Prof making philosophy out of science

Assistant professor Alan Love typically looks to questions, not answers.
May 03, 2009

A mixture of scientist and philosopher, University of Minnesota assistant professor Alan Love is focusing in on how and why researchers ask questions and conduct experiments.
Love is in a rare niche. Faculty and students say he’s responsible for reviving a course and has an incredible memory, but simultaneously Love is a humble philosopher of science , researching how concepts are used across scientific disciplines.
“If there is a slogan for what I am doing it’s ‘How does science work?’ ” he said.
Love is particularly focused on how interdisciplinary reasoning works in biology.
Just four years out of graduate school, he has become an important member of the University’s philosophy department.
“Alan has made a great contribution to our curriculum,” said department Chair Geoffrey Hellman.
Love, recognized as one of this year’s McKnight Land-Grant Professors , is not only a strong scholar, he is also a talented teacher, Hellman said.
During his three years at the University, Love has revived the philosophy department’s introductory to scientific reasoning course , Hellman said.
Thomas Doyle , a graduate student in the department, said it is obvious Love pays attention to how he develops his courses. Boyle said he enjoys how Love ties together biology with the history of philosophy.
It’s Love’s range between the disciplines of science and philosophy that made him an ideal candidate for a job at the University, said ecology, evolution and behavior assistant professor Mark Borrello , who was on the committee that hired Love in 2006.
Love, who received his doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh , is really good at drawing not-often-connected fields together, Borrello said.
“Alan is the kind of guy that can engage anthropologists, developmental biologists or geneticists,” he said. “He always seems to have something insightful or provocative to say.”
Part of his insightfulness comes from his amazing memory, Doyle said.
Love commonly cites books and papers from memory, remembering both the dates they were published and their content, Doyle said.
“He has this way of processing or remembering all the stuff he reads and [uses] it in his courses and research,” Doyle said.
Love, whose small office is lined wall-to-wall with hundreds of book s, said he finds science “amazingly interesting” and hopes his work might someday help attract more people to the field.
Understanding how concepts work could help teachers develop new ways to present science, which may be more appealing to the students, he said.
In the next few years, Love said he hopes to write several research journals and is going to be analyzing the concepts and problems biologists are trying to solve.
He is going to attempt to explain the difference in concepts between historical sciences, such as paleontology and experimental sciences and molecular biology.
Love, who has already won several academic and research awards, hasn’t let his early success go to his head. He attributes his success to the support from the philosophy department and acknowledges that he still has a lot more to learn.
Hellman said Love’s modesty is one of his appealing traits, especially because academics can tend to be aggressive and self promoting.
“There is a tendency to be blowing your own horn all the time,” he said. “It’s pretty special when someone like Alan comes along.”
The University is lucky to have Love and the committee that hired him is confident they picked the right candidate, Borrello said.
“If he can maintain that threat of intellectual interest and continues to make connections across the disciplines,” Borrello said. “There is no doubt in my mind he will continue to be a first-rate scholar.”

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