August 2, 2012
“Oh, shoot, is it after midnight?” I blink at my computer. I check the calendar. ”Oh. Shoot. Is today the SECOND? of AUGUST?”
Life as a grad student. My mother tells me I’m in training to be an absent minded professor. It’s not that I’m absent minded, exactly… it’s just that I rarely know what day it is. I should explain.
I’m going to Peru on Monday. Monday. Today is… Thursday. That leaves very few days to, say, regain conversational spanish. I also need to do laundry, wash the dog, and order some cool bugs stuck in amber for the undergraduates to look at. When I get back from Peru, school starts.
The most outrageously valuable commodity to a grad student in my position is uninterrupted time to think. And BOY have I been thinking. I actually woke up this morning convinced that the statistical results I’d dreamed about were publishable because dreams are random and therefore unbiased. I read textbooks over breakfast; I draw diagrams on the train platform; I write code in my head while I walk the dog.
Two hundred million years ago the super continent Pangea split apart in a fiery mess of volcanoes. Resultant climate and chemical changes were bad news for any marine animals who wanted to keep the shells on their backs. In the sea, the global mass extinction event was even worse than the more famous time all those dinosaurs died.
I want to know what happened afterwards. If I were a snail, or a sponge, or a crab, living on the seafloor in the earliest Jurassic period, what was the ecological scene? Did life bounce back? Were ecosystems dominated by one particular group? What if I were an ammonoid, a shelled squid? Would there be other swimmers in the water? Drifters? Who were the winners and losers as life rebuilt?
As a PhD student at the University of Southern California I get to tackle these questions the fun way. I go to the desert where rocks record layers of marine muck laid down in the Jurassic seas, and I look for fossils to answer these ecological questions. People always ask me, “Do you go on digs?” Mostly, I hit rocks with a hammer. I carry a little whisk broom and brush things off. My favorite places have few animals and fewer plants, so the rocks are exposed under a clear sky, ready to share their secret history.
But, as my advisor Dave always likes to say, “The rocks are only going to tell you what the rocks are going to tell you.”
That is hands-down the most crucial instruction of my grad school career. The only hard part about what we do is deciding what rocks, and how to ask. The rest is high adventure and midnight oil.