Research > Interests
Sometimes I wish that I could maintain more focused interests, but not very often. I revel in being able to bounce from one area of interest to another, and I am perfectly happy to sacrifice depth of expertise in any particular area for breadth of pursuit. Although the interests I list below may seem pretty diverse, I see connections between them all, and in fact it is these connections that enrich my pursuit of every particular interest. I am proud to pair my scientific curiosity with a strong desire to understand how to communicate scientific ideas and concepts to a diverse audience. Making science both exciting and accessible is not just an interest spurred by where I teach: I teach at Pratt Institute in large part because I am interested in how to effectively foster scientific joy and wonder to all learners.
Below is a brief list of current interests I have been pursuing. I have many more side interests, but these represent my major interests. Clicking on each of the titles will bring you to a more thorough description of my current inspiration and past work in each of these areas.
Nature abounds with cooperation, and yet most evolutionary theory focuses on the role of evolutionary processes in producing competitive advantage. While there is lots of controversy about how cooperation evolved, most evolutionary biologists now acknowledge that cooperation is a major product of nature. I am broadly interested in how cooperation evolves, and hope to contribute to what I see as the next big challenge in evolutionary biology: explaining how cooperation persists in the face of consistent competition, cheating, parasitism, and selfishness.
Biological systems contain self-replicating entities that (imperfectly) preserve information, entities constructed with a fairly narrow set of basic building blocks, entities that can consume and be consumed. These unique characteristics create dynamics that are not seen in non-biological systems. So if biology is unique, does it share with non-biological sciences any fundamental characteristics? I would answer “yes”: what unites all sciences is the importance of system stability. Broadly speaking, science is about the observable, and the observable is that which has maintained long-term stability. From galaxies to particular molecules, what we study is stability. I am interested in how an understanding of system stability can help us explain what we observe in biological systems.
How do genes produce traits? How does a brain produce the experience of consciousness? How do whole ecosystems persist? In my eyes, these are among the most interesting questions of modern biology, and they all depend on an understanding of emergence. The reductionist approach has yielded some important basic understanding in all three of these areas, but has failed to explain anything more than isolated sub-phenomena. To truly answer these questions, we need to understand how the behaviors of simple system components — genes, neurons, individual organisms — scale up to create these larger systems. While my primary interest is in the stability of animal groups and populations, I am also interested in better understanding the wider scientific field dedicated to understanding emergence.
Technology, at its best, helps us push past limits. Traditional pedagogy is successful in many arenas, but there are areas where it struggles to deliver effective teaching and learning. I am interested in identifying areas where the use of technology — both in and out of the classroom — can increase understanding. My work in educational technology primarily focuses on the development of inquiry-based activities that shed light on some of the more complex and elusive ecological and evolutionary concepts, but I am also interested in general best practices for incorporating effective educational technology into my pedagogy.
In an increasingly complex informational environment, how can our very limited brains make sense of all this information? How do we become more effective at explaining complex system properties? Of making connections between diverse phenomena? How do we pass these skills on to our students? I have come to appreciate the importance of concept mapping as an intellectual practice, and have been working to better understand how to incorporate this valuable thinking and discovering tool into my research and teaching.
If we can understand something, can we pass that understanding on to others? This is probably the fundamental question underlying all forms of teaching. Of late, we have increasingly come to depend on visual representations to translate information, as more and more people are ‘teaching themselves’ by accessing various forms of media. What exactly constitutes information design is still emerging, but I am interested understanding how information can be effectively depicted to foster conceptual understanding.
My latest interest is in the broad topic of human survival. I am interested in how humans have survived through the ages, including how both modern civilizations and aboriginal societies persist in the face of disease, conflict, famine, and environmental disasters. I believe that by coming to better understand what it takes to survive, we can better understand and appreciate how precious our highly-complex technological societies are. In confronting what it would take to survive without our modern culture, I hope to inspire a greater desire to conserve and sustain the many amazing means by which we now survive with unprecedented success.