Thursday, September 29, 2016

The grafted tree


I'm on my parents' couch right now, listening to my mom and sister pore over a box of my great grandfather's belongings. I'd be over there too, but Mom already showed me the box in August. My dad is at the kitchen table behind me, looking something up on his laptop. My sister's fiancé is upstairs.

Ah, it's good to be in Ohio.

All of us at trivia night
I told you I'd be spending some time in the Midwest before settling in Masschusetts, and that's exactly what I'm doing now. It worked out for Kendra and Seth to visit Ohio while I was in limbo, so I wanted to make sure I was here and could see them. They live in Michigan and don't make the trip south very often - this is actually their first time at the house in Ohio. It's been fun for me to tag along as Mom showed them the town. Mom is so enthusiastic and knowledgeable - we joked that she could record her voice and sell copies of a guided driving tour of Ohio.

Of course we had to stop by the local pub for trivia night while Kendra and Seth were in town. It was a fun time, but we didn't do very well, coming in 8th place overall. Just not our night.

It feels like an eternity since I've done any science, but my defense was really only two months ago. I'll be back in the game soon enough. For now, I'm enjoying my time in the Midwest. My family tree has a newly-grafted branch, and I'm happy to see it grow.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The roadtrip: Part 6


After almost a week on the road, Mom and I made it to my parents' home in Ohio. We chose a route that took us through 5 states, across 3 rivers, and through very hilly terrain. We started out by crossing the Mississippi River from Missouri into Illinois, then across the state line into southern Indiana. A bridge across the Ohio River took us from Indiana into Kentucky, then across a state line into West Virginia. Finally, we crossed the Ohio River one more time to enter Ohio.

I had been through Kentucky before but never spent much time there. I loved seeing the rolling hills, the horse farms, and something I hadn't seen since we left the Oregon coast: trees! I mean, of course there were sparse trees in each state in the West, but never dense forests lining the highway. It was always short, dry grasses or farm fields. Kentucky is the first time since Oregon that we've seen a solid cover of trees.

Now that we're in Ohio, Mom and I will be staying put for a few days. I'm so glad to be out of the car! I have a couple adventures planned while in the Midwest, and then I'll make the final push to Massachusetts. I'll keep you posted as the journey continues!
The Mississippi River, between Missouri and Illinois

The Ohio River, between Indiana and Kentucky



The Kanawha River in West Virgina

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The roadtrip: Part 5

St. Louis, Missouri

The "famous hill" outside Columbia, MO, which offers the
most sweeping view in the state.
Today was a short driving day. Mom and I are finally in the Midwest, so we are getting back into familiar territory. We made our way across Missouri today, through much of Mom's old stomping grounds. I didn't take as many pictures of the landscapes, just because the terrain was more familiar to me - much of my extended family lives in Missouri, so I had been in the state many times before.

We used the opportunity while in Missouri to spend time with family. Most of my relatives live in or near St. Louis, so we all gathered at my cousin's house for dinner. It was an awesome evening, and I'm so glad for the opportunity to see my family in Missouri!

Friday, September 23, 2016

The roadtrip: Part 4

Kansas City, Kansas

After leaving Denver, we headed east across Colorado and into Kansas. I always thought of Denver as a city in the center of the Rockies, but we were out of the mountains almost as soon as we left the city. We dropped over 4,000 ft of altitude in just a few hours. The landscape in eastern Colorado was characterized by rolling hills and farmland, and it flowed effortlessly into Kansas. As we drove, I saw plenty of wheat fields, corn fields, and more cows than I could count. There were also numerous wind farms on the horizon, with regularly-spaced windmills as far as the eye could see. With all the flat terrain in Kansas, wind travels almost unobstructed. It's easy to see why the Wizard of Oz opened with a tornado!

We finished the day in Kansas City, where Mom and I have extended family. We don't often get to see our Kansas relatives, so we took the opportunity to spend time with them. It was so much fun!

I'm officially over 2,000 miles away from the Oregon coast. Slowly but surely, the roadtrip progresses!

The roadtrip: Part 3

Denver, Colorado

Day 3 of my cross-country roadtrip adventure began at the Great Salt Lake. Neither Mom nor I had ever seen it before. (A family roadtrip when I was growing up took us to southern Utah, but we missed the northern part of the state that trip.) We were both curious about the lake and decided to check it out while we had the chance. I certainly learned a lot.

