Transitions revisited

Me, staying on the path during a hiking trip in Banff National Park, Canada, 2007. Image credit: Joshua Jones.


Where I’ve been

I have moved more than 10 times in the past 10 years. I’m enough of a regular at Uhaul that they now offer me free stuff with my reservation. I’ve been a resident of five US states and one Canadian province. What did I hope to accomplish on this whirlwind tour? I followed my science. Whether this was duty to discovery or simply because I didn’t know what else to do, I can’t say. I searched across vastly different forests, always asking the same question. What keeps insect populations in check here? The answer—which wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows forest insects—resided in the trees themselves; any weakness in their evolutionarily honed defenses was quickly detected by insects and heavily exploited. I found the same basic answer to my question in many forests, although there were various nuances in each. It seems that much of research is a formal affirmation of what can easily be deduced from careful observation. There are always more forests to explore and more insects wreaking havoc to track down. Research on how to stop them given the rapid changes our planet’s ecosystems now face is greatly needed. But I can’t chase insects and answers anymore; I’m tired.

Change as a constant

I hear people talk of change as something to embrace, something that forces growth and wisdom, and something that teaches resilience. I’d like to believe that, though from my extreme vantage point, those rewards have not entirely been my experience. Constant change and uncertainty have been my world for 10 years. I have not lost in growth or accrual of knowledge during that time, but other parts of life have escaped me. Those missing parts have suddenly and consciously caught up to me. It’s awkward to look around and see how everyone else has had such a different life than mine. Everyone’s journey should be—and is—necessarily unique, but what gives me pause is that the general pattern I see among others is similar. Mine is different, and revolves circuitously (seemingly dictated by the next transition) rather than in a (nearly) linear trajectory. Consequently, the life journey and the choices we make along the way has been a recent preoccupation of mine.

When I was a teenager, I went on a hiking trip with my parents near Batopilas, Mexico. The Tarahumara are the natives of that region. For transportation, they regularly run long distances up, down, and across the steep slopes of Copper Canyon, in sandals made of leather and worn out tires. Just last year, my father relayed to me what our Tarahumara hiking guide told him on that trip, now almost 20 years ago. Nearing a narrow ledge, the guide told him “not to fall off the path”, and my father chose to take the advice figuratively rather than literally. When he told me this, I was sitting at my desk in my parents’ house in their mudroom-turned-into-my-new-office. I had recently lost in love and work, and my journey was at a standstill. Was I on the verge of falling off the path?

My recent transition

Fortunately not. What followed was unexpected. I reached out and people responded. I learned the strength of what would traditionally be called my professional network, but I can’t call it that anymore, because it has evolved well beyond that into something so intensely personal I’m not sure how to define it. These people kept me on the path.

Then, after my ten-year wait (15, if undergraduate school is included, and it should be, since my career trajectory began there), I was offered a permanent job. The moment was not the same as I had envisioned; a natural amount of relief maybe, but so much apprehension ensued. The situation was heavy. It was the first sentence of a story with a 15-year prologue. I was frozen; I couldn’t decide what to do. In the 48 hours the US Forest Service gave me to respond to their offer, I probably spent a good third of that time on the phone with my people. Hands outstretched, they pulled me up and forward on the path, over the pass. The winds are calmer, warmer, and from a different direction on the other side. I am perpetually in debt to them, for the assistance I’ve received so far, and for so much more to come, I am sure. Thank you.



Perspectives Change While Themes Persist at Different Points Along the Career Path

Annie Ray, an associate professor at Xavier University, checks an insect trap for longhorned beetles (Photo credit: Josh Rodstein)

This is a series that peeks into the lives of scientists. Click to read parts 1 , 2 , and 3.

The length of a career could be compared to a marathon—an event more about stamina than speed. Yet the starting point for scientists, graduate school, sometimes feels a little like a race in itself. What looms beyond the graduate finish line? It can be difficult to visualize, but it is critical to consider, because choices and experiences shape futures. This is especially important given the current influx of Ph.D.s saturating the job market, all having just reached a crossroads that requires careful considering, weighing, prioritizing, searching, deliberating, and maybe even obsessing about what to do next. The hope is to find a suitable niche that offers intellectual challenge and fulfillment.

As naturally curious people, scientists seek understanding of what lies ahead and what it will be like. Perspectives on struggles, rewards, and strategies to meet and accept them appropriately change throughout the trajectory of a career. As society evolves and generations pass, the challenges faced by scientists at the same stage of career in different generations may be different. I interviewed scientists at three different career stages (early, middle, and late) to gain insight into these changes, and to identify how individuals at different career stages can connect with and support one another.

See the full story on Entomology Today.