Passions for science

I’m looking ahead two years to graduation — I have plans to get the shiny new Ph.D. in May 2014.  And as of right now, I have absolutely no idea what comes next.  One way I’m exploring the wide world of possibilities is by looking at my passions.  I automatically put “science” down first, and it seems blog-worthy to tease apart what that actually means.  So let’s step into that stream of consciousness…I really like science in general, ecology in particular, and ecosystem ecology / biogeochemistry most specifically.  I had “biology” in the list until I thought about it a bit further — I see ecology as both a life science and an earth science, and in some schools it’s newly classified as a sustainability science.  Cellular biology, geomorphology, and environmental economics all seem like equally distant cousins, and I could feel equally at home in any of those settings.  So ok, I’ll leave that off the list since that seems to be more a practicality than a real passion.

Starting from the top:  What, specifically, fires me up about SCIENCE writ large?

I enjoy exploring, and explaining, what science is and isn’t — and what it really should be.  Including among scientists, who mess it up more often than we admit.  Science is a process of keeping a rigorously open mind, of looking for your biases, of changing your theories and worldviews in response to new information.  (in other words, it’s way easier said than done)  It’s about seeking knowledge consciously, deliberately, carefully.  It’s about being both comfortable and adept with uncertainty, and the fuzziness of our knowledge.

Ultimately, science is a way of engaging with the Mystery and Wonder of the universe.  It’s a very hands-on engagement, rolling up one’s sleeves and getting in it up to the elbows, wrestling with the unknown not to vanquish it, but for the sheer exuberance of the engagement itself.  Some people view Science as about finding answers and fixing problems, but if you stop there you don’t have Science, the ask-er, you have Technology, the do-er.   In the sort of Science that stirs my soul, every answer begs at least a handful of new questions.  “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery.”  (Mary B. Yates)  That shoreline frontier is not only inevitable, but extremely desirable.  I enjoy the work of discovering the knowledge.  I enjoy standing back and looking at what we know and how it all does/might fit together.  But I also love having that shoreline, wandering along the edge, seeing bits wash up in the waves, and sometimes just sitting down and staring out to sea.

Lest I get too philosphical here, answers are also very important.  I know that science engages me most fully when it is very directly of use.  It’s not enough for me to play with my intellectual curiosity and ask how the world works; I also want to make it work a little bit better.  As much as I appreciate the importance of pure, un-directed, what-good-is-a-new-baby basic research — it isn’t for me.  Part of what anchors me in the process is being able to see, very clearly and very directly, how my results can be applied.   I belong firmly in “Pasteur’s Quadrant” of use-inspired basic research, where I still get to ask deep questions about how the world works, but where I’ve chosen those specific questions because they’re also useful.

There’s also the interpersonal aspect — I like the company of my fellow geeks.  Back when I worked for public health, my manager and I both came from ecology backgrounds and we enjoyed having someone to share that with, from fundamental paradigms to oddball humor.  And now that I’m stopping to think about it, I’ve tended to find and connect with the science-types in many other contexts too.  (hmm, maybe I have geekdar?)  Even when I’m not officially doing science, I have to admit that I’m a scientist.  It’s shaped how I see the world in many subtle ways I’ll probably never entirely tease apart.  And as much as I rail against many aspects of academic-science culture…there are also parts of it that really feed me.

OK, what about ecology and ecosystem ecology?

Ecology is a very, very messy science.  We don’t really have Fundamental Theories, and certainly not Laws.  In astrophysics, you can make some observations and then go feed that into your set of equations, and the law of gravity is going to absolutely govern what is and isn’t possible there.  In ecology, the only equations we have are approximate descriptions of some aspect of the real world.  They don’t govern anything.  I like that. You can only sit back and think about the world for a little while before you have to go engage with it directly again.

Ecology has an aspect of the naturalist, as well as the scientist.  You need to go look at the world around you and learn from it through your senses, not just through your data.  Even though I’ve ended up in a part of ecology where I study nutrient cycles that I can’t perceive directly with my senses, I can see their effects and a lot of other aspects of the ecosystem I study.  When I was presenting my undergrad thesis research, questions came up where I could say: “I don’t have any data on that, but from what I’ve observed…”  Spending day after day in my study systems with curious eyes, I get to know them pretty well.  It makes my science better, and also a lot more fun.  It’s why I left marine ecology, since the questions that drew me were large-scale oceanic patterns, not intertidal or scuba-zone, so I never had any meaningful sensory access to the system I was studying.   It’s also one of the things I don’t envy my professors.  My advisor seems to do next-to-no fieldwork, even though she’d like to, and I can’t imagine myself doing science without a pretty regular dose of firsthand experience.  I don’t necessarily need the all-day-every-day aspect, but since I could see myself in a situation where research comes mostly through mentoring students, it’s something to keep in mind.  Grad students are a lot more independent, whereas with undergrads it seems a lot more natural to have one’s mentor involved periodically — a bit more of a partnership, since they’re not ready to just be set loose.

