Sunday, April 26, 2009



This past Monday was Xavier's Celebration of Student Research, and I had the privilege of being a presenter. A requirement of all senior Biology majors is a two-semester course of research, and part of that course is to create a poster presentation to enter in the University's Celebration of Student Research. We were given guidelines and instructions on how to create said poster, and actually received a free tri-fold presentation board from the Dean's office. If I do say so myself, my poster turned out awesome! Of course I might be biased, but I felt really good about it.

As part of the poster session, I set up my poster in a specified location and stood in front of it for approximately two and a half hours to answer questions. For the most part, only Biology faculty and Biology majors stopped to ask me anything, but it was still nice that some people were interested. I even had an education major stop by and ask me questions, and she seemed extremely interested! Only after she asked me all these questions did she tell me that this was part of an extra credit opportunity for her Psychology class... Oh well, I was happy to oblige anyway.

The Biology faculty seemed to be impressed with my work and were actively trying to understand the principles and formulate intelligent questions. Some of these faculty I haven't spoken to in several years, so it was nice to get to talk to them again. Not only did they ask research-related questions, but were genuinely concerned with me personally, such as was I excited to be a senior and so close to graduating. Or even what my plans were after leaving Xavier. Wow, that was a great feeling to actually be engaged by these brilliant people. That made me respect them even more (if that was possible).

The highlight of the poster session for me came toward the very end. As the session was wrapping up, the Dean came over and was looking around at the various posters in my area. She stopped right in front of mine, looked at the poster, and decided to ask me about it. She hadn't talked to anyone from my research group and picked me out of our four groups! This was a bit of a challenge for me, since most of the people who had stopped until now were familiar with biological terms and jargon. Since I wasn't sure what her background with Biology was, I had to be careful not to go overboard, but in the same way, she is the Dean and I didn't want to seem like I was dumbing it down. She seemed to be following along and was genuinely interested, asking intelligent questions just as the Biology faculty had done. At the end of my little talk, she seemed to be impressed and congratulated me on all my hard work. WOW! Plus she was genuinely interested in me personally, asking about what my plans were and if I was going to be at Commencement in May. Well obviously I am going, so she made a point to say, "Good, then I'll see you there!" What a rewarding experience, let me tell you. It's nice to be acknowledged, isn't it?

Part of the program, at least for the participants, was to receive a booklet with pictures of all the presenters and the abstracts of their research. (We also received a certificate for our participation, as well as a commemorative book bag for the occasion.) Our research advisor, Dr. Finke, decided to take a group picture instead of submitting individual pictures, so this was the photo that appeared in the booklet.

Underneath the picture and following on the next page were the abstracts from our presentations. So technically I was published! Here is the text of my abstract as it was included in the booklet. The only change that I made for the poster itself was that I included results as a part of the abstract. (The abstract was due about a month prior to the presentation, and at the time I didn't have results.)

Sean M. Monroe, (Dr. Linda R. Finke)
Department of Biology

Nitrogen fixation is an important process within the nitrogen cycle in which atmospheric nitrogen is reduced to ammonia by the bacterial enzyme nitrogenase. This process is typical within bacterial-plant symbioses in which the bacterial symbiont fixes nitrogen, which in turn benefits the plant symbiont. The Azolla-Anabaena symbiosis is a perfect example of such a relationship, since the Anabaena cyanobacterium provides ammonia for the Azolla fern, while in turn receiving a suitable habitat under the leaves of the ferns. Since this symbiosis exists in aqueous environments, small changes in the content of the water can have a dramatic effect on the survival and activity of both symbionts. Salinity is one cause of such problems, and was the basis for this study. In this study, the effects of the salt sodium sulfate (Na2SO4) were studied on the Azolla-Anabaena symbiosis. The symbionts were exposed to three concentrations of Na2SO4 between 5 and 15 mM and allowed to grow for several weeks. My hypothesis was that the Na2SO4 would be detrimental to the survival of the symbionts and would cause a decrease in nitrogen fixation activity. The acetylene reduction assay was performed at hourly intervals to measure nitrogen fixation rates of the experimental groups exposed to Na2SO4. Acetylene reduction data were compared among these treatment groups, and with reference to a control group of organisms not exposed to Na2SO4 salinity.

Friday, April 17, 2009

I Dreamed a Dream

This story has been all over TV and the Internet lately, but today was the first time I actually got to see it. In case you were in the minority like I was, there was a performance on the reality show "Britain's Got Talent" recently that has left everyone stunned. This woman named Susan Boyle got up to sing for the show, as was her dream, and she astounded everyone. She sang the song "I Dreamed a Dream" from the musical Les Miserables, and WOW...

YouTube won't let me embed this video in my blog, but I strongly recommend that you visit it here.

Frankly, if you don't cry when you watch this, you have no soul. I've watched it twice now, and I couldn't stop the tears from welling up. Yes, her voice is so beautiful, but I was also touched by how much the judges and the audience shunned her at first. That whole "don't judge the book by the cover" thing has become so cliche that it has no meaning nowadays, but I think it truly applies here. Why do people feel like they have to be so cruel and unkind?

I saw one girl in the audience that laughed hysterically when Susan was on-stage and rolled her eyes at the idea that she wanted to be a famous singer. These people didn't even give her a chance! I can honestly say that this was a wake-up call for me; I may not always give people the chance they deserve, but I can assure you that I will be much more aware of what I do, what I say, and what I think about people from now on. But, the biggest thing I have learned from this video:


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Uncle Tom

I know I have shared this information with many of my readers through other media, but in case you are one of those who did not, I wanted to post something here. My dad's brother Tom passed away at around 3:00 AM last Wednesday. He had been diagnosed with a brain tumor about two years ago, which was subsequently removed; unfortunately, the tumor returned in greater numbers recently, and had spread to various parts of his brain. These tumors had affected the language and personality centers, which caused difficulty speaking and understanding. I have been told that his last days were peaceful and without pain, and that is definitely something for which I am thankful.

