Saturday, November 28, 2015

Feels like home

This past Thursday was Thanksgiving in the United States, so I drove north to spend the holiday with friends. I've known the Hansens since they first moved to the coast and attended my church in Coos Bay, and they've since become my surrogate Oregon family.

I spent the day alternating between adult conversation and playing with the kids - an intelligent but shy 8-year-old and a chatterbox toddler. We played violin duets. We played Monopoly. We played "Chase the Squealing Child and Pretend You're Too Slow to Catch Him."

I wasn't the only Thanksgiving guest, so I also got to know some new friends. Another family that attends the Hansens' church, one of Lee's colleagues. Remarkably, we all fit around the same table, even the kids, and it was a great time to share food, share love, share our lives.

I'm thankful for the Hansens and for the community they're at the center of. They make Oregon feel like home.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Not so bad after all

Laptop. Check.
Notebook. Check.
Sack lunch. Check.
Stack of CDs. Check.
Full tank of gas. Check.

Standing next to my car, I ran through the list one last time to make sure I had everything. It was late morning, and I was driving up to UO's main campus in Eugene to meet with a professor. She's a member of my advisory committee, and even though she's not a biologist, she's a statistical wizard and a great teacher. I needed her help with analyzing some data, so we had agreed to meet today.

Every time I'm on main campus, I have mixed feelings about it. I mean, I love college campuses, and UO has a particularly beautiful one. The brick buildings, the public bulletin boards, the throngs of students in rain boots and North Face - there's a certain energy that pervades the campus. What bugs me about main campus is largely circumstantial. I always have to drive there, so I end up navigating the narrow, one-way roads of the university district with a quickened pulse as I try to avoid the ubiquitous pedestrians. Compared to sleepy Coos Bay, Eugene always makes me feel claustrophobic. Besides the hassle, I think my least favorite aspect of main campus is that it's never felt like it's mine. Sure, I've been a UO student for over three years, but every time I set foot on the main campus, I end up consulting the posted maps like a freshman undergrad.

After parking my car several blocks from the university, I set out with my backpack, trying my best to blend in. I had some time left before my appointment, so I decided to stop in and say "hi" to another committee member. I headed to the science complex with her office number in hand, then realized I had no idea how to get into her building. All the buildings in the science complex are connected, but the variable architectures make finding the passageways between them non-trivial. When I finally reached her hallway, I found her office door closed, the room empty. Oh well.

Back at my stats professor's office, I parked my laptop on her desk. I showed her the data analysis I had managed by myself, then asked her how to test my remaining hypotheses. I can't tell you how many times I had to ask "How do you do that?" because even though I could conceptualize a particular test in my head, I had no idea how to run it properly. I consider myself relatively mathematically inclined, but I have a long way to go before I can match this professor's level of statistical fluency.

I wasn't actually in there that long, but it felt like an eternity. By the end, we had made some significant progress. I'm definitely closer to understanding my data now than I was before, and the more I look at it, the more interesting it gets.

Head held high, I made my way back to my car and put in one of my favorite albums - Lonesome Dreams by Lord Huron. That album is in my mind exactly what Oregon sounds like, and I love listening to it whenever I have to drive between Coos Bay and Eugene.

Overall, it was a pretty productive day. Maybe main campus isn't so bad after all.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The encroaching darkness

Friends, the video above contains my latest musical composition, entitled "The encroaching darkness." It's meant to represent the shortening days during my last weeks in Svalbard in October, and it serves as the fifth movement in my "Arctic" violin concerto. To be honest, it's not really fair to call it a whole movement, because it's only a minute and a half long and is missing the solo violin part. I really meant it just as an interlude, a moment of pause for the soloist between the other athletic movements of the concerto.

If the video above doesn't play for you, try this link.

If you're interested in the other movements of the concerto, find them here:

I. Longyearbyen            Blog link           YouTube link
II. Molloy                      Blog link           YouTube link
III. Midnight Sun          Blog link           YouTube link
IV. Kongsfjorden          Blog link           YouTube link

I'm still working on the last movement in the concerto, "Full Circle," so look for it soon!

Thursday, November 19, 2015


Sitting at my desk, I could hear footsteps behind me. Someone was coming down the hall toward my desk, probably just one of the undergrads using our lab. I ignored it at first, but the footsteps kept coming, encroaching on my workspace. Then all of a sudden, they stopped. I turned around. There stood my adviser, Craig, wearing a damp rain jacket and holding two ancient-looking books. 

"Do you recognize this?" He handed me one of the volumes. 

I checked the spine. Bio-Ecology by Clements and Shelford, published in 1939. "Clements is one of the names you told me to look up," I told him. 

Craig nodded. "Shelford was the other." 

Reading material, Young lab style.
I've been thinking a lot about succession in marine hard-bottom communities lately, so Craig has been giving me reading material. In case you don't know, succession is the process by which groups of organisms sequentially replace one other as a community develops. At first, you typically have fast-growing, fast-reproducing species, but as they die out, they're replaced by long-lived, slow-growing species. The process has been documented in a wide range of habitats - forests, mountainsides, fouling communities on docks. 