Great Salt Lake
The modern-day Great Salt Lake is a small remnant of a much larger body of water, Lake Bonneville, that covered parts of Utah, Idaho, and Nevada earlier in geological time. The modern lake is only 12 feet deep on average but has 4 times the salinity of seawater. It's a terminal lake, meaning it has no outflow, so any trace of salt carried into the lake from the surrouding drainage area gets trapped there as the water evaporates. Because of the high salinity, the only animals in the lake are small crustaceans called brine shrimp. Birds come from all around to feed on the brine shrimp, leading to a diverse and abudant avian community.

Seen in Echo Canyon, Utah
Tourism on the lake has been off and on, with the major facility being destroyed multiple times by fire or flood. Nowadays, the lake is surrounded by mines. It's a very industrial area, with heavy machinery being used to extract salt and copper from the surrounding mountains.

Green rock in Wyoming
After our stop at the lake, we headed east across Utah through ski country and narrow Echo Canyon. The mountains were absolutely beautiful, and the canyon walls were red and extremely steep. The majority of the drive actually took us through southern Wyoming, which was much more diverse than I expected. We drove past rolling hills, ranches, rough cliffs, and smooth knolls. At one point, we passed rocky outcrops that looked green. Very interesting.

We kept climbing altitude in Wyoming and actually crossed the Continental Divide in two places. I kept checking our altitude, and the highest value I ever saw was over 8,600 feet. Mom and I could both notice the effects of the altitude on our cosmetics - for the past few days, every lotion, shampoo, and cleanser has exploded when opened. I even opened a sealed bag of trail mix in the car, and it too was grossly bloated in the low-pressure environment.

At the end of the day, we stopped in Denver, the Mile-High City. We both laughed that even the famous high-altitude city was a steep downhill slide away. Another great day of travel is over!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The roadtrip: Part 2

Salt Lake City, Utah

The second day of cross-country travel took me through southwestern Idaho and into Utah. I have just a few things to say about Idaho. First, the landscapes are absolutely beautiful. Gorgeous. Stunning. We started in terrain very similar to the Oregon Badlands, then watched as the land flattened out and became covered by potato and corn fields. The closer we got to Utah, the more mountains there were.

The second thing I have to say about Idaho is that it's obvious Idahoans love their state. We saw exits for towns named Paradise Valley, Bliss, and Eden.

Now that I'm in Utah, I just can't get enough of the mountains. As my mom and I were walking to dinner, we kept our eyes to the sky and the horizon, just drinking it all in. What a gorgeous, gorgeous state.

"In eastern Oregon, they make such a big deal out of the Oregon Badlands.
Sure, it's beautiful terrain, but where I come from, the land looks exactly
the same, and we just call it...Idaho." - Caitlin Plowman


A wind park in Idaho
A rest stop outside Eden, Idaho
Getting close to Utah
Near the Idaho/Utah border

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The roadtrip

Ontario, Oregon

I am so tired. I'm currently on the eastern edge of Oregon, after a 10-hour drive across the state. Yes, it takes that long to get from the coast to the Idaho border. The route goes over the coastal mountains, through the Willamette Valley, over the Cascade Mountains, across the high desert, through the Oregon Badlands, then over another mountain range. So many ecosystems!

A flat, straight road in Oregon's high desert
I'm currently moving from Oregon to Massachusetts, and to get there, I'm driving. Well, not just me - my ever-so-supportive mother flew out to Oregon and is making the trip with me. I'm grateful for the added safety her presence provides, and besides, my mom is just fun to travel with.

For our first day on the road, we set off from Coos Bay and headed inland. I had never been east of Willamette Pass, the highest point in highway 58 in the Cascade Range, so the eastern half of the state was a total mystery to me.

The desolate high desert
We passed through Bend, which is a city divided. On one side of the highway, there were old, run-down neighborhoods, but on the other side were expensive condos and well-manicured lawns. It reminded me of cities in the deep South, where you can travel to a different universe just by crossing the railroad tracks. Very strange.

A rocky butte in Oregon's Badlands
Next, we passed through the Oregon high desert, which is so named because it's at 4,000-4,500 feet of elevation and in a rain shadow cast by the Cascades. I could feel the dry air chapping my lips as we drove. The dirt was red in some areas, and the only plants were low, bushy shrubs. I had been told there was nothing in eastern Oregon, but I always assumed it was relatively nothing (translation: small towns every 20 miles), but no. There was nothing. We went a hundred miles at a time without seeing so much as a shack. The best way to make you understand the absolute desolation in eastern Oregon is to make you listen to the second movement of Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt. Listen to it here, and close your eyes.

The Blue Mountains in the distance
I remember seeing exactly two farms in eastern Oregon, because most of the terrain is too dry to grow much of anything. There was a hay farmer with an impressive irrigation system. His fields surrounded the "town" of Hampton, Oregon, and from the looks of it, the population of Hampton is equivalent to the number of people the farmer employs.

