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Tech. Savvy?

January 6, 2013

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I have spent much of the past week assembling a geological map on the computer. While I was doing this technical task, I had plenty of time to think about other things … like the changing nature of this sort of technical task.

Younger people occasionally ask me how they might go about achieving a career in paleontology or a related science. Much of what I tell them probably falls into the “blindingly obvious” category: get a good undergraduate degree in Earth Science or a relevant area of Biology … learn to write … a course in field methods would be very useful … learn how to gather data, and how to tabulate, graph, and statistically analyze those data … do a graduate degree … get some training in appropriate modern research tools, such as scanning electron microscopes, microprobes, and digital image analysis.

There are, however, other essential skills that may not be so obvious, but that are critical to the success of most paleontologists working at most institutions in the modern world. These are the skills involved in basic technical work. In most institutions, it will be essential that you know one or more of rock cutting and polishing, thin section manufacture, specimen preparation, technical photography, and computer graphics.

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This was not always the case. Back in the “good old days,” before we had access to the computers and other tech items that are now commonplace, scientists and students at most institutions could depend on professional technicians to do many of these jobs. Though support varied from place to place, when I was a graduate student I had some help from professional staff who would make a batch of thin sections, draft figures for a paper, or print photos for a thesis. I still had to carry out quite a few tasks for myself, but I could count on someone else to do at least some of the laborious and repetitive pieces.

Somewhere around 20 years ago, this support began to disappear. There were a few factors at play in this. First of all, in Canada, governments were focused on cutting deficits, and universities were no longer receiving some of the basic funding they had come to count on. There were, however, large capital funds available for the purchase of new high-tech equipment, so departments grabbed this money and busied themselves installing new labs. Those labs required specialized, highly-trained technicians to run them, and where would those positions come from when funds for technical salaries were at best, flat-lined?

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One obvious approach was to get rid of the old, low-tech thin section or photo technician, and divert those funds to the new position. After all, if researchers in old-fashioned disciplines (such as paleontology) still needed thin sections or photography work, they could apply for grants and pay for those services from readily-available private-sector suppliers.

Many technicians in photography and drafting were also doomed by the digital revolution. Why pay for an expensive draftsman when the student or scientist could have CorelDraw or Illustrator on her desktop? And why should we have a salary for a trained photographer? The advent of digital cameras meant that film and darkrooms were outmoded, and the dark arts of photography had, in the minds of some administrators, been translated wholesale into the black box of the PC’s hard drive. After all, can’t just anyone point a camera and push a button?

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If you who have spent more than an afternoon at this you will know that the answer is absolutely to the negative. Technical photography and graphics production are both complicated subjects, and the tremendous number of choices available in the digital toolbox means that their use has become more complex, not less. Those middle-aged scientists who had always depended on technicians to do their dirty work, and who lacked grant-funding for outside contractors, were left marooned on a “mud” bank somewhere up that proverbial creek.

Which is why I guess I am lucky that I never managed to do research at an institution that offered students full technical support. In my M.Sc. days at the University of Toronto I was fully schooled by my supervisor, Rolf Ludvigsen, in technical photography of trilobites, using an excellent medium-format film camera. Rolf also made sure that I learned how to assemble photos onto a publication plate using a combination of scalpel, rubber cement, cardstock, and eyestrain. Rolf believed in the time-honoured master-apprentice approach to learning. This meant that the first time you did any new task, he would say, “that one is s***, throw it out and start again” – regardless of the actual quality of the work.

As a Ph.D. student at the University of New Brunswick I had the luxury of rock cutting, polishing, and thin section manufacture provided by two technicians in the “rock shop.” This facility was out-of-bounds to students because one previous graduate student (who is now a very successful scientist) had managed to ruin two very expensive diamond sawblades in the course of a single unsupervised afternoon of prep. The rest of us really couldn’t complain about the outcome of his efforts! Nevertheless, the support did not extend as far as preparation of acetate peels (of which I made hundreds), drafting of thesis figures, or film printing and assembly of photo plates. There were months when I lived in the darkroom every evening and weekend, and I suspect that I had a vampirish pallor by the time I finally emerged.

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When I was a postdoc some of the support was superb, as we had a full-time research thin section technician at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and funds to hire undergraduates to carry out this task at the University of Manitoba. But I still spent weeks in the darkroom, learning about resin-coated paper and other newfangled inventions, and also developed basic proficiency in the computer graphics that were just becoming readily available. At Newcastle we had access to a few of the original Mac computers; at the time they were shockingly advanced and cool!

All of this is my very long-winded way of saying that, if you want to work in a scientific field, be prepared to learn how to do EVERY task involved, at least to the level of basic proficiency. And be prepared to be patient. There will be days of making thin sections when you want to be gathering data, and of assembling figures when you would rather that the paper was finished and submitted. But doing it yourself allows time to contemplate your specimens and data much more thoroughly than you would otherwise, and it permits full control over the finished product. The craft of good technical work is not just a means to the end; if you do it yourself it will be a means to an end better than the one you had in mind.

© Graham Young, 2013

The illustrations above are areas or layers of diagrams and maps I have assembled over the years.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2013 9:18 pm

    Enjoyed reading the article Graham. Interesting perspective and insights. If there are any questions on digital photography of fossil… just ask as I have some expertise in this area from the school of trial and error…. PL

  2. Graham permalink*
    January 6, 2013 9:59 pm

    Thank you, Peter.

  3. David Greenwood permalink
    January 7, 2013 2:06 pm

    We’re of a generation, Graham …

    I enjoy drafting diagrams and maps etc the most in writing a scientific paper, so really liked this post. And my own experience echoes yours … hours in the darkroom, more hours bent over a drafting table … and prepping specimens. Digital is fun too, just different.

    • Graham permalink*
      January 7, 2013 3:00 pm

      Thanks Dave. I agree: the technical jobs are really the most fun, as long as you are not under deadline pressure to complete the entire thing!

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