Friday, November 25, 2005

Need feedback on spinal cord article

If anyone has used the information and supplementary materials from my article in JUNE: Grisham, W., Jones, H. B., & Park, S. H. (2003). Sex Differences and Organizational Effects of Androgen in Spinal Cord Motor Nuclei. Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education, 2(1) A29-A36, ,I would love some feedback on how well it worked and the demographics of your students. Suggestions for improvement also graciously accepted. I hope to get some funding to create additional resources like this, so feedback is crucial.

Either email me feedback

or you can post what you think here--either way, MANY THANKS!

Bill Grisham

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Support for undergraduates

This may be an apt time and place to point out that applications for SOMAS are due next week. 1 December, in fact. (Why I publicize this and increase the competition against my own submission, I'll never know.)

Monday, November 21, 2005

Why don't pufferfish poison themselves?

Fugu is a notorious sushi dish. It's made from pufferfish, and if improperly prepared, can cause the death of one who eats it. It's a deadly delicacy because pufferfish contain a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin. It works by blocking voltage-sensitive sodium ion channels, which are partly responsible for action potentials, the electrical signal that most neurons use to send signals from one end of the cell to the other. Now, a new paper in Current Biology by Venkatesh and colleagues have worked out how pufferfish -- which have neurons, obviously -- are able to house all this toxin and not die themselves. It turns out that some mutations that change the composition of the sodium ion channel very slightly are all it takes. Beside making the puffership unpalatable to most organisms (except large brained primates who are like extreme cuisine), this tolerance to the toxin means pufferfish get to eat plenty of other organisms that accumulate the same toxin in their bodies and not be affected.

Is relevance overrated?

A few weeks ago, I was at a one day workshop on biology education. One of the speakers was Jay Phelan, author of a book called Mean Genes. He argued in his talk that making subjects relevant to students was critically important, because it made material easy to learn. While I was listening to him, and the talks aftwerwards, I scribbled down, "Relevance is overrated." I talked to him at lunch about it, and we had a good discussion about it. I agreed with him to a point; a lot of things that I've done in teaching were also things he had done. For instance, we both use hair styling to discuss protein folding and chemical bonds holding proteins together.

My concern is that when people think of "relevance" is that people think of relevance in the most narrow, applied terms possible. In biology, this usually means medicine; maybe environment. To me, this seems like an incredible loss of great material.

For instance, in my general biology classes I talk about a little lizard named Cnemidophorus uniparens. Is it relevant to the lives of, say, introductory biology students, many of whom will only take one other biology course in their entire undergraduate career, that this lizard species has no males, and females perform a behaviour called pseudocopulation where one female acts like a courting and mating male? I don't think it's relevant -- but is really cool.

Neurobiology is an area that many people feel has immediate relevance to them, because it explains something about how they think and behave. But I think it's always important to introduce people to things that they might not think about as "relevant," for no other reason than they are cool, or interesting, or beautiful.