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Convocation Address, “256 Shades of Grey Kathleen Susman, Professor of Biology on the Jacob P. Giraud, Jr. Chair of Natural History. Spring Convocation, May 6, 2015

Thank you, President Hill, for that gracious introduction. I don’t think I can live up to it. I’m grateful to you, Dean Chenette and my faculty colleagues and am honored to have the opportunity to speak to all of you today. I’m particularly moved to be able to address you, the Class of 2015. During your sophomore and junior years, I had the pleasure of getting to know many of you while I was your Class Advisor. I am amazed by your talents and your strength of character. It’s so incredible to have the chance to personally congratulate you all and give you some last “advisory-type” remarks! I will keep my remarks to about 30 minutes.

What do you think of when you hear the following: Evolution. Science. Grey. Profile.

Everywhere you look there are profiles that attempt to define you. Amazon’s got recommendations for you based on your shopping profile. You fill out a profile when you applied to college (remember the College Board site?), and now maybe to graduate schools or, in my case, writing a recommendation letter for one of you. To subscribe to online journals or newsletters you fill out a user profile where they want to you’re your education, occupation, and even your hobbies. We are constantly putting ourselves into categories: Photocircles, Snapchat groups, Facebook friends, Linked In, Instagram groups.

Our profiles shape the way others view us and interact with us- and even how we think of ourselves. They can help us, or hurt us. They limit us. They free us. We make assumptions based on preconceived notions of what a particular profile means or represents, assumptions that color our views about people, institutions, even ideas. People with Type O blood are loyal. People born between December 22 and January 19 are self-confident, appreciate honest criticism and never make impulsive decisions. Does that sound like you, Capricorns?

Today I’d like to say a few words about profiles and profiling. How lumping and profiling influences all of our lives. Even the term “profile” has been “profiled” and generates assumptions that influence how we interact with the concept. During the course of this talk, you will hear me generalize and profile, using some of my own profiles as an example.

Simply defined, “profiling” is the extrapolation of information based on already gathered information. So, you browse Amazon and buy a book. Amazon assumes you would like other books of that sort. Generalizing can help us make decisions, like which car to buy (Volvo’s are reliable). Unfortunately, profiling can lead to bias and stereotyping (Women are bad drivers).

PROFILE 1: Human, Mammal

These are not only characteristics, but they are categories, profiles. We humans love categories. We lump our worlds into categories: vegetable, mineral, animal, living, dead. Our brains are wired for categories and generalizations. We have cells in our brains that recognize faces as distinct from flowers. Even grandma as distinct from Aunt Suellen. Our visual system sees distinct colors of red, blue, green. We see these categories even when we know that the visible spectrum we are tuned to see is a continuum from 380 to 780 nm. Yet, paradoxically, we can see millions of shades of colors. Shades of red. Even shades of grey- by the way grey results from an object absorbing all wavelengths we can see at about the same percentage. So, we can lump and not lump at the same time.

There is a biological basis for our tendency to lumping into categories and for responding to profiles, a basis with deep evolutionary roots. We can see this clearly when we look at how our sensory systems are wired during development.

Let’s look for a moment. We have receptors in our skin that respond to different kinds of touch: harsh, feathery, pressure. How do we know where the touch is, say when our eyes are closed? The answer lies in how we are wired. The sensory neurons of those receptors emerge from a specific region of the spinal cord. These neurons extend up the spinal cord and connect to a specific group of neurons that in turn connect to a particular group in a region of the brain called the thalamus. Those particular neurons in the thalamus in turn connect to a specific group of neurons in the parietal cortex. It’s all very orderly. In fact, there is a roadmap of our body surface within the thalamus and within the parietal cortex- in our grey matter. A sensory map. A labeled line. Categories of sensory information are profiled with discrete groups of cells. Similar maps exist for our visual field information, for the frequencies of sounds we hear. Our brains grow and develop through lumps, categories. [By the way, we neuroscientists for many years lumped brain regions into categories with names, like thalamus = relay center; cerebellum = movement control. Now we realize that these brain profiles are too simplistic, too limiting and do not reflect all the functions.]

As we grow and mature, we develop interconnections between these groupings. We have neurons that fire with combinations of sound and vision, or that allow us to see in three dimensions. So, our brains develop to both profile and achieve nuance, shades.

When we are growing up, we learn about our complex world through first developing profiles, outlines, categories. Apples, dogs. These are initially generalizations and fairly one-dimensional. As we develop and mature, we learn more and more about the categories (Granny Smith, Empire, poodle, Labrador). The chunks of knowledge become higher resolution, finer-grained, greyer. It’s a wonderful process, like things coming into sharper and deeper focus. Remember those Magic Eye 3D pictures, where you can kind of cross your eyes and suddenly new shapes and images emerge? Depth, texture, nuance, complexity.

