Greg’s crackpot theories, #3: why introverts love teaching

October 14, 2016

Yesterday at an interview I found myself trying to articulate why I find teaching so fulfilling.  Here is an expansion of what I said there.

  1. I am an introvert who is not especially comfortable at parties and dislikes small talk (i.e., conversations where the main goal is simply to be friendly rather than to discuss anything in particular).
  2. Nevertheless, to be happy, I need to connect with people beyond my family. In fact, I crave such interactions.
  3. Therefore, teaching is fulfilling in part because it is a form of social interaction with rules that are helpful to introverts.  There is no awkward casting about for something to talk about for a couple of minutes; an agenda of substantive topics provides fodder for months of ongoing, “meaty” discussions.  Likewise, there is less of a need to figure out who wants to interact with whom; the circle is pre-defined to include everyone in the course.  Finally, as the designated expert in the room, I have the privilege of offering my perspective without needing to fight for attention.  And as the moderator of the conversation, I can help other introverts find their voice as well.

[Update, Oct. 21: distinguished bio-blogger and fellow introvert Stephen Heard offers related thoughts.]


Why I’m with her

September 29, 2016

Unlike Donald Trump, I really was against the last Iraq war before it began. I was furious at George W. Bush, and in 2004 I passed out campaign materials for the Democrats.

Then Bush got reelected anyway, and life went on, and I lost what little political attentiveness and acumen I had. Which brings us to 2015-16 and the rise of Donald Trump.

My life is more complicated now, so I’m not knocking on doors as I did in ’04. But I’m writing this for any on-the-fence acquaintances who want to know where I stand and why.

(Please note: I am NOT aiming to change the minds of strong Trump supporters. I am as powerless to persuade you as you are to persuade me. Let’s not argue.)

I have spent my adult life in academia, largely because I identify with and believe in academic values: intellectual curiosity; careful deliberation and discussion; the imperfect but honest pursuit of truth; respect for others different from oneself; and the humility of recognizing one’s limitations, even in one’s chosen field.

In my view, Donald Trump does not live by or promote these values, but Hillary Clinton does.

Much has been said about Trump’s treatment of ethnic and religious minorities and women: his call for a ban on immigration by Muslims, his “Look at that face!” comment on fellow candidate Carly Fiorina, etc. etc. etc. The September 26 debate reminded me just how bad Trump is on this issue. When moderator Lester Holt turned the debate to the topic of racial tensions, Trump’s main points included (1) African Americans should be happy that he vigorously pursued the Obama “birther” controversy, (2) violent crime in Chicago concerns him because he owns property there, (3) he was able to settle a 1973 lawsuit of racial discrimination without admitting guilt, and (4) he recently opened a club in one of Florida’s wealthiest communities that ISN’T RACIST! It was a performance so bereft of compassion that I LOL’ed with incredulity.

I hesitate to call anyone a liar, especially in the realm of politics, where oversimplifications and spin are a necessary part of the game. A hypothetical candidate who was 100% truthful 100% of the time would be an unelectable bore. But Trump has taken distortion and obfuscation to a whole new level. Clinton, while unfortunately evasive, is reasonably truthful, according to independent fact-checkers.

An important corollary to Trump’s chronic inaccuracy is that, while running for president, he has not boned up on the relevant geography, history, constitutional law, science, and so forth. Instead, he simply asserts that his experience as a business CEO will allow him to “make great deals” that benefit the USA. If only it were that simple.

Clinton, in contrast, has tons of experience (as Secretary of State, U.S. Senator, and First Lady) in using the levers of government to effect change in the United States and elsewhere. She does her homework, stays lucid and level-headed under pressure, and acknowledges nuances and complexities that Trump cannot be bothered with.

To sum up: as they say in reality TV, Trump is “not here for the right reasons.” He is, I think, taking the ultimate ego trip, in which he gets to bellow his supposed wisdom at not only his corporate underlings but the entire country. He is NOT especially interested in the day-to-day operations of the Oval Office, preferring to imagine himself as a “chairman of the board.” Shouldn’t we vote for a candidate who actually wants to do the work?

H is for Hillary!

[Friendly reminder: This post, like the rest of this blog, reflects my opinions as a private citizen and does NOT represent the position of the University of Washington or any other organization with which I am affiliated.]


Student of the week

February 24, 2016

Phil, Fall 2015
[Phil’s school photo, Fall 2015.]

I vaguely remember being “Student of the Day” once or twice in elementary school. This did not signify superior achievement in eraser-cleaning or anything like that; every student in the class got a turn. But it was nice to be in the spotlight for a little while.

These days — in my son’s 3rd-grade class, anyway — “Student of the Day” has been replaced by “Student of the Week.” Although that may seem a bit over-the-top, having the spotlight for a whole week allows time for experiences that Tiny Greg never had. For example, on Wednesday of a given student’s week, he/she brings in sealed letters from his/her parents/guardians, which are read later in the day. A nice idea in general — and in my case it was a good excuse to write up a (true) story about Phil that he is fond of, but that I had not previously shared on this blog.


