September 20, 2013

A student of the world

By Carl Gustafson

By Carl T. Gustafson

King Solomon, reputed by Biblical lore to be the wisest man that ever lived, once commanded us to “go to the ant…consider her ways and be wise...” This man, the wisest man, knew we had a thing or two to learn, even from ants.

This past summer I took my Written Qualifying Exam, which is, in essence, a tiresomely long and nearly comprehensive test that determines whether I stay in graduate school or not. Every Ph.D. student that ever existed has had to take a test similar to this. During this summer I studied like I have never studied before and was essentially blind to the outside world. When I emerged from the gloomy caverns of dose response curves and receptor binding kinetics, I realized what I had missed. There was conflict in Syria. People were upset about marriage rights. My nephew had learned to walk. I had even missed Shark Week of all things. It had been less than two months since I had even attempted to lend an ear to anything other than research methods and experimental designs, but I was way behind. I had missed a lot and I hadn’t even noticed it when I was missing it. It was too easy to fall behind and so very hard to get caught up. I’m still kinda bummed about Shark Week.

For those two months, I became a student of science. In particular, I had been a student of the science that my graduate program had fed to me for the previous year. I was strictly this kind of student and no other kind of student.

In keeping with the spirit of the Diversity in Education blog, I would encourage every person who ever lays eyes on this blog - students, faculty, employees, friends, families, anyone - to not be only a student of science. Do not limit yourself to simply being a student of science or medicine, of art or programming or the Minnesota Vikings defense (does it even exist??). I would ask you, beg you, to diversify your education and become a student of the world instead. We have the incredible opportunity to grow older, to be free, to express ourselves and influence others. Not many on earth, past or present, have been blessed with this power. Our world is shaped by us. It is, in fact, ours. We must be students of the world in order to change the world in the ways that we imagine it ought to be changed. If I were Spiderman, I would add in a cheesy line about great power and great responsibility. Thank your lucky stars I’m not going to do that.

Mayo Clinic attracts and recruits students with diverse backgrounds, interests, talents, and ambitions. This is no accident. We hope to bring in a world of backgrounds, a world of interests, a world of talents, a world of ambitions for others to learn from. We are here to learn from each other. We make the a priori assumption that we can, in fact, learn from each other - I believe this is valid. Embedded in this intentional gathering of worlds, is the notion that we ought to study the world; study this collection of worlds and all the other ones we can get our hypothetical hands on. We must study them by dousing ourselves in their waters, by engaging in their customs and by understanding their struggles. By being a student of the world, we will all become better scientists, better physicians, better teachers, nurses, coaches, friends, parents, brothers and sisters. We will be better.

You are a student. At all times, this fact is true of you. You will learn from things that you do, and the things that others do; the things that you perceive. Whether you like to admit it or not, you will find new perspectives and new ideas that you are able to apply to your world. These things change your world. Other people change your world. Here’s another example from the animal kingdom that we can learn from: Every 17 years, cicadas emerge from underground, en masse, to sing a song, and complete their life cycle. The new generation of cicadas then returns underground for the next 17 years to perform the same ritual. Each individual cicada song is unique; slightly different from its neighbors’ depending on the role they play during their time above ground, but together their song melds into an extraordinary symphony. If one cicada changes its song, it influences the whole orchestra. As it turns out, this theory of emergence holds true in the human brain. The sound, if you will, of one neuron combined with the sound of another and another…and another, played together create a symphony of the mind. As students of the world, we must have the courage to contribute our knowledge of the world to the orchestra surrounding us. We play in the symphony. What we play, and how we play it, will influence how the whole orchestra performs.

A Ph.D., or a doctor of philosophy, when translated from its latin roots, means to be a teacher of the love of knowledge. When I receive my degree (knock-on-wood), it will become my right and responsibility to fulfill the role that this title dictates. That said, I am learning to be a student of the world, and I intend to take full advantage of the opportunity I have to be a scientist. I will take the opportunity I have to learn from the Mayo Graduate School, from people who don’t think like me, from people who don’t act like me. These are our chances to be students of the world, to even be students of ants.

In other news, yesterday was International Talk like a Pirate Day. In my opinion, they should really have that during Shark Week. Anyways, now you have to wait a whole year to pull out your best Jack Sparrow imitation. Or should I say, Captain Jack Sparrow, savvy.

Carl Gustafson is a second-year Ph.D. student in Dr. Michael J. Yaszemski's laboratory.

Acknowledgement: Erika K. Ross for inspiration and revisions.

A few friends and myself enjoying the great outdoors and being "students of the world"

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