Aleta Quinn: A Look at the Philosophy and Ethics of Science

by Lillian Zhou '21 for Silver Quest

Aleta Quinn
When Aleta Quinn (Class of ‘01) was a student in the Blair Magnet, she was also the captain of the philosophy club. Quinn didn’t imagine that the subject of the extracurricular would end up defining her research interest. But thanks to a willingness to “go off the conveyor belt path,” she found a career right in the intersection of history, philosophy, biodiversity, and ethics.

Following this trend of pursuing her unique interests, Quinn founded a Middle Eastern dance club at Blair. Crediting her resolute persistence, Quinn recalls that she spoke with the principal on three separate occasions to gain permission to run the dance group. She partially credits this distinctive experience with showing her the tenacity necessary to pursue a unique scientific career later on.

Quinn’s most memorable class at Blair was the Origins of Science — she loved it so much, she took it twice. The course introduced her to the world of studying integrated history and philosophy of science professionally. After earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology and Philosophy at the University of Maryland in 2005, Quinn hit a “fork in the road moment” when graduate school rolled around. She decided to earn her Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science program at the University of Pittsburgh in 2015.

Though she faced some difficulty finding a long-term job in academic philosophy, she pursued a few short term positions after graduating, including  fellowships at Notre Dame and Caltech. Finally, Quinn found her current position as an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Idaho.

One of Quinn’s most memorable research projects was the discovery of a new mammalian carnivore species, the olinguito. The discovery went viral for being the first new carnivore since ‘93. The specimen was found in a field museum in Chicago — where “specimens had been collected” for years but “nobody had realized they were different species.”

In fact, Quinn recalled humorously, an olinguito specimen had been on display at a museum in Chicago for years. When it was transferred to a private collector, the employee even notoriously noted the specimen “[didn’t] look the same” and “[sounded] different too.” Even when DNA samples of the new species were collected and entered into GenBank (an NIH genetic sequence database), the anomaly wasn’t detected. After traveling through museum cabinets, genetic labs, and even the native habitat of the olinguito—cloud forests— in South America, Quinn and the team of Smithsonian scientists published their findings in 2013.

Most recently, Quinn published a paper describing common etiquette and ethics of herping (the practice of looking for reptiles and amphibians) in citizen science. When data is shared publicly on online databases, the recorded location and description of the animal is usually recommended. However, individuals with bad intentions can take advantage of the readily available information and illegally collect specimens.

Quinn recalled an event that had occurred the week before when rare painted bunting had appeared in the Maryland side of the Great Falls. After an article about it was posted in the Washington Post, 150 birdwatchers materialized to try and catch a glimpse of the striking bid. “Eventually, the bird will fly away,” Quinn commented. But other animals don’t have the same privilege. “With salamanders, they don’t move very fast or far, so if everyone wants to go see it, it will mess up the habitat.”

When asked about the best piece of advice she remembers from Blair, Quinn replied, “Never use the word very with regards to writing. There are so many better words out there.”