Reporting on geoscience issues seemed like a great fit for my background and goals. Instead, it forced me to face internal conflicts I’d been avoiding about interests and sunk costs (2,300 words).
After nearly a decade of identifying myself as a geology student or geologist, I’ve stopped restricting my career aspirations to this discipline. This was a hard and emotional process, and recently it led me to break a commitment I’d made, to write stories about geoscience issues in African countries
Calling this a ‘decision’ implies finality, but it’s more of an ongoing thing to prioritize and find work that fits into that. This post is a progress report and a history, about what brought me into geology and what has gradually led me out of it. It takes a stab at answering the question of what my future plans are, beyond riding my bicycle Stan into sunset for ever and ever.
In 2015 I attended the Geology for Global Development (GfGD) Annual Conference in London, UK. Its speakers advocated for geoscientists to lend their expertise to addressing social problems, particularly those aligned with the UN SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). Among the speakers were a Farsi-speaking researcher doing natural hazard education in Farsi-speaking regions of Central Asia, a mining-exploration geologist who focused on skills transfer during her work in Ethiopia, and academic geoscientists discussing the role of geoscience in UK overseas development policies. I found their messages really compelling, and left floating on a cloud of inspiration.
I’d left Armenia to attend the conference and soon I returned, to its yellow grass, crumbly outcrops and harsh blue skies. My backpack was stuffed with Goretex and goose down sewn into expensive shapes, which I deemed necessary for surviving a Caucasian winter on my bicycle. And in my head I brought new ideas about how to use my geoscience skills for good (my blindspots about ‘doing good’, then and now, are a discussion for another time).
That was two years ago, and this article comes together in a guest house in Malawi, where I’m cycling…still. All sorts of articles and books about social geoscience now live on my computer, and over the last year I’ve even contributed two. Megan of Armenia would be bewildered as to why Megan of Malawi was throwing away this awesome combination of volunteer science writing and bicycle travel.
IT DRAINED ME
In Rwanda I investigated agroforestry and landslides, and in Tanzania fluoride in drinking water—both problems that arise when communities interact with their local geology. For this story, the topics are less relevant than the approach I took, and my response to the whole experience.
The point was to engage on the ground, as my advantage was being physically in the country. To encounter a landslide scar and find a Rwandan who would share the story of how it happened and its effects. Or to pursue the same kind of insights in Tanzania, talking about water quality issues at the borehole, waiting for our turn to fill up our water bags. It was idealistic but in hindsight this sort of engagement was possible, had I the drive to pursue it despite the communication barriers I faced as an English-only speaker.
I can be persistent in the search for the right people and information. In approaching these social geoscience stories I wasn’t; I was withdrawn and hesitant. My retreat into a digital comfort zone was swift, relying on academic reports, media, and emailing with scientists in order to get what I needed. I pursued conversations with the people I met on the road and in towns when we rested, but often I’d avoid bringing up the very topics I was writing about.
A friend wrote me a while ago, about how his current position was giving him a lot of ‘energy’. I’d forgotten this idea, that in our lives some activities are net-nourishing, and others deplete us. What I’d undertaken really depleted me. I wished the articles would finish themselves, even dreading them. The conflicts that came up for me added to this feeling of aversion.
Landslides and fluorosis are significant problems for communities in many developing countries. I believe they are significant and also underreported, especially with regards to ways to manage their problematic effects. But I became wary that this alone gave me license to tell these stories. I’m a geoscientist, but one without specific experiences with these problems. Nor do I have much relevant experience communicating about these issues to people of different cultures. Sure, the readers of the articles would mainly be native-speaking Westerners who I know how to communicate with. But getting the best information and conversations going required me to see the issue more like a Tanzanian or Rwandan.
I considered that my resolve to focus on geoscience problems in African countries wasn’t informed by what the communities affected might themselves want to communicate to a curious Westerner. Would a local resident want to talk about that problem, another problem, or topics not related to problems at all? My aims had more to do with my own goals and perceptions, and this felt arrogant.
If I pushed my agenda on them, I draw a little consolation from the fact that I also pushed it on myself. I had decided that geology needed to be the focus of my work for the rest of my working life. When I gave myself the choice in my ‘free time’ I much preferred to learn about topics unrelated to the geosciences, but I forced myself to ignore this. Evan kept asking me about geology questions, and his naked, sincere interest frustrated me.
Here in East and Southern Africa, residents engage with their local geology on the roadside. A bicycle trip can be a never-ending geoscience field trip extravaganza if you want it to be! Locals chip granite down into aggregate, sell conspicuous gems, live on different types of slopes, draw from their aquifers, muscled from the daily effort demanded by hand pumps. Hand-painted signs show how to flee floods, or mark the entrance to geothermal projects. Many markets offer lumps of grey mineral crumbles, iron supplements for pregnant women.
Another part of the travel geology experience in this part of the world is enjoying the wondrous landscapes. The East African Rift Valley’s crumbling volcanic cones and parallel ridge lines the pimples and scars of an adolescent rifting. The colour of the soil that makes up the road, abruptly changing from red to taupe or, worryingly, to that grey that will stop you in your tracks, becoming a quagmire in the rains.
