Bobbi Low is Professor Emerita in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, where she’s also affiliated with the Institute for Social Research and the Center for Study of Complex Systems. She is also a co-founding member of HBES and winner of the 2019 Lifetime Career Award for Distinguished Scientific Contribution, which she received at our annual HBES conference in Boston. Bobbi Low is also a pioneer, a path-breaker, and a research powerhouse—but you knew that. So we decided to ask Bobbi a bunch of questions to find out some information we didn’t know before, and also to take advantage of her perspective on evolutionary social science over her eminent career.
In Fall 2019, Jaimie Arona Krems, an assistant professor at the Oklahoma Center for Evolutionary Analysis (OCEAN) at Oklahoma State University and fellow member of the HBES Grievance Committee, chatted with Bobbi Low. Below is some of their conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Jaimie: What’s your origin story? (By origin story, I mean, if you were a comic book hero, how did you come into being?)
Bobbi: I was a nerdy/dorky kid (of course envying the popular crowd!), but the one thing I knew how to do was go to school. I absolutely loved reading—still do. I would read anything. I was 12 or 14 when I read both Coming of Age in Samoa and Polly Adler’s (a famous New York madame) memoir A House is Not a Home. (Yeah, I was too young to understand…I thought having parties all the time would be great.)
J: How did you survive the leaky pipeline (i.e., the pipeline in STEM education that famously drips women and retains men)?
B: I have one trait that’s not helpful in most cases: I am pretty oblivious…but entering academe, it actually helped. After the first year, I realized that nothing ever was decided in faculty meetings—so I avoided them as much as I could, even scheduling seminar class in the faculty meeting time slot. As you’d guess, it really slowed down my progress ‘up the ladder’ but I really didn’t notice much. I should tell you that I have always been a misfit in my school: they hired me because at that time there was pressure to hire women, and I had wildlife experience (I was hired to teach ‘wildlife biology’ though I soon turned it into behavioral ecology of terrestrial vertebrates).
J: What advice might you have for people just starting to pursue their interests in evolutionary social science?
B: Find a knowledgeable and supportive mentor
J: Currently lots of posts/tweets about leaving academia for better-paying jobs. Can you mention some good reasons to stay in the academy?
B: Ouch! That’s a good one. If you are truly passionate about doing good research, and if you love teaching, you belong in the academy. I probably couldn’t have survived anywhere else—even now I am still going to school. But demographics rule: we are an aging population, with fewer students coming into university ages, so even now, many departments are shrinking and streamlining. It’s a buyer’s market out there. And I know a number of anthropologists who work for corporations, medical schools, and more. Anywhere multiculturalism is not a long-standing condition, there will be a need for social scientists.
J: In academia, rejection is the mode. How do you deal with the rejection letter?
B: I put it in the drawer, maybe shed a few tears in private, and check it in about a week. It’s important to check it as soon at that. When I was starting, I was so depressed by a letter from American Naturalist that I couldn’t look at it. When it surfaced two years later, I saw that it was a simple ‘revise and resubmit’ letter, though of course by then it was far too late!
J: If I’m correct, you were the first full-time female faculty member…how has HBES and evolutionary social science changed since your start? Is anything clearly better or worse?
B: I think it’s clear that the fields and the society have developed amazingly over the years. Impact has grown, too: a glance at my google feed always turns up some ‘hybrid’ popularizing article in evolutionary anthropology (cookies, I know…but the stories are out there!)
J: Does HBES differ from other societies to which you belong, and if so, how?
B: I am not sure it does…. just because we understand human frailties in a particular way, doesn’t mean we can circumvent them. Next meeting, think about non-human behavioral ecology—think about the people you see as critters—and you’ll find bucks sparring, and more.
J: Would you tell us one boring fact about yourself and/or one thing that most people at HBES would be unlikely to know about you?
B: Actually most facts about me are boring. Most people don’t know things like: I bet I have caught more snakes than anyone else you know. I was pretty much a cowboy-field biologist in grad school: lots of time in the field—especially deserts, carried a knife on lower leg, pickled specimens by moonlight, teased vultures by staggering and falling down until they came in to investigate, walked out on bridge girders over the Pecos River…stuff like that. It was enormous fun.
J: Out of curiosity, what animal would you be?
B: A lizard, I think. I am utterly heliotropic (how I ever came to live in Michigan I’ll never understand fully).