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.

    Image result for different ways
    (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

    Image result
    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.

    Image result for that is why you fail yoda
    (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.

    Image result for funny t rex
    (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.

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting, table, child and outdoor
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)

The Land of Maps and Charts: Geospatial Ecology

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

I love maps. I love charts. As a random bit of trivia, there is a difference between a map and a chart. A map is a visual representation of land that may include details like topology, whereas a chart refers to nautical information such as water depth, shoreline, tides, and obstructions.

Map of San Diego, CA, USA. (Source: San Diego Metropolitan Transit System)
Chart of San Diego, CA, USA. (Source: NOAA)

I have an intense affinity for visually displaying information. As a child, my dad traveled constantly, from Barrow, Alaska to Istanbul, Turkey. Immediately upon his return, I would grab our standing globe from the dining room and our stack of atlases from the coffee table. I would sit at the kitchen table, enthralled at the stories of his travels. Yet, a story was only great when I could picture it for myself. (I should remind you, this was the early 1990s, GoogleMaps wasn’t a thing.) Our kitchen table transformed into a scene from Master and Commander—except, instead of nautical charts and compasses, we had an atlas the size of an overgrown toddler and salt and pepper shakers to pinpoint locations. I now had the world at my fingertips. My dad would show me the paths he took from our home to his various destinations and tell me about the topography, the demographics, the population, the terrain type—all attribute features that could be included in common-day geographic information systems (GIS).

Uncle Brian showing Alexa where they were on a map of Maui, Hawaii, USA. (Photo: Susan K. circa 1995)

As I got older, the kitchen table slowly began to resemble what I imagine the set from Master and Commander actually looked like; nautical charts, tide tables, and wind predictions were piled high and the salt and pepper shakers were replaced with pencil marks indicating potential routes for us to travel via sailboat. The two of us were in our element. Surrounded by visual and graphical representations of geographic and spatial information: maps. To put my map-attraction this in even more context, this is a scientist who grew up playing “Take-Off”, a board game that was “designed to teach geography” and involved flying your fleet of planes across a Mercator projection-style mapboard. Now, it’s no wonder that I’m a graduate student in a lab that focuses on the geospatial aspects of ecology.

A precocious 3-year-old Alexa, sitting with the airplane pilot asking him a long list of travel-related questions (and taking his captain’s hat). Photo: Susan K.

So why and how did geospatial ecology became a field—and a predominant one at that? It wasn’t that one day a lightbulb went off and a statistician decided to draw out the results. It was a progression, built upon for thousands of years. There are maps dating back to 2300 B.C. on Babylonian clay tablets (The British Museum), and yet, some of the maps we make today require highly sophisticated technology. Geospatial analysis is dynamic. It’s evolving. Today I’m using ArcGIS software to interpolate mass amounts of publicly-available sea surface temperature satellite data from 1981-2015, which I will overlay with a layer of bottlenose dolphin sightings during the same time period for comparison. Tomorrow, there might be a new version of software that allows me to animate these data. Heck, it might already exist and I’m not aware of it. This growth is the beauty of this field. Geospatial ecology is made for us cartophiles (map-lovers) who study the interdependency of biological systems where location and distance between things matters.

Alexa’s grandmother showing Alexa (a very young cartographer) how to color in the lines. Source: Susan K. circa 1994

In a broader context, geospatial ecology communicates our science to all of you. If I posted a bunch of statistical outputs in text or even table form, your eyes might glaze over…and so might mine. But, if I displayed that same underlying data and results on a beautiful map with color-coded symbology, a legend, a compass rose, and a scale bar, you might have this great “ah-ha!” moment. That is my goal. That is what geospatial ecology is to me. It’s a way to SHOW my science, rather than TELL it.

Would you like to see this over and over again…?

A VERY small glimpse into the enormous amount of data that went into this map. This screenshot gave me one point of temperature data for a single location for a single day…Source: Alexa K.

Or see this once…?

Map made in ArcGIS of Coastal common bottlenose dolphin sightings between 1981-1989 with a layer of average sea surface temperatures interpolated across those same years. A picture really is worth a thousand words…or at least a thousand data points…Source: Alexa K.

For many, maps are visually easy to interpret, allowing quick message communication. Yet, there are many different learning styles. From my personal story, I think it’s relatively obvious that I’m, at least partially, a visual learner. When I was in primary school, I would read the directions thoroughly, but only truly absorb the material once the teacher showed me an example. Set up an experiment? Sure, I’ll read the lab report, but I’m going to refer to the diagrams of the set-up constantly. To this day, I always ask for an example. Teach me a new game? Let’s play the first round and then I’ll pick it up. It’s how I learned to sail. My dad described every part of the sailboat in detail and all I heard was words. Then, my dad showed me how to sail, and it came naturally. It’s only as an adult that I know what “that blue line thingy” is called. Geospatial ecology is how I SEE my research. It makes sense to me. And, hopefully, it makes sense to some of you!

Alexa’s dad teaching her how to sail. (Source: Susan K. circa 2000)
Alexa’s first solo sailboat race in Coronado, San Diego, CA. Notice: Alexa’s dad pushing the bow off the dock and the look on Alexa’s face. (Source: Susan K. circa 2000)
Alexa mapping data using ArcGIS in the Oregon State University Library. (Source: Alexa K circa a few minutes prior to posting).

I strongly believe a meaningful career allows you to highlight your passions and personal strengths. For me, that means photography, all things nautical, the great outdoors, wildlife conservation, and maps/charts.  If I converted that into an equation, I think this is a likely result:

Photography + Nautical + Outdoors + Wildlife Conservation + Maps/Charts = Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna

Or, better yet:

📸 + ⚓ + 🏞 + 🐋 + 🗺 =  GEMM Lab

This lab was my solution all along. As part of my research on common bottlenose dolphins, I work on a small inflatable boat off the coast of California (nautical ✅, outdoors ✅), photograph their dorsal fin (photography ✅), and communicate my data using informative maps that will hopefully bring positive change to the marine environment (maps/charts ✅, wildlife conservation✅). Geospatial ecology allows me to participate in research that I deeply enjoy and hopefully, will make the world a little bit of a better place. Oh, and make maps.

Alexa in the field, putting all those years of sailing and chart-reading to use! (Source: Leila L.)