Useful things: free-writing on your research project or dissertation


Author: Brianna

I have two similarly slender books on my desk that are both virtually guaranteed to give me a little motivation boost on any given day: How to Write a Lot, by Paul Silvia, and Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, by Joan Bolker. These books are concise and have plenty of concrete advice that can actually get you writing more, so they’re worth a read.

A major decree from both books is that you must write, at least a little, every (work)day.

I haven’t written much over the last year or two (not just on this blog!), mainly because I’ve been amassing a pile of dissertation data that’s involved many museum trips, measuring hundreds of fossils, lots of pictures, more CT scans than you should shake a stick at, and several memorable weeks collecting gait data on the friendly tapirs at our local zoo.

A few weeks ago, as I tried to gather my thoughts and my PowerPoint slides before heading to the ICVM meeting, I was browsing through the Bolker book when I came across her suggestion to begin each day with ten minutes of free-writing. This can take the form of whiny stream-of-consciousness (“I don’t have any ideas. Why do I never have any ideas…?”), posing a series of questions to yourself (about the project in general, or a particular area you’re stuck on), exploring your thoughts and line of reasoning for something, or even just writing out sentences/paragraphs that might go into a paper.

I’m quite familiar with the creative-writing practices of beginning with free-writing, or shitty first drafts (link is to a PDF file), or starting the day with morning pages. I know it’s useful in that context; I spent a year in an intensive creative writing course at the University of Oregon where at one point we were turning in new short stories every couple weeks, and the only option was to write your tired little fingers off. Also, the license to whine or navel-gaze as part of the free-writing is useful for a fairly high-strung person like me so I can get the cluttered, gnawing thoughts out of my head and onto the page.

But for my research?

Once I thought about it, though, it makes a lot of sense. A recurring concept in books like these, whether about creative writing or scientific writing, is that we should write so that we can think—not think so that we can write.

After spending so much time collecting, processing, and analyzing data, I was feeling a distinct lack of big-picture thinking about the broader arc of my dissertation. Also, I’m nearing my favorite time: paper-writing time. One or two of my dissertation projects are very nearly ready to write up as papers, but that means I need to be in a writing frame of mind again!

Enter dissertation free-writing. Most resources on free-writing (/shitty first drafts/morning pages) recommend using a notebook and pen, but I’m lazy and I like things I can search or copy/paste, so I made a Word document. Do whatever works for you.

Let me tell you, it was the best idea I’ve had in awhile.

I started with all the questions I have, or want to answer, or am trying to answer. I wrote out ideas about how I am doing that, and how I might do that in the future. I noted down snags and doubts and areas where I feel like my logic or argument is fuzzy. I brought up papers I’ve read (or need to read) that relate to certain areas. I pondered follow-up projects. I sketched out some plans for my ICVM talk. I made a list of the last bits of data I need to get before writing up a paper. I sketched out the main ideas of each of the next few papers I’ll write. I whined (a little). I spent some time thinking about the Big Ideas that get me excited as a scientist, and how I might pursue those in the long run.

Naturally my overall thinking has been boosted by feedback and conversations at this conference, but even before I got here, I began to feel a nice sense of clarity – like I could actually wrap my brain around the project again instead of being lost in the weeds.

Time will tell how much this pays off in terms of actual writing productivity. I’ve begun writing snippets of actual…well, writing….in my free-write document, the kinds of sentences that might go into a paper. I tend to think pretty hierarchically, so before long I’ll begin working from an actual outline for these manuscripts. We’ll see how much of the material generated in these sessions translates to the draft itself, but I am already convinced of the utility of daily(ish) free-writing to boost productivity on a specific research project.

Is Google Glass dead? I don’t think so, and here’s why

Subtitle: A short essay in which Kelsey proves she is an extremophile of Sci-Fi literature

People love to make predictions of success and failure. Star Trek is commonly cited as one of the first tv shows to predict the flip phone, ipad, and smart phone. ‘Back to the Future II’ predicted the hoverboard, Arthur C. Clarke first conceived of GPS, and Ray Bradbuy, in ‘Farenheight 451’ predicted earbuds, giant TVs, and mechanical hounds…and cats*. Compared to all that, digital glasses (a la William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’) seems like a slam dunk. Plus, Google is like the Pixar of the tech world. They’ve has had so many wins, how could they fail? Yet, two years and thousands of selfies later, the predicted revolutionary impact of Google Glass now seems to be going the way of the Segway.


