoked.

One commenter even voiced disgust that the US taxpayer was funding such research – when the conclusion was clear from the start. Are such studies a waste of money?

My unequivocal answer is “absolutely not.” First, the issue of dog jealousy is still hotly debated. In this forum I recently discussed UK canine researcher Prof. John Bradshaw’s audiobook “Dog Sense” and even noted that I disagreed with his conclusion that dogs cannot display jealousy because this emotion is too complex for the canine brain and requires a more developed “sense of self.”

However, even if this were not a point of dispute, I contend that this is the way science is done: observations that may seem empirical and intuitive to others must be supported by research, analysis and statistical interpretations. Conclusions cannot be taken for granted based on anecdotal observations.

Documenting is often the first scientific step along the pathway to understanding, and this is true for behavioral science as well as science at the cellular, molecular and atomic levels. According to the scientific method, hypotheses have to be made, and then either disproved or supported by experimentation. This is precisely what the authors of this study have done.

Regarding the impact of the study? As an academic editor at PLoS ONE, this is what the journal is all about: we do not rate the perceived impact of these studies – we simply address if they are solidly based and novel. Laying brick-on-brick; this is the essence of good science.

As I know that dogs rely on their keen sense of smell more frequently than their vision, I expect that the jealousy shown by the dogs in this study to an inanimate object might well be less than that displayed towards other real-life dogs. However, I am not an animal behaviorist by training. Therefore, I put my trust in the journal’s editors who are experts in this field, and have doubtlessly had the paper reviewed by other knowledgeable researchers in the field.

As for me, I look forward to learning more about my dog and her behavior. And now I can officially say that she shows jealousy when asked. Science now supports this contention.

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Cultural and academic boycotts: why the BDS movement is an embarrassment and a failure

Recently, Pink Floyd founder and (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) BDS supporter Roger Waters publicly called on musician Neil Young not to perform in Tel Aviv, Israel. In his letter to Young, Waters wrote:

That you would lend support to, and encourage and legitimize, with your             presence, a colonial apartheid regime, largely settled from Europe, that seeks to confine the native people of the land, either in exile or in second class status in reservations and ghettos. Please, brother, tell me it ain’t so.”

The same man who floats pig shaped balloons with Stars of David during his performances would be best advised to restrain his own displays of anti-Semitism and check his juvenile and inaccurate rhetoric. Being a rock star doesn’t automatically qualify Mr. Waters as an expert on the complicated backdrop of the middle-east. Although this seems to fit the BDS profile.

While peace must ultimately come from a two-state solution (that I remind Mr. Waters, was initially agreed upon by the U.N. General Assembly as Resolution 181, and this Partition Plan (read the 3rd paragraph) was accepted by Israel, but not the Palestinians), I find it highly ironic that Mr. Waters found it necessary to make the statement “largely settled from Europe.” Despite the inaccuracy of this comment – most Israeli Jews came from North African Arab countries, after being massacred and expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century – I would ask Mr. Waters where he would have preferred the remnants of the European Jewish community who weren’t murdered in Hitler’s ovens to go? Countries like Canada (and apparently the UK) actually had undisclosed policies regarding the number of Jewish immigrants they would accept: Canada’s chief immigration policy maker, Frederic Blair, was quoted as saying “None is too many.”

For the record, I have Israeli roots. Encountering virulent anti-Semitism in Canada, I moved to Israel in the early 1980s. In fact the street that I lived on in Canada was named after a former medical school dean known for his anti-Semitic views and enforcement of “quotas” for the number of Jews allowed into medical school. If not anti-Semitism, why else would a totally non-religious, non-Messianistic, liberal and peace-seeking young Jewish person leave Canada, a country of infinite opportunity?

However, despite my Israeli background, I do not number amongst those Jews who automatically defend Israel and Israeli policy; or those who believe that criticism of Israel should not be voiced in public to provide support for anti-Israel and anti-Semitic groups, such as the BDS. As an undergraduate and graduate student in Jerusalem in the late 1980s and 1990s, I attended peace rallies and was active in supporting dialog towards a two-state solution – long before such a term was openly uttered in Israel. I wrote letters to the editor that were published in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, blasting Israel’s right wing then prime minister (PM) Shamir for his obstinate stances refusing to advance peace talks in Madrid, and for prolonging the status quo. A negotiated two-state solution, similar to that proposed by President Clinton, accepted by then Israeli PM Barak, and rejected by former Palestinian Authority leader Arafat is the only way forward.

