Back in the Game

Several events were happening at once last June. I was about to turn 60. The entire college of science at Chapman was moving to a new building. We had just brought our loon research goals to a conclusion, which left me uncertain what questions to tackle in the future. Most important, the money was running out. These events conspired and left me thinking: should I keep studying loons? Or is it time to step back from field research and devote my energy to service to the University?

This question loomed over me for many months. When anyone asked, I was pushing ahead with plans to look at causes of aging in loons through our study of telomeres, but doubt nagged at me each day. Why continue? Have I answered all of the important questions? Should I just rest my back and write my book?

Strangely, I pulled out of this funk not through some unexpected statistical breakthrough or spellbinding discovery but by writing a grant proposal.

To me, grant proposals are a necessary evil. I do not enjoy marketing my ideas to colleagues in my field, who will weigh in with a thumbs up or down – perhaps for the wrong reasons. Selling ideas in an effort to secure funds seems shameless and mercenary. I became an academic in the first place partly to avoid such work. Yet to many scientists, grants are the bread and butter. Without funds to purchase equipment and supplies and hire personnel, most of us are quite limited in what we can study. So we write grant proposals.

Although I had pieced together the rudiments of an outline during this past summer, it was not until November that I started to turn that outline into the introduction and body of a proposal. Even then, I moved at an almost comically glacial pace. Each finished sentence, it seemed, was a great victory and warranted taking time off to recharge. I would find a clever opening phrase and birdwatch for two hours; locate a useful journal article and birdwatch for three. I was going nowhere.

Oddly, I gained momentum. As I added a reference here, ran a new statistical analysis there, a robust, compelling set of hypotheses began to emerge. In the process of constructing a document to convince other ecologists that I had ideas worthy of testing, I convinced myself that I had such ideas. What had begun as a hollow, pro forma exercise culminated in a thoughtful, executable plan for ten years of future loon research directed at the question of why loons settle and breed on small lakes that produce few offspring.

So I am back on track. Far from drifting numbly towards a new research season, I am energized and anxious to hit the lakes again. The sense of dread at facing a year of field work short‑staffed has lifted. Now I relish the challenge of keeping tabs on all of our study animals this summer with fewer field workers – as long as my back holds out.