The Molecule and the Mind
On paper, my PhD is in Psychiatry (“but no I’m not a psychiatrist, but yes I’ll be a doctor of some sort, but no I’ve never studied Medicine and actually never intended to, but yes I’m in the Med School, yes I agree with you this is a wee bit confusing” — aka every single time people ask me what my PhD is in), but in reality, it’s a potluck of Cognitive Neurosciences, Psychology, and some stuff about Linguistics as well to spice it up a tad.
As I’ve told you before here when I started this PhD I had no knowledge whatsoever about Psychology and Linguistics, and very little about Cognitive stuff. This meant that most of my 1st year was spent catching up on all I had to learn for my PhD, and I still feel like there are some canyon-like gaps in my knowledge. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.
Today I want to show you that stretching from one field to the next, and working towards more inter- and multi-disciplinary research, has been one of the most exciting things about my PhD.
My BSc was in Biology, specialised in Human Physiology, with A LOT of Genetics, Cellular Biology, Microbiology, and my arch-nemesis Molecular Biology. My Master 1 was in Integrative Biology specialised in Neurosciences, with A LOT of Neuroplasticity, Neuropathology, Endocrinology, and the dreaded Neural Network Physiology (my Master 2 was in Neurosciences Research, so much more straight-forward). So, as you can see there is a link with what I do now, human stuff and brain stuff, but I would agree that there are far more traditional journeys.
Still, I do not regret having taken that long convoluted path to where I am now. I never thought I’d say it, but I don’t even regret these desperate hours unsuccessfully trying to do single neuron recordings (I do regret the 7.45am Geosciences labs though).
A multidimensional picture
Now that I look at the mind as a whole, knowing so much about how the neurons that support that mind work, and how the molecules that drive these neurons work, gives me an astonishing perspective into the mechanisms I’m passionate about. OK, for what I do now I don’t need to know how neurons compute information coming from all their synapses to produce their output signal. But the fact that I’ve learned it allows me to consider more factors and implications about my work than if I hadn’t. It probably won’t show in the quality of my research, and it probably won’t change my career, but just for myself, this allows me to see the picture of my work with more vibrant colours.
Of mice and men
As it often is when it comes to a human thing involving biology in any sort of way, I work in a field where the battle between human studies and animal studies is raging (for a giggle, check this new twitter account). Before my PhD, I was in an environment composed of 95% animal studies and it looked down on human studies. Now I’m in the exact opposite environment. Going from one extreme to the next puts me in a very odd and sometimes uncomfortable position, right in the middle. I value both. My pre-PhD education allows me to understand why mice studies are so necessary (even though I’m not keen on animal experimentation and a decade of vegetarianism hasn’t erase from my memory the many drosophilae, snails, mice, rats, rabbits, and crayfish I’ve murdered). My PhD training allows me to see why said mice studies, while so necessary, won’t answer all the questions.
From one leap to the next
Going from the molecule to the mind, from the very small to the rather big, has had an unexpected consequence: it made me hungry for more. More leaps, more bridges, more cross-disciplinarity. If I had been able to go from the molecule to the neuron, from the neuron to the brain, and from the brain to the mind, why not continue? After this, designing my interdisciplinary multi-scale project was an “évidence”, it was obvious. Don’t get me wrong, interdisciplinary research is an absolute pain, in so many different ways, but it offers unprecedented angles and answers to tricky questions. As worried as I was when I embarked on this project, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t even have been able to start it if I hadn’t had a history of bouncing between fields.
I have a friend who is now in the situation I was in when I was looking for the right PhD project for me: Highly qualified in things quite irrelevant to what I wanted to do. If you are in the same position, fear not. In time you will find the right people, that value your unconventional profile. When it’s finally time to start, just brace yourself and get ready for that undying feeling that you don’t know the first thing about concepts everybody else around you masters. Don’t worry, if they were able to learn them, so can you. And always keep in mind that you also master concepts that they don’t know the first thing about. Give yourself some credits, you bring to the party something no one else has: an unusual perspective.
« Walls turned sideways are bridges » — Angela Davis
(Though I prefer the French translation: « Un mur renversé devient un pont », a knocked-over wall becomes a bridge.)