“What process leads us to these similar ways of dividing up color space?…You can find these amazing correspondences between languages.”


An interview with Colin Twomey, PhD
Post-Doctoral Fellow, MindCORE, UPenn
By Michelle Johnson (January 24, 2019)

What did you want to be as a kid? Were you always interested in science?

I didn’t have science in mind as a possible career path. I was really into robots when I was very young, so I thought I would grow up to do something where I got to build robots as my job. It was only much later, not until I had done my undergrad in computer science, when I started to get really interested in all the “thinking machines” we already live with on the planet that are amazing and so much more interesting than the things people have cobbled together to imitate them.

What’s an example of the type of concepts you study?

I did my graduate studies in behavioral ecology studying collective behavior, and I worked on schools of fish. There are these sulfur springs in Chiapas, Mexico, and there are endemic fish that are well adapted to the high sulfur concentration of the pools they live in. They’re more or less constrained to living very close to the surface because it gets more and more toxic deeper down. But that puts them at a high risk of predation. We would sit and watch in the mornings as kingfishers (a small predatory bird) would just again and again—like a buffet—dive down and pick up fish. What you get is this school of fish that is hypersensitive; you could wave your hand at it and then you’d see these shockwaves spread around this little pond. It’s a fascinating system, and you try to understand the natural algorithms that allow these groups to exist and react intelligently to the environment.

What questions are you interested in right now?

What I’m doing now here at MindCORE is a little bit removed from the fish, but it’s still all about collective behavior. What I’m interested in is about how people talk with each other about color. We have words in English for red, green, blue; we divide up colors into these little chunks. Other languages have a number of different color words, and you think it shouldn’t matter how you divide it up, it’s arbitrary. But that is not what you find at all. You can find these amazing correspondences between languages. What you’re left with is this question: “What process leads us to these similar ways of dividing up color space?”

What surprised you about working in scientific fields?

You have to get very comfortable with being wrong all the time; you’ll try so many things, it just won’t work, and you’ll be super frustrated. But I think it’s necessary. If you’re a good researcher, that is what you have to do: go through the process of systematically eliminating all these different ideas that were plausible but ultimately not correct. As a student, you get problems that you can solve, you can work to the right answer. But now, you’re in a space where people don’t know—you could have an unsolvable problem. That’s also what makes it exciting, especially if you do finally get it right, but you have to get comfortable with things just not working out most of the time.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

There’s a famous ecologist, Lord Robert May, who was asked a question about how he sees himself as a scientist. He described himself as an R-selected theoretician. In ecology, we think of R-selected species versus K-selected species: R-selected species are adapted for success in new or uncrowded areas, while K-selected species do best in areas that are already well established and crowded. So, are you somebody who moves from frontier to new frontier, or are you somebody who takes root as an expert in a well-established field? Finding out where you are on that spectrum is a good process to go through. But even beyond that, just understanding that people can do good work and be successful at all ends of that spectrum is important for appreciating how others do science.

To learn more about Dr. Twomey and his work, click here.

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