Don’t tell a professor ignorance is bliss. They are, after all, in the business of both discovering new information and sharing their discoveries with their students and society at large. We asked faculty members about the misconceptions the public has about their work and what they want you to know.
Julia Wellner, Assistant Professor of Geology, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics
When I say I am a glacial geologist, the typical response is: “Why? There aren’t any glaciers in Texas.” But studying glacial change is important to places with low-gradient shorelines like Texas, especially coastal cities like Galveston.
Sea level has gone up and down throughout geologic history. There are a variety of causes, but the primary cause, and the one responsible for any rapid change, is the growth and decay of glaciers, especially large ice sheets like those in Antarctica. My students and I study seafloor sediments around the modern ice sheet to determine where ice used to be, when it retreated and why. While the death mask of past ice sheets might be interesting to just a few people, what it teaches us has broader implications. When ice sheets retreat, they contribute water to the oceans. Sea level is not really level, so water piles up more some places than others. Shorelines respond in different ways, too. Remember the low-gradient Texas shoreline? Sea level is only rising a few millimeters per year, but our flat coastal plain means those few millimeters can translate into significant land loss, making glacial geology important even in Texas.
Frank Fernandez, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, College of Education
Popular misconceptions about higher education can lead to bad public policy. For example, some people think that universities are big bureaucracies that should be encouraged to act more like businesses. People also assume that colleges and universities should get rid of the principles of academic freedom and tenure because they are old-fashioned ideas that discourage hard work.
However, research shows that around the world, universities lead scientific and technological research and innovation; in part, this is because the business sector focuses on short-term profits and can be hesitant to undertake long-term, costly—but promising—research projects.
To support world-class teaching and research, we need faculty who have job security, professional autonomy and the academic freedom to ask questions that challenge conventional wisdom.
Countries like China and Turkey are undermining academic freedom, but we should see academic freedom and tenure as essential values for American higher education.
People who say universities are the way of the past and industry is the way of the future—that’s not really true. Universities are the way of the future and are still worthy of public investment.
Cameron Buckner, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
Not only are humans not alone in having minds, but sophisticated problem-solving and cognition exists in very different kinds of animals, such as birds.
We used to think that “bird brains” lacked intelligence, because their brains were smaller, lighter and very differently organized (lacking both white matter and neocortex) compared with those of similar-sized primates. Yet, birds like ravens and parrots have matched or exceeded the performance of monkeys and chimpanzees on tests of cognitive flexibility.
In particular, some birds can remember events from their autobiographical past, solve complex problems, create and use tools and even understand that others also have minds and might see the world from a different perspective.
Our last common ancestor with birds was a lizard-like creature that lived over 300 million years ago! This shows that rational intelligence has evolved more than once on planet Earth and that it can be implemented in physical systems very different from our own.
Megan Robertson, Associate Professor of Biomolecular and Chemical Engineering, Cullen College of Engineering
Plastic waste is a global problem, and most of the 150 million tons of plastics produced every year end up in landfills, the oceans and elsewhere. Less than 9 percent of plastics are recycled in the United States, with both financial and environmental consequences. Furthermore, the majority of plastics are derived from fossil fuels, utilizing a finite resource and creating harmful environmental emissions.
My lab is addressing this issue through creating biorenewable polymers, using vegetable oils and other plant-based materials to make plastics. We consider all aspects of the life cycle of plastics: using a sustainable and readily available resource to create the plastics, developing materials which are longer lasting and thus generate less waste and creating plastics which can be more readily recycled or composted.
These and other efforts to minimize the environmental consequences of plastics are complicated by the fact that society needs plastics, so any changes can’t weaken the performance. The payoff of creating more environmentally friendly plastics, however, will include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, avoiding waste buildup in landfills and decreasing our dependence on hydrocarbons.
Raul Ramos, Associate Professor of History, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
Texans tend to believe the Texas Revolution was fought to form the Republic of Texas. On September 5, 1836, slightly over six months after the Battle of San Jacinto, Texans held their first election.
In addition to electing Sam Houston president, Texans voted almost unanimously to request statehood with the United States over forming a Republic. In Washington County, which lay in the heart of Austin’s Colony, 458 voted for annexation while 23 for the Republic.
The American Congress rejected the request, and the Republic of Texas Legislature convened for the first time a month later. The Republic of Texas government continued to negotiate for annexation for another year of Houston’s term. Historians have been reassessing the place of Texas in American imperial expansion, the politics of slavery and the invasion of Mexico in 1846.