Your college education is like that. Think of a time when this happened for you while here at Vassar. Perhaps learning about the American Revolution or the Roaring Twenties or the Hudson Valley or the Theory of Evolution. What is required to achieve higher resolution? More pixels. More information, but also an openness to assembling that information in new ways. This is the way we learn about the world we live in. Forging these new connections, crossing between profiles, is hard work. It takes practice and mental energy. Sometimes it’s just easier to stay at the profile, like memorized notes on an index card.

It’s the same with people. How often have you thought you understood someone, only to be surprised again and again as you get to know that person better?  How often have you simply categorized someone and left it at that? How often have you categorized yourself, limiting your potential? “Oh,” you say, “I’m not a science type.” You don’t have to think about it any further.

Profile 2: Scientist, Woman

What do we think when we see “Scientist” on someone’s profile? We have a preconceived image of what a scientist is---a thumbnail sketch. White, male, crazy hair, lab coat, dorky glasses, socially awkward. This stereotype is so engrained in the American culture that many people find it hard to believe that there are many scientists out there that do not fit that user profile. Some other attributes others have ascribed to the category “scientist” include no sense of aesthetic (look at how many science buildings have that “functional”, “monochromatic” “clinical” architecture.  Other characteristics ascribed to scientist include boring, incomprehensible, mad, suspicious, humorless (except for a maniacal laugh). Not someone you want to sit next to at a dinner party, right?

The silhouette that most people ascribe to scientist severely limits both the scientist and the one interacting. This is what all stereotypes do.

A few years after I began my life as a professor here at Vassar, I was at a Vassar dinner, seated next to a Vassar trustee. She congratulated me on just getting a grant from the National Institutes of Health. She asked me, “What’s the grant funding?” Almost immediately she looked oddly uncomfortable, kind of arching her body away from me in her seat. I began, “Well, I’m trying to understand how animals sense touch using a cool nematode…” She interrupted quickly, “You lost me at nematode,” and turned away to speak with the person on the other side of her. My guess is that her image of me as a scientist said, “Incomprehensible. Boring.” And, at the same time, her image of herself (“not a science type”) said, “You’ll never understand this. You’ll find it boring.” Both of us reduced to one dimension, unable to communicate or connect. I wish, instead, her profile, “Vassar Grad,” had popped up in her mind.

Well, let’s get a little finer resolution look at this category. I’ll use myself as an example, but of course, to do a real analysis would require interviewing lots of scientists!

First, definitions. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about scientist:

Scientists are the people who ask a question about a phenomenon and proceed to systematically go about answering the question themselves. They are by nature curious, creative and well organized. They need to have the ability to observe something and see in it some of the properties other people overlook. I wonder, could we substitute “Vassar graduate” for “scientist” in this definition?

Here’s what the Merriam-Webster dictionary says:

A scientist is a person who is trained in a science and whose job involves doing scientific research or solving scientific problems

Does either definition really capture what a scientist is? Someone once told me that you are only a scientist as long as you are doing science. So, for example, if you are a biology teacher in a high school, you are not a scientist. But what if you and your students conduct authentic research projects, like Maribel Pregnall at Arlington HS just down the road?

What if, as a science professor at a liberal arts college, you only do science occasionally, like during spring break or in the summer? Are you a scientist then, but not other times of year? Do we say that about lawyers? Or physicians? Or presidents? I’ve been serving as a lab director and mentor for my research students, but I rarely have time during the academic year to do experiments- my time is too fragmented between teaching, advising and meetings of various sorts. If I go for six months without doing an experiment myself, should I say, “I’m not currently a practicing scientist?”

It’s a pretty grey area for me. It’s just easier to say, “Yeah, I’m a scientist.” And leave it at that. I certainly think that I think like one, if there’s a way that a scientist thinks. But that’s probably a super-grey area.

So, how did I become a scientist (whatever that is)? Were there any clues or characteristics that could predict it? Not really. I sure had no clue I’d become one. I never blew up my parents’ basement with chemistry kits. I never even had a chemistry kit. I never even did a science fair project (except one that was required when I was in seventh grade). I did well in all my classes in school, but was mostly focused on music and the English team. Music was my life. I was curious, yes, but no more or less than many kids my age. I remember I really liked using a magnifying glass to focus sunlight and burn holes in dead leaves. But I never felt like a “science type.”

The whole science thing just sort of happened. But, pretty much as soon as I was “out” as a science major, people interacted with me differently because of my new profile: scientist, woman.

Here’s an example:

When I was in college at William and Mary, I took biology, chemistry, psychology, statistics, English, history, Spanish, music, linguistics. All in the same year. I had gone to see my English professor to understand better my less than awesome grade on a paper. He asked me what my major was and I told him Biology. He said to me (as though this explained everything), “Oh, well then, your problem is that you write like a scientist.” I felt reduced to a one-dimensional category, like a flat Stanley. What would have been his response had I said, “Music?”

