Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Benthic brotherhood: part 2

This story begins in Qingdao. I was sitting around a round table, having lunch at the Ocean University of China. The university dining services were apparently busy that day, because our group was combined with another group for lunch. A short woman in a blue shirt introduced herself to Ji and me.

"Aren't you the one who wrote that modeling paper about fish genetics?" Ji asked. "I feel like I've seen you give a seminar before."

The woman nodded and confirmed she had written the paper. She explained more about her research to Ji while we all found our places at the table, and I listened intently. Once she had finished, she turned to me. I introduced myself as a benthic ecologist postdoc from WHOI. She said she was from the National University of Taiwan.

"Taiwan?" I leaned in. "Perhaps you know my friend, Stefanie. I'm going to Taipei to see her tomorrow."

The woman did know Stefanie, and over the next hour, we discovered we had a lot more than that in common. Hui-Yu Wang, an associate professor at NTU, studied at the University of Michigan and did her postdoc in Massachusetts. I told her I had grown up in Michigan, in a town about two hours north of Ann Arbor, where U of M is located. She nodded. "So you grew up in Midland?" she asked.

I stared at her, stunned. Midland, Michigan is not famous. It is tiny. And here was a Taiwanese professor who had correctly guessed where I had grown up. Friends, the world is small.

Hui-Yu and I exchanged e-mail addresses. She promised to contact her department and schedule a time for me to give a seminar, but there ended up not being enough time. Instead, I took a meeting with two benthic ecologists at NTU.

The meeting went extremely well, and it turns out I had already co-authored a paper with one of the professors - a large review paper on the effects of climate change in the deep sea. We chatted about our research and discussed important future questions. We talked about the diverse benthic habitats around Taiwan, about species range shifts, about how to best sample fouling fauna. We all had a common thread of working in isolated, island-like habitats and enjoyed discussing the universal patterns. After an hour, we agreed to keep in touch and keep an eye out for future funding opportunities.

I was grateful for the opportunity to make more connections in Asia and look forward to what the future brings! It's been a great trip!

World religion day

"Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer." - Psalm 19:14

Walking slowly with the crowd, I exited the lobby and stepped out into the rain. It was Sunday morning, and I was leaving church. I felt refreshed, renewed, and calm. 

I wasn't sure what to expect from Taiwanese worship, but I always enjoy experiencing different churches when I'm abroad. This one called itself Lutheran, but it really had the makings of an American non-denominational mega-church. The service was held in a large room on the second floor of a skyscraper in downtown Taipei. There was a balcony for expanded seating and LED screens at the front to shown song lyrics and visual aids. The service format was also simplified, containing only music, announcements, prayers, and a sermon. Instead of a traditional organ, the songs were accompanied by drums, keyboard, and guitar. 

Most of the song lyrics were translated into English right on the screen, but when it came time for the sermon, there was no text for me to follow. (It's not ideal, but I've gone to church services in languages I don't speak before.) Just as the sermon was beginning, one of the ushers approached me and held out a small radio with an earpiece attached. I held the speaker up to my ear and heard a woman's voice speaking in English, translating what the pastor was saying with about a 2-second delay. It worked wonderfully, and I was grateful. 

Church for me is a place of solace, a place for emotional and spiritual rest. It is one of the few constant things in my highly transitive life. It is my center. I always love experiencing different Christian churches when I am abroad and being part of the global community of believers. 

The front gate of one of the temples
Later that afternoon, Stefanie and I had a tour of other major world religions when we visited three temples around Taipei: one Confucianist, one Taoist, and one Buddhist. I was looking forward to seeing the different styles of temples, but to be honest, each of them looked the same to me. I'm going to have to read up on eastern religions more when I get home, because I'm curious now if the coexistence of these religions in one island nation has caused them to be mixed together. I know for example in Brazil, there are hybridizations of religions as diverse as Catholicism and Voodoo, so maybe some hybridization of beliefs occurred in Asia too.

