I’m just emerging from what turns out to have been a years-long existential crisis about the work that I do and why I do it. Why did I choose to become a scientist? Why, as a young person, did I seek refuge in the calm, often cold, realm of mathematics and science? What led me to embrace watching animals as a form of healing? After months of feeling and writing through it all, I know the answers to these questions, but those answers are not what this essay is about. This essay is asking, what next?
What’s next is a job as a tenure track assistant professor in animal behavior and behavioral ecology. I have been hired to teach animal behavior (and herpetology!), and to do research on animal behavior, mentor students and researchers studying animal behavior, publish journal articles in the field and otherwise contribute to the scientific and academic community. These goals will guide the day-to-day of my work for the next six years, but I’m coming to realize that these goals are not a purpose. Goals are not an identity. Goals are not the whole of what’s next.
In determining what’s next, I’ve had to ask the bigger questions of who I am when I do this work, and why I do it. Jerry Colonna, an advocate for bringing your whole self to the workplace, writes about work as “an opportunity for a daily realignment of the inner and the outer, a daily do-over of life expressed with integrity.” And it is in contemplating his words that I struggle to make sense of myself as a scientist. Yes, I want to understand the natural world but what does understanding mean, exactly? I know now that understanding nature involves thinking deeply about how and why we think about nature in the ways that we do. Which means thinking about the human condition, about politics and poetry and psychology. It means taking the time to really watch animals and also taking the time to write beautifully about them. It means recognizing that collecting and analyzing and communicating data on animal behavior can be radical, in a way that floors me.
We argue that a question is meaningful if what we do or feel is changed by the answer.
Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist.
Animal behavior is radical because it lives so close to the center of us. Understanding how other animals live their lives shows us the littlest and the biggest forces that shape what we do and who we can be. We see ourselves reflected in how animals behave and in how we think about animals behaving. Animal behavior is about action, connection, and context—all of the most complex things. Equally, animal behavior grounds us in a reality outside of ourselves—action, connection, and context other than our own is the clay we mold to make meaning. And so animal behavior is the perfect playground in which to explore how scientists can bring their full selves to their work, with all of the weighty consequences and all the room for delight that that entails. And this, thankfully, feels like purpose to me.