Monday, February 27, 2017

The shipwreck paper

I analyzed video footage recorded from the shipwrecks
with an ROV (remotely-operated vehicle) and saw lots of
crazy things. For example, this is a fishing net that got
caught on one of the wrecks but still had its floats attached.
It got pulled up into the water column by the floats and was
densely inhabited by tube worms (most likely chaetopterid
polychaetes) and sea stars (Henricia sp.).
It's always satisfying to see a scientific paper get published. The final part of the publication process is out of the scientists' hands, as the editors and type-setters of the journal are in charge. There's a time lag of several weeks between when I stop working on a paper and when the journal finally releases it, so it's easy to feel disconnected from the paper by the time it finally emerges. Nevertheless, I am proud to see my paper finally in print.

This particular paper is about invertebrate communities on shipwrecks in the Atlantic. I collected the data for it during a cruise in 2012 and spent a lot of time analyzing the data throughout my Ph.D. The manuscript served as one of the chapters in my dissertation, which I defended last July.

Find the published manuscript here, in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

Saturday, February 25, 2017


A few months ago, I put racks of settlement plates out on docks around Woods Hole. My intention was to monitor any organisms that recruited over the winter and practice identifying them. Well, I can tell you that not much at all recruits to shallow dock communities in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in the winter. I found a few hydroid colonies at one site, but really not much else. (Seriously, I've seen higher winter recruitment in the Arctic!)

My monitoring plates at the WHOI dock,
15 Feb 2017
Here's the thing about hydroids, though: they live in colonies. They clone themselves. And when there's nothing to eat them or compete with them, those colonies can grow pretty darn fast.

The photo at right shows what my monitoring plates on the WHOI dock looked like this week. It was hydroid-a-rama! The clusters with the pink buds are an athecate hydroid called Tubularia. They started showing up on my plates in early January, and they've proliferated since. But look in the middle of the picture. You'll see a brown-orange fuzz that almost looks like hair. (I marked it with a small arrow.) Any idea what that is?

It's another species of hydroid, this one thecate (with a cup around its tentacles). It's called Obelia geniculata. There were two strands of Obelia on the plate a few weeks ago, but the one colony has just exploded.

Hydroids are suspension feeders, so they eat small particles in the water around them. To survive, they need good flow. The WHOI dock, where the hydroids are growing, is the most exposed of my four dock sites. The other three sites have had essentially no recruitment in four months, so I'm starting to think the flow of the water has a lot to do with what grows where.

In case you missed it, my monitoring plates made it onto the WHOI website. I was the Image of the Day on Wednesday. I'll keep checking the plates over the next few months, in the hopes of witnessing the spring recruitment pulse. Once I see a wide diversity organisms starting to settle, I'll start the experiments I have planned for this summer. I'm excited to learn as much as I can about the invertebrate communities around me!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Warning signs

Friends, another scientific paper with my name on it has been published. This one concerns anthropogenic impacts on the deep sea. I can't take too much credit for the paper, because I was not present when it was conceived of but contributed to the writing and revision process later. The first author, Andrew Sweetman, who was my advisor in Norway, deserves much more of the credit. He lead a group of over 20 authors to craft a thoughtful and data-supported analysis of how climate change is likely to impact the deep sea in the near future. There are warning signs already, and this paper shows how rising temperatures, falling pH, and food limitation may reduce diversity in the deep sea.

You can find the study here, in the journal Elementa.

The paper just came out today, but it's already attracted attention. It's been publicized by Heriot-Watt University and covered by The Guardian, Ocean News, and EurekAlert. I highly recommend you give it a read.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Mental flossing

I sat down on the chairlift and sank into the padded seat. To my left, Wes commandeered more than his share of space and stretched one Hulk-sized foot over my leg. Whatever. To my right, Dad let out a sigh. "We are...tired," he exhaled.

The sun shone down on me as the cold air stung my face. From my place in the middle of the chairlift, I could feel all the tension flow out of my body until I was fully, completely relaxed. There's just something about being outdoors that cleans my psychi. My dad calls it "mental flossing." I've spent a long weekend snowboarding with my family in Maine, and after three days of cold and sun and snow beneath my feet, I am sufficiently exhausted. 

I think there's a relationship between physical and mental exhaustion - the two cannot easily co-exist. Getting outdoors gives me a mental break. It renews my mind and lets me go back with a fresh perspective next week. I'm glad for time with family, for the chance to breathe cold air and do some mental flossing. 

The view from White Cap Peak, Maine

Out on the mountain with my dad and brother

Thursday, February 16, 2017


Vineyard Sound, 16Feb17
Riding along the bike path to WHOI, I couldn't help but look over my left shoulder. Sandstone boulders lined the shore as gentle waves lapped up on the sand. The sea was gray and calm. Suspended over Martha's Vineyard, the morning sun poked through the clouds, piercing fingers of white light interrupting the blue horizon.