Restored 17th C. sketch of Raphus cucullatus by Dronte (Wikimedia)

However, like the Segway, Google has not tapped into the true market for the glass: the primary (raw materials) and secondary (manufacturing) economic sectors. Stay with me here and I promise this leads back to Paleontology. How handy would it be for an inventory screen to pop up in the right upper corner of a person’s vision? Or for a logging company to keep track of where and how they are cutting down trees? You could even keep a record of what each tree looked like before. A surgeon used the Glass to record his procedure, but in the future I can see EMTs sending reports and pictures of the patient to the hospital before they arrive, so the staff are better prepared.

No one would judge a person wearing Glass to inventory or save a person’s life. Instead of trying Glass out in the shower or at a wine bar, we as a society should focus on what technology can contribute to humanity, not how it can enhance a Facebook status.

“Really, Captain, I don’t feel silly at all wearing this…” (ST DS9)

Currently, the University of Texas at Austin’s Non-Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory (NPL) has a team of volunteers using three Glasses to conduct a cursory inventory of their 3.5 MILLION fossils. Chase, one of the employees at NPL, calculated that it would take him 90 YEARS to catalog all the fossils currently at NPL the “traditional way.” The pictures produced by Glass are sharp enough that they are already being used for reference. It’s a damn good start.

If the 2015 Consumer Electronic Show (CES) is any indication, wearable tech is the way of the future, but a future that must be as useful as it is flashy. Gadgets can’t just be useful for the consumer market, the have to blend into the background of a “normal” life. However, in an industrial or scientific context, normal is shoved out the window in favor of innovative tech, and most importantly, gadgets that make people’s lives easier.

So, there you have it. Google Glass is not a Segway (which, by the way, has been adopted in large manufacturing facilities and by security companies), but a useful tool for the future.

And don’t forget: there are plenty of wrong futuristic predictions as well.

*And let’s not get into how accurate Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ turned out to be. I’m just glad that fannypacks aren’t nearly as popular as he predicted.

Interesting ways we can talk ourselves into productivity

Author: Brianna

This morning I’m working in pajamas, waiting for the utility company folks to send a person to look at the gas meter or whatever it is that they have to do that requires you to be home for a 4-hour window. The subject of my work is a manuscript that I’m rather fond of, one that I and my coauthors are aiming to get submitted next week.

But you know how the end of writing a paper goes: last 2% of the paper, what feels like 50% of the total work.


And yet, yesterday I wound up putting in quite a bit of revision and tidying. All this shortly after I’d pretty much written the afternoon off, because I was sleepy and we had lab meeting focused on a really challenging paper that more or less fried my brain for more complicated thinking. So what got me going?

A little task on my Google Calendar that said “Add references for R packages to PC horses paper.”

Because, hey, adding references for R packages is pretty easy and doesn’t require a lot of effort! And my time-tracking app was showing me that I wasn’t putting on much of a good show yesterday. (This is why I have one: to keep me honest.) So I decided I’d rack up a few more points minutes with an easy task.

Well, you know where the rest of this story goes. I added a short paragraph citing the R packages after tracking them all down and adding them to Zotero. I corrected some numbers on the manuscript that had changed a bit when I fixed a mistake in the code. I wrote a new caption for a figure that had changed considerably and then changed the main paper text to reflect the new figure. I found a couple places to improve our phrasing. Then I wandered over to the Discussion section that needed a little more love and found myself revising, and then adding new text…

All that from a Very Easy Item on a to-do list that I happened to see when I was checking my calendar.

I’m not sure what the unsolicited suggestion is here. Perhaps it is: keep in mind what small fiddly tasks you might be able to do as a way to ease into more challenging tasks on the same project.

Wait…you do what?

Author: Kelsey

Over the winter break I took three weeks to visit my family and friends in Portland, OR. I think I saw pretty much EVERYONE I usually promise to see on such holiday visits. Usually I have a 50% attrition rate, but by staying for a prolonged period of time I met all my people, rest, and work goals.

