Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Like a pot: Part 3

"Create like a god; command like a king; work like a slave." - Constantin Brancusi

My data analysis is taking shape, and at the same time, I myself am being molded. I definitely feel different than when I arrived in Stavanger.

I've shared with you before that my life in Norway is a lot simpler than in Oregon. Most of that is because I have only one occupation here, and that is my science. In Oregon, my attention was divided between teaching violin lessons, participating in dance classes, mentoring undergraduates, and helping out my fellow grad students when nobody else would. A number of things in Oregon made my life complicated, and every single one of them disappeared when I came to Norway.

It's more than that, though. I could have moved anywhere in the world and gotten away from my hectic schedule. I feel Norway shaping me, molding me, nurturing me.

It happened when I arrived at IRIS and was shown into my office - my very own office. It's huge!

It happened when I decided to stay an extra few days in Svalbard and Andrew wrote "I trust you 100%" in an email.

It happened when I finally got results - great results! - from an image analysis two years in the making.

It happened when I realized Norwegian ecotoxicologists were actually interested enough to listen about my research.

It happens every time I meet with Andrew; every time I speak with a colleague at IRIS; every time I update my adviser back in Oregon.

I am growing.

And someday, I will be a well-rounded, full-fledged, independent scientist who leads teams of colleagues and armies of undergraduates into battle against ignorance and the unknown. I will write my own grant proposals and research papers, lead my own cruises, and coordinate with beloved colleagues the world over. I will create like a god, command like a king, and work like a slave. And when I look back at my time in Stavanger, I will realize that it was the time when I came into my own, when I learned how to be a mature scientist.

I will realize that in Stavanger, everything changed.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Like a pot: Part 2

"Brancusi is the Einstein of art." - Craig Raine

One of the best life decisions I ever made was taking two semesters of Modern Art during my first year of college. The first semester was a comprehensive overview of art aesthetics in middle Europe during the 16th-19th centuries, and the second semester focused on 20th century art movements in Europe and North America. Together, these two courses revolutionized my view of music, of literature, of art, of the world.

"Fish" by Constatin Brancusi. Photographed by me at
Tate Modern, London, 2013.
Probably my second-favorite 20th-century artist is Constantin Brancusi, a Romanian scupltor who spent most of his career in Paris. (In case you're wondering, my first-favorite artist is American composer Philip Glass.) Brancusi's sculptures are characteristically simple, capturing only the essential elements of an object rather than its intricate details. Please, if you are not familiar with Brancusi's work, look up "Bird in Space," "Fish," and "The Newborn."

I remember promising myself at some point that when I finally came up with a meaningful scientific theory of my own, it would be simple, elegant, with the essential elements only. I wanted to make science the way Brancusi made sculptures. Imagine my surprise when I visited Tate Modern in London in 2013 and discovered the exact same sentiment expressed in the museum. Right there, for all to see, beside Brancusi's "Fish" were the words of Craig Raine. Read for yourself:

Notes beside "Fish" by Constantin Brancusi. Photographed
by me at Tate Modern, London, 2013.
The best scientific theories are like Brancusi sculptures. Essential elements only. Summarizable in one sentence. Suggesting the basic form of the world without getting bogged down by all the details. Focusing on mechanisms and processes, not individual facts.

God willing, I will make science the way Brancusi makes sculptures.

Like a pot

"But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as it seemed best to him."
Jeremiah 18:4

It's finally coming together. My data analysis is taking shape, and gosh darn, does this feel good. Andrew and I met last week to discuss my progress on the data, and we ended up deciding exactly which results to report. I am ready to start writing the long-awaited and ever-important Draft 1.

In some ways, it feels like it's taken a long time to get to this point, but really, I know the analysis went at lightning speed. Probably the most important thing I've learned from Andrew so far is the value of graphing the raw data and examining it for interesting patterns, rather than just charging ahead with some complicated analysis that will leave you confused. Andrew's also shown me how to brainstorm a number of interesting tangents, pursue each, but only focus on the ones that pan out. Not every idea I have will be useful, but it's very important to generate those ideas in the first place.

I've spent a good deal of time just playing around with various statistical tests, and only about half of what I did will end up getting reported in my draft. Some things worked; some didn't. I feel almost as if I've been forming a pot out of clay, adding complicated decorations and intricate shapes, then smoothing it out again as only the essential elements are retained. In the end, the pot takes on a simple but elegant shape.

I've understood the value of simple, elegant science for a while. In fact, my all-time favorite scientific theory, General Relativity, is my favorite because it can be summarized in one sentence: The speed of light is a constant in all situations. This simple statement has in turn profound implications for our understanding of the universe. I'm convinced that any scientific theory that holds water must be similarly summarizable or at least able to be explained in plain language. As Einstein himself asserted, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

This week is going to be a critical one for me, as I shape my pot into a manuscript draft and explain everything as simply as possible.


