Saturday, 17 October 2015

Notes of a prodigal paleontologist

I am at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings in Dallas, Texas. I haven't been to this meeting in two years, during which I've done very little paleontology, and in fact rather little evolutionary work. The last time I came, I was presenting the final part of my dissertation work. That presentation was on the results of four years of solid, focused work. This year, I presented the results of a side project collaboration which I am not leading (I'm the methods guy). The feeling was very different.
SVP was my main professional academic meeting throughout grad school. It was the first meeting I attended, the first meeting I presented at. I have good friends, colleagues and mentors here. In many ways, it still feels like home. My dissertation project was inspired largely by a single talk I saw at SVP Cleveland seven years ago. By the end of my time in graduate school, I almost felt I was beginning to get a certain reputation as a methods person. At the very least, the other paleontologists in that sub community knew of me.
But for the past two years, I've been doing something completely different, and attending different meetings, where I know far fewer people, and am known by almost none. I'm somewhat out of the loop on the paleo literature, having had to devote my reading efforts to understanding the literature of swallowing physiology and dysphagia. The abstract I put together for the meeting was on a completely different paleontological problem to what my dissertation was on (using the same methods). My co-author was the dinosaur footprints expert. I would be presenting to his peers. And I also wondered (giving my growing interest in comparative physiology and neural mechanism of muscular function) whether I would still be interested and excited by the meeting. And whether people here would still be interested and excited by me.
SVP is a surprisingly eclectic meeting, certainly I think more so than people not in the society might think. As paleontology has become more and more focused on understanding the biology of extinct animals over the past half century, the amount of comparative functional morphology at the meetings has increased. The advent of tree based methods for reconstructing evolutionary history has meant that many questions that were once the purview of fossil analysis can now be approached by looking only, or mostly, at living animals. Thirty years ago, these innovations resulted in virulent fights in the paleo community. Now, a quiet synthesis has occurred, and no one is surprised to see a talk discussing comparative gestation times in extant mammals follow the description of a new fossil. The first day, I struggled a little to find my feet. Much like when I return to France after a long break, the thoughts and ideas seemed to come from far away, and I wasn't entirely sure I could engage with anything. As the week wore on however, the language came back, as did the excitement. What's more, my new research was causing me to look for new things in the meeting. The paleoneurology (yes, it's a thing) and ontogeny talks were now on my radar. And I found (always a good sign), that many abstracts had ideas that paralleled some of my thinking, both on the questions from my dissertation, and on my new questions.
On the very first day, I saw a talk by one of the big guys in understanding early mammalian evolution. He was discussing the evolution of the unique mammalian nasal respiratory tract, and talking about the complex integration of smell, taste, chewing and respiration in mammals. Immediately I began tying in what he was saying with my thoughts on the neurophysiology of swallowing, and in particular how the mammalian oropharynx goes through a major neurological, behavioral and anatomical transition at infant weaning. After, I went to talk to him, and he seemed interested enough in my ideas, that were not coming from the study of fossils, but from my experimental work, that he wanted to know more. It was a reminder that I still belong here.
This morning, the last day of the conference, there was an entire symposium dedicated to the methodology I became an expert in as a paleontologist (an aspect of which had formed the basis of my own talk). I watched as several people, whose work I had always admired as a graduate student, got up and gave more talks. Talks I found compelling, novel and exciting. I now have new ideas I'd like to explore in my old data, and I'm reminded why I did this thing in the first place.
I came to this meeting unsure of what I would find, and more out of a desire not to abandon my identity as a paleontologist. I'm leaving reinvigorated, my ideas about the evolution of mammalian oropharyngeal function clarified, and new ideas of how I could link what I do to the fossil record emerging.
As I work on my transition to independence as a researcher, I'm glad to find that I'm still energised by the work and ideas of my earliest mentors, and that I in turn can energise them with what I'm doing as an experimental biologist. My path to this point makes more sense to me now, and I'm glad to know I still belong at this meeting, even as I make a place for myself at others.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Coming to America

