jimbiology

Interview with Biologist Jim McNamara

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What got you interested in biology?

I was an amateur naturalist as a kid. Had collections of all sorts, and a small
menagerie — much to my mother’s dismay when an anole got loose in the basement. I
graduated from college with a double major – Biology and Chemistry.

Tell us about your research at Los Alamos National Labs.

I worked in C division first as a contractor, then after I got clearance I switched to
different projects. We supported Geodesy research and mensuration which later became the
Global Positioning System. This had little to do with Biology, mostly the fact that I had
experience with assembler programming for the math and hardware involved. Experience
counts for a lot sometimes.

The commute to Los Alamos eventually became too much. That happened to several colleagues
as well. It was about 65 miles (104km) one-way.

Why the switch from biology to programming and sysadmin?

During graduate school I worked in the computer center and supported a lot of software
packages and the OS on IBM and DEC hardware. After graduate school I taught in a Nursing
College affiliated with a PHS hospital on the Navajo Reservation. Because I had
programming skills I was immediately sucked into writing a grant for a computer center for
the college. When the grant came through my classroom time decreased a lot.

What would be some advice for people looking to start programming and or Unix admin?

Required for syadmin: Start with a clear direction then: Certification, SQL, scripting in
shell languages, top-notch virtualization knowledge.

Nowadays, people look for certification and some experience for hiring sysadmins. Server farms
are enormous and most installations run
a database instance on many of those servers. So,
scripting skills and SQL are very important. You often have to do the same task 200 times,
correctly. The first time and every time.

Where I worked for the past 20 years, there was a small crew of PC admins for 400 desktops
and hundreds of Windows virtuals. Then just myself handling about 40 UNIX/Linux servers,
many virtualized into even more servers. This indicates to me that playing sysadmin well
really equates to managing the virtual it lives on.

There is also the area of desktop support or help desk, which can be radically different
from being a sysadmin. So, there is no one single best way to get into getting paid to be
a computer nerd. Pick one “destination” and work toward it.

Give us some insight on your time living on native reservations.

We were on the Navajo Reservation for 9 years 40 years ago, then Santo Domingo Reservation
for 15. My daughter spoke Navajo, my son spoke Keres. The one important key there was
accommodation: willingness to meet us outsiders more than half-way. From my perspective
from years back, people there thought us Bilagaanas or Medica were a little nuts but they
always tried to answer in a way they thought we would get. The results were sometimes
confounding. The Navajo language appears to be in serious decline now.

Translating is not a trivial thing. A functional vocabulary in Navajo is on the order of 100K
words, a comparable English-speaker’s vocabulary is 10K.
https://www.quora.com/How-many-words-does-an-average-English-speaker-know

So translating is interesting, in the sense of the curse: ‘may you live in interesting times’

What are some of your favorite places in New Mexico?

The Bisti badlands, Taos Gorge, White Sands, and the peak of Mount Taylor.

What research outside of biology sciences are you most paying attention to?

Exoplanets. Period. This is truly wonderful. I had a wall chart that I kept up to date
with known exoplanets. The rate of exoplanet discovery exceeded my chart keeping skills a
while back.

What are some of the most important biological science advancements in the last 10 years
that “no one knows about”?

Non-scientists may have some very vague idea about genetics, DNA manipulation, and how it
relates to us as individuals. Immunotherapy has been around for quite a while. But.
Genetically “tailored” immunotherapy may just have had a breakthrough. Nanjing Legend
Biotech reported results on June 5, 2017, involving an experimental immunotherapuetic
regime for multiple myeloma that had amazingly good results. If this has merit, patient
prognoses could improve in this realm dramatically.

But there is also the counter-problem of science reporter’s hype. Too many “miracle cures”
are never heard from again. This is a major problem, in my opinion.

Give us some predictions for the next 100 years of biology science breakthroughs.

I think the integration of human neural input/output with embedded nanotechnology will
come to the forefront. There are now “smart” very small hearing aids that improve hearing
greatly over past much larger models. I expect many kinds of smaller neurally integrated
devices to become de rigueur, much in the way cell phone technology has done.

Lastly, what are some of your all time favorite books, movies, musicians etc.?

This one is easy –
‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ by Jared Diamond, ‘The Stars My Destination’
by Alfred Bester.

Modern composers are my favorite – Arvo Part, Maurice Jarre, Philip
Glass.

My favorite movie of all-time is ‘Star Wars’.

 

 

I have a BS in Information Sciences from UW-Milwaukee. I’ve helped manage Physics Forums for over 14 years. I enjoy learning and reading about new science developments. I have a lovely wife and a cat named Mason.
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  1. jim mcnamara
    jim mcnamara says:

    And I agree – imprecise conversions aren't necessarily valid or helpful.