December 2, 2015

This is a letter from Phil’s dad, Greg Crowther.

Ever since he was born (on October 20, 2006), Phil has surprised me over and over again.

I suppose I expected Phil to turn out mostly like me and his mom. After all, he has our DNA. But your DNA is not your destiny; it’s more like a personal map that helps you reach some places more easily than others. And Phil often winds up in places that I would never have considered visiting!

For example, there was the day where Phil saved our lives.

(Maybe he didn’t really save our lives, but, at the time, it seemed like he did.)

This was in the middle of the winter four years ago. It was a stressful time for us, as Phil’s mom and I had just separated, and Phil was now living in two different homes. On an unusually cold and snowy day, I brought Phil to his babysitter, Pat, who lives in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, and returned a few hours later. As darkness descended, I led Phil to Greenwood Avenue, where the #5 bus would pick us up. But the #5 didn’t come; I think it had been re-routed due to the snow. We got cold and wet as the snow kept falling.

I didn’t know what to do, but we needed to try something. I led us several blocks east, where I thought we could catch bus #358 [now bus E] along Aurora Avenue. Again, no bus appeared. As Phil and I got colder and grumpier, I started to panic a little bit. How were we going to get out of this mess?

Phil noticed the Jack In The Box restaurant a block away and had an idea: let’s go there!

We never eat at Jack In The Box; we don’t particularly like what it has to offer. But at that moment, Jack In The Box was exactly what we needed. We dried off, recharged ourselves with some hot food, and were able to wait patiently and comfortably for a bus that did eventually arrive and take us home.

Life with Phil is not usually this dramatic. We don’t usually get trapped in blizzards without adequate clothing or food, and Phil doesn’t usually need to save us by “thinking outside the box” (or thinking of The Box, as the case may be). Nevertheless, Phil is constantly pointing out options that I hadn’t thought of, and I am grateful for his unexpected ideas, large and small. I love you, Phil.



Another shameless plug

December 11, 2015

My sister, Lauren Crowther Gautier, has just launched her line of customizable dress-up outfits for girls ages 3 to 7! Check them out at bedazzy.com!


A shameless plug for the music of my friend Do Peterson

July 31, 2015

My good, good friend Do Peterson, a musician-turned-biostatistician, has turned back to the full-time pursuit of music. He is a gifted and hard-working songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. His music is not easily categorized, but “folk rock” is perhaps as good a label as any. Please check him out at dopeterson.com.


Crowther & Crowther (2015)

June 24, 2015

Two recently completed collaborations with my 8-year-old son:

1. Green revolution: salad spinning superseded. Bricolage 33: 110-112, 2015.

2. STEM songs: not just child’s play (display case installation, Discovery Hall, UW-Bothell)


OK, sure, I’ll play

April 1, 2015

Thanks to my friend Holly for pointing me to Song Lyrics in Chart Form and challenging me to do better.

And so, without further ado…

Things that Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock KNOW:
1. just how to whisper
2. just how to cry
3. just where to find the answers
4. just how to lie
5. just how to fake it
6. just how to scheme
7. just when to face the truth
8. just when to dream
9. just where to touch you
10. just what to prove
11. when to pull you closer
12. when to let you loose
13. the night is fading
14. time’s gonna fly
15. I’ve got to … try [to tell you everything I’ve got to tell you]
16. the road to riches
17. the ways to fame
18. all the rules
19. how to break ’em [i.e., the rules]
20. the name of the game

The VALUE of this knowledge, until given to you:

Things that Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock CAN MAKE:
1. the runner stumble
2. the final block
3. every tackle, at the sound of the whistle
4. all the stadiums rock
5. tonight [last] forever
6. it [i.e., the night] disappear by the dawn
7. every promise that has ever been made
8. all your demons be gone

Things that Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock ARE NEVER GONNA MAKE:
1. it, without you
2. love out of nothing at all


Birthdays then and now

October 26, 2014

My son just turned 8.

He’s a bigger kid than I was. In 1981, I stood 4’1.5″ tall and weighed 54.5 pounds; he’s 4’4″ and 61 pounds.

His birthday party was bigger, too.

The photo below is from my 1981 party, which took place at my home on Lincoln Avenue in Rutland, Vermont. Four friends (the Cassarino brothers, George Parker, and … Joey Nicholson?) and my sister shared a baseball-and-glove cake made by my mom. There were presents and perhaps a couple of games.


Phil’s 8th birthday, in contrast, was celebrated at the Pacific Science Center with 11 other kids plus 9 adults. An energetic host led us through a carefully orchestrated set of spy- and science-related activities: creating passports, decoding messages, making ice cream with liquid nitrogen, and flame emission spectroscopy (in which compounds are identified by the colors they emit when burned). A fancy cake was prepared by a professional baker. In addition, Phil and I assembled customized goody bags for each attendee.





