Posted by: Jill | December 11, 2012

Nice day for it

Life is rough. I spent most of the day yesterday on the beach. And I did it in the name of science!

The monitoring group on our way to the survey site.

The monitoring group on our way to the survey site.

My advisor Jen, undergrad volunteer Niko and I joined with scientists from the National Park Service and volunteers from the Cabrillo National Monument to survey the intertidal animals and seaweeds in the Scripps Coastal Reserve, right next to the Scripps campus in La Jolla. It was a warm and sunny low tide and we counted a lot of seaweed and luxuriant emerald green surfgrass, plenty of mussels and barnacles, some friendly seabirds hunting for lunch, and although there were a few close calls, nobody fell into the water. Success!

This research is part of a regular monitoring program that has been going on for several decades, with a goal of monitoring long-term patterns in coastal marine ecosystems.

Bonus marine life find: an octopus scooting around in the tidepools. He was not part of our official survey, but we still gave him some attention. Watch the video here.


Last week, fellow grad student Maggie and I were asked to do a seemingly impossible task.

Because we travel on a tiny plane to get to Palmyra Atoll, there are both weight and volume limits on the gear we can bring with us. But we also have a mountain of supplies that are critical to getting our science done. So after all the ordering, organizing, and labeling was complete, we stepped up to the plate.

Our challenge: take all of this gear, pack it into 2 standard sized plastic crates, and make sure it weighs less than 100 lbs. Do not leave anything behind.

Maggie and I chuckled, and then sighed, and then set to work. I am a biologist, not a physicist, but I am pretty sure there is no way to shrink matter. We ended up packing everything into THREE boxes and, all together, the gear weighs 180 lbs. That is pretty close, right?

Posted by: Jill | September 8, 2012

When is a Marine Biologist like a Geometry Student?

In a few days I leave for a research trip to Palmyra Atoll, a tiny coral reef island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This is my first trip back there since the expedition in 2010 (which I wrote about here). I am travelling with 7 other scientists from Scripps, plus some of our colleagues from other universities.

So, how do I get ready for a research trip like this? Besides stocking up on sunscreen and giving the cats one last snuggle, I had a lot of scientific equipment to pack.

Palmyra is in the middle of nowhere. While it has a very comfortable field station complete with rope swing, ping pong table, and great food, there is no hardware store nearby. We can’t just run out and get any  items that we may have forgotten in the lab. So, over many months, we plan our experiments, make lists of supplies, check everything twice, and pack extras, just in case. However, getting to Palmyra is a lengthy and expensive process, so we also can’t overcompensate by bringing along everything we could possibly need. There is a “sweet spot” of expedition preparedness: bring exactly what you need, no more, no less.

To hit that Sweet Spot of Preparedness, this week I brushed up on my geometry skills to calculate exactly how much (expensive, bulky, heavy) mesh I need to bring for one of my underwater experiments. I made several models incorrectly, then started using computer paper and paper towels instead. My lab bench looked more like a middle school classroom than a powerhouse lab at a research university … but sometimes, being a marine biologist isn’t all that glamorous.

Let’s hope that I calculated correctly!

Posted by: Jill | September 3, 2012

Australia Trip Report part 3: Sydney

I’m back from a wonderful 3 weeks in Australia. Blog reports coming in three parts: work, play in the tropics, and play in the city [this post].

I tacked on a brief stop in Sydney on my way home. This is my one sentence summary: Opera House, pedestrian-friendly city, insanely good food, very friendly people, stellar shopping.

In photographs:

Read parts one (theconference) and two (Cairns, the Daintree rainforest)!

Posted by: Jill | August 27, 2012

Australia trip report part 2: Reef and Rainforest

I’m back from a wonderful 3 weeks in Australia. Blog reports coming in three parts: work, play in the tropics [this post], and play in the city.

As soon as the conference finished, 4 of my friends and I piled into a bright orange “Spaceship” campervan and headed north.

Remember, we were in the southern hemisphere, so going north is going more tropical. It was a hot and humid day, so our first stop above Cairns was Palm Cove beach, a lovely stretch of white sand bordered by a shady esplanade and expensive shops and restaurants. We rinsed off in the chilly water, lounged in the sand, and took a stroll along the pier. Because Cairns has no real beach and we were busy day and night with conference work, we all agreed that THIS was the official beginning of vacation.


