Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Combining forces

It started a little less than a year ago.

Hanny Rivera, a PhD student in WHOI's Biology department, gave a seminar. She presented her research on the connectivity of coral populations in Palau, a small island in the middle of the Pacific.
Based on her results, it seems there is very little connectivity between coral reefs in enclosed lagoons and outer reefs right outside the lagoons - the two populations don't mix. But there's something confusing about her results. The lagoons and outer reefs are right next to one another, and based on the speed and direction of the water flow, coral larvae spawned in the lagoons should be able to make it to the outer reefs to settle. Nobody knows why they don't.

It may sound like a trivial question, but Palau is actually really unique. The corals in the lagoons are exposed to very warm water - warmer than the surrounding ocean - so they are adapted to warm temperatures and resistant to bleaching. It is well-documented that during the last few global coral bleaching events, the lagoon corals have been fine. As warm-water anomalies and coral bleaching events become more frequent and common across the world, a major question in coral conservation research is whether these resilient corals could help other coral reefs recover from bleaching by seeding them with larvae. If larvae spawned in an enclosed lagoon to stress-tolerant parents could settle on outer reefs and grow to adulthood, they would make the outer reefs more resistant to bleaching. But Hanny's results suggest this doesn't happen.

Following her seminar, Hanny fielded questions from the audience. "How do you explain the lack of connectivity?" one scientist asked. "Do you think that larvae from the lagoons don't make it out to the outer reefs to settle, or do you think they make it there but just die at a young age?"

Hanny shrugged. "Nobody knows. Nobody has researched that so far. I've studied the genetic patterns of adult corals, but nobody has examined the larvae and recruits."

A light bulb went on in my head. Studying larvae and recruits is what I do for a living, so I approached Hanny and her advisor immediately after the seminar. We should combine forces, I told them. Hanny has experience with coral genetics and working in Palau; I have experience studying larval dispersal and recruitment. Together, we could continue the research and answer a really important question. They agreed.

Hanny and I worked with our advisors to draft a grant proposal, which we submitted to a foundation that sponsors coral reef research. Our proposal was funded, so now...(drumroll, please)...we are in Palau!

Friends, I am absolutely stoked to be here. This project is my first time working on coral reefs, and it is the biggest project for which I have ever had a leadership role. Hanny and I will be out here for a couple weeks, with just each other and our four cases of gear to rely on. It is going to be a learning experience and an adventure for sure!

Stay tuned for tales from the field!

Monday, September 17, 2018

Family reunion

Friends, I am so behind. It has been almost two weeks since my last post, and I have wanted to tell you about my experiences but just been too busy having them to stop and write. For starters, I spent a weekend in Michigan with family and friends, some of whom I had not seen in a year or more. My mother threw me a bridal shower, and it was great to reunite with my Midwestern family.

Attendees of the 15th Deep-Sea Biology Symposium in
Monterey, California. I'm in the middle of the front row,
wearing an orange dress.
With Deborah at Hopkins Marine Station
I returned to Woods Hole for a very short time and then headed west again for a week in California. I have spent the last week in Monterey, California, at the 15th Deep-Sea Biology Symposium - another type of family reunion, if you will. I stayed at the apartment of a former WHOI intern, Deborah, and it was lovely to reconnect with her and hear about her upcoming graduate school applications. I spent the first few days of the conference just scanning the room for familiar faces, catching up with scientists I had been to sea with before, and tackling friends with hugs. My former PhD advisor was there with his new student. A Portuguese postdoc I worked with in Oregon came to the symposium, and so did a Polish woman I worked with in the Arctic. It was wonderful to catch up with them. Deep-sea biologist are some of the most intelligent, creative, passionate people on the planet. As a group, we are collaborative and curious and supportive. Altogether, there were 405 attendees from 34 countries - one big, eclectic family.

