It’s not often that a molecular immunologist feels like their career isn’t challenging enough. But that’s exactly where Phillip Thurtle found himself in the early 1990s. “I found myself, as a practicing scientist, really only thinking about one amino acid and one molecule,” Thurtle said. “I wanted my intellectual world to be much larger.”
Thurtle went on to study the history and philosophy of technology and science at Stanford, where he received his Ph. D. in 2002 and developed an appetite for exploring seemingly unrelated disciplines. Eight years later, he took over as director of UW’s Comparative History of Ideas Department (CHID), which makes deep connections between science and the humanities. That includes leading study abroad trips to Iceland. It includes writing a book that will connect the dots between biology and Batman. It includes letting students create classes and putting them in charge. “We need to be able to think about how these things are connected,” Thurtle said.
Thurtle’s Iceland trips are a big part of why a former colleague nominated Thurtle for a feature in this place. Since 2007, he’s led three study abroad trips to examine the country’s complicated relationship between nature and the modern world. For instance, certain rocks are thought to house “hidden people.” When planning highways that might otherwise run through these rocks, officials reroute roads that take drivers miles off-course – all to save the hidden people. “These are the types of fuzzy ambiguities we like to think of,” Thurtle said. “It’s something that stays with students, year after year.”
Outside of the classroom, Thurtle remains interested in finding connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. His next book, due in 2014, ties together Batman, modern biology, and stories on the importance of graphics in our visual-driven society. Tentatively titled “Supernaturalisms,” the book is about what Thurtle calls “those super moments” in the science world, when expectations and reality don’t align. He cites animal development and genetic mutation as examples of “super moments.”
The seeds for “Supernaturalisms” were planted after Thurtle read about comic book design. “Comics can give you a sophisticated insight into how words and images can be captivating on a page,” he said.
Thurtle is also looking at how to revamp the learning experience. He led the development of student-driven focus groups, which allow students to create two-credit classes centered on interesting topics. “It really gives the student who’s leading the focus group the opportunity to explore an issue that they may or may not have been able to find at the university,” he said.
One of the more popular groups, entitled “Theory, Schmeory,” was designed for students who might be put off by highly theoretical courses. “It was a way to get everybody to feel comfortable,” Thurtle said. “It’s kind of amazing what happens. We’ve actually changed some of our classes based on the issues that have come up in focus groups.”
Thurtle himself led a focus group on the cultural impact of technology while at Stanford. It laid the groundwork for a career based in making sense of contradictions and bridging the divide between science and the humanities. “I feel really blessed to be a part of both worlds,” he said.