Why did I become a scientist?
I guess that is a question that is asked a great deal to me. I am always puzzled by this question as for me being a scientist (and especially a professor) is probably the coolest, most fun occupation one can have. Think back when you were a kid. We always loved exploring, playing, creating, and making things out of our imagination and creativity. Well, that is what a scientist does for a living.
As a professor, my time is split between research and teaching. I teach no more than two classes per semester. However, each class for me is an opportunity to share my enthusiasm and passion for what I do and have learned to young people who are remarkably like who I was when I was a student.
In fact, I was an undergraduate student at Queens College, first majoring in 20th century music composition, later to get my BA in education and then later went back for my science credits at Queens College. Additionally, the lab classroom that I teach in was the room where I took my first upper level geology class. So, when I teach my students there, I can tell them that I do understand what they are going through as I was here, in fact, I use to be a student in this classroom and this (pointing to the third seat on the right) was my seat!
While teaching can take a chunk of my time during the semester, the rest of my time is mainly for conducting research. As a professor, I can pick and choose exactly what I would like to do research on. There is no boss, telling me to push some papers from one side of the desk to the other, or someone dictating what I must do. In fact, I have evolved and moved from one topic to another through my career. In fact, whatever I find a liking or a passion for. So when I find something interesting, I can either try to develop a project on it or just talk to scientists who are already working on this topic and see if we can collaborate in some way.
Also, my time is also my own. Outside of the times of teaching and occasional meetings, I can come in anytime I want and work as long as I want. However, I probably work far longer than the average person and in fact, often work late into the evening and often work at least part of the weekends. But that is because I am enthralled with learning and discovery of the unknown.
Why am I so passionate about learning? It comes down to trying to understand the beauty and magic of nature and the world around us. The world is so incredibly beautiful and rich with diversity. The magic of this planet is one of the greatest gifts given to humanity. Being a scientist is a full time job in being immersed in observing, learning and exploring this world. There is also a practical aspect as well. While each type of science provides rich and rewarding knowledge that can aid and improve the human condition, Geology can provide a prospective about our world that is perhaps unique in the science. To paraphrase one of the great paloenotogists of our time, Bill Berggren,
“it is the [geologist] who has the responsibility of unlocking the key to time that is buried in the deep sea and in the mountain chains of the world and once having done so, reveal the mysteries of the evolution of life itself…. A noble calling indeed.”
Also, as I mentioned before, the Earth has gone through numerous cycles climatically, tectonically, oceanographically, etc., with these past time intervals providing a view like a time machine that can provide insights to our present world and clues about what our future world could be like. The most pressing issue today is about climate change. Time intervals have occurred before that were indeed much warmer than today. While many aspects control climate, recent studies have begun to provide quantitative data that link greenhouse gases to climate in the past.
However, while I am speak of mainly the present-day world, it is when we add the fourth-dimension, time, that Geology becomes just out of this world. In fact, I often ask my students at the beginning of the semester, “who likes science fiction, or who would like to travel to another planet?” “Well, you do not need Star Wars or Mr. Spock, you just have to take my Historical Geology class.” For example, if we could go back in time just 5% back into Earth’s past, and we were to look down at Earth from a space ship, we would recognize none of the continents. This is because they had all collided into a super continent called Pangea. If you landed and walked around, you would recognize almost none of the species, sure some would look similar, but we would see strange and exotic forms that would more likely resemble someone’s creative imagination in a sci fi movie. And this is only 5% of Earth’s history. Just imagine the other 95%! I have always like Star Trek and the idea of traveling to another world. But, once I got into geology, I realized that I can visit strange lands with fauna and flora that does not exist today and I can be the one to explore and discover new insights to these “other worlds”.