On Action and Optimism: Notes from the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium

In the summer of 2016, it is difficult to find optimism in the field of environmental science.

Yet last month, I gathered with a throng of 2,500 coral reef scientists for the International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) in Honolulu. Knowing the extent of the tragic coral bleaching and death that has unfolded on coral reefs this year, I expected a week of doom and gloom. But, to my surprise, the conference gave me more cause for hope than for pessimism.

A wasteland of dead coral on Lizard Island, the Great Barrier Reef, this June. High temperatures have caused record bleaching and coral death this year.
A wasteland of dead coral on Lizard Island, the Great Barrier Reef, this May. High temperatures have caused record coral bleaching and death this year.

This is not because the situation facing coral reefs is any better than I’d thought – if anything, it’s worse. Rising greenhouse gas concentrations, warming waters, and stagnant politics have put the biodiversity of coral reefs, along with many other ecosystems, into a sharp decline. On the Great Barrier Reef – a vibrant ecosystem so structurally significant that, unlike the Great Wall of China, it can be seen from space – nearly 25% of coral is dead, from this year’s bleaching alone. At one panel at ICRS, researchers shared photographs and time-lapse footage of coral bleaching and subsequent death around the world. As they flicked through photo after photo, the conference hall adopted the atmosphere of a funeral.

No, things are not looking good for coral reefs, or for many other ecosystems struggling to keep up with the whirlwind of environmental change that stems from human overpopulation, consumption, and industrialization. One scientist, Peter Sale, called coral reefs a “canary” in the proverbial coal mine that is our changing earth. “There are a whole bunch of canaries that are at risk,” Dr. Sale said. “And when the canaries go, our civilization goes.” Continue reading On Action and Optimism: Notes from the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium

Mentorship in Research: An ode to the grad student (and one grad student in particular)

Over the course of the semester, PCURs will reflect on the professors, advisers, and friends who shaped their research experiences. We present these to you as a series called Mentorship in Research. Most undergraduates have met, or will meet, an individual who motivates and supports their independent work. Here, Zoe shares her story.

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Mentorship in Research 1
Cleo and I liked this display at the turtle museum of Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica.

The mentorship series asks us to examine the role of mentors in our lives as undergraduate researchers. Earlier this semester, Jalisha discussed the challenges and value of professors’ mentorship, and Emma reflected on peers as mentors. This post is an ode to the graduate student – actually, an ode to my favorite grad student, Cleo Chou.

I met Cleo the summer after my freshman year, when I was an intern through the Princeton Environmental Institute. Cleo’s Ph.D project is a field study of rainforest trees and how they respond to nutrient enrichment and limitation. This question has crucial implications for how we predict tropical rainforests’ responses to climate change.

I spent a month working with Cleo in Princeton, and then six weeks at her field site in Costa Rica, hiking through the rainforest and surveying the saplings in her study. Cleo and I were together 23 hours a day, every day, with my daily hour-long run our only substantial time apart. In the long hours of rainforest hiking, tree-finding, leaf-counting, and trunk-measuring, we talked about everything from our career aspirations to food to our families and friendships. Continue reading Mentorship in Research: An ode to the grad student (and one grad student in particular)

A writer’s window: How poetry is changing how I see the world

In honor of National Poetry Month, my professor, Marie Howe, suggested writing a poem every day for the month of April. “Who’s up for it?” she asked our Advanced Poetry class. “It can be just a few lines. I’ll do it if you do it.”

I was in.

My bedroom windowsill - which, this April, has become my bedroom poetry windowsill.
My bedroom windowsill – which, this April, has become my bedroom poetry windowsill.

I decided to write a poem right when I wake up each morning – figuring this is the only way I’d consistently get it done – and to forego my computer (and its associated, infinite distractions) in favor of a pencil and notebook. Every morning, I roll out of bed, perch myself on the wide windowsill of my ground-floor room, and write a poem.

