Journeys of Discovery
You will have heard the advice that the key to success is finding something you love. Damian Scarf is rather extreme proof of this.
In his seventh form year he failed the three subjects required for University Entrance, failed sixth form maths for the second time, and forgot to turn up to his tourism exam. When he finally made it into University to major in Zoology (he had been a fan of the Crocodile Hunter as a kid), he added in a Psychology paper “because I was told it had a multi-choice exam and therefore was easy”.
He soon realised he was misinformed. But what Psychology did have over all previous educational experiences was Professor Mike Colombo.
“Mike was teaching a paper on comparative cognition, comparing the intellectual processes of different animals as a way of better understanding how cognition works. I was completely hooked.”
And so it was that Damian began his explorations into the thought processes of pigeons. His work began as a master’s project, and was later upgraded to a PhD. Not that his feathered friends made life easy for him.
“I actually started with chickens. I was trying to compare them with some previous work on how pigeons learned to use touch screens to access food. But it was hopeless. Chickens are totally impulsive, they just peck at anything.” That was a year and a half gone.
“I thought we needed a smarter bird. So I tried again with magpies from a farm. After five months of spending 12 hour days with them, grinding livers to feed them and constantly smelling like a meat processing plant, I never got them to do anything. They just wouldn’t habituate to a lab environment.”
Meanwhile, says Damian, his scholarship was ticking away. “We had to change direction. We relooked at the pigeon data, and set up new experiments involving these birds. In the end, we were able to come up with a much broader understanding of their cognitive processes.”
Despite these obstacles, Damian says he “never processed those challenges as failures. I loved it.” He worked hard, typically spending 12 to 14 hours a day carrying out experiments and writing them up as journal articles and, ultimately, thesis chapters. In total, he generated eight first author publications during his PhD – not that this was his focus: “If you only worry about getting published, you ruin the experience.”
He also spent seven “amazing” months at Columbia University in New York on a Fulbright scholarship. There, he explored the cognitive processes of monkeys and children, working with Professor Herbert Terrace, one of the preeminent comparative psychologists of the 21st century.
Now Damian is a lecturer in the Department of Psychology, and there’s no place he would rather be. “Not only are the academics interesting and encouraging, the technicians are incredible. They can do anything. If I want a touch screen on a cage, someone is there to make it for me.”
And no doubt to the great surprise of his high school teachers, he comments, “I could read, write and lecture all day.”
Damian’s thesis was formally recognised by the Division of Sciences as being of exceptional quality.