Friday, December 23, 2016

Little house in the big woods

"But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting. She thought to herself, This is nowShe was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.” 
- Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House in the Big Woods

Right now, I am on the living room couch at parents' cottage in northern Michigan. The newly-decorated Christmas tree is glowing to my right. My brother is clad in his team's colors, watching a football game. Dad and I are clacking on our laptops. Mom is somewhere upstairs. 

It's my tradition to spend Christmas at the cottage, and this year is no different. Well, I suppose there is one difference: this year, I'm no longer a student, and I brought my work with me. As a post-doc, I have more accountability and more responsibility. I'm doing all I can on my laptop to set myself ahead when I get back to WHOI. I'm writing an application for research funds and the introduction for a future study. I'm keeping track of shipments. I'm getting my bearings for a data analysis I'll start in January. 

Oh, and I'm also snowboarding to my heart's content! 

Fear not, friends, this laptop-clacking is balanced with plenty of powder-shredding. It's good to be outside. It's good to be with family. It's good to be here, and now. 

Wes and I on the chairlift

View from the North Face

Sunset over northern Michigan

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Messiah

From his podium in the center of the room, John waved his arms to get everyone's attention. There was a row of wind players seated behind him, a harpsichordist facing him directly in front. I was in the first violin section, off to his left. The pews were filled with people - sopranos and altos in the front, tenors and basses behind. A handful of onlookers were seated in the balcony.

Director John Yankee leads the Falmouth Chamber Players Orchestra,
Falmouth Chorale, and community members in a warm-up
I was astounded by the sheer number of people that had shown up. I had no idea there were so many musicians in, of all places, Falmouth, Massachusetts. Every year around Christmas, the Falmouth Chorale and Falmouth Chamber Players Orchestra invite the community to participate in a reading (they call it a "community sing") of Handel's Messiah. The Messiah is an oratorio, a massive work for choir and orchestra. The 50+ movements tell the story of Jesus Christ, from the fortelling of his birth to his death and resurrection. You might recognize the "Hallelujah Chorus," probably the most famous movement of The Messiah. Some movements, called chorales, involve the whole choir, while others feature a soloist in one voice.  The Messiah is in my opinion one of the greatest works of music ever written and the single greatest English-language oratorio.

"When we've finished," John spoke into the microphone, "let's just let the music hang. Just give it 15 seconds or so, and listen to it ring. Let's let the music have the final word. Agreed?"

I lifted my instrument, laid one finger on my D string, and pulled my bow on the first note of the overture. For the next two hours, I rooted my hips to the chair while letting my back and my shoulders sway. I held long, soft notes, hiding under the sopranos during a recitiative. I exploded in a fiery fury during a tenor aria. I kept my ears open to stay together with my section, and my eyes glued on John to follow his cues.

My usual complaint with playing first violin is that the firsts can't hear anyone else but themselves. I much prefer to be on second violin or viola, seated in the center of the orchestra, surrounded by diverse voices. But in the case of The Messiah, my complaint was completely invalid. I had the sopranos to my left, a cello to my right, and the violas behind me. I felt surrounded, embedded in the matrix of sound. It was glorious.

The final movement, the "Amen," is one of the finest examples of counterpoint in history. Each voice swells and then dies back in alternation, passing the sound around the room. The first violins support the sopranos, carrying them up and away before passing off the phrase to the altos. The combination of orchestra and choir filled the whole sanctuary, until three measures before the end - silence. A shocking, dramatic pause, and then the final three chords in magnificent D Major.

I am so grateful that I landed here. That I live in a town with a chamber orchestra and a chorale and a director willing to guide use through such a massive, historical work. I am grateful for the cellos and the sopranos and the violas. I am grateful for the people around me and sanctuary walls that let the sound reverberate. Because as I lifted my bow from the string and listened to it ring, I knew indeed, the music had the final word.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The journeyman

Way back in the day (and in some places still nowadays), people learned marketable skills through apprenticeships. They worked under the direct tutelage of a master, observing and absorbing skills as they went. I've compared graduate school to an apprenticeship in the past, and I still believe that science, for all of its fanfare and academic regalia, boils down to an apprenticeship system.

A recently-graduated apprentice does not become a master straight away. First, they must hone their skills and develop their own unique style. In the Middle Ages, apprentices who had recently finished their training traveled the countryside, seeking work wherever they could find it. I suppose nowadays we would call them free-lancers, but the proper term is actually "journeymen."

Friends, if graduate school is an apprenticeship, then a post-doc is a journeyman - one who has spent years observing a master, has completed all the required training, but is still not a master themselves. They travel the world seeking work, sharpening their minds, and developing their own unique projects.

