#SciFund Challenge Interview

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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.

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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.

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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! :)

From the Sea to the City – Guest Post for Labroides.org

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Iridescent fish of all colors school around the branching corals as I swim among them, suspended in liquid turquoise. Although the tip of my spear glints beckoningly ahead of me, I am distracted from the task at hand – collecting samples for a biodiversity survey of Nagigi, Fiji – by a pair of beautiful butterflyfish, mates for life, dancing through the current. I try to swim closer, propelling myself through the current with just a slight motion of my fins, but they dart away, making a strange, shrieking sound, over and over again…

Oh wait. That’s my alarm clock. Damn it.

In my waking life, Fiji is now thousands of miles away. Rolling out of bed in my tiny New York apartment, it’s hard to believe that only six months ago I was immersed in tropical fieldwork. Memories of village life are at times immediately accessible, almost tangible, but often they feel incredibly distant. I try to hold on to my dream of that blissfully warm water, but it slips away as my current situation makes itself sharply known. My apartment is freezing.

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My daily commute last July, in Fiji.

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My commute to school today, in New York.

I’m a first-year Master’s student in Columbia University’s Conservation Biology program, studying marine conservation as it applies to coral reefs. Whenever people here ask me what I do, they’re always taken aback by my reply – “You study marine science here?” – and invariably make some comment about NYC’s lack of marine biological opportunities, or the filth of the Hudson river. But what they don’t realize (besides the fact that Manhattan is literally an island, surrounded by water, come on people) is that New York City is full of amazing opportunities for my particular brand of scientific research – using genetic information to learn about and protect the planet’s biodiversity. The American Museum of Natural History, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Columbia University itself all provide me with the resources, support, and infrastructure I need to process and analyze the data I collect from the field each summer, which I then use to figure out how marine reserves can be designed to protect fishery-targeted reef fish in Fiji. The museum in particular is a treasure-trove of scientific opportunity (see my blog post on the importance of museum collections), with frozen tissue banks, massive vertebrate and invertebrate collections (they have a giant squid!!), and incredible research groups that address fascinating questions ranging from the taxonomy of malaria parasites to the population dynamics of big cats.

Walking to Columbia’s campus each morning, I often think about the strange juxtaposition of scenery my life has taken on these days – summers spent diving in azure tropical waters, winters spent walking under frozen, crystallized trees that sparkle in the sunlight. To many, these winters spent in New York might be seen as a necessary evil, the place you have to go back to in order to maintain some sort of cosmic balance after spending so much time in paradise. But I see it as an incredible gift, giving me the ability to experience the best of both worlds while  seamlessly pursuing my goal of making a positive change for our ocean’s future.

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IMG_5376I don’t doubt that the cold and the snow will begin to weigh on me eventually (knock on wood), but for now, it’s hard not to pinch myself as I walk through my winter wonderland, to make sure this all isn’t just a dream. 

Women in Science and #ManicureMonday

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“Women in science” is a term that has many different layers of meaning for me, and how I relate to the idea of being a female in a typically male-dominated field has evolved a lot over the last few months. I had the amazing experience of growing up with a lot of very strong, successful women around me, and I was exposed to the world of science both through my engineer father as well as through a few key female scientist role models. This awesome combo is unfortunately a rarity for many little girls growing up, and today I realize how amazingly fortunate I was. In addition to constant exposure to gender-stereotyping and subtle hints that girls aren’t good at things you need for science (like math), young girls today don’t have a large selection of female scientist role models to pick from, leading to a lack of beneficial counterexamples to prove the stereotypes wrong. But why don’t more girls have science-related female role models like I did? Where do all the awesome female science students go, if not into science? In the past few months I’ve become more aware of some of the hardships that women in this field – or any other male-dominated field, really – are exposed to simply because of their gender, and it’s been eye-opening and extremely disappointing (for a particularly poignant example, read about the DNLee debacle here or look up the hashtag #StandwithDNLee). After hearing anecdotal stories of discrimination and even sexual harassment, and becoming aware of some of the specific pressures that female scientists are under (especially around the topic of starting a family, and balancing work and family life), it comes as no surprise to me that many female science students never go on to achieve higher-tier academic positions. How do we fix this? How do we convince more young girls that they do indeed possess the ability to do some badass science just like their fathers, brothers and male friends, and how do we continue to foster a positive environment for women actively pursuing careers in science?

Turns out there are A LOT of amazing people asking (and answering!) these questions, and I am in awe of many of the female scientists and science writers I’ve watched address these challenges in the last few months. One super cool example I want to share with you guys that inspired this post in the first place, is geobiologist Hope Jahren’s (@HopeJahren) transformation of the twitter hashtag #ManicureMonday. This hashtag was originally started by Seventeen Magazine for women and girls to post pictures of their manicures (and there are some BOMB manicures out there, let me tell you). When Hope stumbled upon it, she started posting pictures of her manicured hands doing cool science things! The trend caught on, and now the hashtag brings up just as many pictures of women whose hands are conducting science experiments as it does pictures of women’s crazy cool ombre manicures. If you have a twitter account I really encourage checking out the results for #ManicureMonday, some of them are pretty awesome.

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A #ManicureMonday post by Hope Jahren

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A #ManicureMonday post by Hope Jahren

The reason this particular example of someone addressing the “women in science” issue has really made an impression on me is that, like Hope herself says in her interview with MSNBC, it emphasizes the importance of what a girls hands are doing, rather than just how they look. I think this is a message that needs to be much more prominent in pop culture, that what women do is much more important, much more noteworthy, much more valued, than how they look. Additionally, I really like that this promotion of women in science incorporates femininity, instead of trying to downplay it to make women in science “fit” into the stereotypically male description of a scientist. The typically male-associated qualities of being analytical, good at math, and assertive are NOT mutually exclusive from the typically female-associated qualities of being nurturing, creative, and communicative. Women can be badass scientists, work really well with our hands, AND be wearing pink nail polish while we do it. I hope more examples of empowerment for women in STEM fields continue to crop up, and that young girls everywhere take notice, get their hands dirty, and take pride in their brains just as much if not more than in their beauty.