After a fantastic and enlightening week at work, I had a visitor for the weekend! My friend, Ann-Kristin, came to Stavanger from Oslo, where she is studying. Ann-Kristin and I met in 2012 when I was living in Bremerhaven, Germany. When she noticed on Facebook that I was back in Europe and living in Norway, she wrote me a message to say she was in Oslo and that we should meet up. It was great to have a German friend around and to show off my new city!

We took a sightseeing tour through Lysefjorden, just east of Stavanger. Lysefjorden is incredibly long and thin, and it's famous for its steep-sided rock walls. The most famous rock formation in Lysefjorden is known as Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock). I thought this was quite a weird name, but after seeing the square rock formation poised high above the fjord, I'll tell you it actually looks like a pulpit! Along the way, we saw countless spectacular fjord views, quaint homes nestled in the rugged landscape, and even a waterfall! Check out my pictures below.

Norwegian skies never cease to amaze me.

Ann-Kristin and I on the Lysefjorden tour

Lysefjorden is incredibly steep-sided and narrow.

Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock)

Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock) actually sits 604 m above the water.

Hengjanefossen Waterfall, Lysefjorden

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Viscerally this time

Some day, when I am a famous Nobel Laureate, my biographer will read this blog. They will brag to their biographer friends about how easy their job is documenting my life. They will wonder how anyone wrote a biography before the era of deeply personal and detailed online confessions.

They will draft a passage like this for inclusion in my biography:

"Though brief, Kirstin Meyer's stint in Stavanger, Norway had a disproportionate impact on the development of her career. It was during this period that she learned how to communicate with colleagues and build professional relationships. She gained confidence and maturity, and she learned how to handle herself in relaxed social situations with colleagues. On her personal and detailed blog, Meyer cites several examples of dinners hosted by her supervisor in Stavanger, Andrew Sweetman. It was during long evenings at Sweetman's table that Meyer became comfortable floating between social and scientific conversation topics, and that she began to fully appreciate her colleagues as humans.

"Naturally, the simple truths that Meyer realized during the Stavanger Period were consciously known to her before - that scientists are humans and that good things happen when people talk - but she did not perfect the art of the social scientific conversation until forced to practice it on a regular basis.

"Of particular importance was one evening immediately following the NETS conference (Norwegian Environmental Toxicology Symposium), which had been hosted by IRIS in October 2014. Meyer found herself engaged in a lively and entertaining round-table discussion in which sophisticated graphing techniques were used to model a real-life situation. It was on this night that she realized - viscerally, not just cerebrally this time - how important it was to be communicative, social, and open to any conversation topic. Science is, after all, a social exercise, and if a group of thinkers can trade silly ideas over too many glasses of wine, perhaps they can conceive of the next great scientific revolution."

The makings of a revolution

Before I finish rambling about this week, I need to tell you about some of the keynote speakers at NETS and what they helped me realize.

Sam Dupont delivered a sweeping overview of ocean acidification research, offering his unique perspective on how far the field had come and where it still had to go. He made the bold statement that we (the scientific community) had been approaching ocean acidification research all wrong and needed to shift our perspective. He described the old way of doing experiments as "stamp collecting" to depict the endless enumeration of facts that resulted. Single studies would focus one or two species, expose individuals to predicted future pH levels, and observe the effects. In the end, we were left with a whole bunch of predictions that didn't really have that much to do with each other.

Later that same day, Tjalling Jager said many of the same things about environmental risk assessment models; that we had been going about them all wrong. Previously, one would model the adverse effect of a pollutant on an organism, then another, then another. These separate models would have to be combined with predictions of where pollution would occur in order to quantify environmental risk. The result was disjointed and far from realistic.

What probably struck me the most was that both speakers offered similar alternatives to the previous stamp-collecting methods. Instead of accumulating facts, both put the focus on mechanisms. We as the scientific community should understand not just what happens but how it happens, because once we are able to understand the mechanisms, we can build much more realistic models of the world.

You know, I used to be a stamp collector. Actually, I was probably worse than a stamp collector because I treated science like police work. I tried to find evidence for every little detail. I wanted to test well-worn hypotheses in new locations and new environments, thinking this was progress when in fact I knew full well what would happen. It wasn't until I got a kick in the teeth from my adviser in Oregon that I actually realized what I was doing. He articulated the problem to me quite clearly, but it still took a while for me to re-wire my thinking. I'm probably not even finished with the process yet.

I had some excellent conversations this week with Chuck Fisher, another keynote speaker at NETS and a prominent deep-sea biologist. He told me about monitoring the recovery of deep-sea corals from an oil spill, and even though he and his team were continually finding new coral sites, he said he found it more important to monitor closely at a smaller number of sites. Investigating a large number of sites didn't actually add new information to the analysis because the same principles were shown over and over again.

See, this is the part that it took me so long to realize: you might not actually learn that much by surveying and experimenting in new parts of the world. Whenever I plan a scientific study, I need to be able to articulate exactly why I'm doing it, and explanations like "because it's cool" and "because we don't know anything about it" are simply not enough. There are a heck of a lot of things in the world that we know nothing about. I need to be able to articulate why the particular unknown I have chosen is more important than any other unknown I could possibly study. If I can't articulate this, then my chosen unknown is probably just another stamp.

