Recently, I was awarded the E&ERC Outstanding Postgraduate Researcher award, which commemorates exceptional achievements from PhD students at the Evolution & Ecology Research Centre (E&ERC).
While overwhelmed with pride and gratitude, I believe it was also time for me to reflect on the circumstances and privileges that paved the path to this accomplishment. It is rather common to bask in the glow of success, yet rarely do we show our weaknesses, and the bumpy journeys that often lead to these accomplishments. I invite you to interpret my reflections in your own way, while acknowledging that every path is different and that the role of luck and privilege vary greatly between individuals.
Let's start from the beginning. I was born a mentally and physically abled white male in the vicinity of Lyon, France. My mother was a first-generation immigrant from Russia, and my father was born in Algeria and later grew up in France. Shortly after my birth, my parents decided to relocate to Pointe-Noire in Congo, an environment that would soon be marred by the Republic of the Congo civil war. My sister was brought to the world in the midst of a civil war, etching a profound influence on our upbringing. After four years in Congo, my parents, fearful of escalating conflicts, moved us back to France.
Like many scientists, my fascination for nature was innate. However, personal events distanced me from this passion until early in my adulthood. I moved cities every few years, preventing me from building lasting social connections. My father's work also took him away for months, sometimes years, culminating in a drawn-out, emotionally draining divorce. This turbulent period forced me to prioritise my mental health over all else – my quest for understanding biology took a back seat. The divorce also placed a financial burden on my mother, making daily sustenance a recurring struggle. This financial insecurity also separated my mother from her other son in Congo - a rift that, two decades later, remains.
Undeniably, my upbringing was fraught with economic and emotional trials. However, this telling isn't a bid for comparison. Each of us encounters significant difficulties, some silently destructive despite their lack of obvious tragedy. I'm not insinuating that my journey was harsher than most - quite the contrary. Frankly, I was deeply lucky, and privileged. My upbringing in a secure country with a great health and educational system was a luxury denied to many. University was not a conscious and motivated choice, but more a refuge from indecision. I gravitated towards Biology simply because it resonated with me, and as university education was virtually free, it seemed like the logical choice. I chose this path by default.
While my affection for biology now is unwavering, this was not an immediate realisation. My initial two years of university did not captivate me as much as I had hoped. My interest was selectively inclined towards courses concerning ecology and evolution, and the image of myself as a scientist was a blurry vision at best. I also did not think I was good enough to become a scientist. Yet, I stayed because I lacked other options. Luckily, accumulating tuition debt was absent in my journey. If I did, I certainly wouldn't have chosen a university path, and for this, I bear gratitude to the French public university system. Eventually, I fell in love with biology, and it is hard for me to imagine how I could possibly break this bond. I crossed paths with exceptional academics who sowed the seeds of belief that I too, can make a significant contribution to the world. The consistent guidance and encouragement from these remarkable scientists were truly transformative, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
You might wonder, how does someone who just stumbled upon his interest in science end up pursuing a PhD? The answer is simple: luck and privilege. Yes, I was dedicated, hardworking, and increasingly captivated by my field, but so are many others. I was not working harder or smarter, nor was I more talented. Most of my opportunities came from being at the right place at the right time, meeting the right people.
Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I faced a daunting uncertainty about my future. My understanding of research was obscure as I was a first-generation scientist, and a PhD seemed an insurmountable challenge. Yet I was pushed to explore this option. The turning point came when I was offered an internship with Marlene Goubault, an associate professor at the University of Tours. This experience sparked a passion for research, and fully re-ignited my genuine interest in Biology.
Upon this realisation, I recognised that a master’s degree and a PhD were my next steps. I pursued a master’s program at the same University, and I genuinely loved every second of it. This degree led me back to working alongside Marlene and her PhD student, Anthony Mathiron. During this time, I met a visiting professor from the University of Alabama, who happened to be Anthony's PhD co-supervisor, Ryan Earley. After a few beers at a pub and some good laughs, Ryan invited me to work with him. I was thrilled, but there was a hick. How could I possibly afford moving to the other side of the world for 6 months, with no income? Luck and privilege were again on my side. A bank agreed to lend me a loan, and Ryan pressured his university to pay me a small, yet life-changing, compensation. The stars aligned, and I was ready for more research.
