A Day in the Life: Summer Field Work

Restored marsh area.

Despite what Starbucks is trying to tell you, fall doesn’t officially start in the Northern Hemisphere until September 22nd at 10:29 pm (equinox party anyone?).  And yet I felt now might be a great time to reflect on the summer.  At this point, if you’re a semi-regular reader you probably know a bit about my interests, but today I want to share a peek inside my summer work.  It was fun, it was muddy, and it was also just a ton of work!

I’m just for scale, look at the height on that hybrid Spartina!

But before I can really tell you what I did, I need to tell you why I did it.  As a PhD student, I’m nurturing a little research agenda that I hope will mature over time.  Right now, it’s at that horrible tween stage where it wants to be a grown up research agenda, but I keep driving it to the mall and embarrassing it in front of its friends.  Regardless, when people ask about my work at parties or family functions, I tell them I study the impacts of invasive plants in tidal wetlands.  Tidal wetlands are hugely important in terms of impacts to biodiversity (nursery habitat for many organisms) and ecosystem services (carbon storage, flood abatement, water filtration, and the list goes on…).  Ironically, in California, only about 10% of our historic tidal wetland area remains, and to add insult to injury wetlands are one of the ecosystem most impacted by invasion.  

But, why invasive plants?  Plants are primary producers, hanging out at the base of the food web, and when they change, other things change in really interesting ways.  My master’s research focused on the impacts of an invasive plant on songbird food webs.  I found the plant impacted the insects, which the birds ate, thus impacting the birds.  I was intrigued!  That’s how I knew a PhD was right for me, after my MS, I have about 1,000 more questions.  In my current research, I try to understand:  How do changes in invasive plant density impact the effects these plants have on ecosystems?  How does restoration approach impact ecosystem recovery after the removal of an invasive plant?  How does understanding the function of invaders in ecosystems impact management choices?  I have approximately a billion other small questions that I try to address, but those are the biggies.

Now, what does a work day in the life of someone trying to answer these questions look like?  For about 6 months out of the year, it looks like me sitting at my desk, at my computer.  But during the field season, especially the summer, things are very different.

Studying Restoration in the Low Marsh

Restoration site types:  Native Spartina foliosa (top left), actively replanted (top right), passive eradication (bottom left), invasive hybrid Spartina (bottom right).
Tidal marsh plant communities are structured largely based on environmental stresses associated with inundation by the daily tides.  When I’m working at my restoration sites, I’m down in the lowest elevations where plants persist.  That means I need to be in the marsh, ready to work when the tide is low enough.  Each field day, I rise at least two hours before the low tide level I need to get my business accomplished.  Most of the time this summer, that meant being up at 4 am.  I’ll admit it, it was a bit of a drag being up that long before the sun.  I would change into my field clothes, make some coffee (so necessary), grab the lunch that I (hopefully) pre-made the night before, and head out the door.  I jumped in my car, which is (again, hopefully) pre-packed with all the gear I’ll need for the day, and swing out of my parking lot to pick up my employee and potentially a few volunteers.  Once we are all loaded up, we start the hour and a half drive out to one of my six sites in the San Francisco Bay Area.  These awesome people are really what makes all my work possible, so if they fall asleep approximately 20 minutes into the drive, I focus on NPR and coffee.

Two all star members of the wetland field crew!
Once we arrive, we pull on our waders and prepare to get muddy.  For this restoration work, I’m very interested in how invertebrates living in the soil are impacted by the different restoration approaches, specifically active replanting of native plants versus just eradicating the invasive and letting things passively progress.  So, I take a lot of soil cores.  Soil cores for grain size, soil cores for water content, soil cores for inveterate identification, soil cores for benthic algae analysis.  So.  Much.  Mud.  I also get to play with adorable crabs and watch the sun rise up over the bay.  In the end, it’s always worth the early wake up call.  Depending on the site and the day, the tidal window could be open for 4-7 hours.  As the sea creeps back up toward the land and my transects, we pack up our gear and lug 30 pound buckets of mud back to my car.

