7:50am… 8:00… 8:10… 8:20… 8:30… 8:35… These are all the alarms my roommate had to suffer through on a daily basis as I tried to convince myself to wake up for our morning faculty seminars. Although dragging myself out of bed and then rushing to get ready because I was running late (again) is not my idea of fun, the speakers made it worth it. Apart from learning about interesting research, it was reassuring to hear about the zigzagging career paths that many of the speakers had taken.
Two talks stood out in particular. The first was Provost Sally Kornbluth’s talk on research misconduct. I’ve grown up loving shows like CSI, Law & Order and White Collar, and the case study of Anil Potti, a former Duke medical researcher, sure felt like the academia version! Her talk also struck a chord because I’ve been thinking a lot about the failings of biomedical research after reading the book Rigor Mortis by Richard Harris (shout-out to Dr. Brian Hare for the recommendation). I’m not saying that basic science research is unnecessary—it has resulted in many life-changing (literally) discoveries. However, it isn’t perfect. The lack of severe repercussions for Anil Potti is a case in point (he is still a practicing doctor and will be allowed to conduct research again after 2020).
The second talk that caught my attention was that of Dean Stephen Nowicki who spoke about learning and mate selection in song birds. Having taken his class last semester, I knew some of the information but listened with newfound appreciation for the evolutionary perspective. It was especially fascinating to hear about his research on geographically comparing song repertoires between groups of male swamp sparrows. Song types varied between groups with groups farther away from each other being more distinct. Females tended to respond preferentially to males singing songs typical of their group with their responsiveness diminishing as songs from groups further away were played. This indicates that females’ notions of a ‘good song’ are learned through experience and exposure. Who would have guessed that songbirds are such an ideal species to study language and learning!