THE SUM OF ITS PARTS

As a person who sometimes feels that they are forever in a state of ‘studentness’, there has come a time (or many) that I have asked myself the big question….

And as I tell the grade 3 classes when I give guest talks I tell them that a PhD program means that I am in grade 21. YUP. Grade 21! But really, this current state of learning is a weird place. So what is this big question you ask?

BIG LIFE QUESTION: What is a PhD and what makes one successful at a PhD? Is it finishing with the most papers? Is it the person who finished the fastest or with the most data chapters? Is it the day you accept your piece of paper with your name and the credentials on it?

Speaking at the Shorebird Festival Cordova, Alaska May 2017

The past 3+ years of my life as a PhD student and now PhD Candidate (a status that just means I passed my comprehensive exams and have been titled to be a person that MAY be qualified to accomplish their Doctorate) is that this is a time of pure learning in my life. I embrace the ‘forever state of studentness’. Yes, there are the formalities with supervisors, department requirements, TUITION payments (ick) and just plain paperwork. BUT, my life is more than that. And my PhD is WAY MORE than just my thesis.

Ice skating on a frozen lake at Sheridan Glacier Alaska
Arctic sunset, Southampton Island Nunavut Canada

In fact, the thesis for the doctorate is filled with a condensed version of the science, the condensed, “I figured out how to use this program’ and the classic ‘this section was made possible because I got my r code to work’. But when I think of the person I was day 1 of this program and who I am today; I’m so much more than a 4th year PhD student. I’m a WAY more experienced, confident, social, world explorer! I travel more, I have worked with people from all areas of the world and know many more people from other countries and continents than I ever imagined.

Second Speaker to the famous artist and birder, David Sibley, Shorebird Festival Alaska

I have learned about seasons, tides, and a range of habitats because I ventured out to see them. I work hard but play hard too and I think that this has made me a better student.

Subsistence Lifestyle; halibut fishing, edible plant gathering in early spring Alaska
Flying across barrier islands of the Prince William Sound and Copper River Delta Alaska

Perhaps, admittedly that my supervisors would like me to be stuck in a chair and working 50 hours a week but I would be miserable and maybe not put the heart into the work, like I am doing now. And, as the thesis becomes a longer word document on my laptop (which I should really back up asap!) I grow more than that file.

The thesis is WAY more than the sum of its parts and more than the credit you earn at the end of your name when it’s all over; it’s about becoming a person that will love and cherish their work and show passion and happiness in all areas of their life. I feel like I am becoming ‘Super Me’ and it feels great!

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What are you doing after grad school? How about be an astronaut?

We all as graduate students get asked this question a lot; by family, friends, future employers, grant committees, scholarship committees, colleagues: “What do you want to do after grad school?”. That dark, heavy looming question that always makes us stop and think in the back of our heads, “I’m just trying to get through this month, let alone the rest of my life”, or “I don’t even know what jobs are out there let alone have a specific one in mind” or my personal favourite, “stop judging me”.

And I’ve been honest on a lot of applications where I answer that I don’t know, that I want these specific things (insert list here) and that I’m willing to venture out of the typical jobs associated with a PhD to try just about any research position out there.

When we were kids we were often told that the sky is the limit and in some cases that may be partially true, and yet it’s really not. Or so I thought. This week I got an email from a work colleague asking me to be a reference for them; something I have done fairly frequently after working with such large research crews and worked on large teams of research scientists in the Arctic. But this was a special request. They wanted me to a reference for the Canadian Space Agency Astronaut program. And seriously, I thought it was spam. Most definitely spam, and I proceeded to email this person to confirm that it was to ensure that I didn’t click on any of the links and get some weird virus taking over my computer. As it turns out, this was a legitimate request.

A fellow research scientist in biology with a doctorate, it eligible and indeed quite a good candidate to be an astronaut. Who would have thought?! And how inspiring when you think about it. Not only am I proud to know this person and believe them to be qualified for many wonderful career paths in this life, but I found myself suddenly very motivated and proud of my accomplishments. I work hard and have acquired though be it somewhat unique skills, they are specialized highly disciplined skills. And at the end of the day I might not know what I want to do after grad school, but the sky is the limit, or even better yet, to ‘infinity and beyond’.

