Journeying along an uncharted river has parallels to exploring science, says Jim Bardwell, an HHMI investigator and avid outdoorsman.
The postdoctoral fellowship, for example, is like shooting a series of churning rapids with only a paddle and a helmet for protection. It's a high-pressure series of challenges to join the best lab after graduate school, execute and publish stellar science, and then secure a full-time position afterward.
Postdocs are a lab's engines of creativity but also laboring apprentices. They work long hours for limited pay to gain the experience and publications they need to earn their first independent job—be it lab head, industry researcher, or government scientist.
Bardwell understands the importance of having the right team—in the lab and on adventures. With just a fold-up canoe in his backpack, he and a friend hiked through the wilderness of Papua New Guinea scouting rivers in 1994. They chose the seemingly easier Ramu River over the imposing Jimi but midcourse had to escape before the Ramu spit them into a desolate part of the Pacific Ocean.
"Quite frequently, you have to redirect to find the path through the jungle, and science is often redirected quickly or dramatically, as well," says Bardwell, at University of Michigan. In both cases, the expedition team has to be knowledgeable, hard working, flexible, and fearless. "You can run into indications that your hypothesis is completely wrong. You don't want people to wimp out on you, curl up in a ball, and start whimpering. And believe me, it can happen both on expeditions and in the lab."
Illustration: Micah Lidberg