Monday, September 29, 2014

Road to war

Writing about the Marines is daunting.  More than just a career or lifestyle, it was how I defined myself for five years.  It’s still a part of my identity.  It was also a transformative time for me, and one linked to powerful emotions.  But I’ll try.

I’ll approach it as I have the rest of M2M—rather than an exhaustive narrative, I’ll tell a series of stories that form a bigger picture.  There will be some differences, however.

First, some events are too sensitive to write about.  I worked in intelligence and much of my experience was and is classified.  That stuff is off limits.  Plus, some things I’m just not ready to write about and probably never will be.

Second, I may use fake names for the characters—I don’t want to reveal other people’s stories.  If I do write something that’s obviously about you and it makes you uncomfortable, let me know and I’ll remove it.

Third, one point of this series is to show that military experience is not an isolated, disjunct part of our lives, but rather a relevant stepping stone to where we are today.  It plays a role in our present and future, just as anyone else’s past experiences do for them.  To that end, as characters enter the story I will try to mention what they are up to today (keeping in mind my second statement).  This may have the added benefit of combating stereotypes.

So, yeah, the Marines…

I guess at some level I could’ve predicted I would end up in Iraq.  I’d always had two main professional fantasies—be a scientist and serve in the military.  And for someone my age, Iraq always seemed the most likely place to go to war.  Iraqi disarmament, Saddam, the embargo, the no-fly zones—they were all hot topics throughout the 90s.  Then in 1998 when I was in 8th grade, I watched as we bombed Iraq in Operation Desert Fox.  So, yeah, I guess I could’ve predicted it.  But I didn’t.

I joined the Marines in 2002 at age 17, the summer after my junior year of high school.  I needed major changes in my life.  I wanted a purpose, adventure, a group to belong to; to see the world and learn new skills; to be tough, decisive, and unstoppable.  As a child I was pulled around according to the whims of the adults around me, powerless to change my situation.  I wouldn’t accept that anymore—I would learn to fight my battles, take control of my life and make things happen.  If I was to have the future I wanted—including my dream of being a scientist—I had to escape from my town, my background, my financial situation.  What I needed was a new life.  The Marine Corps offered it to me.

So I joined, but it didn’t really mean anything yet.  I wouldn’t go to boot camp until a week after I graduated high school.  My only real commitment was working out with the recruiters once or twice a week and studying Marine Corps knowledge.

While I went to class and prepared for the Marines, I also watched the Iraqi disarmament crisis spiral out of control.  It was around that time that I first mentally linked myself to Iraq.  Then on March 19 (March 20 in Iraq) the war started.  We poured across the border, accompanied by hordes of reporters and cameras.  It was a TV war like nothing I’d seen before or since—24 hour coverage and daily map updates of the moving front.  Footage of explosions, tracer rounds, destroyed buildings, and exhausted Marines and soldiers.  The papers published lists and photos of killed servicemen.

I remember sitting in art class with my eyes glued to the TV on the wall, pondering my future.  For possibly the first time, the news was personal.  Of course I knew war was an option—it was, after all, part of the reason I joined the Marines—and we had already been in Afghanistan for eight months when I joined.  But now it was real.  War seemed likely to enter my own narrative.


Since I wouldn’t get a senior summer, my family threw me a combined high school graduation and going-away-to-boot-camp party.  I wouldn’t see or talk to them again for months.

Six weeks later the president gave his (in)famous “Mission Accomplished” speech.  Six weeks after that I was in boot camp.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Veteran scientist #1, J. Craig Venter

A few days ago I asked where all the veteran scientists were, and got a ton of feedback from other veterans in science, or scientists who have veteran grad students.  It was great to discover how many of us there really are, how many other people have gone through a similar transition.  Likewise, I think it’d be helpful for all the new generation of veterans entering science to have visible veteran scientist role models.

To that end, I’ve decided to start answering my own question by starting a new series.  In addition to my normal posts, every week I want to publish a snippet about a current or past scientist who was a veteran—a veteran scientist of the week.

These people lived as both warriors and scholars, and many experienced war.  They put to use the skills and strengths they acquired in the military to also succeed in science.

The list I have right now is short.  So please, if you know of any veteran scientists, or if you are a veteran scientist and are comfortable with me including a short post about you, let me know so we can keep this going.

