Friday, June 15, 2007

rediscovering the joy in field work

I became a geologist because I love to be outside. It's that simple, really. The chemistry lab smelled bad and I couldn't wear my contacts; geology labs involved things like hiking out to a flooding river and watching how it behaved.

But something funny happened on the way to a career. Field work became a drag.

It happened in fits and starts. First it was field camp. The TA hit on me, my field partners on one project spent an entire day saying unpleasant things about their girlfriends, and I simply didn't walk fast enough. And I didn't know the stratigraphy, and I didn't know the fossils, and I didn't carry enough water. I felt incompetent. But I must not have been, because the instructor recommended me for one of those USGS internships for the next summer. And after spending a summer working in geochemistry labs during the week and hiking on weekends, I realized that I really did need the outdoors, regardless of my field camp experience.

So I went to grad school and became a structural geologist. But the field work... was frustrating. I wasn't fast enough. We ran out of food (which is a particularly big deal when you've been dropped off by helicopter for three weeks). I was scared of heights, but I had to keep up with my field partners. Oh, and the rocks were not what they were supposed to be. "The map is not the territory..." especially when the original mapper didn't actually walk most of the ground.

I finished my PhD, despite actively loathing it by the end, and got a job (which was a pretty amazing feat, given that I thought my PhD was rather unimpressive, and given how much trouble my colleagues had finding work). And the next summer, I needed to find a field project for a student. And I found one, and the problem turned out to be more interesting than I had expected, but it took years to work it out. And every year, the same fear hung over my head: what if I'm wrong about this? What if I can't find the right rocks? What if I can't publish anything? What if I can't get funding? So I didn't much like the bugs, or the thrashing through the brush, or the long drive to the field area, or the negotiations between the bickering students. It was an important part of my life, but it wasn't something that I looked forward to.

And, although the research started going well by the end, the fears turned out to be justified. I didn't get tenure. So I got another job (which, again, was pretty darn lucky, under the circumstances). But this time, I decided not to commit myself to a new field area. I was tired. Tired of thrashing through the woods and finding nothing. Tired of working to learn a new area only to lose my job. Tired of expectations.

Fortunately, the expectations at my current job are pretty low. I'm a competent teacher, and I advised some research students, and I had enough ideas left over from my previous job that I published a little. Oh, and I co-wrote an instrument grant proposal, and it got funded. I guess that probably counted for a lot. Anyway, I got tenure despite not really having an active field area.

And I had a baby in there, as well. The first couple summers, the physical demands kept me home, and then the emotional demands kicked in. And, honestly, the kid made a good excuse. I didn't know what I wanted to do, and I didn't have any collaborators (either students or faculty) to brainstorm with, and it was very easy to live down to low expectations.

But finally the ideas started finding me. A grad student working in the area shared his conclusions with me, and one of his samples made me curious. So I talked an undergrad into looking at the rocks with me last summer, and she's going to work on them for her senior thesis. And for the past two weeks, we've been going out into the field to look for more samples.

Except that we ran into a few problems. The interesting rocks are in a wilderness area, on the opposite side of a small river from the main trail. I thought we would be able to cross the river on a bridge on private property, but it turns out that we would also somehow have to scale a major cliff with our backpacks. The property owner offered to let us use her horses later in the summer, when she finishes bringing them up to the high country and when the river is lower. But for now... we couldn't wade it, and we broke a canoe paddle trying to get across in a boat. So we put off that part of the work, and just spent some time doing reconnaissance on some related rocks.

And it was so cool. We hiked long days, we carried heavy packs, we scrambled up cliffs, we got rained on, we forded snowmelt streams, we headed back early because the strong winds were blowing down trees... and we looked at rocks, and compared observations, and saw things that hadn't been discussed by previous mappers, and brainstormed ways to test competing models, and tried to figure out ways in which some previous conflicting observations could be reconciled. And it was beautiful. The smell of the pines after a rain, the sound of rushing water, and the look of river-sculpted metamorphic rocks.

I don't know why, suddenly, it was so much fun. Maybe because the pressure was off, finally. No PhD qualification looming, no threat of tenure review, not even the fear that my student wouldn't have a thesis -- she already has some rocks from last summer, and this is an undergrad project. Maybe it was because there weren't any men along, and there wasn't this constant sense of having to prove how tough or competent I am. Maybe it was because I had been away from it for a long time, and there's nothing like a few summers dealing with office politics to make dirty socks seem like the most wonderful thing in the world.

But it doesn't really matter. Because for right now, for this particular moment, I'm enjoying what I do. And a year ago - even six months ago - I couldn't say that.


Harold Asmis said...

Welcome to the blogozone! I just started, but I'm retired, and all my fieldwork is off the dock! I'll put you on my list!

Brian said...

field work has a great way of simplifying, sleep, map, collect...oh, i guess you have to think a bit too, but all-in-all I always feel mentally refreshed after a stint of fieldwork

nice blog, by the way...a good structural geology-focused blogger is needed

Sabine said...

I had a similar experience at field camp, especially the first couple of weeks (I felt so incompetant!). Years later I had a job where I was in the field most of the time, and I eventually grew to loathe it. Now as a petroleum geologist I am at a desk most of the time, and I miss the field. :)

I second Brian, this is a great blog.

tectonite said...

Thanks, everyone!

It's funny how differently people feel about field work. My graduate advisor seemed to come to life in the field, but I was too afraid of failure to really enjoy it for a long time.

Abel Pharmboy said...

Sorry to be so late in commenting but I just found your blog through a comment at On being a scientist and a woman.

I'm quite far from geology but your general point is well-taken: it is amazing how much more creativity and enthusiasm comes back after the pressure is off, or less at least.

It's great to learn of your blog and I'd certainly encourage your submission of a post, perhaps this one, for consideration in the Open Laboratory anthology.

Kim said...

Thanks, Abel. I'm glad you liked it.