Archive July 2011

chemistry cat to the rescue Alison Campbell Jul 29

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It is Friday & I still have the lingering effects of the flu :-( I hate being sick; the brain doesn’t work properly, for one thing. So thinking of something sensible to write is actually rather difficulty :-(

But wait, is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Chemistry Cat, from a distant place in teh intertubes where cats, science & puns come together:

Funny Pictures - Chemistry Cat

Funny Pictures - Chemistry Cat

Funny Pictures - Chemistry Cat

Funny Pictures - Chemistry Cat

the taipei IBO – what we did when not in the jury room Alison Campbell Jul 28

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It wasn’t all work & no play at the International Biology Olympiad in Taipei (27-hour stints in the jury room notwithstanding!). Our hosts took great care to show us some of the sights & tastes of Taipei, taking jury members on several excursions while the students were sitting their exams.

ferris wheel in suburbs.JPG

 I was rather startled to see a ferris wheel built into the side of a building, as we headed off to lunch after observing the practical exams!

very flash lunch.JPG

That particular lunch was a very lavish affair :-) It set us up very well for a bus trip up into the mountains, to the Chungshan building in Yangminshan National Park. We were staggered by the scale of this building – & by the fact that it’s built over a hot spring vent. The smell of hydrogen sulphide gas was everywhere (our docent called it the ‘painful gas’).

monument gate.JPG

founders monument.JPG

monument ceiling.JPG

And of course we had to go to Taipei 101 – until recently the tallest building in the world at 509m. The views from its observatory floor were spectacular. The lift was pretty amazing too, as it can apparently move at 1010m/minute. It took us much longer to get from the ground to the 5th floor – where the high-speed elevator runs from – than it did to get up to the observatory on the 89th floor, because of the queues. (We were keen to use the escalators instead but I think our hosts thought they might lose some of our group if we did that!)

worlds fastest elevator.JPG

Apparently the ‘world’s fastest elevator’ title now belongs to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, but that speed’s rather impressive nonetheless.

view 3 from taipei 101.JPG


So of course, one of the things on the collective mind of the NZ IBO committee is, what are the various places and activities that we would like to showcase to our international visitors, when it’s our turn to host?

what it was like at the IBO, part 1 Alison Campbell Jul 24

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Due to popular demand (Grant asked!) & also because I’m still a bit muzzy with the flu I picked up on my travels & don’t want to attempt anything ‘heavy’, I thought I’d do a few posts about my experiences at the International Biology Olympiad. Overseas, this competition is a Really Big Thing – there’s a huge amount of time, energy & resources poured into ensuring the event is as good as possible, and a lot of prestige hangs on doing the best you can (& ideally bringing home medals).

The esteem in which the event is held is obvious when you see that the Vice-President of Taiwan was a key speaker at the opening ceremony.

taiwanese VP opens event.JPG

As a first-timer there I was particularly interested in seeing how the exams were set up, as this is something we’ll have to pay a lot of attention to, here at Waikato. We’ll definitely be using our standard lab classrooms, but for the Taipei event the campus gym had been transformed into four linked ‘labs’, each seating 60 students.

labs set up & ready to go.JPG

Students are ‘colour-coded’, with each group of 60 wearing a different coloured-lab coat, and their guides (local uni students) must ensure that they never come into contact with the other groups (or with jury observers) over the course of each exam day.

prac exam in progress.JPG

Both practical & theory exams covered 4 main areas of biology, with questions written at first/second-year undergraduate level & with a focus on problem-solving, not simply recall of information. The theory exams followed the practical papers (4-6 hours of exams each day) with a ‘rest’ day between them.

