Why Are You Looking At My Gonads?

carp gonads

This particularly disgusting photo was taken by one of my MS students, Brittany Szynkowski, whose name I may still be butchering. Anyway, these are the gonads of female Asian carp in various stages of reproductive “ripeness” in the Illinois River. So you are looking at Brittany’s gonads, not mine. Well, actually, they belong to the fish. But you get my point.

Why on Earth would anyone want to look at carp ovaries? Yuck.

Not yuck. Good.

The stages of reproduction are important to know because they tell us when the female carp are ready to spawn and when they have spawned. The first panel (a) is of an ovary that hasn’t developed yet. In panels (b-d), eggs are developing in the ovarian tissue. If you catch a female with (d) gonads, she and her kind are going to spawn soon. Panel (e) shows an ovary after it has expelled all of its eggs…the girl has spawned. And panel (f) is a gonad “resetting”, which will be ready to make eggs again.

Of course, to see these stages, you’ve got to whack the fish and cut it open. For carp, this is no problem because they are readily harvested and don’t belong in the US to begin with. They were introduced from Asia about 40 years ago and pose a real problem for the environment. For rare fish, we can’t just cut them open, so we use a technique familiar to most expecting parents -

An ultrasound!


Vader in the Sack



A year ago, I awoke to my wife smacking me upside my head telling me to breathe, dammit. Apparently, my snoring had reached that epic point where I stopped respiring for a few seconds as my airway became blocked with my aging uvula and my slack tongue.

Ah, aging.

Actually, I’ve always snored.

I remember once in high school that I snored so loud that I woke myself up.

I was so tired that I fell asleep on my back, which I never, never do. Sleeping on my back has always made me have weird dreams and sleep paralysis, which I would never wish on anyone. Sleep paralysis is a condition where you have a waking dream – for me, that means I’m convinced that something is in the room ready to kill me, but I can only move my eyes. I don’t recommend it. When I finally snap out of it, my heart’s racing and it takes hours to calm down.  I’d reckon that there’s a relationship between that bit of fun and my congenital predisposition to snoring.

Or I might just be getting old and saggy, inside and out.

Back to the matter a year ago with my wife.

Off to the sleep clinic I went, sitting in the waiting room with people who were on average 15 years older than me. After a tortured night with a mask and about three-thousand wires attached to my head, the nurse said, “Yep, you have sleep apnea. You’re going to get a CPAP.”

What the hell was that? It didn’t sound particularly cool. And it isn’t.

A CPAP is the current version of the helmet that Darth Vader wore in Star Wars to stay alive. The thing blasts air down your throat while you are sleeping (or trying to sleep).

It works. Of course, the reason it works at first is because you aren’t sleeping. The damn thing is strapped onto your face, the air tube is wrapped around your arms and neck, and a steady stream of unused air blows out the top of the mask like a blow hole for a whale. The next morning I have a giant indentation of the thing on my face to remind me of the experience.

Here’s the good news that I discovered:

After a couple of weeks, you are so tired that you don’t fight it anymore. And then you sleep.  And you don’t snore.  And you begin to feel really good, like high super energy good, like 15 years younger good.

And you accept being Darth Vader in the sack. Even if it makes you feel like an alien.


Perception’s Filter: My Take on Teaching and Leadership



At the end of each semester, we faculty give out teaching evaluations to our students. Some pupils may think this is a waste of time and that we teachers don’t pay attention to their feedback.

But we do.

I dread doing this, because I never know what I’m going to find.

My scores are usually okay.  But inevitably, there are a couple of students who just hate me. This is common for most teachers.


You’d think it is correlated with bad grades, and it might be. The evaluations are anonymous, so there’s no way for us faculty to know who is critiquing us or what their grade was (which might tip off who gave us the evaluation).

Some people think I am entertaining and helpful.  Some think I suck as a human being. How can people have such varying views of me?

Anyone involved in some aspect of public life, whether they are preachers, teachers, politicians, actors, administrators, or whatever, know this is true. You can’t make everyone happy, no matter how hard you try. My hypothesis is that it comes down to how your personality, comments, behavior, humor, and demeanor and all the other traits that make you unique resonate with others. Each person has a different filter. You may seem caring to one person and a flipping butthole to another.

It could be a word that you say. It could be how someone interprets a comment you make, thinking it was intended for them when it wasn’t. A failure to notice a look of confusion or a simple mistaken name might do it. Or you might say something that seems politically charged when no innuendo was meant.

What to do? Well, you can’t be perfect, but there are ways to ensure that you are getting through as many filters as possible in the best light.

Listen and be aware. Realize that most people just want to be heard and respected.

Try to communicate concisely. Be sure to explain to the best of your ability what you are doing and why you are doing it. People may not agree with you. But at least they know that you are giving them consideration.

Show empathy. Try to put yourself in the shoes of your students. It was a long time ago.  But remember how unsure the future felt at that time and how insecure you were. Now realize that everyone feels that way, no matter what age they are.

Be proactive. If a student is struggling, approach them.  Don’t wait for them to come to you.

