Column by Hans Ellegren

Lifting our gaze

Sometimes it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. In research, there is a particular challenge associated with this saying: we very much want to dissect all information and examine new knowledge in detail.

At the same time, it’s important to see the big picture and the larger perspectives. Explaining phenomena by breaking them down into smaller questions is one type of scientific approach. Another is to try to see the big picture and the larger perspectives. Both approaches are needed, but perhaps the latter is the easiest to forget.

At the Evolutionary Biology Centre, we study the evolution of life. Piece after piece is added to the puzzle, and each piece is smaller than the one before, down to the very tiniest elements of the ‘molecule of life’, DNA. We need to literally lift our gaze to see the wood when we’re mapping animal and plant biology down to the smallest capillary!

Lifting our gaze also has another dimension within the University. As with other benefits of our society, it is easy to take the scientific and collegial environment for granted. But it is far from a given.

Our University rests on a foundation spanning half a millennium. An unfathomable and almost infinite amount of intellectual work has been passed down and accumulated to give Uppsala University the appeal and eminence that distinguishes us today. This is what prompts new generations of talented students and researchers from around the world to apply here, year after year.

It is a privilege to come to work every day and find myself surrounded by so many people with similar and complementary interests. For it is precisely in the discourse among us that new ideas are born, and students, doctoral students, postdocs and teaching colleagues all contribute to this. Just consider the enormous amount of wisdom amassed in this single organisation.

In this fragment of the University’s history for which we carry the baton, it may – at times that for one reason or another feel trying – help to remind ourselves of the privilege of being part of something bigger. And also to remember that someone is hosting this party. With tongue in cheek, one of our former doctoral students concluded his public defence with a picture from a (rather light-hearted) break from working on his dissertation. The caption read “Swedish people pay me for this!

Hans Ellegren, Professor of Evolutionary Biology