Sunday, July 31, 2016

The worms are out

After a week spent with family and friends, the storm of my dissertation defense has passed, and I finally got back to checking e-mail. As it turns out, a paper that I had submitted for publication was finally type-set and released by the publisher. This paper concerns Hyalinoecia artifex, a large, active worm that lives in tubes on the continental slope of the northwestern Atlantic. The paper represents a collaborative effort involving scientists from two different institutes. We were all on board Atlantis last summer and made our observations of H. artifex during the cruise. Each person contributed a different part of the analysis, and my name is listed first only because I tied the various parts of the paper together and was responsible for submitting it.

The final published paper can be found at this link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ivb.12132/full

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Forget about me: Part 3

The concept of community is one that I think about a lot. Everywhere I live, I try to observe the community around me, try to figure out what works and what doesn't. Where there are strong communities, I try to figure out why. Where a community is weak or non-existent, I try to figure out why.

I've learned a lot about community in Oregon, both positive and negative. I have been part of an absolutely awesome, though ephemeral, community of friends. I have also been hurt by multiple closed-off, self-centered people. In fact, one of the biggest things that I learned is that quite often, the very people who claim to be most accepting of others are in fact the most closed-off. They tolerate everyone but connect with no one. The result is an incredibly superficial communty. Anyone can slide right in - but they can also lift right out.

As I've watched genuine communities appear and disappear around me, I've learned that building a community is not solely up to me. Community depends on everyone present. Genuine communities are built only when each person involved independently decides to open themselves up, to have genuine relationships with others. And when it happens, it's magical.

This past week, I got to see a fantastic community sweep through Coos Bay. My family, the truest mainfestation of community I've every observed, was present in full force. My godparents came to my defense. Two close friends drove in from different parts of Oregon for the event. Some people from my church even showed up. It was a beautiful, warm tornado.

One of my favorite things to do - in fact, a huge reason why I travel - is to build bridges across oceans. I love fostering intellectual and cultural exchange, and I love introducing people who would not otherwise have met. It was so fun this week to introduce my brother to an OIMB intern and see them get along. I loved seeing one of my committee members get to know my family. I loved introducing my friends to one another.

I was, quite frankly, overwhelmed with the number of people who put forth the time and resources to attend my defense. I was floored by the abundance and the sincerity of the congratulations I received from all parts of the world. My apartment is filled with gifts from my family and friends. I am in awe of their warm-heartedness and generosity.

This week was more than just the week I got my Ph.D. It was a week that proved to me how immeasurably blessed I am to be surrounded by beautiful, genuine people. Truly, truly, my friends, it is the people in my life who make it worthwhile. I thank God for each and every one of them.

Sankthansaften

As you might imagine, graduate school is steeped in tradition. At OIMB, a successful defense is no exception. The evening after I defended, the OIMB community, plus my family and my committee gathered at Craig's house for a potluck dinner. Craig, my advisor, even went one step beyond the protocol of tradition and chose a unique theme for the party: a traditional Scandinavian midsummer celebration, or Sankthansaften. Because my defense took place in midsummer and most of my research took place in the European Arctic, the theme was perfect! There were Swedish meatballs, lingonberry jam, elderberry juice, Smørrebrød (open-faced sandwiches) with pickled herring, smoked salmon - Craig managed to get everything that reminded me of Norway. The party was fantastic!

I ordered a special cake for the potluck - in the form of a dropstone!
Can you spot the Caulophacus arcticus?

My brother took the Scandinavian theme to heart and showed up
in a sweater I brought back from Norway.

Every OIMB graduate and retiree for the last 10+ years has signed this cap
and gown in UO colors. I got to add my name!

Craig's defense gift to me was The Deep, an unparalleled photo book of deep-sea creatures.

Lightning

My defense passed so quickly - like lightning. Thankfully, a few of my supporters captured the event in pictures. Check them out below.

With my title slide for my defense presentation. 
Photo by Sephra Hansen.
On this slide, I'm pointing out some of the animals that 
inhabit shipwrecks. Photo by Angela Meyer.
Answering questions after my defense presentation. 
It was a packed house! Photo by Angela Meyer.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Like that

"With a Ph.D., there is only before and after. The actual moment passes like that." - Astri J.S. Kvassnes

Before: There was a soft rap on the door. Must be Craig. I thought. I flung it open playfully, joyfully. I handed him the bag of items he had requested, forgot the receipt, ran into my room to get the receipt. We chatted. "So, are you ready for tomorrow?" he asked, "Has it hit you yet? Are you nervous?" Well, I thought, I am now.

