27 April 2011

The road ahead

Minneapolis, one of my two new hometowns. Photo by jby.
So, now that I've defended my dissertation, there's really not much of grad school left for me. I have to turn in a final, committee-approved version of the dissertation text, and then on May 14 I'll put on some Hogwarts-worthy getup and accept my diploma from the University of Idaho. I also have some final grading to deal with (Whose bright idea was it to add an independent reading report to the lab curriculum? Oh, right. Mine.) and I'd like very much to get my last Joshua tree paper ready for submission. But, after all that—what's next?

As it happens, I've known that for some time, but there didn't seem to be a good opportunity to cover it here before now: I'm going to Minnesota.

Specifically, I'll be starting a post-doctoral position with Peter Tiffin's lab at the University of Minnesota, Saint Paul. I'm going to be joining a project studying the population genetics of the interaction between plants and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, using the legume Medicago truncatula as an experimental model. It's a big, multi-lab, multi-institution collaboration, working with genomic data for both Medicago and the bacteria it hosts, Sinorhizobia.

My new favorite plant, Medicago truncatula. Photo by Minette Layne.
So I'll be studying a mutualism that might work a bit like yucca pollination—but then again, it might not. The plant-rhizobium interaction is much more widespread than obligate pollination mutualism, and has probably played a big role in the diversification of land plants. Plus, I'll be working with genome-scale data—it's all on a totally different scale from anything I've done before. There are possibilities for experiments and analyses that we'll never be able to do with Joshua trees—ye gads, greenhouse experiments!—and it'll be a learning experience at every step. And, equally importantly, my new collaborators at the Tiffin lab and the other research groups involved in the Medicago genome project are a smart, friendly bunch—I'm looking forward to working with them. All in all, it's exactly what I want in a postdoc.

Saint Paul and Minneapolis look like a pretty nice place to spend the next couple years, too. It's not just that they're cities after six years in small-town Idaho—they've got solid mass transit and they're ranked alongside Portland, Oregon for bicycle-friendliness. One of my new senators will be Al Franken. The Twin Cities are the home turf for Public Radio powerhouse American Public Media. Minneapolis was even named the gayest city in America by the Advocate, and I don't think that was meant as some sort of elaborate joke.

It's hard to complain about the new neighbors, either: My new U of M colleagues will include George Weiblen, an expert on the other classic obligate pollination mutualism; G. David Tilman, who's done pioneering work on the ways competition and other species interactions structure natural communities; and Ruth Shaw, who helped lay the foundation for the ways we measure natural selection today. On the science blogging front, none other than P.Z. Myers will be another U of M colleague (at the Morris campus), and BoingBoing's science guru Maggie Koerth-Baker is in town.

Of course, as I've learned from years of Garrison Keillor exposure, winter in Minnesota does not mess around. Fortunately I'm moving immediately after graduation in mid-May, so I'll have some time to brace myself. Apartment-hunting priorities include covered parking.

All of this is a long and digressive way of saying, yet again, that I'm making some pretty major changes in the next few weeks. Expect further irregularities in posting, and maybe even a radical reconsideration of how D&T fits in my schedule—I don't yet know what my life will look like once I've settled into postdoc-hood, though I'm excited to find out.

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