Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Project Preperation

We are working hard getting everything ready for the upcoming field season, at least when there is work to be done.  Most of it is logistical and requires lots of time to process. Its all very bureaucratic and a field assistant such as myself cannot really help with that side of things.  Filling out the paperwork doesn't really get my heart racing anyways.  The Scuba class is still moving along at a steady pace.  Lets call it a slow trot.  We should be wrapping it up quite soon and then I am officially a certified research Diver.

My comfortable housing in one corner of the lab at FIU.

I was assigned a literature review project.  Now that probably sounds more like a homework assignment than field work and in truth it is but after being away from an academic setting for almost a year I am actually quite happy to be back reading scientific papers.  My brain has felt a bit atrophied and its nice to get the nerves firing again.  My specific goal is to determine the effects of water temperature on sea turtle dive times.  At the same time I am learning a lot of background knowledge about sea turtles.  For instance Loggerhead Turtles are omnivorous and feed mainly on invertebrates while Green Sea Turtles are herbivorous and feed on sea grasses.  These two turtles will be the focus of our research in Shark Bay.

A much more exciting project that I have also been a part of is designing and assembling makeshift critter cams.  First the body is carved out of some high density syntactic foam. The carving and shaping is my favorite part.  It must be carved so that each piece fits and the entire package still maintains a specific balance between weighting and buoyancy. Then we set in and epoxy down the various elements required to record depth, temperature, time, and video.  A large part of my job will be to catch the turtles so that we can attach homemade critter cams to them and see life from a turtle eye view.  There are a few good videos of exactly that on the Shark Bay Ecosystem Research Project website.  Check it out!  The man who's lab I am working for, Dr. Michael Heithaus, was the host of National Geographic's Crittercam series.  He is quite a remarkable person. He is the type of guy that could be described as the Michael Jordan of underwater research.

I wanna be like Mike.

A crittercam prototype without the camera attachment.  Ill post pictures of the real deal when i get to Australia.

The GoPro camera that we will be using on the turtles.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Heart of True Science

I am down in Miami now, Biscayne Bay to be more accurate, working on my new scientific SCUBA certification.  Although I am not particularly a huge fan of the Miami area in general, I have been having a fantastic time here so far.  The SCUBA class is only scheduled to meet twice a week so I am finding myself with loads of free time.  With this spare time I am getting to know the the various masters students, phd students, and post-docs in the lab at Florida International University that I am working in.  I have already learned a lot about what it means to be a masters student versus a PHD student and all of them love to chat about what they are doing, where they are heading, and what kind of experiences they have had that led them to the point they are now at.  It gives my own life and potential future decisions a little more perspective that I have not had up until this point.

I hear from those who have only just begun the process, the ones that I most directly relate to, but I also get to see what it is like to have finished your work as a student and to finally be at the point where you are exploring subjects because you want to... that you are genuinely interested in.  As I have recently learned this is not always the case with student work.  Now, that is not to say that these people are unhappy with their projects at all because that is far from the truth.  In fact, I would consider it the mark of a good scientist to be able to find the curiosity and intrigue in any subject matter, as these people seem able to do.

 Take for instance a girl I have recently met who has only just begun working toward her PHD.  She is 23 and moved to florida at the beginning of this semester with an urge to study something fun and interesting to her.  She is now working in a lab that focuses its efforts on seagrass, which is not a subject that many would find particularly enthrawling. However she has a great mentor here and a wonderful support system consisting of the rest of the students and she has discovered ways to make her project her own.  As she explained to me, you are not required to focus solely on the seagrass as your main subject.  There is a lot that we do not know about it and it might just be more important than we thought.  If you picture a mangrove swamp, lets say the Everglades and the coral reef just offshore from it there will still be one crucial element missing, and that is the seagrass which forms a boundary separating the edge of the mangroves from the coral.

With this in mind, and without delving too deeply into all the specifics, her thesis question could relate to how various animals use the seagrass border compared to the coral or mangroves.  Or her question could address the fact that the seagrass may actually help to maintain the mangroves in some way by creating a border zone.  Or what the difference in population between each ecosystem is.  Or how global warming/oil spills/hurricanes effect these fragile balanced ecosystems.  With a little more background than I have in the area you could take the general topic of seagrass and open it up to endless possibilities.  Following whatever tangent fills you with that surge of curiosity.  This might seem obvious to others but I wasn't planning on making any assumptions about the nature of graduate work.  I am certain that at other universities it may not be nearly as cooperative as this.

 All the scientists I have met here stress the open sharing of knowledge and performance of "good science" with relevant topics.  Which is the way all science should be... in an ideal world.  Unfortunately a lot of scientists work under the premise that research is a competition and they hide their results with a passion from one another until it comes time for them to publish and to put their name on it.  This is a sad state of affairs that you hear about time and time again.  We need to learn together as a species and a culture if we are to put any of the knowledge that we gain to use.

I am just a temporary field biologist, here for training before heading to Australia but every single person I have met in these labs genuinely wants to teach me all that they can and to give experience in as broad a field as possible before I leave.  It is not the first and I hope will not be the last time I say this, but I seem to be leading a rather charmed life.  I am being asked to help out in their research, perform tests, assist in lab work and none of this is even what I originally came her for.  Its all a product of wonderful people in an encouraging environment determined to grow and learn together... This is the heart of true science.

A friendly face in the lab. Can you guess what animal?

Who's that guy with the short hair?