However, meeting so many people made me realize how few people knew what I was doing and, more importantly, WHY I was doing it. They were usually not asking about the larger philosophical reasons why I am in Paleontology or a Masters program in Texas (let’s save that for a later post), but why, as a paleontologist, I am studying the skulls of modern lizards. Good question. Let’s get into it.

I am studying Australian agamid lizards (heretofore referred to as ‘AA lizards’), specifically the osteology (skeleton, bones) of these lizards. These lizards are highly variable and some are crazy enough to appear on popular nature shows. If you’ve ever seen a frilled lizard running upright (i.e. Chlamydosaurus kingii) or a spiky lizard that slowly walks and gorges itself on ants (Moloch horridus), you’ve seen one of my study organisms.

File:Dilophosaurus (Jurassic Park).jpg

Fun fact: Jurassic Park’s Dilophosaurus has more in common with the frill-necked lizard (C. kingii) than the actual reconstruction of the dinosaur. Represent!

Agamids are part of Squamata, the largest living order of reptiles (a group of animals long thought to be the domain of naturalists and 8 year old boys, which is, in fact, a myth). The ancestors of modern agamids differentiated pretty early from the rest of Squamata. Agamids, iguanids, and chameleons form the Order Iguana (appropriately named). Iguanids and chameleons are probably more closely related to each other than to agamids. After that… the picture gets rather hazy.

Like most of the current dominant orders, squamates are thought to diversify during the Jurassic. After this the agamids die off in the Americas when Pangea splits, but they slowly invade Africa, Asia, and, eventually, Australia. Recent genetic analyses1 have shown AA lizards have been in Australia for much longer than their slow invasion would have allowed. Remember that.

Behold, Pangea! If ever there was time for a road trip… 

The fossil record? Sparse and mostly jaws, which is actually pretty cool. Agamids and chameleons have teeth that literally fuse to their jaw bones (acrodont dentiton)2
. They literally can’t lose their teeth. Instead, they are worn down gradually and eventually the jaw is used as a cutting surface if no tooth is left. For chameleons, all teeth are irreplaceable, whereas for agamids only the side teeth are irreplaceable and the front teeth are replaced with wear (pleurodont dentition). So, their teeth are pretty cool, but that means most of what is known about the osteology of agamids centers around the jaw (or the ribs, if you are Draco volans, but I digress).

So what is the problem? Currently, most of the work on modern agamids is genetic, which is awesome, but it means there is no way to directly compare what we know about modern agamids with their fossil ancestors (which lack genetic data). Fossil DNA has been sequenced, but only for fossils that were well preserved and only thousands of years old. In other words, the babies of the fossil record. Babies. DNA duplicates and changes easily, which is how evolution can occur, but that means it also easily degrades once death occurs. What paleontologists are mostly left with is bones.


Genetics can overestimate the divergence times of different groups of animals, and accuracy decreases the farther back in time you go. Often, fossils are used to calibrate or check phylogenies, but if no one knows what a fossil agamid would look like… And that’s where I come in!


What I have done so far: collected all osteological characters used to describe agamids, rewritten characters, coded characters on my lovely AA lizard skeletal collection*, and recorded all the weird stuff I’ve noticed along the way.

*skeletal collection not actually mine, but we’ve bonded a bit

Currently: I am running tree analyses, taking pictures through a microscope to definitively record these characters (you’re welcome, five interested people), and writing.

In a few months I will be able to tell you what makes the skeletons of different species of AA lizards unique, what these characters can contribute to a phylogeny, and one of the many critical gaps between the past and the present will be a little smaller. I am adding information not only to the past, but the current state of these lizards, which is becoming more and more critical in our extinction-centric world.

What more do agamids have to offer? That, my friend, will have to wait for a later post…



1. Smirina, Ella M., and Natalia B. Ananjeva. “Growth layers in bones and acrodont teeth of the agamid lizard Laudakia stoliczkana (Blanford, 1875)(Agamidae, Sauria).” Amphibia-Reptilia 28.2 (2007): 193-204.

2.Hugall, Andrew F., and Michael SY Lee. “Molecular claims of Gondwanan age for Australian agamid lizards are untenable.” Molecular biology and evolution21.11 (2004): 2102-2110.

