Geobiologist Kelsey Moore on the bittersweet experience giving the first fully-remote PhD defense in EAPS in the midst of a pandemic.
Like any other PhD student, I had been visualizing the day of my defense for years. Although at face value this event is your final moment to defend your work, to summarize the research that you have done and justify to your committee and community why you deserve a PhD, the thesis defense is really so much more than that.
Throughout my career, I heard the repeated comforting words that it wasn’t really a test, that my committee wouldn’t let me stand up in front of that room full of people if they didn’t believe that I was ready. Instead, it was meant to be a culmination and a celebration. A moment not only to justify my work, although this is of course the main purpose of the defense, but also a moment to share my discoveries with my community and propel myself forward into the next steps of my career. I had pictured a moment in the Ida Green Lounge filled with my friends, my community, and my parents. I thought about the tear-filled acknowledgements, the celebration that would follow in the conference room of E25, the party at my favorite restaurant in Cambridge…and then coronavirus hit, MIT closed, and the possibility of having a public defense that I had pictured for so many years vanished.
I prepared myself for the disappointment that would come with a PhD career that “fizzled” quietly instead of ending in celebration, a quick virtual defense with my committee and maybe a handful of people who decided to tune in, and that would be it.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
As the first EAPS student to defend my dissertation via Zoom this Spring, I had no way of knowing what it would be like, and I was overwhelmed by the support that came from my community. Through help from my advisor (Tanja Bosak) and my thesis chair (Roger Summons), and the support from the EAPS Academic Office and Headquarters team (Megan Jordan, Taylor Perron, and Maggie Cedarstrom), my incredible MCs (Brandon Milardo and Ellen Lalk) and my party organizer and major supporter (Jeemin Rhim), my defense turned out to be more of a celebration than I had ever imagined.
The technical side of things went off without a hitch and my community turned out in numbers that I couldn’t have imagined to support me. Doing a Zoom teleconference defense allowed me to invite members of my community from across the country: family from back home, friends, collaborators and colleagues from other states, and all of EAPS. I was told that over 100 people viewed my defense, and when I saw the flood of kind words in the chat box at the bottom of the screen and all of the people who joined the post-defense “Zoom toast”, I truly felt the flood of support and celebration that my community had given me.
This moment and the length of my acknowledgements slides were a true testament to my time at MIT and the memories that I will take with me. I have been incredibly lucky to be surrounded by an encouraging cohort of graduate students, a supportive advisor and thesis committee who all taught me so much both scientifically and professionally, and a group of some of the most amazing postdocs, graduate students and faculty who were my friends and my teachers for five years. I had the opportunity to work with some incredibly talented and passionate undergraduate students through TAing and mentoring interns and thesis students, and I was lucky enough to work alongside some of the strongest and most driven women I know to improve the experiences of women in EAPS through WiXII. Over the course of my time at MIT, I watched my community grow and change for the better as I grew along with it. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for me and for the community that I will always be a part of.
Story Images: Screenshots from the remote defense, complete with custom Zoom backgrounds created by the community to toast the new Dr. Moore. (Credit: courtesy of Kelsey Moore)