Maybe the ideas I'm trying to express here are old news to some of you, but it was a big deal to me when I finally got it. It started to sink in sometime over the summer. I actually remember one day when I was just cleaning my apartment and letting my brain turn. I had become fascinated with the cultural anthropology of Polynesian peoples during a trip through the South Pacific, and I found myself wondering why their languages had diverged from each other in the way that they did. I started subconsciously drafting a thesis proposal to study Polynesian linguistics (you know, in my second life where I'm a cultural anthropologist), and all of a sudden I heard the voice of my Ph.D. adviser. It was loud, and it was conscious. "I don't care that it's cool," my brain said. "I don't care that it's unknown. Go tell me what you can learn about everything by studying this."

It's a great feeling when you finally get something. I don't just mean that you're able to spit the words back; I mean you feel it in your gut. I know now that designing a good study is not a matter of heaping all the knowledge in the world into a pile and then standing on top of it. It's more like pulling just the right Legos out of the box and fitting them together in a way nobody has ever thought of. The makings of a scientific revolution are not to be found in a stamp collection of facts. The makings of a revolution are hidden in keynote speeches, in the buzz of conversation, in perspective shifts, in mechanistic models, and in the brains of those bold enough to step out of the crowd.

When worlds meet

"Denn wir beide leben in zwei Welten
Die sich selten nur berühren
Denn wir beide leben in zwei Welten
Kannst du mich in deine führen?"
- "Zwei Welten" von den Wise Guys

"Because we live in two worlds
That seldom touch
Because we live in two worlds
Can you show me yours?"
- "Two Worlds" by the Wise Guys

This week, IRIS hosted the Norwegian Environmental Toxicology Symposium, and I had the chance to participate. I've never actually worked in environmental toxicology before, my work being more focused on straight-up ecology, so it was very interesting for me to listen in and observe. To be perfectly honest, at the start of the conference, I was afraid that I didn't quite belong. I thought people who live in the world of PCBs and environmental impact models would have zero interest in benthic ecology. I found myself practically apologizing whenever someone asked about my research, because I was certain they wouldn't be interested. It only took a few conversations, though, for me to realize that everyone was in fact interested in my work, even though it had nothing to do with theirs. Furthermore, the range of research represented at the conference was quite wide, so I'm certain others had the same apprehensions and the same reassuring discovery.

At the student symposium, Astri Kvassnes gave a marvelous introduction to secrets of success in science. She described a psychological phenomenon known as Imposter Syndrome, in which the victim believes he or she is not in fact intelligent but has rather fooled everyone else around them into believing that they are. They expect any moment to be found out and kicked out of their chosen discipline. Imposter Syndrome is actually quite common in science, and I imagine you'd also find it in any other realm of life requiring excellence.

While I've never had a bad case of Imposter Syndrome per se, I've definitely experienced the feeling that I don't belong. I've convinced myself on several previous occassions that I don't have what it takes to succeed in science, that my research is uninteresting and unimportant, and other similar lies. Being aware of Imposter Syndrome is in my opinion essential to success because when you realize that it's a true phenomenon, suddenly the lies of self-doubt turn into fleeting apparitions. No matter what the situation, it is always so important to remember that I do in fact belong, that my research is interesting, and that I can teach others something new. If I quit obsessing and open my ears, they will also teach me.

That said, the field of ecotoxicology lies outside my area of expertise, but that just meant I had more to learn. The first big lesson for me was how to design a toxicological study. Obviously study designs vary, but the basic concept is to choose a contaminant, choose a model organism, expose the model organism to varying concentrations of the contaminant, and observe the effects. It struck me that in a lot of cases, the lowest concentration of the contaminant had very little effect on the organism and the effects were not statistically significant from the controls. This was in some ways reassuring for me because it reinforced the resiliency of biota. However, another important thing I picked up is the impact of contaminant "cocktails" are almost always worse than that of single contaminants. We obviously love in a world of multiple stressors, so we need to be aware of synergistic effects between pollutants. In this case, the whole is worse than the sum of its parts.

One of my favorite aspects of scientific conferences is meeting people from various parts of the world. Even though NETS was specifically for researchers and students from Norwegian institutions, there were a number of people who had grown up elsewhere and only come to Norway to study or work. At the conference dinner, I ended up sitting next to a student who was from Sudan, and I picked his brain about that country. In another instance, I got to speak with a woman who had done a lot of field work in Tanzania and hear her perspective on field work in a developing country. For example, even if you have all the proper paperwork and permits, you have to announce yourselves to the local authorities on arrival, and if they don't give you a go-ahead for the project, then it's not going to happen. Everything is about personal contact.

I'm actually quite interested in sub-Saharan Africa and would love to work or travel there someday, so it was encouraging for me to speak with someone who has successfully conducted a project in Tanzania. As I continue to develop as a scientist and networker, I sincerely hope I can cross the gap between the developed and the developing world. Just imagine the discoveries waiting to be made in areas of the world where nobody is looking!

