Sunday, May 13, 2018

Graves Light

Kristina rolled onto her side and peered back at me. She crossed her arms over one another across her chest and slowly drifted forward in the current. In that position, with her black drysuit and neoprene hood, she looked very much like an otter. I giggled at the thought of her cracking urchin shells on her chest with a rock.

I beat my own fins and swam forward to join her. The seafloor beneath us was covered in boulders - giant, impossibly heavy rocks that played host to amazing biodiversity. I kept running into rocks throughout the dive, not because I was struggling to control my buoyancy (this dive was the first time I actually have felt in full control of my buoyancy in my drysuit), but because I was too curious about what was living on the stones. I would hover over one, exhale to sink, and get my face as close to the organisms as my mask would allow. There were giant ribbons of kelp rippling in the water. Every rock was covered in thin, branching strands of red algae, and attached to the algal fronds were ascidians, or sea squirts. One of the species in particular caught my eye. It was white and had very small zooids (small individuals in the colony). It reminded me of Didemnum vexillum, an invasive sea squirt that I'll have to collect for a project later this summer. I concluded that it must be Didemnum albidum, the sister species that is native to New England. It lived in small blotches on fronds of red algae. I made a mental note that the easiest way to collect Didemnum specimens would be to just rip up bits of the algae. That could help during my project later this year.

Elsewhere on the rocks, Kristina and I noticed numerous small black objects, again clinging to the red algae. We both stopped swimming for a second and hovered there, placing one hand each on the rock to steady ourselves in the current. We debated what the black things were in a way that only SCUBA divers can. Speech was precluded by the presence of a regulator in each of our mouths, so we used hand signals. I shrugged at her to ask "What are they?" We each took a look. We exchanged signals for "clam?" and "I don't know." Then Kristina opened her hand and wiggled it like a fish swimming out of a cave. I had no idea what she meant, so we moved on. Back on the surface, with speech to our aid, she clarified she had meant to say "egg." I actually believe the tiny things were blue mussels, Mytilus edulis. They were all gaping, as mussels often do when feeding, with their fleshy insides and siphons exposed to the current. The ubiquity of adult shells strewn on the seafloor indicated that M. edulis certainly occurs at the site, and the little guys may have been this year's recruits.

Altogether, Kristina and I did two dives at Graves Light, a lighthouse on a rocky island that marks the entrance to Boston Harbor. It was a marvelous day. Every time I go out diving, especially if it's on a small boat, I go through the same series of thoughts. First, I am nervous for the dive and make sure I have all of my gear no less than 15 times. I am hot, queasy, and uncomfortable on the boat and start to ask myself why I ever bother to dive at all. I tug at my neck seal and gripe at my weights and get frustrated by the number of things that snag on my straps (SCUBA gear is not comfortable to wear on surface.) But then, as soon as I am underwater, ever negative thought melts away. My mammalian dive reflex kicks in, my pulse slows down, my breaths lengthen, and I am mesmerized by the seafloor beneath me. Submerged habitats in New England have about the same level of biodiversity and fill the same function for me as the intertidal did in Oregon. It is where I go do decompress, to re-focus, to remember why I fell in love with the ocean in the first place.

On our second dive, Kristina and I again swam along the rocky seafloor, but we ventured a little farther than before. We found an area with even larger boulders and a sheer rock wall that rose from 15' depth to the surface. We ventured out over the sand a bit, too, and what we found there was a most impressive sight. Northern moon snails (Euspira heros) crawled across the sand with their fleshy, pale purple feet extended in a radius around their shells. I had always heard about moon snails but never seen them in person. Hovering there, watching the graceful mollusks glide along the sand, I felt like an alien visitor to another world. I could survey the planet's life forms from low altitude, but I was incapable of staying in their world for long.
A quintessential post-dive photo. Kristina still has her hood
on and is giving the "OK" symbol (used frequently underwater).
One of my braids has fallen out and my face is sun-kissed, but
we are euphoric. Graves Light is in the background.

Eventually, we began to get cold, and we were running out of gas. We found our way back to the boat's anchor, let air out of our suits and buoyancy compensators, and swam for the surface. I could feel the pressure release in my ears as we rose, not unlike during take-off in an airplane. We rolled onto our backs at the surface and paddled to the boat - now mimicking otter behavior almost perfectly. I took my gear off and settled down on the deck. The post-dive haze is a marvelous feeling, equal parts satisfaction, comfort, and euphoria.

We had two excellent dives to the bottom of the ocean. It was an awesome day. 

Construction day: part 4

Those white tubes are the casings for my larval traps, laying
in the lab's fume hood until their PVC glue dries. 
Friends, some of you may remember that last year, I spent a lot of time building larval traps to be deployed on moorings in the Arctic. It was a long process that required a lot of planning, figuring out, improvisation, and, ultimately, power tools. Well, I am embarking on a similar journey this year, with one key difference: this time, I know what I'm doing. I have my design for the larval traps all sorted out, so I can crank through the construction process and have the joy of just building the things.

