On a lighter note…

August 21, 2011

Something about this photo from the last post has been bugging me all week. It’s the expression on my face. The set jaw, the thrust forward chin, the cocked eyebrow…I knew I had seen these things before. It took me a while, but I was finally able to place it. My doppelganger:

If this is an omen, I have no idea what it means.

Science will resume shortly.

It’s an anniversary of sorts. Not today, nor any particular day this year, but this year, 2011, marks my 15th year doing research. The last time I blogged about this was the 10th anniversary, back in 2006. Back then I was in my fifth year as a PhD student in Kevin Padian’s lab at Berkeley. I knew I’d have to finish and get a job, but I had no idea how either of those things was going to happen. And although I talk a big game about seeking out new experiences, I was flatly terrified. But things have worked out. I have a tenure-track job doing what I love, research is still rolling along, and life continues to change in unexpected ways. Time’s arrow flies on.

If that paragraph seemed insufferably self-absorbed, don’t worry. This isn’t my story anymore.

I’m taking on my first graduate student this semester: Vanessa Graff, who is pursuing a master’s degree through the Graduate College of Biomedical Sciences here at WesternU. Vanessa’s going to be a doctor someday, but for the immediate future she’s signed on as a sauropod paleobiologist in training.

My feelings about this are complex. I am acutely aware of exactly how nowhere I’d be without the generosity and guidance of Rich Cifelli, Kevin Padian, Bill Clemens, and the host of people who showed up in my life at the right time and said the right words to steer me to where I am now. Fifteen years ago I had a conversation with Trish Schwagmeyer that literally changed the course of my life. It started with her reviewing my less-than-mediocre grades, looking me in the eye, and saying, “You’re blowing it”, and ended with her recommending that I find a faculty sponsor for an independent study (ultimately, this). I have been walking around with that debt for my entire adult life (if I’d been an adult in 1996, we wouldn’t have needed to have that talk). And although I have thanked Trish and told her how pivotal that conversation turned out to be, I can’t ever pay that back. Or any of the rest, that I owe to more people than I can readily count.

But now, unexpectedly, I have a chance to start–just start–paying it all forward. I don’t have any delusions that I will do so perfectly. Rich, Kevin, and Bill were all seasoned pros when they took me on. Whereas I…well, let’s acknowledge that I’m no Rich Cifelli and leave it at that, shall we? So as a first-time advisor I oscillate between exhilaration and sheer terror–come to think of it, pretty much the same as I did as a PhD candidate at Berkeley, and as an undergrad at OU. Plus ça change

I closed the Acknowledgments of my dissertation with, “Everything they ever taught me has paid off. I have tried to make my career an act of thanks.” At the time I was writing about my parents, but now I have the perspective to see that I was actually writing about my advisors as well. Four years out of the nest, and once again I find myself following their example as I attempt something I’ve never done before. Like everything I do as a professional, my actions will be imperfect imitations of theirs, somewhere on the spectrum between homage and pastiche.

But like I said, it’s not my story anymore. It’s Vanessa’s. And in the brief time that we’ve been working together she has shown more grit and maturity than I had at her age, and just as much enthusiasm. I am confident that her surpluses in those areas will carry her through my inevitable fumbles. She is rolling, and there is the familiar sense of a snowball at the top of a mountain, at the moment where motion goes from potential to perceptible to inevitable.

Where will that motion take her? Beats me. We’ll find out as we go–just like I did with Rich and Kevin and Bill. That will be Vanessa’s story to tell, in conference presentations and papers and whatever other venues she chooses. I’ll help her all I can, and hope for the good sense to know when to nudge and when to get out of the way.

Rich, Kevin, Bill–you left me some damn big shoes to fill. I will not succeed, not completely. But I will strive to make my advising an act of thanks.