Thursday, June 30, 2016

Like a dragon

My first year in Coos Bay, my neighbor, L, taught a yoga class at one of the local gyms. Everyone in our friend group would attend, even the guys. We'd go to L's class, then grab fish tacos at a restaurant downtown. It was our Thursday night ritual.

There's a concept in yoga called ujjayi breathing, which is performed with a slight constriction at the back of the throat. L always made sure we practiced it. We would be on all fours in cow pose, chest lifted, gazing upward, and she'd tell us to exhale as loudly as we dared. "Stick your tongue out!" she'd tell us. "Open your throat! Make noise!" I always felt like a dragon.

I've used exhaling fire as a metaphor for making valuable scientific contributions previously on this blog. I told you while writing my thesis introduction that my inner fire would soon be unleashed in breathable form. Well, friends, today I felt like a dragon.

At 2:32 pm, I finished the first complete draft of my dissertation. It is 223 pages long. It has 50,224 words, 46 figures, and 8 tables. And it is beautiful.


Monday, June 27, 2016

Just say yes

When I returned to Oregon from Norway in 2015, I made myself a promise. I decided I was going to do Oregon a bit differently my second time around, that I was going to make it as much like Norway as possible. I had some specific goals in mind, but I also intended to give myself a general attitude adjustment. I decided to treat Oregon like a foreign country.

You see, when I travel, I have a set of personal codes I abide by. I try to be open-minded, to listen to those around me, to absorb their culture rather than imposing my own. And most importantly, I say "yes" to everything.

Jazz concert in a lighthouse? Yes. Weekend trip to a neighboring country? Yes. Trying new foods? Yes. (I will eat literally anything, as long as I know what it is before I put it in my mouth.)

So when I returned to Oregon, I decided to be equally open. I decided to say "yes" to everything and experience my own country as if I were a foreigner in it. The strategy has worked out beautifully, and I've had some grand adventures along the way. So when Mike, the intern from the lab downstairs, suggested we go sandboarding, can you guess what I said?

We rented boards and drove out to a sand dune just north of Coos Bay. You may not know this, but sand dunes actually cover a good portion of the Oregon coast. There's even a hiking trail named after an old Oregon Congressman that meanders through the temperature rainforest and then over about 3 miles of dunes to the sea.

Sandboarding is just what it sounds like - essentially snowboarding on sand. I snowboard regularly in the winters, so I was pretty confident that I could handle myself on a slightly different medium. Come to find out, sand is not quite as malleable as snow. There are no useful edges on a sandboard, so you can't steer at all. Basically, the strategy is to strap your feet in, point the board downhill, and hope for the best.

We all fell plenty of times, but by the end of the day, we had figured out a few tricks for staying on our feet. A few of us had rented sleds instead of boards, so we traded and each got to try out different ways to slide down the hill.

It was a great day, and I'm glad I got to go. Only in Oregon!

Sand for miles!
The group with our boards.
Making my way down the hill. Photo by Mike Thomas.

Waiting my turn as Ella slides down the dune. Photo by Mike Thomas.
So this also happened.
Photo by Mike Thomas.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The worst.

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." - Winston Churchill

As you may already know, I'm currently in a writing phase. I've spent the past few weeks putting together my dissertation, making sure everything is revised and formatted and ready to go. 

It worked out pretty conveniently that the journal I submitted one of my chapters to got back to me with comments from reviewers last week. Their timing was perfect, because now I can incorporate the reviewers' comments into my manuscript along with all the revisions I've already received from co-authors and committee members. It'll be one giant revision sweep. 

The peer review process is something I've always struggled with. Prior to publication, every scientific paper has to be reviewed and critiqued by other impartial scientists, people who know the subject matter well but have no professional or personal connections to the authors. Based on comments from the reviewers, the editor decides whether the paper should be accepted, substantially revised and re-evaluated, or rejected outright. The process is very effective at keeping scientists accountable, catching their mistakes, and improving their work. But it's also one long, obnoxious headache.

Sometimes reviewers are biased or arrogant or rude. They seldom meet deadlines, and they never value your work as much as you do. 

You see, the problem is that reviewers are people. And people are flawed. If scientific papers were handled by one person and one person only, they would also be flawed - and probably biased too. So the solution is to add more people to the mix, so that their various flaws will cancel each other out. 

