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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Check out this video our amazing science communicator, Helen Scales (www.helenscales.com), put together of our first dive in Fiji! I’m the diver in all black (helpful!), and interviewed at the end are – from left to right – me, Maddy and Amy. Enjoy!
Three weeks post-Fiji, and MAN I am itching to get to New York! I move out there on August 12th, and now that my flight is booked, my apartment is ready and waiting, and orientation dates are set, these next 2 weeks are going to move like molasses – nothing going on between now and then besides my 24th birthday and lots of boyfriend/family time (SO horrible ). In addition to a ridiculous amount of basking in the sun and reading fabulous books, I’ve been spending a lot my time reading up on more literature concerning my future Master’s thesis project. I am super lucky to have a pretty firm idea of what I’m going to do before technically starting my program, and our recent Fiji expedition gave me the chance to collect and process my FIRST SAMPLES (*gasp*). Holding those beautiful specimens in my hands before subjecting them to the rigors of processing (ripping gills out, injecting tags through tails, dunking in poison, then jamming into packed barrels – poor guys) made me want to whisper a little prayer of gratitude to their souls residing in watery fish heaven. No, not want to, I actually did thank them – the poor Australian missionaries at our hostel would have been given yet another reason to avoid our smelly, fishy group if they had seen me whispering fervently over those little dead bodies of coral groupers and black snappers. ANywayyy, as a result of all my reading and thinking I wanted to take a moment to do a post about my proposed project and what I’m hoping to accomplish in the next two years as a Columbia grad student.
First thing’s first, a few words about population connectivity! Yayyy, learning! Population connectivity basically refers to the inter-relatedness of different populations of a species over a certain spatial scale. Hmm, even more basic – the idea that this Nemo population over here is genetically related to, and therefore probably came from or vice versa, that Nemo population over there. Connectivity is usually measured through genetic methods because of the inconvenient little fact that most marine animal babies have a pelagic larval phase, or a period of time right after fertilization where they are infinitesimally small (aka hard to track) and float around in the ocean currents until they are ready to settle back into a reef or kelp forest or rocky tide pool or wherever they like to live. Because larval dispersal is basically the black box of marine science at the moment, one of the best ways we can determine who goes where after they’re born is by looking at genetic similarities between populations.
Why the heck is population connectivity important, you wonder? Psh, besides the awesomeness of baby fish and crabs and even barnacles managing to find their way back to some semblance of a normal life after drifting through a vast obstacle course of currents and predators etc – it’s important to marine conservation biology in a lot of ways. If you know the population dynamics of a target species, you can figure out how to best protect them from things like overfishing and habitat degradation. Setting aside marine protected areas (MPAs) is one of the most popular methods of protection, as they can fully protect nursery and spawning grounds and have been shown to increase fish biomass and reproductive output, providing a nice little spill-over effect into adjacent unprotected waters. But you can’t just go around arbitrarily telling fishermen not to fish in certain places, so understanding population dynamics helps inform the process of setting these MPAs up. Hence population connectivity studies like mine! By determining where and how different populations are connected, you can determine which areas of the ocean would be most important to protect. Populations that are genetically distinct from all others are super important to protect on the basis of preserving biodiversity, and populations that act as a larval source for other populations are important to protect on the basis of “reef seeding” (one population can help “re-seed” others in case of environmental crises, like oil spills or a huge storm). Marine management planners use such data to set up the most effective marine reserve networks, and island countries like Fiji are very interested in protecting their marine resources.
Here’s a GREAT animated video my advisor, Dr. Josh Drew, did to illustrate this concept:
Sooo, MY thesis project will attempt to uncover the connectivity patterns of 3-4 species of fishery-targeted reef species in Fiji (BAM! That sentence right there is actually all you need to know about my project, BUT, because I am super stoked and on a roll, I will continue to foist this long-winded explanation upon you unfortunate readers). Next summer, I will pack myself up and head back to Fiji to collect many, MANY more fish samples from all over the islands. I will only collect species that are important to local Fijian fisheries, such as groupers, snappers, goatfish (potentially), etc. I’ll visit as many geographically distinct locations around the country as possible to get a good snapshot of widespread genetic distribution. Then I’ll come back to New York and process the genetic samples at the American Museum of Natural History, where all my whole fish samples will also be catalogued and stored for the use of future generations of researchers. And THEN, after lots and lots of statistical analysis and writing and re-writing, I will put together a huge connectivity map of economically important Fijian reef fish.
Ahhhh, the crowd goes wild!! Fijian marine management planners will rejoice nationwide!! Marine reserves will be established and fish will be plentiful everywhere!!
Hahhh, okay well…maybe it won’t go down like that. But in my heart that is def.in.ite.ly. how it will go down. So that’s that. Thanks for listening, kids!
Annnd we’re back! We arrived in Suva yesterday after a week of sample collection in Nagigi (pronounced Nai-ni-ni) on the northern island of Vanua Levu. And man, what a week…I’m at a loss for words when I try to articulate what we’ve experienced. Coming to mind right now are the vibrant colors of the reef fish – brilliant oranges, silvery greens, pale yellows, deep reds, fading slowly from the limp fishes’ tissues as they wait patiently in their plates for us to process them. The cerulean blue of Nagini’s lagoon, impossibly clear as the prow of our tiny boat cleaves a path through liquid color. The weightlessness of diving, being suspended in space with the tip of my spear glinting five feet ahead and the mechanical sound of breathing through my regulator punctuating the depths. Life in the village was elegant in its simplicity, everything revolving around those few hours spent underwater and the golden afternoons processing samples. The villagers were among some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met, especially our hosts Nancy and Nyo. These wonderful people cooked our every meal, insisting we eat more than our fill, and made sure we were comfortable and well-kept throughout our time spent in the village.
More importantly, our research endeavors were extremely successful. By the end of the trip we had collected over 100 different species of reef fish, and had observed over a dozen endangered species that we can’t collect but can record as present. The biodiversity on Nagigi’s reefs was astonishing, while apparently not even being up to its full potential. We collected dozens of surgeonfish, damselfish, butterflyfish, angelfish, parrotfish and triggerfish, a handful of groupers, jacks and mullets (which are more commonly fished by the villagers), two lionfish and a handful of extremely small gobis, blennies, and cardinalfish. I’m definitely missing a lot of fish families there, but that’s what I can remember without looking at my field notebook. And, like most field expeditions, we did experience a few hiccoughs in the plans – delayed ferries, boat problems, having to take time off because of terrible weather, etc. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about fieldwork, and not just on this expedition, is to always expect the unexpected. It sounds really cliche but it is truly crucial to have a back-up plan for when things don’t go as planned. For instance, one of the days we were supposed to collect a lot of data we woke up to torrents of rain hammering on our little tin roof, and when we saw the current absolutely RIPPING in the lagoon, all chance of diving that day went out the door. So we had to improvise, sending a few of us into the nearby town to run some necessary errands we had been putting off, and the others staying behind to do interviews with Helen. It ended up being a productive day despite not getting our expected work done, and that day was chalked up as a success. Thankfully the weather wasn’t always like that and we did get to dive in some absolutely fantastic waters (eee!), and collect all the fish and sediment samples we needed.
Sitting here in Suva, heading back to the US in three days, I realize how much I’m going to miss this place over the next year. BUT, I’m also bolstered by the possibility of returning next summer for my thesis research (!), and am so looking forward to what my graduate school experience holds in store – it has certainly started off on the right foot.