Sunday, May 22, 2011

Science Heroes

Back in January, I attended a NSF Science Communication workshop entitled "Becoming the Messenger," hosted by Chris Mooney and Joe Schreiber. Very early on in the first morning session, Chris Mooney stated that most people could not name a scientist. Were they to describe one, they would speak of an older white man in a lab coat, probably with crazy hair. Very few, if any, would list a scientist as one of their heroes. This got me to thinking about my science heroes.
I really didn't have one when I was little. Albert Einstein and Issac Newton weren't names I knew. Even if I had, I don't think I could have really related to them. They both have vastly different experiences from me. My first science hero came into my life as I was finishing my master's degree. Everyone kept telling me how wonderful the books Simon Winchester wrote about earth science were. I picked up "The Map that Changed the World" quite randomly as a reading choice. I am not going to tell you I thought the writing in the book was amazing. It was an arduous book to read for pleasure. I was, however, captivated by the story of William Smith who was a surveyor for many coal companies. He went around and meticulously cataloged the rock types and fossil distributions of rock formations above and below coal seams. Eventually, he began to connect the dots and realize that the bodies were laterally contiguous, leading to his construction of the first geologic map. Here was this humble guy who did what many scientists of his era could not, because he was interested, detail oriented and tenacious. His map was stolen and published by someone else, ahead of  Smith's own publication. This ruined him financially and he was sent to debtor's prison. While the geological society later rectified their mistake, he spent a lot of years being looked down upon because of his background. He was unflinching in adversity that would have made most of us quit. This trait, coupled with his humble beginnings, is why he was my first science hero.
My more recent science hero was brought into my living room via, of all things, The Colbert Report. I watch this show in large measure because I am fascinated by Colbert's interviewing technique. You have to be on your toes to stand up against that man and get your message across. One night, he announced his guest would be Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist. I admit, I sat there fully expecting to watch an old, crazy-haired white guy get sliced and diced by Colbert. Imagine my surprise when not only was this not a crazy old white guy, but he also gave a really good interview and got his message across. Then, as so often happens, I forgot all about it until I saw him on the Colbert Report again and I became a fan, despite his Ivy League education. You can tell from his interviews that he is incredibly bright and very well educated, but he also has heart. He cares about people as well as science. That's important to me, because I am very interested in helping people engage in science.
Now that I have told you about my science heroes, it's time for me to ask, who are yours? Did they come into your life early and encourage you to be a scientist? Or did they come later and provide critical encouragement when you needed it, to help you stay on the science path when you feel like you've hit the wall? Is it incumbent upon us as scientists to become science heroes? What are the risks associated with doing that?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Icarus I am not

My Dad loves to remind me of Icarus every time he thinks I am working too hard or pushing too hard.  While it is true that I have always worked somewhat single-mindedly, there has always been a reason to do so. When I was younger, I had to work hard because every day I didn't was one more student loan I had to take, one more day of poverty. Now, I feel compelled to work hard every day because each day here is a day away from my husband, who is my family.

Lots of people present arguments to me to try to convince me that I need to slow down, take the scenic route through graduate school. Once again, a faculty member compared me to Icarus. After all, I will never have this time again.

That's true. I will never have this time again.

Every morning when I wake up alone, every orders change, every evening when I hope we have time to skype and I think about the fact that I will never have this moment in time again. I am beset by what ifs. What if Senior Jefe's number is up for an IA again? What if it comes up and I can't be there to support him as he prepares? What if it happens and for some reason he doesn't come home? What if our last kiss was skyped?

If any or all of these what ifs occurred, would it make sense to know that I missed them because I was too busy doing an extra side project or going on a field trip or simply kicking back and smelling the roses and having a beer?

I realize most people are trapped by the paradigm they live in and that the faculty member who said this to me probably thinks he gave me great advice. After all, he went and did all kinds of neat things in graduate school., things I won't experience if I keep trying to stay on course. But he also went through graduate school with his girlfriend (eventual wife) by his side. That makes a huge difference. And now, she stays at home with the kids, so he doesn't have the pressures on him as an academic that I will face (i.e. raising a family as a single-parent, possibly geographically separated from my spouse for extended periods, or worrying that he will walk out the door and it will be the last time I see him).

I just worry that all my hard work will be for naught, because of the serious disconnect between America and it's military. It was a disconnect I found offensive before because it leads to people comparing my situation to something akin to my husband being gone on a business trip. The last time your spouse left for business, I bet you didn't worry that he would lose his leg in an IED attack as he meandered back to his hotel after the conference he was attending. There's a big difference between a business trip and what my husband does. Now this disconnect is spilling over into my job prospects, where academics are suggesting I am not serious about my work because I am trying to finish in a reasonable amount of time. What exactly is wrong with wanting to finish on time? What is more important, that you spent 6 yrs in graduate school to publish 5 papers, or you spent 4 to publish 4?

Maybe neither of those things are. Maybe the most important thing is perspective, which is something Icarus didn't have. I know that I can fall back any time I need to in my degree program and take a scenic route if I start burning out. I also know that to choose that course up front is potentially a case of being so invested in doing good things that I fail to do the really important ones. I don't want to fail at the most important things in life, like having a solid family and building a strong next generation of it. Spending time with my spouse is really important, because if he dies and I neglected our relationship for another publication, I will have made a really poor decision. I am pretty sure Icarus never thought far enough ahead to thing about what is important in life. More to the point, if turning your back on the people who are important to you is what you have to do in order to be a successful academic, I am not sure I want to be one.

Therefore, Icarus I am not.