In perpetual transition: my story so far

For almost half of my life I’ve been pursuing an academic career at a research one institution.  I was most sure of this goal when I received my Ph.D., six years ago now.  As the years pass by I am still in transition, a place not-so-warmly known as postdoc purgatory (see my thoughts on the tenure system here).  Finally reaching the academic ivory tower has become a lower priority as I grow older.  Achieving a well-rounded life that contains all that fulfills me has slowly become a higher priority.  Science and research are a part of that complete life, but sometimes it’s difficult to see in what capacity they can fit without completely taking over.  Over time, my interests have wandered from specific and detailed lines of research inquiry to broader-scale scientific topics.

And so I have arrived at this moment, with a seed of a thought.  I’ll plant the seed with my blog.  I intend to bring to you the aspect of science that I believe is most critical; that is, the way science shapes our lives and conversely, the way our lives and experiences shape the science that we do.

cropped-img_0714.jpgBut first, I’ll share my story with all of you, so that you may take what you need from it and leave the rest behind.

I left home (Lawrence, KS) at 18 in search of a career that I was passionate about.  I love arranging colors, shapes, and images on paper, but it was the city life with little connection to nature that sent me right back home after one year of graphic design at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Not understanding myself so well at that age (as it seems like no one does), biology was a good fit given my clearly-revealed proclivity towards nature.  At the University of Kansas, research was the main activity on campus.  It sparked my intellectual curiosity so much that I followed my undergraduate research project to a collaborator’s doorstep (University of Arkansas), where I finished my formal academic training in Forest Entomology.  Who knew there was an entire field devoted to the study of insects that live in forest ecosystems? As a native of the Kansas prairie, this sounded exotic and exciting to me – way too good to pass up!  I wanted nothing more than to be a Forest Entomologist.

What followed, I like to call my not-so-formal academic training.  Although I learned plenty on my own during graduate school, I was not prepared for leaving the safe nest of my advisor’s lab.  There is a tendency for postdocs to get lost in transition, given that they often don’t have clearly-defined responsibilities (aside from securing a permanent position) like students (to take classes and finish their dissertations) or faculty (to teach classes, graduate students, publish papers, and fund a research program).  With every successive transition I made to a new postdoc, I felt myself falling deeper into this existential crevice.  At times it seemed as if my very identity was in question.  Had I been fortunate or content enough to stay in the same postdoc that entire time, rather than having to cycle through four different ones, then maybe my perception would be different.

In life, there is usually no going back once a decision has been made.  So it’s probably best not to wonder what might have been.  We move forward, onto bigger and brighter things, from the knowledge that our past experiences garner for us.  In that spirit, I’ve created this blog, to delve into the critical aspects of our lives and how they become interwoven with science. Whether or not we are deeply engaged in research, science does – and should – play an important role in how we interact with others and the natural world around us.

Me loving on an old-growth eastern white pine at Hartwick Pines State Park, Michigan. Image credit: Elisha Dragen