Muddy gear ready to be rinsed.
*Cue very obnoxious pop music and more coffee to make it through the drive home*

What happens back at the lab that evening really depends on the time of day and what the plans are for the next day.  Generally, we spray off all our gear (salt water = gear death), preserve and store all the samples we took, and go take showers.  Lather, rinse, repeat for about 20 days spread out over 1.5 months.  

Studying Management in the High Marsh

My other experiment this summer examined how different densities of an invasive plant might have different impacts to the ecosystem.  This plant, (Lepidium latifolium, or white top) can occur in several different elevations in the marsh, but my master’s work showed the largest impacts were in the high marsh zone.  Thus, I’ve concentrated my current work in that area.  So, unless the tide is really high during the middle of the day, I’m generally not very tidally restricted for this work.  I’m super interested in the impacts of invasive plants at different densities because we generally know about what things are like when these invaders are absent and when they are really bumping.  That middle stage?  A bit foggy.  That’s where I come in, or so I hope.  

Marsh full of Lepidium.
On Lepidium mornings, I wake up at 6 am, which feels like a luxury, let me tell you.  I make coffee, grab my lunch, and head out to pick up my helpers for the day.  Once we arrive at the field site, we set to work counting stems.  I’m attempting to hold stem density constant between the different treatments, so a lot of this summer was spent driving out to the site and clipping out any extra stems that had sprouted up from the time of my last visit.  These little suckers resprouted so aggressively!  I learned a lot about how often I need to actually do this reclipping.  I piloted this experiment this summer, so I didn’t take all those lovely soil cores in this case.  I’m stoked for this February when I expand this project to three sites and really go for it!

Crab lovin’.
When I look back over this summary and compare it to my feelings after my first field season in the winter, I know I’m starting to make progress down my research path.  In all honesty, during the winter I was simply trying to keep my life together.  This time around, I felt I could breathe more easily, reflect more often, and make much better decisions over all.  I also felt like this summer I actually have a lot of fun in the field!  Sure, logistics are still difficult, and I definitely have a metric ton of mud still in the lab fridge to work through this week.  Overall though, I feel like I can say things went well!

For those of you who are getting ready to start this graduate school journey, just remember that no one has it all together.  Anyone who pretends that they do is absolutely full of it.  This is a learning process, and learning is way scary!  Talk to people you trust, take breaks when you need to, and remember why you signed up for this in the first place (cause you totally volunteered, btw)!  Trust me; it’s always confusing, but navigating that confusion will become much more of a fun adventure!   

Until next time!  If you need me, I’ll probably be in the lab.     

Beakers and stuff, like a real scientist.

LIT to KY Pt. 2: Adventures in the Sunny South

What?  You’re writing a low impact travel post that begins with a plane ride?  Yes I am.  Please see Pt. 1 for a little more information on my thoughts and rationale regarding this issue.

