Friday, December 31, 2010

Last entry from 2010's DPS Notebook

Well, as those of you who read this space may know, I've been promising one last post on my experiences at this year's DPS ever since the event ended way back in October. It's not that I haven't written one, on the contrary, I composed a capping piece on the red-eye back to Toronto. No, the question has been whether or not I'm comfortable with publicly posting my musings on that flight.

Knowing how much to share is a tough line to walk. On the one hand, you could take the "Dragnet" route and stick entirely to your stated subject: "Just the facts, ma'am." While they make useful references, such blogs are somewhat dry. They also ignore the fact that all of us who do science for a living are real people with hopes, dreams, desires and foibles. But you can't put so much of that on the webpage that you drown out the subject matter. So it's tough to balance the two.

What puts me over the top on this one (after much reflection) is that it does, honestly, express how I was feeling as the conference drew to a close. It was a happy time, and we all know how fleeting those can be. As such, I'd like to be able to look back, years from now and remember how it was that I felt. As such, I'm presenting this as a bit of a year-end piece:

Keeping the Faith

(Written on Air Canada's San Francisco-Toronto Red Eye, October 9, 2010)

We all go through times that make us question the path we have chosen for our lives. Do we keep on doing what we're doing? Or is it time to face facts and move on? When the dark clouds of the mind blow in, we can consider ourselves lucky if something happens that helps us to bring the choice into focus and to pick a way. This kind of an epiphany can go either way. Either that something confirms to us that a change is in order, that we must abandon the old ways. Or our faith in our journey is reaffirmed, and we gain the strength we need to keep moving forward. This is neither positive or negative - we simply find what we needed to make the choice - though we're apt to judge it one way or the other in retrospect.

For scientists, the day to day work can sometimes be a bit dispiriting. Often we work alone, or in small groups, cut off from one another. The work is rarely straightforward and often filled with blind alleys and frustration. We may put in long hours or go months wondering if what we study matters to anyone but ourselves. We can sometimes feel like we have to choose between life, family and career, giving up one to achieve the other two. And the disappointments can come all to frequently; negative peer reviews on papers; a grant application denied; a rejection letter for a position. With each of these we can only wonder if the fault is in ourselves; whether our best days are behind us. In our darkest hours we may even believe these thoughts.

But then come the things that help to remind us why it is that we do what we do. For some, it's the achievement of a paper accepted, or the recognition of hard work with an award. For others, it is fieldwork or time in the lab, or time spent under the dome, or the almost monomaniacal focus of running a space mission that serves as an incredible tonic. Interacting with the public and sharing our enthusiasm can also be infectious. I admit, I have done all of these and I appreciate them all, but for me it is conferences that chiefly help to remind me of my purpose. Conferences remind me that I belong to a community of individuals who share a common goal – the exploration of other worlds in our solar system and beyond. That community is a vibrant one with many friends, colleagues and collaborators. And I can take heart that this community is a thriving one, and that I belong to it.

When I went down to Arizona to study planetary science it was on a hunch. While I enjoyed aerospace engineering, I did not understand what I would do with my degree. I did know that I was fascinated by spacecraft and the natural world. I had learned in my favourite course, space systems design, that the raison d'ĂȘtre for spacecraft design was collecting the science that gave purpose to future exploration. I found that in the end, while I was partial to both, I enjoyed the science more than the the design. So I made a change from everything I had ever known, and at first I was worried that I had chosen wrongly.

But then, in the spring of 2004, I went to my first LPSC (Lunar and Planetary Science Conference) in Houston, Texas and I knew that I had made the right choice.

A long time has passed since then. A graduate career, friends, papers, the Phoenix mission, marriage and a return to Toronto. And slowly I lost my way. It began with a sinking feeling at my graduation in December of 2008 that my best days were behind me. It was tough saying goodbye to Arizona, and while it was time to move on, the future was far from certain. By that time I had been forced to abandon planetary science by circumstance and after a year spent trying to break back in and failing I began to believe my premonitions.

At about the same time peer review was going badly for me and I began to doubt that I was cut out for this business. Did I really belong? I began to be hollowed out inside, and I was just going through the motions. If you read back a few months you'll see that I wrote that even though I was excited about my upcoming postdoc at Western, the back of my mind was preparing me for the end of my career. Through it all I put on a brave face, and pretended to the world that I had a plan.

But now everything has changed. I may yet fail. My papers may still be rejected. But now I remember who I am and why I do what I do. Again it was a conference that helped me find my way. This past week's DPS has been the second most important in my career, after that first LPSC. I feel renewed, and more then that; as I write this on the flight back to Toronto, I feel like I know the way forward. I am excited to get back to work and I feel that I have a sense of purpose.

So to all out there who told me I needed to change myself to fit the mould; who told me the path I had chosen was not possible; who told me that my citizenship was a barrier; to all of those I say that I know what I am. I can say it loud and say it proud – I'm a planetary scientist and I'll succeed or fail under that banner. And I promise to give it my all from this point forward.

I am forever indebted to Paul Delaney and the York Observatory for keeping alive a small flame within me during my darkest times. If you're having trouble, don't be afraid to go back to your roots and volunteer to give your passion an outlet. I highly recommend education and public outreach (EPO, in the jargon) activities as a way to do this, whether you're an engineer, geologist, astronomer of whatever.

Author's postscript: this post is a bit out of the mould and may be changed slightly before it goes to print (I am writing this at about 4AM). It's interesting that I recently discussed oversharing. This post probably fills the bill. But, what can I say? I know the public face we're supposed to present to the world is one of unabridged confidence, and that a meandering path is supposed to be recast as a carefully executed plan. But, I'm only human, just like every other applicant out there. And if these words can be of use or comfort to others out there who are doubting themselves in the purgatory between PhD and a career, then that's worth exposing a chink in my armour.

I've been lucky enough in my life to have found multiple causes, organizations and people to love. When the time has come to move on, I have made a point to tell those people how I felt. Would a career advisor suggests opening my heart like that? I suspect not. But I felt that it was the least I owed them, and a necessary thing to do if I was to be true to myself. But instead of moving on, this feels like a homecoming. Here's to the next few years, whatever they may bring!


Something else for the new year you can look to this space in the coming weeks for a description of my newest paper, now available over at Icarus!

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