Sunday, November 11, 2018

The visitor

I came down the stairs to find him at the kitchen table. He looked every bit the professor, with a gray sweater over his collared shirt and glasses on his face. He leaned forward in the chair as he examined a scientific paper on his computer screen. He was deep in thought, immersed in the manuscript.

I had seen him like this countless times before, except that it had always been at his kitchen table, not mine. I smiled to myself at the memory of afternoons spent at his house in Stavanger, as we pored over my data, shaped it like clay, and turned it into a meaningful paper. I remembered how hard I had to work to keep up with him, and I reflected proudly on how far I've come since then.

My dear friend, Andrew, came to visit me this weekend. He was my advisor when I lived in Norway, and more than anyone else, he's the one who taught me how to think like a scientist. He played a huge role in my intellectual and personal development during my PhD, and he served on my committee. Since my defense, my relationship with Andrew has shifted, and I refer to him now not as my advisor but as my mentor. Sometimes I add the words "surrogate big brother."

Andrew used to work with the group I'm currently in, the Mullineaux lab, at WHOI, so he was able to reconnect with old colleagues during his visit. We went on walks around town and to the beach. We attended an orchestra concert. We talked about science for hours on end and agreed we needed to write a grant proposal to work together again.

It was so good for me to spend time with Andrew. He constantly reminds me to slow down, take time off, and be a human. In fact, this weekend with him felt like the first true mental break I've had in months. Just being around him makes me relax, and I could listen to him talk about science for days on end. Andrew is in my mind an innovative scientist who is unafraid to challenge old, entrenched ideas. Beyond that, he is an honest, loyal, and caring person who builds me up. I am so grateful for his friendship and glad that we got to spend a fulfilling weekend together.

"You have my permission to use all three of those photos on your blog." - Andrew K. Sweetman

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Test run

Today was a productive day! I spent most of it upstairs in a laboratory for molecular biology, learning DNA extraction methods from Hanny. Since our return from Palau, she defended her thesis and received her PhD (congratulations, Dr. Rivera!). Now that the dust has settled, it's time we start processing all of the coral samples we collected.

Our first step was to test out two different methods for DNA extraction. Hanny's advisor graciously offered us some DNA extraction kits that were surplus in her lab, but the kits were a bit old and may have lost their effectiveness. We ran an experiment: using old samples from Hanny's PhD work, we extracted DNA using two different types of kits and then used a technique called electrophoresis to see if the extractions had worked (more on that later). It's highly convenient that several companies make standardized kits for DNA extraction, but I had to laugh at the instruction manuals. One of the extraction kits was meant for soils, while the other was meant to be used with animal tissue and had specific instructions for extracting DNA from rodent tails! Most of biology research is done using model organisms like fruit flies or mice, so the DNA kit market is driven by their demands. Obviously, the invertebrate animals I work with are not standardized models and probably never will be. There is no DNA extraction kit designed for corals, so the closest we can rodent tails.

Most of our day was spent standing at the lab bench transferring reagants between vials with a micropipette. We then spun the vials in a centrifuge, a machine that uses centrifugal force to separate substances with different densities. Pipette, centrifuge, siphon off the liquid, repeat. Molecular biology is hard because it involves numerous monotonous steps, and you don't know if you've succeeded until the very end.

The results of our DNA extraction experiment
Once we had completed the DNA extraction protocol, it came time to evaluate our success using electrophoresis. This technique uses an electrical current to separate strands of DNA by size. A sample of DNA is loaded into a gel with a certain pore size, and as the strands migrate through the gel, small pieces migrate faster and large ones migrate slower. For our purposes, we were hoping to see a single, dark band of DNA, indicating a large piece - the whole genome - and a successful extraction.

You can see the results to the right here. The two rows of whitish rectangles are the wells where we loaded our samples, and the black stripes are the DNA. The tiger stripes on the very left are a DNA ladder, a series of fragments of known size that can be used as a standard. We used the ladder as a positive control - we knew there was DNA in the ladder, so if it didn't show up, something was wrong with the electrophoresis.

As you move across the picture, each column represents a different sample. On the top row, you see four dark bands. The bands are very close to their respective wells, indicating they didn't travel very far - that means they hold large pieces of DNA. That's what we were looking for! The four samples on the top were extracted using the animal tissue kit, so that kit still works! On the bottom row, you see only very, very faint bands close to the wells. Faint DNA means an ineffective extraction. The kit we used for these bottom samples was really designed for soils, so it's not surprising that it didn't work.

Moving forward, we will use the animal tissue extraction kit (rodent tails!), and we're very grateful to Hanny's advisor for offering her surplus. I'm excited to get started with the analysis!

Friday, November 2, 2018

In print

Dear friends, I am proud to announce that another one of my scientific papers was published today. This manuscript concerns oyster larvae swimming behavior, focusing specifically on why and when larvae swim in helices. The lead author is a former Mullineaux lab intern, Meghan. During the summer of 2017, she conducted two experiments on how oysters behave when exposed to different concentrations of food or a chemical settlement cue, and this paper presents her results from those experiments.

This is the first time that a student I have helped advise produced a paper of her own, so I am very proud of Meghan! It's a huge accomplishment for an undergraduate to publish a paper and even more so as lead author. She did a great job!

You can find the paper here, in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology:

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Clear blue

I lay on my stomach, put my face in the water, and paddled forward with my feet. One bright pink fin was attached to each of them. With the zipper of my wetsuit open, I could feel a refreshing stream of water along my back, but my arms and legs were protected by the tight, clingy neoprene. On the ocean surface were plentiful clumps of Sargassum, a tuft-like brown alga that floats. I spread my fingers wide and felt the rough, weedy web scrape against my palms. I noticed how much more abundant the Sargassum seemed from below - hundreds of clumps floating on the glassy mirror of the ocean surface.

