Saturday, January 30, 2016

Full Circle

Dear friends, it's taken a while, but I am proud to bring you the final movement of my Arctic violin concerto, entitled “Full Circle.” The concerto has a total of 6 movements, all named after places I’ve seen or experiences I’ve had in the Arctic since I started going there in 2011.

This piece is about my favorite place on Earth. It’s about mountains and about valleys; it’s about plateaus and rivers and fjords. It’s about polar bears and northern lights, sea ice and glaciers. It’s about every day the sun doesn’t set, and every day the sun doesn’t rise.

This piece is about international community at the top of the world. It’s about the work I’ve already accomplished and the discoveries I have yet to make. It’s about my weary eyes, my pounding heart, my chilled fingertips, chapped lips, and lungs blasted clean by the cold. It’s about life. It’s about home. It’s about everything that makes me come alive.

I hope this music helps you feel what I feel.

As always, I recommend you turn up your bass or use well-isolated headphones to make sure you hear the cello part. Listen to the movements in order at the links below:

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
V. The encroaching darkness      Blog link           YouTube link
VI. Full circle                              This post            YouTube link

Sunday, January 24, 2016

No bad days: Part 2

Friends, as you know, I'm in Oregon now, and my scientific travel schedule is significantly emptier than normal this year. All the data for my dissertation are collected, so I'm stuck here for a while as I analyze the data and write my thesis. I'm using this period of geographic stability to re-discover and re-connect with Oregon, the state that up until now has been more of a resting place between trips than an actual home. And I'm liking it.

One of my favorite things about Oregon is its geography. The state is arranged in vertical stripes. There's the coast on the western side of the state, flanked by the coastal mountain range, then the valleys, the Cascade Mountains, and the eastern high desert. Compared to other U.S. states, Oregon is also relatively compact - even though I live on the coast, I can drive into the Cascades in under 4 hours. And that is exactly what I did yesterday.

My lab's post-doc, Luciana, and I both like to snowboard, so we packed up my car, left the coast at 5 am, and headed into the mountains. When we got there, we found perfect conditions - packed snow with a layer of fresh powder on top. El NiƱo has given the Pacific Northwest an extra helping of snow this year, and I was glad to take advantage of it.

Check out some pictures from our day in the mountains below:

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Massive addictive

"Give me purity, strength, and affection
Give me lust to ignite my devotion for life
It's where beauty comes alive...
Massive addictive
I'm totally completely afflicted"
- "Massive Addictive" by Amaranthe

After my committee meeting last week, I left main campus thinking about what makes me unique as a scientist. The committee charged me with the task of deciding what I want to be known for, so as I drove back to Coos Bay, I set the tone for my ponderings with the most unique music I could think of - Amaranthe's Massive Addictive album - blasting from my stereo.

I like Amaranthe because their style is a distinctive blend of heavy metal and electronica, but the two contrasting elements don't just exist side by side; they are seamlessly fused into something entirely new. As I look forward and begin to shape my thesis, my challenge is largely the same: to fuse two different traditions into something entirely new and unique.

I'm starting with the introduction. I spent yesterday re-reading my old notebooks to review everything I knew about island biogeography and the deep sea. (Incidentally, I discovered my notebooks also contained several hilarious old notes to myself.) As I fill in the skeleton of my paper, I'll certainly have to read more publications, so I'm looking forward to the process of reading, learning, assimilating, and writing a meaningful review.

As I see my own ideas take shape into a unique thesis framework, let me tell you, it's massively addictive, and I'm having trouble leaving the lab at night. I'm very excited to see my thesis take shape and grow into a coherent body of work. By the time I'm finished, I will have a masterpiece to show the world.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The future of the world as we know it

After an action-packed 2 days, the DESCEND-2 workshop came to a close this evening. Yes, 2 days seems awfully short for a workshop to decide the future of the world as we know it (well, at least as far as submergence technologies are concerned), but let me tell you, not a second was wasted. We had nothing but short coffee breaks during the whole workshop and even worked straight through lunch. In the end, we made some real progress.

Today began with some presentations on new and emerging technologies. The presenters were from a variety of backgrounds and organizations - private companies, non-profit organizations, government-sector funding agencies, and scientific institutes. One thing I've actually heard from the older researchers at the workshop is that the available research infrastructure nowadays comes from a wider variety of sources than it ever used to. Decades ago, the only option was government-funded and -administrated ship time, but now, there are numerous for-profit and not-for-profit companies offering resources for science. This is in part advantageous for scientists, who have different organizations to choose from and partner with, but it also means a bit more leg work. After all, each sector has its own conventions, each organization its own priorities. Gathering equipment for science is becoming a matter of finding the right resources, wherever they come from.

In the afternoon, we had two final break-out sessions in order to wrap up the previous day's discussions and write out recommendations for the future. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by the tangible and progressive nature of the final recommendations. We had a large number of people gathered for a short amount of time, but even so, we were able to make what I would call progress. The results of the workshop will be written up by the organizers and discussion leaders into a document that can be circulated among deep-sea researchers and funding agencies. I actually look forward to editing the resulting document and seeing its effects throughout the deep-sea community in the coming years.

