Last Tuesday, December 20th, the Graduation Ceremony 2016 (which in fact spanned doctoral thesis defended since 2014), took place in the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown (CCU) Auditorium. One after the other, 26 newly-minted PhDs present in the audience who, out of a total of 36, had come to the CCU for the occasion (some of them from abroad), climbed the few steps that lead to the stage.
There, in the middle of rounds of applause, they each got a kiss, or a hug, or a handshake – and a diploma inside a big red paper bag – from Zach Mainen, director of Champalimaud Research (CR), and Alfonso Renart, who is now finishing his term as director of the International Neuroscience Doctoral Program (INDP)
Before this parade of brilliant young minds, Zach Mainen had opened the proceedings with a short speech, in which, mixed with congratulations to the new doctors and emotionally-charged comments about parents having to let their children fly on their own, he mused philosophically that “to get a PhD is to become the world-expert on a problem people don’t even know they have – yet”.
A video session followed, which again elicited applause and more than a few laughs from the audience. In a series of video clips, the respective PhD supervisors congratulated their fledglings on their achievements.
The ceremony ended with four of the celebrated PhD’s making short speeches explaining what they would be taking away with them from the years spent as students of the INDP.
But only to further ask: “What legacy then is this, what gift is bestowed upon us? What is this something received from our predecessors, from out scientific forebears? It is freedom. Freedom to be creative. Freedom to find one’s place. It is the possibility and the right to negotiate our own place in the world.”
Then it was Ana Rita Fonseca‘sturn to speak – she did her PhD at the Mainen Lab: “Once, [my colleague] Eric Dewitt told me that I would only be able to properly assess which skills I had or hadn’t acquired throughout my PhD after I embraced another project”, she reminisced. “That made sense but it was not obvious [at the time].”
“[But] while I was writing my thesis, one year ago, there was an open call from Gulbenkian Foundation for social innovation projects” she added. “So, tired of always talking about how the world is going wrong […], I ended up, 15 days after I defended my PhD thesis, standing in front of a Shark Tank Jury to defend a project on play advocacy and provision.”
“[So], in a way, I am still thinking about observations, hypothesis, experiments and behavioral manipulations, but applied to a sample of humans living in the wild. Nevertheless, now I am confident that I know what I am doing and when I don’t know what I am doing it is ok, too”, she concluded.
Next came Bruno Miranda (who, as an INDP student, joined the labs of Steve Kennerley and Peter Dayan at University College London). He evoked the importance for a practicing neurologist to have a deep understanding of the workings of the brain – which is what initially motivated his decision to pursue a PhD in neuroscience.
Citizens of a very special place
“Coming from abroad to Lisbon and being part of the CR has given us students a new type of citizenship to a community that has shaped us as we’ve helped to shape it”, she declared.
“Another aspect is becoming a member of the international scientific community, which has been so widely opened up to us by the environment we were in. As students here we had the opportunities to meet fellow scientists from all around the globe, and learn how to become a scientist.”
And she then proceeded to the final wrap-up, this one “uniquely CR”, she said. Among many other things, “it’s the feeling of arriving in a new country and finding yourself immediately part of a family” she explained; “of sending an email asking for advice and getting ten replies in the next ten minutes, some from people you’ve never met, offering to help; of going down for a quick drink at beer hour and five hours later still being there; or of, when a pipe breaks, everyone stopping what they’re doing to spend the afternoon sweeping water down the drains together to save other people’s equipment”.
“Also, so many people volunteering so much of their time to make Ar events and retreats and parties and symposiums run; and your friends take you for a coffee or something stronger when you’re in despair at another experiment that fails, and tell you about all the times their experiments failed too, so things don’t seem so bad at all.”
“What I can say truly is that the CR and this community is indelibly part of my identity now”, she emphasized. “We all, wherever we came from across the globe and whatever our backgrounds, are now citizens of this very particular, very unique, crazy and special place, and whatever we do now, wherever we move to, we will have been shaped by this place. And from my point of view, that’s been a great privilege.”
Ana Gerschenfeld works as a Science Writer at the Science Communication Office at the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme
Edited by: Catarina Ramos (Science Communication Office)