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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Zacharoo Whereabouts

As Caroline noted, I have been Missing In Action for a while. So I’m sure the people who read the blog but aren’t in my program (so what, like 1.5 people?) are curious as to where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing.

To begin, I spent the first half of summer here in lovely Ann Arbor, working as a research assistant at UM’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) in the biosciences division. There I basically did the tedious work cleaning up and prepping data so that my boss could analyze them. Mostly I digitized pelves and landmarks from CT scans, which was cool at first but got old pretty fast. Then I had to clean up these laser scans of bodies, which was even more boring than pelvis digitization. Then I left at the beginning of July, and I’ll start working there again today or tomorrow. Though a bit boring, the job provided a good introduction to modern methods, and I got paid a graduate student wage for doing work a competent undergrad could do. So I’m not going to complain too much.

So I left in July to attend a geometric morphometrics (GMM) summer school (that was 4 days long) hosted by the University of Vienna and the European Virtual Anthropology Network (EVAN). Geometric morphometrics is basically just a fancy way of saying ‘quantification and statistical study of shapes.’ Though the field has been developing since the 1970s with the work of Kendall on the distribution of archaeological sites, this methodology has become quite refined and very popular in recent years among biologists. Using the coordinates of landmarks (the most popular of which tend to be intersections of bony sutures on a cranium, for example) as individual variables, shapes (again, often of crania) can be summarized by numbers and subject to statistical analyses. A lot of interesting biological information can be discovered from shapes (say, of crania and their parts, of bee wings, etc.), and GMM preserves all shape data, much of which is can be less well preserved from more traditional morphometric methods (like using just distance ratios and angles).

I was sent there to work on a reconstruction project (of a famous fossil), which I have alluded to in previous posts. After I finished molding and casting the various bones of the cranium I was intending to reconstruct, I started looking into GMM as a means of reconstructing the cranium, using a fairly complete specimen of the same species as a reference. My advisor contacted the Viennese and EVAN for advice, and they ended up bringing me to Vienna to learn some methods and discuss collaborating on the reconstruction. But here’s the rub: my advisor did not tell them which fossil we intended to reconstruct, for fear that they might simply take the idea and do it more quickly than I could. So once I was out there I had to talk to their people about the logistics of the project, and which specimen we would reconstruct would, of course, be revealed. At lunch I went over the basic idea—what specimen we’d be reconstructing, which one we’d use as the reference, etc—and there was a brief silence. Their guy was smiling and kind of chuckled and said (paraphrase), “Well, that sounds like a good project. But we have a conflict of interest, because we’re already planning on reconstructing that specimen to do some biomechanical study. We are already working with one group in America and have a grant for it. We’ve been planning this for a few years.” I definitely was not expecting this.

At which point I maintained a cool fa├žade, but was in fact so freaked out that I was crapping not just my own pants, but everyone’s pants in the whole restaurant. EVAN has paid for me to fly out to them, for my accommodations and course fees, and even for me to attend their other activities, under the condition that we collaborate on this project that I can’t do with them anymore. But their guy (let’s call him GW) is very nice about it. He is smiling and tells me we’ll have to come up with a new project on which to collaborate. He even paid for lunch, even though I had wanted to take him to lunch. For about a day and half after this conversation I was freaking out pretty badly, scrambling to come up with a new, interesting research question that could be addressed with GMM, so that their bringing me to Vienna was not a complete waste of a lot of money. Then I came up with an idea that I thought was pretty interesting, GW said it was interesting when I presented it to him, and so I think things might work out. Now I need to start talking to my advisor about the new project and get in contact with GW and EVAN so that we can start collaborating. Hopefully everything will work out this time.

I learned some very important lessons from this whole experience, starting with the reconstruction. I initially began this project last January, beginning with the molding and casting and not worrying about the actual analytical methods involved in the reconstruction. It was hard to work the molding and casting at the museum into my busy schedule, so of course I wasn’t done with the project by the end of the semester, when I’d intended to be done. So that’s the first lesson, as Milford put it (paraphrase), “Almost everything takes longer than you initially plan.” Lesson number two comes from the fact that the fabric of my plan completely unraveled basically at the very beginning, when all I did was tell GW my basic plan. Things fall apart, as Chinua Achebe wrote. Also, both Milford and GW have emphasized to me the paramount importance of having a good research question, and not simply to base your questions off of a method. But when I had to come up with a new project idea, I basically had to look for a question that could be answered with a specific method. But that’s not always a bad thing. When you’re fresh and green like I am, sometimes learning a method opens your eyes to the types of questions you can ask, and that’s what happened to me at the summer school (nevertheless, ideally the question should come first). Finally, the people from Vienna and EVAN were very nice, laid-back and intelligent, and I am really grateful to them for all I learned from them, about GMM and about life in general.

