Saturday, March 26, 2016

Fear no weather

"Feel the ocean as it breathes
Shivering teeth
See the mountains where they meet
Smothering me
As the wind fends off the waves
I count down the days
Heavy stones
Fear no weather"
- "Empire" by Of Monsters and Men

The song quoted above describes my Saturday, but in all honesty, I have a different one stuck in my head. Its lyrics are much simpler:

"There are four ORs in Port Orford, Oregon
Port Orford Oregon
Port Orford Oregon
There are four ORs in Port Orford Oregon..."
Ocean view from Port Orford

And on and on it goes. Julie sang it for a grand total of 5 seconds, but we both agreed, it has the tendency to get stuck in your head. Port Orford, Oregon is about an hour south of Coos Bay, and it's a gorgeous little spot. The small town is populated mostly by retirees, but it has a surprisingly good art scene. The port of Port Orford is also curious, since the small boats are lifted out of the water by crane and set on trailers on the dock. I'm not kidding.

Those ambitious enough and focused enough to bypass the gorgeous ocean views will reach Mount Humbug, just a few minutes outside of town. I was itching to get away from my desk and go on a hike this weekend, so Julie, an OIMB post-doc, and I headed out to explore Humbug. Who even cares that it was raining?

Temperate rainforest
Soaked. Heavy stones fear no weather.
The vegetation on the Oregon coast can only be described as a temperate rainforest, and this was pretty obvious on Mount Humbug. Ferns, broad-leaved plants, and trillium flowers lined the trail. Epiphytes hung from moist trees. Everywhere we looked was green. We pushed through the vegetation, picked our way through rocky streams, climbed over, under, and around fallen tree trunks. There were orange salamanders scurrying across the forest floor - countershaded, so their backs were a medium brown-orange but their ventral sides were bright orange, almost glowing.

By the time we reached the top, we were pretty thorougly soaked. There was a bench at the top facing out toward the ocean, but the trees were tall enough and dense enough to block most of the view. There was actually an abandoned novel on the bench, coverless and soaked through. Part of me wanted to read it and figure out what it was, but I opened it to a random page for the next person to find.

We made our way back down through the rainforest and headed home. It was a great hike - rain and all.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


"She is a living, breathing, booming woman
Sent here with a mission, a purpose, a spark...
She is here to inhale pain
And exhale fire."
- "She is Not" by Sarah Harvey

I knew this would happen, but I didn't know how long it would take. It took a month. I've been in Oregon for a solid month now, and I'm starting to feel antsy.

It doesn't help that most of my work is computer-based now - reading, writing, data analysis. I spend the whole day sitting. And my condition is most certainly exacerbated by the fact that I recently started reading the memoirs of Philip Glass, one of the people whose work I admire the most. Glass is in my mind the greatest composer who ever lived. I'm reading about his life at home, then coming to the lab to read scientific papers, and I have this itch, this spark, this small fire starting inside of me. I want to get up, get out, see, and explore. I want to discover something new, change the world for the better. More than anything, I want to do something important, something worthy of my own memoir.

I actually read a lot of biographies. I enjoy them far more than novels, and I think that's because I know the person I'm reading about is real. I just love knowing the stories behind their accomplishments, seeing how they arrived at their discoveries. Often the road there is more exciting than the discovery itself.

I once explained to a friend that I like biographies because I live with the illusion that someday I'll accomplish something great, something worth recording. But I told him that even if I don't end up getting there, if I live my life the way I want to, I'll at least end up with a great story.

And so I sit at my desk, analyzing data, assimilating information, the whole time burning inside. I want nothing more than to get up and go find something incredible.

The irony is that the most incredible thing I'm likely to find is right in front of me, in that very computer I'm itching to get away from. I'm working on the data from my Svalbard settlement plates, and let me tell you, this data is cool. By the time I'm done with it, I'm sure I'll produce a valuable and important scientific report. It's just getting there that's the problem.