Day One: In Transit
As is my general practice in life, I took the spring quarter down to the wire.  I had a paper due at 5:00 pm on Tuesday which I turned in, literally at 5:00 pm.  I have trouble letting things go.  I just like to mess with them till the last possible second… Then I had a lab meeting on Wednesday, and class on Thursday, and BBQ on Thursday, and a date night on Friday.  Things got busy and all of a sudden it was Saturday, and I needed to leave the house at 4 pm and I hadn’t packed, scooped the kitty litter, or anything!  Lucky for me, at this point I’m very good at packing and my boyfriend is very good at keeping up with the laundry. 
Is this real life?  An empty
middle seat?  Praise be.
I was able to quickly zip up my suitcase and my backpack (with minimal work stuff actually, which was nice), made sure to grab my reusable mug, my water bottle, and some airport snacks, and we were out the door.  We had just enough time to stop by the Co-op on our way out of town so I could grab some coffee and a few more snacks.  I’m sort of obsessed with our local foods co-op.  They have an amazing section of bulk foods and, as luck would have it, one of their awesome bulk trail mixes was on sale.  Score.  I’ve written before about the importance of bringing snacks with you when you travel.  When you are trying to have a small impact, being able to source the products you consume is very important.  It’s a lot easier to do this when you make your purchases from sources you know and trust than when you are rushed and hangry (hungry plus angry) at the airport.  Bonus points, when you plan ahead, you can make sure the snacks you choose come with minimal unnecessary packaging.  I put my trail mix in a little paper bag and my coffee in my to-go mug and we were on our way.
As I’ve said previously, I live between Sacramento and San Francisco, so I have the choice to fly out of either airport (plus Oakland!).  It’s true that Sacramento is a lot closer, but SFO is generally cheapest because it is the largest hub.  To minimize the driving time, both for convenience and so we aren’t burning a whole bunch of gas in a nearly empty car, D Lo and I generally drive one another to the nearest BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station and take public transit the rest of the way into the city.  Saves major gas when you miss most of that city stop-and-go traffic!  The BART ride was actually pretty eventful.  About 15 minutes before arriving at the station I checked my BART app. and saw that there were some pretty major delays on my line due to track maintenance.  The train I wanted to catch was leaving very soon and the next train would get me to the airport on time, but I wouldn’t have time to check my bag (which had a few hefty liquids in it), and that was before the delays…Great.  Now I REALLY needed to make this train.  Cue me running through the BART station.  But I made it and this train, plus delays, got me to the station at the same time the later train (the one I had been hoping to avoid taking) would have originally.  Phew.
My sister-in-law made me this most excellent flower crown
upon arrival.  Sorry for iPhone photos.
However, this meant I could no longer check my bag, at the last transfer point I filled two small travel containers, which I just happened to have with me, with coconut oil (for face wash) and contact solution.  I ditched the bottle of contact solution (sad face), but just couldn’t seem to bring myself to throw away that nice, glass, organic jar of coconut oil.  I boarded the SFO bound train with several other very nervous looking passengers.  Seems everyone had been delayed and was now pushing it.  I asked the young couple in front of me if they would have time to check their bags and if they wanted a half a jar of coconut oil.  “It’s organic.”  The girl looked like she was considering it, but the guy gave me a “are you nutty” face and said no thank you.  My little sister later informed me that this was extremely shady pre-airport behavior.  Good point.  Thus, I had to just toss the bottle of coconut oil and my toothpaste, rely on the kindness of strangers to get me to the front of the security line, and rush to my plane.  Cue me running through the airport.  Again, I just barely made it.  I guess a strange low impact tip would be make sure you have plenty of time so you don’t have to ditch a bunch of your stuff.  It’s lame on many levels.  So is having to run to catch any form of transportation. 
On a positive note, this was the first time I was ever able to check into a flight on my smart phone and avoid printing off a ticket.  Etickets for life.  This is the first plane ride EVER where I have totally avoided buying snacks.  I didn’t even get lured in by that post-nap sip of soda in a plastic cup that they offer you.  No sir.  I had my own healthy snacks and my water bottle (which I refilled at the layover).  It felt really good to not spend an obnoxious amount of money on stuff I didn’t even really want.  So good that I slept very soundly all the way through my red-eye flight to Nashville.