After: Making my way to the end of the long restaurant table, I sat down between two good friends. I had been working the room for the last half hour, changing seats with every course. These two were the last stop. Parents, grandparents, friends, colleagues - I made sure to spend time with them all. A few seats away, my mom gained permission to hold Laura's 6-month-old baby, and the cutie emerged from his car seat. Mom's always been good with babies.

Before: I made my way down to the front of the Boathouse Auditorium and kicked off my shoes. If I was going to be arranging tables and hauling chairs, I sure wasn't going to do it in heels. Three large windows gave me an almost panoramic view of the bay. Outside, I could see Andrew on the wooden dock. I waved to him, but his back was turned as he enjoyed the ocean view. 

After: I seated myself in the middle of the table, sandwiched between colleagues and family. I can move seats later, I thought, to make sure I spend time with to everyone. Down the table, Dad and Rick were distributing drinks.

Before: Andrew came into the auditorium and handed me his phone. "Astri wants to say something to you." I pressed the phone to my ear and listened to her warm encouragement. What a wonderful woman. As I listened, I was reminded of how much I enjoy the playful lilt of her voice.

After: I made the rounds, hugging each one of the dear souls who had waited on me in the parking lot. 

Before: Sephra was the first to arrive, then some ladies from church, then my family. The scientists filtered in one by one, some from class, some from the field. As the room filled up, I became ever more grateful for my lack of stage fright. Public speaking has never phased me - and thank goodness.

After: Wes was the first one to see me when I emerged. He didn't ask questions, just swallowed me with his giant arms. I was grateful for his stability and let myself lean on him for a moment. I was tired.

Before: Craig loves trying to throw me off - not in a malicious way, but in a playful, you-totally-got-this-so-I-just-have-to-mess-with-you way. He's talking about a poem by Edward Forbes. Oh gosh, he's going to recite the poem, isn't he? He's going to recite the whole poem!

After: I needed a break. I had to have a break. Just one moment alone. I retreated into the bathroom, but not two seconds later, there were footsteps in the hall. A muffled voice: "Where's Kirstin?"

Before: Craig finished introducing me and took his seat. I took a deep breath. I stood up. I scanned the room full of faces. And I opened the first slide.

After: Andrew shook my hand, looked me square in the eye, and said "Congratulations, Dr. Meyer."


Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sword and shield

"Was there nothing but the hush of night?
Had a treasure, but I don't know where
Did you flee from what was said and seen?
Yes, the good was not without the bad
Raise your sword and shield"
- "Was there nothing" by Ásgeir

If there was ever a verse written to describe my experiences in graduate school, it is the one above. Ásgeir, you Icelandic musical genius, your lyrics speak to my soul.

It's hard for me not to get reflective as my graduate education draws to a close. I find myself mentally reviewing my struggles and my victories, the harsh words that were said to me and the encouragement I received. I've said for years that science is easy, but relationships are hard. My time as a Ph.D. student has only reinforced this belief. I've even on occasion referred to graduate school as "one long, extended hazing ritual."

But as I watch the sky outside darken and the world prepare for sleep, I cannot help but be positive. Every trial over the past four years, every harsh review, every obnoxious obstacle in my way, has just made me into a better scientist. I have been forged like steel, and now I emerge a sharp, functional tool.

Tomorrow is my official thesis defense. It is the culmination of my graduate program, in which I will present all the research I have done for my dissertation. After my presentation, a committee of five professors will have their last chance to grill me on my research. They can question my methods or my interpretations. They can challenge the significance of my work. Everything is theoretically up for discussion.

I've been thinking a lot about the word "defense" lately, as I am supposed to "defend" my thesis. The vocabulary implies a combative scenario, in which my committee will be on the offense and I on the defense. It's their last chance to tear me apart. I should have to fight them off with my sword and shield.

But you know, I'm not actually convinced that's how it's going to happen. They say the best defense is a good offense, but I disagree. As I walk into my defense tomorrow, I don't need to offend anyone. I don't need to advance my army forward or take any prisoners. I just have to hold my ground.

