Category Archives: Personal

Have you met….me?

“Who are you?”
“No one of consequence.”
“I must know.”
“Get used to disappointment.”
-William Goldman, The Princess Bride

I’m not naive enough to think that the internet at large has been clamoring for the past several years to figure out my ‘secret identity’.  The truth of the matter is that most of the people who read this blog do so because they already know me.  But with the launch of my brand new Twitter account a couple weeks ago (yes I’m often late to the party, but I usually get there eventually; in this case you can find me @tinkeringprim8), I think now is a good time for me to finally step out from behind the curtain, remove my cape & cowl, and introduce myself properly.

Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya Lara Saipe Durgavich, and I am a College Fellow in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.  It’s my second year in this position, which is essentially a teaching-based post-doc, and I am happy to be one of those rare people able to say that I honestly enjoy my job.

For today’s “Introduction to Me” seminar, I’m going to stick to a simple two-part recipe: my work in academia (research + teaching) and my life outside academia (imagining, for the moment, that the notion of ‘work/life balance’ is more than just a muddy puddle).

Life in the Ivory Tower
I got where I am today via a circuitous academic pathway, although I have not traveled far geographically.  I completed my undergraduate education at Tufts University (go Jumbos!) in 2003, and received my doctoral degree in biological anthropology from Boston University in 2013.  As the “About Me” page on this site describes, my research focuses on the reproductive endocrinology, behaviors, and life history pattern of orangutans, and I use this information to try to better understand the evolution of human reproductive and life history characteristics.  I recently presented some of the results from my dissertation at the inaugural Nor’Eastern Primate Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior conference (name since changed to NEEP: Northeastern Evolutionary Primatology), which I highly recommend attending next year.  Hopefully in the not-too-distant future I’ll also manage to get some manuscripts submitted for publication, and will be able to describe my findings to all of you in more detail.  But in the meantime, here’s a close-up photo of Chinta, one of the orangutans at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle who generously provided urine samples for my dissertation analyses. [Fun fact: it is easier to train an orangutan to provide a urine sample in a cup than it is to train a toddler to use the potty.]

P1000591

While it’s fun to use the fact that I analyze orangutan urine as an ice-breaker at parties, teaching is how I actually spend the great majority of my time.  As a graduate student, I taught a variety of courses at Boston University, including Introduction to Biological AnthropologyThe Ape Within, Human Population Biology, Human Sex Differences, and Medical Anthropology.  As a College Fellow at Harvard I’ve continued to develop and teach additional courses, adding Reproductive Ecology, The Behavioral Biology of Women, and Evolutionary Health and Medicine to my CV.  In the future, I hope to continue to develop more new courses, particularly some that focus on primate behavior/cognition or conservation.  I also aspire to someday teach the Primates and Pop Culture class that’s been on my mind for the past several years, so if anyone knows of a good venue for that, please let me know.

You KNOW you’d take that class.

 

Life in the Condo that We’re Rapidly Outgrowing
Outside academia, my energies are mostly devoted to my husband, my 3-year-old daughter, and a red standard poodle who barks too much.  We also have a baby boy due to arrive in April (my reproductive success is going up, up, up!) and, as was the case last time, pregnancy is proving draining.  But here’s a quick list of things I enjoy doing when time and money permit:

  • Reading fiction (the last 5-star book I read was called ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’)
  • Crossword puzzles, Acrostic puzzles, and other word games.  Also jigsaw puzzles.
  • Watching TV & movies (you don’t get the idea for a ‘Primates and Pop Culture’ class without being a bit of a pop culture junkie)
  • Writing
  • Traveling (our most recent big trip was to the Galapagos Islands last winter)
IMG_2591

A great place to spend New Year’s Eve, incidentally.

 

That’s hardly an exhaustive autobiography, I know.  But hopefully it helps fill in my background and contextualize my enthusiasm for science & nature (primates and other animals in particular).  Please subscribe to this blog if you enjoy my sadly-few-and-far-between posts, or follow me on Twitter (@tinkeringprim8), where posts require far less effort!

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.

