Last weekend there was a free screening of James Balog‘s film “Chasing Ice” here in Vancouver, organized by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement and the Environmental Youth Alliance. I only just read about James’ project in National Geographic’s 125th Year Special Photo Issue last week (lucky!), so this movie immediately went into the Saturday night spot in my calendar.
The movie focuses on the Extreme Ice Survey project that James started. The idea is to document the changing glacier landscape using time-lapse photographs. While the idea seems simple enough, the execution is hardly the case. Just imagine carrying all the camera gears, some of which you have to build yourself because they don’t exist yet (not built for extreme weathers or long duration without care), climbing hours in -40C weather, and checking regularly to make sure the cameras are taking photos instead of being knocked down by falling rocks or having their wires chewed up by wolves. They also lost the first few months because of malfunction timers, so they ended up making a few extra trips in order to replace all the timers. This is not to mention James had several knee surgeries done in order to complete the project.
Yup, that’s what they did.
But the results were astounding. While you might not understand statistics or mathematical models, one thing you can clearly learn from his photos is that our climate is changing, the glaciers are disappearing, and at once we can really grasp what climate change means. All that ice must be going somewhere? And that is a consequence we can envision.
Through nearly a million time-lapse photographs, we now have indisputable, gut-wrenching proof that ancient glaciers are disappearing…The photographs show glaciers breaking apart and melting faster than we had imagined.
– James Balog, National Geographic
Interestingly, James actually has a background in research, with a graduate degree in geography and geomorphology. He admitted in the movie that he was not so keen on the numbers and statistics associated with research work. However, it appears that he developed photography skills while he was working on his master’s degree, and eventually found passion in documenting humans’ interaction with the natural world. To me, it is clear that his research background supplemented him tremendously in his photography work as well as the Extreme Ice Project, making his photography a work of art and science.
In fact, his story is familiar one for me. When I was working on my PhD, I found myself drawn to chatting with and writing to people about science instead of my *actual* research work. In fact, it was during this time that I got better with writing grant applications, editing people’s work, and planning outreach events. It took a while for me to make up my mind not to stay in research, by which time I was already half way into an expedited PhD program and finished my comprehensive exam. I then did something unthinkable (my boyfriend at the time went “you did WHAT?”). I called my supervisor and transferred myself out of the PhD program to complete with a master’s instead.
Do I ever regret it? Maybe a tiny bit, once in a while, when many of my friends from graduate school are now being called Doctors. But that regret goes away oh so quickly because I love my job so much, and I know that for some friends, I have the dream job that they want. I could not imagine what would have happened if I didn’t take that step to do something about it.
My point is – regardless of whether you are working on your master’s degree or your PhD, your life is really, well, your life. While there are many talks about the lack of academic positions for the number of graduate students we are training, or whether going to grad school is worth the time and the money, perhaps ask these questions instead: Do I really need a PhD to do this? Do I really want an academic career? Can the skills I develop during grad school help me do something I love? And, don’t doubt the value of what others might consider “lost years” if you don’t end up with an academic career. James got really good with photography, and I had plenty of opportunities to work on my writing and event planning, all during graduate school. In fact, now that I think about it, there is so much flexibility in graduate school that it probably is the best chance to spare some time and do something you love.
I remember talking to my mom about the decision to get out of PhD in one of those sleepless nights, and my mom said,
“Theresa, life is too short, so do what you want.”
I guess that is why James Balog was chasing ice, and I am now writing/talking science. That’s why we don’t let our degrees define what we want our lives to be.
On the topic of making your life an adventure, check out Terry McGlynn’s great post On creating your own path through life. And, regardless what your attitude toward climate change is, I highly recommend that you check out Chasing Ice. For the story, for the striking imagery, and for potentially the last evidence of our glacier that might disappear in our life time.