What kind of scientist do you want to be?

My love of science is inextricably tied to my love of the outdoors. For as long as I can remember, I have been at my happiest deep in the woods or on mountaintops. Time immersed in nature makes me mindful of my smallness juxtaposed with the vastness of the world and makes me vividly aware of my tangled connection to everything around me. My love of science sprouted out of that sense of connection; understanding the ecosystems I love deepens my ties to our planet and gives me a sense of purpose and belonging outside of my own tiny body and life. To me, this is the true beauty of scientific knowledge: it gives us an understanding of the world around us, of who we are and where we come from. Science connects us to our fundamental selves and reminds us that we are no different from the soil we stand on, the water we drink, and the plants we draw oxygen from, and that this is a beautiful and awe-inspiring thing.

Me at 19, during my first field season in Alberta

As the fourth year of my PhD draws to a close and I take stock of my lab to-do list to find that it is finally dwindling, as I work on re-submitting my first dissertation chapter for publication, I am beginning to realize that this Herculean task that I began as a naive 22 year old will one day end. I’m not bold enough to say that that day will be soon, but it is at least on the horizon. For the first time, it feels reasonable to seriously consider what (and more importantly, who) I want to be when I leave graduate school. Theoretically, I should have been thinking about this all along, should have identified this before I started, but as any graduate student knows, a PhD is a consumptive process that makes it difficult to consider life outside of one’s research. What may have began as a means to an end quickly turned into simply the end. What’s more, I am not the same scientist and human today that I was four years ago, and that’s a good thing. It feels important to do justice to that growth and change as I clarify my goals, rather than forcefully commit myself to the academic goals of my past self.

Me at 23, during my first PhD field season in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest

I came into graduate school with the mindset you’d expect from a young scientist who spent her formative years at a Catholic college that emphasized service to others above all other things. I wanted to do science, and I wanted to help people and the environment. I thought I could do that as a researcher, so into graduate school I went. I wanted to be a professor and make changes to the world by inspiring college students and producing research that would (somehow) influence environmental policy. Every professor I interviewed with when I was applying to graduate schools told me that that wouldn’t happen, but somehow I managed to not listen. After four years entrenched in academia, I am ready to listen to them. Of course, I still believe in that basic principle, that scientific research can help humanity and the planet. I’d be crazy to not acknowledge that my life as I know it is 100% made possible by scientific advancements. But in today’s storied competitive academic job market (google “professor job market,” the results are disheartening to say the least), it seems necessary to push for success at all costs just to stay afloat: publish more papers in higher impact factor journals, apply for every prestigious grant, get the best postdoc, then get four more postdocs until you can nab a faculty position. As a professor, continue to publish a laundry list of papers in prestigious journals, win all of the grants, and climb your way up the administrative ladder in an R1 research university until you’re not doing research at all, just paperwork. I could write a whole thesis about how declining research funding and the structure of academia contribute to these problems, but that’s a different story entirely. Theoretically, you charge through this career path while doing (or delegating) brilliant research that betters humanity and the planet, but at some point it seems like those intentions take a backseat to the pursuit of a career; providing service via science seems like a luxury you get to enjoy after battling for a decade to make a name for yourself, rather than a primary purpose for being a scientist. I see this all around me. What if that’s not who I want to be?

I’m being cynical, of course; going the academic path and doing good for the world are not mutually exclusive. The floor that houses my lab is teeming with professors who are doing incredible science that increases food security, combats climate change, and protects our natural resources. In many cases they bring that work straight to the public (cooperative extension and working directly with stakeholders are pretty cool things). A collection of my friends are badasses who work in international agricultural development and literally bring food to the world. Still, it’s hard to shake the fear of my good intentions being lost to an academic rat race, and the question of if academia is even the right venue to pursue my goals.

As I consider the next few years of my life, I’m remembering why I love and went into science in the first place. It’s really the feeling of doing research that resonates with me – the feeling of asking a question and systematically testing it, the reward of adding one tiny piece to the puzzle of existence. I want to do work that brings that feeling to others and connects people to the environment around them. I believe this connection is crucial for the development of our own sense of self and is the basis for curiosity, compassion, and commitment to conservation. The future of our country and planet rests as much on these things is it does on the development of new technologies. Study after study shows that most people don’t change their minds because of facts alone; our deeply-held opinions are part of our identities. My hope is that developing a keen sense of who we are in relation to the world around us can help shape our identities in a way that promotes care and stewardship; improving scientific literacy is vital for this process.

Ultimately, I want to be a part of building this future of curiosity, care for our fellow humans, and care for the planet. I have no idea what this will look like, but I’m not so sure that it involves doing more academic research and publishing more papers. I mean, maybe. I’ve got time to figure it out; I have at least another year in graduate school and who knows what after that. As I look forward, I intend to be more open-minded and creative in my quest for a career path that serves these goals. A traditional academic career path is not for everyone. Perhaps it’s not for me either, and I don’t consider that a failure. I’ll always be a scientist, I just need to figure out what that means. What kind of scientist do you want to be?

Pure happiness: me with a cool rock doing fieldwork in the Six Rivers National Forest

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s