Monday, August 31, 2015

Another way you can die

"And so you find yourself embracing the ground
And your foe is as near as the silence you hear
As [you] stop to load another round
Battles raging, it's all staging, 'till you realize
Another way you can die"
- "Another way you can die" by Trans-Siberian Orchestra

I'm all settled in to Svalbard by now, and today was the first day I had a schedule. I'm going to be here for 6 weeks this time - the longest I've ever spent on Svalbard - and I'm officially registered for a class, so my days are much more structured than before. I'm taking the class essentially because in order to finish my experiment, I have to be on the class research cruise, and to be on the cruise, I have to take the class. It makes sense to take the class anyway, because it's taught by Paul Renaud, one of my advisers for the settlement plate project, and also because the topic is Ecology of Arctic Marine Benthos, which, after all, is kind of my thing.

My day began in a classroom at UNIS, the University Center in Svalbard. I arrived with a group of my fellow students, and as soon we entered the room, Paul jumped up and greeted me with a big hug. It was good to see him again. He asked if I had had a chance to peruse the reading list for the course yet, and when I shook my head, he declared, "Well, your paper is on it!" He was referring to the Svalbard image analysis paper that occupied most of my time in Stavanger and was published last spring. Paul is also a co-author on the paper. Got to admit, knowing that one of my research papers has made it onto the mandatory reading list for a graduate-level biology course makes me feel pretty awesome. Twist of irony: I'll probably have to answer test questions about my own paper.

Paul wasn't with us in the classroom for long, because most of the day was actually designated for safety training. Field work in the Arctic is, as you may imagine, logistically difficult and often dangerous, so all UNIS students are trained in how to minimize the risks.

The first step in our safety training was a 60-minute lecture on all the possible ways to die in the Arctic. If you don't fall into a glacial crevasse, you may injure yourself skiing. If you don't slide down a steep mountainside, you may fall into cold water and freeze. If none of that happens, you may be attacked by a polar bear. Thankfully, the lecture was more informational than morbid, but still, there are a lot of ways to get yourself into trouble up here.

This just got real.
Shortly after the lecture ended, we were whisked away on a bus to the Longyearbyen shooting range. We had to be trained on how to use polar bear rifles, because yes, polar bears do pose a threat to humans. Polar bear attacks are not common at all but still common enough - maybe one or two per year - to necessitate extra caution. Anytime you leave the valley, you need to travel in a group and be armed.

The rounds we shot were 30-06 caliber, and even though I don't know that means, my brother will. We practiced loading and half-loading the rifles first with dummy ammunition, then with real bullets. Half-loading means that bullets are in the magazine but not in the chamber. You can go from half-loaded to loaded by sliding the bolt, same as if you were ejecting a shell. We drilled ourselves on how to half-load - we must have done it a dozen times - and finished by firing rounds. I was surprised by how loud the rifles were - they had an almost deafening boom that in a real case of emergency would ring ominously off of the mountainside.

After we had learned everything there is to know about polar bear rifles, we had to pass a test. It wasn't conceptually difficult; all you had to do was shoot four rounds at a target and hit all of them in a semi-concentrated area. The guns aren't actually that accurate, so you may not hit the center of the target, but they're precise, so if you aim properly, you'll always hit the same place. We did the test from a kneeling position.

Each target was shared by two people, so not all of these
shots are mine. Most are covered up by stickers, and the
best shots in the middle (the ones that are still holes) belong
to my target partner. It's certainly not perfect, but hey,
I'd be able to save my own life.
I'll be honest: the first time, I failed. Only two of my rounds actually hit the target. I was having trouble focusing on the sights because I'm unable to close only my left eye (although weirdly, I can wink my right eye with no problem), so I was playing brain-eye games with myself to focus in the correct place. The second time around, I took a few more seconds between shots, manually closed my left eye with my right hand before returning it to the weapon, and remembered to relax. And I got it! All four rounds hit my target, and they were pretty well-clustered too. The girl whose target was next to mine later said she actually had 6 holes in her target during the first round of the exam, which is odd, because each of us only shot 4. The best I can figure, during the first round, I was so focused on aiming my eyes correctly that I ended up shooting at the wrong target. Before you harass me, please note that the targets looked exactly the same and were less than 5 feet apart.

Once everyone had passed the rifle exam, we moved on to signal flares. On a scale of intensity, signal flares are much lower than rifles, but in the case of a real bear attack, they would chronologically be used first. It's much better to scare away a polar bear than to have to kill it. We fired flash-bangs and red flares from a rudimentary pistol, not even really bothering to aim. In fact, when you fire a flare, you want to turn your head away from the pistol because the barrels are not completely sealed and you could get a bit of gunpowder on your face.

