Saturday, October 31, 2015

The path before me

"Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose"
- "Song of the Open Road" by Walt Whitman

For some reason that I don't entirely understand, I started taking pictures of pathways in 2011. I just love the look of a long, straight road stretched out in front of me. I always take the photos standing on the path and staring straight down its midline. Sometimes, the paths go on for ever, pinching off in infinity, but others have a determined end with something interesting on it. I especially love breakwalls, jetties, and docks - pathways that lead into the water. 
The breakwall at Presque Isle, Marquette, MI, photographed
at sunrise, April 2011.
It's actually kind of a game for me to find interesting pathways to photograph when I travel. I'm always on the look-out for nice, straight roads, and I take my time getting set up for the shots. In fact, I sometimes fear that I annoy my travel companions with this habit, but they usually understand. I go home with some pretty nice photos. 
A beach just outside Kiel, Germany, photographed in mid-
afternoon, September 2011.
I've thought a lot in recent years about why I take so many photos of pathways. It's not like I could ever sell or publish them - my camera doesn't have near the resolution required for that - so the photo series is really just for me. But of all things that my sub-conscious could have chosen to fixate on, it chose paths. More than that, it chose straight paths. Clear paths. Paths that stretch into infinity. 
Motutapu Island, just offshore of Auckland, New Zealand,
photographed at mid-day, April 2014.
Sure, I've photograped plenty of curved trails, but they always end up bugging me - mostly because I can't see where they end. I want my photos to shoot straight down the road, to see all of it, to see the end. I can't stand it if my photos aren't perfectly centered or if there are any shadows on the trail. I can actually be quite the perfectionist. 
Stavanger, Norway, photographed in mid-afternoon, August 2014.
If you'll allow me to wax philosophical, I think the photos are an extension of the way I view my life. I wholeheartedly believe that the true artist only ever depicts himself, and if the photos are art, then the pathways are me. I've always been a perfectionist of sorts, and I've always planned my life at least 10 years ahead. It's impossible for me to live without a well-articulated goal, and my goals are often lofty and idealistic. I see my life as extending along one long, flat, well-centered, infinite trail, and I can't stand it if the path is any less than perfect. 
Harmar Bridge, Marietta, OH, photographed in the evening,
August 2015.
Recently, I've been trying to let go of my own perfect plan for my life. As I consider my next steps, I'm trying to build patience and flexibility. Trust me, it's hard, especially for someone who despises uncertainty, but I'm grateful for all those who remind me to relax and take things one step at a time. My path is long. Maybe it will be curvy or have dark shadows or not be centered. Or maybe, just maybe, I'll end up in the same place I always planned - at the head of a long, flat, infinite path to the sea.

The breakwall at OIMB beach, Charleston,
OR, photographed in late afternoon, October 2015.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Dinner party

New life goal: live somewhere with a large enough kitchen and dining room that I can host dinner parties on a regular basis.

Ever since the Atlantis cruise this summer, my fellow OIMBers that participated in the cruise have been talking about getting together for a post-cruise gathering. We grew to be friends while at sea and wanted to spend time together without the pressure of a Sentry sample hanging over our heads. Well, after the cruise, we all parted ways, so the first time we were all in town and able to get together was this week.

I ended up hosting the gathering, since I'm one of the only cruise participants with her own apartment. It was a lot of work, but I really didn't mind - I love being a hostess. Whenever someone comes over to my place, I encourage them to look around. Absolutely every decoration in my apartment is meant to be a conversation starter, and many of them originated in the far corners of the world. I love it when guests ask me questions. Granted, my apartment is small and definitely not designed for large parties (I didn't even have enough chairs for our crowd of 8), but we made do. My living room was crowded and full of warm-hearted people.

It was nice to see the relationships that had formed among the cruise participants. I know all of them a lot better now than before the cruise; that's for sure. We got caught up with each other's lives, our projects, the progress of our theses. We talked about our plans for the future, about applying for jobs and applying for visas and where in the world we'll find the funding for our dreams. Some of us will be moving away pretty soon, so it was nice to have everyone together, maybe for the last time. It was a great evening.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

American Girl

"Well, she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn't help but thinkin'
That there was a little more to life somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to"
- "American Girl" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

It's October 25th. It is October 25th, but my brain refuses to accept it. I'm now in Oregon, and the outside temperature is the warmest I've encountered in 2 solid months. I'm wearing short sleeves and crop pants while everyone else pulls on thick socks and extra jackets. If it weren't for the cheesy blow-up Halloween decorations in people's front yards or the ubiquity of pumpkin spice lattés, I would have no way of knowing that it was already mid-autumn. My world is covered in crunchy gold leaves, but my skin still thinks it's summer.

