Showing posts from September, 2014

Two steps forward

The course of science is far from linear, but I'm sure that most of you know that already. When I met with Andrew today to continue work on our image analysis dataset, we ended up re-hashing and refining most of our ideas. I think we ended up in a better place than when we began, but it still means I'll have to spend a little extra time with the images. No problem - that's science. I'm significantly excited about this project, and now that we have a clear plan, I'm honestly tempted to stay up all night working on it. I've always been one to race head-long toward a goal. I am frustrated by tangents, and I despise distractions. I want to move forward, straight ahead, no stopping. One thing I've learned from Andrew so far is the value of moving a bit slower, of thinking about each step as I go along. Andrew is really good at brainstorming, and he's not afraid to play with a data set until he notices something interesting. He pursues meaningful tangents th

On top of the world

Ok, so my settlement plates can't be deployed until Monday. The way I see it, that means I could spend Sunday doing one of a few things: 1) Go "make pretty eyes" at the Navy ship captain and see if he'll move his boat. (For the record, this was someone else's idea, not mine.) 2) Pick away at data analysis. Bleh. 3) Compose music (see previous post) 4) Take advantage of the fact that I am in an extremely unique and beautiful part of the world, and go for a hike. I'll take Option #4. Peter put me in contact with another UNIS employee who has been going on a lot of hikes lately, so I got up the courage to ask her if I could join. She said yes, so I suited up in my best, most hard-core winter gear, and headed out. The rest of the story can only be explained in pictures. Basically, I climbed two mountains. In the Arctic. And it was awesome. The cluster of houses far below is Nybyen. Abandoned weather station Wild re

Midnight Sun

Apparently my video is too big for Blogger, so click on this link: Here's the third movement of my "Arctic" violin concerto that I just finished writing. I titled it "Midnight Sun" after the famous summer phenomenon whereby the sun never sets. It's actually about one specific night in 2012, the last night of a two-week research cruise in the Fram Strait, when two friends and I decided to sit up all night and watch the sun from the ship's helicopter deck. We wrapped ourselves in blankets and chatted about everything possible just to keep ourselves awake. The background photo in the video is one that I took of the sun that night. In the morning, we were rewarded with views of spectacular cliffs as the ship entered a fjord and arrived in Tromsø, Norway. The musical structure of this piece reflects the sun's pattern: it sank in the west, flirted with the northern horizon, and then came back up in the east. The notes of t


If the embedded video doesn't work, try this link: I just finished writing and am about to post the third movement of my"Arctic" violin concerto, but for the sake of chronology, I'll post the second movement now. (The first, if you missed it, is "Longyearbyen.") The second movement, "Molloy," was named for the Molloy Deep, the deepest point in the Fram Strait. I intended this piece to serve as the soundtrack to an ROV dive, as I wanted to capture the mystery, the loneliness, and the strangeness of the deep ocean. To be honest, I'm quite proud of how this piece turned out. I think that in a lot of ways, it wrote itself - like it was hanging somewhere in the air and merely chose me to put it on paper. I hope you'll agree it's not terrible.

Foiled by the Navy

"The best laid plans of mice and men Oft go awry" - "To a Mouse," poem by Robert Burns We tossed my settlement plates in the truck. Daniel and Peter put on their dry suits. We loaded tanks, boots, flippers, hardware, the communication cable. We commissioned someone from UNIS to serve as lineman. We drove out to the dock... ...and discovered that it was occupied by a Norwegian Navy ship. The Navy ship that delayed the start of my experiment. Alas. You're not allowed to dive next to military vessels. They're afraid of sabotage, and they need to keep their engines on to generate electricity and fresh water for those living aboard. We spoke to the captain - a man probably younger than all of us - and received the most polite "no" in the history of humanity. Because the conversation was in Norwegian, I actually thought it was a "yes" by everyone's body language - until someone translated for me. This doesn't mean my exper


