What is (or will be) your old school science cred?

When I was a postdoc at the University of Wisconsin, I always loved getting to interact with the geneticist Jim Crow. There was an informal gathering in the department every week after the seminar, and I loved when I got a chance to speak with Crow at that. One day that stands out was when he was telling about a visit that R.A. Fisher made to Wisconsin. (Based on when Crow arrived in Wisconsin and when Fisher died, I’m guessing this most likely was in the 1950s, but I don’t recall that detail.) Apparently Fisher was giving two lectures: a large public lecture on possible links between smoking and cancer, and a small department seminar on polyploidy inheritance in plants. Except, according to Crow, Fisher gave the polyploidy in plants seminar to the general audience, and the smoking and cancer one in the small department seminar. The story was amusing on its own, but I also stood there thinking, “Wow, he knew RA Fisher!”

I sometimes wonder what will be the thing that, if I am fortunate enough to be attending seminars and receptions when I am 90, will make me seem the most like I am connected to another era. This could happen even sooner than the age of 90, of course, and would be especially true for things that I’ve done (or interactions that I’ve had) that are anomalous for my age. So, sometimes I wonder, what will make me seem really, really, really old some time?

One of them, I suppose, will be that I met Jim Crow. But I think the most likely one is that I’ve manually sequenced DNA. I did this in 1999 as part of my undergraduate research project, where we used molecular techniques to identify resting eggs from an invasive Daphnia. My impression is that many places had already switched to automated DNA sequencing by this point, but others were in the process of switching over. (Certainly, there was a lot of excitement in the department at Cornell about moving to automated sequencing.) But, at some point, that I worked in a dark room to develop my gel, then read it off myself will make me seem absolutely ancient.

I also might have the last NSF grant that included funds for allozyme sequencing. That grant was awarded in 2009, so I was definitely behind the curve on genetic techniques! (Perhaps this is a theme?) But allozymes have been very useful in Daphnia, and are the diagnostic trait for identifying certain species. (We’ve finally moved into the 21st century and have shifted to using microsatellites to genotype our animals.)

Another one for me: the first talk I gave at a meeting was done with a slide carousel. And, I suppose some day scientists of my generation will regale grad students with the tales of big red X’s where figures should go, or axis labels that were all scrambled, and all those other mac-pc powerpoint problems that were common when people first started giving talks in powerpoint. Similarly, the first manuscript I submitted was submitted as a hard copy, mailing off 5 hard copies.

This also came up when Jeremy, Brian, and I emailed a bit about the post I had last week on how to make figures. I originally included CricketGraph as an option for how to make figures, then realized I don’t actually know how I have experience with it, since I should be too young to have used it. So, I could possibly bring that up some day, but presumably no one will be impressed since they’ll have never heard of the program in the first place. 😉 More likely will be that I will seem like a dinosaur because there was no (widespread) internet when I was little, but that’s not science-specific.

What things will some day make you seem like you’re from a totally different time?

66 thoughts on “What is (or will be) your old school science cred?

  1. When I wrote up my final year undergraduate project (in 1989) I did so on an electric typewriter; 4 years later I was writing up my PhD using an early version of WordPerfect. When I first started teaching I used overhead transparencies, then gradually moved to PowerPoint in the late 90s. Up until the late 90s I was also still sending out pre-addressed reprint request postcards (remember them?) and receiving back hard-copy reprints (remember them?)

    So I feel as though my education and career has straddled the digital divide in a way which makes some of what I say virtually meaningless to the current crop of students in the system.

    • I received reprint request cards, and still have paper reprints of my first set of papers! I’m not quite sure what to do with them. I doubt I’ll ever use them, but it also doesn’t seem right to recycle them.

      Did you make figures by hand? I’m guessing yes, if you were using a typewriter. That always seems nicely old school to me.

      • PS – I kept one or two copies of all of my reprints but then recycled the rest a couple of years ago. It felt wrong, but the alternative was that they took up shelf space and gathered dust…

      • Yeah, I probably should recycle them. Though, now that they’ve made multiple moves with me, that seems less likely to happen!

    • I wrote my PhD up on a manual typewriter, Silver Reed that was big enough to put paper in landscape as well as portrait – I had bought an electric version but I made too many mistakes with it so traded in it for the manual version.

  2. As an undergraduate working in a plant taxonomy lab, one of my jobs was to make figures using Letraset. Anyone remember Letraset? You got acetate sheets with transferable numbers, letters, and symbols on them and you rubbed them into place to make a figure. If you made a mistake you could sort of scrape them off again… I remember making scatterplots this way, by rubbing dot after dot in just the right place. Hard to imagine, now.