Little things: small habits that help my science focus and productivity

Author: Brianna

Here’s another old post that was initially drafted some months ago. More thinking about work habits.

Focus is a fickle creature sometimes. Getting consistent, high-quality work done without burning out (or wasting too much time trying to optimize my ability to get that work done) is a challenge — and finding the right balance of routine and change is important, too.

As I switched from “work mode” to “browse the internet for 10 minutes before I meet my friends for lunch mode,” I did a couple things that made the shift more clean mentally. Then I decided I would share with you some of these little things I do, mostly without thinking about them, to help me work when I am working and relax when I am relaxing.

At work, I listen to music when I am working. When I start doing something else (email, chatting to friends who drop by, reading blog posts, tweeting) the music goes off.

After reading this Dynamic Ecology post about work hours in science, I started tracking my time. I do it in a very loose way, tracking only academic-related things (different science projects, email, fun science/academia reading, paper reading, etc) and not any other life activities. I use a free timer for Android called TimeSheet; it’s simple and has nice features. It’s been enlightening seeing how much work I am truly doing during the day. Knowing that it’s running reminds me to stay on task or read just one more paper even though I’m a bit bored. Also interesting: seeing how the peaks and troughs smooth out to a quite respectable average.

If I’m stuck in a procrastination loop or just really struggling with what I’m working on, I reset by going for a walk outside and often by making a cup of tea before I sit back down to the work at hand. Smaller version: close all programs and close my laptop, get up, stretch, sit back down and begin again.

I change my level of planning detail on a pretty regular basis. Right now, my outline for the week is very loose and vague (e.g., today’s list shows work on a phylogeny project in morning, lunch + walk, work on the postcrania project all afternoon plus some dissertation specimen planning, a Skype call, and a library book return task). You’ll notice that those aren’t very accomplishment-focused, other than returning the library book. Other times I work best if I map out very specific tasks to specific times of day. Other times I am motivated by setting discrete tasks and saying I’m done with work for the day when I am done with them. No one thing ever seems to work for me forever, so I’ve learned to just roll with whatever motivates me most at the time.

I use Chrome Nanny to block tempting websites like Twitter during specific times of day. Usually just in the morning; by afternoon, I tend to be in a working groove and capable of discipline.

On days when my focus seems totally shattered, I’ll do the “mental reboot” I mentioned earlier (walk, tea, or shut laptop) and then work in painfully tiny timed increments. When I’m really having a rough time, I start with 15 minutes. (You can type into Google, “Set timer for 15 minutes.” Magic.) I can do whatever I want after the 15 minutes, but for those 15 minutes I am not allowed to do anything but work. No bathroom break, no tea, no just-check-the-email-for-a-second. This bite-sized goal helps me work back up to more usual 50-minute chunks of focused work with short breaks in between.

If I am working on something and have distracting thoughts – about other research projects, about something I just remembered I need to do later, about a really great name for a cat, whatever – I write it down on scrap paper and leave it for after my work session.

Priorities in research doings (or: knitr, mammalogy labs, and motivation)

Author: Brianna

One of the nicest things about graduate school, for me, is the control over my schedule. I had that in undergrad too, but more constraints because of more classes. Also I was still riding horses almost every day, which cut out most evenings. Why is control over my schedule so great? Because I am obnoxious about my work habits and I think I can get better work out of myself when I follow my nose.

I drafted this post a few weeks ago in a fit of inspired work time. (I’m still just as excited about knitr, by the way. And the paper I mention is getting submitted in the next week or two, with full data and the code formatted all pleasantly thanks to knitr.)

You guys know the way I think about work habits all the time: I have detailed writing strategies, I enjoy settling into routines and then semi-frequently breaking them, I spend time thinking about nature of motivation. About the only thing that stays really constant is that I’m a morning person, so I don’t really do work past 7pm except in dire circumstances or…moments of pressing inspiration.

Which is to say: yesterday I was working on R code for a really neat project on horses from the Paisley Caves of Oregon, and as I was working I was pondering its eventual inclusion with the paper itself. So I was trying to be thorough, you know, including code to save the plots and commenting things nicely and such. And then I thought, what the hell, learning to use knitr and rmarkdown to make nice outputs has been on my to-do list for awhile, let’s learn it.