Succession, like most ecological concepts, also shows up in the older literature. Actually, one of the classic examples comes from my home state, Michigan. Sand dunes on a lake shore undergo succession from dune grass to meadow to coniferous forest, each stage stabilizing the ground so the next suite of plants can colonize. The modern distribution of these plants reflects their successional origins. Forests, located largely inland, stand on the oldest ground, while sand dunes are the youngest ground closest to the lake shore. 

I'm continually amazed at how much information can be harvested from older literature. Especially when your Ph.D. supervisor is a science history buff, you become acutely aware of the greats who have come before. Sars, Forbes, Agassiz, Thompson - all natural historians, explorers, and ecological thinkers - and, apparently, Clements and Shelford.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Look at the stars

"I lie under starlit sky
And the seasons change in the blink of an eye
I watch as the planets turn
And the old stars die and the young stars burn"
- "Lonesome Dreams" by Lord Huron

Well, here I am again, friends, measuring time in goodbye parties. Tonight, I bid farewell to my good friend, Laurel. Sure, I've said goodbye to plenty of friends and acquaintances in Coos Bay, but this departure was not just standard procedure. It marked the end of an era.  

My Coos Bay girls at a Napa Valley winery in June 2013;
Laurel is on the right. One of the ankle bracelets I wear is
for the community I shared with these women.
Laurel was one of my first friends in Coos Bay. When I started at OIMB, she was the senior grad student, so she was one of the people I looked to for a definition of the institute. She introduced me to tidepooling and mushrooming and all the biodiversity in southern Oregon. More than that, though, Laurel became a close personal friend. She was one of four girls that were my home base during my first year here, and she was my solid rock when everyone else moved away. 

During my second year at OIMB, I would pull into the parking lot on Saturday afternoons and find Laurel's car already there. I'd go into her lab to check on her, and we'd spend a good hour complaining to each other and not actually getting anything done. She was my sounding board during my worst year yet. We know each other's theses inside and out, not because our projects have anything to do with each other, but because we spent so many hours talking about them.

Cruise participants with Laurel at her farewell party
When I left for Norway in August 2014, I was worried that Laurel would be gone by the time I got back. She was pretty close to finishing her Ph.D., and even though she did successfully graduate while I was away, she stuck around OIMB for several months afterward. I was glad for it, because it meant we got to go on the Atlantis cruise together this past summer. She was one of my cabinmates, and we would routinely stay up way too late, lying in our bunks, talking each other through the events of the day. 

OIMB is going to feel different without Laurel around, but she's bound for a much greater opportunity - a post-doctoral fellowship abroad. Her one-way flight is just days away, so tonight, a group gathered in OIMB's Boathouse Auditorium to see her off. With the chairs cleared away and tiny lights strung between the beams, the Boathouse was transformed into a cozy gathering place. Folk music wafted softly out of a pair of speakers; long tables held potluck dishes with typical Oregon ingredients - mushrooms, cranberries, blackberries, Dungeness crab. We ate seated on the floor, barefoot or in socks, chatting about everything possible except how much we would miss her.

Farewell gathering in the Boathouse
As the gathering drew to a close, several of us stayed around, slowly cleaning up, not ready to leave the departed-to-be. I think it's a testament to Laurel's impact on the institute that none of us wanted to go. At least to me, Laurel embodies everything that is the best about OIMB: curiosity, passion, knowledge of natural history and a love of invertebrates, not to mention friendship, community, and a genuine willingness to help. I was actually talking with one of the faculty members over dinner about the importance of maintaining the OIMB culture. When I first started, I looked to older grad students to define the institute for me, and now that I've reached the rank of a senior grad student, it's my job to pass on all the positive attributes of the institute to those just beginning their degrees.

With the night finally ended, only three of us remained. We shut off the Boathouse lights, locked the door, and stepped outside. Laurel glanced upwards and immediately exclaimed "Look at the stars!"

We paused for a moment, gazing up at the dark sky, where white specks shone brightly in distinct formations. The stars were certainly beautiful tonight. 

And so we remained, peering into the night. Feeling the cold November wind as it ushered in the season's first storm. Remarking at how fast the darkness can deepen as the sun sinks toward the other side of the world. Noticing the constellations. Watching old stars move on and young stars be born. Thinking about the past, the future, the present. Seeing our dear friend drive away, but also feeling the pull of the next generation. Looking at the stars.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Ecological Indicators

Friends, I'm happy to announce to you that another scientific paper has been published with my name on it. I'm far from the first author on this one but rather one of many co-authors. The paper pulls together a lot of information collected from the long-term ecological research station Hausgarten, in the eastern Fram Strait, at 78° N. The Hausgarten has been sampled regularly by my colleagues at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, since 1999, and their annual field campaigns have created a unique and valuable dataset for monitoring ecological changes in the Arctic. I had the opportunity to visit Hausgarten twice, in 2011 and 2012, while I was living in Germany and working at the AWI. Hausgarten data was the basis for my first two ecological publications (find them here and here) and also provides the foundation for my dissertation on dropstone communities. For more information about the Hausgarten, I recommend you check out this webpage. 

