Sunday, January 29, 2017

The world is small.

I first met Anya in Göttingen. It was 2011, and we were fresh college graduates, on Fulbright grants to Germany, where we lived and studied. We had no shortage of things to bond over. As Americans of German heritage with typical German-sounding names and relative fluency in the language, we could both pass for German anytime we wanted. In fact, we often tried to. We were both Lutheran, women in science, and danced ballet. I immediately recognized Anya as one of my tribe.

I saw her again in Berlin in 2012, at a conference for Fulbright grantees across Europe. We established contact on social media, but I really figured I'd never see her again.

Fast-forward to this weekend. I headed up to Boston to spend the day with some friends from my new church. The group had an e-mail thread going over the past week to arrange our plans. I didn't even notice it until she sent a message to the group, but there it was on my computer screen: Anya's name. As it turns out, the couple that invited me to Boston splits their Sundays between my church and another church in Boston, where Anya and her husband attend, so we were all invited to the weekend's events.

Anya and I in Boston. Photo by Erik Roberts.
How's that for six degrees of separation?

I am beyond delighted that Anya has shown back up in my life. She's doing her Ph.D. in bioengineering, and I have immense respect for the girl. Her brain is incredible, and she's a lovely person too. Her reappearance in my story could be interpreted as evidence for how small academia is, or how small the Lutheran church is (with that much in common, we were bound to have some mutual friends), but I prefer to see it as evidence for how beautifully poetic life can be.

I have stated multiple times on this blog that it is the people I meet who give my mobile lifestyle meaning, and I reiterate that mantra here. From Göttingen to Berlin to Boston, I am thrilled to be reconnected with such a wonderful human.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The worst: Part 2

A couple of days ago, a very strange e-mail showed up in my inbox. It was an automatically-generated message from the website of a scientific journal, announcing my new username and password for that journal's site. I was awfully confused, because I've never submitted a paper to this particular journal nor had any contact with the editor. I thought it was a technical glitch or that the message was intended for someone with a similar e-mail address.

The next morning, everything was explained. I received a second e-mail from the same journal, this one not automatic. It was a request from the editor, asking me to review a paper that had been recently submitted to the journal. How exciting!

I've been through the peer-review process plenty of times, mostly as an author, but this time I get to be on the other side of the equation. Truth be told, I've actually been asked to review a paper two other times, but for some reason, this time feels more real. The journal is more prominent; the paper is more timely. I feel like I can really make a difference.

The irony to my excitement is that I've previously made my feelings about peer review pretty clear on this blog. The process can be immensely frustrating. To paraphrase Churchill, it is the worst form of review, except for all the others.

I am determined to be a good reviewer. I am determined to free myself of any bias or arrogance and return a constructive critique. Every author deserves for their work to be carefully considered and evaluated, and come what may, I will be the reviewer who does that.

In the meantime, please enjoy this comic, photographed outside someone's office at WHOI in July 2015. The caption reads "Most scientists regarded the new streamlined peer-review process as 'quite an improvement.'" I also recommend this Ph.D. Comic about how to respond to reviewers.

Monday, January 23, 2017

To code

My friend, Cassidy, has this meme on the wall
in her office. How fitting!
It's a quiet, gray day in Woods Hole. I've been indoors most of the day, working on a desktop computer in the lab. I'm analyzing a dataset that was collected last summer, and I'm actually having a lot of fun with the analysis. Most of my Ph.D. work involved analyzing and making meaning out of previously-collected datasets, so it's something I'm very comfortable with. Give me a mess of numbers, and I will find any important pattern that hides within.

In many ways, analyzing data is my comfort zone, so it was nice to return to that familiar territory today. The only problem? I'm doing the analysis in Matlab, a statistical program that is entirely code-based. I'm brand-new to Matlab and actually not that experienced at coding in general, but I am determined to learn as much as I can. Code-based programs like Matlab and R are incredibly powerful - you can literally do anything in them - but that power comes with a steep learning curve. Writing code is really analagous to learning a new language. It has its own grammar, its own syntax, its own vocabulary.

