Sunday, December 12, 2010

First Impressions of CPSX: A Smart and Noble Gamble

[My new home: The Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration at the University of Western Ontario]

Before I begin, thanks to all my readers out there! It wasn't long ago that I had thought no one came by this space. But to my astonishment, sometime in the last 24 hours "HTWT" just passed a thousand page views (6-month rolling window) for the first time. I suppose I will have to write more often now - and try to encourage some dialog! I also know what you like, with my two Astrobio posts making the top 3 most viewed. Since I'm in Western partially on a CATP (Canadian Astrobiology Training Program) grant, you can look forward to more of the same in the years to come.

On to business: I want to give my first impressions of my new academic home, the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) at the University of Western Ontario. To my knowledge it is the only academic organization of its kind in Canada, completely devoted to the study of other worlds and how to go about exploring them. It's a young group, only a few years old, and did not exist when I left for the US back in 2003.

Over the last two weeks, I've had the chance to go back and forth a couple of times to London, ON and plant the seeds of relationships that may turn into friendships and collaborations. Within the Centre, I count a total of 7 postdocs (including myself) and 23 graduate students. That's a lot of people! For comparison, the entire graduate student population of LPL was typically around the 30-something mark. Despite the large number of students, or perhaps because of it, I have the chance to get to know an almost frighteningly enthusiastic, cohesive, brilliant and social group of students and researchers. They've been very welcoming as well: on my first night in town, I was immediately invited to a Hanukkah celebration as one of their own.

While in London, I am studying under the guidance of Gordon Osinski, better known as "Oz" to the rest of the planetary community. Oz is a veteran of Arctic and Antarctic campaigns and has been a postdoc at LPL (where I met him in 2004) and later, a Visiting Fellow at the Canadian Space Agency in St. Hubert, QC. I have a hunch that there are a great many things I can learn from him, not least of which is how he was able to achieve an assistant professorship at Western that spanned the traditional departmental delineations. Out of loyalty, many of the grads and postdocs at CPSX call themselves "Ozlings," which is endearing, and also counts heavily towards the camaraderie of the place. (Author's Note: I can't quite bring myself to call myself that, at least not yet, perhaps because I knew Oz prior to CPSX and feel like I have walked my own path thus far).

Ultimately, there is one factor that I look for above all others when I first meet a group of people that I will need to work with and incorporate myself into. Simply put, are my future colleagues happy to be where they are? If you work at a place where everyone is biding time or planning an exit, it's draining on your energy. However, satisfaction with working conditions are contagious. That observation made my decision to go to LPL easy. And that's definitely also true at CPSX.

So that's my first impressions of the place. I certainly look forward to the people I'll work with and my research over the next couple of years. But, as you can tell from the title, I'm not quite done with this article yet. CPSX is doing well, growing every day, and attracting top notch talent (I'd like to think!). However, it is still young, and the first of its kind. Therefore it would be premature to say that I have the last word on the organization. Starting something new is always a gamble, even if the betting money suggests it is a smart enterprise.

To show you what I mean, I need to tell you a little about Planetary Science in Canada at the time I left for the US in 2003.

As that famous Newfoundland band, Great Big Sea, once observed "What can you do?/ You can't make nothin' out of nothin'/Everybody needs a start." Indeed, how do you create a field of study, for instance Planetary Science, in a place like Canada where none existed previously? Now I should qualify that statement a little bit. It's not as if there was no planetary science done in Canada prior to a few years ago. However, you would have been hard pressed to find a Scientist at a Canadian University who could say that they were able to spend all their time looking into planetary problems.

Instead there were Atmospheric Scientists in Atmospheric Science Departments who would occasionally do a study of the Martian Atmosphere from landed meteorological data. Or the occasional Arctic Glaciologist who would look at landforms on Mars from orbital data along with their other studies. If you asked either they would tell you that they were terrestrial scientists first, and planetary scientists second. So perhaps there was a bit of a cultural issue.

But a larger problem was one of balkanization. Planetary Science is a vastly multi-disciplinary area of study that doesn't fit well into many of the predefined departments that exist at a University. Myself, I've belonged to a department of Engineering Science (U of Toronto), Earth and Space Science and Engineering (York), and now I'm part of Physics and Astronomy (Western) each of which has applicability to planetary science, but neither of which is all-encompassing.

The last question is one of money. In the US, NASA R&A disburses millions of dollars worth of funds each year to support Planetary Science research. Until very recently, the CSA did not participate in significant research outside of the Agency. Elsewhere, NSERC inherited the old academic divisions and culture through the selection panels which did make it hard to fund these kinds of programs in the past.

Slowly, these three obstacles are disappearing. As more and more researchers get excited about spacecraft and see the kinds of datasets we can bring back from other planets, the stigma, if there ever was one, is beginning to dissipate. Canada now has significant participation on Space Missions (Including Phoenix w/ LIDAR+ MET, MSL w/APXS, and TGO w/MATMOS) which means that researchers whose primary affiliations are in planetary science can now more easily prove their worth. Secondly, and this is where CPSX really helps, the prevalence of umbrella organizations that span departments is increasing. Right now CPSX is at the forefront and is attracting some very high quality talent (it's not unlike gravitational collapse or accretion). Thirdly, CSA has now started to fund research outside the Agency walls. In particular, the SSEP program which supported my research at York disburses funds to academia to pursue Planetary Science topics.

Will this confluence of factors continue? Who's to say. But I'm glad to be a part of it and to help out however I can. Thus, I feel that in addition to being where the smart money is, establishing the Planetary Sciences in Canada is also a noble goal. One I will be in the best position to help further in London, ON, at CPSX.

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