My walk to and from UNIS every day could be the subject of an epic poem. Oh Muse, speak through me, That I may tell the tale Of a young adventurous scientist On a high Arctic island. Robed in goose down, she departs After a long day of work She strives toward one goal: A warm resting place At her home, the house of Nybyen. Treading up the gravel path, She reaches the city center Past shops of gear and three different inns Among other similar travelers, Faces barely visible, heads bent in the Wind Brave Kirstin marches on, continuing up the valley Uphill and against the Wind A distant whistle she hears Sirens to the musician's ear Tempting her off-course toward the mountainside The traveler stops to listen Spinning her body around to discern the origin Of that sweet, musical sound Like a chorus of flutes, but she Turns her face away, treading onward, uphill The Wind makes a second attempt To send determined Kirstin off-course Squealing like rusty pla

Poised and ready

Well, friends, we're almost there. My day started with a shopping trip with Peter, and believe it or not, we had to go to three different places to find all the nuts and bolts that we needed. No, that does not mean we shopped at competitive stores and chose the one with the best price; it means we had to chase the bolts down. We inquired at one place, and they said to go to their warehouse. We went to the warehouse, and they only had half of what we needed in stock. We ended up buying a box of nuts from the mechanic shop at the car dealership. Yes, that means Svalbard has a car dealership - only one, and there were three examples of the same truck on display in the showroom. Our lineman (well, linewoman) on the dock, holding the communication cable as Peter gets into the water. After getting all the necessary details worked out back at UNIS, it was time for a dive - a reconnaissance mission, if you will. Peter wanted to survey around the pier where my frames will be attache

Slow and steady

"I move slow and steady, But I feel like a waterfall" -"Slow and Steady" by Of Monsters and Men Well, friends, my project is coming along, slowly but surely. As you can imagine, things are a bit complicated in the Arctic. The big event of the day was picking up the underwater drill that will be used to bolt my settlement plates to their proper locations. It had just arrived from the mainland on a cargo ship. The drill is necessary because while some of my plates will be deployed on moorings, the majority of them will be bolted directly into the substrate - attached either to a cement pier or a vertical rock wall in the fjord. This drill, as you can imagine, is pretty intense. The technology is nothing spectacular, the drill being powered by compressed air from the divers' SCUBA tanks, but it's very heavy. Rusted out in parts. Gnarly. What impressed me most were the drill bits - all in varying sizes, with different tip shapes intended for different ma

Frosted world

When I woke up this morning, I looked outside and discovered a dusting of snow on the ground. I figured the temperature must have dropped because it was misting yesterday. I could hear the wind howling past my building. If I was anywhere else in the world, I would write next that winter had officially arrived, but I suppose "winter" is a relative term around here. In some ways, it's winter year-round - you know, being the Arctic and all - but in other ways, I know this is only the beginning. This isn't winter. This is barely even fall. The view out my window this morning. And I love it. My respect for Svalbard residents (Svalbardians?) increased during my walk to UNIS. I was being graciously carried along by the down-valley wind, and I had to stop myself from giggling at the grimacing faces of those headed the other way. Longyearbyen Skole (= school) is located up-valley, so the schoolkids were traveling both uphill and up-wind. Make no mistake: these kids a

This is a test.

As you are all hopefully aware by now, my main objective this week is to implement my settlement plate experiment with the help of SCUBA divers. A lot of things have to fall into place before we can conduct the actual dive, the first of which involved testing out some new equipment that one of the divers had recently purchased. After working at UNIS today processing data, meeting with various people, and listening to a few lectures, I headed out with the two divers for a test dive with their new equipment. Peter and Daniel, just before diving into Adventfjorden. (By the way, check out the view!) I've never been involved with SCUBA myself, so to see the preparations necessary for a dive was quite the learning experience for me. It took the guys a full half hour to suit up. Each of them had at least 3 layers of underclothes and then their dry suit on top. Once we got out to the dive site, a beach in Adventfjorden, it took them another half hour to adjust all their equipment a


If the embedded video doesn't work, try this link: It occurred to me that even if I can't post audio files, I can make audio files into videos to post. This piece is one I wrote in 2011 after my first time in Longyearbyen. I was only here for a few hours, passing through on my way to an expedition in Fram Strait, but I think the sentiment captured in the music is still valid for this high Arctic town 3 years later. This piece is for solo violin accompanied by string orchestra, and it is intended to be the first movement of a concerto. I've already written the second movement of the concerto, but I'm still working on the third. Maybe I'll find inspiration for the rest of the concerto this week!

