Saturday, May 23, 2015

Speak to me

So how did you spend your Friday? Mine was quite eventful. It started with an e-mail; then I crunched numbers, killed a tree, stared at the wall, and took a giant step forward.  

Me retrieving specimens from ROV Kraken II aboard
NOAA ship Nancy Foster in 2012. Photo by Megan Chesser.

You see, I've been working on analyzing data from shipwrecks off the east coast of the U.S. I got to visit the shipwrecks in 2012 with other scientists as part of a large, multi-disciplinary project. The wrecks are all located at the continental shelf break, about 100 m or so below the surface, so we used an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) deployed from a research vessel to view the shipwrecks and collect samples. I've had the videos in my possession for about 3 years now, but I'm just getting around to analyzing the data. (Yes, that kind of a time frame is perfectly normal.) 

The cool thing about the shipwreck videos is that several different researchers are working on them for different reasons. There's an archaeologist in Rhode Island working to identify each of the wrecks and re-construct the history of the ships, plus a team in North Carolina that has analyzed the fish communities at each wreck. My job is to understand the invertebrate communities, a task that has so far been both tedious and rewarding. 

I started by watching all of the videos and taking frame grabs whenever I got a good view of the wreck surface. Then I sorted the frame grabs, sub-selected the best ones, and counted the animals visible in each photo. I estimate that by now, I've spent 87 hours watching videos and 50 hours counting animals, not to mention the time I spent sorting frame grabs or taxonomically identifying voucher specimens. 

On Friday, I finally had all my data together, and it was time to figure out what they mean. I sorted all my frame grabs by whether they came from the top, the middle or the bottom of the wreck. Then I re-arranged them by horizontal, vertical, slanted, or irregular surfaces. Eight shipwrecks times five diversity indices times two ways of sorting plus splitting the species into sessile suspension feeders and mobile predators equals, well, in the end, 144 graphs. Looking at the graphs one by one on my tiny laptop screen just wasn't cutting it, so I decided to go old-school and print them all out. Then I cut them apart. Then I taped them to the wall. Then I color-coded the patterns; red for increasing, blue for decreasing, black for no significant change. I started at those graphs for way too long, silently willing them to speak to me. 

The patterns are complicated and vary by wreck, but in the end, I think I may have made a break-through. Some of the wrecks have similar diversity patterns, and when I looked back at my map, I realized they were all oriented the same direction. I don't want to give away the details because I still have to confirm what I saw, but I may be on to something. All it took was some wall space, some paper, and some imagination. The data, they speak. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

I would rather

Remember how I told you about that project I did last summer that I was going to repeat this summer that involved planting cement blocks with plastic settlement plates off the Oregon coast? Well, if you don't, see this post and this post.

The story of this particular project left off with me having all my materials ready to go but just waiting for the weather to calm down. I needed 3-4 ft seas or less to go offshore and outplant my blocks. Well, the weather offshore finally got calmer this week, so I spent most of yesterday afternoon scrambling to get all 10 heavy cement blocks loaded onto the boat. Then I came back in the evening to tie the ropes on, and I even came in early this morning to attach all the settlement plates. I had all my things ready. I had a volunteer helper. The Coast Guard predicted 1-3 ft seas. Everything was set.

Except that the Coast Guard was wrong.

One thing you need to learn, my friends, is that even marine biologists, yes, even I, get seasick. There is no way the waves today were only 1-3 ft; the boat captain and I agreed they must have been 4-5. By the time we reached our first station, I was almost queasy enough to be useless, but I had waited so long to start my experiment, I decided to push through. I won't bother telling you the details, but I will tell you this: I would rather have done a lot of things this morning than be seasick on a 42' boat.

I would rather pluck out my eyelashes one by one than be as seasick as I was this morning.
I would rather have a spiderweb tattooed on my face and wake up every morning to find my face covered in real live spiders than be as seasick as I was this morning.
I would rather shave my head and dye my skin a sickly shade of green and join a circus freak show and call myself Puce Girl than be as seasick as I was this morning.
I would rather shave my legs with a rusty, serrated blade and no soap than be as seasick as I was this morning.
I would rather live on a ranch in Kansas in the middle of nowhere without a car and without internet and without friends than be as seasick as I was this morning.
I would rather give a speech to the U.N. in my underwear with a mouth full of half-chewed crackers than be as seasick as I was this morning.
I would rather have my wrists bound to my ankles and be forced to locomote by hopping like a frog than be as seasick as I was this morning.
I would rather be forced to solve a page full of double and triple integrals in a limited amount of time, knowing that if I failed, a bucket of cold water would be dumped onto my head, than be as seasick as I was this morning.
I would rather hike 20 miles barefoot through the Serengeti dressed as an antelope than be as seasick as I was this morning.
I would rather perform the Tchaikovsky violin concerto to a room full of people with earpieces that give them an electrical shock every time I play a D, and who are armed with rotten tomatoes, than be as seasick as I was this morning.

