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University of Copenhagen
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Science

He has faced death. And the stress of the world of research

Mountaineering has been an escape for the geologist Kristoffer Szilas. And it has allowed him to handle the ‘indescribably harsh environment’ in which young researchers have to live.

Kristoffer Szilas does it again and again. Relates how he was caught in an avalanche. About falling off the edge of a mountain. About sleeping on a shelf of ice on a one kilometre tall cliff face. And then suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, he compares it to being a young, temporarily hired, researcher.

He is both a climber and a geologist. And it is obvious to most people that the two things have a lot in common: Exploration, discovery, nature.

But it goes further than that, according to Kristoffer Szilas. There is also the stress level, the workload, and the uncertainty in both worlds.

»As a climber, you know very well that there is a risk. It’s all about living ‘in’ this risk and accepting it,« he says, and then changes tack:

»It’s like being a young scientist, where you don’t know whether you will get a job as an associate professor. You have to live in that uncertainty. Just do your best and see where it goes.«

For Kristoffer Szilas this has now led to one of the most secure places that he has been in his career so far. Over a number of years, he made it through the eye-of-the-needle multiple times. Right up to the Promised Land: a permanent position as associate professor at the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management at the University of Copenhagen.

He got his first article in the prestigious journal Nature in 2020, where he, on the basis of ancient Greenland specimens, concluded that the Earth is made of another type of rock than previously believed. And in August this year, he got another Nature article on his CV, a summary of several years of research on the lithospheric mantle (one of the Earth’s outer layers), which he has written together with colleagues from all over the world.

But the path to academic success has been long and exhausting.

Child and wife — or research

He spent four years abroad, including two years in New York from 2012 to 2014, where he worked as a postdoc at Columbia University. The salary was Danish, but so was the tax, and the apartment in Manhattan was so expensive that he and his wife had to discuss which milk they could afford in the supermarket.

In the meantime, Kristoffer Szilas worked Saturdays and Sundays because the competition required it. When he continued as a postdoc at Stanford University in California from 2014 to 2016, he met a Chinese postdoc who had left his wife and son in his home country, and who couldn’t afford to go home to them for the three years of his employment because his salary was so low.

He was willing to abandon everything for his research.

Kristoffer Szilas almost made a similar decision: He had already accepted a position at a Japanese university. The contract was signed, and everything was in place, even though this meant that he had to travel without his wife and child. He even knew that he would not be seeing them for a year because the Japanese university preferred that he remained in the country during the first 12 months of his employment.

He discovered by chance a scholarship from the Carlsberg Foundation for research in Denmark. He applied and got it.

But even when he subsequently landed a tenure track position at the University of Copenhagen – a position which, if you live up to a number of requirements, leads to an associate professorship – he was asked to secure his own research funding by applying for grants with a success rate of five to ten per cent.

»Academia is like martial arts. Especially the phase from PhD to associate professorship is not for kids. It’s an extremely tough environment. It is hard beyond description,« says Kristoffer Szilas.

»It’s not the top I remember«

In this reality, his career as a mountain climber has not just been an escape from the workload, it has also been a form of training. The research and the climbing have existed in »symbiosis« he says.

»It’s about planning things in minute detail and being willing to take risks. This is something that can be transferred from mountaineering to academia. I would not have got this far if I had not also had the climbing.«

Academia is a martial art
Kristoffer Szilas, Associate Professor, Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management

There are obvious differences.

As a scientist, you get your application rejected, or you lose a DKK 100,000 instrument in the laboratory.

As a climber, you can lose your life. Kristoffer Szilas has had some close calls a couple of times.

He has been taken from an avalanche, been under a rock slide, and has spent the night on a ledge on a narrow cliff wall several times. This took place on a mountain in South America, where darkness suddenly fell upon them during a climb, and his team had to give up before the morning sun once again revealed a passable route.

In the meantime, they had to sit on the ledge hoping that a storm would not tear them off.

Szilas explains all this with enthusiasm. He laughs when I say I don’t understand where the enthusiasm comes from.

»To get to that point and sit there and wait for your exam: I have to climb the last 50 metres to the top. It took ten years of intense physical and mental training to get to this spot … «

»It’s not the top I remember. It’s sitting on the cliff ledge in this crazy situation. There are very few people in the world who can climb up there. You can’t buy it. You can’t just be lucky. You sit up there because of the focussed work you put in over many years,« he says.

He switches back to science again.

»It’s a bit like that with research. You have spent 10-20 years to reach the spot where you are ahead and are pushing the boundaries of what we know about the Earth.«

What do you feel when you are on the ledge?

»It’s a feeling of mastery. Physically and mentally. And it’s crazy to sit there knowing that things can go completely wrong in just five minutes.«

»The greatest successes are when we get completely thrashed and only get halfway up the cliff face. When you feel you have reached the limit. Then you have to go home and train, and you can return next year and try again. This is cool. And it is the willingness to fail, and yet to try, try again, which is the most important thing in both research and in climbing.

The wildest place in the world

You need to be able to embrace hanging there, a small dot on a cliff face, with your stomach up against the cliff with death behind you.