There are geologists that organize field trips on weekends, even those that map for fun on holiday. These endearing weirdos are at one end of a wide spectrum, but if I may generalize: Trying to decipher the earth’s physical wonders is something that excites most geologists. I wanted to be like this, and rarely was.
One approach is to try harder to get interested, approaching the discipline from different perspectives. The second is to stop applying pressure and fully embrace other interests. I’ve done the former for a decade, and I’m overdue for something else.
Talking about interests gets messy for millennials. The conversation commonly devolves into the dreaded Follow Your Passion meme, which we ridicule and privately hope for, hedging our bets. By now we’ve heard passion isn’t so much sparked but built, but what’s required for a foundation on which to grow?
It seems to me that one must believe in both the interest and importance of their pursuits. I’m enthusiastic about the important role that geoscience plays in society, and learning about Geology for Global Development permitted me a more expansive view of these roles. And, I have a passing interest in geology. But these days, the choice to continue in geoscience, even just obliquely through writing, has felt costly. It’s at the expense of better exploring other possibilities, where my mind goes when I give my curiosity and conscience a longer leash.
It’s tricky, because for me geoscience is more than a career. At the risk of overdramatizing, it was who I was.
GEOLOGIST BEFORE ALL ELSE
My sunk costs were ones of identity, not debt or dependents. Geology was convenient for signalling to others how I wanted to be seen.
In university, every non-major that flunked petrology class was more evidence of the rigorous path we’d chosen (we had more compassion for majors that failed). We gloated that ours was a both rigorous and pragmatic science of the real world: field trips, field work, money, binge drinking after labs. We were science students with social skills, and I graduated into a corporate scientist with a social life built around that. That I was a New Grad Geologist with This Particular Energy Company usually came before anything else with my name and handshake (which was much-practiced, firm but kind). A man I was seeing who existed outside the industry’s orbit called my employer The Mothership, and it took me years to get the joke, of which I was the butt.
Many people I was lucky to get to know through geology remain friends and mentors, and my relationships with them felt wrapped up with my geoscience identity. A family’s connections to a type of work can be particularly delicate to navigate. In 1993 or thereabouts, my Dad brought his homemade rock board into my kindergarten class. We sat cross-legged on the carpet, waiting to touch the shiny specimens. Years later, my favourite cousin chose geology in university and that was more than enough reason for me to follow. We yelled over country music at a Calgary bar, planning our future consultancy, drunk on cheap vodka and the feeling of fitting in.
It seems counterintuitive, then, that these family connections still take hold after both my Dad and more recently my cousin put aside their geology aspirations. Neither of them would ever fault me for trying other things, but in my family the implicit acceptance of a geoscience career remains. This mirrors how it’s viewed in society.
Geoscientists in extractive industries find themselves perpetually at the mercy of fluctuating economic and policy conditions. Over the course of a career, being laid off once or more-than-once is likely. And yet it’s work that repels far more questions of ‘why are you pursuing that?’ than efforts towards a career as any sort of creative. In Canada, enough people think geology is a decent career choice to drive mainstream acceptance of it—because it’s lucrative and STEM-affiliated. This worked great for me. It made it easy to put off the question of why I assumed I’d spend a large chunk of my life doing it.
Camaraderie also kept me from exiting. Women in the geosciences leave positions in the field and office for want or need of family responsibilities, or for completely different reasons. Less of them enter in the first place, and more of them leave. Many with ovaries feel compelled to even things out by hanging in there.
So I just tried to fit whatever interested me into the geoscience box. This can be useful for narrowing down options, if everything possible has first been thrown on the table and considered. For me the box didn’t come from a positive place. My accomplishments were difficult to separate from the discipline they were pursued within. Without the geoscience niche to leverage, I wondered if I had any valuable skills to offer future employers.
ACTIVELY UNDECIDED, BLOGGING ABOUT IT
If not geoscience, if not a geoscientist, then what?
I’m happily, actively unsure. I intend for it to involve writing, and addressing a social challenge…but not necessarily writing about social challenges, if that makes sense. My other intention is to remember that whatever ‘it’ is, that there’s value in making a distinction between who I am, and the work I do.
Circumstances could change any moment, but with some planning and a lot of luck Evan and I will stop bicycle travelling by choice, not because we have to. In this scenario, we will have decided on something else we want to do enough to stop roaming around. Planning and worrying too much about the future blinds you to what’s already right there. But I’ve also had periods of completely ignoring life after full-time bicycle travel. In this frame of mind I vacillate between active engagement with where I am and who is around me, and laziness borne of the lack of a larger purpose beyond what’s right in front of me.
Active engagement was the best thing about exploring social geology to write articles for GfGD. It brought a different sort of learning than the relative passivity of reading, researching and wondering. Now free of that commitment, I’m pursuing other ways to engage. They include renewed efforts to learn through travel and regular writing practice.
Which brings me to this blog. My ability to make sense of what’s going seems to depend on me writing about how I don’t really know what’s going on. So I’m going to keep practicing that skill, writing here twice a month. I’ll be writing about what’s happening in our life on the road, and also about my ongoing efforts to align my life and work with something bigger than myself. If I end up going full circle and engaging myself once again with geology, it will be the result of me wanting to, instead of feeling a pressure to.