Words fail me

I cannot sufficiently describe Svalbard. It is fresh; it is cold; it is rugged. It is bright pastel houses and snow-covered peaks. It is thrilling. I went for a walk after working at UNIS today, so I'll just let my photos speak for themselves. This island is pure, unadultered magic. Looking toward town, from the student housing Looking away from town "Downtown" UNIS is the angular brown building. This guy greets you as you enter the grocery store - the only one in town. Look! My outfit matches the houses!

Where the mountains slide into the sea

I'm in Svalbard! Friends, this week is really the entire reason why I'm in Norway in the first place, because I'm finally implementing my settlement plate experiment! I've ventured to one of the world's northernmost research stations to figure out what will grow in high Arctic fjords. To do this, I'm outplanting a series of square plastic plates, which I will recover in January and in September 2015. My view of Spitsbergen from the plane I landed in Longyearbyen about noon today, and let me tell you, it is an absolutely gorgeous place. Longyearbyen is the largest settlement of the Svalbard archipelago, located on the main island of Spitsbergen. The word "Spitsbergen" translates roughly to "mountain peaks," and if you check out the photo to the right, you'll see exactly what I mean. The entire island is composed of snow-covered peaks, which end abruptly at the coast. The mountains slide straight into the sea. The inside of UNIS.


There are some days that I wish I was an anthropologist. Or a sociologist. Or a linguist. People are just so darn fascinating. I was sitting out on the terrace with some of my housemates, just enjoying the sun, when one of them decided it was time to teach me Norwegian vocabulary. Their first choice: Epleslang. The fruits of my first venture into the criminal world. Epleslang is a Norwegian tradition that basically involves picking the apples from a tree that doesn't belong to you. You go after dark so as not to be seen, and you have to be quite stealthy - you know, when you're not giggling. I guess it's the Norwegian equivalent of teepeeing someone's house or going cow-tipping in the country. When night fell, my housemates insisted we do an Epleslang. My policy is to say yes to everything, right? Well, that means I went along - but seriously considered redefining my policy to include a legality clause. After our little adventure, my housemates informed me t

A thousand voices

Friends, I wish I could insert audio files into these blog posts, or that I had some way to adequately describe to you what I experienced this morning. It was nothing short of awesome. I walked into church and was surprised to see a full choir and chamber orchestra set up in front of the pews. The altar was moved from its normal position to the middle of the main aisle, amidst the congregation. It took a few seconds for me to register what was going on, but once I spotted a poster for the Norwegian Church Music Symposium and Organ Festival, it all made sense. I was in for a treat. The sanctuary was packed with people, much more than on a normal week. I've been pleasantly surprised by the number of people attending my church in Stavanger anyway, and according to one of my housemates, Stavanger lies in the so-called Bible Coast. There is something so powerful, so validating about being surrounded by other people in church. It reminds me that I'm not alone in my faith. The

The little things

There are certain things that you can only learn by experience - the little things that make a place unique. Here's a list of interesting details I've discovered so far in Stavanger: 1) Brown cheese. It's made from whey, and the lactose (milk sugar) is caramelized, making the resulting product sweet. It looks like cheese; it has the texture of cheese, but it doesn't taste like cheese. It goes best on fresh, hot waffles. 2) Another food item: fish on bread. And eggs on bread. In fact, anything on bread. I've seen many of my colleagues do this at lunch: you take a piece of nice bread, then layer it with any sort of animal product you like. Slices of cheese, brown cheese, sliced hard-boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, mackerel in tomato sauce. I tried that last one a few days ago, and I must admit, it's actually pretty good. You have to have a dark bread to complement the slight sweetness of the tomato. My favorite combination so far is smoked salmon on bread - now t

