Friday, May 27, 2016

Human

"Cage me like an animal
A crown of gems and gold
Eat me like a cannibal
Chase the neon throne
Breathe in, breathe out
Let the human in"
- "Human" by Of Monsters and Men

Well, here I am again, in a place that feels all too familiar. After a jam-packed week or two of working on my latest manuscript draft, I've sent it off to my co-authors. While they review it, I wait. And wait. And wait.

Don't get me wrong, I admire my co-authors. I've been blessed to work with some really incredible scientists, and my papers are always improved by their comments. From study design and implementation to data analysis and publication, they always have important, valuable things to say about my work. It just so happens that right now, of the 6 manuscripts I have in progress, one is being type-set for publication, another is under review at a journal, a third is being evaluated by a book editor, and three others rest on my co-authors' desks. They'll get back to me (by Murphy's Law, probably all at the same time), and then I'll have plenty of work.

So in the meantime, I'm doing two things. First, I pulled out an old set of ROV videos I had been given in 2013. I never had a chance to review them because I was working on so many other projects, but now I've got the time to take a look. The videos are from the North Atlantic continental slope, and I'm going through them to count all the rocks. So far, it looks like most of the rocks are uninhabited, but some have beautiful soft corals on them. We'll see if the videos prove useful.

The second thing I'm doing with my spare time is, quite frankly, being a human. It's so easy for me to get absorbed in my work and forget to come up for air (case in point: the frenzied writing spree that produced my 6 manuscripts in as many months). So I'm taking deep breaths and remembering to be a person. I'm teaching violin lessons and a dance class. I'm having dinner with friends. I'm texting with my brother about our favorite band's new album. Earlier this week, I went to a friend's softball game and spent the entire time chatting with her parents.

These waiting periods can be frustrating, but they usually work out for the best. After all, this year is the first time I've actually felt like I live in Coos Bay, Oregon, instead of just stopping in between trips. I've built up a routine, I've gotten to know more people, I've become of a part of the small-town community. Guess that's what it feels like to be a human.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Kelp cutting

Julie and I leaned against the white fence on Boat Basin Road, cameras in our pockets, facing across the street. The sun incubated our faces, our shoulders, our arms. Across from us, a crowd of hundreds slowly disappeared through the double-wide green doors into the CMLC. We had been planning to make our way inside, but the doorway was just too crowded. It was packed, saturated, full.

A crowd of hundreds gathered in front of the CMLC
on opening day.
"What do you think is the maximum occupancy of the building?" Captain Mike asked, sticking his head between ours.

"Not sure, but we have to be close to it by now," I guessed.

Captain Mike pulled out his camera, adjusted the focus, and snapped a few shots of the building. A cool breeze relieved our shoulders of the sun's heat for a moment. Down the street, a silver SUV crept along, braking for crossing pedestrians every few seconds. For every person who made their way through the doors into the museum, another one came down the street and got in line. None of us could believe the turn-out.

Craig Young addresses a crowd at OIMB just before the
kelp-cutting.
Today was the grand opening of the Charleston Marine Life Center, a public museum and aquarium right across the street from my institute, the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology. The day started with talks from various politicians, donors, and key figures in the CMLC's development, then culminated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony and the opening of the museum's doors. Well, it wasn't really a ribbon-cutting; it was a kelp-cutting. I'm told they used a strand of Egregia, commonly known as feather boa kelp, but I couldn't actually see it myself. The crowd was too dense, and I decided to hang back rather than fight my way forward.

The CMLC opening is a victory for OIMB, for its director, the man behind the CMLC, Craig Young, for the students who will learn from the museum, and the scientists who can reach the public through it. There's actually a display on the upper floor of the museum outlining some of the research going on at OIMB, and I'm proud to say I contributed to it. I made a poster outlining some of my dissertation research on isolated hard substrata on the deep sea floor. I'm glad for the opportunity to share my research with the public in a new way.

I'll have to wait and see what the final visitor count is for the day, but I suspect it will be in the upper hundreds. I can say one thing for sure: the CMLC is a success!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Oh, it isn't even oak

Friends, I feel like I should begin this post by apologizing for the title, because it's a reference to the American cartoon comedy Family Guy. I don't even watch Family Guy, but my brother does, and every time he and his buddies take over our parents' cottage for a weekend gathering, I get an earful of stupid-humor quotes.

