Professor Adrian Borsa: Atypical Academia

Adrian Borsa, an assistant earth sciences professor at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, describes his unusual journey to finally discovering what he wanted to do with his life, and the importance of being open to change.

The sky is blanketed with fog as class lets out of Center Hall. Amid the traffic of students hurrying to their next destinations, Professor Adrian Borsa and I scout for a place to sit down and talk. As we do so, a student from his earth sciences class, in which Borsa lectured on the impact of ocean temperatures on climates around the globe, approaches him and inquires about the climate of San Diego.

Professor Borsa promptly explains that San Diego has a Mediterranean climate, noting the peculiarities of its weather, like the thick fog rolling in above us despite it being June. But perhaps years ago, before he had even considered a career in the earth sciences, Borsa couldn’t have answered this student’s question so thoroughly, let alone given an entire lecture on such a topic.

Born in Los Angeles to a Hungarian father and Croatian mother, Borsa and his family briefly lived in Columbus, Indiana before settling in San Diego. Borsa later earned his bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University and his master’s degree in international relations from UC San Diego.

“I thought I was going to have a career that involved international business or international relations,” Borsa recalled.

“My focus was on Japan because at the time Japan was ascendant and pretty much everyone … was saying that Japan was going to overtake the United States in 10 years’ time. It was the country to study, so I did.”

Borsa studied the Japanese language and later went on to work at a Japanese company for several years — a period of his life he remembers as “unusual.”

“I was working at a very large Japanese company both in Japan and in the U.S., and it was quite bureaucratic. There’s not a lot of room for independence or independent action when you’re within that kind of an organization.”

Eventually, Borsa decided to leave his position at the company in Japan.

“The most straightforward way I can put it is that I just got bored,” he explained when asked what led him to his decision.

Borsa then found work at a startup company founded by Alex Kane, one of his former professors at UCSD. After working there for a year, however, he was ready to move on again.

“I thought I was going to get an economics Ph.D., took one week of economics classes and realized that I just could not focus. So then I asked myself, ‘What do I really want to do?’”

It was actually the UCSD Career Services Center that enabled Borsa to finally realize what he wanted to do for a living.

“I opened up [the Career Services Center’s] book on graduate programs, went through every single page, and I wrote down all the programs that seemed to be interesting to me: archaeology, geology, atmospheric science,” Borsa told the UCSD Guardian. “So I put all these things together and, at the end, I realized that 80 percent of the topics I’d listed were in the earth sciences, and I realized I had my answer.”

Ever since this pivotal moment in his life, Borsa has steadily worked his way toward conducting his own research. It was no easy task, however, for him to get where he is today. After deciding that he wanted to earn a doctorate in earth sciences, Borsa took two years of undergraduate courses at UCSD, having to take these extra steps due to his lack of experience with science, technology, engineering, and math.

“The MATH 20 sequence, the PHYS 4, the CHEM 10 series … I took all of these classes to prepare myself because I had not had any math or science prior to that,” he recalled with a knowing smile.

More challenges were awaiting Borsa once he enrolled in the doctorate program at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. One such obstacle was the fact that Borsa was one of only two entering graduate students at Scripps that year.

“So the U.S. economy was on a tear. Everybody was getting incredibly high-paying jobs on Wall Street and elsewhere and not one of the applicants to the geophysics Ph.D. program at Scripps decided to come,” Borsa explained.

Nevertheless, he was encouraged to apply to Scripps months after the admissions deadline by Bernard Minster, a professor at Scripps who he had been volunteering for. Borsa was then accepted along with his classmate, Kerry Key, who is now an associate professor at Columbia University.

While a good portion of his classes were made up of several doctorate candidates, there were a few classes in which Borsa and Key were the only students.

“We had classes where the professor would walk in and say, ‘Okay guys, do you have any questions?’ Kerry and I would look at each other, look at him and say no, then the professor would say, ‘Okay, class dismissed!’ It was terrifying,” he recalled, laughing.

In addition to the pressure brought on by tiny class sizes, Borsa also struggled with his courses since he had only recently decided to study the earth sciences and was not as familiar with the field as his peers were.

“It was, intellectually, the hardest thing I had ever done because I was way out of my depth [in] most of those classes, and it’s a very rigorous program, but somehow I’m here,” he said with a chuckle. “It was not easy, I can tell you. But it was totally worth it.”

After years of intense work, Borsa earned his doctorate and spent the next several years working in scientific management in Pasadena, California and Boulder, Colorado before returning to full-time research at Scripps in 2012. While he began his research by studying tectonic geodesy (measuring the movement of Earth’s surface to study the forces at work underneath), Borsa soon found himself going in another direction.

“As I was getting into [tectonic geodesy], I stumbled across an unusual signal in the instrument network I was looking at that ended up being the earth’s response to our drought … It was possible using this network to determine how much water had been lost in the drought and where this water was being lost from,” he said. “So that opened up a whole different line of research and that’s what I’m primarily doing now.”

Like the route he took to becoming a scientist, Borsa’s research methodology is also atypical. As he explained how he uses classical geological instruments and techniques to study hydrology, Borsa noted that it is relatively uncommon for scientists to research multiple topics at once.

“Science tends to be pretty conservative so … while the idea of doing interdisciplinary research is really great for marketing, for the individuals themselves it’s fairly difficult to break out of one’s area of specialization. Everyone’s so busy that you can’t imagine taking on another thing that’s not necessarily in your area.”

Despite the extra effort required for conducting interdisciplinary research, Borsa is grateful to be working at UCSD, having called the university “an exceptional, dynamic institution built on disruption and change.” After reflecting on the twists and turns of his path to finally achieving contentment with his career, Borsa offered some advice for students who may be experiencing the same disillusionment he felt before.

“If you already know what you want to do in life, you are lucky and that’s wonderful and you should pursue that goal to the best of your ability. But more than likely, one doesn’t know … so you have to be open to whatever changes just seem to be coming organically, especially the ones where you feel like this is the right thing even though it doesn’t necessarily seem like the path you thought you were going to be on.”

At UCSD in particular, where every student has worked hard to attain some level of academic excellence, there is a culture of settling on a career path as quickly as one can. However, Borsa believes that waiting is an important part of deciding on a career.

“The students here are … driven individuals who are maybe very goal-oriented, and it can be disconcerting for them when their goals change,” he stated. “Just accepting that and becoming your own person is really, in my mind, the main purpose of what a university education is all about. Let the discovery process happen and you’ll be in a good place at the end of it.”

As for proof that this slow approach to choosing a career is successful, one needs only to observe the passion with which Borsa lectures his students and discusses his research.

“This is fantastic. This is what I want to do,” he concluded with a warm grin. “I just took a roundabout way of getting here.”


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