Monday, October 8, 2012

Connecting the Dots: Why there are no straight paths to becoming an interdisciplinary scholar

Steve Jobs mentioned in his famous 2005 Stanford graduation speech that you can only connect the dots looking backwards.  He speaks of learning calligraphy as a Reed College dropout and how it informed the fonts in Apple’s first computers.  He explained:

“. . . you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
These words have often encouraged me as I look at my life and wonder how all the pieces fit together.  I have followed my heart and my passions and they have led me to Indonesia and Guatemala, photography and woodworking, anthropology and ecotoxicology.  Yet even when each step feels right to me at the moment, I often doubt myself, wondering: how might I ever have, as my grandmother implores, a “marketable talent”? And more importantly to me: how will this seemingly random collection of experiences allow me to contribute anything worthwhile to the world? Is ‘follow your heart’ just some Pollyannaish hippy advice sure to leave me unemployed and useless?

Yet my recent Master’s thesis research gave me hope and made Steve Job’s words come alive.  There were moments when I had the feeling that the disjointed experiences from my past came together to prepare me for the task at hand.  Once, I was hiking through an abandoned field with a couple farmers, looking for the source of the river, a place where I could take my control water samples.  Chatting in Spanish, analyzing the landscape for run-off patterns, and tromping around a Colombian swamp in rubber boots—I saw all the dots connect. 

Looking for the source.

Years ago when I decided to learn Spanish and spent months and months straining to understand farmers, learning tricks to get by, I had no idea that I would be using it to discuss the watershed structure and local history with these farmers in Colombia. 

When I signed up for fluid dynamics and hydrology courses in my undergrad years I had no idea these would inform my analysis of this one watershed in Colombia. 

 Walking through a swamp in Patagonia (with my husband Claude).

And when I traveled to Patagonia to see the glaciers I had no idea that the days I spent learning to walk through a swamp in rubber boots would help me navigate this field in Colombia.
Even all the hours waiting for the bus by the side of the road years earlier in Costa Rica, when I learned to be patient and let events progress on Latin time, gave me the frame of mind to accept the slow but steady progress of my master’s research. 

Collecting a water sample in Colombia.

This is the reserve of life experiences that I drew on to guide me.  To do my Master’s research, required all my being, my experiences, my patience, my knowledge. It was precisely my broad and diverse experiences, the avenues I had pursued without knowing where they would lead, that enabled me to conduct my research.

Now I am starting my PhD at an interdisciplinary institute and I face the uncertainty of my future with more comfort.  The work we do is founded on bringing together diverse experiences. These experiences are what allow us to see a problem from many angles and to know that no matter how many angles we analyze, we will always miss part of the story.  As we pick apart an issue we each connect the dots in our own way, finding the linkages that a traditional career path would never prepare us for. 

And my grandma would be happy too—they even pay me to do this!

-Mollie Chapman

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