Name: David P. Mindell
Education: PhD, Brigham Young University
Research Experience/History: Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Curator of Birds at the University of Michigan for 14 years, and Dean of Science and Curator of Ornithology at the California Academy of Science for 3 years, prior to coming to NSF.
NSF Experience/History: Began working at NSF in May 2013, as a Program Director in the DEB Systematics and Biodiversity Science cluster.
Competitions I currently work on: I am working with the Phylogenetic Systematics, Biodiversity Discovery and Analysis and Genealogy of Life (GoLife) programs in DEB, as well as the Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) in the Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI).
Q & A
What are your study system(s) and area(s) of expertise? My research interests include systematics and molecular evolution in birds as well as conservation biology and genetics in birds of prey. I am also interested in, and would like to increase, public understanding of science.
Biggest surprise you’ve encountered coming to DEB from the academic world: I’ve been surprised by the varying perceptions of NSF’s mission among its stakeholders , though I suppose I shouldn’t have been. These perceptions range from NSF’s primary or sole objective being the open-ended pursuit of basic science as understood by many biologists, to “…advancing the national health, prosperity and welfare…” as stated in NSF’s original charge from congress in 1950. NSF’s ability to bridge this difference is a tribute to those at NSF and elsewhere who are engaged in educating the public and policymakers about the inherent value of basic research.
Tell your awesome fieldwork adventure story: After 2 sleepless days of nesting bird surveys and travel on the Yukon River close to the Bering Sea, I was boiling coffee on a gravel bar in the rain. I watched as a wooden fishing boat, driven in by the high winds as I was, made a rough landing on the gravel. Three native Alaskans got out and began talking to each other in Yupik. I walked over with an extra cup of coffee, and wondering if they also spoke English, asked tentatively if anyone thought the rain might break soon. The nearest man stared silently at me for what seemed a very long time and then deadpanned, “Do I look like a f*%*ing satellite?”, after which he laughed and drank the coffee while we talked about fish and birds.
Books recently read or re-read, and enjoyable quotes:
I highly recommend The Science of Liberty by Timothy Ferris. Science and freedom, going hand in hand. A favorite quote from the book is actually from Alexis de Tocqueville, “Once works of intelligence became sources of power and wealth, people were obliged to look upon every scientific advance, every new discovery and idea, as a germ of power placed within the people’s grasp.”
I’ve also been reading The Best of Edward Abbey which includes the insightful statement, “There are some good things to be said about walking. Not many, but some. Walking takes longer, for example, than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed. I have a friend who’s always in a hurry; he never gets anywhere. Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting. You have time to observe the details. The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated. … To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me.”
Another great read is The Book Nobody Read by Owen Gingerich. Who knew that marginalia (in Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus) could be so illuminating?
Who do you admire, and why? Francis Bacon, Ed Ricketts and Nelson Mandela all had awesome vision and perseverance.