The second farm was actually a ranch with a large, fenced-in area and animals that reminded me of spring buck or antelope. After a little Google-ing around, I discovered they were pronghorns, an animal that's native to dry, high-altitude inland areas of North America. Pronghorns are actually in the giraffe family, but they're the ecological equivalent of antelopes, as fast-moving herbivores that are preyed upon by big cats (in this case mountain lions). They're the second-fastest land animal, second only to the cheetah. I never knew such a magnificent animal was native to North America!

As we continued east, the terrain got more and more rugged. We drove through the Oregon Badlands, full of rocky buttes and steep ridges. The landscapes were absolutely beautiful, and we took plenty of pictures. The last part of the drive was through the Blue Mountains, which are absolutely gorgeous.

It was a long, taxing day in the car, but I learned a lot about Oregon. Here's to adventure!

Monday, September 19, 2016

I of the storm

If I could pick a song quote to begin this post, it would be "I of the storm" by Of Monsters and Men, the Alex Somers remix. In fact, I recommend you listen to the song while reading this post. Find it here.

Listen to the distant bird calls and the mysterious crackling sounds. Breathe in the voices that come and go like a vapor. Open your ears to the vast, dusk-colored emptiness that is this song.

This song is what it sounded like as my ship steamed south from the Arctic, and large red jellyfish dotted the sea surface, which was glassy and eerily calm. R/V Polarstern, August 2011.

This song is what it sounded like when I sat on a box of life jackets the night before a cruise and wrote a long letter to a friend by the port lights. NOAA ship Nancy Foster, September 2012.

This song is what it sounded like when I laid on the deck with JB and LR and saw ten shooting stars in an hour. R/V Thomas Thompson, May 2014.

This song is what it sounded like as I sat in my empty room on my last night in Norway and couldn't fall asleep. Stavanger, February 2015.

This song is what it sounded like when my shipmates and fellow grad students gathered on the bow in the dark to watch bioluminescent diatoms light up the waves. R/V Atlantis, July 2015.

This song is what it sounded like when my classmates and I sat on the roof of our dorm and watched the aurora borealis. Svalbard, October 2015.

This song is what it sounded like the one time I got up the nerve to drive to Cape Arago by myself after dark and just stare out at the vast, dusk-colored emptiness. Oregon, March 2016.

And this song sounds like tonight, as I stand at my kitchen window and wish I could climb up to the roof. This song sounds like the calm that follows a heated battle, like the rest that comes after a fight. It sounds like breathing the crisp night air and looking up at the stars. This song sounds like endings and goodbyes, and it sounds like leaving Coos Bay.

Tomorrow, I will pack up my car and leave this place for the very last time. I wasn't sure how I would feel tonight, but I'm actually quite calm. You know, I decided that when people ask me how long I lived in Oregon, I'm going to answer them "off and on for four years." The truth is that I've traveled more in grad school than most people do in a lifetime - heck, I even moved away to Norway and then came back. Of the 1,552 days that I've rented my apartment in Coos Bay, I was away from it for 645 of them. That's 41.5%, and yes, I actually calculated it all out.

Coos Bay has been my resting place for four years, my place to stay between trips. But it was also a place that I grew, a place that I learned. Coos Bay tested me and stretched me in ways I never expected and never thought I could handle, but hey, that's grad school, right? My opinions of this place have been all over the map, but I can say this: for better or for worse, I lived in Coos Bay, Oregon. I learned in Coos Bay; I cried in Coos Bay; I failed and succeeded and stretched and grew and became a better person for it.

And they call me under
And I'm shaking like a leaf

Goodbye, Coos Bay.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

All of me

"All of me
Loves all of you
Love your curves and all your edges
All your perfect imperfections"
- "All of me" by John Legend

I walked up to the cottage, a tray of coffees in one hand, car keys in the other. The early morning air was damp, chilly. I could see heads of bull kelp on the sea surface just a few yards away. I knocked on the cottage door and heard someone shout "open!" from inside. I turned the handle and let myself in.

And there she was, already beaming, sitting on a kitchen chair with a head full of curling iron. It was her wedding day.
OIMB's Boathouse Auditorium (the same room where my
defense was held) re-decorated for the wedding. 

Friends, in my last official act as an Oregonian, I served as a bridesmaid for my labmate Caitlin's wedding. I had been looking forward to this day for a long time - about a year, actually. I planned my move around it.