With my body prone and my eyes directed downward, I could see all the way to the seafloor. Dark brown and black formations dotted the rock, which coalesced into a reef about a hundred yards in front of me. I knew the corals were more colorful than they seemed from up here, having just swum past them at the end of my dive, but I still marveled that I could see them from the surface. The water was the clearest I have ever experienced. Thick, columnar rays of sunlight converged on a point beneath me, penetrating all the way to the seafloor at 50 feet deep.

I bent my knees and lifted my head. The water column was an intense blue - not bright or dark, but concentrated. Blue blue. At the edge of the reef, it grew dimmer as the seafloor dropped away and metamorphosed into the Grand Cayman Wall. About halfway to the ledge was a single yellow rope extending through the water column, book-ended by an anchor bolt in the rock and a spherical white buoy on the surface. Two divers held onto the rope with one hand each. They were positively covered in gear, with complicated, tube-infested rebreathers on their backs and a total of six additional tanks clipped onto the metallic frames. They watched their dive computers with undivided focus, like watchmakers observing their handiwork. I wanted to get their attention but restrained myself, unwilling to interrupt the last moments of what I was sure had been very intense training.

And so I floated on, having earned my own technical diving certification just an hour earlier. My week of hard work had paid off in the form of a decompression diving qualification. The class stretched me, but with my newly-honed skills, my scientific studies will be less restricted - I can dive deeper, stay longer, and explore further.

I had earned my moment of serenity, paddling through the Sargassum, watching the love of my life hang in the water column just 20 feet below me. Life is good.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Anything-can-happen Thursday

I love the American comedy The Big Bang Theory. It's about physicists at Caltech, and as you may expect, it's a very nerdy show. One of the main characters, Sheldon, is on the Autism spectrum and is notoriously rigid. In one episode, his friends try to shake up his routine by declaring "Anything-can-happen Thursday" and replacing Sheldon's typical Thursday pizza dinner with Thai food. It does not go over well.

Friends, I'm hope you're not eating pizza, because today is Anything-can-happen Thursday.

Heart-shaped bivalve larvae, magnified 50x
I'm working on processing the samples I recovered from the Josephine Marie wreck as part of my shipwreck project this summer. You know - the one where I went diving on shipwrecks in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary to see whether they could serve as stepping stones for invasive species. At each wreck, I deployed fouling panels and larval traps and collected samples of the adults that were living there. I recovered the fouling panels and larval traps from two of my sites in August this year, but the weather was never calm enough for me to make it to the third site.

Well, I'm currently processing the larval samples from the Josephine Marie wreck, and I had a very Anything-can-happen-Thursday moment.

As I looked through the larval sample, I kept seeing heart-shaped shells. They were bivalves like clams or mussels, because they had two symmetrical shells attached at an umbo - a very standard morphology. I assumed they must have been a species that lived buried in the sediment because I didn't remember seeing bivalves on the shipwreck. I sorted them without thinking much of it.

Juvenile "limpets" from my trap, magnified 50x
But then I noticed something else in the larval sample: a juvenile limpet. It's not uncommon for small juveniles to get washed off of their substratum and into a trap, but what actually caught my eye was the larval shell embedded in the juveniles. When shelled animals like snails, limpets, and clams settle, they grow their new shell as an extension of the old one, so the shell they had as a larva remains. The more I looked at the limpet, the more the larval shell looked heart-shaped, just like the larvae I had seen.

But bivalves don't just transform into limpets. They're two separate things. Bivalves are things like clams, and limpets are more like snails. One does not simply become the other.

I took a closer look at the juvenile "limpet." I turned it over. I zoomed in using the microscope. I adjusted the light. And I started to notice something I hadn't seen before - a thin shell on the underside of the "limpet." It had a small hole in it. This wasn't a limpet at all, I realized, but rather a bivalve with a two very different shells.

A larger juvenile jingle from my fouling panels. The larval
shell is the small yellow spot on the apex.
I pulled out a reference book from my advisor's collection. Marine invertebrates of southern New England and New York. I flipped through the pages until I reached the bivalves. I scanned for one that had two different shells, one hearty and translucent, the other clear and with a small hole. And there it was. Anomia sp., commonly known as a jingle. They're bivalves that live attached to a surface with their translucent upper shell exposed to the water and their thin lower shell facing the substratum. The small hole in the lower shell allows threads to pass through that anchor them to the substratum.

And then it dawned on me. The jingles in my larval trap were not the only jingles I had captured. Larger juveniles had colonized my fouling panels, but I had incorrectly identified them as the limpet Crepidula sp. Now I know that they are jingles.

Altogether, I had 469 heart-shaped jingle larvae in my sample, and another 21 small juveniles. They were the single most common species. Even though I don't remember seeing them on the wreck, I wasn't focused on looking for small bivalves at the time, so I may have missed them. It's an interesting species to be aware of for future studies - maybe they could be a good model species for some of my scientific questions!


"I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact."
- Elon Musk

I love fall in New England. The air is crisp, the leaves are crunchy, and the sunshine feels comforting instead of hot.

I’m back at home now, and I used the chance to finish up my field project from this summer. Weather prevented me from making out to my third field site, the wreck of a fishing vessel called the Patriot, to recover my samplers earlier in August and September, so I scheduled a day on the dive boat Dawn Treader to try again. Unfortunately, the weather prevented me from reaching the Patriot all over again, but I was able to use the day to explore a new site closer to shore.

