Thursday, April 21, 2016

Repeat 10 times

As many of you know, I'm working on writing my dissertation now. It's a long process that involves a lot of reading, a lot of assimilating information, and a heck of a lot of time on my computer. I'm reminded of what a former OIMB grad student once said to me, that he was a professional reader. I remember thinking at the time it was an odd thing for him to say, but I totally get it now. So much of academic life is just reading scientific papers, assimilating the information, and writing my own analyses. Of course I've had little distractions to break up the monotony. I'm actually in a bit of a cycle now:

Read scientific papers, assimilate information, write my own analysis. Repeat 3 times.
Pick up frozen squid for the invertebrate zoology class.
Then back to my desk - read scientific papers, assimilate information, write my own analysis. Repeat 5 times.
Fiddle with the OIMB camera sled to make sure it's in good working order.
Read papers, assimilate information, write my analysis. Repeat 10 times.
Have lunch with a new grad student and discover we're from the same state.
Read, assimilate, write. Repeat 12 times.
Take a short drive down the coast for a mental break.
Read, assimilate, write. Repeat 15 times.

And on and on it goes. If I had to guess, I'd say I've read a good 200 papers, and that's just for the introduction to my thesis. I've cited ~150 of them in my essay so far. It's so important to know what other scientists are up to, what their results have shown, so that my findings can be presented in the proper context. I've been encouraged to read anything and everything, to read around the topic I'm interested in, so that's what I'm trying to do. Hopefully I'll make it to the end and have a compelling analysis to show the world.

Alright, now back to reading.

Friday, April 15, 2016

To communicate

Every Friday, OIMB hosts an afternoon seminar. It's a good way to get everyone together to talk about science and expose ourselves to different areas of research. Most of the speakers are professors from various universities in the U.S. and Canada, but this week, I had the opportunity to speak. Well, me and one other grad student. We split the hour-long slot, and we both outlined what we had been working on for our theses, what results we had found, what discoveries we had made.

I always appreciate the opportunity to practice communicating science. In fact, I think every scientist needs to practice communication, because too often researchers get absorbed in the detail of their work and forget how to talk about it with non-specialists. OIMB has a diverse faculty, and in fact, one of the best questions I got after the seminar was from a developmental biologist. Her question may help me add an interesting new detail to my work.

I talked about my dropstone project, the cornerstone of my thesis, and discussed how these isolated rocks may resemble terrestrial islands. Dropstone fauna have many of the same distributional patterns as species on islands, but the underlying mechanisms are not necessarily the same. In case you're wondering, on the slide below, I'm explaining how faster current at topographic highs on the deep seafloor increases food supply and leads to dense populations of suspension feeders. 

The seminar was a good chance to communicate my science and a great way to end the week.

Guess I inadvertently matched my outfit to the slides.
Photo by Caitlin Plowman.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Barnacle tales

Earlier this week, I got an e-mail from a dear friend in Brazil. She told me tales of her tropical field work, of communicating with the boat driver in broken Portuguese, of battling sun- and windburn, of warding off insects, and of the countless scrapes on her hands from mussels and barnacles. I had to smile as I read her message, because this particular friend is both highly intelligent and fearless. I understand a little of what she's going through, having been a field-working foreigner myself. Granted, I've never had to communicate my wishes to a boat driver in Portuguese, but I know exactly what she means about the barnacles.

Hesperibalanus hesperius and Onchidoris bilamellata on a
settlement plate. Can you tell which is which?
I've seen my share of barnacles both in the Arctic and on the temperate Oregon coast. As my fearless friend battles barnacles a hemisphere away, I'm analyzing my own barnacle data. I've actually set the Svalbard data aside for a bit and started playing around with my Cape Arago recruitment data. If you remember, I outplanted cement blocks off the Oregon coast the past two summers in the hopes of observing recruitment of hard-bottom species at different distances away from a rocky reef. Despite the best of intentions, my hypotheses turned out to be all wrong, and I ended up finding something completely different than I expected.

I found barnacles. Hesperibalanus hesperius, to be exact, which is a poorly-understood and little-known species. And I found lots of them. What I thought would be an exploration of the biodiversity of recruits on isolated hard substrata turned out to be a story about barnacles. They colonized my settlement plates in high numbers, and they brought predators with them. For example, I found plenty of Onchidoris bilamellata, a nudibranch (sea slug) that is a barnacle predator. It actually looks like them, too - it's white and kind of nubby and can make itself into a mound shape. Check out the photo above to see what I mean.  

My challenge now is to turn my barnacle data into a meaningful scientific analysis. We'll see how this goes!

Saturday, April 9, 2016


It's the same every year, but somehow, it's different every year. Spring term at OIMB sees a lot of visiting groups, classes from main campus that come down to explore the coast. One of the regulars is Bio 199, and I only know the class number because I've heard it repeated so many times around campus. It starts in March with e-mails, discussions, preliminary scheduling. Then eventually the grad students are volun-told when to show up and help out with various activities. I'm always responsible for taking the kids out on the boat to collect plankton samples and pull up a crab pot. I drag myself to the lab, corral my group, mechanically hand out life jackets, get the net set up.

And then some bright-eyed 19-year-old asks me a question, and I mentally jet off into the Land of Marine Biology Awesomeness.

You see, it just takes one enthusiastic future OIMBer to make my whole day worth it. There could be a whole class of kids listlessly dragging their feet on a field trip, but that one person with wide eyes, open ears, and a love of the ocean changes the whole mood. I actually surprised myself today by settling into Teacher Mode and rambling at these students about all the cool biodiversity in Oregon, my own dissertation research, volunteer opportunities in research labs. There were multiple enthusiastic listeners in the group, and I'd like to think I convinced at least one of them that marine biology is the coolest job in the world.

I'm reminded of all the grad students I encountered during my own undergrad years, who served as signposts for me and helped point me in the next right direction. Maybe, just maybe, I could be a signpost for someone else.

Talking to the undergrads. Let's be honest, I was probably telling
them something I work on is "so cool!" Photo by Craig Young.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Spring transition

Well, friends, it's the end of another week. I'm sorry I haven't posted anything, but here are a few things that happened since I last wrote.

1) The spring transition happened! Winter rains gave way to summer's north wind, so upwelling season is underway.

2) Spring classes started at OIMB, and now the campus is overrun with undergraduates that I don't recognize.

3) I volunteered to go out in the field with another grad student, and we ended up lowering ourselves down a steep sandstone face with a makeshift rope. I was feeling pretty hardcore until my fellow student informed me we were at one of her "easy" sites. Dang, girl.

4) I've been working on writing up my Svalbard settlement plate project from last fall and getting nostalgic. I miss the awesome community at 79 N. 

5) I found a book in the OIMB library that was supposedly out of print and impossible to find. It tells you everything you could ever want to know about Arctic bryozoans. Score.

6) OIMB hosted a seminar speaker who works on Caribbean coral reefs. The grad students got to have lunch with her and listen to her awesome stories.

7) My sister sent me flowers. They were far too beautiful for the lab.

It's been a full but productive week, as always. Slowly but surely, my science moves forward.