PhD in dilettantism: Everything is an ecosystem

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If I could get a PhD in being a dilettante (a nice way for saying that I can’t focus and want to know and learn a lot about everything without really becoming an expert), I’d sign up now.

Today I dabbled and dealt in so many different disciplines, tackled so many things in so many languages, worked on hands-on fix-it things but also read poetry, marketing theory papers and some clinical research (in healthcare), that it could never be said that I do the same thing all the time. What I do with my time would probably bore the majority of people, but that’s what makes the world tick. Some of us want to drive trucks; some of us know how to mix drinks; some of us want to drill teeth (hopefully as dentists); some of us want to write about destination weddings in Italy while baking coconut macaroon tarts and filling them with dark chocolate ganache (recipe and pictures to come). I also saw a record number of cats prowling around the immediate vicinity, answered a lot of overdue email and told someone what a “croque monsieur” is (even if I have never made nor eaten one myself).

I write all of this, though, as a preface to a debate I often have running in my head about the value of focus versus multidisciplinary meanderings. I conclude that there should be no “versus” in that statement because it is not really something about which one can make a value judgment – both ways of doing things have their own value. They accomplish different ends.

What prompted this was the recent death of activist Billy Frank Jr. One of the articles I read after his passing pointed out that Frank’s life work, dealing almost exclusively with fishing rights, restoring salmon habitat and the ecosystem was sometimes criticized by Native American groups that felt Frank should use his voice and platform to fight for or pursue broader Native American issues in his agitation and political work. Frank was direct as always: he worked with what he knew. He wanted lawmakers, when they saw him coming, to know exactly what he wanted from them and would talk about.

“I know there are other problems, but the one I know about is the salmon, and when these politicians see me coming I want them to know that’s what I am here to talk about.”

While this singular focus served Frank, does a singular focus on an important issue sometimes prevent us from seeing a bigger picture or looking outside a given discipline to find a solution to a big problem? This might not have crossed my mind except that around the same time Frank died, and I had salmon populations and the whole “ecosystem” idea on my mind, I had seen a program (multiple times), Lifelines, on Al Jazeera English about how an overabundance of a parasite in Senegal led to epidemic levels of schistosomiasis. The disease is one of the world’s neglected tropical diseases (have you ever heard of it? I hadn’t) and can have very severe consequences.

In the story presented on Al Jazeera, the freshwater snail that carries this parasite basically overpopulated the river once the river had been dammed. The population using the river water would then become infected. Even though the infection is treatable, reinfection occurs when the person uses infected water, of course, making it a neverending cycle unless something could be done about the overpopulation of snails.

Doctors and specialists working in Senegal on this public health issue decided to look outside their own sphere of expertise. They knew, according to the documentary, that damming was responsible for the outbreak but were not sure how or why.

“…until a development specialist linked the explosion of schistosomiasis to the extinction of river prawns in the river system caused by the dam.

River prawns prey on the snails that carry the schistosomiasis parasite. Without prawns, the snail population increased, and so did the risk of schisto infection for everyone who entered the river”

It took some different thinking to look outside, for example, the immediate problem of a dammed river or outside the medical problems at hand to see the entire ecosystem and discover what had changed (the prawn population) that could have caused this. In this case, a focus on one thing (suddenly 90% of the population was infected with schisto) led to expanding the focus to consider different disciplines that could explain the problem and come up with a solution (repopulating with prawns).

One could argue, of course, that all of this makes sense because regardless of whether you are a specialist or a generalist, so much of what gets done is well-integrated with everything else. It’s an interdisciplinary world, and much like the natural ecosystem, the manmade ecosystem relies on this interdependence and the different types of skills and expertise its parts and people have. (More reason to cheer for my unorthodox but totally interdisciplinary higher education at The Evergreen State College, eh?)

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