Tuesday, May 9, 2017

One Mile Down, 93 Million to Go

 One of our summer undergraduates in the lab, Alex Séguin, pictured above, (in the image he provided himself!) is this week's designated blogger for PVL. One of our strengths is that we have trainees from all levels working together in the lab.

By Alexandre Séguin

I have done it. I, Alexandre Séguin, have officially completed my first week of research as an undergraduate student here at the Planetary Volatiles Laboratory (PVL).  After such a new and exciting experience, some reflection is in order.

    There are many stories, myths, and legends surrounding this type of work and they shrouded my expectations in uncertainty and confusion. On Monday morning, I walked into York's science building painfully earlier than necessary not knowing how my day would unfold, unsure of the daily implications of a research position... yet more ready than ever to try it. After a calming coffee, the time came to get to work.

    My first realization came when refreshing my knowledge of thermodynamics: scientific research is humbling. It is like have a third little angel on my shoulder constantly reminding me, with nothing but a whisper: "you know nothing". I came in thinking I would get to work immediately on my project but instead found myself studying from textbooks and internet sources for the first two or three days of the week. In order to produce worthwhile results it is imperative to clearly understand the theory, and therefore I had to review a few concepts before getting my hands dirty. It is well known that applying one's knowledge in practice is very different than simply understanding the theoretical framework; The experimenter must constantly question his ideas and double check his math which is exactly what I have been doing. Here, there are no answers at the back of the book. I explored a few different ideas of mine and discarded most of them before choosing one and pursuing it. And even now, I still have questions and know I can improve.

    Going from student to researcher requires some adjustment. I am still trying to understand when I should move on from an idea, pursue it, or ask questions. There is a feeling that everything has to instantly be perfect yet the reality is that I am still learning in many ways; I am bound to do some things incorrectly and will often be lost. Thankfully, the members of PVL are supportive and help me find courage and motivation. My supervisor, John Moores, is aware of where I stand in my academic and professional path and guides me accordingly. He warned me early on of common downfalls amongst young researchers, gave a clear direction to my work, and reminded me to seek help when needed. Furthermore, seeing the graduate students' integrity and discipline motivates me to perform to the best of my abilities. I simply need to give myself time and put in the work. If they are capable of this, then so am I! To be brief, the other lab members have been very welcoming and I feel like I am well surrounded by intelligent and productive individuals whom I can learn from.

    In addition to those new experiences, another nuance worth mentioning is the unorthodox schedule of this position. Last summer, I worked for a retail distributor as a Bilingual Customer Service Representative and acting warehouse supervisor. The nature of the service required me to be at my desk at 8:30 sharp and once the day reached 16:30, all work was left and picked up the following morning. Rinse and repeat. Working in a lab environment is very different as the schedule is more or less flexible. There is still an agreed upon schedule (for example, 40 hours weekly), but the work can be performed whenever it is convenient, as long as it gets done. As my summer project is individual, I enjoy great flexibility and use it to my advantage. I choose to work in my most productive hours, that is, in the morning, early afternoon, and late at night.

    To conclude, as strange as it first felt, I am getting accustomed to doing research. My brain is still getting used to being active for several hours every day but I am nonetheless excited to learn and will give the best I can offer. I understand the road will not be a smooth one...but such challenges are how we grow as individuals and there are fellow undergraduates to share it with. At the end of the summer, I wish to have a clearer understanding of what a career in the field of planetary science entails and to have improved organizational skills. I also hope the technical experience gained will aid the remainder of my undergraduate studies. Further, should I find this occupation suits me, I will perhaps entertain the possibility of pursuing graduate studies afterwards in space or planetary science, with a guest appearance from astrophysics. This is why is this opportunity is so valuable to me: I get a taste of the field and see how I can find my place in it. I am very grateful to be working here at PVL over the summer and look forward to introducing my project on this blog.

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