Which is more or less why I wound up working last night until about 8, when the grumbling of my stomach became too much to ignore. (You’ll note that the other half of Fossilosophy would snicker at this, as Kelsey sometimes doesn’t even warm up until around that time in the evening.)

Because I was having fun. So much fun. Do you guys REALIZE how cool knitr is??

Right, about priorities: yesterday I tasked myself with working on writing mammalogy labs. That is also a cool project that gets me really excited about science and teaching, because I get to design an entire semester’s worth of labs. And also I am feeling internal pressure to make forward progress on it because it has slipped down on the priorities list thanks to preparing two posters for SVP.

But I was really excited about knitr!

So you know what? I worked on my code and knitr. Because damned if I’m going to waste the kind of excitement that helps me learn important tools I’ll use in just about every research project ever, while also moving forward the project that is probably closest to submission of all my projects.

This is the glory of having few to no hard deadlines this semester, a luxury that I recognize is rare and thus will milk for all it is worth. I will still write all the mammalogy labs; a day or two will make zero difference. How silly it would have been to let the internal guilt meter decide what to work on when I was truly excited and motivated about something else that also offers me long-term research benefits.

Extra credit links:
A Beginner’s Tutorial for knitr
Knitr with R Markdown
Getting Started with R Markdown, knitr, and Rstudio 0.96
Drifting towards deadwood, or not: learning to use R (interesting thoughts on putting in the time to learn big new skills; same thought process I use to make myself put in the time to learn things like knitr)

Posts I have found useful that are about getting into and going to grad school

Author: Brianna

I had excellent mentoring as an undergraduate. Among the many wonderful things about being in the HopkinsDavis lab was their attention, when the time came, to giving us good and detailed advice throughout the graduate school application/admissions process. Potential labs to apply to, yes you really do need to apply for that NSF GRFP (thanks Sam!), feedback on essay structure, sympathy + a kick of motivation when all the deadlines collided, a sounding board for the Actual Decision About Where To Go For Grad School needed to be made, and more.

Anyway, there’s a new crop of undergrads at the UO pondering grad school, and I promised to write up a collection of blog posts I’d found useful. They’re mostly focused on Biology-type or at least science programs, because that’s what I do. I post the list and my comments here in hopes that it may be useful to other readers too! Feel free to add your own suggestions, particularly more recent posts, in the comments.


Dynamic Ecology (a great blog to read in general!) with some thoughts on what to do before and while applying to graduate school.

Clear and concise advice on the whole thing (with a math/comp sci focus) from Matt Might, including book recommendations, what he looks for in grad students, what to do if you’re rejected, and lots more. Actually, his many posts on grad school/research/academia are well worth taking some time to read as a current or future grad student; you could start with the ‘related posts’ down at the bottom of that one.

Contacting professors

Writing to me” (about graduate school) from Female Science Professor. Discussion of levels of quality, and her likelihood of responding, from form letter to very well-considered.

Advice on choosing and applying, including emphasis on finding a potential advisor, in geology. From Mountain Beltway. (Listen to his advice about file-naming for your CV.)

More specific advice on contacting potential advisors, including some direct examples of emails, from Neurotypical?.

My general advice: be polite (use Dr. or Professor in the salutation, check that you haven’t left any copy/paste errors if you’re reusing parts of an email, don’t go on for paragraphs, show that you’ve done your homework), ask questions, definitely contact current students, try as hard as you can to actually meet professors of interest before applying to work with them, ask friends and colleagues for labs they know of that might be a good fit, and Google is your friend for finding potential labs you might not have otherwise heard of.


My grad school application essay” from Female Science Professor, including rules on not talking about how you have wanted to do X since you were 5 years old. And a really amusing shot at the Platonic ideal of a bad applications essay.

Things you should do and not do in your personal statement, from Prof-Like Substance.

Excellent advice on asking for letters of recommendation from Arthropod Ecology. (You know it’s a good post if I’m actually linking to a website THAT USES PICTURES OF SPIDERS IN ITS HEADER.)

Another note from me: start early. Submitting things at the last minute = mistakes, and almost certainly means you haven’t had enough people read and give thorough feedback on your application materials. Having good, critical editing is invaluable for the personal statement and research essays. Ask research mentors! Ask current grad students! This can be tough if you’re still taking classes, so plan ahead. (You will probably still end up scrambling at the last minute. If you do, try to take the brunt of the suffering yourself; don’t, for example, ask for a letter of rec with 3 days’ notice.)


