Posted by: Jill | October 31, 2011

Not quite a typical day at work

My typical day here goes like this: I start with a light breakfast and dark coffee with Paula, then walk 2 blocks to catch the #409 bus that takes me straight to the Jardim Botânico. I skip the lines at the main entrance and use the gate for researchers at the Instituto de Pesquisas Jardim Botânico (Botanical Garden Research Institute). The guards recognize me and know that my Portuguese is mostly limited to “Bom dia! Tudo bem?” (Good morning! How’s it going?). I say it, they reply, and we smile at each other.

Poliana, Brazilian doctoral student and expert on Brazilian algae.

Then I go straight to the microscope room. Poliana joins me and we spend the next few hours identifying what kinds of algae are on my slides. Poliana is a third year PhD student, just like me, and she specializes in the taxonomy of Brazilian algae. Sometimes, I call her my Algae Angel because she is so helpful.

Usually I spend many, many hours at the microscope, only taking short breaks for lunch or cafezinho (very dark, very sweet coffee). This past Friday, though, my day was not quite typical for two very different reasons.

First, Poliana ran into the room to tell me that there were toucans outside. I immediately dropped my lab notebook, grabbed my camera, and followed her. There they were, in all of their comic glory, having a snack on a tree right outside the lab.

This was a great reason for a break.

My second break was also for a very good reason: a short chat with a visiting dignitary! A group of people came in to tour the lab, and they stopped at my microscope to see what I was working on. They were the Ecuadorian Minister of Human Development and his entourage.

They are touring sites in Brazil to establish research partnerships and create more opportunities for Ecuadorian students interested in science. The folks at the Jardim Botânico explained that they currently are hosting a visiting student from the U.S. … me! So the Minister came over to say hello and ask about my research. I showed him some algae, explained my project, and even offered to come to Ecuador if necessary. We will see how that works out…

So, Friday was not quite a typical day. I did get a lot of work done, even with all of the exciting interruptions.

Nice place for a cafezinho break. Can you see the Cristo el Redentor statue in the distance?

Posted by: Jill | October 27, 2011

Bilingual Scientist

No big deal, but now I’m a bilingual scientist (sort of…). Just putting the finishing touches on my presentation for our lab meeting tomorrow:

Dinâmica bêntica em resposta a perturbações nos recifes coralíneos
(alem de uma breve introdução ao Laboratório Smith, do Instituto Scripps de Oceanografia, em San Diego)

Which means: Benthic dynamics in response to disturbances on coral reefs (plus, a brief introduction to the Smith lab at SIO)

I know, it sounds a lot better in Portuguese, doesn’t it?

Sunset on Ipanema Beach.

It is almost midnight here so with that, I say boa noite to Rio de Janeiro.

Posted by: Jill | October 25, 2011

A good day for science (and for fun)

Research in Rio, Day 4

As a graduate student, my work is never done, even (especially?) when I am in a beautiful and exciting place like Rio. On Sunday, I spent a couple of hours at the microscope in the morning.

This is what Science looks like.

Once I finished my work, I:

  • met up with a group of scientist friends for lunch, relaxing and a quick dip under a cold mountain waterfall,
  • drove up one of the mountains in Tijuca National Park to Vista Chinesa for a great view of the city,
  • saw two monkeys (one was eating a banana! I found this incredibly charming),
  • strolled on Ipanema and Copacabana beaches,
  • checked out the site of last weekend’s Brazil Open of Surfing, then
  • returned home and entered data into a spreadsheet, whereupon I found some intriguing preliminary results.

Look, Mom and Dad, I'm in Rio de Janeiro!

All in all, it was a very good day for science and for experiencing Rio.

Posted by: Jill | October 18, 2011

Listening to bossa nova counts as research prep

Well, this is new. Usually, I prepare for a research trip by packing my scuba diving gear, organizing bags and jars for samples, and making a detailed plan of exactly how I will use precious minutes underwater to get the data I need. For the past few weeks, though, I have been preparing for a research trip in an entirely different way: practicing Portuguese, listening to bossa nova music, and debating the merits of Copacabana vs. Ipanema.

My Portuguese skillz: "Is the dog swimming? Yes."

Remember how one of the goals of my last trip to Brazil was to build collaborations with Brazilian colleagues? Challenge accepted. Tomorrow I return to Brazil to work with one of the Brazilian professors, Gilberto, at the Rio de Janeiro Jardim Botanico (botanical gardens). I collected dozens of samples of algae from the Abrolhos archipelago in August.

The algae samples are waiting patiently (I hope!) in Gilberto’s lab. I will spend the next couple of weeks working closely with him to analyze the samples. This means long hours at a microscope, hopefully punctuated by some exploring around the city. My primary question is to understand the kinds of algae that grow at the border of coral colonies. My secondary question is how many days it takes to learn to dance the samba.

