Saturday, 19 July 2014

Always learning

This week has been one of interesting juxtapositions. On the one hand, we're starting the fourth set of experiments in our lab. By this point, I'm the second most experienced person in many of the procedures (though number one is ahead of me by about... three decades, at least). On the other, I've been checking the proofs for the first ever manuscript I ever submitted (slow ass society journal), which comes directly out of project I started in my second year of graduate school, before I'd even settled on a dissertation topic.
That first paper, and my current research, share very little beyond requiring a thorough grounding mammalian anatomy. Even then, the paper is exclusively concerned with bones, the research with muscles and nerves. In each case, I took on the projects feeling I knew nothing, or next to nothing, of skills I would need to make the project work. I went into both projects to learn how to do specific tasks: anatomical description of fossils in the case of the paper, experimental kinematics in the case of the post doctoral work.
How quickly the move from knowing nothing about a topic to being confidently knowledgeable happens is amazing. Or, more specifically, that transition happens unnoticed. You simply do the work, and then one day a particular circumstance makes you realise that you've gone from novice to competent quasi-expert. For the descriptive project, it was reading another manuscript by one of the better descriptive anatomists out there on a closely related species. I was surprised to see that my description was as detailed and technical as hers, and that she and I had seen similar structures in our specimens, and interpreted them similarly. For my current postdoctoral work, it was giving a talk to our department on the lab's research earlier this week. Or, more precisely, it was the questions afterwards. I'd asked my PI to be present in the audience to deal with any questions I might not be able to answer. As the questions progressed, I realised that I didn't need her to jump in and save me. Somehow, over the past ten months, I'd learnt enough that I could talk about what we were doing, how we were doing it, why we were doing it, and where we intended to go.
One of the reasons I returned to do my PhD after a couple of years working in the real world was precisely that I missed this feeling of going from ignorance to competence in a field again and again. I distinctly remember realising that, well, no other job could really provide me with that. Once I'd understood how to craft a cold letter to a new fundraising prospect, or write a grant project, or develop a 12 month engagement strategy, that was it. I'd be doing that over and over again for the rest of my career. That prospect sounded boring, and I thought I didn't want to start a career that would bore me by the end of my twenties.
Is there ever a point in an academic career when you are not constantly teaching yourself new skills and new ways of studying nature? I hope not. The satisfaction of going from knowing nothing to being a competent expert in an area just by doing the work is one of the things that keeps me in this gig.

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