05. Committees Pt 1: Your Friends in High Places

So as I talked a bit about in my previous post, I had a complete turnover in where I was working, and who I was working with. And now I have a new committee, and comprehensive exams and proposal defenses are in my near future. And I wanted to talk about the experience I've had with my committee, both past and present. This is the first of what I suspect will be many segments discussing my committee and my experiences with it.

When I first arrived at UAkron, I had a concept in my head of what a committee is: The Dream Team. The best team for the job. Five people who will back you up and keep you going strong. The Power Rangers. Five is an important number for many reasons, and one of them ties into Weber/Fechner's laws. When comparing our two main numerical systems, five is right about at the threshold of where we stop tracking individual entities and start using our approximate number system instead. Typically, when we look at shows, we tend to see groupings of three to seven or so, and this tends to make it easy for us to track each main character, with secondary characters then falling into separate subsets. We like to group things, and if we keep those groups under a certain size we can easily track the members of each group. This is the sort of concept that ties into ideas like memory palaces, where you create an abstract physical space divided and subdivided into fours, so you can better recall information.

Which is why I brought up the Power Rangers. In the original series, there would be five rangers, typically red, yellow, black, blue, and pink, and then usually a sixth ranger would join the cast later. You'd be able to keep track of the five main rangers, and then the sixth would be easy to track because they'd sorta be only semi-connected to the group of five in your mind. They were both inside and outside the group. So these small numbers, which by sheer rules of mathematics has a rather high ratio of prime numbers, tend to be how we divide things up: Three branches of government; Seven Samurai; The Good, The Bad, The Weird (for those of you who enjoy the occasional South Korean Western).

So in my old lab, with my old problems, my committee never seemed to even come close to resembling a dream team. I wanted five people who had my back, who tied into my research, who supported me, and frankly that never was the case. I had to put together a slipshod team of five people, of which several I didn't even really like, and others I had no real use for.

But that was the past, and now I have a real dream team of members on my committee, and the most vital part of a good committee is der Chef, the boss, the advisor: Doctor Duff. Advisor/advisee relationships can have all sorts of dynamics, but one of the most important takeaways I've hd from my experience is that you need to at the very least get along with your advisor if you want to have a chance of success. By the time I realized I hated my old advisor, it was well past the point I should have left.

But Doctor Duff is great. He makes a point of checking in regularly. He gives me positive feedback, and he likes to take ideas that I have and run with them. He thinks that the things I want to do are good ideas, and helps work with me to develop them. He gives direction and structure without micromanaging. 

And those are some really key elements of our interpersonal dynamic, and it makes him a good mentor, but that isn't why he's my advisor. He's my advisor because he's the guy who channels me and my ideas into productive, meaningful research. He's been an advisor/coadvisor for a number of PhDs, including one which I knew in my early days in the program, Hope Ball. She studied leptin genetics, particularly in cetaceans, but also examined broader evolutionary variations of the gene throughout the animal kingdom. Other former lab members studied Weevils and other things, and it goes without saying that neither of those things have a lot in common with what I'm doing, or each other. But That's what makes Doctor Duff so useful. He and his lab can serve as a grab-bag of usefulness. A jack of all trades of sorts on the research side, and a strong educator on the academic side. And then in addition to these basic factors, namely his personality and research background, he's got an additional edge that's really useful for me. His work with evolution. Dr. Duff maintains a website wherein he examines and writes about the conflicts between scientists and evolutionary theory and the beliefs of religious fundamentalists. He's a man who has managed to precisely thread the needle to be at terms with both science and faith, and he approaches his writing in a constructive, educated fashion. An entire wall of his office is filled with books, and it's a neat 50:50 split between evolution texts and those about religious theory and their interactions with the scientific world. He knows more about both sides of that particular argument than anyone I know, and he's the sort of person who can talk about it without being critical or judgmental, which is more than many can say.

My research is about examining Deep Time, examining high order concepts, and my primary interest are things that are direct results of the evolutionary process. Every entry on the other side of this blog (The Deep) is about such narratives. My goal with my research is to find improvements to the way we present evolution so people can better understand it, and while my focus is more on the cognitive issues dealing with the scale of Deep Time, in these United States the dogmatic opposition is so profound that it is, historically, the primary focus of scientific literature concerning biology education challenges (in fact, one of my favorite books about the topic is so simply because it focuses so little on the issue). So he's not just an evolutionary biologist, and he's not just an educator, but he's someone who has his finger on the pulse of what is best described as the definitive obstacle to evolution education. And so he supports me, he directs me, he gives me and my committee structure, and he's an expert in subjects I need an expert in. 

When you build your dream team to do your dissertation you want the boss of that team to know and understand exactly what the face of the beast is. And when that beast has two faces (deep time conceptualization v religious dogma), you'd better have your boss be the one fighting the one you're not prepared for.

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