By the end of the conference, I had decided that I did in fact belong. My work may not center on liver tissue or have any influence on government policy, but I was able to engage in genuine dialogue and learn quite a lot. I had a substantial introduction to the world of ecotoxicology and granted others a peek into mine.

Friday, October 24, 2014

In theory only

This week, IRIS is hosting the Norwegian Environmental Toxicology Symposium, and I've had the chance to participate. I've never actually worked in environmental toxicology before, my work being more focused on straight-up ecology, so I wasn't quite sure how it would go.

The conference began with a student symposium on Wednesday. Masters and Ph.D. students from various parts of Norway gathered for a workshop on scientific communication. I've got to admit, the symposium was very well put-together, and I learned quite a bit from the exercises.

After introducing themselves and their work, each of the keynote speakers for the NETS conference were asked to present the students with a challenge of their choosing. The challenges were as ambitious as they were diverse. One of the groups, for example, had to set up a risk management plan for a fish-feed company to use, pending the discovery that an ingredient in their product is harmful to humans or the environment. Another group was given the broad mandate to brainstorm local solutions to the global challenge of climate change. My group had the almost impossible task of determining the dollar value of deep water corals that had been damaged in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, and then designing a method to restore coral habitats.

Communication is a fundamental and necessary part of the scientific process, so it was quite thoughtful on the part of the symposium organizers to put communication skills at the fore-front for the students. We worked in groups to find solutions to our given challenges (in theory only, of course) and then reviewed other groups' work before presenting our ideas to all the conference participants in the evening. Working on the challenges was a really good way to get the students working together, thinking, and getting to know each other right from the start.

One thing that struck me was the variety of keynote speakers selected for the conference. Only two were standard academics whose work I could easily relate to. One was from the Norwegian Environmental Agency; one was from an international industrial company. I get the impression that in Norway, there is a much greater integration between science, government, and industry. Research is often funded by oil companies and/or communicated to government quite directly. I'm sure anyone working in Norway for a long period would insist the system is not perfect, but I still think it's better than a lot of other parts of the world. Communication actually happens here, for one thing!

It was great for me to participate in the student symposium. More on NETS in the next post.

Thoughts I have while biking to work

1) Before leaving home: "Hey, my hair actually looks decent today! Oh wait...bike helmet."
2) Shortly after leaving home: "This is actually easy so far. Maybe I won't get so sweaty."
3) When approaching a hill: "That doesn't look so bad."
4) Starting up the hill: "Oh crap, here we go." (Then I shift down like 5 gears.)
5) Halfway up the hill: "My legs are burning!"
6) Almost at the top of the hill: "When will it eeeeeend?"
7) On a downhill: "I own the world!"
8) When approaching a pedestrian: "Must you take up the entire sidewalk?"
9) Immediately following the last thought: "I should really invest in a bike bell. Or an air horn."
10) When passing a school: "So many munchkins!"
11) Immediately following last thought: "Is it unethical to run over small children?"
12) Immediately following last thought: "I'm going to go with yes." (Then I slam on my brakes.)
13) Whenever a car stops for me to cross the street: "I love you!"
14) When I'm almost to IRIS: "When will it eeeeeend?" (Then I feel sweat drip down my back.)
15) When a city bus passes me: "Hey look, lazy bums, I'm biking to work!"
16) Later on, when a city bus passes me: "Take me with you!"
17) When I finally make it to IRIS: "I am a biking goddess!"
18) When I take off my bike helmet: "Hey, my hair actually looks decent today! Well...for a sweaty mess."

Monday, October 20, 2014

Crazy kids

"I have done crazy things in my life, but never two crazy things within one day."
- My housemate, Jonathan

By the time night fell on Saturday, my two housemates and I felt pretty darn adventurous. Never before had we challenged ourselves to TWO ridiculous feats in one 24-hour period. As if swimming through ice-cold rapids wasn't enough, we had to do one more crazy thing. What is this absurd adventure, you ask? We ate...the head of a sheep.


Now, before you get grossed out, please note that Smalahove (sheep head) is a traditional dish in western Norway, and there are even festivals centered around its consumption. We ordered ours from a fancy restaurant at the local hotel in Voss. I have to honestly admit that it was a little weird to see the face of an animal on my plate, but I was in for the adventure.

Smalahove is very fatty and doesn't have that much proper meat. You mostly eat the skin and the underlying layers of fat. We all agreed that the taste was actually quite pleasant, but some of the textures were hard to contend with. A forkful could be much improved by adding potatoes and creamed turnips, which we had been given as side dishes. I eventually started just pulling out the good muscles and leaving the rest behind, though I did try some of everything.

