Hook, Line, and Sinker - Melissa Hook, Line, and Sinker - Sarah

Sarah Bedolfe and Melissa Lenker are two young ocean conservationists pursuing Master’s degrees in Marine Biology. Both native Californians, Sarah will travel to the Netherlands, to the University of Groningen, while Melissa will attend McGill University in Quebec. Follow their adventures in grad school, far away from the beaches of Southern California, as they pursue their oceanography dreams.

FINS Up! Attending an invasive species conference

Outside the little city of Otočac, Croatia, you can find The Croatian Centre for Indigenous Species of Fish and Crawfish in Karstic Waters. In a picturesque valley in a small, unassuming cottage next to a set of clear ponds, the Centre conducts research for the conservation of native populations of fish and crayfish. 

At the Croatian Centre for Indigenous Species of Fish and Crawfish,
water runways for raising native trout species. 

The Centre focuses on breeding and restocking vulnerable native species of trout and crayfish, which face several threats, including the introduction of invasive species. An invasion occurs when a species is introduced to a new area, and it spreads and causes harm to the native species and habitats (to learn more, see my previous blog).

One native species under threat is the noble crayfish. These crayfish, also known as European crayfish or Astacus astacus, are globally listed as vulnerable due to the effects of invasion and disease. These crayfish are economically and culturally important as a food source, and ecologically as prey for other species. Unfortunately, a 2013 study indicated a 36% decline among native noble crayfish populations. To combat population decline, the Centre is developing new techniques for captive breeding to bolster population abundance. Captive bred noble crayfish will be released into the wild to restock natural waters.  

Juvenile noble crayfish, native to Europe, grow in bins at the hatchery. Populations of this crayfish have been largely displaced by invasive North American species. 

The FINS Conference group toured the hatchery, where breeding efforts are undertaken to
combat the decline in native species.

I traveled to Croatia this past summer to attend FINS, the “Freshwater Invasives – Networking for Strategy” Conference. The field trip to the breeding center for native species was fun and fascinating, but my real purpose was to participate in conference discussions and to get input on a project for my last Masters internship. It was my job to identify opportunities for a new program to protect endangered freshwater species by eradicating the invasives that threaten them. Why freshwater invasives? Freshwaters are disproportionately biodiverse and highly threatened by invasions. Freshwater habitats are also relatively small and isolated (in contrast to continental or oceanic areas) which makes them easier to treat. 

At FINS, European experts on invasive species came together to exchange research findings and discuss how we can improve action on this major threat to biodiversity. It’s more than just talk – these meetings are productive: the first FINS Conference in 2013 led to the publication of an important article detailing the top 20 issues for managing invasive species in Europe. 

On the main square in Zagreb, Croatia: leading the charge against invasive species!​

The Opera House at sunset. 

This year, I joined the other attendees in evaluating progress on these issues and producing a new invasive species management report (in review). One of the biggest improvements in invasive species management is the plan introduced by the European Union, which mandates that all member states implement measures for prevention, early detection, rapid eradication and management of invasive species of concern. Meanwhile, in the US, President Obama added new considerations for invasive species management just last month.        

At the conference in Zagreb, I also participated in a workshop on data management. We discussed organizing and standardizing data on species and management methods. Not only is the type of data important, but also where it is located – and I have personally experienced the difficulty of conducting research when there is no centralized source of information. To this end, one group has conceived of a supernetwork called INVASIVESNET to link scattered datasets and working groups. This, in turn, will help managers around the world collaborate, learn from one another, and share successful techniques, leading to improved and integrated management. 

In Zagreb, I stumbled upon some aquatically-themed street art.

Despite improvements, many hurdles remain, such as insufficient funding, and lack of education and awareness. If people don’t know the dangers of transporting species, they may inadvertently cause invasions – and that is why it’s important for you to get informed! Learn what you can do to prevent invasions here.

Fortunately, by bringing experts and decision makers together, conferences like FINS are helping to protect biodiversity by improving prevention and control of species invasions.   

I give this conference two fins up!

Species Without Borders

A whirlwind final semester left me with little spare time for blogging, but I have now officially graduated with my Master of Science in Marine Biology! In the next few posts, I’ll share some stories about the work I’ve done over the last months. 

My research has taken me to countries like Norway and Croatia, which are just a short flight away from my home in the Netherlands. Today, our world is more accessible than ever, and with worldwide travel increasing, we are becoming an increasingly mixed global community.

With increasing globalization and ease of travel, the world is at our fingertips. But this means that plants and animals are traveling more too – and when they cross borders, it can spell trouble.

However, humans are not the only species crossing borders. Globetrotting has opened passageways for unintentional hitchhikers: alien species. An alien species is a species that is introduced outside of its native range. An alien species is not inherently bad or harmful, and many don’t even survive in an unfamiliar habitat. But sometimes an alien species becomes invasive – and that is bad. An invasive alien species is an alien species that has established itself in the new habitat, and aggressively outcompetes native species, posing a threat to biodiversity; they may also cause harm to human health or the economy.

Species are introduced for many reasons, either accidentally or purposely. Maybe you came back from a trip with a hitchhiking seed lodged in the sole of your shoe. Maybe live animals were being transported for sale as pets, but escaped, or were released into the wild by a well-intentioned owner. Ships often carry and release alien species through their ballast water. Some species are introduced to create fisheries, like the Pacific oyster that I studied in the Wadden Sea, and which you can read about in my previous posts

History can blur the line between what species are considered “alien” and “native.” Tulips are now seen as quintessentially Dutch, but they actually originate from the Ottoman Empire (which we now call Turkey). They were brought to the Netherlands in the 1500s where they became popular ornaments, and were bred into the varieties available today, now on display at the Keukenhof gardens. 

People come to the Netherlands from around the world to admire the veritable sea of tulips and other flowers (luckily these didn't become invasive). 

Although species move naturally throughout time, humans have caused the rate of introductions and invasions to rise exponentially. The consequences of these invasions can be severe.

For example, the algae Caulerpa taxifolia, a popular aquarium plant native to the tropical Pacific and Indian Oceans, was accidentally released into the Mediterranean Sea in the 1980s and quickly grew out of control. Caulerpa rapidly spread and gained a reputation as the killer algae. Caulerpa has smothered thousands of hectares of other algae and plants, and contains a toxin that makes it inedible for herbivorous fish and invertebrates. As a result, Caulerpa also causes fish abundance to decrease, and ultimately reduces catches for fishermen. Eradication of small colonies is possible (as was demonstrated in California), but in the Mediterranean there is little hope that the Caulerpa invasion can be controlled. 

Pretty for your aquarium, yes, but Caulerpa the killer algae has smothered vast swaths of the Mediterranean. Photo by Richard Ling.

Another infamous marine invader is the lionfish. This striking spiky beauty may have been released into the wild by aquarium owners who grew tired of their pets. Now it is regularly seen along the southeast coast of the US and in the Caribbean. Large predators prey on lionfish in its native Indo-Pacific waters, but in the Atlantic, the voracious lionfish has no native predators. Its appetite and abundance threaten fisheries and the balance of the ecosystem. With depleted herbivorous fish, algae grow more quickly, which poses a threat to the already-pressured coral reefs of the Caribbean. Efforts to control the lionfish include a campaign to fish and eat them – a topic which Carl Safina covered here – to limit their numbers.   

A lionfish is covered in colorful venemous spines - so fishers and chefs who want to make a meal of this invader must work carefully! Photo by Michael Gäbler.

You might be wondering, what can we do to help stop the spread of invasive species? Whether you’re coastal or landlocked, there is a lot that you can do to help prevent new invasions:

  • DON’T release your pets into the wild. You would be surprised how much havoc a goldfish can wreak in your local pond.
  • DON’T catch and transport plants or animals and release them into other areas.
  • DO clean and disinfect all of your gear carefully to remove species that might become invasive. You can follow the Check, Clean, Dry technique.
  • DO garden with native species (you’ll save water and support local wildlife too!).
  • DO support efforts to protect native habitats and species – a damaged ecosystem can be more susceptible to invasion.
  • DO report unfamiliar species. Join a citizen science program to help keep track of new invasions. For example, download the What’s Invasive app, or check out iMapInvasives, TexasInvasives, the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network, or another group in your area.   
  • DO learn more about the issues and what species are problematic in your area, and spread the word!

Scientists and policymakers are also beginning to implement further action to prevent and manage invasions, both in the ocean and in other habitats. For example, the European Union has passed new measures requiring member-states to develop management plans for certain species of concern. Scientists gathered this year in Croatia to share their latest findings about invasions and how to battle them. Techniques for eradicating invasive species have slowly improved, and some countries, such as Norway, have logged impressive successes in eradicating invasives and restoring native aquatic species.

Stay tuned, because in upcoming blogs, I will discuss these topics and how my research took me deeper into the world of aquatic invasions! 

Making the most of life in the Netherlands: basking in flowers! Photo by Agnes Tonkes. 

Marine Protected Areas: What You Need To Know

Marine conservation got a major boost last week with the White House’s announcement of the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. President Barack Obama will more than quadruple the size of the existing monument, making it the largest marine protected area (MPA) in the world. At twice the size of Texas, the enlarged reserve will help protect over 7,000 marine species and improve ocean resilience to threats such as ocean acidification and climate change.

The newly expanded Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument will protect ecosystems and reefs like the one seen here in Hanauma Bay on the Hawaiian Island of Oʻahu. 

With the web abuzz with MPA news and articles, here is what you need to know:

What is an MPA?
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines protected areas as “a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” Not all marine protected areas are “no-take,” or protected from uses that remove or damage plants or animals. In fact, no-take marine reserves are actually quite rare. Many MPAs involve recreational use including diving, boating and fishing.

What are MPAs used for?
Ocean conservationists use MPAs to protect ocean resources, such as fish stocks or coral reefs, from activities that might harm ocean life, such as fishing or boating. 

The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, located between Cape Cod and Cape Ann in Massachusetts, is known for its superb whale watching. Did you know that scientists can identify individual whales from unique markings on their tail? See MacGillivray Freeman’s film Humpback Whales to learn more.

How many MPAs are there?
There are 1,600 MPAs in the United States alone, covering diverse habitats from intertidal zones and open ocean to the Great Lakes. Roughly 41% of US marine waters are protected in some shape or form, while no-take reserves occupy just 3% of US waters. The story worldwide is a little different. According to a 2015 study, 3.3% of the world’s oceans were protected by nearly 6,000 MPAs in 2013. 

Where are MPAs?
MPAs are located in marine environments all over the world. Use the National Marine Protected Area Inventory or MPA Atlas’s interactive map to find the closest MPA to you. 

MPAs are located in diverse marine environments across the United States and the world. Even the waters off of Laguna Beach, California, home to the One World One Ocean Campaign crew, are designated a no-take State Marine Reserve.

Are there any downsides to MPAs?
Some scientists think that increasing the number of MPAs may hurt ocean biodiversity by shifting fishing pressure elsewhere. Instead, scientists like University of Washington professor Ray Hilborn advocate altering fishery management techniques and increasing collaboration between fishery managers and conservationists to preserve ocean biodiversity.

What does this mean? Increasing the number of marine protected areas is part of the answer, but it’s not a stand-alone solution. MPAs might be best treated as one part of a unified conservation strategy that involves collaboration and diverse management across a wide range of natural resource professionals.

It’s also important to remember that creating MPAs through legislation is only half the battle. Resources are also needed to enforce the area’s protection. An MPA without enforcement is known as a “paper park” and offers little practical protection of the marine resources within it. 

Many marine protected areas allow fishing for recreational or commercial use, but may require stricter gear restrictions or catch limits than the surrounding area.

What is the future of MPAs?
In 2010, governments around the world signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, agreeing to protect 10% of the world’s coastal and marine areas by 2020 in line with Aichi Biodiversity Target 11. Now, a new movement, called for by the IUCN World Parks Congress in 2014, is underway to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. No matter how you slice it, the number and percentage of MPAs will likely increase in the coming decades. 

After the Ivory Tower: How to Stay Relevant in Ocean Conservation

Once a scientist, always a scientist? As a recent Master of Science graduate of McGill University, I certainly hope that this is the case. I officially graduated in February and I am still adjusting to post-grad school life. I have been interning with a consulting firm while I apply to jobs and finish the remainder of my graduate work.

The first chapter of my thesis – the Follensby manuscript – is out! The article is the culmination of more than two years of work with four co-authors, multiple field assistants, three academic institutions, two government offices, one nonprofit, more than half a dozen outside advisers, one editor and several anonymous reviewers. It can take a lot of people to publish a study and I am thankful to everyone who contributed, particularly those who took the time to critique the manuscript during the peer review process. Click here to check out the completed article!

Did you know that the phrase “the ivory tower” originated from the bible? Today it is commonly used to refer to academia or universities. This is my personal representation of the ivory tower, the clock tower at my alma mater Cornell University.

Although the national unemployment rate is low, the underemployment rate for millennials is staggeringly high. According to a 2015 Forbes article, this number hovers around 45 percent for the average college educated grad in their 20’s. Finding full-time work as a recent graduate isn’t easy, especially if you are looking to stay in your field of study. For better or for worse, most people pursue careers that take them far away from their academic background. The good news is that you do not have to be a research scientist to stay involved in science. So here are a few tips for staying engaged with ocean conservation:

As a consumer:

Buying fish and other seafood products

Not all seafood is created equal when it comes to ocean health: factors such as method of capture or culture, region, and diet, all help determine the environmental impact of our choices. Piscivorous fish (fish-eating, like tuna, that are high on the food web) are generally worse for the environment than herbivorous fish (plant-eating, like tilapia) because they must eat many smaller fish to survive. In other words, it takes a large quantity of feeder fish to produce a small quantity of piscivorous fish. Eating piscivorous fish also puts you at a higher risk of ingesting toxic compounds such as mercury, which bioaccumulate in top-of-the-food chain fish. Adding in the choices of wild-caught and farm-raised complicates the matter further, with some species (or even subspecies) being more sustainable in either situation. 

The good news is that you do not have to figure all of this out yourself. Use the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch consumer guides or app to help pick tasty and environmentally friendly seafood choices. Seafood Watch also suggests sustainable seafood recipes and business partners for your next night out. Plus, for infographics and other content, check out the One World One Ocean Go Fish! Campaign. 

The seafood selection at my local grocery store. Do you know which choices are sustainable? Check your knowledge at Fish Watch, the U.S. government’s sustainable seafood database.

Plastic packaging and waste

The products and packaging that we buy can make its way into our oceans, harming humans and marine life along the way. Sarah recently discussed the growing plastic pollution problem in her latest blog. Try following her tips – like buying in bulk and carrying reusable canvas bags for grocery shopping – to reduce waste whenever possible. For more information on our ocean’s plastic problems, see the One World One Ocean Plastics Breakdown page.


“Don’t Dump: Drains to Boston Harbor” plaques educate citizens on opposite sides of the intersection at Beacon and Tremont Street in downtown Beantown. 

As a citizen scientist:

Data collection

Citizen science, also called crowd-sourced science, uses citizen volunteers to collect the data scientists need to enhance conservation. Today’s connected world has made data collection and reporting even easier through the use of apps and online forms. For example, the Marine Debris Tracker app lets citizen scientists report marine trash to enhance awareness and provide key scientific data. Volunteers can also help transcribe museum records online to enhance biodiversity and conservation efforts on Notes from Nature. See Ocean Sanctuaries and other agencies for endless ways you can get involved.

I am a citizen scientist too. I recently reported a white squirrel sighting to Biomes of the World, which maps and studies the distribution of white squirrels of North America. This particular white squirrel happens to live on my block in Boston, Massachusetts.

Clean up your waterways

Nonprofits and other entities around the world organize volunteer efforts to clean our oceans. Join the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup on September 17, 2016 or instigate your own cleanup of local beaches and waterways.

Stay up to date and speak out!

Get involved and follow conservation groups like the One World One Ocean Campaign, The Ocean Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy. They can alert you about petitions, keep you up to date on environmental issues and let your voice be heard. Join the One World One Ocean movement to learn more ways you can protect the oceans.

Do your conservation efforts seem like a drop in the ocean? That may not be a problem.

Every choice we make as a consumer seems small, but in sum, this behavior drives the economy and encourages sustainable business practice. To quote David Mitchell in his novel Cloud Atlas, “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

Will I return to science someday? It’s hard to say. Life is an adventure and no adventure is complete without a leap into the unknown. Still, all of us can work together as citizens to protect the ocean.

I hope that you have enjoyed my last blog as a graduate student and learned something new.
See you later, alligator!


Plastic Soup - On the Menu?

A year ago I discussed the problem of trash in the world’s oceans - also known as the plastic soup - and I made a resolution to reduce how much waste I produce, especially plastic. While home for the holidays in California, I spent some much-needed time out in the sun, on the beach, and on the water before returning to the cold, wet Netherlands. I also got another good, hard look at the consequences of human wastefulness. After a stormy day, I headed up to Crystal Cove, north of Laguna Beach, for a walk on the beach. There, I found tide pools filled to the brim with washed-up waste.

Contemplating marine debris, once again.

Tidepools after a storm: more litter than critters. 

Large pieces of trash can entangle animals, or can be mistaken for food and choke or starve them.  And when plastic breaks down, it never disappears, it is just broken into smaller and smaller pieces. It will become as small as plankton, and eventually, it will become even smaller than plankton. As you can see in this video, scientists even captured plankton eating plastic on camera.

From the top of the food chain all the way to the bottom, animals are known to accidentally consume pieces of plastic. It gets worse: plastic is not just a physical hindrance, it is also contains toxic compounds. Not only is plastic manufactured with organic contaminants, like PCBs, but as it drifts around the ocean, other chemicals stick to the surface plastic. The longer a piece of plastic drifts around, the more it accumulates toxicity.

Plastic soup is not a tasty appetizer. This snowy egret at Crystal Cove is foraging for a real meal. 

What happens if lots of plankton that contain tiny toxic plastics are eaten by a sardine? What if some sardines are eaten by a tuna… and what if that tuna ends up on your own dinner plate? Scientists have found plastic particles in seafood sold for human consumption. In a sick twist of collective karma, the things we throw away circulate back to us one day. 

And what about cleaning up the plastic soup? It turns out that’s a tall order. It’s tempting to entrust magnificent new inventions with the task of filtering plastic out of the water. But the truth is that clean-up technology proposed so far has not adequately addressed the complexity of the problem. Any device that successfully captures plastic will almost inevitably also catch and harm marine life.

An especially magnificent day at Crystal Cove.

I briefly cast my worries aside during an impromptu sailing lesson. Out on the water, you don’t notice all the microplastic drifting about – but it’s there.

