IAS faculty study the intersection of culture and science

IAS faculty study the intersection of culture and science

By Jen Spong

Dixie State University’s Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences (IAS) department houses two programs that allow students to create a customized major: Integrated Studies and Individualized Studies. Jen Spong, class of 2019, is a current student in the Integrated Studies program with emphasis areas in Humanities and Art History. Jen interviewed IAS department chair Dr. Jeff Yule to learn more about his experiences in the IAS department.

JS: What is your favorite part of working in the IAS department?
JY: Ooh, that’s tricky. I think it’s the people, right, that’s the easiest answer. It’s the faculty and staff but it’s also the students. It’s sort of a package deal for me at least. I like the energy and I like the creativity and I like the breadth of thought and perspective that we get even though we’re a small department. There’s only 4 faculty in our department, but we cover a lot of disciplinary ground, and people have really broad interests and pretty interesting pockets of expertise so you can have lots of interesting conversations. In some ways, it's the same with the students. Having the chance to work with students across interdisciplinary boundaries is a lot of fun.

JS: What research have you done in the past? What are you working on currently?
JY: Most of my research in one way or another focuses on aspects of extinction, so I’ve looked especially at Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions, that’s an extinction spasm that ran from about 40,000 years ago to about 11,000 years ago. It started first in Australia, which at the time was a lot bigger. When sea levels were lower Australia extended up to New Guinea and it was big. But it happened last in North and South America and I looked a lot at that. Thinking about extinctions, thinking about their duration, trying to figure out whether the extinctions that started 40,000 years ago are still going on, whether that’s a part of a single extinction event because we know that some extinction events take 40,000 years to play out. Thinking about how we can respond, how we can take steps to try to prevent extinctions, those are things that are of interest to me. Looking at specific focal species, I’m working on a project with thylacines now, to look at how people are studying the loss of the sole remaining top predator in a system. Thylacines used to live in Australia, they were limited to Tasmania. So that’s work that I’ve been doing, I did a lot with mathematical modeling of biological systems to see if anything could have caused some of the megafaunal extinctions. Dr. John Wolfe in the Humanities department and I actually wrote one book review together about de-extinction. He and I talk about those kinds of things quite a bit.

Right now what I’m doing is looking through some scholarship at the ways that species have been represented in the media, to try to get a sense of how people in the society that are looking back and seeing we lost this, how do they feel about it? And it’s different from the way that we look back at megafauna we lost in North America because we had no direct experience with it. Like growing up in upstate New York, I knew that there had been glaciers and I knew there was like a mile of ice on top of a lot of the stuff, but at no point did I see a short-faced bear or a saber-toothed cat, because those things were lost in prehistoric times, whereas the thylacine was lost in historical times. By about 1925-1935 it was probably gone in the wild and everywhere else too for that matter. It’s different, there’s a different dynamic there, and I think that the loss plays on people or affects them a little differently and I’m trying to figure that out.

JS: So it’s the cultural aspect as well as the scientific?
JY: Yeah, it is. The problem that conservation biology has is that we understand the biology reasonably well, like, we know what to do to preserve biodiversity, we know what to do if we don’t want to preserve biodiversity. The bigger issue is what people do. So the sort of sociological aspects of conservation biology are what stick with me. The biology part of conservation biology is in some ways sort of the easier part to figure out, but the tougher part is to figure out why people do the things they do and why they will not stop doing some things or start doing others, and figuring out how we get evaluations of biodiversity. Or maybe we don’t, maybe we end up with like 10 species on our planet besides ourselves, but I don’t think that would be a good outcome.

JS: How does your research experience help you to assist students in the department?
JY: I talk to students about research and the benefits of hard work and the benefits of consulting with people who are experts in data collection and data location, so talk to your reference librarians and things like that. But then the flip side of that is I’ve had several situations arise in my research where I’ve found really good sources accidentally. And the point of that is chances work out in your favor if you work hard, and putting yourself in a position to find information and to keep your eyes open while you’re looking for things gives you a chance to find other stuff. And finding faculty who are willing to work with you because you ask questions and talk to people is also really helpful.

JS: What is your favorite subject to teach? I know you’ve enjoyed the Halloween class a lot.
JY: I do like the Halloween class a lot. Oddly, I’ll get students who hate Halloween and they’ll take the class, and then they’re upset that we’re talking about Halloween for a semester, so it’s not like you have to be a fan of Halloween to do well in the class.

I’m teaching intro to biology for non-majors for the first time at Dixie this semester, and that’s not for my department, that’s for the biology department, but most of our faculty are teaching classes for other departments, so we tend to teach GE courses. I like the extinction class I teach a lot, I like the Halloween class I teach a lot, I like the science and nature writing class I teach a lot. I think the science and nature writing class students gravitate toward more, I’m not entirely sure why, they say it’s really hard, but they also say that they like it a lot, and they show up and they have fun in the class, which I also get from the Halloween class sometimes. Sometimes people are kinda cranky about it, but sometimes they’re good about it. I guess it’s the topics classes I like the best.

JS: What advice do you have for students going on to grad school?
JY: Don’t apply to just one place. One of the things I see with students who are grad school bound is that they’ll have a really circumscribed list of options, and I feel like you want to apply to at least 10 or 15 places. You want to have some flexibility, and to whatever extent possible apply to Ph.D. programs, rather than master's programs. Master's programs you often have to pay to go, whereas Ph.D. programs you’re often paid to attend, and then if you’re lucky you’ll get a stipend and they’ll waive your tuition and they’ll pay you to teach some classes for them, which is sort of a sweet deal. The other thing I would say, which is sort of the same with jobs, is that you should always go visit before deciding. In graduate school when I went back the last time for biology, I got into a couple of really good programs and everybody thought I would go to the University of Wisconsin, that’s the top school. But I went to visit Stony Brook and did an ecology of evolution degree there. It would’ve been a geology degree at Wisconsin, but I felt like that wasn’t really what I wanted, like it’s not my fault that extinct animals turn into fossils and sort of shift from being biology to geology, that’s just an accident. So even though people were telling me you need to go to Wisconsin, I went, and it was just a better fit at Stony Brook, and if I hadn’t visited I wouldn’t have found that out. If they’re going to fly you out, have you check stuff out, think about the place, you should go. And the flip side is it’s close enough you can get there, and you can plan a week or a couple of weeks and travel and look at the places, meet the people, you should do that.