Well, it was a ‘rest’ day for the students. Before each set of exams the jury members spent long, intense days in a jury room (our hotel’s conference venue), finalising the actual papers. Questions are written in advance and a small sub-group pulls what will probably be the final paper together, immediately before the competitions begin, but all jurors have to agree on the final questions. Plus papers have to be translated into the students’ native languages. All this meant that for the theory exam. we began at 9am one morning & went through (with breaks for refreshment!) until 3am the morning of the exam! (Understandably quite a few of us decided not to go on the organised tours that day!) And after the theory exam, we met again on the Friday to finalise the medal tallies.

late night in jury room.JPG

 And here’s the New Zealand team :-) At this point I need to salute Angela Sharples – on my left – who’s been a simply outstanding committee chair & team leader; she’s absolutely inspirational & I’m rapt that we’re co-chairing the New Zealand event.

team nz.JPG

technology for technology’s sake, or is there something more? Alison Campbell Jul 21

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Over the last couple of days I’ve been following a story about Orewa College’s decision to require next year’s year 9 students to have an iPad or similar tablet-style computer for school. (The schools stated preference is for the iPad 2.) And my first thought was, why?

OK, I have an iPad, bought as a result of winning an Ako Aotearoa award last year (as many Orewa parents have doubtless already pointed out, they don’t come cheap). And I love it. It came with me to Taipei, no need for a heavy laptop :-) For surfing the net it’s brilliant (although it still doesn’t handle MovableType blogging, alas!). Reading books on it is an enjoyable experience. Its word-processing app is o-kay. nothing to write home about but at least its products are compatible with Word. I’m trying out the equivalent to powerpoint at the moment, although I’m irritated by the fact that there are so few options in terms of slide style, & I seriously doubt that a big presentation is going to come through to my computer via e-mail; too big for the server (though there’s always Dropbox). And it has some cool games.

But I’ve also taken the negative when discussing with colleagues the pros & cons of expecting our students to have one. Yes, the paucity of options in word processing is part of it; I think my students need the more sophisticated offerings in Word. But a more important question is – what’s the pedagogy behind it?

This question was asked by Mark Nichols, the keynote speaker at this year’s e-learning symposium run by my colleagues in the University’s Centre for e-Learning. I agree with him that using technology simply because it’s available isn’t a good reason for doing so. Using technology in ways that enhance learning, is. Yes, technology may extend, excite, enhance, and engage students’ time in the classroom, but we need to ensure that it also improves their existing learning outcomes. (In much the same way, powerpoint is just a tool; I’ve seen some dreaded powerpoint-assisted lectures, & also some brilliant teaching sessions where the speaker used no aids at all.) Or, to put it another way, technology like the iPad can quite probably enable pedagogy, but shouldn’t be the driver of classroom practice. For example, access to the internet is great for accessing information, but not for learning what to do with that information, how to process it, how to assess it.

We need to add another ‘e’ to that list – ‘educate’. Unfortunately that Campbell Live clip I’ve linked to above doesn’t delve into those questions at all. And that’s a real pity, because it’s a dialogue we need to be having.

international biology olympiad: nz team brings home the medals :-) Alison Campbell Jul 20

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As many of you will know, I’ve been to the 22nd International Biology Olympiad in Taipei, as an observer with the New Zealand team. This was New Zealand’s most successful Olympiad to date, as described by the Chair of the NZ IBO committee, Dr Angela Sharples:

The New Zealand team of Benjamin Bai, Richard Chou, Vicky Tai and Jack Zhou are returning home from Taiwan, bringing with them a hat trick of medals won at the prestigious 22nd International Biology Olympiad. This competition pits the top four young biologists from 59 countries against each other, in an intense round of practical assessments and theory examinations.

A Bronze medal was won by Richard Chou and a Silver medal by Benjamin Bai. Jack Zhou won a Gold medal and is now ranked 21st in the world, New Zealand’s highest ever world ranking at the Biology Olympiad and our first Gold. It is an outstanding achievement for these young biologists. It was a fitting reward for their diligence, dedication and sheer hard work over the last year. Team Leader, Dr Angela Sharples said, “We should all be proud of the achievement of this New Zealand team. They have proved themselves to be amongst the world’s best.”

