Friday, April 24, 2015

In my backyard

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to go tidepooling with a local high school student. She was job-shadowing me for the day, and I wanted to introduce her to the Oregon intertidal. There is incredible biodiversity to be found in our collective backyard.

The west coast of North America is actually known for its biodiveristy. The California Current flows south in the summers along the coast and leads to upwelling. Water is welled up from great depth, bringing with it a valuable store of nutrients. These nutrients are utilized by all kinds of primary producers, and the added energy input to the food web means high biodiversity at all trophic levels. This is of course an oversimplified explanation of a complex process, but you get what I mean.

View out to my tidepooling spot (and Cape Arago Lighthouse),
seen from Lighthouse Beach
We drove out to my favorite tide-pooling spot, a rocky channel near the Cape Arago Lighthouse. Getting there is super sketchy. You have to park along Cape Arago Highway, a decently busy, windy two-lane road that leads out to the cape. There's not much shoulder to speak of, so you just pull off onto a sloping patch of gravel. You'll recognize the spot because it's where surfers park their Subarus before heading down to Lighthouse Beach. You follow the surfers' trail through a small patch of woods, onto a pothole-ridden side road lined with impressive ocean-view homes, then ignore the "No trespassing" sign as you trek through an empty lot between two houses. There's a narrow, muddy trail down to the beach, complete with makeshift wooden stairs at the steepest part and a rope tied to a tree that you can hold onto. Once you've finally made your way to the beach, head left across the sand to the best tidepooling spot this side of the Pacific. 

Let me show you what we found.

Velella velella on Lighthouse Beach. This one was about
 3 inches across.
Velella velella is a well-known hydrozoan that lives on the very surface of the ocean. It's colored blue for camouflage and has a sail on top to catch the wind. Velella doesn't swim or direct its own motion in any way; it's just carried wherever the wind blows. Its common name is actually "By-the-wind sailor." Under normal conditions, Velella are only found at sea, but once every couple years (twice that I've seen since 2012), the wind conditions will be just right to carry the little guys onto the coast in droves. We found them all over the beach, the rocky channel, everywhere. Unfortunately for them, the Velella that end up on the beach will quickly dry out and die, but their bodies will provide energy input for the intertidal communities.

Squid eggs in the rocky intertidal
Another unusual thing we found in the tidepools: squid eggs. Lots of squid eggs. I have only ever seen squid egg casings on the coast once before, and I was surprised to see some of the intertidal rocks covered in them. The eggs themselves are tiny, but they arranged in sausage-like casings. Maybe 1,000 eggs are inside a single case. The casings are narrower at the bottom, much like the proportions of a baseball bat, and they are attached at the base in clumps. I'd guess about 20 cases are in each clump. In one shot of my camera, I could see hundreds, maybe thousands of clumps - enough squid eggs to hatch an entire new generation. I couldn't decide if the eggs had washed up in the same freak wind event that brought Velella to our shores, or if the squid parents purposefully deposited their offspring in the shallow subtidal. I could see more casings under the water line, plus it was a very low tide when I went out. I hope at least some of the squid babies survive!

As we made our way deeper into the channel, we encountered upwards of 50 species of macroalgae, kelp, barnacles, mussels, sponges, snails, sea slugs, chitons, and sea urchins. The tide was even low enough that we could walk across the channel and overturn boulders on Lighthouse Island. Most animals hang out underneath boulders, where they are more protected, especially at low tide. I'll end this post by showing you a nudibranch, Doris sp., also known as a sea lemon. Nudibranchs are important predators in intertidal and shallow subtidal communities, and each species has very specific prey. Often, the predator nudibranch will match its prey in color or texture, so that it blends in better and is less likely to get eaten itself. This particular nudibranch eats a yellow sponge, so it matches its food perfectly!
Sea lemon, Doris sp.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Friends, I am very excited to announce to you that my Svalbard image analysis has been finally published! If you've been following this blog for a while, you know that I spent a large portion of my time in Norway working on the analysis, and I've documented the process along the way. The article is now available in its final form from the journal Frontiers in Marine Science. It is an Open Access article, so anyone in the world can download it for free. Take a look!

