Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Learning Experience

Yesterday I had the opportunity to hear two phenomenal speakers lecture on two very different topics. I am officially looking into graduate school...again.

The first was Sara Quandt at Lawrence University's Honors Convocation. Quandt has a doctorate degree in anthropology and spoke about health disparities in the United States, with a focus on migrant workers. Her stories were, first and foremost, sad, but also inspiring. She discussed the situations of three migrant workers: one working in tobacco fields that develops green tobacco sickness, one that picks cherry tomatoes and eventually gives birth to a child without arms or legs due to her exposure to pesticides, and one very poor mother who is paradoxically obese and struggling to put food on the table. Those are the sad parts. The inspiring part is what Dr. Quandt is doing with these stories. The topic of her talk was "It Takes a Community: Collaborating to Reduce Health Disparities in the U.S." Her argument was that if the communities of academics (scientists, anthropologists, statiticians, etc) and citizens (community organizations, individuals) worked together, health disparities could be recognized, researched, and reduced. As someone working in a nonprofit, I can definitely agree with this proposition. Collaboration is key in solving (or even reducing) major social issues. No one person, organization, or community of persons can solve a problem.

The next speaker was Dr. Richard Davidson, a renowned University of Wisconsin brain researcher. He spoke at the Compassion Project event at the Performing Arts Center last night. I am no neuroscientist, but what this man said made sense. And made me wish I could be a neuroscientist so I could join his lab. Dr. Davidson has conducted studies and research that show how happiness and acting compassionately affect the brain. And he's able to show that these skills can be taught. One of the most fascinating things he said last night was that, although we are born with a set DNA structure, we are not held hostage to our genes. Through behavior therapy, we can be changed. While the details of this concept are far, far above anything I will ever understand, the basic principal can be grasped, and in my opinion...celebrated. I am one of those people that thinks everyone can learn to be happier than they are, and that each person I meet is inherently good. And now I have a neuroscientist telling me that I may just be right!

So what do these two speakers have to do with me looking into graduate school? Well, aside from the fact that I got goosebumps during the faculty processional at Lawrence, and was literally anxious waiting for Dr. Davidson to continue his talk after the musical interludes, the speakers sparked a bit of jealousy in me. Sure, I do a lot of good in my community already. I'm very early in my career, and people already know me. But am I really making a substantial difference? Did I bring light to an illness (green tobacco sickness) that affects thousands of people in the world? Am I researching a topic that could bridge Eastern thought and American education? No, no and no. But I could. Maybe (ok, definitely) not either of those topics, but there are certainly other areas of study that I have an interest in, and also a decent amount of knowledge. But a decent amount isn't enough to make any ground breaking revelations. I need more knowledge, more training, more inspiration.

Plus, learning makes me happy. And happiness is exactly what I'm after.