I was sitting in my first Cognitive Psychology lecture as a TA, waiting to be introduced to the class as Answerer of All Questions You’re Too Afraid to Ask the Instructor, when a slide popped up that took me by complete surprise. My adviser’s “academic family tree”. The concept itself was a bit of a surprise, being connected to other scientists in that way. As Dr Jordan began to explain the slide, I almost did a spit-take; one of the names on the slide was B.F. Skinner.
For those not in the know, B.F. Skinner is a huge name in psychology. Any class that mentions the history of psychology talks about this guy for a while. He coined the phrase “operant conditioning”, invented the Skinner Box, and wrote the controversial Verbal Behavior (subsequently inspiring the criticism from Noam Chomsky that started the field of cognitive psychology). As a cognitive scientist in training myself, it’s a disarming stroke of cosmic strangeness that BF Skinner is my great-great adviser.
Besides being able to name-drop Skinner as my direct advisory ancestor, this obviously has few possibilities for my career. Despite the lack of practical applications, it does feel good to know that I’m connected to someone that left such a huge mark on science. Psychology had grown exponentially since Skinner got his start, but it gives me some hope that I too can make a mark in my area of interest.
As a funny aside, there’s an interesting website called academictree.org that looks up your academic family tree for you, depending on your field (such as mine, at neurotree.org). Apparently if you’re connected to William James, founder of American psychology, you are also connected to John the Baptist and Jesus, as for some reason unknown to me they are considered the first neuroscientists. I’m connected to James through Skinner, and therefore am also an 88th-level grandstudent of Jesus.