Saturday, April 29, 2017

Like a bullet

"Happiness hit her like a bullet in the back."
- "The dog days are over" by Florence and the Machine

I am sitting on a bench on Water Street in Woods Hole. There's this little grassy area across from the WHOI/MBL library with a huge sun dial and a statue of Rachel Carson. A stone retaining wall separates the grass from a narrow sandy beach. I've heard it called Garbage Beach, because apparently some researcher back in the day wanted to study how garbage was broken down in the ocean and did so by covering the whole beach in trash. Ah, the good ol' days. 

To my right, Nonamesset Island is shrouded in fog. To my left, R/V Neil Armstrong is parked at the WHOI pier. I actually just ran into an oceanographer I had been to sea with two years ago, strolling along Water Street after arriving in port on the Armstrong. Small world. A red-and-white dive flag bobs on the surface of the steely blue water in front of me. My boyfriend is underwater, practicing diving with some of his new gear. I take a deep breath of damp, foggy morning air and curl up in my fleece jacket on the bench. Life is good.

I have now lived in Falmouth, Massachusetts for 6 months. When I think about that number, there is just no way it can be accurate - it's either too large or too small, and I can never decide which. Because if I think back to the first 6 months that I lived in Oregon, then 6 months is a blink of an eye, and I've certainly been here longer than that. But if I think about the slightly less than 6 months I lived in Norway, then 6 months is an eternity, and there's no way I've been here that long.

In a lot of ways, Falmouth represents a new phase in my life. I'm out of grad school and finally have a "real" job. I'm independent in ways I have never been before, and I'm starting to view the world more maturely. I am in a relationship with someone wonderful. But in other ways, life in Falmouth is the perfect continuation of the life I've always been building. My research at WHOI directly builds on the work I did for my Ph.D., and as new scientific questions develop, I see my work getting more interesting and more impactful. I'm returning to old collaborations to strike out in new scientific directions. I find myself dreaming about meaningful contributions I could make to our knowledge of the world. I still think about new places I want to go, other parts of the world I want to explore. But for the first time, I don't find myself thinking about where I want to move after I'm finished in this place; I fantasize about returning here, to this place that feels like home.

Since moving to Falmouth, I have been struck by happiness in a way that I've never experienced before. It has been sudden, unexpected, and all-consuming. And friends, this is not a passing feeling or a superficial joy. I am happy in my bones. I have found a place in the world where I belong, and a person that I belong with. I have never felt more like myself.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

More interesting

A juvenile barnacle on my fouling panels, photographed
under a dissecting microscope at 50x magnification
Another week, another check of my succession experiment! I have my experiments at two different docks, the WHOI pier and a floating platform in Eel Pond. Each week, I collect the fouling panels, examine what's on them, perform any experimental manipulations I need to, and change out the larval trap. I alternate docks each week (so each dock gets checked every other week), and this week, it was the WHOI pier's turn.

I wasn't quite sure what I would find on the panels, since the last time I checked the WHOI pier, there was literally nothing on my panels. This week, I brought the panels into the lab, bracing myself for disappointment, but was pleasantly surprised to find I had a few recruits!

I had four species on my panels this week. There was Folliculina, (the same ciliate I had seen in Eel Pond), two hydroids (Tubularia and Obeliaboth of which had been on my monitoring plates before), and then the star of the show: barnacles!

I had been waiting for barnacles to settle because a major part of my study concerns how barnacles influence the communities they live in. There were a few individuals on my panels this time, and I'm hoping they'll increase in abundance over the next few weeks. Every time I check my panels, the results get more and more interesting. Let the experiment continue!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Chainsaw carving

In Reedsport, Oregon, just north of where I used to live in Coos Bay, there's an annual chainsaw carving festival. Yes, you read that right. Artists from all over gather on the Oregon coast, where they carve delicate sculptures out of tree trunks. With chainsaws. The process always fascinated me. I was astounded at the complexity of the resulting sculptures, the level of detail they expressed, especially considering they were created with such a loud brute of a tool.

I've previously described the process of scientific data analysis like making a pot. I've equated it with walking two steps forward, one step back, and one step sideways. As you know, I'm currently in the middle of a data analysis on larval behavior. But this time around, the data analysis doesn't feel like pottery or a crazy walk. It feels like carving a tree trunk with a chainsaw.

