The long, slow end (or, I finished my PhD today!)

I submitted my PhD today! Two and a half years and three days after I began, I carried four copies of my dissertation – all 96,866 words of it – to the University of Otago graduate school and walked away with a chocolate-covered marshmallow fish and a smile. I owe my very sincerest thanks to everyone who’s so generously helped me along the way, including folks in the Washington State and New Zealand wine industries and readers here who’ve poked and prodded and asked good questions. 

My thesis is titled “Through the grapevine: In search of a rhetoric of industry-oriented science communication.” It’s gist is, briefly, that people study scholarly science writing amongst scientists, and popular science writing for general audiences, but pay a lot less attention to science writing for professional audiences (like winemakers and growers) who might use scientific information in some way and who also know a lot about the subjects of scientific research. Industry-oriented science communication should make industry knowledge a real part of the conversation and communicate science as local knowledge in context – one kind of knowledge, alongside industry knowledge as another kind. By writing about science in context, acknowledging industry knowledge as real and valid knowledge, and making connections between science and industry locations, I’m arguing that the way we write about scientific research can invite better research-industry collaborations and help make research more relevant to practice.

You can find more detailed explanations of parts of the project under the publications tab on this website. If you’d like to know more, send me an email. I’ll be happy to have a conversation, send you all or part of the thesis, or try to point you in the direction of other resources.

Don’t call me Dr. Szymanski yet. In the United States, PhD studies finish with an oral defense with your committee. Assuming that you pass, that defense ends with your advisor shaking your hand and congratulating Dr. Szymanski, and there you go, plus a regalia-clad graduation sometime thereafter. The New Zealand process is different, so today was only the beginning of the end. The graduate school will send soft-bound copies of my thesis off to three anonymous examiners chosen by my advisor. Those scholars will read my work, make comments about things they want me to change, and recommend a grade: pass with minor revisions, pass with major revisions, revise and resubmit (i.e. we fail you, but we think you can pass on a second try), or fail (i.e. we don’t think you can save this ship). Those comments get sent back to me and I have a month or three to make whatever changes those examiners have requested. I send it back. At least one of the examiners takes a look at my changes and, if everyone’s satisfied, the graduate school confers my degree, and I’m finally – after about six months – Dr. Szymanski. I can then do the regalia-clad graduation thing some months thereafter, but I won’t, because I’ll be in Scotland by then.

I’ll be in Scotland by then! As of the beginning of May, I take up a post-doctoral research position at the University of Edinburgh. I’ll be joining the Engineering Life team to study sociopolitical/cultural sides of the Synthetic Yeast project, a massive effort to create the first working, laboratory-created eurkaryotic genome — of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, naturally. (I wrote about the project in some detail a few months ago). The project has obvious implications for the wine industry, is fascinating in terms of the trajectory of human-yeast coevolution, and plays into changes in how we see the relationships between life and engineering. The team I’ll be joining at the University of Edinburgh is outstanding. I’m looking forward to being in the center of the science and technology studies world, on an island with some of the best wine availability in the world, and within weekend skipping distance of many of Europe’s great wine regions.

Again, I owe my very sincerest thanks to everyone who has contributed their time, knowledge, and good will to my doctoral studies. And I look forward to getting to know the UK wine scene. If you’re in or near Edinburgh, send me a note! 

Pro-alcohol research and improving wine science communication, one PhD at a time

Yesterday, Tom Wark snarked off (I mean that nicely, Tom) about “alcohol ‘researchers'” who seem to think that wine, beer, and spirits are social evils to be restricted and discouraged as much as possible. I’ve read plenty of papers that appear to start (and finish) with that agenda, but not all “alcohol researchers” are anti-alcohol. In fact, you could call me an alcohol researcher.

More properly, I’m a wine science communication researcher. (Yes, I know that that’s a mouthful.) While at one point I researched the microbiology of wine production, I now look at how wine research information moves around the industry among scientists and writers and winemakers and growers (and sometimes even consumers). I’m trying to understand how scientific ideas about winemaking and growing come to exist in the industry. When science moves from a peer-reviewed scientific article to a trade magazine, what changes? What can those changes say about how we can better design experiments and better communicate their results. Of course, I can’t say how all of this communicating is important if I don’t know what winemakers and growers are reading and using — and, to my shock, no one seemed to know (if they do, they’re not telling). So I’m also investigating how winemakers and growers navigate the morass of resources available to them: what they read and listen to, who they talk to, and their frustrations about the process. If you’re a winemaker, vineyard manager, or someone in a similar role, you can help me out by taking ten minutes to complete a short survey around those questions. (The link is also tacked to the top of this blog). Finally, I’m writing a popular (that is, not academic) book about how the story of wine is also the story of the sciences, from physics to medicine and everything in-between. More on that later.

I probably don’t need to argue for why wine is worth researcher’s time as a public good to promote instead of a social ill to eradicate, but it’s good to note that it’s fundamentally about humanity as much as science. Wine is a food nourishing to body, mind, and spirit when taken in appropriate quantities. It’s also a cultural icon and a historical treasure. If you want to talk to me about restricting wine because too much alcohol can kill you, your agenda had better also include restricting access to and advertising of butter and cheese — because too much saturated fat can kill you — and honey and jam — because too much sugar can kill you, too. Then show me your thoughtful plan for accommodating the essential cultural and social roles that all of those foods play around the world.

My research is aimed, at the biggest picture level, at making scientific research more efficient, but it’s also about helping people make better wine by improving the information available to them. Besides, when getting a PhD involves wine, science, and writing — and rhetoric, and philosophy, and talking to winemakers, and trying out living in New Zealand — it’s hard to see how things could be much better.