Just Wing It (Or Don’t) – Meet Yassmin Ebrahim

Yassmin is a PhD Candidate in the school of Aviation at UNSW. Her special area of research is aviation psychology. With her work, she’s hoping to improve flight safety. Specifically, she’s interested in calculative vs. impulsive risk takers – measuring the differences and considering how we can more accurately quantify the important qualities that relate to safety outcomes.

With an undergrad degree in psychology and a strong interest in sports, she originally had aims to work in sports psychology. What brought her to aviation was something they have in common – how we make decisions under pressure and why it matters. She made a sporty lateral move to aviation. Not only is the field of aviation diverse in its potential work opportunities, but the consequences of how we understand decision making under pressure are greater, which captured and maintains her interest.

After completing her honours at UNSW (School of Aviation), she worked for four years in aviation and conducted safety investigations in commercial and aeromedical airlines, which involved assessing patterns in flight behaviors, maintenance processes, and making recommendations for improvements. But in 2020, as both an independent go-getter AND an easily bored and impulsive Gemini she decided to progress with a PhD and continue her relationship with her supervisor on their shared interest in air crew behaviour in both normal and abnormal situations.

I was keen to learn how exactly she conducts experiments, and she described adventurous role-playing games in a simulator – like choose your own adventure for student pilots. For example presenting the pilots with a flight task where they can decide if they fly, and how long they fly for (depending on their risk appetite). From chatting with Yassmin, I learned that research shows an increase of Theta band (a certain wavelength in the brain) asymmetry in both hemispheres can indicate the risk propensity of an individual. Her experiment is attempting to deduce if this is replicated with pilots.

From experience, she’s learned that the way we measure calculative and impulsive risk is a bit limited. We generally define “calculative risk” as the absence of the qualities associated with impulse, but don’t go any deeper than that. So without more nuance, we are limited in our ability to understand the mechanisms and quantitative details of those calculative style decision makers AND in our ability to harness the positive qualities – both for aviation and all sorts of psychological realms. “But, risk taking isn’t always bad – being risk averse isn’t the only good quality,” Yassmin wanted to clarify. 

I asked Yassmin what unexpected challenges she’s encountered during her PhD. She knew the experience would help her to be adaptable, ask the right questions, and be more effective at time management. But the main surprise has been troubleshooting the Electroencephalogram more commonly known as an EEG (a machine that measures electrical activity in the brain) – particularly cleaning the data without a model (so learning from scratch). Learning by trial and error is frustrating when you are someone who wants to do things right and do them once! She’s also working on presenting publicly with confidence – which wasn’t as clutch in her previous professional roles.

Curious about what has changed in her field over the years, Yassmin informed me that a big shift relates to the role automation now plays in how planes operate. Another interesting development in her field that has changed the research focus since she started her PhD is related to Covid. “We’ve never had a time in history where so many pilots went months or years without flying. Researchers and internal investigators at airlines are looking into how this has impacted pilot mental health, communication, and skill atrophy.”  

I asked Yassmin about what potential opportunities in her field look like for PhD holders, and she was super animated in describing aircraft investigations for the government, “shifting gears, being a detective, and addressing new problems all the time appeals to me for the challenge, the diversity, and the broad scope.”  It’s actually something she knew about before she started her honors and it’s been a driving force in continuing her education. But regulatory bodies and large commercial airlines may offer similarly broad and impactful work opportunities. She recognizes that making changes in any workplace is hard – but especially changes in the safety realm require heaps of justification – and for a good reason!

As for advice for women considering what career to pursue, she suggested they should definitely keep their options open – and be prepared for a change of mind. Total Gemini! But true, it’s great advice to always have a plan B. You might lose interest in your plan A, or discover through work/life experience that plan A might be better as a hobby.  She added “stay open to learning from the life experience of other people in your field – your theoretical background will always be an asset, but other people’s lived experience is something you can really benefit from listening to and taking into consideration. “

When we sat down the day after Halloween to eat fun size candies and talk about her career, she had just learned her second paper was accepted for publication. It is a systematic review of measured risk in aviation and how we could be measuring it better – in ways that more directly relate to outcomes in real life rather than risk taking. You can check it out HERE.

Contact her on LinkedIn if you want to chat about decision making under pressure, impulse control, stand-up comedy, or recommend a history museum for her next trip out of state.

The (un)Natural History of Taxidermy

If you’ve read my other blog, you know I love a hands-on craft that dovetails with my interest in nature. I love macabre arts, crafts, and science, so it follows that I also love taxidermy. 

Several years ago, I read Wild Ones: A sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. It isn’t a book about nature. It’s about the oddly curated human-animal interactions in our modern lives, and the weird tactics we have instituted to preserve nature as objects, sometimes in exchange for their wildness. In one chapter, we are told a bit of a history about a famous American taxidermist.

But I’d like to start with a story of an unfamous American taxidermist.  