Get the point? Good.

The hero of the day was actually my volunteer, Zabrina. That girl must be made of iron, because when I was struggling the most, she jumped in and did what I couldn't. I owe her a plate of homemade cookies. Or a plague of locust on her enemy of choice.

In the end, it all worked out, and the blocks got deployed. Next time, I will know not to believe the Coast Guard.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On impact

Yesterday, something happened to me for the first time ever. I opened my e-mail inbox to find a message from a science reporter. Check it out:


I’m a science writer with Science magazine in D.C. I’ve written a short news blurb about your discovery of the living macroalga 166 m deep in an Arctic fjord. I need an image to run with the story, and I was hoping that you’d be able to send me one. Either image in figure 2 of the paper would work, but if you have another that you like better, that’s great, too.


I immediately read the message out loud to a friend, because only when pronounced did the words begin to seem real. A science reporter - a real person, someone with a journalism degree, who is employed by a magazine and paid to write news stories about science - is interested in my work. Mine. Of all things!

Granted, the article is going to be very short - the reporter just calls it a "blurb" - but still, I consider it a leap forward. This is the first time I've ever been contacted by a journalist about my work. The manuscript in question here is a short communication that Andrew and I co-authored, noting the presence of an abundant, living macroalga at great depth in the high Arctic. It appeared in Marine Biodiversity Records earlier this month (see it here). 

Having one of my published papers covered in a news blurb means a greater number and wider variety of people will be aware of my research. In science, there's a lot of talk about impact - basically, how widely-communicated and -cited a manuscript is. Journals are rated by their "impact factor;" grant programs call for "high-impact" proposals; researchers are always trying to publish their work in higher-impact publications. My impact just increased by a lot.

Honestly, I'm proud of Andrew and myself for the attention our little manuscript has drawn, but there's also a bit more to it than that. If my goal was as simple as world domination (making everyone aware of our discovery) there are a lot faster ways to go about it. I could rent billboards, buy ad space on the radio, send postcards to everyone I know - not just wait around for a reporter to notice my paper. I'm proud of the manuscript not because it's drawn a bit of attention. I'm proud because it's important enough to draw a bit of attention. 

As my career continues, I want to always remember the feeling of opening that e-mail, not because I want to be flashy or famous, but because I want to do research that merits a news blurb. It's all about asking the right questions. May my research always be imporant enough to be noticed.

Update: Find the finished news blurb here.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

In the silence

"Soft and fragile
There is grace in the dead of silence
As we dream gentle hands are shaping
Further, higher as the new day enters...
We opened the door
Found a way we hadn't seen before
Found a reality that shields us and clothes us
Makes us hungry for things the day can offer"
- "In the Silence" by Asgeir

The institute feels a lot different on a Saturday. Of course it does; I'm the only one here. Most weekends, there might be one or two other stragglers that stop in - people checking on experiments or picking up an item they forgot - but today, it's just me. It is silent.

To be honest, I think I prefer the lab on off-days. There are no undergraduates stopping in to ask only mildly meaningful questions. There are no distinguished guests for my adviser to bring through the lab and show off his graduate students to. The phone isn't ringing incessantly with people looking for my perpetually absent labmate. It's just me. And it is silent.

This week was pretty hectic. It was back to my normal Oregon schedule - work, ballet, violin - but even more than that, I think it was hectic in my head. I've got several projects going on all at the same time, and it's easy to get overwhelmed. I'm analyzing data from shipwrecks off the U.S. east coast, but also trying to make my way through a statistics textbook. I'm checking the weather incessantly in the hopes of outplanting my summer experiment, but also reading papers and keeping up with on-campus seminars. I'm attending important dinners and also thinking about my future. It's all very big and pressing, and even though few of my tasks have actual deadlines, I can't help but feel them begging to be finished. Having items on my to-do list creates something like an itch in my brain.

It's time for a deep breath. It's time for Oregon Kirstin to ask herself what Norway Kirstin would do, because that girl had all the answers; she never got overwhelmed. It's time to pick away at each task slowly, just a little bit at a time, and alternate tasks to keep myself fresh. It's time to breathe, to relax, to take it one step at a time and embrace the Saturday silence.