We went to the wreck of the Mars in Cape Cod Bay. I had never been to this site before, and I wanted to see the wreck for myself. At first, it would seem that there’s plenty of information available about wrecks in Massachusetts, but a closer look reveals that this pre-existing information is biologically sparse. It’s easy for me to find out what year a ship was built, how many hands were on board, why it sank, and how intact it is, but other divers and shipwreck enthusiasts utterly ignore the animals living on the wreck. To find out what’s there, I have to visit the wreck myself. I packed my gear, picked up my dive buddy for the day, and went to the site of the wreck.

To be honest, the Mars was a really tough dive for me. The cold water shocked my system, which had acclimated to tropical temperatures while in Palau. It was dark and turbid, so visibility was restricted to the 5 feet in front of me. I was also disoriented by nitrogen narcosis, which is a cognitive fogginess that results from breathing the gas at high partial pressure. My brain was functioning more slowly than normal, and even though I knew I was off, I had no way to fix the problem at depth.

Metridium senile on the Patriot wreck. Photo by Jim Guertin.

We swam around a little and eventually found the wreck. The bow was still intact, standing vertically above the seafloor, and as I ascended up the metallic wall, my head began to clear – just a small change in depth made a huge difference for my narcosis. All over the bow were hundreds of plumose anemones, known scientifically as Metridium senile. There’s a picture of one here, which was taken by another diver on a different wreck. The species is really gorgeous, and it has been on every shipwreck in New England that I have visited so far. I think the anemone may be pre-adapted to thrive on shipwrecks because it can disperse long distances and form populations from just a few individuals.

Even though it was a tough dive on the Mars, this project has taught me several important lessons. I’ve gained valuable experience with deep offshore diving in cold water – a difficult set of conditions that requires regular practice to master. I’ve learned the ins and outs of WHOI regulations for diving and boat charters. I have made key observations of species distributions on shipwrecks and started formulating hypotheses to pursue in future projects. Overall, it’s been a valuable learning experience, but I am glad to finally call my field season finished. Autumn is rolling in.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

From the mixed-up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Right now, I am sitting on a patch of grass in front of PICRC. The air is completely still, and it’s dark except for a few lights in the parking garage and the security guard’s station. I can hear some sort of insect clicking in the night. It is calm.

I can’t help but think about one of my favorite books as a child, From the mixed-up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s about a brother and sister who run away to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. By day, they stow away with school groups on tours and learn everything they can. Then in the evening, they hide in the bathrooms while the security guard does his rounds, and once everyone has left for the night, they have their run of the museum. They bathe in the fountain, research in the library, and sleep in an antique bed. Elementary-school Kirstin thought this kind of life – living freely in an institution of knowledge – sounded glorious.

Got to admit, that’s the way PICRC has felt every evening this trip. When the full-time staff go home for the night, it’s been just Hanny and me. We have our run of the lab, the tank room, and the dorms. We can gawk at the corals and play our music and work at whatever pace we please. It’s felt freeing and childlike and glorious. Tonight, I relish that feeling again, as we are the only ones left at the station. With a sense of calm and completeness, we await our ride to the airport.

One of my favorite moments this trip was when we finished our sampling at our last site. We had been underwater for hours on end in our wetsuits, dragging heavy tools and long mesh bags. Once the last sample had been processed, we both had this incredible moment of relief and a strong urge to go for a swim. We stripped off our wetsuits and jumped in with only our swimsuits – no neoprene, no SCUBA tanks, no hammers, no sample bags. Just smooth, salty water on our skin.

I kicked my feet and spun around in the water. I was surrounded on all sides by steep rocky cliffs covered in greenery. Tiny triangular waves peaked and then receded on the sea surface, which was deep crystal blue in the late afternoon sun. The air was completely still except for the distant calls of unfamiliar birds. It was blissful.

I am very proud of how well this trip has gone. Hanny and I undertook a lot for just two people, and we had no major hang-ups. We have worked very hard for the past two weeks, and we have worked very well together. In fact, we both agree that we would love to work together again.

My friends, I leave you now with memories of Palau’s rock islands and the beautiful corals they hold. We are headed home. It's been a very successful trip!

Monday, October 8, 2018

Palau in pictures

Seen in Koror

Seen in Koror

A traditional Palauan men's meeting house

Taoch, one of our study sites

Ngelsibel, one of our study sites

Tiles deployed at Ngelsibel. Photo by Hanny Rivera.

A settlement tile deployed on the reef in Ngermid Bay, another of our
study sites.
The bright branched coral in front is one of our study species.
Photo by Hanny Rivera.
Seen at Drop Off. Photo by Hanny Rivera.
Drop Off. Photo by Hanny Rivera.

Nixon and Nelson

As we've been sampling in Palau, we've had our boat driver from PICRC and a Koror State Ranger on the boat with us. I think I've mentioned that research in Palau is pretty highly regulated because the country is serious about protecting its natural resources. Well, one of the levels of control in the southern part of Palau, Koror State, is that those with research permits must be accompanied at all times by a ranger. The one assigned to our project is named Nixon, and he's been with us everywhere. Our boat driver is named Nelson. They're both Palauan, and it has been a really great experience for Hanny and me to talk with them about Palauan culture, language, and life on the archipelago.

With the gentlemen on the boat
Nixon and Nelson both grew up in the rock islands, so they know the complex passageways like the backs of their hands. Every morning, we tell Nelson our study sites for the day, and he simply nods and takes off. At one point, we entered a lagoon from the wrong direction and couldn't get to where we wanted, and Nelson and Nixon figured out how get around the other way. I was amazed at how seldom they looked at the map, so I asked about the trick for navigating in the rock islands. Apparently, they memorize the shapes of the tops of the rock islands and use the profiles of the peaks to navigate. Very cool.

