On Avoiding Moths and Parachute Science


The Drew Crew is coming up on our one-month mark of being here in Fiji, and this month has been so jam-packed with experiences that it’s hard to even begin putting things into words. I’ve been keeping a running list in my field notes of all the things that I absolutely do not want to forget, but looking back on that list (which includes such items as “jungle chickens” and “moth in the oven”) I realize it will do nothing to help me recall the exact hues of vivid pink sunsets that I hope have been seared into my brain, but may actually fade over time (“Were they really THAT colorful? Nah, there’s no way…”), and the faces of Masi, Mere, Christiana, Heidi, Tukai, and the many more warm, selfless, wonderful people who welcomed us into their homes, told us their stories, and fed us endless meals of fish, coconut milk, fresh fruits and homemade bread.

This list I made includes the names of various village cats and dogs we came to know over the week, but does not capture the politeness with which they tiptoed across the threshold of our little lab house to lick our hands and sniff at our equipment. Also on the list is “not showering”, which…is self-explanatory, and elicits memories of crispy beach hair and smelly fish hands, as well as the shock on Mere’s face when she found out :) But who needs to shower when you’re in the ocean every day for hours on end!? Spearfishing over patch reefs, sand flats, steep coral walls – at times it was difficult to drag ourselves out of the water even when we were exhausted and shivering. Except I guess there were a few hours of being on land as well, pulling out gills and brushing scales off our clothes and labeling fish and then laying them in beds of toxic chemicals to harden and be sent back to New York. (We did shower eventually.)

Also on that list is the morning where our fisherman friend Tukai happened to mention he had caught fifteen mullet a few hours earlier, and upon seeing our immediate interest, lead us around the village to the homes of ALL the people he had sold his mullet to so we could take gill samples from them. We thanked everyone profusely, they thanked us profusely in return, and many insisted that we take some bananas and papayas in addition to their fish gills, which didn’t really make sense but then it also kind of did, in an amazing, overly-hospitable, Fijian sort of way.


Our host, Masi


Processing party on Day 3 of No Showers

Then there was the night (our last night in the village actually) where we sat cross-legged on the floor and did the tatau. The tatau is a closing ceremony where we present our hosts with a bundle of kava and apologize for all the things we don’t even know to be sorry about, because we’re visitors and probably messed some things up, and they say “we totally forgive you” (which is a GREAT practice and should really be incorporated into every awkward social setting in the US). And as we were all sitting there in our garlands of fresh flowers listening to Masi forgive us, a MASSIVE moth – a small bird, really – flew into the room. For anyone who doesn’t know me, I have a major phobia of moths (and yes I know how silly that is). I thought I held my cool pretty well, but was amazed when Lily reached out, caught the thing in her hand like a ninja, handed it to Mere, who then went into the kitchen, threw the moth in the oven and slammed the door! Hence, “moth in the oven” on my list. This simple act is amazing to me not only because it proves Mere is a badass woman who can manhandle huge, bird-like insects, but also because it is one of the many examples of the kindness and thoughtfulness that our hosts constantly displayed. Mere knew how much I hated moths, and she also knew that the thing would almost certainly come back if she simply threw it outside, so she locked it away in the oven for the entire night so I wouldn’t have to worry. She gently released it the next morning.

While a story about an incarcerated moth may not capture the entirety of our hosts’ amazingness (another person may have chosen a more elegant anecdote to demonstrate this concept), we really do owe SO much to these people. Without the help of our companions in Nagigi we could not have gotten even half of the work we had set out to do this week done – and not just because they housed us and made sure we didn’t starve, but because they also put us in contact with fishermen and fisherwomen, people who truly know these reefs. This is one of the main reasons we strive to come back year after year (Josh has been working here for almost a decade now), and we spend as much time as possible talking to the village, getting to know them, and translating our science into useful and accessible knowledge. One of our lab’s central tenets is to avoid parachute science at all costs – which, at its most extreme, is when scientists “parachute” in to some community for a short but intensive amount of time, get a ton of amazing data, and then bail with minimal (if any) follow up with the community or people who helped them. I think this mindset – recognizing the importance of integrating scientific endeavors within the context of communities they rely on in – is especially important for students like us to be exposed to, and immersed in, as we train for future careers in conservation work around the world.

