I like listening to the audio of PBS television shows as background noise, because (i) I’m cheap, (ii) it’s free, and (iii) it keeps me in tip-top shape for pub quiz tournaments. I was listening to an old episode of NOVA ScienceNOW on the intelligence of animals, when a profile of Alex the Parrot piqued my interest. Alex was world-famous for his incredible—for a bird—ability to speak, recognize objects, and count.
Fast-Forward to 37:53
Alex died in 2007, so this profile was more about his trainer, Irene Pepperberg. Narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson’s sexy science voice really grabbed my attention when he summarized Pepperberg’s educational background:
Growing up in 1950’s Brooklyn, Irene initially set out to study chemistry, first at MIT, and then as a graduate student at Harvard. But in 1974, halfway through her Ph.D., a new television series changed everything.
[Cut to an ancient episode of NOVA about training apes to use sign language.]
With her Ph.D. in hand, Irene turned her back on chemistry and set out to begin a career in biology, at Purdue University. Her first stop: the pet store.
I love keeping track of people who’ve ditched chemistry and had fantastically successful “alternative” careers. Maggie Thatcher was a research chemist prior to becoming the first female Prime Minister of the UK. Joel Godard got a degree in chemistry at Emory and would later become the long-time announcer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Jerry Buss earned a Ph.D. in chemistry before he became a real estate mogul and owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. Cindy Crawford started out as a ChemE major before becoming a supermodel.
A closer inspection of Irene Pepperberg’s history reveals that she appears to have worked on boranes with Nobel laureate Bill Lipscomb at Harvard. It’s quite a jump from boranes to parrot training, but Pepperberg really made a splash and blazed new trails in the world of biology.
It’s always nice to have examples of wildly successful people who invested many years getting a Ph.D. in chemistry and later decided to leave the field. Such a decision takes a lot of courage, and I think many graduates feel needlessly ashamed of opting to leave the bench.