Being in Arizona, you’re at a hub. You’re in the middle of where everybody comes to you eventually. When you go to conferences, you see all your friends, like a class reunion every six months. It’s almost inevitable that at every conference we’ll get together and start reminiscing.
I’m getting more involved with missions. More and more—you’d think you’d get away from it—you start seeing these people that you grew up with now being at the same level as you, also being involved in the same missions, and you realize: Why is it that all the Arizona people are here? You start to wonder, is it just because you have so many friends that ultimately you’re going to be paired with them, or is it just that they did a good job teaching us, so we’re all still in the field? I think it’s some combination of the two. There were good people and good education and it all worked together.
The people that come out of LPL are very well-trained, and they’re dynamic, vigorous researchers. They’re just great. It’s a tremendous resource for all of planetary science to have the quality and breadth of the young people coming out of the Lunar Lab program.
All these different disciplines seemed to come together and work well together without any prejudice against each other, and that was really probably the most surprising thing that I found. There didn’t seem to be any bias against people who wanted do astronomy for their thesis verses geology or physics or anything else. That really helped contribute to the environment there.
It really felt like this was where planetary science was happening. It was pretty clear that there were very few places at that time that deeply into planetary science. The field was young; it was broad; we didn’t really know what we were going to see as we went out into the solar system. It seemed like Arizona just had all these experts in all these different areas. It was just a wonderful time to see all those opportunities.
I hope that you can reconstruct the pay that graduate students earned verses year, because it’ll make you laugh to hear how grateful we all were for this level of support. The people in the year before me—I think it might’ve been measured in the hundreds of dollars per month, or a thousand dollars per month or something like that. It was really pitiful, and several of them I believe were on food stamps, and you just buy the Brand X macaroni and cheese. Nonetheless, we were delighted to have it, and it went up rapidly thereafter. It became a very good life as a graduate student, and some would say we got too comfortable as graduate students. My particular story is that for a while I held the record for the longest time at LPL as a graduate student—eight and a half years. Bill Merline doubled my record. For a while I was very concerned that he drive safely and cross the street carefully so that he would successfully graduate and I wouldn’t hold the record anymore.
I really think here in Arizona there was a special rapport between the students and the faculty. We had a really good group of students; we really cared about one another, we liked to have fun together and do things together, and the faculty tried to encourage that.
Also, we took on a lot of traditions that had been passed down through the years by the older grad students. I think that helped the connections a bit. A few faculty would come out to beers with us from time to time, and they also went to field trips and everything else. So I always felt closeness to them. In my later grad student years I heard a complaint through the grapevine that grad students were too happy, so they never want to leave. There was some truth to that. We were having so much fun. You’re not getting paid much money, but you don’t have any responsibility except your science.
In some ways you have extreme freedom: You’re young, you can do what you want, you can work in the science you want, you don’t have to worry about writing proposals to bring in the bills or anything else, and we all enjoyed one another. We enjoyed the place. We just had a great time. It probably did take us a year or two longer to get out because we were having too much fun.
There was tremendous pressure being a grad student. The pressure was mostly in ourselves; we pushed ourselves harder than any faculty could. But you could get overwhelmed by it, and sometimes for relief the best thing would be when we were invited to go talk to grade school kids. Then you could show the pictures and then you remembered why you were doing this in the first place.
When I was a student, there was a tradition [when you graduated] that would you take your nametag—they were all made in a particular form; they were exactly the same size and same font—and you would transfer it to a certain bulletin board. We were not the first generation of students there, but to realize that you were part of this—it was like manning a ship. We knew that we were building the field of planetary science, and that list now is probably ten times longer than when I was there. I don’t know how long that tradition lasted or if anybody’s taken a photo of it. It was the great ritual: Pulling my nametag off the door and putting it on the list of PhD’s from this Department.
We all had these little cardboard nametags that were taped to our doors. When you went to the ghetto, there was a corkboard up there. The door tags of every person who got their degree were put up on this board. When I arrived there was half a dozen or so people up there. By the time I left, of course, there was more. Everybody who got their PhD would put their name up there, and it went back to the very first graduate of the Department, Wayne Slattery.
Unfortunately when they got rid of the ghetto, it disappeared. There’s no memorial, if you will, to all the people who have gone through that Department. And the Department’s generated a lot of people in the profession over the years.