Monday, May 11, 2015


I left myself one extra day after the conference, and I used it to see Salvador's historic city center, Pelourinho. The city center is on the west side of Salvador, facing All Saint's Bay. I shared a taxi over there with a few other students, and we set off to explore.

A city square in Pelourinho
As soon as we set foot in Pelourinho, I could tell it was different from the rest of Salvador. The streets were all cobblestone; the buildings were a different architectural style and bore bright, pastel colors; there were lots of open spaces and city squares - it felt like a step back in time. Pelourinho is the most tourist-oriented part of the city, as well, so there were little cafes, restaurants, and souvenir shops. It was raining that day, so peddlers sold umbrellas and ponchos on the street. Food carts lined the streets, and there were policemen watching from their full-size vans on every corner. I felt much safer knowing men with heavy weapons and lots of training were standing by to protect me, but I couldn't help but worry that they needed to be there. Still, there never came a time when I felt threatened.

Capoeira in Pelourinho
There were also plenty of street performers - the standard living statues, musicians, etc. - but I was captivated by a group doing capoeira. Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art that is accompanied by traditional music and to me looks more like an elaborate dance. It's highly acrobatic, with turns, kicks and cartwheels, and in fact, capoeira is the grandfather of break-dancing. Believe it or not, I was already familiar with capoeira from my time in Oregon, since the ballet class I teach on Thursday afternoons is followed by a capoeira class. Anyway, the capoeiristas in Salvador were very good, although to my chagrin, they seemed more occupied with posing for pictures with tourists than actually performing their craft. Had they been consistently sparring with one another, I would have been content to watch for hours.

Elevador Lacerda
My companions and I wandered through the city center for a while, had lunch in a cafe with live music, and stopped in at a museum when it started to rain. Pelourinho actually sits atop a cliff that overlooks the marina and the rest of the city below. I was told that when Salvador was first founded, the split caused locals to refer to the "lower city" and the "upper city" above or below the cliff, and in 1873, the two halves of Salvador were connected by an elevator. The elevator, known as the Elevador Lacerda, is still the most efficient way to get over the cliff, and a ride costs exactly 15 Brazilian cents (5 cents USD). We paid our coins and got in line, then crowded into an elevator car when our turn came. So many people ride the elevator in a given day that upwards of 30 people have to crowd into the slightly-larger-than-average elevator car for the 20-second ride up or down. In addition, two employees remain in the elevator car and accompany the guests; one security guard and one elevator operator (essentially, button-pusher). It may have been the most claustrophobic 20 seconds of my year, but it was a unique cultural experience, for sure.


Once we reached the lower city, we headed to the Mercado de artesanias (artisan's market), another one of Salvador's highlights. The market is housed in a giant, two-story warehouse-style building. A main aisle runs down the center, and the vendors occupy small booths along the perpendicular side-aisles. Every inch of space is covered by artisanal wares. Crochet clothing, bright paintings of the city, masks, instruments, and spices are the most common items. If a vendor sees you looking at their things, they'll greet you and welcome you to look closer or step inside their booth. If you acknowledge their greeting or express any interest, it's not long before they've pulled out every item they can for you to view. The system works great if you're really interested in what the vendor is selling, but it's a bit annoying if you'd just like to browse. I actually came home with a pretty sweet painting of Pelourinho. My favorite items, though, were the traditional carved figures of Bahianas (women from Bahia). The dark-skinned women all had very similar, idealized body shape and bright, expressive dresses. I was surprised that a small but significant fraction of the Bahiana figures depicted pregnant women. I suppose it makes sense because at any time, a proportion of the female population is bound to be carrying a child, but it's not common to see pregnancy depicted so clearly in other cultures.
Lembranças da Bahia join other
keychains on my backpack.

All over the market were colorful ribbons with the words "Lembrança do senhor do Bonfim da Bahia," which translates "A reminder of the Lord of Good End of Bahia." The ribbons are exactly 47 cm long, which is the length of the arm of a Christ statue at Salvador's most famous church, the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. Ribbons were traditionally tied on the gates of the church, but nowadays, they are often worn on a person's wrist. The ribbon is secured with three knots, corresponding to three wishes, and when the ribbon falls off of its own accord, it is said that the three wishes will come true. I tied several ribbons onto my backpack and one onto my left ankle, as a reminder of Salvador, of Bahia, of my magnificent time in Brazil. What a captivating, fascinating place.

