One of the most auspicious events that takes place at any university is the conferring of its highest degree, the doctorate. Representing the culmination of over 20 years of education, creative exploration, rigorous research, and a willingness to work hours that far surpass what most humans see as reasonable, the PhD is a singular academic accomplishment.

Usually I just read about a PhD conferment in a news update from one of our colleges, but today I had the opportunity to witness the dénouement – the dissertation defense.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I witnessed the event not out of journalistic inquiry but because the defendant was my dear friend Christine Crish).

The very fact that this talk – just one of many that a scientist will give in her career but easily the most anxiously anticipated – is called a ‘defense’ lends insight into the high stakes, professionally and psychologically, tied to it. Her defense. Sounds confrontational, a bit scary. When my stepson heard me say Christine was defending today, he asked me what kind of trouble she was in.

None, of course. Christine has been a stellar graduate student. Her work ethic is extremely high as is her hunger for discovery. As is, it must be said, her ability to make it all look easy, to make you forget while she’s cooking you a wonderful dinner and being the consummate hostess that she is, also, a flippin’ neuroscientist.

She’d more than done her homework. So prepared was Christine that she went on vacation the week before her defense. Nobody goes on vacation the week before their defense. Christine did.

Not to my surprise but much to my delight, her defense was flawless. She presented her findings about the somewhat disturbing but always lovable naked mole rat, the only mammal who lives in a colony led by a queen, like bees, ants and termites. Confident and compelling, she made complex concepts accessible, and even managed to make a phrase like ‘prepubescent stasis’ sound cute. Deftly handling the multiple questions that came her way, Christine made the daunting dissertation defense look like just another day at the lab.

Congratulations Christine, and congratulations Vanderbilt, for minting yet another world class researcher.


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