Delivering my presentation at DSBS 2018. Photo by
Deborah Leopo.
Besides connecting with colleagues, the best part of the symposium was discussing science. I presented my results from a long-term experiment on recruitment and succession of Arctic deep-sea invertebrates, and as soon as I finished speaking, I was approached by three different people with really informative, helpful points that will push my work forward. One woman offered insights based on her expertise in sponge taxonomy. A man who I had met once before pointed out I should compare my results to similar experiments in Antarctica. A student who had begun working on a similar topic in Alaskan waters asked my advice on her data. They were really progressive discussions.

Well, hello there, intertidal
A few other presentations at the conference stood out to me. If you're the Twittering type, I suggest you check out the hashtag #dsbs2018, because many of the conference highlights are posted there. My favorite presentations were about bioluminescence in deep sea animals and metamorphosis in snails that live at hydrothermal vents.

Lastly, the conference served as a chance for me to explore central California. I love the west coast intertidal, with its sandstone cliffs and astoundingly high biodiversity. And the Monterey Bay area is kind of a Mecca for marine biology, with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, its affiliate research institute MBARI, Hopkins Marine Station, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, and Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve all within just a few miles of one another. I got to see a number of these institutions during my visit. Marine biologists often discuss trips to the Aquarium as if it were a pilgrimage, and after seeing it myself for the first time, I must admit, I was deeply impressed. The exhibits cover every habitat from the intertidal to the open ocean, including a 2-story tank with a kelp forest and another massive tank that houses open-ocean tunas and schools of sardines. It is extremely well-done.

I am so grateful to be involved with such a high-quality group of scientists and for the chance to connect with colleagues in California. The conference was very insightful and a really great week!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The voyage of the Dawn Treader: part 5

It was a long, productive day. I boarded the Dawn Treader at 6:30 am, and after disembarking, I went straight to the lab. My samples were finished at 7 pm - over a 12-hour workday. It was awesome.

Friends, it has come time to recover the samplers I deployed at sites in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary earlier this summer. I was able to reach two of my three sites in the same day, diving at the shipwreck of the Josephine Marie and then at the Sponge Forest, a boulder site in the middle of the Sanctuary. I used the chance while I was underwater to collect samples of animals living at each site as well.

You may remember the Sponge Forest was covered by sand when I first dove there in June, which was a complete surprise to me. I suspected it may have been buried during one of the nor'easters that hit New England this spring. The possibility for an unstable seafloor plus the heavy fishing activity around the Sponge Forest made me suspect my samplers may have disappeared over the summer. (As my buddy and I suited up to dive, we could see 4 trawlers in our vicinity.) But lo and behold, both sets of fouling panels were still there! The larval traps had disappeared, likely swept away by a swift current, but I was excited to get 2 out of my 4 samplers back.

The other dive of the day, on the Josephine Marie shipwreck, was even more productive. I collected tissue samples from anemones living on the wreck and recovered all 4 of the samplers I had deployed - larval traps and fouling panels. It was a great day out on the boat, and I didn't even get seasick!

One of the bryozoans on my fouling panels from the
Josephine Marie shipwreck
Back in the lab, I preserved my anemone tissue in ethanol and then set about examining my fouling panels. I had been hoping that the tunicate Didemnum albidum, the target species for my study, would settle on the panels over the course of the summer, but it appears they did not. It sounds disappointing, but the absence of Didemnum is also informative. My panels were deployed throughout Didemnum's reproductive season, so the lack of recruitment means that this species either (1) doesn't reproduce every year (possible), (2) doesn't disperse larvae 10 ft away from the shipwreck (unlikely), (3) requires a surface with a more developed biofilm for settlement (likely). I'll have to continue researching to figure out which one it is.

Lichenopora, one of the bryozoans on my fouling panels
from the Josephine Marie shipwreck
My fouling panels were not empty, though! At the Josephine Marie, they were populated by hydroids, limpets, and bryozoans. The hydroids were two cold-water species that I had seen on the WHOI pier before and could identify right away (Ectopleura crocea and Obelia geniculata), while the limpet reminded me of Crepidula fornicata, common in Woods Hole as well. I suspect it may be a different species in the genus Crepidula. The bryozoans were a bit more difficult, and I'm still working on them. There was Lichenopora, a species I had seen in the Arctic years ago, plus two others that I haven't yet identified.

