The Bug Geek

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Tag Archives: TAing

Overheard in the teaching lab (or, “Disenchanted student PWND”)

Photo from Wikipedia


  Last week my students studied, among other things, Cnidarians.  One of two radiate phyla (the other is the Ctenophora), this group of aquatic/marine-dwelling critters includes anemones*, corals, hydrozoans and jellyfish.  Among various pickled and slide-mounted specimens I had out for the students to examine, one microscope held a slide of jellyfish nematocysts. A student bent over the bench, peeked through the eyepieces at the little purple-stained squiggles highlighted below the lenses, and quipped, “Huh.  Well THAT’s nothing remarkable.” 

 O NOES!!!  Clearly this student needed some edumacating about the extreme coolness of these so-called “unremarkable” purple squiggles!   I called the entire class to attention, yanked down the screen for the projector, typed furiously on my laptop and pulled up YouTube.  

 “THIS”, I said.  “THIS is what you’re looking at on that slide.”   


 “Unremarkable, my ass!”, I said.  “That jellyfish is a freaking NINJA!”   POW!  ZAP!  PWND!    

The class was suitably impressed, including Mr. “not remarkable”.   Harumph.    

Nematocysts, housed in specialized cells called cnidocytes, are the stingy bits of the jellyfish…specially modified organelles that lie coiled in wait, like a den full of vipers, waiting to be triggered into deadly action by unsuspecting prey or a naïve predator wannabe.   The firing of nematocysts is one of the fastest known cellular reactions:  an acceleration of  up to 5,410,000 g.   Consider this: a dragster can accelerate from zero to 160 km/h in 0.86 seconds, creating an acceleration of 5.3 g.   Yup, only 5.3.  I think it’s safe to say that the jellyfish wins this race hands-down.
Using videos or excellent photographic images to highlight interesting features and show students “live” animals (versus simply having them examine stained/mounted/sectioned pieces of them) is proving to be an effective tool in my classroom.  Looking at an amoeba** on a slide (“Um, is that the amoeba?”  “No, that’s lint, keep looking.”) is useful, but complementing THAT experience with one of  actually watching one extend its pseudopods as it locomotes and engulfs food particles…in the absence of live specimens, it’s a more memorable study of the animal overall.     

Having used videos in two classes now, with very positive feedback…I think it’s something I’ll be employing regularly.   


 * does anyone else find this word to be a bastardly mouthful, determined to be mispronounced at every turn?  I have to pro.nounce thoughtfully or else it comes out as “anENoME” 

 ** amEba or amOEba?  I’m used to the latter, but everything I read these days uses the former.  When did we lose the “O”?  I liked that “O”.

Note to self: things aren’t always as they seem.

I was reminded today not to make hasty judgements about people, and to have a little more faith in myself.

I taught today (MUCH better, very fun … Stella’s got her groove back).  One student sat at the front-and-centre bench, working alone  and diligently on the assigned tasks.  He asked frequent, detailed questions.  They were thorough, thoughtful questions, but I interpreted his curt and affectless demeanour as dismissive and irritated – with me?  With my replies?   I wasn’t sure which it was, but I became increasingly unnerved with each exchange, and in short order I was convinced he thought I was a complete moron.

Imagine my surprise, then, when he lingered after class to talk to me.  Not about the lab content, but about the fact that he was a brand-new undergrad and was frustrated by his efforts to express himself eloquently in a language that was not his mother tongue.  He wanted to tell me about his academic interests, and find out what opportunities there were for undergrads to do field work: “real” science.  He asked my about my Master’s research.  He wanted to know about the types of employment he might be able to pursue, how to get research funding, and how to develop helpful relationships with professors.   

These are not questions you ask of someone you think is a moron. 

His terse speech was actually a reflection of his struggle to communicate the way he wanted to (not that I had thought for a moment that he was having difficulty, he was very well-spoken). 

Long story short, I allowed my own insecurities to cloud my perception of one of my students; a young man who turned out to be very self-aware, intelligent and keen.  And who most certainly did not think I was a moron.

This was an important lesson.  I’m glad it was taught to me this early in the process.

The good, the bad and the ugly

The good:  my first teaching lab went as well as I could have hoped, I learned from it, and the next one will be even better.

The bad:  the three-legged one underwent yet another surgery today…two actually: a lumpectomy (thankfully benign) and an episioplasty (YouTube it if you’re not squeamish)

The ugly: a post-operative dog who just had an episioplasty.  Not a pretty sight, and not for those squeamish about blood.  I am sleeping on the floor next to the dog tonight to make sure she doesn’t hurt herself.  Thank god for multiple pain meds with no contraindications.    I am very, very happy I don’t have to be on campus until next Wednesday. Yeek.

Learning Curve

I am in the throes of my annual New Year’s cold.   Without fail, after a little R&R at the end of a busy holiday season, my immune system goes “KERSPLAT” and I wind up sick.   So here I sit, with a cup of tea, a phlegmy, throbbing skull and a wastebasket full of wadded-up kleenex.  It the midst of all this, I’m trying to get prepped for my first “real” week of school.  To wit:

  • First teaching lab
  • First class (Forest Entomology)-I’m just sitting in, but still have reading to do
  • First Big Meeting To Nail Down Details Of My Research So I Can Start Preparing For Summer Field Work

The first one is proving to be the biggest challenge so far, in terms of prep.  This first three-hour lab covers 3 exercises and 3 major animal groups: Protozoa, Porifera, Cnidaria.   My phlegmy brain is struggling to dredge up and reconfigure its decade-old knowledge of non-arthropod taxonomy and classification, let alone anatomy. 

Similarly, it’s been so long since I’ve really had to critically read and analyse scientific literature, that I’m finding the review for the Ent class slow-going.   I am taking the time to make sure I really understand the material, though; I have my trusty biology dictionary and google close at hand, and I’m using them.   There are many terms that I know I know, but haven’t been using day-to-day, so my comprehension is a tad rusty.

These first few weeks and months are going to consist of a very steep learning curve (or re-learning in many cases); but it’s certainly not insurmountable and I’m ready for the challenge.   

In the meantime, my four-legged crew is helping to keep me on track.

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