And this mentality is exactly why we took a dry day on Wednesday, so Josh could meet with Nagigi’s chief to discuss the implementation of a tambu area (a temporary, traditionally-managed protected area) on the village’s adjacent reef. The meeting was very successful, and it looks like there may be a tambu put in place before the year is out. This is a major step towards the protection of Nagigi’s marine resources, and it’s really amazing that our team is in a position to be able to provide information that the village can use in making these decisions (for a more direct example of what I’m talking about, check out this publication that resulted from last year’s interviews and biodiversity surveys in Nagigi).

So, sitting here on the ferry as we travel to our next field site on the island of Taveuni, I am happy to be looking back on an incredibly fulfilling and rewarding week. While our team did face many challenges (e.g. lack of overlap between days with boat and days with tanks – there was lotttttts of walking across tidal flats wearing about 50 lbs of dive gear), we were able to collect over 100 more samples than last year and add even more species to the list of biodiversity present in Nagigi. I have also almost entirely changed the complement of species I’m targeting for my thesis, which was stressful and still is a little scary but also has been an incredibly useful learning experience in troubleshooting. And, most importantly, we have strengthened the ties between Columbia University and the community of Nagigi, and there are plans for further protection of their marine resources in the works. I’m looking forward to our next four weeks of fieldwork in new and exciting places, but I hope that by some miracle of funding and timing I’ll be able to return to this wonderful village of Nagigi next summer and personally report the findings of my Master’s thesis to those who helped make it possible.


Preparing the lovo, or earth oven. We had a feast of yellowfin tuna, cassava, polusami and more, all cooked wrapped in leaves and buried over red-hot stones.


The “lab” location one afternoon, complete with fresh coconut water after a long snorkel.


One of our sampling sites had nearly 100% coral cover.


Taken on a day where we had the boat, but no tanks, which means spearfishing while freediving at ~30ft (exhausting but awesome)


Elora and Molly exploring on the day we arrived


One of the samples, Stethojulis bandanensis



Happy campers


First Week in Fiji


First week and a half in Fiji down and man, did it go fast! We landed in Nadi last Monday morning, the wheels hitting the tarmac just as the sun was rising over the jagged peaks of the main island of Viti Levu. The second we walked off the plane we were hit by that familiar wall of humidity, thick warm air perfumed with the smell of tropical vegetation and wet dirt. This is my third summer here in Fiji, and it still amazes me how such simple smells can so readily bring back vivid memories of past fieldwork experiences – driving in open-backed trucks, walking barefoot through the clean, grassy village of Naigigi, sitting on various concrete floors in my salty wetsuit, processing fish.


Fisherpeople in Suva Harbor

We haven’t gotten to any of these activities yet though, because in addition to crossing items off our lengthy to-do list here in Suva (securing permits, tracking down formalin & ethanol, buying random field items etc), we’ve been meeting with various colleagues and new friends in the NGO community, practicing sampling techniques in our little hotel’s backyard (which you can read about here!), and Josh and I have been teaching a class on marine conservation at the University of the South Pacific to a mix of international and local students, which is funded by the US Embassy here in Suva.


Elora taking a photo voucher of our first dissection specimen


Molly digging in (quite literally) to practice her gut dissection methodology


The glorious guts!! We target that mass of intestines and straighten them into a single line (very time-consuming), and then take pH measurements and put a bit of gut into a tube in liquid nitrogen for microbial DNA sequencing back in NY!