Hanny and I were also fascinated by Nelson's boat handling skills. He can get within 6 inches of a dock to allow someone to step on or off and then hit reverse on the boat's engines to back away before he taps the dock - in fact, he did this every time we picked up or dropped off Nixon. He can parallel park a boat against a cement wall between two other vessels without hitting anything in front, behind, or to the side of him - and he did every time we arrived back at PICRC. It's simply incredible.

Another thing the men have taught us is Palauan pronunciation. Two of our study sites, Taoch and Mechechar, seem like they should be pretty crunchy words, with lots of "ch" sounds. But "ch" in Palauan is silent and actually signifies a grunt. So Taoch becomes "Tao-grunt" and "Mecherchar" becomes "Me-grunt-er-grunt-ar." Hanny and I both practiced the words on the boat, and after listening to Nixon do it numerous times, I realized he was contracting his diaphragm. Basically, "Mecherchar" is "Me-er-ar" but with a little extra emphasis at the end of the first two syllables. Instead of letting the letters float or slide out of your mouth, you force them out with a diaphragm contraction. I was fascinated by the pronunciation.

Sometimes when we would arrive at a site in the rock islands, Nixon would begin making a loud animalistic sound, almost like a bark but more visceral. The sound was forced out of his rib cage with his intercostal muscles. He said he was making the call of the Palauan pigeon, called "belochel" ("belo-grunt-el") in the local language. The bird is a delicacy and is commonly eaten at Christmas. Hunters attract the bird by making its call, and Nixon was trying to attract one to the boat. We took his word for it, but then later, we returned our SCUBA tanks to one of the local dive shops and found they had a pigeon in a cage. It was making the exact same sound that Nixon was!

We asked the men about Palauan food, and they told us traditional diets include taro, breadfruit, lots of seafood, and fruit bat. Yes, Palauans eat fruit bat. Apparently the intestines are delicious and sweet. The men insisted it was very common and recommended some restaurants where we could try it. We'll have to see if we have the time and courage to try eating bat!

I'm grateful for the chance to learn about Palauan culture from the men. They were both extremely professional and helpful on the boat. Thanks to them both!

We have spat!

"Spat!" Hanny exclaimed. I looked up from the microscope to see her hunched over a tub of water with a terra cotta tile inside. Her eyes were focused on a small point on the tile. She had found our first coral settler of the evening.

A coral spat (circled in pencil), photographed using a
microscope at 60x magnification
After recovering the tiles from each of our study sites, we set about examining them to find any juveniles that had settled during the deployment. The idea is that we can compare the genetic signatures of young juvenile corals to adults at the same site to see if the individuals settling there were spawned by parents at that site or elsewhere. Looking at the juveniles is a powerful way to understand the connectivity between different coral reefs.

Over the course of a few hours, we worked our way through the tiles from two of our sites. We were excited to see coral spat, but to be perfectly honest, there were fewer than we were hoping for. On average, we found just 3 - 5 juveniles per site. Every one felt like a victory, but we knew we would need more for a robust analysis.

As we searched the tiles, we brainstormed ideas for how to increase our numbers. We have a solid list of ideas to try out, and we'll integrate them into future projects. For now, we are grateful for the juveniles we did catch and look forward to further examining them back at WHOI. We'll identify them to species and see if we can use genetics to figure out where they came from.

I'm glad we at least got some coral spat!

Drop Off

We got to the site at low tide. Looking over the side of the boat, it looked like we could hit a coral any second. I knew it was partially an effect of the crystal-clarity of the water, but still, it was a bit nerve-wracking. When we deployed our panels at Drop Off, we had done so at high tide, but the semidiurnal tidal schedule had shifted in the intervening time to make the water level much lower when we returned.

"Honestly, we could just snorkel," Hanny said. No need to haul out our dive gear when a mere 4 feet of water separated the surface from the sand. We pulled on our masks and fins and slid over the side of the boat. Splash!

The terra cotta tiles we had deployed to catch settling coral juveniles were right where we had left them, and we recovered them with ease. We held our breath to pull the steel rods out of the sediment and loosen the tiles from their clamps. Holding the panels tight, we paddled back to the boat and placed them in water-filled containers for transit. It was very exciting to get them back!

Hanny free diving for a coral sample
For our next task, we collected tissue samples from small juvenile corals that we found on the reef. We had started collecting samples during our deployment dives earlier in this trip, but we needed more individuals to reach our sampling goals. With the water level so low, it was again pointless to drag out our SCUBA gear, so we swam with just masks and fins. The juveniles were easy to spot from the surface, but then we discovered the catch: sitting in 4 feet of water, the juvenile corals were just out of reach as we floated on the surface. We wanted to chip away tiny pieces of tissue with a screwdriver acting as a chisel, but we couldn't reach the colonies with our hands. We would have to free dive.

Hanny was eager to try. "I'll do it!" she proclaimed and handed me the bundle of sample bags. In one motion, she filled her lungs with air, dove headfirst to the seafloor, floated over to the colony, chipped off a piece, grabbed it in one hand, and kicked her way back to the surface. I watched the whole thing with my face underwater, and I was impressed. I held the sample bag open to receive the coral chip, and we moved on to the next sample.

With a cool sea star on the Drop Off wall. Photo by
Hanny Rivera.
With our tiles safely recovered and our juvenile chips in their bags, we checked the time and realized we had an extra hour. Now, what are two scientists with full SCUBA tanks and spare time at a beautiful coral reef site going to do? Go for a fun dive, of course!

