Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Thursday, April 21, 2005
 
Stolen Laptop: UPDATED

Michael from Heliolith just sent me a deeply amusing audio clip that you can get off of BoingBoing: what appears to be UC Berkeley's Professor Jasper Rine ending his Bio 1A lecture in Pimental hall with a terrifying speech to a laptop thief about how he's in all kinds of trouble. (BoingBoing also links to the original course video webcast.) (As Flashman's Blast Radius, who kindly provides a transcript of the speech calls it, the "young boy" is in for a "A World of Pain.) Today BoingBoing links to a cartoon emblematic of a lot of blog's reaction that Rine must be bluffing.

I can't speak to the plausibility of Rine's security threats. A lot of people are making fun of his scary speech, and it's true that he's not an electrical engineer, but I do know he's one smart cookie when it comes to biology. Y'all are welcome to comment about the details of his elaborate thief-catching network in comments. Given Berkeley's history with stolen laptops, I sort of wish the faculty senate would convene some kind of emergency meeting on protocol regarding laptops-with-sensitive-data. Do y'all really need to be carring all that crap around with you every day? I mean, seriously. I thought that's what SSH and Hummingbird were for.

UPDATE: Some much more interesting stuff is coming to light on the blogosphere about Professor Rine's laptop. Read my original nostalgic, off-the-cuff reminiscing about being his student by clicking on the Permalink; but in the meantime check these out. David Rothschild, who is also skeptical of the technological threats doled out by Rine, points out his connections with a denial-of-tenure case I had only previously heard rumors of, but which is actually fairly well documented online. This article in the Feb. 2004 issue of the California Monthly, Berkeley's Alumni magazine, seems to sum up the situation fairly well. As fellow alumni of my era will remember, in 1998 UC Berkeley signed a controversial 5-year $25 Million research contract with agricultural-biotech giant Novartis, whose Swiss successor company Syngenta inherited the deal. In exchange for the Plant and Molecular Biology Department research funding, Berkeley had to give Novartis/Syngenta first dibs on some proportion of patents (or patent licenses? It's not clear to me) and had a 2/5 vote on the committee to select research projects. Plenty of students and faculty were unhappy about this. One of those faculty was one Igacio Chapela, untenured at the time. In 2001 he published a research article in Nature describing evidence that genetically engineered elements inserted into Monsanto corn had crept into native corne in Oaxaca, Mexico. The article was challenged by so many scientists that Nature engaged in the unprecented action of "withdrawing support." But "Quist and Chapela point out that all of the letters printed by Nature disparaging the research--including those from the Cal campus--were written by people with ties to the Berkeley-Novartis agreement."

The tricky part was that Chapela then came up for tenure:
As a first step, the College of Natural Resources voted in favor of tenure (32 to 1, with three abstentions). Next, an ad hoc committee, composed of five faculty members chosen for their ability to evaluate Chapela’s research, voted unanimously in his favor. But, finally, the campus’s budget committee, which is composed of faculty from across the disciplines and makes the final recommendation on tenure cases, issued a “No” verdict to Chancellor Robert Berdahl, who has the last say. Chapela’s teaching and service apparently passed the tenure test, but the quantity and quality of his research did not. [Emphasis mine.]
The last sentence is particularly interesting to me. The only list I can find with Jasper Rine's name on the Budget Committee is this Word Document of "An Informal Description of Academic Senate Committees and 2001-2002 Membership." It describes function of Budget & Interdepartmental Relations Committee as representing "the Division in academic appointment and promotion and in the allocation of resources." The Members it lists are:
David Bogy (ME), Chair Janet Broughton (Philosophy) (fall 2001 only); Marc Davis (Astron); Robert Holub (German) (+ UCAP); Victoria Kahn (Eng/Comp Lit) (spring 2002 only); David Patterson (EECS); Jasper Rine (MCB); Pamela Samuelson (Law/SIMS); Stephen Sugarman (Law);Brian Wright (ARE); Ex Officio: David Dowall (CRP), Division Chair [non-voting] .
Jasper Rine is the only Biologist on the list; indeed, the only other scientist is Marc Davis. I'm still trying to ascertain that this was the makeup of the committee in the fall of 2003, but it seems likely. If that's correctit means the judgement that the quality of Chapela's research was not good enough for tenure, contrary to the judgement of 31 of Chapela's fellow faculty and five others chosen for their expertise,very probably came down to Jasper Rine. The other professors are simply not particularly qualified to judge Chapela's research. Back to the California Monthly article:
Critics of the process also charged that a member of the budget committee during the tenure case, professor of genetics and developmental biology Jasper Rine, had ties to biotech industries and also made comments in his classroom critical of the Quist-Chapela Nature paper. . .[Vice Provost] De Vries says he looked into the allegations and did not believe thay disqualified Rine from service on the committee. “The strength of the tenure process at Berkeley,” he adds, “is that it can’t be swayed by any single individual. We have an information-rich, multi-stage review process, which means that no individual can hijack it.”
Interesting, since at every stage of the tenure process, it would appear that at most one qualified individual was against Chapela's tenure.