 

 

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To get to the other side: finishing the doctoral thesis

I am 1 year and 3 months away from my thesis dissertation and defense deadline; the finishing of the PhD. For those in pursuit or were formerly in pursuit of their PhD, you know the feeling of that looming deadline and the intangible and yet intimidating amount of work you still need to do. Though on the other hand, I love objectives, goals, a list of things to do and thus a deadline. These parameters are what bring structure to my day and motivate me to get on that computer and crunch numbers, build my ideas and tease through the enormous pile of peer-reviewed literature. In my opinion, a little fear behind missing a deadline ends up being my strength.

Don’t get me wrong, the thesis is a process and one that I have relished over the past 3 years. Truly, my education has been and is a privilege that I don’t take lightly nor resent in any way. The past year alone has been one of the best years of my life and without the opportunities of my education; none of it would have happened. But I get this feeling that the fourth and final year of a PhD is the hardest and one where most students will waiver in their productivity and motivations.

left to right: Brandan Norman, Gill Holmes and Kevin Young. Southampton Island Nunavut 2015

So how am I planning on organizing my time and tackling my objectives over the next year and a bit? Well, for starters I opted to not be a teaching assistant. Surveying those that have come before me, I asked them what they thought was the biggest reason why PhD students didn’t finish on time and the main response was that teaching eats up too much time and prevents students from having nice chunky blocks of time to just immerse themselves in data analysis and writing. DONE. So I don’t make as much money; in the end, if you go over your 4-year time, you end up paying tuition anyways so really are you making THAT much money? Secondly, I write things as I go. Not that this has proven from start to finish that I’ll finish on time but I know I saved myself a lot of digging by just writing thoughts down, referencing works and statements from those papers that are applicable and inserted them into the section or chapter it will eventually end up in. This file is titled, “First ever thesis draft.outline”. It’s kind of an interesting file of finished pages, finished paragraphs but many bullets containing a smattering of content. This file is 55 pages long. As the content grows and those page numbers increase, it helps alleviate the overwhelming feeling as I proceed to write the longest document I will have written in my life and perhaps will ever.

So far I have found this book really helpful.

I know finishing this monster, the thing they call ‘the thesis’ on time is ambitious. I won’t be punishing myself for not finishing on time but at some point we students need to finish what we started and move on with our lives, enter the work force and start using those skills we’ve worked so hard to build. I look forward to seeing all of us on the other side.

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Alive and Living Well

Today is Oct 4th, and I’m sitting at a table in a loft apartment in Healy, Alaska, population 1,021 (est. from 2010 Census).

alaska-mapOne year and 5 months ago I lived in a suburban town in Southern Ontario, Canada with a projected ‘life path’ that was taking me to some cool places for PhD field work, interspersed with long periods at a desk quietly working under a dim light, post-it notes in front of me with reminders saying ‘oil change’ and ‘sale on spinach -Sobey’s’. Life was okay. I was content and in my comfort zone. However, since then my life has been nothing of that. It’s better than I could ever have imagined.

I have discovered Alaska and a life that truly makes me happy. I have visited Alaska by road driving the Alcan, seeing wildlife and mountain views that actually exist outside of postcards at the airport duty-free places, seen most of the road system though still more to see, and spent some of the best times of my life in Cordova.

Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken

How did I get here and how is it that one person’s life can change so much in such a short period of time? I guess the short answer is saying yes. Dive ahead, even if it’s a little precarious; say yes to new things.

The past 48 hours I travelled from Cordova, Alaska to Valdez by ferry, drove (or should I say, a wonderful man drove) 6 hours north to Fairbanks. I was fortunate that people in Alaska are so generous and I was given a car to drive from Fairbanks to Healy on Hwy 3 to Denali National Park to stay with a friend whom technically we met only once, though she stayed at my house a couple nights and we follow each other on Facebook keeping in touch for years before making contact about my visiting Fairbanks and she graciously allowed me to come for a visit…..Give these parameters to a statistician and I would say these circumstances are less than one in a million.