Drop Off is aptly named because the seafloor drops off. All of our sampling had been in the shallow portion, but we were only a few feet away from the sheer cliff that gives the site its name. With tanks on our backs and regulators in our mouths, we swam over the edge into the void. We descended down the wall to about 50 feet below the surface. And it was gorgeous.

The wall was covered in branching and massive corals. Large, colorful sea fans extended out from the wall like porous paddles, and small fish swam here and there. It was a beautiful dive, and I'm really glad we got to experience the site!

It was a successful day of sampling at Drop Off!

Sunday, October 7, 2018

All the easy research has been done before.

So you’re underwater in Palau.
A hammer in one hand, a screwdriver in the other
SCUBA regulator in your mouth, blowing bubbles to the surface
As you assess your next target:
A chunk of coral, about 5 cm by 6 cm, narrow on one end so it looks like a turkey leg. A little juvenile, maybe a year old.
And you need to chip off a piece of it.
But you know that as soon as you place the screwdriver against its surface and tap the back with the hammer, you’ll drive that little coral baby into the sand.
“Why can’t I just sample the adult corals?” you ask yourself. “That would be so much easier!”
But adults of this species have been sampled before.
All the easy research has been done before.

Or maybe you’re in the Arctic.
It’s winter, so it’s dark 24/7, and the wind makes you feel like there’s little ice bullets attacking your face every time you go outside.
And you have to go out on a boat to collect your samples
Except the boat’s range is restricted by sea ice and you have to plan your route carefully to make sure you don’t destroy the boat or get trapped between two floes and frozen in
So you don your special suit, a tough waterproof rubber that’s as uncomfortable as anything but designed to save your life
And load your gear in the ice-bullet breeze
And ask yourself “Why can’t I just collect my samples in the summer? That would be so much easier.”
But honey, people have been researching things that happen in the summer for years.
Working in summer is easy.
And all the easy research has been done before.

You’re out on a ship – a big one, the kind with 50 people on board
And you’re prepping your gear for deployment in the deep sea.
It’s 4 km down to the muddy seafloor, and at that depth, your precious electronics have to withstand 400 atmospheres of pressure.
So you use titanium housings and clean, well-greased O-rings
Which you check and double-check and triple-check
Because one speck of dust could torpedo your experiment and cost thousands of dollars in repairs.
“Why can’t I just make these measurements at shallower depth?” you wonder.
“Why can’t I just work on the continental shelf or off the dock or in a pond?”
Because that’s been done before.
We already know a lot about those environments
But we don’t know a lot about the deep sea.
All the easy research has been done before.

So you pack your bags and ship your samples and take yourself back home.
And you sit down in your lab to process what you’ve collected.
You’ve been dying to try out this new technique.
You’re going to analyze your data in a way that’s never been done before –
Except that’s just the problem –
All the easy research has been done before.
You mess with it and troubleshoot it and run into brick wall after brick wall
Until you’re ready to shout into the void for frustration:
“Why can’t I just use the old techniques?!”
“Why can’t I just describe what I see? Why do I have to use this ridiculous model? Why can’t I do what has been done before?”
My friend, all the easy research has been done before.

But then one day
After the diving and the sweating and the freezing and the boats and the ships and the heavy, heavy gear
After the hair-pulling and exasperating and long, long nights
It works.
And you find it –
Something that has never been found before.

Your soul soars and you write your paper
And you are reminded why you chose this field
Because science happens in small steps but every once in a while
You will do something that has never
Been done before.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Chandler Wall

For our second dive of the day, we went to a site called Chandler Wall. It was a sheer vertical cliff covered in corals of all kinds! We swam along it at about 60 - 70 below the sea surface, relishing the diversity of reef-building corals along the way. Fish of all sorts hung out near the cliff, sometimes hovering under ledges, sometimes venturing out into the blue water. It was an absolutely gorgeous!

At one point, the guide told us to follow him and swim up over the edge of the cliff to the plateau on top. We were carried by the incoming tidal current, but once we got on top, the current was so strong, we had to hold on to avoid being carried away! The guide gave us reef hooks to attach to the reef. It's basically a giant metal hook that you place in a piece of dead coral and then clip the attached line to your gear to stay in place. I must admit, it was pretty nerve-wracking for me to feel the sheer strength of the current on the ledge, but once I got into the right area, the current abated.

We released our reef hooks and drifted along the top of the plateau. Clumps of coral passed by underneath us, and a giant wrasse followed us as we drifted. Eventually, the guide signaled us to swim upward and kicked away from the reef into the blue water. He inflated an orange signal bag, which floated above us on the surface and showed the boat where to find us.

It was an incredible day of diving, and I'm so glad Hanny and I got to experience more of the coral reef environments in Palau. This place is absolutely gorgeous!
A sea fan on Chandler Wall

Corals on Chandler Wall

Hanny looking at the corals on the cliff

The wall was a straight drop! This photo is looking downward.

Hanny and I at Chandler Reef. I look serious, but I was smiling under my regulator!

Me and the reef
A clownfish and his anemone on the plateau. Photo by Hanny Rivera.

The giant wrasse that followed us on the plateau. Photo by Hanny Rivera.

German Channel

Hanny and I have had a few days free while we wait for coral larvae to settle on our panels, so we've been using them to explore Palau. This archipelago is a diver's paradise, so we signed up a day of diving with one of the charter companies here. We both felt naked diving without all of our gear, but the day was incredibly rewarding!

We started at a site called German Channel. We rolled over the side of the boat, descended down the anchor line, and found ourselves on top of an absolutely amazing coral reef. Some of the rock island lagoons where our study sites are located can have low biodiversity - only one or two species able to survive in the hot water that gets trapped in the lagoon - but Palau's outer reefs are incredibly diverse! There were corals of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and there were fish swimming around everywhere.