To be honest, it's very satisfying to spend a day in the shop. After all the days I spend in my office, it's a welcome change to slice and grind and drill things. I love washing the dirt off of my hands at the end of the day.

I'm going much faster this year than last, which is good, because it's already May. My samplers need to be in Germany in June to be loaded on a ship for deployment. I am turning out samplers like a machine. It will take a lot of work, but I'm sure I can meet the deadline!

Monday, May 7, 2018

In print

Friends, I'm proud to announce that another one of my scientific papers has been published. This paper has been a long time in the making. I collected the data during my PhD, way back in the summers of 2014 and 2015. I built moorings from concrete blocks, attached fouling panels to them, and deployed them off of the Oregon coast to see what would grow. I had high expectations, but the project was plagued by misfortune. I struggled with seasickness every time I went out on the boat to visit my moorings. Cancelled or delayed trips meant my blocks stayed out much longer than I intended. Even after all the trouble I went through in deployment and recovery, my panels were pretty much just colonized by barnacles. It was disappointing data.

I really struggled with the analysis. None of my hypotheses proved to be correct, and it felt like nothing in the project could go right. But things started to turn around when I talked to an oceanographer at WHOI. Together, we realized that the patterns in barnacle recruitment that I observed were influenced by the flow of water around my study sites. It was a slow process, but my project started to turn around.

Eventually, that oceanographer and I wrote a paper about our findings. It was reviewed and accepted by the journal Estuarine, Coastal, and Shelf Science. At long last, I get to see my work in print! You can download the PDF here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272771417303773

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The sugar shack

The sugar shack
We turned off the country road and pulled into dirt parking lot. "We're here!" declared Julie, "the sugar shack!"

I stepped out of the van and scanned around me. The first thought in my mind was, "Ok, this is what I expected Canada to be like." I was standing on a sloping hill. To my right was a wooden cabin with several kegs on the sprawling front porch. Two meat smokers vented silver plumes out front. I could smell bacon and fresh air. Behind me, a stand of maple trees was entangled with bright blue tubing - a capillary network funneling their sap into a processing center. Sugar shack, indeed. 

Sap tubes strung between the maple trees near the sugar shack
The sugar shack was the reason I had come to Montréal. My friend, Julie, had raved about it to me when I saw her in November. Her vivid descriptions of the delicious and exotic food spoke to my inner foodie, so I knew I had to try it out. She invited me to join her group of friends in Canada for the weekend, and I was in for the adventure. 

The layer cake. Julie's face says it all.
We were seated at a long wooden table inside the cabin. The room was loud and busy, so it felt a bit like Oktoberfest - except that there were plaid shirts hanging on the wall and stuffed coyotes in the rafters. Bottles of homemade maple syrup stood open on the tables. Julie's boyfriend, Christian, poured some into a glass and handed it to me. "Newbie initiation," he explained. "Take a sip." 

Over the next three hours, we were served a series of 15 courses, each one more delicious than the last. Most of them included maple syrup - in fact, my cocktail was just champagne, gin, and syrup. 

Cheese souffle with maple-glazed bacon
Our first course was a layer cake with foie gras, maple butter, something with basil, and orange cream. We were instructed to put thin slices of the cake on toast and dab orange cream on top. I cannot for the life of me explain how it worked, but it absolutely worked. The toast-cake-cream dish is the single most delicious thing I have eaten in a long time. 

There were other more obvious dishes. Cheese souffle with maple-glazed bacon on top. Calamari stuffed with ground pork. Salmon meatballs with peas and avocado. Beef roast in clay pots with maple syrup, pineapple, and cranberry. 

"Eat it like nachos"
The waiters all walked around the cabin with pieces of bright blue tubing around their neck - the same tubing that was strung between the trees outside. I wondered why but found out between the appetizer round (which was 5 courses all by itself) and the main course. The tubes were filled with a brandy-and-maple-sap mixture that served as a digestif. I tried it, but of all the flavors I experienced at the sugar shack, I must admit it was my least favorite. I've just never been a brandy fan. 

Our meat-heavy main course was whisked away, and then dessert came out. In my opinion, dessert was the most creative round. We had deep-fried dumplings with maple paste inside. Maple toffee pops served in shaved ice decorated to look like snow. Maple ice cream sundaes. Then there was something on a wooden platter that I'm going to struggle to describe. It looked like a pile of tree bark, but it was really thin layers of fried batter alternating with maple cream. "Eat it like nachos," our waiter explained. It was unexpected and wonderful.  

This weekend was a Canadian cultural experience, to be sure. I got to experience North America's French-speaking island, and I have never eaten so much foie gras in my life. It was an amazing adventure! 

