Yesterday a student in my lab defended her dissertation. She had completed 5 years of experiments, classes, research cruises, lab work, data analysis, and writing that were at times full of frustration, excitement, stress, relief, anxiety, pride, and yes even fun. Her journey through grad school consisted of waves of successes punctuated by a healthy number of minor failures, all of which culminated in this day - the presentation of what she had been doing all that time.
I have seen others defend over the last few years, but no one with whom I was as familiar as this friend. No one whose research I had seen and participated in, often completing my work along side her.
Unlike my 4 years of undergraduate education, graduate school did not come with a road map. There was no clear list of requirements informing me exactly what I needed to do in a set period of time in exchange for a degree that felt inevitable. Grad school might take 4 years or 6, or even 10, or maybe you just wont finish. There is no set curriculum you need to master. Well, I suppose there is, but that's just step one. To successfully complete grad school in the sciences, you have to make a contribution to the existing body of scientific knowledge. You need to discover something new and convince your committee that it is worthy of PhD-ness. However, there is no syllabus that tells you when, how, or even if, your discoveries will happen. In some ways you're on your own - your progress depends on how much work you put in, how good your ideas are, how well you plan and execute your experiments, how thoroughly you are able to analyze your data, whether you can craft a meaningful story, and of course a bit of luck.
For all these reasons, it was incredibly exciting and inspiring to watch the polished version of my friend's competed story unfold. She was able to link microbial community composition (who is there) to genetic potential (what can they do) to metabolic activity (how fast they do it) to environmental factors (what comtrols those rates). I was reminded of my favorite thing about my lab. We work across the disciplines of chemistry, geology, microbiology, and engineering to answer questions about how marine microbes influence and are influenced by their environment in an integrated and compelling way. And, we do it in a pretty unique way, if i do say so myself.
My friend painted a beautiful picture through her defense talk that illustrated this and showed how her discoveries have enriched the field. She also managed to avoid jargon, keep people laughing, and convey that her years in graduate school hadn't dampened her enthusiasm for the amazing systems we work in one bit. The bar has been set high, and I now have a better idea as to where I will need to be at the end of this grad school odyssey. I'll get there... some day, but it won't be nearly as fun without this partner in grime by my side.