Dr. Quitmeyer describes himself as a hacker and adventurer, studying intersections between wild animals and computational devices. His academic research in “Digital Naturalism” at the National University of Singapore blends biological fieldwork and DIY digital crafting.
The career path of the guest of our today’s episode is anything but conventional. Dr. Andrew Quitmeyer studied Engineering and Film Making during his master’s degree. The trip to Galapagos deviated his direction and led him to pursue a tailor-made PhD degree at the intersection between Digital Media and Field Biology.
Today Dr. Quitmeyer describes himself as a hacker and adventurer, studying intersections between wild animals and computational devices. His academic research in “Digital Naturalism” at the National University of Singapore blends biological fieldwork and DIY digital crafting.
He runs “Hiking Hacks” around the world where participants build technology entirely in the wild for interacting with nature. His research also inspired a spin-off television series for Discovery Networks called “Hacking the Wild”.
The Digital Naturalism Conference is his largest initiative so far, and is leading him to start his own permanent Art-Science Field Station Fab Lab.
I worked on a little manifesto of what exactly my PhD would be like and tried to set as many boundaries and anticipate as many pitfalls or things that I didn't want to do in my PhD before I set out to actually doing this.
– Dr. Andrew Quitmeyer, Assistant Professor National University of Singapore
Hi and welcome to our next episode on PhD careers stories. My name is Tina Persson, founder of the podcast and as well founder of my own company Passage2pro.
My ambition is to change the mindset in academia regarding career possibilities after finishing a PhD. Globally we need more PhDs outside of academia, more PhDs being CEOs, more PhDs starting their own business, this is [how] we will make a difference.
In this podcast, I have the pleasure to introduce Andrew Quitmeyer [with] an amazing story about a young man starting his career by studying engineering. Engineering as that was supposed to lead to a safe job. Meanwhile however his interest for film and new digital world started to grow. Was it possible to combine his interests with film and engineering?
A trip to Galapagos, then another trip to China and by curiosity he was inspired to learn more about the digital media meeting programming. Again by chance, by curiosity he made a new jump to field biology.
Have you thought about performing a PhD he was asked. At first he was not really interested but the combination of digital media and biology was born. He became a field biologist and a digital media PhD. So never say you can’t combine your interest with a PhD. Let you get inspired and listen to Andrew Quitmeyer as he did it.
This is doctor Andrew Quitmeyer with the PhD Career Stories Podcast.
What got me to study in the first place was during my undergraduate, I had two degrees - I studied engineering and I studied filmmaking. I studied filmmaking because it was fun, it was things that I like to do and I like to communicate in different interesting media. And I studied engineering because people told me I was smart and I went to this engineering school and that was the thing that you would do if you were smart.
I was kind of disappointed in the engineering school and program just because I felt like we didn't actually get to make anything. We just kind of solved a lot of problems, it was a very good problem solving program. I could calculate the stress out of an eye beam. But I felt like we didn't really get to make things. I didn’t really even know what an engineer did, even while I was in the engineering program. But I mostly did that just because I was worried about supporting myself and people said if you're an engineer you can get a job in different places. So I did the thing that I wanted for fun, the filmmaking, and I did the kind of thing backing up and making sure that I'd be able to survive or whatever, for getting the engineering degree.
Then after that I went on a really great trip to the Galapagos, where I got to film this class from my undergraduate - University of Illinois - to go explore Ecuador and the Galapagos islands. It was like a science class going there and I got to film them. It was my first real trip out of the country and it was amazing! I got to run around all these different places, got to a camp, got to hang out with scientists and it was really really cool! I also did some projects there, I just reached out to random people in Keto and extended my plane trip by another month and met some really amazing people to do workshops with underprivileged children. [They] were running a program trying to get them back into school and doing other kinds of workshops with them.
So we had a venue thing that we called the “Rincon del relato” - this storytelling studio, storytelling corner - and we had them make animated videos about their own stories and things that happened in their life. It was a chance to give them a way to express themselves! It was really cool! These were really great experiences. I then moved to China after that and I did more kind of media meets programming and engineering. We taught people some basic programming stuff through things like Scratch in order to get them to animate what they were talking about and [we] introduced the students to a lot of different new media forms for expressing themselves.