What's crazy is that bryozoans don't occupy a lot of the surface on the shipwreck, but they were very common on the panels. I'm thinking that bryozoans and hydroids may be the first species to recruit to new surfaces with little biofilm far offshore. Part of me wants to get a permit to sink a brand-new shipwreck and watch what colonizes it over years. Maybe a subject for a future proposal...

It was a productive day, and I was glad to see good results from my study!

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Bachelorette

Back in 2014, around the time that I moved to Norway and started this blog, I joked with a close friend that I was The Bachelorette. I told her in jest that instead of men, I was courting countries to see which one I would end up with. She laughingly agreed.

Germany is an old family friend. His parents know my parents, and we have a long history together. He's an introvert and a homebody - the exact opposite of my extroverted personality - but somehow, we work together. He complements me. I know him so very well, and I trust him. Germany is strong, warm, and comforting.

In contrast, Norway is young and hip. He's in incredible shape, and he loves being outdoors. He came into my life at a time when I expected him the least but needed him the most. We had a whirlwind romance that ended too soon, but he will always have a place in my heart.

New Zealand is Norway's younger half-brother. I've gone out with him a few times, and I find him fascinating. He's outdoorsy and attractive, but he's also exotic and cool. He always smells fresh, even after a long hike. I really wish I could know him better.

Each time I see Svalbard, I fear it will be my last. He is rugged and wild and adventurous. He plans carefully and fears nothing. He's taught me to take control, to trust my skills, and to take calculated risks. He's shown me that anything is possible with the right gear, and frankly, I like the person I've become because of him.

Brazil is the kid from the wrong side of the tracks. He doesn't come from money, and he's worked for everything he has. His personality is outgoing and colorful, but he can turn on the dark, swarthy charm at the drop of a hat. He's an incredible dancer, and even in public, he always holds me close.

When I first met him, China would barely speak to me. He didn't trust himself in my presence.  Eventually, we discovered a mutual love of biodiversity and had a much easier time speaking the language of Ecology than either of our native tongues. He introduced me to an array of exotic foods, and we bonded over culinary curiosities. I get him now.

Antarctica is a rough-and-tumble guy. He served in the military for years and has the scars - both physical and mental - to show for it. He has a thick beard, calloused hands, and a work-hard-play-hard philosophy. More than anything else, he has a deep appreciation for the power of the natural world and seeks to harness it, not conquer it, and leave the world improved in his wake.

Then there's the United States*, who is difficult to personify as a unit. He is a leather-skinned, tattooed Oregonian with a taste for craft beer. He is a truck-driving, deer-hunting football fan in Michigan. He is a well-dressed, type-A Bostonian with a beach house. He is a lobster fisherman and a fifth-generation farm boy and a lawyer. He is mountains and rivers and cornfields. He is traffic jams and soccer games and the last gas station for 200 miles. He is a multi-dimensional conglomerate, and I never truly understood him until I had left him.

I have spent the last 10 years of my life traveling the world in search of my perfect match, the one place where I could settle and build a life. I have had incredible adventures and made incredible friends. I have fallen in love with multiple locations, and I have felt my heart stretch so thin across the globe that I thought it would snap.

And I have decided.

I have chosen my place to settle down, and it is Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Yesterday, I officially accepted a tenure-track position at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Starting in 2019, I will be an Assistant Scientist in the Biology Department. I will have my own lab, my own students, and the freedom to research whatever I find most important. I will be empowered to write my own grant proposals to fund my studies and publish papers describing my results. In short, this is my dream job.

In some ways, this decision is a homecoming, because I am laying down roots in the country of my birth. But I did not select this location because of its nationality; I chose it because Woods Hole is the place that matches me best. I love the WHOI way of doing science, with its shoot-for-the-moon hypotheses and boundary-pushing inventions. I love the collaborative, collegial atmosphere that pervades my institution. And even beyond that, I feel more at home in this small beach town than I ever have anywhere else. Woods Hole combines all the best elements of previous places I have lived and loved, and it is the place where I belong.

