Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category


The mentor gratitude project

August 28, 2019

In a recent post, I expressed regret at having failed to directly and fully thank my primary Ph.D. adviser while he was alive.

This regret has been useful in motivating me to identify and (when possible) thank others who have been unusually helpful and influential in my professional development. I’ve previously discussed a couple of them on this blog: George Kosaly (a former research collaborator) and John Peterson (a high school social studies teacher). Here’s the rest of my (imperfect, incomplete) list:

  • Pete Farwell. My college running coach, who was great running-wise but also encouraged my creative endeavors (poems and songs) for team gatherings.
  • Dan Lynch. My undergraduate research mentor, who demystified the enterprise of laboratory research for me.
  • Mary Lidstrom and Wes Van Voorhis. My postdoctoral research supervisors. Very different styles, but both excellent scientists who also found ways to support my interest in teaching.
  • Doug Meyer. My junior high school vocal music teacher, who gave me an excellent grounding in ear training and music theory.
  • Do Peterson. A friend who, in addition to introducing me to my now-wife, has been a musical mentor to me ever since we recorded Take Me to the Liver in 1996.
  • My parents. My dad especially for informing my development as a writer, and my mom especially for being my first teacher role model.


June 5, 2019

So, on the one hand, life is great. My wife is great… The kids are great… I have a great job that allows me to pursue my passion of forever reinventing the wheel (where the wheel, in this case, is the undergraduate anatomy & physiology curriculum).

On the other hand, work has been all-consuming. I’ve been sleeping way too little and not exercising at all.

This morning, while running to catch the bus, I tripped and fell, scraping my left elbow and right knee, and ripping a giant hole in my pants.

Running used to be something that I did a lot of on a daily basis for fitness and for pleasure. Now, if I break into a run for 50 yards, I injure myself and destroy my clothing.

I’ve got to get back on track.


A moment of pure joy

April 24, 2019

In recent years I’ve become less and less sure of how I want to use this blog. In part, I’ve become a bit more humble about the value of my opinions. For example, I have lots of things to say about Trump, but I don’t have any relevant expertise (besides a Ph.D., which reflects training in BS detection…), and my previous political posts have changed approximately zero minds, so what’s the point?  In addition, I’ve become increasingly cautious about sharing stories that are not entirely my own. My 12-year-old son may deserve more anonymity than I have given him up to this point, for example.

So my main options going forward are what? Endless navel-gazing, or complete silence? I’m not sure. For now, I thought I would share a moment that continues to make me smile a full day after it happened.

I’ve been getting a bit of media attention lately regarding my use of music to teach biology. Yesterday it was KOMO-4’s turn to visit my classes and interview me. I wanted to give them a good show, so I wrote a new version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” about the cross-bridges between actin and myosin inside muscle cells:


It’s a vocally demanding song, and not one especially suited to my plain, nasal voice, so I was nervous about singing it. As I began, I noticed that my nervousness had moved up my vocal range by at least a whole step; the low notes now felt REALLY low, and were hard to deliver with any volume.

The silver lining, though, was that the high notes were now easier to reach. As I neared the end of the song, I wondered whether I should abandon my original play-it-safe ending and go for the high note — the G above middle C that Barry Manilow hits in his version. Now almost delirious with adrenaline, I decided to go for it. Here is what happened next (via low-quality audio; the critical note comes about 33 seconds in):


So, yes, I hit the note, and the students clapped, and I felt GREAT.

It was partly an ego thing, of course: I had done something that was sort of impressive, and I received recognition for that. But it felt like something more than a personal triumph. It felt like a moment of artistic beauty — created by me, yes, but also Paul Simon, who wrote a beautiful song, and Art Garfunkel, who sang it so well, and Barry Manilow, who provided the dramatic ending, and Ameritz Karaoke, who created a superb backing track, and KOMO-4, whose interest prompted me to do this song, and Andrea Brown, who wrote the Everett Herald article that got KOMO-4 interested, and Jenny Marin, who wrote the EvCC press release that got Andrea Brown interested, and my coauthors Sarah Ward, Becca Price, and Katie Davis, who helped me write the journal article that led to the press release … and my students, whose interest made the performance meaningful.