Good questions to ask current (biomedical) grad students.

It’s not an interview,” pay attention to cost of living, and other advice on grad school interviews from Not the Lab.

If you’re wondering what to wear (which I certainly did), I’d say it’s about comparable to what grad students wear at conferences. Which doesn’t solve the problem if you haven’t been to conferences. Happily advice on conference-wear for my general area of science is much easier to find than on interview-wear. In short, something you’re comfortable in, and that is less casual than jeans but more casual than a suit, is probably fine (though I saw both jeans and suits when I interviewed). Be prepared for weather: cold places are cold, especially during interview season. When I interviewed at Harvard we got ~3ft of snow overnight and it took extra days to get home. Fun! If you want more detailed recommendations than that, here are a few more takes on the idea (mostly aimed at women): How to dress for a conference like a fashionable lady scientist, Women’s attire at AGU (geology meeting!), and a beautifully bitter/rebellious/uplifting “What can I wear to this conference?” poem from the kickass Meaghan at Mary Anning’s Revenge.

Choosing a program

Dr. Isis on two really important features to ponder: funding and placement.

Brief advice on several questions about choosing a program, from advisor choice to geographic preference to teaching opportunities, from Sociobiology.

Note that there are many differing opinions on going for a Masters degree before jumping into a PhD program. For example, this Dynamic Ecology post on choosing a program argues why doing a Masters can be a very good idea (and has other good advice besides). For what it’s worth, both halves of Fossilosophy came out of the same undergrad lab, and one of us is doing a MS first while the other went straight to PhD. We are both happy with our respective choices.

I will note that making the final decision was really tough for me. I think I could have been quite happy and successful in any of the three graduate programs that accepted me; in some ways that made the choice easier because it was probably hard to truly screw it up, but in other ways it made the choice very difficult indeed. Talk to people about it — I had many discussions with my undergrad advisors, my friends and labmates, and my family while mulling the choices over. There are many variables to consider and it’s a deeply personal decision. Don’t forget that, if you have more questions at this stage, you can still be in contact with your potential advisor and/or labmates to ask about more things you want to know.

That seems like a sufficient amount of material for now. Happy reading!

Google Glass and paleontology collections: keeping a level head

Author: Kelsey

Today we continue on our Google Glass adventure! Check in here and here to see what we’re doing and why.

Confession time: At this point in time I know only a rudimentary amount of programming. This only becomes a problem when I get a brilliant idea (my Morse Code App will exist… one day) or Google Glass doesn’t do something I want it to do. Well, short of taking a crash course in shoddy programming, I decided to create a “physical app” to address my predicament.

The quandary: To take a picture with Glass, you say “Ok, Glass, take a picture”. The computer then beeps happily to you as it takes a ‘screen grab’ of your life. Now, our version of glass did not get the update to aim Glass’ camera before a picture is taken (this is a common complaint among those wandering Google Explorers). So, every time I took a picture, I found I that I tilt my head about 30 degrees to the right.


Either that or we have a serious problem with our drawers

I’m not sure if this is because all the weight of Glass is on the right, or I naturally incline my head about 30 degrees, but I needed a way to keep my head level as I took pictures. When I was a kid, I used to play with my dad’s level, assessing the stability of my Barbie house and bunk bed (yep, I had a bunk bed/fort/space ship… on reflection I’ve significantly downgraded since then). So I decided to create a device to hold a small level in front of my left eye.

After a quick trip to JoAnne’s, I acquired a teeny level my kid-self would be jealous of. I raided the NPL supply closet and came away with tongue depressors, B-52 (an adhesive), and twisty ties. One hour later, it lived!


Behold! Our product shot

Notice how far out the level is compared to the glass. That’s because Glass uses refraction to make the image appear farther away than it actually is. The level uses good old-fashioned corneal focusing. That day I achieved two goals: I provided the entertainment for the day by strutting around and I also managed to take level pictures.


This represents a beautiful moment in my life

In the end, the device is more of a training tool than a permanent addition. Once I had the feel for what “level” was, I was able to remove the device and still take even shots with Glass. Then again, why would I want to take off such a classy addition?