Sunday, April 19, 2015


Wearing an orange fleece jacket, rain pants covered in last week's dried algae, and the world's most hard-core pair of rubber boots, I made my way across campus to the dining hall. Another grad student, clad in equally unfashionable field gear, was already crouched on the steps out front.

"I thought we were meeting at 1:15," I called out to her.

"I heard 1. But then again, they always tell me a different time. Maybe they think I'll be late because I'm Irish," she retorted.

"That's not true." I sat down on the steps. "Where are they?"

It was a good 10 minutes before they finally arrived - a mob of undergraduates from our university's main campus on a field trip for their introductory biology class. They were carrying notebooks and backpacks, chatting amongst themselves and taking copious pictures. They seemed like a fun crowd. At the teacher's direction, they slowly separated into two groups.

Craig Young explaing brachyuran crab anatomy to undergrads.
I took my group to get life jackets, informed them that they would not return to campus as clean as when they left, and fielded questions about my travels and my thesis. Every time I'm in the company of undergraduates, I'm surprised by how different it feels. Undergrads have a certain energy that grad students lack. They approach everything with a spirit of curiosity and discovery, and they're intellectually very flexible. They're interested in everything and soak up information like sponges. Actually, one of my favorite things about OIMB is getting to mentor and teach undergraduates.

When we made it out to the boat, my adviser, Craig Young, was already waiting for us. Craig and I had been conscripted to take the students out on the boat and collect plankton for later examination in the lab. With upwards of 25 people on a 42' boat, it was more than a bit crowded, but we made sure to have fun. A small group made their way to the bow, where they got sprayed with salt water in the strong wind, and they returned to the dock soaking wet and smiling. On the stern, Craig and I made a great tag-team, showing the students what to do and explaining concepts in alternation. We collected two jars of plankton - thick, concentrated plankton - and then pulled up a crab pot to show the students Dungeness crab, Cancer magister. We only caught one individual, but the students passed that crab around like it was a celebrity. They took photos of each other with it, and I think there were even a few selfies happening.

As I watched 22 undergraduates covered in salt spray laughing and passing around a crab, I couldn't help but smile. They were so excited about two jars of plankton and a single crustacean, but I knew this was nothing. I wanted so badly to steer the boat offshore, to a rocky reef not too far from OIMB, and watch their eyes widen at the incredible diversity there. I think we may have reached a few students, persuaded them to major in marine biology or at least spend a term on the coast. It was a lot of fun to reach out, show them around, and soak up the energy of these young, wide-eyed explorers.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Back in business

When I went out on the boat last week, I was shocked to find that two of my moorings were still there, even though they had been left out in a stormy ocean over the winter. I was hoping that I could reuse the cement blocks this summer and save myself a little work, but it doesn't look like that's possible. The cement was crumbling, and the bolts were rusted to the point of being useless. 

Enter Plan B. I spent some time at the end of last week gathering supplies, and I managed to build 10 brand-new cement moorings over the weekend. It took a little while, but we're back in business.

Cement blocks drying in their wooden molds.
To make the moorings, I bought bags of ready-mix cement. The mix is a combination of gravel and a dust-like powder that becomes viscous when added to water and dries in about a day. The bags are heavy, about 90 lb each, so I had to ask for help loading them into and out of OIMB's pickup truck. Thankfully, the guys that work in the OIMB shop are almost always willing to help, because I pay them in baked goods. Carrying 15 heavy bags of cement mix from a truck bed into the workshop? That's about a dozen cookies. 