Montréal

As soon as I crossed the border, I found myself in rural Québec. Flat fields extended on either side of the road, dotted with silos, farm houses, and barns. The landscapes and the structures all resembled rural Michigan; in fact, the highway I was on could very well have been the country road I used to drive to church growing up. I had an intense moment of déjà vu. The only difference between Québec and Michigan I could see was that all the road signs were in French, so it really felt like I had entered an alternate version of my childhood in which the British had never pushed the French out of the North American Midwest. 
Row houses in Montréal with external staircases

I drove on for about another hour, and the traffic increased as I drew closer to Montréal. Instead of farm land, I was surrounded by industrial infrastructure. Smoke stacks, metal tubing, and gray-colored buildings lined the highway. 

To be honest, Montréal caught me a bit off-guard. I was expecting Paris 2.0, but instead, I found an industrial Midwestern city. The buildings were mostly old, with the houses all looking like they were built in the 70s or 80s. It reminded me of Gary, Indiana. My friend, Julie, who had invited me north, described it as a "working man's city."

One very unique thing about Montréal that I noticed: all the homes have external staircases. Brick row houses line the neighborhood roads, and on the front of each one is a winding wrought-iron staircase leading to the second floor. The first and second floors of most row houses have different house numbers, so presumably, they are separate residences. Rather than waste space inside the house for stairs, Montréal residents put their stairs on the outside. I liked the aesthetic.

Notre Dame Basilica in downtown Montréal
We did find a bit of European influence in Montréal's downtown. The "old city" is packed with stone buildings and old cathedrals. One-way streets lined with restaurants, shops, and parallel parking open up into European-style plazas, always with a fountain in the middle. The diversity of people was also higher than I had noticed in the neighborhoods - individuals of Indian and African descent were more common in downtown. We even stumbled across a wedding party being photographed on the steps of city hall, and based on the style of the bride's dress, I think they were Sikh.

Montréal sits right on the St. Lawrence River, so we were able to take a walk along the waterfront. A zipline stretched over the pedestrian walkway, carrying screaming tourists at high speed to the river's edge. The wind blowing off the water teased my hair, and sunbeams poked through the fluffy white clouds. I'm grateful for the chance to experience Montréal and see a new part of the world. 


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The seminar

The opening slide from my seminar
Friends, this week, I had the opportunity to present my research to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Biology Department, where I am currently working as a Postdoctoral Scholar. I gave an hour-long seminar outlining the major questions in my research, experiments that I have undertaken to answer them, and directions that I intend to go in the future. It was a great chance to show my colleagues what I was working on and open up a discussion about future plans.

I've been at WHOI for about a year and a half and have been involved in a number of different projects. Preparing my presentation pushed me to summarize my work and integrate my ideas into a cohesive whole. Seminars always include a question-and-answer session following the presentation, so I received some good suggestions from colleagues about ways to refine my studies. The seminar really served as an assessment of where my research stands and where it is going. I was glad for the opportunity to present!

The pond: part 2

As I pulled up to the gravel pseudo-parking lot at Hathaway Pond, I could see E's Jeep was already there. It's a bright red Wrangler with a light bar across the roof, a gnarly grill on the front, and custom tail lights. It's the kind of vehicle you can't help but recognize.

I parked behind the Jeep and walked down to the shore. The water level in the pond was pretty high, covering even the dive rock (it's a rock that has a dive flag painted on it). I dipped my fingers in the water to feel the temperature. It was chilly. Thank goodness for my drysuit.

We suited up and waded into the water. There's an underwater platform at about 20', so I turned my body toward the platform's approximate location and looked down at my compass. "Initial bearing is 50 degrees," I told E. He nodded. We were off.

After making it out to the platform, we swam briefly in a circle and located a statue of the Virgin Mary. The underwater Maddona marks the beginning of a swimming route, denoted by a line strung between improvised posts on the pond floor. There are sticks and sunken lawn ornaments and shovels embedded in the sand. The line stretches between them, looping around each one, staying just a foot or two off the pond floor to show the way. We followed the line. Gradually, the water grew darker, and I could feel the pressure increasing in my ears. We reached 25 feet, then 30, then 35. At about 30 feet, I could feel the temperature of the water plummet. It was like sticking my face into a bathtub full of ice cubes, but instead of recoiling, I swam straight into it. We had crossed the thermocline.

At about 40' deep, the line we were following branched. I had my choice to turn right or left, and I chose right. Just a few feet down the right fork, we were faced with a shipwreck - a wooden fishing boat resting on the floor of the pond. I swam around it, examining the surface. The wreck was almost devoid of life - in a freshwater pond, there's not much that colonizes hard surfaces. I used the opportunity to practice fine-scale control over my position in the water column. I inhaled to rise slightly, then exhaled to sink. I rolled on my side to glide along the boat's hull, not too close, but not too far away from the wreck.