Coding can be frustrating, but it's also rewarding. Tell you what, when you finally get a script debugged and the program does what you want it to - that is a great feeling. I'm grateful for the chance to explore a new dataset and add Matlab to my arsenal. It's an incredibly powerful tool!

Thursday, January 19, 2017


When I first got to WHOI, I had a hard time filling my day. I would get to 4 pm and run out of things to do. I spent a lot of time putting out feelers and trying to get projects started, but I was advised not to take on too much. I was told not to overwhelm myself.

It's been a few months now, and things have finally started to pick up. I'm not overwhelmed, though. I'm...whelmed. And I like it that way.

Regular readers of this blog should be familiar with my habit of keeping multiple projects going at once and rotating among them as needed. My proverbial plate (I prefer the term Endlessly Rotating Wheel of Chaos) is now finally full again.

Settlement plates, all built and attached to their PVC backing
First off, I finished building the settlement plates for my succession project. I took me way more time than I expected to drill all the holes, attach all the screws, and get everything in order, but I got it done! With my settlement plates finished, all I have to do now is wait until barnacles start settling in the spring. Got to be honest, I'm very excited to get this project started. My field sites are easily-accesible, so I can really sink my teeth into the experiment and examine ecological phenomena in detail. It should be a very good study.

This week, I also started getting prepared for another data analysis. An undergraduate research fellow in my advisor's lab collected good data last summer on larval behavior in different water chemistry conditions. Most of the data remain untouched, so I'll be working with the student to complete the analysis and interpret the results. I'm excited for the opportunity to mentor a student through the interpretation of data, and I expect I'll learn a lot from the analysis too - we'll be using a statistical program I'm not yet familiar with.

Friends, my plate is full, and so is my heart. There's a lot of great science happening around me - and that's the way I like it.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Walk as lions

"If we're gonna fly we fly like eagles
Arms out wide...
If we're gonna stand, we stand as giants
If we're gonna walk, we walk as lions"
- "Lions" by Skillet

Not long after I started at WHOI, my advisor suggested I get on the schedule to give a departmental seminar. I contacted the person in charge, put my name on the list, and voila! Today was my presentation.

Ready to present! Photo by Cassidy D'Aloia.
Giving a seminar is a highly efficient way to introduce my new department to myself and my research. I had a large sample of my new colleagues in one room as a captive audience and the opportunity to make a first impression. I knew the talk would be very important for defining others' perceptions of me, so I selected my material carefully. I practiced my talk numerous times and even got feedback from a small group. If I was going to give a talk, I was going to give a great talk.

And my prep work seems to have paid off. I was reassured to find the audience receptive and engaged. The mark of a good seminar is always the questions it generates, and I got several great questions from others in the department. My presentation covered two chapters of my dissertation, both about benthic fjord communities in the high Arctic (Svalbard). There are a lot of unanswered questions in the region, so I enjoyed talking with other department members after my talk about future research directions to pursue.

Overall, it was a great day!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Svalbard protocol

If you've followed this blog for a while, you'll know much of my field work ends up being in the Arctic. More specifically, the European Arctic. Svalbard. I've made 5 trips to the archipelago since 2011, and I don't ever plan to stop. After my first few trips, I got a handle on what life looked like in the high north and started adjusting my habits accordingly. Whenever I'm in Svalbard, I wear thin base layers of synthetic fabric covered by heavy wool sweaters. I pull on snowpants and fur boots before going outside. I make sure I always have a hat.

I really do love the cold, and now that I'm living on Cape Cod, I'm reminded of my love for winter all over again. The Cape got 14" (35 cm) of snow last weekend, so my world is almost entirely white. I've adopted what I call the "Svalbard protocol" - thin base layers, heavy wool sweaters, snowpants, fur boots. I feel like I'm back in my favorite place on Earth, and it makes my heart sing.

I was channeling Svalbard in another way today, as I continued to work on building the apparatus for my succession experiment. Working in the Arctic has taught me several things, paramount among them that anything is possible with the right gear. It's a good lesson, considering that lately, I'm using a lot of gear. So far, I have used a table saw, a chop saw, a jig saw, and a drill press to get my lexan and PVC into squares of the proper size which I could then attach to one another. It's a long, repetitive process, but actually kind of satisfying. I'll post a picture of my creations once they're finished, but for now, I am taking things one step at a time (another lesson from the Arctic) and living by Svalbard protocol.

