Why American universities excel at research

I was on an airplane in India a few years ago and got to talking to the fellow in the seat next to mine. When he heard what I did for a living, he said he had something to ask me.

 "What is it?," he wanted to know, "that makes American universities so good?" The universities are not all that much better than those anywhere else in the world, I told him, it's just that American universities luck out in getting extremely motivated students. This explanation made no sense to him. "When all the good students in America go into finance and law," he insisted, "how can the science and engineering departments be any good?" I tried to tell him that intelligence is over-rated and that enthusiasm and persistence are usually the deciding factors in terms of what someone accomplishes. But he could not grok that -- the bias in India towards "innate ability" is too deep-seated.

The enthusiasm and motivation that the best students are capable of was on display this Saturday. We had been invited on a Nature Conservancy field trip to their newish preserve in Southern Oklahoma. Boehler Seeps and Sandhills Preserve is a marshland that is home to a surprisingly diverse set of animals. We gathered in a community hall just outside the preserve to listen to talk by a graduate student who'd spent the last couple of years doing research there.
A dam built by beavers in Boehler Seeps; home to chicken turtles
The research involved doing a survey of the animals in the preserve and studying in detail the life-cycle of the chicken turtle, an almost-but-not-quite-endangered species that made its home in the two beaver dams on the preserve. To do the survey, the student had to build the fences and the traps and check up on them several times a day. Every time he caught a turtle, he would drill a radio transmitter onto its shell, collect its feces (to see wha the turtles ate) and release them. He also talked to private land owners around the preserve so that he could monitor turtle movements into their ponds. He spent several weeks at a time camped out in the preserve so that he could build the fences, tag the animals and monitor them.

Notice the considerable range of skills needed here -- carpentry, electronics, field work, camping, neighborliness, statistics ... This sort of diverse skill set and can-do spirit is quite common on American campuses.

The result? This slide shows the amazing amount of data he had collected:

Nearly 8000 captures of 53 different species, including 1814 captures of 7 species of turtles.

Well, okay. That's the mechanics of research.  Did he understand the state of the science? Did he discover anything new?

Glad you asked. Turns out that there are three subspecies of chicken turtles. Two of them have bimodal estivation periods and it was assumed that this, relatively rare third subspecies of chicken turtles would too. He found that, on the contrary, they had a single estivation period.  Other chicken turtles of the species are purely carnivorous. But the ones in this marsh had diets that included lots of plants. A subspecies or a new species?  Turn into the News at 11!  Very exciting.  His advisor, sitting in the back, was beaming.  Body language speaks volumes and these guys were onto something.

Talk over, we moseyed over to the preserve.  He had an antenna and honed in on the frequency of the largest of his turtles which had burrowed onto land ("you don't want to see me wading into the marsh and catching a turtle") and quickly led us to where it ought to be.

And started digging.  All of a sudden, there was a note of the frantic to the effort. We soon discovered why he'd gotten so worried. The transmitter was there, but no turtle. A raccoon had probably gotten the turtle.  The heartbreak was palpable.  He would download the data, correlate it with temperature data from the lake and figure out when it had happened.  But this was sad. And this had been his favorite turtle.

So, I asked him, what he did plan to do after this?  He was going to finish his MS soon and apply to several other schools for a PhD in tropical biology because the college he was currently studying in doesn't have a PhD program.  Process that for a bit -- he was not in a big name college, or even a flagship university or a regional research college. He was doing a MS in a small, regional college with no PhD program. And yet, he was doing very high-quality work.

That is how deep the bench of American graduate schools extends -- all the way to teaching colleges that happen to have small research departments. The work done there is probably on par with "national  universities" elsewhere in the world.  And it all comes down to having great students. Of course, not all students are this good and this motivated. But enough of them are.