But then where the **** did the biology come back in?! I was in this exploring new media tangent and I had a friend who convinced me to go to grad school. He said there's actually programs that combine digital media with other kinds of new forms of expression and stuff like that. I didn't know what I was doing - so I'm like okay cool, it's neat to have programs that actually combine your interest versus previously I had to do them as a separate things: I had to do engineering and I had to do filmmaking and now I could do both of them. I did that for my masters degree, I did whole a project about combining filmmaking and programming so you could have kind of semi-automated video editing.
But at the same time, the type of filmmaking I was into was a lot of scientific and nature kind of filmmaking. I ended up getting this job that also combined cameras and engineering at this robotics lab, where we were trying to track ants for this collaboration with a group of ant scientists. It was during one of our visits together where our robotlab was meeting with the antlab that we were presenting our stuff and sharing things, and the ant scientists invited me to go collecting ants with them after the meet up together. And we went out there, we were sucking up ants and finding all kinds of cool things in the field and it suddenly dawned on me that for some reason I had never really thought that you could actually just be a field biologists and that field biologist actually existed.
I think it was something that growing up in the Midwest American culture you get it kind of beat out of you. First of all that art is any kind of a viable option for actually living and succeeding in life. You can't just do art unless you're some rich kid or something. Right next to that is probably this idea of biology, especially this more naturalistic biology, is any kind of field that you could really go into and sustain yourself. I remember taking biology classes in my undergrad but always just because I thought they were super fun and it never even really dawned on me that you could really do that as like a career. So I had a little bit of an existential crisis. I'm like oh God I should just been a field biologists, this would have been amazing!
And so what I ended up doing is I built my whole PhD around this. I wanted to figure out how we can incorporate all these new interesting powers that we have with digital media into this kind of naturalistic exploration, this running around, this curiousness, this going in freely, exploring, poking and probing in trying to understand what these animals are doing in their own natural environments.
And so that's how I bounced around a lot and eventually got started on my PhD. Then once I was doing this PhD, and from the get go I called it digital naturalism, I didn't even want to be a PhD student. I had this really great adviser George Attack on for my masters and he wanted me to be a PhD student and I was like ”no way I'm not doing this!“. And he's like “you should totally be a PhD. You're smart or whatever. And you can get things done or whatever, and you can do whatever you want” and I'm like “okay cool!” Then I work on a little manifesto of exactly what my PhD would be like and tried to set as many boundaries and anticipate as many pitfalls or things that I didn't want to do in my PhD before I set out to actually doing this.
So for instance I was like - I'm sick of being behind a computer so an important part of my whole process should be in finding ways that I'm not just stuck behind a screen the whole time. And so I actually wrote this in - I need something that forces me to go outside and be in nature and be with these kinds of animals. So eventually that was me going on field expeditions. I did a lot of my PhD field work at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. There I got to survey what the different scientists were up to, what kind of tools they were using, how they use these tools and how they could use new different types of tools.
I would do workshops out there, we program different types of media, do physical computing, do sensing, all kinds of different things as well as more artistic and cultural forms of exploring what their projects were. I would have them do performance art in the jungle and you know that transects that they would run. I would have them put on performances that involved digital media they could program that would bring in people from the local community to understand what they're doing and how their research works and what's going on with these things at these tiny scales and bring it to a more human like scales.
I was a big weirdo down at the Smithsonian and my whole purpose was being down there and helping the scientist. A lot of people would be like you're making the scientists weird! That is not true at all these scientists are already really weird! I was more so creating an outlet where they could unleash their inner weirdness. So many of these field biologists are incredibly talented in many different artistic fields and very prone to expressing all this interesting and amazing stuff that they encounter. But they're under so much pressure, from their employers, from the people above them, to try to always be serious. And you run a real risk if you're taken as your research is just frivolous and you always have to have your excuse in your back pocket to [explain] how does this benefit humans if we're studying these ants and all this kind of stuff.
I think that's just ****. I think it's part of this gross human centric mentality that we have, where humans are the best and everything we do needs to make it so that us humans can consume quicker and create things faster and destroy more of the Earth in record time. A lot of these scientists feel this way too but they have to have this kind of excuse - this is how this research connects - it improves our manufacturing processes. We can make new makeup pigments from this type of coloration and so on. That can be cool, or great or whatever.
