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Only in North Dakota… January 29, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in Uncategorized.
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Heard the most amusing water cooler chit-chat today:

We somehow wandered onto the topic of rodent infestations, when the Minion began talking about a story he’d heard.  Someone was burning down a grain bin which had a mouse infestation.  Unfortunately, one of the mice, once on fire, was feeling rather vindictive.  It ran into the barn, where there was a bunch of hay, and the whole barn ended up burning down.

I was wondering what you’d tell your insurance agent in a case like this: are flaming rodents covered under most policies?

The Brain Drain March 22, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, Fargo, grad school, research, science, societal commentary.
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Yesterday, I was getting into my car when I noticed something on my windshield.


My neighbor had seen the article about me in yesterday’s paper and left me a message about it.  In fact, it hit three of major newspapers in the state. (If you care to read it, one copy is located here.)

When I was asked by the public relations person at NDSU if she could feature my research as part of an effort to promote the supercomputing facilities on campus, I was certainly glad to do so.  First, from a simply pragmatic point of view, it’s not a good idea to bite the hand that feeds you.  (Although, to be honest, they have a lot of other projects they could’ve featured.)  Second, and more important in my mind, is that this type of thing counters some of the negative attitude about the state universities in the western part of the state.

People from out of state (probably the 4 of my 5 readers) are probably not aware that there is a bit of a divide in state politics, and it can be roughly framed by drawing a vertical line down the center of the state.  The eastern part of the state has the major universities and sees the benefits of having them.  The western part of the state thinks the universities are sucking all of their hard-earned money, and worse yet – children, away from them.

Growing up in the 80s and 90s all I heard about was the ‘brain drain’ that the state was suffering: all of those bright, hard-working, born-in-North-Dakota kids were being educated at a low cost and then leaving the state.  The people in the western part of the state seemed to think we just ought not to spend so much money educating them.  I don’t think they understood that the likely result of that would not be to prevent brain drain but to accelerate it as those students would end up leaving for colleges out of state.  On the other hand, the eastern part of the state was asking for more and more money to fund already seriously underfunded universities which were teaching a lot more kids than they could realistically accommodate.  And we won’t even talk about research.  The universities are supposed to be there to serve the students from the state…what does research have to do with anything?

I was one of those kids that left straight out to go to college, and I really had no intention of returning.  I wanted to do research, and I knew that coming out of high school.  I knew that because I’d gotten involved in research through a state-sponsored program at NDSU as a high school student, and I also knew that I likely couldn’t do what I wanted here.  And why should I, when I could go someplace better?

If you fast forward to about 2000 (when I came back to return to school), there were some significant changes happening.  Great Plains software was bought out by Microsoft, making it the second largest Microsoft campus in the world.  There were companies in town doing engineering.  There was a way to stay in North Dakota with a technical degree.  And about that same time, NDSU started to make some aggressive moves to increase the size and reputation of its campus.

In the past ten years (even before the oil boom in the western part of the state), this significantly slowed the population loss the state was suffering.  However, the western part of the state was still shrinking, and this was probably aggravating the divide.  The eastern part of the state is right, though, IMO.  If you want to keep people from leaving, you need to find a way to create jobs, and not just any jobs: they have to be jobs that bright, educated people will want to do.  Universities are very often centers of creativity and entrepreneurship, and so bringing in more money to the universities will likely do a lot to create jobs and businesses.  Bright, educated people will start businesses to hire those that may not necessarily have the advanced degrees but are still hard workers.  The state is finally starting to see that, and they’re also using some of the money from the oil and gas taxes to create incentives for businesses to operate here.

Going back to the article, I was excited to do this as I see this as a way to communicate to the skeptics that the universities are good for the state.  Here is a project that I would likely have to do somewhere else if it weren’t for the fact that we have the facilities here and they are easily accessible.  Part of the reason I think my research was featured is not only the coolness factor, but the fact that I’m a native of the state and one of the people who, ostensibly, you don’t want leaving for a better job elsewhere.  So yes, the universities are doing something to keep people here, even if not in the western part of the state.  (On the other hand, it sounds like they have more people there now than they really know what to do with, which is another story altogether.)

My only disappointment in all this is that my hometown paper, the Bismarck Tribune, didn’t run the story.  I can’t help but wonder if that is a result of the fact that the divide still obviously exists.