Close-up of one of the carved dragons -
they were very detailed!
Each temple was surrounded by an outer wall and a grand front gate. The gate was always of traditional Chinese construction, with wooden beams forming the roof and ornate carved dragons on top. After entering the gate, we found ourselves in a courtyard that surrounded an inner building. On the outer wall of the courtyard and in the inner building were a series of chambers, each with an altar and a statue inside. The statues were very often recessed, surrounded by golden frames and set behind plates of glass. The altars in front of them were covered in bouquets of flowers and plates of food (offerings, I assume). Visitors walked around the courtyard, stood in front of or entered the chambers they wished, bowed and prayed to the statues within. Prayers in each temple looked the same and involved long wooden sticks covered in something flammable. The sticks reminded me of sparklers we light on July 4th in the U.S., just three times longer and with wooden instead of metallic handles. The sticks were held in front of a person's face with both hands. After murmuring their prayers, the person would bow three times from the waist. They would then either move on to another chamber to offer another prayer or set the stick alight. Small open flames burned throughout the temples, and there were large cauldrons filled with what I think was sand. The prayer sticks would be lit from one of the flames and then stuck burning-end-up in the sand. The end effect was dozens of sticks sending smoke up into the air from the cauldrons.

As I said, the basic format of all three temples was the same. The only difference I could notice was the nature of the statues. The Confuscianist temple was not nearly as ornate as the others, and the few statues were all just simple shapes. The Taoist temple was the most complex, with statues representing either Chinese men with long bears or brightly-colored fictional creatures with exaggerated facial features. In the Buddhist temple, every statue was Buddha. 

Masked figures in the parade
Perhaps the most interesting part of our temple tour occurred at the Taoist temple. Stefanie and I stepped out of the metro station and headed down the street toward the house of prayer, but instead of silence and soltitude, we found a loud parade! I have to assume that the parade was connected to the temple, because the parade route was only a short stretch of street directly in front of the temple entrance, and each of the acts stopped at the temple, faced its front gate, and bowed or performed there before moving on. There were loud musical groups and a group of dancers with a fabric dragon. There were large costumed figures with wooden masks for faces. Actually, we had a bit more direct contact than we would have preferred with the parade. As we were exiting the Taoist temple, the parade was still going on, and a group of men carrying long silver trumpets turned and faced the front gate. All of a sudden, we were faced with a dozen ear-splitting trumpet blasts.

It was definitely a day of cultural experiences. I was glad to visit my own church and then observe the rituals of other religions in Taipei!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Misty city

Friends, I've said it before, and I'll say it again: it is the people I meet who make my mobile life worthwhile. After leaving Qingdao, I flew to Taipei, Taiwan, where I got to spend time with my dear friend, Stefanie. I'm not sure if you remember, but Stefanie and I met when I lived in Germany in 2011 - 2012. She's also a scientist with a travel habit, so we usually manage to be on the same continent about once a year. I've told you about visits with her before, in Boston, Hawaii, and the Netherlands. To be honest, I find it incredible that we manage to see each other as often as we do, since we're both moving targets. Stefanie is supportive and trustworthy, and I value her friendship greatly.

Overview of Taipei from the gondola at the zoo
We started with a city tour Taipei, and I have to unfortunately admit that it's not my favorite city. The air pollution hangs in the humid air like a mist, making any long-range view of the city shrouded in dirty brown clouds. The people are also quite rude. In Qingdao, the people would stand unapologetically wherever they wanted to and make me go around them (I suspect Asians are not taught to move out of other people's ways like Europeans are), but in Taipei, I have actually been shoved. Once by a 5-year-old. People here have stood so close to me I couldn't move, then reached right across me to take a photo. I've been abruptly dismissed by customer service agents when they find out I can't speak Chinese, and I've been hit in the face with people's umbrellas as they pass me on the street. It's insanity!

On a happier note, we visited two museums in Taipei, full of ancient Chinese artworks (porcelain, jade, etc.) and artifacts from Taiwan's indigenous peoples. I remember learning several years ago when I was in New Zealand that Taiwanese natives were Polynesian, belonging to the same ethnic group as the native residents of Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and New Zealand. It's actually fascinating if you map out the colonization patterns and cultural differences among islands in the Pacific. Of course islands closer to land (like Taiwan) were colonized first, while those further away (like Hawaii) were settled later. You can see the evolution of Polynesian culture by comparing the island groups, for example in the dancing. Taiwanese indigenous dances involve large groups, separated and dressed differently by age, all holding hands and spinning in large circles. In contrast, the dances in other Polynesian cultures are more solitary, with dancers standing alone. The Taiwanese don't have a version of the Haka, at least as far as I could tell, so the traditional war dance likely developed later in other parts of Polynesia. However, the indigenous peoples of Taiwan had some of the same cultural elements found across the Pacific - flower headbands, tattooing, and basekt weaving, to name a few.

