Thursday, April 26, 2012

Remember your roots

Post-PhD defense (2003), new Dr. Kai Chan
takes a dip in the fountain of Robertson Hall,
sprayed by Dr. Penny Chan (Kai's mum).

I just returned to Princeton University, nearly nine years after receiving my PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology and a certificate in science, technology and environmental policy. Nearly nine years after a celebratory dip in the fountain that Woody Woo students earn upon graduation, I recall the triumphant feeling that I could conquer the world. This homecoming was a rush of life lessons I want to share with you, but it all boils down to this: Remember your roots.

That is, your academic genealogy.

Walking around this quaint pocket of the Garden State, my feet felt the texture of the pavement, cobblestones, and granite in a way only possible when walking on paths that I walked almost daily for six years, but not for nearly a decade now. Countless corners, rooms, and patches of nature sprung memories on me. At Mediterra restaurant, I could feel the frog in my throat from when my parents dropped me off, a bright-eyed baby-faced 22-year-old. By Dillon Gym, my knees shook in reverberation from my first saunter into a Princeton cycling team ride. At the train station, my heart fluttered as I envisioned spotting my Torontonian then-girlfriend (now wife) at the train station for a visit. In Eno Hall's crusty but adorable circular kitchen-cum-lounge, I flashed back to the blurry, grainy eyes and soaring spirit of celebrating my PhD candidacy, and then years later, my defense.

Princeton was where I finally grew up, not just academically, but in every way. I left for grad school knowing who I wanted to be, as a scholar and a person; I left being that man.

The tower at the Graduate College, home
for three years.
At the time, the experience was just life. In the intervening years, I’ve had thousands of ah-ha moments recognizing when and where I finally learned this insight or that: for examples, the fundamental purpose of the requisite mid-PhD flail (really grappling with where what you want to do meets your comparative advantage); that of course Simon was going to have something nice to say about me in his reference letters; and that I didn’t need to (and really oughtn’t) compete with my lab-mates. It’s only with the passage of time that I can see how much I learned over those six years, how much I owe to my tremendous mentors, my colleagues, and Princeton itself. And most of all, how much I owe to my academic father, my PhD supervisor, Simon A. Levin.

When so much that is learned goes unnoticed for so long, and when so much is learned from the person who guides a student through graduate school (our supervisor), and what we experience from our supervisors is a carefully filtered set of lessons they've learned (in part from their supervisors), genealogy matters. It matters all the more because most supervisors take great care in choosing their students, and in nurturing them. It's not the nurturing of a mother, but nor should it be.

At dinner after my STEP seminar, Simon introduced me to the math genealogy project. Now, I don't consider myself a mathematician, but that's besides the point: my academic ancestors happen to be mathematicians. It's a powerful idea that I can trace my roots in just eight generations to Carl Friedrich Gauss (of Gauss' and Gaussian this, that, and the other thing).

We stand on the shoulders of giants. Also
the only time that Simon (far left) was on
his knees at my feet (at my wedding). Here
with (lab-mates) Jonathan Dushoff (right),
Kerstin Wiegand (2nd row, left), Helene
Muller-Landau (2nd row, right), and Carole
Levin (Simon's wife, on top, of course).
As I intimated above, the genealogy by supervisor is only a partial representation of this network that makes us who we are and sustains us. That I’m still connected to Simon, and to many of my other Princeton mentors (Steve Pacala, David Wilcove, Henry Horn, Andy Dobson, Dan Rubenstein, the Grants, Peter Singer) was reinforced unequivocally by the time they spent reaching out to me, listening to me, and chatting with me.

David Wilcove nailed it at dinner when he joked about the supervisor-student relationship: it matures, gets friendlier, more comfortable, but your supervisor is always your supervisor. One manifestation of that, David pointed out, is that a little piece of us continues to want to impress, to wonder, “Is he (or she) excited about my work? Is he proud of what I’m doing?”

Sheesh, David, was I so obvious?

Simon’s response to David was interesting, “Don’t you think he [John Terborgh, David’s supervisor] feels the same?” An interesting question, but not surprising to me—because I know how I feel as a supervisor, but also how Simon does. Simon didn’t have to say explicitly that he cared what his students think. He didn’t have to, because he says so, inaudibly, in everything he does. Not by bragging to us, of course, or showing even the slightest hint of insecurity. Rather, he shows it through all the little extra things he does, that you see if you know where to look. He didn’t have to say it explicitly, but he did.

During my PhD, I occasionally felt lonely. Now I know how that feeling was my own doing, and also that it was only an illusion. My roots and fellow branches were there with me all along, nurturing, supporting, nourishing.

Let’s remember our roots. And our future leaves!