Gray reef shark
We drifted along with the current until our guide made a noise and pointed to his right. In the distance, three sharks hovered above the reef. Silently, they glided through the water, rippling their tails in long waves. Palau is the world's first shark sanctuary, with strict laws making it illegal to fish, capture, or kill sharks, so the gentle beasts thrive here. Sharks have a bad reputation based on sensational media stories and Hollywood, but in reality, a person has a higher statistical chance of being struck by lightning than being bitten by a shark. The gray reef sharks were no more interested in us than they would have been in a 60-minute lecture on the bylaws of the Nobel Committee. They were fascinating to see - slow-moving and silent, they conveyed a great sense of calm.

School of fish. Photo by Hanny Rivera.
Our guide started to swim upward and away from the reef, out into the blue water. I was a bit confused, but I knew it was my job to follow him, so I did. Before long, I found myself swimming straight through a school of fish! The slimy creatures swirled around me, flicking their tails and staying in perfect formation. I had seen plenty of pictures and videos of open-ocean fish schools before, but it was a completely different experience to be inside one! It was probably the most aware I've ever been of the 3-D space around me. Fish swam on top, beside, and below me, swirling around in a ball until finally the current carried me out of their midst. It was a really unique experience!

Further swam the guide, toward a sandy slope with patchy corals. Again I followed him, trusting that he knew the correct route and unsure what I would encounter next. The guide spread out both of his hands and gestured his palms downward, indicating "lay down." One by one, we found places on the sand and knelt or laid on it. I touched my fin tips to the sediment and let my breath carry my torso up and down in a pivoting motion - breath in, rise up, breath out, sink down. Slowly, like hovering spacecraft, three manta rays emerged from the deep blue water around us. I'll admit my heart skipped a beat to see them in person - manta rays are huge. Their wing tips curled up like the edges of a flying blanket. They swam back and forth, their oval mouths wide open to let water flow over their gills. They were absolutely gorgeous!

I'm glad we got to experience more of Palau's coral reef environments! 

Sunday, September 30, 2018


Coconut + machete
Whenever I'm traveling, I have a strict personal policy: I say yes to everything (well, as long as it's not illegal or life-threatening). This policy allows me to experience local culture in ways that others don't, and I've had some pretty crazy, awesome days as a result. It has always worked in my favor.

"We should get coconuts."

It was probably the fifth time Hanny had brought it up. As a coral biologist, Hanny has spent a lot of time in tropics, and coconuts are one of her favorite field work traditions. I had no idea how to buy, much less eat, a coconut, but I was game to try it. Teach me how to eat coconuts, I told her. We found a place selling them, paid $1.50 each, and the lesson began.

The first thing you need to eat a coconut is a machete. The nuts fall from palm trees in thick green husks, which must be chopped off to reveal the edible part inside. Thankfully, the seller usually cuts the husk off, so we were not responsible for machete-wielding. It was entertaining to watch the process, though!

"Instagram-worthy" photo by Hanny Rivera
Once the husk is off, you can open the coconut with a sharp kitchen knife. You shave off part of the thick brown shell and use the tip of the knife to carve a hole. You then insert a straw through the hole and suck out the coconut water inside. It's sweet and subtle and delicious. On a hot day, I must admit, some cold, fresh coconut water is an amazing treat.

Finally, when the water is all gone, you crack the coconut open and eat the pulp. Cracking is a difficult endeavor, and you need something heavy. We used a lead dive weight and hammered the shell for a few minutes, then dropped the dive weight on the coconut from waist level. It worked beautifully, and we were able to enjoy the pulp. You carve it out of the coconut with a spoon. Younger coconuts have more water and softer, thinner pulp, but older coconuts have less water and thicker, white pulp. It's a good idea to eat the pulp a little at a time because it's very oily.

I was glad for the chance to try coconuts!


"Ugh, why are they still honking at us?" I complained to Hanny. For the fifth time in a row, the driver in the car passing us had honked and waved flirtatiously. It was getting old.

Just then, another honk sounded from behind us, and the driver of the car slowed down. I turned, ready to tell someone off, but I could see the driver was an old woman.

"It's Grace!" I exclaimed, and Hanny and I both climbed into the car.

The boat race under a bridge between two of Palau's islands.
The independence day celebration was a fun event!
Grace is the mother-in-law of a PICRC employee, and we met her today on our way to a festival in town. She's a delightful, sweet woman, and at 69, she does not act her age.

"That was a lot of fun," I told Grace, referring to the festival we had all just attended. Palau's independence day is tomorrow, so there was a boat race on the water and booths with food and crafts. Hanny and I had gone to the celebration on our day off. It was a fun way to connect to the community and explore more of Koror. Palauans are exceptionally polite, friendly people, and the festival felt just like a street fair in a small town in the U.S.

"Yes, it was fun," Grace replied to me as she accelerated down the road. Her medium brown skin and broad facial features gave away her Micronesian heritage. She was wearing an orange-and-red shirt, and her dark hair was in a bun. Faint music played from the stereo of her car with lyrics in Palauan, but I recognized the melodies of Christian worship songs from the U.S.

As she drove, Grace told us about Palau. She complained that the weather was much hotter now than it used to be, and she attributed that to climate change. She told us that the sea level had been rising and putting some houses on the Palauan coast at risk. There was a neighborhood not far from here, she told us, where the houses were right next to the mangroves, but they were all getting flooded and having to be rebuilt. Could she drive us there and show us?

The neighborhood was lower-middle-class, with houses made out of cinder block. Behind each of them, mangrove trees were visible, and Grace pointed out the rising intertidal zone. She told us the new houses were all being built at higher altitude.

