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.

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