NPL: they tolerate me so well

Special thanks to Angie and Cissy for the photoshoot.

Questions? Comments? Leave them below.

Google Glass and paleontology collections: what we learned, Part II

Author: Kelsey

Recap: One of my projects this summer was testing Google Glass for the Nonvertebrate Paleontology Laboratory (NPL) here at the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences. We are interested in testing curation potential. After many rather artistic drawer shots and some casual photograph comparisons, I decided to suit up and get systematic. If you’re just joining us, check out Part I here!

Goals: My primary interest is in data preservation, so I’ll be focusing on the object and text resolution, including degree of pixelation, lighting conditions, and glare. I decided to compare Glass against another small, mobile device: the iPhone5.


Setting: The set of drawers I decided to photograph houses a set of preserved insects (sadly, no DNA here). The external dimensions of the bottom cabinet are 59.5 x 71.2 x 121 cm (w x l x h). The average drawer width and length is 54 x 66 cm. The only light sources are overhead fluorescent bulbs. The temperature was around 85 degrees F (29.5 C) with a humidity around 60%.


Not shown: cabinet of extra undergrads


Parameters: I am testing the “hands off” potential for Glass, so I only used voice commands and the touchpad when I had to. None of the pictures needed to be “shared,” just saved on the device, so no wi-fi or Bluetooth connection was necessary. I wore the glasses lanyard to prevent slippage (discussed in Part I). For comparison, I used the NPL’s iPhone5. Both tests weretimed and any label I removed from a bag to photograph for one trial, I would have to for the others as well. Both the outside (“Out”) and inside (“In”) were photographed.

Scoring System: The recording device with the the greatest object resolution and text resolution would be tallied for each drawer image. If there was no appreciable difference or both could work just as well, both were tallied for that picture.




Time: Glass 15 minutes 32 seconds, iPhone5 21 minutes 15 seconds



There you have it! Both the iPhone and Google Glass have good resolution to record object data (i.e. the fossils are recognizable). The iPhone outperforms Google Glass in text resolution, but Glass only takes about 75% of the time. This is only a pilot study with one trial (I know, but n = 1 sounds like a better and better plan as the temperature rises in the cages!), but it is very important in determining our next step. Mainly, we need a higher-resolution camera in Glass. At this point more information is lost to resolution, lighting, and glare than is made up for by the hands-free Glass experience…for now, anyway.

The pace of not only technology innovation, but technology adoption, is increasing. We could fear change and criticize the hiccups, or we can work to understand these emerging technologies and use them in novel ways no one ever thought possible. Personally, I love a bit of constructive criticism (it’s the only way I stopped being the “know-it-all” kid in high school), but too much negativity only highlights technology’s Orwellian uses. We expect Glass and similar devices will catch up with smartphones in no time. At that point we (NPL) plan to acquire a second Glass.

Our future projects include training volunteers, testing the screen projection capabilities, tagging images, linking images, app programming, and virtual field trips. Living on the bleeding edge definitely has its drawbacks, but this summer has been a fascinating experience and I can’t wait to see what is next.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series: how to deal with the dang drawer tilt.

Questions? Comments? Leave them below.

Google Glass and paleontology collections: what we learned, Part I


Author: Kelsey

Part I in the Google Glass series. Other posts: Part II.

The Lowdown: Google Glass has remarkable potential as a curation and documentation tool, but what it gains in efficiency it loses in picture resolution and lack of updates. Before we acquire our next one, we will wait for a newer version with a better camera, but we are stoked by this new piece of technology.

Background: This summer the Nonvertebrate Paleontology Laboratory (NPL) acquired Google Glass, version 2 of the explorer edition. NPL is part of the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences, where I go to grad school and study Australian agamid lizards in all their cranial kinetic glory. Full disclosure: I was working at NPL and had suggested to Ann (Curator and Collections Manager) earlier in the year that we try out this new technology. The idea of augmented reality or forehead cameras is not a new one—sci-fi writers have been heralding their coming for over half-a-century—but here was a chance to test a tangible piece of the future.