Still, staying in the United States has its benefits. The National Science Foundation is an incredible resource for research funding, and by working in the U.S., I will have access to our national resources - ships, ROVs, AUVs, and submersibles. Sure, my country is subject to the same budget cuts that plague researchers the world over, but the infrastructure available to American scientists is unmatched. After all, there's only one Alvin, and he lives in Massachusetts. We will become good friends.

My decision to settle on the Cape also means I remain metaphorically single and still free to see other countries at will. By joining the staff at WHOI, I have successfully avoided the teaching obligations that accompany traditional professorships. WHOI scientists can teach occasionally if they choose but are not tied to a semester-based schedule year after year. I will have no lectures to give and no exams to grade, so as long as I can find the funding, I'm free to travel the world and research as I please. It's like constantly being on sabbatical.

I'm very excited to take this next step in my life and my career. I count myself incredibly fortunate to have secured a position at a world-class institution, and on top of that, to continue living in a place that I love with the person that I love. I have found my long-term home.

* For the record, I am also marrying an American.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018


You can see the ankle bracelet on my right foot here. Simpson
Beach, outside Charleston, OR, 2013. Photo by Amy Gawry.
As many of you know, I wear ankle bracelets. Or at least I did. I collected them when traveling, and each bracelet symbolized something different to me - a memory, a moment, a person. I tied the bracelets on my ankles as a way to hold onto those moments, and when the bracelets wore out and fell off of their own accord, it was my signal that it was time to move on.

Most of the bracelets I had actually fell off during my last year in Oregon, but there was one that stayed. It was made from a scrap of rope given to me by a crew member on NOAA ship Nancy Foster in 2012. I was supposed to practice tying bowline knots in the rope, so I tied a series of bowlines and then secured the loop around my ankle with a figure-8. In 2015, I added a copper charm to the bracelet while on R/V Thomas Thompson (it was a bit of hardware meant to connect two ends of a metallic cord, which I had to use to fix the lander).

The white rope bracelet could have stuck around on my ankle for years. It was a durable, tight weave that didn't rip and barely frayed in the 5 years I wore it. And its presence would have been fitting, too. The white rope bracelet represented adventure. It stood for the courage it takes to leave home and explore a new part of the world. It symbolized movement, travel, and aderenaline-fueled exploration. It represented departure from all that is comfortable.

I took it off shortly after moving to Falmouth, without really knowing why. I just wanted it off. Sure, I could tell you that I was tired of setting off airport metal detectors with the copper charm (which is true) or that it was uncomfortable to wear under field boots (also true). But the real reason took me longer to figure out. I think my subconscious knew something at the time that my conscious mind had yet to realize, and the reason I took off my last bracelet is much more personal.

I've come to realize that everything the white rope represented - adventure, travel, exploration, leaving home - is no longer difficult for me. In fact, moving around the world has become my comfort zone. You know this, readers. Much of this blog has centered on what it feels like to arrive in a place and what it feels like to leave a place. I have spent years jet-setting, going wherever the science leads. I am comfortable in most parts of the world, and I greatly enjoy adding new cities to the list of places I call "home." I absolutely adore my mobile lifestyle, and while I will adamantly never cease traveling, maybe it's time to add another element to my life story.

Since moving to Woods Hole, I have fallen deeply, maddeningly in love with it. With the Cape, with the town, with the institution, with the shoreline and the beach and the colorful sky above me. If I had to design my ideal place to live, this would be it: a world-class, powerful institution in a well-to-do small town at temperate latitude, with four real seasons, right on the water but within reasonable distance of a major airport. This place is Heaven, or at least the closest earthly equivalent.