I was shocked by how easily I could reshape my early-morning habits, and how much doing so affected the rest of my day. With this new routine has come a kind of freedom: my first thought of the day is no longer my calendar or breakfast or to-do list, but something creative and unlimited. I bring this creative lens with me through the rest of the day: watching milk gush over my cereal, stepping out into the April air, listening to a lecture about respiration across the animal kingdom. Continue reading A writer’s window: How poetry is changing how I see the world

Confronting environmental tragedy

The rapid loss of coral reefs is both heartbreaking and personal for me. I cannot visualize the future of coral reefs without feeling a tug of despair.

A sea turtle swims over a fully-bleached reef on Heron Island, the Great Barrier Reef.
A sea turtle swims over a fully-bleached reef on Heron Island, the Great Barrier Reef.

In January, I wrote about the heat wave that has devastated coral reefs in my home state of Hawaii since last year. Temperatures somewhat subsided in Hawaii over the winter, but summer has hit the Southern Hemisphere hard. What is now being called the 2014-2016 global bleaching event – the third and longest such event ever recorded – is taking a breathtaking toll around the world. Continue reading Confronting environmental tragedy

Field Notes from Costa Rica: The Best and Hardest Part

It’s Wednesday night, July 23, 2014. I am sitting with Cleo Chou – a Ph.D candidate and my summer mentor – on the porch of La Selva Biological Research Station in Costa Rica. We are taking slow, musing bites of leftover birthday cake and talking through a problem.

In theory, it’s easy to find the area of a leaf if it’s photographed on a white background of known size. In practice – not so simple! Cleo and I collected hundreds of photos like this. (And yes, sometimes made faces when we got in the pictures.)

Among other things, while in the field, we’ve been taking photos of the leaves of Cleo’s study trees. The goal? To determine the leaves’ size using a jerry-rigged computer analysis. I had taken advantage of our one non-field day this week to use the lab’s leaf area meter to check the accuracy of the computer program. Unfortunately, it turns out our calculated areas aren’t very accurate at all, and we don’t know why. Does the digital camera warp the photos? Is there something wrong with how we’re scaling them in the processor? The nocturnal forest chorus of cicadas and frogs is a soothing background to a worrisome problem. Every day we work in the field, more photos accumulate. It will already be an analysis marathon, but now we are additionally pursued by the specter of inaccuracy, the fear that our fastidious, hard-won photo samples will not tell us anything meaningful at all. Continue reading Field Notes from Costa Rica: The Best and Hardest Part

A survival guide for major declaration season

The EEB department dinosaur in Guyot Hall: pretty much the best thing ever.
The EEB department dinosaur in Guyot Hall: pretty much the best thing ever.

There are some things that department websites just don’t tell you.

For example: The History Department holds its mandatory senior thesis planning meeting one hour after spring junior papers are due. (“People hadn’t slept for days!” a friend told me recently.) The Spanish Department, on the other hand, hosts monthly department-wide dinners.

...though, if I were choosing my concentration by architectural and archaeological perks, I'd say the animal heads of WWS come in a close second.
…though, if I were choosing my concentration by architectural and archaeological perks, I’d say the animal heads of WWS come in a close second.

I am amazed — unfortunate scheduling and free food aside — by how much I didn’t know when I chose my major. Talking to other upperclassmen, I get the feeling that I’m not the only one. We all seem to have bumbled through the process, some better-informed than others. When April rolled around, we all picked something and moved on.

Surely, there’s a better way to sift through the options. Looking back at major declaration season, here are the three questions I wish I’d known to ask. Continue reading A survival guide for major declaration season

Seeing the world through its study

Bermuda is built on the backs of corals. Or it would be, if corals had backs.

Low-lying, wind-resistant vegetation thrives on the island's sandy cliffs.
Low-lying, wind-resistant vegetation thrives on the island’s sandy cliffs.

They don’t. Coral don’t have vertebrae, or heads, or eyes. An entire coral organism – a polyp – is one single, tentacle-ringed cavity, one cavern that is mouth, stomach, and anus combined. Yet these tiny animals are powerful: together, their colonies can grow meters tall, producing hard, rock-like skeletons that form the backbones of coral reefs.