Friday, January 6, 2017

White stuff

The Shining Sea Bikeway with fresh snow
Ladies and gentlemen, my world has been covered in white powder. It snowed a good 2-3 inches (5-7 cm) on Cape Cod last night, and the white stuff just keeps falling. I got to ride my bike to WHOI in the snow this morning, and judging by the single tire track I saw on the bike path, I was exactly the second person to do so. The ride was absolutely stunning. Check out the picture at right.

210 settlement plates, all cut and ready to go
Once I got to the lab, there was even more white stuff to be had! I had been waiting on a table saw to be available so I could cut the lexan I ordered into settlement plates, and today was the day! Phil, a delightful WHOI employee who has been connecting me with power tools and training, helped me load the giant sheets into a pick-up and take them over to the machine shop. Originally, the objective was just to transport the sheets, but I ended up cutting them all today. If you've ever tried to handle a 4' x 8' sheet of plastic, you'll realize how grateful I was for Phil's help. Those things can get unwieldy! It took both of us to manage the lexan into the shop.

We used the table saw to cut my sheets into strips, then I switched over to a chop saw to cut the strips into squares. The fast-spinning blades threw plastic shavings all over the shop, covering the bench and me in a layer of white. It looked like indoor snow! After a few hours, though, I had 15 x 15 cm squares - 210 of them, ready to be used in my experiment. It was a very productive day!

And now, to bike home in the snow.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Time for science

Friends, I am back in my office and ready for some science! I've been restricted to working on my laptop the last two weeks, so I took the opportunity to do some non-computer things today.

Tubularia in a dish of seawater under the microscope.
First of all, I visited my monitoring plates at docks around Woods Hole. These are settlement plates I had built and outplanted over the winter just to see what might recruit where, and to practice identifying those recruits. Well, as it turns out, not much actually settles on docks in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in the late fall and winter (which I kind of expected). My monitoring log for November and December was very boring.

Today, though, I actually found a few individuals! At one site, there were a handful of what looked like red-tipped rose buds to me. I wasn't sure what they were, so I scraped a cluster off with my fingernail and took it back to the lab. No sooner had I dropped the sample into a dish of seawater than I realized what it was: an athecate hydroid named Tubularia. The hydroid's tentacles uncurled slowly, showing their arrangement in inner and outer circles, which is characteristic of the genus. Tubularia and other hydroids use their tentacles to capture small food particles in the water. I think they're very beautiful.

4' x 8' sheets of lexan take up a lot of the lab!
My second non-computer task today was a bit less beautiful. Before going away for the holidays, I had ordered sheets of lexan to build more settlement plates out of (my experimental design requires a lot of settlement plates). Well, the lexan was delivered! It is in 4' x 8' sheets, which, if you're wondering, are quite large. Half-the-lab-floor large. Block-my-office-door large. Yep.

I'm going to cut up the lexan into 15 x 15 cm squares (aka settlement plates) as soon as possible. It will require a table saw and likely one person besides myself to manage the unwieldy sheets. I'm looking forward to it, though! It will be a good change from office work and mark one more step toward my experiment this spring.

Onward, my friends! For science!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The return

It first occurred to me in 2012: you have not lived in a place until you've left it and come back. I remember I was driving along the Umpqua River when I realized it, on highway 38 near Scottsburg, Oregon. I had been in New Zealand for a week and a half and was on my way back to Coos Bay, my home base at the time. Looking out over the Umpqua, it occurred to me what a neat place I lived in. That was the first time Oregon ever felt like home.

Today, I returned to Falmouth, Massachusetts, for the first time after a long trip away. Of course I had left Falmouth before - I had been to Boston, and even my church is in another town, 45 minutes away. But short trips don't count. To live in a place, you have to leave it for a while - and then come back.

As I pulled into the WHOI parking lot this morning, my eyes couldn't help but catch the Atlantic, pale blue in the clouded light. It's been two weeks since I've seen her, and I'm very glad to have the ocean in my view again. I breathed in the salty air and let it out slowly. Time for science. I am home.

Hello, friend.