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.
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.
I 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.