I don’t quite know what to make of the fact that blowing out the birthday candles — once a climactic moment of any party — now takes a back seat to flame emission spectroscopy.


More mandatory fun

September 25, 2014

As a follow-up to the summer’s odd teaching slides, here are some new examples fresh from this fall’s Anatomy & Physiology course (BIOL 241).

Dr. Alfred Yankovic, Adjunct Professor of Medicine

Red Rover: the nano version


Stephen, Be Heard!

September 14, 2014

The Dynamic Ecology and Phylogenomics blogs drew my attention to a new “must-read” article: On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed? by Stephen B. Heard (Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 7:64-72, 2014). The abstract is below.

While scientists are often exhorted to write better, it isn’t entirely obvious what “better” means. It’s uncontroversial that good scientific writing is clear, with the reader’s understanding as effortless as possible. Unsettled, and largely undiscussed, is the question of whether our goal of clarity precludes us from making our writing enjoyable by incorporating touches of whimsy, humanity, humour, and beauty. I offer examples of scientific writing that offers pleasure, drawing from ecology and evolution and from other natural sciences, and I argue that enjoyable writing can help recruit readers to a paper and retain them as they read. I document resistance to this idea in the scientific community, and consider the objections (well grounded and not) that may lie behind this resistance. I close by recommending that we include touches of whimsy and beauty in our own writing, and also that we work to encourage such touches in the writing of others.

To this nicely argued piece, I just want to add a few examples of indifference or hostility to my own attempts at whimsy, humor, and/or beauty.

(1) My grant proposals to the NWRCE and PNWRCE, 2010.

Striving to keep readers with me through the Conclusion section, I wrote:

We believe strongly in the importance of the central goal of this proposal, i.e., linking antibacterial compounds to Burkholderia proteins in a manner that will facilitate validation of new drug targets. This interest in compound-target links is not simply a fetish of the investigators involved in this project; within some pharmaceutical firms, knowing the target of a compound with activity against cells is considered absolutely vital for progressing compounds to leads.

A colleague discouraged me from using the word “fetish” on the grounds that “it reminds me of foot fetishes.” Perhaps she was right, but I kept it in as a tiny rebellion against unrelenting formality.

The proposals were rejected.

(2) G.J. Crowther et al., Identification of attractive drug targets in neglected-disease pathogens using an in silico approach, PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 4(8): e804, 2010.

This paper contained numerous lists of possible drug targets. Since one of the pathogens covered was Leishmania (the cause of leishmaniasis), the paper was known internally as the “Listmania paper” throughout 10 months of writing and revising. Meanwhile, we searched and searched for a compelling title distinct from that of our first paper on the same topic … while carefully avoiding the most interesting and evocative bit that we had come up with — i.e., the word Listmania. A coauthor killed the term by arguing, reasonably enough, that a pun about a pathogen might be insensitive to the pathogen’s victims. But a “catchier,” less cautious title might also have raised leishmania awareness more effectively.

(3) G.J. Crowther, The SingAboutScience.org database: an educational resource for instructors and students, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 40(1): 19-22, 2012.

The submitted manuscript included this:

The total manpower behind this website, rounded to the nearest whole number of FTE’s, is 0, so its maintenance is kept relatively simple.

Once the journal’s copy editor got ahold of it, it became:

The total manpower behind this website, rounded to the nearest whole number of Full-Time Equivalents (FTE’s), is 0, so its maintenance is kept relatively simple.

To me, this change reduced the sentence’s rhetorical punch and humor. Yet the edited version was (slightly) clearer, and I knew better than to argue for style over clarity. I reluctantly accepted the edit.

(4) G.J. Crowther et al., A mechanism-based whole-cell screening assay to identify inhibitors of protein export in Escherichia coli by the Sec pathway, Journal of Biomolecular Screening 17: 535-41, 2012.

Our submitted manuscript included the following:

While previous studies had included beta-mercaptoethanol in assay buffers, presumably to maintain cytoplasmic beta-gal in a reduced and active state, it did not appear necessary to preserve beta-gal function under our assay conditions; EC626’s response to maltose was similar with and without beta-mercaptoethanol (Fig. 3). Thus, in performing this assay, the unpleasant odor of beta-mercaptoethanol may be avoided.

A reviewer wrote, “The sentence which includes ‘the unpleasant odor of beta-mercaptoethanol’ is not appropriate.”

Here was another chance to stand up for ever-so-slightly-less-orthodox, ever-so-slightly-less-dry writing. This time I stood my ground and got my way.

“We respectfully disagree,” I responded. “It is a minor point, but the omission of beta-mercaptoethanol provided much relief to the rest of our lab, and this is worth noting.”