Lover of the light

It won't always be like this, they said. Someday it will rain, they said. Take advantage of the good weather while we have it, they said. Well let me tell you something: I did. Walking across Stavanger City Bridge This afternoon, I decided to go for a walk in the area surrounding Stavanger. I had plenty of time to explore, even if I got lost, so I got ambitious and headed to the bridge over the fjord. There are pedestrian paths on both sides, so it wasn't difficult to stay away from the cars. I think the only way to describe what I did today is "urban hiking." I was actually hoping to make it far enough out of the city that I would be really hiking, but I was actually in neighborhoods the whole time. Numerous suburbs surround Stavanger, but the landscape is still interesting enough to make the trek worth it. In the space of a few hours, I crossed three bridges, set foot on four islands, saw probably eight marinas, four sailboats, and two ferries. I'm

The skies I'm under

"Hold me fast 'Cause I'm a hopeless wanderer And I will learn, I will learn to love the skies I'm under" - "Hopeless Wanderer" by Mumford and Sons What, I ask you, is an American scientist in Norway supposed to do on a sunny Saturday in September? Go exploring, of course! My friend, Ingeborg, who grew up in Stavanger, knows all of the cool spots around here, so when she suggested we go for a walk on her favorite beach, I was definitely game. Ingeborg at Solastranden I didn't realize until I got into her car that I was wearing a T-shirt from London, a headband from Oregon, carrying a sweatshirt from Vancouver and a bag from Bremerhaven, Germany. Quite the international mosaic! We drove for about 20 minutes to a beach south of Stavanger, in a suburb called Sola. I never expected such a beautiful beach to be so close to my city! The water was crystal clear blue, and the temperature was just perfect. At one point, Ingeborg pointed out toward t

Getting lighter

"I feel like I'll be another 20 lbs lighter by the end of this year too, except maybe in my soul too this time." - Katie Herring The quote above comes from a friend of mine. Well, I'd like to consider her a friend. We don't actually know each other that well, but we've been in each other's lives forever. She is without question the best writer I know. This line, from one of her own blog posts, occurred to me last night as I was biking home. I was chugging my way up a hill and noticed how light my backpack was. I'm used to carrying massive loads of stuff - laptop, planner, lunch, a notebook - to work and back, but here in Stavanger, I don't need any of that. My laptop lives at the institute because I can use other devices at home. I don't need to pack lunches because I always eat in the IRIS canteen. I had even left my notebook behind because I knew I wasn't going to think about science once I got back to my house. This period of my li


Call me crazy, but quite often, the hardest part of my day is leaving work. My brain gets started on a train of thought, and it's so incredibly hard to stop. Most of the time, I have to finish a major task before I can feel that the work day is actually over - and then I'll start planning out what I'm going to accomplish the following day! Today was one of those days, and let me tell you, it rocked. After my meeting with Andrew yesterday, I had a notebook full of ideas to pursue and quite a long to-do list. I started with the simplest task, then flowed into the next, reviewing my data set each time. Naturally, as I went through the data again, I started noticing things about it. This lead me on a short tangent, then another, until I ended up answering a completely different question than I started with. I didn't realize until the only other person in the building took off for the night that I had been in a deep state of concentration for several hours. I made some

When I grow up

From my comfortable white chair at the kitchen table, I reach around behind my laptop to grab my water glass. A bowl of chips, 2 laptops, a thick notebook, a hard drive, and several loose-leaf scientific papers are strewn across the table in front of me. To my left, Andrew, my host/adviser/collaborator/mentor, swirls a pen in the air about an inch above one of the few remaining blank pages in my notebook. His face has an expression of deep thought. I think he's trying to explain something to me, but he's started about 5 sentences in as many minutes and not finished any of them. I take a sip of water. "What if we tried this?" he finally asks, and in an instant, we take off on another intellectual adventure, marching down uncharted passages of data analysis. We spent the better part of the afternoon like this. By the end of it, we had come up with three or four solid, decent ideas for how to analyze my data set. Well, to be more accurate, Andrew came up with three o

Learn from the inside

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." - Mark Twain Whenever I travel, I try to not just observe but become integrated in the culture around me. I imagine what life would be like if I had been born there, and I try to adopt the local cultural norms. I call this "learning from the inside."  As a rule of thumb, I say "yes" to everything I'm offered - local food, weekend excursions, participating in traditions, even meeting friends' parents. I learn more if I have an open attitude.  My housemates and I at dinner That said, last night was quite the cultural experience. I told you before that one of my housemates is an expert in wine, so he put on a wine tasting for all of us. He taught us how to properly evaluate