Coming home is always hard, especially after long trips. The first time my jet-lagged body woke up in the early morning in my dark apartment, I had to remind myself where I was. It feels as if I've traveled to another planet, in another universe where time runs on a different scale. Thankfully, I've had plenty of friends around to help me transition back to life in Coos Bay. Caitlin, my labmate, picked me up at the airport, and I spent my first day back at OIMB doing nothing but catching up with other students. For the first time in a long time, I have friends at my institute, so it felt good to see them again.
Daniel and the Blonde performing at Seven Devils Brewing.
Photo by Jesse Borland.

A group of us went out on Friday evening to an establishment I affectionately call "The OIMB Extension Office." Seven Devils Brewing Company was started by an OIMB graduate and her husband, and the staff is dominated by current and former OIMB students. It's the go-to hang-out for Coos Bay's young, educated population. On Friday, there happened to be a band playing classic Americana music - folksy, almost bluegrass. I found myself explaining to our Portuguese post-doc what bluegrass was, and only then did I realize how quickly I had slid back into American Kirstin - just 24 hours after landing in Oregon, I was sitting in a microbrewery, listening to Appalachian folk music as if it were no big deal. I hadn't felt the gears shift this time, but I guess it had happened all the same.

In the coming months, I plan to explore every side of American Kirstin, mostly because I'm going to be stuck here for a while. Now that my Svalbard settlement plate experiment is finished, every data point that I need for my dissertation has been collected. All the numbers I need are on my computer, so as of right now, my sole responsibility is sitting in my office, analyzing data, and writing papers until the day I graduate. I have no more field trips planned, no more experiments, no more cruises, no more trips. It feels a bit strange and even sad to admit that, but of course I can't exclude the possibility that something will come up. You never know.

For now, I'm going to settle in to Coos Bay and enjoy the time I have left here. I'm going to establish a regular work schedule and give myself plenty of rest. I'm going to wear skirts and earrings to the lab and actually feel like a woman. I'm going to invest in relationships, invest in my institute, invest in my town. And who knows - maybe I'll rediscover American Kirstin.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Last stop

I made one last stop on my friend-visiting tour, in the Netherlands. My friend, Stefanie, lives in Utrecht, so I spent a few days at her place on my way back to the U.S. We climbed the Domturm (Cathedral Tower) in Utrecht, then did day trips to Den Haag and Amersfoort. It was great to see her!

View from the top of the Domturm, Utrecht

Stefanie and I on top of the Domturm

Seen in Amersfoort, the Netherlands

Seen in Amersfoort, the Netherlands

No holds barred

Toward the end of my week in Stavanger, I spent time with my old housemates at Kirkebakken. One former housemate, who moved out to get her own place just before I left, was kind enough to let me stay with her, and I also spent plenty of time at the house itself. To be perfectly honest, not much had changed - a few people had moved out of the house, but they all remained in the Stavanger area. Actually, one of my favorite things about the Kirkebakken community is that even after moving out, housemates remain friends. There are even a number of new Kirkebakken couples, I discovered, each one involving one current and one former housemate. It made me smile.

I spent most of Friday evening on the brown faux leather couch in the second-floor living room, surrounded by Kirkebakkeners. We shared chips and dip and clever quips, in a conversation where every topic was fair game. These people know each other far too well for their own good, but the no-holds-barred nature of the exchange just made me happy. This is what community looks like.

I somehow made it through the whole week in Stavanger without taking a single photo of people, so I apologize for the text-only nature of this post. It was good to spend time at Kirkebakken.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Et hjem

Hello, friend.
When I left Stavanger last February, my housemate, Kanjana, made me a keychain. On one side, it has a sketch of our house and the name of the street, Kirkebakken. On the other side, in front of a psychedelic orange patterned background, the words "et hjem," Norwegian for "at home." I stopped by Stavanger to visit on my way back from Svalbard, and I must say, dear friends, it still feels like home.

Ingeborg picked me up at the airport, and except for new coat she was wearing, both of us looked exactly the same. It was like I had left Stavanger yesterday. I spent my first few days at her place, and it was great to spend time together again. We ate Thai food one night and Indian the next. We went to see an indie Italian movie about a mob family. I was reminded of all my favorite things about Ingeborg: her generosity, her adventurous spirit, her love of ethnic food, music, and art, her classy fashion sense that always makes me look like a hobo. It was so good to see her again.