Baia dos todos os santos

So, the conference is over, but we all stuck around. What in the world is a group of ecologically-inclined geologists, biologists, and habitat mappers going to do with a day in tropical Brazil? Well, GeoHab has the tradition of hosting a field trip to an area of local interest following each meeting, and this year, it was a boat tour of All Saint's Bay (Baia dos todos os santos). I was very excited to participate in this year's trip.

Weathered buildings in Salvador
We started early in the morning by boarding a bus and driving to the marina on the other side of the city. It was the only time I had actually gone through the city of Salvador, and it was interesting to see the interior. Unfortunately, the buildings were mostly in a dilapidated condition, but at one point, we circled a pristine man-made lake with statues of traditionally-costumed figures standing in the center of the water. This city has so many gems tucked into the matrix of weathered tin roofs and trash. When we finally arrived at the marina, we stepped out of the bus onto a busy street corner where vendors displayed their wares and heavily-armed policemen kept watch.

We pushed our way through to the dock, where a schooner was waiting for us. The boat was actually a bit different from what I expected from the name "schooner" - it was long and flat, and it had a canopy over most of the deck. Sure, it was a wooden boat with masts, but I think the shape was designed to keep tourists happy, not brave the high seas. There was a lower deck with 4 cabins, but the cabin roofs stuck up through the main deck of the ship a little, much like on a sailboat. Essentially, the raised middle portion of the boat turned into a lounge space, because it was well-supplied with weatherproof matresses and pillows.
Oh, but it was so good while it lasted.

Sticking forward from the bow of the ship was a long wooden beam with cargo nets on either side in a triangular shape. It didn't take long for people to climb out on the beam and settle into the cargo nets - after all, who doesn't want to ride on the forwardmost point of a schooner? Even so, we had barely left the marina when a navy vessel pulled up on our starboard side with flashing lights and blaring sirens. I didn't even know it was possible to get pulled over on the water, but apparently, the Brazilian navy didn't think our whole cargo-net-carrying-people idea was so great. One of the crew members who understood the navy's shouted commands gestured for us to come down, and we reluctantly found much less entertaining places to sit.

After leaving the marina, we headed south for a view of the Farol da Barra (Barra ligthouse), then north into the interior of the bay. We passed a number of large container ships sitting at anchor, waiting, as far as I can tell, for their next load to take abroad. We steamed for a few hours before arriving at an island on the bay's north end. There was an old Portuguese church on a rocky knoll, but other than that, the island was relatively untouched. The schooner's crew dropped anchor as close as safely possible to the beach and then opened a hatch on the starboard side. If you're thinking what I'm thinking, you would have done exactly what I did: change into a swimsuit and cannonball over the side. It only took a few seconds for the first person to jump in, and pretty soon most of us were soaking in the salty blue-green sea.

Rainbow over Salvador
We swam and wandered onto the beach, where hundreds of tiny yellow fiddler crabs scurried over the ground. There was a stand of mangroves and numerous mangrove shoots emerging from the sand. I had never seen mangrove shoots before, so it was fascinating for me to notice all the young leaves sticking up on the beach. We took turns chasing after fiddler crabs and picking up interesting gastropod shells. In short, it was a tropical paradise, and none of us wanted to leave. After an hour or two, though, we had lunch on the boat - rice, noodles, seafood stew, fresh fruit, and a coconut dessert. We lounged with full bellies in the sun on the bow and then took the scenic route back to land. It actually got pretty cloudy and dark as we returned to Salvador, and it started raining off and on. A faint rainbow was visible above the dark city, and the sun hid behind clouds off our stern.

The field trip was an absolutely fantastic experience, and I was glad for the opportunity to see the bay. Brazil is such a beautiful place.

Friday, May 8, 2015

A experiência cultural

Loud applause echoed in the room. The minute-taker closed her laptop, and the very last speaker set down his microphone. GeoHab 2015 was over. 

The last day of the conference ended with a general business meeting, and I think by the time it was all over, we were glad to stand up and move around. Listening to presentations all day is a great way to network and communicate science, but it's not exactly the best for cardiovascular health. Our attentions spans were ready for a break. 

I hung around in the conference hall for quite a while, chatting, taking business cards, writing down my e-mail address for anyone who asked. Sometimes, it feels like a conference ends just as I'm getting to know everyone, and I have to say that's the case for GeoHab. Nevertheless, I've made some great connections, and I look forward to seeing these colleagues again. 

I had already arranged with several Brazilian conference attendees to accompany them for dinner and dancing that evening. I looked forward to seeing a bit more of the city and experiencing the Brazilian culture. Well, experience the culture I did, and it was quite an eye-opening night. 