Swords in the rock

Today I decided to explore one of Stavanger's best-known memorials, the Sverd i fjell (Swords in the rock). I had noticed the symbol of three swords in various different places downtown, and it's actually the symbol of my institute, IRIS. Sverd i fjell, Stavanger A little google-ing told me that Sverd i fjell is a memorial to the unification of Norway under one crown, that of Harald Fairhair, in 872. The tallest sword in the memorial stands for Harald, the victorious king, and the two smaller swords stand for the petty kings he defeated. The memorial also symbolizes peace, because the swords are stuck in the stone, never to be used again. I'd like to go on about how cool it is to be in a country that can pinpoint its founding at 872 AD, but it's a bit more complicated than that. I'm learning that the Scandinavian countries were unified with and possessed by each other in various combinations throughout history. Norway was in fact owned by Denmark for about 4

Sing me a song

"Sing me a love song and then Let your words remind me who I am" - "Sing me a love song" by BarlowGirl Living in Norway has been a different experience for me primarily because I don't speak the local language. When I moved to Germany in 2011, I was basically already fluent in German, so I could make my way around and blend in pretty well. In Norway, I blend in for sure with my dark blonde hair, blue eyes, and Scandinavian first name, but it's slightly frustrating for me to have to ask others around me to switch to English all the time. I've picked up a few words here and there; I can figure out what they mean from signs. I'm trying to learn how to pronounce Norwegian words correctly so that when I do pick up more vocabulary and syntax, I don't sound like an idiot from another planet. To be honest, one of the hardest words for me to say is the name of my street, Kirkebakken, because each of the 4 K's in the word are pronounced different

Ties that bind

"Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart" Proverbs 3:3 I love getting letters - old-school, hand-written letters on stationary from the other side of the world. Today, I received a letter from a friend in the U.S., and it was the most beautiful hand-written memorandum I have ever received. The letter was soaked in gratitude, encouragement, and tales of her recent adventure. Even the envelope was covered with her drawings and favorite quotes! I was floored by her thoughtfulness. My new bracelet (left) next to ones from Portland, OR (middle) and Auckland, NZ (right) When I opened the letter, there was a hand-made yarn bracelet inside in our school colors, green and gold. She must have noticed that I wear ankle bracelets, and I'm thankful to have another one, especially from a good friend like her. I started wearing ankle bracelets in college as reminders of places I had been. I can tell you where

A story behind every door

I live in the coolest place ever. I don't just mean Stavanger; I mean specifically my house. It feels a bit like a college dorm, except that we're all young professionals and go to bed early. Tonight, I didn't get dinner until 9:30 because I spent a good chuck of time talking to one of my housemates, then another, then another. W is from the middle of Norway, and he's really interested in wine and spirits. Not just drinking them - tasting them, knowing their history, how they were made, how they were grown. He's participated in the Norwegian Championship for wine, and for one event in the competition, he had to taste a wine and tell what region it was from, what grape it was made from, and other ridiculously detailed bits of information. For one of the wines, he guessed it was from a town in France directly adjacent to the actual origin. He was off by less than 100 miles. Who does that?! And oh yeah, he's also trained as a professional waiter. Then there'

Bring on the science

"Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk" - Title of a Broadway musical Well, it's about time I got some real work done. I biked to IRIS this morning, settled into my office, and evaluated what I had to do for the day. I actually spent most of the day processing a data set in preparation for a meeting with Andrew. When I was first introduced to him in 2012, Andrew gave me a hard drive with photographs from the bottoms of fjords. He knew I was interested in the organisms that love on isolated rocks, so he thought I could analyze the isolated rock communities seen in the photographs. By now, I've made my way through all of the footage and created a matrix of numbers to represent what animals live where. Now it's just a matter of figuring out how to statistically analyze the data and create meaning out of it. Every data set has a story to tell, and we just have to handle it in the right way to get it to speak. I've been really impressed by the commun