Most of my friends work during the day, so I used that free time to revisit all my favorite parts of Stavanger. I took a long walk through the city center and along the shore of the fjord. I ran a few errands. I bought fresh raisin rolls and ate them in the sun. Of course I stopped by IRIS to catch up with colleagues and drop off specimens, and of course I ended up finding a quiet corner and working on my laptop for a few hours. Such is the life of the traveling scientist.

The city was as beautiful as ever.
I spent Thursday evening at Andrew's. He actually picked me up on his way to get his daughter from school, which meant I got to pick her up with him. Friends, let me tell you, there is nothing like seeing a blonde-headed 6-year-old run at full speed across her classroom towards you to make you feel like you've done something right in life. After some time on the trampoline, I spent most of the evening sipping cider and talking science with Andrew. True to form, he took one look at my most recent data set and gave me 5 new analyses to try, but I don't mind. The paper will end up better for it.

It was a great week, and I feel like I'm finally recuperating from my absurd work schedule during the Svalbard course. In essence, I stopped by home on my way...well, home.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Four Long Years

I'm not sure if you know this, but Longyearbyen is actually named after an American. His name was John Munro Longyear, and he was a pioneer of the coal mining industry on Spitsbergen. Longyear and I have more than nationality and an affinity for the Arctic in common, though. We were both born in the same state, Michigan, in the American Midwest. Not only that, but John Longyear was a notable timber and mining developer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and he served as mayor of Marquette, Michigan in 1890-1891. Just 118 years later, I moved to Marquette, Michigan, to earn my Bachelor's degree at Northern Michigan University. There is a Longyear Avenue in Marquette, not far from Northern's campus, and while I was a student at NMU, one of my dear friends lived in Longyear Apartments.

The Longyear connection is actually one of many examples of recurring names and numbers in the lives of myself and my family. I won't bore you with the other examples here, but every time an unexpected connection comes up, I take it as a small reminder that the course of my life has not been determined by chance. Call me crazy, but I believe there is a larger plan at work, and I am meant to be here.

As I now prepare to leave Longyearbyen, I can't help but reflect on the turn of events that have brought me here. My first time in the Arctic was in 2011, just after my graduation from Northern, on a research expedition with my colleagues from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany. I returned in 2012 for a similar expedition with the same group, then in September last year to deploy my settlement plates. We only stopped at the dock in Longyearbyen when I came back in January, so I was never actually in town that trip.

If I look at myself now, I have to admit I've changed a lot since that first trip four years ago. For starters, I know my way around here, and I'm perfectly comfortable adjusting to the polar climate. One of the most important things I've learned during this most recent trip is how much Arctic experience I actually have. I was shocked every time a classmate would turn to me for advice or direct a question at me just because I've been here before. I mean, there are plenty of people at UNIS and other institutions who have been coming up here for more years than me, and who are much more experienced and frankly better-equipped to conduct Arctic research than I am.

Still, I've started to see myself in a new light. After all, I'm a fourth-year Ph.D. student, and by now, I should have at least some idea of what I'm doing. One of the side effects of research is an acute awareness of how little you know, but this course has reminded me of all the things I do know, all the things I can do, all the things I have learned.

Every time I come to the Arctic, I fear it will be my last. Well, it’s been 4 years since my first expedition, and I’m now leaving Svalbard for my fifth time. I’ve slowly become integrated into the Arctic research community, having gotten here via institutes in both Germany and Norway. I’m still nowhere close to the inner circle of Arctic researchers, but I’m somewhere on the edge, which is good enough for now. I have colleagues and connections and no shortage of ideas. All I need to return here is some grant money.

Someday, when I’m a tenured professor, I’ll list “Arctic biology” as one of my research interests on my university’s webpage, and I will mean it. There are so many questions still left unanswered in the high North, so many truths still unknown. I want to discover them all, no matter how logistically difficult the research may be. I want to plunge myself into the intellectual and actual darkness to learn things that no one has ever learned before. 

I’ve realized now that the Arctic will always be a part of my life, a part of my research, a part of me. Because the truth is that I am in love with this place, more than anywhere else on Earth. I am full-on, gut-wrenchingly, heart-smashingly, sell-your-soul in love with this place, and I will always come back. Always.

Photo by Carl Ballantine


"Es heißt ja nicht umsonst Spitsbergen!"
"They don't call the island 'Mountain Peaks' for no reason!" - Ingo Schewe, translation mine

Aurora borealis behind barrack 11. Photo by Adrian Pop.
Dear friends, when I last left you, I told you the course was over. Well, in reality, most of the Master's students took off last weekend, but the Ph.D. students had to stay on and write an additional report. (Higher degree, higher expectations.) I'm actually grateful for that report, because it kept me in Svalbard for an extra 7 days, and when you're in the most beautiful place on the planet, every second counts.