As we pulled out of the neighborhood, Grace mentioned that when she was a child, she used to go to a bay in the rock islands to see a group of dugongs - sea cows, like manatees. She and her friends would count them as they came into the bay. Then the government decided to fill in the bay to build on it, so the dugongs had to go elsewhere. She drove us to the spot and turned around in a parking lot that used to be ocean. "That was before we knew about conservation," she said.

I asked Grace when Palau had started its conservation efforts. "Very recently," she responded, "Maybe 10 years or so." I was surprised. Ten years was very recent indeed, especially considering how strongly Palau has now regulated and protected its marine habitats. I asked her what caused the change.

"It's because the Palauans go away to school," she said, "They learn about conservation, and then they come back and want to do it here."

There is not a university in Palau, but Palauans study in Guam, the U.S., and Taiwan, at least according to Grace. She also said that Palau's current president is very aware of the need for ocean conservation and is dedicated to it 110%. Education and political change fueled the creation of Palau's extensive marine protected area.

It was fascinating to talk to Grace, and I'm very grateful that we got to meet her. She's a lovely woman.


The rock bridge adjacent to our outer Mecherchar site.
For our third day of sampling, we went to a site called Mecherchar. It was our southernmost site, and we sampled both inside and outside the lagoon. The outer site was a really successful one for us - we got the full number of young coral samples we were hoping to collect, and they were all very small, probably only 6 months old, which is what we were hoping for. We deployed all of our panels in dead coral or sand, and we look forward to seeing what grows on them. Adjacent to the outer site was a very interesting rock bridge, pictured here. The rock islands are all undercut because of tidal erosion, and I guess the erosion was strong enough at this site to erode a hole through the bottom of the rock island. It was a very cool site.

We then headed into the Mecherchar lagoon with the plan to collect samples and deploy tiles there. We were able to deploy our tiles, but the reef did not have any young corals for us to sample. We swam and surveyed the whole slope, but there were no juveniles to be found. It was a disappointing end to our sampling, but after three long, dive-filled days, we really can't complain.

We have been underwater for 4 - 6 hours each day, and our bodies are starting to show it. We both have sore muscles from swimming and raw gums from having SCUBA regulators in our mouths for so long. Our fingers have abrasion in spots where we hit a dead coral by accident, and our hands are blistered from hammering. We are exhausted.

We got all of our tiles deployed and collected the young coral samples we needed. Now, we just have to wait and hope that coral larvae settle on our tiles. We'll be on land for a few days and then go back out to recover them. It's time for a break!

Like fish

Friends, for our second day of sampling, Hanny and I went to two sites, Drop Off and Taoch. Drop Off is a barrier reef on the eastern side of Palau, and it is one of our outer reef sites. We made sure to dive there during high tide, when the current was likely to be slowest, because the site is very exposed and can have dangerously fast current. As it was, we were only 10 feet below the sea surface and got tossed around by the surging waves, so it was very challenging to hold position while sampling. As I hammered steel rods into dead coral to deploy our settlement tiles and chiseled pieces off of young corals, Hanny acted as my anchor. She held onto a dead coral piece with one hand and gripped my gear with the other. Teamwork.
The entrance to Taoch. Pictures do not do this place justice,
and I need to get better at photographing birds.

Exhausted, we crawled back into the boat and asked the driver to take us to our next site. The current was picking up, so we headed in to an enclosed lagoon site, Taoch. Friends, I wish I could take you each personally to Palau and show you the pure beauty of this place. Taoch is my favorite site so far, and pictures just do not do it justice. We drove through the narrow passage into the enclosed lagoon and anchored the boat. We were surrounded on all sides by sheer rock cliffs covered in green plants - trees, vines, flowers. The air was completely still, as was the water. It was protected and hot and shaded and silent. Then there were birds - black and white, with long, thin feathers trailing behind them and sharp, angular wings that made them look like spacecraft. One flew closer, and I could see a white oval on its forehead crowning its jet-black body. The white ones had streaks of light blue on the sides of their face and neck. I followed them with my eyes as they dove and glided and flapped. I wondered what bird family they might belong to, and I thought about what the first humans must have been feeling when they arrived in this place centuries ago. Wonder, adrenaline, awe, relief, curiosity. Dear goodness, I love this place.

Colorful coral reef at Taoch
The other reason why Taoch is my favorite site is because of the diversity of corals in the lagoon. I had always been told that the Pacific had a much higher diversity of corals than, for example, the Caribbean, and after seeing Taoch, I believe it. There were star corals and brain corals and this branching thing that I think is called Anacropora. They were orange and purple and yellow and brown, and they were all growing next to each other in this complex mess of shapes and textures. Thank goodness there was no current in the lagoon, because if I had struggled to hold position, I would have run into and damaged the beautiful creatures. Taoch was absolutely gorgeous.

By the end of the day, Hanny and I had spent 6 hours underwater. We felt like fish as we finally hauled ourselves back into the boat. It was a beautiful and successful day.

Saturday, September 29, 2018


Our morning began with a high-speed ride through this
narrow passage outside PICRC.
One of our tiles deployed in dead coral next to a live colony
The deep, throaty rumble of the engine got louder, and all at once, we were going three times as fast as we had been. The wind rippled over my face as I sat in the bow of the motor boat. We charged forward, through a narrow passageway between two jagged cliffs. The rock islands towered high on either side of us, undercut by the tide, covered in determined greenery clinging to the vertical stone faces. I felt like a kid. In fact, when I was younger, I loved to sit in the bow of my godparents’ motor boat and zoom around the lake near their cottage in northern Michigan. I sat as far forward as I was allowed so I could feel the wind rippling over my face, and I would imagine that I was a princess from some exotic foreign land. Friends, my inner child was alive and well today.

