Saturday, December 23, 2017

Anti-hibernation

"Humans were never meant to hibernate"
- message on a T-shirt

I waddled across the snow-covered dock, laden with gear. I was wearing my dry suit and had a SCUBA tank on my back. A regulator and two waterproof lights dangled over my shoulders. On my hips, I carried an extra 10 lb of lead, plus 2 lb on each ankle. I already had my mask and gloves on, but I was carrying my fins. Slowly, I shuffled my feet through the snow, keeping my balance on the wintery pier. The cold air felt good in my lungs. 

Carl had told me to get in the water as quickly as possible so my regulator didn't freeze up again - we had climbed out to fix it once already. As I approached the edge of the instrument well, I lifted one leg over the wooden barrier, then the other. I leaned on a storage bin to slide on my fins. I shuffled to the edge, put the regulator in my mouth, and...

SPLASH! The 41° F water surrounded me. I could feel the cold, salty sting on my neck and my lips, the only parts of my skin that were exposed. I bobbed to the surface, looked up, and waited for Carl to make his entry. Another splash later, we were headed down the descent line. I held onto the white rope as the water around me grew darker. I checked my dive computer on my left arm. 15 feet, then 30, then 50. The lights dangling off of my shoulder clip illuminated the seafloor. I could see rocks and a folding chair on the seafloor. We swam east first, then west. It's dark under the WHOI pier, so we made sure to follow the guide lines strung between the pilings. It's the only way to keep your orientation. Carl was in front of me, but he turned around every few minutes to make sure I was ok. He signaled by making a big "O" with his dive light, then waited until I did the same. The whole time, I kept playing with my dry suit, filling it at pressure to stay comfortable, warm, and neutrally buoyant. I made sure to keep my feet below me so they didn't fill with air. Dry suit diving is a skill, and I still need more practice. Eventually, I started to get chilly, and my air tank was at half its starting pressure, so I signaled to Carl that I wanted to turn around. Nodding, he turned himself underwater and headed back to the piling with the descent line. We found the folding chair on the seafloor and signaled to each other to go up. Raising my left arm, I dumped air out of my suit so I didn't overinflate as the pressure lessened. 

I absolutely love coming up the piling at the end of a dive because I get to see all the animals living on it. On the way down, I'm usually concentrating on other things, checking my computer, clearing my ears. But on the way up, I'm already relaxed; my dive reflex is working and my breathing is slow. I slowly let air out of my suit and watch the animals through my bubbles. There's not a lot of biodiversity on the pier in the winter, but I remember seeing Didemnum vexillum, an invasive tunicate that forms squishy pink mats. There were also a few colonies of Astrangia poculata, a coldwater coral native to New England. 

As we reached the surface, I remember feeling the salty waves splashing my mouth where my regulator had been. I tugged off my fins and climbed the ladder, then shuffled back to the dive locker. Carl settled into one of the giant wooden chairs in the corner, but I was too adrenaline-filled to sit. I met his eyes and nodded. It was an awesome dive. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

One giant desk

Friends, I am so behind. I've been out of touch for over two weeks, but with good reason, I assure you. I have been swamped with work - proposal writing, paper revising, intern mentoring, dive training, and general running around like my hair is on fire.

Since I last wrote, I attended the DeSSC meeting (pronounced "desk," short for Deep Submergence Science Committee). Twice a year, the major players in deep submergence in the United States get together and talk about the future of their work. The group includes engineers in charge of the major vehicles (Alvin, Jason, Sentry), managers for the programs that fund them (mostly NSF), and the scientists who consistently use them. At one of the meetings each year, there's also a New User Program, designed to introduce students, postdocs, and young faculty to the vehicles. New Users have a chance to speak with the program managers about funding opportunities, ask the vehicle engineers about how to best use them, and connect with scientists who could turn into advisors or collaborators.