A bit of patience would do me good. Slow, deep breaths. Soon, I will exhale fire.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Centrifugal force: Part 2

Hyalinoecia artifex after being removed from
their tubes on R/V Atlantis, July 2015
It's a warm, cloudy Friday in Oregon, and I'm proud to announce that another project has been eliminated from the endlessly rotating wheel of chaos. It has been released - ejected! - sent flying by its own centrifugal force.

I'm talking about my onuphid manuscript, which I have now re-submitted for publication. The reviews that my co-authors and I received for that paper were incredibly constructive. It was obvious that both reviewers knew more about polychaete worms than me, so I was grateful to be able to draw on their expertise. The manuscript represents a collaborative effort, as investigators and students from two different labs all contributed different aspects of the analysis - reproduction, diet, distribution of the worms. It's amazing how much you can learn about an organism just by observing it and performing some simple tests.

I'm proud of how the manuscript turned out, so we'll see what the editor says this time around. Hopefully it will be accepted!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Chocolate sauce and ice balls

B-B-Ching! My phone sounded its three-part tone to indicate a new text message. I checked the screen. It was my labmate, Caitlin.

"So we're keeping the original tidepooling plan" her text read, "South Cove at 7:30 am. If the weather looks too bad, we'll head back to the docks. The kitchen is serving French toast with raspberry jam and chocolate whipped cream and bacon for breakfast, and we are welcome to join them at 7 if we want. I would like breakfast if you're ok with that. Can you pick me up at 6:45?"

Dark skies, bright faces. Photo by Carly Salant.
Oh, Caitlin, dearest Caitlin, would I, your valiant and enthusiastic labmate, pick you up at 6:45 am for breakfast and tide pooling? Would I brave the gray morning with you for the sake of science education? Would I withstand the punishing wind, the dangerously high surf, for the sake of the intertidal? Would I even arrive early to partake of morning nourishment?

Let's just say you had me at "chocolate whipped cream."

A group of undergraduate students from a college in Connecticut spent this weekend at OIMB as part of their survey of North American coastlines. It's an annual trip, and OIMB grad students are always more than happy to show them our beloved intertidal, even when the weather disagrees with us.

Of course the outdoor conditions in Oregon this time of year are never exactly pleasant, but for some reason, today was particularly nasty. We arrived at Cape Arago's South Cove to find gray skies, high surf, and gusts of wind strong enough to make you lose your balance. But did it stop us? Of course not. We marched straight down the muddy, washed-out trail, scrambled our way over the slippery, barkless driftwood, and arrived at the beach. We split up into small groups to explore, and I've got to tell you guys, there was even a girl in my group with one foot in a walking cast. She won the Hardcore Award for the day.

Gumboot chiton. Photo by Carly Salant.
One neat thing about the high surf is that it drew a number of organisms into the low intertidal that are usually only found at subtidal depths. We found a number of Henricia, a skinny-armed orange sea star, that I've only ever seen below the water line. I'm guessing they crawled up on the rocks at high tide, not knowing where they were because the surf was so high.

Another cool organism we found today was a gumboot chiton, Cryptochiton sp. They're in the same phylum as snails and clams, and you can see the large muscular foot on their under-side (the orange part in the middle, see photo). Chitons usually have hard plates on their backs, but in Cryptochiton, the hard plates are grown over by thick, leathery skin (the red  part).

It was all going just fine until the rain started, but even that wasn't such a big deal. This is Oregon, after all - rain is par for the course. But then came the hail. Then came bigger hail. And even bigger hail. In the end, we were being pelted with ice-balls a good 3/4" (1.5 cm) across, and let me tell you, those puppies sting! We all turned our backs to the wind and tried to withstand the pain. The hail cloud eventually passed, leaving us to happily explore in the sunshine again, but it was obvious from the sky that a second wave of ice-balls was coming our way.

