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March 2012 Archives

 I've written about the group who call themselves 'Scientists Anonymous (NZ)' before, in the context of determining the reliability of sources. At the time, I commented that I would have a little more confidence about the information this group was putting out there if the people involved were actually identified - as it is, they are simply asking us to accept an argument from (anonymous) authoriry. (I was rather surprised to actually receive a response to that post, albeit its authors remained anonymous.) Anyway, this popped up in my inbox the other day, and was subsequently sent to me by several colleagues in secondary schools: 

TO: Faculty Head of Science / Head of Biology Department 

Please find a link to the critically acclaimed resource ( dealing with the nature of science across disciplines/strands.

Interesting to see an attempt to link it into the current NZ Science curriculum with its focus on teaching the nature of science.


  • The reality of computer hardware and software in life
  • The probabilities of a self-replicating cell and a properly folded protein
  • Low probability and operational impossibility
  • The need for choice contingency of functional information

Freely share this resource with the teaching staff in your faculty/department.

Yours sincerely

Scientists Anonymous (NZ) 

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This is something I wrote for Talking Teaching. It doesn't have a strong biology focus, so I hope my 'regulars' will forgive me :-). but I'd like to generate some discussion around this issue.

Over the years I've had a fair number of conversations with my students about what's involved in being a university lecturer. They ask things like how I decide what to teach, how we develop programs, and - this year - just what I do when I'm not in front of a class. (They genuinely thought that I'm 'on holiday' when the teaching semester's over: I found this rather sweet *smile*.)

And someone will always ask, do university lecturers have any training in how to teach? After all, these days primary, secondary & pre-school teachers are all required to have professional qualifications in education.

The answer is, it depends. (I'm going to talk about university lecturers here as that's the area I'm familiar with.)

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That got your attention, didn't it? It certainly got mine when I was scanning the Science alert news page a wee while ago. The parasite in question is Plasmodium, the single-celled organism that causes malaria. (I've written about Plasmodium before as it has a rather interesting evolutionary history.) And the research in question was published in the Journal of Cell Science - annoyingly, my institution's subscription excludes the most recent six months' worth of papers, so I could only read the Science alert release.

It's an interesting story. Like the other members of its genus, Plasmodium falciparum (which causes the most severe, potentially - & frequently - lethal form of malaria) has a complex life cycle. A mosquito that bites an infected human host will probably pick up P.falciparum in the blood it ingests, & can then transmit the pathogen to the next person it bites. Once in a new host, the malaria parasite reproduces asexually & goes through a number of life-cycle stages as it infects first cells in the host's liver & later the host's red blood cells. As the red blood cells swell with growing numbers of the parasite, they also accumulate a range of waste products produced by Plasmodium. Eventually the cells rupture & release both Plasmodium cells (all ready to infect more red blood cells) & those cells' wastes into the host's bloodstream, & this is what causes the physical symptoms of malaria

Eventually the parasite metamorphoses into its reproductive phase - a phase that has the banana shape mentioned above. Strange though it may sound, apparently the crescent-like shape of these sexually-ready parasite cells is essential for their survival. Once outside the red blood cells the parasites are potentially exposed to the host's immune system & can be targeted for destruction, but the banana shape seems to allow at least some to escape & survive long enough to be sucked up by another mosquito. (The actual plasmodial hanky-panky occurs in the mosquito's gut.)

The Melbourne University research that's described by Science alert has found when Plasmodium's ready for s*x a particular set of proteins forms a banana-shaped scaffold underneath it's cell membane. This is interesting of itself, as it's always nice to understand the mechanism by which something happens. But it's made the research team rather excited, because identifying the proteins involves raises the prospect of targeting them - using a drug or perhaps a vaccine - & disrupting formation of the banana-shaped scaffold.

Which would pretty much put a dampener on any further prospects of hanky-panky, disrupting the parasite's life cycle & so preventing the transmission of malaria. Great stuff!