He describes the feeling of being microscopic and insignificant. How nature is indifferent to whether you live or die, and that everything you are, everything you do, will disappear, in time, just like tears in the rain.

In some people, this leads to palpitations of anxiety. For Kristoffer Szilas, the experience is almost religious.

»You become really small when you are on a giant rock face, and there are rocks and avalanches. You think about your place in the world.«

»My favourite region is a glacier located between the mountains Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre in Patagonia. It’s like: it must be the feeling that people felt in the Middle Ages in front of a cathedral. That’s how I feel when I stand there. There are 1,500-metre rock faces on each side of the glacier. It’s the wildest place in the world.«

Kristoffer Szilas has been on a quest for magnificent nature both as a climber, and as a researcher, where he has travelled to Greenland summer after summer and has found some of the world’s oldest rocks.

It was as if he was destined for nature. His first clear memories were from summer holidays in Hungary, where his father lived after his parents were divorced. He was an old-school priest, an inquisitive soul who studied philosophy and the natural sciences between sermons. When the family came visiting, they walked in the mountains.

»We gathered bricks, minerals and crystals, and when darkness fell, we stayed outside and watched the starry skies. That was when I started to become fascinated by how the landscape had arisen, and what it consisted of.«

That was also where he got a taste for adventure.

To explore places where no-one had ever been before, and to discover things that added new chapters to the history of the Earth’s origins. It is rooted in a deep curiosity. And an insatiable drive:

»I have always been like this: Either this, or that. Nothing in between. It’s about giving your 100 per cent.«

I still don’t quite understand it. You can follow the path your curiosity takes you without doing something as extreme as ice climbing. I read that you at one point climbed a Chinese mountain where a group of Hungarian climbers had just died one week earlier. Why didn’t you just say: ‘Okay, that’s it. I’m stopping?’

»My personality dictates that I do things 100 per cent and not let myself be out off by the uncertainty. There is a certain risk. As long as I’m within my comfort zone, and don’t feel that I’m directly exposed, then it’s okay.«

»It has been my life, both in mountaineering and in research, to make a long-term strategy, to do a lot of training, and to set out milestones. So you can’t be put out by the fact that you can suddenly be in a dangerous situation, or know someone who died on the same mountain.«

The ice axe stereotype

Kristoffer Szilas is, on the one hand, an extreme case. On the other hand, he is an old-school researcher.

He celebrates the free research, driven by curiosity and discovery, rather than the hunt for specific solutions to well-defined problems. And he laments the fact that more and more research is applied, financed by companies and foundations with specific interests, and increasingly important at the universities.

It is the ability to fail, and yet to try, try again, which is the most important thing in both research and in climbing.

Kristoffer Szilas, Associate Professor, Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management

»I think I would quit if I was stuffed into a box and others had to dictate what I was doing research on,« he says.

»You have to be allowed to go pursue your ideas without some manager constantly tapping you on your shoulder, and without some foundation knowing exactly what is going on. There has to be space to manoeuvre, so that researchers can try out their ideas from the bottom-up. Otherwise we lose out on the unknown unknowns.«

In geology and geography circles, some might say that Kristoffer Szilas is a stereotype. A stereotype that two of his colleagues at the University of Copenhagen recently put into words:

A geographer is »a strong man with a beard, icicles in his hair and an ice axe,« they said.

Their point was that the idea of strong men on extreme expeditions helps to scare women away from research. And according to Szilas, who knows that he himself embodies this stereotype, they have a point.

Because it is no coincidence that it was he who won out in the hunt for a permanent associate professor position, while his peers fell behind and finally quit.

»I generally think that many of those who end up getting permanent positions are athletes who thrive on long-term plans and just stick to it. People who can handle the uncertainty, and who are prepared for the fact that if they fail, it is all about try, trying again.«

It is like a filter that sorts out people who are not ready to make the sacrifices. And this means that the researchers who are left standing are all similar in key ways.

It is fine that the system selects those who are not afraid to take chances, and who perform well under pressure, according to Kristoffer Szilas. It is untenable however that the competition to such a great extent depends on who can handle the most deprivation, not least in their family lives.

This is one of the reasons why more men than women end up at the top of academia, he reckons. And he says that grant-giving foundations can rectify this disparity:

»I think that the foundations would get more out of having fewer postdocs, but with more funding, so they can manage and, for example, be able to bring their family abroad. Gender diversity is completely linked up to how much deprivation you can handle in relation to your family. It’s a difficult balance. But it could be a solution that you could, for example, bring your partner along on a part-time salary, so you don’t have to worry about it.«

He was recently at a lecture with a female researcher who had brought home millions of kroner in research funding. She still said that she wondered whether she should abandon her academic career. Millions in grants or not.

These are considerations that all young researchers have had at some point in time, says Kristoffer Szilas.

When you look back on your own pathway to a permanent position … was it worth it?

»I think so now. But I wouldn’t think so, if my family had quit on me in the meantime. And as it is today, the pressure on young researchers is so big that it this is a real risk.«

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