I might as well start the series off strong. 

J. Craig Venter (1946-present)

US Navy Corpsman 1965-1968 and Vietnam veteran.  Sequencer of the human (and many other) genomes, creator of the first man-made organism, mapper of the oceans’ microbial diversity, and one of the world’s most influential people.




J. Craig Venter received a 2008 National Medal of Science, for a career inspired in part by his experiences during the Vietnam War (photo by Getty Images)

While Venter is best known as one of the world’s most famous and revolutionary scientists, he started off his career in the military.  He joined the US Navy in 1965 and served as a Medical Corpsman in Vietnam from 1967-1968.  There he worked at a hospital in Danang patching up wounded and dying soldiers and Marines during the bloody Tet Offensive.

“I believed that the war could transform me personally.  I had met servicemen who fought in Vietnam, and it was clear they were different in some indefinable way from those who had not.  I wanted to experience the adventure, and I thought Vietnam could offer answers to some fundamental questions about life.”

After the war, Venter says he “felt overwhelmed, a combination of relief and trepidation about the future.  So much had happened, so much had changed.  I had been in the military for only two years and eight months, but I was not the same young man who had been drafted off his surfboard.”  He had “seen thousands of men my age killed or maimed in unthinkable ways.  I did not feel survivor’s guilt, but I did want to do something with my life to honor all those who were now beyond my help.”

Venter credits his experience in war with setting him on his subsequent career path as a biologist.  It gave him “a burning sense of urgency to get an education and to somehow change the world.”

After he and others announced the sequencing of the human genome, Venter says, “I couldn’t help but think while I was at the White House podium that I owed my success and motivation, in some part, to the men and women who served in the Vietnam War, and even more, to the ones who paid with their lives.  That incredible experience transformed me from a young man without direction and purpose into a man driven to understand the very essence of life and to use that understanding to change medicine.”

Venter summed it all up in a speech at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 2000.  “I knew when I landed in the U.S. in August 1968 after that long flight back from Vietnam that I was given a gift—my life.  And I vowed that I would somehow find a way to make my life meaningful, to repay and honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice with their lives.  I feel an obligation to make them proud and to let the world know that those who served their country in Vietnam have made a difference in the world.”

Could you ask for a better example of scientific success built from the military experience?

A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life, 2008, J. Craig Venter

Monday, September 22, 2014

Where are the veterans in science?

I write a lot about landscapes and adventures.  I do this hoping others will relive similar memories, start their own adventures, or learn about things they are unlikely to experience themselves.  Engagement with the world inspires us to take action to protect it.  But the world is open to everyone—my insight is not unique.

Part of M2M’s mission is to document my transition from a military career to life as a scientist.  As a Marine combat veteran and Ph.D. candidate, I’ve had my feet in both worlds.  According to the National Science Foundation, in 1999 about 0.2% of Americans held a doctorate and worked as scientists.  If 1% of Americans are Marines, then, as a rough estimate we might expect only 1 in every 50,000 Americans—around 6,000 people—to be both.  Even if we vary those numbers a bit (and also remember that I don’t yet have my doctorate), I don’t think it’s too presumptuous to say I have a privileged insight.  But so far I’ve ignored the question.  Why?

The answer gets at the heart of the issue itself—what it’s like to be a veteran in science.

Compared to other marginalized groups, I don’t think veterans in science have it so rough.  Though I’m unaware of anyone actually checking, I don’t think we struggle with wage or employment gaps or hostile work environments.  I sometimes get na├»vely offensive comments from colleagues, but I generally chalk these up to well-intentioned ignorance.  In my first year of grad school, for example, one professor told me I must’ve been a “real outlier” in the military (because they assumed people in the military were dumb and I wasn’t).  Another professor asked whether I was more likely to commit a violent crime because I’ve been “trained to kill people.”  The most offensive case, however, was when a professor and close mentor flat out told me, “I’m afraid of you.”

An active duty Marine, of course, might take fear as a compliment.  Their job is, after all, to win wars.  And in his book Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D., Robert Peters suggests that being an intimidating grad student will help you successfully interact with your advisor and graduate committee.  But I’m no longer in the Marines, and my job is not to win wars.  And actual fear is different from professional admiration.  Hearing that someone actually fears me hurts.

