3 years as a PhD student

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I arrived in Ireland October 2012 with the purpose of undertaking a PhD supervised by Natalie Cooper on Primates evolution. Looking back, the start of the whole endeavour seemed really stressful to me (new country, new customs, new language) and the project just as frightening (what do I do?, where do I start?, will I be able to do it?)… What happened after was way below my expectations: these three years were anything but stressful and frightening!
OK, even though not everything went smoothly and it had to take the best of the personalities (that are thankfully common sights in Trinity College’s Zoology Department) for dealing with some ups and downs, here is my top 5 list of personal thoughts that always improved the two aspects of my PhD: the working aspect (the research) and the “social” aspect (feeling relaxed and enjoying it).

Be ready to change your PhD

As I mentioned in the first line, my PhD was supposed to be on Primates evolution. In the end, the world “Primates” is mentioned only once (and that is, buried in a sentence about several other mammalian orders). Of course, sometimes the PhD is a Long Quiet River if everything goes well and you keep your highest interest in the original topic. However, sometimes it changes completely! And this should never be a problem! The PhD should be allowed to evolve just as much as yourself (or more pragmatically: your field) evolves into these three or four years.

Failure happens to everyone

Another major part about the PhD (and about the scientific endeavour itself!) is that it will fail. More or less often and more or less dramatically in each case but failure should just be part of the process. As a early career researcher, you can learn a lot from the mistakes and the success of others. However, I found that there is nothing much more personally instructing than the trial and error. I already mentioned how my biggest PhD disaster led to my most positive development.

Stay open-minded and curious

Writing the thesis or even just doing the lab/computer work for the PhD can narrow your mind and highly decrease your sanity. I found that the best way to avoid that was to try as much as possible to make the PhD only priority number two and put all the other things (seminars, meeting speakers, chatting/helping colleagues, etc…) before it. It has two advantages for the PhD: (1) you don’t work on it 24/7 and (2) everything you learn outside of it will actually be super useful for the PhD. In the Zoology Derpartment, we were only a couple of people doing macroevolution surrounded by ecologists. Yet, I think my work benefited heavily from the influence from these people.

Don’t rush

One thing I found nice with the PhD is that before you even start – before day one! – you already know the final deadline. OK, at day one, the handing in date seems far away (3 or 4 years away actually!) but that leaves you plenty of time for doing awesome research, writing it down as papers/chapters (and even trying to publish them before the deadline) and going to the pub or to other non-PhD recreational events…

Chat with your colleagues

Finally, I found that I gained so much just by chatting with my colleagues. And by colleagues I mean my fellow PhD students of course but also with the post-docs and the staff. I always found a long term benefit to both PhD aspects, whether it was talking about the latests video games during working time (I’m not only looking at you @yodacomplex) or having heated debates about species selection during coffee time.
I know much of these tips worked for me but might not apply to other people. In the end their is only one ultimate tip: make your PhD a hell of a good time!

Photo Credit: Thomas Guillerme

The world economy in a cube

 

In 1884, the English theologian and pedagogue Edwin A. Abbott wrote a romance called “Flatland”, in which he described a two dimensional world. The rigid and hierarchically organized society of Flatland develops in the large plane in which it lives, and flat authorities control that no flat citizen (the inhabitants are all flat geometric figures) escapes from the two-dimension reality. The book is a social satire as well as an exploration of the concept of multiple dimensions. Furthermore, it can also be viewed as a critic of narrow worldviews stubbornly based on old paradigms.  

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The novel’s example can be used to argue that despite the proliferation of metrics, our decision making process tends to be guided by the quasi-imposed limited set of information tools – mainly economic – that we use every day. In other words, concepts like Earth System, Planetary boundaries or biophysical limits, environmental sustainability, social welfare and other important elements of our life on this planet are not satisfactorily incorporated in our knowledge horizon.

The current economic worldview is based on the idea that a free market works for the 100% of the population. Thus, economic growth (as measured by growth in GDP) is the political mantra: “the rising tide that lifts all boats”. A recent study published on Global Environmental Change (available here) gives a different point of view by including the environment and the society in the economic picture.

National economies are investigated in a 3-axis diagram (a cube), where each dimension is a different compartment. In this way, the relationships between environment, society and economy are represented in a single framework without losing the specific information. This framework recognizes a physical (and also thermodynamic, and logical) order, highlighting the dependence of the economy on societal organization and, primarily, on the environment.

From this three-dimensional perspective emerges that the economic activity is always strictly correlated with the use of natural resources, and that social well-being is often neglected. Over a total number of 99 national economies investigated within the cube, none of them is at the same time environmentally sustainable, economically rich (high GDP), and equal in the distribution of income.   

