From the Spring 2020 Edition of Discovery
Curious About Curiosity
Alumni of USU's College of Science share insights and perspectives
Photo courtesy Jared Lazarus
“Curiosity killed the cat.” It is a popular refrain used to warn against having too much curiority. I suppose in the extreme, under just the right circumstances, the saying may have merit. But, I would guess that these cases are quite few. Curiosity, I would argue, is more essential to survival than food, water or shelter.
As humans, we are highly dependent on our parents for survival for an extended period of time. In the early years, that dependence is complete. But even under that circumstance, we are curious and learning. My 7-month-old son is learning to crawl. The motivation? Curiosity about objects around him that he can’t reach. Certainly, this progression to walking is a crucial survival trait, more so for humans in primitive times.
Curiosity in children is obvious and nicely outlines a theory of curiosity called curiosity drive. The theory states that curiosity is aroused when something in our environment doesn’t make sense and, in order to alleviate the unpleasant feelings of uncertainty, we gain knowledge through exploratory behavior. In other words, to be curious is to be explicitly aware of one’s ignorance, a trait that children shamelessly possess. Curiosity drive theory fails to account for when one seeks out curiosity in the absence of uncertainty in their immediate surroundings. Optimal arousal theory attempts to account for this. It states that there is an optimal amount of curiosity that is pleasurable. Explorative behavior is engaged until the optimal arousal of curiosity is reached.
For me, though, curiosity is more than an academic interest. After high school, I worked construction, believing that college was for ‘smart people,’ not me.
Yet, between high school and now, I’ve earned two biochemistry degrees: First, a bachelor of science degree from Utah State in 2009 and then, a PhD from Duke in 2015. In 2017, I completed a fellowship in data science at the Veterans Health Administration.
I now hold a position at the Duke Institute for Health Innovation, where I am an integral part of a small team that applies cutting-edge machine learning technology to solve previously intractable problems in healthcare. I am currently working on a real-time dashboard that brings critical data regarding the COVID-19 pandemic to Duke Heath leadership, allowing them to quickly respond to an ever-changing situation.
Each of these accomplishments requires solid confidence. So, I find it curious that I emerged from high school with little confidence in my academic ability to earn a PhD. What was it that made this happen?
I attribute the foundation of my confidence to early academic successes at Utah State. One moment seems particularly seminal in establishing this foundation. It was during my second year in the beginning module of a large general biology course taught by Professor Keith Mott.
The course started with what I would currently describe as a simplistic overview of chemistry focused on the properties of water. However, to me at the time, this was extremely overwhelming. I went to my advisor, Cathy Myers-Roche, in a panic — the material was just too difficult! She convinced me to stick with it. I went all in, devoting most of my evenings to studying the class material and reading the corresponding sections in the textbook.
When I received the results of the first exam, they showed that I missed one question and my score was ranked third in the class. The memory of that moment is still with me, 15 years later. I couldn’t believe it!
Photo courtesy Donna Barry
For the first time, I saw myself as smart, not because I was innately smart, but I had worked to become smart in that one small area of general biology.
This anecdote is emblematic of the larger overall personal change I experienced during my tenure in Logan. When I started at Utah State, I was apprehensive, thinking that I didn’t have the brains for college. After attending a while, I found success, building confidence along the way. Other vignettes from my days at USU follow the same pattern -- I think something is difficult, I then try it and find success. What was behind the motivation to try seemingly difficult things? It was curiosity.
Curiosity about plant propagation in high school blossomed into a love that drove me to Utah State. The curiosity I gained while immersed in the general biology course material led me down a rabbit hole of curiosities.
I first became fascinated with genetics, then the mechanics of DNA replication, and then, molecular mechanics in general. This led me to change my major to biochemistry. I had no idea what I was going to do with such a degree, but that truly didn’t concern me. My curiosity had been aroused — I needed to learn more.
The rest is history, as they say. I fell in love with research and went on to complete a doctorate.
So, how do we foster curiosity? In the age of social media, we tend to get our information in 280-character bite-sized morsels. We read the headline or hear the sound bite and we move on, mistakenly thinking we know it all. Consuming information in this way is bad for curiosity, perhaps even a mark of being incurious. Curiosity requires us to dig deep, understand every facet and nuance of a given subject. Digging deep is the first step of curiosity. How we find motivation to do that is the second step.
If you think the world makes sense, you aren’t paying attention. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman says, “Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
Curiosity requires a knowledge gap and for us to care enough about that gap to do something about it. The first step is to be skeptical of our own knowledge and the foundation of assumptions that knowledge rests on. We must acknowledge our ignorance, accept it, shamelessly embrace it. Doing something about it is up to us.
The last essential facet of personal curiosity I’ll mention is asking why. I’m talking about the BIG why. If the answer you receive to the question ‘Why?’ is one sentence, you’re likely not asking a big enough why.
For example, we can ask why society is so politically polarized at this point in history. The obvious answer is social media. But this really doesn’t answer the question at all. Why would social media have this effect? Are there other factors? Going down this rabbit hole leads to interesting social psychology concepts such as tribalism, confirmation bias and incuriosity.
Going down rabbit holes and following the why takes time, patience and the willingness to accept messy complexity. But the reward is in the learning and coming out more informed. Done correctly, you’ll have more whys than you started with.
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