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These days — in my son’s 3rd-grade class, anyway — “Student of the Day” has been replaced by “Student of the Week.”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.”


The ties that bind

September 6, 2014

One of my major limitations as a human being, aside from being a picky eater, is that I’m not good with tools.

My dad’s dad taught my dad the basics of woodworking and such, and my dad would have gladly done the same for me, but I was never that interested. I thought of myself as a smart person, yet, out in the world of 3D objects, my mechanical intuition and ability seemed mediocre. I received a C+ in wood shop, my lowest grade ever; I failed my first driving test. Faced with such results, I defined myself more and more as a thinker rather than a doer. It’s an issue I still struggle with today. Even basic tasks like replacing a flat bike tube seem daunting.

Against this backdrop of psychological and mechanical dysfunction, I recently attempted to help my 7-year-old son build a Super Secret Police Dropship (Lego set #70815, featured in The LEGO Movie).

Phil followed the two-volume instruction booklet quite well and only needed me at a couple of points. My main task was fastening the end of a piece of string to one of the set’s 854 pieces.

Given the limited length of the string, my large fingers struggled to tie a double knot. I just couldn’t get the end of the string through the loop a second time. Finally, I held the string in place while Phil pulled the end through using needle-nose pliers.

I savored the moment while Phil completed the remaining 49 steps.

Super secret police dropship


Go big or go home?

August 22, 2014

I don’t have a comprehensive solution to the obesity epidemic, but I’m sure ads like this one aren’t helping. Is there really a lot of Washington state pride to be found in the act of collectively eating to the point of discomfort?

not full

I suggest the following modification.

We are what?