  3. It’s fun to think that, someday, I and things I’ve done will be looked at the same way as we look at people old enough to have used punch cards to do statistical analyses.

    A couple of years ago I told a grad student at the ESA that I’d submitted papers to journals in hard copy. He looked at me like I had two heads. 🙂

    Meg’s got most of the same old school cred as me, I just have a bit more of it. I’ve submitted more mss in hard copy than her, given more talks using slide carousels (indeed, I’m old enough to remember when you *weren’t allowed* to give a Powerpoint talk at ESA…), gotten more reprint request cards, purchased more paper reprints to send out to people (I still have a bunch of them!)…

    On the other hand, Meg having maybe the last NSF grant to fund allozyme work is pretty cool (real life #hipsterscience!). And I’ve never sequenced DNA by hand, though I did propose to do so in a mock grant proposal for my pop gen class in grad school (so this would’ve been in 1997 or so). I got dinged because that was kind of old fashioned, and told it would be better to propose to use the then-new automated sequencers.

    I wonder if image analysis systems will improve in performance and cost to the point where someday I’ll have old school cred for having counted protists by looking at them with my own eyes through a microscope.

    Someday, having studied with Peter Morin and having known people like Dave Tilman will give me a bit of old school cred.

    I wonder if someday, writing or having written a blog will give Brian, Meg, and I old school cred. Blogs are already considered “old school” among the people who pioneered them back in the late 90s and early oughts (and who now mostly use the internet in other ways).

    As I think I said in an old comment, my hope is that if I keep doing certain things in old-fashioned ways long enough, it will be considered interesting rather than eccentric or stupid. I remember back in the late 80s or early 90s, the President of Harvard at the time (Derek Bok?) used a manual typewriter, not a computer or word processor. This was considered an interesting choice and caused people to scratch their chins and muse about the role of new technology in our lives. As opposed to causing people to think “Join the 20th century and buy a computer, you ridiculous Luddite.” 🙂 Maybe someday, when everyone else has wireless Bluetooth brain scanners to beam their thoughts directly to one another’s brains, people will still have to email me, and this will make me interesting.

    • Hey – I resemble that comment!

      I still have some of my first mainframe computer programs on card decks in the closet. And paper tapes, and a paper tape reader… Come to think of it, I have a 9-track cabinet around here somewhere too, and I haven’t tripped over it in ages – I wonder where it’s gotten to?

      Still have binders full of what once were programs (now, undoubtedly just deteriorating rust on sticky tape) stored on audiotape, and a cassette deck with modifiable tracking and playback rate for loading into the computer.

      How about a sequencing-gel reader for the Commodore 64, that uses a pair of microphones placed at the top of the gel, and a high-voltage pen that you used to touch the bands and make spark that went “snap” at each one, letting the computer triangulate the position of the band and record the sequence “automatically”? Still have that, and the gel-dryer in the loft.

      Anyone use the Osborne “portable” CPM computer for field work? Two of those in the closet. How about the darling little HP-85?

      A “flashlight” pointer for presentations, that has a little Schmidt Cassegrain optical system in reverse, with a silhouette of an arrow at the internal focus, so that you got a little arrow-shaped pointer to wave around on your slide presentation? I should start using that again…

      Timers based on Dekatron counters?

      Hah – I just checked and I still have Letraset borders in the office…

      The scary thing is I’m not much older than you kids…

  4. I still have about 1000 papers I photocopied during my PhD organized into a dozen plus binders in my office. Same problem as paper reprints. Doesn’t seem right to throw them away.

    • I took out a small student loan as an undergrad at the University of Nebraska, and most of that cash went, quarter by quarter, into the Xerox machine toward building my reprint collection. The process of “keeping up with the literature” back in 1980 involved a weekly trip to the library to see what new journals had come in, looking for good stuff in the fine print of Biological Abstracts (and later microfiches of Biological Abstracts!), and simply browsing. I learned more about ants by just skimming through volumes of Insectes Sociaux and Psyche one after the other.

      A few years ago I emptied out the six filing cabinets. I kept the taxonomy xeroxes, but everything else went, except for a small pile with sentimental value–original RH MacArthur reprints (…collect them all!), EO Wilson reprints, and one signed by each of my two advisors. Those cabinets now store specimens in EtOH.

    • I still have 5 filing cabinet drawers stuffed with photocopied/printed papers. Only stopped adding to it a few years ago.

      I also have back issues of several journals going back many years.