Days Two, Three, and Four:  Chilling on the Farm

My mom in her mid-twenties.  Backpacking around Lake Superior. 
My little sister and her boyfriend picked me up at 5:30 am at the Nashville airport, and we drove back to my parent’s farm.  There aren’t really any public transit options available to shorten this drive, unfortunately.  These were very chill days.  My sister, her boyfriend, and my sister-in-law all came down to the house and we just sort of hung out, drank coffee, and napped a little bit.  My little sister had to leave the house at 6 am on Monday morning to go and do some field work for her internship, which was a bit of a bummer, but she planned to be back in town by Thursday evening and back at the house by Friday morning.  My sister-in-law pulled out of the house on Monday mid-morning, leaving just the parental units and myself to hang out for the rest of that day and the next.  So relaxing!  It’s also so inspiring to be around my parents because they are both so thrifty and eco-friendly.  My mom and I schemed about potential science experiments to run in her 6th grade science classroom and eco-friendly summer projects.  It was great.  We also looked through some old slide from when they were young (a little bit younger than I am now).  It was so fun.  My favorites were the ones of them on a backpacking trip in Canada.  Can we talk about how my mom is apparently my twin?  I had no idea.

Day Five:  Boat Floating and Car Driving 
The Nolin River, KY

 Wednesday was a very good day for myself and the men in my family.  I grew up playing in the creek that marked the back side of my parent’s property.  I had a set of aquariums living on the front porch of our house for most of my childhood.  In these aquariums I kept tadpoles, crayfish, and many other creek captives.  I observed them, I studied them, and I feel in love with biology.  This fed into my love of rivers, streams, and all aquatic and marine habitats.  During this same period of my childhood, my cousins moved to a house right on the Nolin River in Kentucky.  I think I was about 12 years old when my cousin, D, started taking us on floats down the Nolin River to remove tires and trash.  My mom still has a picture on her fridge from the first “tire pull” when our two families, including the 5 kids, removed over 100 tires from the short stretch of river between the local church and the banks that transitioned into D’s backyard.  We jokingly call this “the cleanest stretch of river in the state,” and it might well be.  This last year when my father and D headed out on the annual low water float they broke the john boat trying to remove and old refrigerator.