I'm about to eat the eye!
When it came time for the tongue, the eyes, and the ear, my housemates and I counted to 3 and took simultaneous bites. I have to admit the tongue wasn't that bad; it's mostly muscle, so it had a pleasant texture and tasted just like everything else. The ear was excessively fatty, which I had a hard time with, and I don't really like the crunch of cartilage either. The eye was alright at first, but once the lens popped, my mouth was filled with a squishy gel. Our waitress said the eye reminded her of calamari, but trust me, it was way worse than calamari.

I certainly didn't eat everything, but I did get down to the bone. I'm not sure if I'd ever choose to eat Smalahove again, but I'm proud to say I've tried it once. It was really neat to try a traditional Norwegian dish, especially one that forced me out of my comfort zone.

While I'm young

"But my heart was colder when you'd gone
And I lost my head
Let's live while we are young
While we are young, while we are young"
- "Whispers in the Dark" by Mumford and Sons

I can't tell you how many times I've been instructed to live while I'm young. Even my younger brother said it to me once, which felt significantly backwards, since he's a college freshman. I call to check if he's doing his homework; he calls to see if I'm having enough fun. It's a crazy, crazy world.

I took this photo from the bus between Stavanger and Bergen.
I really look forward to telling my brother about this weekend, because let me tell you: I lived. I left work early (gasp!) and boarded a bus to Voss, located north of here and a little bit inland. First of all, the drive along the coast was absolutely stunning. We were on a bus the whole time, but we wound around mountains, took two different ferries across fjords (yes, that means the bus drove onto the ferry), and even went through two tunnels under the fjords. The underwater tunnels were all stone, but I could feel the pressure change in my ears as we descended. I can only imagine what traveling in Norway was like before modern innovations like planes, bridges, and dynamite to build tunnels. You basically had to go everywhere by boat. No wonder this country has so many distinct cultural variations!

Putting my gear on before leaving for our
canyoning expedition. I felt pretty intense
in my layers of gear - UnderArmour, wool
 socks, a wetsuit, shorts, life jacket - the works.
I was also the only woman in the group, so I
got the entire locker room to myself! Sweet!
We spent Friday night in Voss and then geared up for our mountain adventure on Saturday morning. We knew we were going either white-water rafting or so-called canyoning, depending on the water level in the local river. Canyoning is a combination of hiking, swimming, floating down rapids, and basically making your way through a canyon any way you can. Because the water was too low to fit a raft down the river, canyoning won out, and oh my gosh, it was awesome!

We were each issued a wetsuit, booties, shorts to protect the wetsuit, a life jacket, a helmet, and gloves. It sounds like a lot of equipment, but we definitely needed all of it. When we arrived at the river, our first task was to swim across a calm pool to a boulder in the middle, where one of the guides was waiting. I guess they start you out that way to get you used to the water, and I think it's a smart idea - the water was so cold!

We then had to climb up the boulder and jump one by one into the river on the other side. They coached us on how to jump safely, which direction to swim, and how to float through white water on our backs. There was always a guide waiting for us on the next rock. Ok, the coaching helped, but I don't really think anything can prepare you for the sheer shock and adrenaline rush of jumping off a boulder into 45-degree water, then having to negotiate your way through rushing rapids as soon as you surface. On multiple occassions, I got splashed in the face or even went under and came up coughing, only to have to roll on my stomach and swim toward the next guide.

We eventually settled into a cycle - climb a boulder, jump off into a pool, swim on your stomach, roll on your back, float through the rapids, cough, sputter, swim again, climb the next boulder. It was really satisfying to conquer the canyon by any and all means possible, using all four limbs, your brain, and an iron will. Now here's the best part: the jumps increased sequentially in height. The first one was 2 meters, then 6 meters, then 10 meters! I've jumped off my fair share of cliffs before - and even into pretty cold water - but this was its own unique brand of crazy. I surprised myself by letting out blood-curdling screams on each of the 6 and 10 meter cliffs, much to the amusement of the guides. The crazy part is that I didn't scream until I was about to hit the water, like my brain didn't register I was falling until I was already halfway down.

When we finally reached the end of the canyon run, I found myself unwilling to leave. I had a good layer of warm water under my wetsuit; I had already survived a 30-foot jump; and even though I was tired, I felt quite brave. I'm definitely adding canyoning to the list of activities I enjoy!

A little night music

One of my favorite things about living in a European city is the availability of art. In fact, one of the ways I define a town from a city is whether or not said town has its own symphony orchestra. Stavanger has one, and I got to see them perform!

I met Ingeborg at the Stavanger Konserthus, a rectangular glass building sitting right on the water. The building actually looks a bit industrial from the outside, but once you enter the spacious lobby, the high ceilings and curved designs do a much better job of suggesting the building's function. We got a glass of wine at the lobby bar and then settled in for the concert.

When I picked our seats online, I did so essentially blindly, never having been in the concert hall myself. I placed us in the left side balcony, and we ended up sitting directly above the first violin section. I could even look down and read the notes on their page! It's always difficult for me to watch classical orchestral music be performed and not be a part of the orchestra myself, so it was pretty cool to sit so close. I also noticed that the viola section was seated directly across from the first violins, which I think was a strategic choice on the part of the conductor. The violas played a key role in each piece, so I loved hearing their alto voices so strongly.