The best and most important thing we can do is to start at the source and prevent future waste from reaching the ocean at all. Ensure clean waterways and coastlines by reducing how much plastic you use and how much trash you produce, and by participating in beach and river cleanups. 

Unfortunately I’m still a long way from zero-waste, but I have been able to dramatically reduce the volume of trash I produce. That required only a few very simple and easy habits, which I believe anyone can manage.   

  • I keep a reusable canteen and mug at my desk. Smaller ones go with me during travel. I drink tapwater – and skip the straw! My daily hydration and caffeination routines are pretty much waste-free!
  • Keeping a small travel set of tableware or a pocketknife in my bag means I don’t need to resort to disposable plastic utensils. Tupperware or reusable baggies make better lunch packaging than disposable bags.
  • I have a canvas bag tucked into my purse or backpack wherever I go, always on hand so I don’t need to resort to plastic during any unexpected shopping spree.
  • I get my groceries in bulk when possible, from Groningen’s awesome package-free shop Opgeweckt Noord or from the market – you can look for similar shops in your own area. If I am at a regular grocery store, I compare products and buy the ones with the least packaging.
  • Leftovers get eaten, not tossed out. I have banished disposable napkins and paper towels from my kitchen. Instead, I use cloth and throw it in with the rest of the laundry when it’s dirty.
  • I have started experimenting with zero-waste cleaning and toiletry recipes. My best advice on that front is to refer you to Zero Waste Home and Trash is for Tossers. They are the experts and a real inspiration!

Visit the One World One Ocean Campaign Plastics Breakdown here for videos, infographics, and more, all about plastic pollution and how to reduce your impact.

I stumbled on some creative desert gardens while visiting Pioneertown, California.
Upcycling trash to treasure AND it’s drought smart – brilliant!

Dutch Quirks, Policy Works

I have dedicated the final year of my Masters degree to a program on Science, Business and Policy. The research experience I gained last year was invaluable – discovering new knowledge is awesome! Still, as Melissa so well articulated in her latest blog, not all graduate students go on to academic careers. In fact, the easiest way to describe the importance of business and policy is simply to point out that both Melissa and I have discussed these topics repeatedly on the Hook, Line, and Sinker blog column (examples linked below!). For this reason, I am looking for ways to bridge the gap between science and society.

One of the perks of studying policy is getting to tour the headquarters for the Province of Groningen.
This hall has been in use for governance meetings since the year 1602.

To help close that gap, I took two intense crash courses in business and policy theory, which were followed with assignments to address real-world challenges. We shaped advice reports for local businesses, and crafted policy recommendations. As science students, we understand the importance of basing our advice on existing knowledge. The difficult part is figuring out what to do when there is no relevant data – or when social conflicts stand in the way of a solution.

Melissa and I have noted that the primary force in business is the drive to outcompete others to win short-term profits. It’s an exciting and dynamic working environment, but can also have some downsides. The good thing is that businesses are increasingly striving to balance “people, planet, and profit,” which means an increased emphasis on behaving in a socially and environmentally responsible manner along with profit-earning.

SUPping, my favorite California beach hobby, seems to have found its way to the canals of Amsterdam.
I snapped this during a late-September warm spell; unfortunately the time for this is now long past.

This tractor brings deep-fried whitefish and salted herring to hungry beachgoers out for an autumn stroll
(definitely not the weirdest thing I’ve seen on the beach here, by the way).

In policy projects, we grappled with complicated and subjective questions. “What is the best policy in this case?” and “How should we implement it?” can never be answered simply. There are countless factors at play, and many of them are far outside of your own control.

Policy is particularly relevant for issues of marine conservation. The fishing industry is built around resources that are actually “public goods.” Wild fish belong to no one individually, which is really to say they belong to everyone – yet they can be harvested by individuals for a profit. Time and again, this story results in tragic depletion.

It’s a phenomenon known as the “tragedy of the commons.” Finding a solution to such problems is incredibly difficult – which is why it continues to happen, and why fishery issues continue to be a common theme in the blogs Melissa and I write. (See here, here, and here by Melissa; here, here, and here by yours truly, just for starters.)

My visit to the Northern Maritime Museum felt complete when I found my very own boat.
In Dutch, 'Saartje' is an endearing nickname for Sarah.

The Science, Business, and Policy program has been great for getting me into an interdisciplinary mindset. With an eye on the social disciplines, I’ve gotten to thinking about Dutch culture - specifically, in the kitchen.

Dutch cuisine has its share of quirks, such as pickled herring. In the Netherlands you’ll also encounter a zealous love for intense salty licorice, and may notice that dessert-ish sandwich toppings are commonplace. Some eat chocolate sprinkles every morning. All eat anise-flavored sprinkles in the event of a childbirth.

You might be surprised then that I’ve heard more than one foreign student complain about how boring Dutch food is. Meanwhile, the hilarious blog “Stuff Dutch People Like” poses the question, “Why has this far-trading colonial nation not found global culinary success?” Traditional meals in the Netherlands are actually quite modest. A typical Dutch dinner almost always includes some form of potatoes. No wonder the fries are so good here. The meal is complete when you add some meatballs and kale, preferably all mashed together in a stamppot. (Americans tend to think kale is new and hip, but this vegetable has been a staple here for ages.)

Potato has been a Dutch staple for centuries. Vincent van Gogh was Dutch and created his famous painting

The Potato Eaters in the Netherlands in 1885 (Image: Public Domain). It was intended to depict the reality
peasant life and dietJozef Israëls, a painter native to Groningen and whose work I saw on exhibit here,
similarly addressed the subject in his
Peasant Family at the Table

Looks good, tastes Gouda. A pilgrimage to the Netherlands is a must for any believer in Cheesus.
This heavenly shop in the center of Groningen, De Boergondiër, is my reliable local supplier.

A few Dutch traditions have achieved broader acclaim, nonetheless. Besides the success of lowlands beer brewers, which aforementioned students do seem to appreciate, one culinary success outshines the rest. Of course, I’m talking about cheese. Beautiful, delicious cheese. It’s probably my favorite thing about this quaint, rainy country.

From Gouda to Edam, several Dutch cities have world-famous names due to the cheeses that originated there. Cheese-making expertise has been shaped in the Netherlands over centuries and resulted in a range of lovely flavors, from young and creamy to aged and sharp. When it comes to buying cheese, I skip the grocery store and go straight to my favorite cheese shop in the center of Groningen, De Boergondiër, for fresh blocks of local cheese made with milk from cows who graze outdoors. My latest choice was a mildly-aged cheese that was ripened in a repurposed WWII bunker. Add some bread, and a perfect lunch requires little else.

My “very scientific research” on the Dutch population has revealed that the local folk are
tall and cheese-loving. Here I am posing with a particularly friendly research subject.

We were treated to a lovely, unusually long autumn. Near-freezing rainstorms were its down-fall
...see what I did there?

Dutch food may tend to be simple but when it comes to cheese, the natives have refined taste. Cheese is even attributed with shaping the population physiologically: some attest that this dairy tradition is to credit for the Netherlands’ abnormally tall people, as discussed in this amusing and enlightening BBC story. Did you know that the average Dutch man is 6 feet tall (185cm)? Meanwhile, the average Dutch woman reaches a height of 5ft 7in (170cm). Few other countries even come close, including the US (where men average 5ft 9.5in and women 5ft 4in).

This leads me to my very scientific conclusion that Dutch people, similar to Dutch cheese, stand literally head and shoulders above the rest.

To Ph.D., or not to Ph.D.

I once asked my Cornell University adviser why he chose to pursue a career in academia. He explained to me that after his undergrad, he was not sure what he wanted to do with his life, so he extended his education by pursuing a Master’s degree. During the course of that degree, he figured out that “people actually pay you to do this stuff”. He never left.

Sightseeing at the Burlington Earth Clock on Lake Champlain. It looks a bit like Stonehenge, but it’s actually closer to a giant sundial. The stones mark the horizon where the sun sets at the Equinoxes and Solstices each year.

Did you know that Lake Champlain also hosts a thriving yellow perch fishery? Local fishermen spend the winter on the ice catching and selling yellow perch to local restaurants. This isn’t a commercial fishery, but something closer to a “market fishery.” There are no nets, just a group of dedicated fisherman armed with recreational fishing licenses, rods, hooks, and some tasty bait. I was hooked on this great article about Lake Champlain’s “yellow gold.”

All graduate students must either choose to remain in academia or return to the “real world.” The advantages to academia are many: fulfilling work, autonomy, travel, and a flexible schedule. And yet the disadvantages can outweigh the benefits: high stress, high workload, disproportionately low pay, and the pressure to “publish or perish.”

These disadvantages are compounded by the relatively small chance of actually securing a tenured professorship. The Royal Society’s 2010 Report, The Scientific Century, estimates that only 0.45% of STEM Ph.D.’s in the UK will become tenured professors. Similarly, a mere 9.4% of 2011 life science Ph.D.’s found academic employment by graduation, according to an estimate based on National Science Foundation data.

A successful academic career can be a much longer and bumpier road than many originally imagine. The bright side? The handful of professors who have spoken honestly with me about their career trajectories seem to love their job.

No summer of mine would be complete without a trip to New York’s Adirondack State Park. This time, I skipped the field work and spent an afternoon cruising on Raquette Lake. Raquette Lake also happens to be the study site for my research on lake trout spawning phenology: do you know why lake trout don’t need a calendar to tell time?

However, statistics dictate that most graduate students will not pursue academic careers; most will enter industry, which I am loosely defining here as for-profit work in a field dedicated to delivering goods or services. While research in academia and industry can be similar, they are controlled by different forces. As Sarah noted in her blog, research in the commercial sector is driven by the short-term need for profits, while academics are pushed by the constant pressure to publish.

So how can lifelong students ease this transition from academia to the workforce? Sarah helped close this gap by taking a course on international scientific careers. I took a slightly different route, and interned with The Nature Conservancy’s Eastern Division Science team for eight weeks. The Eastern Division is responsible for scientific projects that span the eastern seaboard. Much of their fascinating work is focused on GIS (geographic information system) mapping and analysis, which they use to classify habitats types and regions of climate resilience.

I am a fish nerd, and my summer travels took me to some of the fishiest places in the Northeast. Pictured here is the Fisherman’s Memorial (also known as “Man at the Wheel”) in Gloucester, MA. Gloucester is a historical shipbuilding and commercial fishery center with long ties to the ocean. The Fisherman’s Memorial honors over 10,000 Gloucester fishermen lost at sea. Does the Man at the Wheel remind you of the guy on the fish stick box? That’s because the Gorton’s fisherman (of Gorton of Gloucester) is modeled after the memorial.

I held various summer internships throughout college, but this was my first working in a traditional office environment. I was assigned my own cubicle and worked 9 AM to 5 PM. Overall, the experience was great. I learned how to use Microsoft Access and ArcGIS, and helped create habitat guides for the Northeast Lake and Pond Classification System. The lake habitat guides will serve as a companion to the classification’s online story map: when a user clicks on a particular lake, a document will appear describing the lake type (e.g. very cold, oligotrophic lake), and its associated characteristics.

My internship ended three weeks ago, and I have been biding my time by finishing miscellaneous graduate work while I await my fate in “student purgatory,” more commonly known as a semester of thesis review. My thesis – the last barrier to graduation – is being examined and critiqued by a professor within the university, much like the journal peer-review process. I need to respond to the criticism and revise my thesis by December in order to complete my degree.

Got cod? Cape Cod is home to striking salt marshes, a historic fishery, and the ultimate summer playground for Bostonians ready to escape to the sea.

Like Gloucester, Cape Cod is also home to one of Massachusetts’s historic groundfish (cod, haddock, flounder and others) fisheries. The Northeast’s cod fishery is perhaps most famous for its crash in the 1990’s; despite more restrictive catch limits, the fishery has yet to recover. Catch limits aside, recent science indicates that climate change  might keep cod in hot water.

I am also using this time to apply to and interview for jobs in the greater Boston area. As much as I miss that salty California air, I have committed the next few years of my life to living in Beantown. But I’m not complaining – with a great transportation system, a mild winter, and fresh seafood… Cod I really ask for more? (I will leave the punny humor to Sarah from now on.)

Despite the fact that I still spend much of my time hunched over a computer, I no longer feel like a student. And yet, I have not graduated, which somewhat hinders my attempt to enter the workforce. Much like Dante’s damned souls, I am stuck somewhere in student limbo. But what’s a good party without a little limbo?

Smooth Sailing

I pushed on in my academic endeavors during the summer vacation, like Melissa, and I dedicated August to writing my thesis (more on that below). This made my sailing mini-vacation stand out as especially memorable. My good friend Carolien had invited me to join her family on their beautiful boat, which is built in the traditional style of old Dutch sailing and fishing ships. The day I arrived on board, the sun had just broken through, warming us up for a lovely weekend. Our journey took us across the Wadden Sea to the island of Schiermonnikoog – Schier for short.

Approaching the island of Schier aboard the Lemsteraken Sensatie.

Fancy taking a Dutch sailing excursion? You can! Follow this link to learn more.

Schier is one of the Wadden Islands, part of the archipelago that also includes Texel (where my parasite research took place). Although I sampled on Schier for my first project, I never got to explore beyond our study site. This time, Carolien led me on a guided tour. From the yacht harbor on the Wadden Sea side, we set out on foot across the long narrow island. Within an hour, we had passed through the island’s only town, seen the lovely dune landscape, and reached the beach and the North Sea on the other side.

Schiermonnikoog is quaint from all angles, except when viewed from underwater!
Our snorkel gear gave us a clear view - of why the North Sea isn’t known for great visibility.

A sign identified this as the “Activities Beach.” The grounded boat will be cleared up if you read on,
but I can't provide an explanation for the horse-drawn carriage. 

The trip included one very unusual surprise: when we returned to the boat, we found a harbor devoid of water. All of the boats were grounded, laying flat on the mud. I shouldn’t have been so amazed. From my field work, I know all too well that the Wadden Sea falls dry at low tide – that means the harbor too! This is where the Dutch boat design is essential. The boat’s flat bottom gives it access to shallower water than other vessels its size. And when the water disappears completely, the boat stays level, rather than tipping on its keel. (A catamaran nearby had approached less strategically. Its poor residents must have been disoriented – and unable to set down any plates and glasses – until the next high tide!)

Boats must plan ahead to arrive in their mooring places while the tide is high.
Some intentionally “park”  further away, so if anyone wants to disembark
before the tide rises, they should be ready for a slog through the mud.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the sailboat and get back to the real world. My thesis addresses the issue of the aquaculture industry being dependent upon resources that come from wild fisheries. This sounds counterintuitive, but in many cases it is true.

Aquaculture is the farming of marine or freshwater species. Countless methods exist and some of these are quite environmentally friendly, but others are extremely damaging. One particular point of controversy is the farming of carnivorous species (such as salmon). While herbivorous fish (such as tilapia), can be grown using algae as feed, carnivores do not grow well on a vegetarian diet. Instead, they are fed diets containing fishmeal and fish oil; these are generally made using wild schooling forage fish caught by industrial fisheries (such as anchovies). Since food is not converted directly into meat, growers have to put in more fish than they get out – maybe three times as much (even that is a huge improvement over some years ago)! Instead of producing more fish for the global food supply, a farm like this is converting a big amount of cheap fish into a small amount of expensive fish. Is it sustainable to catch perfectly edible, entirely nutritious, delicious even (see my herring experience) wild fish, and instead feed them to farm fish?  Many say no.

With fall looming, my brother and I spent a day in Amsterdam with family before he returned stateside. 

This issue is complex, but the news isn’t all bad. Aquaculture is a very young industry, and its rate of improvement has been very fast. Because fish oil is expensive, the industry is economically motivated to reduce its reliance, and there are many potential alternate ingredients available, like soy or algae. Many are not yet accessible or affordable in large quantities today, but the situation is rapidly changing. Still, it’s best to avoid eating farmed carnivores. If you eat seafood, opt for herbivores or highly efficient filter-feeders, which need no added food at all (like mussels and oysters). You can learn more by visiting One World One Ocean’s GoFish! Campaign. For detailed advice on which seafood is the most sustainable choice for you, consult a seafood guide. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is a good one; if you’re in the Netherlands, you can use VISwijzer.

With my deadline past, I dove right into my course on “Science and Business.” The arrival of autumn was heralded by a series of rainstorms on the first week of class. The days are suddenly shorter and colder, reminding me exactly why Melissa said lake trout don’t need a calendar. Another thing trout don’t need is raingear. I, however, am not a lake trout. With a busy fall upon me, I plan to rely heavily on both of these to get me through the semester.

Why Lake Trout Don’t Need a Calendar

Have you ever wondered why fish spawn when they do? For that matter, how do insects know when to emerge in the spring, or how do birds know when to migrate? As it turns out, two environmental factors largely control the timing these biological processes: temperature and light. Light is more accurately described as something biologists call photoperiod, or the period of time each day between sunrise and sunset.

Did you know that given a day of the year and location coordinates, you can calculate the photoperiod for anywhere on earth? Photoperiod is time spent between sunset and sunrise. The picture above shows Follensby Pond in New York State’s Adirondack Park at sunrise during Lake Trout spawning season.

Imagine a day with little sunlight and cold temperatures. Does winter come to mind? As you probably know, day length is longer in the summer and shorter in the winter. Coupling photoperiod and temperature can be used to predict the time of year. Lake Trout and many other species use these environmental cues to determine when to perform certain life history events. The timing of life history events (such as fish spawning, spring budbreak, insect emergence, etc.) is called phenology.

If light and temperature control the timing of life history events across many different species, what happens if temperature increases with climate change? I have been using historical Lake Trout spawning records and climate data from New York to answer this very question.

Before I delve into the answer, let’s talk a little bit about Lake Trout biology. Lake Trout are coldwater fish; warm water temperatures can cause them great stress, and even warmer water temperatures (< 25ºC or <77ºF), can kill them. Lake Trout are native to Alaska, Canada, and northern regions of the United States. However, climate change is predicted to eradicate Lake Trout from the southern extent of their range and areas of low elevation.

Lake Trout Salvelinus namaycush

Lake Trout generally spawn for two to three weeks from September to November, the timing of which is triggered by cooling water temperatures (8-13ºC) and shortening day length. If the late summer and early fall are particularly warm, it often takes longer for lake temperatures to cool. For this reason, Lake Trout spawn later in years with warm late summer and early fall temperatures, and earlier in years with cool temperatures during the same time period.

This means that if the climate continues to warm, Lake Trout are likely to spawn continually later in time, and populations subject to very warm conditions may stop reproducing altogether due to thermal stress and sub-optimal environmental conditions.

