Thinking Hard About a PhD Thesis

Have you ever had that experience where you are fixated on something, but somewhat paralyzed in how to get it? I am sure most of us have had that experience when it comes to liking someone. You know… you think about the person, look at the person, dream of the person, but never really build up the courage to actually TALK to the person! Or how about when you know you want to do something, but you have no idea how, so the idea keeps swimming in your head with no real way to get it out?

This is what I am living through with regards to a PhD. I want to do it. I have a general idea around the thesis topic. But I have no idea how to really turn that into words that adequately describe the study. Every day, I read more research papers and think about how I to organize my research. But the whole thing seems rather daunting, so I retreat back to the easier items on my to-do list.

Narrowing Down the PhD Hypothesis

It was my masters degree that got me dreaming of a PhD. I was so inspired by what I was learning, that I wanted to take it a step forward. I have always been pretty cutting-edge, so I thought the hypothesis would manifest itself easily. Given my varied background, I had a plethora of ideas: plant intelligence and music, the effects of plant music on human health, the creation of an urban plantasy city, architecture and plant intelligence, and on and on. But what would be a hypothesis? What could I develop or test?

Filled with confusion, I did what every graduate student does: I went to the two main professors of my program for advice. I wish I could say it was illuminating, but each one left me more confused than the other. One is a professor of sociology in architecture, the other is a world-renown plant neurobiologiest. As you can imagine, their answers were as different as night and day. After talking to them, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do a doctorate!

Let it go… for now

Let it go... phyto domotics plant music

So I let sleeping dogs lie and focused on my masters.

But one day after a stimulating lecture about plants and archeology by a professor of lanscape architecture, that familiar PhD feeling started up again. This time, it was accompanied by some more concrete thoughts. I even thought I had a pretty good topic in mind:

Effectiveness in changing behavior/reducing plant blindness of plant technology/neurobiology related art installations and coordinated online media campaigns.

Sounds pretty fancy, right? I was sure this professor would have some words of wisdom! I took advantage of a synchronic ride home by said professor to ask her advice. We sat in her car for a long time talking, and while she was encouraging, she had no insight to give me into the PhD itself. No idea what faculty it could be or what school would be best. Ugh.

Maybe I could go back to the first two professors with my new idea and get some more concrete feedback?

You can probably imagine how that went. Even though the topic does talk about plants and sociology, putting them together in that way was kind of an unknown, so they couldn’t give me a direction.

Back to my masters…

When in Doubt, Look to the Basics: Philosophy

In all this time, I had been having long conversations with another pioneer of plant neurobiology, this time with regards to philosophy. There are only two labs in the world right now focused on plant intelligence (I believe a third will be up by next year). One is run by my college professor and the other by this other professor. He is someone I can really bounce ideas back and forth with, and in reality, the person I dream of being my advisor. The brilliance of his brain is his ability to mix pratical with theoretical, even in complex areas where today there is not enough science to know the answers.

During one of my super down and confused days, he asked me where my interest in plant intelligence came from.

As you know, I started with plant music. Specifically, I am fascinated by how plants can use the Music of the Plants device to communicate. This took me towards the idea of creating instruments that allow plants to communicate humans in ways we better understand. You could say a sort of “phyto-domotics”.

Plant Creater

“So why not start there,” he said, and gave me a paper he co-authored entitled, Augmented reality: An ecological blend. Now this really got my creative juices flowing! This is what I want to be deep diving into:

If we give a plant the ability to augment our human world with its own intelligence, what would it create?

What would a Eco-Augmented Reality (EAR) or in my case, Phyto-Augmented Reality (PAR) look like?

And more importantly, how can it help re-connect humanity and the plant world?

A recent conversation with another idol of mine in the world of plant cognition reinforced this vision. She reminded me that,

…plants don’t need to be convinced of who they are and what they can do. We — the humans — think otherwise. For me, it is out of their incredibly deep connection to their essence (which is also ours) and hence, compassion, that plants let us engage in all sorts of ways in the hope that perhaps after so much pulling apart and throwing around, the human understand its own essence.

That is the heart of what I want to study: how do we co-create with plants a world that is true to our united essence?

Because I believe that this is the key to happy, healthy, sustainable futures.

Any suggestions on how or where to do it?

References

Raja, V., Calvo, P. (2016) Augmented reality: An ecological blend. Cognitive Systems Research Volume 42, May 2017, Pages 58–72


Originally published at Tigrilla Gardenia.