Friday, March 30, 2018

Picture book

A "typical" foraminiferan, Cibicides
, photographed under
a dissecting microscope. 
"Here, try looking through this," my advisor, Lauren, instructed me, as she handed me a large gray book. I read the cover: Foraminiferal genera and their classification. Sounds promising, I thought.

I've been trying to identify some of the organisms on my recruitment panels that I collected from the Arctic deep sea last summer. Most of the animal taxa I was able to identify myself (sponges and sea lilies and the like), but there is a whole other group of organisms on the panels that I'm not so good at identifying: the foraminiferans.

The name is a mouthful, so you can just call them forams. They're single-celled organisms that are more common than you think. They live in the water column and on the seafloor, and their shells form important geological structures. Have you ever seen the star-shaped sand on the beaches of Okinawa, Japan? Those sand grains are really foraminiferan shells. Ever heard of the White Cliffs of Dover? 100% ancient foram. They make great fossils. In fact, the majority of people who study foraminiferans are not marine biologists but paleoceanographers. These scientists collect cores of deep-sea sediment and analyze the forams in the different sediment layers to learn about Earth's climate at various points in the past. My best friend is one.
A page showing different kinds of forams.

To me, foraminiferans are like modern dance. I spent most of my childhood learning the classical forms of ballet, so by the time I encountered modern in high school, the movements felt strange, and they all looked the same. I had a very hard time creating the shapes with my body that the teacher was looking for because every step, every phrase felt like anti-dance. It is also extremely difficult for me to tell foraminiferans apart because they all fall into the same category: Tiny Things I Don't Recognize.

As I flipped through the photographic volume my advisor had loaned me, I saw several figures that looked just like my specimens. I wrote down their names, but to be honest, it's hard for me to tell if they actually are the same. I'm not familiar with the key characteristics in foram taxonomy. So many of the species have spiral-shaped, multi-chamber bodies that I'm having a hard time telling one spiral from the next.

One of the forams I need identified
The good news is that I don't have to work entirely on my own. Science is a collaborative venture, and I happen to know a few people who identify forams for a living - my dear friend, Stefanie, for example. I also wrote to a prominent foram biologist in the U.K., who I had met on a research cruise a few years ago. The whole time we were at sea, he and his team were collecting manganese nodules from the seafloor and identifying the forams on them. I trust he'll be able to help.

In the meantime, if any of you want to take a crack at identifying my forams, speak up! I'll just be here, flipping through an 848-page scientific picture book, trying to figure out which species look most like my samples.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The pond

Waddling over the gravel-covered terrain, I made my way toward the water line. I was wearing my dry suit and carrying a steel tank on my back. Two regulators dangled over my right shoulder, and I carried my fins in my left hand. I was diving at Hathaway Pond.

The entrance to Hathaway Pond
The pond is not the best dive site in the world, but it's easy to access and usually not too cold. We use it as a training site, a place to go on the weekends or when the marine dive charters shut down for the winter. The bottom is covered in sand and stringy algae. Small stickleback fish dart around. There is a training platform, a shipwreck, and a sunken car on the bottom. It's a good place to practice and keep our skills sharp.

It had been several months since my last dive, and I could tell. I had to go more slowly as I assembled my equipment, checking everything twice to make sure I didn't make a mistake. This summer, I'll be diving a lot, including for a research study I got funded, so it's important for me to stay fresh and keep on top of my skills. It's especially important that I get more dives in my dry suit, because that adds a new complicating factor to my dives.

Besides the necessity of practice, my brain was itching to get underwater. The sub-surface environment is peaceful, and breathing underwater calms me down in a way that few other activities can. Diving is at the same time meditative and enthralling. It makes my heart sing. I was glad for the chance to dive at the pond and look forward to getting back underwater soon.

The Ninth

Hands hovering by his sides, the conductor made tiny flicks with his baton. The second violins played their notes with him in time, bowing quickly and quietly across their strings. Their minor chord had the same texture as leaves rustling in a breeze. I raised my violin to my shoulder and placed my first note, a quick E followed by an A. It was quiet, almost imperceptible. After a short pause, I placed two more notes, listening to the rhythm of the seconds on my left while watching the concertmaster to my right. Two more notes, then two more, then a roll of the timpani, a crescendo, and the whole orchestra broke out with a fortissimo melody. We were off!