For the first time, I feel like I'm home. Not in an I-know-my-way-around-and-feel-comfortable-here way but in an I-truly-belong-here way. This place speaks to my soul. I find myself not dreaming about where I want to go or where I want to move next. I find myself fantasizing about returning here, investing in this community, building a lasting home. I have found a place that I want to stay in, and I have found someone who I want to stay with. I have never felt more like myself.

Don't get me wrong, friends, I will never stop traveling. I may even live in other parts of the world for short periods, but I have something now that I haven't had before: a true home base.

This time, I will have the courage to stay.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Shipping up to Boston

"I'm a sailor peg
And I've lost my leg
Climbing up the top sails
I lost my leg!
I'm shipping up to Boston
I'm shipping off to find my wooden leg"
- "Shipping up to Boston" by the Dropkick Murphys

Friends, I am headed home. This trip has been absolute insanity, but I am grateful for every moment of it. I have met with colleagues and visited with friends. I have picked up samples and searched for more. I have finished writing a scientific paper. Altogether, I have been in 7 countries in 3 weeks; I have had 4 different currencies in my wallet, and I have been at every latitude from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. I. Am. Exhausted.

Usually, when I walk through the international terminal of any major airport, I scan the possible destinations and think to myself "I'd like to go there," "Oh, I'd love to go there," and "Ooh, I wish I was going there." Then I'll arrive at my gate, read the name of some American city, and totally deflate. I'll exhale a long sigh and shrug, "Well, I guess I'm going there."

Not today. Today, when I scanned the monitor, I read the names of all the places I could fly and didn't react at all. Then when my eyes finally found Boston on the list, my heart jumped. "Yes, Boston," I thought, "My airport. Home."

I never expected to feel this way about Massachusetts. Actually, I don't know if I expected to ever feel this way about anywhere. I pride myself on my mobility, on my ability to turn any place into a home, but that talent also involves being totally uncommitted. You can literally drop me anywhere in the world, and I will make friends, learn the local culture, and make the place my own. But I've never found a place that I wanted to stay any longer than originally planned.

With Massachusetts, it's different. I don't have to try to feel at home - I just slide right in. It's like the state was always there, waiting for me, ready to accept me as one of its own.

I'm shipping up to Boston. Friends, I'm going home.

Kirkebakken reunion

Kirkebakkeners at dinner in Barcelona
For the last stop on my European Whirlwind Tour 2018, I went to Barcelona! The housemates I lived with in Stavanger, Norway, were getting together for a reunion, and when they found out I was going to be in Europe, they scheduled the event around my travels. I was so grateful for the chance to see them again! All the Kirkebakkeners from my era have since moved out of the house, but we've stayed in contact through social media. As soon as we were reunited, it was like we had never been apart at all. This group truly is my Norwegian family.

We chartered a sailboat and went swimming in the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean. We ate paella and drank sangria. We took walks through the city center and talked about our lives. It was an awesome weekend.

I spend a lot of time thinking about communities. In my career, I'm a community ecologist, so I study how animals interact with one another and how their communities change over time. But the idea of community also pervades my personal life. I am constantly observing how groups interact and how the group dynamics affect my emotions. I have been part of awesome, supportive communities, and I have been left feeling flat. In my mind, a great community has two essential elements:

Sailing with housemates in the Mediterranean
1) All members of the group must be immediately accepted, no matter who they are, and even if their self-definition changes. A strong sense of belonging pervades the group.

2) Community members must have the freedom to make their own choices and engage with other members to the extent that they desire. Members cannot shame others for choosing not to engage, and as a result, group membership is fluid.

Belonging and freedom - the two hallmarks of great communities, at least as I have observed them. My Kirkebakken housemates have both of these elements in excess. Each person is accepted as they are, and they have the freedom to engage with the rest of the group as much or as little as they choose. My housemates truly want nothing but the best for each other. What impresses me so much is that Kirkebakkeners are the single most eclectic group I have ever been a part of. We come from Europe, America, and Asia, and we span in age from early 20s to mid 50s. And yet, we get along incredibly well. Kirkebakken is one of the great highlights of my life as a traveling scientist. I am so grateful to be part of this community.