Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pining Away

In my last post, I may have indicated some degree of uncertainty of what, exactly, is going to happen on the internship I will be leaving on. This is normal -- the details of most, if not all, international placements are only really worked after you get there. As a result, most inquiries about what exactly I will be doing have been met with a vague answer about "forest conservation", followed by assurances that I can indeed speak a little Spanish, followed by intense interest in the weather (some heat we've been having, eh?)

Anyway, while I have been pining away for my internship to begin, I have been having some adventures of my own, right here in Toronto! Read on for the details, and to discover why the title of this post is a really clever pun (if I do say so myself).

First, a note: I, along with several of my distinguished (and remarkably attractive) colleagues graduated last month. Yay! Accomplishments! The problem with graduating is that the celebrations are quickly ruined by the long, hard job hunt or, in some cases, a crippling case of the quarter-life crisis -- about which, my friend Conor has written an excellent piece.

Another of the problems with graduating, especially from an institution like the University of Toronto, is that one quickly notices one's lack of, shall we say, experience. We've been learning about these lofty concepts and exciting events in the safety of our classrooms, blissfully unaware that what the outside world valued was not our ability to write essays about things, but our ability to do those things.

This realization hit home in my last semester, when I started to apply for jobs and realized that everything in the environmental field that interested me required that I have gone out into the environment and studied it. Awkward.

Luckily, the past few months have given me the chance to get into environments near and far. For a while in May and June, I volunteered on a forestry project, doing baseline studies of a forest on the Petawawa Canadian Forces Base. The idea was to get an idea of what the forest was like before they cut it all down and tried to regenerate it. As a twist, there were going to be two harvest types -- one normal, in which the saleable logs were taken and everything else was left behind. In the other part of the forest, all of the large trees were taken, and whatever was not sold was made into woodchips and burned to generate electricity. If it could be shown that this kind of harvesting could be done in such a way that the forest regenerated and the loggers made a profit, it could pave the way for a new source of green energy -- potentially creating low-cost, low-emissions electricity for Ontario and jobs for the ailing forestry sector.

Another project I was involved with was a biodiversity survey along the Bruce Trail, on the Niagara Escarpment. This is an ecologically unique part of the province, and has been designated a World Biosphere Reserve. In the 1970s, much of it was surveyed by biologists who recorded the species present at sites throughout the escarpment. In repeating this work four decades later, we were getting an idea of how, or if, the environment had changed significantly over that time.

All of this sounds sexy, doesn't it? Well, I learned something else: science is boring. No matter how interesting the original question is, the analysis required to answer it will numb even the most inquisitive minds. I mean, I speak as someone who really, really likes science, and learning about the environment. But my brain may have turned to mush after spending three days counting twigs (which we did in order to determine the nutrient load on the forest floor).

Or, as xkcd says:

Which I took as a kind of warning: if you're going to do science, you have to be committed enough to the process to spend much of your time on things like sifting through soil samples or counting leaf hairs (something that my mother, apparently, had to do for her PhD thesis).

Anyway, that was my summer! I didn't spend the entire time pining away for my trip to New Brunswick, I also looked at some actual pines in the forest, and...

Okay, sorry.

'til next time!


  1. Agreed 110% about the mind-numbing data analysis part. I've been sort of dismayed to observe this too, in the past year or so. But man is it satisfying to actually finally crunch all those numbers at the end of it.

    On the plus side of things, it's the sort of task where you can work for a few hours, turn your brain off, and know you've made some progress at the end of it. Unfortunately this is not true of the more theoretical side of academia, where you are supposedly coming up with brilliant insights and analyses but actually realize that you gave up, disheartened by your lack of brilliance, and started watching youtube videos two hours ago.

  2. no, no, no. brilliant insights come from being out in the woods counting twigs or hairs or whatever. sometimes that mind-numbing attention to detail yields some kind of insight, and sometimes it's having to be out there in the woods, or in the greenhouse, that lets you see something you would never have seen sitting indoors waiting for big thoughts to elbow their way into your brain. or just the way your brain can finally get around to big thoughts because it's at loose ends while some small part of it is counting hairs.

  3. One thing that happens to scientists who do mind-numbing things like counting leaf hairs and pustules is they might become social outcasts. This happens because they can't explain their work convincingly to non-scientists with whom they socialize or their relatives. If they do, they will be seen as a bit nutty. It's even worse if their friends or offspring explain their work to others. Something like "my dad measures stomatal size and correlates it with ploidy levels of Hawthorns"" or "my mom digitizes pustule shapes". Statements like these really puzzle people. Sometimes your loved ones might ask, "why don't you (or your stomatal-measuring parents) do something useful?" or wonder "what can a person do after sifting through truckloads of soil and counting twigs? Can they flip burgers?"

    When I was doing some basic courses in Linguistics, my prof told the class that there are some who do Phd theses on the phoneme /p/. I could only imagine their daily life. How tough it must be to explain themselves to the passerby! "I am doing a Phd on /p/".

    That is basically the stuff of doing research in any field.