Peer review is actually a very democratic system, but like democracy, it's also the worst. It's the worst possible way to evaluate scientific papers and determine whether they should be published.

Well, except for every other possible way.

Some humor to lighten the mood: I saw this cartoon outside
someone's office at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
last summer. The caption reads "Most scientists regarded the
new streamlined peer-review process as 'quite an improvement.'"

Monday, June 20, 2016

Keeping the Sabbath

"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God...For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day." - Exodus 20:8-11

Sunset over the Pacific, 19 June 2016
I swung my backpack over my shoulder and started power-walking down Boat Basin Road. Keychains clacked against my water bottle. Ahead of me, the clouds glowed pink, reflecting the hues of the sunset taking place just below them. For the first time since Norway, I had a very distinct sense that I was under a ceiling, bounded in by a beautiful roof, and I smiled to myself at the memory of the Norwegian sky. I knew the best view of the sunset was going to be from the jetty behind OIMB's Boathouse Auditorium, so I rushed forward, chasing the pink clouds, camera in hand.

Sunset over the Pacific, 19 June 2016
It was actually a bit serendipitous that I caught the sunset tonight, because I was only at the lab for a short meeting. I had been planning to come in and work in the afternnon, but I ended up just staying home and resting. I've been going full-force since scheduling my thesis defense last week, because the defense ended up being sooner than I thought it would be. Sure, I have plenty of time to get my thesis revised, edited, and formatted before the deadline, but I'm not taking any chances. It's also physically impossible for me to procrastinate. 

Still, if there's one thing I've learned in the past two years, it is the value of rest, of taking a day off. Yesterday and today marked the first real weekend I've had in about a month, and I definitely needed it. There is so much wisdom in the practice of the Sabbath, of a day with no work. Sometimes I feel guilty for staying in the house, but I always end up refreshed and rejuvenated the following day. A day of rest usually increases my productivity in the long run. 

I'm glad for my day off and the renewed energy it's given me. I'm glad for the fresh summer wind and for the progress I've made on my thesis. I'm glad for a beautiful sunset over the Pacific, and that I had the time to see it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

To write

"Writers don't make any money at all. We make about a dollar. It is terrible. But then again we don't work either. We sit around in our underwear until noon then go downstairs and make coffee, fry some eggs, read the paper, read part of a book, smell the book, wonder if perhaps we ourselves should work on our book, smell the book again, throw the book across the room because we are quite jealous that any other person wrote a book, feel terribly guilty about throwing the schmuck's book across the room because we secretly wonder if God in heaven noticed our evil jealousy, or worse, our laziness. We then lie across the couch facedown and mumble to God to forgive us because we are secretly afraid He is going to dry up all our words because we envied another man's stupid words. And for this, as I said, we are paid a dollar. We are worth so much more." - Donald Miller in Blue Like Jazz

Aw, writing. The worst part of the scientific process, but also the most necessary. As the saying goes, if it's not written down, the science never happened. Ugh. 

I'm spending from now until I turn in my final dissertation revising chapters, writing bridge chapters, and formatting the entire thing into one coherent document. It's not that difficult of work, just tedious. And long. And full of words. So many words.

I pulled a past graduate student's dissertation off the bookshelf in my advisor's office to use a template for my own. The University has pretty strict requirements about fonts, margins, etc., so it's nice to have another dissertation to look at as a guide. Maybe I should smell the book or throw it across the room. It could help.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Blessed are the curious

"Blessed are the curious, for they shall have adventures." - Lovelle Drachman

It's Friday at 5, and the laboratory is quiet. I'm alone in my building, and the only sounds I hear are the ticking clock and the clack of my own typing fingers. I take a deep breath, hold it in for a second, let it out. It's been a long week.

A sampling of the organisms I took to preschool
It started with my committee meeting on Monday, when my supervisors decided I could defend my thesis. Monday was a banner day, but since then, I've barely had a chance to sit down. I got some important paperwork filed with the University for my upcoming thesis defense. I received manuscript drafts with comments back from several co-authors, so I can begin revising each chapter and compiling my dissertation. I took some invertebrates into a preschool class for an outreach event, and I lead a boat trip for a community education course visiting OIMB. There's been a major event each day of the week.

