Becoming a Primatologist (or Biological Anthropologist or Theoretical Biologist or...)

This post is about professional identity. I've never worried that much about creating an identity, though I do worry about honestly signaling the identity I have. That's why I've always taken care to keep web pages up-to-date, things like that. There's no point to doing work no one reads or learns about. Neither is there a point to becoming a repository of expertise that nobody accesses. You need to make sure people who might need to know what you know can find you.

Well, maybe part of that process is about creating an accessible professional identity. Consider the last four public talks I've given and how I was introduced. The fourth most recent was at a symposium on Modelling Cognitive Behaviour (in machines, organisms, organisations). Given that that is exactly what I do, it's not surprising I guess that my introduction was just matter-of-fact. But then I gave two talks in biology groups: the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Ethology (which is different from the KLI I work for!) and the Behavioural Biology group at Utrecht. At both, the people who introduced me (who are friends as well as colleagues of mine) made a large point that I came to their discipline by an unusual route. I guess it is unusual, but also their institutes are closer to my undergraduate degree and some of my research than many computer science departments would be (sadly including Bath!) Then the really weird thing is that someone I've attended conferences with for years (and given two talks before in his laboratory) Rolf Pfeifer of the Zurich AI Lab, introduced me to his group as someone who did biomimetic robotics. I do do biomimetic AI, and I guess I do robotics in that I am very involved with a number of robotics projects in Europe, but mostly in the capacity as an external expert hired but the European Commission. But it was strange after my other friends told their students I don't do what they do, when I do, to have him tell his students I do what they do, when I don't very often.

So my concern is, if no one is sure what I'm generally doing, is that a problem? I should think they would only care about the thing I am doing that impacts them --- particular papers and so forth. But maybe science is more social than that, and people really do need some kind of a larger handle to grasp.

Anyway, this hasn't hampered me from having an excellent week. I got to see all the robotics and AI stuff happening in Zurich -- I was especially impressed by some of the self-assembly work that was going on. One other funny thing -- there was a postdoc there who thanked me for helping her pass 6.001, the MIT programming course. I was her tutor in 1995! We had a fun time talking about careers and Europe. She already has an EU grant, so she is well on her way. She is originally from Asia, so has now lived in more continents than me -- lucky her!

But I also talked to a bunch of faculty -- a full professor of political science who like me uses agent-based modelling some of the time, and four primatologists / anthropologists. Two full professors, one who came I think from physics, the other from human anthropology though his work looks more like a biologist than any of the others, a reader / associate prof who comes from a medical background and a lecturer / assistant prof who comes from cognitive neuroscience. I had a fantastic time and learned a lot and have three offers to work on grants with well-established researchers now. Hopefully I will get all of them written before the end of my sabbatical -- in fact, hopefully two of them will be done quite soon since I need to have grants in place by next October so I can still be doing research -- even more research -- when the sabbatical is over.

Anyway, about identity, I am thinking about writing a book and see if that helps. But I'm not sure when I'll get it done...

Speaking of identity, I attended Mark Wood's graduation (my first PhD supervisee that I was the first supervisor for -- I was Manu Tanguy's second supervisor.) Another student from my AI group also graduated, Andrew Carnell -- I was also his internal examiner so I read his thesis too. I also saw two of my current students in Bath who are also doing cool work, and managed to talk to a few members of staff about what I might be teaching next year... it looks like Bath students may be getting a little AI in their coursework now, so hurrah for all the work we did on the new curriculum. Mark's mother took the picture.


Tom Bryson said…
I noticed that the Zurich AI site listed you as "Professor". Has that been formalized?

Good to see the blog active again.
Joanna said…
I'm a professor in some dialects of English, notably American. But I need a fairly significant promotion to be one in British English. I did get offered a Readership right before coming to Vienna, but I couldn't face giving up my planned two years of doing research to start up writing an entire new set of courses.

In the German-speaking world I do qualify, since only full professors there can have their own PhD students.