Why did I move to America? Because I'd always wanted to. Even when applying to undergrad, I did a cursory search of Harvard's website (this will immediately tell you something of what I thought about America, but no matter). I ruled it out as too expensive (and I resented the idea of having to take an extra exam), but I probably gave it more serious consideration than I did French university, and I'm a French citizen.
It is difficult, I think, for Americans, particularly the academically inclined, liberal kind, to truly understand the hypnotic fascination that America (before 9/11 in particular) could have on Europeans. Your cinema and television exported a culture of sophisticated glamour. Even the world of your cheesy soap operas (Baywatch, Sunset Beach, Dawson's creek, The OC) were so much more exciting than the dour drama of our British offerings. America seemed alive, and huge, and beautiful.
To put it this way: there was only ever one trip I wanted really to take, and that was to the statue of Liberty. By the time I had moved to America, I had already been here five times. The first ever trip I took to America in 1993 was the fulfillment of an already years long dream, and I didn't even get to go to Disneyworld. The statue of Liberty was enough.
And so, when I decided to go to grad school, I decided I would try to do so in America. I had no excellent reason beyond "why not fulfill two dreams in one?" I would become a paleontologist, and I would move to America. Both things I had wanted to do since I was less than ten.
But fulfilling childish dreams as a adult has costs. I suspected, applying for grad school in my early 20s, that things might end up more complicated than a five year jaunt across the Atlantic. One does not with impunity embark on a major life change in one's early twenties.
It is now 8 years since I first came to the US, and I have been here 7 of those last 8 years. I am now married to an American man. I have paid taxes in the US for more years than I have in England (even though I am ineligible to vote). I know the history, geography and culture of this country as well as I know that of France and England, and as well as many Americans. Yet I am not an American. I am a French and English man, here by choice and circumstance.
Many academics get used to international moves. Yet I get the impression that few choose those moves. I chose mine: I applied for PhDs in the US. And I knew what I was risking. Yet I did not know perhaps how much. This week I was applying for jobs back home. My husband and I have only the vaguest idea of how we would mesh his career goals with me moving back the UK. As much as part of me yearns to be closer to my friends and family, in some ways, that seems almost more complicated than staying here and flying home once a year or so. Yet what shocked me more was that I had no idea HOW to apply for a job in Britain. All my tacit knowledge in reading job apps, all my professional skills, all my wordsmithing were tailored to the American job market. Faced with a British job application, I was stumped.
I should not be surprised by this. I am the second generation in my family to drift between countries and cultures. My mother moved from France to England in 1973, and has lived as a French expat in London since then, awkwardly balanced between a culture she no longer entirely understands, and a culture she has never entirely understood. My siblings, I, and many of our friends are a syncretic mish mash, knowing the work practices of the English and the social practices of the French and only truly feeling comfortable when surrounded by other binationals who get the feeling of never quite fitting in. And I've added America to that mix. It is my home, yet I am not at home here.
This weekend, I spoke with my mother, as I do every week. We talked about my career goals, and about my husband and I. As I told about jobs in the UK I was applying for, to convince her I cared and was not a bad son, she asked me what my husband would do if I moved back to the UK. I answered that for his career, we would probably be apart a couple more years. Without hesitating, my mother told me that she would travel to see me wherever I was in the world, and that I should think about my husband and I as a couple when making career choices. She lifted a great weight from my shoulders, at the cost of not calling her youngest son home.
I have been true to myself in the geographical choices I have made (well, apart from Ohio. Ohio was not part of the plan). I have no regrets. But the life of the voluntary expat comes with costs, all the more complicated to weigh and measure in that they are in part self inflicted. I was not forced to come to America. What does that say about my attachment to my family? And if I refuse to consider myself American, then how do I deal with having my professional and family life here? Expatriation bears a toll, and as more academics become more international, more of us bear those secret bruises.