A natural sulfur hot spring in Taipei.
In an area of the city reserved for indigenous peoples, there are natural hot springs. Taiwan is a geologically active island, with ongoing subduction of tectonic plates. Unfortunately, many of the springs have now been taken over by hotels and resorts, but we were able to visit one that's still open to the public. It created a hot, humid mist (even more so than the surrounding subtropical air) that smelled strongly of sulfur. I was reminded of similar sulfur pools I had seen years ago in Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. I couldn't help but think about all the strange and diverse archaeal microbes probably living in the hot water.

I'm glad to see another part of Asia and spend time with a great friend!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Grand tour

Before we left on our trip, Ji referred to Qingdao as "the Woods Hole of China." Woods Hole, Massachusetts has a number of private and federal research institutions, so it's a destination for ocean sciences. The village population is also disproportionately dominated by researchers. Qingdao is very much the same. Of course, the comparison meant I was picturing a small town and was surprised to find a city of 9 million people when I arrived in Qingdao, but the analogy stands. Qingdao has five large research institutions and plenty of researchers to go around.

We took advantage of our time in Qingdao by touching base with each of the research institutions in the city. And let me tell you, we got quite the grand tour.

We spent one afternoon at the First Institute of Oceanography, where I got to tour the institute's deep-sea geological collection. Rocks and mineral deposits from all over the deep sea, particularly hydrothermal vents, were housed in cases and displayed on shelves in a precisely temperature-controlled room.

The FIO ship at the dock
We were also shown one of FIO's ships that was about to leave on a cruise the very next day. The ship had a red banner with gold text hanging from an upper deck on the starboard side. When I asked what it meant, the others said it's a Chinese tradition to hang red banners, and the text translated to "Wish us luck!"

On the dock next to the ship was a buoy about to be deployed in the Indian Ocean. We met with a technician and a scientist in charge of FIO's oceanographic buoys, and I had a good conversation with them. As many of you know, I'm interested in studying island-like habitats. Well, buoys anchored to the seafloor in the middle of nowhere are essentially man-made island-like habitats, so I was eager to learn if anything grew on them. The technician said barnacles were common at the surface, but there wasn't much growing deeper. My cognitive wheels started turning, and I asked if it would be possible to deploy fouling panels at various depths on the buoy line to get more quantitative data on the growth. We traded e-mails, and I'll follow up with the FIO scientists later - it would be certainly interesting to get samples from the Indian Ocean!

We were also shown around Qingdao's brand-new National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology. Ji recalled that the lab was just one building during his last visit a few years ago, but now, the national lab occupies an entire campus north of Qingdao. There are laboratories and offices and living facilities for visitors. When I marveled at how quickly the campus had been erected, the others all shrugged and said "Chinese speed." I still didn't get it, so I pressed for an explanation. One of the Chinese scientists shrugged again and said that when the Chinese government wants something done, it gets done. Fast.

Our time in Qingdao is winding down, but it has been a very productive trip. We've had meetings and tours from morning until evening every day. I have a notebook full of ideas and a list of people to follow up with. I'm glad for the time I've had in China and look forward to seeing relationships between WHOI and the institutions in Qingdao develop!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Parallel universe

Leaning forward in my black leather chair, I grabbed my mug and took a sip of my green tea. The tea leaves were floating loose in the water, unencumbered by a mesh strainer. The hot water felt good on my throat. It was early morning, and I was in yet another conference room, this time back at OUC. Another WHOI scientist who was unable to travel with us video-conferenced into the meeting, and I listened to his voice rining out from Ji's laptop. One by one, his slides changed on the projector screen. I hugged my tea mug with my hands and leaned back onto the chair. I was relaxed.

The meeting was for another WHOI-OUC project, and a large part of the discussion actually focused on similarities between Chinese and American oceanography. Think about this: both China and the U.S. have long eastern coasts that span sub-tropical and temperate latitudes. The east coast of China and the east coast of the U.S. both have a broad continental shelf and a strong current system - the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic, the Kuroshio Current in the Pacific. Both currents bring warm tropical water north and control the regional climate. Both countries have lucrative fisheries, especially for cod, along their eastern coasts.

