Why Feeling Stupid is Great: How stupidity fuels scientific progress and discovery

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

It all started with a paper. On Halloween, I sat at my desk, searching for papers that could answer my questions about bottlenose dolphin metabolism and realized I had forgotten to check my email earlier. In my inbox, there was a new message with an attachment from Dr. Leigh Torres to the GEMM Lab members, saying this was a “must-read” article. The suggested paper was Martin A. Schwartz’s 2008 essay, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research”, published in the Journal of Cell Science, highlighted universal themes across science. In a single, powerful page, Schwartz captured my feelings—and those of many scientists: the feeling of being stupid.

For the next few minutes, I stood at the printer and absorbed the article, while commenting out loud, “YES!”, “So true!”, and “This person can see into my soul”. Meanwhile, colleagues entered my office to see me, dressed in my Halloween costume—as “Amazon’s Alexa”, talking aloud to myself. Coincidently, I was feeling pretty stupid at that moment after just returning from a weekly meeting, where everyone asked me questions that I clearly did not have the answers to (all because of my costume). This paper seemed too relevant; the timing was uncanny. In the past few weeks, I have been writing my PhD research proposal —a requirement for our department— and my goodness, have I felt stupid. The proposal outlines my dissertation objectives, puts my work into context, and provides background research on common bottlenose dolphin health. There is so much to know that I don’t know!

Alexa dressed as “Amazon Alexa” on Halloween at her office in San Diego, CA.

When I read Schwartz’s 2008 paper, there were a few takeaway messages that stood out:

  1. People take different paths. One path is not necessarily right nor wrong. Simply, different. I compared that to how I split my time between OSU and San Diego, CA. Spending half of the year away from my lab and my department is incredibly challenging; I constantly feel behind and I miss the support that physically being with other students provides. However, I recognize the opportunities I have in San Diego where I work directly with collaborators who teach and challenge me in new ways that bring new skills and perspective.

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    (Image source: St. Albert’s Place)
  2. Feeling stupid is not bad. It can be a good feeling—or at least we should treat it as being a positive thing. It shows we have more to learn. It means that we have not reached our maximum potential for learning (who ever does?). While writing my proposal I realized just how little I know about ecotoxicology, chemistry, and statistics. I re-read papers that are critical to understanding my own research, like “Nontargeted biomonitoring of halogenated organic compounds in two ecotypes of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) from the Southern California bight” (2014) by Shaul et al. and “Bottlenose dolphins as indicators of persistent organic pollutants in the western north Atlantic ocean and northern gulf of Mexico” (2011) by Kucklick et al. These articles took me down what I thought were wormholes that ended up being important rivers of information. Because I recognized my knowledge gap, I can now articulate the purpose and methods of analysis for specific compounds that I will conduct using blubber samples of common bottlenose dolphins

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    Image source: memegenerator.net
  3. Drawing upon experts—albeit intimidating—is beneficial for scientific consulting as well as for our mental health; no one person knows everything. That statement can bring us together because when people work together, everyone benefits. I am also reminded that we are our own harshest critics; sometimes our colleagues are the best champions of our own successes. It is also why historical articles are foundational. In the hunt for the newest technology and the latest and greatest in research, it is important to acknowledge the basis for discoveries. My data begins in 1981, when the first of many researchers began surveying the California coastline for common bottlenose dolphins. Geographic information systems (GIS) were different back then. The data requires conversions and investigative work. I had to learn how the data were collected and how to interpret that information. Therefore, it should be no surprise that I cite literature from the 1970s, such as “Results of attempts to tag Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins, (Tursiops truncatus)” by Irvine and Wells. Although published in 1972, the questions the authors tried to answer are very similar to what I am looking at now: how are site fidelity and home ranges impacted by natural and anthropogenic processes. While Irvine and Wells used large bolt tags to identify individuals, my project utilizes much less invasive techniques (photo-identification and blubber biopsies) to track animals, their health, and their exposures to contaminants.

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    (Image source: imgflip.com)
  4. Struggling is part of the solution. Science is about discovery and without the feeling of stupidity, discovery would not be possible. Feeling stupid is the first step in the discovery process: the spark that fuels wanting to explore the unknown. Feeling stupid can lead to the feeling of accomplishment when we find answers to those very questions that made us feel stupid. Part of being a student and a scientist is identifying those weaknesses and not letting them stop me. Pausing, reflecting, course correcting, and researching are all productive in the end, but stopping is not. Coursework is the easy part of a PhD. The hard part is constantly diving deeper into the great unknown that is research. The great unknown is simultaneously alluring and frightening. Still, it must be faced head on. Schwartz describes “productive stupidity [as] being ignorant by choice.” I picture this as essentially blindly walking into the future with confidence. Although a bit of an oxymoron, it resonates the importance of perseverance and conviction in the midst of uncertainty.

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    (Image source: Redbubble)

Now I think back to my childhood when stupid was one of the forbidden “s-words” and I question whether society had it all wrong. Maybe we should teach children to acknowledge ignorance and pursue the unknown. Stupid is a feeling, not a character flaw. Stupidity is important in science and in life. Fascination and emotional desires to discover new things are healthy. Next time you feel stupid, try running with it, because more often than not, you will learn something.

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Alexa teaching about marine mammals to students ages 2-6 and learning from educators about new ways to engage young students. San Diego, CA in 2016. (Photo source: Lori Lowder)

“Evolution”: a board game review

By Florence Sullivan MSc student, Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Another grad student once told me that in order to survive grad school, I would need three things:

(1) an exercise routine, (2) a pet, and (3) a hobby. My Pilates class on Wednesdays is a great mid-week reminder to stretch. I don’t have a pet, so that advice gets fulfilled vicariously through friends. As for my hobby, I think you’ll find that even when scientists take a break from work, we really don’t get that far away from the subject matter…..

