Excitement on the horizon

I’ll be starting a PhD with Nathan Kraft at the University of Maryland this fall! This announcement is obviously not timely — I’ll (pretty disingenuously) chalk that up to being without internet at home for the past 1.5 months. To answer the next question: no, I am not sure yet what my PhD will be all about. What I do know is that I am very excited by tropical forests, and by Nathan’s lab, and by the prospect of being near Washington DC, and I am eager to spend some time figuring out what research niche I’d like to carve out for myself in this fascinating field. Maybe I’ll make a little diagram to describe what my interests are some time soon.

Right now, I am broadly interested in the evolutionary ecology of tropical forest trees — how has the community of trees been interacting in tropics? And how have these interactions determined the composition of the communities? I am also interacted by how trees interact with other organisms — especially the microbes that live all over and around the trees. I am really excited to see how this interest evolves as I learn more of the scientific literature and develop my own ideas.

I will move to DC/Maryland in mid-August, but I also have an exciting summer between now and then! From mid-June to mid-July, I will be in Costa Rica for an OTS course in Tropical Plant Systematics. I’ve been bemoaning my lack of systematics skills and field identification abilities, so I’m really looking forward to filling those gaps in my education.

Then, towards late-July, I will be traveling to Boise, Idaho for the Botany conference (and while you are at it, check out my abstract!), where I will present the research I conducted last summer during my REU at the NMNH. This is my very first big societal conference, and I’m super excited! I’ve been crawling through some of the abstracts on the website, and will probably start thinking about who I want to meet pretty soon.

Here’s where the “Gaurav goes on incoherent rants” part of the post begins. I really need to get better at avoiding this, but c’est la vie

On flying: input appreciated.

Last weekend, my mom was talking about her impending trip to India, and was lameting that she couldn’t meet one of her nephews (i.e. my cousin), who was going to be away from home the whole time. I flippantly told my mom to go visit him where he’s staying (knowing full well that this was logistically totally unfeasible), but my dad reacted by saying something like “What, and just spend a bunch of carbon? Don’t fly, we can’t expect air travel to go down if you just keep flying.”

Being the argumentative snot I am, I snapped back, saying something like “That’s easy for you to say — after you’ve spent the past 25 years of your life travelling around internationally!” We didn’t really have a conversation about it then, but later that evening, I brought it up again, and he emailed me a very thoughtful response:

You asked me about flying – should one fly in the face of the fact that flying contributes to global warming?

Easy for one to say either way depending on their personal history, preference and the fact that there is a significant cost externality that is not paid for by any one, but by all.

So here is my more considered reply –

You should avoid flying if you can. Ask the question can I not fly this time? Not merely replace this mode by another like road travel. But genuinely can I not go this time. Can I deal with my need to be there another way?

Slowly, embed this consideration in every small thing we do – food that we eat (is it OK to insist on kothimbir (i.e. cilantro) in winter? or do we replace our veggie intake with pumpkin, potatoes and canned/ frozen veggies?), how we make and process trash. How we garden.

if each one of us does his thing, we will be ok.
And then do not hesitate to call our some one who you think is doing all wrong.

Because while nominally, they are doing it their way with their money, they are not paying for costs that you are paying for…

Obviously (and as usual), dad is spot on here. The price we pay as consumers doesn’t really reflect true costs at all*. We need to be conscious about the downstream impacts about our actions. But I am not sure how to go about making the cost-benefit analyses to come to a measured decision.

Consider my decision to fly to Boise for Botany: Did I absolutely, positively need to go to this? Not at all. The research I am presenting here is something I am proud of, but I am not actively working on it right now. I don’t know anyone else who is going. I probably am not going to be a professional Botanist (though I certainly want that to be a part of what I do). I will have plenty of opportunities to go to conferences like this (and probably Botany itself) over the next few years. So no, I did not need to absolutely go.

But is going to the conference a good thing for me, personally and career wise? Definitely! I will meet a lot of people I can build relationships with during my graduate school and subsequent career, and may potentially begin life-long friendships with future colleagues. If this wasn’t muddy enough, consider that I don’t have to pay for my attendance — the Smithsonian is paying for my airfare, and I got an Undergraduate travel award to cover on-site expenses. On top of that, I’ve registered to volunteer at the conference to work off my registration fee (and on top of that get some insight into the behind-the-scene work at events like this).

So, is not going even an option here? Or would I just be silly to say not such a promising opportunity?

I don’t know yet, and I’d love to hear what you have to say.

*This is the topic of another discussion I’ve been having with Gautam. In the US, why don’t commodity prices ever actually fluctuate with changes in production costs? For example, we’ve been reading a lot about a Banana virus that is devastating crops, but I can still get a banana for 19 goddamn cents at Target, just the same as I did a year ago! When I was in India last year, Onion prices were stupid high because production costs had increased, so this is obviously not unheard of. I am no economist, but surely there’s a good answer to this. Suggested readings appreciated.


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