Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Guest Blogger Tuesday!

This week's guest blogger is the amazing Ms. Tiffany Stephens.  Tiffany is a major science buff, and in all the time I've known her there's been nothing that she's loved more than ocean life.   Read on to find out more about her wild and crazy adventures from Alaska to New Zealand!

The Nomadic Scientist

Hello all! I’m here to give you a peak into my life as a nomadic scientist and. No, not an anthropologist that studies early human migrations, but a budding field ecologist that hasn’t lived in one place for too long the past few years. I have no intention of retracing the entire road that has led to where I am now, but there must be a beginning to any tale, and the story of my sojourn begins most properly as a pig-tailed 7-year old. Did any of you wish to the sun because it was the biggest and brightest star in the sky? I certainly did, and always wished for happiness. Perhaps a little corny, but totally within reach…it’s the only thing that I’ve ever wished for knowing full well that happiness comes unexpectedly and in many forms, and really, it’s the most important thing in life. Sure, throughout adolescence superficial things mostly instigate happiness: cookie-dough ice cream, that radical Little Mermaid shirt, sparkly shoelaces, finally outrunning those nasty little boys, and sure, I still enjoy some of those things today, but their value has been miniaturized. As I matured, so did my goals and desires with how I wanted to live my life. It took me a long time to figure out that I didn’t want to value my life based on my possessions and get a job only to support the acquisition of said possession – I’ve witnessed way too many ups and downs with that lifestyle.  Instead, my goal was, and is, to work passionately in a career that adds value to both my existential life and possibly others. Honestly, nearly all life paths have the potential to do just that if you work the right angles; but I identified science, specifically marine ecology, as the best path for my personal success. Working in this field will keep my mind sharp, my body active, has potential to influence environmental policy, and allows me to see the world.

There’s a lot of story from that 7-year old girl to now, but I’ll focus on the past few years as they demonstrate how the Sun Gods appeased my youthful wishes via my career. I began study at the University of Washington knowing full well that I wanted to specialize in marine sciences. After a few years of prerequisites and other discipline requirements, I had finally earned enough flexibility to take creative control over my education. Essentially, I had convinced my department that I needed to study off-campus at a UW extension in the San Juan Archipelago, otherwise known as Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL). Except, I didn’t want to go for just a quarter, I wanted to study there for four quarters! I took advantage of the developing Marine Biology minor and eventually was successful in convincing them that I could complete that minor + my Aquatics and Fisheries major while at FHL…they took the bait!

And so I was off and on my way to a science life abroad. Let me just say now, if you know of anyone pursuing any kind of interest remotely related to marine science, make sure that you refer them to FHL. It is full of whimsy and magic, and it is highly probable that the experience will change their life, as it did mine and more than a handful of my friends’. I went there in the beginning of 2008 to participate in the Zoobot course, which covered intertidal invertebrates (zoo-) and marine algae (-bot). Each field trip introduced new habitats where we: sifted through silts and mosses in search of microscopic creatures resembling fiery Chinese dragons (kinorhynchs) and armored 6 –legged bears (tardigrades), trawled for frilly basket sea stars (picture below) and other creatures of the deep, grappled with magenta sea urchins as large as your head, and snacked on fresh algae baked by the sun. I learned to SCUBA dive and zipped from one bay to the other in retro speedboats so that I could monitor seagrass populations. Many days were spent on an old salmon boat interpreting multi-colored charts to identify fish distributions in narrow channels and observe how seabirds, sea lions and seals altered their behavior due to fluctuations in fish location. FHL is where my infatuation with the study of animate nature grew rapidly into a full-fledged love affair.
Dead Man’s Bay, San Juan Island, WA: Using fluorescent coloring to monitor how water moves over rocks and algae along shorelines; it can give insight as to how algal spores move along and influence algal distribution.
San Juan Island, WA: One of my students found this larva of stubby squid while night lighting, very charismatic creatures!
Cattle Point, San Juan Island, WA: The underside of a limpet.
Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, WA: Every summer FHL hosts an Invertebrate Ball, where you dress like any invertebrate and party. During my first year I chose to mimic a stalked jelly.
In 2009, I graduated with a B.S. Fantastic, a degree! But like 98% of college graduates I wondered, “What now”? I had no desire to grow up, settle down, or go in whichever direction towards domestic stability. I wanted to continue my education with post-graduate studies but had a deep rumbling for field experience outside of Washington before taking the plunge. I knew zero academics outside of UW but quickly learned to put myself out there. My tried and true method was to (a) use Google to identify people with whom I wanted to work, e.g. as part of other universities, (b) archived all promising email addresses, (c) wrote a brief introduction about myself and explained why I would be a great addition to their team, and (e) attached a CV. I’ve had great success with that method. I usually email about 15-20 people, and out of those, maybe 2-3 will respond positively and ask me to submit an official job application. Anyhow, after graduation I received positive feedback from PISCO in California, the Smithsonian in Washington DC, and from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in Juneau. Despite PISCO and the Smithsonian being well-regarded organizations, I accepted Alaska’s offer mostly because it was the road less traveled. Thank you, Robert Frost.

