Tim Haltigin completed his PhD in geography in 2010, focusing on permafrost geomorphology. He is currently the Senior Mission Scientist for Planetary Exploration at the Canadian Space Agency.
Q: I’ll start with a very general question: what made you decide to do a PhD in geography?
It’s a bit of a long story. I was doing my Master’s at the time, on a totally different subject: structures on the side of riverbanks to help rehabilitate trout habitats. But some friends entered a competition about how to find water on Mars, sponsored by the European Space Agency.
And I didn’t know anything about it, but I was a space nerd from the time I was a little kid. So I said, listen. I want to help. I don’t know anything about this, but I’m really good at making PowerPoint presentations. So I joined the team and we ended up eventually making it to Barcelona as finalists in the student competition.
We didn’t win, but when I got back, the professor mentoring the group asked me if I wanted to do a PhD in the topic, so I switched gears entirely and ended up doing permafrost geomorphology, understanding the evolution of icy terrain and comparing northern Canada to Mars.
Q: That professor sounds like a very supportive person—did he support you throughout your time at McGill? Were there other professors?
Yes, it was Wayne Pollard, who ended up becoming my primary supervisor and retired recently. He was outstanding as a supervisor; he gave me enough direction when I was confused, but also enough leeway to have go explore things on my own, even if some things worked and some didn’t. And when they didn’t, he was there to help.
My advisors, and especially my internal advisors, helped me piece things together, ranging from other professors in geography who helped with remote sensing to Pierre Dutilleul from plant science who collaborated with the statistics. We were really trying to pull individual elements from different people and putting them together to tell a story of the research project.
Q: That’s great! And since you had switched topics, was there a sharp learning curve at the beginning, or were you building on things you already knew?
There was a huge learning curve. One of the things that helped the most was the summer before I started, when I went to the Arctic, for the first time, as a field assistant with another one of Wayne’s PhD students. We could just fly around by helicopter from site to site, and getting that sense of what the landscape looks like, to ask the questions of why they look that way, I think it set in motion the research that was to come.
You can always learn the theoretical, but there is no substitute for physically being there and seeing it and being able to walk on different types of ground, and being able to fly over them. I think that was the most helpful thing.
Q: It sounds like you were collaborating with a lot of different people. Did you actively seek out connections and communities?
Sure—I had to. In a way, I was very much on an island, in the sense that I was the only person in the department doing any planetary science. There are a lot of terrestrial scientists, but in terms of the planetary setting, there was just no one.
There was a professor at the University of Western Ontario, Gordon Osinski, who really helped in that way, introducing me to the planetary community and recommending some conferences that I should go to. And so even as a student, I started to branch out and go to different types of conferences. To crack it was a little nerve-wracking, but it ended up being a very receptive community.
Q: How did you form those connections? Did you just walk up to people at conferences?
Conferences, emails, even contacting people from my lit review. I think one of the most important things I learned in graduate school was that the people who write these published papers are still just people, and they’re interested in talking about the science. So I cold-called, I emailed people from around the world about the work they were doing, just asking questions and being open. So that was one element.
There was also a student organization that a friend started at McGill: the Permafrost Young Researchers Network. It started off on a napkin at Thomson House, when my friend said, “Let’s start an international organization for graduate students studying permafrost, I’m going to be the president and you can be the Canadian representative.” And I said, Why not? And so it started with a few emails, and then we had 10-15 countries represented, and we had a meeting, and now, a dozen years later, there are hundreds of representatives from around the world; it is self-sustaining and still going. It’s amazing how with just an idea and some willpower, you can actually grow your organization and community.
Q: And what about your program—were there structured experiences in the department, or was it more wide open?
The most interesting for me in the geography department was how people were studying completely separate subjects, from landscapes on Mars to environmental determinants of breast cancer to the philosophical question of what “place” means. So giving the opportunity for students to get together and just talk about what they’re doing and get a different perspective is important. You want to have a solid base with your own research group or your own department, but there is also nothing stopping you from going out and trying something. Some of it won’t work. But the things that do are awesome.
