Monthly Archives: March 2014

Hamadryas and Pangolins and Mastodons, oh my!

As mentioned in my very first blog post, one of the reasons I started with this endeavor is that I have a lifelong love of learning.  Education is an ongoing process, and knowledge, whether it is put to practical use or sought simply to satisfy personal curiosity, is a fantastic thing.  Imagine my excitement, therefore, when I learned of the 2014 Mammal March Madness competition run by Dr. Katie Hinde, an assistant professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.

Picture adapted from art by Tracy A. Heath, Matt Martyniuk, Sarah Werning, via Phylopic! As seen on the blog Mammals Suck…Milk!

This is my kind of pedagogy!

The competition first caught my attention, I must admit, simply because of its enthusiastic mention of mammals (note the exclamation point in the title of her blog post).  As I’ve said before, I have a rather large soft spot for animals, and am easily persuaded to investigate stories or headlines that promise some kind of faunal component.  The more I thought about it, though, the more I began to admire the ingenuity of this exercise.  Here’s why:

1. It brings science to the masses, and makes it fun.

The NCAA March Madness tournament is ubiquitous at this time of year, and the popularity of bracket competitions is continuing to increase.  ESPN even has its own “resident bracketologist,” which at first glance sounds like a job title as realistic as “space smuggler.”

Although it turns out space smugglers are not only real, but fairly common.

Taking advantage of the pervasiveness of this cultural phenomenon to educate people about science is brilliant.  It not only puts the lesson in a familiar context, but appeals to people’s natural competitive instincts by turning it into a game. And for those like me, who are already interested in science but not well versed in basketball, it provides a different kind of learning opportunity: I now understand the nature of “seeds” and know how to fill out a bracket.

2. It only looks simple.

You may be thinking, “If I want to play I just need to look at the bracket and pick some winners, right?”  Technically you’re correct, but as with the NCAA bracket your chances of winning are much better if you make educated picks.  And in this case, that means you need to know not only what an animal is (Hinde’s bracket, as seen below, has an entire division entitled “The Who in the What Now” that is populated by little-known species), but where it lives and how it lives.  

Hamadryas Baboon. Image from Arkive.org.

Pangolin. Image from Arkive.org.

Mastodon. Image from National Geographic.

A laundry list of questions quickly emerges:  How big is it?  How fast is it?  What kind of “weaponry” or defenses does it have?  Does it live by itself or in a group?  To make things even more exciting, the simulated battles in the early rounds of competition take place in the natural habitat of the higher-ranked seed — Hinde calls it the “home court advantage” — but battle locations are randomized at the level of the Elite Eight and beyond.  Could a pack of hyenas triumph over an orca?  Probably, if the battle were to take place on land!

Even with my more-extensive-than-average background in biology, I found myself diving into Wikipedia articles and professional journals to find the information necessary to assess each species and select winners.  Among other things, I’ve learned in the past week that Hamadryas baboons can amass in troops as large as 800 individuals, that the bowhead whale has a layer of blubber that can be 17-19 inches thick, and that, despite its name, the godzilla platypus (which lived 5-15 million years ago) is only twice as large as a modern-day platypus.

Like this.  But 3 feet long!  Image from National Geographic.

3.  It’s memorable.  

I mean this in a dual sense.  First, because it’s happening outside the classroom, the learning that occurs during the Mammal March Madness tournament is likely to be contextualized differently than information read from an assigned textbook.  And while it’s difficult to say whether any knowledge about animals that’s gained through participation in the MMM bracket game will be more likely to be retained due to its association with a cultural touchstone, it’s a form of education that I wholeheartedly endorse (see: my goal to someday teach a Primates & Pop Culture class).

Second, the game itself is memorable.  This may be an especially important factor for kids, or those who are kids at heart: you play, you learn, and then you will want to play again (and learn about a new set of mammals) next year.  It’s the circle of life learning!

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The Mammal March Madness tournament is now underway, and you can follow #2014MMM on Twitter to keep track of all the live action.  I have the Saber-toothed Cat going all the way, but anything can happen in this mammal-eat-mammal world!