I've told you I'm networking my way through WHOI right now, getting to know other researchers at my institute and planting seeds for future projects. I feel very much like a journeyman, tasked with developing my own unique style as a scientist. I'm grateful for the mentors around me, who nudge me in the right direction, making sure I will be fundable in the future. I have a phenomenal advisor who has already helped me start crafting a scientific persona. Someday, I will be a master.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


"Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant."
- Robert Louis Stevenson

It's a gray day in Woods Hole, and I can see the thick, pale clouds covering the sky out my office window. They form a solid canopy, wrapping my world.

My succession experiment won't really take off until the spring, so in the meantime, I'm getting prepared. I'm reading. I'm planning. I'm playing around with new ideas, and I'm networking. WHOI is actually an incredible place to network. The scientific caliber here is extremely high, but the culture is also very open. Every time I meet someone new, they are genuinely interested in hearing about my work and freely tell me about theirs.

I've made several connections with other post-docs and scientists at WHOI. There's the senior scientist who taught me how to identify local tunicate species and the PhD student who could teach me a new analysis technique. There's a physical oceanographer with connections abroad and another post-doc who works in same region of the Arctic as I have. I don't expect any new projects to take shape right away, but it's always good to know what my colleagues are up to.  There are several I'd like to collaborate with in the future.

I am getting acquainted with my institution and planting seeds for future projects. We'll see if anything grows!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Boston in the fall: Part 2

"Well I've never licked a spark plug
And I've never sniffed a stink bug
And I've never painted daisies on a big red rubber ball
And I've never bathed in yogurt
And I don't look good in leggings
And I've never been to Boston in the fall"
- "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything" from the childrens' series Veggie Tales

Statue of John Harvard on the campus that bears his name. 
Apparently it's lucky to rub his left shoe.
On our second day in Boston, Stefanie and I took a short ride to Cambridge to see the campus of Harvard University. I had been to Harvard once before but never had much of a chance to look around. I've got to admit - the atmosphere on the campus lives up to Harvard's grand reputation. Most buildings were red brick and surrounded by deciduous trees. Some of the larger ones had columns and inscriptions along the top edge. Stefanie and I both wanted to find the Science Center (naturally) but laughed when we got there - it was modern white stone, and to quote the German expression, "so hässlig wie die Nacht" ("as ugly as the night"). Of course the ugliest building on campus belongs to the scientists!

One of my favorite works in the Institute of
Contemporary Art, from the Index Series by
Xaviera Simmons.

We finished the weekend with a visit to the Institute of Contemporary Art along the waterfront in Boston. It's very rare for me to get in and out of a big city without stopping at whatever modern art museum there is, because I am positively enthralled by 20th- and 21st-century creations. My favorites are painters Wassily Kadinsky and Piet Mondrian (especially his later works), sculptor Constantin Brancusi, and composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. My favorite work in the Institute was a series of composite photographs of bodies covered by the kinds of things you accumulate when you travel. The faces were covered, which I interpret as a reminder that our identity is the sum of our experiences.

It was a great weekend in Boston! I am glad for the chance to spend time with a friend and experience new places.

Boston in the fall

"Well, I've never plucked a rooster
And I'm not too good at ping-pong
And I've never thrown my mashed potatoes up against the wall
And I've never kissed a chipmunk
And I've never gotten head lice
And I've never been to Boston in the fall"
- "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything" from the childrens' series Veggie Tales

Stefanie and I in Boston Commons
The above song quote is absolutely ridiculous but perfectly fitting. Because guess what! I have now officially been to Boston in the fall.

I met up with my dear friend, Stefanie, in the city for the weekend. Stef and I met on a research cruise in the Arctic in 2011, and we've spent the past five years bouncing around the world for our research. We try to meet up whenever we're on the same continent, and it usually works out once a year.

Stefanie's been working with collaborators in Montreal for a few weeks, so we decided to take advantage of our (relative) geographic proximity and meet up in Boston. We spent the weekend in downtown, hitting up all of the historical landmarks and absorbing the city life.

View from the top of the Bunker Hill memorial
Boston is actually very well set-up for tourists, because the historical landmarks are organized along a walking path called the Freedom Trail. You begin in Boston Commons, follow the red tiles on the sidewalk, and read the historical markers along the way. We saw the Old North Church, where lit candles in the bell tower signaled the start of Paul Revere's ride. We passed the site of the Boston Massacre. We climbed the obelisk monument at Bunker Hill, site of the first battle in the Revolutionary War. My favorite spots were actually the cemeteries, with their simple, thin headstones. We found the headstone that had inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne to write The Scarlet Letter and passed the flashier, more prominent graves of Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Benjamin Franklin. Very cool!