I'm not entirely sure if I count as a "new" user, having been to sea with Alvin, Jason, and Sentry each once before, but I was accepted into the program. It was a very worthwhile weekend for me (yes, the meeting was on a Saturday and Sunday). I got to network with some of the major players in deep-sea research, tell them my ideas, and discuss directions for future work. I made contact with new collaborators and strategically chose my place at dinner right next to an NSF program manager.

There was one moment over the weekend that really stood out to me, mostly because it was such a shock. Early on Sunday morning, as everyone was getting settled into their seats, I spotted my friend, Cliff, across the room. We've been on two long-haul cruises together, and I really enjoy working with him, so I went up to say hi. At some point in the conversation, Cliff's advisor, who was sitting next to him, turned to me and introduced himself. I actually didn't need the introduction - the advisor was a prominent deep-sea biologist with a distinct appearance. I knew exactly who he was. I was familiar with his work, but what I didn't realize is that he was also familiar with mine. He even used the words "big fan." I was floored.

By the end of the day, I had both men's contact information and an invitation to visit their institution. It is certainly not every day that I'm approached by a well-respected researcher who wants to work with me, so I was on cloud nine. I'm very excited to see what will come of the partnership.

The DeSSC meeting was a good chance for me to be present in the deep-sea community, and I made the most of the opportunity!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Stay Puft Marshmallow Woman

"Stay Puft Kirstin!" my fiancĂ© beamed as he attached the hose to my suit. He turned on the compressed air tank at the other end and pushed the button on my sternum to inflate the suit. It filled with air, bubbling out around me until I looked like a marshmallow woman. 

"This feels so weird!" I exclaimed, feeling my new full-body garment swell with air. My fiancĂ© released the inflator button and stood back to look at me. 

"I think it fits," he announced. "Now raise your left arm." 


Lifting my elbow, I heard air rush out of the dump valve on the suit's left side. I slowly deflated. 


Friends, as many of you know, I learned to SCUBA dive this year. It's a great way to access habitats between the intertidal and the deep sea, explore the biodiversity around me, and get outdoors. It's my new favorite thing. Well, diving in New England is complicated by declining water temperatures in winter. Below about 50° F, it's unsafe to be underwater in just a wetsuit, so we have to use drysuits to stay insulated and warm. They're durable, thick, full-body suits that keep you insulated from the cold water around you. You're completely covered and sealed off from the water except for your head and hands.

In my (deflated) dry suit after
a recent dive. Photo by Carl Kaiser.

The catch? Drysuits are completely sealed, 
so you're basically diving in a bag of air. The air between the suit and your body compresses at depth. Water pressure increases rapidly as you descend - adding about 1 atmosphere of pressure for every 10 m (33 ft). A drysuit that feels fine at the surface will squeeze your body at depth. 

To counteract the squeezing effect, we add air into the suit. Every drysuit has a hose attached from your air tank to an inflator valve on your chest. When you push the button on the valve, air rushes into the suit. You can empty the suit by lifting your left arm and letting air rush out of the exhaust valve there. 

Let me tell you, friends, feeling a drysuit inflate around you is a very strange feeling. Underwater, it always felt like a relief - by the time I hit the inflator button on my chest, my suit was pretty tight, so it felt just like a release of pressure over my whole body. On the surface, though, I don't even know what I could compare it to. 


I did my first two drysuit training dives yesterday, and I had a fun time getting oriented to the suit. Every time I inflated it at depth, I could feel air rushing into different parts of the suit, equalizing under pressure. One of things to watch out for when diving dry is that your feet can fill with air. If you accidentally get your feet too high underwater, all the air in your suit rushes to your booties. The extra buoyancy can pull your feet even further upward, and if you're not careful, you can rocket to the surface upside-down. I never had an accident, but on my second training dive, I did manage to get my feet above my head. I grabbed onto a guide line under the WHOI pier, where I was diving, to hold myself near the seafloor, and the two instructors who were with me helped me wrestle my feet back down. There is a technique to solve foot-inflation problems yourself by somersaulting underwater and raising your left arm to dump air out. I practiced the somersaults in midwater at the end of the dive, and after a couple times, I had it down. I was grateful for the patience of the two instructors as they helped me learn to manage my gas volumes.