On Wednesday morning, my dad and I jumped into the car and headed over to D’s house.  He had left us his truck keys with a canoe, paddles, and life jackets already loaded in the bed.  We drove just a little way down the road, and dropped our canoe into that familiar body of water.  The cleanest stretch of river in the state.  The float doesn’t take long, maybe 3 hours with light paddling, which really shows how dense the tiers and other trash once were.  My dad is a quiet guy, and it was such a gift to spend some time alone with him watching birds, scanning fallen logs for turtles, and shooting a few “rapids.”  It was a really relaxing and wonderful morning.  When I have experiences like that, it always strengthens my resolve tonot only protect nature but deeply and truly enjoy it.
Some snails inside a spent
freshwater mussel shell.
We finished our float and scampered on home because I needed to get on the move again.  My brother is currently in Morehead, KY with no way to get down and visit me.  Unfortunately, with no public transit, that meant that I needed to drive the 3 hours to see him.  Luckily, my sister-in-law is living at the halfway point.  She and I met up and had an amazing lunch at the Lexington Good Foods Co-op.  Their hot bar is full of amazing food!  Seriously, I wish I had taken a picture.  So good.  From there, we were able to carpool the rest of the way to Morehead.  The car trip was totally worth it to see my brother.  I miss him dearly, and it was great to be together.  Cue me getting home at 12:40 and falling straight into bed.
Day 6:  Talking Nerdy
On this day, I mostly chilled out at home.  My dad made a pot of his homemade marinara sauce (so tasty, and an easily plastic-free recipe!) and my mom modified her eggplant parmesan recipe to make it vegan for me.  They were really accommodating of my diet, which was very sweet.  After dinner, my cousin who is the closest to my age (we grew up living next door to one another, it ruled) came over to hang out and chat.  He is a recently graduated and seriously talented engineer and had received the awesome news that day that he had received a job!  I was so excited for him, even if he did have to slowly explain (twice) what it was he would be doing.  To my understanding, he is taking 2D drawing and turning them into virtual 3D models that can then be used for production.  Pretty cool no?
There is a turtle in this one, I swear!
At this point, my mom came into the kitchen to chat.  The content for her subject and grade had recently been revised and there was more emphasis on engineering concepts.  Lucky for her, she knows one.  The conversation naturally turned to science and science education.  My cousin expressed that he would like to return to school someday…maybe.  However, he felt that the more he learned about the world’s problems the harder it seemed to deal with them.  After all, you can never “un-know” something.  I took that moment to explain the basics of the science behind global warming (sensitive I know) and we talked about that for a bit.  I’m so happy that I have so many science minded family members.  It’s really cool.  It also gives me a really good forum to practice my scientific communication skills.  Sure, my cousin is a scientist, but he’s an engineer and I’m an ecologist.  We do really different things.  It’s good practice to explain things to people who have some training before trying to break it down for a complete layperson.  
Day 7:  Party! 
I went and got my sister at Mammoth Cave National Park, where her internship is based out of, after her field work was over.  We got back to the house and helped my mom clean up and prepare for the cook-out we were having that evening in honor of my little sister’s birthday!  Mostly we cleaned while my mom whipped up a mess of homemade food.  I think I get my love of home cooking from my mother, and I know I get all my tips for how to make my cooking as environmentally conscious as possible from her.  My sister and I also took this time to get a bunch of her stuff together for her upcoming hike along 600 miles of the Appalachian Trail!  I know.  I’m jealous too.  I’ve been told there might be a possible guest post or two in the works.  “Tales from the AT” perhaps?  
A mess of my cousins, my aunt and uncle, and my sister-in-law all came over.  It was a lot of fun and all the “kids” played board games well into the night.  I was so happy that everyone came to celebrate with us!  I was, honestly, not ready to leave the next day.
Day 8 and 9:  Lost in Transportation
View from the Amtrak.  Sorry for
iPhone photos.
I planned to get back to SFO on Saturday evening, just one week after I left.  Problem, D Lo ended up going down to SoCal for a wedding that day.  The BART ran to the Amtrak station that evening, but I would miss the last train.  No big deal, I’ll get someone to fetch me at the BART station…but all of my friends in Davis are ecologists and 99% of them are out of town for their field seasons and the ones who were around were otherwise engaged.  No big deal…I have friends in the City but they were all out of town.  No big deal…I’ve slept in airports before (sigh).  So, I spent Saturday morning chilling out with my family before leaving with my Mom and Dad for the Nashville airport.  Again, I wish there were a public transit solution, but there just isn’t.
View from the Amtrak.  Sorry for
iPhone photos.
I checked in to my flights on my phone and, once again, used etickets to get to my gate.  I didn’t make it all the way through the trip without buying food this time because I needed dinner.  Thanks bartender at the Dallas airport for knowing what a vegan was and hooking me up with a sweet margarita.  I rolled into SFO around 10 pm PST and settled into one of the more comfortable nights I’ve ever spent in an airport.  There was free WiFi and some legitimately comfortable seating.  I considered this an overall win.  I also watched two period romance films on Netflix.  I mean, what else was I supposed to do? 

I woke up the next morning and treated myself to a green juice and a soy latte from The Plant cafe in the SFO airport.  Legitimately delish, and just what I needed.  The juice did come in a plastic cup, but it was that biodegradable plant plastic, which is at least marginally better.  The latte went in my travel mug.  I took these treats and headed to the BART station that is attached to the airport.  I took that train to the Amtrak station in Richmond.  Unfortunately, the Amtrak app. (there is literally an app for everything) is a little bit of a liar and told me that a train was coming that never came.  The next one, however, did come and I hopped aboard, showed the conductor my eticket, and enjoyed the ride by looking at the marshes as we left the Bay and headed inland toward home.  I hopped off the train and took the 20 minute walk back to my apartment.  Nothing feels better after a night sleeping in an airport than your own bed.  For serious, it was amazing.         
Stopping to smell the flowers on my
walk home.
Last Word:  I know I wrote in part one about how conflicted I was about airplane travel, but I really won’t trade being able to see my family for anything in the world.  I’m just glad that I can make a conscious effort to make all these little choices that, I hope, will add up to big impacts one day.  This is installment number one of my summer travels.  Who knows were the next one will take us…
What do you think?  Do you think small changes to our behavior when we travel make a difference?  Do you like these sorts of travel/adventure posts?    

