Meet Eric Davidson, Director of the Appalachian Laboratory at University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science. Eric is also the 2017-2018 AGU President. In this Paths Through Science profile, Eric talks about what got him interested in the geosciences and provides career advice for budding career scientists. The text below is a transcription of the full interview.
I’m Eric Davidson. I’m a professor and director at the Appalachian Laboratory of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science. I’m a biogeochemist.
What do you like most about your job?
What I like most about being a scientist is that it’s such a creative process, from designing an experiment to carrying it out to analyzing the results and figuring out how to weave a story out of it. The same applies to teaching as far as figuring out ways to explain things to students. It’s a lot of fun. It’s really rewarding.
What advice do you have for a student looking for a job like yours?
Well, I’d say for a student who knows for sure that he or she wants to go into research or teaching and academia, to first of all, sample the possibilities. Whether you’re an undergraduate, graduate, post-doc—look for a few side projects—not too many because you don’t want to get sidetracked, but make sure that you experience a lot of different opportunities so that when you do focus in on something, you know it’s something that really turns you on and inspires you. That’s one piece of advice.
The second one is to be patient. It takes time to develop projects, to develop expertise, to get some publications, to get a track record behind you so that you, you know, get to where you want to be. It takes some time, but it will come if you keep your nose to the grindstone and you keep working at it. There’ll be opportunities and the investment will pay off and you’ll end up with a gig that you really enjoy.
What inspired you to become a biogeochemist?
I remember back when I was in high school, I was inspired by a biology teacher who actually got us to go out there in the field, in the spring. This was Billings, Montana, it’s pretty cold in the spring, out there wading in the Yellowstone River which has snow melt and my feet were freezing. I can’t remember why I wasn’t wearing boots—probably because I was only 15 years old and not smart enough. But anyway I was turning over rocks and picking out mayfly larvae and I thought, “Wow! I wonder if I could get paid for doing something like this.” And I realized that just becoming privy to the secrets of nature—even if your feet are cold—it’s really worth it and so from there I decided I wanted to go into science and one thing led to another and I wound up being a biogeochemist.
To get to that point, to become the biogeochemist, who helped you along the way?
Along the way for my professional career, I had a lot of really important mentors. I already mentioned a high school mentor, I could also point out similar mentors at every stage. As an undergraduate, as a graduate, my post-doc advisor, people who took me under their wing and taught me how to write, taught me how to think about research problems so it’s really important to have mentors who really are thinking about what’s best for you as well.
Is there any other advice you would like to add?
Well, one of the things that I would mention is that, in the sciences these days, academia isn’t the only career path that students ought to be considering . There are a variety of industry [positions]—not only big corporations but small consulting firms—there’s government, there’s teaching at various different levels. One of my graduate students right now is doing a research project, but has told me that what he really wants to do is teach at a four-year undergraduate school after he finishes his Ph.D. and I think that’s just great. There’s lots of different opportunities and find the thing that turns you on in terms of what you want to do.
I feel really lucky that I come to work looking forward to my work most days. I know my dad didn’t have that and he retired early. So you know, we’ve got a great gig, but it does require thinking about what it is that will really make you happy and make you want to go to work everyday.
For students, how important is it for them associate themselves with organizations, such as American Geophysical Union, to start networking?
I think one of the great advantages of the American Geophysical Union, especially for students, is all the networking opportunities and career advancement opportunities. We have those at our annual meetings, we have some of those at other meetings like Chapman conferences, we have online resources. And it’s a great opportunity to network with your peers, i.e., fellow students, with other early career members and with more senior members and so it’s a mixture of people from a lot of different disciplines, people interested in basic research, applied research, academia, industry, government, policy, it’s a great opportunity to sample all of those different aspects of science and get to know it from real people, and interact with those people and rub elbows with them and understand what it is they really do.