Our first study site was Risong, an enclosed lagoon south of PICRC. We made sure to sample there at high tide because if the tide is too low, the boat cannot make it through the passageway to the innermost portion of the lagoon. We jumped in with just our fins and snorkels and surveyed the site first, then donned our dive gear and re-entered the water with our sampling equipment - a hammer, a screwdriver, steel rods, C-clamps, and terra cotta tiles. Hard-core.

Hanny getting ready to chisel a young coral colony
We deployed the terra cotta tiles on the seafloor, either in dead coral or in sand. Our major objective for this project is to see whether coral larvae spawned in enclosed lagoons can disperse and settle at outer reefs or vice versa, so we're using the tiles to "catch" new recruits. The terra cotta mimics the texture of rock or coral rubble, and the tiles have been conditioned with a biofilm that signals to larvae "this is a good place to settle." We're putting the tiles out during coral spawning season, so hopefully things will settle on them! 

Once we had all the tiles deployed, we also sampled young corals in the lagoon. We're targeting the smallest colonies we can find - ideally about 6 months old - to see if their genetic signatures match adults nearby or at reefs farther away. We used a screwdriver as a chisel and pounded on the back of it with a hammer to collect tiny chips of coral. It was a lot of work and we both had sore biceps by the end of the day, but we have a large collection of samples to show for it! 

Friends, I absolutely love my job. We had a very successful first day, and I can't wait to see what the other sites yield!

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Pristine paradise

Seen from PICRC
Hanny and I spent our first day in Palau preparing for our field work, and the process took from 8 am to 9 pm. It was a long but productive day.

The landfill mural tells Palauans to be a hero and recycle
We are based at the Palau International Coral Reef Center, or PICRC (pronounced "pick-rick"). It's a research station in Koror, the capital of Palau, that hosts its own full-time scientific staff as well as visitors from other nations. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Palau, but so far, I have been very impressed. The PICRC staff has been very responsive and helpful, and the station is an absolutely breathtaking location. It's right on the water, surrounded by palm trees and coral reefs. I'm in awe of my surroundings, but every time I point out the beauty around us, Hanny tells me "This is nothing; just wait."

Another thing that impresses me about Palau is its emphasis on conservation. This tiny island nation has a population of only 15,000 people, but it has become a leader in ocean preservation. In 2015, the Palauan government designated a huge portion of its exclusive economic zone as a marine protected area, and they also passed legislation to prevent large tour groups from damaging coral reefs. A large portion of Palau's income is from environmental tourism - people who travel here to enjoy the biodiversity - so the Palauans are serious about preserving their environment. All visitors to the archipelago pay a "Pristine Paradise" fee that funds conservation and restoration efforts, and research in vulnerable habitats is only allowed with a permit. Even the national landfill, just down the street from PICRC, features a large mural extolling the virtues of "3R" (reduce, reuse, recycle) for environmental preservation.

Palau is a really gorgeous place, and I'm so glad to see the Palauan people are preserving the environment that their economy thrives on. Pristine paradise indeed.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Combining forces

It started a little less than a year ago.

Hanny Rivera, a PhD student in WHOI's Biology department, gave a seminar. She presented her research on the connectivity of coral populations in Palau, a small archipelago in the middle of the Pacific. Based on her results, it seems there is very little connectivity between coral reefs in enclosed lagoons and outer reefs right outside the lagoons - the two populations don't mix. But there's something confusing about her results. The lagoons and outer reefs are right next to one another, and based on the speed and direction of the water flow, at least some coral larvae spawned in the lagoons should be able to make it to the outer reefs to settle. Some areas that should be well-connected based on the hydrodynamics had very different genetic signatures, and some areas that would be expected to be completely different were more closely-related genetically than expected. In short, the oceanography didn't match the genetic results, and so something else must be going on.

It may sound like a trivial question, but Palau is actually really unique. The corals in the lagoons are exposed to very warm water - warmer than the surrounding ocean - so they are adapted to warm temperatures and resistant to bleaching. It is well-documented that during the last few global coral bleaching events, the lagoon corals have been fine. As warm-water anomalies and coral bleaching events become more frequent and common across the world, a major question in coral conservation research is whether these resilient corals could help other coral reefs recover from bleaching by seeding them with larvae. If larvae spawned in an enclosed lagoon to stress-tolerant parents could settle on outer reefs and grow to adulthood, they would make the outer reefs more resistant to bleaching.

Following her seminar, Hanny fielded questions from the audience. "How do you explain the lack of connectivity?" one scientist asked. "Do you think that larvae from the lagoons don't make it out to the outer reefs to settle, or do you think they make it there but just die at a young age?"

Hanny shrugged. "Nobody knows. Nobody has researched that so far. I've studied the genetic patterns of adult corals, but nobody has examined the larvae and recruits."

A light bulb went on in my head. Studying larvae and recruits is what I do best, so I approached Hanny and one of her advisors immediately after the seminar. We should combine forces, I told them. Hanny has experience with coral genetics and working in Palau; I have experience studying larval dispersal and recruitment. Together, we could continue the research and answer a really important question. They agreed.

Hanny and I worked with our advisors to draft a grant proposal, which we submitted to a foundation that sponsors coral reef research. Our proposal was funded, so now...(drumroll, please)...we are in Palau!

Friends, I am absolutely stoked to be here. This project is my first time working on coral reefs, and it is the biggest project for which I have ever had a leadership role. Hanny and I will be out here for a couple weeks, with just each other and our four cases of gear to rely on. It is going to be a learning experience and an adventure for sure!

Stay tuned for tales from the field!