If I had to choose my favorite Avenger, it would be Captain America. I like his clean-cut, sandy-blonde look, and it impresses me how much he can do with just a shield. Think about it: he doesn't even have an offensive weapon, just a defensive one, but he manages to do things with it that other Avengers just can't. Captain America can hold his ground against even the toughest onslaught.

Over the past four years, I've been pounded into the proper scientific shape. My committee, my external advisors, co-authors, and collaborators across the world have all contributed to my development. At this point, my committee knows everything that is in my thesis. They've guided me along as I wrote it. Now, my job should be just to hold my ground.

Like Captain America. Just a shield.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The sky is red

"Red sky at night, sailor's delight
Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning."
- Old adage

I can't tell you how many times I've heard the phrase above repeated on research ships. You'd think scientists would know better. Even though modern ships have complex and reliable meteorological equipment, people at sea still love to quote the ancient verse.

I learned on a ship sometime last year that the predictive power of the red sky has its origins in the tropical Atlantic. The predominant winds at tropical latitude (the so-called Trade Winds) are from the east. Therefore, if the sky was red at sunrise (in the east), sailors could expect whatever turbulent air mass caused the color change to come their way later in the day. On the other hand, if the sky was red at sunset (in the west), then the storm would be carried away from them.

Red sunrise
There are now only 4 days remaining until my dissertation defense, and I can tell you that my sky is  red. I know my defense is going to be a crazy storm, but I actually think it will be a good storm. I have 6 family members, 5 close friends, and 3 committee members coming from out of town to see my defense. One friend is even bringing her baby. That means 7 different travel schedules, 15 different personalities, not to mention all my labmates who will be around. Then, you know, there's the minor matter of not failing my defense. It's going to be an absolute whirlwind - a category 5 hurricane - but I can't wait. I can't wait to see each of my supportive friends and finish my Ph.D.

My sky is red. And it is beautiful.




Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The calm before the storm

Dear friends, I am sitting at my kitchen table, watching the sky darken outside. I am relaxed - actually shockingly so. My dissertation has been turned in. I finished my defense presentation yesterday, and I've already practiced it twice. The logistical issues surrounding my defense have gradually gotten solved. Little by little, my to-do list is dwindling.

This feels wrong. Shouldn't I be stressed to the gills right now? Shouldn't I be frantically working, scrambling to meet a deadline? I have to be missing something.

I've never been a procrastinator. In fact, whenever I know there's a task to be completed, I feel something like an itch in my brain. I simply can't move on or relax until it's done. So I work, sometimes frantically, until the itch goes away. I always finish way ahead of schedule, then wonder why I was stressed in the first place.

Maybe my anti-procrastination method is paying off. I've gotten most everything in order with almost two weeks to spare. I suppose I should enjoy this calm while I have it, because my defense is going to be a crazy tornado of visitors and family members and committee members and labmates and stressing and defending and hopefully passing and just trying to keep myself together. 

The storm is coming.

The cover slide for my defense presentation



Thursday, July 7, 2016

Look at the stars: Part 3

"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

Ladies and gentlemen, it is July 2016. My brain can hardly believe it. I swear, the last time I blinked, I had just had my committee meeting in January.

It's probably because I haven't taken a breath since then (ok, I took one breath), but the first half of this year was a complete blur. I've had my head down, writing my thesis for months. And all of a sudden, I find myself thrust to the surface, forced to breathe.

Yesterday, another OIMB graduate student successfully defended her dissertation and received her Ph.D. She did some excellent work, looking at how changes in the environment can induce changes in snail larvae. It's called phenotypic plasticity, and it's really cool. When a predator is around, the larvae grow thicker shells. When food is in low supply, the larvae grow larger vela, or food-catching lobes. When she attached a weight to the larvae, their vela grew asymmetrically to accommodate the weight and allow the larvae to swim.

I often find myself referring to Ph.D. Comics for concise and accurate descriptions of graduate school life, and a friend's graduation is no exception. Check out the flow chart "Should you be happy for them?" here. According to the flow chart, I shouldn't be wasting my time writing a blog post. I shouldn't even have wasted the time to attend the defense. I should be working.

Because I'm next.

That's right, the last layer of ceiling has been peeled away above my head. With J's successful defense in the past, I am the next graduate student in line. In just over two weeks, I will defend my own thesis.

Oh, crap. I have a lot of work to do.