A favorite thing

NOTE:  This post was mysteriously not published back in March, 2014 (when I was still at Michigan).  So, here you go!  Enjoy!

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One of the things I love most about living in this University town for a number of years is attending the dissertation defenses of my dear friends.  It fills me with a special kind of joy to watch people I know in one capacity present some overview of all that they have accomplished in their work from the last four to eight years.  Woah.  Serious stuff!

It’s fascinating to see the difference of styles between departments, the different presentation choices different people make, and the truly vast range of topics covered – really, it’s humbling and inspiring.

Inspiring this post, I’ve just attended a defense talk by a friend about the genes and proteins involved in a blood disorder (something akin to hemophilia but not quite).  Important work and a job incredibly well done.  I may not have understood most of the talk, but I think it speaks well to the speaker that I understood the major issues and major conclusions (and their implications).  Go Lesley!

But, I’ve been to quite a range of these talks – which is just the best!  Many that I’ve been going to recently are for folks getting MD/PhD’s (in that category, my husband’s was obviously a highlight; especially after hearing five practice talks…)!  I’ve enjoyed going to the defense talks of others from his lab, too, though.  One recent defense talk from his lab started in a lovely way: “This could be a story of two loves, but the story of meeting my wife will take too long so I shall only be able to cover my love of science.”    Well played, Alejandro, well played indeed.

One memorable talk I remember just might have been my first dissertation defense talk I had ever been to outside of the department I was in at the time (Ecology & Evolutionary Biology):  Leo’s math talk!  He literally gave a chalk talk (the only defense talk I have been to that used no computer, no slides, no projector… just chalk and the board).  Leo started off with, “So Euclid said…”  After those words I was lost, but it was amazing to watch him give this lecture summarizing his whole PhD using the board.  Math.  That is one incredible field of study.

Another friend, Katie, defended her dissertation in Classics last year – but I wasn’t allowed to attend!  They were not public!  I was so distraught – tracking down friends who are defending is really my thing and I was very sad to miss this one.  Luckily, I helped her with her (ultimately highly successful!) job talk and that sufficed as a defense talk.  Heracles had quite the wild ride, I learned.

A few former housemates were in the Astrophysics department and I went to about three defenses for that program covering the formation of stars, the formation of galaxies, and the formation of the universe.  Those made me feel quite small!  Mark, another former housemate, defended an applied physics dissertation wherein he looked at how we could image breast cancers more effectively.  Turns out it’s quite a challenge to capture a picture of a cancerous mass in some squishy tissues.

Finally, I have loved attending a number of defenses from folks in the Ecology department – particularly those in my original cohort who went on to get PhD’s.  I’ve heard about plant farts (just kidding, plants don’t fart – but they do produce chemicals that can hint to predators of their herbivores that there might be tasty snacks for them), earthworm impacts on forest litter dynamics, predator effects on tadpole communities, complex food web dynamics, community ecology of agroecosystems, aquatic microbiology, and… so much more.

I think what I love most about attending these events is that it’s clearly a time to pause and say, “Gosh, I have done a lot.  Some of what I’ve done makes the world a better place.  Some of what I’ve done really furthers my field and opens up new avenues for research.  And I’m proud of that.”  I don’t know that we do that “pause” in the working world enough.  Preparing for a defense takes a certain amount of effort – and sometimes, it seems to me, the defender feels like they’re on mile 25 of a marathon and is running on fumes.  But, I think it’s valuable to reflect on what one’s research amounted to (even if some projects didn’t work out or failed outright).  In doing that reflection, I think the defender can come out of what, at times, may have been a truly harrowing experience with some down-in-the-dumps time and realize all that they have accomplished, all that they can do, all that they have learned how to do, etc.

In the question period of Lesley’s defense, one astute audience member asked about the ratio of effort to data in this defense.  The audience member speculated that that ratio might have been high (as in, over the course of a PhD, one puts in a lot of effort pursuing one project after another – or many at the same time – and not all yield fruit).  Lesley had a very gracious answer in response, but I find this question to be highly apt for many PhD’s.  It seems to me that in doing such an endeavor, one DOES put in a lot of effort going down paths that aren’t fruitful (on the face of them).  But that exercise is the process of learning to do science.  Sometimes things don’t work out!

Other insights from this exposure?

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