I am only just starting to grasp what life as a scientist must be like for those that have jumped through the various hoops, done their time in school, published their papers, worked through a post-doc or two and slaved as an assistant professor for a time. After all of that, you finally "make it". As near as I can tell, that "making it" still involves a considerable amount of positioning oneself against your colleagues such that the money that is floating around in our economy for research science goes to your work. In effect, one of the early steps in most research projects is ritualized begging, which we call "proposal writing". As in any professional venture, it is certainly not the merits of the proposal alone that can sway the decisions of those with the dough.
So, with these things in mind, and given that I am training myself as a scientist, this blog post is also serving as the world premiere of my newest tool for shameless self promotion, my own website, dedicated to ME. You will immediately note that I will certainly NOT be getting any calls seeking my services as a web designer from this site. My hope, then, is that it might someday help me in the great game that the scientific community must play, "Who Gets The Dough?".
Now I just get to kick back and watch the support for my projects roll in...
As it turns out, science is characterized by great periods of sitting in front of a computer punctuated by brief but happy periods of not sitting in front of a computer. At the beginning of this month I had on offer to go down to San Diego and drive a small boat around in the ocean. I really do love such things, and take River Rat's utterances as gospel: "There's nothing . . . absolutely nothing . . . half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats." So I jumped at the chance. Additionally, the project requiring the messing around in the boat is Dr. Jon Warrick's, who is the one person that I view as most responsible for setting me up in school, so I owe him a favor...or two.
So we found ourselves just off-shore of the Tijuana River, within spitting distance of the U.S.-Mexico Border (we were only accosted by burly armed coast guardsmen in fast inflatables one time!) repeatedly dunking expensive equipment into the ocean, eating cheese and crackers and doing everything in our power to keep ourselves engaged (data collection in oceanography is often not really that...stimulating). We were working quite close to shore, though, and on the days with swell imagining all of the horrible ways that I could wreck a government boat kept me pretty interested.
Last week I turned a corner in my graduate schooling. The Ocean Sciences Department structures the hoops that a student must jump through as follows: In your first year you take four required courses on various aspects of oceanography, chemical, physical, geological and biological. Then, at the beginning of your second year, a bunch of really smart people get together in a small room and grill you on all of the things that you feel, vaguely, like you've heard before but, after a whole summer, you just can't seem to dredge up. As far as I can tell, nobody ever truly fails (like get kicked out of school fails). But people are made to re-take classes, which is apparently threat enough to make this an incredibly anxiety-provoking exam for most students. I've spoken with students who have left campus and essentially taken a study retreat for a few weeks before the exam. One fellow student re-wrote and summarized, BY HAND, her entire collection of notes from all four classes. TWICE. As has been a pattern in this academic adventure, I felt much like Lane Meyer in the classic class scene from Better Off Dead, peeling last year's notes out of my back pocket, pulling the pieces of old gum from between the pages and trying to make sense of my nearly unintelligible scribbles.
In retrospect, the experience was worthy of the attention paid to it by my fellow students. The smart people asked me questions, I did a lot of staring blankly at them, and they would lead me on with little hints until eventually I crafted an answer. Afterwards, I felt like I had spent two hours being metaphorically kicked in the head by some really smart people. But in the end I passed. It wasn't elegant, and I certainly didn't impress anyone, but according to my peers, passing is all that matters.
Now I get to start thinking about this spring's hoop - the qualifying exam. This is where you present your research plans, again in front of a room of really smart people. This time I am going to where a helmet.
I am going to let Curt Storlazzi, my dive buddy on some dive's yesterday to check some oceanographic instrumentation, describe it:
"So today we were diving off Santa Cruz today to check on some oceanographic moorings and a tripod we deployed yesterday. As my dive buddy Ian Miller and I get to the surface, our comrades (Jamie Grover, our boat captain and Amy Draut, another diver) on the boat are swinging it around trying to follow what Jamie is saying is a mola mola (sunfish). As the boat turns, Ian and I see a fin that looks nothing like a mola mola but rather something a little more threatening. Jamie and Amy are pretty interested in it, and Ian and I are sort of laughing as we get out of the water and into the boat. We swing the boat around and what do we see? Check out the attached photos.
I would like to say it was huge and threatening, and from eye level in the water it's fin sure looked it, but it was just a baby....that was probably thinking, "In a year, you're TOAST!""
Despite our initial excitement that we were watching a juvenile white shark glide effortlessly next to our boat, I've come to the conclusion that this is a salmon shark. Still, its the first time I've seen a true pelagic shark in the wild (and shared space in the water with one), and it was exhilarating.
Slowly I am pulling together my PIT tag information and mapping cobble movement on the beach. Today, with the help of Josh Logan, I was able to partially overcome my handicap with various software and figure out how to put this information together. What you see here is as hot off of the press as it comes. This image covers two surveys on August 4th (red triangles) and August 12, 2008 (white triangles), with a sample of 32 tagged rocks released on August 2nd. So what is the big deal? Well, this two week period was relatively quiet. Waves were very small (definitely unsurfable). Despite this, stuff was moving on the order of 10 meters or more per day. Remember, these are rocks, not sand. Also, we can clearly document a VERY uni-directional pattern of rock transport on this section of beach. Its only a start, but being able to see SOME progress is a very nice thing in my day.
They really are. I read this morning about a company that uses PIT-tags in curb-side recycling containers to track recycling rates, and distributes rewards based on a households recycling rate. Pretty bright. If I had thought of that I might be rich right now. But instead I put them into rocks. So I am not rich.