6 pictures meme: North Dakotans March 8, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in Fargo.
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This showed up on Facebook.  Since all of you are not friends with me there, I had to put it here.  (If you can’t read it, click on it to make it bigger.)


Stop with the frigid, cold wasteland already! July 18, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, societal commentary.

This article about North Dakota colleges being a great deal showed up in the Wall Street Journal.

I had a few thoughts, and it seems easiest to just give you a bulleted list.  So here goes.

  1. Duh!  Although I didn’t realize it when I first went to college, the quality of education is not significantly different from most other places.  In fact, my experience suggests that the biggest difference is that most of the teachers care more at places like NDSU than at higher ranked universities.  (Perhaps this is because a lot of the students from North Dakota are from rural backgrounds and may not have had the opportunities available to high school students elsewhere in the country.)  However, because the North Dakota University System doesn’t charge big bucks, it doesn’t quite get the recognition it deserves.  Also, because it’s in North Dakota.
  2. People think North Dakota is inherently a cold, desolate wasteland.  For instance, in the article, “No place has proved more popular with bargain-hunting nonresidents than flat, cold, landlocked North Dakota.”  Hello?!  It’s been in the 90s with over 70% humidity for the past week.  Just because it gets cold for a couple months in winter doesn’t mean it’s always like that.  In fact, the majority of the time, it’s not that cold…and is, in fact, far warmer than I really like it.  And those cold winter months – well, we have heaters.  (And we have a wide variety of energy sources, like coal, gas, and wind power to run them.)
  3. Another comment in the article: “City leaders say that its image finally is recovering from the Oscar-winning 1996 film “Fargo,” which described it as “the middle of nowhere.”  Did we have to bring it up AGAIN?  I wish they’d named the movie “Minnesota”.
  4. “In the National Science Foundation’s rankings by federal research expenditures—a key measure of prestige for research universities—North Dakota State and University of North Dakota each jumped ahead of more than 30 other institutions over the past 11 years, to the 147th and 143rd spots, respectively.” Later in the article, they point out that “the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education reclassified the school as a “very high research activity” institution, placing it among the nation’s top 108 private and public universities.”  Now admittedly, jumping from 170+ to 140+ isn’t as big a leap as moving from 140 to 110…but it’s not an insignificant change, especially within a decade!  I think it’s even more surprising given ND universities don’t have the type of infrastructure and resources available at other similarly-ranked and especially higher-ranked institutions.  But no one seems to know this except people in North Dakota.
So those are the thoughts that pop out at me.  Mostly, I am tired of reading about the stereotypes about my cold, land-locked state.  I get tired of people thinking that North Dakota is the middle of nowhere, that there’s no culture here, that it’s a lifeless existence.  And mostly, I get tired of people asking if we really do talk like that in the movie.

The cold and the intelligent December 15, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, humor, research.
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I was very amused to come across an article posted by Hoagies Gifted on Facebook:

A Compensation for Cold Weather: Higher IQs

The article is an amusing explanation of the fact that there is a strong correlation between higher-than-average IQs and latitude in the continental US. It also discusses a few hypotheses about why this may be true.

I looked up the original paper, and it actually didn’t have much more information than the article. I was hoping for a listing of states so I could hold it over the heads of my friends who live elsewhere.

My personal guess is that the cold weather keeps our neurons from overheating…but I digress.

I have to admit that I’m surprised I didn’t see the most obvious possibility discussed. While I would love to claim the label ‘brainiac’ that was so kindly bestowed upon me and my fellow colleagues at NDSU, I think the real reason is the uneven distribution in population.

The average IQ is higher. If you look at population statistics, one would note that northern states also tend to be some of the least populous states. However, these states also have reasonably sized universities and, in general, a better educated population. Doesn’t it make sense that having a handful of universities in a state like North Dakota could skew the values a bit more than plopping the same size university in a place like Los Angeles?

In North Dakota, two of the largest employers in the state are NDSU and UND. Next in line are many of the state’s medical providers and Microsoft. Having a few thousand college professors, doctors, and Microserfs, who can safely be assumed to have higher than average IQs, is going to have a big impact in a state with less than a million people.

Fortunately, I have a higher than average IQ, so I can figure these things out. ;-)


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