Finishing My Dissertation and Finding My Park

Friday I turned my dissertation into the library at Utah State. This means that I am officially “Dr. D’Antonio”. As far as I know, I am one of few members of my family to go to college, the first in my family to go to graduate school, and definitely the only one to get a Ph.D. – my parents are super proud. For me, I just feel relieved to have my defense over (I caught a cold and had some technical difficulties so that could have gone better) and my dissertation done. Otherwise I don’t think the whole idea of being “finished” has hit me.  Next week, I officially start a postdoc position at Utah State where my main responsibility will be teaching. I am really excited about this opportunity and it is also allowing my partner and me to delay the inevitable “two-body problem” by at least a year. Before the semester starts though, my first responsibility as a postdoc is a small research project in a place I love. And that is really what this post is about – finding my park.

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This year the national park service is doing a media campaign called “Find Your Park”. A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of making dissertation edits, I went to Grand Teton National Park to present some findings from another research project. In between presentations, I ran over to the gift shop to pick up some postcards to mail to family and friends. When I checked out the cashier asked me “Have you found your park yet?” As someone who does research in and loves national parks, I took the question seriously and had actually but some forethought into it. Without hesitation I responded “I have! It’s Rocky Mountain National Park”.

When I started my M.S. at Utah State, the line in an email from my future advisor that convinced me to come here was “I have a research project in Rocky Mountain National Park.”  Sign me up! I had never been to Rocky Mountain NP but I knew I wanted to study recreation and I knew national parks are awesome. So it seemed like a no-brainer and Utah seemed like an amazing place to live for someone who loves the mountains. So in the summer of 2008, I packed a giant duffle bag of the personal belongings I thought I would need for field work. I boarded a plane in the tiny airport of Appleton, Wisconsin and made my way to the gateway community outside Rocky Mountain NP, Estes Park, Colorado.

My first few days of field work as a new M.S. student – who had not taken a college class in two years, knew almost nothing about social science, or studying recreation – were a bit comical and humbling. I have no idea what convinced my advisor to trust me with this project, but I am glad he did and I am even more glad that he hired a rock-star field technician to help out who continued to work with me on every field project after that first one. My first challenge as a new graduate student was getting to my research housing in Rocky Mountain NP.

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My first day of field work – hiking with my advisor. It was hard to learn with such amazing natural beauty all around me.

My first night in Estes I stayed in a hotel and that evening I planned my trip into the park to my research housing. I knew that the next morning I had to walk from the hotel to the visitors center in Estes, then ride a bus into the park to the visitors center there. Then I could walk from the park visitors center to my park research housing. No big deal. However, I grossly underestimated how far I had to walk (this was before smart phones), how heavy my bag of gear was, and totally did not consider that Wisconsin is at sea level and Colorado most definitely is not. I arrived at my housing unit out of breath, very sweaty, and my heavy bag had bruised by shoulders and my arms as I awkwardly lugged it between buses and visitor centers. Once at the research housing, I quickly made friends with the fellow researchers there (some of which I am still friends with today) and settled into the four-beds-per-room/co-ed bathroom situation.

Challenge number two of my first field season in Rocky Mountain NP happened on the first day I spent in the field with my future advisor. A day or two after arriving in Rocky Mountain NP, Annie (my rock-star field technician) and I were supposed to meet my advisor to begin learning about the project and how to do field work. This would be only the third time I had actually interacted with my advisor in-person. All of our field gear that we needed that day was stored in my room that I shared with 3 members of another research team. Annie slept in a different room. The other research team had gotten up early and was preparing for their day in the field as I wandered to our shared bathroom down the hall to shower and prepare for the day.  As I headed to the shower, I made what turned out to be a poor assumption that my roommates would realize I was in the shower and leave our room unlocked. Nope. I returned from my shower – luckily fully clothed and with shoes on – to learn that I was locked out of my room. Locked in the room was my room key, obviously, as well as all of my personal gear for the day and all of the field gear we needed to begin working. At the time there was no cellphone service at the housing unit to call for an extra key or to call the other research team.

My advisor showed up to the research housing to find me sitting in the common room gear-less and embarrassed about my blunder on the first day of field work. Luckily for me, my advisor soon had a solution.  After inspecting the windows to the room we realized that 1) my roommates had left a window open into the room, 2) the screen to the housing unit would easily pop in and out, 3) Annie is a smaller than average human who could fit through the window and 4) my advisor is a taller than average human who could reach the screen to remove it and easily hoist Annie into the window.  So we may have left for my first day of the field season a bit late but at least we had the gear we needed so that I could begin my training as an M.S. student.

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Annie is awesome. Best. Field. Tech. Ever.

I am sure that first field season had some additional blunders and challenges but those first few days are the ones that really stick out in my mind. Since Annie had taken classes in recreation ecology as an undergrad, she ended up teaching me most of the things I needed to know to do field research. I learned much from Annie those first few days in the field and together we stumbled through that first field season and many field seasons after that. In the process became close friends and some of my best graduate school memories are with Annie. Most of what I remember about that field season is falling in love with the West, with Colorado, and with Rocky Mountain NP in particular.

Now, for my postdoc, I am heading back to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain NP. I will be there for a couple of weeks this summer, heading back to my now “old” field sites, and doing the same work I did in 2008. This time the information will be used in a more sophisticated modeling project – a testament to how much I have learned over the past 7 years of graduate school.  This time I will be the one teaching my field technicians what they need to know to do recreation ecology field work. And this time I will always take my bedroom key with me when I go to take a shower.

That first summer of field work, I bought a ring in a little shop in Estes that resembles the bark of an aspen tree. I have worn that ring almost every day since; through a few personal life crises and changes, through my M.S., and I wore it on the day of my Ph.D. defense. It is a reminder of one of my most favorite places on Earth, someplace I always long to get back to, and a park that has incredible personal meaning. I feel like the graduate school part of my life has come full circle; it started in Rocky Mountain NP and am I ending it there. In the process, I have found my park.

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My ring to remind me of Rocky Mountain NP

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3 thoughts on “Finishing My Dissertation and Finding My Park

  1. Congratulations! And wonderful story. Sharing the personal side of pursuits like yours always widens the dimensions of dedicated professionals in all the sciences. We all have our turning points and favorite places that impact the rest of our future directions. It adds a human perspective to what may sometimes seem less so to others. Thanks for sharing yours.

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