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The PhD Diaries: Identities in Transformation

The PhD Diaries is a series of pieces written by PhD candidates who work in areas associated with the Identities in Transformation research theme. Over the course of several weeks, they will examine their relationship with their research and how it has changed them. Autumn Brown is a PhD researcher with Science Gallery Dublin and the School of Education. Her research explores how art, science and society shape one another

"I imagine"

I imagine there are birdhouses inside my head.

In each birdhouse lives an expert that’s been carefully cultivated and nurtured through the years. The scientist, the poet, the activist, the musician, the fighter, the diver, the getaway driver…

A PhD is one way to make an expert, but it’s far from the only way or even the best.

Every day my village of various experts descend from their perches to discuss, debate, and help me navigate the world. They gather on common ground, give me the names of things, keep me calm, summon hypotheses, and imagine solutions.  

Rarely do I call on one expert alone.

This idea (sketched out in a journal some years ago) has helped me understand and articulate the value of expertise developed outside the academy. It’s deepened my awareness of the ways we all make sense of the world.

It has also helped me duck the monikers of both “specialist” and “generalist”. My knowledge and experiences are not topical. The lessons I learn run deep enough to become a part of me.

In the 19th century borders were carved across areas of study and disciplines were formed. Biology. History. Physics. Philosophy. Over time, each became more insular. They developed their own values, methods, philosophies and languages.

Like a real-world (ivory) Tower of Babel, we lost the ability to communicate, and the wild expanse of knowledge became a series of fenced-in plots. Everything and everyone assigned a name, category and number. Hierarchies emerged and science broadly became synonymous with objectivity.

As if scientists themselves were hatched outside of culture and time.

Now we’re hollering over the garden walls and pulling down the fences again. The research shaking up the world right now happens at the edgelands and liminal spaces between and across disciplines.

I nurture these in-betweens inside myself and am drawn to those places out in the real world which reflect this border crossing. Places like Science Gallery Dublin and the Long Room Hub.

A new birdhouse is under construction and a new resident will soon move in: the art-science expert.

My identity is no more wrapped up in my PhD than in any of my other experiences. My research is a reflection of my values, beliefs, and the way I go about exploring my corner of the universe.

I value kindness and meaningful collaboration. The bone-deep practical work of knowing and respecting others who are unlike me. Working well with the differences and holding space for marginalized voices to be heard and heeded.

I believe in the power of science to get us closer to the capital-T Truth of things. And I believe everyone has something essential to contribute to that process.

I explore through a combination of art and science. When I struggle to understand something, I draw pictures to explain it to myself and others. If science gets me to a truth, art helps me find the meaning. Art and science are our most powerful forms of inquiry, and both depend on imagination.

Science Gallery Dublin is my laboratory. It sits at the physical and ideological crossroads of art and science and I’d like to know what happens there. Can we create strong inclusive spaces for folks to come together, ask questions and make things? How might this impact the way we see ourselves? How might this impact the future we want, ask for, and design? Is this art-science approach a more inclusive way to go about research and innovation?

I am interested in what you imagine. I want to know what infinite towers, cities, birdhouses or wilds live inside of you, and how these landscapes could shape our future. 

I was myself before this PhD, I will be myself after. This process has reaffirmed a few things though:

  1. The stories we tell ourselves are every bit as important as the stories we tell each other.
  2. Sleep well without guilt. Revolutions require rest.
  3. And hold tight to hope. It may be more valuable than certainty.

In the first moments of every morning I lay in bed gently nudging the experts awake. Getting ready for another day of poking around the universe.

How does the work begin?

I imagine…

Autumn Brown

Autumn Brown is a PhD researcher with Science Gallery Dublin and the School of Education. Her research explores how art, science and society shape one another. She’s particularly interested in where knowledge is made and who is not in the room when it happens. Her work explores how this process might be changed in spaces like Science Gallery Dublin where new ideas are prototyped and available for commentary and critique. Autumn has a background in immunology and oncology research at UNC Chapel Hill. She also holds a Master’s degree in Science Communication and Public Engagement from the University of Edinburgh and most recently worked as the Social Media Manager for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.