My Educational Butterfly Effect

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. – Courtesy Wikipedia

Last year I volunteered at a whales project in the Azores. It was an amazing experience that still makes my heart beat faster just thinking about it… On my second day there, the sea was calm and the crew and I were standing at the pier getting ready to board the little zodiac, when a little butterfly landed on my life-vest. I watched it for a few moments, before trying to enter the zodiac when my volunteer project manager whistled from the shack on the pier and cancelled the trip. She pointed towards a white huge boat and shook her head, she muttered something that I couldn’t make out and then said, “the boat is producing a lot of sound, there are no whales in the area. It looks like all wildlife disappeared. We might have to wait a few days”. I looked at her long and hard and asked how she could possibly know that which sparked a long conversation about sound pollution created by these ridiculously large boats. I am not quite sure, why this conservation out of all conversations we had stuck with me, but from this moment onward, that’s all I could think about.

Once I returned to Oslo, I had to make a decision of where to continue my education. I chose a degree that allowed me to research sounds in the oceans and the impacts they may have on marine wildlife. I knew only a handful of people worked with this issue, I found a niche and I wasn’t let anyone talk me out of researching it. So within a week of me starting my master’s degree, I worked out a simple project proposal:

My initial master's thesis
My initial master’s thesis

My research investigates regulations concerning sounds in the oceans coming from the transportation sector. Every chance I’d get, I would talk to people about this issue and they would look at me, as if I were crazy. Sounds of all things. Who cares about sounds? Well someone that had a hearing problem at a young age and who still gets very frazzled when it’s too loud. I get quite uncomfortable and I don’t mean regular background noise, but ten minutes into a dinner party with six people and I can feel my head exploding, because there is just too much sound. Now imagine being in an environment where you cannot just excuse yourself and leave the room for a few minutes, but where the sound is constant and no matter how far you go or how fast, the sound is still there. In a place where you rely on the sound to orientate yourself and to forage for food and engage in social behavior, the one thing, that you depend on the most is also the one thing that could kill you: sound.

So that’s what I have been working on for the past year, trying to figure out how to approach my subject and how to actually do my research in a way, that might (but most likely might not) have an effect on the regulations that are in place now. I’ve been going bananas over it, because it’s not like I can just jump into the ocean, look for some whales and ask them, what would be best for them. Although, that actually sounds like a lot of fun and I would totally be down for that but I had to find ways of getting usable data around this.

The amazing thing about a master’s proposal is that I get to work with something, that is close to my heart. For the first time in my academic career, I actually have only a few rules to follow and can and am expected to beyond that to apply myself in every way possible. That’s quite a responsibility if you ask me. I have about 11 months until I deliver, so I have to make my own plan, make my own connections and ensure that what I produce can actually be considered as good data. I am my own boss with an amazing supervisor who manages to keep my thoughts in check, without taking over. And that in itself is quite an amazing feeling.

So for the next year, I will be thinking, breathing, sleeping sound regulations and I absolutely love it! Now, I understand that not everyone has the same passion for whales and sounds and regulations as I do (if you did, it would make my research much easier… more people more data!), but we all have that one moment in life, when something presents itself to us and we can either choose to run with it or let it disappear into the depths of our mental oceans.

After a year of my thesis project festering in my mind, here is my an updated version, less simplistic, more thought through and beyond anything still super exciting, well at least if you are me anyways!

Master thesis proposal 2.0
Master thesis proposal 2.0

Just imagine, if that boat would have left a couple days early or if it would have gone around the island, if my project manager would have gone to sea anyways, if she wouldn’t have talked about the issue, if she wouldn’t have brought up the devastating effects, if she would have downplayed it, if she didn’t care about the boat, if she had done ANYTHING differently on that day, I wouldn’t sit here, thinking back about the day we talked about sound pollution. I would have chosen any other topic, I would have maybe gone for a different master’s degree, I would have maybe written about human issues like poverty, exploitation or really – anything else, but I didn’t. If just one thing would have been different that day, everything could be different now.

I might have chosen to continue with media studies, which would have resulted in me not having to commute between my school and home every day plus I wouldn’t have quit my sales job but instead I looked for a job that actually was related to my bachelors degree… If it wouldn’t have been for that one day, that one conversation, if it wouldn’t have been for that little butterfly, I don’t know what would have happened. All I know, is that this one little conservation altered the course of my life, it might not make a lot of sense, but then again, how much sense does it make, that if a butterfly flaps their wings in India, that this might cause a snowstorm in Norway in late June. Absolutely none, right? So yes, technically, the butterfly has absolutely no relevance to my story, other than making a nice little analogy, but still I am eternally grateful for the little butterfly…

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