Evolution: this time it’s personal

Usually if I’m thinking about evolution, it’s in a broad academic sense, wondering how the pressures of natural selection have shaped certain characteristics in humans or other species over thousands or millions of years.  Rarely do I stop to think about my own personal relationship with the evolutionary process, or about how my membership in the taxonomic group Homo sapiens predestines me to particular biological challenges.

But now that I am — SPOILER ALERT — in the midst of my first pregnancy, the realities of my evolutionary history are hitting me fast and hard.  I’m suddenly distinctly aware of the physical and physiological difficulties of maximizing my reproductive fitness.  Though it means I am successfully playing the evolutionary game, it turns out that in practice, passing on my genetic material  to future generations is much more of an ordeal than I had anticipated!

Of course, this is not an entirely new revelation for me.  As a student of anthropology I have long been taught that the evolution of bipedalism combined with increases in brain size substantially increased the difficulty of human birth by necessitating a larger head to pass through a narrower pelvic outlet than is seen in chimpanzees and other primates.  In order to enter the world, a human baby must engage in a series of gymnastic maneuvers through the birth canal, and women everywhere — regardless of their knowledge of evolutionary history — know that it’s no exaggeration to say that the process of labor and childbirth is a difficult one.

Image copyright Karen Carr, Smithsonian Institution

Left: chimpanzee infant head size relative to pelvic opening; Right: human infant head size relative to pelvic opening

But the seemingly endless weeks of overwhelming fatigue, constant nausea, headaches, and light-headedness that characterized my first trimester and have now continued into my second have got me thinking about the challenges of reproduction beyond the context of childbirth (still months away), and for the first time I find myself envious of the seemingly easier reproductive pathways that have been favored in other lineages.

For example, my hormone-drenched brain has recently been wondering what’s so great about internal gestation.  After all, it’s not the only viable reproductive strategy.  And with all the discomforts I’m experiencing as a result of the baby growing inside me, I can’t help but fantasize about how much more pleasant things would be if I could emulate a bird and bring forth life simply by sitting on an egg.  Seems ridiculous, right?  Perhaps, but when it comes down to it, some of my favorite activities — reading, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles — are best accomplished while seated, and I’ve gotten  quite good at it over the years.  Moreover, external gestation would go a long way toward evening the sexual division of labor associated with reproduction.  My husband and I, equally capable of egg-sitting, could share incubation duties (as in most species of penguin), and neither of us would need to be subjected to back pain, heartburn, or any of my other aforementioned symptoms.

In a similar vein, I find I have a newly disdainful attitude toward the functionally useless nipples of men.  I am perfectly aware that males have nipples only because of the default human developmental trajectory; selection has had no reason to eliminate them.  Yet I recently found my train of thought wandering along rather critical tracks:
“Come on selection, can’t we step things up a notch?  The equipment is more or less in place — let’s follow the example of the Dayak Fruit Bat* and put it to use!”

And what about sex determination mechanisms?  In humans, sex is dictated by the chromosomal combination that results when sperm randomly meets egg: females have an XX genotype while males are XY.  But in some species, primarily in the reptile class, sex determination is temperature-dependent.  Alligator eggs incubated at or below 86°F produce females, while those incubated at or above 93°F yield males.  In still other cases, both chromosomes and temperature are involved, and “certain incubation temperatures can “reverse” the genotypic sex of an embryo.”

Image copyright Laura Dewan, University of Hawaii

Now, I’m not saying that I want to choose the sex of my baby.  In fact, my husband and I have decided not to find this out pre-delivery.  But I’m sure that some couples, given the choice, would gladly renounce their evolutionary heritage in order to gain this ability.

As for me, I have no doubt that I am oversimplifying.  The seeming perks of other animals’ reproductive pathways must surely be counterbalanced by their own set of drawbacks.  And, as my mother reminded me, I should keep certain broad facts in mind:
1. Memories of my discomfort during pregnancy will fade over time
2. It could always be worse — the road to reproductive success for a female elephant begins with a 22-month gestation!

Kudos to you, Madame Elephant.  Kudos to you.

newborn-elephant

*The Dayak Fruit Bat example may not have been part of the original train of thought recounted here.

