A Difficult Goodbye

It all began, inauspiciously, in a March snowstorm now twenty years distant.

Deposited by an airport shuttle at the wrong hotel, my faculty interview at CU-Boulder started with a call to the search committee chair at 12:30 AM. The call followed twenty minutes of parking-lot-pacing anguish: I’m at the wrong hotel….I don’t know the right one…I’m supposed to meet the search chair for breakfast in seven hours….I REALLY want this job….what the hell should I do?? Devoid of other options and now damp with a layer of spring snow, I returned to the hotel lobby and asked the surly attendant to borrow a phone. (Riggghhhht….back in the antediluvian no-cell-phone era…)

The search chair was awake – because only two days prior, he returned home from the hospital with his newborn son. Not exactly how you want to start the interview for your dream job.

But he was kind and unflappable, my initial hint of what suffuses the extraordinary place that would become my professional home for nearly two decades. A tropical ecologist at heart, I’d never even heard of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research before my interview, and prior to my arrival I worried about fitting in.

Those were unfounded fears. I discovered it to be a place full of ideas and energy, a place where people worked all over the globe, a place distinctly lacking in ego. A place where a wide-eyed new professor was never unfairly judged, unsupported, or unwelcome. That was true at INSTAAR, my physical home, and in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Environmental Studies Program, my companion academic departments. They were places where you could do your job as you saw fit, where you could take a chance and not be afraid to fail, where you could see and feel and know that your colleagues had your back.

It became a place that launched a career, collaboratively built as can be. A place where exceptional student after exceptional student passed through my lab, each one blending hard work and the joy of scientific discovery with some pure adventure and fun. A place where I could grow into some academic leadership roles of my own and in them find far more support than B.S, far more collaboration than conflict.

It became the place where extraordinary friendships were forged. The place where I would meet and marry the love of my life, the wedding officiated by one of those friends, attended by so many more, everyone overlooking CU and Boulder from a Flatirons perch as we exchanged our vows. The place where our daughter Neva would be born…and where a community would rise up in extraordinary and heart-melting ways to support our family as she confronted a cruel twist of fate in her still young life.

In short, a tough place to leave.

Yet this summer, that’s what we will do. We always knew it would take extraordinary circumstances to pull us away from Boulder, but those circumstances have aligned and soon our family will start a new chapter in North Carolina. Neva will enter kindergarten not in the shadow of the Flatirons, but in a land of azaleas and long-leaf pines. Diana will join the faculty of the Department of Biology at Duke University. And I will begin a term as Dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. We are excited, and we are humbled, by the chance to launch these next phases of our careers.

But we are also a bit heartbroken. The University of Colorado has been more than just a place to work. It has been home. We are profoundly grateful for all the university has given us, for all that Boulder has given us. We will miss those dazzling blue mornings where the Flatirons are coated in fresh snow. Those runs and rides on endless miles of trails that wind amidst ponderosas and flame-red paintbrush and 300 million-year-old rocks that burst to life in the setting sun. Those days or weeks when you pile in the car and get lost in the unmatched grandeur of the West. The West that defined my childhood, that runs through my blood, that I never thought I would leave.

But above all we will miss a dilapidated yet loveable workplace, not for its asbestos-laden ceilings, but for the people who work below them. We will miss the field work and bike rides and impromptu dinners with friends so dear I find it hard to even finish typing this line.

We will miss the people who have made this home.

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