It was beautiful, and I got to be a part of it, and that was totally exhilarating!

When can I do something like that again?


Those who can improvise, do; those who cannot, teach

April 19, 2018

This blog occasionally alludes to my fondness for improv comedy.

It’s mostly wrong to think of a classroom lecture as a “show,” and I mostly avoid pre-planned jokes. Every so often, though, a classroom discussion will take a spontaneous turn toward the delightfully bizarre.

Earlier this week, I was trying to explain how post-synaptic neurons “decide” whether to conduct action potentials based on the aggregated input of multiple pre-synaptic neurons, some excitatory and some inhibitory. In the heat of the moment, I attempted an unplanned analogy.

“It’s like, you’re trying to decide whether to go out with this guy,” I began. “One friend is whispering in your ear that you should stay away from him — and another friend is whispering in your other ear that you should totally date him!”

“But,” a student pressed, “Why are these ‘friends’ saying different things?”

“Well…” I paused. The analogy was quite possibly outliving its usefulness, but I forged on. “It’s because these friends heard different things from THEIR friends! Somebody told your first friend, ‘Hey, I saw that guy SMOKING CRACK the other day! He’s bad news!’ And somebody else told your second friend, ‘That guy is the best. I just saw him SAVE A PUPPY!'”

It wasn’t necessarily a moment of great teaching, or great comedy, or great anything. But, at a minimum, it was fun to see what my subconscious came up with when pressed for traits that make men desirable or undesirable as romantic prospects.

In invoking puppies, I reminded myself of another memorable moment, four years earlier. A student was trying to imagine a research study that wouldn’t get funded due to ethical concerns and/or bad publicity. “No government agency would want to be known as the office that supported a study on…” She sputtered for a second while her mental search engine churned. “…A study on, say, kicking puppies.”

A study on kicking puppies? Had I heard that right? Yes, she said. She seemed embarrassed, but I cracked up. Kicking puppies is not funny, but the idea of a committee debating the merits and risks of puppy-kicking research? Brilliant!

I congratulated the student on her vivid example, and then reluctantly returned to the day’s agenda.


Great moments in peer observation, #13

January 11, 2018

Today I was watching a colleague teach in a laboratory room whose equipment includes three ancient but still-functional Singer Caramate Slide Projectors.   We use these relics of the 1960s (?), topped with old-fashioned carousels, for viewing slides of biological tissues.

As the lab progressed, it occurred to me that my colleague has a really nice voice: deep, calm, confident, and dryly humorous, with a hint of sentimentality.  It reminded me of a voice I had once heard on TV.

“Has anyone ever told you,” I asked during a break in the action, “that you sound like Don Draper?”

“No,” he said. Then, without missing a beat: “But just wait ’til you hear me talk about the carousels!” And, after a pause: “‘A place … where we know we are loved.'”



Previewing my first lab at my new job: an internal monologue

January 5, 2018

OK, in this part the students will add a drop of sheep blood to different solutions to see whether/how those solutions affect the shape of the red blood cells.


Is this microscope bad?

No, I can’t see any cells under this other microscope, either.

Has my microscope technique deteriorated so badly that I can no longer find blood cells in blood?

Let’s try a pre-prepared slide.

OK, I can see THESE cells just fine.  So what the hell is the problem with my newly made slides?  Is the saline diluting the cells too much, or something?  Let me try a drop of pure blood.

Good grief. I CANNOT FIND ANY FRIGGIN’ BLOOD CELLS IN A DROP OF PURE BLOOD.  I’m sorry, Everett — your new physiology instructor cannot, at a microscopic level, tell the difference between blood and water. That’s just too much to ask, apparently.

Nothing else to do but put the blood back in the fridge and ask for help on Monday….

Wait a minute. Here’s another bottle of sheep blood.  Why does it look so different from the one I was using — so much brighter?  And it hasn’t been opened yet….

Maybe I should try this bottle.

Hey, THIS blood has actual cells in it!  Lots of them!

And they shrink when put in hypertonic saline!

Maybe I am sort of qualified to teach this lab after all.

And now, for my next act, I will weigh this dialysis sac all by myself.


