Saturday, February 7, 2015

On Being On The Lower Rungs Of Science Hierarchy

This made me chuckle: On being a mycologist from Adam Rogers- Proof: The Science of Booze

"It was something even I, an undergraduate who didn't know anything could do", Scott says. " I could go out there and look for stuff" In the space of one anecdote, Scott had become a mycologist. You think you were an iconoclast in college? Try being a tall, gay, banjo-playing fungus major with a microscope in  your dorm  room,  walls decorated with fungal family trees you drew yourself".

and.. this on perceived scientific hierarchy:

Magnified fungi look like alien plants from a 1930s pulp sci-fi magazine cover, or a Dr. Suess illustration rendered by Pixar. Its a weird landscape, not to everyone's taste. 'If you found a new deer, you'd be on the cover of Nature," says John Taylor, a mycologist at UC Berkeley. "If you find a new fungus, you're in the middle pages of Mycotaxon. But we're not bitter".

That last sentiment reminded me of a conversation I had a long time ago. It was during my M.Sc field training week in Central  India. We were walking back to  camp after a long day's tramp through forests and stream beds. The conversation turned to career choices and the merits and excitement  of getting into a science career. One faculty with us reminded us not to expect attention. Most scientists  will live through  a low profile career.  They will meet a small circle of colleagues and peers. Their papers  will be read by a few  handful of others. You need  to accept this and be satisfied that your  choice and your work is adding  incrementally to our knowledge. Don't expect revolutions.

Is there a division in geology between glamorous and less weighty fields? Again, I  am reminded of the situation during my graduate days at Pune University. The geology department there grew out of a hard rock petrology tradition. There were experts galore on igneous, metamorphic rocks, structure and tectonics and field mapping. Sedimentologists studying hard, consolidated, heavily diagenetically altered and cemented rocks were considered real geologists. Working on unconsolidated Quaternary sediments and landforms was looked down upon. Even worse was if you were in the "environmental" field. Dibbling  dabbling with water samples was just not worth the trouble! It's not hard core geology- was the majority voice.

But times are changing.  The recent impetus in studying climate change means that Quaternary sediments and the secrets they hold about past climates and sea level changes is a hot area of research. So are fields like environmental geochemistry, spurred by increasing social awareness and a tougher regulatory regime, geared towards understanding the myriad pollution problems we face today. They attract funding from government grants and younger faculty and scientists are seizing the opportunity and launching their careers on *shudder* ..the unconsolidated stuff..


  1. Interesting read (and I'm excited to see a quote from Proof up there. It's a great book!). I can draw a parallel to my undergrad days at St. Xavier's Bombay. Ours was another hard rock department. Continental flood basalts were the bomb! That sort of dragged me into geochemistry at postgrad, and I have to admit that I still lean in that direction despite dealing with sedimentary environments and computer models at the present haunt!

  2. Vivan- good to hear from you.. and you need to tweet / blog about your new research!! awaiting... :)