I've spent most of my daytime hours this past week in the UNIS computer lab with the report, but in the evenings, I was free to just breathe deeply and be in love with Longyearbyen. There was the night we all sat on the barrack 11 roof and watched the northern lights. Then there was that time we had a dance party in the kitchen. There were two times that someone confused me for a Norwegian, and I took it as a huge compliment. There was saying goodbye to my classmates, and then more goodbyes, and then more.

There are only three of us left now - me, a Russian, and a Romanian - and the Russian and I leave tomorrow. We decided to use our last day in Longyearbyen to go on a hike, so the Romanian (who happens to be in charge of the UNIS student council) hooked us up with a rifle and helped us decide on a route.

For those of you familiar with Spitsbergen topography, we hiked up Sukkertoppen, walked along the ridge and across the plateau, summited Trollstein, then came down across Larsbreen and ended at Nybyen. For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, we hiked up a mountain, walked along a narrow ridge and across a plateau, went up to the summit of another mountain, then came down across a glacier and ended back at our dorm.

It was an absolutely fantastic hike and the perfect way to spend my last day in Longyearbyen. I'll let the photos speak for themselves.

Adventfjorden, seen from Sukkertoppen

Dear Trollstein,
I will conquer you.

The narrow ridge to the Trollstein summit

Uliana and I at the Trollstein summit

Coming down the slope from Trollstein to Larsbreen (the big white patch on the left)

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A real Viking

When I lived in Stavanger and would bike to work, the IRIS secretary used to call me "a real Viking." I worked up a sweat biking to work, so I didn't wear as many layers as she thought I should. Plenty of times, even into the late autumn, I would show up at work in leggings and a T-shirt, flush in the face and breathing hard. I'd come into the front lobby holding my bike helmet, and she'd tell me, "Kirstin, you are a real Viking!" I'd smile, push the sweaty hair out of my face, and make my way downstairs to the locker room.

Classmates gather for dinner at the Viking round table at Kroa
Well, friends, last night, I again felt like a real Viking. For starters, the final exam for my course was Friday morning, so my classmates and I fought valiantly against each question with our pens. After a break in the afternoon, we met for dinner at a restaurant called Kroa, in the center of Longyearbyen. One of the classmates had reserved a round table for us, and I didn't understand the significance of this reservation until I arrived. The Kroa Round Table is a special place; it's a private room with an epic, hexagonal table and large windows. The ceiling is glass so you can see the stars and the northern lights. The table is wide enough that you feel a mile away from anyone across from you, and the centerpiece is a wire candelabra that resembles a knotty tree. I actually felt like I should have arrived with my sword, spread a primitive map on the table, and discussed how we were going to conquer the North Atlantic. 

We ordered drinks and appetizers, and friends, one of the appetizers on the menu was smoked minky whale. Whale. Yes, of course I ordered the whale, and then proceeded to pass my plate around the table so anyone who wanted could take a taste. The meat was very dark red, almost black, and the taste was something halfway between fish and roasted lamb. It paired very well with the tart berries and pickled red onion they gave me on the side.

We spent the rest of the night eating, drinking, chatting, and relaxing. It was the first time we've been able to spend time together without the pressure of time-sensitive lab work or a looming deadline, and it was the perfect way to celebrate the end of our course.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

If you give a biologist a sample

Paradody of If you give a mouse a cookie and similar books by Laura Numeroff

If you give a biologist a sample
She'll want a microscope to look at it.
When she sees the beautiful polychaetes and bivalves,
She'll ask you for a pair of forceps to pick them out.
She'll probably need a petri dish for sorting
And a jar with some ethanol to store the specimens.

She'll start to wonder what the organisms are,
So she'll ask you for a dichotomous key,
And when she's finally finished identifying the species,
She'll want to know why they live where they do.

She'll want to go on an expedition
And run experiments in the lab.
She'll ask you for a ship and a crew.
She'll go out to sea for weeks at a time,
Taking measurements and collecting sediments
And strange, wonderful creatures from the deep.

When she returns home, she'll be exhausted
And probably want to take a nap.
She'll ask you for a blanket and a pillow.
She'll crawl in, make herself comfortable and fluff the pillow a few times
Then pass out like a dead woman.
When she wakes up, she'll be hungry
And you'll have to take her out to eat.

As you're driving home from the restaurant,
She'll see the lab in the distance.
She'll ask you to turn towards it,
Because now she's fully recuperated and wants to get back to work.

Walking into the lab, she'll see microscopes on the tables.
And if you let her sit at a microscope,
Chances are she'll want to look at a sample.