We had one “simple” goal at the beginning of our adventure: test the camera and video for curation potential. Ten to twenty thousand fossils are added to NPL every year. Only 1/8th of these are digitally recorded in our database. Inventory is a careful balance of speed and detail. Whole drawer contents and individual specimens are often recorded. Our fleet of staff and volunteers have begun using cameras, ipads, smart phones, and now Google Glass. In science (and, I suspect, academic institutions in general) simple goals often turn into reticulating fractals of fascinating sub-tests, sub-questions, and side studies. Fortunately, that’s why I got into this business.

Requirements: We are interested in devices that reliably and repeatedly capture images with a high enough resolution that all text in the field of view is readable and the fossils are individually recognizable. These photos would then be saved in our database for future research and inventory reviews

Stats: The Google Glass Explorer Edition comes with a 5MP fixed-focus CMOS camera capable of taking 2560 x 1888 resolution images. The fixed focus means the glass is set to capture as great a depth of field as possible and will not adjust, automatically or otherwise. Glass will tune the ISO (shutter and aperture controls) from as low as 60 to a high of at least 960. Videos are shot in 720p only. The aperture size of about f/2.5 with a focal length of 2.7 mm.

Start: I found taking pictures with glass is like switching from a go-cart to a normal car, you have to get used no longer aiming for the middle of the road. When you are wearing glass, the screen is above your right eye (NOT in front of it), and the camera lens is to the right of that, so you will have to aim your head at left side of the drawer while taking the picture. The camera app for our edition does not have an aiming feature, so getting the correct angle and resolution takes practice, patience, and intuition.

Observations: Hands-free is great! When I used the iphone to take pictures (more about that in a part II), I had to constantly put down the phone to move drawers or reposition specimen labels. It was incredibly handy to have both my hands free. Additionally, glass really is comfortable to wear.

OkGlassOk Glass, point the laser at…

However, I found I was never truly hands free. For every single picture you have to backtrack (the “swipe down” action) to the glass home screen (above) and ask it to take a picture. Glass saves all pictures, but immediately prompts you to share an image immediately after you capture it. This could be solved with a simple picture app that bypasses the social media features. Once I get my mad programming skills up to snuff, this is one of the first projects I’d like to tackle.

Pictures: I found the large depth of field meant I often underestimated how much of the drawer was in view, or I’d overcompensate and get WAY too close and personal with the fossils, which just resulted in close up shots of fuzzy fossils. Most of these can be solved with practice and the addition of aiming software.


Aiming Troubles

The camera is very sensitive to light levels and has no internal regulatory mechanism. Even a slight adjustment in head angle can make the difference between a dim or overexposed picture. Wearing a baseball hat or wide-brimmed hat does not help, only squishes the glass down to uncomfortable angles.


This analysis? Just right.

I also had a problem tilting my head to the right. I suspect most people to not hold their heads perfectly upright, which results in a tilt to the picture. More on how I dealt with this problem in an upcoming blog post, “Keeping Level-Headed.”

Looking down to photographs low drawers caused the glass to slip, so I added a lanyard in the back. This was easy for one side, but the battery on the right necessitated a duct tape solution. The addition does not compromise comfort too much and helps really secure the glass to my head. Fashion may also be compromised to a certain degree.


Google Glass: Nerd Edition

Overheating was also an issue. Our collections spaces (“the cages”) are, for the most part, not climate controlled and summertime Texas heat and humidity are high even early in the morning. However, even in the climate controlled areas, continuous use causes glass to flash a warning message after about 15 to 20 minutes. This is an oft-cited problem in the glass community, and comes as a consequence of clashing optimal operating temperatures.

Is the text readable? Sometimes. The smaller the text and the worse the lighting conditions, the more likely it is to lose data. Also, it’s impossible to check the pictures until they are loaded onto a larger screen. On the other hand, when I had to leave a project half-way through and wanted to pick up where I left off, I could simply review the most recent pictures or videos and quickly start where I left off.


 If I never see this label again…

So, is NPL a victim of the Gartner Cycle  or are we pushing the boundaries of museum science? Once I had a handle on the initial pros and cons (hands free, trouble aiming, trouble with light balance, overheating, and resolution) we decided to conduct a more formal study comparing the iPhone 5 to Google Glass. See “What we learned: Part II” for results and my preliminary conclusions!

Questions? Comments? Leave your reflections below.