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Seeing the Forest & the Trees in Graduate School

by Aaron Sidder

Ecology is an expansive field and as a first-year graduate student in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology and the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, I have often struggled to define myself. Knowing only that I wanted to work with geospatial technologies, I entered the program without any idea of how I would apply these tools, but found myself interested in topics along both ecological and spatial spectrums, from single-celled algae to landscapes and everything in between. I was thinking of ecology in broad strokes; contrary to the popular idiom, I needed to learn to see the trees through the forest. As a result, I often felt as though I was drifting without direction; not surprisingly, this considerably slowed the progression of my thesis project and tinted my early graduate career with a substantial amount of angst. With the midpoint of my second semester fast approaching and without a defined project, I found myself questioning whether I was in the right place, if ecology was the field I should be studying, and even if graduate school was the right direction for my life; in short, I was suffering through an existential crisis. Feeling dejected, I found salvation in what was for me an unexpected place: a discussion of religion.

I was thinking of ecology in broad strokes; contrary to the popular idiom, I needed to learn to see the trees through the forest.

Astrophysicists believe that all except the lightest elements on Earth and in the human body were created in a star billions of years ago, an idea that is vehemently rejected by many religious fundamentalists. It is a classic case of science versus religion, an argument that plays out commonly across American culture. It was in this context that I truly discovered why I study ecology and set off down the path to finding myself as an ecologist. Last month, a minister stopped me on campus and asked to discuss my religious beliefs. I obliged him and spent the next fifteen minutes trading philosophical ripostes on evolution, God, and the universe, which culminated in his ‘gotcha’ question: “Don’t you ever just wonder where we come from and what the meaning of life is?”

…the human experience is just one part of the cycle of life on Earth and the even greater cycle of existence in the universe.

Much to my surprise, I responded by telling him that studying ecology is my means to discovering the meaning of life. As I see it, the human experience is just one part of the cycle of life on Earth and the even greater cycle of existence in the universe. I take solace in the permanence of my physical being and knowing that our elemental constituents are merely cycled and not destroyed; it is exhilarating and humbling to realize that all life on Earth stems from the same original sources. As ecologists, we study cycles, from the movement of nutrients through an ecosystem to succession to land use patterns over decades. Thinking of myself as we often think about an individual of a species—as a part of a population, a community, an ecosystem, with the constant specter of death always near—has helped me to contextualize my own life as one part of the fabric of existence in the universe. Applying this approach to my studies, I realized that I am one piece of the effort to better understand our world, an effort that will hopefully help us to maximize our own lives and those of the other species with whom we share the planet. This has helped me fully appreciate the duality of my professional psyche, the scientist and the environmentalist, and studying ecology allows these elements to complement and inform each other. I left the conversation feeling invigorated, more inspired than I had felt in months, and finally understanding why I came to study ecology in the first place. However, though this chance encounter helped me answer my major existential question, it unfortunately provided no immediate vision of my ecological predestination.

I find that graduate school is as much about defining myself as a person and scientist as it is about learning the tools of my trade. A current professor of mine recently compared ecological models to classical music and Vincent Van Gogh. His point? All are abstractions of reality, attempts to simplify our world to better understand it. As I progress through graduate school, I realize that my questioning is a personal attempt to simplify what I am learning and to put it into the context of my life and my future. While I still often ask broad and elusive questions of myself and my science, I finally feel content that I am in the right place. Confident in having addressed my existential crisis (for now at least), I was able to focus on finding my niche and recently settled into a topic exploring forest ecology and its cycles of life and death, a common theme for me. This was the end of what felt like a long journey but is really only the beginning of learning to see both the forest and the trees.