West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Big news

I meant to post this yesterday, but internet connection issues got in the way. Ni modo.

We're already two weeks into the term, with 28 students. Thankfully it's a wonderful group this year; compatible personalities, hard-working, kind. Otherwise 28 would be a nightmare. As it is, it's kept me so busy that I haven't had time to sit down and make the announcement here, although I've been rejoicing on facebook for a month or so. But here goes: I have accepted a job offer. As of next fall, I will be an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Purchase College in New York.

This all happened rather fast, and rather serendipitously. When I was at the Soltis center in the fall, having been forced out of Cabo Blanco by the storm and the bridge collapse, I got an email from the chair of the search committee at Purchase. He was trying to set up a phone interview, and only had a few time slots left. One of them happened to be during my few days off in November. If I’d been at Cabo, chances are that by the time I picked up the email it would have been too late.

I spent the first couple days of my break revising a paper for submission and studying everything I cold get my hands on about Purchase and the department. I was amused to see a new dorm building on the campus map labeled "Fort Awesome." The fateful day came, and I thought I was prepared, but the first question threw me for a loop: “Tell us a little about your background and why you’re the perfect person for this job.” I had prepared for a whole litany of questions, but not this one. I felt for a moment as if the ground was giving way, and then I answered as best I could. I was able to calm my nerves and pull myself together, and the interview got better as it went along. I enjoyed the enthusiasm I could hear in the professors’ voices. When I hung up the phone I knew it was a place that I would love to work at, but I didn’t know if they’d want me.

Fast-forward to the last few days of the term at Palo Verde, in early December. This stint at Palo Verde was particularly difficult, given the lost student and other stresses of the end of the term. It was also difficult because most of the station buildings are under construction, and thus the only place I could set up as an office space was a corner of the classroom where all the students were working. I was sitting in my corner, trying to focus on a paper about plant reproductive output, distracted by the hum of the rickety air conditioner, various conversations, and the several varieties of rap music that leaked out from student’s headphones in the near vicinity, when my cell phone rang with an unknown number. It was the chair of the search committee at Purchase, calling with a few additional questions. I dashed outside. Standing among the muddy boots on the porch of Palo Verde, swatting mosquitoes and looking out over the marsh, I tried to give a good explanation of what exactly I do at OTS. Specifically, convince him that I actually do teach university-level classes.

I guess I must have done a good job, because they invited me to campus. The next day, when our TA Daniel was headed into Bagaces for a supply run, I went along and spent a good two hours on Skype at the internet café, most of it on hold, to change my ticket so that I could fly through New York with a stopover long enough for the interview.

Fast-forward again… in mid-December I landed in La Guardia a bit past midnight and caught a taxi into town, to stay with my dear friend Morgan. (Fortunately he is a night owl; my flight was supposed to get in at 10, but snow in Atlanta messed things up). We met during the first week at Carleton, bonding over an attempt (still unrealized) to gain access to the college’s steam tunnels, and we’ve been friends ever since. It was wonderful to catch up with him and meet his fiancée, Christina. They’re well-matched in their incisive intelligence and kooky, offbeat humor.

After a night on Morgan’s couch, I felt ready to take on the city, if not the world. My visit came at a good time: Morgan has been head-hunted by a new agency, and his old job ended the week before I came. His new job started in early January. Morgan and I wandered the neighborhood, and he showed me some of the delights of Manhattan: a park with sculptures made by local children; details in the carvings on the cathedral, like the atom bomb carried by one of the four horsemen; a street fair with antiques and textiles. I bought an extra scarf; it was above freezing, but the raw wind off the ocean was enough to make my tropically acclimated self decidedly uncomfortable. We ate lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant with another Carleton friend, Cheryl, who has been working as an editor for the past ten years. Our conversation reminded me of how free we felt in our college days, gathered around a table in the basement dining hall sharing ideas and making crazy plans. For the first time in a long time, I felt the return of that excitement: the future felt broader and more full of possibility than it had in years.

