Research institutions build core strengths in particular research areas. However, teaching schools hire faculty to teach their specialty, so that as many subdisciplines as possible can be represented. This means that there is typically one person in each field. There are exceptions, such as a department that houses multiple herpetologists who study different aspects of herps.
The hardest part about being the only expert in social insects at my job, is how lonely it gets when something exciting happens. Without a doubt, most exciting, heart-pounding this-is-awesome experiences happen in front of the computer when I’m analyzing data. (Aside from stumbling on caecilians and big cats in the field.) When I find out something entirely new that changes, just a little bit, how we think the world works. Sometimes it’s a steady realization, but sometimes – BAM – the pattern emerges immediately. Like the one in the figure. This is a genuinely new find, which has a generalized application, and right away I was thrilled. But there was nobody there to revel with me.
My undergrad lab members don’t quite get how cool these moments are. My excellent department mates would be happy but it’s not their field. My spouse is as smart as a person gets, but she’s not a biologist and explaining it in a couple minutes takes away the fun. There are tens of thousands of people in the world who would understand exactly how this is cool, but none of them are next door.
There’s one big upside to being isolated when making cool discoveries. The desire to share it can burn for a while, to get me through writing, revision, submission, resubmission, resubmission, revision and publication. If I remember how cool it was to first learn about it, I hang on to that through the more tedious stages.
This is what I miss about grad school and postdoc-ing: a space full of labmates for sharing these moments. Perhaps this is why I particularly enjoy conferences, being invited for talks, and overlapping with others at my field site, because this is when I’m with my kindred.