But I think the real thing is that these scientists do this because they love the animals and because they love nature and natural processes. And they love figuring out why. They love just this basic understanding and capturing of new information about the world. That's what should really be cherished above all. Not how do we make humans better but rather how do we learn more about the world. And learning more about our world is what helps is actually keep and cherish the things in our world rather than constantly destroying them. We're destroying so many things just because we're ignorant of how beautiful and amazing they can be.
I was down there helping the scientists, unleash their inner weirdness. They can have the excuse “I’m helping out this PhD student publishing in these things or whatever” so I can provide excuses for them and that was a lot of my job. Then taking that, distilling it and creating a set of design guidelines so other people like me, or people from nearby fields in engineering, or computing, or design, who want to work with these scientists, can have a set of basic design guidelines for how do you keep the naturalistic values that the scientists have created and maintain in their field without bringing all this technology in that just bulldozers over everything. We tried to avoid this kind of technological determinism and try to build technology with the scientists from the ground up to help them explore their own questions and have agency over their own tools and devices.
So after my PhD, I ended up doing a lot of different things. I ran an open source sex toy company. Creating sex toys is actually quite similar to creating devices for wild animals. They have to stand up against a lot of unexpected abuse and environmental hazards and create stimuli and new interesting kind of less verbal ways of communication. It unfortunately got attacked and destroyed by a horrible patent trolls.
I also had a TV show called “Hacking the Wild!”. It was all right, a lot of these producers did a lot of really shady things, I tried to use my role in this TV show to fight against this shadiness and make things more inclusive, especially for the women, in this man dominated survival genre. They also did things like it wasn't even supposed to be a survival show to begin with. So there's a lot of deception and stuff that lured me into participating in the show. It ended up attracting a broader audience than I would have been able to connect with anyway. So that's always positive. But they would have me do things like, they would tell me okay you have to talk about how you're going to use this technology to defeat nature! And that was not something I was very interested in. So we did a season of that show, it kind of went okay, but we parted our ways.
Then I became a tenure track professor at the National University of Singapore. I've been here for about two years. I've been having really great sessions with my students. The students are just unbelievable and just so awesome and really great to work with to explore a lot of these topics. But the academic system that we're dealing with here has led me to actually resign from my job. So I'm actually resigning from my tenure track assistant professor job by the end of this semester.
I don't 100% know what I'm going to do. My dream goal is to try to start my own art science field station. I want to create these opportunities for artists and scientists and engineers and hackers and everyone interested in this interesting rich combination of where wild field biology meets new digital technology. I want to be able to have a place that puts them together let's them express themselves and experiment and curiously explore all of this together. That's my goal! I'm trying to figure out where this can be, how I'm going to fund it, how I'm gonna keep it sustainable. But a I've done a couple beta test before this.
I led the first digital naturalism conference, which was a big free conference that tried to address a lot of the really terrible problems in academic publishing and sharing of ideas; where academics are being attacked by these people looking to lock off knowledge, which is just a terrible idea. That's not how academia, especially not how science, can proceed by putting things behind paywalls. So instead having a conference where we all collaborate and review each other's ideas and concepts and projects and we share them all back out to the world. This was a huge success! You can see the results at dinacon.org or just look up “The Digital Naturalism Conference”.
My new lab is basically looking to make this a full time thing. So I don't 100% know where things are going from here. It's exciting! It's kind of tricky because as a PhD student you're always taught that a tenure track professor position is the be all, end all goal you have to keep staying within this cycle! Luckily more and more people are pointing to - “no this is really the odd career choice out”, going into industry or other types of jobs that aren't these professor positions are much more common. But you receive so little training about this as a PhD student. I barely received any.
And even though I tend to issue authority a lot in my personal life it's still even affects me - this you know - it's like what am I doing?! I'm giving up this professor job!! Isn’t this what everybody wants!? But it's not enabling me to actually do the science and do the research and do the artistic explorations and technological explorations that I actually want to do. I feel like it's making me less productive being in this weird academic system that I'm currently in. I'm sure it works out for different people at different other places. But there needs to be alternatives and we need to teach our PhD students what kind of alternatives do exist. So I'm jumping into this big unknown and figuring out what's going to happen so.
That's a lot of my PhD story so far and stay tuned we'll see what happens.
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