These graphs are about 1/3 of what I started with. Each of
them show valuable information about our larvae. For the
record, though, this is far from the largest number of graphs
I've ever analyzed at once
When I first started the analysis, I took a kitchen-sink approach. I tried every metric on every replicate over every time range, and I ended up with a ton of information. It was hard to even make sense of. I made graphs of all the various metrics and printed them out. I shared them with my advisor and two collaborators, spread them out, and scribbled notes on the pages.

Then the carving began.

Sometimes, it was a deep, major cut with a giant chainsaw. Other times, it was just woodchips flying away. We eliminated an entire experiment (one of four) because its results were not trustworthy. We eliminated potentially erroneous data and metrics that had meaningless results. We have shaved and sliced and sanded away at the data until finally, a carving began to emerge.

I once heard sculpture described as freeing an artwork from the prison of its material, and I really like that image. I'm finally at a point with the larvae data where I can see the end product, the scientific work of art, being freed from the superfluous surrounding mess. I'm excited to continue shaping the analysis, carving away as I go.

With a chainsaw.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

One of these things is a lot like the others

"Hey Lauren, can I show you something?" I called to my advisor. I was seated at the lab bench, in front of the nice dissecting microscope.

"Sure," she strode over, and we switched places. She sat at the scope while I stood beside. Peering into the eyepieces, she could see one of my fouling panels. More specifically, she could see small organisms on my panel.

The organisms were tiny - hard to see even with magnification - and green. Their hard shells were vase-shaped and translucent. I knew I had seen them before, on fouling panels I had deployed in the Arctic in 2014-2015, but I couldn't remember what the organisms were.

Four individuals of Folliculina, photographed under a
dissecting microscope at 50x magnification
"Maybe they're foraminiferans," I suggested to Lauren. I vaguely remembered the organisms being non-animals. They were single-celled, like foraminiferans, I thought.

Lauren has much more experience looking at foraminiferans on fouling panels than me, and she actually disagreed. She continued to peer into the microscope, adjust the focus, move the plate around. "Could they be ciliates?" she asked.


Suddenly, my memories became crystal clear. A dear Russian colleague had identified the organisms for me in Svalbard. They were ciliates, a kind of single-celled organism that feeds on tiny bacteria and algae in the water. I remembered their name started with an F, and a quick online search helped me find it: Folliculina.

Because Folliculina is not an animal (animals are multi-cellular; ciliates like Folliculina are single-celled organisms), it is technically outside the scope of my succession study (my original plan was to study the benthic invertebrate animals). Lauren and I talked briefly about whether I should count the organisms on my panels, and we decided yes, I should. The more I learn about Folliculina, the more I believe we made the right decision. Get this:

Folliculina are actually unusual among the ciliates because they're sessile. They attach themselves to a surface, build a hard test, and stay in one place for most of their lives - just like the benthic invertebrate animals I'm interested in! They also feed by gathering small particles from the water around them - very similar to benthic invertebrates! As single-celled organisms, they reproduce by fission (one cell divides into two), but after division, one of the new cells will leave the test. It will swim freely in the water for a short period of time and eventually find a new place to settle. This type of life cycle - swimming babies that grow up to be sessile adults - is exactly the type of life cycle that benthic invertebrates follow. I even found a scientific paper that refers to young Folliculina as "larvae!"

Clearly, there are some strong similarities between single-celled Folliculina and the benthic invertebrate animals that are the target of my study. It amazes me that organisms that are seemingly so different - single- versus multi-celled! - can have such similar lifestyles.

I'm glad to include Folliculina in my succession study. Isn't ecology fascinating?

Monday, April 17, 2017

Noticing beauty

Back in 2007, the Washington Post did an experiment. They asked world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell to pose as a street musician and play in one of D.C.'s busiest Metro stations. During the 45 minutes Bell played, over 1,000 people walked straight past him, completely ignoring the musician. Only a handful stopped to listen, and even fewer threw money into his open violin case. It's unreplicated and uncontrolled, but this experiment suggests humans have a hard time noticing beauty when it's not placed in a context they expect.

Friends, I live in an incredible place, and I am determined to notice the beauty around me. Please enjoy the photos below, taken around Cape Cod in the past few months.