It's been a good few days in Massachusetts!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Night at the Museum

Minerals on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History
Whenever scientists get together to talk about, well, science, it's tradition to hold a conference dinner. Of course every event is different, but some conventions do hold. Conference dinners are usually up-scale affairs, and they're held in the most unique location available. I remember my first conference dinner, in 2010, when I ate ox meat with a green, creamy sauce at the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History. I've had conference dinners at yacht clubs and fancy restaurants by the sea. I've seen participants remain reserved, and I've seen them walk home barefoot, arm-in-arm. But dear friends, before today, I had never had a conference dinner at Harvard.
We were ushered into the Harvard Museum of Natural History, opened exclusively for DESCEND-2 participants after hours. We were instructed to hang our coats, help ourselves to hors d'oeuvres, and explore the open exhibits. I was personally fascinated by the museum's collection of minerals - elements, gems, precious stones, and everyday rocks originating from all parts of the world. They ranged in size from miniature to colossal, all displayed in glass cases with meticulous labels. The collection was truly impressive.

Dinner in the Romer Hall of Vertebrate Paleontology
The reception eventually moved into the large mammal hall, where giraffes, apes, antelope, and bison eyed us from behind plate glass while whale skeletons loomed overhead. Even a rare specimen of a Steller sea cow, extinct since the 18th century, hung peacefully from the ceiling. Just one room away, dinner tables stood adjacent to a few specimens of their own, in the Romer Hall of Vertebrate Paleontology. A triceratops skull, a massive kronosaurus, and the once-deemed-extinct ceolacanth surrounded us as we ate.

I've had dinner at Harvard, my friends. It was unique night at the museum.

To descend

Who's ready for another traveling-scientist story? You are!

Cambridge by night
Friends, I come to you from Cambridge, Massachusetts, just a few minutes' drive away from the campus of Harvard University. I'm here with my Ph.D. supervisor, Craig, in order to attend a workshop called DESCEND-2. "Descend" is an acronym for something that I can't remember, but in essence, the workshop is a chance to discuss the future of deep submergence technologies in the United States. ROVs, AUVs, submersibles - anything that takes humans, remotely or in person, to the bottom of the sea.

As I understand it, the first DESCEND meeting took place in 1999, but obviously a lot has changed in deep-sea science since then. Alvin has been upgraded; Nereus was designed, built, and lost. The time is ripe for scientists, engineers, and other stakeholders in the deep sea to reconvene and discuss our research priorities, the anticipated challenges, and what technologies are necessary to move forward.

A break-out discussion on using deep submergence
technologies in benthic habitats.
The vast majority of my day was spent in the lecture halls and classrooms of Harvard Law School, where the DESCEND-2 organizers had secured space for us to meet. To be perfectly honest, friends, I started out the day feeling nervous and more than a little bit out of my league. I'm surrounded by experienced, high-powered scientists, and I'm pretty sure I'm the youngest one here. Nevertheless, I loosened up as the day went on and learned to value my own opinions. There were several senior scientists present that I've worked with on past cruises, so I took the opportunity to approach and converse with each of them. It was nice to have a few familiar faces in the crowd, and they each recognized me right away.

I'm happy to participate in DESCEND-2, even if I am the youngest one present, because it's a chance for me to become more integrated into the submergence community and take an active role in shaping American infrastructure for research. After all, I plan on sticking around in deep-sea science for a long time, so I might as well have a say. Here's to the future!

Monday, January 11, 2016


Dear friends, here I am. I'm back in Oregon after my Christmas vacation, and I've hit the ground running.

This morning, I had a very important meeting on UO's main campus. It was the annual meeting of my dissertation advisory committee (DAC), and if you don't know what a DAC is, it's a group of 5 professors designated to control my fate. I meet with the committee members each year to show them what I've accomplished in my research and seek their advice on where to go next. It sounds all well and good, but committee meetings have always terrified me. I can't recall a single one that I've enjoyed. I mean, imagine sitting down with 5 highly intelligent and powerful people, then listening as they discuss what you've done right and what you've done wrong. It's taxing every time.

The good news, I guess, is that I have a great committee. They're 5 individuals that I trust with my future, and their criticisms are always intended to help me improve as a scientist.

During our meeting today, most of the discussion centered around how I can combine my scattered publications into a coherent thesis. At this point, my research consists of lots of different projects, each with their own objectives. In order to make a thesis, though, I have to figure out what the various projects have in common and what their combined results can prove. It's going to involve a lot of work and maybe even some soul-searching - the end product will define the major findings of my dissertation but also who I am and what I specialize in as a scientist.

Am I overwhelmed? Yes; I always leave committee meetings emotionally and intellectually exhausted. But am I powerless? No. I have a good roadmap for defining my specialty and 5 awesome professors cheering for me to succeed.

Bring it on, dissertation. Bring it on.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

No bad days

"A bad day of snowboarding is still better than a good day of anything else." - message on a T-shirt

Friends, it's been a fantastic couple of weeks. I wasn't sure if I would post anything while on my Christmas vacation, and I was right - I've been way too busy enjoying myself! I went to my parents' cottage in northern Michigan and filled my days with snowboarding, eating, and talking to my mom. 

I love Michigan because of all the places I've lived on Earth, Michigan is the one I know best. I spent the first 21 years of my life in the state, and I can get myself virtually anywhere on its two peninsulas without even looking at a map. I love the small towns and the unlit country roads. I love the hills and the streams and the forest. I love the Great Lakes, those expansive, freshwater oceans, and I love the the snow that blankets the state every year from October to May. 

While on vacation, I haven't done much science at all. I wrote one year-end report for my committee, but that's about it. It's alright - I'll hit the ground running as soon as I get back to Oregon. 

If you're interested, the video below gives you an idea of what I've been up to. My brother has a camera built into his ski goggles, so he's able to capture our runs down the hill we frequent in Michigan. This particular run is called Buck, and it's one of our favorites. I'm the one in all blue. Enjoy!