Musings · personal

Things that made 2018 a worth living year (even if some of it was not that good!)

Reaching the end of the year I often make a mental assessment of how my year was; what did I learn, how my acts had an impact on others, what did I achieve, how did I spend my time, what did I really enjoy and what I did not at all. Despite topical, making this kind of list is really useful for me because I often draw some helpful learning but above all I counteract the very nature of the human brain, often leaning to underachievement, fear, negativity, and own insecurities.

Just to give myself some guidance I look back to my timeline and gather all these experiences and, I guess, writing them down here is as much as accounting as a bit of a diary that can help my future self.

1. Things that I enjoyed and I am, somehow, proud of.

I begun the year co-leading a fieldwork season to Ethiopia; this was the second within the Bale Mountains Project I am working in and it was focused in retrieving new sediment cores, as old as possible, from the Bale Mountains National Park. Fieldwork is one of those things that I enjoy and, as it often happens with things we like, I have learnt to master. Besides my own skills to perform the task, fieldwork is a shared activity, something we do with peers and a truly teamwork action; therefore I meant to like it because it beholds the essence of why I do research; cooperation, collective thinking to solve a problem, incredible landscapes that have been shaped by nature and humans, and then lots of walking and good company. I leave a few pics here (click for description).

I have really liked the time I have spent counting pollen (ca. 300 samples!) and charcoal (ca. 1600 samples!) from a core we got last year in lake Garba Guracha.

We are several people working on this core at the moment and that creates a constant flow of information in several directions, so discussing proxy comparison and learning from each other has been great. This group of people along with some from my team in IPE-CSIC and DGES-Aberystwyth University attended IPA-IAL in Stockholm this summer and that was also a great experience as I had never met the lacustrine community in such integrative way!.

This has been one of my best summers ever. I went to Stockholm with my family as I have very good friends there, and from there I had a wonderful family holiday, visiting Lisbon, Galicia, and part of the northern Iberian coast. Both my partner and I succeeded not to look at any work-related issue and I had three weeks off, rarely even connecting to any internet network at all (just checking bookings and maps!). I failed on that though during this winter break, but that’s another story!.

A critical aspect for me in 2018 has been my role as a mentor, for both young adults (PhD students) and my own kids and their friends (mainly children between 4 and 9 years old). It seems pivotal to me how do we address the way people across all ages learn. I have seen how knowledge crystallizes in someone’s mind in front of me and, at that very moment, I had a deep feel of joy, I could physically see someone shinning and then realized that this might be the single most essential endeavor I have as a human being. Simultaneously, I realized how little time society invests on those critical tasks, even at schools, as we constantly focus on productivity of all kinds and less on how to answer original questions. While schools focus on accumulating knowledge in student heads, making exams at very early ages, forcing read and writing regardless of kids abilities so they “all go together”, I can see a deep reflection of that on the scientific arena with the increasing demand to PhD students on producing flawless papers since the very beginning of their careers. The paradox here is that, more often that not, very few people supervising or mentoring both collectives (primary schoolers and PhD students) want to take the time to understand how to draw the best potential from each individual.

I co-supervise three PhD students at different stages of their pre-doctorate. Besides these three I am in constant cooperation, support, advice provision with two of my best mates in the Bale project who also are PhD students (the afore-mentioned proxy data generators). I can say that I learn as much as I provide from interacting with these five individuals. Talking to them makes me realize how experience shapes the way we learn something new; since I am more senior than all of them I necessarily have analysed more data, have lived similar problems before, have faced good and bad reviewers myself. Then, as I progress in my career I see how often more senior colleagues tend to forget how did it feel to be there. Likewise, teachers, parents, society tend to expect kids to be able to accumulate all knowledge with poor autonomy skills and even poorer reasoning abilities.

This year I had a pervasive double standards experience as I had to decouple the current values of the scientific system from my own views while I asked my kid to fit in a system – not necessarily the particular school, as in this regard they are all pretty similar- that does not have any intention to focus on how, what and why we learn. This sort of hypocritical feeling has been a huge challenge, that indeed I cannot include in the achievements account, and I leave it for the New Year Resolutions.

Inside all those reflective thoughts I somehow manage to give advice, walking the same path and stretching my hand out to PhD students, colleagues and, most important, my kids (and other people’s kids often at my house). I ignore whether my role there was good or not, but what I care of was indeed realizing myself how paramount mentoring can be. Of course, a large part of my mentoring capacity comes from all my more senior colleagues at PaleoIPE-CSIC and DGES-Aberystwyth University that support me at all times.

Last but not least in this section, I managed to contribute to several papers and to finish one I lead on the fire-Ericaceous relationships in the Bale Mountains, which I hope is the first of many in a really “burning” topic to me which is long-term resilience across tropical systems.

2. Things that I learnt

In a way this is connected to the previous but intertwined with learnings from my daily personal life.

Something where I’ll always be a newbie is R but this year I had the chance to improve my R skills and applying them in papers I am writing. Learning languages implies more or less steep learning curves and it is well known that R’s is pretty hard. However, the great feeling of being learning something new, that indeed will save my own time in the future, overrides that other nasty mind-bending trick telling you are wasting your time. Great friend and companion Blas M. Benito has been critical there as he patiently answers most of my silly questions and encourages further learning.

I am often a positive person, thinking that something good is around the corner; however, the last term of the year I could only see how the current scientific system does not align at all with my values any longer (not sure it ever did, but may be I just grew up). Somehow connected with my views on how and why we need to mentor, I became all cynical on the value of what I am doing, not seeing the point at all of investing more energy and time into a task that (making some wild generalizations) seems more focused on atrocious amounts of papers and metrics than into deep moving forward the frontier of knowledge. I had the support of friends and colleagues putting me back on track to see how enjoyable most of our work can be and how to silent the demons, but in the end the learning that took me out (still taking me out I guess) of the darkness was that the person I am does not need to fit in the system but to navigate it, minimizing the background noise, ignoring the gloomy predictions and putting in action control mechanisms to stop those bad feelings.

Those mechanisms involve two other skills where I improved or just learn. One of them has been sketching. I love expressing myself graphically and I’m always looking for new ways to do that, especially displaying dynamic processes through images. I have always like to draw and doodle around and, funny enough, I keep that children’s ability to ignore what others may think of my drawing, I just do! This year I did quite a lot of sketchbooking, and used some of that creativity for the science class at my kids school, where the teacher is fond of board games so we created our own cell-based game to tell apart animal from plant cells or to understand autotrophy vs heterotrophy.

I rediscovered crocheting, as I was taught decades ago by my mother and grandmother but reconnected with that recently. Crocheting is a really organic way of knitting as failures do not always become patent and there are ways to circumvent them eventually. It is an ideal technique to create small projects and, most important, it triggers mathematical thinking on me. Creating a pattern implies understanding 3-6 different knotting types, then combining symmetries and basic arithmetic one can create anything! Then crocheting is quite a therapy because, as most repetitive manual activities, it demands enough focus to flow without strenuous intellectual input. Further more, each knot I made was a question I mindfully posed myself and somehow solved …and that was definitely good.

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