27 September 2010

“If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research”

Posted by Jessica Ball

I talk a lot about my experiences with volcanoes and molten lava and such, but if I want to talk about my most important geological experience overall, I have to skip my volcanological career entirely and go back to the very first field course I ever took. (I mention it a lot; it was a 3 1/2 week trip to the Colorado Plateau, which is an excellent place for a crash course in field work.) We were in Utah, just outside of Capitol Reef and a few miles away from what was later to become my undergraduate thesis field area, in a little campground outside of Bicknell. Sunglow Campground was aptly named; at the end of the day the red rocks surrounding us seemed to light up as the sun was setting.

If I’m remembering correctly, this was our first real mapping assignment. I, having had no classes in mineralogy, petrology, structure, or mapping, was working with some of the older students. At this point, I’d managed to pick up basic Brunton skills and was reasonably certain I could tell sandstone from limestone. I was still pretty nervous about the assignment, since at that point I was still a bit of a perfectionist (left over from high school, I guess). 

We spent the entire day climbing over rocks, gazing at outcrops from high spots, breaking off hand samples, squinting through our hand lenses. And by the end of the day, we still hadn’t managed to cover the whole area. I was excited when we found what I guessed was volcanic ash right next to a pretty obvious fault, but mainly because I could actually stand on the thing and say “this is a fault”. Beyond that, I was definitely having trouble putting lines and color on our map. Looking back at my field notes, I know I didn’t get as detailed as I could have, mostly because I didn’t really know what was important to write down. I felt like I should have been able to figure out field relations and rock types by that point on the trip.

I was completely frustrated with myself and the assignment by the end of the day, especially when it became apparent that we’d neglected to investigate a few of the units properly and left one completely off the map. Once we’d turned in our assignments, however, and were sitting around the campfire toasting food and joking, I realized something important: that I had expected myself to come up with all the answers even when I was still developing the tools I needed to find them. There was no way I was going to complete the assignment perfectly. And that was okay, because I was still learning. And that’s something I’ve had to remind myself of all the time, especially when I get frustrated or upset over something: I’m still learning. I’ll still be learning when it’s time to retire – and I’ll still be learning after that.

As a freshman, I may have been bright enough that my advisor invited me to come on a trip that was normally restricted to upperclassmen, but I should also have been bright enough to realize my own limitations. That was one of the best things I learned on that trip, and one that’s helped me immensely since. If I can take a step back from whatever frustrating problem I’m dealing with at the moment, I can figure out what I tools and knowledge I need to acquire to solve it. That process may be slow and frustrating itself, but it’s much better than thinking I know everything (and then finding out, usually in embarrassing ways, that I’m wrong). Come to think of it, this is a great way to look at life in general, not just geology.