Friday, January 18, 2019

Thermal shock experiment

I was sitting at a long wooden table in a straight-back wooden chair. I was wearing hiking boots, field pants, and a sweater. To my left, an impressively-sized painting depicted Viking warriors fleeing from an opposing army. To my right, a wide window showed a sweeping view of the city, fjord, and sunset below. In front of me, resting on the table, was a large white mug of cocoa and a slice of apple cake covered in homemade whipped cream.

Friends, I am in Norway.

Kristina and I at Frognersenteren, Oslo
I’m not quite sure how wise it was to embark on a trip to the Arctic in winter after spending an entire month in the tropical Pacific, but I’m considering the trip my own personal thermal shock experiment. Let’s be honest, though: I love the Arctic more than anywhere else on Earth.

My first stop was in Oslo, where my friend, Kristina, lives. She was a postdoc with me at WHOI and a frequent dive buddy, but she has since moved back to the University of Oslo to take another position. It was good to catch up with her and see her Norwegian world.

Kristina invited me to give a seminar at the University of Oslo while I was there, and I gladly accepted. I presented my research on recruitment in Svalbard, and after the presentation, a researcher in Kristina's group approached me to talk. I absolutely love when I travel and get to have stimulating conversations with scientists across the world.

I had another surprise after my seminar: a student in the front row approached and asked if I recognized him. I certainly did and had been wracking my brain throughout the seminar to figure out where I had met him before. "Abyssline," he hinted.

Then it became clear: his name was Oliver, and we had spent 6 weeks together on R/V Thomas Thompson in 2015. Together, we had completed 45 successful deployments of deep-sea landers. It was a memorable cruise that has since lead to a number of valuable publications, including Oliver's MS thesis. I was excited to find he was now a PhD student in Oslo and continuing to pursue science. Friends, the world is small

I'll be heading up north in Norway later this week, so stay tuned!

Coral crusher

I selected Hanny's name and then typed with my thumbs on the screen of my cell phone: "Alright, I'm going to take a short break and then get back to crushing."

Her text response came a few seconds later: "Metaphor for life!"

A bit of coral tissue about to be crushed
Friends, my first two weeks back at WHOI have been very full. I am now an Assistant Scientist (yay!), but to be honest, the past two weeks, I have felt more like a lab technician. As you may remember, Hanny and I collected hundreds of coral samples in Palau last fall. The quantitative part of our analysis involves population genetics - basically, examining the corals' DNA to see how their populations are connected. As you may imagine, extracting DNA from hundreds of coral samples is a tedious, repetitive process that takes a lot of time at the lab bench. 

To start the process, I removed each sample from its tube, broke off a piece with a razor blade, and crushed it up. The razor blades and forceps I was using had to be sterilized between each sample, so I dipped them in ethanol and then burned the ethanol off with a lighter. Yes, sometimes science involves fire! The crushed coral bits then get incubated overnight with an enzyme that breaks open the cells and sets the DNA free. 

Crushed-up tissue ready to be incubated
The next day, I retrieve the samples from the incubator and set about the long process of cleaning the DNA. A good analysis requires DNA with nothing else hanging onto it or swimming around in the solution, so we're being very careful and doing three different wash steps. The bread-and-butter tool of molecular biology is the centrifuge, a machine that spins sample tubes at high velocity. Over and over, I pipetted a solution onto the filter with the DNA, placed it into a collection tube, spun the tube at 8,000 rmp, and discarded the flow-through. Pipet, tube, spin, discard. Over and over.

The last step is called elution, and this step separates the DNA from the filter. I pipetted the solution onto the filter, placed it into a tube, and spun it in the centrifuge, but this time, I kept the tube. A small volume of clear liquid rested at the bottom. In that liquid was the corals’ DNA.

The extractions have been a lot of work, and we’re only about halfway done. Ok, enough blogging - now back to crushing corals!

Monday, December 31, 2018

Like silver

"For you, O God, tested us;
you refined us like silver.
You brought us into prison
And laid burdens on our backs.
You let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water,
but you brought us to a place of abundance."
- Psalm 66: 10-12 NIV

Friends, we are now nearing the end of another year. 2018 is drawing to a close, and I can feel a chapter closing in a very real way. You know, recognizing the end of a calendar year is actually unusual for me. A combination of my late summer birthday and growing up in the North American educational system with its September-to-June rhythm has meant that my years have always begun and ended in August. Each year, the summer-to-fall transition meant I advanced a year in age and a grade in school. For me, New Year's Day has always been in August.

