My experiences in the past few months will ring familiar to many people in the professional science world since so many redundancies have been handed out to environmental scientists in the past few years. After a dangerously close brush with unemployment I now find myself in the first week of semester juggling two different postdoctoral research contracts, coordinating two undergraduate subjects and maintaining an ongoing casual position as a science communicator. The path to academia is competitive and my precarious employment situation cobbled together with bits and pieces is not uncommon in my field.
This insecurity has been the catalyst towards my casual teaching contract in an undergraduate zoology subject. The introductory week of our ‘Behavioural Ecology’ class has focused on clarifying evolutionary theory and discovering how it can explain so many of the habits and capabilities of organisms that we see in the world surrounding us. I personally believe that studying science can change how you see the world in a beautifully enlightening way that, like all profound things, can never been unseen. It can lead to a mind that hypothesizes historical events and processes, in a constant attempt to explain the things it observes. After 10 years of professionally asking questions, I think about why I think and feel the things I do, almost as much as I think and feel things to start with.
I illustrated this to my class by sharing my theory of why we might be repelled to date people that are overtly keen to be with us and why playing hard to get might seem an attractive quality. I’ve pondered the observed pattern over many a beer and hypothesized that the level of difficulty you perceive in the task of securing the affection of a prospective mate may well be used as an innate indicator of that mate’s quality; the harder it is to obtain the affection of a prospective mate, the higher their quality. My theory is untested, largely unexplored and generally unimportant to me. In the context of the class it doesn’t matter if my theory holds weight or not, it only mattered insofar as to serve the point that a science graduate can look forward to developing similarly involved connections in topics equally as obscure and random, just by learning to think in a scientific process.
My lectures were backed up with tutorials, where we formed small groups to explore the biodiversity surrounding us on campus and to introduce the species we would be studying in the coming weeks of class. From the mosquitoes biting our arms to the wallaby dung on the ground, we could only take a few steps before finding new species to discuss. I dropped ants into the sand pits of ant-lions, little insects in sandy soil that build pit-traps to catch their prey. We watched the ant-lion furiously flicking sand upwards to inhibit the ant’s escape before grabbing it and pulling it under the ground to be eaten. I threw away a few lives of my distant insect relatives to illustrate a scientific example of foraging. My ethical line has been drawn into the sand of our university campus, with ant-lions sitting firmly on the other side quietly awaiting their next free meal. As I left the sandy soil scattered with the empty pit-traps, I couldn’t help but wonder what a sexy prospective ant-lion mate looks like and whether they ever play “hard to get”.