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science hard! + ski racing metaphors

After a conference in Uppsala, Sweden, I had the chance to catch up with a lot of friends from my masters program, many of whom recognized how totally awesome Sweden is and decided to stay in Uppsala to do their PhD's! left-right: Willian from Brazil, me, Lore from Mexico, Sergio from Colombia. It's fun to be part of such an international bunch.

After a conference in Uppsala, Sweden, I had the chance to catch up with a lot of friends from my masters program, many of whom recognized how totally awesome Sweden is and decided to stay in Uppsala to do their PhD’s! left-right: Willian from Brazil, me, Lore from Mexico, Sergio from Colombia. It’s fun to be part of such an international bunch and I was so, so happy to see them all again.

In the last two weeks I took a short break from the world of cross-country ski reporting to jump into the more social side of science: workshops and conferences!

(Although of course I couldn’t help but to notice the Petter Northug drama, and note that his Instagram handle is “Jantelov1” – he’s serious about messing around with culture! The Laws of Jante, or Janteloven, are not real legal laws, but a way of thinking and acting promoted in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway in the early and mid 1900’s asserting that no one person should think of themselves as special or better than anyone else. That modesty describes Northug perfectly, right?)

At one point Matt Voisin, one of the co-owners of FasterSkier, passionately told me that people would definitely be interested in what I do outside of FasterSkier, even though it has nothing to do with skiing. So this is a test: is it true?

Skier or worker (or both), we're all just busy little worker bees in the end.... trying industriously to make ourselves better at what we do.

Skier or worker (or both), we’re all just busy little worker bees in the end…. trying industriously to make ourselves better at what we do.

It might be, because as 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.

A bonus of the course in Fribourg was that we ate raclette for dinner in the botanical garden.

A bonus of the course in Fribourg was that we ate raclette for dinner in the botanical garden.

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.

presentation

This talk won me $50!

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?

The Jura: A Swiss-French Training & Travel Guide

Coming from North America, I often think that the other side of whatever country I’m in is very, very far away. Happily, here in Switzerland things are a little closer together. I live in Zürich and while the nearest big mountains are at least an hour away, nothing is very far. Going south or southwest through the Alps takes a few hours, but driving across the Swiss Plateau to the French border is easier. A few weeks ago I was able to take part in a training camp in Les Cernets, which is on the border with France. Literally, after dropping our bags off at the inn where we were staying, Fabian and I ran up a hill a few kilometers and peered into the European Union. We followed a well-marked trail and there was a small monument at the top of the height of land. Anyone could take this…

Berglauf racing.

On the advice of a friend, I signed up for an event outside of Zürich called the 5-Tage Berglauf Cup. That means, in English, the 5-day mountain running cup. It was organized by a local ski club and featured five days of racing from small villages up to the top of hills in the Zürich Oberland, a rolling region of farms and rivers to the east of Zürich itself. By the Monday that the series was about to start, I realized that things might not be as easy as I thought. Fabian, who had told me about the series in the first place and had done it many times, wasn’t able to come to any of the races after all. And things are measured in meters here, not in feet as they are in the United States. So when a five-kilometer race has 500 meters of elevation gain, that doesn’t…

10 Vienna travel tips

A few weeks ago I turned 28. That means I’m entering my 29th year. That means I’m almost 30! Ack! I realized shortly before my birthday that actually, I have not traveled much outside of Switzerland since arriving here. I suppose my masters was so travel-heavy that I was facing exploration-exhaustion by the time I started my PhD. So I went to Sweden for World Championships for a few days, to Tenerife for vacation, and that was it for my first nine months living in central Europe. I think I was ready to rebegin. So I booked a plane ticket to Vienna, a city I had never been to and, frankly, didn’t have as many ideas about as probably I should have. I don’t remember much about the Austro-Hungarian empire from my middle-school history classes (and we certainly didn’t learn about them in high school, where history was hands-down the…

That Serena article

The New York Times recently ran an article about body image in female athletes. Its title: “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition“. I hated it from the start. I know a lot of female athletes, and I can’t think of a discussion I have ever had with any of them about balancing body image with ambition. Do they have ambition? Yes. Do they have issues with body image? Sometimes. But never have I heard an elite athlete say that they were not doing x thing that would probably make them more competitive, because it would make them feel less attractive or less feminine. Ambition and insecurity can coexist. After all, humans are complex. The article got a lot of hate immediately, mostly because it focused particularly on Serena Williams. Williams is the greatest female player currently on tour, and likely of all time. She’s also incredibly strong. Throughout…

Braunwald hiking

There had been a lot going on, so I decided to take this weekend truly to recover. On Saturday I went for a long rollerski, which tired me out so much I had to take a nap. Sunday I reserved for hiking. I had been trying to fit in a hike the previous two weekends, but the weather just didn’t cooperate. Finally, I had my window. I took the train out of Zürich and up the Glarus valley almost all the way to Linthal. Taking the train to go hiking on Sundays reminds me of one reason that I love Switzerland. The train is full: young people, old people. Rich (ish) people, poor (ish) people. People with walking sticks, people with babies in backpacks. Thin people, chubby people, people with knee replacements. People with husbands, people with school friends. Every kind of person is on the train. The things that…

extreme sledding in the Alps

I always kind of wondered where bobsled came from. I mean, you could say that of plenty of sports which I like – who had the idea of biathlon? I understand horse racing, but why stadium jumping? Like all of these sports, there is an answer to where bobsled and luge originated. With their carbon-fiber sleds, spandex suits, and bobblehead helmets, it had never occurred to me that after all, it’s just sledding. But it is. It’s just sledding. Don’t believe me? Watch this amazing video of the first Olympic bobsleigh competition, held in 1924 in Chamonix, France. Switzerland won, natch. And I’m in Switzerland. All across the alps they take sledding, or sledging, a little more seriously – something which U.S. skiers are always delighted to discover when they have an off day from a competition trip or training camp. Rubber inflatable tubes? Flying saucers? No. This is sledding…