EcoNews Round-up: April 1, 2013

Along the trail in Cache Creek Canyon Regional Park

Happy April!  I’ve got some fun things planned for spring on the blog.  Hopefully, you will see these coming up in the next few weeks (sneak peak of a new travel post via this pretty picture).  For the moment, I wanted to share with you all some more of the interesting science news I have been hearing lately, or at least thinking about lately, as some of it is not super-duper recent.  Spoiler alert, none of these are April Fools Day stories (or are they…).

This is a little less “breaking news” at this point, but I couldn’t resist telling you guys about how amazing dung beetles are!  These little guys are using light from the Milky Way to navigate around their habitats!  The point of this navigation is to roll the dung ball (a precious resource!) away from the dung pad in as straight of a line as possible.  This helps the beetles avoid competition from their potential dung ball stealing fellow.  This Science Friday story is worth a listen for several reasons, not the least of which is the great explanation by the study author and the amazing mental image of a dung beetle wearing a Milky Way obscuring hat (just listen, believe me).  These sorts of findings are adding to the growing field of sensory ecology.  Researchers are learning about how organisms perceive the world, and how that world view, or umwelt, impacts the ecology of different species.  It’s more than just cool facts too!  Sensory ecology can be used to help plan protected areas or understand the impacts of a new development.

I like this article mostly because of the title:  Somewhere Over the Brainbow.  Thanks NPR.  I’m also genuinely intrigued by the idea of a brain activity map.  Obama claimed in a speech that this project would help with the treatment of brain disease, specifically mentioning Alzheimer’s Disease.  The story starts by comparing this project to another major government science initiative, The Human Genome Project.  It’s an appropriate comparison, I think, but the brain is so complex results will likely be very slow in coming.  One issue brought up by the article that interested me was the argument against the project, which stated that such large groups organized by the government aren’t the best for science.  In any case, I’m excited to follow the story!    

If you want to talk about Fracking,  pro or con, you should understand how it works.  Here is how these wells are supposed to work under ideal conditions.

For more on Fracking, check out the cover story for the March issue of National Geographic.  Here is another interesting article by Nat Geo about the same issue but centered in New York.  I would love to know some people’s opinions.  Do you think Fracking has a place in America’s energy future?  Not at all, or as a stepping stone to more green technologies?      

Last, here is an Ecological Society of America press release about one of my very favorite habitats:  the salt marsh.  Unfortunately, as the press release explains, these already threatened habitats are not doing too swell.  Specifically, on the east coast, erosion is slowly eating away at these valuable habitats.  This is due, at least in part, to some of the same food web processes discussed in the last EcoNews Round-up.  Another contributor to the erosion are drainage ditches meant to draw off standing water in the marsh and, thus, decrease the available breeding ground for mosquitoes.  It’s a complex problem, but, as so many love to say, that’s ecology.  It’s always very interesting to see how human alterations to an environment have so many unforeseen consequences.  This is another excellent example of that phenomenon.

Again, I like to leave these news segments, which can often be kind of depressing, on an up note.  Check out this gem sent to me by a friend during finals week.  Love.

 Last Word:  I love these news round-ups because they encourage me to stay (at least a little) up to date on what is popular with the media.  One thing I highly suggest for those who aren’t scientists themselves, is to check press releases from organizations like the Ecological Society of America.  They have trained scientific journalists writing these articles, so you are must more likely to get a does of quality scientific reporting

What do you think?  Is there a place for Fracking in America?  Do these news round-ups amuse or depress you?  Is there any sort of news you would like to see more of on this blog?  Probably, you just want more nerdy boys singing about beer.  I’m right, aren’t I?