    What would you suggest? ~65 miles (~104km)? Since you cannot know, part of the commute was over unimproved dirt roads. Sections were sometimes impassable requiring making the distance quite variable. Sometimes in Winter, only the "long way" through Santa Fe was open, exactly 86.4 miles of paved roads.

    FWIW – the commute went from Santo Domingo, up over the Dome road to La Cueva NM. This is pointless detail, except that it is my experience sometimes it is difficult for non-locals to perceive how very undeveloped vast areas of New Mexico are. After the May 2000 Cerro Grande forest fire (that destroyed part of Los Alamos), the dome road was closed.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cerro_Grande_Fire

    FWIW: New Mexico is notoriously hard to deal with for a lot of people. Lew Wallace (author of Ben Hur, and territorial governor of NM) quote:
    All calculations based on our experiences elsewhere fail in New Mexico.
    This is in large part quite true. Example see above – a simple commute? No. :smile:

  2. DrClaude
    DrClaude says:
    jim mcnamara

    And I agree – imprecise conversions aren't necessarily valid or helpful.

    What would you suggest? ~65 miles (~104km)? Since you cannot know, part of the commute was over unimproved dirt roads. Sections were sometimes impassable requiring making the distance quite variable. Sometimes in Winter, only the "long way" through Santa Fe was open, exactly 86.4 miles of paved roads.

    I would have rounded it the same way as if it would have been originally in km: "it was about 100 km one way."

  3. DiracPool
    DiracPool says:
    DrClaude

    I don't know if I should blame you or @Greg Bernhardt, but the interview includes one of my pet peeves: the precise conversion of an approximate value:

    Maybe if he wrote it like "It was about (65 miles, 104 Km)?" Then it would kind of be like the distributive rule applied to approximation?

  4. DiracPool
    DiracPool says:

    "Give us some predictions for the next 100 years of biology science breakthroughs.

    I think the integration of human neural input/output with embedded nanotechnology will come to the forefront. There are now “smart” very small hearing aids that improve hearing greatly over past much larger models. I expect many kinds of smaller neurally integrated devices to become de rigueur, much in the way cell phone technology has done."

    I'd suggest checking out the latest issue of IEEE spectrum. It's a special issue on the brain and AI and discusses the latest progress on these topics. The department/lab I'm in at my university just got a hardcopy recently and I stole it today :-p. I think you can access part or all of the content online, though:

    http://spectrum.ieee.org/magazine

  5. DrClaude
    DrClaude says:
    DiracPool

    Maybe if he wrote it like "It was about (65 miles, 104 Km)?" Then it would kind of be like the distributive rule applied to approximation?

    My point is that nobody talking in km would say "about 104 km."

  6. StatGuy2000
    StatGuy2000 says:

    Hi @jim mcnamara ! I saw your interview with Greg on Insights. I was curious about your experience on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. You state that the Navajo language is in serious decline now, but I've read elsewhere that there are major revitalization efforts to try to preserve and grow the language in the Reservation.

    Given your knowledge, do you have any idea of how successful the efforts are? And doyou personally feel that the Navajo language will survive as a viable language of the community?

    (To moderators: I realize that my post has nothing to do with biology or medicine, but it is a follow-up to his experiences living on a native reservation.)

  7. jim mcnamara
    jim mcnamara says:

    [opinion]
    See: http://www.roughrock.k12.az.us/Welcome.htm

    This does work rather well. However, there are few jobs on the reservation. Many young people leave, often because of non-Navajo spouses, and the kids never learn Navajo. They are on the tribal roles, but they are not active members. Plus, a Navajo who is not fluent in English has limited job prospects off the Rez. RR Demonstration recognizes that challenge pretty well. It is one school. There are many others: BIA, or Apache, Navajo, or Coconino county schools. Results are not heartening, IMO.

    So, yes, people are trying. Are they all succeeding? IMO, probably not.
    [/opinion]

  8. StatGuy2000
    StatGuy2000 says:
    jim mcnamara

    [opinion]
    See: http://www.roughrock.k12.az.us/Welcome.htm

    This does work rather well. However, there are few jobs on the reservation. Many young people leave, often because of non-Navajo spouses, and the kids never learn Navajo. They are on the tribal roles, but they are not active members. Plus, a Navajo who is not fluent in English has limited job prospects off the Rez. RR Demonstration recognizes that challenge pretty well. It is one school. There are many others: BIA, or Apache, Navajo, or Coconino county schools. Results are not heartening, IMO.

    So, yes, people are trying. Are they all succeeding? IMO, probably not.
    [/opinion]

    If that is the case, in your opinion, are there any prospects for the survival of minority languages (Native American languages in particular) in the United States? Or will all minority languages (beyond those spoken by recent immigrants) die out and everyone in the US will become monolingual in English only?

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