The air in my SCUBA tank was at slightly more than half its original pressure, so it was time to turn around. I signaled to E to go back, and we swam along the line. This time, I relied more on the presence of the line for navigation, because the water column was darker where we had kicked up sediment. Once we reached 30 feet depth, we emerged from the cold underlayer of the pond, and I could feel the warmer water on my face. We reached the Virgin Mary and the training platform. I did my best to hover over the sand and looked down at my compass. At a bearing of 230 degrees, we swam back towards shore and emerged near where we had entered the pond. We had been underwater for almost an hour. It was a great dive.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Extreme makeover: oyster edition

When I was in high school, there was a show on every Sunday night called Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. I remember watching it with my family as we snacked on popcorn. The premise of the show was simple: a needy family, usually one with a sick child and insufficient resources to afford the necessary accommodations, was sent on vacation while their home was ripped to its studs and remade for free. The family would return home to find a house they didn't recognize, but which finally had the wheelchair access or hospital-quality air filtration their child needed, plus a sunny living room and a landscaped front yard.

This week, I couldn't help but remember those evenings of watching another family get a brand-new house, because I just performed my very own extreme makeover. Do you remember the oyster paper? I've been working for over a year to analyze a dataset about swimming behavior in oyster larvae. I have written code, made graphs, and counted the number of times a larva swam in a helix. When I started the analysis, I calculated all the parameters possible, then spent months whittling the data down into a meaningful story. The paper has gone through countless drafts and iterations as it has been passed among the co-authors. I have started over more than once.

We finally got to the point of submitting the manuscript for publication, and it was reviewed by two independent scientists. (For more about the peer-review process, see this post and this post.) When the reviews came back, the comments indicated that we needed to overhaul the paper yet again.

It took a lot of thought, a lot of iterations, and a lot of revision, but the manuscript is now much better. It tells a clear, cohesive story. I worked with my co-authors, including my advisor and some of her former students, to re-vamp the paper. We have now finally resubmitted it to the journal, so here's hoping the reviewers appreciate our overhaul. We'll see if it is accepted this time!

Friday, April 13, 2018

Name that copepod!

"Got a question for you," I told my friend, Kristina. "What copepod lives at 79 N, 4 E, 2500 m depth?"

Kristina thought for a second. Copepods are small crustaceans, related to crabs and shrimps. They are abundant all over the world, and they form an important link in the food chain. Copepods are most abundant in the surface ocean, but some live close to the seafloor. Kristina's research focuses on the distribution of copepods in the Arctic, so I thought she might be able to answer my question. Instead, she gestured across the room.

"This gentleman might now," she informed me.

AY looked up from his microscope and came over. I introduced myself, then repeated my question. He put a hand up to his chin. He thought for a second. Then he asked, "Do you have a sample?"

The amphipod specimen AY helped me identify. Two
individuals are attached to and being eaten by a carnivorous
sponge. They're the clear lumps with red eyes in the center-
top of the photo. The sponge is the pale pink stalk.
"I do!" I exclaimed. It's actually rare for me to have a physical specimen of an animal that I need help identifying. Usually, the things I need help with are rare species, ones I only see in pictures. I'll send my best photo to a taxonomist asking for help, and the most common response I get is "Do you have a sample?" Well, in this case, I did!

AY has an incredible eye for detail. I gave him two jars with copepods, and he promised to identify them over the next few days. I thought I would have to wait until next week to get an answer from him, but just a few hours later, there was an e-mail in my inbox from AY. One of the specimens I had given him was not a copepod after all but a different kind of crustacean called an amphipod. The other specimen was a juvenile copepod in the genus Xanthocalanus.

I was amazed. The specimens I had given AY were not in good shape. They were preserved in ethanol, which is not the best preservative for morphology. Both were in the process of being eaten by a carnivorous sponge. In fact, the Xanthocalanus specimen was stuck to a sponge like velcro, and the amphipod was even partially digested. I was extremely grateful for AY's taxonomist eye.

Now that I know what the small crustaceans are, I can look up information on their population dynamics. Variations in prey abundance can influence the growth and reproduction of their predators, so I want to know if there's any connection between the abundance of copepods and the recruitment of the carnivorous sponge. It's just one more avenue to pursue for my analysis of the long-term recruitment experiment from last summer. We'll see if there's any connection!

Sea ice analysis

I clicked the blue text to open the link for the folder. August 2003. Before me appeared a list of files, each with blue text as well. One for each day in the month. I clicked on the first one, and the file for August 1 downloaded to my laptop. August 2. August 3. One by one, the daily files streamed onto my hard drive.

I clicked through files for hours. Each one contained data on ice cover in the Arctic, with a separate file for each day from August 1, 2003 to August 31, 2017. That's the period when larvae may have settled on my recruitment panels in the Arctic deep sea. I've been trying to figure out what environmental factors might influence recruitment, based on results from the long-term experiment I recovered with my German collaborators last summer. So far, I've looked at changes in water temperature, bottom current, and food input to the seafloor. Nothing seemed to quite line up. So I started looking at the ice cover.

