Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Surreal Summer

 A photo I took of myself last summer in Pasadena, CA while working on the Mars Science Laboratory Mission which appears on the cover of today's St. John's Telegram. Can you tell that I'd been doing Mars Time for a whole month by that point? In some ways, this summer has been almost as surreal as last summer.

It has been a long slog of a summer, but today there's a fallish tinge in the air here in Toronto and I can feel the semester beginning to creep up on me once again. One thing I never really grasped about this job when I took it was how many different components there are to being a prof.  I will admit that I was certainly aware of each of those things but not of how much time they can eat up, collectively.


During the term, there is a convenient excuse - you know that you are primarily a teacher and so everything else goes by the wayside. This is doubly true when you are in the midst of developing a new course and are scurrying around to flesh out each lecture from scratch. By that mathematics it will be quadruply true for me this fall!

But by virtue of that responsibility, Summer becomes the catch-up time when you begin to take care of all of those tasks that didn't quite get done during the term. Perversely, you also have the luxury of a low service-load as many committees take a break*. So this is when your papers get written, when your research gets done, when your students can have a deep and meaningful conversation about their projects rather than a few stolen minutes in the hall. And, of course, this is when grant applications get written.

But for me there was an additional task - as a member of an Engineering Faculy, I am required by statute to obtain a professional engineering license. As such, I have also been spending my commutes studying the ethics and law of my chosen profession and last week - with hundreds of people, most younger than I - I took the PEO's Professional Practice Exam. My fingers are crossed that I did well.

Capping off the summer was the 1-year anniversary of the landing of the Curiosity Rover. While this is an interesting milestone for the mission, for many of us the best is yet to come. Obviously, for the geologists the real treat will be reaching Mount Sharp. But the 1-year anniversary is only partway to discovery for the atmospheric scientists as well. The martian year is a little shorter than two years at 687 terrestrial days. Since most of the processes we observe vary over the Martian year, for us, there is still a significant gap remaining in our knowledge of Gale.

However, the public has really picked up on the 1-year anniversary and the ensuing media interest took me completely by surprise.

You see, I'm no stranger to well-covered endeavors. This is my fourth space mission and I remember well the revolving door of reporters visiting the Phoenix Operations Centre in Tucson, AZ who came from all four corners of the world to speak with Peter Smith, my PhD advisor. I remember also the standing-room only crush of media at the Huygens landing in Darmstadt, Germany in January of 2005.

But through it all I was never really a part of the story, which I will admit, suited me fine. Aside from in the memories of those who worked with me, the only reference to my contribution would have been in my technical papers, in my daily logs as a strategic science planner on the PDS and as a footnote in Andrew Kessler's Martian Summer.

But all of that has changed in a little over a week. Suddenly I've had articles written about me and my work in the Globe and Mail and just today a picture I took of myself with my cellular phone in Pasadena last summer is on the cover of my home-town paper, the St. John's (Evening) Telegram. It's all a little surreal, to be honest. And it's strange how a little connection can snowball - a reporter talking to a graduate student of mine at Western (Raymond Francis) sought me out for some background on an article. We had a good conversation and it grew from there.

But - and this may be a surprise to some - it's also part of my job. I've said it before and I'll say it again that as a scientist and engineering professor, I have a duty to the public (who pays my salary, let's not forget!) to tell you all about what I'm doing with the funding that I have been given. I've been extraordinarily lucky in my life thus far to have participated in some exceptional projects and there's nothing I like better than being able to bring you along for the ride.

And if by appearing in print I help to convince a few more people that space exploration is a worthwhile venture, or that science and engineering is a career path that is interesting to follow, or that we do exciting things here at the Lassonde School and we want you to join us; well then so much the better.

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*This was evident in the attendance for our summer lecture series which I organized as our department's Seminar Chair. I had been warned that with so many people away, scheduling such talks might be a wasted exercise. Instead, those who were still here showed up in droves and these were amongst the best attended talks of the year!

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