Over the last two months I have transformed from a perpetually damp, wetsuit-clad, village-hopping field scientist, into a (relatively) well-dressed, city-living, pipette-wielding lab scientist. Where I used to spend most of my time chasing fish around with my spear and catch bag, my life now largely consists of moving tiny amounts of liquid from one tube to another. And surprisingly enough….it’s pretty darn awesome.
Lab work is enjoyable to me for two main reasons – first, I am constantly in awe of the fact that we humans have even FIGURED OUT how to extract, amplify, and sequence DNA from living tissue. The decades of brainpower, creativity, and technological innovation required to make those little A’s, G’s, C’s, and T’s come up so nicely on our computer screens is boggling, and keeping that in mind brings a certain kind of appreciation to even the most tedious tasks at the bench. That’s not to say it’s always totally easy and straightforward – one of the more frustrating aspects of this work is not knowing if you’ve messed something up until about 6 steps down the line, or even until the very last step of sequencing itself. But my labmate Elora and I are become more and more efficient with every day spent in the lab, so setbacks caused by small mistakes are quickly regained.
Second, it is the COOLEST thing to see a sliver of tissue from a fish or sea cucumber that I collected with my own hands or spear taken through the entire process, resulting in a sequence of DNA that I can use to answer questions about these animals’ biology. It feels amazing to be personally implementing every single step of the science. Before I was a Master’s student, the projects I worked on often involved analyzing data collected by other people, or collecting data for others to work up. And the independent projects I conducted as an undergraduate were on much smaller scales, most of them taking place over a single semester. After everything that has gone into this project, these DNA sequences mean a lot more to me than just a jumble of letters.
As we slowly but surely work our way through all 300 of the fish and sea cucumbers collected this summer, I’m enjoying learning everything I can about the process, and am really looking forward to seeing how everything wraps up. I also have two awesome side projects I’ve been working on as well, and may have some exciting news to share in the months to come ;) Stay tuned!
What are coelacanths and why are they so fricken cool?? Check out this TED Ed Lesson I helped create, and learn about these ancient fishes that captured the world’s fascination almost 75 years ago!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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…
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