I've spent the past few days starting to analyze data on cobble movements on the Elwha shoreline that we collected using PIT_tagged rocks. All told, we tagged 224 rocks by drilling a 1/4" hole in the rock and epoxying (is that a verb? Like facebooking?) the tag in place. The tagged rocks were placed at three different locations (shown on the groovy map as small, barely discernible black dots) and then we mapped and surveyed the movements of the tags using a reader and GPS unit over periods of days, weeks and months.
The re-find process involved walking the beach with a reader unit (looks just like the crazy old guys you see early on Monday morning down at Main Beach in Santa Cruz, looking for quarters and lost rings in the sand). When the reader antennae and a PIT tag come into proximity (usually about 1 meter) the reader squeals and records the tags ID. We can then GPS the location of the rock using its ID as a Waypoint in the GPS.
The movements surprised me. In some cases, I found that relatively large material, that I hadn't expected to move at all during the summer, was moving 15 to 20 m per day. Our next step is to try to survey movements around a storm event.
Finally! With the sole exception of one grainy photo of half of my face diving in Hawaii over 10 years ago, I, sort of like Sasquatch, have never actually been documented under water. Until now. this video, as boring as it may seem, is ME! Thats right. Though you would never be able to tell through the neoprene and plastic, that is me dutifully counting tiny tube worms and buried crabs in a patch of sand of sand just to the west of the Elwha River mouth in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Don't I look like I can count real good?
Over the last week I spent every morning on the beach around the Elwha mouth, walking the beach and mapping my samples of PIT-tagged rocks as they move. The work itself is fairly uninteresting, just walking up and down the beach, waving an antennae and, when I get a signal from the reader, identifying and suveying the rock. The work gives me plenty of opportunity, though, to look around and observe the seasonal changes along the shoreline. This last week, the Harlequin Ducks arrived for the winter.
These beautiful birds spend the summer on the fast-moving Olympic Rivers breeding and fledging their young. This time of year they move down to the rough, rocky shoreline to spend the winter. We observed them in groups of 15 to 20, the adults clearly visible by their colorful markings, feeding in the breaking waves. Their strategy was to dive just in front of the largest breaking waves. Since the shoreline all around the mouth is made up primarily of large cobbles, they must be targeting the invertebrates that, usually, are safely under the rocks. As the breaking wave would roll over the cobbles, I assume that some were dislodged, or the invertebrates uncovered by the wave action. About 30% of the time the ducks would suface after the wave had passed by with some little morsel in its beak. Only once was I able to identify the food - a small slender gunnel.
As for me, I migrate south today, back to Santa Cruz, and start to prepare for a winter of analyzing the data collected this summer...
A very rare visit by three orca to Port Angeles Harbor definitely deserves consideration on this blog. I've seen Gray Whales in the harbor before, but Orca do not come around here often. I certainly hope that they were after salmon, as this would bode well for local salmon populations. These three were transients though, who have a penchant for seals. Apparently nobody amongst the hundreds of on-lookers saw them actually eating anything.
Our dive surveys are over, and I am wrapping up my last week in Port Angeles with more beach work. In August I inserted almost 300 "PIT" tags into beach cobbles from the beaches around the mouth of the Elwha River. Since that time I've been tracking their movements. Surprisingly, those rocks really move, even during summer, when wave energy at the Elwha is minimal.
We've been puzzled by the lack of fish during our dives in the Elwha drift cell. In an effort to determine if not seeing fish is because: 1) they actually aren't there or 2) something to do with how we are sampling is scaring them off, we decided to do a few dives at Salt Creek County Park, just to the west of our westernmost sites in Freshwater Bay. We discovered that we can see fish and that they end up in our data during transects, so that leads us to the question: What is up with the lack of fish in the Elwha drift cell?
Also saw my first abalone (and second, third and fourth) at this site. Don't tell anyone though. I hear tell that they are tasty creatures...
Four dives today just off of Green Point, a site to the east of Port Angeles. The primary goal of this dive project is to map habitat prior to the removal of the Elwha Dams and provide a baseline against which post-dam conditions can be compared. Green Point is a "control" site and is thought to be far enough away from the Elwha that it won't be affected by the dam removal. It is an interesting area with much finer sediment than we've found in the Elwha drift cell. And today it was evident that the Gray Whales DIG that fine stuff, quite literally. We spotted at least five whales all actively feeding in the fine sediment. They would rise to the surface trailing plumes of sediment behind them as they filtered out all of the goodies. In one case a huge male came about as close to us as I've ever been to a gray AND I captured some video of it...
The diving? Pretty marginal, with low visibility, quite a bit of surge and overall low biological diversity. My highlight of the day was a starry flounder that I had the opportunity to follow around...
I've been thinking for some time about starting this, a new blog to document what still feels like a new life as a bona-fide science nerd. Its only now, with just a few hours of free time in Seattle, that I am making the time. During our trip around the world Christine and I found our blog to be an incredibly useful tool for keeping our family and friends up to date, while also allowing us to process and better understand our experiences. I am hoping for the same with this one. The only difference is that I will be adding this site as a link to a planned professional website - so no foul comments allowed. I will also endeavor to keep my posts appropriate and myself hireable.
I've been in Washington for a month now, engaged in three projects: Two on the beach adjacent to the Elwha River mouth and one sub-tidal SCUBA-based project. With two weeks to go, I remain as excited as ever even as I start to tire of living out of a suitcase. Tomorrow, I leave Seattle again for Port Angeles, and prepare for another session of dives along the Elwha Shoreline. This project is revealing ecological patterns in the coastal zone...and allowing us to discover just how common both sunflower stars really are in this area.