Outlier

Author: Kristina Kangas

Kristina came to Cal as an undergraduate and joined the Biology Scholars Program after being a part of the Biology Fellows Program. She received her BA in 2011 and is currently a graduate student in UC Berkeley's Department of Integrative Biology. Her research in the lab of Dr. George Bentley is investigating if melatonin, the "hormone of darkness", is able to communicate seasonal information (i.e. the length of the night) to an invasive, temperate species of bird (the European starling), and if seasonal melatonin could influence transitions between life history stages (specifically between breeding and non-breeding) in birds. Outside of lab, she enjoys teaching and learning from students, reading German and Italian literature, and thinking about how research can be made more accessible.

Kristina KangasIt is a bizarre, strange loop to desire to be different and unique and yet still be considered a part of a single, structural social unit. The tug-of-war between the commercialistic drive to “Expressyourself”, but, “do it the same way as everyone else by buying this product,” can leave a maturing young adult in the dust of monotonous homogeneity. This was my dilemma before I even heard of the Biology Scholars Program (BSP). It changed my worldview. The words that follow will attempt to articulate how.

An outlier is outside of a normal distribution. Threatening ideals that dabble in the field of universality, outliers may be simply an error of perception or measurement. Why “threatening”? The world becomes seemingly more complex when you strip away categorization and stereotyping. Beliefs can no longer accurately project onto reality and have less predictive value for the future. The fewer outliers, the better predictive power our beliefs may have, at least in an unchanging context. This may be why outliers are not considered (i.e. thrown away) in statistical analyses of non-ethically sound examples of science--people feel like their livelihood is threatened if the theories and hypotheses they work on elucidating are not supported statistically because of outliers. In a world that incentivizes (i.e. publishes) data that is statistically significant, without strong evidence of it being ethically sound (reproducible and replicable), it’s no wonder that outliers can be interpreted as threatening.

As a scientist, I can’t help but make parallels between society (individuals, groups, institutions, etc) and the social dimensions of these mathematical abnormalities in an attempt to formulate some conceptual inkling of understanding either or both. Was the dilemma I was facing in the first paragraph just my subjective interpretation of (1) self-reference as an outlier (“I am an outlier.”) and (2) projection on the world as seeing me as an outlier (“I don’t fit in.”)? This can only be considered retrospectively, which has little logical basis; however, whatever malady this state of mind was causing me (which seemed paralyzing at the time), it was reconsidered when I found myself in the context of the community formed by BSP.

We all come from different backgrounds, and this diversity is essential to addressing the problems that plague the world. If we all came from the same place, we wouldn’t cover much breadth about (1) what problems exist or (2) how to solve them. I still feel like an outlier, but my perspective on it has changed--it’s an important contribution to deliberative and constructive discourse. “Outlier” is now a term of endearment.

Being in a community and being a unique individual are not in conflict with each other. Diversity is an asset to a community.

BSP helped me grasp the importance of this diversity, both ecologically and socially. Just like how outliers in experimental data may be exhibiting interesting, underlying phenomena, “outliers” in society re-frame subjects in a way that question previous assumptions (“assumptions” that were structured historically by subjectively, homogenous sectors in academia).  

So many perspectives, so much experience, so much community--it would be a pity to not have the goals, thoughts, experiences, poems, artwork, research write-ups, interviews etc. of this amazing group of students archived and developed. This is just the beginning.

BSP Class of 2011
(Kristina Kangas -back row 3rd from right - with the BSP Community)