Lost and Found in 'European Science'

It was somewhere over Saxony when we knew we were lost.

I had given up on the faulty GPS, and the cloud level was forcing us uneasily low over the German hinterland. My boss, a normally unshakable aviator, kept glancing at the fuel gage of our four-seater plane destined for Berlin.

"Can you check for the nearest airstrip?" he asked me, calmly. Wrestling with the flight maps--making sure I could see where the ground was--I looked for an airstrip. No landmarks matched up to the splatter of symbols on the maps. "I think we're not just lost, but lost, lost," I said.

As scenes from my life flashed before my eyes, I received a revelation: The 6 years it took to get my bachelor's degree finally made sense.

Two months earlier, I had arrived in Strasbourg, France, with my physics diploma tucked into a blue leather suitcase, and a letter that said I was working as a trainee for the European Science Foundation, an organization that co-ordinates research in Europe on behalf of 76 national research agencies and academies. The letter, in explaining this, used the term "la science européene" several times. Arriving from Canada, I had little idea what that meant.

I had even less idea that I would soon be leaving France in a single-engine plane no bigger than a Buick. My boss, a former journalist for the Danish Broadcast Corp., and a private pilot, had rented it to fly us to a meeting in Berlin, just for the stunt of it, with me as co-pilot.

Unfortunately, we lost contact with a navigational radio tower along the 750-km flight path, confused which map we were on, and went astray.

It was exactly where I wanted to be.

Homing in

"What's this research all about?" asked the night watchman.

We were standing on the aft deck, huddled together in our tarpaulin raincoats watching the massive crane pulley. A towline gripped in its teeth disappeared into the ocean.

"Well, it's about methane hydrate," I said, unsure of myself.

Working on a Coast Guard research vessel on the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Vancouver Island, was supposed to be about the research. I had just finished my second year of university, studying physics, and had won a summer student award. Out of all the research projects, I chose to come here, not knowing my sea legs would develop so slowly.

A crew of a dozen sailors, a geophysics professor, and two graduate students, we were combing the ocean floor for buried methane hydrate, an ice-like form of natural gas estimated to be more abundant than fossil fuels.

It was fascinating science, but I found it more interesting talking to the night watchman, an old sea dog who had been on countless research expeditions. For him, it was just another night on the job.

I realized that it was the experience of research that I was after, rather than the research itself. The nitty-gritty practice appealed to me less than the context of how it fit into the everyday.

With an attitude like that, I wasn't cut out for a career in research. I would soon take off for Australia as an exchange student, and stop myself short of graduating.

Jumping out

"You really want to know what it's like?" asked the astronaut.

She sat on a floral-upholstered couch with her back to the veranda window. Outside it was a lush July day in a Toronto neighbourhood; automobiles passed by and a man watered his lawn.

"It's terrifying," she said.

She was talking about what it was like to look out from both sides of the space shuttle; as she put it, one window facing towards Earth and one window facing away from everything she knew.

I had taken the bus from Ottawa, where I was working as a summer student in a government laser lab, to do the interview. I had 4 years of university behind me, and although my lab credentials were opening up opportunities in research, my mind was set on journalism.

My physics studies had been abandoned to chase "scientific experiences," writing about it for my student newspaper.

I always wanted to go into space, and I figured the closest I would ever get was to sit with an astronaut and talk about it. For her, orbiting the planet had transformed her view of the world and was one of the reasons why she left behind her space career to pursue nature photography.

Over the next 2 years, I chased other experiences, interviewing seal researchers in Antarctica, radio hosts on remote pacific islands, and naked news anchors--all by phone, unfortunately. It was a start.

By the time I had collected my last research pay cheque, as a mass spectrometer technician in a proteomics lab, I was working as an editor for a large, student newspaper learning the basics of writing copy and editing under deadline.

I began my sixth, final year of university sitting in front of the president of my university, a physicist and former dean of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The interview was on the value of a well-rounded education. My first question: Why had I spent almost 6 years and paid over $25,000 for a degree I didn't want?

Landing it

"Lost, lost?" repeated my boss, squaring-off his headset. He explained it was just a matter of triangulation to find our position--there was no need for panic.

We eventually reached Berlin, following the Autobahn for safe measure. I was lucky enough to be privy to a meeting of the directors of communication from various national research councils around Europe. The meeting would start with dinner at the Reichstag, the German parliament building.

Over the next 4 months, I found myself in Paris, Budapest, and London for similar events, piecing together what la science européene really means.

It was the search for this perspective that brought me to the Alsatian former monastery that is home to the European Science Foundation. It's a fantastic place to get to know the stories of research, fodder for the journalism I want to pursue.

Of course, coming here wasn't simply a case of buying an airline ticket. After my letters of inquiry were ignored by my prospective boss, I knew that I had to have a stronger selling point. I thought that bringing my own salary would do the trick. The Canadian government-sponsored International Youth Internship Program caught my eye. I soon found myself packing my degree into a blue leather suitcase--who knew where it might come in handy?--for a 6-month internship.

After wandering for so long in my education, I came to see that I received one by doing just that. And when you're lost, even at 2000 feet (610 meters), it can simply mean that you're just on your way to where you wanted to go.

Aleksandar Zivojinovic currently works as a communications officer for the European Science Foundation in Strasbourg, France, and freelances in his spare time. His aeronautic boss has recently suggested another flight to London in the summer.

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