Sea ice in the Fram Strait
Sea ice has a profound effect on the Arctic ecosystem. The thick floes of ice form a blanket on the sea surface that dampens waves and creates a very stable water column. Phytoplankton are less likely to get mixed down in the ocean, out of the reach of light, and as a result, the ice edge is usually an area of very high productivity. Some of the plankton that grow at the surface end up falling to the seafloor, so they serve as a food source to benthic organisms.

There appears to be some connection between sea ice cover and recruitment to my panels, with the highest recruitment occurring in years with low ice cover that are preceded by years with high ice cover. I still need to look into it more before drawing any conclusions, but I'm very excited to relate my recruitment data to what's going on in the surrounding environment.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Porcupine

As some of you know, I'm currently working to analyze data I collected last summer, about recruitment in the Arctic deep sea. I worked with German collaborators to finish a long-term experiment, and we collected a set of brick and plastic panels that had been on the seafloor for 18 years. Since the cruise last August, I have counted, identified, and measured all the recruits that were on the panels and begun writing two papers about my findings.

I wanted to compare the recruitment patterns of my animals over time to environmental data, to see if there was any connection between what was going on in the environment and what animals settled on the panels in different years. My German collaborators have incredible long-term data sets from the Hausgarten observatory, where the recruitment experiment took place, so I'm able to mine the data and look for patterns. The most important environmental factor for my recruiting species is the current. All of the most common species on the panels eat particles or small animals in the water, so they rely on the bottom current to deliver their food. I wanted to see if there was any connection between current velocity and recruitment of these suspension feeders.

So I downloaded the German data. Friends, I'm not talking about a handful of numbers here. My German collaborators have measured the speed and direction of the bottom current at the central Hausgarten station every hour for the last 14 years.

That's 135,092 data points, in case you were wondering. No way I could do the analysis by hand.

Thankfully, there are some really great tools out there for working with gigantic datasets. I ended up using the code-based program Matlab for my analysis. Matlab is nice because it's so flexible - you can literally do anything with it - but the drawback is that you really have to know what you're doing. There are no buttons to push; you have to tell the program everything you want it to do in lines of code. More and more, I find myself doing code-based data analysis, and it's an incredibly important skill to have as a scientist.

Matlab is also a good tool because there's a community of people who use the program and help one another out. I spent a few hours today searching through help forums online, trying to figure out how to do what I wanted to do. In the end, I figured it out - in fact, I was even able to piece together other people's scripts to accomplish what I needed to. I was able to plot my data.

Check out the figure at right here. Each stick shows the speed and direction of the bottom current at the central Hausgarten station on one day between 2003 and 2017. They're arranged chronologically left to right. Personally, I think the pile of sticks looks a bit like a blue porcupine, but it tells me some important things: (1) most of the time, the current is to the northwest, and (2) sometimes, the current is to the south or southeast. It's those anomalous days that I'm going to focus on, because they seem to be more common in certain years. I wonder if years with anomalous current have any differences in recruitment compared to other years.

It was a long day of coding, but my analysis is moving forward. I can't wait to see how my data match up!

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Garbage Beach

It is April! The weather in Massachusetts is warming, and I find myself thinking more and more about the upcoming summer. I have a number of projects that require field work in the summer months, so I'm spending my spring preparing for them. I got a small study funded to examine the fauna on shipwrecks in New England, and collecting my samples will require me to SCUBA dive at some pretty challenging locations. I need to be at the top of my diving game this summer, so that translates into a lot of dive training this spring.

Our group of divers at Garbage Beach
Carl and I loaded the car and headed out on Saturday morning to Garbage Beach in Woods Hole. We had invited some friends along and ended up gathering a group of five. Garbage Beach is just a little strip of beach down the street from my office at WHOI, and it is an easily-accessible site with interesting animals living on the bottom. The catch? The only place to park and prepare your dive gear is the parallel parking spots on Water Street, a narrow road lined with cafes, boutiques, and research buildings. It's usually clogged with tourists in the summer, but we were early enough in the year to claim some space. Still, we got plenty of weird looks as we assembled our tanks and donned our dry suits.

We swam out from the beach toward the southwest, gliding over the sandy seafloor. We passed patches of boulders covered in the boring sponge, Cliona sp., and strands of algae. As we swam deeper, the light waned, and the water grew colder. The coldest temperature my dive computer registered was 40⁰ F - and I became ever more grateful for my dry suit. Eventually, we turned around and headed back to the shallows. We passed eelgrass swaying in the sand, and there was a giant jellyfish caught among the blades. Eventually, I could see the surface of the water above me. We stood up and walked back up the beach. It was a great dive!

Friday, March 30, 2018

Picture book

A "typical" foraminiferan, Cibicides
wuellerstorfi
, 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

Deadlines

"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

Nor'easter

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.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Between two lungs

"Gone are the days of begging
The days of theft
No more gasping for a breath
The air has filled me head to toe
And I can see the ground far below
I have this breath and I hold it tight
And I keep it in my chest with all my might
I pray to God this breath with last
And it pushes past my lips
As I gasp"
- "Between two lungs" by Florence and the Machine

I love the air at the poles. 

