A scientists mind #5: Finding peace in uncertainty
Monday, Jan 1st, 2023, 0:30 AM. I am standing on our balcony, watching the ejaculations of black powder from the New Years’ fireworks (I admit, it’s nice to watch but I still hate it). Another year gone. And I feel….strange. There is this little tickling in my belly - nervousness? Anticipation? Glimpses of new adventures coming up? Thoughts create emotions…. which thoughts (conscious or unconscious make me feel like this? Let’s tear this apart….I definitely am in a situation, where many things are uncertain. My unconscious mind for sure is injecting some anxiety of what might or might not be coming next. And whenever something is ending – like my amazing Freigeist Fellowship, which has enabled me to create and consolidate a strong, internationally recognized research group at the TU Braunschweig – the other side of my unconscious mind raises its voice – the part in me that is dreaming and pushing me without me even knowing it into thriving towards wishes that I have deep inside of me. I hear these whispers sometimes. They are telling me “move to the beach, move to a place where you can surf regularly…” and “give up this research life…do something simple and be happy with the little things in life”! These voices also tell other things to me, like “don’t become a professor; you will sacrifice your life for feeding your ego…” And I listen. I consider. But I also rationalize.
For context: My contract as research group leader is ending in March 2024, and – as of now – there is nothing fixed on the horizon. Uuuups. I’ve done what needs to be done to secure my future: fighting for having my efforts at TUBS recognized, eventually providing me with a perspective here (I raised almost two mio. € in third party funding in five years, contribute to teaching and sustain a research group with three PhD students and a total of seven members only by third party funding). I’ve applied and been invited to Professorship positions. Some of those procedures are still ongoing, and eventually it will work. I applied for funding – currently I am waiting to hear back from four submitted proposals! We have been quite successful in the recent years, but my goal always was to first secure funding for my PhD students before taking care of myself. And finally, I also applied for positions outside of the University, but still in research institutes. As you can imagine a lot of time went and is still going into this. In 2023, I have almost not been able to carry out research by my own, meaning: very little time for writing papers, very little time for looking at data – both things which I enjoy the most.
I am not complaining. I just want to share the challenges – and I am by far not alone – we are facing. I am also writing this to motivate myself, because while I’m writing this I feel somehow content and proud of what I did last year. And I have not even mentioned that Kathi and Malkin, my amazingly smart, humble and first PhD students will be finishing their theses’ in 2024. There is so much that is fun about doing research, and the challenges I just laid out for you are at most times compensated by an incredible amount of freedom. Freedom of what we do research on, freedom on where we do our research (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Namibia…..) how we do it and freedom to develop ‘crazy’ ideas and try them out. I know I am blessed with a boss like Prof. Harald Biester, who trusts me (I guess at some point I have proven that I am trustworthy, actually) and lets me find my own way, meaning: he is there when needed, but otherwise gives me complete freedom for my group. I know it’s not always like that. But when people in academia complain, they often forget this part of the absolute freedom. It does suck to apply for new funding pretty much always, if you do not have a permanent position, but it keeps one active, creative and open. The price is uncertainty, and especially when you have a family, this can make things incredibly difficult. I have not been struggling to a degree where money ever was an issue, but I will be: we are building a house here in Hannover, Germany next year! Risky? Stupid? - with both parents not having a permanent position?….we’ll see.
I made my peace with any of the potential outcomes, may it be a professorship, more years of self-sustained funding, a job-change or even unemployment. I do the best I can, as I always have, and I trust that the outcome will be the best for us as a family, and for me as passionate researcher and a person who loves the ocean and dreams of one day being in a position to merge his love for research and the ocean. Until this day (and probably beyond), I know my mind will be seeking, restless, questioning, reflecting, doubting, at times struggling. I don’t care. I just go on. Behind this dizziness of not knowing what comes next, with a mind drawn to the dreams of a life of surfing every day and enjoying life (as if I was not enjoying it right now), is a clear will and vision that carries me forward. The doubting voices are important, and it is important to listen to them. I do not want to listen to and constantly feed my ego, which is telling me to compete, succeed, and be on top of everything. These dreamy voices in my head keep me grounded, and I do not want to be part of a scientific competition. I don’t say I never am part of it. But I try my best to show that it can also be different. Some might call this stupid in a sense of career pursuit. Don’t care. By dedicating to developing persons, and providing them scientific and personal space for it - not collecting publication numbers. By giving them the chance to be part of unique experiences. By working as a team, struggling together, celebrating together; and most importantly: supporting each other.
For 2024, I will dedicate myself to develop some really practice- and application-oriented research projects. Any practitioner who is interested in Isodrones and reads this: feel more than free to get in touch with us! I do not want to get stuck on the methodological side for forever, despite it is fun. We’ve been working for more than five years now on developing methods to study water transport processes and water sourcing of plants in a detail that has not been possible before, and we have demonstrated the value of such datasets. It is now time to bring these methods to practice and contribute to creating resilient ecosystems for the future. Apart from that, Isodrones will get more involved into technological transfer and perhaps, contracting services (e.g., utilization of the sampling drone, UAV thermal overflights and stable isotope characterizations). In 2024, we will also have a strong focus on publishing the results and unique datasets we have collected between 2019 and 2023. So, stay tuned!
I wish all of you a happy, successful, healthy and emotionally rich year 2024!
P.S.: The link below this time leads to a new breathing technique I have been trying- it is incredibly powerful and relieving! For me, it really unlocked some feelings that usually are hidden underneath the surface!