My concert program from the Stavanger Symphony.
The concert consisted of three major works. The first, by a modern Peruvian composer, was both Ingeborg's and my favorite. The piece opened with French horn and trumpet, and the composer made masterful use of the brass instruments throughout the piece. The rhythmic patterns were also quite varied, and at one point, I think there were four different rhythms layered on top of one another! When the orchestra finished, I found myself wishing the piece wasn't over yet.

Next in the program was Rachmaninov piano concerto no. 2, in c minor. The soloist was a 20-year-old American fireball who played with his whole body. I particularly enjoyed the second movement because Rachmaninov is a master of harmony. Rather than composing a sweet melody and then adding a few accompanying voices, he fills the entire space of the concert hall. He layers harmonic and rhythmic patterns on top of each other, so Rachmaninov's music is very 3-dimensional.

After a short intermission, the concert concluded with Elgar's Enigma Variations, which is quite a famous piece that I had actually never heard before. There are 14 variations, each meant to describe a different person in Elgar's life - his wife, an amateur violist friend, himself. Ingeborg and I were doing our very best to keep track of the variations, but since many of them melt straight into the next, it was a bit difficult. We both agreed Elgar spent way too little time on other people and way too much time on himself. The autobiographical finale was by far the grandest of the movements.

It was really nice to spend time with Ingeborg and enjoy Stavanger's classical music scene. I'm thankful to live in a place where art is so valued and available.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Every flavor

When we were little, my sister went through a period when she had to try the chicken fingers in every restaurant in our hometown. No matter where we went out to eat, she would order chicken fingers. Eventually, she didn't even bother looking at the menu. It was her personal city-wide survey, and even today, she could probably tell you which of the restaurants in our hometown had the best, the crispiest, or the juiciest chicken fingers. This period lasted about 3 years.

When some people travel, they have to try the local beer. For some people, it's hiking trails. For others, the nightlife. For my sister, it was chicken fingers. For me, it's churches.

My church in Stavanger ran a notice in the bulletin last week that in lieu of a normal church service this week, there would be Gospel Church at 6 pm. Hm, Norwegians singing gospel music, I thought, I have to see this.

There were Gospel Church services at my church in Bremerhaven, Germany, when I lived there. Every 8 weeks or so would be a special evening service with an emphasis on worship music. I thought it weird that all the music was in English, and even weirder that white Germans would try to sing gospel music. Gospel for me has always been a Baptist-note-belting-African-American-in-the-southeastern-United-States thing, not meant for white northern Europeans.

The Europeans love it, though! In both Bremerhaven and Stavanger, they turn out in droves. I have never seen the church so full!

I talked my Lithuanian housemate into coming with me tonight, and when we arrived, I expected something quite similar to what I had experienced in Germany - a local, amateur, predominately caucasian choir singing their hearts out but trying desperately not to look stiff. As soon as the band started, though, I knew there would be no comparison. The choir was all white, but they moved around naturally as they sang. After two songs, an African-American soloist from Chicago joined them. Oh, man. This, my friends, was gospel.

By the end of the night, I had a hard time figuring out where I was. After belting out the lyrics to Sunday School classics like "This little light of mine" and "Our God is an awesome God," I thought maybe I was a kid back in Michigan. Singing "Oh happy day" reminded me of a fantastic woman named LaQuita that I had met on a mission trip in Tennessee. Then all of a sudden, my housemate nudged my arm to ask a question, and I snapped back to reality. Oh yeah, I'm in Norway. At Gospel Church. With a Lithuanian.

It was definitely a cultural experience, but I tell you what, gospel music rocks. I think the best part for me was realizing that a genre of music which had been developed by African-Americans in the southeastern United States had made its way to northern Europe and was now a powerful vehicle for getting Europeans into churches. What a crazy, wonderful, dynamic, criss-crossed and backwards world we live in.


After I posted my music yesterday, I did actually end up going on an adventure. The rain stopped for the afternoon, so I headed out to explore the island of Kvitsøy, located in the Byfjord, just outside Stavanger. The ferry to Kvitsøy takes about 40 minutes and leaves from right outside IRIS. I really didn't know anything about the island except that it was inhabited, so I was pleasantly surprised by the rolling hills, grassy fields, and abundance of small watercraft. It seems nobody who lives on Kvitsøy has a simple home; houses were either on the water and surrounded by boats or up on a hilltop and surrounded by sheep. If you live out here, it's either to fish or to farm.

As far as I could tell, there was one school, one church, one grocery store, and one gas station on the island. The small community reminded me a little bit of Longyearbyen, especially because there were multiple groups of children walking around unaccompanied. Kvitsøy must be a very safe place to live. Actually, what Kvitsøy reminded me of the most was Motutapu Island, just outside Auckland, New Zealand. Both islands are at temperature latitude, have similar topographies, rolling hills, abundant grasses, and livestock. Both are sparsely inhabited but just a ferry ride away from a major city. I think the island residents must do their shopping in Stavanger, because I noticed a couple of families on the ferry with shopping bags and suitcases that I can only assume were filled with new clothes. 

