June 11, 2011

Creativity vs Conformity

It’s strange how a theme will keep popping up in conversations over the course of days or weeks. This phenomenon has occurred several times on this trip, and the best example of it is the one I’ve made the title of this post: “creativity vs conformity.” Before I explain this concept in more detail, let me provide an example. Yesterday, I was standing in one of the labs here at the field station. And when I say “labs,” I should probably qualify my term: the “labs” are square concrete floored rooms with 12-foot “ceilings” of rough wood that form the floor of the “library” above (the library has many shelves and not many books. One of the hazards of the rain forest is that books mold very quickly). All outside walls of the labs are screened openings with no glass or insulation. The tables are simple and wooden, the lights are bare bulbs (only operational during electricity hours, from 6 to 9:30 p.m.) and when that’s not enough light, there are headlamps and flashlights on stands. The labs are rudimentary but functional. The researchers here are able to do amazing things despite the privations and the difficulties of working in the field. I’m continually amazed that this tiny piece of civilization – complete with flushing toilets, showers, and periodic electricity – manages to endure on the edge of overwhelming wilderness. But to my point. I was standing in one of the labs, talking with one of our “ant people,” as we call them (that is, one of the researchers here working with ant specimens on a variety of projects). He was dumping a vile-smelling mixture of ethanol, dead ants, and chewed up hot dogs out of test tubes. I questioned him on his project and found out that he was collecting carnivorous ants by placing tubes of hot dog (laced with poisonous ethanol) every 100 meters on a trail. Later in the day, he would return to pick up the vial and its contents. I asked him about his methods – how he determined that hot dog would work, why put them every hundred meters, which trail and why, etc. As I listened to his answers, I began to realize that this “biology” business – which I had assumed was a cut and dry process of following strict procedures and obtaining irrefutable data – was, in fact, as much art as science. “I think it’ll work,” the ant guy said. “And if it doesn’t? What if you make a mistake, like only some carnivorous ants like hot dogs or something?” I asked. He laughed and continued picking through piles of dead, smelly ants with his tweezers. “I guess I’ll just come back next summer with a different project, then.” On multiple other occasions in the past two weeks, I’ve realized that what the field biologists do is in some ways just as creative as what I do with watercolors or poetry. In fact, both field biology and the humanities both exist somewhere on a continuum, with creativity at one end and conformity at the other. I wish I could take credit for the title of this blog, but I can’t. In fact, “Creativity vs Conformity” was the topic of one of the many speeches I heard over the course of graduation weekend: this particular talk was given by Dr. Amy Devitt, a Professor in the English department, at the initiation ceremony for Phi Beta Kappa. She talked about the need for creativity in our chosen field, but that that creativity must come in a recognizable form. “You can say anything you want, but you have to say it in a way that people understand,” she told us. In biology, you must follow procedures in order to have usable data: any scientist can tell you this. But there is still a considerable space for creativity. How to bait the traps, when to put them out, where to put them, what poison to use – these are all areas that fall to the researcher’s creativity. And when he or she runs into a dilemma – running out of test tubes, having the wrong size of eye dropper, not having a big enough aquarium (a problem the “fish person” has right now) – they have to be creative to get around those problems. The more time I spend here, the more I realize how blurry the supposed “boundary” between the arts and sciences really is.


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About Fieldnotes

The Biodiversity Institute is home to about 60 graduate students and 30 research scientists and curators. They participate in field expeditions to all seven continents and represent areas such as entomology, ornithology, paleontology, parasitology and herpetology. As the authors of this blog, they share their experiences and adventures in collections-based biological research all over the world.

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