Humor as a teaching tool

December 24, 2017

Back at in Rutland, Vermont this week for Christmas vacation, I had the pleasure of visiting one of my old Rutland High School teachers, Mr. Peterson.

My wife, with her usual incisiveness, asked me whether there were any aspects of my teaching style that I could attribute to Mr. Peterson’s influence.

It’s a hard question, since my teaching style is derived from that of many other instructors as well as my own personality and abilities. But my best guess is that Mr. Peterson, more than any other teacher I’ve had before or since, showed me how humor could be used to enhance students’ engagement and learning.

A lot of teachers have a funny side to them, and sprinkle witty asides into their lectures. Mr. Peterson did this. But his humor was often an integral part of the learning experience, rather than a mere tangent. In one session of his “Nature of Man” class, he played the role of a future archaeologist who exhumed the remains of the 20th-century USA (which he pronounced “OOH-sah”) and reached all sorts of wildly inaccurate conclusions about its culture. As I recall, his analysis concluded triumphantly that the religion of the USA people must have centered around the toilets found in every home. In the context of that class, it was a hilarious moment, but the hilarity underscored the key take-away of the lesson, i.e., that cultural artifacts may be interpreted in ways that are logical and internally consistent, yet very, very wrong.

Mr. Peterson’s exams often included multiple-choice questions in which one answer choice was a joke. The joke answers can be seen as tiny gifts to students — easy-to-eliminate choices that also provided a chuckle. But I suspect that Mr. Peterson had in mind a larger message too — something along the lines of, “This test is not a perfect assessment of your ability to apply this material in the real world, so don’t take it TOO seriously.” And that message is an important one for GPA-focused students (like, say, me 27 years ago). Grades are important, but they shouldn’t be considered the be-all and end-all.

To this day, thanks in part to Mr. Peterson’s example, I aim to use humor in a way that contributes to (rather than distracts from) my students’ learning.

Here are a couple of favorite examples from the fall, when I was student teaching at St. John Catholic School.

In 6th grade, we emphasized the differences between viruses and bacteria, which inspired this cartoon (included on a quiz).
viruses versus bacteria

For the 8th graders, my cell biology test included this question about the pioneering genetic work of Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel:

9. A legitimate concern about Gregor Mendel’s work was that
a. As a monk, he explained most of his findings by saying, “That’s just the way God wants it.”
b. He only studied pea plants, which no one cares about.
c. He studied traits that were controlled by many genes and thus could not be explained well with the methods available at the time.
d. His assistants’ pollination methods were sloppy and resulted in pollen being sprayed everywhere, with fertilization occurring willy-nilly.
e. His experimental data matched theoretical ratios even more closely than they should have.

(Correct answer: E.) I’d like to think that Mr. Peterson — and some of my old science teachers, such as Mr. Welch and Dr. D — would have appreciated that one.


Intolerance all around

June 11, 2017

On Facebook, I recently made a plea to keep political dialogue respectful. It did not go well.


The guy on whose timeline this exchange occurred then unfriended me. I’m saddened to think that the unfriending was triggered by my rather mild defense of nonviolent speech.

And while this is just one cherry-picked example, higher-profile examples of liberal intolerance are being reported too. Fareed Zakaria noted protests of commencement speeches by Mike Pence and Betsy DeVos. Frank Bruni described students’ hostility toward apparently-not-liberal-enough faculty at Evergreen and Yale. And then there was the Kathy Griffin debacle, of course.

I’m no fan of either Pence or DeVos, but do we really need to voice our dissatisfaction by disrupting every public appearance they ever make? Call their offices; write letters; ask them tough questions when they appear at policy forums (rather than ceremonial events). There is a time and a place for everything.

Well, almost everything. Speech that promotes violence, whether technically protected by the Bill of Rights or not (it varies, depending on the context), is virtually never in good taste and is virtually never necessary, no matter who is speaking about whom.

Liberal friends reading this may retort, “But conservatives’ intolerance is worse!” Yes — but “they’re doing it too!” is a lousy defense of childhood behavior, and an even poorer defense of childish behavior by adults.


