Friday, December 18, 2015

The Light

"When you think all is forsaken
Listen to me now
You need never feel broken again
Sometimes darkness can show you the light"
- "The Light" by Disturbed

Dear friends, it is December 18th, just days away from the darkest day of the year. I can't help but think of my friends at higher latitude in Europe and the Arctic, who have even less light than me right now. I think spending last winter in Norway has actually given me a bit of a different perspective - somehow, the days at 43 N don't seem so short this year. We're getting close to the winter solstice, but I'm finding ways to focus on the light.

Christmas lights and a star from my friend in
Germany adorn a doorway in my apartment.
For starters, I received an early Christmas gift from a good friend in Germany this week. She sent me a string of lights and a paper lantern in the shape of a star, with a note saying "Friends are like stars - you don't always see them, but they're always there." Receiving thoughtful, heartfelt gifts from the other side of the world is one of the many things that make me happy.

This week at the lab has been productive despite some ups and downs. High point: when the librarian left dark chocolate bars in everyone's mailboxes with a note saying "Dark days call for dark chocolate." Low point: when one of the lab freezers broke, and the spoiled Dungeness crabs inside made the whole hallway smell like death. High point: finding out the post-doc's DNA samples weren't ruined, despite sitting in the broken freezer at room temperature for several hours.

I have to say, though, that the ultimate high point for the week actually came this afternoon. At about 4:30 pm, just as the campus was emptying for winter break, I finally finished writing my dropstone manuscript. Well, "finished" is perhaps not the correct term, because even though I now have a complete draft together, the manuscript is far from its final version. It still has to undergo revision by my four co-authors, after which it will be submitted to a scientific journal and edited one or more times before publication. Still, getting a complete draft together was a victory for me.

Tomorrow, I fly from Oregon to Michigan, where I'll spend Christmas and New Year's with my family. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing them and spending the holidays together. I'm not sure how often I'll post while in the Midwest, but if nothing else, I'll be back at it in January.

Merry Christmas, friends!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The sound of silence

"In restless streets I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence."
- "The Sound of Silence" by Simon and Garfunkel

The song quoted above has been on my mind for the past couple days, because it's shown up in my social media multiple times and in a few different forms. The lyrics themselves speak to the importance of music, and the haunting melody has a tendency to hang around in one's temporal lobes. If you're interested, I recommend the cover by Disturbed, found here.

Besides just the song, I've been listening the sound of silence for much of the past few days. The Oregon coast is strangely quiet now that the torrential rains have stopped - no more raindrops pounding the window, no more wind shaking the walls. My fellow OIMBers are leaving campus one by one for the holidays, so the campus is getting quieter and quieter. My work has involved a lot of intense writing this week, so I've had to concentrate in silence.
Shore Acres botanical garden decorated for Advent.

Last night, two friends and I went to see the annual light show at Shore Acres State Park, just outside of Coos Bay. Shore Acres is the former estate of timber baron Louis J. Simpson, and even though the main house has since been destroyed, Simpson's botanical gardens are still maintained. Every year during Advent, the botanical gardens are decorated with thousands of colored lights, and the public is invited to walk through and enjoy them.

The drive out to Shore Acres is on a narrow, dark highway - street lights are nowhere to be found. In fact, entering the garden can be a bit of a stab to the eyes because it's so brightly lit. Nevertheless, we turned up our collars against the cold, blinked a few times, and pressed on. There was a community band playing Christmas carols in the garden gazebo and plenty of people milling around, especially families with young kids. I like the atmosphere at Shore Acres in December.

I'll spend the next few days chipping away at my dropstone manuscript before heading out of town myself. It's actually a bit nice to see things winding down, the campus emptying, the weather calming, my to-do list shortening.

Sometimes, it's nice to hear the sound of silence.
Katie, Luciana, and I at Shore Acres.

Thursday, December 10, 2015


Ah, the life of the traveling scientist. What a crazy life it is.

A couple months ago, my dear friend, Stefanie, announced to me that she had been accepted to present her research at a conference in San Francisco. Stefanie lives in the Netherlands, so the trip to San Francisco was already a long one, crossing an ocean and a whole continent. Since she was already flying halfway around the world for the conference, she decided to take advantage of the opportunity and hop across the Pacific to see Hawaii while she was at it. (Yes, this is how we crazy people think.) She started looking into plane tickets and asked if I wanted to meet up while she was on my side of the world.