Finally, we went back into the firing range's classroom and watched videos of polar bear behavior, talked about how to behave in case we encounter a polar bear, and when it is appropriate to use each kind of gun. A very small proportion of the bears will even approach humans, and an even smaller proportion of them want to attack. Flash-bangs are for scaring the bear away when it is within 100 m and heading towards you; rifles are for worst-case life-or-death scenarios only, when the bear is within 35 m. Conveniently, the targets we had been shooting at all day were 35 m downrange.

I highly doubt I'll ever need to shoot a polar bear, since most of my work will be from the safe confines of a large ship, but you never know. It's good to be prepared.

Survival suit demonstration. We were obviously listening
patiently to the instructor. Photo by Uliana Nekliudova.
Speaking of the ship, the last step in our safety training involved survival suits, which I have used many times before. In fact, every time I set foot on a research ship, I have to prove that I can put on a survival suit. Anyway, the suits are designed to keep you warm, dry, and afloat. They're annoying as all get-out, because the hood sticks to your head and your mouth is covered by the zipper and you have no dexterity in your fingers. I can't keep one all the way on for long; I have to take off the hood indoors. Still, aside from the hood, the suits are lightweight and actually pretty comfortable. I and two others were selected to put on survival suits and demonstrate how to float in a group with them on, legs around each other, leaning back on each other's stomachs. In this position, a chain of people could paddle to shore facing backwards, holding onto one another with their legs and swimming with their arms. Pretty clever, right?

It was a long, detailed day, but it overall went very well. I now know all the ways I can die, but also all the ways I can stay alive. Bring it on, Svalbard. Bring it on.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Third gear

So after a week at my parents’, I returned to Oregon for exactly two and a half days. I unpacked, re-packed, cleaned my apartment, examined some specimens, took care of some paperwork, met with my labmate, made a poster, and generally ran around like a maniac. Totally normal.

Landing in Tromsø
Then I hopped on a plane, and I have essentially been on one ever since. I flew to San Francisco, then Frankfurt, then Oslo, then Tromsø. I think it’s poetic that every time I fly to Norway, I have to go through Germany, because it ties together my European experiences so well. In fact, my incredibly long route so far hasn’t seemed as strenuous as it probably should, and I think that’s because it’s all been through familiar territory. Germany and Norway both feel like home to me, and northern Europe is well-covered in my footprints.

Right now, I’m in Tromsø, Norway, where I have about an 18-hour reprieve between flights. No, that does not mean I’m stuck in an airport, thank goodness. A friend offered that I could stay at his house for the night, even though he’s out of town. I’m currently camped out at his kitchen table, stuffing my face with smoked salmon and drinking in the gorgeous fjord view in front of me.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at how easily I floated back into my Norwegian self. As soon as I landed in Oslo and heard the sing-songy voices of the blonde-haired people around me, it was like someone pressed the clutch in my brain and shifted into a new gear. I couldn’t help but smile at the sights, the sounds that at one time were foreign to me but now feel familiar and warm. By the time I landed in Tromsø, I was craving salmon and had the urge to trade my cotton sweatshirt for something wool. I watched out the window as the plane descended among mountain peaks, aiming for the narrow island where Tromsø lay waiting. I felt my pulse quicken, felt my breaths lengthen, already anticipating the fresh mountain air outside. Later, as I wandered around town in search of food and internet, I found joy in reading the signs around me, all the words I have learned to recognize but am still hopelessly unable to pronounce.
The view from the friend's house where I stayed in Tromsø

Tomorrow, I’ll return to the airport and fly north to Svalbard, the Arctic archipelago which I’m pretty sure is my favorite place on Earth. I’ll stay there for 6 weeks, all the while working to finish the experiment I started last year. You know, the one with the settlement plates and the SCUBA divers – the whole reason I came to Norway in the first place. If you don’t remember the Svalbard settlement plate project, refresh your memory here, here, here, and here. By the time I’m finished with the study, I should be able to compare recruitment of sessile benthic invertebrates in three different fjords, at three different depths, and in three different time periods (winter, summer, and full-year). The results will highlight differences between seasons and between Atlantic- and Arctic-influenced fjords. 