Museum Collections – What For?

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As a kid, my favorite museums were always the ones with the dinosaurs. Those big, ancient, strange looking things thrilled my imagination – to think that something like that had walked on the same planet as me, maybe even on the same exact same dirt! My fascination with fossil exhibits in museums has grown over time to include basically any exhibit in any museum ever (even the stuffiest, most boring museum can lull me into a trance these days – something about being in the presence of old things, maybe the musty smell? Mmm), but I still hold a special place in my heart for natural history museums. And, lucky for me, I get to conduct the majority of my thesis analysis at the American Museum of Natural History, one of the coolest natural history museums in the world! As I’ve written a little bit about before, the fish I collect in Fiji will be brought back to the US to be stored in the vast vertebrate collections at AMNH. But what exactly happens in these behind-the-scenes collections? What do people do with all those dead things? And why are they even important?  These are questions I think the vast majority of people might ask, questions I myself asked once I first discovered that many museums are actually research institutions in addition to places for public educations and enjoyment.

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Tiger shark jaw in AMNH’s ichthyology collections

Amy making eyes at a coelocanth baby, which had been found in an XRay of the mother's uterus and proved that these elusive fish have live birth!

Amy making eyes at a coelocanth baby, which had been found in an XRay of the mother’s uterus and proved that these elusive fish have live birth!

First and foremost, museum collections provide important snapshots of what things were like in the past. The fossil collections are the most obvious example of this, but collections made by explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries are amazing resources as well, enabling us to see what the natural world may have looked like in a specific place up to four hundred years ago. Identifying the biological baselines in an area – how they looked before any sort of human disturbance – is essential to the protection or rehabilitation of that area’s ecosystems. There is some debate over whether we should even be aiming to “return” ecosystems to their pre-human states at all (it’s now widely accepted that humans have been changing this planet for much longer than we initially thought) – but that’s a different discussion for a different time. :)

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An AMNH technician processing recent samples collected from the Solomon IslandsDSCN2200

A goby treated with enzymes to make internal anatomy more visible – one enzyme to stain the bones red, and one enzyme to make all other body parts transparant! So cool!

Museum collections also provide scientists with a way to get their hands on a large sample of whatever organism they’re studying relatively cheaply and quickly. As you all know, science isn’t the most well-funded endeavor these days, so for a researcher, it is essential to try to obtain quality data in an affordable manner. And museums enable just that! Many scientists look at the genetic information of museum specimens to conduct their research, some look at morphological characteristics, and still some look at the overall diversity present in a specific place over time. New species have even been discovered through the examination of museum collections, showing how brand new discoveries are often hiding right in front of our faces! (check out this article for a specific example of how museums led to the discovery of a new olinguito species!)

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Processed samples waiting to be moved to their new home in the Ichthyology stacks

There are truly countless ways that scientists benefit from museum collections to answer cool and interesting questions. It’s important that people understand the value of these amazing resources, especially as budgets get tighter and program cuts become more numerous – losing these amazing repositories of knowledge would be a tragedy not just for scientists, but for the future of our natural world.

New York City

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This city has ensnared my heart completely. I’ve been wanting to write about my new love affair for quite some time but have been uncertain as to how to put it – New York is so elusively enchanting there are almost no words. This small island of Manhattan is absolutely humming with energy, it’s enough to simply walk on the streets to be instantly invigorated, to be reminded that we are all so vibrantly full of life. I am so grateful to be able to conduct my graduate studies in a place so conducive to thought and creativity and movement. As hard as it is to stay focused with sheet amount of things happening here  (man, is it hard), I simply can’t imagine a better place to stimulate the growth of my mind and character. New York, I love you. Already, I do.

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Fiji Fish – What happens after we catch them?

Check out this video put together by Helen Scales, our brilliant science communicator while on expedition in Fiji this summer. This video addresses what happens AFTER diving in the sublime Fijian sea all morning – processing our fish samples! Which ended up being one of my favorite parts of the entire trip, second only to the diving itself.

I’ll Be Seeing You

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A wonderful woman passed out of this life yesterday. Words simply don’t seem to be able to contain the magnitude of my Grammy’s character. I could describe her awe-inspiring photography – photos taken from all over the world that could still your heart, from the polar bears of Alaska, to the cherry blossoms in China, wildflowers in Death Valley, and roses from Huntington Gardens. I could describe her fierce independence – still driving her own car and keeping her own house at 92, teaching herself how to use Adobe Photoshop better than anyone I know my own age. I could describe her astonishing intelligence – accepted to UCLA as a young woman on aptitude scores alone after attending a non-accredited charter high school, and blowing us away every once in a while with her particularly astute political observations. I could describe her age-defying health – hiking daily up her hill and playing tennis until only a few years ago, traveling to China last year on a photo tour, beating me every time at the crossword and impressing everyone who met her and assumed she was 70. I could describe her amazing angel food cake, her smile wrinkles, tennis obsession, love of hummingbirds, penchant for turquoise, her special relationship with my dog Sammy…but none of this would be enough. Because she was my Grammy, and she meant more to me than the sum of all her parts. I will miss her every day, and our family will not be the same without her.

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This blog wasn’t intended for such personal posts, but it is largely due to my grandmother’s influence that I am the independent and adventurous person I am today. I feel that my travels, photos, and studies are all inherently linked to this amazing woman, and in continuing to pursue my passions and share them with the world, I will truly have my grandmother with me for the rest of my life.

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