Or, I suppose I should title this “Evolution of the trees of
the cosmos.” More on why in a little bit.
For the span of about a year, I have been thinking about
putting together a series of talks for advanced high
school students to stress the importance of having a
working knowledge of mathematical concepts in order
to “do” science. More recently, it occurred to me that
this was a statement only really directed toward
students who were already interested in studying
science and not necessarily toward others, like
students interested in pursuing mathematics as a
career but who never thought of applying their
skills in the biological sciences (where, IMO,
these skills are both needed and highly sought). I’m
still trying to balance these priorities in my head,
getting science kids to recognize the importance of
math and getting math kids to realize that they,
too, have a place in science (biological sciences,
in particular). I say, “kids”, in the most
well-intentioned, non-condescending way possible, by
So, with little more than a concept in mind, I approached
two people: my wife’s cousin Lauren (a math teacher in
Richmond, VA) and my friend Brooke, (a math teacher in
Statesville, NC). Brooke, incidentally, is married to
a childhood friend of both my wife and me, Matt. Matt
and Brooke are also amazing hosts, so visiting them
at their home would be yet another benefit of the trip!
Coordinating with the folks at Brooke’s school, the
Collaborative College for Technology & Leadership
an Early College High School in Statesville, NC, was a
wonderful experience. Within a few days of initially contacting
them, we had the principal on board, as well as Britainy the
science teacher, a room, and a good plan on how to proceed.
It was their idea to combine their respective classes for the
day, and we set up three one-hour slots for me to speak to the
groups of students. I’m still waiting to hear back from the
teachers in Henrico (hint!),
but I’m hopeful that we can coordinate something before the
end of the year.
The Spring, except for the fine coating of pollen on everything,
is a fantastic time of year in VA and NC, and I took full advantage
of it by riding down on my new Triumph
(much to my wife’s dismay). The weather was in the 70’s and 80’s,
and it was an amazing ride on country roads and through small
towns. I really also dig “The Wave,” and
did my fair share of crotch-rocket snubbery. Arriving a little
late into Matt and Brooke’s led to characteristic revelry, and the
6 a.m. wake-up call came very, very quickly.
I decided to use Prezi for my talk, a first for me, as I
normally tend to err more on the side of scientific
content than entertainment value, but it was a
good experience. I’ve embedded it here, in case anyone
wants to have a look.
One thing that might jump out to you immediately, is the lack
of a proper title. I did this on purpose - not simply because
I was too lazy to do this job myself, but I wanted to make
sure that my message got across. A cheap trick? Maybe. Was
it useful? Maybe - but since I forgot to circle back to it
the first two times I gave the talk, it’s hard to know. The quote
at the beginning of this post (that I said I’d come back to) is
one of the options the third group came up with. Not too shabby,
and it certainly proves that I’m not invisible and that they were
My talk was outlined as below. For the first time giving it, I think
that all of the pieces were there that I wanted to cover. However,
there was a lot of info - perhaps too much. Anyway, here it is:
My educational and IT backgrounds - I think this is useful for
students to hear for a couple of reasons. First, to emphasize
that I thought I knew what I wanted to do (eye doctor), made a
plan, executed that plan, then drastically changed that plan.
My master’s work - to show some practical application of
math and algorithms operating on biological (gene expression) data.
My Ph.D. work - introduction to molecular evolution, sequence
conservation, and the enormity of tree space. All of this
was meant to generate questions at the end and drive home
the need for more work in areas of algorithm, computation,
and the need to understand both math and science to do the work.
My Postdoc - talk about variation, a cool quantitative
character (bark thickness) in light of an interesting ecological
driver of evolutionary change (fire). Also to demonstrate some
real-world applications of mathematical concepts they were
learning now (getting tree height using a clinometer).
Relevant topics in evolution - I chose three to illustrate
how evolutionary thinking informs modern research: HIV transmission,
(Castro-Nallar, et al., 2012, The evolution of HIV: inferences using
phylogenetics, Molecular phylogenetics and evolution, 62(2), pp. 777-92.)
language spread (Bouckaert, et al., 2012, Mapping the origins and
expansion of the Indo-European language family, Science, 337(6097),
pp. 957-60.), and deep-time ancestry (Williams, et. al., 2013, An archaeal
origin of eukaryotes supports only two primary domains of life,
Nature, 504(7479), pp. 231-6.).
Finally, I talked about how wonderful the show
Cosmos is. A good many students already
watched it (which is awesome!), and I hope I turned new students on
to the idea.
I also put some of my favorite science-y quotes in there for good measure:
- “Nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution,
sub specie evolutionis.” -Dobzhansky (1964)
- “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.” -Box (1987)
- “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology,
in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”
Overall, I was happy with how the talks went, though I did have to
adapt the content throughout the morning. Here are a few of my observations:
The first talk spent too much time outlining my
previous history. I didn’t have enough time to talk about my
current work and spend much time on the current topics. I also
only had about 10 minutes for questions, which went quickly.
The first talk contained way too many attempts
at thinly-veiled humor. It just simply was too early, and
in no way am I just not funny.
I ripped through the third iteration of the talk and left about
30 minutes for questions. The students had insightful questions and we
had a lively discussion. It made me wish I could have talked longer,
to give them more information, but I was glad for the interaction, and
was surprised by how willing the students were to engage with me. Along
those lines, here are some of my favorite, perhaps somewhat unexpected, questions.
- What were you like when you were in 9th grade?
- Have you had any issues with your appearance?
- How did you decide on your area of research?
- What’s more important, math or science?
- If you had the opportunity, would you choose to go to a school like CCTL?
- Do you believe we will find a cure for cancer?
- Would you recommend going into the medical field?
I hope that I gave adequate answers to these questions. I was
immediately struck by how open the students were, especially the
9th graders. There is no way I would have been so forward and
fearless with a Ph.D. in front of the room when I was their age. It was
completely refreshing in a “there’s still hope for humanity” kind of
way. The students should feel proud for both representing themselves
intelligently and as shining ambassadors for their school. If
everyone there is like these groups of students, CCTL is certainly doing
To the student who asked me about curing cancer: my family, too, has been
greatly affected by cancer, and I’ve been dealing with it on a daily
basis since 1996. My mother was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma when I
was a freshman in college, and my father had renal cancer resulting in having
his kidney removed a couple of years ago now. I hope that my answer wasn’t flip,
because I certainly didn’t mean it to be. My best to you and your family.
My mother has outlived all of the current research, and my father is also
currently doing well, so there is hope. Hang in there.
To the students and teachers at CCTL: I am in your debt. Thank you
so much for allowing me to crash your morning on an early-release day and
for the opportunity to talk about my work and my field. I hope you learned
something from me because I know that I did from you. Please also feel
free to leave comments on this post so we can continue our dialog.
There are comments.