Levi and Amanda revel in our first real sense of vacation on the beach at Palm Cove.

Port Douglas is a decidedly vacation-oriented beach town about an hour north of Cairns. It served as a great jumping-off point for our diving adventure on the Great Barrier Reef (aka the GBR, as we call it in the biz).

I took this photo of a small piece of the Great Barrier Reef from the window of an airplane!

The GBR is actually composed of a thousand smaller, separate sections of reef. We steamed about 90 minutes offshore to get to a section of the outer reef called Agincourt. We had a great dive guide, and even though we warned him that our group was entirely composed of professional marine biologists, he was utterly confused after our first dive. He was accustomed to showing tourists big fish, sea turtles, and the occasional shark. To the professional eye, those animals are less than impressive. For nearly the entire dive, I had my face down in the coral and seaweed, looking at things like this:

Mask-down in the coral, my inner monologue sounds like this: “What interesting polyp structure! I’ve never seen so many species of Acropora coral. I wonder if this is the same species and just a different growth morphology than that other colony…?”

The divine was beautiful, the boat was well-organized and spotless, and we all had a great time. Also, my lips turned blue from the cold water (a chilly 70F!).

I did take some time underwater to look away from the micro scale and appreciate scenes like this.

After a few days in beachy Port Douglas, Ayana and I drove even further north until we reached The End of the Road. Literally: we drove until the paved road (and our car insurance) ended. North of this point, a 4-wheel drive with snorkel is required.

We saw gigantic saltwater crocodiles, tasted many exotic tropical fruits at the Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm, drank delicious rainforest coffee, strolled on deserted white sand beaches, and even spotted an elusive giant cassowary bird (and chick!) through the blur of the dark green rainforest.

Ayana tastes a dragonfruit. The verdict? Delicious.

The deserted beaches of Cape Tribulation were not a bad way to pass the time. 

One of the highlights for me was taking a private art lesson with Binna, an aboriginal artist. He squeezed us in at the last minute, and we settled in at a table in the back of his studio/art gallery. Even though I had carefully studied my favorite pieces in his gallery and he told me how to use the thin stick to make different shaped prints with the paint, I was intimidated when he handed me the blank boomerang with very little instruction.

At this point, I was not really sure what I was doing with the boomerang…

“Start in the middle and move out to the tips,” Binna instructed. “Don’t worry, you won’t mess up.”

What do you think about the final product? And before you ask (Dad), this is a boomerang for displaying on the wall, not for throwing.

Read parts one (the conference) and three (Sydney) for more adventure!

Posted by: Jill | August 22, 2012

Australia Trip Report part 1: The Conference

I’m home after a wonderful 3 weeks in Australia. Blog reports coming in three parts: work (this post), play in the tropics, and play in the city.

The motivating factor in my recent trip to Oz was to attend the International Coral Reef Symposium. We call this conference the Coral Reef Olympics, because it is a gathering of the top international coral reef scientists and it happens once every 4 years. It was my first ICRS conference and, as expected, it was sometimes overwhelming, always inspiring, and never a dull moment.


Coral Reef Systems group colleagues from San Diego and around the world, July 2012. 

The best part was meeting the Big Names: scientists whose papers I have read and who seem like giants in our field, but who turn out to be just regular folks who want to sit down and chat over a coffee or a beer. More than once, my advisor, Jen, introduced me to Big Name Guy who started the conversation with, “Jill, it’s nice to meet you. I was really impressed with your talk yesterday. Can you tell me more about [topic from my research]?” I came out of the conference with many fewer business cards, lots of compliments, and at least two potential collaborators at NOAA in Florida and the AMNH in NYC. Not so bad for a little grad student!

The second best part was my media debut: I did a short interview for a local news station about the conference. I was so nervous at the beginning that I forgot the name of my school (“Scripps Insitute for … ocean … wait. Let me start over.”). But in the end, I think I pulled it off. Also, my friend Ayana tweeted about my talk. She pretty much wrote my dissertation in 140 characters. Check out the rest of her and other folks tweets about the conference with #ICRS2012. There is so much more to science than sitting in a lab!