Q: Let’s jump ahead to how your PhD relates to your current position. How did you end up where you are?
The Canadian Space Agency funded a lot of my field work while I was a graduate student at McGill, so I had the opportunity to interface with people at the Agency and understand more how government programs worked. And then, as I was finishing, there was a competition for a research scientist that I happened to win. So within a few days after my defense, I went from McGill to the Agency.
To be honest, looking back at it now, the things that prepared me the best for my job wasn’t my thesis, but all the other projects that weren’t my thesis. I remember, at the time, thinking that these projects were taking away from what I’m supposed to be doing, but instead, the thesis was just one of my projects.
So, being involved in multiple, diverse projects was the single most valuable thing that helped me prepare for a career in this, because there is no time ever that you are going to be able to dedicate yourself solely to one subject. The ability to multitask, to find efficiency, to work with different people at different times, it is just so profoundly important.
Q: Can you go into a little more detail about what it is you do now? What does a typical day look like?
Around 2012, I moved more from the research side to the program side. I’m now the Senior Mission Scientist for Planetary Exploration for the Canadian Space Agency. I’m involved with anything that Canada does in the solar system that’s not looking directly at the earth or the sun. And rather than doing the science itself, I now do the work that helps the science happen.
A typical day? Well, just big picture, my job is to help Canada participate in different missions throughout the solar system. So, for example, we’ve got the OSIRIS-REx mission, which is a NASA-led mission to return a sample from an asteroid. I’m in charge of Canada’s instrument that is on board. And I’m constantly talking to international partners and different working groups to figure out how the world, collectively, is going to study Mars together, and who does what.
Q: Were you ever thinking of being a professor, or were you always aiming for a job like this, outside academia?
To be honest, the reason I did a PhD in the first place was to get a research position at the space agency. When I was considering whether to do a PhD, I asked various people for their advice, and I think the best piece of advice that I got was that a PhD is a membership card. If you need that membership card to get what it is that you want, then go get the card. And if you don’t, then don’t. So for me, it was very pragmatic and functional.
When I got here, I gave myself three to five years to figure out if it was what I really wanted to do, or if I wanted to go back into academia. After being in school for decades, I wanted to branch out for a different perspective. And I miss doing experiments and figuring things out, but I think what I appreciate the most about my position now is that I’m involved in projects that I never, ever would have if I stayed in my own discipline. And my knowledge now isn’t as deep as before, but it is more broad.
On the program side, it’s a completely different way of approaching the same problem. We all want to do science in the solar system. Some people do it by collecting measurements and interpreting them. And some people do it by trying to understand how to pay for it and put it all together.
I would say the transition was definitely difficult because you have to change the way you think. But now that I’ve been doing this role for, I guess, what, seven years or so. And like anything, you get more comfortable doing it the more you do it.
Q: The way you talk about your career path sounds like a lot of luck—how do you feel about the combination of luck and experience that led you to where you are now?
There’s a minimum technical skill that you need, and it has to have helped that I knew people that worked here in the department.
But the way I’ve always looked at it is that luck is just a Venn diagram of the intersection of opportunity and the ability to take that opportunity. And so, the more people you know, the more chances that they’ll know of opportunities. And then, the ability to take that opportunity when it shows up is a function of hard work. It might sound goofy, but my mantra the whole time is to work hard and be nice to people.
Q: On the topic of the big picture, is there something that you wish you knew during your PhD that you know now?
One of the most important things is that the thesis doesn’t have to be the be all end all of everything you do. It is going to be imperfect, and that’s okay. Your research project is just that. It’s a project, right? I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t work hard or try your best, but I’ve seen far too many people try to make it perfect, because they think that will get them the job. And to me, it’s a side project. Learn how to do it, but also have fun with it, because if you don’t enjoy it while you’re in grad school, there’s no way you’re going to enjoy it afterwards.
This interview took place in April 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.
Cover image courtesy of the CSA.