Thursday, October 30, 2008

All I needed to know I learned (not) in school

It occured to me today that I'm over six weeks into my "new" job now, and things have settled down into somewhat of a routine, or semblance of normality. But I'm not sure that I've really described the kinds of things that I'm doing here, which is cause for some reflection, and perhaps some story telling.

Let's see, on Monday I spent most of the day visiting a bunch of field sites and pouring seed/sand samples from tubs into plastic bags, collecting data for a grad student at a remote school who's doing a project on seed predation. A common aspect of my job is actually often designing/inventing the structures and devices we need to accomplish some of our experiments. This is a fun, and rather unexpected part of work... on any given day, it involves a lot of head scratching, tinkering with all kinds of hardware, pvc pipes, metal conduit, pipe fittings, plywood, 2x4's, plastic craft boxes, rope, steel cable, hog rings, rebar, lots of duct tape etc, etc, etc. Also playing with power tools: drills, drill presses, table saws, hand saws, hack saws, pipe cutters, crimpers, screwdrivers, wire strippers, hammers ("persuaders"), vice grips, wrenches, pliers, sledges (or as I like to call them "big persuaders"), and so on. Most of the things we make are driven by the need to accomplish a given task, without pre-existing plans, and (because this is ecology) the conflicting demands of the best/sturdiest/most easily opperated device and at the same time, using materials that are as cheap/easily obtainable/fast to construct as possible. Right now our project is significantly limited by budget and time constraints.

I like to pretend (not without some true similarities I think) that I'm one of the engineers in Houston that helped figure out how to save Apollo 13. This job is, I'll grant you, not quite so stressful, and no one's life rides on the success of our inventions.... (Thank goodness!)  But still.

How does a theoretical ecology dude end up with a job that involves such a significant amount of engineering, tool usage and common sense? I guess I'd have to indirectly blame (credit?) a good deal of it to my parents.  Ever since I can remember, the houses we've lived in have been in one state of renovation or another.  There are pictures of me as a baby in one of those walker things, in a room where all of the walls are sorta ripped out and you can see wiring and lathe n' plaster...  This started literally before I was born, when my parents bought a run down old house (now more than 200 years old!) and a lovely old piece of property.  18 years later, it was just about all fixed up and perfect, and we moved...  Repeat.  

We've always done a lot of the work on our houses ourselves, as my father is very handy (skills he learned from his dad), and my mother learned to be so as well.  Plumbing, electrical work, framing, deconstruction, roofing, painting, you name it, we've done it (probably more than once).  Once my younger sister and I were old enough to help, we chipped in, handing tools and nails and doing simple jobs at first.  As a result of all of this, I've ended up with a set of common sense/practical/handy-person skills that are serving me well right now.  I've told my dad (much to his amusement) that the knowledge I'm using right now for this job I had to have a bachelor's degree to apply for is actually everything that I learned from him long before I ever entered halls of higher learning...

What was the point of college again?  ;-)  Not really to get this job, but to carry me on to the next phase I guess, the ever closer, looming graduate school period.  On that front, I'm up to two solid/exciting possibilities, one safety, one maybe and one no-go.   With maybe 3-4 people left to contact.  I'm slowly making headway.  I think I'd be happy calling it a full set if I end up applying to 5 schools, +/- 1.  Whew.

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