Board games have evolved significantly since the early ‘90s when I grew up on such family staples as Monopoly, Risk, Sorry!, Candyland, and Chutes and Ladders, etc. Now, table-top games tend to fall into three loose categories – “Euro-games” that focus on strategy and economic themes as well as keeping all players in the game until the end, “American-style” that tend toward luck and direct player contact so that not everyone plays until the end, and “Party” that are easy to learn and are often played in large groups as social icebreakers or to provide entertainment.

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A few of my favorite games.

As board games proliferate, we see the use of many themes and often, there are valuable educational lessons included in the game design!  There are militaristic or survival games (Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Dead of Winter), economic and engineering (Settlers of Catan, Istanbul, Ticket to ride, Carcassonne), fantasy and art (Small World, Dixit), cooperative vs competitive (Hanabi, Forbidden Desert vs. 7 Wonders), and some of my favorites – the sciences (Compounded, Bioviva, Pandemic).

Today, let’s talk about my current favorite – Evolution. It is immediately obvious that the game designers responsible are either giant nerds (I use this in the most loving way possible) or have spent some quality time with ecologists.  Not only is the art work beautiful, and the game play smooth, but the underlying mechanics allow serious ecological theories such as ‘predator and prey mediated population cycles’, ‘co-evolution’ and ‘evolutionary arms-races’ to be acted out and easily understood.

Players set up their species around the watering hole, and contemplate their next moves.
Players set up their species (1 green/yellow tile = 1 species) around the watering hole, and contemplate their next moves.

In game play, as in life, the point of the game is to eat – victory is achieved by the player who has managed to ‘digest’ the most food tokens. All players begin with a single species, and with each turn, can either add traits (ie. fat tissue, scavenger, etc.) to the species, increase the body size of a species, gain a population level, or gain additional species.  Next, players take food from a limited, random supply until there is no food left. Species that have not been fed to their full capacity (population levels) will starve, and can even become extinct – much like the reality of environmental cycles.  Finally, all food that has been ‘eaten’ is digested, and the next round begins.

Since a player can never be sure how much food will appear on the watering hole each turn, it is a good strategy to capitalize on traits like foraging which allows a species to take twice as much food every time it feeds.  If your species cooperates with another, that means that it gets to eat every time you feed the first species. A player who combines foraging traits with multiple cooperating species in a “cooperation chain” can quickly empty the watering hole before any other players get a chance.  Much like a species perfectly adapted to its niche in the real world will out compete more generalist species.

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The pack-hunting carnivore on the left can easily take down the fertile defensive herding species in the upper right. The efficient foraging species in the middle is protected by its horns, and cooperates with the next species to the right. The burrowing species is protected from carnivores only as long as it is full (and presumably no longer needs to venture out of its burrow).

One way to avoid the competition for food at the watering hole is to play the carnivore trait.  This species must now consume other species in order to feed itself.  A few caveats; a carnivore must be larger in body size than anything it tries to eat, and can no longer eat plant food as it is an obligate carnivore. As soon as a carnivore appears on the board, the evolutionary arms-race begins in earnest!  Traits such as burrowing, climbing, hard shells, horns, defensive herding and warning calls become vital to survival.  But carnivores can be clever, and apply ambush to species with warning call, or pack-hunting to a species with defensive herding.  In everything, there is a certain balance, and quickly, players will find themselves acting out a classic ‘boom and bust population growth cycle’ scenario, where herbivores go extinct due to low food supply at the watering hole and/or high predation pressure, and carnivores soon follow when there are no un-protected species for them to feed upon.

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A flying creature must first pay the ‘upkeep cost’ of its body size in food, before it can feed its population. Good thing it has the extra cliff-side food source that is only accessible to other species with wings!

An expansion has been released for the game – it is called Flight – and introduces traits such as flight, camouflage, good eyesight, and others.  From an ecologist’s perspective, it fits the original game well both scientifically and thematically.  To achieve flight, a higher price must be paid (in terms of cards discarded) to gain the trait card, and unlike other species, an ‘upkeep cost’ must be gathered in food tokens before the species actually eats any food tokens during the round.  However, flight also gives access to a cliff-side watering hole that is not accessible to earthbound species. This neatly mirrors the real world where flight is an energetically costly activity that also opens new niches.

The next expansion is just arriving in stores, and I can’t wait to play it! It’s called Climate, and adds traits such as nocturnal, claws, and insectivore. Perhaps more exciting though, are the ‘event cards’ which will trigger things like desertification, cold snaps, heatwaves, volcanic eruptions and meteor strikes. A climate tracker will keep track of whether the planet is in an ice age or a warming period, and certain traits will make your species more or less likely to survive – can you guess which ones might be useful in either scenario? I think it will be enormously fun to play through different climate scenarios and see how traits stack and species interactions evolve.  Perhaps this new addition to the game will even cause a new game review in Nature – check out their initial assessment here: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v528/n7581/full/528192a.html

Games like evolution are useful thought exercises for students and researchers because they promote discussion of adaptive traits, predator-prey cycles, climate, and ecosystem dynamics as related to our own projects. Watching a story unfold in front of you is a great way to truly understand some of the core principles of ecology (and other subjects). This is especially relevant in the GEMM lab where we continuously ask ourselves why our study species act the way they do? How do they find prey, and how are/will they adapt(ing) to our changing climate?