While climate and photoperiod determine the general timing of the spawning period, it’s likely that weather events such as wind storms may trigger Lake Trout to spawn on a shorter temporal scale. Storms are common in Montreal due to the region’s hot and humid weather. I took this photo from the balcony of my apartment.

You might be wondering, “Why should I care about this research?” A few reasons:

     1. Scientists all over the world are trying to figure out how climate change will affect earth’s biology. Research like this adds to the growing body of literature on the sub-lethal impacts of climate change on fish species and other organisms.

     2. If natural Lake Trout reproduction declines, management agencies will need to compensate by reducing Lake Trout harvest or increasing stocking of hatchery-reared fish.

     Recreational Lake Trout fisheries are substantial economic assets. Reducing harvest could also mean a reduction in the economic benefits associated with these fisheries. An increase in stocking could also increase the negative environmental effects associated with fish farming, such as water pollution.

Have I piqued your interest? This research currently comprises the second chapter of my Master of Science thesis for McGill University, and is currently being finalized for journal submission. Read again next month (or perhaps a few months after that, realistically speaking) for more information on the publishing process.

The books that have collected on my desk over the past month of thesis writing. The blue book on top is “Quantitative Fisheries Stock Assessment” by Hilborn and Walters, otherwise known as the fishery science bible.

It’s been over two years since I temporarily moved to Quebec, Canada to pursue a Master of Science in Renewable Resources at McGill University. Last week I submitted the initial version of my thesis to McGill for review. In one week, I move again, this time to the seat of the American revolutionary war: Boston, Massachusetts. Looking back, my time in Quebec has been a blur of traveling for workshops and conferences, pulling fishing nets in the Adirondacks, and long days glued to my computer.

While I prepare to finish, Sarah has decided to prolong her stay in the Netherlands at the University of Groningen to study science business and policy. Congratulations Sarah!

Several undergraduates have asked me for advice on how to get into a natural resource based graduate school program like Sarah and I have been pursuing. The advice from my two year post-undergraduate wizened self is three fold:

     1) Take a modeling class. No, not that kind of modeling.

     A working knowledge of statistical modeling is one of the most useful skills a new graduate student can possess. Already know how to use programs like R, Matlab, or Python? You are way ahead of the game. Many of these programs, like R, contain user guides for beginners, so you can also learn the basics on your own, without taking a class.

     2) Get some field or lab experience.

     Spend a summer or a semester gaining experience as a field or laboratory research technician. There are a lot of important skills to gain outside of the classroom, and there are a lot of graduate students looking for extra help gathering data. While a paid position is obviously preferable, an unpaid position can also look great on a resume.

     3) Do an independent research project.

     This could either be an honors thesis or another project carried out with a graduate student or professor. Want to take it even further? Publish your results in a peer reviewed journal and present at a conference.

Speaking of modeling, I finally caved and ordered myself a Canada Goose parka as a graduation present to myself. It’s one of the warmest winter jackets on the market. Here’s to hoping it curbs the severity of my Raynaud’s (unpleasant but generally nonthreatening circulation disorder) for the upcoming Boston winter.

I have submitted my thesis and finished my course requirements; the congratulations from happy friends and relatives have been pouring in. However, my work here is not yet done. My thesis is now in review, and I will need to address reviewer comments before submitting the final thesis in December. Furthermore, the Follensby Lake Trout management manuscript is back from review and requires modifications in line with the reviewer comments. And on top of that, I am preparing the Lake Trout spawning manuscript for journal submission. With a full time internship, and a substantial list of activities to complete on the evenings and weekends, I will also be searching for a full time job.

In hindsight, those congratulations may have been a little hasty.

Denmark My Words

Education in science at the postgraduate level tends to be directed at preparing you with skills for work in academia – even if the jobs we aim for are elsewhere. There seems to be an increasing understanding that working life may take us outside of academics and into for-profit, non-profit, or government work. To bridge that gap in awareness, I enrolled in a course on international scientific careers.

The class had an additional appeal: the tour this year focused on Danish businesses and culminated in a five-day road trip across Denmark. After Corsica, taking yet another opportunity to combine my education with travel feels like I am spoiling myself, but I have no regrets – my adventures only confirm that experience is the best teacher.

Our day off in Denmark was spent exploring Copenhagen on foot and by canalboat.

The companies led us on tours of the facilities and over the course of the week we saw a range of offices, laboratories, and factories, as well as the Fishery and Seafaring Museum (or rather Fiskeri- og Søfartsmuseet) where my group’s project was based. We also got to sit down with industry professionals and pick their brains for insight and advice. Fascinating conversations often ensued, on how to balance responsibility to the shareholders with responsibility to the environment, and the benefits and challenges of genetically modified food.

The trip crystallized my understanding of the division between the worlds of academia and industry. While academics is research, industry too is research-driven, and both fields are heavily propelled by competition. However, they are bound by different constraints. Academics must prove themselves through publications, but are free from the requirement of short-term profit-earning, and this, I believe, allows them to do work of longer-term import. In industry, that need to meet a demand can drive incredible useful innovation.

The massive sculpture “Men by the Sea” can be seen near the Danish city of Esbjerg.

My classmates from non-ocean science backgrounds couldn’t get over
how crazy/cool/scary the aquarium's wolffish were.

Summer officially began upon my return to the Netherlands, which for me means family time. While out with my cousins, we stopped at a herring stand for a traditional Dutch snack. The fishmonger deftly gutted and filleted each whole herring (so we could see its freshness first-hand) while he explained the process by which the herring is preserved.

Although Dutch herring is often called “raw,” it has actually been brined or pickled. Fishing vessels today have the capacity to immediately freeze the catch, but historically, these processes were needed to preserve the food. They also add real love-it or hate-it flavor! It can be eaten on bread with onions, but I prefer to savor the fish itself, so I placed my order for herring plain and “by the tail”. The fishmonger praised my choice: Zoals het hoort! “As it’s meant!”

Old-school Dutch snack: herring, pickled – and held by the tail. Mm!
The northern Europe herring fishery is considered sustainably managed, but its boom and bust has defined coastal communities for centuries.

I had learned in the museum in Esbjerg that drift nets were used to catch herring in in the Middle Ages. Herring populations are naturally very variable, and their boom and bust cycles guided the rise and fall of coastal civilizations in northern Europe. These days, North Sea herring are steadily fished, and generally regarded as sustainably managed. Herring are forage fish and their low position in the food pyramid means that they are of critical importance for supporting the large predators that feed on them. Since these small fish are actually more suited to supporting fisheries than their predators (like tuna, which grow and reproduce slowly), I allow myself the occasional indulgence.

In summer it stays light past 10pm. The town of Zutphen was stunning in the late evening light.

I am prepared to graduate by the end of this summer with an MSc in Marine Biology, with a focus on research. However, I’ve had another idea brewing for a while now, and I’ve officially concluded to go through with it. This fall, I’ll extend my study at the University of Groningen for a year to pursue a second focus on science business and policy. I’m thrilled that this will allow me to build on my eye-opening experience in Denmark learning about science in a business setting, and to delve into how policies guiding the sustainability of fisheries (such as the herring I discussed) are made, enforced, and monitored.

So, I’m joining Melissa, pushing on with summer work to prepare for a new autumn program!

Behind Anemone Lines

Melissa and I have dedicated many words to persuading you that marine biology isn’t all about jumping into warm clear water and looking at critters. However, sometimes, on very rare and special occasions, that is what we get to do.

Bonjour! The STARESO research station in Corsica.
Photo by Marion van Rijssel. 

Within three minutes of jumping into the water for the first time, I spotted this octopus!

The University of Groningen offers a course to marine biology masters students on Mediterranean rocky shore ecosystems. After some intensive study at home and in the classroom, my class packed our bags and headed off to the northwest coast of Corsica for two weeks. While there, we developed and carried out small research projects. 

My group designed a study to research the distribution and movement of sea anemones. Our overarching hypothesis was that interaction between individual anemones is a driving factor in how they are distributed in the environment.

Our target species was ideal: easy-to-spot coloration plus convenient location at the surface.
Maybe you don’t recognize these as anemones – they often keep their tentacles tucked inside.

Sea anemones are relatives of jellyfish, and just like jellies, anemones have stinging cells containing nematocysts, which they use for catching prey. But that’s not all: anemones including our research subject Actinia equina can be very aggressive and may also use their nematocysts to battle one another. (You can watch a video of anemones fighting here.) The title for this blog actually comes from published scientific research on this topic! (Ayre & Grosberg 2005)

We picked a study site and tracked the anemones’ arrangement to see if and how that changed over time. We also collected some for studies in the lab. We expected that anemones that were close together would move away from each other, possibly after displaying some competitive behavior.

Field data was collected by snorkeling, but we had the chance to go on a few recreational dives, too.
Here I am gearing up in my awesome borrowed (and oh-so-sexy) retro wetsuit.
Photo by Sandra Striegel.

Is it just me, or is this hermit crab the world’s cutest grumpy crustacean?
Photo by Nina Fieten.

When you’re investing money and effort in field work, it’s important to get as much data as possible in the time you have. Our free time was officially limited to just one day off, during which we took a road trip along the scenic mountainous coast, the perfect way to get a taste of the rest of the island. The rest of the time, we suited up twice a day and snorkeled out to our field site and daily replicated our lab experiment – or at least we tried to. As with all research there were some hiccups, from choppy water conditions to malfunctioning cameras. Troubleshooting is just part of the deal. We also kept busy with data entry and some analysis.

Of course, even strenuous days were joyful. When “work” is snorkeling, you know you’re living the good life! My worst real pain came from a (still relatively mild) encounter with a sea urchin, which I brushed with my hand. I’m glad I didn’t go in for a full high-five, because it turns out that urchin wasn’t my homie. It took a very painful hour for my brave and persistent friend to dig a number of wee 3mm spines out using a needle (tweezers don't work!). The last one festered out a week later.

Beautiful - BUT DEADLY. Dun dun dunnn...
Just kidding, this species will only do real damage if you're allergic!

I was stoked to stumble upon this minute yet vividly colored flatworm hiding in the algae
(near an almost-as-tiny nudibranch).

This being my first time in the Mediterranean Sea, I relished the clear water and unfamiliar species. Avid followers of the One World One Ocean Campaign will remember how much I love to find nudibranchs because they have cool “super powers.” Another special highlight was going out for a night snorkel and seeing a cuttlefish iridescing beautifully under the glow of our dive lights.

We successfully returned home with a truckload of data to report on. It turns out that part of our hypothesis was true: even though they look so sedentary (they are classified as sessile creatures after all), anemones do move. The distribution of the group that we tracked in the field changed a little bit each time we measured. Better yet, in the lab we could see an anemone move all the way across the tank within a day.

Schools of Chromis chromis were a common and lovely sight.
Photo by Marion van Rijssel. 

Undercover - er, underwater - blending in so I can take the anemone by surprise.

However, we were unable to confirm our hypothesis regarding interaction and competition. Anemones’ movement was not affected by whether or not they are near a neighbor anemone, and we never observed them acting aggressively by trying to sting one another.  Why? Maybe Bay of Calvi anemones are under less competitive stress than those in other locations or used in other studies. Maybe there are simply other factors that outweigh interaction, such as availability of food. As is often the case, we can speculate, but this brings up as many new questions as it answers old ones.

The view that greeted me every morning: Calvi, the city across the bay.
Photo by Marion van Rijssel.

My hopes to learn some French and challenge Melissa were, shall we say, dashed on the rocky shore (I mainly managed to say merci beaucoup repeatedly to the amazing institute chefs). Still, the course wasn't a total loss. This was an incredibly rewarding opportunity to gain experience conducting field work in an unfamiliar environment. It was also a milestone: I still have independent projects to do (so I'm not done yet!), but turning in my final report for this marked the end of my last Master course. And between the enriching research/travel experience, and the amazing classmates-turned-friends, an unforgettable final class it was!

Lessons from the Pond

Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec has once again completed its annual transition from a frozen wonderland to a stunning summer paradise and tourist destination. The air is hot and muggy, the Saint Lawrence River is flowing swiftly, and the trees are full and green. This is my last summer in Quebec as an MSc Candidate at McGill University, and I plan to make the most of it… that is, when I am not glued to the computer writing my thesis, which I imagine will occupy most of my hours this June and July.

Lab ice-fishing trip. Here I am using an auger to drill a hole in the ice.

Beginner’s curling lesson at the Royal Montreal Curling Club. Because when in Canada eh?

I heartily regret that it has been over two months since I last posted a blog. Graduate student life has proved extremely time-consuming of late. The harsh winter weather slowly yielded to spring, and spring brought my final thesis committee meeting, a final thesis presentation in front of the entire Department of Natural Resource Sciences, and a guest lecture for the Fisheries and Wildlife Seminar at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks.

Guest lecture at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks, New York.

I spent the past month finalizing and submitting the Follensby Pond Lake Trout manuscript and analyzing the Lake Trout spawning data that I collected last summer. In fact, I am still working on that analysis, which is slotted to become the second chapter of my thesis. My thesis, which focuses on Lake Trout management and how climate affects the timing of Lake Trout spawning, is due mid-August.

I feel as if now is a good time to wrap up what I learned from my Lake Trout management research, aside from the obvious lessons of wearing bug repellant and avoiding frostbite. The three big fishery lessons that I learned are:

    I. Restoration can be slow
Our research indicates that restoration of a very high quality recreational fishery from one that has been heavily fished could take as long as two to three decades in the absence of fishing or stocking for slow-growing fish species like Lake Trout. It’s good to remember here that Lake Trout are thought to be able to live up to 70 years, and typically start reproducing between the ages of 6 and 20 years.

To put that in some context, the marine fish Orange Roughy can live nearly 150 years while the Common Goldfish has been reported to live past 40 years. While I am on the topic, Seafood Watch recommends avoiding eating Orange Roughy due to the decline of commercial fisheries for this species.

    II. Limited entry could be the future
Fishery managers already limit angler effort in several different ways, such as seasonal restrictions (i.e. no ice fishing), size limits (i.e. no harvest of fish larger than 21”), and bag limits (i.e. maximum harvest of three fish per day per angler).

These tactics generally work pretty well, but some slow-growing species are particularly susceptible to fishing pressure and require additional stocking from fish hatcheries to maintain population size. Fish hatcheries are places dedicated to the artificial breeding and rearing of aquatic species; these facilities are often run by state governments in reference to regional fish stocking for recreational purposes. Although stocking can be a good way to increase angler catch, raising fish in hatcheries for stocking incurs its own set of problems, such negative environmental effects and the potential to spread fish disease.

Limited entry fisheries restrict the number of anglers allowed on the lake by using a lottery system or some other means. Our research suggests that limited entry systems might be another great way to maintain high abundance in a trophy fishery setting if fish are not being replaced by stocking.

Although limited entry lottery systems are commonly used in the distribution of hunting permits, they not often used in recreational fisheries management. Could limited entry be the future of recreational fisheries in North America?

    III. No one “best” management practice
Not all management practices are created equal, but they are also not created for the same purpose. Some work to maximize harvest, while others maximize the number of fish caught or the size of fish caught to create unique angling experiences. Personal opinions abound, but there is no one correct or right way to manage a fishery.

Attending the Canadian Society of Ecology and Evolution annual meeting in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. For my American readers, Saskatoon is located in the middle of Canada, north of Montana.

Saskatoon has been nicknamed the “City of Bridges” and “Paris of the Prairie”.

For more specific research details, you will just have to wait to read the manuscript once it has finished the review and publishing process. In the meantime, it’s back to thesis writing for me.

Looking for more? Check out the Solomon Lab YouTube video made in conjunction with McGill University’s Linking Action and Sustainability research series.

Seal of Approval

What is a pirate’s favorite statistical program? R! Alas, I am not a pirate.

Since the last post I’ve spent a lot of my time working on statistical analyses of my parasite experiment using a program called R. The program is extremely useful (not just for corny jokes) but I’m still a relative newbie and the smallest successes in R still feel like huge accomplishments.

I’ve returned to the small student city of Groningen and feel right back at home.

Desk work is as much a part of science as field and lab work. It happened recently that the others in my lab group were out on the mudflats doing hours of heavy lifting; meanwhile I was in the office giving my brain a statistical workout. In the evening they came back completely exhausted, and apparently rather jealous of me for having been comfortably seated all day. Meanwhile, I envied them for having gotten to experience the lovely weather instead of stats! But it’s all just a part of the research cycle.

At the Netherlands Annual Ecology Meeting, presenting some of my results during the poster session.

So far, it looks like the invasive parasite Mytilicola orientalis does have some sort of negative effect on the mussels they infect but the details of those effects aren’t all clear yet. I’ll continue working on other analyses and hope to get a clearer grasp on what the data mean. Like Melissa before me, I had the chance to share early results in a poster presentation, a great chance to network and discuss.

Once again, a fence (and my knowledge that these are wild animals) 
stood between me and my urge to snuggle the seals.

One highlight of my spring was an official visit to the seal rescue and rehabilitation facility in Groningen province. The Zeehondencrèche takes in sick and stranded harbor seals and grey seals to treat their ills and then return them to the wild. The harbor seal in particular was once threatened with extinction in this region, but thanks to a ban on hunting, a reduction in pollution, and rescue efforts such as these they have seen a huge recovery. The facility furthermore provides a wonderful opportunity for research and for public education. If you’ve been following the news, you may be reminded of the unusually high numbers of California sea lion strandings recently. Scientists suspect that young sea lions are malnourished as a result of a shift in the fish they feed on. Luckily, no similar crisis has hit northern Europe (here the biggest threat is probably a disease outbreak), but the possibility of such occurrences are one reason to continue protecting seals.

I didn’t get around to visiting the tulip fields and baby farm animals outside the city,
but even in the center signs of spring are everywhere.

I’m also taking classes again this semester, starting with “Advanced Genetic Population Modeling.” I have virtually no background in this field so it was challenging right off the bat, but totally fascinating as well. Using known genetic data – for example from humpback whales – it is possible to use modeling to answer questions about the state of a population. Among other things, researchers are working on understanding how different humpback populations are connected. From learning the theory to puzzling with the modeling program, it was a whole new perspective for me. 

At the Rijksmuseum, hats worn by 17th century Dutch whalers and a painting of a whale oil refinery.

Sound like a hodgepodge of activities? It felt like it too! On top of the work keeping me busy, several of my friends in the US made the happy decision to spend spring break visiting me here. From tasting-testing gourmet cheeses and visiting craft breweries, to exploring the museums of Amsterdam, it was a great excuse to play tourist, and the perfect way to welcome spring.

What better way to catch up on the haps with old friends than while celebrating King’s Day?

Parasite Party

Few people would let out an ecstatic cheer upon finding a mussel full of worms. So you can just leave that very special role to me.

I ended my previous post with a – dun dun dunnn – major cliffhanger. My last months on the island of Texel (along the coast of Holland) were mostly spent running around trying to gather my last bits of data. Two months before, I had exposed mussels to parasite larvae (of the invasive species Mytilicola orientalis), intending to study the parasite’s effects.

I am extremely focused (ahem... See what I did there?)

The last filtration measurements were a relief to complete, but I still had to measure, weigh, dissect, dry, and re-weigh each and every mussel in my experiment – not a small task. And I wasn’t even sure if the infection had worked! Luckily for me, I had tons of help from my advisor and lab group.

Now for the prognosis. Drumroll please …. It worked!! There were celebratory whoops coming from my lab the day I found parasites in my mussels. “Poor mussels!” you say, and I suppose you’re right. But this is important: this parasite is invasive to this area, it could have unforeseen consequences, and without this experiment we cannot determine the impact. The next step for me is to do the statistical analysis.

Parasites I found inside a mussel’s intestine, proving that the process of infecting the mussels worked!
Next up: what was the parasite’s effect?

Celebrating the parasite success in lab with a flask. You've got to live a little.

While summer on Texel was absolutely beautiful, winter is unambiguously less so. (The upside is that the short days and dreary weather could not tempt me to play hooky when I had so much to get done.) Weekend activities typically involved staying indoors as much as possible, but two outings did leave a lasting impression.

The quaint fishing town of Oudeschild has an charming museum that houses an immense collection of flotsam and jetsam gathered over the years from the Texel shore. Perusing these curiosities inspires questions about their origins, at first. But the exhibit delivered another message to my conservation-primed mind: all of these items are the waste that we, as a society, have discarded into the environment.

At this museum you can browse through all the bizarre (and bizarrely mundane)
items that have washed ashore over the years.

One particularly dramatic storm really drove this lesson home. After the skies cleared, I went out for a stroll on the beach. The storm had washed up all sorts of debris and the high tide line was littered with everything from oil bins to rubber gloves to hand sanitizer bottles.

The North Sea coast after a storm, littered with manmade trash.

What we use and dump frequently winds up in the sea. Most of it will not find its way into a museum collection of oddities with mysterious backgrounds. Most of it is simply sinking away, out of sight out of mind – or worse, being consumed by marine life.

By the time of this posting, 2015 isn’t even that new anymore. I’ve left Texel, visited California, and am getting back into the swing of things back in my university town of Groningen. There’s still a lot ahead: getting my experiment results, taking classes, attending conferences (I’m glad Melissa broke the ice on that one) – not to mention my new year’s resolution to reduce my waste and my not-too-distant graduation. Phew. I’m ready.

During winter break I went for a snorkel in Laguna Beach and contemplated 2015, from my
resolution to reduce my waste, to plans to –
gulp (cue mouthful of saltwater) – graduate.

If You Give a Grad Student a Conference

A day and a half after returning to greater Montreal, my lab group hopped in a McGill branded mini-van and drove to Ottawa for a joint conference between Canada’s fishery scientists and limnologists. Although I presented a poster at a small conference last February, this was my first time giving a talk at a conference. This was also my first trip to Ottawa, and I was looking forward to ice-skating down the famous Rideau Canal and gawking at the stone-covered Parliament building.

The door to my lab’s office space

Instead I spent 12 hours each day sitting inside a cold hotel conference center and eating at the local mall food court. To be fair to the Rideau Centre, it was the nicest mall food court I have ever seen. Kudos. However, I expected the life of a professor to be romantically exotic: traveling around the world to parts unknown to speak at conferences while tasting the local cuisine and sight-seeing, all while on someone else’s bill. The reality burst my bubble, so to speak.

Conference SWAG: name tag, information booklet, and a cool tote bag

My talk was also less rose-colored than I originally envisioned. Instead of my calm practiced speech, my typically absent fear of public speaking got the better of me; both the words coming out of my mouth and the rate of my heartbeat were too fast for my liking.

Conference highlights included drinking ridiculous amounts of coffee and listening to great presentations, like the influence of climate change on the distribution of Lake Cisco in Ontario or the biology of salmon sneaker males and their impact on the aquaculture industry. Sneakers are small males that “sneak in” or steal egg fertilizations from larger, dominant males of the same species. The mechanisms for developing into a sneaker male are partially genetic and partially environmental. I learned that the aquaculture industry cannot sell sneaker male flesh, so figuring out how to avoid the development of eggs into sneaker males can increase efficiency and output. Pretty cool, right?

Jake and I were lucky enough to make the cover The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter’s annual report. How cool is that?

One of the most interesting conference aspects was a chat that originated afterwards among a few young female graduate students about the challenges faced by women in academia. Areas of discussion ranged from the difficulty of having children during an academic career, to unequal representation among tenured professors, to specific instances of unequal treatment in a work environment. If you are interested in learning more, this topic is continually touched upon and associated with a myriad of great articles, such as Dr. Stavrakopoulou’s Female academics: don't power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed.

The point I am trying to make is that instigating discussions like this are exactly what conferences are for; conferences allow researchers to network, collaborate, discuss, and bounce ideas around.

Soaking up the sun on a winter time trip to Santa Catalina Island, part of California’s Channel Island Chain

I thought that two years of graduate school would somehow make my life path clear. Five hundred and forty-five days after walking out the door of Montreal’s Elliot Trudeau airport with suitcase in tow, all I know for sure is that my career plan involves living in a warmer climate. Strapping ice crampons onto your boots to buy groceries is not nearly as exotic as it sounds (true story). Then again, an inch of frozen rain seems mild compared to Sarah’s field work traversing wind-swept mudflats before sunrise in freezing temperatures.

My study permit and funding expires in 232 days, otherwise known as the end of August (cue dramatic music). That means I have approximately 8 months to finish the analysis on both of my lake trout related projects, write and submit my thesis, publish two manuscripts, attend at least one more conference, give two seminars, and find a job in the Boston area. Eight months is not so long when you consider the expense reports, server updates, chemical inventories, equipment purchasing, etc., that every graduate student must continually deal with to keep the lab running.

What I am trying to say is that its crunch time, or the beginning of the end of this Canadian adventure.

Infectious Curiosity

The blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) filters the water around it in order to pick out tiny planktonic particles of food. Filter feeding is very common among ocean animals because there’s so much edible matter suspended in the water column. But it’s not only the way that mussels feed - it’s also how a mussel may inadvertently take in a parasite.

Armed with a microscope and pipette, I painstakingly moved parasite larvae
from their hatching dish to the tank of their host mussel. 

In the last two posts I described how an invasive species (Mytilicola orientalis) is parasitizing the native mussels of the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands though its effect is not yet known. I managed to extract the parasites and rear their eggs for research, but that’s not even the half of it. Next I had to collect uninfected mussels and get them to take up the newly hatched parasite larvae. Then I had to let them incubate for two months, all while running tests on the fitness of the mussels.

The larvae of the parasite Mytilicola orientalis go through several life stages. This one is not even a quarter of a millimeter long; the red spot is its single eye.

An aerated container with one of my experimentally infected mussels - or at least I hoped it was infected! I won’t be sure until the study is complete.

I expect that mussels that are infected will be stressed, and they will have less energy to spend on filtering.  Therefore my hypothesis is that infected mussels will feed slower and grow slower than mussels that are free of the parasite.

To measure how fast a mussel filters, I put a certain amount of food in the water (in this case microalgae) and measure how quickly the food disappears. With these measurements I can calculate the feeding rate. This became my weekly ritual: brewing algae concoctions, fiddling with the measuring devices - which have proven to be finicky instruments - and taking precisely timed samples from each of my mussels.

This is a carefully controlled scientific experiment, but it’s also an “experiment” in the sense that we had no idea if it would actually work! My main reference was done with a different species. The only way to confirm if the infection I am studying took hold is to dissect the mussel – so I have to wait months until the experiments finish before I can actually confirm that they succeeded. This gives me lots of time to be nervous about my results!!

The illusion of the Wadden Sea at low tide: the mudflat is still barely submerged, and the hikers on the horizon seem to be walking on water.

Considering that I never ran the risk of getting frostbite in lab, though, my working conditions have been downright luxurious compared to Melissa’s fishing in Canada. In fact, once the frustrating tech troubleshooting was past, the worst part was the monotony. In order to know that a certain result is a real effect and not just a coincidence, you need to run your experiment multiple times, so I had over 100 mussels that needed not only measuring but also regular feeding and cleaning.

Sometimes, I pulled my trusty waders back on and headed onto the mudflat to help with other projects and get some fresh air. This seemed like a great idea, at least until November when I realized it was past 8 AM, the sun still wasn’t up yet, and I had volunteered to brave the wind-swept expanse of mudflat at nearly freezing temperatures.

The island of Texel is reputed to be the Netherland’s sunniest but also windiest destination. A beautiful autumn afternoon was the perfect time to explore the northern point.  

I still have much left to explore on Texel so more relaxing excursions happened on weekends. On the island’s northern point, a friend and I climbed to the windy top of the lighthouse, looked across the channel to the next island in the archipelago, and sat in a beachside café while watching kite surfers zip across the waves. In stark contrast, the southern point is a broad, shifting sandbar best reached via a footpath through the dunes and then a long walk across the sandy flats.

The southern point of Texel is an undeveloped sandbar where the ceaseless wind carves seashell sculptures in the sand.

The whole time, of course, one question remained in the back of my mind: Did my experiment work? If my mussels failed to become infected by the Mytilicola orientalis larvae, then all my tedious work may have been for naught. Stay tuned because by my next post I’ll know…

This Canadian Goose is Ready to Fly South

It has been more than two months since my last blog and Montreal’s once lush trees are mostly bare; a few orange leaves still cling to the otherwise naked branches. The overly abundant squirrel population of McGill’s Macdonald Campus also seems particularly rotund and well-fed, a sure sign of the coming winter. It is mid-November, and there is roughly another month left of the Fall 2014 semester.

Setting minnow traps in the Saint Lawrence River for McGill’s Fisheries and Wildlife Management class

The last I wrote, I was heading on a grand road trip across New York State to several fish hatcheries, a United States Geological Survey (USGS) station on Lake Ontario, and my alma mater Cornell University. The trip was a success, and I was able to procure historical lake trout spawning records from around the state for the second chapter of my thesis. I am attempting to analyze historical lake trout datasets to determine the impact of climatic variation on the timing of lake trout spawning and the quality of eggs produced. Unfortunately my data collection has resulted in hundreds of scanned PDF files which need to be checked for accuracy and converted to Excel tables, by hand. Lucky me.

I also finished working up the lake trout otoliths (used in fish aging) with more than a little help from one of the project advisers at the USGS station on Lake Ontario (thanks Brian!). We used the otoliths to finalize the Follensby von Bertalanffy growth curve, which we use to convert length to age in the population model. Lake trout are very slow growing species; some of the fish we caught are older than me. Shorter-lived fish lower on the food chain are generally considered more sustainable to harvest.

View of Lake Ontario from the USGS field station

I admit that walking the paths of the Cornell campus for the first time since graduation a year and a half ago felt strange. I know the campus so well that I could walk it blindfolded, and yet, all the passing faces are now unfamiliar. It is a place exactly the same and yet completely different from my well-cherished time there, which I find very unsettling.

This semester has been mostly work. In fact, I actually have not taken a full day off in over a month since field-work related activities (including preparation and clean-up) have occupied up every weekend in the last five weeks. I need a break, but such is the life of a graduate student. However, before field work and report writing invaded my life, I escaped Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue to have a little fun. 

To celebrate the fall, I went apple picking on nearby Île Perrot. Unlike my boyfriend, I did not grow up in the Northeast and I find apple picking a very exotic and exciting pastime. (On par with pouring maple syrup in coffee). I imagine that East coast Canadians find the of idea year-round sandal weather equally exotic.

Apple picking: who doesn’t love a couple in matching flannels?

I also played hooky on a Wednesday to go kayaking at the famous ski resort Mont Tremblant. The fall colors were at their peak and the hillsides were a beautiful collage of red, yellow, green, and orange. As an experienced ocean kayaker, I was amazing at the ease of lake kayaking; freshwater kayaks are smaller and more agile than their ocean-savvy counterparts. And there is also no need to worry about large waves or sneaky California sea lions following you. Although I sorely miss the ocean (and sunshine, and warmth, and everything wonderful about California), freshwater kayakers might be onto something good.

Lead peeping (kayaking) in Mont Tremblant; too bad that fetching sandal tan won’t last the winter

At the beginning of October, I packed up our Ford F-150 lab pickup truck (affectionately and forever named Princess) and drove to back to my field site in the Adirondacks. As you may recall from the October 2013 blog post, last year’s field work trying to catch spawning lake trout did not go as planned. In fact, I may or may not have gotten mild frostbite on my fingers last year (still a matter of discussion), the month ended with my entire body bruised and sore, and most importantly, we only caught four spawning lake trout. A disaster, I know.

This year was better. Perhaps not a wild success but not disaster material either. We caught roughly 50 spawning lake trout, which improved our population size estimate and let us estimate age at maturity. It only snowed a few times and morning temperatures never dropped below 20ºF. I am frostbite free, and ended the field work relatively devoid of of bruises and pulled muscles. Now I am back in the lab, and it’s report writing time.

A little snowy field work with my fellow graduate student Jake; all of our nets and ropes froze this night

My current report synthesizes everything we know about the lake trout population so far and details management scenario results from the population model. I have been so busy working on the report and cleaning up from the field that everything else I should be working on has fallen behind.

I would be nice if this blog was filled with witty anecdotes, hilarious stories, or tales of exciting adventures from the field (we caught a few big pike… does that count?). Unfortunately the last few months, while busy and travel-filled, has consisted almost solely of work. And eating more Timbits – Canadian donut holes from Tim Hortons – than I ever recommend eating in one sitting. Perhaps Sarah can spice up my life by sending me some of those “absurdly adorable baby seals ” (her words, not mine) from Ecomare in Texel?

The skies overhead have been filled with thousands of Canada geese traveling south for the winter. I do not blame them. It’s almost time for me to join my feathered brethren and fly south as well. Next Friday I am traveling to Boston to spend time with Tory. We will then travel back to upstate New York for Thanksgiving. Just a few days after that, I am flying home to California to enjoy a little winter sunshine. Unfortunately that sunshine will also include long periods of time spent at the computer working each day.

C’est la vie étudiante de troisième cycle.

Mud and Guts

Sometimes when you want to discover something new you have to get your hands dirty. That’s how it is these days with my research in the parasite lab. I’m in the Netherlands on the island of Texel studying a parasite called Mytilicola orientalis. (Try saying that 10 times fast.) Parasites can’t survive alone so they rely on a host, who may be harmed by the parasite’s presence. Although my work can seem a bit gross, the parasite doesn’t have to be: this species infects shellfish only and it cannot hurt humans.

I know I promised galoshes but I ended up going all-out and donning a full wading suit. It’s all the rage in mudflat fashion. In my hand is a giant oyster. 
Photo by Jarco Havermans, NIOZ.

Mytilicola orientalis is a type of copepod. That means that it is a distant relative of crabs, lobsters, and shrimp. But this species doesn’t look like its cousins. Mytilicola has evolved to live in the guts of oysters and mussels. In there, it is safe and sheltered, and it has easy access to food, all provided by the mussel.

Unlike its relatives, Mytilicola is shaped like a worm, allowing it to live inside mussels’ intestines. It’s never more than a centimeter long, and it can’t infect people! Those two strands on its tail are egg sacs. Photo by Anouk Goedknegt, NIOZ.

The Pacific oyster has a long history with Mytilicola orientalis. But since the oyster’s introduction to the Wadden Sea some decades ago (as I described in the link here), the parasite hopped over to a new host. It now infects the native blue mussel as well. So now, the Dutch mussel species might be facing a challenge it never has before.

Very little is known about this tiny critter and what it actually does. Mytilicola are at most 1 centimeter long. That sounds small but to a mussel it’s very large, probably very annoying, and maybe even painful.

To the untrained eye, the inside of a mussel looks like a ball of snot, especially when you smush it between microscope slides like I did. With some practice you can learn to distinguish the various organs.

The first step is to actually get some Mytilicola to study. I get them from wild mussels that are already infected. To do that I go out onto the mudflats, armed with waders and buckets. By now I’m pretty accustomed to coming back soaked by saltwater or rain, and half-covered in mud.  

The next step is to go into lab and dissect the mussels. Sorting through the slimy organs and squeezing them between microscope slides can leave you feeling smelly for the rest of the day, but this is the only way we have to extract the Mytilicola from the host. After I’ve done all this, it’s finally time to study the parasite!

Now that I have the Mytilicola I need for the study, I can finally get started with setting up my experiment. There hasn’t been any research on the effects of the parasite on the mussel yet, so the parasite group at the NIOZ (the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, where I'm earning school credit as a Masters student intern) will be the first. It’s that - the possibility that you’ll find out something new, that nobody has ever known before - which makes all the hard work worth it.

I won’t mince words: the baby seals are so cute I just want to squish them. Fortunately they are being rehabilitated and will be released back into the wild, well away from my smothering attempts at love.

When I wasn’t in lab, I took advantage of living where I do. Texel is home to Ecomare, a rescue and rehabilitation center for sick and stranded seals. In addition to getting to “ooh” and “ahh” over the absurdly adorable baby seals, they have a number of other fun educational exhibits about the local marine wildlife.

The Danube River runs right through Budapest and along the grandiose Hungarian Parliament building.

Straying further from home, I hopped over several international borders before summer ended for a visit to Hungary. There I admired the stunning city of Budapest and marveled at the great spectacle of sights and sounds that is Sziget, one of Europe’s biggest music festivals.

At the festival Sziget I explored the Luminarium, an immersive experiential piece of art. I just wished the tent I slept in was this nice. Photo by Kat Stroehm.

Speaking of dirty, festival camping may not involve mussel guts but mud is nearly impossible to avoid. So there you have it: the grossest part of studying a parasite can be compared to a music festival on a rainy day.


Testing the Waters in the Netherlands

I set foot in Groningen for the first time amidst a swarm of other college-age people, all getting off the train at this northernmost outpost of the Netherlands. A true university city as well as a classic Dutch town, Groningen is full of young energy and old architecture. 

My first visit to my new home lasted for about 24 hours and led me from a denial state to the dawning realization (on my 24th birthday, no less) that I would indeed be moving across the country and Atlantic for graduate school. While there, I saw the labs, signed the papers, found a room - and with that, it suddenly became real. Happy birthday to me!

After two inspiring years working as the Coordinator of Marine Research for MacGillivray Freeman's One World One Ocean Campaign, I’m venturing back into the academic world. Soon I'll be making a bittersweet departure to start this new chapter - entering the marine biology master’s program.

The biggest reason I chose to study in Groningen was the mild weather it's so famous for... Okay, no. It's going to be cold and wet. And yet, maybe it will rain as much there as it would if I were living in a tropical rainforest.

I'm thrilled to be based in Europe because a number of critical marine conservation issues are being addressed now right here, from fisheries subsidies, sea level rise, cetacean captivity and marine debris. Living in the Netherlands at this time offers me the chance to be part of the debate - and resolution - of many of my generation's environmental challenges. Of course, another draw of studying here is that I have roots in the Netherlands allowing me to be near my extended family.

Some of the other things I'm looking forward to in this new adventure are:
• Ice skating on canals in winter (hoping they freeze over this year!), and tulip fields in spring.
• Refreshing my fluency in Dutch.
• Abandoning the car and using bicycle as my primary mode of transportation. 
• I’m also looking forward to cheese. Eating it, mainly.
• Hagelslag. Not familiar with it? It’s chocolate sprinkles eaten on buttered bread. For breakfast.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what adventures I may immerse myself in – but between conducting marine science research and traipsing through Europe during breaks, I’m sure there will be much to share!

Pass the Poutine, s’il vous plait.



The French Canadian specialty of golden, grease-sodden fries topped with rich, dark gravy and cheese curd beckoned my taste buds. I had never heard of poutine, but still tried it.  As a savory bite of fried potato dropped to my tongue, I thought, “Montreal will be a good change for me.”

Photo by bhamsandwhich via Flickr, Creative Common License

I recently moved to earn a Master of Science degree in Renewable Resources. I will try to create a trout fishery management model for a land-locked lake in New York State; I could not be more excited.

I am a novice in the field of fishery management.  My undergraduate research at Cornell University concerned seasonal variation of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, more commonly known as the frog-killing fungus.  But the difference between a leopard frog and a pickerel frog is of no use when attempting to learn calculus-based fishery models. I feel as if my head is barely above water.  Good thing I have my three faithful goldfish – Butter, Ginger, and Awkward Fish – for moral support and encouragement as I dive head first into the world of fisheries.

The best and worst part about being a graduate student is the field work.  While studying amphibians, I spent many chilly nights shivering in muddy waiting for elusive bullfrog. While trudging around in muddy water in the early spring is cold, sitting in an aluminum boat for hours while rain soaks your clothing is even colder.  Thus describes my experience with fishery field work. Weather can be a finicky companion while performing field work, but nothing beats being engulfed by unspoiled nature.

As much as I may wish it otherwise, moving to Quebec has not been entirely scenic cityscapes and delectable Canadian food.  When I moved into my little studio apartment, I was greeted by a family of mice, hordes of mosquitoes, and hot, muggy weather.  I never truly appreciated the movie Mousehunt (1997) until I waged my own frustrated battle against the charming rodents.  Is it actually possible for a few mice to drive someone insane?  Based upon my limited experience and newfound mouse paranoia, the answer is a resounding “yes.” 

I am trying to enjoy the summer weather before the infamously cold Montreal winter threatens to send me sprinting back towards southern California’s sunshine. Fingers crossed (while I still have them), that I do not turn into an icicle this winter.

I have high hopes that the coming year will bring heaps of poutine, my first ice fishing experience, scuba certification, and French proficiency (or, at least, the ability to mumble more than a few mispronounced words).  I was looking for a new adventure, and I have found it.  Grad school, je viens!

Studying the World’s Rarest and Smallest Dolphin

This week, we are focusing our attention on another graduate student researcher abroad, Lindsay Wickman. Read on to hear about this marine biologist’s work to study and protect Hector’s dolphin in New Zealand!

Did you know that the land of the long white cloud is also home to the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin? The critically endangered Māui dolphin averages a mere 4.5 feet in length and is only found off the west coast of New Zealand's North Island. In 2010/2011, scientists estimated that the shrinking population was comprised of roughly 55 individuals over the age of one.

Hector’s dolphin mother and calf. Photo credit: Lindsay Wickman

Māui dolphins were recognized as subspecies of the more abundant Hector’s dolphin in 2002. Although the two subspecies are closely related, geographic and genetic isolation has resulted in small differences between each subspecies’ skeleton. The more abundant subspecies of Hector’s dolphin, which numbers between 12,000 and 18,500 individuals, is found in the coastal waters of New Zealand’s South Island.

In 2008, the New Zealand Department of Conservation created the West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary to help protect these small, endangered cetaceans. The sanctuary restricts activities associated with acoustic seismic surveys and seabed mining. In addition, the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries has set fishing restrictions on set nets, drift nets and trawls over much of the sanctuary’s range. Given current fishing restrictions, scientists recently predicted that the Māui dolphin population has fallen to 43-47 individuals, approximately 10 of which are mature females.

So why are Māui dolphins continuing to decline? These petite, pale grey dolphins are typically seen swimming close to shore in shallow water in small groups or pods. According to the New Zealand Department of Conservation, this behavior means that Māui dolphins are affected by human coastal activity, and are at risk of ingesting marine trash and being hit by boat propellers. Most significantly, they are threatened by fisheries entanglement: dolphins caught fishing nets often drown. In addition to human threats, Māui dolphin are at risk of disease, predation and small population effects such as low genetic variability and variability in yearly survival and reproductive success. 

Hector’s dolphins are found off the coast of New Zealand’s South Island, near beaches like the one pictured above on the Otago Peninsula. Photo credit: Melissa Lenker

The good news is that Māui dolphin research and conservation isn’t starting from scratch. Although Māui dolphins were recognized as a sub-species just 14 years ago, scientists have been researching Hector’s dolphin for decades. This means that scientists already have a great research database to jumpstart conservation efforts.

I had the opportunity to chat with Lindsay Wickman, a marine biologist and graduate student studying Hector’s dolphins at the University of Otago, about her research and what it means for the conservation of this well-studied species. Before starting her Master of Science, Lindsay interned with the Department of Conservation to enhance Māui dolphin media and communications. Read on to hear about Lindsay’s research and life as a marine biologist!

Melissa Lenker: How did you get into this field? Have you always been interested in marine biology?
Lindsay Wickman: I have been interested in marine biology since the age of eight. I grew up in land-locked Tennessee, but our school mascot was a dolphin. Our school slogan was “we can’t hide our dolphin pride!” As silly as it sounds, that’s what first sparked my interest in the ocean and marine mammals. When I graduated from high school, I went to the University of Miami and majored in marine science and biology.  I found my current place at the Otago University Marine Science Department’s Marine Mammal Lab after a semester abroad. 

ML: What kind of research are you working on right now?
LW: I am currently involved in the Otago University/NZ Whale and Dolphin Trust long-term study of Hector’s dolphins in Banks Peninsula. By photographing unique marks like the ones seen below, we can identify individuals and track them over time. This technique is called photo-ID, and we use this data to count how many dolphins use the area, determine social structure, and estimate parameters like survival rate. 

Researchers like Lindsay use unique marks on Hector’s dolphins’ dorsal fins to identify individuals. Photo credit: Steve Dawson

The marks can help determine population parameters such as abundance, social structure and survival rate. Photo credit: Steve Dawson

Not all dolphins have these marks. The proportion of individuals that have these distinct markings is called the mark rate. Dolphins get these marks through interactions with others (e.g., play or aggression), predators (like shark bites), and from non-fatal encounters with fishing gear. In 1988, the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary was established to protect dolphins from unsustainable set netting. The sanctuary has had positive impacts on the population. However, it’s a catch-22 – since fewer individuals are becoming entangled, fewer of them have marks, and this may make them harder to study.  This brings us to my main research questions:

  1. What is the current mark rate of Hector’s dolphins at Banks Peninsula?
  2. If mark rate has declined, what are the implications for our ability to monitor how well the population is doing?

ML: How does your research influence dolphin conservation efforts?
LW: We may find that as mark rate declines, population changes may become harder to detect. For example, if survival rates are imprecise, it may take years longer to detect a population decline. In some of these populations, it may mean we need to refine photo-ID methodology or find alternatives for monitoring population change. Additionally, if we do find that mark rate has declined, it may lend further support to the success of the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary in reducing dolphin encounters with fishing gear, which could bolster the credibility of using Marine Protected Areas to protect marine mammals.

ML: What kind of data do you collect?
LW: When we do surveys and find a group of dolphins, we stop and take photos of the dolphins’ dorsal fins. Usually, we purposely target dolphins with marked fins to ensure we have a good photo of each marked individual. However, for my research, I take pictures of each group of dolphins randomly, not paying attention to which dolphins are marked or not. By shooting randomly, I can determine mark rate as the ratio of photos showing marked dolphins to total photos taken.

Lindsay taking pictures of Hector’s dolphins in the field. Photo credit: Will Rayment

ML: What are the best and worst aspects of field research?
LW: The best! Hector’s dolphins are a joy to see in the wild, and every day in the field is different! I’m also thankful for beautiful scenery, amazing wildlife (penguins, seals, and others), getting to work with my talented fellow lab members, and learning new skills like boating.

The worst! Non-marine scientists may think I spend most of the day with the dolphins, but actually we spend most of the day looking for them! Some days, we may find very few dolphins, if any at all. Field days can be tiring and long. After an early wakeup, we may be on the water for up to ten hours. Once off the water, there are often hundreds of photos to sort through before dinner and bed. It’s an intense time, but extremely rewarding.

Hector’s dolphin. Photo credit: Steve Dawson

ML: What can citizens in New Zealand and abroad do to help conserve Māui dolphins?
LW: New Zealand citizens should write to the Minister of Primary Industries about their concern for the species and their support for a ban on set netting out to 20 nautical miles throughout the Māui dolphin’s range.  If you live abroad, your voice will still be heard!

Choose seafood caught using dolphin-friendly methods, like line- and trap-caught fish. Avoid fish caught using set nets or trawls. Also, tell your friends! You can also subscribe to the Department of Conservation’s Māui watch newsletter and learn more about the campaign to end set netting in Hector’s/Māui habitat.

University of Otago campus where Lindsay is a graduate student in the Marine Science Department’s Marine Mammal Lab. Photo credit: Melissa Lenker. 

ML: Do you have any advice to aspiring marine biologists considering graduate school?
LW: When picking a lab, talk to current students about their experience with their advisors and the lab culture in general. Keep in mind that you’ll have a close relationship with your fellow students and advisors, so personalities should match! Have a look at past graduates, and the kinds of jobs they’ve gained. Choose a lab group that matches both your research interest and your ethics. Lastly, make sure you choose a project you’re passionate about. While advisors can provide tremendous support, graduate school is primarily self-motivated, so you need to bring your own enthusiasm. 

Publish or Perish

Montreal’s winter has been characteristically cold. I am currently defining a “warm” day as any day with a forecasted high above 0ºF. Above freezing outside? You might as well slap on a bathing suit.

If you are thinking that this weather is mighty cold for a girl from southern California, you are correct. To be completely honest, I have been avoiding most travel outside unless it is completely necessary. I even ate scrambled eggs for dinner several nights in a row because I didn’t want to walk to the grocery store in sub-zero temperatures. Sarah, my fellow Californian compatriot, seems to have similarly shunned the outdoors on her temporary island home of Texel due to the dreary winter weather.

Despite the cold, there are some perks to the frosty winter, such as this beautiful sunset over the
Saint Lawrence River 
in my adopted Quebec town of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue.

I don’t recommend shutting yourself in during winter months; my gym record has been appalling and you can’t live off of peanut butter forever (but I can try). However, the upside of being a winter-time recluse is that my work productivity has increased because I have nothing to do but work. Aside from some minor bumps like a fried laptop motherboard and a three day fever, I have been chugging away on the Follensby Pond manuscript.

Another winter perk? Cross country skiing in McGill’s Morgan Arboretum.

There is a saying in academia: “publish or perish”. It refers to the necessity of publishing in order to receive grants and other funding, without which, academics cannot continue their research. As a general rule of thumb, graduate level research should be both publishable and published. I spoke about publishing briefly in my blog post from last January, but it is not a subject to be glossed over.

My undergraduate research adviser gave me some great advice while I was writing my first manuscript: structure the paper like a wine glass. The lip of the glass is the introduction, which starts dialogue broadly and gradually tapers towards the subject of the paper. The stem is the methods and the results, which are narrowly focused on the research topic at hand. The base is the discussion, which begins tightly focused on a discussion of the paper’s results, and widens again to discuss the broader applications of the research. (Despite the analogy, drinking wine while writing isn’t particularly helpful, sorry).

Remember, the structure of a paper is like a wine glass.

Last to arrive are the acknowledgements, references, tables, figures and appendices. The acknowledgements contain a short paragraph thanking funding sources and anyone who particularly helped with the project. This oft-glossed over section can be quite funny, and is occasionally worth the read.

When not working and locked within my heated apartment, I have been traveling. There are many perks to being a graduate student, such as spending years of your life researching a topic simply because you love it, or frequently being on the receiving end of free food (so much pizza). However, having a flexible schedule is by far the best perk of all. I managed a day trip to Ottawa and finally toured the picturesque, stone-covered Parliament building, in addition to eating my first Canadian Beaver tail pastry. Beaver tails are a bit like warm, extra buttery American elephant ear cookies, often topped with cinnamon sugar or Nutella.

Standing in front of Canada’s Central Government based on Parliament Hill in Ottawa

Beaver tail shops line Ottawa’s Rideau Canal and serve as the perfect snack for cold, hungry ice skaters

I also spent a week in Boston working, visiting my boyfriend, and exploring potential internship opportunities for my thesis review semester. Unfortunately, that particular trip to Boston also included a midnight trip to the emergency room and vomiting on an 8 hour Greyhound bus ride from Boston to Montreal. It’s a long story.

Two days after returning from Boston, I headed south in the ever-stylish McGill minivan for an Adirondack research conference. The conference was held in a classic, Adirondack lodge complete with log woodwork and blazing fireplaces. I had a fantastic trip, but my time there was short. Less than 12 hours after returning to my beloved apartment in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, I was en route to an aquatic limnology conference in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal.

Presenting my research at the annual Group for Interuniversity Research in Limnology and
Aquatic Environments
symposium in the Laurentian Mountains. I made the Twitter feed!

Between both conferences, I networked, listened, and ate for four days straight. I learned about the effects of increasing dissolved organic carbon on aquatic food chains, and the benefits of building your own small scale PIT tag (used to uniquely identify fish) readers. And thanks to the all you can eat buffets, I also learned how to make the Quebec specialty pouding chômeur (unemployment pudding), which is more or less cake baked with maple syrup. It tastes amazing.

The last month and a half has been a whirlwind of traveling, working, and avoiding time outdoors. However, spring is on its way and the workload will only increase from here until I submit my thesis in mid-August. As the end grows nearer, I find myself looking increasingly towards the future. Is there a PhD in my future, or perhaps law school? Or finally joining the workforce like many of my peers? The uncertainty is driving me a little crazy, but I am constantly trying to remind myself that life is about the journey, not the destination.

Moose Spaghetti, Surprise Rock Climbing, and Other Summer Adventures

I have had a whirlwind summer of traveling, research, and fun. As you may remember from my last blog, I spent the month of May and early June gillnetting for lake trout in New York State’s Adirondack Park. After the spring field season, I worked up the spring field data and moved into a beautiful new apartment next to McGill University’s Macdonald Campus.

My body did not have time to recover from field work and the heavy lifting of moving before my family took me on week-long vacation to Quebec City. Quebec’s capital city, a French outpost founded in 1608, exudes a distinctly European vibe with winding cobblestone streets, cafes, and horse-drawn carriages. Whereas Montreal is roughly bilingual, Quebec City is conspicuously French.

Quebec City

View of Quebec City from the Citadel

Quebec City boasts one of North American’s largest waterfalls: Montmorency Falls. For adventurous tourists, there is a “via ferrata” on rock face next to the waterfall. Via ferrata, which translates to “iron road” in Italian, is basically rock climbing for dummies; iron rings are drilled into the rock for handholds so anyone who is physically fit can scale a cliff.

As is expected of attractions near Quebec City, sections of the Montmorency Falls website are completely in French with no English translation. Being relatively competent in basic French, I translated portions of the website and decided I wanted to sign up for the via ferrata… which I thought was simply a steep hike from my (poor) French translation. So you can imagine my surprise as I spent my 23rd birthday suspended several hundred feet over Montmorency Fall’s rock face, with churning rapids waiting below should I fall. The lesson here? Use Google translate.

Montmorency Falls

Climbing Montmorency Falls outside of Quebec City


A quick congratulatory selfie at the top of Montmorency Falls to commemorate my climb

My time in Quebec City was well spent. I snacked on cheese, smoked sausage, ice cider, and currant wine on Quebec’s agro-tourism island, the Île d'Orléans. I also attended the Fête nationale du Québec festivities, which celebrate Quebec’s founding and is roughly equivalent the 4th of July in the United States.

At a fromagerie with my sister

My sister and me enjoying smoked sausage and fresh cheese at a fromagerie on the Île d'Orléans

I toured the Citadelle de Quebec on my last morning in Quebec City. The Citadelle is an impressive stone military installation dating back to the 17th century. More impressive, is that the Citadelle remains operational despite its 400-plus year age and houses Quebec’s well-known Royal 22e Régiment. Back in Montreal, I attended the Montreal Jazz festival, and watched Montreal’s annual International Pyrotechnics (fireworks with paired music) competition.

Batisse the goat and the Royal 22 Régiment

Batisse the goat is the official mascot of the Canadian Force’s Royal 22e Régiment, located at the Citadelle de Quebec

Montreal Jazz Festival

Enjoying bustle of the Montreal Jazz Festival

At the end of my family vacation, I flew straight from Montreal to California to spend the month of July home in Laguna Beach. While in California, I hiked in the Sierra Nevadas, climbed Potato Chip rock in San Diego, and visited old friends, all while continuing to work on my research. I flew back to Montreal at the end of July only to leave a week later for Boston and camping trip in southern Vermont. I worked in the lab for another two weeks before leaving for another hydroacoustic survey of Follensby Pond in the Adirondacks to estimate the lake trout population size with sonar.

On Potato Chip Rock

Potato Chip Rock on the Mount Woodson Trail in Poway, California

Next week I leave for a road trip across New York State that will take me to two fish hatcheries, a United States Geological Survey field station on Lake Ontario, and my beloved alma mater Cornell University.

Despite the fact that my blog reads like an advertisement for Quebec tourism, my research has continued steadily this summer. I have spent more than a month in the Adirondacks doing field work, worked up most of the data collected this spring, finished revisions on my amphibian-Bd paper (recently published), and continued to research lake trout spawning timing for the second chapter of my thesis.

As I sit here eating moose spaghetti and drinking maple syrup flavored coffee (I kid you not), I am truly thankful for an amazing summer of adventures equal parts Canadian and American. Let the Fall 2014 semester commence, or as the 10th incarnation of Doctor Who would say, “Allons-y!”

Island Invasion

In the 1960s, aquaculturists in Europe had seen the native European oysters (scientifically known as Ostrea edulis) decline and were looking for a new species to farm. The Pacific oyster seemed perfect: it succeeded in trials and it was unable to reproduce on its own in the chilly waters of the North Sea… Or so they thought. It turns out that the species thrives here, and so it began to spread.

Sarah on an oyster reef

Repping One World One Ocean during a warm day of field work. Although tourists often stop to ask our research team if we’re gathering dinner, these samples of mussels and oysters (and parasites!) are for experiments.

The Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) in northern Europe is a classic example of an invasive species: it is found in a region that is far outside of its normal range, and it competes with native species that are accepted here, such as the blue mussel (Mytilus edulis). While the Pacific oyster was introduced to these waters intentionally, its expansion was unforeseen. As is so often the case with invasive species, by the time anyone noticed, it was too late to stop it.

Luckily, unlike some invasives, the oyster isn’t extremely destructive for the local ecosystem. In fact, in some ways it has been beneficial. As oysters grow, they create a reef structure that creates a habitat for many other species. And (so far) it has not posed a serious threat to the blue mussel.

Mixed bed of native blue mussels and invasive Pacific oysters

A mixed bed of native blue mussels and invasive Pacific oysters (also home to lots of snails and more) along the Wadden Sea shore of Texel.

However, a newer possible threat has emerged. It seems that when the Pacific oyster was introduced, it was infected with a parasite called Mytilicola orientalis. (These Latin names just roll off the tongue, don’t they?) I’ll call it Mytilicola for short.

The problem is that Mytilicola no longer infects only oysters; it now also infects the native blue mussels – and nobody knows what kind of effect it might have! My job now is to help figure out what that is. To answer this question, I recently moved to Texel, an island in North Holland that serves as home base for the NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. In total, I’ll spend six months doing research in the parasite lab and earning credit towards my Masters degree in Marine Biology at the University of Groningen.

Looking across the water to the mainland

Even on stormy days Texel is beautiful. The distance from the mainland to the island is just over 2.5 miles – but it’s a whole world away.

Exploring my new home in the sunny summer months has been a beautiful adventure. It’s always hard to compare beaches here to what I’m used to in Southern California but I can never complain about living on a coastline – much less a small island where I’m surrounded by water. A three-minute stroll from home takes me within view of the Wadden Sea. The beach on the island’s opposite shore faces the North Sea and is just a scenic twenty-minute bike ride away.

Swimming in the harbor

Summer, sunshine, swims – sometimes it almost felt like I was back home in California.


A sea nettle drifting in the harbor alongside a dock overgrown with algae.

I’ve also already spent some time in the field. Just like for my previous project involving diatoms, I have to go out onto the mudflats, but instead of staying on the soft sediment, this time I’m looking for the oyster and mussel beds. These solid reefs are where we collect the shellfish (and the parasites inside them) that I will use in my studies.

One highlight from my summer was trying a Dutch-ified version of a California hobby: stand-up paddle boarding! SUPping along our Laguna Beach coast was one of my favorite things to do with my One World One Ocean colleagues – I never thought I’d be doing it on a lazy river just a stone’s throw away from a field of cows!


SUPping: a visit to the rural back-country of the Netherlands gets a California twist.

Troost, Karin. 2010. Causes and effects of a highly successful marine invasion: Case-study of the introduced Pacific oyster Crassostrea gigas in continental NW European estuaries. Journal of Sea Research. Volume 64 pages 145-164. Link.

Summertime Living: After the Itching Stops

Didn’t think I would survive another month-long foray catching lake trout eh?

I battled agonizing 4:00 AM alarms, plague-like hordes of mosquitos, and winds nearly 40 mph less than gale-force to bring you this blog. It is with great regret that I inform my readers that I do not in fact look like the ripped Greek god Hercules after one month of pulling gillnets. But I think we all know that rippling muscles are overrated; in the immortal words of Justin Timberlake, hand callouses are what really brings sexy back.

Follensby Pond at its finest. 

For those of you keeping track, I managed to eat three boxes of grape nuts and 4-6 jars of peanut butter in the last month. I am utterly convinced that every single one of those calories was converted into muscle for my burgeoning six-pack abs (okay, more like a two-pack, if you squint a bit).

The official non-food related tally is 115 lake trout caught, 102 lake trout released with internal PIT tags, three lake trout recaptured, and 17 more pairs of otoliths collected for the von Bertalanffy age/length growth curve.

We dissect lake trout that do not survive the gillnetting process for tissue samples, otoliths (ear bones), and stomach contents. This particular SANA (short for Salvelinus namaycush) had a stomach full of invertebrates.

The official non-food related tally also includes approximately two dozen mosquito bites. If graduate school has taught me anything, it is that female anatomy is poorly adapted to urinating in the woods when in the midst of a hungry mosquito blizzard. Enough said.

Those poorly placed mosquito bites have stopped itching, which means it’s time to get back to work. My current post-field work to-do list involves recoding the population model R script to incorporate angler effort, investigating the various ways to calculate age-dependent natural mortality, analyzing historic lake trout spawning data, reworking growth curves to include the recent field data, and other tedious tasks like filing expense reports and fixing ripped gillnets. Fishing sounds like more fun right? I think so too.

Setting a gillnet anchor in my survival suit during a particularly steamy sunrise.

Montreal is at its finest with sunny weather, farmers’ markets, summer festivals, and café terraces packed with locals and tourists alike. The sheer number of summer festivals in Montreal rivals even that of Sarah’s Amsterdam , and I have a feeling Amsterdam knows how to party. Last weekend I ditched my computer screen for a weekend downtown.

Summer yachts passing through the historic Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue canal.

The highlight of my journey was undoubtedly a side by side taste test of Montreal’s most famous bagels: sesame bagels from St-Viateur Bagel and the Fairmount Bagel Factory. Locals are divided as to which shop makes better bagels. It’s a surprisingly emotional issue (think USC vs. UCLA) and everyone seems to have an opinion. The verdict? They taste exactly the same.

Left: the seseme seed bagel from the Fairmount Bagel Factory.
Right: The seseme seed bagel from St-Viateur Bagel.


In other news, I am moving into a beautiful new apartment this weekend. My faithful goldfish are coming too. Given that one gallon of water weighs eight pounds, my goldfish tank holds twenty gallons, I do not own a car, and my new apartment is on the third floor of an elevator-less apartment building, how many street blocks and flights of stairs will I walk in order to bring every piece of the aquarium setup over separately? Cross your fingers for me.

In more exciting news, the pre-press abstract for my paper (citation follows) on the seasonal variation of amphibian fungal disease chytridiomycosis is online. Check it out here .

Lenker MA, Savage AE, Becker CG, Rodriguez D, Zamudio KR (2014) Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis infection dynamics vary seasonally in Upstate New York. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms. doi:10.3354/dao02760

Next week I am vacationing with my family in Quebec City and then heading back to California for the month of July. Summer is the best.

Orange and Every Other Color

May is coming to a close and I'm reflecting on a very memorable month, full of both long days at the office as well as springtime revelry. One of the highlights was a two-week stint volunteering in the Amsterdam headquarters of The Black Fish.

The Black Fish is a non-profit ocean conservation organization focused on ending illegal and destructive overfishing. I had first heard of them while I was still working at the One World One Ocean Campaign and, since they're based in the Netherlands, I had hoped my relocation would bring a chance to work with them.

Joining the fight against illegal and destructive fishing at The Black Fish headquarters.

During my time with The Black Fish, I had the opportunity to do a wide range of tasks to help prepare for the upcoming launch of a brand new program: the Citizen Inspector Network.  Through this initiative, ordinary people eager to make a tangible contribution to conservation can dedicate two weeks to receive training and then visit European ports to collect fishery data. Where Citizen Inspectors encounter illegal activities, the evidence they gather can be used to advocate for better policy and enforcement and to prosecute those violating the law, filling in a major gap in fishing industry oversight.

My little venture outside of academia, working with the inspiring team at The Black Fish, was energizing. It left me with a refreshed appreciation for innovative environmental activism, and was a perfect reminder of just why I've spent so much time working to become an effective ocean advocate.

It wouldn't be a Dutch spring without blooming tulips.

Leave it to the Dutch to build a float of flowers featuring a large cow's behind on a motorbike.

Spring in the Netherlands is full of holidays and cultural activities. Of course, the country is abloom with tulips of all colors, the flower markets are bustling, and floats decorated in blossoms parade down the streets. In the aftermath of the unusually warm winter, the tulips came very early this year and floats were filled with other flower types - but that didn't stop the season from being vividly colorful nonetheless! 

There's much more to Dutch springtime festivities than flowers, such as the celebration of the monarch's birthday. Since the Queen recently passed the crown to her son, I joined the nation in celebrating the first King's Day in living memory! I got to see the festivities in their full Amsterdam splendor. People pour into the streets, parks, and canals to set up market stalls, buy second-hand treasures from one another, play games, and engage in general merrymaking. The sea of orange, everywhere you look, completes the effect.

In Amsterdam, celebrating my first King's Day! Also, everyone else's first King's Day!

You would be forgiven for mistaking this for the world's greatest clownfish convention.

As if that isn't enough, we also had Memorial Day followed by the big Liberation Festival, to honor all the lives lost in war and to celebrate the country's release from German occupation after World War II. Free concerts are hosted in all the big cities and people head out to enjoy a day of music and sunshine. 

Somehow, in between all of these nation-wide parties, I also had to prepare for a big move. I've now officially left Groningen to spend six months conducting research on the island of Texel. I've joined a team of researchers studying parasites (yum!) and I will investigate the effects of an invasive foreign species that has infected the local mussels.

Texel is no tropical island but with a backyard view like this I think I'll manage just fine.

So, while my diatom days are now behind me, the time for mudflat walking is about to resume. That means that soon I'll be joining Melissa again in the Galoshes Club (which is totally a thing). This summer, expect new stories of me falling in the mud!

Field Work: Day Four

I have traded in my blue jeans and hiking boots for plastic coveralls and knee-high waterproof boots. That’s right; I’ve abandoned the comforts of a warm desk for early mornings catching lake trout in the wilds of the Adirondacks, as part of a multi-year project for The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter. You might be wondering why we want to catch more lake trout after getting an initial version of the Follensby Pond population model up and running. The answer is simple: the more data we have, the better we can understand the lake trout population. So, how do we collect this data?

Field work. A lot of it.

A beautiful lake trout is the prize for a hard day’s work on Follensby Pond

It’s currently the end of day four of my month long stint in the Adirondacks. My back aches from pulling gillnets, my face and hands are tomato red from what was apparently not enough sunscreen, my knees are bruised, and I count at least five cuts across my knuckles and fingers. Follensby Pond at its deepest is 31 meters (102 feet). Lake trout are found throughout the water column this time of year, but most stay near the bottom in 20 to 30 meters of water during the day. Pulling gillnets from the depths is a terrific (brutal) workout. I have high hopes that I will look like Hercules by the end of this month.

You might be wondering “what are gillnets?” Gillnets are panels of strategically sized mesh that tangle fish around the body or gills, hence the name. We do our best to limit accidental mortality, but despite our best intentions, not all fish survive the netting process.

We also angle for lake trout in addition to setting gillnets

As of today, we have caught twenty-two lake trout. For each lake trout caught, we weigh, measure, and scan for an internal PIT tag. Each tag has a unique identification number that lets us determine whether we have caught the trout before and if so, when. If the fish are in good shape, we release them back into the depths of the lake. The few lake trout that do not survive are dissected for otoliths (ear bones that tell us the trout’s age), tissue samples, and diet analysis.

So far we have dissected three trout. It’s not a huge number, but one we are hoping to minimize as we become savvier at quickly removing lake trout from gillnets. But here is the cool part: one of those 340 mm lake trout had a 120 mm lake trout in its stomach. A mushy, partially digested fish corpse probably doesn’t sound exciting to you, but I could not be happier because we were able to extract its otoliths as well! The gillnets’ mesh is too large for the smallest of lake trout, and I need otoliths from a few youngsters to anchor down my von Bertalanffy (age with length) growth curve.

One of the perks of field work is being back in the wonderful U. S. of A. Sarah  can keep her fancy Italian pasta, lambrusco, and gelato outings: I’ve got a box of Grape-Nuts and some good old New York State sharp cheddar cheese. You might find it a bit odd that I am obsessed with eating Grape-Nuts in the United States, but due to food politics, finding Grape-Nuts in Canada is like finding a needle in a haystack. And nothing makes you crave a food more than knowing you cannot eat it.

Tomorrow we set out on the lake again armed with gillnets, fishing rods, and a fish finder. It’s still early in the month and we are trying to determine the best times, places, and net orientations to maximize the lake trout catch. We work rain and shine, weekend and weekday, although thunderstorms or particularly strong winds can keep us off the lake. It’s hard work for a few fish, but “The worst day fishing is better than the best day at work.”

Before heading out to the field, I got the chance to visit the Butterfly exhibit the Jardin Botanique de Montreal

….And visit the New England Aquarium  in Boston. This amazing aquarium had a great brook trout tank, another favorite Adirondack fish.

Speaking of work, office life keeps churning on without me. Back in March, I promised I would speak more about the paper I am publishing on the seasonal variation of a frog-killing fungus in the Northeastern United States. Although final revisions took longer than expected, the paper is finally going through the publishing process and I could not be more excited. With any luck, this time next month I will be able to share the full citation from the Journal of Diseases of Aquatic Organisms.

Tune in next month to find out whether I actually look like a Greek god or whether my sunburnt skin has simply turned to leather. Or to find out how many boxes of Grape-Nuts cereal I can eat in a month.

A Visit with Neptune and Galileo

Although I finished the bulk of my lab work some months ago, I’m still toiling away at my research on the diatoms of the Wadden Sea. As Melissa and I have mentioned before, field and lab work aren’t the only things important to scientific research. It’s also important to carefully report on your experiment and results. After all, if you don’t make your findings known, other scientists can’t build on your work – much less use it to improve public policy and legislation.

The view from my desk is not a bad one, but it often is a soggy one.

However, it’s now coming to a close. I’ve finished drafting my report and am incorporating comments and feedback for the final draft and presentation. While the write-up I’m compiling right now isn’t going to be published formally, a PhD student in my lab is building on this research with a longer-term study. Eventually, my work may be cited or directly incorporated into her publications.

Lest you think I’ve been stuck behind a desk all month, let me clarify that I most certainly have not! I was able to escape the damp Netherlands for a mostly-sunny vacation in Italy. Plus, I was able to catch up with my family in the process: my younger brother happens to be enjoying a semester abroad there. I got a great taste of what Italian life is like – figuratively as well as literally. The food absolutely exceeded any and all lofty expectations!


The god of the ocean casually hangs out in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, just like my “little” brother and me.

We spent most of our time in Bologna, where Neptune happens to have prime real estate in the central square. The cityscape is dotted with teetering towers that once signified medieval families’ wealth and served as defensive lookout points. Though most have now crumbled, it’s still clear that Pisa can’t claim to have the only leaning tower. The long climb up the tallest of the towers is well worth it for the stunning view of the city.

Tall towers were once status symbols, but are now ideal tourist vantage points.

The villages of Cinque Terre are nestled into the coast, picturesque even on a stormy day.

In between generous helpings of pasta, frequent gelato outings, and glasses of delightful lambrusco, we managed to make our way to the surreal coastal destination of Cinque Terre. There, the winding mountainous coast over the Mediterranean Sea is dotted with five tiny, colorful villages built into the hills. In spite of rain, it made for some of the most stunning hiking I’ve ever experienced.

We also made a daytrip to Florence. Of all the amazing sights and activities, the one I absolutely insisted on visiting was Museo Galileo. As a student of marine biology, after all, I’d be remiss to miss out on one of the world’s top destinations for science nerds. The many artifacts in this museum offered an amazing perspective on the history of science.

Who wouldn’t want to admire some of the world’s first microscopes?

Of course I lingered longest in the biology realm, and in particular admired the collection of compound microscopes from the 1700s. Okay, perhaps I lingered second-longest at the microscopes, because something else captivated me even more (in a very morbid way): the museum houses a few of Galileo’s actual fingers! Still I’m glad that his legacy as the “father of modern science” goes far beyond some remains on display in glass jars.

Galileo Galilei’s remains (yes, those glass jars contain a few of his fingers).

Meanwhile, the looming completion of my project doesn’t mean I’m done – I have more than a year to go in my Masters program so I’m making preparations for my next project-slash-adventure. You’ll have to wait another month to read about it – I know the suspense is killing you! However, I can tell you this: I recently attended a conference on parasite ecology on a Dutch island as a warm-up for the upcoming endeavor.

Dear Winter: It’s Not You, It’s Me

People seem to think that research biologists spend most of their time outdoors. I would like to dispel that misconception. For most people, field work lasts a few weeks to a few months each year, and some biologists never make it out of the laboratory.

Most of the time, I sit here in front of my computer writing reports, analyzing data, programming scripts, revising manuscripts, answering emails, reading scientific papers, and completing the odd homework assignment. So I look forward to any opportunity to soak up the skin cancer inducing UV radiation that I enjoyed as a southern Californian youth.

And that time has come again: it’s almost Field Work O’Clock ! Despite a particularly nasty Montreal winter, spring has finally sprung. Sure, there is still a foot and a half of snow on the ground, but the maple syrup tapping buckets are out and yesterday I traded in my down winter coat for a wool mid-calf length pea coat. It’s basically bathing suit weather outside (for people who enjoy the occasional arctic plunge).

I will head down to Follensby Pond to catch lake trout as soon as possible after the ice melts to supplement last year’s field data. On one hand, I want nothing more than warm, sunny weather to spend all day fishing. I lose circulation in my hands and feet quite rapidly when I get cold, and an otherwise relaxing day on the lake quickly becomes a struggle to keep from turning into ice like Anna in the movie Frozen. Warm May weather also brings black flies to the Adirondacks. And from what I have heard, black fly season nearly qualifies as a biblical plague.

On the other hand, warming temperatures are the enemy when it comes to spring lake trout fishing. As temperatures increase, the lake stratifies into a layer of warm water near the surface and a layer of cold water near the bottom. Lake trout are cold water fish and after the thermocline develops, they spend the summer in deep, cold sections of the lake where they are more difficult to catch.

Dressed to impress in my snazzy bug repelling head net

I have my cold weather survival suit and bug repelling head net ready to go. I cannot wait to get away from the computer, something I know Sarah commiserates with after spending so much time in the lab analyzing how mudflat diatoms are affected by heat waves . Luckily I have been able to pry my way away from an LED screen a few times this month, first with an amazing vacation in Hawaii (spring break baby!), again for the requisite spring sugar shack trip, and occasionally for Macdonald Campus’s Thursday night bar trivia. Okay, technically graduate students do not get spring break off like undergraduates, but I felt it was an appropriate time to ditch the snow and take a mini vacation.

Snorkeling in Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve Oahu, Hawaii

It took more willpower than I would like to admit to return to wintery Montreal after spending a week snorkeling, hiking, kayaking, and eating fresh coconut in paradise.  But work called…

Taking a scenic picture with my boyfriend after hiking up Diamond Head State Monument in Oahu, Hawaii

…and coming back to Montreal was worth it to enjoy the end of winter. And by enjoy, I mean that same feeling of pleasure you get when a superhero destroys a hell-bent villain on television.

Spring is maple syrup tapping season, and I recently visited the sugar shack at the Village Québécois d’Antan  north of Montréal to chow down on traditional Québécois fare and drink my weight in maple syrup. Although most of the buildings modeled after historic Quebec were closed for the winter, dinner was a warm and welcoming experience with live music and enough flannel to please any aspiring lumberjack.

Historic style church at the Village Québécois d’Antan.

The family style menu included pea soup, fresh farm style bread, baked beans, pates, fried pork rinds, sausage, omelets, ham, potatoes, coleslaw, crepes, maple syrup taffy, and sugar pie. The table also had a jug of maple syrup to sweeten food as needed. Needless to say, I left in a sugar-induced coma. Have you ever poured maple syrup into coffee? I have. And it’s amazing.

While I am enjoying the cultural experience of studying in Canada, I cannot wait to head back to the States and spend a month in New York. After spending four years studying at Cornell University, New York almost feels like home to me. And nothing beats coming home after spending so many months abroad.

Reeling in Results

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately crunching numbers, as I explained in my last post. I’m in the analysis phase of my experiment, combing through my data looking for answers to the question of how diatoms that live on mudflats are affected by heat waves. My hypothesis was that, in an extreme heat wave, the microscopic algae will be stressed and this will cause them to be less productive; I expected them to perform less photosynthesis and to produce less EPS (a slimy substance that helps the tiny organisms stick together).

The flashy local Groninger Museum is as worthy of admiration as the art on display there.

After weeks of agonizing over statistics and navigating errors and warning messages in the unfamiliar program (these trials surely sound familiar to Melissa as well!), the results are finally in!

Overall, my results suggest that a heatwave does decrease the productivity of mudflat diatoms. When I compare the diatoms in the heatwave treatment with the control, the ones in heatwave produce much less fluorescence and chlorophyll a over time. (To be scientific, I found statistically significant results – that is a way of saying that there is little chance that these results were random coincidence.) Because of this, I can say that the diatoms are photosynthesizing less in the heatwave.

You might have expected that heat would make them photosynthesize more: more exposure to sun and heat creates more plant (or algae) growth, right?  But in this case we find that this is only true up to a certain point. While they increase up to an optimum temperature, in my experiment we saw that when it gets even hotter, it inhibits the diatoms and they can’t adapt quickly enough.

On the southern coast of the Netherlands is the province of Zeeland (“sea land”) where I helped collect algae for an undergraduate lab class.

The second part of my hypothesis was that there would also be lower production of EPS in the heatwave. However, in this area my results were not conclusive. There was no trend or significant difference, which is unexpected because prior studies have shown a strong connection between chlorophyll a and EPS, which impacts sediment stability. I’m still hoping to disentangle why my results deviate from what other researchers have found.

The next step I’m working on is to compile everything into a report for that explains the details on my experiment – all the way from background on why it is relevant up to how I set up my trials and what conclusions I can draw from it.

It was easy to see how this region of central Germany inspired fairy tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm.

I also managed to get out from behind my computer for a couple of most excellent adventures!

Locally, there is still plenty to explore as I found during a trip to the Groninger Museum, which I’d often noticed in passing but never visited before. During another daytrip, I joined my professor on a drive all the way from our city of Groningen, in the north, down to the southern coast of the Netherlands (a mere three-hour cross-country trip) to collect algae samples for an undergraduate lab practical.

Europe’s largest hillside park, Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, was an idyllic spot for an early spring hike.

I later ventured across the border to visit old friends in central Germany. Seeing a small town and its classic frame houses with their exposed wood beams, all nestled in between a river and hills brought darkly romantic fairy tales to mind. I also enjoyed exploring the mid-size city of Kassel, the highlight of which was a long walk in a lovely baroque hillside park with forested trails leading to impressive 18th century statues and ruins overlooking the town.

Lucky for me, that wasn’t the last of my adventures as spring is just arriving and I’ll have more excursions to share next time – as well as a new research project to begin!

Above Kassel, Germany, at the park’s highest point, stands the Hercules monument, which has watched over the city for about three centuries.

One Fish, Two Fish

“Counting fish is just like counting trees — except that they are invisible and keep moving,” John Sheperd, University of South Hampton

How do you count what you cannot see?  This problem is of particular concern to fishery stock assessment, the collection and evaluation of data to determine the biological parameters of a fishery.  Using basic biological descriptors such as growth rate, population size, and natural mortality, fishery scientists can quantify the impacts of different levels of fishing effort in terms of population sustainability and structure.  Fishery managers use the results of these models to help make management decisions, with political and economic factors also taken into account. 

In order to learn more about stock assessment, I spent a snowy Valentine’s Day traveling from Montreal, Quebec to Rutgers University’s marine field station in Tuckerton, New Jersey for a two day stock assessment crash course.  My adviser suggested I come down to learn more about population models and stock assessment since I am currently writing the code (statistical modeling language) for Follensby Pond’s lake trout population, part of my M.Sc. thesis project at McGill University.

Still enjoying Quebec’s frosty winter, but looking forward to summer, warmth, and sunshine – oh how I miss southern California.

The class was a two day modeling blur, punctuated by frequent snack breaks and good company.  I learned about age structured models, the pros and cons of modeling in R vs. AD Model Builder (turns out that R is user friendly compared to other programs – who knew!), and of course, how to count fish you cannot see.  As it turns out, there are a few options for counting invisible fish including hydroacoustic surveys (using sonar to “see” fish in the water column), capture mark recapture analysis (tagging and retagging fish to estimate population size), and catch per unit effort, the most common for established marine fisheries.  Catch per unit effort is exactly what it sounds like: the amount of fish caught (usually biomass in kilograms) per some amount of fishing effort (number of trawls, angling hours, etc). 

In the early days of fishery management, scientists would use a curve of catch per unit effort to determine the maximum sustainable yield (MSY), the point of maximum catch that can be sustained for an infinite amount of time.  MSY forms the apex of the catch curve and catch beyond MSY results in less catch per unit of effort.  By graphing real data of fishery catch, one can usually determine the apex of the curve over time, but not until the fishery has passed the MSY.  By this time fisherman are working longer hours and catching less fish, meaning earning less money.  While easily said, it is almost politically impossible to reduce fisherman effort to return to MSY.  This method of fishery management is based on surplus production models and is rarely used today since it has historically led to fishery collapse.

Watching preparations for a dog sled run on a frozen lake at a resort in the Laurentides (home to this year’s GRIL conference).

After the stock assessment crash course, I spent another two days working on my population model at Rutgers University before returning to Montreal… and left the next day for my first academic conference at a beautiful resort in the Laurentides region of Quebec.  The conference was hosted by the Group for Interuniversity Research in Limnology and Aquatic Environments (GRIL) and consisted of academic talks, student bonding activities (limnology games), a poster session, and several delicious all-you-can-eat, gourmet meals.  Note: grad students never pass up free food.  Although I packed heels, pencil skirts, and fancy blouses, the dress code was more geared towards blue jeans and hiking boots.  Is this the norm, or a more conference-specific occurrence?  I still don’t know, but I was happy to be wearing hiking boots after frozen rain encased everything outside in a quarter inch of ice.

Pine tree following hours of frozen rain at the GRIL conference.

The resort was beautiful and I had a great time meeting other people from similar fields, but the majority of academic talks were in French.  Yikes.  Although the PowerPoint slides were often in English, I certainly missed the finer points of most talks, and felt a bit baffled when the entire room would break into laughter from a joke I obviously did not understand.

Presenting the initial results of my lake trout research at the GRIL conference poster presentation.

Another thing that baffled me was the rescheduling of presentations around the Canada-US Olympic hockey game!  Only in Canada eh?  Next month I will travel to Hawaii on vacation for some much needed sun, fine-tune the population model code for Follensby Pond, and plan the field work logistics for my next bout of sampling.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that my amphibian paper (undergraduate thesis) was finally accepted for publication.  There are still a few edits left before this final resubmission, but I am pretty stoked.  More on that soon!


Lab Labor

Back in the Netherlands after the holidays, I was met with mild winter temperatures perfect for a beautiful walk in the Amsterdam Forest with my family. Later, upon returning to Groningen, I resumed work on the diatom research I had started in the fall.

A light brushing of early morning frost in the Amsterdam Forest.

In my effort to discover how mudflat diatom communities are affected by heat waves, I spent last autumn trekking out onto the mudflats of the Wadden Sea to collect samples of sediment and diatoms, as I described in a previous blog. I brought the samples back to the lab and placed them in climate chambers programmed to either heat wave or control temperatures. I now need to assess if there was a difference in how the diatoms reacted to the heatwave compared to the control. If they did differ, I need to know in what way and by how much.

There are a number of reasons that this type of research is important. Diatoms have several functions. For example, they produce oxygen, and they are a link in the mudflat foodchain. Another function they perform is helping keep the mud’s surface stable by creating mats. If my research shows that the heat wave affects the diatoms’ ability to do this, then climate change spells trouble for sediment stability. As more heat waves occur, the islands in the Wadden Sea could become more vulnerable to erosion – worsening the troubles of sea level rise for these low-lying areas.

The dark areas are mats of diatoms; they create bubbles by photosynthesizing and producing oxygen.

There are now a few ways for me to assess all of the data I collected during the experiment. Firstly, during the experiment, I used a device to measure how much fluorescence the algae were producing; this can give information on how much they are photosynthesizing. Secondly, over the course of the experiment, I removed samples and froze them for later analysis. The aim now is to measure how much chlorophyll a (another indicator of photosynthesis) and how much EPS there is in each sample. EPS stands for extracellular polymeric substance. Basically, it is a slimy secretion that helps the diatoms stick together and create a biofilm on the mud’s surface.

Measuring the chlorophyll a and EPS required many hours of processing in lab. For each sample, my lab partner and I had to separate the compound we were interested in from the sediment. First, precise amounts of sediment were scooped into test tubes. Then a complicated process involving chemicals such as acetone and ethanol, and tools such as centrifuges and fluorometers, allowed us to find out exactly how much EPS and chlorophyll a the diatoms produced.

Working under the fume hood, in the midst of endless pipetting.

Now, finally, all the data is in and I’m gearing up for the next step: statistical analysis. While sitting at a computer crunching numbers isn’t as fun as working in the field or lab, it’s important – and I’m super excited to find out what the results of my experiment exactly reveal. Does a heat wave harm diatom productivity? And might this destabilize the sediment? By the time of next month’s blog, I hope to be able to give a clearer answer to these questions!

In the meantime, I’m doing my best to enjoy the pretty winter scenery, and I’m grateful it’s not as cold here as it is for Melissa in Canada. The first snow day of the season came in late January and I had a gorgeous walk in the freshly fallen snow. However, entering the storm on a bike is another matter. Avoiding falls on the uneven soft and slick roads takes extra focus and my first day involved a few close calls. Here’s to hoping I make it to spring crash-free!

First snow day of the season in Groningen.

Ten Below

Cold weather and canceled airplane flights grounded me in sunny California a few days longer than expected, but I made it back to Montreal, Quebec for my second graduate semester at McGill University a week after the New Year.  And baby, is it cold outside!

Daily air temperatures have hovered around 0 degrees Farenheit the last few weeks, with daily lows dropping past -20.  Once you factor in the wind-chill, it is numbingly cold here for a girl who grew up in Southern California.  Walking outside is generally unpleasant, and my face is pink and chapped.  That being said, I still have all of my fingers and toes for the time being. Melissa 1: Winter 0.

Standing before the iconic 1967 sculpture L’Homme by Alexander Calder in Jean Drapeau Park

A layer of ice formed on the inside of my bathroom window (yes, you read that right: inside!) several days ago.  The delicate ice crystals melt from shower steam, but generally reform new patterns within a few hours.  Store front windows are spider-webbed with frost and people walking outside are unrecognizable apart from the occasional uncovered nose and chin. 

Freezing air temperatures have also iced over local Lake Saint Louis, which became the first frozen lake I have ever set foot on last weekend.  I was understandingly apprehensive about my first jaunt walking on frozen water suspended over an icy, unforgiving river, but my boyfriend Tory mitigated my fears by pointing out that a dozen large trucks had already driven onto the lake for ice fishing.  It was just as you would imagine it: slightly exhilarating, and very, very cold.  We did not stay out long.

Walking on frozen Lake Saint Louis near Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue

In the winter spirit, I recently purchased a pair of cross country skis.  I tried them out for the first time this past Wednesday morning in McGill's Morgan Arboretum by the MacDonald Campus.  I fell four times in a 3.8 km loop, and days later my body still aches from otherwise unused muscles.  Did I mention that it was -10 degrees that morning?  And I dressed too warm.  Hard to believe, eh? 

In addition to cross country skiing, I recently attended a McGill vs. Dalhousie woodsmen competition (aka, competitive lumberjacking).  Woodsmen competitions are a varsity sport here and include climbing trees, throwing axes, racing in snowshoes, balancing on logs, and chopping wood in every way possible!  And these competitions are not just confined to Canada (although they feel downright Canadian to me); woodsmen teams are apparently quite popular in universities throughout the Northeastern United States.

Woodsmen (lumberjacking) is a competitive varsity sport at McGill and other Northeastern universities

Other than short jaunts into the ice covered terrain and the occasional Thursday night bar trivia, I have been continuing my graduate studies.  This semester I am taking the statistics course Quantitative Methods: Ecology to fulfill a graduation requirement and continue learning how to model ecological systems in R.  R is a programming system and language which feels just about as difficult to master as French.

This semester I am also building the initial population model for Follensby Pond's lake trout population.  A population model is a virtual tool that allows scientists to understand the parameters that drive population changes such as shifts in abundance, age structure, fecundity, and other variables.  Parameters can either be estimated from scientific literature or estimated directly from your data.  More often than not, scientists must use a combination of both to adequately portray the population in question.  Once the population model is up and running, we can test different fishery management scenarios' effect on population dynamics.

Creating population models and testing the effect of management scenarios can help avoid fishery collapse in both recreational and commercial systems.  In her latest blog post, Sarah describes studying the collapse of Newfoundland’s cod fishery and the sustainability of Arctic communities.  I agree with Sarah that maintaining sustainable fisheries are of the utmost importance to maintaining ocean health and providing food for earth’s growing population.  Awareness of fishery over-exploitation is rising from non-profits such as Seafood Watch, but everyone can help by purchasing sustainably harvested fish, and avoiding over-fished stocks such as orange roughy.

Sitting in a giant Adirondack chair at Montreal’s annual snow festival Fete des Neiges

Next month I will attend my first academic conference for the Group for Interuniversity Research in Limnology and Aquatic Environments (GRIL) to present a poster on my thesis research, travel to Rutgers University in New Jersey to build and fine-tune the Follensby Pond population model, and take a quick trip to Boston to visit my boyfriend.

No Fear in the New Year

On December 31st, 2013 I found myself feeling lucky that I have plenty to celebrate. Near the top of the list: this year, I completed my first semester of graduate school in the Netherlands! I took a leap, dove into my research and classes, explored my Dutch heritage more fully than ever before, and enjoyed having opportunities to travel and learn.

New Year's Day sunset in Laguna Beach, California

This past month, my main focus was on issues of sustainability in the polar regions. In Antarctica, human settlements are new and mainly consist of research bases; however, the Arctic region has long supported human populations, who have survived the harsh conditions in various ways. Today, Arctic communities face many challenges – such as population shifts, urbanization, and climate change – factors that increase competition for resources and change the people’s relationship to the environment.

A topic that especially interests me is the history of overfishing off of Newfoundland’s coast in Canada, and during my last course I had a chance to take a closer look. The rise of the cod fishery helped support the growth of a flourishing industry in the region. However, the centuries of fishing created the industry’s own demise as well. By 1991, the cod stocks had collapsed and, in the biggest mass layoff in the history of Canada, the government was forced to close the fishery. To this day, the stocks have not returned to their previous abundance.

Drying cod to preserve them in Burgeo, Newfoundland in 1908. 
Photo by William McFarlane Notman via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

The Newfoundland cod fishery is now one of the most extreme examples of what can occur when resources aren’t managed carefully: the cost is huge, and it is not just ecological – the cost is human. Coincidentally, it also turned out to be a beautiful chance to bring my work full circle with Melissa’s fisheries research in Canada at McGill. Melissa wants to apply her current research in freshwater recreational fisheries to a career managing commercial marine fishery policy to help avoid such collapses in the future.

Between researching, writing papers, and preparing presentations, I still found a chance to do some exploring this month as well.

Groningen lies next to the German border, and the beautiful little city of Bremen lays just a two-hour drive away. During the holiday season, many German cities light up with winter festivities, and Bremen is home to a well-known Christmas market. At this kerstmarkt, I saw the center of the city filled with stalls selling all kinds of goods: traditional handmade German crafts, baked goods and bratwurst – and especially the local seasonal favorite gluhwein, or mulled wine.

Photo by Kat Stroehm.

Photo by Kat Stroehm.

On a different trip, I made my way southwards to the Hague, on the coast of the North Sea, where I strolled through the city, visited the beach boardwalk, and admired the Peace Palace (near where the orca Morgan’s hearings took place). The city is also home to Omniversum, a dome IMAX theater where a number of MacGillivray Freeman documentaries have played, and still play including Dolphins, The Living Sea and To The Arctic.  

The highlight of our visit, though, was visiting a small theme park called Madurodam, where you can explore all of the Netherlands – in miniature! From the famous cheese market of Alkmaar, to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, to a miniature Schiphol airport with moving KLM planes, you can see virtually all of the famous sights and structures of this country in one place, meticulously recreated. Somehow, it perfectly captures Holland’s mix of quaintness and modernity.