One year, their favorite quote was "Oh, it isn't even oak," and for you to understand what that means, I'm going to have to set the scene.

The main character, the family guy himself, has recently decided to become more intellectual. He bought himself a nice bookshelf and filled it with academic-looking volumes. Not to be outdone, the dog decides to play intellectual himself and reports to the dad how much he's been reading. It's an obvious lie. The dog can't name a single book he's read, and the dad has him on the ropes. As this interrogation ensues next to the bookshelf, the baby comes in and decides to be the Peanut Gallery, making side-comments and sound effects to accompany the conversation. Finally at the end of his rope, about to be exposed, the dog switches his focus from the books to the bookshelf, saying, "This is nice; is it oak?" - to which the baby immediately exclaims, "Oh, it isn't even oak!"

It's a sentence that fits when nothing is going right. When a last-ditch effort doesn't even work and you fall flat on your face. And it describes how I feel about my barnacle project. Check this out:

This table describes all the times I deployed cement blocks with settlement plates off the Oregon coast. You'll notice the first two deployments went pretty well. The blocks were at sea for three weeks, just as planned, and all of them were recovered on-time. But then the deployments went kind of hay-wire. My blocks were out for longer and longer periods of time. We couldn't even get to every station in one trip. Some - most! - of the blocks were lost. Oh, it isn't even oak.

Did the blocks we recovered at least yield good data? Sure, I was able to count the species that had recruited, but none of my original hypotheses proved true. I didn't find anything I expected to on the settlement plates. It was pretty much just barnacles. Oh, it isn't even oak.

Pleurobranchaea californica, a predatory nudibranch found
on my plates
I've been playing with my data for a while, and I guess the good news is that the more I look at it, the more promising it seems. I've spent the past few days looking up the biology of each of the species on the plates (barnacles and others), and all of them - all of them - have long-lived planktotrophic larvae. All of the mobile species are also predators. No way that happened by chance.

I'm working to craft an interesting discussion about the recruits I observed. If nothing else, I can say that the first species to arrive, settle, and colonize isolated blocks in the ocean are species with planktotrophic larvae. They're long-dispersing pioneers.

And that, my friends, is totally oak.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Just a pet

Every lab has at least one pet project - a simple, easily-accessible local habitat where they can sample. In fact, I'm pretty sure the best-understood marine systems in the world are those immediately surrounding marine labs. Where there's smoke, there's fire. Where there are scientists, there will be data. My institute is no different.

The GoPro captured this awesome shot of Craig and me
recovering the camera sled in 2014.
Today, I had the chance to visit one of OIMB's "pet" habitats, a rocky reef just off the southern Oregon coast. The reef covers a pretty large area of the seafloor, stretching between Cape Arago and Bandon. There's a central boulder field surrounded by smaller patches of cobble and gravel. The reef is inhabited by all sorts of fascinating invertebrates - soft corals, anemones, encrusting and upright sponges, bryozoans, and hydroids. Sea cucumbers, crabs, and fish also frequent the reef. There are even basket stars, Gorgonocephalus spp., stretching their arms high into the water.

My lab has been messing around with a benthic camera sled on the reef for the past couple years, just going out to collect footage whenever the weather cooperates. The videos offer nice snapshots of what lives on the reef, and we've actually started to notice some interesting patterns.

Today was one of those rare days that the waves were flat calm, so I and two other OIMBers convinced the boat captain to take us out. We ran video transects along the reef at 8 different depths from 30 ~ 80 m. The sled has a GoPro camera in a waterproof, pressure-resistant housing, so it's very simple to use. The only drawback is that you can't watch the videos as they're being recorded, so you never know until later what you actually captured.

Still, it was a great day out on the water. I can't wait to see what the videos hold!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Orthogonal

Picking up an ecologist at the airport is always easy. We wear this unofficial uniform that functions better than any name-tag. We're casual, unassuming. Not like the business people who travel in suits and skirts and blouses - quite often, we're the only ones in jeans.