Not this year. 2018 was a year all by itself. It was the year I was engaged. It was the year I finished my postdoctoral position. As December closes, I feel the end of the year coming in a more real way than ever. The end of this year is the end of an era.

2018 tested me. This year was an absolute roller coaster with the highest highs and lowest lows I have experienced yet. In 2018, I felt like forged metal. Over and over again, I was smelted, boiled with nitric acid, and pounded on an anvil. I have been refined and shaped like silver.

In 2018, I saw the end of my scientific funding rapidly approaching, and I scrambled to write grant proposals and job applications to keep myself going. I experienced the panic of an uncertain professional future, and I did everything I could to keep up. But I got one major project funded, and in the end, I landed my dream job. I came out of the struggle funded and employed.

In 2018, my personal life was transformed. I became vulnerable in my relationships in a way I never had before. I revealed my true self to those who claim to love me, and in return, I received both stinging withdrawal and gracious acceptance. I experienced the glorious freedom that comes with telling the truth. I learned whom I can trust.

This year, I saw God in unexpected places. I traveled through icy wilderness and tropical paradise, and I visited past versions of myselfI married my best friend. I went through fire and water and was brought out to a place of abundance.

As 2018 draws to a close, I return from my grand Pacific adventure to the place that has become my long-term home. But I do not return the same as I was. 2019 will usher in a new era for me with a strong sense of permanence. The man I love has become my husband. I finally have a tenure-track position. We bought a house. All these things allow me to be more secure than ever before in my adult life, and I feel more in control of my own life than I have ever been. No longer a wanderer, I can explore the world from a position of security and strength. I have a solid base, a secure place I can return to, a true home.

I have been refined like silver, and with the new year comes a new era. 2019, I welcome you.

Sunday, December 30, 2018


A Japanese tank on Peleliu - the same model as on the
San Francisco Maru in Truk Lagoon. Photo by Carl Kaiser.
"Adventure then cocktails"
- message on another diver's T-shirt

I was huddled on the boat, wearing a swimsuit and an orange cotton dress. I wished I had a rain jacket. Salt spray flew over the side of the boat, soaking me and the other passengers, and raindrops fell on us from above. Behind us, a bright orange sunset lit up the horizon, while in front of us, the sky grew dim. The captain navigated through countless rocky passages in the twilight, and when we finally reached the dock, we stood and applauded him. It had been a long, adventurous day.

Inside the Thousand Man Cave. Photo by Carl Kaiser.
There's an island in southern Palau called Peleliu, which was host to one of the bloodiest battles in WWII. Americans invaded using amphibious vehicles and seized the Japanese airfield on the island in 1944. The battle took months and resulted in thousands of casualties, and evidence of the battle remains on the island still today. Local inhabitants have returned, but outside the main town, there are Japanese tanks, rusted-out American amphibious vehicles, and the abandoned concrete-and-rebar headquarters building.

Carl and I used our chance while in Palau to see Peleliu. We took the hour-long boat ride with other travelers, did two dives, and then embarked on a land tour of the historical artifacts on the island. It was fascinating to see. We visited the beach where the American invasion was launched and the airfield they eventually seized. The most fascinating part for me was seeing the so-called Thousand Man Cave, a network of tunnels built by the Japanese on the northern end of the island. The tunnels enabled Japanese soldiers to rapidly and secretly reach new parts of Peleliu to emerge and surprise Americans. However, many of the Japanese ended up trapped inside when American fighters drove flaming vehicles into the cave entrances.

Peleliu has a rich history that was revealing to experience. Even as the weather worsened on our ride home, I was glad for the opportunity to visit the island.

Ulong Channel

“Always be yourself. Unless you can be a mermaid. Then always be a mermaid.”
- Slogan of the online network Girls that Scuba, whose members refer to each other as mermaids

One of the great things about SCUBA diving for me as a marine biologist is the chance to experience the environments I study in person. It’s one thing to read a textbook about how sunlight attenuates in water, how the temperature drops below the thermocline, how currents are steered by the bathymetry of the seafloor. It’s a completely different proposition to strap on a SCUBA tank, become an underwater creature, and go visit the reef yourself. You’ll notice that everything begins to look blue-green as you descend. You’ll feel like your head has been dunked in ice water as you cross the thermocline. You’ll feel the current push you along, following the contours of the rock below.