As the meeting went on, I scribbled notes to myself. The similarities between American and Chinese oceanography allow for some really interesting comparisons. It's like there's a parallel universe on the other side of the globe where we can test our scientific theories. Actually the most interesting part might be the few key differences between the western Atlantic and the western Pacific. Chinese waters are trawled much more extensively than U.S. waters, leaving fish populations low and the benthos highly disturbed. The Gulf Stream is well-renowned for meandering and pinching off warm-core eddies that deliver tropical water to the coast, while the Kuroshio does not. In science, you want all factors to be controlled except the one you're testing, so the similarities between American and Chinese seas provide an opportunity to test for ecosystem-level effects of the few differences that exist.

It was a productive meeting, and I look forward to seeing how the comparative project develops in the future!

Benthic brotherhood

I was full from a delicious and adventurous lunch, and once again, I found myself following Ji into a conference room. This meeting used the same general format - researchers briefly presenting their work, followed by an open discussion - except this time, everyone spoke my language. Not Mandarin (I can still only say "hello" and "thank you") - they spoke Benthos. There's a benthic research group at the Institute of Oceanology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Qingdao, and I felt right at home with them. We spent a whole afternoon discussing our work. 

I deeply enjoyed speaking with the IOCAS group because we have so many research interests in common. They specialize in macrobenthos - animals that live in the seafloor and are big enough to see with the naked eye - just like me. They work on ecology (ooh) and taxonomy (aah) of animals in the Chinese marginal seas. They have this amazing collection of samples from all over the Yellow Sea shelf and even the continental slope (yes!), and they're using it to figure out how environmental factors (my tribe!) control the benthic communities (oh, sing to me the song of my people!). 

I was fascinated by one woman's work on deep-glass sponges and succession on coral reefs. I advised a crustacean biologist to consider the larval biology of his species when studying how their populations are connected. I was deeply impressed by the harpacticoid copepod taxonomist. (For those of you who don't know, harpacticoid copepods are small shrimp-like creatures that live on the seafloor. They're difficult to find and almost impossible to tell apart - and this woman identifies them for a living.) It was a wonderful, invigorating afternoon.

As the conversation wound down, the leader of the group and I exchanged e-mail addresses and agreed to keep in touch. There are funding opportunities coming up in the next few months, so we'll have to choose a scientific question and design a plan to answer it. The possibilities are almost endless, and I can't wait to put together a proposal with the IOCAS group. 

We had a bit of time before dinner, so two of the men gave me a tour of the IOCAS taxonomic collection. There were three rooms organized by region: samples from Chinese seas, polar seas, and the deep sea. Each room had large, attractive specimens out for public display and then shelf after shelf of dead things in jars. I spent my undergraduate years describing species of freshwater crabs from the collections in European and American museums, and the smell of alcohol-preserved animals still makes me feel like I'm 18 (yes, I'm a nerd). Some jars had red ribbons tied around the neck, and when I asked one of the men what the ribbons meant, he said they designated holotypes - the specimen was a new species that someone at IOCAS had described.

I came away from our afternoon at IOCAS enthralled and optimistic. I'm glad to have found such a like-minded group of Chinese benthic ecologists.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Qingdao in pictures

Downtown waterfront

This hilltop Buddhist temple is in Qingdao's "Old Town."

This beach is directly across the street from the Institute
of Oceanology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Small motorcycles are common, and riders use custom-cut
blankets to shield themselves from road spray.

The coastal mountain range, seen from the First Institute
of Oceanography campus

Translation fail. I think they're trying to say
"Don't overfill your plate and then end up wasting food."

Seen from the First Institute of Oceanography pier

Try everything: part 2

Friends, I hope you'll excuse me, but I just have to spend another post talking about Chinese food. I don't know what in the world we buy from Chinese restaurants in the U.S., but it is certainly not Chinese food.

Steamed mantis shrimp
For dinner Monday, we went to a restaurant in downtown Qingdao. The interior decoration was much more modern than at lunch, but the entryway to the restaurant was the same: aquaria and display tables, full of sea creatures about to become food. It was a smaller crowd (just four of us), but there were the same toasts, the same excessive number of dishes, and the same musical chatter in Mandarin.

Two dishes stuck out to me at dinner. The first was steamed mantis shrimp - yes, mantis shrimp. Not the famous rainbow species, but a member of the Stomatopoda nonetheless. They have super long, meaty abdomens and taste just like crab. You have to peel the shell off like you would for a normal shrimp, but the meat doesn't come out quite as easily (normal shrimp tails don't have any shell on the bottom, but mantis shrimp do), so you have to bite it out. It's a little messy, but not to worry - table etiquette in China is not nearly as strict as in the U.S.

