Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Benthic brotherhood: part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World religion day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Monday, November 20, 2017

Misty city

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Grand tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 17, 2017

Parallel universe

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

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

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

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

Benthic brotherhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Qingdao in pictures

Downtown waterfront

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

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

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

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

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

Seen from the First Institute of Oceanography pier