Going back to school — online — at age 43

June 6, 2017

Interest in my previous posts about the challenges of finding a stable college teaching job (post 1, post 2, post 3) has prompted me to write one more – about my experience returning to school to get certified to teach high school biology – in case this information is useful too. Below is an interview that I conducted with myself.

Wait a sec – I’m interviewing myself?

Yeah. Just go with it, OK?

Uh, OK. So I – er, you – already have a Ph.D. in biology. Why did you go back for a master’s degree?

As someone who is confined to the Seattle area for family reasons, and who had been on the job market for a few years, I was worried that I might never get a stable, full-time college teaching job. And while some people like the flexibility of teaching part-time, I decided that this wasn’t for me. Since high schoolers aren’t all that different from undergraduates, teaching high school biology became my backup plan.

One can teach at a private high school without a formal certification, but I decided to get certified for two reasons. First, I wanted to be eligible for both public-school and private-school jobs. Second, as someone with very little previous K-12 teaching experience, I needed something to convince prospective employers that high school was not a consolation prize for me, but a venue I embraced and was ready for. (As an illustration of the need for this, I was a finalist for a position at a private school in the spring of 2016, but I lost out to someone with high school experience.)

You enrolled at Western Governors University (WGU), an online school. Why?

I found their billboards really compelling! I’m mostly kidding. Like other online schools, WGU stresses its convenience, which had obvious appeal. I wanted to be able to start at any time and go at my own pace, rather than waiting for the start of the next annual cycle of application, admission, and enrollment. Moreover, I had previously applied for a job at WGU, and from the job interviews, I got the sense that the people there were dedicated, competent, and experienced.

WGU billboard
[image taken from]

What specific program did you enter?

I am a graduate student in the WGU Teachers College, pursuing a Master of Arts degree in Science Education.

Has the online program met your needs and expectations?

Yeah, mostly. In particular, the start-when-you-want and go-at-your-own-speed aspects have been very nice. Immediately after finishing my 2016 summer teaching at UW-Bothell, I started two online courses that WGU said I needed as prerequisites (geology and physics, neither of which I took as an undergrad). I finished those during the fall while continuing to teach part-time at UW-Bothell, then started the WGU program on December 1st as I transitioned into a self-imposed paternity leave from my college teaching. I sped through the regular courses over the winter and did my Pre-Clinical Experience (PCE, also known as Classroom Observation) at Glacier Peak High School (Snohomish, WA) in March. I will do my Demonstration Teaching (i.e., student teaching) this coming fall.

Did you take those prerequisites through WGU as well?

No, WGU didn’t offer these courses; it recommended various other options from which I chose. I took GEOL 103 (Life of the Past) through the Department of Independent Study at Brigham Young, and PHY250 (General Physics I) through

Have you liked being an online student?

As I said earlier, the much-touted convenience was wonderful, as expected. I was even able to take tests at odd hours, like 8pm on a Saturday night. An additional perk – one that I had not anticipated – was that work was graded quickly and thoroughly. The multiple-choice tests were graded by computer, of course, but my essays were always returned within about two days and were always graded (by humans) according to a detailed rubric (provided in advance). I was impressed with the promptness and consistency.

Since I’m used to traditional courses where students interact with each other and the instructor very closely, it was weird (not always in a bad way) to complete the courses essentially by myself. WGU’s course mentors are happy to help you, but if you don’t need their help, they fade into the background. And while WGU tries to promote online interactions among its students, and some students take advantage of this, I didn’t.

Were the online courses rigorous?

They were OK. The online exam proctoring seemed thorough, and essays were checked for plagiarism with TurnItIn, so people do have to earn their degree – they can’t just cheat their way through. At the same time, the tests were all multiple-choice and often focused more on educational jargon than true in-depth understanding. Just as online schools will always struggle to create a community out of students who don’t occupy the same physical space, they will always struggle to foster the intellectual give-and-take that, in my view, is the hallmark of truly profound educational experiences.

I’m good at memorizing facts and taking multiple-choice tests, plus I have a richer science background than most students, so I was able to move through the curriculum quickly. But I did not do a lot of really deep thinking about educational issues. (For example, at no point was I required to examine primary research data underlying textbooks’ recommendations on how to teach effectively.) This was partly my own fault; the mentors were standing by, happy to discuss things with me, so I could have learned a lot more from them than I did.