Photo by Tess Cole
I realized it on my first Arctic expedition in 2011. I was standing on the bow of the icebreaker Polarstern, gazing out to the horizon and feeling the wind on my neck. I breathed deeply and relished the feeling of a thousand icicles filling my lungs. I think that was the day I fell in love with the Arctic. Cold air makes me feel clean from the inside out. 

When I was little, my doctor used to say I had "tricky airways." I don't know exactly what he meant by that because he never diagnosed me with asthma, but every cold I got turned into bronchitis. I remember feeling the tightness in my chest whenever I was sick, and I couldn't blow up a balloon until I was in my twenties. 

These days, my affinity for polar air is not physiological, it’s psychological. My lungs have long outgrown their childhood restrictions, so it is my mind that relishes the cold. When I breathe in the crisp, dry air, all traces of stress vanish from my psychi. I feel clean and empowered and new. I relax – which says a lot, because polar regions pose countless logistical difficulties to research. I have run into roadblocks and seen missions aborted. I have struggled against bad weather and transportation snafus. But in the end, the mountains, the wildlife, and the snow-draped landscapes - even the gale-force winds on bad weather days - all enthrall me. They elevate my soul. My heart lives at the poles.

My time at McMurdo Station is drawing to a close, but I can tell you this: I will return. As soon as I get home, I will begin reading and researching and shaping a project that will carry me back here. Antarctica is the coldest, driest place on Earth, and I honestly thought I would have to wait many more years - decades, even - before I ever made it to the southern continent. I am grateful beyond measure for the chance to experience Antarctica and get a foot in the door with the U.S. polar community. This month has been an incredible adventure. There are so many unanswered questions I want to pursue at the bottom of the world, and I am determined to return to this captivating place.

Standing in the middle of the ice shelf, I scan the mountainous horizon one last time. I draw my last breath of the cold polar air and hold it in my lungs. And I walk up the steps into the plane.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Groundhog day

"You want a prediction about the weather?...I'm going to give you a prediction about this winter. It's going to be cold, it's going to be dark, and it's going to last you for the rest of your lives." 
- the movie Groundhog Day

I looked up from my plate of eggs and fruit at Mark. He was wearing a blue-and-white shirt with a vest, much like the day before. I adjusted the neckline of my sweater, which I had also been wearing the day prior. Here we were again, having breakfast, checking the flight schedule. I had the strange feeling that I was living the same day over again.

The Antarctic training course is over, but our group has been detained on the ice. First the weather was bad, then the flights were backed up because of the weather delay, then the weather got bad again. We've been delayed for three days. Having already checked our luggage for the flight, we're also living with limited outfit options. Each day is déjà vu. 

It's not unusual to be delayed getting on or off the ice, and the military pilots who fly us know what they're doing. In the meantime, I appreciate the chance to rest. We'll be heading out soon. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Cape Evans

"For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton." - Raymond Priestley

The Terra Nova hut, at Cape Evans
Friends, when I quoted the above sentence to you before, I did not give you the whole thing. There is a third famous Antarctic explorer: Ernest Shackleton. Irish by birth, he served in the British Navy and lead several Antarctic expeditions. Like Scott, he saw hard times on the southern continent, but unlike Scott, Shackleton was renouned as an effective leader and strategic thinker. His famous Endurance expedition to cross Antarctica was plagued by a series of unfortunate events, but his entire expedition team survived (unlike Scott). In fact, when Shackleton's resupply team was stranded in McMurdo Sound, he returned personally to save them, despite having just finished a horrendous journey himself.

The Aurora anchor
Cyanobacterial mats at Cape Evans
Shackleton began his trans-Antarctic expedition from the Weddell Sea, on the Atlantic side of the continent, while his resupply team started from the Ross Sea, on the Pacific side. They were supposed to meet at the South Pole. The stranded members of the resupply team never made it, though, and actually lived for two years in McMurdo Sound, at a site called Cape Evans. The site has a hut that had been built by Scott years before, where the men were able to take shelter and await rescue. Before you go imagining an icebox of a house like Discovery Hut, I'll tell you that the Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans was meant to be lived in, and it is actually quite cozy. My fellow trainees and I got to tour the hut during a sampling trip to Cape Evans, and it is a place I would have gladly lived.

It's a wooden house with a gas heating stove, a kitchen, and cots. There was a stable just outside, where Scott kept his ponies. Despite its apparent comfort, the hut still bears the evidence of difficult times: the anchor to the the Aurora, Shackleton's resupply ship, tore away from the ship (that's how the men got stranded ashore) and still lays buried in the gravel outside the hut. Inside the hut are old piles of seal skin and penguin eggs - remnants of the marooned men's hunted food sources.