Even my novels depict my views. Welcome Home Sir is about Ethan Meyer, an Israeli principal investigator (PI) with post traumatic stress disorder running a lab in the US. The novel is current, and there is an encounter (highly fictional) between Ethan and a PI colleague from Lebanon. I note fictional because although Ethan’s views are similar to my own, I have excellent relationships with all my colleagues from middle-eastern countries. In this imagined encounter, Ethan bemoans being attacked for being an Israeli, while his own views are diametrically opposed to those of Israel’s PM Netanyahu. Between a rock and a hard place is his (and my) interpretation.

The current acute mini-war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is horrible; the loss of life, including Gazan women and children is sickeningly tragic, and the images hard for anyone who holds life dear difficult to accept. The BDS blame-game that the situation is Israel’s fault because of the siege on Gaza is irrelevant, because (despite the fact that the siege obviously hasn’t prevented the smuggling in of rockets and rocket parts) when a country and its citizens are being indiscriminately fired upon, that country has a responsibility to protect its citizens in any way possible. Even prior to the recent outbreak of fighting, Hamas was still firing occasional rockets into Israeli towns.

Hamas’ charter calls for the destruction of Israel. Not a two-state solution, but a dissolution of Israel. One can argue whether they are “holding hostage” a civilian population in Gaza. To a certain extent they are; building tunnels under peoples’ homes to infiltrate into Israel and commit murder, hiding rockets in UNRWA schools, hospitals and mosques, urging citizens to remain in their homes when the Israeli Defense Forces have given warning that they will attack. These are cruel and cynical means of trying to recruit sympathy from the world. But such is Hamas. It’s horrible, but I think they are torn between: 1) wanting to achieve “victory” by hitting a populated area of Tel Aviv and killing a number of Israelis, and 2) wanting to accrue a huge number of their own casualties to show the world that they are victims of Israeli aggression.

Much has been said about the ‘disproportionate use of force’ by Israel. Needless to say, there would be many more casualties on the Israeli side without the Iron Dome anti-missile systems and secure rooms in place in most major Israeli population centers. Hamas rockets are aimed at population centers. Hamas ‘psychological warfare’ has even included the sending of messages to Israelis to mock them and point out that Hamas is forcing them to run for cover and hide from their rockets. What a point of pride. But it’s necessary to note that despite the horrific results of Israel’s attempts to stop the rocket fire, which include casualties to children and civilians, no one in Israel revels in the suffering of Gazans. At the same time, this is not a sporting event where the game would be more interesting and sporting if the casualties were more balanced on both sides. The fact that most of the casualties are in Gaza does not legitimize Hamas’ terror. It merely reflects their cynicism and complete lack of empathy for their own population.

This desire to be the victim is highlighted by the Hamas refusal to accept a ceasefire that was outlined by the Egyptians with support from Palestinian leader Abu Mazen. The Egyptian foreign minister went so far as to conclude that all of the deaths that occurred since Hamas refused the ceasefire and began shelling Israeli cities and towns again with Iranian-made rockets were Hamas’ responsibility. In an interview, Tony Blair said that the UK would respond in the same manner if its citizens were attacked by rocket fire. This time, Hamas is cut off from support from most of the Arab world, which seems to have lost patience with Hamas’ lack of responsibility to its own people. There is no money to pay 43,000 civil citizens, and poverty reaches 38%, yet the Hamas leaders have made millions (http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4543634,00.html) and wasted huge amounts of money on rockets to fire into Israel. These types of disagreements and anger within the Palestinian and Arab countries are entirely ignored by groups such as the BDS, who constantly look for cheap one-sided clichés to support their ‘cause.’

None of this is helped by a biased press. As a science-writer for The Guardian, I have been disappointed several times by the papers’ treatment of issues concerning the middle-east. The first time was when I wrote an opinion post about why an academic boycott of Israel is wrong and hypocritical (http://www.theguardian.com/science/occams-corner/2012/sep/11/academic-boycotts-science-hypocrisy-israeli), and a day later the paper published a “rebuttal” by BDS proponent Ben White, who is well known for anti-Semitic comments and tweets, including Holocaust denial (http://www.adl.org/israel-international/anti-israel-activity/c/profile-ben-white.html) and his tweet that “If you need another reason to support a boycott of Habima (an Israeli acting troup slated to perform in the UK), I present a massive picture of (Jewish UK author) Howard Jacobson’s face.”