Friends, today, I experienced the environment in person as Carl and I dove in Ulong Channel. Our dive started with a gentle swim along a coral reef. Like most of the reefs in Palau, it was a vertical wall, and we could feel the incoming tidal current pushing us upward onto the plateau. Eventually, our guide signaled for us to ascend to the plateau and anchor in with our reef hooks. A reef hook is exactly what it sounds like - a strong metallic hook with a thick, woven line and a clip at the other end. You find a solid piece of dead coral, secure the hook, stretch out the line, and clip the other end to your gear. You inflate your buoyancy compensator slightly and float above the reef at anchor. It’s like being a human balloon.

We hooked into the reef and waited for about 20 minutes. The whole time, gray reef sharks swam back and forth in front of us, and schools of silver fish flickered past. The current grew stronger, too. We waited until the current was strongest during the incoming tide. To be honest, I was beginning to wonder if my reef hook would hold me as the force of the water stretched my line to its limit and vibrated my gear. Just then, the guide signaled to release our hooks, and we drifted with the current through Ulong Channel.

It felt like I was flying. The current carried me along, and I passed over coral after coral in the channel. The flow was too strong to swim against and extremely difficult to swim across (I tried once), but I was able to steer with my fins. For another half hour, we drifted with the current through the channel. The seafloor was covered with stony corals, rigid living rocks that can withstand the sheer force of the water rushing through the channel 4 times each day. I thought about the larvae carried on the current to the rocky habitat, about the plankton delivered to the corals' hungry tentacles at night. I dropped down to a sandy patch and felt the velocity slow in the benthic boundary layer. I passed over a large coral mound and felt the higher speed near the summit. The guide lead us through a narrow passage, and I could feel the flow become more turbulent in the complex space. It was an absolutely amazing dive.

Ulong Channel is one of my favorite dive sites in Palau. It offered a unique chance to feel the current and experience the environmental factors affecting the coral reef in person. I was grateful for the chance to dive it!

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Jellyfish Lake

After leaving Chuuk, Carl and I headed to Palau! I was here for work in September-October, and I was more than happy to be back. Palau is one of the more developed island nations in the Pacific, and it features beautiful, pristine natural habitats for diving. After two weeks of quirky living conditions in Chuuk, it's been nice to be in a more Westernized area. Carl and I are spending our week here diving on gorgeous, densely-populated coral reefs. We're seeing hundreds of species each dive, along with sharks and turtles and manta rays and fish. The natural environment here is truly unparalleled - and I'm not just talking it up. I absolutely love diving in Palau. 

One of the very famous sites in Palau is Jellyfish Lake, a marine lake in the Rock Islands. It's populated by a subspecies of endemic jellyfish that have a very weak sting. Over centuries of isolation in the lake, the jellies have not needed to defend themselves or catch food, so their cnidocytes have become so weak that a human can't even feel the sting. To feed themselves, the jellyfish have photosynthetic symbionts, much like corals, so their nutrition comes from sunlight. Most jellies are predators, but the subspecies in Jellyfish Lake migrates around the lake throughout the day, following the sun. It's like the cnidarian equivalent of the reformed sharks in Finding Nemo - a tribe of former meat-eaters living in harmony in paradise. 

Our visit began with a boat ride to the island, called Mecherchar, where the lake sits. We parked at the dock and carried our gear on a steep stone staircase over a ridge, first up, then down. From the surface, it looked like any other lake - still water nestled among trees, with a handful of snorkelers splashing at the surface. We donned our masks and fins, eased ourselves into the water, and swam to the center. I put my face beneath the surface and was instantly in another world. The jellies, barely visible from above the surface of the water, were everywhere. Thousands of them, millions - we were told that the lake's population was about 2 million individuals, and usually, it's closer to 10 million. All of them drifted along slowly, contracting their bells absentmindedly as their tentacles trailed behind. They were a deep peach color, almost brown. 

Our guide told us that there are actually five marine lakes with endemic jellyfish in Palau. Four are closed to the public, and each one has a unique subspecies of jelly that is found nowhere else in the world. All of the subspecies are closely related to a species that is common in the Rock Island bays of Palau, so the prevailing theory is that birds carried dried polyps on their feathers from the bays to the lakes, and the isolated jelly populations diverged over time. 

I am immensely grateful that we got to experience Jellyfish Lake. It is a fragile, unique environment that was a privilege to see.