Now, as you may also know, it’s NZ’s turn to host the competition, in 2014, and we’ll need a lot of help with this. If you’re a teacher, you might like to help with the selection & training of each year’s team – marking, overseeing an on-line tutorial, or maybe coming along to the practical training camp. And please encourage your students to try out for the camp. The competition isn’t just about the 4 students who go on to the Olympiad. Any student who takes part in the training program will be gaining and honing thinking and learning skills that will stand them in good stead in any future studies that they undertake.

And if any of the program’s alumni happen to be reading this – we’d just love to have you involved as a ‘guide’ for our guests!

a re-run of ‘fact and theory’ Alison Campbell Jul 18


Sometimes I think that the word ‘theory’ has to be one of the most misunderstood, and misused, words in science.

A couple of science concepts that people often seem to have difficulty with are fact and theory: what the terms mean, and how we distinguish between them. One of my scientific heroes, the late Stephen Jay Gould, covered this very well in a 1981 essay. I’ve just been re-reading it & thought I’d post the most directly relevant section here.

In the American vernacular, “theory” often means “imperfect fact”-part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus creationists can (and do) argue: evolution is “only” a theory, and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is less than a fact, and scientists can’t even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): “Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science-that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was.”

Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.

Moreover, “fact” does not mean “absolute certainty.” The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

You can read the entire essay here - or maybe in your local library – the original essay was reprinted in Gould’s book Hens’ teeth and horses’ toes (Gould, 1994).


Stephen Jay Gould (1981) ”Evolution as Fact and Theory,” Discover 2: 34-37

plants – more than you expect (again) Alison Campbell Jul 16

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I often think it’s a real pity that so many students seem to actively dislike learning about plants. Why is this? Is it because plants don’t seem to ‘do’ anything interesting? I used some of the information described here in a test question this year – the results were a salutory reminder to spend more time working with students on how to read and interpret data sets.

One of the Biology Standards year 13 students [currently] study is called ‘Describe animal behaviour & plant responses’. Now, if ‘behaviour’ = response to a stimulus, then that’s really what plants are doing too. I guess it’s just hard to think that something (usually) green, (usually) fixed in place, & with no nerves or muscles is able to behave – but plants do, & some of their behaviour is really quite subtle. You’re probably familiar with plant responses to stimuli, including tropisms, circadian rhythms, & flowering in response to changes in photoperiod. But there’s more: not only are there plants that actively hunt, but plants can also communicate – with each other, & in some cases with animals as well.

For most plants herbivores represent a major, daily threat. Plants can respond directly to herbivore attack in a number of ways. (Years & years ago – while I was a school teacher in Palmerston North – I watched a program called The 300-million-year-old war, about the arms race between plants & animals. It was excellent, but I haven’t been able to find a copy of it since…) These responses aren’t limited to the production of toxic chemicals, but can also include a range of events – shown in the figure below - that limit food supply or reduce the availability of nutrients to the animal doing the damage. (Scientists are very interested in the processes involved because an understanding of what’s going on has obvious implications for agriculture.)

direct plant defense against herbivores.png

(Figure from Chen, 2008)

But it turns out that plants can also warn others of a herbivore’s attack – & this warning isn’t limited to members of the same species. In 2000 a series of experiments by Karban et al. demonstrated that undamaged plants respond to dues released by neighbours to induce higher levels of resistance against herbivores in nature. The researchers studied sagebrush and tomato plants, & looked first at how sagebrush responded to grazing by grasshoppers & cutworms, & also to simulated grazing (clipping the plants with scissors). They found that the plants released a volatile chemical, which they already knew could induce herbivore resistance in wild tobacco plants. The next step was to grow tobacco plants next to sagebrush plants (clipped and unclipped): tobacco growing next to clipped sagebrush produced more of a possible defensive chemical.

production of polyphenol oxidase in tobacco plants by clipped & unclipped sagebrush.png

Fig 2: Levels of polyphenol oxidase (PPO) activity for tobacco plants near clipped or unclipped sagebrush neighbours. (from Karban et al. 2000)

And – tellingly - tobacco plants near clipped sagebrush experienced greatly reduced levels of leaf damage by grasshoppers and cutworms… compared to unclipped controls.

