Campus Life the secret lives of researchers

I am a meerkat

Navigating the landscape of knowledge

As a scientist, I like to imagine myself as a meerkat. Not in the “I’ll eviscerate my grandkids someday” sense, but in the “I both dig deep holes and survey the land at the same time” sense.

Let me explain. My favorite description of great scientists is from the book The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. The author John Barry says the great scientists are able to delve deeply into a very specific question, but also able to see how their inquiry fits into the greater landscape and choose wisely where to delve next. I envisioned this as meerkats digging into specific questions in a wide savannah of potential knowledge. This imagery stuck and I decided I want very much to be a digging and lookout meerkat in the world of scientists, digging holes deeper and deeper in search of more knowledge, and popping my little head up to see how my little tunnel fits into the big picture. I have found developing both skills to be a continual journey and I wanted to share how I have tried to bridge these two opposing directions of inquiry and thought.

I felt my undergraduate education prepared me really well to talk across the broad landscape of potential knowledge. As an undergraduate, walking up the stairs of 77 Mass Ave with my Dunkin Donuts coffee, I felt as if the whole intellectual world was open to me. Turn right, I could study marine robots or learn how to make bridges. Turn left and I could study urban planning and make smarter cities. Go straight and I could make photosynthetic nanomaterials or revolutionize modern physics. Keep going straight and I could learn how to make theatre sets. Straight, then left, I could study artificial intelligence or networks of robots. Right from there and I could study the earth and atmosphere. Heck, I could take classes on modern French theatre and physics-for-masochists in the same year! I was exploring and expanding, trying to stuff as much knowledge and opportunity into my brain as I possibly could. I was such a good lookout meerkat.

Then I came to graduate school, which is all about the deep digging. To even apply, I had to define what seemed like a tiny area — theoretical ecology. The next year, I decided I wanted to focus on bioeconomics, then the bioeconomics of fisheries, until I finally staked out the tiny niche that will be my academic territory for the next five years (the bioeconomics of fisheries responding to climate change, in case you’re curious!). Within that niche, I proposed a series of three questions to answer — those are my little holes to dig. In those questions, I’ve been digging deeply and happily entrenching myself. I read the papers that came before me, cherry-picking the knowledge of the giants of yore to understand the landscape right around me. I found this process exhilarating and fascinating — until I, metaphorically, looked up. Above me was a tall tunnel I had dug myself into and above that was the whole of academic knowledge and possibility. I felt trapped and claustrophobic, as if I had unknowingly cut myself off from the possibilities of the world and truncated my future learning. How, if I dig even deeper, am I ever going to poke my head out to start a new hole or even figure out where my little research hole is?

I’m still training to balance my meerkat skills, but I have found a few helpful training tips so far:

1. Think about the broader impacts of your research. Honestly acknowledging both why it’s novel and what areas it does not tackle has been a great way for me to get my head above air. Plus, it’s required by most funding agencies.

2. Read other journals during lunch time. My lab, libraries, and even the internet have lots of interesting papers that range from closely related to not at all related to my research. Skimming these during lunch is a great way to find out what the cutting edge research in other fields is. In fact, a tangential article I read last year helped me decide that studying fisheries responding to climate change was the niche I wanted to fill for my thesis topic. Plus, reading about implanted memories in mice or how ants can move as a fluid is always fun.

3. Read the news. Knowing the issues that are being thought about politically gives me a much better context for my work. For example, world news articles about political instability or refugees often mention food stability, which may not directly relate to my research question, but gives me a better idea of how my research about a potential food supply (fish) fits into the ‘real world’.

4. Do something totally different. I dance during the week, which lets my brain think about something entirely separate from my research. Forcing myself out of my little research hole and then going back into it often gives me the perspective I need to tackle something in a new way or to question the method I’m using. Hot showers, interestingly, work similarly.

I’m sure this list is incomplete and I look forward to developing my ability to see depth and breadth of my field over time. In the meantime, there is a lion coming and I need to pop back in my meerkat hole!