The fourth-floor cafe of Salvador's most random building
Our first stop was a cultural center along the beach on the eastern side of Salvador, and it is possibly one of the most random buildings I've ever been in. The bar on the ground floor was covered with psychedelic graffiti in cool blues and greens. Affixed to the walls were various parts of disassembled chairs and randomly-placed lamps lacking lightbulbs. We made our way to the building’s central staircase, which was wooden but painted bright yellow. As we climbed higher, we passed exactly one room on each of the narrow building’s four stories. Floor 2 was an intimate concert venue, where an electric cello duo was  performing something folksy and dissonant. Floor 3 was a movie theater, but the walls and ceiling beams were covered in all sorts of hats. The feature film for the evening was as far as I could tell about police brutality in the western hemisphere in the 1960s. Finally, we reached the top floor and found a shoebox-sized café with paper lanterns for lighting. A glass wall separated the indoor café from the adjacent terrace, and I imagine the view from the terrace must be beautiful in the daytime. In the glow of the streetlights below, I could see a sandy beach and breaking waves separated from the street by a vertical rock wall. On the far side of the street, just inside the wall, was a soccer field, where about 20 teenagers were engrossed in a pick-up game. In front of the soccer field, a lone man squatted behind a bright yellow cooler of beer, which I can only assume he was hoping to sell to the passers-by.

We ordered dinner and chatted for several hours in a combination of English and Portuguese. I was still hoping to dance, so when one of the Brazilians asked if I was ready to move to another bar, I was happy enough to oblige. Anywhere with music would do. 

The samba band that made my night.
We headed down the street to a bar that was offering live Brazilian music. A couple people in our group informed me that the music was typical of Rio de Janeiro, not Bahia, because it contained mostly samba rhythms. The group settled in at a table, but it wasn't long until I started itching to move. After all, one does not simply listen to samba music. I asked one of the men across the table to dance, and let me tell you, Brazilian men can dance. I actually have very little experience with Latin dance styles, even though I've done ballet forever, so it was different for me to have to follow someone else. My dance partner used his hand on my low back to steer me in different directions, and I did all I could to follow his feet. A couple of times, I got spun around with little to no warning, and I would lose rhythm for a second or two. Somehow, it all worked out. Man, I love to dance.

When the music finished at 3 am, I figured it would be time to go home, but my companions informed me otherwise: nights out in Brazil last until sunrise. To be frank, I just don't have the stamina to keep up in this country, so I packed myself in a cab and went to the hotel. It was a long but fantastic night, and I got a pretty darn comprehensive Brazilian cultural experience. This place is nothing short of marvelous.

O jantar

I'm not sure how many scientific conferences you've been to, but I feel I should introduce you to the tradition of the conference dinner. One one designated evening, all the participants get together at a pre-determined, pre-booked location for dinner and social hour. Now, if you've never been to a conference dinner yourself, you're probably picturing a civilized, highly educated, reserved group of sharply-dressed people discussing their work over cocktails and a catered meal. Your mental image would be mostly correct - well, at least about "sharply-dressed," "catered," and "cocktails." But "reserved" we most certainly are not.

My conference dinner table. Photo by Almir Santos.
Not to brag, but I ended up at the best table for the GeoHab conference dinner. The dinner was held in a glass-walled terrace at the Bahia Yacht Club, which, by the way, was downright stunning. From the moment we sat down, a loud-mouthed German at our table started fiddling with the windows in an attempt to open them and alleviate herself of the frigid air conditioning. The window-opening operation was successful, but it only took 5 minutes for the yacht club staff to notice and insist we keep the glass walls closed.

I spent most of the appetizer courses engrossed in a conversation about Brazilian culture with the two men next to me, but when our meals finally arrived, things took a left turn. For starters, we joked about a waiter treating a miniature bottle of mediocre wine with excessive care. Then that red flower in the vase ended up tucked behind my ear. Two of the girls started writing quotes from our conversation on napkins, and a few of the quotes were even embedded in a presentation the following morning - delivered, of course, without any explanation or break in character.

Selfie stick.
I don't even remember what we were talking about for most of the dinner; I just remember laughing very hard. At one point, a GoPro and selfie stick emerged from a girl's purse, where they had been patiently waiting the entire time. You can see the end result here to the right.

When it finally came time to leave the yacht club, we had to take an elevator up to street level. As we were crowded in the open-air catwalk waiting for the elevator, someone noticed an alternative way to the top: a small gondola mounted on parallel tracks like a train. Almost immediately, a call was made for the gondola to pick us up, and when the doors closed around more humans than that poor car was ever meant to handle, I had barely enough room to turn around. The gondola was much less efficient than the elevator but naturally way more fun.