Although during the last several years our families have not been close, we were very close when I was younger. Today I find that most of my familial communications are with my mom's family, but this was not the case when I was a child. We visited with my dad's family almost every week or every two weeks for family cookouts or meals of some kind. Plus there were occasional "reunion" type meetings; I can remember the most recent one (sad to say that 10 years ago was recent) was held in Gatlinburg, TN, in the beauty of the mountains. We always had a good time, and I always felt welcome and included.

My uncle Tom was always glad to have us over to the old house; he and his wife Carolyn took care of my mamaw and papaw in their last years. Though sometimes I felt out of place among all the adults (most of my cousins are several years older than I), Uncle Tom always made sure I was happy by giving me something to do or, with my parents' and Aunt Carolyn's permission, a little treat. I can remember very well how fascinated I was by the little M&M machine that they had, and always loved pulling the arm and getting some of those candies right in my hand! Of course, he warned me that candy is not to be eaten any time I wanted it, but when the times were right, we snacked away.

Over the years we also received special packages from Tom and Carolyn with decorations or toys for the holidays. Christmas and Halloween were the ones that I remember most vividly, and I was impressed because no one else had thought of anything like that. I looked forward to the goodies that we would get in the mail and it made the holidays that much better. In fact, I'm sure we still have some of those decorations stored away somewhere...hmm

Unfortunately over the years, our families drifted apart and we did not see each other or really communicate. Even though Uncle Tom was our closest family member in distance, we were probably the furthest apart in practice. We did send Christmas cards and other by-mail communication occasionally, and sometimes saw him around town. I can remember on several occasions, my brother Ryan saw him at antique car shows that came to our area. Uncle Tom loved antique cars, and attended these kinds of gatherings whenever he could.

I also found out only recently that he was very involved in charity work through his church. Although I did know that he was an active member of his church, I was not aware of his work with the Mission of Hope. This charity helps people who live in rural Appalachia by providing clothes, food, toys (usually at Christmas), and decent homes for the poorest of the poor in that area. It was all the more appropriate then that at his funeral, a passage from Matthew 25 was read; this is the passage that you may recall regarding "whatever you did for the least of my people, you also did unto Me." How appropriate indeed!

I was fortunate to be home for Easter break and able to attend his funeral. Since I was working, I didn't get the chance to meet with the family and friends at the receiving, but I did get the chance to pay my respects and talk with some of the family. I hadn't met with Aunt Carolyn or Tom's two daughters in many years, and I had the opportunity to meet with Carolyn and the younger daughter Erin and give my support. It was a sobering experience, but I was still glad to have been there.

Despite the fact that I have lost another family member, I am still reassured by the fact that he passed away so close to Easter. After all, Easter is all about life coming out of death! Jesus had to die to ensure eternal life for us all, and now my uncle Tom is experiencing that eternal life in Him. I know that is comforting to me as I try to understand just why things happen the way they do.

Uncle Tom, pray for us...

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns

Rarely do I learn something in my classes that can actually be applied to something in everyday life. One of these lessons I have had the "privilege" of experiencing first-hand on several different occasions. (You will see why I placed the word privilege in quotes later.)

As my die-hard readers know already, I decided to take some business courses this semester, since I needed electives to complete my degree. One of these is Microeconomics, and I have been surprised to find it fascinating! One of the principles we have learned lately is the law of diminishing marginal returns. The textbook definition, as I have recorded in my lecture notes, is "as more of a variable resource is added to a fixed resource, the margin will decrease, and even become negative." The margin to which I am referring is the marginal product, which is "how the total output of a firm changes with the addition of one more unit of the variable resource." I know that's a lot of jargon mumbo-jumbo nonsense, but please bear with me.

Let's look at the example to which I was referring at the beginning of this post. Every Sunday night after I get out of Mass, I proceed to the Subway in the student center here at Xavier. I order my sandwich and pay for it, and then am on my way back to my apartment. Usually this is a quick transaction that lasts only a few minutes. However, I began to notice that there were certain occasions where I was waiting a lot longer than usual. No, this was not due to an increased volume of customers. No, this was not due to a shortage of workers. In fact, the increased wait was due to a SURPLUS of workers! Now how does that make sense?

Actually, it makes quite a bit of sense, and the law of diminishing marginal returns helps explain that. With each increase of inputs, in this case an increase in labor, the marginal product will decrease. As I have witnessed, the more workers there are on any given night, the fewer sandwiches they can make in a given time period. This illustrates that law perfectly! The increased amount of workers have to be crammed into a tight space and must share responsibilities. The sharing of these simple responsibilities leads to redundancies and inefficiency. Also, having more employees leads to goofing off and inappropriate conversations when they should be working.

So you see, this Subway restaurant works best when there are only 2-3 employees behind the counter. On nights when there are four or more employees, the service suffers, and the customers end up waiting longer to get their food. I have pointed this out to other people on several occasions, and it is quite frustrating to watch the employees goof off and carry on personal conversations when I am hungry! Thankfully, though, these incidents have been less and less frequent lately, so my eating has not been adversely affected. (Not that it ever was, of course.)

Did any of that make sense? I tried to explain it as best I could, but the concept is a little bit challenging to explain. In reality, it is quite simple and makes complete sense. Isn't it great to apply what you learn in a classroom to the real world??? That's one thing that makes Economics a fascinating subject.