30 January 2011

Tobias PhD

Last Friday a Dutchman and a Swissman travelled to Norway to examine the research of a German who for the last 5 years had been supervised by two Brits in a research group which includes 2 other Germans, a Pole and a Norwegian. That seems like a pretty good working model for European collaboration.

So it was that Tobias had his PhD exam. And I am very glad to say that he passed with flying colours. After 5 years and a lot of hard work he pulled it all together with an excellent presentation which neatly summarized what is one of the most exciting developments in the study of outcrops for many years. The opponents (examiners) were good, digging deep enough to test his knowledge without getting hung up on the pedantic details. It was an excellent session and I felt genuinely proud to have been his supervisor. A great party was had in Nesteboden, which has the name suggests is an old converted boat house, in one of the less fancy parts of Bergen. It’s an excellent spot place for a party and has a really nice atmosphere. There was drinking and eating and dancing and good conversation until the early hours.

It is very easy for a supervisor to come up with an idea that, in the pub at least, seems pretty straight forward. It is then up to some poor student to try and make that idea into reality. That was Toby’s mission when 5 years ago we thought, hmm why can’t we just stick a hyperspectral sensor from a satellite onto a tripod and point it at an outcrop. It is obviously more difficult than it sounds but the luxury of being the supervisor is that the reality of the challenge is passed on to somebody who is probably smarter and certainly more committed to solving the problem.

We interviewed Toby over the phone and he seemed very smart. We offered him the position and he seemed very surprised. He arrived in Bergen and two endearing aspects of his character soon became apparent, firstly having grown up in the 80’s in the former East-Germany where Russian was the second language, his English was not great. In fact it took a while for him to get up to speed and even understand what we were talking about most of the time. Secondly, he has a love of being organized, often to the extent that it is detrimental, an example being when he took a room in a house before he arrived and was stuck for a year with 9 idiot undergraduates. As Brits we loved to dwell on examples of the failure of Germanic organization – the joys of being a multicultural organization.

Despite these hiccups and a few others – such as a years delay on the arrival of the scanner, he immersed himself in the project and also set about enjoying the outdoor life in western Norway. Just after Easter in his first year he came to my office sunburnt and battered. He announced that he had got like that from skiing across the Hardanger Plateau – a serious undertaking. The conversation went something like

Me: what the fuck happened to you, you look like crap?

Toby: I skied across the Hardanger over Easter.

Me: Respect, so have you done a lot of cross country skiing before?

Toby: No, this was the first time.

Me: Wow, so who did you go with?

Toby: I went on my own

Me: Oh really, so was it ok?

Toby: Not really, I got lost and couldn’t find the hut so I dug a snow hole with my cooking pan, it was actually a bit scary

At this point I was seriously wandering if this crazy german would survive his PhD.

But he did and he continued to have outdoor adventures, including long ski tours and kayak trips, including one to Svalbard which I am very jealous of. And we did fieldwork in the UK, in Portugal, Spain and Utah and gradually his project came together. He managed to solve all the problems that we had not even for seen, he managed to cope with the at-times surreal relationship with Cornershop Oil and he managed to submit a thesis which will be the benchmark for this sort of work in the future.

So “Prost for Toby” and I look forward to more adventures both in science and in the outdoors.

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