Wish me luck!

Posted by: Jill | October 13, 2011

Science as a Second Language

More exciting research is on the horizon for me, but these days I am spending a lot of time at my desk, reading and writing. During my first year at Scripps, I wrote about how I had to teach Microsoft how to speak science. There are some words that I use all the time when I talk about marine biology but are absent from Word’s dictionary. While it is easy to “teach” Microsoft how to speak science by adding to the dictionary, it just underscores how scientists can be speaking English but saying something completely different.

Today, Word and I had an intermediate lesson in science language. I added these words to the dictionary:

  • scleractinian, meaning hard corals that grow a skeleton and build reefs. When we talk about coral, we are usually talking about scleractinians.
  • symbiont, meaning an animal that is actually two different species that share one body in a mutually beneficial living situation.

A symbiont sounds like science fiction, right? Many organisms (including people!) have bacteria living inside them, and the bacteria do things like turn food into energy. Without bacteria in our guts, we would not be able to digest food. Corals are super-symbionts (I just made up that word): a “coral” is made up of the coral animal, an algae called zooxanthellae, and bacteria. Each organism contributes something so that the whole group can survive together; we call that the coral-algal symbiont.

Posted by: Jill | October 4, 2011

Last Days in Brazil

“Well, there are more samples than food in the refrigerator,” Liz observed one day during our extremely civilized afternoon break for coffee and cake. “It must be time to head home.”

Afternoon tea is not a common occurrence on research expeditions, which are more often characterized by minimal sleep, few showers, and late nights fueled by a delicate balance of coffee and booze. But here, our cook is a magician with made-from-scratch cake which goes so well with a hot cup of tea. Who are we to say no?

In the final days of the expedition, everyone is carefully planning how to spend our diving time over the next two days. Because of the nitrogen that scuba divers absorb from breathing compressed air, we have to carefully limit the amount of time we spend underwater. If we wake up early we can do one dive before breakfast, then a second long shallow dive in the morning, and two shorter dives in the afternoon. Or maybe we want to conserve our diving time and do a nighttime dive? Fortunately, the sun sets at 6 pm here so close to the equator, so “night dives” can occur early in the evening and we can still get a good night of sleep … and wake up to dive early the following morning.

Gustavo has been faithfully filtering water for the entire trip. It is quick and simple to collect the water from specific spots on the reef, but the filtering is a slow, tedious, and very important process that can take 3-4 hours per individual sample. Yesterday he declared he was finally finished with all of the samples and we joined him in a celebration. But today he decided he needed just a bit more data, and so he was back at the filtration machine for several more hours. Earlier this evening he declared that he really is finished, and this time he means it. No complaints from me if he wants to celebrate a second time, and I take this as another sign that the end of the trip is near.

Posted by: Jill | September 30, 2011

Scientists are friendly, too

We went to Brazil for two reasons. The first was scientific: our team had a long list of research questions to ask about the Abrolhos reefs. The second reason was slightly more nuanced: we wanted to build relationships and create opportunities for science that crosses international boundaries.

It was easy to see that we were doing the science part well. We were collecting samples, recording data, and running successful experiments. But how do you measure collaboration? How can you tell when you have definitively formed a relationship? Here are a couple of good signs:

  • Ronaldo, our Brazilian chief scientist, speaks excellent English. But when he mixes up the word for ‘napkin’ and asks someone at the breakfast table if they would please pass him a kidnap, this quickly becomes the most hilarious joke that anyone can make (“hey, do you need a kidnap?” “we are out of kidnaps!” “there are lot of kidnappers at this table..” etc.)
  • Tali, a San Diego grad student, offers to help collect Christmas Tree Worms for Genie, a Colombian grad student. During one very long dive, Tali successfully digs two worms out of the reef. Afterwards, the American and the Colombian students happily commiserate over how difficult it is to dig a fragile worm out of its solid rock house.
  • I ask how I can identify coral disease underwater, and Brazilian grad student Pedro offers to dive with me. He is collecting samples of diseased corals, and my interest in the algae that grows on sick corals is a nice counterpart.
  • We operate in English because the Americans, predictably, know very little Portuguese. But the entire Brazilian contingent pitches in to ensure that we can each correctly pronounce the critical phrase ‘quero cerveja.” At the end of a long day, Tali delights that she has uttered her first complete sentence in Portuguese!
  • The ultimate cross-cultural norm is that graduate students are fair game. No matter the nationality, it is completely acceptable — and usually expected — that advisors will poke fun at their students. Ronaldo (professor) asks when Gustavo’s (post doc) experiment will be finished, because after that Gustavo is useless and they will probably just chuck him overboard. The ship is too crowded, anyway. Later, I offer to refill Liz’s (professor) coffee only to find that the thermos is empty, and she threatens to not bring me on any more of these wonderful trips. I scramble to bring her a fresh cup! Tali (student) writes down Portuguese phrases to help her navigate the complicated ferry/taxi/bus/train trip back to the airport, and Ronaldo teases that the phrases will actually get her sent to the middle of the Amazon. Or she may be napkined!