Kvitsøy fyr
I wandered around Kvitsøy's network of curvy, narrow roads for a while and then decided to climb up to the lighthouse. To get there, I had to follow a grassy path between two houses. I was afraid of trespassing at first, but the path was labeled "Fyrveien" ("Lighthouse Street"), so I figured it must be legitimate. It seemed a bit odd to call a grass-covered path a street, but whatever. Kvitsøy fyr (lighthouse) is located on top of the island's tallest hill, so once I got up there, I had a pretty spectacular panorma of the island, with its grassy fields, white waterfront houses, and ceiling of dark puffy clouds. It was definitely worth the climb. As the sky grew darker in the evening, I could see the lighthouse's yellow beam circling around. 

Kvitsøy is a really unique place, and I'm glad I got to see it. 
View down to the water from the lighthouse

Saturday, October 11, 2014

We're still standing

If the embedded video doesn't work, try this link: http://youtu.be/PEYbRYp-UG8

After Nereus was lost, the chief scientist for the cruise called the science party for a meeting, explained what had happened, and announced, "We're still standing." He explained what limited sampling options we had left and how we were going to make the most of them. I was deeply impressed by his optimism, his professionalism, and his leadership.

This piece is about that meeting, about the end of a cruise, about racing toward a goal, no matter how difficult it is. I hope you've enjoyed my four-movement 'Hades-K' string quartet. Happy Saturday!

Elegie for Nereus

If the embedded video doesn't work, try this link: http://youtu.be/3aREGRhCnfQ

While I was on the Kermadec Trench cruise, we lost a very key piece of equipment, the HROV Nereus. The vehicle imploded at a depth of 10,000 m depth and was lost forever. Losing Nereus was a blow not only to our mission on the Kermadec expedition but also to hadal biology in general. Nereus was the only vehicle of its kind, and without it, our ability to conduct targeted habitat surveys and sampling in the deepest parts of the ocean is severely restricted.

This piece is not meant to mourn the vehicle itself but rather the data that will never be collected. It also reflects the general mood that settled over the ship after Nereus' loss. If you have the option, turn up your bass or use well-isolated headphones to listen to this piece, because the cello plays a critical part in driving the harmonies. 

On Curiosity

If the embedded video doesn't work, try this link: http://youtu.be/tBkoELbxvP8

This piece is the second movement of my "Hades-K" string quartet, titled "On Curiosity." As I mentioned, I wrote this quartet on a research cruise in the south Pacific, as we were sampling in the Kermadec Trench. On multiple occassions, we collected animals that no human had ever seen before, and in some cases, nobody on board the ship was able to say definitively what the animal even was.

I and several other scientists shared a tiny laboratory, and in that crowded room, we were giddier than children on Christmas. Every time the door swung open and someone brought in the next specimen for dissection, something like an electric current pulsed through all of us. I was reminded of a quote from Albert Einstein: "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."


If the embedded video doesn't work, try this link: http://youtu.be/B0EMVaVP4KA

It's a rainy Saturday in Stavanger, and even though I was hoping to go exploring and post some pictures for you today of a nearby island, I don't think it would be smart to go walking for hours in the rain.

I'll share with you instead some music I wrote last spring, while I was on a research cruise in the south Pacific. We departed from Auckland, New Zealand, stopped at several sampling stations in the Kermadec Trench, and then ended the cruise in Samoa. The expedition was unfortunately plagued with mechanical problems and delays, so the scientific party had quite a bit of free time. I spent my time processing data and composing music, and I ended up writing a 4-movement string quartet about the cruise.

The first movement, "Kermadec," was intended as a soundtrack to an ROV dive, much like "Molloy," the second movement of my Arctic violin concerto, which I posted earlier. "Kermadec" has a little more anxiety woven into the sound, for several reasons. First, as I mentioned, we experienced significant equipment problems so it was never certain whether a mission would succeed, and second, because we were seeing animals on the screen that no human had ever observed before. The ROV van was filled with thick, pensive energy, which I express here in the first violin part.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Colors of the wind

The weather is changing in Stavanger. In the past week, it's gotten much windier, a bit colder, and the days are getting shorter. My morning bike ride used to be in full daylight, but now I leave the house in the gray dawn. I have to wear a jacket, and the flags outside IRIS are pulled taut by the wind.

Sunrise in Stavanger, October 6, 2014
Experiencing a true autumn in Stavanger has made me realize how much I missed having four true temperate seasons. In coastal Oregon, where I lived for the two years prior to my Norwegian adventure, there are really only two seasons: Rain (winter) and Rain Plus Wind (summer). The break between the two is marked by the Fall and Spring Transitions, when the predominant wind switches from south to north over the course of a few days.  