At the same time, the curriculum is basically set up as: here is an educational challenge, and here is how we meet that challenge. For example, if a student has attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), the “solution” (I’m oversimplifying) is to set up an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that ensures that the student has an extra-quiet environment for test-taking, et cetera. Which is all fine and good, but doesn’t necessarily lend itself to rich, probing discussions. (“So, what do you think would happen if this student DIDN’T have an IEP?”) I wish that more of the curriculum were framed a bit more theatrically, e.g., as a set of educational goals that are somewhat in competition with each other (depth versus breadth being a classic example), which might then spark discussions of how to prioritize these goals and which goals have more research support behind them and so forth.

My Student Mentor, whom I trust, says I’ll likely get my fill of challenging discussions during my upcoming Demonstration Teaching.

Do you think there’s a stigma attached to being a student of an online university?

In terms of public perceptions of legitimacy, I think online universities are currently about where online dating was 15 years ago.

The school where I had my Pre-Clinical Experience does not normally take students from online programs; I think an exception was made for me because a teacher and the principal went to bat for me. But doing my Demonstration Teaching there was out of the question, apparently.

As I thought ahead to finding a high school job, I was assuming-slash-hoping that my credentials as a professional biologist would help me land a good position, irrespective of people’s perceptions of WGU or online schools in general.

You just received and accepted a tenure-track job offer at a community college. Congratulations!

Thanks, self! I couldn’t have done it without you.

Given this development, do you now regret going through the high school teaching preparation program?

No, I don’t. First, as I’ve written before, executing this alternative plan allowed me to avoid an air of desperation as I continued applying for college jobs. Second, I am learning and am being reminded of teaching strategies that will come in handy in the future, regardless of the seniority of my students. (Maybe that should be another post?) Third, going through K-12 teacher training will help me in K-12 outreach efforts if I stay involved in those. Fourth, this training is also relevant to my ongoing educational research (e.g., on the educational value of content-rich music).

Don’t write a whole separate post about what you’re learning about teaching, just give us a few quick highlights.

All right. My student teaching in the fall will be a rare opportunity to receive regular, detailed feedback from a veteran teacher, which will be quite valuable in and of itself. But back in the book-learnin’ part of the curriculum, for example, there was a section about graphic organizers that I found really helpful. In brief, when writing out notes with students, we shouldn’t necessarily write them as a series of bullet points, but could instead arrange them into a Venn diagram, T-chart, KWL chart, or concept map so as to show the bullets’ relationships with each other. Also, there was a fair bit of talk about the “5E” model of instruction, i.e., Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate (or Extend), and Evaluate. This reminded me that I often skimp on the Engage phase. I can and should do a better job of kicking off new units with compelling questions or interesting observations that get students excited to learn more.

graphic organizers
[image from P.R. Burden & D.M. Byrd (2013), Methods for effective teaching: meeting the needs of all students]

During my PCE I was able to observe some highly successful teachers, one of whom gives her students some really neat ways of graphically organizing information. Her students are always making little lift-the-flap booklets and things from which they can study. Once you get past the superficial resemblance to 2nd-grade art projects, this approach is very useful and fun! In addition, this teacher always has multiple projects going in parallel so that if a student finishes one assignment, he/she always has something else to do. I tend to arrange assignments in series rather than in parallel, but her approach is better, and I hope to emulate it.

My PCE also gave me the chance to observe classroom management issues, which are relevant to college too. If a student comes to my class and spends the whole period on his phone, I used to think, “Well, that’s his choice.” But now I see more clearly that such behavior can be contagious, and that more policing may be needed to prevent entire sections of the room from becoming disengaged.

Any final comments on the online student experience?

If you do a class project on empirically testing the best way to make cocoa, you should think twice about actually tasting the experimental samples, because that might violate a school policy forbidding unauthorized experimentation on vertebrate animals.



cocoa tasting FAIL


Job saga update: a happy ending

May 24, 2017

Having previously spread my sad job-search tale across the Internet, it seems appropriate to update that tale with a happy ending.