When it came to mixing and pouring the cement, though, I was on my own. The guys set me up with a cement mixer and a scoop, so I didn't have to do any heavy lifting. Granted, it took me a lot longer to empty a bag of cement mix by scoop than by just pouring it into the mixer, but the lower risk to my vertebral discs was worth it. I dug my wooden molds from last year out of the warehouse and set to work. The molds are simple wooden boxes with two holes in each side for embedding bolts. Those bolts will eventually hold my settlement plates onto the cement block, so I need them to protrude. I also embedded an eyebolt in the top of each block so a rope can be attached. Once the cement was dry, I removed the screws from the wooden mold and disassembled it to reveal the finished mooring inside.
What's 300' of rope look like? It stretches
all the way across campus.

While I waited for the cement to dry, my next step was cutting rope. The moorings will be outplanted at about 200' (65 m) depth, so I cut 300' sections to make sure I had plenty of slack. Rope can get tangled in the water or swept to the side by a strong current. Actually, there was one instance last summer when the current was so strong that the ropes ended up diagonal in the water column instead of vertical, and the floats at the top were dragged about 15' below the surface of the water. I was already in Norway at the time, but the volunteers who went out that day found it incredibly frustrating to see but not be able to grab the floats. I want to make sure that doesn't happen again. 

Finally, I took a few hours to clean and label my settlement plates. The plates are 6" squares of plexiglass that will hopefully be substrata for recruiting larvae. One will be attached to each bolt on my moorings - 80 plates altogether. I was thankful to find I had enough plates pre-cut and left over from last year that all I had to do was label them. At least one thing was easy!

It took a few days, but I now have all the parts and pieces in order for my experiment. The weather has been pretty bad this week, with strong waves and high-amplitude swell offshore. I'm waiting for it to calm down, but once it does, I will load everything onto the boat and go deploy my moorings offshore. We're almost there!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

It takes all kinds

When I was growing up, my mom used to always say that "it takes all kinds." I never really understood what the phrase meant, but my mom said it mostly whenever she was confounded by another person's behavior. I suppose it was her way of reminding herself and us that all kinds of people, even those different from us, have important functions in the world. People may be confusing, but at the end of the day, diversity is a good thing, because it takes all kinds of people to keep this earth turning. My mom is incredibly wise.

As I massage my sore, tired feet tonight, I can't help but picture the diverse group of people I've just left. I went to a community concert/dance party tonight at a location that I can't disclose. The concerts are only advertised by word of mouth, and it's an unwritten rule that no reference shall be made to them on social media. I'm probably violating some code by even telling you after the fact that I was there.

The concert was incredible.

I'm not just talking about the music. Granted, it was the best bluegrass I've ever heard west of the Mississippi, but this concert was a community event, an exercise in diversity.

As my friend, Laurel, and I parked along the pothole-ridden country road, we could already hear the music several hundred yards away. We walked up to the barn, past a group of people warming themselves by a bonfire outside, and made our way through the wide double doors into a large, wood-paneled room. Paper lanterns and white Christmas lights dangled from the ceiling. Old-style cattle brands were burned into the walls. In the center of the room, 4 musicians and 10 instruments filled a small, raised stage. A semi-circle of folding chairs outlined the dance floor, and behind the chairs, all kinds of people sipped their beers and silently wished that someone else would be the first to dance.

With a tap of his foot and a toss of his bow, the fiddler ripped into a new tune, and a man and a woman made their way to the center of the floor. Tens of people followed, and just like that, the party had begun.

The crowd was incredibly diverse. There were cowboy hats and fedoras, short crop cuts and long ponytails. There were tie-dye T-shirts, vintage dresses, and slightly unbuttoned plaid. There were patterned leggings, high-waisted skirts, and jeans. Birkenstocks, Doc Martens, and Keens. There were farmers and fishermen and car mechanics and teachers, scientists and carpenters and adventure-seekers. There were children dancing and dogs running underfoot. There were young families and old couples and single people in groups. All gathered for one purpose, for the music.

This, my friends, is the best that southern Oregon has to offer. This gathering of people from all walks of life, of humans who have built their unique lives exactly as they see fit, this is what makes Oregon unique.

