My Nontraditional Path to Science Started Outdoors

I was never very interested in science. Outdoor activities like surfing and kayaking, sports, music – these activities captivated me as an adolescent and into early adulthood. School, and especially science, did little to hold my attention. My teachers told my parents, “Such great potential, if only he would fulfill it.”

So how did I go from someone generally uninterested in school and science to become a Ph.D. student studying environmental science? Despite the considerable time I’ve spent pondering this question, I’m not sure there’s a simple answer.  

My mom died seven years ago, succumbing to a cruel neurodegenerative disease. I was a month shy of turning 23 and was on hiatus from a five-year journey towards a two-year degree. I was on a path towards a life unfulfilled, continuing to not achieve my potential. But, after my mom’s death, I replaced apathy with effort and decided to prove my potential.

Newly resolved, I re-enrolled at a small community college and eventually transferred to the local university, Western Carolina University. I was resolute to parlay my passion for the outdoors, primed through years surfing, whitewater raft guiding, and hiking, into a career as a park ranger. I was on track to graduate with a B.S. in parks and recreation management within a year when I abruptly changed majors and began studying science education.

My previous job guiding rafting trips made me interested in studying the environment. Here, I (at left) guide a raft on the Chattooga River, on the border between Georgia and South Carolina. Photo Credit: Chris Lakey​​


At that time, I had completed a single college-level science course. In response to questions from friends and family members, I rationalized my switch by citing a simple fact: there was a huge discrepancy between the amount of time I had spent outdoors and the extent of my knowledge of how these environments and ecosystems function. Going into the science education program, I was genuinely excited to learn about the environments I loved and in turn to share my passion with high school students.

As I completed more classes, I realized that science provides a framework for understanding, for reducing uncertainty. The knowledge I gained was comforting; my mom’s death had shattered my worldview and left me with unknowns and uncertainty. Science has not magically rectified my grief, but the pursuit of knowledge, and the quest to minimize the unknown has been healing. I have fused my life-long passion for the outdoors and my quest for knowledge with my research about anthropogenic effects on the environment. As a Ph.D. student and Maryland Sea Grant Research Fellow, I have a tremendous opportunity to better understand how we impact the environment through studying the export of atmospherically derived nitrate in streams across a variety of land uses in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Additionally, I am able to combine my background in science education through the outreach efforts associated with my project. 
My path to becoming a scientist has not been direct. I’ve taken my time to get to this point and am likely a few years older than other Ph.D. students in my cohort. However, I think my indirect path has fostered a greater appreciation for both the environments I study and the framework that science provides for reducing uncertainty.

About Joel Bostic

Joel Bostic is a Ph.D. student in the Marine Estuarine Environmental Sciences Graduate Program at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Appalachian Laboratory. 

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