Wednesday, November 28, 2012

How I Got Here, Part 1: Accommodation

Jason Heppenstall, who writes 22 Billion Energy Slaves, is currently writing a series of posts he calls The Great Escape, an exploration of the path he’s taken through life and how it led him to an understanding of the serious problems we all face. Inspired by him (thanks, Jason!), I decided it’s time for me to explain how I diverted from the conventional life path I followed before age thirty to the low cost, low energy life that is likely to be in store for a lot more of us as we work our way farther into a post-peak world. Perhaps it might help some of you who are struggling to make similar changes in your own lives.

I grew up in the Space Age 1960s. Since the US was flush with cash at the time, the beneficiary of its imperial wealth pump and its fossil fuel lottery winnings, it not only had plenty of money to fund the space program but it also had plenty of money to invest in basic scientific research and in science education. It was a good time to grow up for anyone who found any aspect of science or technology fascinating. I was one of those children. Early on I found and read my grandparents’ popular field guides for wildflowers, trees, and birds, using them to teach myself to identify by common name many of each. I was also fascinated by weather, a fascination aided by living in the US Midwest, a place of changeable and sometimes awesome weather phenomena. The feminist revolution ongoing in the 1960s made it an especially good time to be a girl interested in science. No one told me I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, pursue a scientific career. In fact, they encouraged me to do so, now that women with scientific and technical degrees were not only tolerated but actually sought out and courted. The only decision I had to make was which branch of science to pursue. Here my practicality, my sense of how to position myself to take advantage of the opportunities the wealth pump brought to my doorstep, asserted itself. I loved plants. I had a strong interest in environmental matters, courtesy of the growing awareness of ecological problems during the 1960s and 1970s and being a teenager and young adult during the energy crises of the 1970s. I considered a career in an environmental field and in fact wrote my college admission essay on environmental matters. But I attended and graduated from college in the late 1970s, during an energy-related recession, a time when economic issues were beginning to trump environmental issues. My major scientific role model was Marie Curie, a chemist. I did well enough in chemistry in high school and college to consider it as a potential career field. Job opportunities at that time were better for graduating chemists than they were for biologists or environmental studies majors, and better for PhD graduates than for BS graduates. So I did the logical thing: I got a BS in chemistry in 1979 from a good private college, leveraging that into a PhD in physical chemistry in 1984 from a top-ten university. The fact that I didn’t much like chemical research, already evident in college and even more obvious during grad school, was something I considered irrelevant. I needed a good job to live according to prevailing middle class standards; corporations were very eager to hire a woman with a PhD in chemistry to further their attempts to “diversify” their workforces; thus I set my sights on a research position with a large corporation.

Now I don’t mean to imply that I was only looking out for Number 1, in the phrase of the time. I tried to do right by other people, to be a good friend and a good family member. I tried to live ethically to the best of my ability, an effort made easier by having little disposable income during my college and grad school years. I vowed that I wouldn’t take a job whose purpose was to make it easier to kill more people faster, thus leaving myself out of consideration for jobs in the defense industry that could have been mine given my grad school work in laser spectroscopy, a field of considerable interest to the industry. But I also had a strong desire to live on my own as soon as I could, and within the ethical constraints I set for myself I was determined to succeed at it. Since I lived in an empire, that meant collaborating with the empire enough to obtain my goals. That in turn meant getting a good job with a major corporation.

I showed astuteness in choosing my research director and jumping through the hoops grad school set in front of me. As soon as I entered grad school, I made friends with a few older students who were more than happy to tell me how to succeed. Take the offer to teach the physical chemistry laboratory course rather than the first-year general chemistry course, they said; it’ll be more fun and less work. I did; listening to my classmates describe their experience with the general chemistry course I knew I’d made the right choice. Don’t make the mistake of studying for the monthly exams (we were required to pass at least six out of the eighteen it was possible to take by the end of our second year), they told me. You’ll do better to go to all the seminars, since many of the professors like to draw questions for the exam from the seminars, and to be as relaxed as possible before taking the exams. I followed their advice and passed the needed six before the end of my first year (aided by the laboratory course mentioned above; some of the questions drew on knowledge I’d acquired from teaching that course). Pick a research director as soon as possible, they counseled. Each can only take a limited number of students. Once you choose one, you’ll get office space and attention that will help you get through the grad school gauntlet. I listened carefully and spent what little time I had after coursework and teaching responsibilities interviewing potential research directors and talking to their students. In the process it became clear to me that if I chose to work for a tenured professor, I’d be expected to take a lot of initiative in deciding on a project and conducting it, a prospect I felt decidedly uncomfortable with after my experience with research in college. Most tenured professors had large enough groups that they spent little personal time with each student; some came with reputations of being extra hard on women students. So I made an early and brilliant choice in a newly hired faculty member fresh out of grad school, less than five years older than me. He’d have seven years to prove himself worthy of obtaining tenure. I’d be there about five years, during which time he’d have to get most of the work he’d be judged on for tenure done. Thus I’d receive a lot of attention and direction from him, much more than I’d receive from any other faculty member. This is exactly what happened, and exactly what I needed in order to get the PhD. I’d long ago figured out how to overachieve myself into As in coursework and grad school coursework was no different, but physical chemistry research was another matter entirely. Despite my research director’s best attempts to teach me how to choose and solve a current research problem, I wasn’t able to figure it out. Contemporary physical chemistry was too far above my mathematical ability for me to quite catch on to it. Fortunately my research director was good at choosing and solving problems and (mostly) patient with my slowness, as well as willing to put in the time to direct me and to promote me to those who might hire me. I was (barely) able to do what he needed me to do and I was willing to work long hours to achieve my and his goals. What got me through, besides the PhD payoff, was knowing that I was helping him to build a laboratory and a good research program - and knowing that I’d only be there five years.

I’ll stop here for the moment. What I have in mind is a three part series, with the remaining two parts to be written and posted before the winter solstice. We’ll see if that’s how it turns out!

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