I promised myself that this time around, I would appreciate Oregon for what it is. I would explore the local culture and say yes to everything, just like I do when abroad, and so far, my strategy has paid off. This state is filled with people who understand that life has no scaffold, that any pre-determined mold is an illusion, that each life must be formed and designed and tailored by the person living it. Oregonians spend every day striving to be exactly themselves. The result is the most eclectic and sincere group of people I've ever encountered, and let me tell you, it takes all kinds.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

In harmony

"I see the ocean deep in your eyes...
I know nothing here can harm me now
I rest inside the hope of odds to come
Then end up in harmony"
- "In harmony" by Asgeir

I've listened to the song quoted above on repeat for about 5 days now. It reminds me of Norwegian landscapes with its folksy rhythms and fjord references, but it's also more than that. Throbbing bass, simple, honest guitar picking, Asgeir's falsetto voice singing lyrics like Victorian poetry - it is simply fantastic music, and it describes exactly how I feel right now.

I really didn't know what to expect when I returned to Oregon. To be honest, I really struggled when I first moved here in 2012 just because the culture is so different from what I'm used to. I actually had an easier time assimilating in both Germany and Norway than in Oregon, because the people that inhabit this state are downright random. If I meet someone new, I could flip a coin - and there's about an equal chance that they'll be a truck-driving former Marine with dirty fingernails and conservative views, or a bearded, barefoot alternative musician whose life dream is to live off the grid. (For the record, I've been friends with people fitting both of those descriptions exactly.) My downstairs neighbor once introduced himself to me as "a city planner...and also a rapper." In the course of a day, I have to make subtle adjustments to the way I speak and the assumptions that I make, just in order to communicate effectively with a wide variety of people.

Since I got back a little over a week ago, I've been pleasantly surprised over and over. People have received me with sincere smiles and hearty hugs. I feel like you only truly understand a place once you've left it, and I have a much clearer perspective on Oregon this time around. Historically speaking, it was a frontier state. The famous Oregon Trail brought homesteaders from all over, and from its very inception, the state was a dreamland for those seeking a fresh start. Oregonians are an assortment of people that wanted to get away from it all and ended up close to each other.

Oregon is weird, but it's also decently open-minded, and one way or another, I've come to fit in. I've learned to love the tree-lined two-lane highways, the constant danger of hitting an elk. I've come to appreciate kale chips, kimchi, and kombucha. Yoga session on the beach? I'm in. Full-moon bonfire and drum circle? Count on me. Underground dance party in an abandoned cheese factory? Yes, please!

This place is eclectic, but at least for now, it is mine. God willing, I will learn to live in harmony with all different kinds of people around me.

Precious sounds of life

"I lift my mind to the sky
And I let it take flight
The wind carries to my ears
Precious sounds of life
Soon I break all ties
Which bind me to this earth
All that surrounds me seems to melt
Into the blue eternal"
-"Higher" by Asgeir

When I left for Norway last August, the timing was actually less than ideal. I had been conducting an experiment off the Oregon coast that summer, and on the day I left for Norway, the experiment was not yet finished. I left detailed instructions and all the necessary supplies in the hands of a student I trusted, hoped for the best, and jetted off to my Norwegian adventure.

The Oregon coast and Cape Arago Lighthouse, seen from
R/V Pluteus
The experiment continued in my absence, lasting long into the fall. Unfortunately, by the time the experiment was finished and all equipment had to be returned to land, large autumn waves made it too dangerous to go out to sea. My equipment spent the winter offshore.

Caitlin and Zabrina, my two volunteer helpers for the day.
Thankfully, my equipment is nothing fancy or expensive, just cement blocks and acrylic settlement plates. The point of the experiment was to see how distance from a source population affects recruitment to isolated rocks, so I made fake rocks and planted them at different distances from a rocky reef, then went out every 3 weeks to see what had grown on them. The cement blocks got left at sea over winter, so today, I went out to see if I could find them. To be honest, I expected most, if not all, of the blocks to be long gone. The Oregon coast is exposed to powerful, downright nasty storms in winter, and it's perfectly conceivable that even my 100-pound cement blocks could be carried away by a strong current or intense wave action.