The present paper appears in the journal Ecological Indicators, and it serves as a good summary and assimilation of work taking place at the Hausgarten over the past 15 years. Check it out:

Sunday, November 8, 2015

"I'm a marine biologist"

"I don't know if it was divine intervention or the kinship of all living things, but I tell you, Jerry, at that moment, I was a marine biologist."
- the American comedy show Seinfeld

The 90s sitcom Seinfeld is in my opinion the best thing to ever happen to American comedy. It's famous for being a show about nothing - the series profiles a group of young adults living in New York, and while there are mini-plots within each episode about the minutia of their lives, there is no long-term development of the story. Each episode spins on its own head, as two or three different scenarios are laid out and then pulled together in an hilarious crescendo. In one episode, George Costanza pretends to be a marine biologist in order to get an old college friend to notice him. Check out the clip here.

Marine mammal crime scene tape. It exists.
I was actually reminded of this episode yesterday because I found myself face-to-face with a beached whale. That's right, friends. Earlier this week, a blue whale washed up on Ophir Beach, about an hour and a half south of Coos Bay. A few friends and I had been planning to go on a hike in that area anyway, so we decided to trade mountains for beach and use our Saturday to check out the whale.

When we arrived, it wasn't hard to spot the whale at all - mostly because blue whales are the largest animal on Earth, but also because there were numerous cars parked along the road and a small crowd of people on the beach. The whole area around the whale was roped off with what looked like crime scene tape, except that it bore the words "protected marine mammal." Inside the tape, a number of people were working to disassemble the whale carcass. They were dressed in trash bags and plastic rain gear, yielding giant knives.

Volunteers work to remove soft tissue from the carcass.
My two friends and I approached the person in charge and got the ok to cross the tape line as volunteers. After all, disassembling a whale carcass takes lots of man power, and we wanted to help. We were directed to a portion of the carcass that included the scapula and a pectoral fin. It had been separated from the main body, I'm guessing with chainsaws, and dragged up the beach. It was our job to cut off chunks of blubber and any other soft tissue to expose the underlying bone, then toss the tissue into a fire pit where it would be burned. I learned that burning and burial are the two most efficient ways to get rid of whale flesh, but the bones are typically saved for public display. After most of the flesh had been removed, the plan was for the various sections to be loaded into a giant net and sunk in shallow water, so benthic scavengers could take care of the fine-scale cleaning. The clean bones would then be retrieved, dried, and saved in a museum.

Belive it or not, it was a lot of fun working on the whale carcass. There were volunteers from numerous different marine labs around, and everyone shared a certain camraderie. I guess chopping up putrefied mammalian flesh is a bonding experience.

There it is: the blue whale, 75 feet long.
I know you're wondering about the smell, but I can tell you it wasn't actually that bad. It was definitely a distinct smell - one that I'd recognize again - but it wasn't as strong as I expected. Of course it was worse the closer you got to the carcass, but after about 5 minutes of sawing away at slightly-liquified blubber, you got used to it.

We worked away for about three hours, helping first with the scapular section and then moving on to the fluke (tail fin). The fluke wasn't very far along, so we ended up just removing the skin, which I was astounded by. It was a good 3-4 inches thick and tougher than anything I've ever tried to cut before. We made a little bit of headway with knives, then the rest of the skin was ripped away from the fluke by an excavator driving in reverse.

When we were ready to leave, we stepped into the ocean to wash off our gloves and rain pants. Honestly, the water didn't help that much, because whale flesh is incredibly greasy. The thick, fatty bits still stuck to us, but thankfully, we were able to get it off with soap back at the lab.

Disassembling a whale carcass is pretty high on the list of awesome things I've done in grad school. It may also top the list of the most disgusting thing I've ever done. One thing is for sure, though: I love my job.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

What a wreck

I suppose I should tell you what I'm working on now. Since I got back from Svalbard, my focus has been mainly on my shipwreck project, and if you don't remember what I'm talking about, refresh your memory here.

Zoanthids, anemones, a crab, a sea star, and a fish  living  on
the rusty hull of a sunken battleship.
I've been working on the shipwreck data set for quite some time now, trying to understand what factors structure the invertebrate communities that live on them. I've looked at the size of each wreck; I've considered how they're oriented on the seafloor. I've looked up which type of ship made each wreck and what materials were used to construct them. I've considered elevation off the seafloor, complexity of the shipwreck surface, the extent of fishing gear entangled in each.

And I'm finally making progress.

When I met with Andrew in Stavanger a few weeks ago, he suggested I try a statistical technique that we used in the Svalbard image analysis paper. It's called a redundancy analysis, and it's designed to show which abiotic factors have the strongest influence on the biological communities. I can't give you the details of my results here, but I can tell you I'm very excited about them. There are clear and distinct patterns in the shipwreck communities, and there are 5 abiotic factors strongly influencing the patterns.

Step by step, my analysis is moving forward!