Some people might be surprised I get those comments at all, let alone on a fairly regular basis, and from colleagues in my own department no less.  But I don’t think that’s the main difficulty for a veteran in science.  Really, those comments come from a few people and are not representative of my work environment.  The more insidious problem (and I suspect this is true for veterans in most fields) is a question of relevance.  This summer another grad student asked how it felt to know my past was irrelevant to my current career.  The question surprised me because I see my time in the Marines as a direct link to my current life.  My experiences then guide my decisions today, and I put to use on a daily basis the skills I learned in the Marines and in Iraq.  My time in the Marines is just as relevant to my scientific success as my college degree, and probably more so.

I explained that to my friend and I think I convinced him.  But though he may have been the only one bold enough to say it, I realize many colleagues and potential employers think it.  That’s been my biggest challenge—how to translate my experience into applications, grant proposals and the respect of colleagues.

We don’t hesitate to list our undergraduate degrees on our CVs.  Sure, people don’t place much stock in which school you attended or for how long or details like that.  But anyone reading our CV instantly grasps what it means when we say we went to college.  They also went to college and rely on that shared experience to interpret its relevance.  I still haven’t been able to figure out, however, what readers think about military experience.  Most have no intuitive understanding like they do with a college degree, and many probably have stereotyped notions of military life.  I recently asked a veteran professor in my department about it.  He said that after decades of working as a scientist he still didn’t know the answer, and that he’s gone back and forth over the years about whether he even puts his military experience on his CV.

That’s the choice many of us face—we either treat our military experience as irrelevant, creating a gap that makes us look late to the game and less qualified than our younger peers, or we advertise it and risk exposing ourselves to misunderstandings and stereotypes.  Describing our experiences and skills should not be a lesser-of-two-evils game.

So no, I don’t write about the Marines, because at some level I’ve come to treat it as the people around me do—an irrelevant past life, or just a curious fact or conversation starter.  By treating it otherwise, especially in a public forum, I risk exposing myself to judgment.

That, of course, is just my experience.  I want to know how others feel.  There have got to be thousands of us going through the same transition.  And many great scientists of the past were veterans.  But it’s difficult to find any information.  There is no community, as far as I know, for veterans in science.  No organization, no support network, no Facebook page or Twitter account, no network of bloggers.  Where are we?  Where are the veteran scientists?  Either we don’t self-identify as a group, or we’re all just independently finding our own way.  I suspect it’s the latter.  If anyone knows of a group, please let me know.

At any rate, the problem boils down to communication.  If other scientists don’t know what military service means or what it’s like to be a veteran, they can’t objectively evaluate our backgrounds, no matter their intentions.  So perhaps the best thing I can do is write.  That’s the point of science outreach, right?

To that end, I hope to end my silence.  It will be hard, and it might not happen immediately, but I’d like to finish what I started.  I’m going to write about the Marines.

Friday, September 12, 2014

World's edge

Buck and I raced west.  We’d seen termites and crocodiles, aboriginal art, and savannas, rainforests and reefs.  We’d climbed volcanic craters and been eaten alive by leeches.  Now we had one goal—the Gulf of Carpentaria.


With the help of Christina, Clint and Buck I traversed a fair bit of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula…but there’s still so much we didn’t experience

One of the more remote seas on Earth, the Gulf of Carpentaria is the body of water separating Australia’s two northern peninsulas—the Cape York and Top End.  Though it’s familiar on maps, few people ever experience it.  Much of the coast is aboriginal land, and there are no cities and only a few small towns on its thousands of miles of shoreline.  Only one of those towns, Karumba, population less than 600, is connected by paved road to the rest of Australia.  It was, in short, a place we had to visit.


The small fishing town of Karumba is the only part of the entire Gulf of Carpentaria connected by paved road to the rest of the world

And so we raced westward through eucalypt savanna and acacia woodland, over rocky ridges and dry riverbeds, and across the sea’s fringing coastal prairies and marshes.  And, finally, Karumba.  Though small, Karumba’s population explodes during the dry season with tourists from other parts of Australia, drawn by the region’s sport barramundi fishery.

Buck and I found a campsite crammed against a wire fence along the main road, sandwiched between two other families in a noisy RV park.  It was one of the only sites available in town.  We set up camp and headed to the sea just in time for sunset.


