Working Life

Inspiration from the outdoors

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Science  24 Aug 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6404, pp. 818
DOI: 10.1126/science.361.6404.818

It was an extraordinarily busy time of year, with deadlines fast approaching for reporting my progress to donors and a journal article requiring major revisions. I felt some pressure to head straight home after the conference I had attended at the last-minute request of my major research funder. But I had traveled halfway around the world to be there, in Morocco. I did not want to miss the opportunity to explore. So I headed to the mountains for 2 days of therapeutic hiking. As I marveled at the sunrise and the view from the icy summit of Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa, my addled mind calmed. Re-energized, I knew that I could cope with the work that waited for me upon my return. When I arrived back in the office a few days later, I was rejuvenated, and—yes—I successfully submitted the revised journal article and met the donor reporting requirements.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

It was almost 20 years ago that I learned how important it is for me to carve out time to escape to the mountains. I had finished my Ph.D., studying soil and water conservation in Honduras, but I wasn't sure what career direction I wanted to take. So, I decided to act on a dream I had been nursing for a few years, since my mom showed me a magazine article about a potter who had cycled from Los Angeles, California, to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. I figured that I could combine cycling with research for a book on Andean agriculture while I worked out my next career step.

My partner and I spent 12 months cycling from Tierra del Fuego to Ecuador, battling ferocious winds in Patagonia, gasping for air as we inched up mountains in Peru, and rejoicing as the rain became deliciously warmer during the descent from Quito to the Ecuadorian Amazon. Along the way, I learned a fundamental lesson: Being outdoors inspires me, and the beauty of my surroundings combined with physical exertion helps me think broadly and distill my ideas.

During the cycling trip, I found the clarity I needed to figure out my next career move. Talking with farmers we met along the way, from shepherds in Patagonia to potato producers in Ecuador, I learned that their biggest challenge was selling their produce. I decided to broaden my focus from land management to improving farmers' access to markets. My new interest led to working for a nongovernmental organization and eventually conducting agricultural research at international nonprofit organizations, which is what I do now. And my partner and I did eventually publish a book on Andean agriculture.

I recognize that times have changed since I embarked on my cycling adventure, and that researchers today face onerous pressures to publish and get funding. But the pressure cooker that we now live in makes it even more important for researchers at all career stages to find ways to escape from the grind, even if only for a few hours, and seek inspiration. For some, like me, that may come from being active in the outdoors. Others may find their outlet in music, reading, crafts, or any number of varied activities. The key is to find your source of inspiration and nurture it.

In my case, cycling has given way to long-distance running and hiking. Some things, however, have not changed. I still find that the ideas for many research articles have come to me while surrounded by snow-capped peaks, or even on urban streets on early morning runs. When I'm home, I make sure to head to the hills, at least for a few hours every weekend. I always travel with my running shoes, and occasionally with my hiking boots. And when I find myself straying from this routine and forgetting the nourishment I get from being active in the outdoors, as I nearly did during that conference trip a few years ago, I remind myself of the words of Scottish-American naturalist John Muir: “Wildness is a necessity.”

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