Sunday, March 25, 2007

Looking back on my grad school experience, part 1

I just returned from a week in the desert with good friends, good conversation, and no responsibility. For reasons I don't fully understand, I quit drinking after February 14th. I cut back for a week, and haven't any since February 19th. Without exploring this further, it seems like it will stick until I understand what led me to this decision. I don't have alcoholism in my family and my dad hasn't drank since he was a very young man, before me or my brother were born. And though it seems trivial, I often recall Bill Monroe never drank.

Some of my time last week was spent with a couple of scientists that I've become close to, Marith Reheis and John Caskey. It was Marith that counseled me on a field trip in early 2000 near the same area in Death Valley. I struggled for years to arrive at the question: should I go for a PhD? I drank a lot at that trip, perhaps my first excursion into fine tequila, and I was deeply preoccupied about going back to school. Her and I sat in her rental car late into the evening on a Friday. Perhaps a little frustrated, she finally said flatly, "Well Andrew, it sounds like you should get a PhD."

Caskey is a former student of my advisor and is now a professor at SF State, currently advising my roommate's good friend Heather. My roommate Joanna is a student of Ken Adams, also an alumnus from my lab also advised by my former advisor. So we're all cut from the same cloth. I've been drifting lately for reasons that I need not explain here.

Getting back to John and Marith, we've also had a very deep musical bond. Marith and I were instantly very close on a field trip where I had my first exposure to Quaternary geology in 1995. We've been singing at the campfire since then. John and I had a similar bonding the following year, in 1996 at a campsite west of the Stillwater range on a large group of playa fringing dunes during Ken's field trip. To have a musical bond in the evenings and a scientific one during the day was one of the most compelling aspects of my career. It is a nice story.

I really felt the change that has occurred within me on this trip. Firstly, with a PhD's amount of coursework (yeah, I finished all that) and significant amount of my own research, I realized that I had arrived somewhere intellectually that I long sought. It was nice to feel equal footing, or approaching that, to these scientists I respect considerably. I didn't really engage though and kept mostly quiet, thinking carefully and comparing each of our respective scientific styles without asserting my own. For the time being, I am without an agenda or need to appear cogent to my peers. Secondly, coupled to this is the immense musical journey of mine. Some legs of this trip begun with those group campfires with Marith. She asked me what I thought of her singing and playing, and it was a great feeling because it became clear how far I have taken the music since the early days. To the point where I sensed that one of my heroes looks to me as I look to her. I respect her science and music and she respects my music and likely my science.

I arrived in Reno in July of 2002. I was in the last few weeks of taking the poorly understood (pharmacologically) acne medication Accutane. My face was still blazing red, but my three year bout with adult acne had ended. I was in a peculiar situation in that I was accepted without funding under his advisement. In fact, I accepted with no funding, to later be granted a TAship. I did have summer funding and at the CNS lab, I was given a project to study the Lone Mountain rangefront northwest of Tonopah using low sun-angle air photos. Later in August, I spent four days checking it out and exploring the fault I mapped. It was my first time on my own research of this scale, and it was exhilarating. I also spent a few days in the field helping Rich Briggs search for 14C samples in a trench on the Pyramid Lake fault and bonded with he and my other lab mate Senthil Kumar.

Soon the semester started and I found myself buried. I was required to take 3 grad classes, and also teach an undergrad class, which I had two sections. My advisor also made it clear I was required to tack on several advanced undergraduate math classes in differential equations. Perhaps everywhere, but at UNR, the math professors are not liked by the students. My differential equations professor was widely claimed to be 'the worst,' yet his section was all I could schedule. I buckled and withdrew mid-semester knowing I had to review calculus, the bane of my undergraduate GPA.

Well, I ran out of steam on this one. That barely brings me through my first semester, but it also sets the stage for the rest of my grad school career, which should go by more quickly.

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