The older I get, the more I realize the power of personal relationships. At the end of the day, scientists are people, not data-processing machines, and it is so important to know your colleagues not just for their work but for their personality. I had a great time at the conference dinner.

O apresentação

At exactly 8:06 am, I opened my hotel room door. I was wearing a solid orange sundress and sandals, and I clutched a flash drive in my hand. That flash drive contained all I really needed for the day: a PowerPoint file explaining my research on deep-sea dropstones. With a long, deep breath, I embraced the new day and marched off to deliver my presentation.

Photo by Almir Santos.
My talk wasn't actually scheduled until after lunch, but I woke up early to run through the presentation and make sure it would fit into the allotted time. You'd be surprised how quickly 15 minutes can fly by, especially when talking about an interesting and complicated project in front of a crowd. The conference organizers used a small green maraca to keep the speakers in line: one shake after 10 minutes and two shakes after 12 minutes told the presenter when it was time to wind down.

The mark of a good presentation is always the discussion that follows. Once the speaker finishes, there are a few minutes for questions from the audience, but the discussion is often cut off and resumed during a coffee break later in the day. I had two good questions immediately following my presentation, and several people approached me throughout the afternoon. One was very interested in my data collection methods; another asked if I could send him references for the papers I cited. I ended up talking for quite a while with other students that work in deep-sea habitats, because our projects all share common elements.

Overall, I would call my presentation a success. It gave me the chance to share my work and leave an impression on my fellow conference attendees. Mission accomplished.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

A gringa

Hello there, friends. I guess I missed out on updating you yesterday, because I went straight to sleep after getting back to the hotel. My presentation was today, so I wanted to get plenty of rest - but more on that later. For now, I'll fill you in on my Tuesday.

It was a full day of conference presentations, and as always, I took copious notes. It's actually kind of interesting to watch other audience members during a talk, because each person writes down different things. (I can tell, because they are writing at different times.) I imagine if you compared two peoples' notes, you would find very little common content. Each of us takes out of a talk exactly what we need.

As the presentations were winding down and groups started forming for dinner, I found myself surrounded by Brazilians. I am of course anxious to learn anything I can about the culture in Salvador, so I decided not to influence the decision of where we should go eat. I was ready for anything, and I trusted the colleagues around me. The conversation rambled along in Portuguese, but when a decision had been reached, one of the Brazilians looked at me to see if I agreed. Yes, I nodded. Of course. Show me your world.
Triologia do Mar

We went to a restaurant called A Casa da Theresa, and we managed to get 11 of us around one table. When I first peaked at the menu, I swallowed hard and started second-guessing my decision to follow the locals, because prices ran $30-40 a plate. G, sitting next to me, must have noticed my face, because he leaned in and explained that each dish was to be shared by 2-3 people. I breathed a sigh of relief. I ended up splitting a seafood stew with two others; it had large chunks of white fish, pieces of octopus tentacle, and shrimp (thankfully out of the shell this time), cooked together in a sweet coconut sauce. We were served rice, cassava, and a fish paste as side dishes.

Even though the restaurant was pretty up-scale, we still had to wave and shout to get service. The walls were covered in artifacts and art, some abstract, some tribal, some obviously a fusion of contrasting cultural traditions.

I actually spent most of dinner picking my companions' brains about life in Brazil. I've found over and over so far this week that Brazilians are extremely welcoming of foreigners. Brazil is a difficult place to live because of safety concerns (you can't safely walk on the street after dark), but the culture is fascinating. The population of Salvador has a large proportion of West African descendants, so the culture is heavily influenced by these black Brazilians. The music, the architecture, the food, even the religious beliefs are all a blend between Portuguese and West African traditions. I obviously have only a superficial understanding of the culture at this point, but I'm going to go ahead and call it a melting pot. A big, hot pot of cultural stew.

Monday, May 4, 2015

That thing I do

I'm doing that thing again. I'm doing that conference thing where I barely eat, I barely sleep, I smile incessantly and soak up the environment around me like a sponge in a desert oasis.

This morning began with an absolutely fantastic discussion on future seafloor mapping priorities for Brazil. We split into groups by our depth range of interest, and of course I went for the deepest one. Throughout the discussion, I picked up on the subtleties of how science works in Brazil. For example, a large majority of the funding comes from oil companies, and there are several long-standing issues surrounding the sharing of data. In an ironic way, oil exploitation has helped protect sensitive habitats from overfishing, and there are some knowledge gaps in what structures the benthic communities. It was an eye-opening discussion for me, and I wrote down everything I could.

