What exactly does getting a Ph.D. mean?

We’re celebrating with homemade cyser! Applied microbiology at its best. Three of our students have successfully defended and explained many years of research in the last 8 days. Who knew that there was so much to learn about a tiny soil micro-organism we call the social amoeba, but others call the slime mold? It’s not a bacterium, not a fungus, not an animal. It’s an amoeba and it’s social!

These students have thought for themselves, generated and analyzed data repeatedly, brought new papers to our attention, solved important problems, figured out collaborations, and are now ready to be unleashed on the world. They can identify important problems, and distinguish the solvable from the unsolvable. Mazel Tov!

One of the things getting a Ph.D. means is a public defense of the work. I imagine this ties to some ancient history I could look up on Wikipedia if I took the time. And of course it is true that you can get a Ph.D. outside of Houston. But right now I’m proud of our Rice University Ph.D.s from right here in Houston. In the USA these degrees generally get awarded by a committee of scholars, often three from one’s own department, and one from another, just for breadth. In Denmark we participated in a couple of Ph.D. awards, and were called opponents, and the thesis advisor took no part in the final defense.

I have to say I’m extremely proud of Owen Gilbert, Sara Kalla, and Jennie Kuzdzal-Fick, in order of defense date. Getting a Ph.D. is a very collaborative process. Imagine taking about 50 courses, all from the same person, or small group of people. Imagine bouncing ideas off these people for years and years, sharing every result, every triumph, every puzzlement, every failed experiment. You start to think alike, but also struggle to establish an independent identity, and that is what everyone wants for you.

The next step can be a job, or a post-doc, a kind of scientific apprenticeship, often in a new area. You go to a new place and forge new ties, see new ways of approaching problems, new conundrums. But there is something that never leaves from your first intensive exposure to research. I think about my own advisors all the time, consider how they would approach a problem, and celebrate their retirements, and achievements.

Another thing about getting a Ph.D. is the party! In our group it involves homemade pizza, all vegetarian. With three students finishing, this meant two parties, a week apart, 12 pizzas each. I think the favorite is caramelized onions, blue cheese, walnuts, and rosemary. Close seconds are plain parmesan, and the tomato, eggplant, olive, red paper pizza. The second party featured two new pizzas, tomato sauce, mozzarella, and arugula and then mozzarella and mushroom.

The crust is a dough of a quarter teaspoon yeast, a half teaspoon of salt (the stuff you put on top is often salty), 4 cups of water, enough flour to make a dough, about 9 cups. Knead it (in the cuisinart) and let is sit all day. This is for four cookie-sheet-sized crusts. Alona, is this enough detail?

Best were the pizzas the children rolled out and ornamented. For me, a party just isn’t quite complete without little children running through the crowd, playing with blocks, making pizzas, screaming, eating, dashing past the adult legs.

What did they study? I wouldn’t be a professor if I didn’t have to tell you one little bit of each one. Owen is our field biologist. He has made great progress towards understanding theory and practice that explains why the social stage of amoebae in nature involves mostly clonemates even though they don’t sort much on these grounds in the laboratory. Sara is our molecular evolution expert. She figured out how to get around some biases in measuring linkage between genes, and also found some new species of a purple social amoeba. Jennie looked at cheating. She found that the first amoebae to starve cheat the others, and also found that if she made it hard for cells to find relatives, they would evolve into complete cheaters. This work will generate a bucketful of insightful publications.

Back to the party! Only in Houston could it have been so hot we had the attic fan on. What is an attic fan? It is in the ceiling, and vents the whole house by sucking in air through the open windows. We even had a guest appearance from Vanessa Ezenwa an undergraduate from 1997 who is now a professor of disease ecology at University of Georgia.

We have a delightful group at Rice, and I can only hope we replicate it in St. Louis.


Owen defending.


Proud family!


The first party!


Sara defending.


First taste of cyser!


Jennie about to defend! The rest of the audience arrived late – couldn’t find physics.


Adam Kuspa – not a scary opponent!


Our three new Doctors of Philosophy!


We knew she could do it!


It’s quite a group!


They don’t yet have their Ph.D.s!


Yes, we have some great kids!


The fabulous Vanessa, just back from Kenya!


Pizza is fun to make!


Pizza is hard to roll out!


Neil explaining some finer points of cooking Grigson!


What do you mean, no champagne for me???


Opening bottles for a toast can get acrobatic!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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One Response to What exactly does getting a Ph.D. mean?

  1. Alona says:

    Great pictures! Still can’t believe they graduated!

    And thanks for the recipe! I’m making lots of pizza this Friday! 😀

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