Posted by: sioglac | Mar 27, 2014

“The future starts today, not tomorrow”

To get things started with ScrippsOnIce v2.0, I’m not going to summarize my paper that was just published based on some of the data I’ve been collecting in Antarctica. Or Sasha’s paper that came out late last year about how quickly the subglacial plumbing can change. That will come in the future. Instead, I’m going to tell you about a pretty crazy meeting I have the honor of attending this May. Coincidentally, this all started while I was out on the Whillans Ice Stream, so let’s hop in the wayback machine to this past field season in Antarctica…

Another major amenity: tables and tableclothes! Instead of the more typical, um, lap.

Another major Big Camp amenity: tables and tablecloths! Instead of the more typical, um, lap. 

This year, like last year, we had a fairly large drill camp (one day I’ll tell you all more about this; yes, I keep making this promise). When you are part of a big camp with significant support, you have a few extra amenities that are pretty convenient: someone to cook some/all of your food, extra hands when you need them, and narrowband email.

Note #1: Narrowband as in the opposite of the broadband you have in your home.

Note #2: Email, not the internet.

It’s literally just email (50kb or less!). I use it almost exclusively for scientific input/help from my advisor and/or collaborators and to send a weekly email to tell my parents I’m in fact alive (oh PS sorry Mom and Dad for not writing anything other than “Hi, I’m alive” for the past two years!). After a few emails back and forth with Helen about how the field work is going, she emails me a message that says, “Can you look at this:” and forwards an email from Dr. V. Ramanathan, who is a pretty huge deal climate scientist at Scripps (for example, here he is with the Dalai Lama).

For perspective, at this point I’m amidst my final crazy week in the field and furiously trying to finish all our work up. When you are in the deep field, with only flat white to see in every direction, it’s really hard to make sense of anything happening in the real world. For all intents and purposes, you are on a totally different planet, tethered to reality by a slower-than-dialup satellite connection. To complicate things even more, the email is long. Sadly, what does your typical Millennial do when presented with a long email? He skims it of course. I pick up the gist from my quick skim: it’s about a workshop on sustainability Dr. Ramanathan is organizing in the Vatican. There will be a handful of students from around the world invited as observers.

I wish I had saved the email I sent back to Helen (the field email address is destroyed as soon as the season is over). It was something along the lines of “That’s cool that the Pope is interested in sustainability…? Very progressive.” To tell you the truth I was mostly just confused. Here I am running at full capacity tying up work in the middle of Antarctica. Why is my advisor emailing me about some random conference the Vatican is hosting?! Is she invited to participate??? That’d be neat! They totally should invite her! I hope she gets to meet the Pope. [Those are actual thoughts that ran through my head.]

The next day, I find an email back from Helen: “I NEED A YES OR NO.” I literally had no idea what was going on. I had absolutely no recollection of a yes/no question. I swore the entire email said “Can you look at this” and I need to get out to a half dozen GPS sites right now or I won’t have time to download the data this season. I took a deep breath, came to my senses, and gave myself five minutes to figure out what on Earth was going on.

I open the original email back up and, instead of skimming, I actually read it. As it turns out, I missed something (surprise surprise). The email continued after the forwarded email text. It started up top with “Can you look at this” and ended at bottom with: “and tell me yes or no? [Scripps Department Chair] Lisa needs to know ASAP!  Thanks.”

Casina Pio IV, home of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. AKA location of the next conference I’m going to. What the what!

Let this be a lesson to all you graduate students out there: do not skim your advisors emailsREAD THEM. EVERY. SINGLE. WORD. Helen wasn’t just telling me that there was this workshop on sustainability filled with Nobel laureates happening in May at the Vatican. She was telling me the department was nominating me to go. I don’t remember exactly how many times I wrote “yes” in my response, but it was definitely a lot. I sent the email and then immediately pushed it from my mind: a nomination is no sure thing and holy @%*$ I have a ton of work left in Antarctica. Back. To. Work.

I came back from Antarctica and tried to keep this whole thing on the DL—I fully convinced myself that there was no way my nomination would be accepted. Who am I to sit in a room rubbing elbows with some of the decorated scientists on the planet?! But then, last Friday, the final word came down: I, along with another Scripps graduate student, am invited to observe the Pontifical Academy of Sciences workshop on sustainability.

As you could probably tell from the fact that I am about to eclipse the 1000 word mark here, I’m rarely at a loss of words. Yet as I read the invitation email, I had nothing. I could not write (or say) a single word in response. My thought bubble more or less consisted of “!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Now, almost a week later, I’m still not sure this has all sank in, but man am I excited. The participant list is an all-star cast of both social and physical scientists (peruse the workshop booklet here) and I cannot wait to be in the same room with such firepower. I’m also a bit intimidated by the other observers on the list: former US Senator, New York Times reporter, former ambassador… Lots of folk with their own Wikipedia page. I definitely am not of that caliber!  Regardless, I’m honored, humbled, thrilled, inspired, and (I think) nervous about all this and am so grateful to Helen, Lisa, and Ram, who thought I’d be a good nominee for this opportunity. I don’t know much more about this yet (other than what’s in the booklet I linked above) and, perhaps obviously, this story isn’t done yet. So stay tuned!



  1. Very cool opportunity, Matt! Can’t say I’m too familiar with the scientists on the participants list, but seeing names like Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs tells me it’s a pretty big deal. Interesting article about the chancellor of this Academy, a Bishop Sanchez Sorondo, and why he believes in science and evolution.

    • Stiglitz is one of the people I’m most excited to hear talk! Though as I’ve learned through the years, the best talks are the ones you never see coming. Thanks for the article—the thing about Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere is funny to me after I’ve spent two of them down there. My first season in Antarctica I interrogated one of the Kiwi’s I was with about what “Christmas Break” is like in New Zealand. It involved a lot of parties on the beach! So strange…

  2. This is awesome! The Catholic Church has been doing science for a long time. Did you know there are 38 craters in the moon named after priest-scientists and physicists? And many of them lived well before Galileo. Jesuit astronomers defended Galileo’s science. And don’t forget about the priest who formulated the theory of the Big Bang, Georges Lemaitre.

    • Well that’s a fun fact. The history of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is really interesting too… It’s was first formed as the Accademia dei Lincei ( Who was a member of that Academy? Galileo Galleli.

  3. […] I guess I should back up here. If you missed previous posts: I’m at the Vatican for a joint workshop of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences/Pontifical […]

  4. “Same weekend as a race I wanted to do (and EGU). But um, I can’t say no to
    maybe meeting the pope? Is this an actual invite? If so, yes.

    And holy crap thanks!” was your first reply 😉

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