This certainly wasn't easy, however. My English proficiency was not great, and I had to run a research project, supervise undergraduate students, write, and build a social life in a new language. Yet I was privileged enough to have lived in a country where English is taught from a young age. I cannot imagine having to face these challenges with little to no understanding of English - it was already hard enough. Despite the challenges, Ryan’s continual support was my beacon of light. Thank you, Ryan.
After this internship, I had no doubts I wanted to do a PhD. I was lucky to stumble upon an advertisement for a PhD program in the I-DEEL lab with Shinichi Nakagawa. To be honest, I was not too familiar with meta-analyses, nor was I too familiar with Shinichi's work. However, I was armed with curiosity and eagerness to learn. I applied, although I had little confidence in the outcome. To my surprise, Shinichi shortlisted me, I believe, thanks to recommendations from my previous supervisors. In parallel, I also tried for an RTP scholarship at the University of Sydney, only to soon realise I had little chances because my university wasn’t ranked highly enough. I was encouraged to apply regardless, but doubts clouded my hopes and determination. I never thought of university rankings until then, and this realisation made me doubt my chances of success for the UNSW scholarship. I felt trapped because of the university I had chosen, something now beyond my control. All I could do is wait and hope for the best.
Unexpectedly, I was awarded the scholarship at UNSW, which filled me with happiness, excitement, and above all, gratitude. Shinichi gifted his energy and skills to put the odds in my favour. He devoted hours to ensure my application was competitive. I was also lucky my previous research experience with Marlene and Anthony resulted in two co-authorships. It's not lost on me that numerous individuals dedicate an often-higher level of effort in other labs without receiving the same recognition. I was at the right place, and surrounded by the right people, and I recognise that many did not have this chance. Thank you, Marlene, Anthony, for being so inclusive. Thank you, Shinichi, for your help in the application and for believing in me.
There I was, ready to embark on my PhD journey in Sydney, yet financial constraints surfaced again. I had to buy a ticket to Australia, cover visa fees, and pay for an overseas student help cover upfront. I did not have this money. Though, I was lucky enough to be financially supported by my father to follow this journey.
My luck stretches further. My supervisors, Shinichi and Szymek, proved to be extraordinary individuals, far removed from the horror stories of negligent or abusive mentors. Thank you both for your dedication and empathy. Another turn of good fortune was being granted a generous scholarship, which allowed me to focus solely on my research without having to juggle additional jobs. With this funding, I could organise workshops, attend professional courses, and go to conferences without applying for extra funding. I could also do most of my work remotely, which was a huge privilege when covid hit. Therefore, it is no surprise that I had more time to focus on my research and be productive. Frankly, I believe such an exclusive scholarship should not exist - all PhD students deserve these privileges. We all deserve a living wage.
Reflecting on my journey, the evident narrative is not of an individual striving against odds, but rather a story of privileges and supportive networks. The cascading series of fortunate circumstances stemming from my French upbringing, the right connections, and sheer luck, guided my trajectory. If anything deviated along this path, I would not be here telling this story.
Comparing my journey to my Congolese half-brother, Roderick, illuminates these privileges in action. Despite working harder than I ever did, Roderick never achieved financial stability due to his background and lack of opportunities. None of my experiences compare or outweigh the struggles others with less privileged backgrounds face. Roderick is one of the most dedicated people I know and is sacrificing nearly everything to live from his passion, animation. If he had decided to follow an academic path, I am convinced he wouldn't have made it - even if he worked orders of magnitude harder than any other students. Perhaps I should ask, how many Congolese academics do you know? Do you think there aren't many because of a lack of abilities, or a lack of privileges and opportunities?
Perhaps the take home message here is to recognize privilege. Academic expectations must be recalibrated to account for individual circumstances rather than a sole focus on university rankings, prestige, and research output. True achievements are only understood when viewed through the lens of privilege. I hope for a future where equal opportunities are extended to all, irrespective of their background. For this change to happen, we require a collective change in perspective, a genuine understanding of the myriad of challenges individuals face. I firmly believe in equity over equality, a sentiment I hope we can achieve in Academia and beyond.