I remember reading an article several years ago by a woman who had settled in southern California. She learned to love the beach and the ubiquity of artichokes but broke down one day while listening to Vivaldi's Four Seasons on the radio. She couldn't do it anymore; she had to move. Suddenly, subtropical latitudes were just too monotonous. To be honest, I'm tempted to crank up some Vivaldi in my office as I work, if nothing else than to celebrate the fact that I get a real autumn this year!

White caps on Byfjorden
Seasons help me mark the passage of time, and I've found myself remarking repeatedly over the past week that I can't believe I've already been in this beautiful country for over a month and a half. Norway continues to amaze me, but I can't help but feel a bit of urgency. I came here to work, to finish several projects that I had been procrastinating, so I anxiously examine my calendar to see if I am on pace. To be perfectly honest, I think I am. My data analysis has progressed by leaps and bounds lately, so I'm getting very excited about my results. I can't share the details here, but I'll hopefully have a manuscript ready to submit in the coming weeks.

Life moves on in Stavanger. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to listen to some Vivaldi.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Letters from war: Part 2

The update I have been waiting for has finally arrived! Paul, my Svalbard contact, wrote to say my settlement plates were successfully deployed in three different fjords. Of the planned deployment locations, only one could not be reached because of weather. (Incidentally, another dive at a long-shot location we included at the last minute "was cancelled due to walrus danger." Dear goodness. I really need to ask for the details of that story.)

I'm very happy to know that the settlement plates are underwater. Now, unless a catastrophic storm rips the frames off of their bolts or there's an organized rebellion of Arctic invertebrate larvae, I should have good results waiting for me in January when the plates are recovered.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

Letters from war

Checking my e-mail has gotten more interesting recently.

The divers I worked with in Longyearbyen are now on a research expedition in Svalbard waters, and they're stopping in several different fjords to deploy my settlement plates, among other things. It's a bit difficult for me to not be there personally, but a paperwork glitch prevented my participation. Thankfully, I received an e-mail from one of the divers, Peter, to say that my settlement plates have been successfully deployed at two shallow locations and on a mooring. That means one fjord down, three or four to go. Peter also said they had arrived in the second fjord, so things are moving along. I was thrilled to receive this good news, especially considering that Internet access is apparently really spotty up there.

Meanwhile, back in Oregon, several recently-graduated students are continuing an experiment I started there over the summer. Over the past week, they have successfully recovered 5 out of 10 moorings I outplanted, but a strong current prevented them from recovering the rest. Any time you put equipment into the ocean, there's a substantial chance you won't get it back. I am now waiting anxiously to see whether the rest of the moorings will be recovered, and if so, what organisms are present on them. In case you're wondering, the Oregon experiment is a parallel experiment to the one I'm starting in Svalbard, because both involve outplanting settlement plates at different locations and seeing what organisms grow there.

I'm thankful to have so many willing volunteers involved in my projects. Without them, it would not be possible for me to complete the projects I've started, or start the projects I've planned. It's almost like I'm in three places at the same time. I can't wait to receive further updates from the "front lines" of field work.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Tungenes fyr

As I trudged down the stairs in front of IRIS, I could see the fjord spread out before me. What an awesome place I live in, I thought. Three roads zig-zagged back and forth in front of me, and on the lowest one, a small silver Volvo sped along. A blonde head appeared in the window, and a hand waved enthusiastically in my direction. Ah, she had spotted me. Ingeborg turned up the hill, and as I climbed into her car, she embraced me warmly. Off we went.

Ingeborg grew up in Stavanger, so she knows her way around like a boss. She also keeps up with local happenings, shows, concerts, restaurants - you name it - so when she suggested we try out a new Greek-Italian cafe for dinner, I was definitely game. The owner was actually from somewhere in the Balkan peninsula, and he bent over backwards to accommodate us. He chatted with Ingeborg in Norwegian and me in broken English, and when he found out I was American, he responded with "So, you only eat hamburger, right?" Not exactly, dude. I ended up ordering something pretty exotic from the menu just to prove my point. The owner set up an outdoor table just for us and was very interested to know what we thought of everything. He was obviously anxious to earn loyal customers. 

After dinner, we headed to an old lighthouse in Randaberg, called Tungenes fyr. The lighthouse is no longer operational, but there are concerts sometimes in the old lightkeeper's house. I made Ingeborg laugh with my attempts to pronounce the word "fyr" (lighthouse), because to get the Y right, you have to almost make a long E sound but then protrude your upper lip. I felt - and probably looked - like an absolute idiot. 

The concert was very intimate, with an audience of maybe 70 or 80 people, and the performer at one point confessed that being able to see the audience made her nervous. Only then did it occur to me what a unique and rare opportunity I had been given, because the performer was obviously used to playing in larger venues. Ingrid Olava is her name, if you want to look her up. Her music consists mostly of syncopated rhythms that repeat over a series of chord changes, with her silky, emotional voice layered on top. It's the type of music you would listen to on a Friday night while curled up on the couch with a glass of wine - or, you know, on a Thursday night in a lighthouse. 

Last night was a great opportunity to experience more of Stavanger. Golly, I love it here.