As a scholarly type, I tend to mark the start of the new year during the back-to-school season around September 1, not around January 1. As this academic year comes to a close, I notice that it has been very eventful. During the past 365 days, I have spent the night in 54 distinct locations. That’s more than one new place a week, on average. It’s probably my own personal record (the last time I totaled up my lodgings for a year, September 1 2001 to September 1 2002, I got 39), and it likely surpasses the personal records of many others. Where all have I slept this year?
Some of my travels have been to academic meetings: in Washington D.C.; Guelph, Ontario; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Newport, Oregon. I’ve also camped in a lot of different spots while pursuing frogs: this Spring, I wrote about my Midwestern fieldwork (I, II), and I’ve helped Ivan look for frogs in the Oregon Cascades, too. In July, I tested antimicrobial peptides at Vanderbilt University (I, II). Other trips haven’t had such lofty scientific aims, but have been biologically educational nonetheless: for example, my visits to Florida (I, II, III), the San Juans, and Costa Rica, and my recent road trip from Oregon to Michigan, during which I saw bison, elk, pronghorns, a black bear, moose, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, and lots of deer, with most of the wildlife occurring in Yellowstone and Badlands National Parks. Finally, sometimes I’ve gone camping or visited friends or family just for fun, or traveled to do volunteer service work with no direct relation to my field of study.
Can all of these adventures be justified? There are two issues at stake here. One issue is time. Shouldn’t a self-respecting graduate student be spending all of his or her free time in the lab? I can’t deny that the daunting prospect of finishing my dissertation and publishing enough papers to succeed in a research career, when I’m spending so much time on the road, does occasionally worry me. However, travel is a traditional component of an academic life, and if I am learning something in a new place, that is what I’m occasionally supposed to do. As someone who doesn’t have to punch a clock, I can theoretically organize my time however I want, as long as I get my work done. Besides, a lot of what I do can be accomplished on my laptop in any location. Furthermore, I believe (and, significantly, I think my advisor would agree) that it’s important to be a well-rounded person, even if you are a scientist. Thus, although I have to be careful not to get too distracted with fun activities, wanderlust is not necessarily incompatible with doing science.
The second issue might not even occur to everyone, but to me it is more serious than the expenditure of time. It’s the expenditure of oil. I have consumed an enormous quantity of jet fuel and gasoline this year. As I have written about before, I make major lifestyle choices based on reducing my carbon footprint and my negative impact on the environment in general. Yet despite my best intentions, I have become a gas guzzler. What do I have to say for myself? I have no easy answer. I do feel conflicted, and somewhat guilty. But I mostly feel that these trips have been worthwhile (with some exceptions, like the EPA STAR conference in Washington D.C., which was largely a waste of time). Field work is necessary for science to proceed, scientists have to exchange information with each other, zoologists like me can learn more about wildlife by observing it in its natural habitat, and travel to new places is an eye-opening experience that broadens ones world view, chips away at ignorance and bigotry, and keeps the peace among nations. These are all good things. What is needed, perhaps, is a more sustainable way of achieving these goals. Electronic exchange of research results is making this aspect of conferences obsolete, and though scientific meetings still are important for networking and schmoozing, we should adopt Web 2.0-style connections to help accomplish this from our desk chairs (Nature Network is a good start). Conferences are still more fun than staying at home, but maybe we should attend local conferences more frequently than global ones. People should still travel to do research and enlighten their minds, but planes and cars might not be the best way to do it. How about trains and busses? They are slower, but in the grand scheme of things, this is a minor price to pay.
There is still the small matter that I have not been practicing what I preach. I can only sheepishly offer that it’s hard to take the first step. Giving up meat and car ownership are easy for me, and hardly feel like sacrifices, but it’s really difficult to give up plane travel. Others, I suppose, feel no need to ever visit Guelph but would be hard pressed to stop eating steak. I guess we should all make the lifestyle changes that are easy for us, and then gradually work on the more difficult sacrifices. Perhaps, having reflected upon this year, I can do better next year. I’ll try harder if you will.