Sitting in the beadle’s office inside the Academy building on Wednesday morning is Jully Acuña Suarez, anxiously awaiting the moment she gets to defend her dissertation. The Colombian PhD candidate is nervous, but not just for herself, as she would be in a regular defence procedure.
Sitting next to her is Marcelo Marques Miranda from Portugal, her partner in and outside of science. Immediately following her PhD ceremony, it will be his turn to defend the same dissertation.
Two PhD candidates co-authoring a dissertation and both obtaining their doctorates based on that dissertation. It is a rarity, but not the first time it has happened in Leiden. Judging by the sheer volume of the dissertation, it was a successful collaboration; at 600 pages, it is easily twice as thick as the average dissertation.
This is not the first time the pair have worked together. Marques Miranda and Acuña Suarez met 10 years ago while studying in Germany. They became a couple and have been conducting research together ever since.
ARCHAEOLOGIST AND ARTIST
‘My background is as an artist,’ says Acuña Suarez, ‘and Marcelo is an archaeologist. But we both conduct research on cultural heritage, which is how our paths crossed. We were researching indigenous groups in Thailand during our studies. The problem was that we didn’t speak Thai and they didn’t speak English. That made things difficult. So we set out to see if there was somewhere else in the world where that language barrier would be less of a problem, and that is how we found the Kamëntšá, an indigenous population group in Colombia.’
Both researchers decided to pursue a PhD. Marques Miranda was offered a place in Leiden with professor emeritus of Archaeology Maarten Jansen. Acuña Suarez was initially supposed to start her PhD research in Germany.
Marques Miranda: ‘When I told my supervisor that Jully was going to start working on the same topic in Germany, he told me that in Leiden you can write a joint dissertation. He suggested that Jully come to Leiden to work on the research together. That sounded like a good idea to us.’
Together, the pair studied what remained of the cultural heritage of the Kamëntšá. Marques Miranda: ‘We looked at how missionaries tried to eradicate their religion and culture. They did so through physical violence, but also by scheduling Christian holidays at times when the Kamëntšá held their own ceremonies, which fell into disuse as a result.
‘The missionaries’ goal was to destroy the indigenous culture and turn the people into “useful citizens”. In contrast, we want to decolonise our view of this population, both in science and in the way their cultural heritage is viewed in museums.
‘Working together wasn’t always easy. We have different work rhythms. I prefer writing, while Jully prefers speaking. However, we share the same ideas and we worked it out together.’
Acuña Suarez: ‘And it doesn’t matter that he’s an archaeologist and I work from an arts perspective. We did fieldwork together in the same community, and it was much more convenient to work together there as opposed to working on your own. When you’re alone, you can’t turn to anyone for help. We had to maintain contact with many different people in that community and that was much more manageable with the two of us.’
‘Hoog… geleerde opponens, zeer… geleerde opponens.’ The PhD candidates quickly review a sheet containing the Dutch forms of address for the PhD committee. Then the beadle signals that it is time to start. The cheat sheet is swiftly tucked between the pages of the dissertation. Did they mutually agree that Acuña Suarez goes first? ‘No, that’s just what the beadle decided. My name appears first on the dissertation, maybe that’s why?’
They are questioned separately by the same PhD committee, but agreements on the division of content were made beforehand. This also means that Marques Miranda gets to sit in the room when it is Acuña Suarez’s turn to defend the dissertation first. Marques Miranda: ‘Some people thought we’d get a joint diploma, but fortunately, we each get one separately. More convenient that way when we want to apply somewhere.’
Two ‘hora est’ announcements from the beadle later, the university has gained a pair of doctors. Acuña Suarez is immensely relieved. ‘I was extremely tense. Much more so than Marcelo, who seemed to stay calm the whole time.’ Nevertheless, after a long embrace with his partner, Marques Miranda also feels touched. ‘It’s years of work that came together today. Looking back, I can hardly image having to do this alone. I would certainly not have been as satisfied with it as I am now.’
Now that everything is behind them, do they recommend other researchers to pursue their PhDs together as well? Acuña Suarez: ‘I very much hope that Leiden will continue to offer the possibility of writing a dissertation together. This allows you to make interesting cross-disciplinary connections that you wouldn’t see if you were working alone.’
Marques Miranda: ‘Without a doubt. The academic world can be very individualistic, whereas working together should be the future of science. We’re not just researchers, we’re also human beings.’