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Student Spotlight: Christian Ross

September 5, 2019

Author: Christian Ross

Over the past year, Christian H. Ross, a PhD Candidate in the Center for Biology and Society, has presented parts of his dissertation research at various academic meetings. Getting critical feedback about one’s research, while difficult, is an inherent part of academic life, particularly in conference settings. However, from such experiences, Christian reflects that he learned a lot about what it takes to become a better scholar and how the challenges to one’s academic work are a necessary part of that process.

In March 2019, Christian traveled to the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, to present some of his research at the 54th Annual Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Biology (JAS-Bio). Each year, JAS-Bio convenes historians and other scholars of biology, especially graduate students. This is a great opportunity for graduate students to discuss their research, practice giving and receiving feedback, and further develop their projects.

At that meeting, Christian spoke about some of his early-stage ideas on recent discussions in New Zealand between scientists and Māori communities about the use of a new genetic biotechnology called gene drive for controlling invasive species. Christian argued that there were distinct notions of knowing and controlling life between indigenous communities and mechanistic science that were consequential for if and how gene drive would be used.

  However, after he presented his research, Christian received   serious challenges to his own ideas and research methods   from other scholars at JAS-Bio. They argued that parts of   his project were problematic or unclearly articulated. The   pushback was unsettling and initially discouraging for   Christian. Recounting the meeting later, Christian said, “I   was really caught off guard by it. I don’t think I had really   anticipated the possibility of having my ideas challenged   like that. For a time, it made me reconsider if academic   research was really the right place for me. I knew if I wanted   to succeed here, I’d need to make some changes.”

Afterwards, Christian began the difficult work of reassessing and revising his research in light of the less-than-encouraging feedback he had received at JAS-Bio. Fortunately, his ASU advisors provided helpful guidance and support. The next time Christian presented his research, he would be ready with an improved project and be better prepared for possible critiques. A few months later, he had an opportunity to do just that.

In July, Christian gave another talk about his research on the mechanistic and Māori understandings of controlling invasive species with gene drive in New Zealand at the 2019 meeting of the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB) at the University of Oslo in Norway. This time Christian was better prepared. He took care to be more precise in his arguments and to present his conclusions in a more measured and better defended way. The result was a clearer and more developed project.

The reception at ISHPSSB to Christian’s research was much more positive, reflecting the revision and reworking that he had done based on the critiques from JAS-Bio. Receiving that positive feedback validated Christian’s ability to receive criticism and use it to improve as a scholar. It also illustrated that becoming a scholar is an iterative, ongoing, and often personal process. Improving as a researcher happens not only through advancing academic skill alone, but also through persistence and scrutiny of one’s own research ideas. It necessitates getting critical feedback, even when discouraging, and leveraging it to grow. Most importantly, improving as a researcher requires having the humility to recognize when one still has more to learn.

Those lessons are all the more important as Christian prepares to move to Cambridge, MA, to begin a year-long fellowship with the Science, Technology, and Society Program at Harvard University this fall.  There he expects to have his ideas routinely challenged in ways that further grow his personal and academic resilience, and help him become a successful scholar in this complex world of different views and values.

We congratulate Christian on his successes and wish him the best year at Harvard! We look forward to having him back with us at the Center for Biology and Society next year.

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