I always tell people when I’m interviewing for a job, ski racing prepared me very well for the constant criticism and failure you experience in science. Every time you try to publish something, you receive harsh critiques during the peer review process, even if the paper is eventually accepted. The only way to improve is to continually solicit these beatdowns, then lick your wounds and try harder.
When that happens, I think back to training with the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, and surviving things I didn’t think I could survive. For instance: the one time Pepa asked us to do max-level 2-minute intervals on the SkiErg before eating anything in the morning, then gave us a quick breakfast, and then we rollerskied for like, four hours. Maybe some people went for five? When we got our instructions, I thought it was impossible that I’d finish. But I did.
So when I science hard and everything feels (temporarily) like a failure, I remind myself: you can get to the finish line. You are tough. Workouts like that one taught me that while I might never be the best (at ski racing, that’s for sure), I can do a lot of suffering and finish tasks that might seem impossible. Positive self-talk helps!
Workshops and conferences are generally a lot more fun than that workout was. If immersing yourself in scientific research – whether that’s by long and grueling trips to the field, toiling for hours over the lab bench, or frying your eyeballs coding on a computer – is like training, then emerging out of that world into a conference is like the first ski race of the year.
All of a sudden you get to check out what other people have been up to, and test your ideas and your data against them. Of course there’s no single winner at a workshop or conference, but that nervousness and excitement about seeing the community again, and revealing your activities to the experts in the hopes that they will be impressed, really does give a bit of the same feeling as West Yellowstone, the first Eastern Cup, or the first college carnival of the year. Along with the job at hand is also fun socializing, hearing about the new job someone has taken, seeing how much their kid has grown in a year, and rehashing stories from the past.
As a PhD student, I still feel like I have to prove myself every time I meet a big name. And at the workshop, in Fribourg, Switzerland, there were times when I felt like, gosh, I’m never going to make it in this world.
One of the lecturers does research about some of the same questions that I study, and is even using some of the same study organisms. He has done a lot of cool research in the past, and I’ve read many of his papers and cite them. It was a great opportunity to see him give a two-hour lecture on things that apply to me so directly.
But at the end of his presentation, he talked about a major new grant he had received to replicate his research in four other countries, to use experimental ponds all throughout Europe, and do a few other things. He was answering my questions, but on a vast, globally-replicated scale!
(Briefly, we study freshwater science, so organisms like insect larvae, crustaceans, and fish that live in streams. Also ponds and lakes and rivers, but mostly streams.)
And here I am in Switzerland. He will have dozens of streams all over the world; I am working so hard to check on ten streams near the German border. How can I possibly compete?
“Maybe I should just go get a job at McDonalds,” I joked to another workshop participant.
And yet, the workshop was really helpful and at other times made me feel like all of my ideas were coming together into something that could be really meaningful. I began to see how my data from those ten streams could link together with experiments I am doing in the lab, and go into one big framework to assess ecosystem functioning and explore various future land use schemes.
There were also some comical moments. Students were given the opportunity to bring a poster to the workshop, but in the end nobody else did besides me. That’s like getting to a race and realizing you’re the only entrant. Would you still do it?
Probably you would – we’re all masochists, looking for a good workout, and chances are you would have driven a long way to get to the race – but it would definitely feel silly.
Instead of having 20 people clustered around one poster, the organizers asked me to put the powerpoint of my poster up on the projector and give a ten-minute presentation in front of the whole group in the lecture hall. I hadn’t prepared anything, but I tried to give a concise and not-too-rambling summary of what I’m up to. The responses were positive, even from the guy with millions of dollars in research funding and study sites all over the world.
So I left the workshop feeling that I hadn’t “won”, but that I now had a much better idea of what else I needed to do when I got home and what I needed to focus on in “training”. I had a vision for how to succeed.
Fast forward a few days and I was in Sweden for the International Tundra Experiment (ITEX) 2015 meeting. Climate change researchers from around the world gather every year or two to report results and work on synthesis papers where they pool a lot of data from alpine, low arctic, and high arctic research to make solid conclusions about the effects of climate change on these plant communities.
The conference was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. I was giving a talk, and was quite nervous: after all, it’s a quite specialized conference, so you know that everyone in the audience knows as much or more than you do about the tundra. If you do something wrong, or don’t know what you’re talking about, you can’t really hide.
At a lot of bigger conferences, people might be more expert than you in general theories and ideas, but probably only a few know your study system inside out. But at a conference like ITEX, every single one of them does. It ups the stakes a little bit. The nerves!
On top of that, the first speaker in my session talked for twice his allotted time period! The moderator was trying to cut him off, but he just kept going. By the time I gave my talk people had been sitting in the room for an hour and a half and were supposed to be on a coffee break already. There’s no way they will stay focused, I thought. I’m screwed.
But the talk, titled “Changes in process, not pattern, after a decade of warming in Adventdalen tundra vegetation” and based on research I did for my masters degree on the polar island of Svalbard, went really well. I actually won the second prize for student talks.
(The winner talked about release of biogenic volatile organic compounds – the chemicals that make fruit smell good, attract pollinators to flowers, or deter herbivores – and for successfully explaining biochemistry to plant ecologists, she definitely deserved the prize! I’m going for the win next time though.)
The next day, the paper I had written based on that same data came back from a prominent ecology journal…. with a rejection. I mean, I hadn’t thought the paper was the greatest thing in the world, but I had been happy with the draft I had submitted and proud that I had made the whole thing myself. I thought I had good ideas. The message was that… I didn’t.
But here’s the thing about science: even while eviscerating my narrative, the reviewers gave some incredibly helpful suggestions and made it clear that they thought that the work was valuable and should be published. There was the stick, but also the carrot. It’s like a coach saying, “I see potential!”
And that gets back to the positive self-talk. In ski racing and in life, isn’t so much ultimately about convincing ourselves that we have potential?