It was time to give in, retreat towards the cliff trail, and seek shelter. When we finally made it back to the cars, I was surprised to find we had been out there for a whole two hours - I guess time flies when you're exploring biodiversity. Just for fun, check out the video below, made by two OIMB grad students, Carly and Caitlin, at the height of the hail storm. The sea star in the instructor's hand is Henricia.

Oh yeah, it was a great morning.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Centrifugal force

With a flurry of color and a mechanical click, the Endlessly Rotating Wheel of Chaos comes alive and rotates once again. I feel like a contestant on The Price is Right, pulling down on that wheel with all my might, clapping my hands, and getting slightly dizzy as I watch it spin.

The wheel is speeding up. Colors fly past my face. The gold numbers are no longer legible, and the glitter paint is just a blur. The projects rotate endlessly. Shipwrecks, dropstones, thesis. Shipwrecks, dropstones, thesis. Shipwrecks, dropstones, thesis, onuphids. Onuphids, dropstones, thesis, shipwrecks. Cape Arago! Shipwrecks, dropstones, thesis.

Dizzy and bewildered, I peel my eyes from the Endlessly Rotating Wheel and find a spot on the wall to gaze. I've had enough; the wheel must stop. Blindly, I reach my hand out towards it, and -

The wheel stops. A project flies off, launched through the air, the victim of its own centrifugal force.

That's right, friends. Today, I was able to remove one of my many projects from the rotation by submitting a manuscript for publication. This is my dropstone project I'm talking about, the cornerstone of my thesis.

Rather than just cataloging what animals live on dropstones, I took a unique perspective with my analysis. I read a lot of literature on terrestrial island communities, and I compared the patterns I found in the dropstone communities to patterns that have already been observed on islands. Dropstones are, after all, essentially rocky islands in a sea of mud.

As it turns out, some of the same patterns are found in dropstone and island communities, but I think the mechanisms leading to those patterns aren't necessarily the same. Understanding dropstone communities is important because it shows how benthic organisms assemble on isolated habitats, and trust me, there are plenty of isolated habitats in the deep sea! I hope the reviewers and the editor of the journal agree so my paper will be accepted. We'll see what they say!

Alright, now back to the next project in the wheel.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The endlessly rotating wheel of chaos

Oh, grad school, how we love thee. And hate thee. Often simultaneously. (See pertinent Ph.D. Comic here.)

Regular readers of this blog should by now be familiar with my habit of rotating among several different projects, working on one data analysis while I wait on my collaborators to review my work on another. Occassionally, I stall out on all my projects at the same time, but there's usually enough work to go around. This week has been no exception.

I've got my dropstone manuscript, which is just waiting for approval from my supervisor before I can submit it for publication. My thesis introduction has taken a rest on the desks of my committee members. Then there's my shipwreck project, awaiting a sweep of my adviser's critical eyes before I send it to my other co-authors for review. So what is a grad student supposed to do while she waits?

Pull out another manuscript, of course, and add it to the endlessly rotating wheel of chaos.

Hyalinoecia artifex, photographed in their
tubes on board R/V Atlantis, July 2015.
This particular project concerns onuphid polychaetes, and if you have no idea what those two words mean, you're not alone. They're worms that live in tubes on the seafloor. To move, they extend their bodies a little bit out of their tubes, stick their heads in the soft ground, and pull the rest of their body along behind. It's really incredible to watch. Check out a video of a crawling onuphid polychaete from Indonesia here.

While I was on the Atlantis cruise this summer, a couple shipmates and I started making field notes and observations of an onuphid polychaete called Hyalinoecia artifex that was common in our study area. By the end of the cruise, we had assembled a manuscript and decided to submit it to a journal. I heard back from the journal just last week, so I've been working on revising the paper according to the reviewer's suggestions. I'm an ecologist, not a polychaete expert, so I was actually quite grateful for the reviewers' constructive criticism.

Maybe by the time I'm finished with this manuscript, another one will be ready to go!