damage in tobacco plants with clipped & unclipped neighbors.png

Fig 3: B Maximum proportion of leaves that were damaged by grasshoppers during each of three seasons on tobacco plants near clipped (Cl) or unclipped (Uncl) sagebrush. C Maximum proportion of leaves that were damaged by cutworms during the 1966 season on tobacco plants near clipped or unclipped sagebrush. (from Karban et al. 2000)

The tobacco plants seemed to gain more than immediate protection from grazing, as the term observed that tobacco plants with clipped sagebrush neighbours produced more flowers & seeds (which could translate into increased reproductive success) over a five-year period, although there was considerable variation from year to year. You have to wonder how widespread this sort of communication is. Karban & his colleagues didn’t see any evidence that tobacco plants communicated with each other, for example. And initial work on other species that normally grow near sagebrush suggested that one such species might gain herbivore resistance, but that two others showed no response at all.

And there’s more – plants under attack by herbivores can also use volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) to signal to predators, leading them to a source of food (those hungry little herbivores): daily predation rates [on herbivores] on plants releasing VOCs… were 4.9 to 7.5 times higher than those observed on control plants (Kessler & Baldwin, 2001). Intriguingly, in at least some cases Kessler & Baldwin found that in addition to attracting predators, some VOCs also reduced the rate at which other herbivores laid eggs on the plant.

Plants – much more than you expect :-)

M-S.Chen (2008) Inducible direct plant defense against insect herbivores: a review. Insect Science 15: 101-114. doi 10.111/j.1744-7917.2008.00190.x

R.Karban, I.T.Baldwin, K.J.Baxter, G.Laue & G.W.Felton (2000) Communication between plants: induced resistance in wild tobacco plants following clipping of neighbouring sagebrush. Oecologia 125: 66-71

A.Kessler & I.T.Baldwin (2001) Defensive function of herbivore-induced plant volatile emissions in nature. Science 291 (5511): 2141-2144.doi 10.1126/science.291.5511.2141

why anecdotal ‘evidence’ is problematic Alison Campbell Jul 13

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Often on Sciblogs someone ends up pointing out that another commenter’s ‘evidence’ is anecdotal, and thus doesn’t offer particularly strong support for a particular point of view. I’m kicking myself for not providing the link to this video, the last time it happened :-)

At least a couple of times I’ve made a comment along the lines of “the plural of anecdote is not data”. Now here’s an excellent video (courtesy of Evidence-Based Thought) that explains why not:

meditating on enrolment (again) Alison Campbell Jul 11

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When I originally wrote this piece I’d been immersed in enrolments for the new (2009) year. The last week wasn’t quite so bad as we were just dealing with the B semester, but nonetheless, the registrar & I have seen a lot of students needing program advice. So I thought I’d run through some suggestions here, that might help with your future study plans :-)

As you’ll have gathered (if you read this blog regularly), last week was an incredibly busy one for me, because I was heavily involved in the process of enrolling students for their 2009 studies. This was a new thing for me & it gave me the opportunity to think about ways to ease the enrolment process, from the student point of view. (I’m assuming that many of you are planning on university study of some sort.) So I thought I’d put some of those thoughts here.

One key thing is that it’s important to start early on working out what you intend to study. When I was a student it was reasonably common to come across people who were at uni because they couldn’t work out what they wanted to do in life, so a year or so at uni seemed as good a way as any of spending their time. In those days (cue violins etc) the student allowance wasn’t means-tested & pretty much everyone got one; student loans were unheard of. These days, the costs of university study probably put many people off that option.

But nonetheless, I’ve had a few people come in for advice who know that they want to study at uni – but aren’t quite sure what it is that they want to study. Now, we can give good advice on this, but it takes a while: you need to have a really in-depth conversation to find out what someone’s interested in; what it is that lights a spark for them. In the rush & pressure of enrolment-in-person, when you’re aware that there’s a queue growing outside the Dean’s office, it’s not easy to do the best possible job of this. In other words, start to think about what you might like to study – & more importantly, where you see yourself after tertiary study – while you’re still at school.