I packed two suitcases and was off to Juneau in September 2009, just in time for winter! Arriving during the ‘wrong’ time of year is a recurring theme. I was hired to help a PhD candidate finish her fieldwork. She was interested in juvenile king crab ecology; in particular we studied what species of fish predated on the baby crabs and how biogenic structure (living 3D structure, like kelp) influenced baby king crab survival. We were in the water every day for weeks at a time…cold! Sometimes winds whipped through so strongly that the water churned violently, ripping our experiment off the bottom and, if we were in the water, throwing us against the rocks…not at all safe, but I found it exhilarating and caught myself chuckling a few times. When weather wasn’t an issue, we contended with Steller’s sea lions. These animals are intimidating in the water and we were stalked more than a few times! There was one dive when a particularly rotund adult male lurked just far enough to where we could barely make out his shape in the paling light while two younger males dive-bombed us, whirling sediments into the water column to make visibility worse. The rotund male got closer, and closer…I still get the chills. Then on a different day, my last dive in for that stint of work, in fact, we were lucky to have gotten out of the water only five minutes before a few transient orcas (the killers of the killer whale species) swam over our study site.  Questionable situations at times, but that’s exactly why I chose Alaska. It’s wildly beautiful; a picture from my first diving day is below…gorgeous! What you can’t pick-out in the picture are the humpback whales; they were often seen far out in the channel bubble-net feeding.
Adlersheim, Juneau, Alaska: Our main diving site…who can complain? Steller’s sea lions often hauled out on the island across the way, on the left.

Juneau, Alaska: A beautiful 2nd-year juvenile that we were preparing for the field…it probably got eaten later that day by a sculpin!
After six months, the king crab project was more than finished and I needed to move on. I joined a monitoring project in Seattle for couple of months while I sent out another round of emails to potential employers. This time I received offers from Washington, Texas, and Georgia. OOMPH, the latter two were definitely not my cup of tea. However, I WOULD NOT stay in Washington, so accepted the position with Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Again, I packed two suitcases and arrived in mid-August 2010 at, again, the wrong time of year to move somewhere new. Atlanta is a sweltering, humid, disgusting place in August. At the time of my acceptance I was told that I’d be stuck in the lab 75% of the time with monthly trips to the Florida Keys for a large-scale project on fish biodiversity influence on algal biomass and biodiversity. What played out was the opposite. After two weeks in Atlanta, my boss called me to his office and told me that in three weeks I was being sent to Fiji for five months. I didn’t argue.

After a two-week stint in Florida, I hopped onto a plane to Fiji. Yeah, yeah, rough, I know. Never could I have imagined working and living in a tropical environment for so long, after all, I’m a trained temperate ecologist and working in the tropics had never really interested me; corals, huh-what? I was part of the first group to stay at our burgeoning field station in Votua Village on the Coral Coast (southern coast), and because we were the first group, the ‘field station’ wasn’t much. There was no furniture and each room had at least one cane toad, which had left ‘welcome home’ presents all over the floors. Toads were quickly removed, the station equipped for basic living, and we hit the reef. What I went there for: Past studies have shown that some algal species are detrimental to some corals, so the task handed to me was to test whether previous contact with a known species of algae induced a resistance response in targeted corals (equivalent to the chickenpox-human story). I got mixed results, but most data pointed to development of resistance (not yet published).
Votua Reef flat, Viti Levu, Fiji: Some of our harvested corals used in various experiments. We would swim around and knock off tiny fragments off of larger colonies, transplant them into cement cones with an epoxy, and then let them acclimate and grow.
Votua Reef flat, Viti Levu, Fiji: My office, coral rack in the background.
The project lasted a long time and required me to swim around the reef on my own for hours everyday. I soon learned that there were times not to be on the reef by your lonesome. The four hours of the highest tide were times for me to not be on the reef, though my colleagues never seemed to have a problem. Early in the trip, I was far out on the reef snorkeling through a corridor lined with heaps of lovely pink soft corals (Sinularia flexibilis) searching for a good place to set up an experiment. I detected non-pink movement in the corner of my eye, whipped my head left, and saw a 7-foot white-tipped reef shark swim way too close. Now, I’ll admit, white-tips aren’t scary in retrospect, but that was my first time ever seeing a shark in the wild and it was unexpected, so I was terrified. It took my entire being to take time to first gather all my tools and then head to shore, and on the way in I spotted two black-tipped reef sharks! I attributed it to the distance that I was from shore, not tidal cycle. With all fieldwork behind me, I saw sharks on probably 75% of the high-tide days. Do you ever get eerie feelings that someone or something is watching you? Sure you do. That happened on the reef a lot, one day especially so. I looked around a few times because I had missed the creature the first two scans. It turns out that a fish was staring me head-on less than 10 feet away, and this fish was a 6-foot Great Barracuda in classic striking position. And then it stretched it’s mouth – I like to think that is was gauging weather or not it could successfully attack me…it’s mouth was bigger than my head, after all. I tried solving the situation by swimming to other sections and every time I looked back the barracuda trailed behind. Yep, out of the water. From then on I made sure to work during low or near low tides. My colleagues were convinced that I was crazy because one didn’t witness sharks or the barracuda until halfway through the trip, and the second didn’t see sharks until the last week and never got to see the almighty barracuda.
Beqa Lagoon, Viti Levu, Fiji: Feeding a grey reef shark. This picture was taken during a controlled shark dive; on this dive we saw about 27 adult bull sharks, too…ecologically questionable, but a fantastic experience.
Outside of work, I found time to enjoy other aspects of Fiji. I absolutely adored visiting with the village’s children (they’re quite keen) and our neighbor Dengei, who is a quintessential Fijian Rastafarian. He is also one of the only citizens to retain traditional hut (bure) building knowledge, lives in a home made of bamboo, and just left his Fijian wife for an Italian woman. Odd mix. On most of my days off, I hiked into dense forest to swim at a nearby waterfall and natural hot springs. I was getting very settled in Fiji. Island time and function started to take a hold of me and took appreciating simple things to a new level. I was definitely upset to leave but the experience convinced me that I was ready to move onto post-graduate studies and that I wasn’t restricted to the United States.
Votua Village, Viti Levu, Fiji: A traditional Fijian meal! Cassava, taro, sweet potatoes, fish, and chicken cooked via the lovo method…raw food placed over very hot rocks and then covered with layers of leaves and dirt so that the trapped heat cooks the food.
Waya Island, Fiji: A hike to the tippy-top of this small island.