See, we actually DO do work here! ;)

Molly with the final product! A single continuous line of intestine…

This Fiji W.I.S.E. class in particular has been incredibly rewarding for me. It’s the first time I’ve been closely involved with putting together curriculum and field trips, and with all the time I’ve spent organizing and preparing for what felt like every last detail, I am elated every time I hear a student say how much they appreciate a lecture or how perfectly the class fits their interests or career plans. Which actually happens quite often, because we have an incredibly plugged-in and intelligent group of students – a mix of USP researchers and NGO workers from Germany, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and Fiji! They are an amazing group of people to discuss South Pacific marine conservation issues with, and we’ve been learning a ton from them just as they are learning from us. We’ve been doing all sorts of fun field trips and labs (like dissecting surgeonfish to sample their intestinal gut flora, measuring the pH of the ocean at various points off USP’s jetty and beaches, and snorkeling in a local MPA to check out examples of reef symbiosis), and tomorrow the class culminates in a river-to-reef sampling trip, taking pH and salinity measurements every few kilometers as well as checking out how the fish fauna changes across that ecosystem gradient. I’ll be sad for the course to end because it’s been such a great immersive experience, but we hope this can become an annual endeavor that will continue to strengthen the ties between USP and Columbia University over the years.


Josh teaching Fiji W.I.S.E. participants about climate change & ocean acidification


Learning on the beach!!

After this class, we’ll have the weekend to decompress and then we will be preparing for the field in earnest. We also will be attending the Society for Conservation Biology’s Oceania Section meeting next week from Wednesday to Friday (which we prepared a symposium for! Check out this Nature Jobs article featuring interviews with Josh & I about the process!). I’m looking forward to doing more detailed blog posts in the future about the fish market here in Suva, the funny cultural idiosyncrasies we notice on the daily, and about the upcoming conference and fieldwork. For now, this blasé “summing up” blog post will have to do! Too many 7am – 6pm days to be sitting down for blog writing at the end of the day :) And I’m working on a GoPro video as we speak, so there’s that to look forward to as well!

Much love to everyone at home and all of my amazing SciFund backers, you guys are the reason I’m actually here and I can’t thank you enough!! (And check your mailboxes over the next few weeks, hehe)



Prepping for Fiji Fieldwork

Featured Image -- 1061


A post I wrote for the Columbia MA summer research blog, CU in the Field!

Originally posted on CU in the Field:

Prepping for the field!! Always an exciting, yet slightly stressful endeavor. I am a Master’s student in the Drew Lab, and will be spending 2 months in Fiji for fieldwork along with fellow MA student and friend Molly McCargar, and our amazing undergraduate student, Elora Lopez (who will be blogging in the field as well, at our undergrad research blog sister site, CUEBS). We’ve been preparing for this trip for what feels like ages, starting way back in January when we started putting together a symposium for a conference we’ll be attending in Fiji, began communicating with collaborators at University of the South Pacific, and started the whole process of getting permits and research visas. But when the semester finished in mid-May, the planning ramped up a million notches, and now we’re only 3 days away from heading off! Ah!! Are we prepared? Are we ready? Probably as much…

View original 525 more words

Guest Post: How Sanguivore-Savvy Are You?

Amy Wray, one of my classmates and good friends here at Columbia University, is doing a super cool thesis on vampire bats! She submitted this guest post as a part of our Science Communication class, with the goal of spreading the word about how cool her study species is! Follow her on Twitter: @amykwray

Vampires have always been fascinating as mythical creatures, but real vampires in nature are often surrounded by misconceptions. Take this quiz and find out how much you really know about blood-sucking creatures in fiction and in fact.

Question 1: Which one of these is a real vampire?

                          A.                                                  B.







Answer: B. The vampire finch, Geospiza difficilis septentrionalis, is native to the Galápagos islands where it feeds on the blood of other birds. The bat pictured here, the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), eats only insects. In fact, out of nearly 1200 bat species, there are only 3 that consume blood.

 Question 2: Which one of these vampires has an impressive running ability?

                     A.                                                   B.

Edward crawl






Answer: A & B. Trick question! Edward might have super-speed abilities, but the common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus also has the unique ability to run on land. By using its forelimbs to propel itself forward, this bat can even jump vertically into the air.

Question 3: Which of these vampires likes to snuggle?

                  A.                                                B.







 Answer: A. Pam from True Blood probably doesn’t like to snuggle, but common vampire bats do! By roosting together in colonies, these bats are able to thermoregulate and stay warm even when temperatures drop.

 Question 4: Which one of these vampires has provided medical help for humans?