This means you might talk with people who are already in careers that you find interesting: what do they enjoy about it? What did they study in order to get there? Sound out the different institutions: what do they offer in the way of courses that will take you where you want to go? Don’t block off your options too early – I talk with a lot of biology students who see medicine as the only realistic career choice, & when I ask why, often the answer is that they ‘want to help people’. But other choices can let you do that too – genetics/molecular biology (eg genetic underpinnings of some diseases; development of new drug regimes); the whole biotech field; environmental restoration & sustainability – they all impact on people’s health, well-being, & enjoyment of life.

And then, when you’re planning your studies, think top-down. What subjects should you specialise in, to achieve your goals? What should you take in the third year of your degree, to acheive that particular focus? OK, now, what do you need in 2nd year, to allow you to take those 3rd-year papers? And what does that mean for your first-year selection?  This may sound a bit daunting, but it’s important – every so often I meet someone who needs to take a couple of extra first-year papers because they didn’t quite think that initial selection through. (Or because they found that they really weren’t so keen on that original choice, because they’d found a new area that fascinated them, but that’s really a different story.)

Your teachers can give you some advice here, but you should also contact the different universities & talk with people like me. This is because we’re going to be that much more familiar with our various offerings. This is also important if you’re thinking of starting your studies at one place, & then moving to another. Ask someone at that second institution about what papers would be the best preparation for going there (after all, I can tell you a whole lot about our various offerings, but I’m not the best person to give you advice relating to programs at Auckland or Massey, for example).

And choose an area that you enjoy, that you’re interested in. Everyone has ‘down’ patches in their studies, but you’ll come through that much better if you’re following your own particular passion :-)

choose wisely… (redux) Alison Campbell Jul 09

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This post is really for students in year 12 (or 11) who are still finalising their subject choices. While I’m talking about Biology here, the same applies to other disciplines. Deciding at the last minute (ie when applying for uni) that you want to be an engineer is not ideal if you’ve never studied maths or physics. Not an unsurmountable problem, but the solution – additional, preliminary papers – will add to the length of time you’ll be studying.

… as the ancient knight said to Indiana Jones **. Okay, I’m talking about choice of subjects, so the outcomes won’t be as life-threatening as the choice Indy faced, but these decisions can still have a big impact on your future study courses.

(& I’m aware that if you’re considering Scholarship this year, you’ve most likely made those choices, so this one’s really aimed at students who aren’t so far through the system.)

What put me on to this topic is the fact that at the moment I’m involved in approving enrolments in my School for 2009. Most of the applications I see are fairly straightforward, but there are still quite a few students who can’t get into some of the subjects they’ve chosen because they don’t have the pre-requisites. And in some of those cases, they haven’t actually studied the necessary subjects at school.

For example, biotechnology’s a growing area in this country, as in many others. So for anyone wanting to take this as a major at uni, biology’s an obvious subject to take at school. But so’s chemistry. And you need maths, as well as physics, if you’re wanting to take physics papers as part of a physics or engineering degree.

Now, of course there are ways round all this. At Waikato, for example, we’ve got a set of Foundation Science papers, in February,  that I’ve been steering people into where necessary, to help bring them up to speed. (They’re good for people who have UE but might not have all the required credits in a particular subject.)  Or we might advise that you take what’s called Certificate of University Preparation papers in the A semester, & pass those before moving on to degree-level study. But having to take the CUP papers, in particular, means that your degree may end up taking rather longer than you’d first planned. And costing a bit more too. Better to keep your options open for as long as possible, & choose wisely :-)

Oh yes, did I mention statistics? Statistics is a really useful subject to take if you’re planning on a science career; I’d certainly recommend it to aspiring biologists. When I was an undergraduate stats was a compulsory paper for anyone doing science. I will confess that it wasn’t my strongest subject & there were times when I wondered what I was doing. I mean, did I really need to be able to work out how many lightbulbs in a consignment were likely to be faulty?? But then I got into doing research & it all made sense :-) So do give it some thought.

** Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, in one film. My idea of movie heaven!!

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