Rotschild links to a Nature.com news article about the controversy and points out that only on Monday Chapela filed a lawsuit against the Regents of the University of California. (There's a pretty comprehensive pro-Chapela website here.) This makes the real doom-and-gloom aspect of Rine's lecture a bit more interesting:
You are in possession of data from a hundred million dollar trial, sponsored by the NIH, for which I'm a consultant. This involves some of the largest companies on the planet, the NIH investigates these things through the FBI, they have been notified about this problem.
You are in possession of trade secrets from a Fortune 1000 biotech company, the largest one in the country, which I consult for.
Which one is the Fortune 1000 biotech company? Googling for "largest biotech company in the country" implies Amgen. I love how how the first really scary thing Rine pulls out "largest companies on the planet." I guess we know where his aesthetics of importance are grounded. The possibility that evidence relevant to the Chapela lawsuit is on the laptop is intriguing, to say the least.

So, years and years ago, before Journalism, before physics, I was a molecular biology major. (Actually, my interest in physics was biophysics, so it's not as big a change as it sounds.) I took Bio 1A in the gigantic aisleless lecture hall of Pimental Hall, and Jasper Rine taught a large chunk of it. The other professors were Robert Tjian and Fred Holt. But Rine was the most memorable for me. Why? A running joke was his inability to not recognize a particular student. That student was me.

You might think that a bit odd in a lecture class with several hundred students. But then, as now, I liked to ask leturers questions. I was also made bolder than the average biology major by taking physics for scientists and engineers on the side, rather than physics for biology majors, a course sequence that was much more question-friendly. When Rine asked for questions on the first day of Bio 1A my hand shot up. He asked my name. It's fairly memorable. The next day, it happened again. He asked my name again. When I repeated it, he said, "Oh! I didn't recognize you. You usually sit over there!" This happened again. And again. And again. Now, it's pretty much impossible to sit in the same seat in Pimental hall. It's just too crowded and there are no sections. By the time the course was over random biology students were stopping me in the streets of Berkeley, "Hey! It's [Saheli]! You moved! But I recognize you!" At the end of the course he handed out a cartoon with his lecture notes that some student had drawn: Rine sitting on a couch with his wife while a child, presumably his, plays with some toys. "Dad, I have a question!" "Sure! What's your name?" [Wife glowers] "Sorry, kid! I didn't recognize you! You usually sit over there!". So Rine is used to being made fun of in cartoon form. I think he takes it rather well.

He was an excellent lecturer, giving me a beautiful sense of the quantitative and experimental basis of modern biology. He didn't just try to dump facts and descriptions into our brains. Like most molecular biology professors, he was tough to arrange any kind of meeting with, and my hopes of discussing his research floundered the second or third time he blew off an appointment with me. I distinctly remember waiting pointlessly outside his office door and thinking I'd really rather major in physics, which I did. Whatever the deal, I hope he gets his laptop back. (Post update, above: Well, let's see how this turns out before I dole out all the warm fuzzies.)
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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Brad DeLong
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