11 No. 6
Keeping the Spark
The challenges of staying creative over an academic career
Podcasts: The Challenges of Staying Creative: Stories from Emory
The Center for Faculty Development and Excellence
“When people are willing to get ‘off track,’ that is when I see them at their most creative. When they stop worrying about traditional modes of recognition, they tend to be far more spontaneous.”
“I‘m quite happy to work on a project for a number of years and have it simply not realize itself . . . because I know there are other things that will come to fruition.”
“Having a community of scholars you relate to is important to creativity and important to grooming people to be creative thinkers.”
Show Up and Get to Work
Time, solitude, and creative breakthroughs
On Becoming a Scientist-Advocate
Creative new possibilities for approaching and teaching science
How the most creative ideas get generated and selected
For the past fifteen years I have enjoyed success at Emory as a faculty member, including the past twelve years in the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology Program. I study the evolution of intelligence and self-awareness in other animals, such as dolphins and primates, and I teach a variety of popular undergraduate courses, including brain imaging and animal intelligence.
In my twenties, thirties, and very early forties, everything took a back seat to my objective of building a reputation as a prolific scientist, and I fell right in line with the typical goals of publishing and, likewise, avoiding perishing. It was all about—well—me. (Academic scientists who claim it is not mostly about them are kidding themselves.) And so it was in 2001, when I published a paper that was to bring me all the professional attention one could ever hope for and, at the same time, challenge me to think at a deeper level than ever before about the implications of my work.
In that year my colleague Diana Reiss and I published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which we reported the first definitive evidence for mirror self-recognition in a non-primate species—in this case, bottlenose dolphins who resided at the New York Aquarium in Brooklyn (my own hometown). Our work created quite a buzz, because the findings called into question the primate-centered theories about self-recognition
(and self-awareness) that dominated the previous thirty years. With that paper came many experiences: praise from colleagues, scientific controversy, a spoof on Saturday Night Live, and “hate mail” from animal advocates. The statements of the advocates ranged from naïve to provocative. They clearly did not have a sophisticated understanding of how research is done and the need for experimental control. But they challenged me in another dimension by posing questions about whether it is ethical to keep a highly intelligent, self-aware, social individual “in a concrete box.” One overly dramatic but strangely prescient writer exclaimed,
The bottom line is that your choices are to align yourself with the past: when it was considered acceptable to abuse nature, that animals were solely for man to use, abuse, and ultimately discard however it pleased him. Or you can look ahead to a new century and a new millennium where man finally learns to respect nature and the fellow beings with whom he shares this planet, instead of exploiting them.
At the time I dismissed these letters because I was not ready to listen to them. I knew that any advocacy for dolphins on my part would have a negative effect on how many of my colleagues viewed the paper, and I staunchly refused numerous requests to discuss the implications of our findings for dolphin welfare in captivity. I toed the party line: it was not the accepted role of a scientist to get involved in such matters.
And then one day, unexpectedly, I saw a video that changed the direction of my work forever. It was a video of the annual dolphin drive hunts that take place in Taiji, Japan. In these hunts, over several months, thousands of bottlenose dolphins and other small cetaceans are driven into a cove and hacked to death, their meat sold as a delicacy throughout Asia. The water runs red with their blood amidst the screams of juvenile dolphins who watch their mothers being brutally slaughtered. The “fortunate” ones are taken into captivity to work in the entertainment and “dolphin therapy” industries. Only one in six animals survives his or her incarceration past a few days, and those who become long-term residents can look forward to lives of singing for their supper for half the length of their natural lifespan.
In the three minutes that I watched this video, my perspective shifted. I came to realize that it was downright shameful to prioritize my own career objectives over the horrific plight of the very animals I built that career on. This change also came at a time—in my early- to mid-forties—when, as many of us do, I came to a keener sense of my limited time in this world and what impact I wished to have on it. Many of us move from being inwardly focused to outwardly focused on something greater than ourselves. I shifted the path of my career towards science and animal advocacy and have never looked back.
I’ve come to understand that despite the raw theatrics of the advocate letter writers, they had an important point to make. In some ways they were more sophisticated than I at the time because they understood the implications of my work beyond the theoretical debates about the science. They grasped the meaning my findings had for the lives of these animals and the inherent responsibility I had for them because of my position.
Now, five years later, I work to encourage other academics and students also to consider paths as scientist-advocates. I still do basic research and publish. But I have added to the mix the use of my training, skills, expertise and, yes, authority, to promote change in the way we perceive and treat other animals. You won’t find me standing on street corners with signs. Nor will I condone violence and threats on behalf of animals. But now I feel, for the first time, that I am applying my own experiences and education in a truly meaningful and authentic way.
The academic/scholarly community, particularly in the natural sciences, discourages students and young scholars from not only taking animal advocacy positions but using their training in its service. Students and scientists who do are often ridiculed and ostracized. I argue that those of us who study animal behavior and cognition in particular bear the lion’s share of responsibility for animal advocacy because, as such, we know the most about the subjects of our study. We should provide the data-driven guidance that is the sine qua non of science. We are, more than any other constituency and whether we like it or not, “on the hook.”
Precedents exist in other domains: environmental scientists advocating for ecosystem preservation, child psychologists advocating for children’s rights, and scholars of ethnic and gender issues for their respective constituents. I am fully aware that the difference is that scientists who study animals often have a conflict of interest with animal protection aims. I am also fully aware that by becoming an animal advocate I might be viewed differently—that is, negatively—by some of my colleagues. That is fine. I cannot pretend that animal advocacy is an easy row to hoe at a research university.
But it is critical that our students learn that it is acceptable, and laudable, to be compassionate towards animals and to question our current assumptions about how we treat them. If Emory is to be true to its goal of being ethically engaged, we must confront all concerns—especially those that are outside of our comfort zone and require us to possibly change the way we do things. These new considerations and changes do not necessarily restrict the academic enterprise. Rather, they open up new creative possibilities for how we approach science and educate our students. I have built a successful career as a neuroscientist without conducting invasive research with animals. I want students to know that, with some creativity, this is entirely possible. For instance, I will be teaching a pre-college course this year titled “Neuroscience for Animal Lovers.” And the very act of helping to forge a new “cultural space” in academia for the scientist-advocate produces a host of exciting creative challenges.
I have been pleasantly surprised to realize that many of my faculty colleagues share these same concerns for animals. Some have had the mettle to actively engage in these issues. Paul Lennard, the director of the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology Program, continues to support my role as a scientist-advocate, and, most recently, the Emory Center for Ethics, has offered me a faculty appointment.
I hope my colleagues who are still reluctant to take an animal advocacy role will be encouraged by the fact that there is strong support for this issue “right at home” in academia and will, therefore, get involved. After all, if not us, who?