Friday, April 18, 2008

Moving target

When I was five, I announced that I was going to be an airplane pilot when I grew up, and that I would fly a pink jet. This amused my parents to no end. Aside from the pink fixation, I was not a girly girl, playing exclusively with my Legos, Tinker Toys, and this horrible old electric train set that filled the whole basement with smoke.

In high school, I wanted to be an auto mechanic. I went to a votech school for grades 9-11 and took tons of shop my freshman and sophomore years (including the woodworking class where I clocked my teacher in the head with a 2x4 that was over my shoulder. Oops!). When I had to choose a "major" my junior year, though, I wound up picking drafting. If I'd taken automotive, I wouldn't have been able to take any more math or science.

My senior year in high school, I switched to a regular school and buried myself in another world. I took western civ, latin, and as many writerly-type things as I could find. Now I wanted to be a writer.

This dream took me through the first year of college at The Evergreen State College. Evergreen is an "alternative" school where you mostly take one (massively interdisciplinary) "class" for an entire year. My first year I took "Great Books". We read a book a week--yeah, a book being Homer's Illiad or Plato or Aristotle--and attended a lot of seminars and wrote an essay about the book. I don't remember any of it. One of the core professors was a physicist and I developed a huge crush on took a real liking to him, so I decided to take whatever "class" he was teaching the next year.

That turned out to be "Energy Systems", which covered the math and science and technology behind how we create and use energy in the world, from coal fired power plants to internal combustion engines to solar panels. We also looked at the social implications of technology. That year was about the best year of my life. I absolutely loved the class and loved being back in science. Suddenly, every question had a right and a wrong answer, and if I worked hard enough, I could usually find it. Even if I couldn't figure them out myself, just knowing the correct answer existed seemed comforting to me. I also had a sweet internship at the Thurston County Solid Waste Department writing a report about cloth versus disposable diapers, instigating my lifelong secret obsession with solid waste. I'm fascinated by garbage and all things municipal.

But Evergreen doesn't really let you "major" in anything, so after that year I left and moved to San Francisco, to study physics at SF State. I loved that department, and more good times were had. I worked as a research assistant in the Underwater Acoustics Group, and I even had a fun internship in the theoretical physics department at Ford Motor Co. (No, I didn't know there was such a thing, before the job offer.) I decided I would eventually work in research and development in industrial physics, or possibly at a government lab. This meant I needed a PhD in Physics (or something close).

But first, I wanted to take a few years off and work. I found a great job as a development engineer at QualiTau, right in the heart of Silicon Valley. There I designed some new electronic instrumentation and wrote some software. And got thoroughly sick of the semiconductor industry which is a crazy, manic, cutthroat kind of industry.

Then I started a PhD in materials science at the Univ. of Minnesota. I'd promised myself I wouldn't work in semiconductors anymore .... and wound up in a semiconductor research group. I flailed away at a flawed idea for a couple of years, but my heart wasn't in it.

I needed an adventure.

So I signed up for a gig at the south pole. I was a research technician, caring for and feeding 6 mostly automated research projects over the winter. Yep, I loves me some adventure. Here I learned the lesson be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

I was beamed back to earth, dazed (to put it mildly), and with a newfound love of weather. I went to work as a weather observer on Mount Washington, home of the world's worst weather. The world record wind speed (231 mph) was measured there in 1934. Damn that place is windy! My "personal best" was 140 mph. Then I moved into a staff scientist position in the valley research office and digitized 70 years worth of weather observations.

Then I saw an ad for a PhD position digitizing old weather observations in the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science at ETH (sort of the the MIT of Europe) in Zurich Switzerland. And here I am, getting some more instruction in be careful what you wish for (one, two, three, four)... But this life of typing quietly to myself is a bit hard on my back and my eyes and my soul, so as we know I've decided to become a public school science teacher.

I've had a paying job of one type or another since I was 14. I have never not worked. Sometimes I fantasize about it would be like to be unemployed or retired. I've worked as a warehouse order-filler, a daycare attendant, a library clerk, at a movie theater, at a video store. I've done temp work in offices and department store returns. I worked as a secretary and a customer service rep for an industrial magazine publisher. Can you tell that I have a short attention span? And that perhaps I misinterpreted the encouragement "You can do anything you want in life" as "You should try everything in life"?

As to the careers I've considered pursuing? A, perhaps, unknowably large number.

My favorite job, bar none, was at the video store. I loved that store. I liked the coworkers, I adored and respected my boss, I liked (most of) the regular customers. I loved that I was getting paid to stand around talking about movies, watching movies (free tape!), repairing broken tapes, and, best of all, just interacting with people all day. I've always seen myself as an introvert and reliably test that way on personality "tests", so it was a bit puzzling that I always loved my retail and customer service jobs. I've recently seen that paradox from a new perspective: in work, I am an extrovert. I like to interact with people. In my private life, I'm in introvert. I find socializing kind of tiring, especially if I don't know you. I feel uncomfortable with unstructured interactions with strangers, but when I know my role, what's expected of me, I excel in dealing with people. And I love people. We are all such fascinating creatures, each of us living out the same storyline (be born, live, die) and wanting the same things (food, shelter, love) but none of us with the same details or tactics or outcomes.

I am excited to embrace this new side of me, and to let myself flower and use all of my natural skills and talent. I am looking forward to the next chapter in this story.

For the May, 2008 Scientiae.

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