    • I did a major purge when I moved from GT to Michigan. I filled up a huge recycle bin with old reprints. I only saved ones that were original reprints (though none are as cool as @pheidole’s original reprints!) or that I hadn’t yet scanned. I’m down to just one file drawer of reprints now!

  5. When I teach experimental design, I get to tell my students about unwittingly presenting results from an important (yet definitely, horribly pseudoreplicated) experiment from my dissertation at a seminar in which Stuart Hurlbert was in the audience.

  6. I first learned to code in Pascal, and I found my first books on natural history at the library by using a card catalog. (Admittedly, I was about 10 for both of those examples — yes, I’m younger than most y’all, shush — but still.) I definitely have a mental list of the really cool semi-ancient people I’ve interacted with so far in grad school that I just know I’ll be bragging about meeting some day!

  7. When I applied to graduate school, I asked my undergrad advisors which were the good programs for ecology & evolution, and then looked them up in the Princeton Guide. I chose which schools to apply to based which lists of Department faculty had the greatest number of faculty with interesting (to me) two-line research descriptions.

    Also, I collected morphological data by looking through a microscope and writing down ocular micrometer measurements in a physical notebook.

    • I’ve taken ocular micrometer measurements too. Never occurred to me that that would be old school, but you might be right. How do people measure that sort of thing these days? Take digital photos through the scope and run them through image analysis software? Or do they not do it at all because they no longer collect the sorts of measurements you need an ocular micrometer to collect?

      • Yes, digital photos and then lots of analysis afterwards. I’m not sure this is less painful than ocular micrometer work, but I do think it’s more accurate in my case.

      • My scope has a camera that you can calibrate and take multiple measurements right off the screen. You can store multiple calibrations so you can change magnification. Soooo much better.

    • I take ocular micrometer measurements regularly, but I enter them directly in an excel sheet which calibrates absolute lengths from raw measurements for me.

  8. Years ago at the ESA, there was a symposium on paradigm shifts in ecology. It comprised pairs of talks on the same broad topic (like “population ecology”), one by a very senior person and one by a junior-ish person. I remember Mike Rosenzweig giving a wonderful talk on graphical models (like the Rosenzweig-MacArthur model) as an “old school” approach that still had value. Which he illustrated with his original slides! They were 8 inches on a side or so, and had to be inserted into the antique projector and then removed by hand, one at a time.

    • I was at that talk too! (Tucson 2002.) The giant 8″ slides were advanced by an assistant who had to get up whenever Rosenzweig pressed his clicker (which didn’t actually do anything other than make a clicking sound).
      PS. The “junior-ish person” paired with MR was Troy Day as I recall.

      • Well done remembering the year and venue! I couldn’t recall. But my recollection is that Andre de Roos was paired with Rosenzweig. And I’m pretty sure about it because Andre’s a friend and I remember complimenting him on his talk afterwards. Don’t recall if Troy Day was involved in the symposium in a different pairing or not.

  9. I wonder if anyone will weigh in with having run a PCR by moving the tubes between different temperature water baths? That would give old school science cred, for sure!

  10. I made all my slides for my thesis defense by hand and then sent them off to the photo lab to be photographed. I used to have to go to the library as an undergrad to use a computer with the Medline CDs to search for papers, which I would then hunt in the stacks and photocopy. I felt pretty advanced using EndNote in grad school, but all my references were entered by hand. I drew neuron morphology by hand using a drawing tube for my PhD.

    And most importantly I used to walk to lab barefoot, uphill both ways and in the snow.

    And yes I used Cricketgraph and MacDraw2 to make figures.

  11. I received paper reprints of a paper I was a co-author of as late as in 2012. I treasure them, because it was at a time after I lost my printer account at my University, and before I got access to free printing services.

  12. The small university where I did my MSc. did not get paper copies of the Science Citation Index. Once on a trip to Ottawa to visit my sister, I spent several hours in the Carleton University library tracking down all dozen citations of an obscure 1950s paper.

    This all happened was back when the Web of Science was new, only covered the most recent literature, and was jealously guarded by the librarians. You had to send the library the search terms and they e-mailed you your results back a week or so later. Grad students only got a couple of free searches a term; after that you were charged a fee for each search!

    • Wow, I hadn’t heard that about WoS searches! I remember, as an undergrad, thinking “wouldn’t it be cool if there was a way you could see all the articles that cited a certain one?” It was only in grad school that I learned that such a database existed.

      • Science citation index (what became WOS) came out quarterly. You looked up the citations to a paper in one volume, to get a list of very abbreviated citations (journal year vol. pp) *during that quarter* and then looked up the full citations in another volume. Often these full citations were in different volumes.