Though perhaps better known for its pink-sand beaches and international banking, Bermuda is also home to spectacular coral reefs. And the low-lying rock island is a monument to the power of calcifying organisms and geological time.

Bermuda from above: the island's northern tip, with outlying patch reefs (the dark spots) visible under the water.
Bermuda from above: the island’s northern tip, with outlying patch reefs (the dark spots) visible under the water.

This is how my adviser, Anne Cohen, explained it to me when I first arrived in Bermuda. It became the way I saw the island, and changed how I saw coral: I began, like Anne and many other researchers, to see my study organisms as the center of my world. Continue reading Seeing the world through its study

I went to the senior thesis archives. Here’s what I found.

The basement of the Lewis Library Fine Hall Wing is quiet.

"Where are the books?" you may well ask. The Lewis Library answers...
“Where are the books?” you may well ask. The Lewis Library answers…

There aren’t many books down here, and the ones that are here don’t seem to have many readers. There are dim-lit shelves of dusty periodicals, and tomes with titles like Essential Entomology: An Order-by-Order Introduction (a book I actually borrowed for a project last semester).

And then there are the theses, and these are something else. For sophomores looking at concentration selection, theses give a true sense of what it means to be part of a given department at Princeton. Even simply flipping through titles can give a distilled, unbiased sense of the type – and diversity – of work that students in each department undertake.

Math theses archived from the 1970's.
Math theses archived from the 1970’s.

As a junior, I went to the archives this week under the pressure of an impending deadline for my EEB thesis funding application. In the black-bound books, I felt optimism and excitement, a sense of both broad possibility inspired by all my peers have done, and realistic scope that comes from the recognition that these books are finite, and that writing one is possible.

Continue reading I went to the senior thesis archives. Here’s what I found.

The Project That Made Me a Researcher: Rain in the rainforest

Over the course of the semester, PCURs will explain how they found their place in research. We present these to you as a series called The Project That Made Me a Researcher. As any undergraduate knows, the transition from ‘doing a research project’ to thinking of yourself as a researcher is an exciting and highly individualized phenomenon. Here, Zoe shares her story.

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The flooded trail
Fording the flooded trail on our first morning in the field.

It was my first full day in Costa Rica. The dawn chorus of howler monkeys and quavering calls of Great Tinamou awakened us to a morning of intermittent showers, but no thunder — a good start, by rainforest standards.

Shouldering our backpacks, Cleo (my summer mentor) and I headed to the field, biking along the forest trail until a fallen tree forced us to leave our bikes and walk to the mud-slick path where some of Cleo’s study saplings grew. She had been tracking these trees for a year and half as part of her Ph. D.

Everything that morning felt strange and new: my heavy snakeproof boots, the dripping forest canopy, the squish of mud and fallen leaves beneath my feet. This was not my first time in a forest, nor my first time doing research. But it was my first time doing research like this – research that I lived from dawn until I fell asleep. Continue reading The Project That Made Me a Researcher: Rain in the rainforest

Elegy and ode: Finding life on a bleached reef

2015 shattered temperature records worldwide. This year’s El Niño has been making headlines in the coral reef community since early this summer, as record-high temperatures hit coral reefs more severely than scientists have ever seen before. Yet even knowing these facts, I was not prepared for the devastation I saw at home in Hawaii over winter break.

A healthy coral colony sample from a bleaching study that took place in Bermuda last summer. The tiny flower-like circles are polyps - each one is a coral individual, which together comprise the colony. The yellow color is from this coral's symbiotic zooxanthellae, not the coral itself.
A healthy coral sample (Porites astreoides) from a bleaching study in Bermuda last summer. The tiny flower-like circles are polyps – each one is a coral individual, which together comprise the colony. The coral itself is white – the bright yellow color comes from its symbiotic zooxanthellae.

The population of Pocillopora meandrina, the cauliflower coral that once dotted the coastline of Kailua-Kona, my hometown, has been decimated. The reef is left with the feel of an evacuated city: the coral heads are like abandoned buildings, their skeletons lifeless and vacant. Lacking the organisms that sustained them, they slowly begin to crumble.

Continue reading Elegy and ode: Finding life on a bleached reef