You’re a Doctor Now

Last week marked my official joining of the ranks, my gaining of the heralded admission ticket to a career in academic research. I was extremely proud to receive my Ph.D. diploma at the 49th CUNY Graduate Center Commencement Ceremony, which was held at Avery Fisher Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center. I had defended my Ph.D. almost two months earlier, and much of the lingering fatigue from the arduous process of thesis-writing had worn off. Having since moved on to other more collaborative research projects and already securing a postdoctoral research position at another institution, I thought the fact that I had deposited that old dissertation  – literally leaving the hulking paper mass composed of my own blood, sweat and tears on a desk in the CUNY library – had meant that I was already done with it all. Yet even a cynic such as myself could not deny the ceremonial importance of donning a cap and gown, lining up in front of faculty, administration and  families; having a robe placed over my head signifying my entry into the intellectual elite. I gotta admit: it felt kind of good. My only wish was that I could bring the people who have helped me during this process, such as family and friends and especially my wife, onto the stage to wear some well-earned robes of their own. I couldn’t have done this without them.

I thoroughly credit the CUNY institution for giving me the opportunity to earn a Ph.D. in Biology, although I must admit that it wasn’t always easy being a CUNY student. I have met many academic colleagues (other grad students, post-docs and P.I.s) in my field, exchanged ideas, and sometimes competing with them. Some came from programs and institutions that were undeniably better funded  than mine, and to a certain degree more focused on fostering cultures of excellence (although not necessarily accessibility, which I have always applauded CUNY for). These places seemed to us to coddle their students like priceless dragon eggs (and isn’t that what all us poor grad students really want?). In contrast, CUNY students can easily get lost navigating the labrynthal bureaucracy and general lack of funds in the public higher education system, often relying on time-consuming teaching assignments that, while rewarding, may ultimately sap their abilities to produce published research – the true test of academic success in science. But that’s just me complaining: I have always believed in the CUNY mission and May 23rd, 2013 was a glorious day, for about 450 CUNY doctoral students proved that they now can, and really always have been able to, play with the big boys.

The commencement address was given by David Nasaw, the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of History at the CUNY Grad Center. Since the early 1970s, Nasaw has written books on a wide a range of topics from how to start a high school to a biography of Joseph Kennedy.  In his speech to us, he talked about the illusion of historical objectivity in scholarly pursuits. Using the metaphor of a river, he described how  knowledge flows through time, getting passed down from generation to generation, and our struggles to interpret it along the way. As it is impossible to remove those who observe the universe from the universe itself, our current dogmas may eventually with time appear more temporary and fleeting than absolute.

I wonder which steadfast approaches in my of own fields in molecular evolution and population genetics will become obsolete and seem naive and subjective to their own time. Indeed, the structure of evolutionary theory has wavered along a spectrum ranging from adaptationist views of natural selection being the dominant force of evolutionary change and another where neutralist views explaining mutation and genetic drift are more favored. The quickening pace of advance in genomic sequencing technology will no doubt bring about newly observed patterns, perspectives, and theories about the process of biological evolution over the next decades. Through all the ups and downs, CUNY has given me the tools to be a part of the next paradigm shift.

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