I could finally see the end.
Months and months of PhD work were beginning to wind down, and I could see the light at the end of my dissertation tunnel. As I started writing out my acknowledgements to those who had helped me along the way, I looked back on the highs and lows of my studies. Even with the fruits of my labor nearly in hand, I found myself reflecting on the darkest days. There were celebrations along the way, but there were also moments of crushing defeat. On those days, when I felt most like dropping out and giving up, one person kept coming to the front of my mind. The single woman who’d kept me going: Captain Kathryn Janeway.
Star Trek was not exactly a staple of my childhood. The show didn’t enter my life until later, and even then it was mostly at college parties where my fellow physics majors always had random episodes playing in the background. It became an anchor for our friendships and was the center of many of our favorite memories. Eventually, I would finish up at my Colorado undergrad and leave my friends and family behind to pursue a PhD in Scotland. As I embarked on my new adventure, a certain Star Trek captain would emerge as a close companion, mentor, and inspiration.
Kate Mulgrew’s portrayal of Captain Janeway on Voyager was everything I needed at that time of transition. Searching for ‘adventure’ often results a mixed bag of experiences, mixing moments of exciting accomplishments with long bouts of loneliness. In Scotland I felt isolated having to make friends from scratch in a new culture. Instead of reaching through Star Trek and its fandom to connect with friends, I dove inside, seeking companionship within the fictional realm. I was drawn to Janeway — a strong, passionate woman, who found herself burdened with responsibility while facing new and unknown cultures. In her I found a friend who, like me, immersed herself in the passions of gothic romance and fantastical Irish villages while trying to maintain an external veneer of confidence and professionalism.
I could share in her successes and failures, such as the persistence in solving a mathematical puzzle in “Counterpoint,” or the feeling of fate working against you just as in “Eye of the Needle”. The fact that Janeway came from a science officer background and had such evident passion for data and science only drew me closer to her. While doing research in a large collaboration, I had to balance data and the search for answers against personalities and politics, which sometimes left me ready to give up. My PhD became my Alpha Quadrant and I drew strength from Janeway’s ability to continue fighting and standing by her decisions as she drove towards her end goal.
This strong and intelligent Federation captain was not only my companion, but also a mentor. Her roots in science drew me in, but watching her careful balance of femininity in a demanding environment, while managing respect from her subordinates but also maintaining trust and friendships, was awe-inspiring. At the time, women made up only around ten to 20 percent of people within my field of expertise, and with few options I struggled in finding women to connect with. I wanted for role models who could help guide me in my career decisions, or provide me with an example of the type of professional scientist I wanted to be.
Yet, I saw myself in Captain Janeway’s decisions, which gave me the strength to shape my own decisions. I learned a huge lesson in leadership when she made the decision to respect the Caretaker and destroy the array, along with any chance of getting her crew home. She did not waver in her order and was able to communicate her decision to the crew without being apologetic or requiring everyone to agree. One of my favorite episodes is “Latent Image” where the Doctor finds that Janeway has been erasing a particular memory from him. The captain initially comes off as the villain of the story, until the viewer sees how that memory impacts the Doctor’s ability to function and starts to side with Janeway’s decision. She finds a compromise with him and, though it is difficult, she does what she can to help him through and stand by her actions every step of the way. I took note of her behavior — her way of standing by her decisions while still being open to suggestions — and incorporated it into my professional life which grew my own confidence and capabilities.
The final days of your PhD are not entirely unique; most people who’ve written a dissertation have similar stories of the burden of trying to distill years of research into a coherent demonstration of your capabilities. You feel overwhelmed, unworthy, and out of your depth. It can be isolating and frustrating. It’s a dark time for many, and people start scrambling to find ways to cope. Janeway inspired me to the end; Voyager's writers were not afraid to show how handled stress and pressure. They weren't afraid to let her experience emotion. From allowing yourself to escape into a literary fantasy to sometimes just needing a cup of coffee, Janeway gave me that grace to realize what I needed and allow myself it. She reminded me of who I was and why I was chasing this degree. Her presence was a constant reminder that if I wanted to become even a semblance of who she was I had to keep pushing.
I regularly came back to the episode “The 37s”, where Voyager's crew is given an out — a planet to live on and peacefully spend their lives. That option was all too tempting and Janeway recognized that if she was tempted, her crew probably would be too. Many times I thought things would be easier if I just went back home, reunited with my boyfriend, and pursued a different career among old friends and familiar settings. Her crew became my crew in that moment when they decide to stay behind and continue with her. Their loyalty and dedication to her and the mission they were on boosted me and in that moment, the crew of Voyager became my rock.
Kathryn Janeway inspired me, mentored me, and held my hand through thick and thin. She drove me to be better, to be stronger, to not give up. So as I sat there reflecting on this moment the perfect words for my acknowledgements came to me. I wrote, “Finally, to Captain Kathryn Janeway. I cannot describe the level of inspiration she provided me right when I was on the verge of giving up.”
This single sentence summed up everything I couldn’t express or understand of what Captain Janeway had given me. I simply knew my relationship with her was significant and would stay with me forever.
Erin Macdonald PhD is a west coast based astrophysicist and consultant.