Perhaps even more serious is the recent headline I read in the Guardian following Hamas’ failure to accept the Egyptian-Palestinian endorsed ceasefire proposal that Israel accepted: “Gaza conflict resumes after five-hour truce as new ceasefire talks continue.” The New York Times, on the other hand, broke with: “Rockets Fired From Gaza as Humanitarian Pause Ends.” While one might contend that I am nitpicking, the Guardian gives the impression that the truce just magically ends, with equal responsibility from both sides. No wonder the BDS movement tends to pick up more supporters in the UK: unethical and misleading information (and this is probably just the tip of the iceberg) tends to lead people to the wrong conclusions. But the rabid anti-Semitism displayed by BDS leaders marginalizes and seriously undermines the credibility of this organization.




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Scientists: the same old villains and nerds

Villains and nerds – that’s what scientists are, if you believe the media. At least the “big screen.” Finding myself in a state of near exhaustion this past month, I’ve taken the opportunity to watch a few films on ‘Netflix.’ Two very different films seem to further cement the public’s perception of what scientists (and their lives) are like. We do not hold a flattering public image.

The first film was called “Rubberneck.” The synopsis, borrowed from imdb, is as follows:

Paul Harris works at a small research facility on the outskirts of Boston. After a weekend tryst with a co-worker leaves him wanting more, his unreciprocated desires gradually mold into an acute infatuation. When Danielle takes interest in a new scientist at the laboratory, Paul’s suppressed resentments and perverse delusions finally become unhinged, triggering a horrific course of events that mercilessly engulf a tortured past and fugitive present.

This, needless to say, represents the geek. The socially inept, awkward scientist, who fails to abide or even understand normal social discourse, is the anti-hero of this rather mediocre film. Sadly, at least from the standpoint of depicting life in the lab, the directors did a decent job. And if you were to ask my spouse, perhaps I do epitomize the dedicated but socially clueless researcher. But regardless of whether I fit the stereotype, I don’t think the protagonist resembles most scientists.

Film #2 was called “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” (based on a bestselling novel by Peter Hoeg) and was a much bigger disappointment (beware of spoiler, in case you are tempted to see the film). Whereas Rubberneck didn’t raise expectations from the start, Smilla initially depicted rather heartwarming interactions between a half-Danish and half-Greenland Inuit woman with a 6 year-old Greenland-Inuit neighbor.

Online synopsis:

Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen is a 37 years old woman of Eskimo origin, who is living in Copenhagen. She is unmarried, unadapted, childless and irascible. One day her friend – 6 years old Esajas – falls down from the roof and is killed in what seems an accident. But Smilla believes he has been killed. Highly ranked people try to ‘convince’ her not to interfere, but she does not listen to them and tries to solve the crime. Her sense of snow leads her into a mystery with roots far back in time…

But from there, everything rolled downhill. I had hoped this would be a compelling drama-mystery, but in the end, a mysterious comet that landed on the Greenland ice a century earlier turned out to have mysterious energy properties that brought a long extinct fatal worm back into existence.

In this film, the ice was certainly thick, but the plot was thin, and the science was thinner yet. The villain was the owner/chief scientist of the mining company, who explained at the end that his goal was power, fame and wealth. He said this as evil oozed from the pores of his one-dimensional character.

Smilla, on the other hand, could survive third degree burns, humungous explosions and submersion in icy waters – not to mention long treks through snowy passages in Greenland. And the young woman, who was apparently unemployed and tossed out of school and university for bad behavior, had her own microscope in her Copenhagen apartment, where one assumes she purchased antibodies from Sigma and fixed samples with paraformaldehyde while cooking dinner.

Cynical? Hell yes. One thing is certain: with one film based out of the US and the other from Europe, neither continent gets any points for accurately depicting the lives of scientists.

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A breath of fresh (scientific) air

As I sat yesterday in a student career development workshop, and listened to the fears and anxieties surrounding the prospects of a career in academia – or in any scientific field, for that matter – I felt a million miles away from the outstanding Gordon Research Conference (GRC) from which I had just returned.

Northern railway trail, Andover, New Hampshire

On the Northern Railway hiker/biker trail near Proctor Academy, Andover, New Hampshire

Truthfully, the GRC is quite a ways away from me here in the middle-west, being on the east coast in New Hampshire, but my intention was less from a literal standpoint.

