06. Scientific Breakthrough of the Year: Goofs for Science

Taking a page from a practice observed in the Geology department, at this year's end of the year departmental picnic/barbecue, A small fund was assembled to acquire rewards for a number of minor contests. Some of these were the Lab Darwin awards (our winner was the teller of an anecdote about a labmate almost setting their face ablaze), and one of them was the sobennante "Scientific Breakthrough of the Year". This was an award for a hypothesis driven study derived from an unintentional accident or mishap, and when I read the description, I knew I needed to produce a top notch entry. So I made a document, and started writing.

When I was about six years old I was swimming at the community pool, and as I climbed out of the pool on one of the ladders of one of the pools, I neglected to recognize that a yellow jacket wasp was perched on the top of the left rail, and so my hand came down on upon it, and I was stung. I then went without such an unpleasant experience for over two decades, until while collecting for my field entomology course this past Fall I had the poor luck to have a persnickety enough wasp in my sweep net that stung through the bag into my left hand.

When I was first stung as a child, my response was rather simple: crying, shouting, sobbing, and assuredly an outburst of "Mommy Mommy!". As an adult, the response was notably different: A stream of obscenities, profanity, minced oaths, damnations and utterances best left off this site. No full sentences, no grammatically meaningful statements, just a lot of shouting until the burst of apitoxin induced pain diminished. There was something endlessly interesting to me, mostly at a comedic level, about how much my response changed in that intervening time. As a child, my vocabulary was extraordinarily limited for dealing with pain, and as an adult, it was more than properly equipped. So I had been sitting on this half-joke, half-anecdote for months, when this perfect opportunity came along for me to turn it into something vaguely resembling substance.

The result was a short communication paper, only a page and a half long, with two figures, titled "Social Insects (Hymenoptera: Vespidae) as Tools to Measure Vernacular Vocabulary Development: A Test study". The basic idea was to take the number of discrete words or phrases uttered as an measure of what I called "vernacular vocabulary", which could then conceptually be used as an indirect of general vocabulary, which then could conceivably be then correlated with further types of cognitive and academic information. I had two data points, from the two bee stings, and I was writing away, first the title and abstract (my advisor once passed along the sentiment that if you can't come up with a title for your work, you don't really have an idea of what you're doing). Throughout the intro, methods, results, and discussion, I made a point of not breaking character. Save for a caption describing the wasps involved as "sons of bitches", the entire "paper" was written in a serious and professional tone.

I was lucky enough right at the last minute to get some more data points from a friend, and suddenly my rather hastily assembled graph of the data started to actually resemble some manner of trendline. I saved writing my introduction for last, and soon came across a number of papers actually vaguely connected to what I was writing about, and in one particular paper discussing new computer models for analyzing vocabularies, I actually learned a small amount the actual research in the field, and suddenly my introduction started to sound more serious than facetious. It's certainly the sort of thing that I could expand upon if I had more anecdotal data, but of course the entire premise was a farce to begin with.

A farce that I won. 

Unfortunately, as the Pool of prizes was depleted one by one, my prize was reduced to the only remaining option, a number of packets of wildflower seeds and some garden decorations, which I kindly donated to one of the award committee (one of my actual committee members). I was certainly pleased with the fun I had producing it, and my committee member I think liked it as well, and the Director as always was pleased as punch to see me excited. Sometimes it's fun simply to do something for laughs, and use that momentum to keep you to pace with work. I'd like to think my compilation of my anecdotes of wasp stings was an example of such.

07. Committees Pt 2: The Best Team for the Job

05. Committees Pt 1: Your Friends in High Places