Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Scientists measure...

... all kinds of things. See Amanda's latest post from Churchill.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bike Lessons

I am Ingrid, a returning member of the Cottenie lab. This is my first post, and it comes at one of those in-between times in my life. I am in between finishing a two-month bike tour and starting a three- (or four, or more...?) year PhD. It's been an interesting process, returning from the tour and re-integrating back into society.

First, a little about the tour. It was one of the best and most challenging things I have ever done. Almost two months after my return, I am still reflecting on all that I learned during this time.

It was organized by a group called The Otesha Project. It wasn't your regular bike tour, but a "cycling and performing tour dedicated to youth empowerment and environmental sustainability through storytelling". We put on a play in different towns and schools throughout Ontario, about the global impact of our everyday choices. More than a bike tour, we were a mobile community that aimed to educate youth, promote critical thinking, and question assumptions.

Here are some things I had never done before the two months:
  • I had never been on a bike tour.
  • I had never acted on stage (discounting guest lectures?)
  • I had never biked 100+km in a day, never biked with a trailer, never biked with such a sore and spent body.
  • I had never biked with such high high's and low low's. Bike touring brings with it great freedom and elation, but also at times complete and utter despair.
  • I had never slept in such an eclectic mix of places: in farmers' fields, church basements, next to a haybale, under hula hoops in a school gym, in strangers' backyards, next to a Playskool kitchen...
  • I had never been labelled a "hippie".
  • I had never met 18 other people on one day and then built a community and family with them by the next week.

I was exposed to a lot of new things, many of which I am still digesting. And as I sit pondering my past and looming adventures, it dawns on me that doing a PhD and going on an Otesha tour are not so different:
  • Like my Otesha experience, my PhD will centre on educating youth, promoting critical thinking, and questioning assumptions.
  • Like on tour, I will need endurance to make it through all the checkpoints. Some legs of the journey will be enjoyable and I will feel like I am flying, but others will test my strength and I will feel like I have been hauling a trailer for 100+km.
  • Like on tour, I will be living my passion!
  • I may or may not find myself sleeping beside Playskool kitchens...
  • I don't know if I'll be labelled a "hippie", but I'm quite sure I will be labelled an "academic". Interestingly, the two share (in my opinion) a reluctance to part with ideals and a naive refusal to join the real world.
  • Like my Otesha family, I hope to meet a community of like-minded people who I can connect with and draw on for ideas and support.
Living on your bike for two months will teach you some important lessons. These I want to carry with me through life and through the next PhD years:

1. There will be hills.
There will be hills, you will have to work to get to the top, and it will be hard. When you get there you might be faced with yet another hill, this one steeper. But the saving grace is that you can always look to your bike buddy to divide the pain, if not the work.

2. Every spoke plays its part.
What I've learned about wheels and spokes is that a wheel really needs all of its spokes to work. If one spoke is slack, the strength of the wheel is compromised. If one is overly tense, it is taking on too much and will eventually break. So I ask myself how I can be the best spoke I can be...

3. Once in a while, remember how big the universe is.
There's nothing like cycling through Ontario's rolling hills, cornfield after cornfield, to remind you how small you are and how big the universe is. And there's nothing like wrapping your mind around the size of the universe that will inspire an appreciation for mystery. And there's nothing like realizing you are in the middle of a grand mystery to dispel the small problems of the everyday. So it doesn't matter if mosquitoes are taking over your tent or unread papers your desk. I do what I do for those moments of indescribable connection to the earth.

So with brain refreshed, heart refilled, and pedalling legs strong, I look forward to my PhD.

The most important piece of advice?

Here is a great post, over on ProfHacker, about advice to new grad students: An open letter to new graduate students, by Brian Croxall. While I agree with most of these topics with varying degrees, they did not include the most important piece of advise, probably because it is so obvious: ask questions. Our role as advisors is to advise, but we can only do this if we get questions. Come in my office, send me an email, skype, whatever. And if I do not answer, which will happen, as some will attest to quite vocally, resend the email.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Field work is winding down in Churchill

Mid august, and it is starting to feel like summer is indeed slowly winding down.

Amanda is also feeling signs of Fall in Churchill, and Brittany has just put an update about her first field season up there.