Eggplant paste with ground peanuts and dried krill
Another dish that stuck out to me was an eggplant paste. Eggplant is surprisingly common in China. Our host for dinner showed me how to scoop up the paste with my chopsticks and put it onto a soft, flexible flatbread. You then wrap the flatbread around the paste to make a pouch - almost like a square burrito. After so many diverse meats, I was actually excited for a simple vegetable paste, but I should have known better. The paste was topped with ground peanuts and what looked from afar like flakes of parmesan cheese - except that it wasn't parmesan cheese; it was dried krill. The tiny crustaceans caught me off-guard, but they really just added a crunch to the eggplant.

Of course there were plenty of other dishes to go around. Tofu and octopus soup in a purple broth (yes, purple). Lotus root. Breaded fried taro. Pickled celery sticks. Hard-boiled eggs soaked in brine for a week. And jellyfish. Yes, jellyfish. I expected jellyfish to be floppy, watery, and non-substantive, but the thin, clear strips were actually crunchy. Well, maybe crunchy is the wrong word. They were dense. It felt crunchy to chew just because the jellyfish bits were so compact. They had been thoroughly dried, leaving behind only the organic part of the jellyfish's body. It was definitely not the texture I expected.

Steaming seafood
If I haven't already worn out your patience, I want to tell you about one more dinner, because we went to a restaurant that used a different cooking style. We sat at a round table in a private dining room, but this table had a metallic pit in the middle. A waiter poured hot mushroom broth into the pit and then heated it from underneath. The broth was covered with a metallic grate, and an array of seafood was placed on top. I remember there were clams, mussels, scallops, mantis shrimp, oysters, and large clams on the half shell with giant scoops of garlic. The whole collection was then covered with a wooden lid so the seafood could steam. When it was done cooking, we helped ourselves to the shellfish and dipped the meat in a mix of garlic and vinegar.

I'm an adventurous eater, and China has offered plenty of opportunities to stretch my limits. I'm grateful for the new experiences!

Try everything

"I won't give up, no I won't give in
Until I reach the end
And then I'll start again
No I won't leave
I wanna try everything
I wanna try even though I could fail" 
- "Try everything" by Shakira

Whenever I travel, I adhere to my personal Foreign Food Policy. The policy is simple: I will eat absolutely anything, but I have to know what it is before I put it into my mouth. Well, friends, China is the perfect place to stretch the limits of an adventurous eater. It is going to take an entire blog post just to tell you what I ate today. 

Breakfast was actually pretty tame. Rice soup, steamed dumplings filled with bean paste, fried bread dipped in soy milk. All very bland flavors and familiar textures. Easy enough. 

Then there was lunch. We carpooled from the university to a building that I never would have guessed was a high-class restaurant. We were ushered into a private dining room with an 8-person round table. Centered on top of the table, a glass circle rotated freely. Two of the walls were white stucco; one had floor-to-ceiling windows covered with thin off-white curtains, and the fourth was semi-transparent and covered with a carved wooden screen. Woven red ropes with gold charms and tassels hung from some of the panels. The surroundings were exactly what I would expect for a traditional Chinese room. 

Which fish?
As I set down my bag, one of the professors told me to follow the host and order food. I hestitated at first because nobody else was accompanying the host, and I didn't know what I wanted to eat anyway. I followed him back out to the restaurant entrance, though, where there was a display of seafood. All sorts of animals - lobsters, shrimps, clams, whole fish - were arranged in tanks or on the table. A restaurant employee followed the host around with an electronic keypad and pushed buttons every time the host pointed to something (recording the order, I presume). The host turned to me and asked me what I wanted to eat. I like fish, I told him. Then he lead me up to the display table and asked "Which fish?" I had no idea I would have to select the actual individual I wanted to consume, but I pointed to a safe-looking species. The host muttered something to the restaurant employee, who pushed more buttons on the keypad. 

Back in the dining room, the host made a show of assigning seats. I was placed between an OUC professor and his graduate student, who claimed to have learned English by watching Friends. As we waited for the food to show up, we sipped hot water (just hot water, not tea) from ceramic mugs without handles. One by one, waiters started bringing dishes to our table, placing them on the rotating glass tray. We served ourselves from the common plates with chopsticks, and the host even placed some food on the plates of the two people beside him. The master student did the same to me. Nobody jumped to eat or take large portions of the first few dishes, which surprised me, but it made much more sense as the meal went on. Dishes kept coming, and the dishes kept getting better. The fish I had chosen eventually showed up on a platter, cooked whole with its head still on, surrounded by a sweet brown sauce. 

