Monday, March 19, 2018


"I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by." - Douglas Adams

Friends, when I started this blog, part of my motivation was to give you an honest inside look into the life of a scientist. I wanted you to know it's not all lab coats and pipette tips (personally, I wear rubber boots more often than anything). I wanted you to see that science is community-based, not a solitary activity, and that the pursuit of knowledge transcends borders. I wanted to share with you my adventures. But I also want you to know that science involves a lot of writing.

A lot. Of writing.

You might remember the five-figure word count I achieved when penning my dissertation. I've told tales of writing, submitting, and revising scientific manuscripts before. I've shared with you my joy and pride when one gets published. Writing papers about research is a huge part of scientific life.

What I haven't told you as much about is the process of writing research proposals. This is partly because proposal-writing is a new element in my career that I'm just starting to explore. Research requires money. And money is given in grants. So in this business, we're constantly writing grant proposals.

I've had several proposal deadlines "whoosh" past in the last month, and I've done my best to meet each of them. As a post-doc, I'm not ready to spearhead big proposals yet, but I'm getting my feet wet and building my confidence in the meantime. I've submitted proposals to private foundations and WHOI internal competitions. So far, I've been successful twice, which is a great feeling. Each proposal I submit is for slightly more money and slightly more research, so I'm building up to bigger grants. We'll see what projects I can get funded!

Monday, March 5, 2018


Friends, I have been radio silent for a while. A whole month - my longest gap since starting this blog. It feels strange in one way because I'm so used to posting, but it feels surprising in another way because the last month has gone by in a flash. I could swear I just got home from Antarctica last week. No way it's been a whole month since I last posted.

February always seems short (having only 28 days and all), but this one was particularly blitz-like. My first week home from Antarctica, I went straight back to work with proposals, papers, and orchestra practice - I didn't even have a chance to recover from jet lag until the next weekend. Then it was more proposals, a visit with family, and finding time to spend with friends before they left town or moved away. I've finally gotten past my February deadlines, but I find myself staring spring in the face. I have more deadlines coming up and need to start planning summer field work already. The wheel of chaos is turning at full speed!

Besides my metaphorical whirlwind of a month, Cape Cod was struck with a literal storm over the past few days. A Nor'easter brought gale-force winds, rain from all directions, and a dusting of snow. Carl and I were fortunate enough to only lose power for a few minutes, but some of our friends were out the whole weekend. Whole trees lay across the road, blocking traffic on a main thoroughfare just a half mile from our house. Our phones kept chiming with updates from the institution. Thankfully, everything is back up and running today, but the wind is still blowing in gusts.

I'm heading into March with an optimistic attitude. The storm may not be 100% over, but I am pushing through. It should be a good spring.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Between two lungs

"Gone are the days of begging
The days of theft
No more gasping for a breath
The air has filled me head to toe
And I can see the ground far below
I have this breath and I hold it tight
And I keep it in my chest with all my might
I pray to God this breath with last
And it pushes past my lips
As I gasp"
- "Between two lungs" by Florence and the Machine

I love the air at the poles. 

Photo by Tess Cole
I realized it on my first Arctic expedition in 2011. I was standing on the bow of the icebreaker Polarstern, gazing out to the horizon and feeling the wind on my neck. I breathed deeply and relished the feeling of a thousand icicles filling my lungs. I think that was the day I fell in love with the Arctic. Cold air makes me feel clean from the inside out. 

When I was little, my doctor used to say I had "tricky airways." I don't know exactly what he meant by that because he never diagnosed me with asthma, but every cold I got turned into bronchitis. I remember feeling the tightness in my chest whenever I was sick, and I couldn't blow up a balloon until I was in my twenties. 