I’m so grateful for where I am right now. For the beautiful fjord in front of me, for the anticipation of good results in Svalbard, for the chance to visit Stavanger once my field work is over. I’m grateful for my family back in the States, for my friends scattered across the world, for the mountains and the air and the relaxation I feel rolling through my body. Norway, old friend, it’s so good to see you. I’m back.

On the edge

Dear friends, I apologize for my silence over the past two weeks; I guess I didn't realize how long it had been since I last posted. I suppose I should catch you up.

Last week, I took some time out to visit my family. My parents moved to a new state about a year ago, and until last week, I had still never seen their new house. My mom invited me, and we strategically picked a week when my brother would also be in town so the four of us could all spend time together. It was a really great chance to see where my parents have settled, catch up on all that's happened recently, and hang out with my brother.

One of many bridges over the Ohio River. The land on the left
is Ohio; on the right is West Virginia.
My parents' new home is on the Ohio River, on the border between Ohio and West Virginia. They live in a small industrial town, which actually in some ways reminded me of Coos Bay. The difference is that wherever you look in my parents' town, there is a strong sense that you are on the edge of something. The river belongs almost entirely to West Virginia, so as soon as you mount any of the numerous bridges across the water, you cross a state line. Add to that the hilltop houses that characterize my parent's side of the border, and the whole town feels like it's poised, lifted, like a child on tip-toe peering over the edge of a cliff. It's a very unique place.

We wandered around the historic downtown. We peered into the boutiques that occupy the ground floor of so many old brick buildings. We toured an old mansion on an island in the river. We attended a trivia night at the local pub and didn't even come in last place. We ate together; we went to church together; we watched movies, played games, and drove each other nuts. It was great.

Every time I visit my family, I'm reminded of how awesome they are. My parents care about me more than anyone else ever will, and my brother and I are exceptionally close. We were still missing one family member last week, but when you get all five of us together, we're unmatched. We know each other; we care about each other; our conversations are loud and chaotic and full of love.

My mom, dad, and brother.
It occurred to me a while ago that my family life is a bit ironic. I regularly travel the world in search of community, building connections with anyone I can and trying to bring diverse people together. I've written about ideas of community before, and it's a large part of the reason why I travel. What's ironic is that I spend so much of my time searching and trying to build community, while the best community I will ever be a part of is already waiting for me at home. Scattered throughout the American Midwest are the four people I care about the most, who share my genetics and will always be a part of my life. And somewhere over there is a beautiful house, poised on the edge of the Ohio River, where I left my heart last week. Because family is the truest manifestation of community.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The mythical state of Jefferson

When I first moved to Coos Bay, Oregon in 2012, I was told by some that I had not in fact moved to Oregon. I had moved to Jefferson, they said. As you can imagine, I was utterly confused.

Jefferson is a state that never was. It encompasses southern Oregon and northern California, and it's all but official - there's a state seal, a state flag, a state motto, everything. The Jefferson independence movement has happened in several waves, the strongest being in the late 1930s-early 1940s, but it was abruptly halted by U.S. involvement in WWII. Still, anyone driving south on Highway 5 can tell there's a difference between southern Oregon and the rest of the state. You cross an invisible line somewhere around Cottage Grove, and instead of bustling cities full of alternative, progressive yuppies, you find yourself in the middle of the woods. Jefferson is the land where small towns rule and backpacking is a way of life.

Our local public radio station is actually named Jefferson Public Radio, and it covers the area from Eugene, Oregon to Shasta, California. I bring this up now because sometime last week, Craig informed me that he and I were going to be on the radio. He had been contacted by the host of Jefferson Exchange, one of JPR's regular programs, who wanted to talk about deep-sea exploration. The host asked if Craig and one other person could give a live interview, so when Craig asked me to join him on-air, I was more than happy to oblige. I think it went really well, but I'll let you judge for yourself. Listen to our interview at the link below:

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Bring down the house

"Feel that rumbling sound
I might have grown up in a barn
But I can bring down the house"
- "Bring down the house" by Dean Brody

Before I left for my last cruise in the Atlantic, I already had it on my calendar to deliver a seminar about the cruise after I got back. Maya Watts, OIMB's summer term coordinator, knew that no matter what happened, we would have interesting stories from the ship and got us on the books before the cruise even happened. 

And it's a good thing she did! Obviously, there were a lot of interesting things happening on board Atlantis, and it was fun to present these tales to the rest of the OIMBers. A group of five of us made the presentation, because two were unavailable. We divided and conquered, each person covering a specific topic that pertained to their research, then finished the seminar with a section about life at sea and diving in Alvin. 