There's no way I can possibly remember all of the dishes, but I'll try to describe a few. There were fermented hard-boiled eggs called "thousand-year eggs" (they're really only fermented for a few months), which tasted exactly how I would expect the green eggs in Green Eggs and Ham to taste. There was a stir fry with green bell peppers and strips of pig intestine. There were whole boiled shrimp. There was a vegetable dish topped with dried krill (yes, whole-body dried krill; apparently they're called "sea rice" in China). There were bite-sizes pieces of fried pork in a sticky brown sauce. The meat was actually pretty fatty (and some pieces were all fat), but it wasn't gross - the Chinese know how to fry animal fat to make it crunchy. There was egg drop soup with small clams in it. There was another soup with spicier broth and deep-fried pastries for dipping. There were dumplings filled with whitefish and parsely. Boiled peanuts. Chinese yams. And corn on the cob. (Not kidding; it's weirdly common here.)

As we ate, the conversation rattled along in Mandarin. Every once in a while (probably 7 or 8 times during the 2-hour lunch), the host would raise his glass and propose a toast. I never understood what it was for, of course, but I followed suit by clinking glasses with the other guests and then holding my glass awkwardly in front of my mouth, waiting for the host to stop talking so we could drink. Usually, the host would just propose the toast, make everyone raise their glasses, and then keep on talking without ever taking a drink himself. 

An hour and a half into lunch, new dishes were still being brought to the table. Only about half of what had been ordered ever got eaten, but just as I was beginning to lament the waste of food, a group of waiters showed up and started putting the leftovers into containers for the host to take home. At two hours on the dot, the host and the other scientists announced we had better get back to the university, and the lunch came to an abrupt close. 

Meals are very important in China, especially for building partnerships, so I was glad for the lunch we attended. There's a very distinct culture surrounding meals. It was great to experience!


I followed Ji through the dark wooden double doors and into the conference room. There was a long oak table in the middle, surrounded by ergonomic black leather chairs. There was a projector on the table and a large screen at the far end of the room. There was an outer ring of chairs surrounding the table, pressed tightly against the walls. Every chair at the table and around the walls was filled with a student or a professor. As we walked in, fifty eyes turned to take in the foreign guests. I was the only caucasian and the only non-Chinese speaker in the room. 

One by one, the professors got up to explain their research, using the projector to show visual aids. Ji and I each made short presentations, and then a freeform discussion began to flow. WHOI has a cooperative research initiative with the Ocean University of China, so we were discussing ways to work together in the future. 

It was actually really interesting to me to observe the dynamic among Chinese scientists. Academia in China is much more hierarchical than in the U.S., and everyone is referred to by their title, either Doctor or Professor. The students only spoke at the beginning of the meeting to introduce themselves, and even experienced researchers seemed hesitant to share their thoughts. I think the language barrier was a big factor, but even when the conversation switched to Mandarin, it didn't flow as naturally as it might have in the U.S. or Europe. I think researchers in China are taught to be very humble and respectful, but it seems this culture may also cause some scientists to not trust their own ideas.

A few hours in, the conversation started to pick up, and we actually ended the meeting in a very good place. We all agreed to review the minutes and continue discussing ideas over the coming days and weeks. WHOI and OUC scientists have many complementary research interests, so I'm excited to see how the collaboration will develop.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


"I was inside looking outside
The millions of faces
But I'm still alone"
- "Long, long way from home" by Foreigner

Right now, I am sitting cross-legged on a king-size bed in a hotel room with a view. I am barefoot and grateful for the space around me after more than 20 hours of sitting in a plane. I am overlooking glass skyscrapers and brick high-rise apartment buildings. I can hear honking horns on the street below and a softly whirring fan behind me. I am in Qingdao, China.

It’s been an interesting day. Got to admit, I was a little nervous before I left Boston, because I was headed to a completely new part of the world and didn’t know what to expect. This is my first time in China and my first time in Asia. I’m here with another WHOI scientist to try and build up collaborations with researchers in Qingdao. We have a packed schedule for the next few days, but I’m excited to see what comes out of our meetings.