As I sit at my friend’s table and look out on this beautiful fall day….it’s snowing here….and think about this past year and almost a half, I’m struck with the emotional gravity of how happy I am. I’m addicted to saying yes, despite the fact that my stomach churns at the thought of driving on a highway I’ve never been on with someone else’s car full of stuff headed to a place I’ve never been with no cellphone, or getting onto plane after plane to visit someone I desperately want to see with the thought that at some point I’ll have to turn around and get on a plane to leave him. All the pain of leaving that comfort zone is far outweighed by the surges of wonderful experiences and life-long lasting memories.

My mother always says that in life she wants to give my brother and I two things, ‘roots and wings’. I call home often, and I need to because I get home sick and I miss my family terribly, but man am I going to use my wings. The more I travel, whether it’s in Alaska or elsewhere, the more I’m struck by how much I would have missed if I didn’t just take those chances and book those flights. Salmon spawning, bull moose, halibut fishing, watching mountain goats climb, picking wild blueberries and edible mushrooms, hiking through rainforest, watching whales in the ocean and being splashed by a Dall’s porpoise diving and jumping around the boat, only to turn with a huge smile on my face to a thoughtful man ready to capture that moment on camera is something money could never buy.

Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken

I consider myself blessed at having discovered saying yes early enough in life that I have decades more travel and adventures ahead of me. My flexible lifestyle right now allows for this kind of travel and I’m going to take full advantage of it!

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The Importance Of Outreach

Policeman, doctor, lawyer, astronaut, accountant, teacher; while each of these professions are not all equally exciting to a child, there is some understanding about what they entail. By contrast, scientific research and the accompanying community are somewhat shrouded in mystery. Jobs abound in science and some of them, for example Lisa’s doctoral study, are both fascinating and exciting. Which was why I asked Lisa to speak with my class of elementary students; I wanted my students to have an idea of the kinds of work available in science and its impact on the world.

Before the talk, I sent Lisa an email containing the curriculum outcomes that I felt linked with her research and work, from there Lisa structured her presentation to my class accordingly. In preparation for Lisa’s talk, my students and I perused her website, paying close attention to articles which linked with the curriculum. I used the website NorthoftheGrid for class-wide shared reading activities and my students and I carefully picked apart each paragraph; along the way I posing questions to ensure that each of my young pupils understood the content. Although it was challenging, the students were extremely excited for the upcoming talk and consequently focused hard in order to understand some of the blog posts.

Between these couple of readings and a number of lessons to support what we were going to learn, the talk went off without a hitch. Another class who had also been reading Lisa’s blog and that had joined our class for an experiment which I created based on a post on NorthoftheGrid attended as well. It was amazing to see sixty some odd students completely engaged as they sat all gathered around the giant screen we had set up in the room for Lisa’s Skype presentation. (Geographical distance precluded a live presentation.) Some of the students even started frantically taking notes because they found Lisa’s stories so fascinating!

This talk and the preceding lessons before it inspired some of my students to do their own research and reading; I intercepted a note with the URL for one of NorthoftheGrid’s blog posts written on it, as it was being passed to another interested student after the presentation.

Along with increased engagement in learning about science, Lisa provided an opportunity for the students to see available jobs in the field of scientific research. They learned that teams of people are required to do the research; so one could apply to be a leader of such a project or one of the many techs. Lisa talked about the education she acquired to get to this point as well. To add another element to the presentation, she brought along many artifacts from her extensive collection of taxidermy and skeletons. There were even guest appearances from her fellow Arctic researchers! As incredible and fascinating as all these various parts of the presentation were, I think my students’ favourite part was the story about the polar bear who broke into camp and ate a bottle of hot sauce; that earned huge laughs and it just goes to show that one can never predict what will happen in the field.