The wedding was at OIMB, and everyone did their part to make it happen. The secretary did Caitlin's hair; faculty housing was opened to her family. The OIMB kitchen catered the reception, and all the students and staff attended. Relatives and friends of the couple came in from out of town and offered their hands in logistical assistance. I had a fun time getting to know Caitlin's high school friends. It made me happy to see the community rally around Caitlin and Jesse to make their big event come together.

Caitlin and Jesse on their wedding day
I was a multi-purpose guest, serving as Bridesmaid, Violinist, and Friend. (I expect the reception photos will reveal my role as Crazy Dancer as well.) It warmed my heart to see such a dear friend, labmate, and (let's face it) academic sister marry her perfect match. Caitlin and Jesse are a well-functioning, complementary pair, and they truly are each other's best friend.

One of the reasons I love my mobile life so much is that wherever I go, I get to meet new people. And not just meet them, but know them. And not just know them, but help them. And not just help them, but invest in them. And get involved in their lives and let them get involved in mine. Caitlin has kept me sane for the past two years as I finished my Ph.D. She and Jesse are a cornerstone in the Tangled Web of People Kirstin Knows and Loves Across the World. I am deeply grateful for such an amazing and supportive lab sister in Caitlin, for her perfect match and partner in life, Jesse, for the opportunity to know them as individuals and as a unit. I'm honored to have participated in their wedding day, and I wish them nothing but the best for their life together.

Thursday, September 8, 2016


Friends, I am happy to inform you that the cornerstone of my dissertation, my dropstone paper, has been published by Marine Ecology Progress Series. I first saw dropstones in photographs of the Arctic seafloor in 2011, and I've been working on an analysis of their communities in one capacity or another ever since. Whenever I give my elevator speech about my dissertation, I tell listeners "It started with dropstones..." because truly, these random rocks on the high-Arctic continental slope launched my interest into isolated hard substrata and island-like habitats in the sea. The publication of this article is a victory for my co-authors and me, because it represents years of hard work. I'm very happy to finally see it in print.

Find the article here:

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Top ten things I'll miss about Oregon

Crater Lake, one of my favorite places in Oregon.
10) Oregon's stratified and interesting geography. Oregon is one of few places on Earth where the ocean and the mountains are within driving distance of one another. In the winters, I could throw my snowboard in the car, leave my apartment in the early morning, and make it to the slopes by 9. I loved knowing the names of the rivers I crossed over as I drove north, seeing the landscape transition as I headed east. Oregon is a very beautiful state.

9) All the random weirdos. Oregon has a reputation for being a weird place, and if you're wondering what I mean, just watch a few episodes of Portlandia. Sure, the eclectic state has its drawbacks. When self-expression is elevated to the highest possible good, the resulting communities are superficial - people spend so much time finding themselves that they fail to bond with anyone else. But there are also good sides. I am much more open-minded than when I arrived here in 2012, and I've learned to let people tell me who they are, rather than making assumptions about their lives. Oregon has taught me that there is no scaffold for a human life, that each person must build their very own experience from the ground up. It has shown me that you can live any sort of life that you want to, as long as you are honest about it.

8) Good live music. Most people wouldn't expect a small fishing town on the southern Oregon coast to have a good music scene, but it does. Coos Bay's coastal location means bands regularly come through town on their way to larger gigs in places like Eugene and Portland. Nobody mega-famous, but plenty of bands good enough to tour. My favorites were The Bee Eaters and The Mondegreens.

7) Contra dances. Contra dancing actually originated in Connecticut, but I first encountered it in Oregon. It's like square dancing but in two long lines. Dancers follow directions given by a caller, and you trade partners on average every 3 seconds. It's fast and crazy and folksy and an incredible endorphin high.

A contra dance in 2015. The caller is up on the stage. I'm in the floral yellow dress with orange boots, but obviously my outfit was not the coolest one there! Photo by Laurel Hiebert.
6) 7 Devils Brewery. I'm not actually a fan of beer, but I will miss 7 Devils because of its relaxed atmosphere. The connections between OIMB and 7 Devils are numerous and overlapping, and in fact, I affectionately call the brewery the "OIMB extension office." The founder is an OIMB alumna; most of the staff are current or former OIMB students; even some of the musicians that perform at 7 Devils have OIMB connections. The brewery is the go-to hang-out for Coos Bay's young, educated population, and it quickly began to feel like our own Central Perk.