Barn Glacier
Besides the historical hut, Cape Evans is an interesting site for biologists to visit. Extensive areas of bare gravel serve as nesting sites for the Antarctic skua, a scavenging sea bird. The heterogenous terrain has depressions that fill with melting snow and host thick cyanobacterial mats. Also known as blue-green algae, cyanobacteria are single-celled microbes that photosynthesize. They're responsible for producing much of the oxygen you breathe. The mats were green and orange and yellow and floated on top of the melt ponds. It was very cool to see.

Me at Cape Evans. Photo by Tess Cole.
We spent several hours at Cape Evans, hiking to the melt ponds, touring the hut, and exploring the surrounding area. The nearby Barn Glacier dominates the northern horizon, and Inaccessible Island towers to the south. Mt. Erebus overlooks Cape Evans from the east, and the ice-covered McMurdo Sound stretches to the west. It is a gorgeous place.

The good news for me is that Cape Evans is also a common dive site for Antarctic research. I'm told it's a particularly good site to collect sea urchins. Note to self: design a project on Antarctic sea urchins. I hope I get to come back!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Ice edge

I heard the reaction before I heard the blast.
The sea ice edge (and a helicopter blade)

"Whoa!" exclaimed Chelsea, leaning back in her thick blue coat and raising her camera to her eye. Then I heard the rush of air as the whale breathed behind me and turned around to catch its dorsal fin disappearing below the sea surface. The large gray minke whale was about 10 m away from me.

I was standing on a shelf of sea ice. Below me was the Ross Sea, stretching 600 m to the seafloor beneath my feet. Behind me, the white, snow-covered ice shelf ended abruptly and gave way to the deep blue of the ocean. We were at the ice edge collecting samples.

Mt. Erebus and the sea ice edge
The sea ice edge is a very interesting place biologically. The ice acts like a blanket on the ocean, dampening waves and maintaining a stable water column. Phytoplankton bask in the sunlight in the stable water and grow like mad, providing a key energy source for krill and pteropods. The abundant food sources attract whales and fish that gorge on these tiny creatures. Penguins swim in the sea, chowing on fish. Orcas hang around hunting penguins. It's one massive party of a food web.

Adelie penguins and the Transantarctic Mountains 
And it is absolutely stunning. I wish I could have just stood in the middle of the ice and spun around like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. My view was flanked by Mt. Erebus on one side and the Transantarctic Mountains on the other. The vast white carpet of sea ice reached back toward land, and in the other direction was the endless deep blue of the Southern Ocean.

We drilled a series of holes in the sea ice to lower instruments through and then approached the edge itself. As a safety precaution, two mountaineers assisted us by drilling ice screws into the ice and attaching belay ropes. Each of us wore a climbing harness and was clipped into the belays so we couldn't fall over the edge. We deployed plankton nets and a CTD (conductivity-temperature-depth gauge), trying all the while not to be distracted by the beauty around us. At one point, as we were pulling up the CTD, a group of Adelie penguins jumped into the water from a nearby icy outcrop and began porpoising, jumping out of the water like dolphins. I held the CTD line firmly in one hand, lifted my head, and stared in awe at the quirky, tuxedoed creatures swimming with perfect grace.

As I climbed back into the helicopter, I could not help but take one last look around me. The ice edge really is a magical place.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Castle Rock

Days off aren't common in the field, but we got one this weekend. I used it to hike a loop trail near McMurdo Station. The trail goes past a steep formation called Castle Rock, then swings out with overlooks to the Ross Ice Shelf. I'll let my photos speak for themselves - it was a beautiful hike!

The Castle Rock Loop trail is marked by flags on the snow

There are emergency shelters called "apples" along the trail.

Castle Rock

With my fellow trainee, Tess, on the trail. We were in a large group, but
most people turned back to the station after seeing Castle Rock. We were
the only two who did the whole loop. 

View out to the Ross Ice Shelf
Mt. Erebus was shrouded in clouds and only partly visible from the trail
A gorgeous ice formation on the Ross Ice Shelf

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Surprise squiggles

Friends, science is a process. It is a journey with plenty of twists and turns, and sometimes, if you're lucky, science has squiggles.

I've told you that the trainees in my program have split into small groups to pursue research projects at McMurdo Station. My group played around with scallop byssal threads and then settled on pteropods for our study organism. In the spirit of integrative biology, we have studied multiple aspects of the pteropods. We have observed them swimming and measured their metabolic rates. We have examined their responses to different temperatures. We have investigated the bacterial communities that live in their bodies.

Fluorescent squiggles on our microscope slide
You may not know this, but most animals host large and diverse communities of bacteria. These microbes aid in digestion, provide chemical cues, and live in harmony with their hosts. In fact, animals can be considered microbial ecosystems.

Our group used a fluorescent stain named DAPI to visualize the microbes that live on and in our pteropods. DAPI makes the bacterial cells glow blue when exposed to light, and the resulting pattern is a series of blue dots on a black background. When we put the slides on the microscope, we did see the dots as expected, but we also saw squiggles.

Our best guess right now is that the squiggles are also bacteria. Cells come in different shapes, and spiral-shaped bacteria exist. The squiggles are probably spiral-shaped cells viewed in a 2D environment.