Thus fortified, I took the Metro North up to White Plains in the late afternoon, where I met my future colleagues for dinner. I'd asked dozens of people for advice, but as I stepped off the train into the teeth of the first snowstorm of winter, the only thing I could remember was my friend Scott saying, "don't interview during a winter storm. I interviewed at one place during an ice storm. Nobody showed up, and I didn't get the job." Fortunately the snowflakes abated while I enjoyed Indian food (almost impossible to get in Costa Rica) and a spirited conversation with George and Ryan. George is a marine ecologist and Ryan works on land use policy, GIS, and wetland delineation. I was encouraged by their forthrightness, friendliness, and senses of humor. Working with people who love what they do and are open to new ideas is such a wonderful thing, and I'm looking forward to it.

At the hotel that night, I went over all the materials I had prepared, making mental notes of recent grants received, publications, and research interests of everyone I was scheduled to meet. The biology department at Purchase is mainly molecular and cell biology, while environmental studies covers organismal biology as well as the policy side of things.

The day of the interview dawned chilly and snow-crusted, with a bitter wind. I wrapped myself up in my multiple scarves, drank some mediocre hotel coffee, and faced the day. I wish I could remember more details of it, to offer advice to future candidates. Mainly I remember a series of enjoyable conversations with professors and administrators, and a sense that this was the right place for me. A roomful of students came out to see my seminar, even though it was the middle of their finals week, and most of them stayed for a student-led interview afterwards. They asked good questions about my work and my plans, and they came across as bright, engaged, and committed to making the world a better place—the kind of students who have inspired me to follow this career path. And I know they weren't just there for the cookies; the box was almost full at the end of the meeting.

I think maybe the secret to a successful interview is remembering why you're there: not only to impress the committee and show them that you're the right person for the job, but also to see if the job is right for you. In this case, I felt like the answer was a resounding yes.

The day after the interview I flew to Maine, where a group of friends met me at the airport in high style: they brought their instruments (fiddle, guitar, banjo, and a giant washtub bass) and played a bluegrass set by the baggage claim while they waited for my flight. I was greeted by a rousing rendition of "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" as I came down the stairs from the gate. The evening just got better after that. We stopped by the liquor store on the way back to their house to pick up a few beers, and walked into a wine tasting that none of us had known about. We sampled the wares and enjoyed an elegant spread of cheese and crackers, while another dusting of snow made magical halos under the streetlights outside. Back at their house, we enjoyed a dinner of homemade bread and soup with locally grown organic vegetables, and then a bluegrass jam session that lasted until the very wee hours on the morning.

When the phone call came, offering me the position, it was all I could do to follow the advice of colleagues and negotiate. My first instinct was to say, "I'll take it!" then and there. But I did negotiate, holding out for some equipment that will be useful in the restoration experiment and some travel money for myself and students. I signed the contract and sent it in before the end of the year.

Today is my 32nd birthday, a respectable number, although I still haven't reached the hobbit age of responsibility. (One more year!) I feel somehow more grown up and younger, at once, than I have in a long time. More grown up, because I've accepted a job that could be permanent if things work out, and I am thinking about things like mortgages and retirement plans. Younger, because in the past few months I've felt my future opening up again. Thanks to all who have helped me on this journey.


At 10:21 AM, Blogger Bess said...

Susan, I'm so happy for you! This post brought me to tears multiple times. I can't wait to visit you in NY! :))

At 9:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Congratulations on the job, You will do well. Oh and you are invited for dinner when you get settled.



At 10:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Susan it's PatZ in Naples Me. I feel a little more direct through your blog than facebook. I wanted to let you and your sister know that Bill's father passed today. He turned 80 in December and Bill had a stag party of his trapping cronies. A fine time was had by all. He was failing all winter. Jacob handled it so well we're so proud. Last night Jacob climbed into bed in the hospital and was petting Danny's head and Grandpa would smile. I've been trying to prepare him like I did when he lost his black lab Morgan. I tell him that I don't think the spirt ever has to die. That the Angles come for our spirt, and Grandpa will be with him forever. Susan, Bills Dad liked your sister and you. I would tell him about your adventures in the rain forest. He too had wished the family thing had worked. Please tell your sister. I think Bill and Jacob would like to hear from her.
Take care in all your travels.
Pat Zackular
ps...Congrats on your new job.


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