I'm excited to keep practicing in my drysuit and especially to use it for research projects. Winter cannot stop me!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Blowing in the wind

"How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?...
The answer is blowing in the wind"
- "Blowing in the wind" by Bob Dylan

Ah, the age-old question of life. One that every scientist seeks to answer. The great mystery of research: how many proposals must a postdoc write before she gets funding?

Friends, science is all about grants. My current funding is due to run out in the spring, and so I'm currently in application mode. Well, I suppose I'm always in application mode, but now it's just with a little more urgency. Every scientist goes through this. In order to get a project (and their salary) funded, they have to write a proposal. You draft a plan for your project, write an introduction, list the important scientific questions, outline your methods, propose a budget, and then submit the whole thing to a funding agency. Some grants are funded, but the majority are not. So far this year, I've had two fellowship applications and two grants get turned down and two grants accepted. Frustratingly, the two accepted grants do not contain any salary support, so I have money to do the project I proposed but no money to get paid with. Ah, the irony.

I've compared postdocs to freelancers before, and I still believe that it's true. The postdoc period of a scientist's career is tumultuous, with employment being based on short, project-specific contracts. Some postdocs have to move to new cities or institutions for their contracts, uprooting their life every year or two. So in addition to my grant proposals, I'm applying for "real" jobs to end the chaotic postdoc period. Ideally, I want to be a staff scientist at a research institution or a professor at a university. (For the record, even if I get hired into one of these positions, I'll still have to write grant proposals; I'll just have the security of institutional funding to fall back on if I fail.) I'm casting applications out into the world like seeds into the wind - well, if every seed is a 10-page packet summarizing my life's work thus far. It's nerve-wracking and time-consuming and all-around stressful. We'll see what, if anything, comes of my efforts. I'll keep you posted.

No words

"The heart is hard to translate
It has a language of its own
It talks in tongues and quiet sighs
In prayers and proclamations 
In the grand days of great men and the smallest of gestures
In short shallow gasps...
All of my stumbling phrases never amounted to anything worth this feeling...
Words were never so useful
So I was screaming out a language that I never knew existed before"
- "All this and heaven too" by Florence and the Machine

Rolling my green suitcase beside me, I walked through the sliding glass doors. I spotted him immediately. He was standing behind the waist-high barrier in the international arrivals hall, waiting for me. He was wearing black dress pants and a blue button-down shirt, holding a bouquet of orange and red flowers. 

I quickened my pace as I crossed the linoleum floor. By the time I got to him, I was at risk of breaking into a jog. He opened his arms and wrapped them around me, the bouquet in his left hand colliding with my backpack. I could feel his scruffy beard against my cheek. I was home.

"I missed you," he said.

"Me too," I agreed, pulling back out of the hug to meet his deep blue eyes. "I'm really glad with where our relationship is right now."

"Actually, along those lines..." He took a step back from me and pulled a small black box out of his pocket. He dropped to one knee and looked up at me with sparkling blue eyes and a gleeful grin.

"Kirstin, will you marry me?"

I responded immediately with an enthusiastic yes, but I think there were plenty of exclamations and explicatives and a couple squeals in there too. Honestly, I don't remember. It was a bunch of nonsense. Some people in a nearby seating area cheered.

What I do remember clearly is being overcome. My right leg started shaking, with my heel tapping into the ground repeatedly at high speed. I could barely stand, and I could barely breathe. I felt like I was going to cry and run a marathon all at once. I was exhausted and overjoyed and...engaged.

The song written above has been on my mind ever since, cycling through my brain over and over. I just can't seem to get the lyrics out of my head, because Florence Welch captured exactly what my words cannot say. All of my stumbling phrases never amounted to anything worth this feeling. It has a language of its own. I am going to spend the rest of my life with my all-time favorite human, and there are no words to describe this.


One of Carl's relatives took this photo of us a few days later.