Farol da Barra, Salvador
After lunch, I teamed up with three other students from the conference to go see the city. Salvador sits on a peninsula, so we walked out to the end, where there is an historic lighthouse. The peninsula tip affords stunning, panoramic views to both the Atlantic Ocean and Tudos os Santos Bay, on the west side of Salvador. There are also several old Portuguese constructions in the area - a fort and a church, for starters. As we strolled along the boardwalk, I couldn't help but notice how many people were on the beach - a surprising number for a Monday afternoon. Of course, I've never seen the beach at its full capacity on a weekend, so maybe the sand-lovers out there today were just a dedicated few. I also noticed a number of large container ships on Tudos os Santos Bay. Salvador must be quite a busy port.

We stopped for a snack, and the two Brazilians in our little group asked if I had ever tried açia before. I shook my head no, because I had no idea what açia was. As it turns out, it's pretty similar to ice cream, but not quite. I'd compare it to a sherbet or a sorbet, and it is flavored, as the name suggests, by açia berries. Ours was served with sliced bananas on top and granola on the side. Following my companions' lead, I dumped the granola on top of the mix and took care not to shock my teeth with the cold açia. It wasn't as sweet as I expected, but the bananas made up for that. It had a nice, smooth texture, and I'd definitely eat it again.

Before we headed back to the conference venue for an evening cocktail hour, we made one last stop. My two Brazilian companions wanted to freshen up, so we went to their shared apartment. To make a long story short, I ended up the only gringo in a room of four Portuguese speakers, and I stunned myself by being able to follow the conversation. Granted, I couldn't contribute as much as I wanted, but I understood almost everything that was said. Brazil has a very open, relaxed culture, and I'm finding that even people I've just met are encouraging of a foreigner trying to learn their language. 

My day finished with a social hour back at the conference, and I made sure to introduce myself to a few new people. One of my goals for this conference is to network like crazy, and I'm sure I'll walk away with at least a few solid contacts. For now, I'm riding high, fueled by adrenaline and science, breathing in every humid moment that Brazil has to offer.

Published: Part 2

I'd like to let you know that another manuscript of mine has been published. This paper is a short communication, and you can consider it a spin-off of my Svalbard image analysis. In the paper, my co-author, Andrew, and I report on the presence of a living macroalga at surprising depth (166 m) in a high Arctic fjords. I wrote the manuscript while in Norway, and it's not been published in the journal Marine Biodiversity Records. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A praia à noite

It's the end of the first day, and I have a lot of thoughts spinning in my head. I made a few friends, mostly by just sitting down next to random people, and I've already started a list of colleagues I want to converse with before the conference is over. It was a long day of introductory presentations, and my legs are exhausted from sitting.

I wish you could taste what I had for dinner, because I have honestly no idea what it was. (I found out later it is called acarajé.) One of the conference participants, a Brazilian from Natal, insisted we all try a typical Salvador dish from a nearby open-air cafe. We piled into cabs (because it's apparently too dangerous to walk on the street after dark, even in a large group) and drove just 5 minutes to the cafe. What we found were several food stands and hole-in-the-wall bars surrounding a sea of tables and chairs. Sturdy canopies shielded us from a light rain. Our Brazilian leader confidently approached one food stand and announced her order, then kindly ordered for each of us. I ended up with a plate full of fried bread, what I think must have been cucumbers, shrimp still in their shells, and something that looked like squash. It all tasted fabulous, but I had a hard time with the exoskeletons - even after thorough boiling, they were a bit tough.

We found tables, sat down, and realized we had nothing to drink. I'm learning that getting service in Brazil is often a shouting match. You essentially have to stick your hand in the air, try to make eye contact with a server, shout, wave, and generally do anything you can to get their attention. It's especially frustrating when you want to pay, because the servers prioritize new orders over old tabs. If you succeed in getting their attention, though, they just count the bottles on your table, add it up, and lay down a check for everyone to split. It's mildly chaotic but so much fun.

After taking taxis back to the hotel, we all parted ways. I couldn't help but stand out on the sidewalk for a few minutes, just gazing at the dark beach. There are 3 hotels in a small area - in essence, they share a parking lot - and a tiny strip of sand beside them. It's not much, but it's all my wandering mind needs.

I wish you could feel what I feel tonight. I wish you could stand next to me and stare out to the dark horizon. I wish you could hear the waves crashing over the rocks, a loud, musical energy, drowning out the noise of taxis and tourists. I wish you could feel the humid breeze on your shoulders, feel the warm salt spray on your face. I wish you could feel this sense of calm.

