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February 1998

The life of an NCAR postdoc



"There is something in the air here. You just breathe it and you feel stimulated."

--Roberto Casini, project scientist and
recent postdoctoral fellow at HAO


Editor's note: Regina Cannon, a postdoctoral researcher finishing up her second year in ASP, put together these reflections on life after graduate school as it's lived at NCAR. This is the first in a series of features on career tracks within UCAR.

What is it that draws freshly minted Ph.D.'s to NCAR for their postdocs? Are they continuing to follow childhood passions for scientific discovery or do they get here by process of elimination? And once they get here, what kinds of pressure do they face and what are their dreams for the future? As an NCAR postdoc myself, I set out to try and find the answers to these questions. I wanted to know what makes NCAR postdocs tick--and, specifically, whether they tick in similar ways or each keep their own time.

Postdocs in the aggregate

There are currently about forty postdocs at NCAR. About half of these have come in through the Advanced Study Program (ASP) while the other half are here through other programs such as the UCAR Visiting Scientist Programs (see sidebar in this issue) and the Geophysical Statistics Program in CGD. (See last June's issue of Staff Notes Monthly, for a feature on ASP.)

NCAR and UCAR postdocs have received their doctorates from all over the world, from as close as the University of Colorado at Boulder to as far away as Kyoto University in Japan. In 1980, just over 10% of ASP postdocs were female. In 1996, this percentage had risen to 54%. More than one-third of the NCAR scientific staff and at least 60 faculty members at UCAR universities are former ASP postdocs.

Over the last ten years, the ASP program has received between 80 and 110 applications and made approximately ten awards each year, for an acceptance rate of roughly 10%. The selectivity of VSP's Climate and Global Change postdoc program has been similar: about 9% of the 80 to 100 applications received each year are accepted. For comparison, Harvard's undergraduate acceptance rate is 12%.

Questions, questions

Given the odds of being awarded an NCAR postdoc, I wanted to find out who these chosen few were, beyond their undoubtedly impressive publication and award lists. I opted for the nonexhaustive, noncoercive method of interviewing current postdocs Barbara Walters-style, but without the cameras. My selection process was not terribly scientific: I picked eight people's names out of a hat and sent them e-mail. Would they agree to meet me and answer some questions? Out of the eight, seven answered positively. The crew ended up being fairly well-rounded: three international researchers, four Americans; two women, five men; ages ranging from Generation X to Baby Boomer. I asked everyone the same seven questions:

  1. Did you always know that you'd be a scientist? At what age did you know?

  2. What are some of your earliest, fondest memories of being involved in science?

  3. What do you attribute your success as a scientist to?

  4. How did you decide to come to NCAR?

  5. What are some of the satisfactions and pressures you feel as a postdoc here?

  6. Have you made any major changes in your research direction since arriving here?

  7. Where do you see your future going? How do you ideally envision your future?

One advantage of being the interviewer is that I could ask these questions but didn't have to answer them. Or so I thought. Many of my interviewees, after being thoroughly probed and prodded, redirected the questions back to me. Typically, we'd find out that we weren't so different from one another, but usually different enough to avoid collective "Generic NCAR Postdoc" labeling. We were a motley group loosely held together by some common threads.

The spectrum of scientific passion

Regarding scientific passion (questions 1 and 2), I was curious to discover if we had any scientists like Andrew Wiles, who found his passion at age ten for proving Fermat's Last Theorem (which states there is no solution to the equation xn + yn = zn when n is a whole number greater than two). Wiles proved the 365-year-old conundrum recently as a middle-aged mathematics professor at Princeton.

What I discovered were postdocs located everywhere along the spectrum, from those still "finding themselves" to others who found their scientific niche in graduate school, to--especially in the case of the international postdocs--those who decided on the general category of science in high school or earlier.

Mausumi Dikpati, a soft-spoken postdoc from India, decided at age 15 to pursue science. Her father used to teach her math as a child and encouraged her to pursue physics or chemistry. "I was very bad in subjects like history, languages, geography, and literature," Mausumi claims. "It was always much easier to do math and physics."

Roberto Casini was interested in astronomy from an early age. "Most Italian 14-year-olds ask for motor bikes. I asked my parents for a telescope." And fortunately for Roberto, he got one.

Rajul Pandya, an American, first got clued into his interest in physics during a college chemistry class, when he found himself more interested in the mechanical balance than in chemical reactions. "I went home directly and tried to draw out how the balance worked," Raj remembers, smiling.

Another American, Kevin Petty, was a high school math and geography teacher for two years. "Most of my life, I thought I would teach high school," he says. After going back to school for a master's to enhance his teaching, Kevin found that he enjoyed research and continued on for a doctorate. He's using his experience at NCAR to find out just how much he enjoys research. (Photo by Mariah Carbone.)

