What’s Your Story?

I just read For the Love of Rivers by Kurt Fausch. It came out a couple years ago when I was a postdoc, but I just got around to reading it because, as it turns out, postdocs don’t have a whole lot of spare time for leisure reading.

For the Love of Rivers describes the intellectual (and physical) journey of a scientist as he pursues questions held by rivers—questions that grow increasingly deeper as each is answered. And not just any scientist—Fausch is one of the most prominent river scientists of his cohort who pioneered numerous breakthrough ideas in the modern study of rivers. This book deserves all the acclaim it’s received.

I finished Faush’s book at a very fortuitous time: Just last week, my graduate advisor Emmanuel Frimpong published an essay describing his intellectual journey from subsistence fishing in Ghana to investigating stream fish communities in the US.

Both are strikingly interesting tales of scientists reflecting on their journeys. Grabbing at questions like objects in the fog. Attempting to define a space without full sight of it. We don’t know what comes next. But we must make ourselves ready to be able to see it with the right eyes when it comes into view. Only after years of painstaking, up-close investigation can we put it all in a box, tie it up in ribbons, and say, ‘this is what we’ve learned’.

Both stories also feature key players. Fausch details his close relationships with the late Shigeru Nakano and several of his graduate students. Frimpong also highlights his relationship with family and cites work undertaken by several graduate students.

These two pieces have me pondering lately—what’s my story? As an early career investigator, I now am reaching for questions in the dark. I’m working closely with graduate students and other collaborators on projects asking a diversity of questions. What will we find, and where will it lead? Which questions will lead to deeper insight, and which will be dead ends? What mistakes am I making that my future self will regret?

We ecologists all have a story in some way—we come from somewhere, we’ve shared experiences with key people at critical times. We do this for a reason. Don Orth, another mentor (and Fisheries Blog contributor) argues that storytelling is critical to the scientific process. He’s a master at using stories to help students find their voice.

This post isn’t about me telling a story; it’s about realizing there is a story and it’s being written as your everyday experience. We can’t know what’s in the next chapter, or even on the next page. All we can do is barrel along, full speed ahead, and try to do something useful along the way.

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