This means that growing GDP is beneficial for a limited fraction of the overall population, while the vast majority has to deal with increasing environmental problems and worsening ecological status. Moreover, decoupling economic growth and natural resources consumption, seeking the so-called dematerialization, is found very complicated. Continuous growth in GDP implies consequences especially for the poorest individuals and communities: “the rising tide is lifting the yachts and swamping the rowboats” (Dietz and O’Neill, 2013).

Politicians are looking at the world around as a mono-dimensional economic universe. This is due to the fact that economists play a relevant role within governments. We need ecologists and social scientists playing an equally relevant role, in order to finally show politics we live in a three-dimensional world.

Author: Luca Coscieme, @lucacoscieme

REFERENCES

F.M. Pulselli, L. Coscieme, L. Neri, A. Regoli, P.C. Sutton, A. Lemmi, S. Bastianoni, “The world economy in a cube: A more rational structural representation of sustainability”; Global Environmental Change 35, 41-51, 2015 (doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2015.08.002) 

Dietz and D. O’Neill, “Enough is Enough”; London: Earthscan, 2013.

 

Link: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378015300236

Image Credits: www.downbox.orgcatalog.lambertvillelibrary.org

A Nobel Pursuit

Splitting the atom, unlocking the secrets of radiation, or even leading a peaceful civil rights movement.

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I grew up knowing that these were the sorts of achievements that earn you a gold medal and an invitation to Sweden in mid-December. I have since learned that the annual ceremony held in honour of Alfred Nobel hasn’t always been awarded to the most deserving candidate, and that sometimes the winners simply stumbled upon a discovery that changed the world. This was not the case with the 2015 Nobel prize for Physiology and Medicine.

 

Scientists rarely aim for such high levels recognition, as it often comes decades after the initial discovery. Working in Natural Sciences is often considered a noble pursuit in itself, with the aim of one’s research to protect our planet. While undeniably important, rarely does work from our field receive the recognition afforded to Nobel Prize winners.

 

This year, the department of Zoology joined illustrious company in having one of our alumni named as a Nobel laureate. William (Bill) Cecil Campbell was born in Donegal in 1930. He studied Zoology at Trinity College Dublin, graduating in 1952, before beginning his PhD in the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 

His research centered upon the field of parasitology, initially working on parasitic worms as an undergraduate with Professor Desmond Smyth, which, as Dr Campbell puts it, “changed [his] life by developing [his] interest in this particular field”. Upon completing his PhD, it was his work at the Merck Institute of Therapeutic Research on parasitic roundworms that led to the discovery of a class of drugs called avermectins with Satoshi Ōmura, that would help to control two of the world’s most debilitating diseases: lymphatic filariasis and onchocerciasis.

 

Lymphatic filariasis, more commonly known as elephantiasis, is caused by filarial nematodes, using mosquitos as a vector for the disease. They enter a new victim as larvae, which migrate to the lymph nodes of the legs and genitals, and mature into adults. When these worms die, they trigger intense inflammation. This blocks the flow of lymph, which accumulates under the skin, causing limbs and groins to swell to gigantic proportions.

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Onchocerciasis, more commonly known as river blindness, is also caused by filarial nematodes, but of a different species. These are spread by blackfly bites, entomb themselves in deeper tissues, and release larvae that migrate to the skin (where they cause severe itching) and the eyes (in which they can cause blindness).

The avermectins that Campbell and Ōmura discovered, and especially their most potent member ivermectin, can control the symptoms of these diseases by killing the larval nematodes.

 

Unlike many drug discoveries of this magnitude, Dr Campbell’s employer, the Merck Institute of Therapeutic Research decided to release the drugs for free for those that need them. As a result of their altruism, their discovery reached potentially millions more people than would usually be able to afford such a drug. Although Dr Campbell is credited with floating the idea of releasing the drug for free, he insisted in a recent interview with The Irish Times that his chairman, Roy Vagelos be credited with making the ultimate decision on its release. In describing the decision, Campbell remarked “I think it was done because it was the right thing to do, and I think the employees applauded it, because they thought it was the right thing to do.”

In a typically understated fashion, and unlike some recipients before him, Dr Campbell never hoped to win this award. Instead, he dreamt of one-day curing malaria, a goal he feels is achievable to young scientists willing to keep an “open mind” to their research.

 

This award offers a timely reminder that the research carried out both within these walls, and when our alumni move on has the potential to make an impact far beyond our initial intentions. As Dr Campbell “The greatest challenge for science is to think globally, think simply and act accordingly. It would be disastrous to neglect the diseases of the developing world. One part of the world affects another part. We have a moral obligation to look after each other, but we’re also naturally obligated to look after our own needs. It has to be both.”

author: Dermott McMorrough, with thanks to Dr Celia Holland.

 

images: rte.ie, wikicommons.