I squeezed the brakes on my bike and drifted off of the paved path. I swung my leg over the back tire and leaned on my bike frame sideways, facing the shoreline head-on. In that moment, it was like someone had turned a knob in my brain and released all tension in my body, physical and psychological. Only one word filled my mind: Peace.

As you well know, my work can get hectic at times. My personal life also has a new complicating element, but friends, let me share this thought. I've felt for years that the course of my life was not decided by chance, that each place I've lived was a place I was meant to be. Since moving out east and beginning to work at WHOI, I've had that sense even more intensely than before. Both personally and professionally, right now, I am where I am meant to be. And so in the midst of whatever chaos there is, there are always constants. Friends who care and the God who lead me here in the first place. There is peace.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017


"You sense there's a purpose
Of a higher life
A force in your heart
As if you were revived
Brand new grounds to explore
Before the night arrives"
- "Exhale" by Amaranthe

It is 8:00 pm, and I am still in my office. Out my window, Water Street is dark except for the glowing arched windows atop the Bigelow Laboratory. The cleaning crew has come and gone. As I scoot my chair away from the wide blue computer screen, I exhale deeply for the first time in hours.
Victory for Coding Kirstin! This figure shows how much
time larvae spent in different parts of the water column.

I've been working furiously all day. I'm analyzing data using a code-based statistical program called Matlab, which I can only access at the lab. Normally, that wouldn't be a problem, but there's a massive snowstorm predicted to hit Cape Cod tomorrow. We're supposed to get 8" (20 cm) over the course of the day, and it's obvious that nobody will be able to come to work. So I'm packing as much pre-Matlabbed data onto my laptop as possible - that way, I can mess with the numbers and make graphs while I'm snowed in tomorrow.

I've always loved the process of data analysis, of taking a massive matrix and whittling it down to a few meaningful patterns. Now that I have some momentum going in Matlab, I have to admit, it's kind of addictive. The program is incredibly powerful. I'm harvesting parameters from the data and converting them into graphs. I'm exploring differences between the experimental treatments. I still have no idea what the data mean, but I'm sure the story will begin to emerge as I work.

For now, it is time to exhale, and get home before the snow starts.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Built like Rome

In recent years, I've found myself watching the American comedy The Big Bang Theory, a fictitious series about physicists at the California Institute of Technology, with ever-increasing frequency. It's an intelligent comedy, and the producers go to great lengths to include real scientific and mathematical concepts in the episodes. Their accuracy is lacking, however, when it comes to matters of academic life. For example, in the most recent season, two characters have a brilliant, ground-breaking idea, which they record in a furiously-written manuscript and post online just hours later.

That's not how it works.

The barnacle Hesperibalanus hesperius on my plates,
magnified 16 times
Scientific papers are never written, much less published, in mere hours. Ideas and analyses take months, even years to develop, record, and distribute. Scientific theories are built like Rome - certainly not in one day.

Friends, I bring up the lengthy time-line for scientific analyses to introduce and remind you of one of my own long-suffering projects. Does anyone recall my Cape Arago barnacle project? If not, I'll remind you.

It started in 2014. I built homemade moorings out of ready-mix cement, attached settlement plates to them, and dropped them in the ocean at varying distances from a rocky reef on the southern Oregon coast. I had all sorts of elaborate hypotheses, but in the end, really only one species of barnacle recruited to my plates. The project suffered from all sorts of logistical issues, made me the most seasick I've ever been, and was frustrating at every turn. I made a bit of progress by looking up the larval forms for each of the species that recruited to my plates, but even that was just a qualitative analysis. I wasn't sure if my hard-won data would ever be publishable.

Dense barnacle recruitment on a settlement plate. The brown
dots are a snail, Astyris cf. aurantiaca.
Enter my friend Y. He's a physical oceanographer and a former WHOI post-doc. We met when he gave a seminar at OIMB (where I did grad school), but we've been in contact much more frequently since I've been at WHOI. I convinced him to have a look at some of my barnacle data, and Y did what oceanographers do best. He made a map of the sea surface height offshore of Oregon, and it turns out there was an eddy right over my study area during most of my experiment! My plates saw decent barnacle recruitment while the eddy was there, but as soon as the eddy disappeared, my plates got exponentially more barnacles than before. What a strange pattern!

This, my friends, is the value of scientific collaboration. Someone from a different discipline may have a completely new perspective on your data, and you never know what you can learn from them until you ask. With Y's help, I finally have enough material for a publishable manuscript. My barnacle project now makes a solid contribution to our understanding of nature. It is long-developing but cross-disciplinary. It is built like Rome.