5) My fellow dancers. One of the first things I do whenever I land in a new place is try to find a dance studio. After getting snubbed out of several ballet studios in Coos Bay, I happened on Rhythm Village, a traditional West African drum and dance ensemble. The Village filled my Monday nights with wild beats and athletic routines. It was through Rhythm Village that I met the owner of Spruce Street Studio, where I eventually went to teach a beginning ballet class. I had a smiling class of little ballerinas who thought I was the coolest person alive. On weekends, I would go into the studio and give myself an advanced class. I'm going to miss being part of a network of dancers - and having access to a studio whenever I wanted.

4) Orcoast Music. I only had to play at Orcoast's open mic night a few times before the owner asked me to teach violin lessons at her store. I'd head down there twice a week, set up in the studio at the back of the shop, and teach. My students ranged in age from 6 to 75, and each one presented a new and unique challenge. I can't tell you how good it felt to watch each of them improve and become musicians. If one didn't show up, I'd hang around the store for a bit, tune the violins for sale, and chat with the owner. I'm going to miss that weird little place and the creative outlet it provided me.

3) Christ Lutheran Church. Church attendance is a habit I've held onto from childhood, but Christ Lutheran was more than a habit - it was a place I felt at home. I got involved by playing violin in church services and singing in the choir. I'm going to miss stove-top popcorn and fellowship at the Thursday night women's Bible study. I'm going to miss joking with the other sopranos at choir practice. I'm going to miss coming early on Sundays to practice my violin with the organist. I'm going to miss the family of young girls who looked up to me, and most importantly, I'm going to miss being part of an extended family of people who invest in each other, get involved in each other's lives, and help each other however they can. I'm going to miss my church community.

Caitlin, Luciana, and I in Newport, Oregon, 2015.
2) My labmates. The OIMB grad student population experienced a complete turnover in my time there - which is how it's supposed to be, as people graduate and move on. My experience as part of the OIMB community varied as the grad student population changed, but I can mostly divide it into two parts: before and after Norway. After Norway, I returned to Oregon to find I had an awesome labmate, Caitlin, a post-doc, Luciana, and a new crop of students who genuinely cared about each other. I'm going to miss chatting with Caitlin throughout the day. I'll miss lunch with Luciana and late-night chats with Carly. My post-Norway labmates rocked, and I'm going to miss them.

1) The Hansens. I met Sephra and Lee Hansen when they attended my church in Coos Bay. We bonded instantly because they had just moved to Oregon from Michigan, the state where I grew up. We swapped stories about the state we all missed; we compared notes on how the Northwest differs from the Midwest. The Hansens quickly became my surrogate Oregon family, and I can honestly say they were the best part about my life out west. They took care of my car while I was in Norway; I taught their daughter violin. I would spend Saturdays at their home on the coast and go visit on weekends after they moved 3 hours north. Sephra and Lee treated me immensely well - like family, really. I'm going to miss the violin lessons and the movie nights and throwing their toddler around the living room. I'm going to miss sitting at the kitchen counter and chatting with Sephra while she cooked. I'm going to miss talking science with Lee. I'll miss the squeals and the meals and the standing offer to do my laundry at their house. The Hansens were without question the best part of my life in Oregon.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The land of ducks and beavers

How many times have I retrieved my car from an airport parking lot and driven back to Coos Bay? Far too many to count. How often have I been pinned between the coastal mountains and the Cascades as I head south on highway 5? How often have I passed the exit for highway 58, leading to central Oregon, and chosen instead 38 toward the coast? How many times have I prayed for no elk to appear on the road as I raced forward into the darkness? Far too many to count.
The chimney is only
about a foot and a half
long, but it is HEAVY.

I'm back in Oregon now, and everything seems to be right where I left it. My apartment is still in disarray with half-boxed belongings strewn about. The town is still quiet; the sea is still calm. The air is as hazy and humid as ever.

I actually went in to the lab yesterday because we had a visitor. A student from the University of Washington drove down to chat with me about image analysis. She had a photo mosaic from a series of cold seeps off the Oregon coast and needed tips on how to approach the data. It was pretty neat for me to see what she was working on - though I use image analysis techniques a lot, I don't typically work on chemosynthetic systems. We charted a good course for her analysis, so I look forward to seeing what the data reveal.

The trip served a dual purpose as a delivery run, because the student brought high-definition video and an exciting artifact for a new display at the Charleston Marine Life Center. It's a chimney from a hydrothermal vent in the Pacific, chain-sawed off by an ROV earlier this summer. Whole chimneys are rarely collected, so the piece will make an informative and unique display for the public in Oregon. We even talked about cutting it length-wise to reveal the fluid channels inside.

It's great to collaborate with scientists from adjacent universities, because both sides benefit and learn new things. I had a great time hosting the UW student!