The best part for me was actually the question-and-answer session after the seminar, because we got both highly specific scientific questions and general life-at-sea questions. Some questions we referred to Craig, who was in the audience, but there was a good 20-minute discussion going on.

When I saw Craig later, he said we "brought down the house." Yes! 
One of the perks of presenting a seminar at OIMB
 is going to dinner with Maya afterward.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Barnacle cake

Squatting next to a cement block on the deck, Caitlin looked up at me with a goofy grin on her face.

"Hey Kirstin!" she called, "I'm already bleeding in two places! That's how you know it's good field work!"

I rolled my eyes. Yes, we give blood, sweat, and tears for our science, but I'm not sure that bleeding should ever be considered a good thing. I looked at Caitlin's hands, then examined my own. Both of us had countless little cuts and scrapes, the inevitable result of getting friendly with barnacles. Because today, we had lots of barnacles.

R/V Pluteus at OIMB's dock
We were offshore on OIMB's 42' research boat, R/V Pluteus, recovering the settlement plates I outplanted earlier this summer. The original plan was actually to go out every three weeks to recover the settlement plates, but that just didn't happen. I already told you how bad the weather was on deployment day, and it only got worse after that. Then the boat needed some repairs. Then the boat needed more repairs. Then the boat captain retired. Then I went on a cruise in the Atlantic. Then I got back, and the boat captain was still retired.

So I got creative. It turns out there's one other OIMB employee capable of driving the boat, and after a little convincing (read: bribery with baked goods), he was willing to spend a day offshore. By this point, my blocks have been underwater for 12 weeks, so I had no idea if they would even still be there. I grabbed some volunteers, took 2 Dramamine, and headed out to find them.

Glassy and perfect.
We actually did pretty well. For starters, the weather today was fantastic. The sea surface was flat, glassy, and calm, which kept me from being too queasy and also made it easy to spot the orange floats at the surface. We found 4 out of the 10 cement blocks I had outplanted, which I think is pretty good, considering how long they've been out there. It's possible that the floats for the other 6 blocks were run over by fishing boats, tangled and dragged underwater, or any number of catastrophic fates. Whatever happened, they just simply weren't there.

Even so, we were able to retrieve four of the cement blocks and remove the settlement plates from them. Everything was covered in barnacles. The plates, the blocks - even the rope and the zip ties. It was one solid barnacle cake. You know, when this experiment first started last year, I naïvely expected a variety of organisms, with clean, distinct patterns in abundance and diversity among stations. Not so. I guess if I owned a boat, I would have known better. I mean, barnacles are ubiquitous fouling organisms. My blocks were outplanted at 65 m depth, not actually that far offshore. I should have expected them to take over, right?

One of my cement blocks (settlement plates already removed)
covered in barnacles. The brown dots on the front side are
juvenile whelks, or barnacle-eating snails.
Well, fortunately for my future publication prospects, it's not quite that simple. Barnacles may have been expected on my settlement plates, but the particular species of barnacle that showed up was not. I identified the species as Hesperibalanus hesperius, and if that name sounds unfamiliar to you, you're not alone. I had never heard of it either. The only information I was able to find on this particular barnacle species is (1) that it exists, and (2) that it lives on the North American west coast north of San Francisco. That's not very specific information. 

After seeing the dense barnacle recruitment today, I started to think it would actually make a pretty interesting story. After all, I observed high larval recruitment of a species that isn't very well-known, and the cement blocks with the highest recruitment were essentially located in the middle of a sand flat. That's weird. There are a number of ecological concepts I could draw on for a discussion of my findings, including the Desperate Larva Hypothesis (look it up!). Maybe all the barnacles settled on my cement block and the attached settlement plates because they just wanted to settle on something, anything, and it was the only solid object in the area. 

In short, it feels good to finally have my settlement plates back, and I'm actually getting pretty excited about my findings. I doubted for a long time whether the data from my experiment would actually be useful, but I'm convinced now that they are. I'll end up answering a different question than I set out asking, but it's good data all the same.  

Long live barnacles.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Just a preview

The Charleston Marine Life Center, just across the street
from OIMB
This weekend I got to do something a little different: I volunteered as a museum docent at the Charleston Marine Life Center, just across the street from OIMB. The CMLC has been under construction since I started at OIMB three years ago, and it's getting very close to being finished - close enough, anyway, that it was open over the weekend for a public preview. A lot of people were in town for the Seafood Festival, so it was the perfect time to open the museum, welcome the public inside, and give them a sneak peak at some of the exhibits.

