Are you excited by science? Your own – or someone else’s? Does it drive you out of bed in the morning, with only a cup of coffee between you and that exciting new data analysis or scintillating article in Geophysical Research Letters? Or are you lollygagging around, waiting for traffic to die down so you can mosey into the office and plan your next week of fieldwork? Do you like to delve deeply into projects on your own, or are you more fired up by a major multi-stakeholder project that has you speaking several science ‘languages’ beyond your own?
Far from being rhetorical, these questions are key things to ask yourself when working in a science field (or any field really – we just happen to be focusing on science here). They’ll help you figure out exactly what turns your crank, and potentially tailor your research specifically to that. Anyone who’s ever sat in a first year university class with a bored and disinterested prof can tell you that lack of excitement will kill anyone’s enthusiasm. Once you can figure out what gets you excited you can not only enjoy your own work more, but help others enjoy it too.
It will also help you decide what you want to do with your science. Do you want to be an academic? A colleague from the University of Montana summed it up pretty nicely: “I got into this research area because I didn’t like people and preferred to spend my time outside on fieldwork. Now all I do is manage people and hardly have time to do any fieldwork”. Maybe you want to be a government scientist. Another colleague in the provincial government spends a lot of time in meetings, and team-building activities meant to build staff morale. Not sure how well that really works…Or perhaps your interests lie more in doing science outreach, like taking little kids around a wetland and telling them about all the neat creatures that live there. Now picture Bobby pushing Jimmy into the scummy pond water, Felisha screaming hysterically because a dragonfly landed in her hair, and Jenna balancing precariously on a rock in the middle of the stream feeding the wetland because she wanted to take that neat painted turtle home with her.
I know, I know – I’m oversimplifying and using relatively extreme examples. But sometimes thinking along these lines is helpful when deciding exactly what it is that excites you about science.
For me it’s the ideas and networks. I love meeting up with colleagues at a conference and talking about all the cool new things people are presenting. I get a kick out of pulling together a wide-ranging set of ideas and theories into one overview piece that identifies new connections we hadn’t noticed previously. I like to follow the genesis of an idea: one person will be working on something interesting like runoff generation from mountain landscapes, and it morphs into a huge game of telephone. Suddenly many people are working on the same interesting topic, but from a variety of angles that eventually could tell an even more complex story.
I also enjoy fieldwork – but have come to realize that it works best under certain conditions. Mainly I’m not a big fan of motorized access to field sites. My current sites are accessible only by sled in winter, and mainly by ATV in summer. When I have the time and don’t have to carry too much gear, I prefer to hike in during the summer. But ultimately the requirement for motorized access takes away some of the excitement.
My favourite sites are ones that are hikeable, that allow me to bring my family along so they can have fun and see what I do, and that are small enough that I can observe and understand landscape processes on foot and from local vantage points. My favourite site is a small glacier (5km2) in Banff National Park that’s bounded by a steep lateral moraine and a series of terminal moraines, the outermost of which is behaving as a rock glacier. A clear stream issues from that terminal moraine into a classic subalpine forest of spruce, pine and fir. In most years this area is one stop on the long journey of a grizzly that wanders the area, and sometimes you feel its eyes on the back of your neck even though you can’t hear it over the gurgling of the stream.
An article by Donald Jackson in the April edition of the American Fisheries Society magazine sums it up quite well (only available by subscription unfortunately). He discovered he was more a naturalist than a scientist, which requires a slightly different relationship with the natural world. He felt he was a ‘fake’ for loving nature rather than pure science, but decided it was best to work with the naturalist side that really excited him. He managed to balance this with the science side, and has had a successful 30 year academic career.
Time for the rest of us to ask ourselves these questions and do the same!