These days, my affinity for polar air is not physiological, it’s psychological. My lungs have long outgrown their childhood restrictions, so it is my mind that relishes the cold. When I breathe in the crisp, dry air, all traces of stress vanish from my psychi. I feel clean and empowered and new. I relax – which says a lot, because polar regions pose countless logistical difficulties to research. I have run into roadblocks and seen missions aborted. I have struggled against bad weather and transportation snafus. But in the end, the mountains, the wildlife, and the snow-draped landscapes - even the gale-force winds on bad weather days - all enthrall me. They elevate my soul. My heart lives at the poles.

My time at McMurdo Station is drawing to a close, but I can tell you this: I will return. As soon as I get home, I will begin reading and researching and shaping a project that will carry me back here. Antarctica is the coldest, driest place on Earth, and I honestly thought I would have to wait many more years - decades, even - before I ever made it to the southern continent. I am grateful beyond measure for the chance to experience Antarctica and get a foot in the door with the U.S. polar community. This month has been an incredible adventure. There are so many unanswered questions I want to pursue at the bottom of the world, and I am determined to return to this captivating place.

Standing in the middle of the ice shelf, I scan the mountainous horizon one last time. I draw my last breath of the cold polar air and hold it in my lungs. And I walk up the steps into the plane.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Groundhog day

"You want a prediction about the weather?...I'm going to give you a prediction about this winter. It's going to be cold, it's going to be dark, and it's going to last you for the rest of your lives." 
- the movie Groundhog Day

I looked up from my plate of eggs and fruit at Mark. He was wearing a blue-and-white shirt with a vest, much like the day before. I adjusted the neckline of my sweater, which I had also been wearing the day prior. Here we were again, having breakfast, checking the flight schedule. I had the strange feeling that I was living the same day over again.

The Antarctic training course is over, but our group has been detained on the ice. First the weather was bad, then the flights were backed up because of the weather delay, then the weather got bad again. We've been delayed for three days. Having already checked our luggage for the flight, we're also living with limited outfit options. Each day is déjà vu. 

It's not unusual to be delayed getting on or off the ice, and the military pilots who fly us know what they're doing. In the meantime, I appreciate the chance to rest. We'll be heading out soon. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Cape Evans

"For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton." - Raymond Priestley

The Terra Nova hut, at Cape Evans
Friends, when I quoted the above sentence to you before, I did not give you the whole thing. There is a third famous Antarctic explorer: Ernest Shackleton. Irish by birth, he served in the British Navy and lead several Antarctic expeditions. Like Scott, he saw hard times on the southern continent, but unlike Scott, Shackleton was renouned as an effective leader and strategic thinker. His famous Endurance expedition to cross Antarctica was plagued by a series of unfortunate events, but his entire expedition team survived (unlike Scott). In fact, when Shackleton's resupply team was stranded in McMurdo Sound, he returned personally to save them, despite having just finished a horrendous journey himself.

The Aurora anchor
Cyanobacterial mats at Cape Evans
Shackleton began his trans-Antarctic expedition from the Weddell Sea, on the Atlantic side of the continent, while his resupply team started from the Ross Sea, on the Pacific side. They were supposed to meet at the South Pole. The stranded members of the resupply team never made it, though, and actually lived for two years in McMurdo Sound, at a site called Cape Evans. The site has a hut that had been built by Scott years before, where the men were able to take shelter and await rescue. Before you go imagining an icebox of a house like Discovery Hut, I'll tell you that the Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans was meant to be lived in, and it is actually quite cozy. My fellow trainees and I got to tour the hut during a sampling trip to Cape Evans, and it is a place I would have gladly lived.

It's a wooden house with a gas heating stove, a kitchen, and cots. There was a stable just outside, where Scott kept his ponies. Despite its apparent comfort, the hut still bears the evidence of difficult times: the anchor to the the Aurora, Shackleton's resupply ship, tore away from the ship (that's how the men got stranded ashore) and still lays buried in the gravel outside the hut. Inside the hut are old piles of seal skin and penguin eggs - remnants of the marooned men's hunted food sources.

