The end of the semester always catches me off guard. Especially this one. The past five months appear to have vanished into thin air. Deadlines for research proposals are just days away, the stack of ungraded assignments sitting on my desk is at its tipping point, final exams are rapidly approaching, the AGU fall meeting is only weeks away, the paper I am trying to publish is getting pushed farther to the bottom of my to-do list, and on top of all that I am working on applications to graduate school yet again – this time to pursue my PhD.
Even though I am currently experiencing mental chaos, it is during times like these that it is most important to take time for yourself. Today I chose to get outside and explore a new chunk of wilderness – the continental divide trail near Grants, New Mexico. The snowy peak of Mt. Taylor beckoned me, and I decided to defer my mountain of work and breach the limits of Albuquerque to explore a mountain I had yet to visit. The clear skies, the fresh air, the vantage points that look out hundreds of miles, and the density of quaking aspens and ponderosa pines worked together to provide an unrivaled experience of indulging in nature. It was the perfect way to clear my mind in preparation for a demanding week ahead.
I write this post with the hope of stumbling upon a mental strategy to narrow down my own research question for my Master’s thesis. This past weekend I completed my first round of field work in north-central New Mexico, focusing on finding evidence to elucidate the evolution of the Rio Grande and its tributaries. I couldn’t have asked for better winter weather, or better people to aid in my field efforts. I was able to collect samples of sand and gravel from river terraces and samples of basalt that overlie and underlie these terraces. I will use geochronologic techniques to obtain accurate ages of these samples with the hope of understanding the timing of river incision and aggradation of the Rio Grande. This data would allow me to tap into several different conundrums, which I will need to define more precisely.
Joining my advisor and me were several veteran geologists who have mapped all over the Rio Grande river basin in northern New Mexico, and shared with me their incredible wealth of knowledge on the area. If it weren’t for them, I would not have been able to differentiate river terrace gravels from alluvial fan or rift fill deposits, nor would I have been able to identify the provenance of the terrace gravels once they were found. If it weren’t for these guys I also wouldn’t be having such a difficult time narrowing down my thesis topic. After learning so much from them, I discovered how many questions about the Rio Grande’s evolution remain unanswered, and how much of the river valley needs to be remapped! Having so many possibilities it quite wondrous, however, for now I need to focus on one problem and try to solve that problem.
1. Make a list of all possible research problems that I could solve.
2. Find a way to encompass all listed problems into one cohesive question.
As a fledgling Earth Scientist, with aspirations to make significant contributions to the field of Geology, I have found navigation of the scientific enterprise quite challenging. It turns out I am not alone!
At the Future of Research Symposium held this past October in Boston, hundreds of post-docs and graduate scientists gathered to identify the obstacles preventing young scientists from moving forward in all fields of science. The ultimate result of this congregation was a call for reform – reform of the research enterprise, which is comprised of academia, industry, publishing, and government. Collectively, the group proposed three main tenets for scientific reform:
Connectivity among junior scientists
Balance between employment and training at the postdoctoral level
Increased investment in young scientists, independent of PI research grants
To accomplish this proposed reform requires a larger role for graduate students and post-docs. We must be aware of our importance within the scientific enterprise, and use our power to shape the future of scientific research.
With little experience conducting research, many young scientists struggle to understand their roles in the research process, especially at the master’s and early PhD levels. It is often difficult to believe in ourselves and our individual abilities, especially when we are so heavily influenced by our advisors. We tend to trust their opinions more than our own, mainly because we know they have the experience. But we need to think for ourselves. We are the only ones in this field who can offer fresh perspectives and alternative ways of interpreting data.
In the words of Dr. Seuss:
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go.”
We are intelligent. We have the ability to discover. We are the future of science.
To read more about the 2014 Future of Science Symposium, click here.
This past Tuesday was the submission deadline for applications for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. This is an incredibly competitive program, which provides a hefty support package in the form of three years of funding and tuition reimbursement for a graduate student working toward a PhD in a science or engineering program. Personally, I spent that last month preparing my application materials with the hope of winning this prestigious fellowship. But the odds certainly are not in my favor. In 2012, NSF received over 13,000 applications, and awarded 2,000 fellowships- just a 15% success rate.
In other words, I am fully prepared for rejection. If I receive the NSF fellowship, my pursuit to become a professor at a research institution will be made much easier. I would be ecstatic. But even if I do not receive the award, the experience I gained writing the personal and research statements was invaluable. Through the writing process I was able to evaluate my career goals and the direction of my graduate research. I was also able to remind myself why I am studying Geology – to understand the planet on which we live, to learn more about out natural resources, and ultimately to share my knowledge with the general public, whether it is to students, citizens, or government officials. This experience reaffirmed my passion for studying Earth Science, and I can only thank NSF for providing me with this opportunity.
But I have not lost hope. I am confident that I deserve a NSF graduate research fellowship, but until then I will begin preparing my application materials for the many other funding opportunities I plan on applying for in the next several months.