A Lesson Learned in Academic Integrity

Amelia Costello reflects on the important lessons learned in a seminar given by Dr. Steve Nowicki, Professor of Biology, Psychology, and Neuroscience at Duke.

Dr. Steve Nowicki wears many hats – Professor of Biology, Psychology, and Neuroscience in Duke’s Trinity College, Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center, Bass Fellow of Biology, and Associate of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society – to name a few. An expert in the field of animal communication, having studied bird song and its evolution for the last twenty years, Dr. Nowicki could easily have regaled us with tales of his many successes for our entire ninety-minute seminar. Instead, however, Nowicki chose to tell us a story about failure.

Nowicki’s research journey began as a Tufts University undergraduate intending to study music – trombone, to be specific. After taking an introductory biology course meant to fulfill a graduation requirement, Nowicki fell in love with the field and decided to add in a second major in Biology. In a class on Animal Communication, Nowicki completed a class project on chickadee behavior – this was the catalyst for a career that combined his passions for both music and biology. Ever since completing his graduate studies at Cornell University, Nowicki has been investigating how information is encoded in symbols and how signals are interpreted by the receiver.

“Nowicki fell in love with the field and decided to add in a second major in Biology”

Nowicki’s recent work has centered on bird song as a model of animal communication. Earlier research in the field had established three things: first, young male birds need to learn their songs (this is not an innate ability); second, early stress affects brain development; and third, by proxy, early stress affects song learning abilities. Together, these findings suggested that the accuracy of an adult bird’s song (relative to the song with which it was taught) was a reflection of brain capacity. Nowicki and his team published what became known as the ‘developmental stress hypothesis,’ which contended that environmental and/or genetic stressors early in a songbird’s life affects brain development, which in turn influences male birds’ song-learning abilities, ultimately guiding female songbirds’ mate selection. The scientific community adopted this hypothesis with gusto.

However, follow-up studies by researchers at other universities revealed results that conflicted with Nowicki’s conclusions. Rather than dismissing these competing findings, Nowicki reevaluated his own research. An article published in Science News titled “Male birds’ sexy songs may not advertise their brains after all” broadcasted the ‘failure’ to the scientific community. In reality, a songbird’s ability to learn songs is not a reliable indicator of cognitive capacity. Now, the implications of song-learning ability are less clear; Nowicki says that this speaks to the fact that there are always more questions to ask.

More broadly, Dr. Nowicki’s seminar taught us that it is crucial to publish negative results that contradict intuitive and/or popular hypotheses. Science, he says, begins by developing hypotheses but cannot advance without critical tests of those hypotheses. Nowicki left us with a quote from 19th century French physiologist Claude Bernard: “We must never make experiments to confirm our ideas, but simply to control them.” Ultimately, what was introduced as a story about failure was really a lesson in integrity – after all, what is science if not the pursuit of truth?

“…it is crucial to publish negative results that contradict intuitive and/or popular hypotheses.”

Amelia Costello, Huang Fellow ’25

Amelia CostelloAmelia is a rising sophomore from the San Francisco Bay Area, pursuing a major in Neurobiology with minors in Global Health and Computer Science.