Whenever we have guests or new people in the lab, we make a round of introductions and everyone describes their research in three sentences or less. When it comes to my turn, we have a running gag. Sometimes I just say, “All of the above,” or just “Evolution in general.” Other times I say, “Evolution of intelligence, animal behavior, and game theory,” or if the crowd is more open minded, I might add “consciousness” or “graph theory.”
While “All of the above” may cover the areas I publish in, it does not really describe what I am actually working on, or what I think I am really good at. This becomes readily apparent when reading through job advertisements, in particular reading job posts about German faculty positions.
The usual German job post reads something like this:
“Professor for fluid dynamics in viscous low temperature fluids”
“Mathematical Theory of Economics in curved space systems”
“Marine Biosystem, conservation and exploration of Baltic micro island shores”
“Evolution of the Gtrc gene family in mammalian cell lines”
“Mobile communication platforms and crowd sourcing in underrepresented minorities”
Imagine you run into someone at a conference, and the person introduces themselves with the line, “I work in limbic slow stream micro-biomes and their interplay with slug gut parasites.” You would smile, say something about how interesting that sounds, hope that you don’t sound overly sarcastic, and start talking about your own work.
When did we stop working on actual questions? When did we start hiding in these narrowly defined micro niches? Even worse, the search committees seem to look for people that fit in these micro niches. Someone like me, who has essentially two backgrounds, and works as a multidisciplinary (not just interdisciplinary) researcher at the intersection of biology, computer science, and cognitive science, already has problems fitting in. I am not going to work on something overly specific just so I can avoid competition, or to bluff everyone into thinking that just because my research field is narrow it must be important.
I think I have an idea. I hereby announce my new job description: The Big Question! Just like the buzz word Big Data, which seems to beat everyone into submission, I work on the Big Question: How Modularity, Representation, Epistasis, Fitness Landscapes, and Game Theory all come together in the Evolution of Behavior, Intelligence, and Consciousness.
Cheers Arend – The Big Question Researcher