Brazil is so unique and blended and beautiful and interesting, and I find myself drawn to its organized chaos. I want to know everything about it, its history, its people, its culture, but I know that would take years. Staring out at the black water, I picture what mysteries lay hidden under the surface, what things I could discover with a ship and a crew off Brazil's shores. So many questions, so little time, but for now, I must stop myself short. There have already been enough lessons for one day. Turning slowly, I head into the hotel and nod goodnight to my beach. See you again tomorrow.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

First impressions

Seen just outside my hotel.
Friends, I come to you now from Salvador, Brazil, approximately 13° S, 38° 30' W. I'm camping out in my hotel at the moment, waiting on the afternoon rain storm to pass. I remember meeting a girl several years ago who had grown up in Malaysia, and she joked with me that she never had to check the weather. Every day, she said, was 75-80° F (24-30° C) and humid, with a rain storm in the afternoon. This must be a common weather pattern throughout the tropics, because I remember encountering the same thing in Samoa a few years ago, and Salvador is so far following suit. Humid, warm, rain in the afternoon. It's beginning to feel familiar.

Salvador is an interesting city. Of course, it's in an absolutely beautiful setting, but the city itself is a bit piece-meal. There are very nice, fancy tourist hotels, small businesses, restaurants, and boutiques, but there are also plenty of run-down or abandoned old buildings. I walked around a little bit, and several times I passed a row of structurally unsound houses with one remodeled gem stuck in the middle. Sometimes, the gem would be only remodeled on the inside (I saw a barber shop like this), so there was a disjunct in appareances from the inside to the outside.

Street view in Salvador. For the record, these buildings are
directly across from a military base and a very nice beach.
I actually stopped in at one boutique near my hotel, just to have a look. Brazilian salespeople are much more active - pushier, even - than American salespeople, and I quickly found myself surrounded. In broken Portuguese, I explained that I was just looking, but somehow, I ended up in the fitting room with 3 different employees bringing me dresses to try on. Nevertheless, I walked out of the store with two small things I really wanted and a deep sense of pride. I started learning Portuguese a little over a year ago, but my first real conversation in the language didn't happen until today. I was able to clarify to the saleswomen what I liked and didn't like, what I wanted and didn't want. When I apologized for my limited vocabulary, they complimented my pronunciation and my ability to commuicate. I count that as a win.

Whenever I visit a new place, my goal is to understand why it is the way it is. I try to learn the history, get a sense of the geography, talk to people and figure out what drives them. So far, Salvador strikes me as architecturally eclectic, but the people are less so. They're humans, born in a beautiful place with abundant beaches and a rich history. They go about their business. They jog, they sell, they drive, they dance. And I can't wait to get to know them.

Friday, May 1, 2015

May Day

I find it impossible to believe that today is May 1. The past month has positively flown by, and I have no idea where it went. I've been working on image analysis (as always), playing with data (no surprise there), and waiting for the weather to calm down so I can start my summer experiment (yep).

Last night, I actually went to dinner with my fellow labmates. Craig, my adviser, called the dinner because one of his former students, now a professor at a different university, was coming to visit and deliver a seminar at OIMB. Craig is a gold mine of networking opportunities with former students all over the world, and he takes every chance to introduce us to one another.

I joked with another student in Craig's lab that our meeting was essentially an academic family dinner. Our older sister was in town, so Dad wanted to get us all around one table. Of course I wasn't serious, but there is a grain of truth to genealogy metaphor. Jorge Cham, the genius behind Ph.D. Comics, explains the concept in a way that is scary accurate. Check it out here.

Right now, I'm actually in the middle of a 3-hour layover, and I'm going to make you guess where I'm going.

1) I'm traveling to a conference.
2) My destination is in a country I've never been to before.
3) It's also on a continent I've never been to before.
4) I had to get a visa to enter this country.
5) My destination is in the southern hemisphere.
6) I didn't pack any coats - or socks, for that matter.

Any ideas? Care to venture a guess? Well, maybe a few more clues:

7) My destination is in the western hemisphere.
8) The time zone for my destination is 2 hours ahead of the U.S. east coast and just 3 hours behind Greenwich.
9) This country is famous for its barbeque.
10) The people around me will be speaking Portuguese.

Got it now? I'm going to Brazil! I'm very excited but also a bit nervous, because I have never been to South America before. The conference will also be a bit different for me, since it will not be focused on pure science; representatives from industry, government, and other organizations will also be there to talk about benthic habitat mapping. I'll keep you posted on my experiences throughout the week!