In my capacity of chair of our departmental graduate and admissions committee, I can affirm that student concerns over their prospective careers are making their mark; the next generation of scientists may not be the best and brightest, but they will certainly be the least deterred. This is not some anecdotal impression based on a few conversations; rather the American scientific societies (that routinely send out surveys to their members to quantify the impact of today’s funding crisis on science) relate that the fears are rampant throughout all ranks of academia. From students to departmental chairs.

I had hardly been back at work for a week from the GRC, but was already wondering when registration begins for the next one. As a scientist, you wouldn’t think I’d be starved for science – but to hear a huge concentration of basic research talks in my field – pure, unadulterated basic science – was a refreshing experience.

Forgotten were the grants and funding issues, the committees and oversight, the online compliance exams, hiring, firing, evaluating, recommending, reviewing grants, reviewing papers, reviewing reviewers, reviewing reviews by reviewers – all on hold. No doctors, professors, postdocs or students. Just scientists together, breakfast, lunch and dinner  – not to mention at the bar – eating, breathing, and sleeping (not enough) science.

The science and its beauty (and there were a lot of exciting ‘movies’ with live cells) were even enough to distract me from one of my most primal fears and pretty disconcerting pain from a cracked wisdom tooth that will shortly be extracted. This is what I signed up for -the science, not the wisdom tooth extraction, of course.

Obviously life and one’s career can’t be one long GRC meeting. After all, to present my research there in a talk, I need to hold a job, a lab, funding, and everything that goes with the package. But I think that in these times of growing anxiety in the scientific world, I may find it necessary to treat myself to such fun reminders of what science is all about more frequently.

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World Cup SNOUT

ginger  world cup fan

Caption, please?

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Ring the bell for tea, Kitty!

My family and I are big fans of Jane Austen. We particularly like the mid-1990s BBC version of Pride and Prejudice featuring Jennifer Ehle and a rather youthful-looking Colin Firth. Having seen the series a gazillion times, the hysterical voice of Mrs. Bennett (Alison Steadman) shrieking at her daughter “Ring the bell for tea, Kitty!” has become somewhat of a family joke. Every doorbell, church bell or chime elicits the phrase like a Pavlovian reflex.

So it was not unexpected that “Ring the bell for tea, Kitty!” left my lips as I entered Omaha’s Lauritzen Botanical Gardens a few weeks ago and encountered a rather unusual looking assembly of all sizes of bells in a contraption that I learned was known as a Carillon.

Little did I know that I was in for such a musical treat, as the carillon was played beautifully by a local musician who trained playing the chimes at one of Omaha’s local churches. The owner of the carillon explained that the bells were made by the Royal Eijsbouts Bell Foundry in the Netherlands back in the early 1990s. Apparently, huge numbers of bronze church bells were destroyed by the Nazis in World War II, as they systematically moved through occupied Europe and melted down bell after bell for their munitions factories. This in turn generated a market for bell factories post WWII.

I include here only a sampling of the beautiful chimes that we heard, but for those interested, there are many videos available online.


One of only 2 carillon in the US.


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100 years of…. biochemistry!

No, not 100 Years of Solitude – Biochemistry! Last week was a very special occasion in our department – the celebration of 100 years of existence of our department, the Dept. of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB). 100 years is a considerable chunk of time; in fact, while I have inhabited this planet for half that time, only 11 of those years were spent here in BMB. And it amazes me to think that I was born closer to World War I than today’s date. Only a hop-skip-and-jump from WWII…

A lot of preparation went into the event last week; a series of seminars by former faculty, and students, current students and post-docs, and an outstanding seminar by keynote guest speaker Dr. Vann Bennett from Duke University (see photo).

To me, one of the most remarkable things about the 100 years of BMB is that our state, Nebraska, has really only seen settlement by Europeans since the mid 1800s, a mere 50 years or so prior to the establishment of our department. For those interested in superb novels detailing the lives of the early settlers in Nebraska, Willa Cather‘s novels are fascinating reads, and they describe feminist heroines who are light years ahead of their time.