What's cool about the squiggles is two-fold: first, they were an unexpected shape of cell to find, and second, they were only present in samples from the pteropods. Our group has sampled microbes from amphipods, and other groups have gotten bacteria from other organisms as well. None of the samples have had the squiggles, but all of the pteropod samples have had squiggles. The spiral-shaped bacteria seem to be exclusively associated with pteropods.

The spirals were an exciting and unexpected discovery. A pteropod-bacterial relationship might be an exciting topic to pursue in future research projects!

Friday, January 26, 2018

Long live polar invertebrates: part 2

I dipped the edge of the petri dish into the beaker of water, then pulled it back to find I had successfully caught two amphipods. They were small, red, and bug-like, zooming around the cold water in the dish. I had a hard time focusing on them because they were moving so fast, but thankfully, the speedy swimmers slowed down once they were under the lens of the dissecting microscope. I pulled my chair up to the scope and gazed down through the eyepieces. I had to find out what the little bugs were.

I always take for granted that other scientists know invertebrates, just because I spend so much time around those who do. The group of trainees in my Antarctic program encompasses a diverse array of specialties, from physiology to microbiology to planetary science, so obviously not everyone is as excited about invertebrate zoology as I am. I have been able to help others identify the organisms from McMurdo Sound, and if you don't mind, I'd like to introduce you to a few of them.

Orchomenella pinguides, an amphipod in McMurdo Sound
Amphipods are common in a lot of marine habitats, from the poles to the tropics and from the coast to the deep sea. They're crustaceans, related to crabs and shrimps, but they look more like insects. I vividly remember catching amphipods in Svalbard back in 2015, and they were the most common organism we caught on a cruise to hadal trenches (the deepest part of the ocean) in 2013. Many amphipods are scavengers, so they're easy to catch with baited traps.

At the beginning of our training program, we actually had a very hard time catching amphipods. We put out plastic traps baited with raw fish on the seafloor under the ice in McMurdo Sound, but these tried-and-true methods weren't working. Eventually, someone suggested we put the traps at a range of depths, from the sea ice down to the seafloor, and when we checked back later, only the traps right up under the sea ice had caught amphipods - not what we had expected. The bottom of the sea ice can in many ways be considered an "inverted benthos" - like an upside-down seafloor, with lots of algae growing and animals feeding. There are amphipods in the Arctic that live right up under the sea ice for all or most of their life, but nobody in our group knew that Antarctic amphipods lived there too. It was an exciting discovery!

Another animal we caught in the baited traps were nemerteans, also known as ribbon worms. When my fellow trainees came back from the ice with the worms, they asked me to identify them, so I picked up the long, flexible, tube-like organisms in my hands. It only took a few minutes before my skin was covered in mucus, and I found at later that the nemertean's mucus is acidic, with a pH of 3.5. The mucus, plus the worms' size, flexibility, and the fact that they had been caught in a baited trap made me think at first that they were hagfish, but they didn't look quite right. As I turned over the brown worm, I could see a small opening on the underside near its head. I remembered that ribbon worms have a proboscis that shoots out to catch food, and the opening for the proboscis was on the underside of the head. The worm must be a nemertean!

Parborlasia corrugatus in the respirometer
Its scientific name is Parborlasia corrugatus, and it is a voracious predator. Parborlasia eats almost anything it can lay its proboscis on, including sponges, sea stars, and scallops. Photos from the seafloor near McMurdo show massive piles of the brown worms in feeding frenzies.

The thing that gets me about Parborlasia is its size. Most nemerteans are small, only 10s of centimeters long, usually 1 cm wide or less, detectable only be a trained eye. Parborlasia can grow up to 2 m - a clear example of polar gigantism. But like all nemerteans, it has no circulatory or respiratory system, relying on diffusion across its skin to supply its cells with oxygen. Usually only small animals can get away with diffusion, because if they're too big, there's not enough surface area of skin to supply the whole volume of the body with fresh oxygen. Some of us in the training program have measured the metabolic rate of Parborlasia, and so far, it looks like the metabolic rate is exceptionally low. With a low metabolic rate, the worm is less likely to run out of oxygen. What a fascinating creature!


Seen around the station: part 2


In mid-summer every year, a supply ship comes to McMurdo Station. Even at the warmest
part of the year, the sea ice is too heavy for the ship to get through by itself, so it has to be
preceded by an icebreaker. This icebreaker, a Coast Guard vessel called Polar Star, cut a
channel through the sea ice in McMurdo Sound so the supply ship could get through.

The supply ship, Ocean Giant, coming into port at McMurdo

The research ship Nathaniel B. Palmer also stopped in at McMurdo
Station while the ice channel was open

Antarctica is international territory, and under the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, all commercial
activity and military exercises are prohibited. This cartoon makes light of the potential for
commercialization after the treaty expires.


Seen in the Crary lab at McMurdo Station