Now that my thesis defense has been scheduled sooner than I expected, I can tell the next month will be nuts. I'll be reading and revising and writing and just trying to get my ducks in a row. I'm so excited to defend my thesis and see everything I've worked for come together, but it's going to be a lot of work to get there.

You know, I remember talking with one of my advisor/collaborators, Paul, last fall while working in the lab on the Helmer Hanssen.  As we were sorting benthic invertebrates on a table in the lab, he asked me why I had gone into research. It’s a completely legitimate question, one that I should be always prepared to answer, but it actually caught me off-guard. I mean, I've been asked plenty of times why I went into marine biology, to the point that I have a standard answer ready to go. I tell people that didn't choose marine biology; it chose me. I was born with a love for the ocean that I really can’t explain, and exploring it is the best way I can think to spend my life.
Behold, my thesis chapters! The one on the right is already
published, but the other four need to be revised.

But I realized this answer doesn’t explain why I chose research instead of some other job that deals with marine biology. After college, I could have chosen to be an aquarist or a science journalist or even a high-school science teacher. I could have easily taken a job in public outreach at a museum or an aquarium. But I didn't. I chose grad school. I chose the hardest job around. I chose research. 

When Paul posed me that question, a really strange thing happened. I just started talking without even knowing what I wanted to say. My mouth formed the words, but I heard myself speak as if listening to someone else. I heard myself explaining ideas that I had never consciously thought before.

I told Paul that I love to learn. And I told him that research is the highest form of learning. In the same way that the best dancers become choreographers and the best musicians become composers, the best learners become scientists, I explained. I love to learn, I told him, and I want to spend my life learning things that have never been learned before.

Once you've been bitten by the curiosity bug, everything else starts to matter a little less. You do crazy things, all for the sake of your science. All to learn new things. You live in gray, rainy port towns where the sun never shines but the biodiversity is awesome. You get up at ridiculous hours of the morning to catch the low tide. You put up with seasickness and exhaustion and jet-lag on a cruise. You move expensive equipment across the world and worry until it arrives safely. You endure long hours and weird shifts and the constant need for sleep. And yes, you stay late on a Friday night to revise and assemble your thesis. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Yellow Light

"Somewhere deep in the dark
A howling beast hears us talk
I dare you to close your eyes
And see all the colors in disguise
Running into the night
The earth is shaking and I see a light"
- "Yellow Light" by Of Monsters and Men

If you live on the Oregon coast long enough, you'll learn to predict the weather inland from the weather on the coast. When the coast is drowning in winter rains, the mountains are getting snow and the valleys are getting slush. When the coast is socked in with summer fog, the inland cities are dry and hot.

As I drove to the lab this morning, I could tell the valleys must be miserably hot. The drive to lab was like a ride in a bowl of soup. Stepping out of my car, I could feel the fog on my skin. It was close, clingy, and cold.

The fog wasn't an entirely unwelcome guest in my morning. After all, it fit my mood. I had an important meeting with my committee, and I'll readily admit, I was nervous as could be. I did my best not to psych myself out, but I had really no idea how the meeting was going to go. Half of me was trying to just not think about it, and the other half was surrounded by dread - close, clingy, and cold.

The meeting actually went pretty well. Very well. Actually, it went as well as it possibly could have, because my committee approved of my work. I had produced three manuscripts in the past few months and presented them to my committee as possible thesis chapters. They liked them. They said I did well. They said I could graduate.

Celebratory smoothie
Of course there are always improvements to be made, and I'll spend a good chunk of the next few weeks revising my papers. My committee made some very good suggestions, and I'm grateful for their critical eyes. For me, the most important part is that the basic premise, the scientific foundation of my thesis, is accepted. Now I can assemble my dissertation.

By the time I stepped out of the meeting, the sun had dispersed most of the fog. The poor inland valleys were probably still burning up, but at least we coasters got a break from the mist. The light had returned to the Oregon shore, but there was also a new light at the end of my own proverbial tunnel. My time as a graduate student was always meant to be finite, but after today's meeting, it has a definitive end. A date. A forseeable expiration.

I took my labmate out to lunch and indulged in a fruit smoothie to celebrate. Yes, I was as wildly ecstatic as my crazy eyes suggest. Someday soon, I will have a Ph.D.