Back to the point: although I had read some of the history of my institution, the organizers really helped shed light on the huge advances that have been made. Particularly interesting is the photo of the “North Laboratory Building” featured below, circa 1914!

lab bldgs

When I arrived on campus in 2003, I moved into an office in the famed Bennett Hall (pictured above). I was given laboratory space that contained piles of unsorted old equipment that looked as though they had been there prior to 1914. However, hope was just around the corner, literally, as the $77 million dollar Durham Research Center (DRC) I (the building on the right of the twin towers) was heavily under construction. But the months stretched out, and it was necessary for me to get my lab functional, so my initial experiments were done in the famed Bennett Hall – which has since undergone a dramatic makeover and gone over to the dark side (yes, administration).

Several years later, DRC II joined DRC I, and today we await completion of the new Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center ($323 million) across the street.

There is a lot to be proud of, in a state with a population of less than 2 million people, dispersed over a vast area. And regardless of politics, the university widely enjoys the support of state and its people and politicians. On a personal level, I can also proudly say that as director of our microscopy core facility, I have helped obtain funding for a fantastic super-resolution microscope – described as being the second most advanced currently found in the US. From a single, and somewhat outdated confocal microscope in the facility when I arrived 11 years ago, to moving ahead of the curve with super-resolution illustrates the great leaps that we are making here in the mid-west. Exciting!

Of course no big celebration of this sort runs 100% smoothly, and shortly after the event was over a survey went out to solicit improvements and suggestions for… well… the 200 year celebration.

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Reading into a major lifetime change?

Last Sunday, I celebrated the publication of “A Degree of Betrayal” by doing a book signing at Omaha’s best book store, “The Bookworm.” My son baked brownies, my editor prepared a short passage for me to read as an introduction, and I planned exactly what I would say. And I said none of it.


Kindle: My sales ratio of 5:1 (Kindle to Paper) is inversely proportional to the weight of paper books to Kindle.

Essentially, including my family, there were fewer than a dozen people and only one sale. The owner did, however, tell me that since advertising the signing a few weeks earlier, there had been a steady number of clients that came in and specifically asked for (and purchased) the book. But nonetheless, not a highly successful event.

Fortunately, a career in science has prepared me well to accept failure, and has made my skin as thick as the bark on a redwood tree. But speaking of trees, paper book sales hardly tell the whole story.

As it turns out, all three of my novels are selling steadily, if slowly, as Kindle books. In particular, my first (and only self-published) novel, Matter Over Mind, is something of a rare phenomenon. I’ve long lost track of the number of overall sales, including from the trunk (or ‘boot’) of my car, signings, via Amazon, and especially Kindle (where rarely a month goes by without at least a smattering of sales), but I would have to guess it’s between 1500-2000, not including several hundred Kindle copies that went for free when I tried that promotion. Published in 2011, this one has outsold my other two added together, and continues to do so. And I really think that while it’s a great story (*claps self on back*), A Degree of Betrayal leaves Matter Over Mind in the dust…

The point of this mono-blog is only partially self-congratulatory; what I really wanted to point out was the steady movement to e-books, which I find even my public library has begun to loan. After all, my own sales are 5 e-books to every paperback.

I have always been in love with books; their texture and feel, smell, and just simply their physical presence has always reassured me. Books were (and are) an escape; but an escape in which I always find that I learn more about human nature. As a child (and even as an adult, but not to the same degree) I used to concentrate and immerse myself so deeply in books that I would not hear the telephone or doorbell, and would not respond to someone shouting my name from two feet away. It was well known that a family member would have to stick his hand in front of my eyes to get my attention when I was reading. I wish I had maintained that degree of concentration today, although I occasionally can feel something of it when I am very focused.

So it was with a great deal of ambivalence – and even anxiety – that I finally gave in and purchased the cheapest Kindle version (dedicated e-reader with no frills) for $69.

What motivated me to do this? My primary reason was one of convenience and weight. I travel a fair bit, and often find myself toward the end of a book as I start to pack. What to do, take 2 books for an overnight stay? But these are often heavy, 600 page hardcover books from the library! But the weight of the books is always outweighed by knowing that there’s nothing worse than being stuck at an airport or on a flight without a good book to read. To me, it’s a disaster. And worse, with my frequent bouts of insomnia, finishing a book at the beginning of a “white night” is definitely not something to look forward to. And so I took the plunge.

With the Kindle now up and running, it really is something of a miracle for a book lover. Instant access, storage of books that will keep me busy for months at a time, and all smaller and lighter than a tiny single paperback. For now, I am still reading my heavy library hardcover books, but by the time I get back from my next meeting this summer, I don’t know whether I may have a radical change of heart toward the digital era of book reading.


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