Dr. Especialista

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Diversity almost always comes with a positive connotation. A multicolored meal is usually a healthy one. The basic educational curriculum is built upon a multitude of subjects, from music to algebra, because we inherently understand that knowing a little bit of everything is important. Protecting biodiversity is the number one conservation goal. When a community is welcoming of different ethnical, cultural and social backgrounds, it oftentimes becomes the most productive version of itself.  What about how much hotter that date gets after they say they like to go hiking, write poetry and volunteer for Border Angels on their free time? Mmm. Diversity is so sexy.

Ok, so I guess it isn’t just me that loves, craves, worships diversity. But there I was, my face illuminated by the light of my computer screen while I stared at a scientific article about the shape of a protein from a microbial cell membrane. My eyes were on the pdf file, my thoughts were talking to each other in a brutally honest monologue:

“Who cares about these dumb proteins?”

“Well, you should because you are studying to become an expert on ecological metagenomics.” Ay.

“I’m not a specialist at heart, though. I can’t spend all my life studying one single little thing.”

“Well, then you should quit your PhD because this is exactly what a doctorate is.”

Dang. I was trapped in this spiderweb of guilt for wanting to be all the things and having to stick to the choice I made for my career. I am becoming Dr. Especialista.

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Indeed, diversity almost always comes with a positive connotation. The fact that I want to make art for a living, get into business, learn how the play the conga, and become a film editor made me feel like a total slack, like I was betraying the monogamous relationship with my PhD. My advisor would fully endorse the guilt. Even looking for diversity within science was making me feel like a cheater:

“Oh, so you have time to go to a seminar about manta rays, but you haven’t finished your first chapter about the coral microbiome yet?”

For the sake of my mental and emotional health, quitting my PhD appeared to be the only way out sometimes. I seriously pondered that option until I reminded myself that I am studying to become a “Doctor of Philosophy” in Ecology.

It was right there in the title of my degree, that the pursuit of a PhD can be much more than just becoming the queen of the tiniest realm of topics that few people can understand. Literally, it means that I was given permission to spend five or six years 1) philosophizing; 2) about Mother Nature. Philosophy, a.k.a. "love of wisdom", studies metaphysics and all those hippie questions about the essence of stuff. Ecology covers the interactions among living things and their surroundings. So there goes me to me:

“Girl, if you can’t find diversity in studying Life itself, you’re totally missing the forest for the trees.”

Me: “Word.”

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Now that I came out of the closet as a non-expert, I decided to honor my diversity needs outside of my PhD too. I sought help to get it together and was very surprised with the amount of resources about career plans and productivity guidance catered towards multipotentialites*. Freed from the shame of wanting to do a lot of different things, I could channel my energy into finding feasible and responsible ways to integrate those activities. For example, as I was studying for my qualifying exams, I decompressed by participating in a one-week challenge to make a movie from scratch, to get my first experience as a filmmaker. I also joined PassioInventa because I love writing and I have this idea of working for a magazine one day. It is amazing how much we can achieve when we get out of our own way.

Yes, it is undeniable that to get a PhD you need to narrow down your area of expertise and know a lot of details about a small handful of subjects. Within the field of Ecology, I specifically study how the microorganisms associated with coral and kelp species can affect the health of the ecosystem. To understand that relationship better, I must read (boring) papers such as the one I mentioned earlier; but there is so much more than that. There is a “hidden” diversity in an expert’s career. Ironically, I caught myself the other day complaining that teaching, driving a boat, running an aquarium experiment and sequencing DNA was too much to accomplish in a single week. I guess the grass looks more diverse on the other side.

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In all honesty, I think I have come to terms with the pros and cons of pursuing a doctorate degree in Ecology, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped questioning my career choices. A lot of times I still ask myself whether I should’ve chosen graphic design or environmental policy instead. But you know what? If I’ve learned something from being a scientist and, especially, from being a student for so long is that we should never stop asking questions. After my identity crisis, now I know that I need diversity in my personal and professional pursuits to feel aligned, which is possible as a PhD student.

Another question that I have, since this is a safe space, is whether there is a maximum number of puns allowed per article in PassioInventa. In any case, here’s my last one: grad life is only frustrating when I can’t see the coral reefs or the kelp forests for the microbes.  Word.

-Laís

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* A multipotentialite is someone with many interests and creative pursuits, as defined by Emilie Wapnick in her book “How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don't Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up”. Needless to say, I highly recommend that one.


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