As we steamed out of Coos Bay and onto the open coast, two voluteers and I sat on the bow of OIMB's 42' research boat, the R/V Pluteus. The captain had agreed to drive past my study sites, slowing down as we passed each one, so that the volunteers and I could scan the sea surface for buoys. Our plan would have worked great, except that the waves today were big enough to render the bow a useless vantage point. There was so much salt spray, I could barely look up or open my eyes. Time to move to the stern.

A recovered cement block with acorn barnacles and anemones
When we found our first block, I almost didn't believe it. It wasn't until we had pulled up all 300 feet of rope and could see the cement block on the end that I believed the buoy was mine. A miracle! The block had survived the winter! Not only that, but it was covered in acorn barnacles and anemones. I had seen plenty of acorn barnacles last summer - they were one of the most common species on my settlement plates - but the juvenile recruits were always too small to properly identify. With larger barnacles now visible on the overwinter plates, I have a good shot at morphological identification. What precious, precious signs of life!
Metridium anemones on my mooring rope

The anemones, on the other hand, need no identification. I can tell you right away that they belong to the species Metridium senile, a common plumose anemone on the rocky reef. I had only rarely observed Metridium recruits on my settlement plates last summer, so it was interesting to see them on the cement blocks and attached ropes in quite high densities. I was especially impressed at Metridium's growth rate - it appears that a new recruit can grow from microscopic to several inches across in just 7 months or less.

A basket star wrapped around my mooring rope.
Our final find for the day was a basket star, Gorgonocephalus sp. Basket stars are famous predators, and they like to wrap their branched arms around corals, sea fans, or other upright animals on the rocky reef. When we pulled up one of the cement blocks, we found a basket star had wrapped itself around the mooring's rope. I can't say for sure how it got there - if it was a new recruit or if it had come from the rocky reef close by - but it was definitely a neat find.

Out of 8 cement blocks left out at sea, we were only able to find 2, but that's still 2 more than I ever thought we would find. In the end, we brought back some cool animals and valuable barnacle specimens. I call that a successful day.

Saturday, April 4, 2015


"Angry words and honking cars
Satellites and falling stars
Distant dark blue radios that whisper down my boulevard
Ghosts and chains rattle in the attic
Broken headphones filled with static
Lonely room, you've got nowhere to run"
- "American Noise" by Skillet

There are so many things on my mind right now, I barely even know where to start. I've been back in Oregon all week, but today was the first time I actually made it to the lab. I definitely needed a few days to myself, and even though I got a lot of rest the last few days in San Diego, my body apparently needed more. I learned several important things about myself in Norway, and one of them was the importance of a regular routine and sufficient sleep. I'm so much more productive - and emotionally stable! - when properly rested.

All moved into my desk at OIMB! Notice the tattered
lander flag on the wall. 
I promised myself that this time around, I would make Oregon as much like Norway as possible. My apartment in Oregon is my sanctuary, my place of silence and rest, and I intend to preserve that personal space as much as I can. I also promised myself that I would minimize disruptions in my work day, because if there's one thing I learned from working at IRIS, it's how ridiculously productive I can be when left undisturbed. I know I'll still get interrupted occassionally by my labmate, by my adviser, by the various undergraduates that come to me for help, but I've set up a work space that will allow me to focus. We'll see how it works.

When I go to work on Monday, I'm going to try biking there, because biking to work was one of my favorite things about life in Norway. Having a regular exercise routine is crucial for my physical and mental health, and frankly, I just miss it.

I actually spent most of the day today catching up with friends and fellow students. My institute over here, the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB), is a really small campus, so everyone knows each other. I got joyful hugs from my closest friends, heartfelt acknowledgements from rest, and only one look of sheer terror. When I marched up to the OIMB workshop, the man that I spent last summer asking for favor after favor after favor saw me coming through the window, swung open the door, and called to the others "Look out! She's back!" I promised not to fill his calendar with too many construction projects this summer, and we actually chatted for quite a while. It's good to be back.