Um, yes.

Stefanie and I on Waikiki Beach.
I spent the last few days in Honolulu with Stefanie, and for the most part, we were proper tourists. We swam in the salty Pacific and dried out on the beach. We saw the Hawaii state capitol building, Iolani Palace, and Chinatown. We toured Pearl Harbor on the anniversary of its bombardment, then watched the annual Pearl Harbor Day parade through downtown Honolulu.

I did my best to be a traveler instead of a tourist by connecting with people who actually live in Honolulu. I know quite a few from past expeditions, so Stefanie and I spent an evening with UH Manoa affiliates I met on the Abyssline cruise earlier this year. It was really nice to catch up with these friends and hear what they've been doing since the cruise.

Ok, here's where the story takes a turn into real crazy-traveling-scientist territory. Before I left for Oahu, I of course had to tell my supervisor in Oregon that I would be gone for a few days. When I said I would be in Hawaii, he had an announcement of his own. Apparently, there's a pretty good archive of ROV and submersible videos from various dives in Hawaiian waters housed at UH Manoa. Some of the videos feature what can only be described as volcanic dropstones - stones that were blown off of volcanoes and landed on the deep seafloor. Imagine that - dropstones in the tropics!

View of the Pacific, facing south from Oahu. When I look at
the ocean surface now, all I can see are the various hard
substrata on the seafloor and the organisms that inhabit them. 
Craig put me in contact with the professor in charge of the archive and arranged for us to meet while I was in Honolulu. The professor was extremely helpful. He showed me his archive, held on everything from VHS and cassette tapes to multi-terabyte hard drives. He described for me what kinds of hard-bottom structures showed up in the videos, along with example photos of their fauna and an exact map of where they are. It turns out there's actually a lot more than stones out there - giant carbonate blocks, sunken coral reef terraces, shipwrecks, cars, and various junk discarded by the military - all in deep water just south of Oahu.

The archive is an excellent resource, but it might be a while before I have the chance to formulate a scientific question, mine the data that I need, and turn it into a project. Still, I'm grateful for the helpful professor, the available video, and the beauty of the island I got to experience.


Friday, December 4, 2015


"Merciless though the wind takes hold with freezing cold
Come, my friend, sit with me; take council in the warmth
Torrents wash away everything
Raindrops flowing all around"
- "Torrents" by Asgeir

I'm writing this post at my kitchen table in Coos Bay. I just finished editing a term paper for my brother (he's an undergrad), and I'm listening to the rain fall outside. Torrents of rain have been falling on the Oregon coast all week, turning my world into a dark, wet mess.
An encrusting sponge on a dropstone I collected in 2012.
This particular stone is about the size of the human hand.

It's true what they say, you know: when it rains, it pours. As the world outside has tried to keep itself from drowning, I've been piled up with papers, projects, and plans. I set the shipwreck project aside for a while, mostly because I'm waiting on comments from my co-authors on my latest manuscript draft. In the meantime, I've turned my attention to the cornerstone of my dissertation: the dropstone project.

What are dropstones, you ask? Well, the definition is pretty simple. They're random rocks on the seafloor, stony islands in a desert of mud. In the Arctic, dropstones originate on land. They're scraped up from the ground by glaciers, along with plenty of dirt and other debris, and when the glacier calves off an iceberg, they ride the 'berg out to sea. When the iceberg melts, the stones fall to the seafloor - hence their name, dropstones.

Can you interpret this graph? 'Cuz I can.
I first became interested in dropstone communities in 2011, while working at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany. I was analyzing photos of the seafloor when I started to notice the random rocks in some photos. The stones were densely populated with encrusting sponges, bryozoans, anemones, and soft corals, and I started to wonder why. I've essentially been working on an analysis of those dropstones in one capacity or another ever since. Planning, writing my thesis proposal, analyzing the footage, then analyzing the data; reading a giant statistics textbook, then re-analyzing the data, writing a manuscript, then re-writing the manuscript - so many steps! Well, the project is finally coming to a head. I've made some big strides in data analysis over the past few weeks, and I believe I'm finally starting to understand how dropstone communities are structured.

Of course there's still a lot of work ahead of me, but it's exciting to see the project finally coming together.