Woods Hole, MA

Sagamore, MA

Sagamore, MA

North of Falmouth, MA

Woods Hole, MA

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A tale of two experiments

My fouling panels today - empty
Early this morning, I pulled on my rain pants and my field boots. I strode across the street, through the open gate, and onto the WHOI dock. It was time to check my experiment.

I had set aside the entire day for it. I was expecting to spend hours at the microscope, examining the new recruits to my fouling panels. I was looking forward to counting and identifying little juvenile animals all afternoon.

Kneeling on the dock, I loosened the knots that held my fouling panels in place. I tugged the lines free and lifted up the PVC sheet that holds them. I laid the PVC on the dock. And I saw...nothing.

That's right; my panels were empty. I had exactly one recruit (a hydroid) on the 30 panels I examined today. Now, I know the lack of recruitment wasn't a mistake, for two reasons. First, the panels did have some detritus (organic dirt) on them, evidence that they had been underwater the whole time since I deployed them two weeks ago. Second, my monitoring plates also didn't get any recruits right away when I put them out in the fall. I thought maybe my fouling panels would get recruits faster, since it's now spring and more species should be reproducing, but I guess I'll just have to keep checking. I'll come back in another couple of weeks.

My monitoring plates today - hydroid city!
In an interesting twist, my monitoring plates were densely inhabited today! The fouling panels you see above and the monitoring plates you see here at left actually hang from the same dock. The only difference is that the plates at left were outplanted in November, while the panels above have only been out for two weeks. What a difference a couple of months can make!

There was less work for me to do today than I expected, but I suppose that was a blessing. I look forward to having results soon!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Dancing on strings: Part 2

Friends, if you had been on Water Street in Woods Hole, Massachusetts today, you would have seen a tall figure in an orange fleece and gray rain pants. She would have been carrying all sorts of random tools - a power drill, ropes, electrical tape, a long wooden beam. She would have disappeared into the side door of the Redfield laboratory several times, each time reappearing to carry her supplies across the parking lot and deposit them on a floating platform in Eel Pond. You would have watched her with curiosity as you sipped your coffee on the porch of the caf√© across the street, wondering what in the world this woman could be doing. You would have seen her lay on her belly on the floating platform, scoot around on her knees, close her eyes in thought. Perhaps she was practicing a new form of yoga, you would have joked to nobody in particular. 

And then finally, she would have emerged from the stately brick building carrying two large gray PVC sheets with ropes attached to each corner. You would have seen her lower the sheets into the water one by one and attach the ropes to cleats and nails on the dock. She would have laid on her belly one last time, peaking under the platform to make sure everything was in place. Then, standing finally, she would have dusted off her hands, gathered her supplies, and headed back inside. 

Sipping your coffee, you would have noticed someone else joining you on the porch. You would have idly gestured to the dock and remarked that they had missed the show. Must be a scientist or something, you would have said.

And you would have been right.

Today, I installed my succession experiment at a second location, Eel Pond.
I'll visit the two locations in alternating weeks throughout the spring and summer
to learn how and why dock fouling communities change over time.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017


When I lived in Germany in 2011-2012, I made a few notorious language mistakes. Obviously, anyone speaking their second language on a day-to-day basis is bound to. I remember the day I told a technician I was "enttäuscht" (disappointed) that he had helped me, when I meant to say I was "erfreut" (delighted). I regularly mispronounced "Kirchen" (churches) and "Kirschen" (cherries). And then there was the day I said "einpacken."

I told a colleague how excited I was to "einpack" the ship. I thought I was saying "put boxes inside the ship," but "einpacken" means something more akin to "gift-wrap." I had told him how excited I was to cover a giant research vessel in wrapping paper. The image has stuck with me ever since.

Well, friends, I've done a lot of packing in the past few days. I put together two large boxes of supplies for a cruise I'll be going on this summer and sent them off to my colleagues in Germany. The larval traps I've been building are in there, along with various other things I'll need at sea. I surrounded my supplies with bubble wrap, sealed the lids on the containers with zip ties, and sent them off. No bows on these packages - just a shipping label and a customs form.

It was a big undertaking, but I'm glad to have the boxes off my desk and off my to-do list. I look forward to seeing them again on the ship!

Not quite gift-wrapped: my two boxes ready to ship.