I had the pleasure of picking up a prominent ecologist at the airport near Coos Bay this week and hosting him at OIMB. Dr. Nicholas Gotelli, of the University of Vermont, was the latest speaker in OIMB's spring seminar series. I was especially excited to meet Nick because I've read and cited his work extensively. In fact, he developed most of the statistical analyses I'm using in my thesis. He is a brilliant mathematical ecologist, adept at both field sampling and modeling techniques. He's spent his career following the scientific questions wherever they lead, and he's worked on everything from marine invertebrates to pitcher plants.

The Young lab and Nick
As it turns out, Nick and Craig, my Ph.D. advisor, go way back. I consider myself blessed to be part of such an extended scientific network and to have the opportunity to share my work with a variety of senior colleagues. I spent a large part of the past few days talking with Nick about my work, picking his brain, and sharing stories along the way.

The highlight was definitely Friday night, when Craig hosted a potluck dinner following Nick's afternoon seminar. Evenings at Craig's house always feel like a step back in time. He's got an impressive library filled with classical scientific literature and antique microscopes. For the OIMB Christmas party last December, the living room was decorated to rival Act I of The Nutcracker. Spontaneous house concerts often take place after dinner, as we revive a tradition dating back centuries.

Nick is actually an accomplished guitarist, so I knew well in advance to bring my violin to dinner. After fish tacos next to the fire pit on Craig's deck, the group moved inside and the instruments emerged. Both Nick and my labmate, Caitlin, had come prepared with collections of Celtic tunes, so the three of us crowded around a music stand and sight-read our way through. It actually worked pretty well with Caitlin and me on the melody line and Nick outlining the chord changes underneath. Sometimes, I could feel him watching my fingers and adding in complementary notes.
Caitlin, Nick, and I playing an Irish tune. Photo by Craig Young.

You know, it's not uncommon for ecologists to be musically trained. I'm convinced that the two disciplines are complementary. Nick described them as "orthogonal," which is actually a better way to say it - they use different parts of the brain and are in many ways separate but enhance each other nonetheless.

Collaborating with other researchers is one of the best by-products of being a scientist, and I got to do it in two ways today. I take great pleasure in building connections with other scientists, discussing our work, conceiving of new ideas, and hey, even jamming on an Irish tune. It was a great evening.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Fire: Part 2

"She is here to inhale pain
And exhale fire"
- "She is Not" by Sarah Harvey

The sun beat down on my shoulders as I just stood there in the sand and let the waves break over my legs. I was salty and sandy up to my knees. Over to my left, a man and his dog were fishing from a semi-submerged rocky knoll. To my right, the sandstone surge channels were covered in giant volcano barnacles. I had always heard that volcano barnacles covered the low intertidal, but I had never been at this particular spot when the tide was low enough to see them. About 20 feet away, I could spot another grad student's experiment bolted to the rock on the jetty.

If you had asked me what I felt in that moment, I would have said "content." There's just something about physical exertion, beautiful ocean views, and being surrounded by biodiversity that makes me feel like my life makes sense.

Grad school is hard, but you know that already. I've seen projects get derailed by everything from difficult relationships and subjective opinions to weather, timing, and random chance. But recently I've learned it's not so much about how much I'm working; it's about how I'm working. I have to make sure I'm working on the right thing.

And it seems to be working. (See what I did there?) This week marked a leap forward in my thesis-writing saga. I finally finished the review article that serves as the introduction to my thesis, so now I can submit it for publication. In case you're wondering, it ended up with 254 citations; in other words, I cited 254 other published articles in my review. I read probably twice that. I was actually pretty proud of myself for topping 250 citations, because another review article that I had been using as a model had only 178. Of course I made the mistake of saying this to my advisor, who promptly pulled out a review article by one of his former graduate students. "Just to keep you humble," he said - it had 1,080 citations. Well.

I've very excited to submit my article, mostly because I want to know what other scientists think about it. Not in a "Tell me how great I am" type of way, but in a "Let's really talk about this and generate some new ideas" type of way. I took a unique perspective, applying theories developed in the terrestrial environment to marine habitats, so my paper will ideally be a platform for discussion.

I stayed on the beach as long as I could, but the sun threatened to burn my shoulders. I air-dried my feet, bid farewell to the barnacles, and headed up the sandstone slope. My inner fire was actually pretty calm today, content to know I've made a bit of progress. Content to know my paper is ready for submission. Content to breathe the salty sea air because soon, I will exhale fire.