At the end of May, I successfully completed my PhD. Commonly, the research chapters of a dissertation are written and submitted as manuscripts to academic journals. However, other parts of the text (synthesis, introduction, etc.) mostly go unread except by the committee.
In an effort to give a proper and more public expression of gratitude to those whose help and support I was fortunate enough to receive, I share my acknowledgements page below.
The final stage of a PhD—communicating the answers to my research questions—was, not, in my opinion, the hard part. The hard part was the beginning: trying to find interesting and different questions to make my doctoral work matter. I struggled with the niche nature of a PhD, fearful of the idea that it would ultimately only serve to make me an expert in a very narrow subject field. I have come to realize that the opposite is true. Over the past four and a half years, I have been tasked with learning what the right questions to ask are and discovering how to best seek out their answers. This is a skill which I will never fully master—one that takes as much creativity as it does knowledge, and which will only serve to enrich and enhance my life.
This document compiles and presents the culminating results of several scientific experiments I have carried out. It captures the facts and findings of my experiments, but it says nothing of the convoluted journey I have undergone. It does not describe the vulnerability I felt while carrying out my work, since my experiments often depended upon the survival of hundreds of delicate plants under my care. It does not describe my awe upon observing them grow and respond to my treatments, nor the intense frustration and concern when, for seemingly no reason, some plants did not make it. It fails to relay the electrifying buzz that crackled through me when I suddenly connected disparate ideas with an elegant theory. What’s more, it does not recount the moments when things went wrong. The reader cannot feel the stunning force of the weight that pressed upon me, for example, when an experiment I conducted for over a year failed ultimately because of a risk that is inherent in all novel research: an unpredictable and unknowable aspect of a study system revealed itself. Certainly, it makes no mention of the people I met along the way. It cannot capture the particularly diaphanous evening light of a Seattle spring, nor the feeling of levity that coursed through me as I zipped down the Burke-Gilman trail on my way to Ravenna Brewery to meet my friends. It in no way touches upon the simple act of being in my mid-20s in a new city embarking on a journey that, at first, seemed to be wholly my own. Now I know that, though my name appears on the first page of this document, I have leaned heavily on many others throughout this process.
I am most indebted to the mentorship of my primary advisor, Dr. Jon Bakker, who made his belief in me clear from the moment I began what was initially a master’s project. I moved to Washington in 2017, at the beginning of what would be one of Seattle’s wettest and greyest winters. I was new to the area and wholly in over my head, spending many a long evening in the campus greenhouse, scheming up project after project, most of which turned into dead ends. Jon never faltered in his conviction that these experiences were as important as the research that is presented here, a lesson that has reverberated through many arenas in my life. Equally important was the guidance he never hesitated to provide as I struggled to align my research goals with my personal life; without his consideration and abundance of patience, I am certain this work would never have been completed.
I am also grateful to the members of my committee, Dr. Soo-Hyung Kim, Dr. Dick Olmstead, and Dr. Ian Pearse for their mentorship and invaluable expertise in plant physiology, systematics, and ecology.
The first lecture I attended at the University of Washington was for Soo-Hyung Kim’s plant ecophysiology course. I was full of energy and attentiveness, though his clear command of the subject and articulate mannerisms would be obvious to anyone. What really stuck, though, was the often-subtle wit and humor he would inject into his lectures and meetings. Soo maintains an air of seriousness and consideration, while also keeping things light— a balance I have not known many to successfully strike. I also am grateful that he served as the chair of my qualifying exam committee, particularly for the Belgian wafers he brought.
As for Dick,I will never forget—though this was probably just another morning of teaching for him—when I was approached at the end of one of his botany lectures by his PhD student and my TA, who, with clear mild confusion, gave me a Ziploc bag with a dried-up specimen of Triphysaria pusilla, a common yet small and underappreciated hemiparasitic plantthat Dick had dug up for me to examine. Clearly, Dick was excited to have another parasitic plant geek on board. Turns out we shared another common passion in rock-climbing, which made for many an engaging conversation, at least for me.
I first called Ian after hearing of his proposal for an NSF internship. I ended up walking my bike three miles while talking to him to delay my arrival home, just to keep our conversation going. Ian’s engaging questions and instant curiosity into my small world lit me up. His positivity and his knowledge of statistics and ecology, together with his connections to federal agencies, bolstered and improved my work. Finally, he displayed endless patience as we batted around ideas for how best to answer a tough research question with limited materials: once we had a plan, the coronavirus pandemic began. If Ian was exasperated as we returned to the drawing board, he never showed it.
I wish to express my most sincere gratitude to the following individuals who helped grow and harvest plants, prepared samples, collected data, and inspired project ideas: Will Braks, Helen Ganahl, Courtney Matzke, Erin Weisman, Victoria Fox, Bridgette Jones, Dongsen Xue, Andrew Sher, and Pierre Joubert.
Dr. Nate Haan, Dr. Claire Wainwright, and Loretta Pedersen welcomed me warmly into the Bakker lab and served as mentors and friends, helping me navigate both the technical and emotional aspects of graduate school.
My friends and family have built the foundational support upon which I stand. Maggie Keating, Marian Hsieh, Kate Kistler, and Matt Carroll were on the receiving end of many a long conversation and always found ways to make me laugh when I needed it most. Joanna Marquez kept her door open for me every time I returned to Seattle; she always let me bounce against the walls with pent up energy and, I would like to think, took mild amusement in it. Sage Stowell provided beautiful illustrations that have certainly enhanced this dissertation, and, more importantly, stayed up with me as we talked about pretty much everything in the slightly rickety yet charismatic house we shared for a year and a half in Wallingford. Some of my fondest memories of graduate school are from that period in which we both worked on our graduate research while trying to tame a wild and obstinate Basenji. Derek Allen and I kept those Wallingford house conversations (as well as taco night) going after Sage departed to bigger and better things.
Nic Thune was my first consistent climbing partner in Seattle and is now one of my best friends. A PhD can be a lonely endeavor, both during the long hours of writing and analysis, and simply mentally, as one dives into a topic more deeply than anyone else has ever before. Nic, an arborist and fellow plant lover, alleviated this by making a consistent and genuine effort to truly understand my research. We had plenty of time to talk about it during our ill-advised weekend trips to Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park, the only two people in Seattle crazy enough to do it nearly every weekend for an entire winter and spring.
I received many gifts from Margareta and Hajrudin Hodžić; the list would be longer than the pages of this dissertation. The largest, though, may be the understanding of genuine gratitude, the type one gains when one learns that nothing in life is guaranteed, no situation immutable. When I was young and made any kind of claim, my older brother, Zlatan, would always retort “citation needed”— I blame him for my career choices. For as long as I can remember, I always knew he was much more intelligent and talented than me (you may have seen him on Jeopardy!), something that made me proud and, of course, jealous. These three are the most intelligent people I know, and I can only hope to make them proud.
Lastly, Tom Moulin, as I careened through the last three years, you were always there to steady me. In that simple act, you made me feel loved, trusted, and safe. Despite years of trying, I still cannot find the words to describe just how lucky I was to have met you that February afternoon in the Lime Kiln Canyon of Arizona. At the time, I was a rock-climbing nomad, living in my white 1999 Toyota Corolla with the bent muffler, enjoying life on the road before graduate school. A lot has changed since then, but, more importantly, a lot has stayed the same.