        At the end of the year, SCI would issue an annual, which compiled the citations to what was cited that year. The library would just throw the quarterlies away.

        At the end of every five years, SCI would compile a 5-year compilation and the library could throw away the annuals for each of the five years. These were super efficient, except that citations to a single paper were distributed over many volumes of the five-year compendium.

        This worked for much of the science at the time because science that was 5 or 10 (or even 20 or 50) years old was still relevant. Now in many areas of biology (bioinformatics for e.g.), much of the science older than five years just isn’t very relevant to a particular area (much not all. A sad consequence of this is that I think younger researchers in these fields don’t bother with the old literature. I frequently find papers in this area where the authors are clearly ignorant of older papers that would have kept them from repeating past mistakes).

  13. Wrote my first program on a TRS 80. Made my first presentation slides using Harvard Graphics and photographed the computer screens to get data slides (Ektachrome) that then got loaded into a slide projector (still have those slides BTW). Had to go to a science librarian to run my first literature search because only she had access to the mainframe that connected to the electronic database. Three days later I sorted through hundreds of pages of output on those white and green spool printer paper sheet to decided which articles to ILL. Then waited on snail mail to get them. First hard drive was 210 MB and roughly the size of a brick (I now carry 128 GB around my neck and can put a TB in my back pocket [crazy]).

      • I own a book that was owned by David Lack (one of his personal copies of Evolution Illustrated by Waterfowl) that was given to me by his son Andrew. Andrew Lack was one of my PhD supervisors, along with Denis Owen who had been a research assistant to David (Oxford’s a small city….). David Lack famously did research on the Galapagos following encouragement by Julian Huxley, who had in turn been encouraged into the natural sciences by his grandfather Thomas. TH Huxley’s connection to Darwin hardly needs to be mentioned!

        I find it incredible and humbling that so few personal links in time and space can get one back to one of the founders of our science, and one of the most influential scientists ever to have lived.

  14. i gave a undergrad thesis defense with slides, that I had dropped moments before and reinserted backwards. They took it easy on me.

      • I know this is an aside… & not directly relevant to the topic. When I defended, I was already living in another state from where I had done the graduate work. My presentation was saved to a disk- and I carried it with me when I returned to defend. As it turned out, my professor’s computer was infected with a virus- and it rendered the file on his computer- and the disk- unusable. Luckily I had a corporate email account that allowed for attaching enormous files (enormous by standards back then)- and I was able to retrieve it just an hour before my defense. Of course nowadays most files, but not all, can be accommodated by email and I haven’t had the issue occur again.

  15. Hi Meg!
    I know this blog post is pretty old, but now that I am back to work from mat leave, I am trying to catch up on older posts as I chow down on lunch. I couldn’t help but comment on this post because I was both delighted to go down memory lane, and horrified to realize how old I am;/

    I can relate to everything you have written and then some. Like others, I straddled the technological divide from manual to digital. I fondly remember using CricketGraph on our lab Mac during my Master’s, and then used it during my Ph.D. on my own Mac (well into the early 2000s). I was dismayed when it stopped being updated, and it took years until suitable replacements were available (in my humble opinion). Grad school was a wonderful time to learn new technology and programs (and so wish R was around then!).

    My old school cred includes attending plenaries by Shapiro, Patrick, Doolittle (to name a few), and I also had a reprint request from Bob Wetzel (which I still have pinned to my office corkboard). I also counted and identified algae in real-time (i.e. thousands of hours) using a binocular scope for both my Masters and PhD. Today, my students have an LCD screen attached to the scope and can take pictures and measurements instantaneously (in addition to using online keys!). Interestingly, direct microscopic ID and enumeration of algae may seem old-fashioned to some, but it still provides useful information that PCR or image-based techniques cannot (or at least cannot do well).

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  17. Meghan, someday soon your old school science cred may include “having done microsatellites”. My admittedly-vague impression from recent seminars I’ve seen here at Calgary is that microsats are going out of style pretty quickly. It seems like genetic techniques change fast.

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  21. I don’t think anyone mentioned this (?)–making your own white lettering on blue background slides, with some sort of chemical bath. Can’t remember the name of the process (getting TOO old…)

  22. Oh yes! Sending multiple hard copies of manuscripts for the journal to send out to reviewers. Except I remember Ecology wanted an electronic copy, which meant MAILING THEM A FLOPPY DISK. (That made me bang my head even then.) Anyone remember figuring out who had cited a paper by going to huge books with onion-skin paper? You could look up the paper you were interested in and see who had cited it in, say, 1989. And then another book would have who had cited it in 1990. Yeesh, I do not miss that.

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