IsoCamp: M.O.R.E. than just Isotopes

IsoCamp 2015 - the 20th year of IsoCamp! photo:
IsoCamp 2015 – the 20th year of IsoCamp!

This summer I had the honor of attending the University of Utah’s prestigious Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry and Ecology Course, lovingly called IsoCamp. The two weeks I spent at IsoCamp was the most rewarding academic experience thus far in my career. The amount of knowledge I gained about stable isotope ecology is insane, and as my qualifying exams are quickly approaching I am feeling confident in my methodological knowledge – all thanks to IsoCamp.

I thought about delving into “what are stable isotopes” and what is this “isotope ecology ‘magic’” that will make up a big portion of my dissertation. But many have written that blog post, and since I should be studying I’m not going to re-write that information. My friend and colleague Lindsey Peavey explains them in a blogpost she wrote on her research.

So, I divulge.

M.O.R.E. – iMportant lessons On Research, camaraderie and the academic Experience*

IsoCamp is a 2 week intensive summer school course geared for graduate students who want to employ these methods in their research. It is taught by THE TOP scientists in their respective fields. I’m talking National Academy of Science Members (trust me, it’s a big deal), scientists who have held presidential appointments, scientists with – no joke – 500+ peer reviewed papers (It took me 3 years to get TWO out, for perspective). These people know their IsoShit.

These IsoPopes, as they are endearingly called, also happen to be some of the nicest academics I have had the pleasure of working with. Nicest doesn’t even do them justice. They represent, to me, what academia can, and should, be like. They show how collaborations, camaraderie, and teamwork can work in academia. They give graduate students, like me who have seen some academic shit, that there is hope – that there is a world within academia where faculty truly want to help their students succeed and they want each other to succeed as well. The IsoPopes did post-docs together, looked for jobs at the same time, and even interviewed for the same jobs, and I bet you they compete for grants too. Through all of this, through what can be the gnarly, competitive nature of academia – they help and support one another. They help and support their students and others’ students. And, they love to teach (or at least they love to teach this course). I had one-on-one conversations with many of the IsoPopes and each one was genuinely interested in my interests, in my project and helped me come up with new avenues, new questions for exploration.

I am not shy about my desire to want to change the world, to do outreach, to get people caring about the environment, but when, on one of the first days, THE IsoPope, Dr. Ehleringer, asked me what I wanted to do when I graduate I was hesitant at first to say “I want to do informal education – I want to bridge the gap between science and the general public”. I was afraid that the director of IsoCamp would be disappointed that I was there, since I didn’t want to be an IsoPope, per say, someday. I was wonderfully and completely surprised by his response. What did he do? First he said he thought that was fantastic, then asked what I was doing with my graduate program to get me there. He then pulled out his cell phone, showed me a picture of his grandkids, followed me on twitter, and then sent me two of his personal contacts – two scientists who have done amazing things for science education, one of whom has held a presidential appointment. Now that I know him, this response isn’t surprising, he wants to help students to be successful in whatever field they choose. Another prime example: as camp progressed and we learned about potential Research in Residence Programs, where Isotopeteers (camp participants) can apply to collaborate with IsoPopes on a project related to their dissertation and career goals. I approached Dr. Ehleringer asked, “Have you ever done a Research and Outreach in Residence Program?” He said no, but as long as I could explain in my proposal that it would help move my career forward, that he would look forward to seeing my application.

Okay, so I could go ON and ON about how freaking fabulous IsoCamp was, but let me get back to why I wanted to write this post in the first place.

As a PhD student in the trenches, it was so refreshing and inspiring to see a group of academics building each other up, supporting one-another and working together. To see a group of academics who wanted to, were good at, and enjoyed teaching . To see a group of academics who truly wanted to help the students understand and were interested in discussions on various topics, even topics that had nothing in common except for stable isotope analyses. To see top-scientists, top academics, make the challenging, long-days incredibly fun and rewarding.

So, while yes, I learned A TON about stable isotope ecology, what I really took away from the experience was a positive view of what academia can and should be.

I hope that every graduate student gets to see that side of academia, gets to feel as empowered, excited and motivated about their project as I have been since leaving IsoCamp. It has truly changed my outlook on the Academy, and days when the dark parts of academia rear their head – I remind myself of IsoCamp and it gives me hope.

*My acronym abilities are clearly out of practice, did I mention it’s quals time?

Note: I am not naive to what could be going on outside of those 2-weeks, I’m sure there have been challenges along the way, but this is the genuine impression I got working closely with the IsoPopes