The Compleat Dean

June 1, 2005

 

"Tweet Mystery of Life," Duke Magazine, July-August 1994 (view the original article)

The Compleat Dean

Jon Gardiner

In 1994, Duke Magazine's science editor, Dennis Meredith, wrote about Stephen Nowicki's research on the intricacies of birdsong. He described the young zoologist as an "ex-trombonist," an "adept juggler," and a popular teacher of neuroscience, who reportedly attempted to illustrate the fallibility of perception by showing up in class, on at least one occasion, dressed in drag. ("He is mum about where he got his dress," Meredith added.)

A decade later, Nowicki, now dean of the natural sciences, is still performing, albeit in a more recognizable guise. He has picked up his trombone, donned a rugby shirt, and joined the pep band.

At forty-nine, Nowicki is by far the oldest member of the band. But you wouldn't know it by watching him sprint onto the court during a timeout, dive to the floor, and roll across the hardwood while the Blue Devil surfs the human waves. "Who in his right mind wouldn't want this opportunity?" he asked an Associated Press reporter in February. "This really is a great research university, but if you can't let your hair down once in a while, then you've gotten kind of stuffy."

With his long hair, mustache, and goatee, Nowicki might be called scruffy. But never stuffy. His animated lectures and close attention to students in his upper-level neurobiology course earned him a Trinity College Distinguished Teaching Award for 1992-93. "I want to break down their intellectual complacency," he told Meredith in 1994. "I want them on the edge of their chairs, wondering what will happen next."

It's that sense of wonder that has brought Nowicki the same kind of acclaim in the scientific community that he's garnered in the classroom. His findings on the evolution of complexity in birdsong have yielded insights into the mechanisms of human learning. The only species besides humans that vocalize and learn by listening, birds provide a useful model for studying human brain function.

In 2002, for instance, Nowicki became the first to demonstrate that a male bird's song performance affects the female bird's mating response, raising questions about the neurobiology of aesthetics: why humans, like birds, consider some things beautiful and others not.

Administrator, researcher, teacher, and, most recently, pep-band member, Nowicki is soon to add one more title to the list. His first book, The Evolution of Animal Communication, is due out from Princeton University Press this summer.