I had been quite nervous and quite unsure about going on interviews. Nervous about giving seminars, worried about meeting new people, paranoid about losing so much productivity time. You name it, I could think of a million different reason to lock myself away quietly in my office at UAB and churn out papers. OK, a few more pubs is never a bad thing, and looking at my past-and-future publication list I can see a worrying dip in productivity, or at least a decline in the trajectory increase, which may account for why I am up at 12 am, unable to sleep, and likely going to be running at 6.30 pm tomorrow on the dreaded treadmill and not at 7 am today, on the lovely streets.
I digress. On the back of another informative, highly enjoyable and enlightening interview, I will have to admit that the disruption to my schedule, skin break-outs, lack of tangible papers, acquaintance with airport food (yeautch! A mixture of yuck and ouch…) and damage to my newly bitten to the quick nails were worth it. I have met the most wonderful people, felt invigorated for my project and gained a little more confidence. The latest (and longest)? A trip to:
The University of Alaska at Fairbanks (UAF)
Of course, the first questions on everyone’s lips are less about the University and the position, and more about Alaska. Alaska – really? Yes, really. What was it like? Well, cold. Minus 50 in the day type cold (-45 for you European bods out there). The type of cold where my eyelashes froze, and popping the car key into my mouth for 1 min while I plugged the car in to an electric supply designed to stop it freezing left the key stuck to my tongue. In short a whole new type of cold. Which strangely, I didn’t mind.
I quickly learned the value of heating up the car before venturing out, and mastered the ability of scampering from warm hotel, to warm car, to warm supermarket in record breaking time. When I did go out, I made sure I put on serious layers of clothes. Or did activity, shocking even the locals by discarding my clothes ad libitum (they didn’t realise that this was just a reflection of how seriously unfit I have become). This allowed me to brave said temperatures, and I was so glad I did. I grew up with the Bernese Oberland as my playground, and yet, I was still blown away by the beauty of Fairbanks. Ack, the peaceful serenity in which the austerity of a nature who can clearly best you was experienced alongside pastel pinks and purples giving gradates shades from the sky to the ground. Simply: I loved it.
You cannot really talk about Alaska without telking about the people, and the sense of community. Their friendliness genuinely rivals that of The South, and has warmth to it. It is a community, and a community that welcomes you with gratitude for visiting. A community that strove to be self sufficient where possible (even keeping bees!) and seemed to respect space, and the individual’s right to be an individual. People were so darn nice, but no one questioned my accent, commented on my clothes, made me feel like I stood out.
As for Fairbanks… well… they certainly have great coffee. And a surprising amount of available British consumables. But, they are small. I mean, small like Birmingham, but with no suburbs. And no ability to drive out to Atlanta, or the mountains of Tennessee, or even New Orleans with minimal effort. There is Fairbanks… and Fairbanks. Charming Fairbanks, but I did get a touch of cabin fever and homesickness, despite only being gone 5 days. Strange that you just get this sense of being very far away – I didn’t feel it sharing people’s homes, but back at the hotel (usually my favourite gossip girl time) I did feel very far away.
So that left UAF with a fair task ahead of them: to overcome the isolation and be worth up and outing so far away. In my opinion: they nailed it. I was impressed with how many people attended my seminar, how engaged the questions were and how afterwards people didn’t just stop me with the obligatory “I really enjoyed your seminar” but divulged what it meant to them, and what they had taken away from it. Even the Dean of teaching came, a geologist, and discussed issues of gene-environment interplay in human health. A supportive group indeed. And nothing, nothing beats people who are enthusiastic about my research. It is an absolute deal breaker for me (although both other institutions were also engaged with my research, and equally as full of praise and enthusiasm).
I was also impressed with the CANHR division I would be working with. There was a genuine curiosity to my analysis, and a genuine desire to understand, and help refine my viewpoint. I loved how they engaged with my passion! UAF values teaching – I mean seriously valued it. It was not a means to get research done by housing Scientists. And they were very understanding about the demands of Science today; offering a course release in my first year, and allowing me to initially teach courses ‘in my comfort zone’ even if they were not traditionally part of the core curriculum.
UAF recognized the need for support – financial and academic. They gave me documents on how to negotiate a great start up (what? Are you helping me screw you out of $$?) and said that I would have a mentor both inside UAF, and also outside. They would formalize external relationships and pay both for people’s time to help me, and for getting me to people – even outside of an awesome mentorship collaboration they have set up with the University of Washington (Seattle).
And the data. The wonderful data. I am in love with the opportunities. I suspect it may not be fair to write about a population, without their knowledge, and without them knowing me. Especially as it would be fairly easy to check the interwebs and figure out where UAF’s data are from. Suffice to say, I believe it to be one of the best opportunities to examine gene-diet interplay with a myriad of outcomes. The data opportunities alone make me brave enough to face the -50 temps and isolation.
So. Now I enter the world of waiting for offers… waiting for second interviews, and giving Departments space to make the right decision. Which it pains me to do, but must be done (and perhaps give me time to actually get some papers out). Oh, and there is a late runner. The University of Northern Michigan were specifically looking for a Behavior Geneticist – and you don’t see people wanting that very often. So off I go in Feb / March to Marquette, to meet them.
Until then, I lie awake at night, and try to console myself with the thought that I have been to 3 wonderful places, and met wonderful people and seen people doing wonderful things for the future of Science. In fact, all three places have been characterized by doing brave things: stepping outside of ‘safe’ comfort zones in some way in the pursuit of Scientific advancement. I hope one of them will take me, and I will get to be part of their journey. It is a tough time for me, and for my poor husband for sure. But I try to keep this picture in mind: