Science, the Absurd

It was Wednesday, the final round of my second day of water sampling, when I hit a bump in the road with the rolling cooler I was pulling behind me. The second cooler of water samples, which had been stacked on top, toppled to the asphalt. Eight ice packs and 54 water sample bottles careened out of the cooler and across the road.

I’m using a PVC stick to photograph the reef from a fixed height, in order to take standardized photos of the reef for ecological analysis. This procedure is otherwise known as The Aquatic Gandalf.

This, I thought to myself, throwing my hands up in the air like a cartoon character, is absurd. I scooped the samples up from the pavement, picking a few out from the grassy verge where they’d fallen, and shoved them back into the cooler (carefully packing ice back over the top). I reminded myself, as I have often these past six weeks: This is science.

I’m in Bermuda for two months this summer, studying how polluted groundwater discharge is affecting near-shore coral reefs. The field season has been exciting, fulfilling, challenging, and full of slightly ridiculous situations. I’ve gone swimming along the reef like an aquatic Gandalf, carrying a camera mounted on a PVC stick. I’ve attached equipment to the reef by looping zip-ties through holes in the rocks, and so have spent hours poking these zip-ties into crevasses and attempting to pull them through on the opposite side. Continue reading Science, the Absurd

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

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