Profile with Joanna Masel

Joanna Masel (Australia-at-Large & Merton 1997) is an Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona. Joanna is currently working on a book on economics. She holds a DPhil in Zoology from the University of Oxford and a BSc in Genetics from the University of Melbourne.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Joanna Masel: I call Tucson, Arizona home. I grew up in Melbourne, Australia.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite childhood memory?

Joanna Masel: I have a lot of memories of beauty and fun and joy. I don’t know that the incidents matter.

Rhodes Project: When did you first become passionate about evolutionary biology?

Joanna Masel: Originally, I was more interested in molecular biology. I thought that a lot of evolutionary biology was very old science and I wanted to work in an area of more exciting, newer science. I always worked with evolutionary biologists though, so my work just took me into evolutionary questions. I discovered that there was a lot of new science going on and that it was, in fact, where the current action was. I started working seriously on evolutionary biology during my Postdoc in 2002 at Stanford. I was part of Marc Feldman’s research group, which has a lot of amazing people in it. It was great to really get to know the sort of people that he attracted.

Rhodes Project: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Joanna Masel: Mentoring people. This may sound corny, but when I am mentoring somebody and I can, through that, have a really enduring impact on their trajectory, I find it really rewarding. I’m a professor and I have quite a large number of undergraduates who do research with me for a few years. I also mentor Postdoc and PhD students. At all those levels, I develop quite strong mentoring relationships with people who work with me to do science.  

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part of your job?

Joanna Masel: The fact that there isn’t an infinite amount of time. I have a lot of ideas and a lot of things I’m excited about. I want to do all of them, but there’s only a finite amount I can actually do. Dealing with that and managing that is very challenging.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you offer a young woman interested in pursuing a career in science?

Joanna Masel: This is advice I often do offer. I give different advice at different levels. Let’s say I’m talking to somebody who’s finishing up their undergraduate degree. The first thing I do with an undergraduate is make at least some attempt to talk them out of it. I think a career in science is something you should only do if you are truly passionate about it. For the students who are, there’s no danger that I’m going to succeed in talking them out of it. There are people who end up in PhDs without a sufficient amount of passion to keep them going. This is partly because the system channels them into it. If they were good at science and they can’t think of anything else, then they might just continue. So my first advice to everyone is never, ever enroll in a PhD out of inertia because you’re good at it and it seems like the logical thing to do.

There are two good reasons for doing a PhD. One doesn’t usually apply to people in my field. That one reason is because you think it will be good for your career. The second reason is because you are so passionate about it you couldn’t imagine doing anything else. The first thing I offer somebody before they start a PhD is to make sure that one of those two reasons applies to them.

Then there is the advice I offer to students who are coming to the end of their PhD, presuming they’ve done reasonably well and want to continue. At that point, I advise them again to look at what they really want to do and what their priorities are. People sometimes think they can do everything, so they have to think again. Once you have the PhD, once you’ve experienced the doing of science on that level, you know what you like and what you don’t like. The advice I give at that level is much more varied and depends on the person.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to address any issue, local or global, what would it be?

Joanna Masel: The most pressing issue our society faces by an enormous margin is climate change. As far as the size of the problem goes, there’s no competition. If we don’t address other issues like curing cancer, it’ll be horrible and more will people die, but we can, in principle, solve it in a hundred years’ time. We can’t wait a hundred years to start solving climate change problems. At that point, we may not have a system capable of solving anything at all. So everything is hostage to that.

The problem I would like to solve is climate change, but I don’t think it’s a question of resources. If I could create the political will, I would institute the simplest possible global carbon tax and very quickly scale it up. I would redistribute the proceeds to all members of society so the poor would not be disadvantaged. Then I would let the global economy adjust in all places so that we stop generating so many emissions. That’s the most important thing, but it doesn’t really take resources. It’s a question of distributing what we already have.

In terms of issues that need resources, then the randomized trial is one of the most powerful inventions of the 20st century. Randomized clinical trials were invented by an evolutionary biologist called R.A. Fisher in the 1920s. They were first used in medicine in a serious way in 1948, so they’re a relatively recent invention. We have only scratched the surface of what we could use them for. I would make them routine within regular medical practice and I would introduce them into the criminal justice and educational systems. Generally, I would make them a normal part of doing business. This would also take will though. I would institute electronic medical records and I would make clinical trials, of the sort that are no more risky than current medical practice, a standard part of most medical practice in a systematic fashion. I would re-allocate parts of our health system towards generating reliable data on what works and what doesn’t work. For examples of what I’m talking about, there’s a recent good book called Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre. I’m familiar with some of the problems he writes about because I teach a course in evidence-based medicine. And I would also extend the routine use of randomized trials far beyond medicine.

Rhodes Project: Can you recall a memorable moment during your time at Oxford?

Joanna Masel: There are a lot of them. I remember one moment when the late Bill Hamilton was giving a talk. He mumbled and was at the blackboard with his back to everybody, but if you really leaned in and listened, you could hear. At some point, an ambitious younger scientist put up an objection by referring to a certain theory. Another older member of the audience said, “Oh Yes! That was me!” and waved with this friendly smile on his face. So the guy whose work he was quoting in his objection was, in fact, sitting in the same room, but that guy wasn’t the one aggressively objecting. That’s the moment I can think of that really typified Oxford.

Rhodes Project: What is something you are looking forward to right now?

Joanna Masel: First, I’m looking forward to having a holiday in Tanzania and Rwanda. I’ve been in Berlin for the last year and after that holiday I will be going home to Tucson. I’m looking forward to seeing my dog there again. Then I’m looking forward to finishing my book. I’ve been writing a book this year and it’s about two-thirds done. It’s an economics book about how individuals can bypass the financial institutions of our current capital allocation system and invest directly in their own retirement through human capital. I’m really looking forward to finishing that book.

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