Specimens in the CMLC's marine mammal gallery
The brain behind the CMLC is my Ph.D. adviser, Craig Young, who is also the director of OIMB. It's been neat for me as a member of his lab to see such an ambitious project come together. Craig has been planning, raising money, and managing construction efforts for the museum since long before I arrived in Oregon, because as you can imagine, building and opening a museum is no small feat. As of right now, about half of the exhibits are finished, so it should only be a few more months before all of the hard work culminates in a grand opening for the new Center. It's part museum, part aquarium, so I think the CMLC is going to be an incredible resource for outreach and education.

All the windows in the CMLC face toward the water, and
I think it has the best view in town. I took this photo from
the squid exhibit on the upper floor.
The public preview was slated to begin Saturday morning, so as students were going home on Friday night, Craig was still buzzing around, finishing last-minute tasks. A few of us stopped over to see if he needed help and ended up setting out chairs, arranging microscopes, and adding labels to displays. I hadn't been in the building for a long time, but I found I recognized a lot of the specimens. Beautiful sponges, sea urchins, whale bones, giant models of fish - random objects that had populated Craig's office for years all appeared in their intended places, and suddenly, they all made sense. I definitely had multiple moments when I realized "Oh, that's what that was for!"

I spent my volunteer shifts on Saturday and Sunday on the upper floor of the museum, showing off invertebrate specimens to the public. There were a couple large, preserved squids, plus live invertebrates collected from the floating docks just below the Center. It was really satisfying for me to introduce CMLC visitors to new animals, things that live right in their aquatic backyard, that they had never seen before. I look forward to seeing the CMLC in its final form, because it can only get better!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

New Year's Day

"[Frosted] trees and window panes
Shimmering where tinsel hangs
And the butter light of candlesticks
Chases snowflakes off the bricks...
Everything looks better in gold and green"
- "Gold and Green" by Sugarland*

For as long as I can remember, I've measured time in school years. My year starts in the fall and finishes at the end of the summer, making New Year's Day sometime in August. I can remember much more easily whether something happened in 10th grade or 11th grade than I can remember if it happened in 2007 or 2008. I use phrases like "My second year of undergrad" and "The year I lived in Germany" instead of 2010 or 2012. 

I think I tell time this way for a few different reasons. First, I've spent my entire life as a student in the temperate latitudes of the northen hemisphere, so it makes sense that I've adopted a fall-to-summer schedule as my natural rhythm. Second, my birthday falls at the end of the summer, so the start of a new school year has always corresponded with my personal New Year's. I think of my last year of high school as The Year I Was 17, and my time in Norway will always be The Year I Was 24. Whenever I move to a new location, it always happens at the end of the summer so I can start at my new home in the fall. It's true: New Year's Day is in August.

When I was on the cruise just last week, I found myself telling the chief scientist that I was at the end of my third year of grad school. Almost as if someone else was speaking, I heard myself tell her that after the cruise, I would start calling myself a fourth-year. I mean, I did start in August 2012, but it seems crazy to think of myself as a fourth-year grad student. Of the three of us currently in the Young lab, I have been there the longest. Crazy.

I have a lot of expectations for the coming year - things I'd like to accomplish and things I'd like to see happen around me. I have a fresh perspective on OIMB now, so I'm bound and determined to enjoy my institute as much as I can before moving on. You know, in an odd way, this past cruise was the first time I came to own my identity as an OIMBer, the first time I felt like I belonged. It occurred to me that as one of the senior grad students, I now have the opportunity to define OIMB for incoming students. They'll look to me to see what OIMB is like - I know I did this to the senior grad students when I started - so I have the chance to make the institute anything I want. I want to make sure they meet an OIMB that is welcoming, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and curious. 

I'm going to hold onto the cruise, to the community that blossomed there. I'm going to embrace the little moments that make Oregon worth it, like when I sketched invertebrates on a restaurant table with a friend this weekend or when she texted me a picture of her data. I'm going to encourage the people around me and take a few minutes now and then to chat. I'm going to relish lunch breaks with my labmates, cleaning days mandated by our post-doc, and every time my adviser keeps talking just so I won't leave his office. So many things about the lab now are the exact opposite of what they always were, and I'm glad to have a full year ahead of me to embrace them. This revolution could not have come at a better time.

Truly, friends, it is New Year's Day.

*Incidentally, my high school, undergrad, and grad school have all had green and gold as their school colors.