Sunday, February 28, 2016

Forgetful and free

"Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow...
In the mountains, there you feel free"
- T.S. Eliot

When I started this blog, I wanted it to be equal parts science and travel, because the integration of the two practices is in my opinion the best part of my career. I travel to collect samples; I travel to go on cruises; I travel to scientific conferences and meetings. But sometimes I travel just for the sake of traveling - to get away from science, if you will - and that's okay too.

This past week was my brother's mid-winter break from his university in Michigan. Looking to get out of the Midwest, he and my parents flew to Seattle. I drove up to meet them, and together we spent an incredible week in the Cascade Mountains, snowboarding and skiing to our hearts' content.

I did not think about science this week. I didn't write any papers or analyze any data. I didn't even bring my laptop with me. Had I stayed in the mountains any longer, I could have easily forgotten that the ocean existed - or that water exists in any other form but snow.

My dad calls strenuous outdoor activities "mental flossing," and that's an image I absolutely love. The cold mountain air penetrated every crevice of my psychi this week, flossing out the accumulated junk and washing me clean.

In the mountains, there I feel free.

Dad, Wes, and I at the top of the mountain
Mt. Rainier
Mt. Adams

I will never get tired of views like this.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

To create

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it." - Colette

As most of you know, friends, I've been spending a lot of time lately writing my dissertation. I'm a fourth-year Ph.D. student, and that's just the way it is - after traveling the world and collecting all my data, it's time I sit down and actually write the thing. As you may imagine, the process is long.
If there's one thing I've learned about the scientific process during my Ph.D., it's that science is a lot more creative than most people think. Sure, I have to analyze my data objectively in order to answer scientific questions, but there's a lot of thought that goes into choosing those questions. A single data set can show very different results, depending on the question the investigator asks of it. A single habitat or study organism can also yield very different data, depending on what question the investigator seeks to answer. 

I've spent plenty of time the past four years asking, modifying, and re-asking scientific questions. I've analyzed my datasets a minimum of four times each, and I can't even begin to tell you how many collective manuscript drafts I've gone through to properly present the results. I've told you about modifying one of my analyses before, and I insist the process is just as complicated (and fun) each time.

This past week, most of my time was spent with my shipwreck manuscript. I actually thought I was finished with it in December, but after my committee meeting in January, I decided to back up and start over. The committee asked me to draw stronger parallels between the shipwreck analysis and my analysis of dropstones. Even though it meant a bit more work this week, I'm optimistic about where the paper is going.

Slowly but surely, with lots of material created and then destroyed, re-shaped, and re-hashed, my dissertation is coming together!

Saturday, February 13, 2016


"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea." - Isak Dinesen

I drove over the bridge and sped straight past Davey Jones' Locker. Instead of my usual right turn towards the lab, I continued straight - no work for me today. 

I kept driving out Cape Arago Highway, past the A-frame houses and the old elementary school. I passed the sheep farm, the RV park, and the turn-off for Bastendorf Beach. I passed Sunset Bay, where surfers were emerging from their Subarus and VW busses. A bald man with his wetsuit half-on spread wax on his board; a dark green tattoo stretched across his ribs.  

What I did this week. It is because of this...
I passed retired couples walking their dogs along the coastal trail; I passed the barking sea lions on Simpson Reef. I kept driving until the crowds grew smaller and then disappeared, and finally I pulled into the U-shaped parking lot at Cape Arago's South Cove. I was alone. 

Making my way down the gravel switch-back trail, I knew I had chosen the right destination. I could see just one other human on the beach below me, an old man with a surfboard who was probably no more eager to speak to me than I was to him. I scrambled over the piled-up driftwood, then the sandstone boulders to the beach. To my right rose a majestic cliff, dividing South Cove from its brother, Middle Cove. I turned right on the beach and finally reached my goal: the Cape Arago intertidal. 

...that I needed this.
The tide wasn't even that good today - about a foot above Mean Low Low Water - but that was good enough for me. I had been inside all week, sitting at my computer to write papers, analyze data, take my thesis from bland to great. I needed a day off to clear my head, to go outside and remind myself why I do what I do. 

I first learned the art of tidepooling during a summer internship in 2010. My grad student mentor would pick me up at 5:30 in the morning, and we'd drive out to a mudflat together. Or the technician would ask me to join him in the mussel beds, and we'd spend the afternoon cutting our hands on the sharp shells as we pried the mussels up with a screwdriver. I remember one Saturday after a particularly low tide, my faculty adviser and his wife stormed the lab like a tornado, pulling out identification keys and finger bowls and the microscope to figure out what species of nudibranch they had just found. 

The intertidal biodiversity on the west coast of North America is just astounding, and it's one of my favorite things about living here. I was only out there for an hour today, and I can rattle off to you about 30 species that I saw (I just did so in my head, and I wasn't even trying that hard). There are green anemones and orange sea stars and turban snails and owl limpets and all sorts of things most people have never seen. They live around each other and on top of each other and they eat and they compete and they do all sorts of things that make my ecologists' heart pound harder. And I love it.

Climbing over the sandstone, I made my way out to the end of the cove - the point where South becomes Middle and the waves break on the rock. I stood on a patch of blue mussels and gooseneck barnacles, silently thanking them for the traction they offered my feet. I lifted my arms and faced into the wind and felt the salt spray in my face. Because that feeling, that salt, that sandstone cliff and the biodiversity it hides, the countless beautiful organisms and the ways they relate to one another, the thrill of discovering their secrets - that, dear friends, is why I do what I do.

Salty and exhausted, I let the tide chase me in. And I went home once more in love with the world. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Look at the stars: Part 2

"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

Luciana and I on one of her last
nights in Oregon.
Dear friends, this week has been an eventful one at OIMB. We've had two birthdays and a farewell party, and there's a thesis defense coming up later this afternoon. The farewell was for Luciana, a post-doc and my labmate. She had been with us for 6 months, having received a grant from the government of her native Portugal to come do research abroad. She was with us on the Atlantis cruise this summer, and she spent her time in the lab afterward working up her samples.

The great thing about deep-sea biology is that's it's a small community - small enough that I will most likely see Luciana again. We will run into each other at conferences, on research ships - it's almost certain our paths will cross in the future. We've even talked about doing a collaborative project together someday. I miss her now, but I can look forward to seeing Luciana again.

As one post-doc made her departure from Oregon, another one also arrived. I haven't met the new one yet, but I know she'll be working on trophic ecology in another faculty member's lab. I'll stop by her office and introduce myself later today. Then this afternoon, a Ph.D. student will defend her thesis on nemertean taxonomy, and the endless shuffle of students will continue. As I watch the students above me defend and graduate, it feels almost like layers of ceiling are being peeled off above my head. One by one, those who began their degrees before me are finishing them and moving on, and soon enough it will be my turn.

I'm still working on my review paper, the introduction to my thesis, but every day I get closer to having a finished product. My ideas are taking shape, and soon I will be able to make my scientific statement to the world. I look forward to that day when the last layer disappears and my head emerges from the roof. Because then I will really see the stars.