                        A.                                                       B.

bat2 Carlisle





 Answer: A & B. Tricked you again! While Dr. Carlisle Cullen may have helped lots of humans in Twilight, vampire bats have lead to medical advances which have helped real humans. A drug called desmoteplase, developed from the anticoagulants in vampire bat saliva, has been used to help stroke patients recover.

Question 5: Which of these vampires can survive without consuming any blood?

                                  A.                                         B.

bat3 TrueBlood






Answer: B. In the True Blood universe, some vampires that are very old no longer require blood to survive. In the wild, however, vampire bats must consume blood at least every 3 days or they will starve to death. Reciprocal blood exchanges, where an individual who has fed will regurgitate and share its blood meal with an unsuccessful roost mate, help these bats decrease their risk of starvation.


Question 7: Which one of these vampires can spray a foul-smelling liquid when threatened?

                          A.                                              B.







Answer: B. Although Jonathan Rhys Myers delivers plenty of stinging insults on NBC’s Dracula, only the white-winged vampire bat (Diaemus youngi) is able to spit a nasty-smelling liquid at its perceived enemies.


8. BONUS QUESTION! Here are two species of vampire bats. Which one prefers to feed on the blood of mammals?

        A.                                            B. 







common vampire bat    white-winged vampire bat

Answer: A. The common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, is the only vampire bat that primarily feeds on mammalian blood. The other two species of vampire bats, including the white-winged vampire bat (Diaemus youngi) pictured here and the hairy-legged vampire bat (Diphylla ecaudata), both prefer to consume the blood of birds.



0-2: Sparkly Megaderma (false vampire bat). Not quite a true vampire, but at least you’re cute.

3-5: Baby vamp/vampire bat pup. You’ve still got a lot to learn, spider monkey.

5-7: Hungry Dracula. Almost a badass vampire –  but you might need a bottle of True Blood or a shared blood meal first.

8: Former Viking turned vampire turned bat biologist. You’re a true expert at tween pop culture AND the ecology of hematophagous critters!

#SciFund Challenge Interview


Last month, I launched a  crowdfunding campaign with the #SciFund Challenge Round 4 to fund my summer research in Fiji. It was a huge success, and with the money I raised I’ll be able to do all the research I had planned for my thesis, plus one more field site that will make my study much more thorough and potentially yield some very interesting results. Posted below is an interview I did for the SciFund community, which they put up on the #SciFund Challenge website. You can view the original blog post here, and my SciFund crowdfunding project (now complete) over here.

Tell us about yourself, where you are from, and where you see yourself going.

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA, and have been a total ocean nerd since the very beginning. I’ve been working within the marine science realm for about 5 years now, and have done everything from scrubbing tanks and chopping up fish guts as an Aquarist Intern at the Aquarium of the Pacific, to conducting my own research while snorkeling above glorious corals in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. I just moved to New York where I’m a first-year Master’s student in Columbia University’s Conservation Biology program, with a focus on marine conservation and science communication. In particular, I study coral reef fish and their population dynamics (check out my project to learn more!). I’m really interested in pursuing a career with an NGO or different on-the-ground type of organization, where I can actually BE the change that I want to see in the world.


How did you get involved in your research project?

I went to Fiji two years ago to help a friend with her research on marine protected areas. Specifically, she studies the way that baby fish and corals find their way to protected areas through their sense of smell. So cool right!? At first I was really much more interested in the experiments we were conducting and the science behind the research, but as I got to know the people we were working with and interacted with the community more and more, I began to truly appreciate how closely the Fijian way of life is connected to the health of their reefs. The work then became much more personal for me.

From that trip on, I have focused on the benefits of scientific research to nature AND to people. Protecting reefs and enabling people to pursue their livelihoods don’t have to be mutually exclusive. So basically when I was applying to graduate schools, I sought out a program that would enable me to look at conservation from both a social and ecological standpoint – and that’s how I ended up at Columbia with Josh Drew as my advisor. We have worked really hard to develop this project, which focuses on conserving marine ecosystems while also providing a safety net for the future of small reef fisheries.

Why is your research important to you? Why should others fund it?