The Saber-toothed Cat. 850 pounds. 12-inch canines. Good luck.

The Long and Winding Road

It took longer than expected.  Much longer.  Years longer, in fact.  But in May 2013, I finally put the grueling demands of graduate school behind me.  I am now Tinkering Primate, Ph.D.

chimp-graduation

Like this, but with a fancier robe.

Reaching this milestone was a momentous occasion.  As I and others have noted, those of us who embark on the journey to tack those ‘precious’ three letters onto our name must travel a long and winding road, and it is often hazardous.   Many who set out do not reach their goal, and some of those who do find that the road leads nowhere, so to speak.  In the framework of my colleagues who study cultural anthropology, grad school is a liminal stage: students are in essence standing in a threshold, no longer novices but not yet acknowledged as experts in their field of choice.

Now that I have crossed that threshold I am ostensibly a wiser person, with some degree of authority.  Thankfully, I’ve been able to put this newly-acquired status to good use, finding gainful employment that I plan to write about in a future post.  But first, I want to offer some basic advice, gleaned from my own experiences, to any potential or current graduate students who happen to stumble across this blog.

For those of you who have not yet set foot on the long and winding road…

1. Think about why you want to go to grad school and talk to people who are actually in grad school.

One of the main reasons I applied to graduate school was that I couldn’t find a job when I finished college (surprisingly, nobody was lining up to hire someone with a background in archaeology, cultural anthropology, and museum studies).

Open positions are hard to come by.

Open positions are hard to come by.

As it turns out, this is not a good reason to go to grad school.  I would have discovered this had I done some due diligence, but I was so preoccupied with finding something to do with myself that I didn’t think very far ahead — definitely a mistake given the amount of time grad school typically takes.  Talking to current grad students should, in my humble opinion, be a prerequisite for anyone thinking of embarking on this journey.  Their insight into funding issues, departmental politics, and other intricacies of the grad school environment can provide a valuable reality check to those as naive as I was.

2. Have some concrete ideas about what you might want to research.

“I want to study human evolution,” you say.

“What a noble ambition!” I say.

And it is.  But it’s not enough.  Or, rather, it’s far too vague a plan.  In grad school, you must produce knowledge in addition to absorbing it, so it’s important to have some specific potential research questions in mind when you start.  This will not only help you choose a school and find an advisor, but ensure that you have a basic roadmap to follow when you find yourself lost along the way.  This is not to say that you must be inflexible — plenty of people alter their research plans in response to shifting interests and other factors — but entering a program with the attitude that you are “interested in everything” about your field makes it difficult to even find the starting line.  In other words, don’t plan to figure it all out as you go.

If you are already in grad school…

3. Network!

Once you are in a grad program, you can’t network enough.  Making and maintaining professional connections is a crucial component of success (as my husband often reminded me).  For me, it was sometimes difficult: I was in a small department and at times was the only graduate student in my subfield, which meant opportunities to meet and become friendly with other grad students or scholars in my field were rarer than in most programs.  But my husband was right.  When I finally reached the point at which I was qualified to look for a full-time job, it was one of the people who had become part of my professional network that helped direct me to where I am now.  

4. Don’t put the rest of your life on hold.

It took me a long time to finish grad school, but I did a lot of other stuff along the way.  I got married, bought a home, got a dog, and had a kid.      

Here they are together.

Here they are together.

The reason I bring this up is that grad school can easily feel at once all-consuming and fruitless.  It’s easy to forget that life goes on outside the ivory tower, or to think that marriage and/or parenthood can or should wait until you finish your dissertation and get your career “on track.”  But the truth of the matter is that I’m incredibly glad I didn’t put my personal life on hold.  I would much rather snuggle with my daughter than my dissertation, and having one foot planted firmly outside academia helped me maintain sanity and perspective, and gave me that option.

So why am I still writing about graduate school as I approach the one year anniversary of my Ph.D. conferral?  Basically, because I have begun to realize that, as with child labor, memories of the pain associated with being a grad student fade over time.  If I am to give accurate and relevant advice, now is the time for me to do it.

And thus, with these pearls dispensed, I close the door of that threshold behind me.