I’m long overdue for a personal update, so here goes:
A little more than a year and a half ago I began an interesting journey. It started one day when I was sitting in a talk during a Galaxy Formation conference. The talk was about a computer modeling technique that we refer to as semi-analytic modeling. I suddenly found myself struck by the question of whether a similar technique could be applied to simulate the process of cave formation (as most of you know, I am hopelessly obsessed with caves). It was in this moment that I realized that it might actually be possible to apply my physics and computer skill set to the study of caves. Later that day I found myself scouring the available online literature to see what sorts of simulations people had used to study caves. For the next few months I spent much of my free time reading books and articles on cave formation, and was pleased to discover that several of the top people in the field were actually physicists. The obsession grew in my mind as I began to wonder whether I had possibly found a way to match my interest in math and physics with my passion for caves. The reasons I hadn’t pursued this in the past are complex and various (I almost majored in geology as an undergrad), but now it began to seem like a viable option. The only question was, “Was it possible for me to make this kind of career transition after finishing up a PhD in astrophysics?”
In late winter of last year I contacted Van Brahana (a geology professor at the U of A who had taught my undergrad course on karst [cave] hydrogeology), to get his opinion of my idea. His response was encouraging, though he wasn’t exactly sure of the best way to accomplish the transition. In the meantime I also signed up for a conference on “Future Directions in Karst” that was being held in San Antonio right after my planned caving expedition to Rio Iglesia in Mexico.
Luckily, Brahana was also attending the conference and he introduced me to a number of other geologists, including Carol Wicks who gave me some great advice about making this kind of transition. She herself had started out in chemical engineering before making a transition to studying karst. Additionally, I met a researcher from Slovenia, Franci Gabrovšek, who is one of the top researchers using computer simulations to study speleogenesis and was also a PhD physicist and caver. After attending the conference I was feeling a lot more positive about trying to make the jump to studying karst.
About a month later I had another great opportunity when I made a month-long trip to Europe. This trip started with a week-long astrophysics conference in Chamonix and then I spent a couple of weeks in Germany working with collaborators there and giving talks. At the end of that time I had a couple of extra days for vacation. Originally I had planned to spend them near Munich, but I realized that Slovenia (the cradle of cave science and type location of karst) was only a day’s train ride away. Furthermore, tickets from Munich to Ljubljana were on sale.
The night before I left I decided to go for it and see if I could meet up with Franci. I sent him an email saying that I would be in Postojna, which is where I thought he lived and is the location of the karst research institute. If nothing else I knew I could see the tourist caves near there so the trip wouldn’t be wasted. I rode the train through Austria (past the castle from The Sound of Music) and into Slovenia, arriving in Postojna early that evening. I settled into a hostel and set out to check out the tourist cave in town, Postojna Cave. On the tour I met a couple from Carlsbad, NM who actually knew one of the early leaders of the Lechuguilla exploration, though that is a different story. After the tour I walked back to the center of town and went into a restaurant for dinner. A few minutes after I sat down, lo and behold Franci walked into the restaurant to get a drink of water for his son. I was dumbfounded. After getting the water Franci walked back out and I sat in bewilderment. Several seconds later I realized I should get up and chase him down. I ran out into the courtyard outside and yelled his name. He turned around and also for a moment looked fairly bewildered. He had not yet gotten my email because he had been out of town. We agreed to meet up later that evening after he had eaten and gotten his kids in bed. It turned out that his apartment was right next door to my hostel.For the next day I got a personal tour around the classic karst, and I had plenty of opportunity to barrage Franci with questions about transitioning from astrophysics to karst. He seemed to think that it wouldn’t be too difficult. I came away from this amazing trip feeling fairly certain of what I wanted to do. I was beginning to feel the hand of divine providence pushing me forward, but little did I know what was in store. To be continued…
-Matt, the elder brother