One of my classmates in my statistics class at Georgetown asked me how I went from doing tropical biology to becoming a software tester. I decided to share my response here because it might be interesting to others who are contemplating a radical change in career direction.
I was convinced throughout college that I wanted to be a tropical field biologist. I studied abroad at a field station in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and after graduation spent almost a year doing research in the Philippines on seed dispersal of a particular understory tree. I even got a publication out of the latter in a German ecology journal. So, I was all set to go for a PhD in bio, but while I was in Manila and Bataan I took some time to reflect on where things were going and I realized I didn’t want to do fieldwork for the rest of my life. It is an amazing experience and I’m glad I had the chance to try it out, but as a career it is a very isolated and difficult lifestyle. You have to spend a lot of time in very remote, uncomfortable, and occasionally dangerous situations to collect data. Experiments often fail, and you have to wait a whole year until you can try again (due to the seasonality of flowering, fruiting, migrating animals, etc). Almost no one pays attention to biology research unless it has a medical application, and most tropical biologists spend their lives documenting the ongoing destruction of species and ecosystems they care for very much but feel powerless to protect. What this means is that in order to follow this path, one must be extremely passionate and dedicated to their discipline. I actually had the good fortune to study under such a person in the Philippines- a man named Leonard Co who in my opinion was a modern-day Linnaeus. Sadly, he was shot about a year ago while doing fieldwork. He was a cheerful, multilingual, botanical genius whose whole life was dedicated to scientific discovery and conservation.
Yet as much as I admired him, I realized I did not want to follow in his footsteps, because I couldn’t imagine myself specializing and focusing so intensely on a single subject. I like learning about a wide variety of things, and since the financial crisis was going on at the same time, I started reading a lot about economics, which I didn’t know much about previously. Furthermore, I had never lived in a big city prior to Manila, and even though I always thought of myself as a rural person, I learned to love the excitement and mental stimulation of the urban environment. By the time I came back to the US, I was totally confused about what I wanted to do career-wise, so I just decided to keep an open mind when I got a job offer to do software testing in Charlottesville. I have enjoyed this work for the past 3 years and am grateful to the folks who decided to take a chance on hiring someone based more on his sense of curiosity than his programming experience. Since I still enjoy learning about both biology and economics (and especially how they sometimes intertwine), I decided to go ahead and try for a masters through night classes in something that seems to be useful in both fields, which is how I ended up studying math and statistics. My career philosophy now is more about just making the most of whatever opportunities come around and trying to always be learning something new rather than having a master plan to save the world. I do hope to someday use my technical skills to help conservation efforts in places like the Philippines and other parts of the tropics, but I imagine it will be more in my personal time than as a career. Indeed, I have continued to visit tropical countries and am always inspired by the beauty of the landscapes and the generosity of the people in places like Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, and Malaysia. I also feel fortunate to have maintained a connection to environmental issues through my work in that most of my projects have been supporting government (EPA) air quality and energy efficiency programs.