UNIFI’s Alumni Program is growing! This year’s newly appointed Alumni Coordinator will be profiling several alumni over the course of the year as well as sending out a quarterly newsletter. If you’d like to receive the newsletter and stay up-to-date with alumni things, please sign-up for the alumni program here. Our Annual Alumni Reunion will most likely take place on Saturday, December 27th in Cedar Falls. Save the date!
- Alex Popinga
- Major: B.S. Honors Research in Biology, B.S. Bioinformatics, minor in chemistry
- Graduation Year: 2013
- Hometown: Hampton, Iowa
- Current Location: Auckland, New Zealand
- UNIFI Position: Director of Membership
What are you doing with your life now and how has UNIFI influenced it?
I am spending many a happy hour as full-time slave to science, better known in academic circles as “PhD student” or “doctoral candidate” for the posh. Specifically, I study scientific programming and conduct research in the Computational Evolution Group at the University of Auckland. Ours is a fascinating, multidisciplinary and international field of research. We are geneticists, computer scientists, mathematicians, statisticians, software engineers, physicists, epidemiologists, zoologists, ecologists, psychologists, climatologists, and wine scientists (yep, no joke). We do theoretical and also practical work. It’s pretty wicked, and I absolutely owe UNIFI partial credit to the way I’m currently passing my greatly improbable and astounding existence.
Obviously, the first UNIFI event I attended was BRUNCH!!!1. As you do. The second event was one of a series UNIFI used to put on called Grab a Brew, Share Your View. It was debate-based, there was beer, and it was brilliant. Over the course of the next few years attending UNIFI events such as these and hanging around its members vigorously honed my skills in thinking on my feet and general engagement in debate, but it wasn’t all just rhetoric. I suppose I have at least somewhat of a nature-driven propensity toward logic and reasoning, but as with so many other components of a human they require practice and refinement. And although I cannot make a causal statement, I do know that my involvement with UNIFI and a sudden, fierce interest in science and mathematics (I had been a music major previously) developed right around the same time, and it was like a Cambrian freaking explosion of fascination.
Also, the UNIFI members who were my closest friends absolutely impacted me by their friendship and support, but also by the various expertise and interests with which they inspired me. I had an extraordinarily low opinion of philosophers before a few UNIFIers straightened me out, and the programmers and mathematicians in the group assisted me immensely – whether they realize it or not – in developing my own intuition in these areas, which are vital to my current research.
Tell us a little bit about some of your research projects.
Primarily, I have been working on problems in epidemiology. This past year I have been focused on developing models for epidemics that follow what we call an SIR model – that is, outbreaks in which a host undergoes periods of susceptibility (S), infectedness (I), and removal (R) from the effective population by death, quarantine, recovery with immunity, etc. This includes viruses such influenza, HIV, HCV, and possibly the ebola virus (although ebola infections also include a latent or “exposed” (E) period and may be modeled with an SEIR model instead).
Interestingly, a colleague of ours in cognitive psychology who recently published a Science paper with my research group in language evolution has proposed that we may actually observe the spread of certain religions from an epidemiological perspective. The concept is not entirely new – Richard Dawkins, for one, has spoken of religion as a virus – but our research group actually has both the tools and now the data to sit down and model it. From these models we will be able to tease apart the underlying parameters that cause the epidemic behaviour, e.g., rates of infection, rates of death, population sizes throughout time, and so forth. With abundant metadata we may also be able to find correlations between environmental factors and prevalence/incidence of the infectious agent, in this case religion. For example, what effect does economic or political turmoil within a country have on the spread of religion within it? What about natural disasters? Does religious fervor gain momentum under such circumstances as we would intuitively predict? These are the types of questions we may be able to provide insight on using such techniques as the SIR model.
Were there any specific experiences you had or professors you worked with while attending UNI that led you to pursue this career path?
I mentioned before that UNIFI did influence me in a tremendous way. There are also several professors to whom I am grateful to have worked with at UNI, namely: Ira Simet (chemistry); Jeff Tamplin, John Ophus, and David Saunders (biology); and of course my thesis advisors Jim Demastes and Theresa Spradling (biology). Demastes and Spradling certainly provided the most direct effect on where I am today, literally and figuratively. It was Demastes who initially lit that fire of interest in scientific research under me, it was the joint effort between Demastes and Spradling that nurtured the flame, and it was through their research lab that I discovered my current field. (And it was during a trip to Skepticon with a few UNIFI mates that I discovered my current PhD supervisor and research group!)
The NASA internship, too, was certainly made possible by these experiences. Plenty of students can get a decent grade in class, but it’s what you choose to do with your time outside of the classroom that really counts. Not only does it look good on a C.V., but you’ll write a better essay when you actually have something to write about.
What do you miss most about UNIFI?
The people, the inside-jokes, and the activism. There are certainly issues in New Zealand that could and need to be addressed (e.g., million-dollar tax breaks for churches), but everything is turned down several notches in comparison to the U.S. For example, after finding a flat the first thing I did when I moved here was search for a UNIFI-esque group to join. The closest thing I found was the university’s Reason and Science Society, which may sound ideal, but it is quite a different group than UNIFI. Yes, there is circle-jerking over Carl Sagan, and there is scientific, philosophical, and political debate aplenty. However, there is also an outspoken evangelical Christian as our secretary. And they go beyond being simply not exclusive; for a while there was a disclaimer at the start of every event that: “We are NOT an atheist group!” It makes me uncomfortable, in that it is very reminiscent of the time I felt ashamed of the word “atheist”. It’s a very different atmosphere.
Any advice for current members?
Be a go-getter. Attend all the conferences you can – you never know what you might learn or who you might meet there. And wear a UNIFI shirt while traveling for insta-best friends.