A black-necked stork, or jabiru (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus), feeds in the mud flats off Karumba


Buck and I watched the sun go down over the Gulf, satisfied at finally crossing the Cape York

This was it, land’s end.  It felt like the end of the world.  We drank beers and watched the sun go down over the mudflats, basking in our (small) accomplishment.  Our trip was at an end.  The next day we would race back to Cairns, and soon after fly home—me to Oklahoma and Buck to Manhattan.  We’d already said goodbye to Clint and Christina.  Now our time had come.

Buck and I would soon part ways and return to the US

Back in the coastal mountains on our return to Cairns we stopped in the town of Yungaburra for a stroll along Petersons Creek.  It was our last stop of the trip.  Right as we got out of the car we spotted a duck-billed platypus swimming in the muddy water.  In my two trips to Australia, despite a lot of searching, I’d never encountered one of these elusive, yet quintessentially Australian, mammals.  Yet here it was, next to a parking lot in a city park.  Oh, Australia, the games you play…

Just hours before the end of our trip, we spotted a duck-billed platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) in the small highland town of Yungaburra

And that’s always been my experience of Australia.  In some ways it was like the Marines—you get challenged, accept some misery, make discoveries, and in the end realize you accomplished something.

I can’t think of a more fitting end for a Cape York adventure.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Volcanoes and bull ants

Like the rest of Australia, the Cape York is geologically inactive, composed of ancient eroded sedimentary rocks.  The peninsula’s southeast corner, however, is covered in some of the world’s most extensive lava flows, while cones of extinct volcanoes rise from the plains.  It was this rugged landscape that welcomed us after we left the wet coastal mountains.

Most of the area, like the rest of the Cape York, is dominated by open eucalypt forest, dry and frequently swept by wildfires.  But basalt outcrops and dikes erupt like teeth from the plains, and collapsed lava tubes formed moist depressions.  These irregularities create pockets where fire is excluded or water accumulates.  Such islands form isolated refuges where dry forest, here known technically as “semi-evergreen vine thickets” and colloquially as “scrub,” can persist.


Open eucalyptus savannas dominate most of the southeast Cape York









We first encountered these dry forests in Forty Mile Scrub National Park.  In an instant the roadside vegetation changed from Eucalyptus grassland to dense thickets of vines and leafless trees.  It was the dry season, when most dry forest canopy species shed their leaves to conserve water.  Broad-leaved bottle trees, with swollen trunks that store water, rose from the forest.


Areas protected from fire host dense dark patches of dry forest


Broad-leaved bottle trees (Brachychiton australis), a characteristic dry forest species, store water in their trunks and shed their leaves during the dry season


A few miles south of Forty Mile Scrub, Undara Volcanic National Park protects many of the region's volcanoes, craters and lava tubes.  Buck and I spent two days exploring the park before continuing west.


Buck and I explored the volcanoes and basalt outcrops of Undara Volcanic National Park






Pied Currawongs (Strepera graculina)…

 …and Laughing Kookaburras (Dacelo novaeguineae) frequented our campsite


Rainbow lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus)…

 …and Noisy Friarbirds (Philemon corniculatus) fed on Banksias in the park’s savannas

 Eastern grey kangaroos (Macropus giganteus) grazed in moist grasslands in low areas

On the second day Buck and I walked around the rim of Kulkani Crater, one of the region’s extinct volcanoes.  Savanna covered the slopes and dry forest grew in protected bouldery areas.  A herd of whiptail wallabies grazed in tall marsh in the crater’s center.

 Buck and I walked along the rim of an extinct volcano






A tall marsh grew where water pooled in the crater’s center


We disturbed a herd of whiptail, or pretty-faced, wallabies (Macropus parryi), grazing in the crater.  They were my only new kangaroo species of the trip.


We found several species of bull ants (Myrmecia sp.), endemic to Australia and New Caledonia, in the southeast Cape York


This particular nest was inside Kulkani Crater


Unlike most other ants, bull ants have large eyes and hunt and navigate visually

It was great to be warm and dry again, and there was plenty to discover.  But the Cape York’s west coast was still 300 miles away.  If we were to cross the entire peninsula and return in time we had to hit the road.