Don’t dictate. Professors like to lecture. This comes off as condescending and unfeeling. A conversation is necessary, no matter how inefficient it feels in the classroom.

Be kind. Enough said.

This list, of course, doesn’t just apply to teaching. Any level of leadership requires these lessons. You may still not make sense and people may disagree with you, but you’ll keep their respect.

Unless their filter is clogged.

May I Butcher Your Name?



“Thank you, Dr. Gravey.”

I hear this a lot. Might I point out that the name is “Garvey”, which is the English version of the name Garbeigh in Gaelic.  Somehow, this comes out to some folks as a thickened sauce placed on potatoes and meat.

I’m a pretty easy going guy, but I have to admit that the sound of my surname butchered makes me cringe a bit.

Which leads me to a revelation.

In my line of work, I’m fortunate to work with folks from all over the world, with names that sound exotic to my American ear. The problem is, I have no idea how to pronounce most of them.

This is nothing new. A dear friend of mine in junior high was Indian. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that my classmates and I had butchered his name during my entire childhood. And he was gracious enough to never correct us nor scowl.

So, what to do? I am much too old and stupid to learn the correct pronunciations of the myriad cultures I encounter. My solution?


Yes, I mumble names that I cannot pronounce. I say them quickly and under my breath hoping to avoid detection and thusly offending the poor person I am addressing.

Is that a bad thing? At least, they might not think I want to pour their name on my poutine.

A Biologist’s Take on Shark Week


Discovery Channel has been doing Shark Week for more than two decades now. Yes, the network dedicates 7 days of precious programming each year to shows about sharks.  Actually, the shows are more about folks who are sufficiently bonkers to drop into the water and tease known man-eaters. The sharks are fun to watch too.

All for entertainment.

Sharks are misunderstood. These fish are among the many organisms on the planet that are facing a bleak future due to exploitation and perhaps climate change. They scare the crap out of us, but we are more likely to die when we get in our car for a drive to town than from a shark attack at the beach. Sharks have more to fear of us than us of them.

But sometimes they get us back.

Shark attacks do happen.  And when they do, the effect is typically fairly disturbing.  The thought of a chunk of your body being lopped off and digested by a cool-blooded fish is sobering and perhaps a bit titillating. Shark Week shows the grisly pictures of the scarred and delimbed survivors – deformed reminders of mysterious encounters with death from below.

Some shark facts:

1. They sense electrical fields in the water using specialized sensory organs in their heads. This is why they attack metal shark cages. It probably smells tasty to them.

2.  They do not have bones. Their skeletons are made of cartilage, like the stuff shaping your ears. Bones are reserved for more advanced fishes and terrestrial critters, like us.

3. The tiny scales on shark’s skin reduce drag by enhancing turbulent flow. In fact, these scales have inspired new generations of suits used by competitive swimmers.

4. Sharks are smart and learn how to capture prey through life.

5. The low reproductive rates of sharks make them particularly susceptible to population collapse due to harvest.

6.  Many sharks give birth to live young.

7. Sharks do not go all Jaws on your butt and chase down your boat, even if you are a bonkers, blood-thirsty Ahab chasing his white whale.

I get the allure, but I beg Discovery Channel to dissuade any viewers from believing that any of the folks chasing the sharks are doing so for science. The dude on his surfboard hanging out next to a stuffed turtle is not conducting a valid study of diet preference. Lucky for him, the shark chose the stuffed turtle.  But I beg him not to say this proves that sharks prefer turtles over surfers.  After all, he didn’t give the shark enough time to discover that he was far tastier.

Quint (from Jaws)

Quint (from Jaws)

Bad Ass in the Aquarium


Most people love aquariums.  But remember, we are putting animals into a confined space, often with no history of interacting with each other.  Put aggressive fish species in an itsy bitsy tank, and they will tear each other apart.  This is not because the fish are nasty or mean.  More than likely, they are simply territorial. Putting them in a little tank that is much smaller than their natural territory and then adding other fish to threaten them is a recipe for stress, death, and disaster.

This is not restricted to our scaled friends.  Many people have moved to the sophisticated realm of keeping corals in their tanks. You can go to almost any big box pet store and walk home with “frags” of corals that were once very difficult to acquire. Folks need to know that these corals are animals.  And they are fighters.

Coral reefs are space limited, and food is rare.  Corals need to defend their space using chemicals, shading, and through the use of tentacles. I have included a video of a favid (brain) coral in one of my tanks.  The sweeper tentacles effectively double the size of this animal.  And they are deadly, containing little stingers called nematocysts.  Even the clown fish avoid them.  Corals bring a legacy of battle to the aquarium that most pet stores aren’t going to tell you about.

The tentacles in the video above will kill any coral that they touch.  Sticking these corals closely to another species – one that likely did not evolve in the same waters as it did – is going to lead to loss of a precious resource in your tank.

Keeping an aquarium or any animal is a responsibility. Do your homework before bringing them home.  Otherwise, take your wallet outside and light it on fire. You’re just wasting your money, and jeopardizing a life for no reason.