Tuesday, February 27, 2007

I'm Supposed to be an Ornithologist

So much to do. So many fires to put out. Letters of recommendation to write. Scholarship applications to check out. The giant lab cleanout—which I’m only barely helping with—begins to take up some of my time. Preparing for the two summer field classes. Preparing the advertisement for the two positions we’re going to have in the department. Writing lectures for my Biogeography class. Sometimes I don’t remember the real reason I got into biology.

But this morning I got a reminder. I got to the office a little after seven. The building was surrounded by, and covered with, birds. Of course, the bluebirds that are always there were flying around the center yard. Juncos, getting darker with new plumage, flitted around the steps and darted out of my way as I moved down the walk. Yellow-rumped warblers fed in the grass. Starlings whistled on the wires overhead. House sparrows chattered under the eaves of the building. Fish crows taunted me. And the ubiquitous robins hopped across the lawn, and scolded me when I got too close.

The campus is always incredibly birdy. The cow pasture adjacent to the parking lot always has black and turkey vultures, grackles, red-wings, and meadowlarks, along with a complement of Canada geese. In the summer, there are cattle egrets. The bird feeders next to the museum attract goldfinches and chickadees. There are always mourning doves and pigeons, and the last couple of years we’ve had collared doves. The oak trees on the other side of the building attract cedar waxwings in the winter, and red-headed, red-bellied, and downy woodpeckers all year long. The pond next to the administration building usually has a couple of mallards on it, and two years ago, two black swans appeared out of nowhere and stayed for two days. Killdeer work the lawn around the Music building, and last year a red-tailed hawk spent the fall chasing gray squirrels. The day before Thanksgiving two years ago, I watched a bald eagle sail over campus.

In a couple of weeks, the barn swallows will be back, building nests on the eaves outside my office window. The bluebirds will be nesting in the center yard. They were singing this morning. The words to the song: “Get some perspective.”

Thursday, February 22, 2007

University of Rhode Island Flight School

Inspired by the true story of Dr. Marcus R. Ross.

"So, Mr. Archaeopteryx, you wish to fly a jet for United Airlines?"


"And you have your pilot’s license?"

"Yes. I received my license from the University of Rhode Island Flight School. I fulfilled all the requirements and have flown the requisite number of hours in simulators and in real jets."

"Okay. You won’t mind if I ask you a question or two about the physics of flight, just to make sure you’re up to speed."

"Of course."

"Okay. Explain how Bernoulli’s principle relates to flight."

"Oh, I don’t think Bernoulli’s principle has anything to do with flight."


"No. Jets fly because angels grab their wings and propel them through the air."


"Yeah. It’s the will of the Lord that planes can move through the air, and he sends angels to make sure that that happens."

"But….you got your license from the University of Rhode Island Flight School. Didn’t they make you learn about Bernoulli’s principle?"

"I didn’t just learn about it. I wrote my flight school dissertation about it."

"But you don’t believe it?"

"Of course not."

"And they gave you your pilot’s license?"

"Of course. They said that aeronautics was a ‘belief system,’ and that no one should be denied a pilot’s license just because they didn’t believe in aeronautics. I’m a good pilot. My teachers said so."

"Why would you become a pilot if you don’t believe in aeronautics?"

"The idea is to fly planes around, all the while trying to prove the existence of angels that lift the airplanes. I’ll give speeches to people who don’t believe in aeronautics or fluid mechanics. I’ll use my pilot’s license to give creedence to my opinions. If you don’t give me this job, I’ll claim that you’re disrespecting my religion, and liberal thought in general. I’m going to use your open mind and sense of fair play against you. I’m going to use my license to undermine the airline industry and aviation, as well as aeronautical engineering in general."

"Okay. Welcome aboard!"

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Senior Seminar

I like them all, or at least most of them, but I like this one more than most, and today, as I watch her in the front of the auditorium, my heart swells with pride. She is pretty, but she should be beautiful. Her face and body are swollen, not grotesquely, but just a bit by the steroids she takes every day. She doesn't look fat, or even overweight, but just a bit puffy. She's nervous; I can tell because I know her, but the others in the audience don't know. She's practiced her talk just about the right amount. She's not reciting it, but she knows it well enough that she doesn't have to look much at the screen; she makes eye contact with the folks in the audience, and that helps her get through.

At the university where I teach, biology students are required to present a seminar during their senior year. They write a term paper on a topic of their choosing within the field, then deliver a twenty-minute talk in front of other students and faculty members. They obsess about it for their whole undergraduate careers—nobody not used to doing it likes to speak in public, and even though it's not true, students think that a botched Senior Seminar will mark them as incompetent for life. Most of the biology majors are pre-med, or pre-denistry, so that we on the faculty joke that seminar seems like "Disease of the Week." This girl's seminar is on Renal Failure, but she didn't pick it because she's planning on curing it some day. She has three kidneys—the crappy pair that she was born with, and a third that belonged to a teenager killed in a car accident before she got it.

There are more students in seminar than usual, and the girl's parents are there. Parents almost never come. This girl has lots of friends, and many have skipped other classes to be here. One of her closest friends makes sure to sit in the front row. They are an unlikely pair, she the African-American city girl and he the redneck country boy. When she mentions statistics on renal failure by race, she makes sure to look directly at him as she gives the figures for Caucasians. It's their little joke; he did the same thing last semester when he mentioned the statistics on cystic fibrosis in blacks. She was originally in the same seminar group as him, but she was unable to finish her seminar last semester. A string of infections, including a bout of pneumonia, forced her to take an incomplete, but she's finishing now.

This girl's not going to be a doctor. She'll complete her degree, and her GPA is going to be respectable, but a 3.00 won't get you into med school. Too many missed classes, too many nights unable to sleep, too many doctor's appointments. She missed an entire semester for the transplant, but was back in class the next semester, and every one since.

I hurt for her because she missed so closely being a doctor, but she doesn't seem to be depressed by it. There were plenty of other things to be depressed about, and I didn't know the half. During her talk she described the different types of dialysis, each one an exhausting, painful ordeal, and then let loose a fact I didn't know—kidney transplants don't usually last longer then seven or eight years, and it wasn't uncommon for them to quit after four or five. She was going to get to go through this again—if she was lucky.

At the end of the seminar, faculty members ask questions. She did a fine job, only stumbling on the chemical mechanics of the dialysis machine. The questions were impersonal, asking about the technical details of transplantation and such, until the last, when one man asked her if she knew what had caused her own kidney failure. No, the doctors had never quite figured out what had caused it—probably genetics, she said.


How original.