The Grad School Blues

During my first two years of grad school, when I was juggling a full-time course load, a full-time teaching fellowship, and a ghost of a personal life, I got very good at managing my time.  Lunch breaks, train rides, and office hours became excellent moments to squeeze in twenty or thirty pages of reading about Neanderthal developmental patterns or orangutan conservation.  The couch in the department lounge turned out to be a great place to catch up on 30 minutes of sleep following a late-night paper-writing stint and an early morning section meeting.  I even got used to marathon study and grading sessions on Friday and Saturday nights.  It wasn’t always the most pleasant schedule to maintain, but there was nary a wasted hour in my day.  I was going full speed ahead all the time.

Nowadays, in contrast, I frequently feel as if I am drifting on a windless current, or straining against the inertia of an anchor.  Ostensibly, I still have just as much to keep me occupied: finishing the lab work for my dissertation, writing said dissertation, teaching undergraduate courses (more often as an instructor than an assistant these days), maintaining my newly launched blog, and spending time with my husband and friends.  And yet, I find that without the forcibly structured schedule of those first two years, entire days can easily disappear with nothing productive to show for them.

Part of this is due to my natural tendency to procrastinate (one which I have apparently been honing for many years; last year I discovered that my mother once called me “lazy” in my baby book).  But I think my current round of malaise is just as much about the future as the present.

When I started my grad school program, I did so excited to continue learning about anthropology, and eager to design and execute an original research project.  I confidently imagined my PhD conferral as the inevitable conclusion of a challenging but rewarding journey, hopefully followed by a career in a university or zoo setting.  I had no illusions of scientific grandeur.  I just wanted to travel the “normal” grad school path and emerge on the other side with a plan for my life.

Yeah, right.

The ugly truth about grad school, which I think many learn the hard way, is that the “normal” path is littered with countless unanticipated obstacles.  In my case, the 2 largest of these were
1. my original thesis adviser unexpectedly left for another university, and
2. I had to find an entirely new research project after bureaucratic changes at the site where I planned to do my dissertation work led them to rescind their invitation at the last minute.
These were not exactly small setbacks, and alongside myriad smaller problems and disappointments they illustrate that grad school for me has consisted of more “challenge” and less “reward” than I hoped.  This is not the first time I’ve had the Grad School Blues.

“But T.P.,” you’re saying to yourself, “that’s all in the past!  Now that the finish line is in sight, shouldn’t you be full of renewed enthusiasm?”

Perhaps.  But while I am looking forward to finishing my degree next spring, I also find myself reluctant to face the post-grad school reality of finding a job and putting my PhD to work.  Who wouldn’t be, when it is becoming more common to see articles lambasting PhD programs in general, and knowing the well-documented challenges that women in particular face when trying to balance an academic career with a family?

The whole prospect is terrifying.

When I take a few deep breaths, I have no doubt that my present bout of Grad School Blues will pass in due course.  I will overcome the troubles I’m facing in the lab and compose a scientifically sound dissertation.  And I will graduate next spring, future unanticipated obstacles be damned!

But let my experiences stand as a cautionary tale to any readers contemplating a PhD journey — make sure you know what you are getting yourself into!  As for those of you who know me personally, I’ll just remind you that homemade fudge is an excellent G.S.B remedy, and say thank you in advance for giving me a shoulder to cry on if the Blues should return again.

A fool’s experiment

I recently stumbled across the following quotation from Charles Darwin:

I love fools’ experiments.  I am always making them.  [From The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 1887]

This got me to thinking.  Like many of my colleagues, my voyage through graduate school has been a tumultuous one.  But never in these lo-so-many years have I lost interest in learning, reading, and talking about nature and science.  Moreover, the teaching experience I have acquired has given me the itch to educate others.  My friends and husband are frequently subjected to  enthusiastic ramblings about recently-read facts, newly-published theories, and anthropological oddities.  For example, did you know that the average chimpanzee sexual encounter lasts only 7 seconds?  My friends do.

But I’ve decided I can bend their ears only so far.  I need a broader audience.

And thus begins my fool’s experiment.  With this blog, I hope to act as a modern-day naturalist, sharing the progress I make with my own research, thinking and writing about scientific topics, and reflecting on the academic world.  I hope that you will visit often to join me in the endeavor.