Saturday, 7 February 2009

It is amazing the difference a few years can make

Just over three and a half years ago I enrolled in a PhD-by-research project. It had been seven years since completing my Master’s degree. Seven years wherein I was busy doing many things which had nothing whatsoever to do with geology (other than continuing to admire the rocks whenever I was out for a hike, of course). In those seven years I managed to forget a fair bit of information gained in courses as an undergraduate and Master’s student. As a result, when I first started this project I had only the haziest idea of what I would be doing and the science behind it. I recall reading the initial stack of papers my advisor handed me and being fine with the concepts included in the papers which spoke about my field area, but being totally lost on the papers which addressed thermodynamics, chemical equilibrium, crystallization, diffusion, growth modeling, and geothermobarometry. Some of them contained complex looking formulas, others referred to graphs I couldn’t understand (just how does one “project from muscovite” anyway?). Undaunted, I kept reading, I checked out some text books from the library, and read them. Cover to cover. I booked time on expensive equipment and analyzed my samples. I learned to use programs to do the modeling, and discovered that those complex looking formulas don’t refer to calculations I need to make myself, but to calculations that the computer is able to do for me.
Yesterday I stopped into the University Library to photocopy a few articles in journals we receive in Paper (gasp, shock, horror!). Some of these articles have been on my “go copy this” list for months, and while I have notes on the computer as to why I wanted to see most of them, I didn’t bother to consult that list last night when getting ready to read my 1000 words of geologic literature a day, but instead looked at the titles and selected one at random. More than a half an hour later my partner interrupted me to ask if I’d read 1000 words yet so that he could turn off the light and get some sleep. Why, yes, yes I had, long since, but I was so enjoying reading a technical paper that flowed smoothly for me, where I could understand every word, even though it contained aspects of thermodynamics, chemical equilibrium, crystallization, diffusion, growth modeling, and geothermobarometry, that I hadn’t wanted to put it down. Realizing this made me pause. Just when did that transition take place? At what point did this stuff change from being “hard to understand” to “interesting”? I can’t point to a single epiphany wherein I was suddenly able to “speak the language”, and, no doubt, I am not yet fully fluent, yet my comfort levels are here. Reading my 1000 words a day isn’t a “chore” to be done “because it is good for me” it is now, often, as much fun as reading fiction has always been for me, because it is interesting.
Any of you who are just starting out studying a new topic and finding it “difficult” to follow the technical papers, take encouragement from my story. If you stick with it, in time, it will become easy. If it can happen for me, it can happen for anyone.


Silver Fox said...

Yes, it can go away, some of the more complicated definitions and jargon - and I was surprised to find it comes back, and thankful. A good post to let people know that technical skills and knowledge can be regained and built upon.

Wayfarer Scientista said...

congratulations - this is an inspiring story. (Came here from Silver Fox)