This week, we were asked whether we, as just-starting-out researchers in an era of abundantly available information, could realistically expect to change the entire world.
As the question clearly suggests, the odds are not in our favor. Few people would look at an undergraduate student researcher in the era of the Internet and smartphones and expect me to have any significant impact on the larger world.
But I can’t help thinking of the starfish parable (cliché, I know, but stick with me). For those of you who aren’t familiar, here it is:
“One morning an elderly man was walking on a nearly deserted beach. He came upon a boy surrounded by thousands and thousands of starfish. As eagerly as he could, the youngster was picking them up and throwing them back into the ocean.
Puzzled, the older man looked at the young boy and asked, "Little boy, what are you doing?"
The youth responded without looking up, "I'm trying to save these starfish, sir."
The old man chuckled aloud, and queried, "Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?"
Holding a starfish in his hand, the boy turned to the man and, gently tossing the starfish into the water, said, "It will make a difference to that one!”
The youth in the parable didn’t change the entire world. Not even close. But he was able to change the world in a very significant and meaningful way for that small group of starfish living on the shore.
That’s how I see my work here. I don’t expect that my research on the benefits of cleaning up Lakes Menomin and Tainter will change the entire world. In fact, in terms of the entire world, the lake I am trying to change is basically meaningless, a tiny speck in a colossal globe.
But the lake, if I’m being honest, is absolutely disgusting. And it has become very clear to me that the people around here want it to change. So if my research can help change this miniscule, neon-green lake in the middle of nowhere in this relatively small northern state, I might not be changing the entire world, but I am certainly changing the world for the people living on the lakeshore.
So at the end of the summer, I’m expecting people to hear what I’ve done and ask, voices thick with skepticism, “but what difference did you make?” But if I can answer like the youth in the parable, with an “It made a difference to that one,” I’ll know that all the work was worth it.