So, I learned, various paths and passions lead to NCAR. But what has helped these postdocs gain confidence in their scientific endeavors and achieve success? In reply to question 3, many of the postdocs laughed and claimed they had not yet achieved success. On my notepad, under the category "Secrets for Success," I scratched the word 'overachieving.' Rephrasing the question, I then asked, "What do you attribute your success in being awarded an NCAR postdoc to?" Mentoring by both high school teachers and Ph.D. advisors was a common reply. Other responses included religious faith, parents, and luck.

Wendell Welch

Bjorn Stevens

Aiguo Dai

Wendell Welch was inspired by her father, an entrepeneur who tinkered constantly and could fix anything. "The engineering competition with my dad has provided strong motivation to understand how things work," she explains. She is now using this motivation and curiosity to understand the earth's physical systems. Aiguo Dai, a Chinese postdoc, attributes his success more to experience than to specific people. Bjorn Stevens says, "Luck played a role, because I managed to leave Iowa State" (where he received his bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering). While working on his Ph.D. at Colorado State, he got the chance to work with people at the forefront of atmospheric science, and those connections led to further connections. Luck, connections, and hard work were the keys, I concluded.

Freedom and pressure

Why come to NCAR for a postdoc? The two most common answers--perhaps not as contradictory as they seem--were (a) "It's the place for atmospheric sciences," and (b) "It's the only place I got an offer."

The satisfaction and pressure of an NCAR postdoctoral fellowship seemed to be one and the same: the freedom to do something interesting in a limited amount of time. As Raj puts it, the refrains are "'Gotta get stuff done, gotta get stuff done,' and then, 'Getting stuff done, getting stuff done.'" "Is my problem good--am I really making the best use of this time?" questions Bjorn. One satisfaction mentioned frequently was that NCAR senior scientists are supportive and very receptive to discussing ideas.

At first, Mausumi felt overwhelmed by the environment provided here, both resources and interactions, relative to her experience in India. Now she reports being very satisfied. She adds that working hard is her greatest joy, so she hasn't felt pressured. That statement was about the closest I got to finding Andrew Wiles.

Others felt pressure to collaborate more, to find jobs, to distinguish themselves scientifically from their Ph.D. advisors. One postdoc expressed the pressure of postdoctoral transience in a very tangible way: he wanted to be able to keep the same office for more than six months. For the most part, however, I sensed that these postdocs felt that they had been given a very special opportunity and wanted to give something back. The satisfaction and pressure came from trying to do that.

When I asked whether their research directions had changed during their postdoc, I found that most had continued in the same vein as their Ph.D. work. However, Wendell was trying to learn a new area while not "dropping the ball" on her Ph.D. research. Raj, a newcomer to NCAR, planned to finish up his Ph.D. work before making a change. Roberto also planned to collaborate more in his second year.

Finally, the what's-in-the-crystal-ball question raised many smiles. Keeping expectations in perspective and tongue in cheek, Bjorn replied, "I'd like to live a little bit longer," but then added quickly, "Given that, I want to teach and do research at a university."

The seven responses to this question seemed to break down into two groups: the four Americans wanted to teach and do research, while the three international postdocs seemed more interested in pursuing pure research. When I asked Mausumi if she would consider staying at NCAR should the opportunity present itself, she sat up and said with a broad smile, "Oh, yes!" This sentiment was echoed by both Aiguo and Roberto.

Among the Americans, teaching seemed to satisfy a desire to mentor, to make a difference, and to let the frustrated actor out on stage. Bjorn added that "when I don't teach, I get more stupid, or at least more narrow. Teaching forces you to go through the fundamentals all the time and to rethink the basis of your understanding because you're always looking for new ways to explain things." But there was also a concern that teaching and research positions might be difficult to land, especially if you're choosy about location. Several said they'd be open to other jobs such as high school teaching, engineering, classical piano, or even professional soccer. But these alternatives were not mentioned without a touch of sadness at contemplating the possibility, however slim, of having to leave science. "My favorite life is the life of research," said Mausumi, "and I will try to do that wherever I can."

A final observation

Let's face it: we're all visitors to this planet, looking for food and satisfying basic human needs. Stripped to its purest form, the academic postdoc represents the height of this transience. A traveler without the illusion of roots, but not without dreams, he or she is free to roam the sea of scientific possibilities. Limited only by time (in most cases two years, at which point the funding dries up), the postdoc lives life to the fullest every day (or at least on those days that complete caffeination is achieved), knowing that soon, all this freedom will end. I found postdocs defining their paths individually but sharing a heightened sense of both time and opportunity. They were grateful for the opportunity to investigate their own questions and to seek answers. Pushing the frontiers of science can be a rather nebulous job description, but for these postdocs, it is a challenge worth taking on. •Regina Cannon, ASP


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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu

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