Posted by: sioglac | Nov 4, 2011

How one ends up studying ice

When you work in a seemingly exotic field, people ask you a lot of questions. There are two questions in particular that I run into with stunning frequency. Since you, my loyal reader, are not here in person to ask me these two questions (although please do e-mail/leave a comment with some!), I will preemptively answer them for you:

(1) Is man-made climate change real? Answer: Yes. And all of us scientists agree on this statement. And I refer you to Real Climate if you want more details.

(2) How on EARTH do you end up studying glaciers? Answer: Accidentally. Since I’m not in the field yet and San Diego is far too cold and rainy (it’s like 55F out!) to do anything else, I can long-windedly explain how one ends up studying ice. I will put a big ol’ disclaimer on the following tome: everything I say is entirely based on my personal preferences and I do not intend to demean any other fields. In fact, my disinterest in other fields likely represents my own shortcomings (of which there are many) more than shortcomings of any professor or of the field itself. On with the story…

Let’s quickly summarize the first 18 years of my life with: I have always loved being outdoors and, being the third of four boys, had a long enough leash with my parents to explore said outdoors. This passion factored in my college choice (with the decision based about 10% on location, 90% on vicinity to ridiculously incredible cheese) and off I went, starting as some sort of chemistry and/or math major. I quickly dropped the chemistry part since I didn’t want to take organic chemistry and flipped it into computer science. Then I started taking upper level math classes and on the first day of topology, in the first five minutes, the professor exclaimed “…and a coffee mug is the same thing as a doughnut!!”

[tires screeching]

No sir, coffee mugs and doughnuts are not the same thing. Both are wonderful, but far from the same. And that ended my math career. Computer science continued until I found myself in a theoretical computer science classes, which did not interest me. I like the practical stuff. Meanwhile, I took a mid-level Earth science class on a whim. We had three or four field trips, where we went hiking and, among other adventures, saw an amazing pegmatite. I started to realize that (1) there was nothing at all more practical than learning about that which is directly under your feet, and (2) there was a science that required me to spend time outside and travel extensively. In the next three years, I took just about every class in Dartmouth Earth Science’s curriculum and traveled to some amazing places to do science (including Hawaii, Italy, Puerto Rico, Banff National Park in Canada, and all of the states that contain the Rocky Mountains). To culminate an amazing four years, I wrote an honors thesis on hydrothermal water circulation on a volcanic island off Naples, Italy.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed geochemistry, my interests within the Earth sciences were still poorly developed and I struggled to figure out my next step. I was drinking coffee with a graduate student who had mentored me for my final two undergraduate years, and he offhandedly asked if I had thought about working with new faculty hire, Bob Hawley, a glaciologist and remote senser. Glaciology, eh? No I had not considered that. I had never had the opportunity the take a glaciology class, but the prospect of setting up a brand new lab sounded really fun. Yes, I would be entering a field that I had no idea whether I liked or not. With a professor who I had met only once over a year ago. Who never before had had a graduate student. Or even been a professor. But it was only two years, right?, and surely I’d pick up a skill or two that would be useful to whatever I end up doing in life. This seemed like the perfect plan.

And somehow, an offhand remark while drinking coffee (I think playing foosball too) and my general propensity to jump much too quickly into the deep end** snowballed (pun intended) into me leaving for Antarctica in a week. What would have happened if Bob had turned out to be an impossible-to-work-with curmudgeon and not the incredible scientist/awesome advisor he is? I have no clue, but I can tell you this: I wouldn’t be freezing cold in San Diego, right now.

And now for the grand irony: I started in Earth science because I thought it was an exceptionally accessible science that integrates aspects of most other sciences in my backyard. Now? I study one of the most inaccessible places on the Earth’s surface. But that will be the topic of many, many other posts…

-matt

**especially apt colloquialism as I’m an awful swimmer

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