Friends, as you know, when I am traveling, I am constantly observing. Chuuk has been an insightful place for me to be, so I’d like to share some of my observations. I’ve learned a lot just by talking to the resort employees and other expatriates who have been living here.

We barbecued on an island between dives once, and this was
our view - stunning!
1) Everything about life in Chuuk centers around the ocean. Dive tourism is essentially the only industry here, and many of the Chuukese employees commute to work by boat. There are ferries between the islands in Truk Lagoon – essentially, small wooden boats with outboard motors. It took us a long time to figure out that the boat traffic adjacent to the resort was actually public transit, because the dock is unlabeled and the operators are not in uniform. If you live here, you just know which boat to get on.

2) Chuuk is a very conservative, religious place. Carl and I went to the grocery store in town, and in our 5-minute cab ride, we passed about 5 churches, 3 Christian schools, and two different pairs of Mormon missionaries visiting peoples’ homes. There are signs around the resort here warning guests to dress conservatively and respect local customs – women should never show their thighs. In fact, most of the Chuukese women we’ve seen both around the resort and in town wear dresses or flowing, baggy tops with long skirts - never anything form-fitting and never, ever pants. People also get married young and have large families here. Our dive guide said he has 6 children, aged 18 years to 3 months.

3) There is no such thing as homelessness in Chuuk. People live in large family groups, and even though employment is very low (dive resorts are the only employers), unemployed people are always cared for by other family members. A multigenerational family will be supported by a few individuals who each make just a few dollars an hour.

4) The standard diet for Chuukese people these days is Spam and rice. Carl and I met a Japanese man who was living in Chuuk for 2 years, and he said his host family eats Spam and rice for almost every meal. It got very monotonous, he said. The traditional foods – breadfruit, taro, and fish – are actually more expensive than Spam and rice, so the Chuukese people switched over to the cheaper imported foods. Agriculture, fishing, and public health are declining as a result.

5) There are lots of dogs and cats in Chuuk. They are all well-behaved and look well-fed, so we actually couldn’t tell if they were pets that allowed to roam or if they were actually feral. There’s a family of tabby cats around the resort that likes to perform for food. Carl and I would open the door to our room every morning to find one or more cats seated at attention, and as soon as we stepped out, they would lay on their backs, stretch out, purr, meow, and generally try to look adorable. Such manipulative beggars!

6) The utilities in Chuuk are less than 100% reliable. (Please note: I don’t intend to complain – it’s actually been a fun adventure to figure out how things work here!) I’m not sure if this happens across the whole island or just the resort, but electricity is from diesel generators. Four times a day, at 6:00 am/pm and at 12:00 am/pm, the generator is switched, so the power goes out for 1 – 2 minutes. Carl and I consider the power outages our “dinner bell,” calling us to the restaurant for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. As one may expect, the internet is slow enough to make even e-mail challenging, and cell phone service is non-existent. The maximum temperature of water for showers also varies by time of day. Carl and I quickly realized that the best time for internet usage was the early morning and showers were warmest after 4 pm, so we adjusted our daily schedules accordingly!

7) Chuukese music is really interesting. It’s pretty monotonous and repetitive, at least based on the radio station that plays in the resort lobby. The typical song consists of a voice signing 3 – 4 different phrases in a half-octave range over and over and over, with light percussion and strummed string instruments as accompaniment. To be honest, it was hard for my Western ears to listen to for more than ~10 minutes at a time. The Chuukese people sing sometimes while working, which is equally repetitive but actually very beautiful.

It’s the poorest country I’ve ever been in so far, but I really came to like Micronesia. The natural surroundings are absolutely stunning, and the people are laid-back and extremely polite and helpful. Of course resort employees are paid to be nice to us, but when we went to the grocery store in town, we actually had a stranger volunteer to help us find the shopping baskets. I was surprised and grateful.

I went to end on a moment from our last day in Chuuk. I was on the dock, busy rinsing all our dive gear in fresh water, and the man who had been driving our boat most of the trip came up to me. He was on his way to the ferry to go home for the night, but he shook my hand and bid me farewell and safe travels. A teenage dive shop employee was slouching on the table behind me, and as the ferry’s motor roared to life, he started singing softly to himself. The sun was on its way to the horizon behind some clouds, so I had this beautiful, serene moment accompanied by the sun and the sea and a song.

If you are planning a vacation, I encourage to consider Chuuk. This place relies on tourism dollars, and it is absolutely worth the trip.