Barn Glacier
Besides the historical hut, Cape Evans is an interesting site for biologists to visit. Extensive areas of bare gravel serve as nesting sites for the Antarctic skua, a scavenging sea bird. The heterogenous terrain has depressions that fill with melting snow and host thick cyanobacterial mats. Also known as blue-green algae, cyanobacteria are single-celled microbes that photosynthesize. They're responsible for producing much of the oxygen you breathe. The mats were green and orange and yellow and floated on top of the melt ponds. It was very cool to see.

Me at Cape Evans. Photo by Tess Cole.
We spent several hours at Cape Evans, hiking to the melt ponds, touring the hut, and exploring the surrounding area. The nearby Barn Glacier dominates the northern horizon, and Inaccessible Island towers to the south. Mt. Erebus overlooks Cape Evans from the east, and the ice-covered McMurdo Sound stretches to the west. It is a gorgeous place.

The good news for me is that Cape Evans is also a common dive site for Antarctic research. I'm told it's a particularly good site to collect sea urchins. Note to self: design a project on Antarctic sea urchins. I hope I get to come back!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Ice edge

I heard the reaction before I heard the blast.
The sea ice edge (and a helicopter blade)

"Whoa!" exclaimed Chelsea, leaning back in her thick blue coat and raising her camera to her eye. Then I heard the rush of air as the whale breathed behind me and turned around to catch its dorsal fin disappearing below the sea surface. The large gray minke whale was about 10 m away from me.

I was standing on a shelf of sea ice. Below me was the Ross Sea, stretching 600 m to the seafloor beneath my feet. Behind me, the white, snow-covered ice shelf ended abruptly and gave way to the deep blue of the ocean. We were at the ice edge collecting samples.

Mt. Erebus and the sea ice edge
The sea ice edge is a very interesting place biologically. The ice acts like a blanket on the ocean, dampening waves and maintaining a stable water column. Phytoplankton bask in the sunlight in the stable water and grow like mad, providing a key energy source for krill and pteropods. The abundant food sources attract whales and fish that gorge on these tiny creatures. Penguins swim in the sea, chowing on fish. Orcas hang around hunting penguins. It's one massive party of a food web.

Adelie penguins and the Transantarctic Mountains 
And it is absolutely stunning. I wish I could have just stood in the middle of the ice and spun around like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. My view was flanked by Mt. Erebus on one side and the Transantarctic Mountains on the other. The vast white carpet of sea ice reached back toward land, and in the other direction was the endless deep blue of the Southern Ocean.

We drilled a series of holes in the sea ice to lower instruments through and then approached the edge itself. As a safety precaution, two mountaineers assisted us by drilling ice screws into the ice and attaching belay ropes. Each of us wore a climbing harness and was clipped into the belays so we couldn't fall over the edge. We deployed plankton nets and a CTD (conductivity-temperature-depth gauge), trying all the while not to be distracted by the beauty around us. At one point, as we were pulling up the CTD, a group of Adelie penguins jumped into the water from a nearby icy outcrop and began porpoising, jumping out of the water like dolphins. I held the CTD line firmly in one hand, lifted my head, and stared in awe at the quirky, tuxedoed creatures swimming with perfect grace.

As I climbed back into the helicopter, I could not help but take one last look around me. The ice edge really is a magical place.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Castle Rock

Days off aren't common in the field, but we got one this weekend. I used it to hike a loop trail near McMurdo Station. The trail goes past a steep formation called Castle Rock, then swings out with overlooks to the Ross Ice Shelf. I'll let my photos speak for themselves - it was a beautiful hike!

The Castle Rock Loop trail is marked by flags on the snow

There are emergency shelters called "apples" along the trail.

Castle Rock

With my fellow trainee, Tess, on the trail. We were in a large group, but
most people turned back to the station after seeing Castle Rock. We were
the only two who did the whole loop. 

View out to the Ross Ice Shelf
Mt. Erebus was shrouded in clouds and only partly visible from the trail
A gorgeous ice formation on the Ross Ice Shelf