This weekend marked the 50th anniversary celebration of my department – Neurobiology and Behavior – at Cornell. That’s 50 years of studying brains and behavior – indeed, something to celebrate.
Saturday held the majority of events; the morning and afternoon were dotted with mini-presentations by PhD alumni, followed by a discussion about the department’s future, a poster session by current students on their research, and an informal evening gathering at the Lab of Ornithology.
While it was great to meet my predecessors, the most fascinating part of this experience for me were the alumni talks. The guidelines provided to the speakers for their presentations were somewhat vague, which turned out to be a good thing because there was so much variety among them. Interestingly, the alumni were arranged such that those receiving their PhDs in the 1970s started off the talks and those more newly-minted Phds closed them.
As a current PhD student in this department, I appreciated these talks not because of the old photos or hilarious stories, of which there were many, but as an observer taking in a complete picture of this department and watching the historical narrative unfold. Where it’s been. Where it’s going. All that can happen in 50 years.
Needless to say, the technology changed. Days of card catalogs and copy making in libraries turned in to online database searches from the comforts of a personal laptop. I can’t believe that at one point, the department had a shared computer with a single MB on it! Now I see why these folks think that we current students have it made.
More captivating is that as time marched on, the representation of speakers changed. Women and diversity increased (a good sign of things to come?). And what started as a series of talks by established professors became a series of talks by many who deviated from academia. It was refreshing to get varied perspectives from representatives of policy, industry, conservation, and the public sector in addition to academia. You can imagine how a group of people returning for a reunion would be self-selecting, all churned by the machine to be a part of that very same machine. I was impressed that this was not the case. I think what helped contribute to this varied representation is the feeling NB&B breeds of being a part of a family. Whether or not you stayed in academia, this department and the people within it is a place that many call home. And who wouldn’t want to come back for a ‘family’ reunion, especially one that happens only once in a lifetime? I’m already getting nostalgic, and I still have a few years left here!
Despite the vastly different paths of the speakers, there were common threads linking them together. Getting a PhD in NB&B means learning how to be independent, creative, resourceful, and a critical thinker. It was enlightening to see the many ways these PhD skills can be broadly applied. Later that evening I was asked by an alumn how I perceived all of these talks – does it make me depressed, hopeful, or both? Given the current picture of the future of academia, I found these talks very hopeful in thinking about my own future career. My success is ultimately how I define it, and I think this endeavor is a worthwhile one regardless of what career I choose. I wish I had experienced these talks in my first year here. But let’s be honest, I’m glad I experienced them at all. Thank you to the organizers who made this happen and to those who make this department what it is. I feel truly lucky to be a part of it.