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A Different Kind of Discovery

CREDIT: Hidde de Vries

People often say you should make your passion into a career. My father told me, "The day you stop waking up and looking forward to going into work is the day you need to search for a new job." More than 10 years after graduating from university, this message has stayed with me. So much of your life is spent at work that it only makes sense to love it. What happens, though, when your passions change?

Science has always excited me. The opportunity to learn something new every single day is an unimaginable pleasure. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a town dominated by an automobile factory, where an ever-changing job seemed exotic. I don’t recall meeting anyone who was excited to work at the plant for anything other than the money, benefits, and security—which proved illusory a couple years ago when the plant shut down. The scientists in movies and books always seemed in love with their work, to the point where they wanted to be there. It hardly seemed to matter if they were paid or not; it was knowledge that fed them.

I haven’t lost my passion for discovery. Instead, I've learned that science is just one expression of it.

I haven’t lost my passion for discovery. Instead, I've learned that science is just one expression of it. I was fortunate to be granted several research fellowships early in my career, including a U.S. Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship during my thesis work. This external funding left me with some freedom to look outside my work domain and explore nontraditional paths. 

To the shock of most of my friends and family, I joined the Peace Corps immediately after defending my dissertation. The Peace Corps sends volunteers to developing countries for a term of 2 years—ostensibly for aiding the local population, although the volunteers often learn more from the locals than the locals learn from the volunteers. I served as an assistant professor at a public university in western Cameroon, teaching and supervising research in a tertiary educational setting with 20,000 students and fewer apparent resources than some primary schools in the United States. It was intense and not something I’ll ever forget. A new manifestation of discovery appeared in that small African city, where time slowed down: discovery of people and cultures. I couldn’t return to the United States. Not yet.

I applied for and received a National Science Foundation fellowship to study atmospheric physics in Helsinki. A place more different than equatorial Africa is hard to imagine. I experienced endless summer days and crushing winter nights, the taste of salmiakki and the celebration of Vappu, braving cool temperatures and rain with thousands of Finns simply because 1 May must be the first day of spring regardless of the actual weather.

My passions grew. Cabin fever set in. I continued my journey, turning down a longer research position in a great group. I turned my knowledge of molecular simulation into a 1-year contract doing biophysics work in Kyoto, Japan, spending my weekends in Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples listening to the steady cadence of monks chanting. Spring came and the trees exploded with ume and sakura, the latter lasting only days before petals fell to earth like snow, and the crowds dispersed. My time in the city felt as short.

My contract ended just as I found another job, outside of Paris, modeling the effect of forest management on European climate. The difficulties of navigating the corridors of French bureaucracy have been more than compensated by the undercurrents of art and appreciation for beauty that permeate all aspects of life here, from food to architecture.

Science still enthralls me. The pleasure of discovering something that no one else has seen before and working with ambitious colleagues will never fade. I’ve now learned, however, that scientific discovery is not enough; life discovery counts just as much. By "life discovery" I mean finding out what others already know: their traditions, languages, ways of expressing themselves, and, above all, their stories. I've discussed the samurai way of life with friends while sitting cross-legged on the floor, sipping tea. I've spent hours being taught Yemba by an 80-year-old African princess whose father was the first to write the language down. I've passed even more time with my current landlady, discussing the Alsace and Paris of her memories. It's not necessary to leave the United States to find similar experiences, but they are more abundant and diverse in an international context, and unfamiliarity makes them easier for an American to see.

If I am to bring my passion to work, I need to make a choice. Either I find a career that allows me to discover science, people, and cultures on a regular basis, or I continue what I'm currently doing: leveraging my skills into short-term contracts in the most disparate locations I can find.

Matthew McGrath in Norway

Matthew McGrath in Norway

CREDIT: Tuuli Hirvonen

My current contract will end in just over a year. I’ve spent the last few months preparing applications for various U.S. science policy fellowships. These fellowships seem perfect for me at this point in my career, springboards to numerous places that could merge all my interests. After 7 years abroad, I’m presented with another opportunity, that of rediscovery.

I'm intrigued by the thought of being a stranger in my country, able to see my native land through the eyes of a foreigner. How many times have I looked at other cultures like that? Will I be able to feel the same excitement browsing aisles in Target as I felt squeezing between stands in the Ben Thanh Market?  Will this satisfy my need for cultural novelties, or will I find myself once again pressed into an airline seat as my native land fades into the distance?

Very little seems certain in life, and as I've learned, that includes careers. The value in a career is not where you find yourself at the end but what you gain in the process. The place where I find myself next year may not be the place I want to be 5 years down the road.

I have been able to develop a set of core skills, both technical and interpersonal, that make me an attractive candidate for a variety of positions. I've taken care to ensure that I can incorporate and expand these skills in every new post. I invest myself completely in new opportunities, without the expectation or need that they become permanent. I take pleasure in where I am, work hard, and keep an eye on the future. Despite the uncertainty about what comes next, that future continues to look bright.

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