This conference came at a perfect time for me professional. I just finished my third year at Scripps, which means I am about half way through my time as a PhD student. It is a slow, long trek (a slog?) toward a big goal. The newness of being a grad student has worn off, but I am nowhere near close to being finished. So while I am in something of a lull, this conference was a really nice way to refresh my interest and enthusiasm for this field of science. There were many good presentations by both graduate students and established scientists, and I have a whole list of new ideas to consider for my own research. So, thank you to the ICRS community who motivated me to keep on keeping’ on.

Read parts two (Cairns, the Daintree rainforest) and three (Sydney) for more adventure!

Posted by: Jill | June 3, 2012

Maui Science Whirlwind

Maui Science Whirlwind

I just returned from a speedy trip to Maui with Emily. We gathered data from her long-term experiment, collected some samples for me, and scouted sites for a new project I will begin in a few months. And we had time to squeeze in a round of bocce ball and a drink at the Maui Brewing Company.

I also got up close and personal with this young green sea turtle. She was resting on a bed of coral and popped her head up to see what I was doing.

Posted by: Jill | March 26, 2012

You are so weird, you are actually kind of cute

When Science calls, I answer. I just got back from a short trip to Maui, where I went for a small dose of research with my labmate Levi. We went scuba diving, we discussed science, we collected a ton of data, we drank some delicious local beer and we played at least one game of glow-in-the-dark beach bocce ball.

We also saw this little guy: Image

When I am diving for science, I usually have so much work to do underwater that I pay little attention to the beautiful reef around me. But this slipper lobster made sure that I noticed him when he literally bumped into me and scrambled across my arms in an attempt to escape. Not the brightest lobster in the bunch, eh? He’s still pretty cute, though.

Posted by: Jill | March 12, 2012

Writing clearly in science

These days, I am doing a little bit of work in the field (aloha!), a little bit of work in the lab, and a LOT of sitting at a computer and writing. Crafting clear, simple sentences to explain ideas is one of the trickiest things in science. Some people are very good at it, but a lot of people write terribly, and this is one reason that scientists have such a bad reputation for using jargon that no one can understand and that makes us sound boring.

Rearranging sentences to put the interesting part at the beginning is a great tip that I learned from a professor. Yes, sometimes this means you must write in the passive voice, but it also helps readers focus on what you are actually trying to say. See what I did in the first sentence of this paragraph? I could have written, “A great tip I learned from a professor is to rearrange sentences to put the interesting part at the beginning.” But that emphasizes the fact that I learned a tip from a professor; the tip itself seems less important. Instead, I wanted to emphasize the content of the tip; the fact that I learned it from a professor is less important (because if I had learned it from a book, wouldn’t the tip still be useful?).

Here is what I’m working on right now. I want to emphasize that PRIMNM* coral reefs are similar to other reefs. What version is best?

  1. PRIMNM reefs have similar cover of corals and algae compared to other remote reefs in the Pacific and worldwide.
  2. PRIMNM reefs are similar to other remote reefs in the Pacific and worldwide in their cover of corals and algae.
  3. The cover of corals and algae on the PRIMNM reefs is similar to other remote reefs in the Pacific and worldwide.

*PRIMNM = Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument, a gigantic new (2009) marine reserve covering 7 remote islands and atolls.

Posted by: Jill | December 19, 2011

It’s all fun and games…

…until my bocce ball team loses.

To celebrate my friend Emily’s successful qualifying exam, a major milestone in her PhD career, our lab gathered for sunset bocce ball on the beach in front of the lab. This is definitely one of the perks of having a lab right on the beach!

Also, Emily has honed her bocce ball skills during many months of seaside research in Maui (her team won).

We have had some spectacular sunsets lately. I think the Scripps pier might be one of the most highly-photographed landmarks in San Diego, especially for unique, artsy, ocean-y wedding portraits.

Plus, extreme low tides mean that you can ride a bicycle on the beach! Not a bad way to spend the evening.

Older Posts »