Dr. Paul Decelles of The force that through… is our guest today for Genetics Interview #19. Dr. Decelles is a very well-rounded scientist with interests ranging from entomology to the Internet and its application to education, painting, poetry, piano, and orchids. He’s also the founder of Mendel’s Garden, a collection of genetics posts from around the blogging community.
1. Your graduate degrees are in entomology. How did you become interested in studying insects? My first encounter with fruit flies in the eighth grade wasn’t particularly inspiring so I decided to study humans instead.
At Cornell many of the entomology undergrads were the sort of student who had collected insects since age 5. I came to insects for several reasons. First of all I have always been interested in evolution, and I reasoned that there are so many types of insects doing so many cool things that evolution and insects just seemed a natural fit.
Also, when I was at Cornell there were a lot of people interested in social insects and what these insects could perhaps tell us about the evolution of social behavior and I fell into that group of entomologists. My undergraduate advisor was a wonderful student of ants, Bill Brown and I also worked for two summers as a research assistant to George Eickwort who studied sweat bees.
My undergraduate genetics course concentrated on ‘fruit’ fly (Drosophila) genetics and quite frankly if that was my first exposure to insects I probably wouldn’t have been very inspired either. But there is a lot more to insect genetics than Drosophila. Also it really wasn’t until I took population genetics that I began to appreciate Drosophila.
2. You’re currently an associate professor at the Johnson Community College in Kansas. From what I understand of community colleges, professors focus on teaching rather than research. What do you miss about benchwork? What do you love about teaching?
I miss the stimulation of research and being around researchers, but I have always known I preferred teaching to research. Also I enjoy field work and it is hard to do that in my current setting. We also don’t have any lab space dedicated to faculty projects as would be common in a four year setting. The big thing I enjoy most about teaching is seeing students make connections between what I am showing them and their own lives and maybe changing their own directions because of that.
3. In your first post at The Force That Through, you tell people to get over using religious texts as a science textbook. How have you been involved in the battle over evolution in Kansas?
We are fortunate here to have a strong voice for science, Kansas Citizens for Science, and I have been involved with them as a “grunt” and last year served on their board of directors. Plus, I have locked horns with various creationist types in panel discussions. I am a religious person and at the same time make it quite clear to my students that one cannot really do modern biology without evolution. What is really sad is how the whole thing has gotten very political in Kansas. First we had the “young earth” creationists and now the intelligent design creationism pushed by the Discovery Institute. Evolution should not become one of those forbidden dinner topics such as religion and politics, and I try to reflect that in my teaching and of course my blogging.
I also try to have some fun with the issue. I have a Darwin fish on my door and one day someone took a dislike to it and put a drawing of a fish labeled ‘Truth’ eating a Darwin fish. My response was simply to draw yet a larger fish clearing eating the truth fish and this in term was picked up by the student paper. Evolutionists are often portrayed as dogmatic materialists by their opponents and I constantly stress what I think is a paradox about science namely that to do science you do have to accept that there is a such thing as objective truth. but on the other hand, since we are finite beings all knowledge is provisional. That’s what I was getting at with my big fish eating the truth fish.
I get a lot of students with questions about evolution, and I try to be open to their questions what ever they may be and I consider my job a success not when I get them to accept evolution but when they feel comfortable enough with me to talk to me about their beliefs and concerns.
4. A couple months ago, you mentioned the inadequate credentials of science journalists. I’ve also written about a proposal by Gary Schwitzer, director of the Health Journalism graduate program at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, to have health news reporters and journalists be certified voluntarily.
Do you think all journalists reporting on science should have a degree in a scientific discipline? How else can they prove themselves? Or do you think the plethora of blogs online will be enough to keep misinformation in check?
I don’t know about having a degree in a scientific discipline, but I think Schwitzer might be on to something in terms of some sort of voluntary certification. Teachers have to get certified to teach and teaching is in a sense what journalists do. I do like Schwitzer’s analog to the voluntary certification available for broadcast meteorologists. If I read what he is saying correctly, it looks as if a lot of the problem could be corrected by applying the same sorts of journalistic standards to science reporting that are used in regular investigative reporting.
As to whether or not science blogs have a role here, it’s too early to know. I think it will depend on the degree to which reporters pay attention to blogs and perhaps blog themselves. Karl Zimmer and his blog the loom(http://scienceblogs.com/loom/) is a good example of a reporter interacting with scientists via blogs.
5. A few months ago, you founded the Mendel’s Garden blog carnival focusing on genetics blogging. The genetics (and science) blogging community has really grown over the past year. What do you think should be the goal of science blogging? Are there any types of genetics and science blogs we still need?
I don’t know that there is one goal for science blogging. But were I running a “science blog”, I would want to try to communicate the joy of scientific discovery and something about the personal side of the scientist and how science actually operates. A number of science blogs do this quite well. ‘Mendel’s Garden’ seemed like a good way to reach people about the scope of genetics blogging. Each of the editions has been very different in it’s approach and lots of fun to read. Last month’s edition was hosted by Rich, the Garden’s cofounder, over at Evolgen and I shared it with my genetics students.
The participatory nature of blogging is really attractive to me. It fits in well with the notion of a teacher as a facilitator of learning. That’s what drew me to the Carnival idea though that is hardly the only type model for this sort of facilitation. For instance, I write poetry as you know, and participate in a blog event called “Poetry Thursday” where the hosts provide a prompt, which you can work from, or ignore as you wish, as a starting idea for a poem. You write your poem or share someone else’s at your site and provide a link to your entry on the Poetry Thursday site. Interested readers then visit your site and comment or not as they wish.
One problem I see many science blogs having is balancing science with the personal- In particular it is easy to get too polemical when discussing science policy or intelligent design. I have to admit to falling for that temptation all too often, and have been trying to say what I think needs to be said without sounding too strident.
My favorite science blog in terms of balancing science with the personal, at least in biology, is Sandra Porter’s blog at http://www.scienceblogs.com/digitalbio/. Sandra presents her stuff in a very personal way and never looses track of the science. Plus, I get great bioinformatics projects for my students!
As for what other sorts of science blogs we need, perhaps more blogs focusing on teaching techniques either for lecture or laboratory classes, or online teaching. Also I would like more focused specialty blogs, such as your blog that attempt to reach out to the general public. I’d love it if still more established researchers used blogs to discuss their work with the press and the public. Maybe that would help reduce the amount of science reporting that is simply a rehash of some university or corporate PR release.
Thanks, Paul! Your students are very lucky to have a teacher who brings so many diverse perspectives to the classroom.