This weekend, my orchestra performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It was an incredible experience. The Ninth is an iconic work and a huge undertaking - a real once-in-a-lifetime experience to perform - which we used to commemorate the orchestra's tenth anniversary. If Beethoven had merely written his last symphony for orchestra (strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion, as most symphonies are), it would have still been a large, complex work. But the composer went one step further. The last movement, the famous "Ode to Joy," calls for a full orchestra, plus a choir and four vocal soloists. It takes a half hour to perform and fills the hall with sound. It is a wonderful piece of music.

Orchestra, choir, and soloists performing the final movement.
Photo by Carl Kaiser.
The Ninth Symphony is also steeped in legend. Prior to composing it, Beethoven had become a bit of a recluse, living alone in Vienna and slowly losing his hearing. The best theory is that he suffered from lead poisoning, but by the time he set out to write his last symphony, Beethoven was completely deaf. As the story goes, he conducted the symphony's premier in Vienna but did not hear the cheers of the audience until someone turned him around to face the crowd.

From the first violin section, I had a front-row seat to the solo soprano as she sang. I heard the oboes and clarinets over my left shoulder and the cellos across the room. I sawed away at my violin, watching notes fly past me on the page. As we reached the finale, I used more momentum than muscle to keep my bow moving back and forth and keep up with the blitz-like pace. I reached my highest note - an A far up in the stratosphere of my instrument - and kept moving, then landed solidly on three D Major chords. The conductor's arm flew up in the air as he marked the last beat, and the sound rang out in the hall.

I am deeply grateful that I live in a town with such a high-quality community orchestra, and I relish the chance to perform the Ninth. It was wonderful.

Monday, March 19, 2018


"I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by." - Douglas Adams

Friends, when I started this blog, part of my motivation was to give you an honest inside look into the life of a scientist. I wanted you to know it's not all lab coats and pipette tips (personally, I wear rubber boots more often than anything). I wanted you to see that science is community-based, not a solitary activity, and that the pursuit of knowledge transcends borders. I wanted to share with you my adventures. But I also want you to know that science involves a lot of writing.

A lot. Of writing.

You might remember the five-figure word count I achieved when penning my dissertation. I've told tales of writing, submitting, and revising scientific manuscripts before. I've shared with you my joy and pride when one gets published. Writing papers about research is a huge part of scientific life.

What I haven't told you as much about is the process of writing research proposals. This is partly because proposal-writing is a new element in my career that I'm just starting to explore. Research requires money. And money is given in grants. So in this business, we're constantly writing grant proposals.

I've had several proposal deadlines "whoosh" past in the last month, and I've done my best to meet each of them. As a post-doc, I'm not ready to spearhead big proposals yet, but I'm getting my feet wet and building my confidence in the meantime. I've submitted proposals to private foundations and WHOI internal competitions. So far, I've been successful twice, which is a great feeling. Each proposal I submit is for slightly more money and slightly more research, so I'm building up to bigger grants. We'll see what projects I can get funded!

Monday, March 5, 2018


Friends, I have been radio silent for a while. A whole month - my longest gap since starting this blog. It feels strange in one way because I'm so used to posting, but it feels surprising in another way because the last month has gone by in a flash. I could swear I just got home from Antarctica last week. No way it's been a whole month since I last posted.

February always seems short (having only 28 days and all), but this one was particularly blitz-like. My first week home from Antarctica, I went straight back to work with proposals, papers, and orchestra practice - I didn't even have a chance to recover from jet lag until the next weekend. Then it was more proposals, a visit with family, and finding time to spend with friends before they left town or moved away. I've finally gotten past my February deadlines, but I find myself staring spring in the face. I have more deadlines coming up and need to start planning summer field work already. The wheel of chaos is turning at full speed!

Besides my metaphorical whirlwind of a month, Cape Cod was struck with a literal storm over the past few days. A Nor'easter brought gale-force winds, rain from all directions, and a dusting of snow. Carl and I were fortunate enough to only lose power for a few minutes, but some of our friends were out the whole weekend. Whole trees lay across the road, blocking traffic on a main thoroughfare just a half mile from our house. Our phones kept chiming with updates from the institution. Thankfully, everything is back up and running today, but the wind is still blowing in gusts.

I'm heading into March with an optimistic attitude. The storm may not be 100% over, but I am pushing through. It should be a good spring.