Finding a formula for academic optimism (Guest blog: Charlotte Payne)

Charlotte is a postgraduate student at Cambridge. Her PhD fieldwork is
in Burkina Faso, and focuses on the environmental and socio-economic
impacts of harvesting edible caterpillars. She blogs about her work
here and is (unapologetically optimistic) on
twitter @libertyruth

Spoiler: Idealism + cynicism + humour… = optimism!

My research focuses on edible insects. I love it, and I’m very optimistic about it. But arriving at that optimism wasn’t a straightforward process.

When I first began to pursue this line of research, I was driven by a combination of idealism and humour. I was searching for a way to ‘do good’ with the skills I’d already acquired.

I had done a project on insects as food for chimpanzees, and I’d really enjoyed it. I’d loved spending time in the Ugandan forest and being given glimpses into the extraordinary lives of chimpanzees, both through watching their behaviour and also through sifting through their feces each evening! I’d also done my own bit of participant observation when my supervisor and I, watching the chimpanzees enjoying a feast of weaver ants, tried eating them ourselves. Discovering their bitter, citrusy flavour was a delightful surprise.

Pic1
Foraging for termites like a chimpanzee

When back in the UK, I began to think a little more about the insects that the chimpanzees were eating, and I read about their potential role in human evolution. I was intrigued and amused by the idea that eating insects may have contributed to the human condition.

Yet, Uganda had taught me something else. I’d also worked on a project looking at crop raiding by chimpanzees and elephants, and this had given me a glimpse into another kind of life altogether: People struggling to make a living on the edge of a protected area.

I knew then that I wanted to do research that could have a positive impact. But the insects were so compelling… So, when I came across a handful of old articles positing that edible insects are a low-impact alternative to meat, which if popularised could empower the disenfranchised, challenge Western prejudice and cross cultural divides, I realised I’d found what I had been looking for: Something that might have the potential to combat a lot of the world’s problems and keep a smile on my face.

This was back in 2011, when edible insects had not yet hit mainstream media, and the first academics I spoke to about it laughed in response. I felt like I was mad, but a good kind of madness, so I laughed along with them and didn’t give up. Laughing at the strangeness of your own ideas is no reason not to also take them seriously.

So I remained staunchly idealistic, but my formula wasn’t yet complete. I was still missing one thing: A healthy dose of cynicism.

Pic2
Edible insects are a source of happiness for many people

Seven years on, with several esoteric research projects and papers in this curious and emerging field under my belt, I’m a bit more realistic, and yes, this does make me cynical. I do not believe that insects are ‘the answer to everything’, and often I find myself discussing how problematic it can be to think in that way.

But you know what? I still think insects are wonderful! And importantly in terms of optimism, I’m still driven by the desire to solve problems that I care about. The problems that edible insects were posited to solve – malnutrition, environmental degradation, wealth inequality, socio-political oppression – are still around and I’m exposed to them a lot in the work that I do. So while I’m still laughing, I’m also crying (especially when I write up my results…), but I remain convinced that I can have a positive impact, and I’m confronted on a daily basis by how much more I have to learn. What more can we ask for from our work?

Pic3
This is the kind of joy that academic pursuits can bring

To summarise – I am optimistic about being in academia because it allows me the freedom to pursue quests for knowledge and change that make me laugh and cry; to indulge my idealism, my cynicism and my sense of humour in one fell swoop.

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