The Distance Traveled: An Anecdote

I’m putting together a guest lecture for the Evolution course I’m TAing about the winding paths that research can take. Mostly it’s just to get the students thinking about the diversity of research in evolutionary biology, data, data-interpretation, and most importantly, to get them thinking about going out to get their hands dirty with some research of their own to learn what they love or couldn’t care less for.

In the process, I’ve been running through some of the projects I’ve done over the years as well as the projects that sputtered out and went nowhere. I remembered one summer early in my undergrad when I tried to do a Tetragnathid spider project…

The project started with a big set of photos and a suggestion that I look at <a word that I had never heard before>. I measured all the photos but then had no idea what to do or how to build a plan. I went to the Royal Ontario Museum for several days to go through their samples and record stuff, but still didn’t know what to do with what I had. Instead I went out to the field to check out their behaviours at dusk. And it still didn’t go anywhere.

Looking back on it, I was so lost and incompetent. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how far you’ve come until you stop to look back. Realizing this only makes me empathize more with my students at all levels. No questions are stupid questions… you have to ask the questions you think are stupid before you’ll be capable of tackling the questions you think have value. Everyone starts at the beginning. There are no shortcuts, only paths with variable amounts of winding. And there are people along the way who help smooth the road in a thousand tiny or gigantic ways.