When I was a senior in college, I decided to go to graduate school. How did I make this decision? I didn’t want to “be a secretary” in the federal government like my mother, and my grandmother. I had done some waitressing and knew I could not tolerate that as a career, besides my parents would be so disappointed in me if I did that given all the debt we’d all racked up with student loans. I didn’t know what I could do with a biology major other than going to medical school, which I most definitely did not want to do, so I figured I’d postpone a decision and stay in school. Friends of mine had told me that you could go to graduate school in science and not have to take out more loans- that you could get a teaching job as a TA. Okay, then. That’s what I would do. And maybe I could go somewhere far away from Virginia, like California or the Midwest.

 At the time I was doing a senior Honors research project with a professor I had taken Animal Physiology with the previous spring. When I asked him for a letter of recommendation, he asked me what schools I was applying to. I said that I wasn’t sure yet. He said, “Well, don’t apply to any California schools or aim too high. You’ll never get in.” He then asked me what field I was intending to pursue and I said, “Physiology.” He said, “Oh, I don’t recommend that. Physiology has a lot of math and physics in it. You might want to try a softer field than that.” Whoa. What did he mean, “softer” field? Was this because he saw me as a woman? I had done fine in his course and I was doing Honors research in his lab.

Okay. Well, I didn’t apply to any California schools, or to Harvard or MIT. My confidence was shaken, to be sure. But, I stayed the course about Physiology. It’s what I enjoyed the most at the time. Once I made that decision, I stopped thinking about it. I lumped. Me.  Physiology. Grad school. Scientist. Just do it.

Science and Profiles

When we want to examine something or seek to understand something new about the world, we scientists develop a strategy, a plan. We gather information that we call data or observations. For example, in the middle 1800’s, scientists were busy developing stains and dyes that they could apply to tissues of all sorts and then make small sections of the stained tissue and view them under microscopes. They were busy discovering cells. Cells of all shapes and sizes, in all tissues and organs, in plants and animals. After enough observations indicated a general principle, Theodore Schwann and Matthias Schleiden proposed that the cell was the basic functional unit of all living things. No one had seen recognizable cells in brain tissue, so the brain was thought to be the one organ made up of some goopy non-cellular substance. Until a Spanish shoemaker-turned-neuroanatomist refined a staining technique in the 1880’s that revealed that the brain, too, was made up of cells. Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the father of neurobiology, suggested that one cell type, the neuron, was the functional unit of the nervous system. Cajal’s profiling of neurons had the unwitting effect that these cells were examined and characterized with ever-higher resolution and all manner of behaviors and attributes of brain function were ascribed to them. The other major cell type—a glial cell—outnumbered neurons 10:1 and yet were thought to just serve neurons. Their very name (which means glue) suggests a kind of monochromatic, less than awesome role. Neuroscientists barely gave them a glance for close to a hundred years. The profiles of these cells limited how scientists thought about them and about how the brain works. Slowly, though, odd results and conditions, things that couldn’t be explained by a neuron-focus, showed that glia were more interesting than “glue.” The profile of glial cells changed and now a much deeper, more nuanced understanding of the brain is emerging.

I mention this brief history to highlight the impact of profiles, of categories. Without being open to the possibility that more information might deepen and even change our understanding, give it more nuance, we run the risk of taking our additional information and trying to apply it to an inadequate profile. Categories and profiles get us started, but they should not be static. We need always to seek a higher resolution image.

This story sheds light on how we learn about just about everything. The reasons for the Vietnam War, the way that life evolves, the nature of human creativity, how cultures and societies develop. The same is true of the people we meet. We are more than our Facebook profiles.

There are many examples of how the profiles you create for yourself can benefit or harm your own views of the world and the people in it. Think about your profiles. What do you list:

Vassar Student?

Your profiles can open doors, deepen your understanding and enhance your life. My “scientist” profile helps me take intellectual risks, stretch myself to learn new things. But, I also have other profiles that deepen my knowledge of myself: mother, classical guitarist, sprint triathlete, singer, writer and my favorite, Vassar Professor. The profiles interact and interconnect to deepen who I am. Remember, you are MORE than your profiles. You are also the connections, the unique interactions, among the profiles. In fact, everyone around you has a depth that you will miss out on if you stop at the profile. Be wary of undue generalizations. Sometimes one word just does not cut it when trying to understand something.

Remember that your experience here has taught you to draw deeper connections, to look beyond a single profile. Resist our internet-infused culture’s tendency to profile, lump and limit. Don’t just accept the recommendations that Amazon has for you based on your online shopping history. Don’t just assume a scientist or politician or lawyer is one-dimensional and fits a stereotype. Know that there is more there than fits in the profile form.

You can add to your profiles, increase your pixel resolution, deepen your understanding, and give yourself more shades of grey. Your Vassar education has been perhaps the more intense profile-gathering stage of your life. But it doesn’t end with your graduation. Some of your best profiles are coming up.

Posted by Office of Communications Monday, May 11, 2015