 Votua Village, Viti Levu, Fiji: Left, our neighbor Dengei putting a fresh layer of dried grass on his tradition bure. Right, the kids showing off their dinner.
 While in Fiji, I applied to three graduate programs: University of Alaska – Fairbanks, University of California – Davis, and University of Otago – in New Zealand…a huge undertaking while living in a third-world country! I returned to Atlanta in 2011 to continue with lab work and field excursions to Florida while I waited for news. When it rains, it pours. I was accepted into both Alaska and Otago. It should have been a no-brainer (duh, NZ!) but there were some ‘complications’ because I was also awarded an NSF graduate research fellowship that I could only use within U.S. borders, so I could take it to Alaska. 

I was deliberating at a park and deduced that both study systems were similar, but New Zealand offered a new and culturally different, but money-limited lifestyle and Alaska-NSF offered a familiar and financially comfortable lifestyle (the NSF fellowship covers tuition and gives awardees $30,000 per year to live off of). At one point I looked up and was reminded by the sun of my childhood wishes to be happy. I had already decided years prior that I didn’t want to value my life and base my happiness/success on possessions, and eventually concluded that personal growth would be greatest if I were to study in New Zealand and the remaining appeal with Alaska was that I could take advantage of the NSF fellowship.

I told NSF to shove it, which was invigorating because not many people have the opportunity to do so. I’m currently writing to all of you from Dunedin, New Zealand and have been here for only about three weeks as a fully matriculated resident. I’m in the midst of finalizing a large chunk of my thesis, already, and have woven in some very exciting research and adventures. The theme of my thesis is shaping-up to define the origin and fate of nearshore suspended particulate matter (SPM) in the temperate South Pacific and Southern Ocean. Basically I’ll be looking at tiny floaty things (live and dead) in the water column and investigate how carbon/energy flows through the food web using stable isotope biomarkers. The equally cool part is where I get to study. I’ll be doing most of my work Dunedin, proper, and then travel to Fiordland, the sub-Antarctic islands (Snares and Auckland Islands), and even to Antarctica.
Dunedin, New Zealand: The sunrise on my first morning here. Symbolic, much?
So there it is. A great journey, so far. I am not much one for offering advice, but the following are some things that I try to live by.
  1. Don’t hesitate hoping for the perceivably impossible.
  2. Put yourself out there, way out there.
  3. Maintain a rigorous work ethic, even during sub-optimal conditions.
  4. Know yourself and don’t cave to ill-intended criticism.
  5. Have an open, accepting, and flexible mind.
  6. Think thoroughly, speak carefully and act modestly to make sure that your words and actions represent your exact thoughts and feelings.
  7. Like the ancient Egyptians, give praise to the Sun Gods!
Cheers, everybody!

Pretty amazing, huh?  This girl definitely knows how to travel!  And just for the record, I can attest to the fact that she still gets exited over mermaid t-shirts :)  Got questions for Tiffany?  Want to know more about putting yourself out there for a job/university? Just want to convey your undying jealousy for her way of life? Leave it in the comments!

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