I want to share just a couple stories and observations that I’ve made so far with you. First, bathrooms. The women’s restroom in the airport had stalls just like you would expect in an American public restroom, but there were only 2 stalls with European-style toilets. The rest had pits. Picture a toilet bowl that’s embedded in the floor, with grips on either side for your feet. It caught me off-guard to say the least, but afterward, I started remembering similar reports from my dad when he was in China years ago on business. It was a very different experience.

Second (and I highly suspected this coming in), not everyone in China speaks English well – or at all. When I landed, I was picked up by two Chinese graduate students who guided me to my hotel. I was greatly appreciative of their help, because by the time I made it up to my room, I realized that the simple operations I was attempting (getting a taxi, driving to the hotel, checking in, finding my room) would have taken at least twice as long without the grad students to assist in translation. I’m referring to cultural, not just linguistic translation, because the grad students knew how to properly hail a cab and get a receptionist’s attention – things I would have been uncomfortable doing aggressively. They guided me around successfully, and I was deeply grateful for their help.

Speaking of translation, I want to tell you a story. The other WHOI scientist on this trip took a different route to China and landed later than me, so I was on my own for dinner tonight. I took his recommendation of looking for restaurants in the mall behind our hotel, and I was actually quite proud of myself when I found the food court. I hate sitting in restaurants alone, so I thought the food court would be a better solution, and plus, most of the booths had plastic displays of their dishes lined up along the edge of the counter. How perfect! I could just point to the dish that I wanted and order without speaking. I scanned around the room; I selected the dish I wanted and the booth I wanted to buy it from; I approached, pointed, and was even understood. Kirstin: 1. Mandarin Chinese: 0.

The cashier rang up my meal, and I pulled out my credit card to pay. She shook her head. Ok, I thought, maybe it’s cash-only. I pulled out my Chinese cash. She shook her head again, then held up a pink debit card. Actually, it was missing the row of numbers typical on debit and credit cards, so it looked more like a hotel key card than anything. I was confused. The cashier searched in the back of her brain, came up with the words “bank card,” and pointed across the food court behind me. By this time, I had figured out that only pink bank cards could be used to pay in the food court, but I couldn’t tell where the cashier was pointing that I could go get one. (Kirstin: 1. Mandarin Chinese: 1.) Thankfully, just then, one of her co-workers emerged from the back and volunteered to show me to the mall’s information desk, where the magic pink cards were sold. The co-worker walked me over, told the info desk clerk how much I needed on my card, waited with me until I had it, and then walked me back. I was deeply impressed by the helpfulness of the women in the food court, and I enjoyed a bowl of noodles, vegetables, ground meat, and spicy broth as a result.

Qingdao waterfront
I have to admit China feels very different than I thought it would. Well, let’s be honest, I’m not quite sure what I expected, except maybe Chinatown. Qingdao is actually a very western city. It has skyscrapers and public sculptures and sewer smells and traffic just like I’d expect to find in any major city in the U.S. or Europe. The tall glass towers remind me of Chicago. The wide streets remind me of California. The waterfront with its algae-covered stone steps makes me think of Venice. My surroundings feel familiar, but in all honesty, I have never felt like more of a foreigner. China presents unique challenges, but I look forward to exploring more. Stay tuned for more adventures in Qingdao! 

Thursday, November 2, 2017


"You should wear your helmet!" S exclaimed.
"And make sure your lunch box is in view!" returned L.
I set the timer on my camera, pressed, the button, and stepped back. Click! The shutter closed.

It was lunchtime in the lab, and S had a VW bus lunchbox. L had brought her Halloween costume, a golden helmet meant to mimic early-era SCUBA gear, to work. The three of us were crowded around her laptop, watching the live feed from an ROV dive thousands of miles away. Because we're cool like that.

The ROV live feed is from a research expedition that two other lab members are currently on. They're exploring hydrothermal vent habitats in the Gulf of California, and the cruise uses telepresence to engage other scientists and the broader community.

It was fascinating to watch the video. The ROV was circling a pinnacle covered in tube worms - a big, bushy clump of white tubes. At the bottom of the pinnacle, zoanthids, little colonial anemones, covered the rocks. The science party on the ship was collecting water samples and measuring the temperature of the vent fluids to try and determine why the species were distributed as they were.

The scientists on board wear headsets during ROV dives, so their voices were audible along with the video feed. We enjoyed listening to them describe what the ROV was doing and answering questions sent in by the public. Every once in a while, a familiar voice would emerge.

It was the perfect lunch break! Telepresence really is a powerful tool for making science accessible, and I recommend you check it out for yourself: