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 the way. 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 (CCTL), 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 paying attention.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. My master’s work - to show some practical application of math and algorithms operating on biological (gene expression) data.

  3. 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.

  4. 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).

  5. 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.).

  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:

  1. Nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution, sub specie evolutionis.” -Dobzhansky (1964)
  2. Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.” -Box (1987)
  3. We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” -Sagan (1990)

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 things right.

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.

—Chris