And let’s not overlook the simple joy of connecting with Nature, with a living world that is so much more than human.

Ecosystem ecology, in particular, is a systems thinker’s science, and it fits me to a T.  I won’t unpack that too much here — it’s a series of essays on its own.  But I will say that it’s how things simply make sense to me.  I like stepping back and seeing the interconnections and interplays of all the parts of an ecosystem.  I’m fascinated by the puzzles of finding the governing factors and critical control points.  Even though I’m currently questioning the entire paradigm of a limiting element, that’s a big part of what drew me in — being able to show how a simple thing like nitrogen is controlling the entire ecosystem’s productivity.

Ecology can be extremely relevant and useful — it’s the cornerstone of sustainability science.  Thinking about ecosystem ecology more specifically, it’s easy to see the links when the nutrient cycles themselves are clearly out of whack, as in the case of nutrient pollution in lakes, streams, estuaries, or groundwater.  Then there are cases like iron fertilization in the oceans, where there’s an interest in increasing productivity, and understanding nutrient limitations is essential.  But more fundamentally, I think that ecosystem ecology has a lot of potential to give us insights into ecosystems’ overall health, functioning, and stability.  Our discipline isn’t there with ready answers yet, but I think we have pieces of it.  As we alter or create ecosystems — and let’s face it, all ecoystems are human-altered, if not outright human-dominated, at this point — it’s important that we be able to figure out if they’re in good shape or not.  And I think that ecosystem ecology has a lot to offer that question.

I doubt I’ve explored this question fully, but I’m out of steam and it’s time for breakfast 🙂  So I’ll leave this here for now….but there will probably be follow-ups to come.

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2 responses to “Passions for science

  1. I’ve been pondering similar stuff myself though I’m only defending my Master’s thesis next year (that is the hope anyway). Even before graduating high-school I thought that I wanted to be a scientist and to me that meant PhD followed by … stuff I didn’t know about then. But now I’m not even so sure about the PhD part.

    I like how you look at this from your “passions” point of view. Though to me, it presents a bit of a problem, because I find myself being passionate about a number of things, though so far I’ve mostly put effort into pursuing my scientific passions, but even within science, there are a number of fields and options to follow, especially for someone (like me) studying an odd and incredibly wide intermix of stuff that is Biophysics and working in an interdisciplinary project. But I guess I’ll have to filter and prioritize my passions somehow. Or else, I’ll just take the same approach that led me to where I am now and just apply for a bunch of things that interest me and see where life takes me. That worked well for me so far, but I’m not sure if I want to gamble something as big as PhD (it looks big from where I stand, but is it really?) like that.

    Finally, the part of the post that struck me most: “There’s also the interpersonal aspect — I like the company of my fellow geeks.” That is something that I haven’t considered. I mean, at this point it feels just so natural to be in company of people who share the same geeky excitement about things, and I love it. And if anything, that’s one thing I definitely want to keep when I look at what to do next. Maybe if one can’t make up one’s mind about the big things they want, little/secondary things can guide them just as well?

    Oh, wow, this made me think a lot more than I intended.

    • Hey Noodle,
      After my undergrad, I decided to take some time away from school before starting a Ph.D. Two-or-three years was the plan, but it turned into seven. And that’s the best thing I ever did. I’ve got many passions myself, both within the many disciplines of my science, as well as far-flung things from theatre to boatbuilding. It was good to take time to explore, try new things, stretch and grow. I knew I was ready for grad school when the questions basically grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and wouldn’t let go. I started grad school knowing what I wanted to study (at least in the big sense), why it’s important, and how other people could use that knowledge. And it felt like a lot of the seemingly-disparate parts of my career history all somehow lined up together, and they’ve certainly shaped a lot of how I do science.

      The Ph.D. can be a big deal. In my field, we don’t get handed a project, we start by getting lost at sea as the big ideas that took us into grad school founder on the realities of current knowledge and techniques. We struggle, swim, go under, resurface, and finally work our way to a solid, useful, tractable question. Knowing why I’m doing this, and what the big picture is that I can keep my little study linked to, has made it a lot easier for me to keep going through the doldrums. Having a good advisor through that process is simply lifesaving. Having good community is also a key part of the support system.

      I don’t know enough about you to give decent advice, but seriously consider stepping away from school and science for a bit. It’ll give you time and space to discover what you want badly enough to pursue it for a Ph.D. Get downright hungry for it, and that will put serious wind in your sails for your doctoral endeavor.

      Best,
      Daniel

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