Although they didn’t get to fly to the Arctic themselves, in talking to an Arctic researcher, and listening to her stories, it brought the concept and the science alive for them. Even though my students are nine years old, this experience could be the first stepping stone along a path that leads them to devote their life to scientific research. As important as shivering in the Arctic for three months while collecting data and presenting findings at conferences across North America is, I feel outreach to the public young and old, is a vital aspect of science, as it leads to greater understanding and helps assists in developing new researchers

-And elementary school teacher

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Being Left – A Guide To Staying Home When Someone You Know Is In The Arctic

When your loved one takes off for the Great White North, there are a lot of emotions, worries and fears. However, as with any difficult situation, there are preparations or reminders which make the entire experience easier.

Before your loved one takes off into the frigid unknown, you can talk with them frequently, but at the same time it is important to remember that the period before the field season is often almost as busy as the field season itself. Every year before Lisa leaves for the Arctic, we are both cognizant of the fact that we won’t be able to visit for months, so I will call her a couple of times a week for a few minutes to check in. It’s nice to hear how she is doing and also to listen to all of the preparations she is making for her long stay in the North. Together we count down the number of days we have to talk to one another before she leaves.

These conversations also serve to remind me just how perfect Lisa is for her job. Regardless of whether your friend or family member is leading a team, researching or acting as a tech, it helps to keep in mind that your loved one has been chosen because they are skilled, well trained and able to take on this adventure. Ask about what your friend or family member is bringing to the Arctic and why. Each year Lisa sends all crew members a link to her blog post which lists the gear necessary for her crew to survive on the tundra for three months. Because of her crew’s careful preparations, despite the unseasonably cold temperatures last year, no one got chilblains on their face last season.

Once your loved one takes off for the North, it’s tempting to use the satellite phone number you’ve been left to call and check in but lots of contact with home actually increases homesickness. Ultimately you want your loved one to prosper and be successful up North, so in lieu of calling repeatedly and attempting to have long static filled conversations about how much you miss one another, take heart and remember that no news is good news. Admittedly some people are better at remembering the truth in this adage. Sometime around July, I tend to crack and call Lisa’s Mom. “I haven’t heard anything!” I’ll wail into the phone. Lisa’s mother will then cheerfully trill at me “Well dear, we haven’t either, you must remember that no news is good news”.

Although contact is infrequent and sometimes unreliable at best, the crew can be medivaced to safety if there is a serious problem. These types of emergencies are rare because of how well the researchers, techs and everyone, takes care of one another up there. It sounds funny but Lisa wants to know tidbits as basic as when each of her crew poops because these very mundane activities are indicators of health and wellness.

Even though phoning every day (or sometimes every month) is out, there are other forms of communication available to both you and your loved one. Writing letters or cards can be a cathartic and effective way to feel connected with your Northern explorer while they are away. In addition, they are a nice surprise when the crew receives a supply drop every other week.

Keeping pictures of your friend or family member or favourite items of theirs around the house or office takes the sting out of missing that person. My favourite thing of Lisa’s to keep is her dog Maddie. The past two field seasons that Lisa has spent up North, I’ve taken care of Maddie for a period of time. Having a furry bundle of joy definitely makes the time apart easier to manage. Although I imagine that albums or beloved objects would do the trick too.

When all else fails, knowing that the season is only three months long, and that they will be back soon, can be a comfort. As can planning a fun activity to do together when they return. Last year Lisa and I went back country camping. The year before that we crafted and wrote. What will you do to celebrate your adventurer’s return? – from The Great Unwashed

(the best friend a girl could ask for)

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2016 East Bay Mainland Camp Letters are Here!

It’s year three of my field season for the PhD and I’m completely excited. I have confidence in myself more so than previous years; I’m very familiar with the camp, camp prep in Iqaluit, what we need to get done and what the season looks like. It’s going to be a great summer.

Each year the hilariously fun “The Great Unwashed” has written letters for me to open during the field season. They are a wonderful comfort and always good for a laugh. Opening snail mail when you are away from home is the ultimate metaphorical warm blanket making you feel closer to home and your loved ones. Each year The Great Unwashed has not only written me letters but also written letters to each of my crew members:

 

The glory of snail mail: arctic connections

We usually open our personal letters around the half-way point of the season (the hump). Others have savoured their mail and opened it on a day where things were just a little tougher than a regular day (your waders leaked, you tripped and fell in ice cold water or were just feeling a little down). The second letter addressed to each person is opened by someone else, at which time they proceed to ask you a set of questions written especially for you.