Just three days before Christmas, I was ready to catch my flight back home for a whirlwind visit full of holiday festivities and amazing winter beach weather. Certainly, leaving beautiful, sunny California has only increased my appreciation for its beauty and warmth, but I’m also looking forward to spending 2014 continuing my studies in Groningen and further exploring the wonderful sights of Europe!

The Beginning’s End: Finishing my First Semester

Each semester’s end brings a flurry of hurried activity as undergraduates prepare for final exams and chug coffee like water.  Life as a graduate student differs little; the end of my first semester of graduate school at McGill University brought my own personal marathon of work as I finished my water policy class, completed an initial report to The Nature Conservancy, and resubmitted a manuscript to a journal.

Our first report to The Nature Conservancy outlines the characteristics of Follensby Pond’s lake trout population in New York State’s Adirondack Park.  The report includes initial lake trout growth models and population size estimates.   Although we will continue to refine the estimates as we catch additional lake trout next May and October, the parameters serve as starting points to build an initial population model on which to test management scenarios.  The Nature Conservancy recently published a great article on the Follensby lake trout research initiative, “Conserving Lake Trout Among the Philosophers.”  Scroll down to the third picture to catch a shot of me holding a trap net!

Enjoying the snow before heading to California for winter break.

While I am fully engaged in lake trout research as a graduate student, I am still working to publish a paper concerning my undergraduate research at Cornell University about the seasonal variation of the amphibian fungal disease chytridiomycosis.  This is my first foray into publishing, and I would be absolutely clueless without the help of the wonderful members of the Zamudio Lab at Cornell University.

Publishing a scientific article involves several steps, the first of which is picking the appropriate journal to display your original research.  The most prominent articles are generally published in Science and Nature, widely considered the best and most influential journals.  Manuscripts detailing the methodology and results of your research are submitted to a journal, and then distributed for peer review to two or three anonymous researchers in your field.  Based on peer review comments, the editor in charge of your manuscript can either accept or reject your paper.  Quite often the editor asks the author(s) to change several aspects of the paper and resubmit for consideration.  Having been on both the receiving and giving end of reviewer comments, I feel that reviewers are truly trying to improve your paper by addressing what they feel to be inadequacies in the analysis and results.  That being said, reviewer comments have a tendency to sting your pride.

Semester’s end brought me a brief work reprieve in the form of winter break.  I am currently sitting at my parent’s kitchen counter in Laguna Beach, California, where unusually warm winter temperatures starkly contrast the Montreal’s icy chill.  According to my laptop, temperatures have been dipping into -20ᵒF in Montreal at night. Yikes!  I hope Sarah  is also enjoying a bit of California sun before heading back to the chilly University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

A snowy December morning at McGill’s MacDonald Campus.

For Christmas I received two much awaited books: Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg and Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art by Harry W. Greene.  The first chapters of Four Fish have provided fascinating insight into the salmon industry and I cannot wait to reach the chapters about tuna, bass, and cod.  This book is a must read for anyone interested in ocean conservation and the future of the world’s marine fisheries.  Although I have not yet begun Tracks and Shadows, I cannot wait to start this combination of memoir and natural history written by my Cornell University herpetology professor Harry Greene.

Christmas Day in Laguna Beach, CA.

I only have a few more days left in California before my next semester at McGill starts in full swing.  If only I could bring some of this weather with me.

Soaking up the California sunshine.

Back to the Real World

After several days of cleaning, unpacking, and filing expense reports, I was forced to re-enter the real world after spending October fishing for lake trout in New York’s Adirondack State Park.  My rekindled appreciation for indoor heating was accompanied by a slew of deadlines and projects due early December. 

Although I would like to spend my time playing tourist to Quebec’s numerous attractions, I have spent most of my time aging otoliths, drafting reports, and doing homework.  Otoliths are fish ear bones, and you can age fish by counting annual otolith rings much like you would age a tree.  It sounds simple enough in theory, but preparing otoliths is an exacting process that leaves no room for mistakes.  Even if the otoliths make it through the preparation process well, aging otoliths is less of a science and more of an art.  One almost never “reads” an otolith, but “interprets,” an important distinction.  Lucky for me, lake trout otoliths are among some of the most difficult to work with due to lake trout’s long life and characteristically dark otolith cores. However, after a month of work, there has to be a little time for play, right?

My parents visited me in early November and I had the chance to simultaneously play both Montreal tour guide and tourist.  Montreal is a foodie paradise, known not only for its poutine, but also smoked meat and bagels.  I decided to take my parents to the most famous smoked meat restaurant in Montreal, Schwartz’s Delicatessen, a small unobtrusive diner on Saint-Laurent Boulevard.  Although the diner blends into the landscape of small shops in the shadow of Mont Royal, it’s impossible to miss the long, winding line of people outside the delicatessen door.

After consuming a deliciously thick, greasy smoked meat sandwich on rye bread, we walked several blocks to the Fairmount Bagel Factory for a famous Montreal bagel.  What makes Montreal bagels unique?  They are boiled in honey water and baked in a wood fired oven.  The Fairmount Bagel Factory only had standing room for a handful of customers; the rest of the small lobby was completely filled with floor to ceiling racks of bagels.  I cannot claim to be a bagel expert, but my fresh, sesame seed Fairmount bagel was by far the best bagel I have ever consumed.  No cream cheese, salmon, or avocado needed.

We concluded our day in downtown Montreal with a visit to Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mont Royal.  The enormous, copper-domed shrine to Saint Joseph welcomes ill and crippled pilgrims hoping to experience the curative power of founder Saint Brother André.  Its oddest attraction is undoubtedly Brother André’s heart, which is preserved in formaldehyde and on display for tourists and pilgrims alike.

My parents’ visit also included a trip to Abbey Saint-Benoit-du-Lac in the Eastern Townships, and the Montreal Botanical Gardens and the Insectarium.  The Abbey’s blue ermite cheese is reputed to be the best in Quebec province, and it certainly delivered!  Not to be outdone, the Insectarium’s impressive beetle display could have easily been mistaken for a case of glittering jewels.

I spent a wonderful Thanksgiving eating turkey and pumpkin pie whist visiting my boyfriend’s family in upstate New York.  I am thankful for many things in my life, such as my wonderful family and my boyfriend Tory.  However, after my recent stint in the Adirondacks, I have realized that indoor heating is grossly underappreciated.  So this year, I sent my Thanksgiving gratitude to indoor heating… merci beaucoup!

Sinterklaas Surprise

While Melissa slogs on with her research on the lake in the bone-chilling cold, I’ve blissfully turned my attention to indoor pursuits. My degree consists of a combination of research and coursework, so while the mudflat algae I study lay dormant I am attending lectures and doing assignments with the luxury of heated interiors.

As the weather turns colder, I am focusing my attention on the chilly regions of the world academically. I just wrapped up a course on ‘Polar Ecosystems’ and began a subsequent study in ‘Sustainability of People at the Polar Regions.’ While I can’t pretend the weather here is anything like the Arctic (I have to admit it’d be a tad dramatic), I will say that late fall in Groningen puts me in an appropriately icy state of mind for these classes.

Sarah braves the icy cold as she bikes to class. 

One of the things about these courses that is fun is to relate the subject matter back to what I learned while working on MacGillivray Freeman’s To the Arctic.   It has been a great chance to dive even deeper into the science of how climate change is impacting the polar regions: In the Antarctic, researchers have found shifts where krill are found, and this may be tied to the disappearance of Adelie penguins. Meanwhile, in in the Arctic (as you can see in the film),  melting sea ice affects the whole ecosystem – including threatening the polar bears we all love. It also creates a feedback loop in which the melting only gets worse, because snow and ice reflect heat, while open water absorbs it.

You may wonder what the lesson here is – and as I worked through my first final exam as a graduate student, I pondered the same. It will be important for all of us to do what we can to lessen our impact: not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also to help preserve the environment in other ways. That’s because ecosystems will be more resilient in the face of changes caused by the warming climate, if they’re not also battling other stresses – such as overfishing or pollution – at the same time.

A photo from To The Arctic.

It was to my chagrin that I missed Thanksgiving (or for some this year, Thanksgivinukkah): the Dutch don’t, as it turns out, celebrate the Pilgrims’ arrival in the New World. Still, the opening of the holiday season here is not without fanfare for on December 5th, it is Sinterklaas!

As legend has it, Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands by boat in December, coming all the way from Spain, where he lives the rest of the year. He rides a white horse and is accompanied by his assistants, the Zwarte Pieten (or Black Petes, the subject of much controversy in recent years), who distribute gifts and candy to the children. On the eve of December 5th, children fill their shoes with hay and carrots and leave them out for Sint’s horse. In return, the good kids wake up to presents.

Sinterklaas. Photo by LordFerguson via Flickr, Creative Commons License

Adults, of course, don’t expect Sint and Piet to fly around the country on horseback delivering gifts at night – but they have their own ways of celebrating. This year my Dutch family celebrated ‘baby’s first Sinterklaas’ for my two-month-old nephew – and me! I learned that we all would draw a name from a hat for a Secret Santa-style gift exchange. Accompanying each present should be a poem – preferably one that cracks jokes at the recipient’s expense, and hints at the contents of the gift. With just a little help from a Dutch rhyming dictionary, I composed a rhyme for my cousin in which I poked fun at his hair care: like many Dutch males, it involves copious quantities of gel, which was also a component of his gift.

Traditional Sinterklaas treats include cinnamon-spiced kruidnoten and speculaas, and marzipan in many shapes and colors.

In many families, although not mine, it is traditional to focus less on the gift and more on crafting an elaborate arts and crafts surprise (pronounced ‘surprees’), whereas among my housemates, we will opt for an alternative type of gift exchange: dobbelen, a game that has a lot in common with a white elephant gift exchange, but involves rolling of dice.

Big letter-shaped chocolates are a favorite gift exchange item.

Photo by Quistnix, via WikiMedia Commons

In short, I’m continuing to love the education I’m getting here – both academically and culturally, since I’m finally experiencing first-hand the Dutch traditions that I grew up hearing about. Nonetheless, I’m also looking forward to heading home in a few weeks for the holidays and basking in the warmth of a California Christmas.

Field Work O’Clock

For most people, October brings fall leaves, balmy weather, and a transition from summer shorts to heavy pea coats.  For me this year, October brought my first season of field work as a graduate student studying lake trout in New York State Adirondack State Park.

Lake trout generally spend most of their time in cold, deep water, but swim to shallow rocky beds in the fall to spawn.  Our goal this fall was to catch, tag, and release as many spawning lake trout as possible to estimate population size.  Although my taste in literature is a far cry from John Steinbeck, the phrase “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry” currently comes to mind.

I arrived in scenic Tupper Lake, NY on October 3rd, spending my first week in the field learning how to handle boats, work nets, and identify, measure, weigh, and tag fish species.  During my time here I have also become familiar with basic car maintenance and the proper way to heal a badly bruised tailbone (following a nasty fall on a slippery boat dock ramp).  I can completely relate to Sarah’s plumbing and carpentry “training” for her graduate work in Grogingen.  Of course, I have also spent the last four weeks learning how to (or not how to) catch lake trout.

At the moment, we are averaging a lake trout per week.  This is a particularly bad statistic considering the man hours and effort I have spent trying to catch the slippery little devils.  The options are as follows: the fish are not spawning yet, the traps are not in the right spawning areas, the traps are not working correctly, or the fish are smarter than I am.  At this point, I am leaning towards the latter.

If not catching lake trout was bad enough, the weather has taken a turn for the worse.  I arrived in the Adirondacks during fall color’s peak.  The sunbursts of orange, red, and yellow made the forest feel warm and full of life.  But that was four weeks ago, and now almost every tree is bare.  Snow has arrived and I have switched my ski jacket and waterproof yellow overalls for a neon orange one-piece survival suit.  A typical day on the lake now includes two layers of thick wool socks, waterproof boots, long underwear top and bottoms, sweat pants, two layers of fleece, a down vest, gator, gloves, and hat… with the survival suit on top.  Just moving with all of those layers is a workout!  People who study tropical fish are onto something.

The lake has been cold, but it has also been beautiful.  The combination of crisp fall air, snow flurries, dark, clear water, and the stark beauty of bare trees surrounded by untouched landscape is breathtaking.  Surely a bit of cold is worth the landscape that impressed the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  I was hoping to see a black bear or moose this field season, but both have eluded me.  However, I have twice seen Follenby Pond’s resident adult bald eagle, an impressive sight even from a distance. 

In addition to spending copious amounts of time on the lake, I have been continually driving back to the Montreal area for class each week.  The constant moving, driving, and working has been exhausting.  If the nets are empty tomorrow morning, I will have to start taking a serious look at alternative methods for estimating abundance.  So is the way of field work, and I suppose life in general.  Most things do not work out exactly as planned.

Winter is Coming

What do biologists do on a day-to-day basis? Well, you might find us in the lab using equipment like test tubes and pipettes and centrifuges. We can also be spotted out in the field observing and collecting samples.

How often do you imagine biologists going on mega shopping trips to the hardware store to solve the age-old question of how to carry 10-foot-long PVC tubes by bicycle?

I am two months into my time here in Holland, and I've had ample opportunity to work on my skills, not only in field collection and lab work, but also in carpentry and plumbing. Between that and Melissa's schlepping fish heads around town by public transport, this “higher education” thing might be more than we bargained for.

My current focus is research involving diatoms – tiny single-celled algae that produce much of the earth's oxygen. While most of them are planktonic and live in the water column, I am investigating diatoms that that live on the sediment's surface. To gather the diatoms for the study, I've made several trips to a nearby island called Schiermonnikoog. (As with 'Groningen', most non-native Dutch speakers are useless at pronouncing this.)

At high tide, an intertidal mud flat looks simply like ocean. But low tide reveals a vast expanse of land... wet, soggy, soft land, populated by marine species such as worms, bivalves, and algae. You can walk on it, and in fact, a traditional Dutch hobby is wadlopen, or “mudflat-walking.” Participants travel from island to island in the Wadden Sea on foot – after pulling on knee-high rubber boots and carefully taking the tides into account.

I got quite a taste for wadlopen myself over the course of my field excursions, putting my new galoshes to the test. More than once I nearly sank away or fell over into the muck. When collecting, my lab group descends into the mud armed with rainboots, buckets, shovels, sieves, and coolers full of ice to collect our samples. Once our samples are in the lab we place them into climate chambers programmed to different temperatures. By conducting these experiments, I am hoping to find out how heat waves affect sediment diatom communities.

As the temperature outside begins to drop, it will be too cold for the diatoms and we’ll take a break from outdoor research; for me that's probably a good thing. While I've loved spending beautiful sunny days on Schier (for short), the increasingly high wind speeds and decrease in temperature has already made it hard for me to drag my sunshine-spoiled Californian self outdoors.

In addition to research, I've had some more culinary experiences, the most fun of which has been bischuit met muisjes. In Dutch, this translates directly to “biscuit with little mice.” Like hagelslag, it consists of sugary sprinkles on a butter and bread base, but unlike hagelslag it's not eaten for just any old day willy nilly. It is a treat reserved for one special occasion in particular: the colored sprinkles are served to celebrate the birth of a baby – blue and white for a boy, or pink and white for a girl. Since my Dutch family has recently welcomed a new member, I had my first chance to indulge in the sugary delight, which is flavored with anise (according to tradition, the licorice-flavored herb helps with breastfeeding).

I also had the chance to try some foreign foods with my international friends. After reading about Melissa's poutine experience, I was thrilled when my French-Canadian friend prepared some for me to try. While fries with mayo (a popular side here) are delicious, the cheese and gravy of poutine really amps up the comfort food rating.

Now I'm off to cower from some rain. Hopefully, the next time you hear from me, I will be an expert in important skills such as how to keep a scarf and hood on while I tack into the wind on my bike, and how to balance the cold outdoor temperature with the physically strenuous and sweat-inducing activity of cycling to class in a hurry.

The Four F’s: Fall, Fish, Follensby, and French

Summer’s sweat-inducing, humid days have surrendered to the crisp air of autumn. Fall has commenced and my graduate study at McGill University is in full swing.

My master thesis at McGill University involves creating a recreational lake trout management model for a landlocked lake in New York State Adirondack Park. If spending time in the Adirondacks is the butter to Sarah’s hagelslag, then working at Follensby Pond is certainly the chocolate sprinkles! Not sure what hagelslag is? Check out the blog of my friend and fellow graduate student Sarah Bedolfe who is studying in the Netherlands at the University of Groningen.

During the summer of 1858, Follensby Pond became a temporary retreat for intellectuals seeking to reconnect with nature, including poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Russell Lowell. The writings, poems, and paintings originating from the expedition contributed to shifting mid-19th century notions of nature, as beauty, inspiration, and an escape from urbanization. While I am anxiously awaiting field work for a project with The Nature Conservancy at Follensby Pond, the mornings will be cold, wet, and physically demanding. I am already deciding how to best fit my ski parka under my mustard yellow rubber outerwear, in which I bear a striking resemblance to the guy on fish stick boxes.

Life on campus is demanding but quiet compared to exciting days of field work. I am currently investigating the parameters I need to build an age-structured population model and learning how to determine the age of lake trout from otoliths. Otoliths are essentially fish ear bones; scientists can age fish by counting otolith rings which vary by season.

Aging otoliths is a delicate art form which requires practice and precision. To practice, I ordered five salmon heads in downtown Montreal. When I arrived to pick up my salmon heads, I was told that they were accidentally given to another female McGill University student the day before requesting the same order. Seriously, what are the chances of that? The fish market sent me several blocks away to their competitor to fulfill my order. I left the market with an enormous, heavy bag of ten Atlantic salmon heads and ice. My celebration of procuring salmon heads was cut short by the daunting hour and a half combination bus/metro ride back to campus… with a bag of fish heads on my lap. Luckily the fish was both fresh and tightly bagged, so the odor did not offend the other passengers. Sarah may enjoy abandoning her car for a bicycle in Groningen, but she is clearly missing the joy of hauling fish carcasses in her spare time.

Photo by Arlette, via Flickr, Creative Commons License

On Tuesday nights I take a beginner French class at the local CEGEP (Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel). My French teacher is a charmingly eccentric Italian man who speaks nine different languages and entertains the class with magic tricks. Encouraged by my progress in class, I recently began the horrifying process of trying to speak in French at the local farmer’s market. I now envy Sarah’s fluency in Dutch. My initial attempts have garnered two responses: a stream of unwavering, unidentifiable French syllables or an English reply to my French inquiry. For the former, the blank, confused expression on my face eventually leads the person speaking to ask “Parlez vous Anglais?” As for the latter, I assume my butchered French accent screams “Warning: Anglophone!” to anyone within hearing range.

October field work is rapidly approaching and I cannot wait to spend the next few weeks catching fish with the ghost of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Bon voyage mes amis!

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