By the end of the short trip, the mood was relaxed and friendly. We headed back to our home institutions to process samples and analyze spreadsheets, and in a few weeks we will know whether or not the science was worthwhile. But the part where we tried to become friends? That part was definitely a success.

Posted by: Jill | September 15, 2011

Underwater Eye Candy

It is a Universal Truth of Diving that Bob Marley is the common soundtrack of scuba diving boats everywhere.

After a morning dive on submerged coral pinnacle (a chapeirao), we hang our gear to dry on deck and gather in the galley to compare notes and share stories. I pour a second cup of coffee and begin downloading my photos. No Woman, No Cry provides the perfect musical accompaniment to the gently rocking boat, the sun sparkling on the water, and the background hum of the compressor filling tanks emptied during the morning dive.

Play some tunes and enjoy the underwater eye candy from Brazil.

Posted by: Jill | September 13, 2011

Bom dia! A typical day in Brazil.

Sometimes, my job is to travel to remote places and go scuba diving. I know, it is a tough life, right? This is what a typical day was like on the trip to Abrolhos, Brazil:

By day 4 of the trip we have settled into a comfortable and familiar routine. I wake up around 6:30 or 7 a.m. when I hear people moving tanks on the deck directly above my bunk. I am usually one of the last people awake, but I will not make my first dive until at least 8:30, so there is no rush. I scramble over my bunkmate (it’s a small cabin!) and climb the steep stairs to the galley, trying to move carefully but more likely than not, I will bump my head on the low ceiling, anyway. I head directly for the thermos of hot coffee, add a splash of leite, and smile bom dia at my fellow divers. We discuss the day’s dive plan while we take turns toasting our breakfast sandwiches in the panini press.

Most of us make one morning dive, either an early 6 a.m. dive to collect samples at a specific time, or a more reasonable 9 a.m. dive for samples that don’t change with time. Lucky for me, algae are pretty much the same at any time of day, so I am on the later shift.

After the first dive we rinse gear, set up fresh tanks, and the microbe scientists begin filtering water – a process that requires minimal but constant attention for several hours. While they are filtering, I store my data: either uploading and cataloging photographs, or labeling and preserving samples of algae. Inevitably, we have been treated to delicious lunch smells throughout the morning and we are all happy when it is time to eat. Then we gear up for another dive, and spend the rest of the afternoon processing samples or off-gassing the nitrogen in our blood (read: napping). Dinnertime rolls around and the dedicated water filtering team will take a short break to eat and listen to a nightly science talk.

After the science talk, the lucky ones tuck into bed early, but a few brave souls remain awake to do a night dive and collect a midnight sample.

I sleep well in my cozy bunk. Fresh air flows through the porthole and the boat rocks gently as I drift off, reciting names of new coral species instead of counting sheep.

Posted by: Jill | August 26, 2011

Day 1 in Brazil

After a late night of team-building over cervezas and muqueca, a typical dish from northeastern Brazil, we got an early start to pack the boat and depart for the islands. The Titan is a dive boat turned scientific vessel, with a compressor on board and plenty of room for stowing tanks and dive gear. The crew is skilled and the food is excellent, and although there’s no espresso machine on board, I’m finding Brazilian coffee with leite (milk) to be quite a nice way to start my day.

It takes about 4 hours to reach the Abrolhos islands from the mainland, and since this is humpback whale season we turn off the boat a few times to drift quietly and watch mother and calf swim past. Fortunately, even though this is the stormy winter season, the weather agrees with us and it is smooth sailing for the entire trip.

Preparing for my first dive has me scrambling: my gear is packed in 3 different suitcases in separate compartments all over the ship, and every time I search for something below deck I have to stop at my bunk, find my head lamp, move a suitcase, unlatch a trunk, rummage around, put the suitcase back on the shelf, return my headlamp, and bump my head on the stairs on the way up through the galley. Sheesh. We get our act together and hop into the dinghy to motor to the dive site, only to realize … I have left my fins on board. No matter: Brazilians are laid back, low pressure, and happy. We make a quick trip to pick up my forgotten fins and — finally! — jump into the water.

When the team surfaces after this first dive, I immediately notice a difference in our group dynamics. In addition to our scientific goals, one of the primary purposes of this trip is to build effective collaborations between American and Brazilian scientists. The special experience of diving together is a great way to build trust and respect. The atmosphere is relaxed, people joke around with each other, and when we settle in for lunch, the seats around the table are filled with a mix of Brazilians and Americans.

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