And after that hyper-intense week in the capital of the Eastern Empire, I spent the rest of the month in Croatia visiting my friend and peer Seki, examining some Bronze Age crania from Bosnia, trying to learn Croatian, and being awesome.

P.S. once I develop my new research idea and make sure it won’t blow up in my face like the last one I’ll post more about it.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Our pal is famous

OK, hopefully you have all seen this already. It's John Hawks' "How to Blog, part 1" and the follow-up "Grad Students and Blogging". It's all interesting stuff, if you want to know Hawks' views on blogging (most of which are pretty obvious given how he runs his blog). BUT the cool part is that our gelada-studying Beast Ape (I'm trying to respect your right to be anonymous here, but I think our paltry list of readers will be able to figure out who I mean) inspired and thus was quoted in Hawks' grad student follow-up:

"One reader wrote:

I was wondering if you could speak to graduate student blogging. I recently started a new blog under a pseudonym. I used to write a blog under my real name, but I'm in the process of scrapping it in favor of my new cryptically-authored blog. I did this for several reasons: (1) I was not pleased with the format of the old site/server, (2) I was embarrassed by my earlier posts, since the blog was largely an experiment in writing colloquially about science, and (3) I feared reprisals, especially with regard to funding/ the opinion of my work from faculty. I know you advocate using your real name when blogging for faculty, but what about graduate students? Do you know of dissertation committees viewing blog-writing as wasting valuable research time? Is there any data on the relationship between regular blogging, tenure, grant acquisition, etc.?"

Yeah! That's him! Go read Hawks' blog for his response. Kudos to Beast Ape for getting quoted. Apparently he's also quoted on Aliza's postdoc journal. If I found the right quote (not sure, so correct me if I'm wrong), I think he says "I thought of ice-cream today." Pearls of wisdom, left and right!

So now the question: Don't you wish your name was associated with either of these two quotes? How's being anonymous going for you so far?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Twin gender roles

Firstly, I love how as soon as Zach leaves the country this blog comes to a complete halt. Aren't we doing anything interesting this summer???

Secondably, I was watching CNN earlier (while working out - YAY ME) and need to vent about a story I heard/watched. There's apparently some study looking at twins where one is male and the other is female. They claim that the female twin ends up being more masculine than non-twin girls because (supposedly) she spent 10 months in the womb next to her twin brother and his male-making hormones.

Problems with this: 1) there's no control for the masculine behaviors being due to how the twins were brought up, 2) this assumes gender is related to sex, 3) assumes that there are two genders, 4) assumes those two genders have specific behaviors associated with them. The news anchors described the "practical application" of this project as follows: girls with twin brothers are apparently less likely to suffer from an eating disorder, so (according to the anchors, not any scientists) perhaps they can use this knowledge to prevent non-twin girls from getting eating disorders. WHAT?! If the eating disorder thing is even true (since there were no facts like how many twin pairs were looked at and how many "most" is), and if it is due to being twins (i.e. stuff that happens in the womb) and not due to how they were raised, what are they going to do? Add more testosterone to the womb when they know it's a girl?? That was like the WORST example of a practical application I've ever heard.

One interesting "fact" about this story: Apparently girls with twin brothers have more skeletally male skulls (big teeth is the thing mentioned by the news anchors). I would be interested to know the clinical results on this topic. Is there a significant difference between twins with brothers and other girls? Is this enough of a difference that we could tell if a girl had a twin brother based on skull? I'm guessing probably not - trends like this are rarely applicable, but that was the part of this story I found interesting.

My own personal understanding of sex and gender is that what a person does, what a person likes, is usually due more to environment than genes and hormones and such. Notice I said "due more" not "due entirely" - a very smart populations genetics professor once told me that nature and nurture are necessarily affected, and I believe him. But I think it's crap to assign certain behaviors to males and others to females!

And this is part of why I try not to watch my news - I save TV for good stuff like Food Network!