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.

Happy Fourth to a Survivor of War

My Aunt Gretchen was in a bunker when Berlin was “liberated” by the Russian army at the end of World War II.

As I sit here in St. Louis waiting for the display in the sky this fine Independence Day Eve, I think of her and her stubborn refusal to go to a firework display during the whole time I knew her before she died.

She was one tough woman, all gruff and bluster, with that thick Prussian accent. But inside….she went down into that bunker as one person and came out another. And the fireworks wouldn’t let her forget all that can be lost. Berlin or St. Louis…

She married a nice American boy. He gave my Opa cigars and whiskey. And brought home my aunt (and eventually her sister-my mom) back to this blessed, frustrating, wonderful place, which we all celebrate tonight.

But don’t forget what those explosions represent. Freedom comes at a cost. For those who fought. For those who hid. And for those who continue to find themselves in the warm embrace of this place we call America no matter where we came from. This place is the clean slate.

Happy Fourth.

Are Eusocial? A Comment on Science Fiction in Ender’s Game and Edge of Tomorrow and …

Bluntly Cruise

Bluntly Cruise

*Spoiler Alert*  This is a biologist’s commentary on the aliens in “Enders Game” and “The Edge of Tomorrow” and the “Aliens” franchise for that matter, all movies that have graced theaters. So don’t read further, unless you want to be spoiled.  Actually, the whole thing’s been played out by science fiction for so long, it’s getting a little cliche. Sorry Tom and Emily.  I did like the movie. But…

Here’s my comment:  The aliens are stupid.

They are eusocial.  And that’s just stupid.

Bees are eusocial animals.

And that’s stupid too.

What’s eusociality?  It is the strange biological tendency for some organisms to make lots of copies of themselves, create huge colonies of strongly related individuals, and send them forth upon the world. Usually, there’s a queen involved, splurging out genetic drones to go off and do her bidding.  Crap, even the Borgs in Star Trek followed the eusocial model.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.


All you have to do is find the “queen” and kill off the invader. Or rely on the fact that the aliens have so little genetic diversity that they’re not going to adapt fast enough to stave off what our heroes have in store for them.  Even HG Wells relied on that little daisy when the aliens invaded from Mars.


So, that’s it. Animals like bees, wasps, ants, Borgs, etc. that depend on a “hive” of closely related or genetically identical individuals, are just asking for trouble. Because, at some point, we humans will find your queen and it is game over.

If you don’t believe me, just look at the crisis with bees across the world.  It’s not because they’re weak.  It’s just that they send out so many replicas of themselves and are so vulnerable because they lack the genetic ability to rapidly adapt through selection to the evils of humanity.

Their loss.  Evil aliens.  Look at the bees.  And beware