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 Since I (re)posted the first part of this story last week, I figure I'd better complete the tale today :-) Hopefully things will settle down a bit at work now the semester's under way, & I can get back into some 'proper' writing!

Possession of an Achilles tendon is only one of the things that sets humans up for endurance running. Bramble & Lieberman (2004) note that long-distance running requires a whole suite of adaptations for skeletal strength, stabilisation, thermoregulation, and energetics. I'll summarise some of their comments here.

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I've been blogging since August 2007. Which seems quite a long time, looking back on it :-) Anyway, because I'm kind of rushed at the moment - & on the theory that new(ish) readers might not have delved all that far into the back issues, I thought I'd repost a couple of pieces from way back then, just to keep you going.

I was looking through the SciTech Daily website (a good place to go for new reading in a whole range of science areas) when I saw the link to an article on the evolution of running in Homo. Followed it, read the article - & thought, this is really interesting.

The article describes research on the efficiency of walking and running in humans. It notes that the Achilles tendon linking calf muscles to the heel is essential for energy-efficient running. Chimps and gorillas don't have this long tendon, and the research team comment that it would be very interesting to know at what point in our evolutionary history the Achilles tendon evolved:

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This post’s title is another one drawn from the search terms that brought people to my 'other' blog at Talking Teaching :-)

I’ve written quite a lot about the benefits students may gain as a result of lecturers changing the techniques they use in the classroom. A while back I wrote about the idea of helping students to visualise a paper’s curriculum, & this semester I decided to try that out with my first-year biology class. Today was the first day of the new semester, & I thought I’d share what I did with them – it would be interesting to hear what others think of this approach, so please do add a comment :-)

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The other day my colleague Nigel Robertson (from the uni's centre for e-learning, "WCeL") sent through a link to this article: Ensuring student success - students are not to blame. The writer, Arshad Ahmad, begins by saying that

[many] students may appear to be unqualified, unprepared and uninterested. But if you believe, as I do, that each one of them has a talent, each one of them has a capacity to develop - intellectually and emotionally - then it follows that each one should be given a fair chance to succeed.

 And he goes on to say that

[there] is an alarming scarcity of interdisciplinary courses, little integration of existing courses, and almost no alignment to achieve the specific outcomes that these collections of courses are geared towards.

This is especially true of first-year courses with large impersonal classes taught by teaching assistants and part-time instructors.

It is exactly during this time, the first-year experience, when students are making important transitions, when students require a lot of personal attention and when they seek faculty (ie staff] time. It is a time when we should put our best teachers on the front lines and offer an experience that few, if any, students will be able to refuse.

I couldn't agree more, & it's the reason we (my wonderful colleague Brydget, & I) keep reviewing the labs we offer to our first-year bio students. Lab classes being so much smaller than lecture streams, they represent an excellent opportunity to give students one-to-one attention. This year we're trialling a peer mentoring system: another chance for students to form good working relationships with others in their class & work together to enhance their learning.

And it's also why I keep banging on to people about the benefits of moving away from the traditional lecture format. (Don't have to worry about the teaching assistants bit there as the lecturers are the people who front up to these classes.) 

Arshad's article is a strong argument in support of the need for regular & thorough review of teaching programs - not just individual papers, but the actual degree programs themselves. Otherwise there is always the risk that the collection of papers, overall, can lack focus - and that is not going to produce the best learning outcomes for our students.


At Enough of the Cat Talk, Darlena makes a similar point: "Would we demote an entire class of children for our inability to teach them?"




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 ... then there's little hope for the world :-)

I attend a lot of meetings; that's the nature of my job. This morning the Dean came in & waved the front section of the NZ Herald under my nose. "Look," he said, "all those meetings are really bad for you." Scenting a way of getting out of them, I grabbed the paper & found the article in question (syndicated from the UK paper, The Telegraph).

"Attending meetings lowers your IQ," cried the headline, & the article goes on to say that

[the] performance of people in IQ tests after meetings is significantly lower than if they are left on their own, with women more likely to perform worse than men.

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