How to survive grad school when you are actually just a small and confused animal trapped inside something that you don’t understand



“I think we’re in purgatory,” I say, during our fourth hour together in the small windowless room, home of the poster printer. This is not the first time I have felt this way.

“What, you mean grad school?” Melissa responds flatly.

In my sleep deprived, delirious state, I think this is the funniest thing I’ve heard all week, and I can’t stop laughing.

“No I mean just trying to print posters,” I say, once I regain my composure.

“Oh, yeah.” She giggles a sad sort of giggle, one that can only exist after four hours trapped in a small room, fighting a machine that literally has just one job.


Not to belabor the revelation of every first-year grad student ever, but yeah, grad school is hard. And through many varied and unique poster printer-like incidents, I have often wanted to flop face down on the ground and never move again. So, what keeps me, or any grad student at all, going?

To answer that, I want to look back on two things I saw last week: a talk by renowned primatologist Frans de Waal, and the movie Zootopia. As grandiose as it might sound, I think the common thread between them might have something to do with what gets us through all of the struggles we face in grad school, and, in light of Dr. de Waal’s talk, could even be seen as a part of what makes us uniquely human.


In his talk, and afterwards, in our round-table discussion, Dr. de Waal discussed his most recent book, Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? In short, the answer was yes, with the caveat that historically (and probably still today), we consistently underestimate what animals are capable of. That likely has something to do with the fact that many humans like to think of themselves as separate from animals, when really, we’re just another species of ape.

While Dr. de Waal started with that idea, he spent most of his time talking about something more controversial – anthropomorphism. While I was more familiar with the concept of anthropomorphism in terms of art and storytelling, in the context of biology, anthropomorphism means comparing, and frequently labelling, animal behaviors as the human behaviors that they resemble, even though these comparisons are often wrong. Kissing gouramis, for example, are small, fairly common aquarium fish that sometimes seem to be in love, but are actually fighting with their oversized lips.

Dr. de Waal, however, was here to speak in defense of anthropomorphism, at least when it comes to primates. He argued that while anthropomorphizing a fish may not make sense, given that we primates are very different from fish, comparing our behaviors with species similar to ourselves is simply logical. When you tickle them, chimps laugh, bonobos laugh – the simplest explanation is that this is just laughter, not what some biologists might term an “open mouth display,” he joked.

A few anthropologists and primatologists joined us for our conversation with Dr. de Waal, and they chimed in that it goes the other way, too. When they go out to bars, they watch humans do exactly the same things other primates do in the field: females forming coalitions, males exhibiting dominance displays. Human behavior is primate behavior, because we are primates – it’s just that simple.


Fast forward 24 hours and I am in a movie theater watching Zootopia. The story takes place in a fantastical city made up of “evolved” human-like animals (that, let’s be honest, I would love to live in), and focuses on the unlikely story of a rabbit named Judy who moves to the big city to become a police officer.

At one point, Judy is captured by a shrew/mob boss named Mr. Big, and to explain why he does the bad things he does, he tells her, “My dear, we may be evolved, but deep down, we’re still animals.” And it’s true, a lot of the shitty things that people do probably have roots in our instincts to form tight social groups, push others away, and compete for survival. The thing is, the good that we do comes from our animal nature, too. Dr. de Waal pointed out that empathy and a sense of fairness are not uniquely human traits, and if that sounds farfetched, just watch the following video. You’ll see.

I love thinking about the evolutionary origins of our behaviors, because the extent to which people will go to pretend that they are not animals drives me crazy. But the commonality between Zootopia and our conversation with Dr. de Waal was not the characteristics which make us animal, but those that do not. If empathy and morality aren’t solely human traits, what remains?


To make Judy more human, Zootopia’s writers gave her a dream – that one day, she could be a police officer. And I identified with that because ever since I was a little kid, I’ve wanted to be a marine biologist. I was obsessed with the ocean, with aquaria, with tide pools. Once, I made my dad take me out on the beach at night, in the winter, during a storm. While I had the flu. All because I wanted to catch a specific type of nocturnal shrimp. If that kind of absurd venture isn’t uniquely human, then I don’t know what is.

That drive is the same reason we don’t give up and leave the poster printing room, even after every possible thing has gone wrong. It’s also why – much to the delight of my inner child – I currently have thirty buckets, each containing a pair of lined shore crabs, in our wet lab. When selecting mates, the crabs do a sort of mating dance, and as part of my thesis, I’m recording videos of these pairs, to see if I can tell from their behavior whether or not females prefer males with brighter colors.

Less than twelve hours before our poster printing debacle, it’s still late at night, or maybe early in the morning, and I’m wide awake watching videos of my crabs in a last minute data crunch. Every so often, a pair suspends their usual aggressive behavior and begins to step to the right, then back to the left, in synchrony. They dance, sometimes just for a few seconds, sometimes for minutes at a time, and then couple, belly-to-belly, and mate. As they do so I can’t help but feel a certain fondness, a warmth in my chest. Because, sure, I know it’s just the social primate in me, but it looks a little bit like love.

All of us in grad school are pursuing, in some way, our dreams. We stick to them, even when it would be so much easier not to, for the beautiful moments when they become real.

As I watch the crabs dance, I know that they do.

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