Quarky and fun this usually sparks discussion round the dinner table after our meal as we sit and talk about our day; enjoying the solitude of our living conditions, cut off from civilization and enjoying the 6 hour long sunset right outside our cabin window.

So our letters are packed and the countdown is on for the field season. Get packin’ crew and I’m looking forward to our evening post-dinner, Arctic sunset chats.

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You know you love your job when…..

Being a biologist is awesome. You get to travel to fun places, admire wildlife and work with people who are just as passionate about nature as you are. I knew I had a good research crew on Southampton Island, the summer of 2015 when after a long 10 hour day of walking, our team was headed back to camp hungry and tired when a team member spotted a new invertebrate species on the ground; a tiny moth. He proceeded to call out for everyone to stop because obviously we had to see this little moth, knowing we would appreciate it. And it was true, we would pause after a long work day to observe a tiny moth the size of one of my finger nails, and each person commented, “look at those markings”, “we haven’t seen this kind before, I wonder what species it is?”, “get a photo and we can check the guide book when we get back to camp”. Capturing field events are important, not only for conference talks and other presentations but also so we can relive the exciting moments we shared as a crew and the wildlife we on the tundra we were privileged to observe.

PHD COMIC; BIOLOGISTS IN THE FIELD

BIRDING WITH LISA AND BRANDAN

 

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Out of the Office Reply

So the countdown is on. I have less than 24 hours before leaving Ontario, flying from Ottawa to Iqaluit- Iqaluit to Southampton and being dropped off on a gravel ridge on the arctic tundra by Twin Otter. If you imagine putting your whole life in civilization on hold for two months, there is a fair list of things to do in advance. From paying bills, reducing insurance coverage on my vehicle to talking to my loved ones every chance I get, things have been busy. I’ve also felt compelled to eat all sort of things I know I won’t have access to (aka McDonald’s Big Mac) despite the fact that I rarely eat “bad” food during the rest of the year. Why is it that when posed with the lack of convenient amenities we want them so much more than usual? But there is no more waiting, it’s a reality that I’m now leaving for the summer.

One amazing aspect of all of this, is the ability for my loved ones to come to my aid with regards to taking care of parts of my life in my absence. Additionally, the fact that my closest friend accepts and supports my absence, and I leave knowing that regardless of the time we spend apart or the length of time we go without talking to one another is irrelevant. Within seconds of reuniting, it’s like we haven’t spend any time apart at all. Knowing the people you care about support you and will wait for your return means more than anything else.

So, this post of dedicated to all the family and friends of researchers that spend long stretches of time away for their work. It’s those that keep the ship afloat during our absences that make coming home so much more wonderful. And, if I could, this post would be my out of office email reply so everyone knows how grateful I am.

out of the office

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The glory of snail mail: arctic connections

So you’re leaving home for several weeks. If you’re doing research then time will likely fly and creep at various times. It’s those slow days where we tend to think of home, of the people we are missing and you secretly tally the number of days until you are reunited with your loved ones.

We’ve all been there but if you are a wildlife ecologist, botanist, work outside or work in remote areas of the world, it’s part of the deal. Last summer when I was preparing for the ten week stint away from home, being in a remote camp in Nunavut with nothing but spotty satellite phone reception, anxiety was a dominant emotion. But this time around, not surprisingly, the second field season prep has been a breeze. However, this does not alleviate missing home any less.

One thing that can really ease homesickness is snail mail. Let’s face it, current snail mail consists mostly of unwanted flyers, bills and items that go directly to recycling. However, the odd time you get something hand written and addressed to you personally, and there is a magic, a nostalgia that makes you feel like you’re received a gift.

So The Great Unwashed, my most cherished friend has taken the time to write each technician I have in camp with me this summer a personal letter.

Additionally, each person has an envelope with their name on it, containing inside a list of fun, likely odd and embarrassing questions to entertain us on a rainy day. So thank you in advance to the Great Unwashed for no doubt providing us with a few good laughs and a little homey warmth during out stay in the Arctic.

 

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