Destination PhD

I recently had the opportunity to sit in on an exit seminar for a PhD candidate in my department (there was free food). The student began the seminar by detailing the hardships that they had faced throughout the completion of their dissertation which included smelly undergrads, dry eraser makers running out of ink and finding funds to go abroad for their field seasons (a common enough issue).

Field site #1: Resort on an island in the Caribbean

Travel to exotic destinations was key to the students dissertation since the student believed that resorts in exotic locations would have different, more exotic, microbes when compared with basic hotels in non-exotic locals (all of central USA). Although, the student had no preliminary data or any concrete hypotheses, the broader impacts of investigating tourist destinations and finding potential microbial health risks was significant enough for the student to find just enough funding for the project (quite an amazing feat in this day and age). Funding was obtained from the 99% Foundation, a group founded by the middle class to study the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Field site #2: Ski resort in Switzerland

During the exit seminar, the student also discussed what inspired the project:

“I wanted to perform research that really meant something and that would provide great insight for human health. I wanted my research to be able to help solve global problems like reversing climate change, curing cancer, and finding a real fountain of youth. However even more than that, I wanted to do some traveling and couldn’t afford it; I’d never been to the Maldives or Switzerland before and I really wanted to go. Plus, this meant I could do all my field research over spring break.”

The student’s dedication to science is just admirable.

Field site #3: Underwater resort in the Maldives

The student spent the rest of the seminar detailing the results of this exotic resort microbial study. Surprisingly, there were a lot of microbes shared between exotic resorts and non-exotic hotels (lots of E. coli) and the student didn’t find anything of any real interest or importance (just a little bit of platypus DNA, note: not a microbe). However, the student believes this was likely due to the limited scope of the project. They were only able to get enough funds to visit four exotic resorts and did not due to time constraints (spring break is only a week long) to collect replicates. The student is currently looking for additional funding to expand the study to include additional resort locations (ex. LotR filming locations in New Zealand). The student is also interested in performing a time series at one of the resorts which would require the student to remain at the resort for a prolonged period of time – an extreme emotional and financial hardship. The student would also like to expand the project to include cruise ships.

Field site #4: Isolated resort in Jamaica

Listening to this student (and eating free cookies) made me really proud of my department and the exemplary research that is going on. This exit seminar stressed the importance of funding novel  hypothesis-less research projects that have the potential to generate lots and lots of superfluous data and that focus on really interesting, but uninformative, locations. Best of luck to this student in their future endeavors! If you need any help sampling, let me know!

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

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