Martha Maxwell of Boulder, Colorado was enthusiastic about recreating the beauty of the natural world through taxidermy. She loved arranging animals in positions that accurately anatomized their natural behaviour to preserve a visual record of Colorado’s wildlife for others to learn from and appreciate. Martha started out in taxidermy accepting carcasses from neighborhood boys, but eventually started hunting her own animals and became an excellent sharpshooter. Doing all the preparation herself became important to her, since this was the stage when she could best study the animal, its movement, and its habitat. Whether she was working with birds or bison, while skinning the caracass she was careful to take exacting measurements of all aspects of the body so that she could create a perfect replica.

Later on, she began hiring a blacksmith to craft a light frame. She would specify the exact dimension for each specimen, and then after the blacksmith made the frame, she covered it with cloth before sewing the animal skins over it. These were innovative and novel methods, and part of what made her works quite popular.

By 1868, Martha had collected over 600 specimens and displayed them at fairs around the country. In 1876, she presented her specimens at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Most attendees had never traveled, so the the landscapes her scenes portrayed were formative experiences, influencing how they concieved of the American mountain west. Audiences were captivated by her and her work, appreciating the animals and the evocative habitat dioramas. People also doubted that a woman could have accomplished what she had. She eventually put a sign in front of her exhibition explaining indeed, this was “women’s work”, to avoid repeating that conversation.  Almost all works outside the home were at that time thought of as male pursuits, but particularly taxidermy as it had associations with dominion over nature, strength, gore, brutality, etc. Very masculine for an aesthetic media.

Devastatingly, even though she was sent to represent Colorado at this expo, and received national recognition and fame for doing so, the Colorado Legislature failed to pay for her return ticket, leaving her stranded on the east coast with her prized creations.  A few years later, in 1881, she died in poverty at the age of 49 of ovarian cancer. Her work was not preserved after her death and disintegrated.

Her contemporary, whether he knew it or not, William Temple Hornaday travelled the globe hunting animals and stuffing them for the Smithsonian Museum. Gregarious and a total Sagittarius, he believed that by stuffing them, he was preserving endangered species for future generations who might otherwise not know they ever existed.

In 1886, when he got an inkling that bison were on their last legs back in his home country, he headed to Montana and shot 25 of them. Despite their importance to the story of the westward spread of white settlers across the continent, there were no bison specimens in museum collections at the time. His hunt is considered the last successful bison hunt in the U.S. He arranged the best-looking specimens in a diorama standing around a drying up water hole, looking solemn.

The Restored Bison display at the Museum of the Northern Great Plains

Two decades after Hornaday’s death in 1937, while workers at the Smithsonian museum were dismantling his bison display they found a note he wrote (a time capsule within a time capsule) pleading to the future caretakers. It read:

To my illustrious successor:

 Dear Sir, Enclosed please find a brief and truthful account of the capture of the specimens which compose this group. The Old Bull, the young cow, and the yearling Calf you find here were killed by yours truly. When I am dust and ashes, I beg you to protect these specimens from deterioration and destruction. Of course they are crude productions in comparison with what you may produce, but you must remember at this time (A.D. 1888. March 7.), the American School of Taxidermy has only just been recognized. Therefore give the devil his due and revile not.

Wm. T. Hornaday. Chief Taxidermist, U.S. National Museum

Though they appreciated his note and novel delivery, they did not heed it. They put his bison in the basement and replaced them with freshly skinned bison. Bison that had never been wild. The original mounts were taken out of storage, scattered around the country, and almost lost until Douglas Coffman hunted down the nearly forgotten specimens. He had them restored in the 1980s and 1990s. They are now on display at the Museum of the Northern Great Plains in Fort Benton, Montana. Including the original glass eyeballs. A shrine to the invisible fence of history.

William Temple Hornaday and helpers in his workshop at the Smithsonian Institution, 1880

Martha Maxwell is now recognised as the first female taxidermist to prepare her own skins and mounts, AND the first taxidermist to pose animals in a natural position in a realistic natural history display. In her pursuit to understand and document the natural world, she discovered several species not known to live in Colorado, including the black-footed ferret and a subspecies of the Eastern Screech owl. In 1877, in tribute to Martha, that owl was given the scientific name, (now) Magascops asio maxwelliae.

Black-footed Ferret. So cute.

The Hornaday Smithsonian group of bison is one of the most significant collections emblematic of the human wildlife interactions that took place during the gilded age in North America. A three-dimensional reminder of the legendary abundance of the plains and the casualties of manifest destiny. Or, maybe to you they represent the trash heap of American imperialism, the fetishistic colonial gaze, an archetype of the failures and successes of the conservation movement, or something else entirely? You can stand in front of them at a free museum and report back.

About herself, Martha wrote:

 My life is one of physical work, an effort to prove the words spoken by more gifted women…. The world demands proof of womans [sic] capacities, without it words are useless.

Considering that sentiment, it is especially sad that the fruits of her labour were lost to time. But the juxtaposition of these two stories reminds me that the records from the past are biased, limited, and obvs, written by those in power. Objects iteratively create and preserve memories. Annatomized in the smallest way here, the stories we tell about the past and the cultural memory keeping done by museums have a role in structuring our current reality.

Eastern Screech-Owl