Because our oceans need to be protected! And people also need to eat and make a living! Weirdly enough those two statements are often considered to be at odds with each other, so my research is basically a super small-scale attempt to reconcile the two.

Even though Fiji is far away, and the reef fish dispersal patterns I’m investigating are on a relatively small scale, it’s important to provide people who care with information they can use to make a difference. Namely, it’s important to help the Fijian people.

Do you have a favorite story that came from working on your research project?

Oh man, SO many favorite stories! I actually just asked a few of my lab mates about their favorite stories and we laughed for about a half an hour before I could decide on one. So, one of my favorites is from last summer in Fiji, when our entire lab went out to this village, Nagigi (pronounced Nai-ni-ni), to conduct a survey of their reef fish. One day the current was absolutely ripping, so we decided to snorkel out to a closer patch of reef to collect fish rather than go diving further out. Well, it turned out to be absolute mayhem. After we got to the patch reef and collected about 10 or 11 fish we all agreed the current was simply too strong for us to continue. We were all steeling ourselves for the difficult swim back, when my friend Amy and I spotted a lionfish floating away from the little patch reef! It must have gotten a dose of the anesthetic we were using but taken a very long time to be affected, because it was now motionless, being swept away from its reef by the current. Amy and I took one look at each other, and then dove after the lionfish – we spent the next 15 minutes or so engaged in what felt like an epic battle to get this little fish into our bag. We were pumping our legs, blowing air through our snorkels, trying SO hard to stay next to this lionfish in the current, trying not to touch it (the spines are poisonous!) while also attempting to guide it into our catch-bag – which was made of mesh, the WORST material to try to catch a spiny, poisonous animal! I think at one point we were laughing through our snorkels because of how ridiculously hard catching this inert, drifting fish was – but damn it, we would not let it get away! When we finally did get him into the bag, we both let out these ragged little snorkel-cheers and gave each other underwater high fives. It was the most interesting and hilarious workout I’ve ever done.


Why did you decide to participate in the SciFund Challenge?

Well, my decision to join #SciFund was actually born out of both necessity as well as alignment with my own interests. As a brand new grad student, finding funding for my research has been incredibly difficult, as grants open to students are extremely competitive and opportunities are few and far between. My entire last semester was basically spent in the library frantically hammering out grant proposals to the major sources of funding (*cough* NSF-please-fund-me *cough*) and trying to find the most obscure grants possible, and even after all that I knew there was a very low chance of me actually landing any of those funds. So, I decided to take matters into my own hands, and crowdfund my research!

I had heard of #SciFund from previous rounds, and the idea of learning how to communicate my science effectively while also putting together a crowdfunding project was really appealing. One of my favorite parts about being a scientist is sharing the crazy cool things I learn each day with my friends and family, and I LOVE the idea of expanding that audience out into the general public – what better way to do it than to take people with me (via the interwebz) as I conduct my research this summer??

What was the most difficult aspect of building your SciFund Proposal? What was your favorite?

I know people typically say the video, but weirdly for me, it was the title! I really wanted something catchy and fun, and initially came up with something like “Following Food Fishes in Fiji” (alliteration all day erry day), but I got a lot of great feedback that it wasn’t very clear, wasn’t informative enough, and maybe a little too cheesy haha so I ultimately went with something a bit more descriptive and clear – “Using DNA to Protect Fiji’s Fisheries”.

As for my favorite part, it was definitely the video. I loved making the stop-motion animation (even though it literally took me 5 hours to get those 1.5 minutes of animation recorded), and I am extremely lucky to have a younger brother who’s very editing-savvy – check out his production company, BernwoodFilms.tv! – so he was able to help me out a lot. The only sucky part about making the movie was filming in 9 degree weather on the steps of the library at Columbia. It was absolutely beautiful, but also soooo very cold.

Tell us something random. Something funny. Something borrowed. Something blue.

One of my study species, the Daisy Parrotfish, wraps itself in a cocoon of mucus every night before it goes to sleep. Taking security blankets to another level.

You can check out my #SciFund Challenge project here! Thanks so much to all who contributed, it was an amazing experience and I look forward to sharing my work with all of you this summer! :)

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