Monday, August 11, 2014

Uncharted Territory

Celebrating my successful PhD defense, with my Shackleton whisky

When I look back at what I consider to be the defining moments of my life, there are obvious events that punctuate the most recent 8 years.  It was back in 2006 that I made the difficult decision to leave my stable job and set my life moving down a new trail.  I not only decided to go back to graduate school to study science, but I decided to mark this new life epiphany with a 2200-mile thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

And this is when my new life-journey began.

I have been extraordinarily blessed since 2006.  I have written detailed journal entries at the end of each year that attempt to summarize the amazing experiences I've been fortunate to be a part of...things I never could have imagined 10 years ago while sitting in my cubicle at my office job.  I find myself today overwhelmed with a sense of contentment, but also a sense of uncertainty.  The long "book" I've been writing over these recent years has truly come to an end as I now pen the epilogue and begin thinking about the next novel.  What will my next book be about?

I decided to look back in this entry at some of the most poignant moments over the past 8 years.  My journey that began sometime around the late summer of 2006, and has now finally came to its end this past Thursday in a small conference room, in front of about 20 people.  At around 11:45 am, I emerged from this room after successfully defending my doctoral dissertation.  My academic advisor offered me his hand, congratulated me, and addressed me for the first time as "Doctor".  It still hasn't sunk in.

During my Defense

So bear with me as I take a short walk down the memory lane tonight.  I could fill dozens of pages with pictures of memorable experiences over the past 8 years; even my year-end posts alone contain hundreds of pics.  I decided instead to just highlight here, a few "firsts" and what I like to call "hinge points" (moments where my life made an important turn).

Back in 2006, I took this Sepia-toned photo from a coffee house in Cleveland, OH.  I spent many hours at this coffee house pondering the "what-ifs".  What if I were to go back to school.  What if I were to quit my job and go for a long hike somewhere.  What if I were to start over.  This particular night, as I was half-heartedly studying for the GRE, I finally decided to change directions. 

Not long after this decision I went out for my first "thru-hike":  A 42-mile hike of Pennsylvania's Black Forest Trail.  I had never hiked more than maybe a dozen miles at once (and that was in boy scouts).  This crazy experience got me hooked.  I became a new student of the outdoors and pined for longer adventures.

I went on to successfully take the GRE and apply to three different graduate programs in Geosciences.  I was hopeful, but also realistic.  It had been years since I had been to school (and that was for engineering), and the odds that I would be accepted into a prestigious geoscience program were slim.  Still, this was my childhood dream...I had always wanted to be an Earth scientist, and had always regretted changing my major in college (to some extent).  Letters began coming and the news was not good.  My applications had been declined from 2 of the 3 schools I applied to.  I was only waiting to hear back from Penn State...which was actually my first choice due to the reputation of their Geoscience Department and their location.  On February 16th of 2007, I got an email that began with the following sentence:

"Dear John:

I am delighted to let you know that you have been admitted to the MS program in Geosciences at Penn State.  I will be following up with a more formal letter of offer in the near future, but I wanted to let you know the good news right away."   (I still have this email)

It looks like my new life would begin after all.  Two months later, after accepting my offer to PSU and saving a few thousand dollars, I quit my vested job, and began thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

107 days later, I got my first real taste of life when I rested my hands upon the Katahdin sign after my 2174-mile hike

Over the next few years while taking classes as a Masters Degree student (and beginning my research), I set forth on somewhat of an adventure to experience as many new things as possible.  Things I never would have thought I would ever have even come close to just a few years prior.  Things like...

Finishing my first marathon

Preparing my first scientific ice-core samples in a REAL lab

Completing my first alpine thru-hike

...and setting foot for the first time at a remote field camp in Antarctica

Preparing my first snow pit

Running my first mile on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet

Running in my first "official" Antarctic race

...and witnessing the indescribable wonders of New Zealand.  
Still to this day, my favorite place on Earth

....Experiencing my first REAL latte

...and gazing at, and mapping, my first REAL geology

Running my first mountain 100-miler (Leadville 2009)

and feeling the magnitude of completing the impossible

Going for my first ride in a Twin Otter around Antarctica

...and seeing views like this from the window

...and of course the feeling from the Barkley 
that I still have been unable to duplicate

Experiencing Death Valley for 135 miles...

...and then the Volunteer State for over 300

Taking my first hot-air balloon ride

and standing speechless at a remote lake in Northern Japan

Watching the sunset over cliffs in Southern France

And play on 14ers for the first time

Take in the true beauty and isolation of the Southwest

...and watch my first sunset over monumental canyons

On the academic side, things continued to progress.  In the fall of 2009, after finishing my required course-work and research (including the most difficult class I've ever survived: Math Modeling), I successfully defended my Masters.  A few months later, I was awarded my degree and a printed copy of my thesis.

My Completed Masters

After receiving my Masters in 2010, and hiking the PCT that over the summer, I began the next chapter of my academic life.  The decision to continue on into the PhD program was not an easy one.  I had interviewed for a few jobs and nearly took one before eventually deciding on the PhD track.  Later, in the fall of 2010, my plans nearly derailed during my Candidacy exam.  This exam is required for all PhD students and involves a very difficult 3-hour grilling session with a committee of four faculty members.  I was told that I passed...but just barely.  Had I failed, I would not have continued on with my PhD.  In 2012, I again was tested with a "Comprehensive" exam.  I came out of that experience in much better shape, but still had the enormous and daunting task of putting all of my research together into a 4-chapter volume over the next 2 years...into what would become my actual dissertation.

On Thursday of last week, I stood in front of my committee, my friends, fellow graduate students, and my family...and successfully defended my 7 years of combined research, and my 300+ page dissertation.  The book closed, and I smiled.

7 years of my print

This entire journey would never have come to a successful end without the support over the last 5+ years of my other-half.  We watched and supported each other both successfully defend our doctorates.  We were there for each other during the oh-so-many ups and downs and during so many of the incredible adventures.

I cannot wait to see what's next....

Thank you C.

So now, I will finish my remaining edits, turn in my dissertation to the graduate school, hop on my ski-doo, and make my way to my next adventure....

And onward I go.


"...and not when I come to die, discover that I had not lived" - Thoreau