As a coffee fanatic, I’ve long been a proponent of measuring exhaustion by the amount of coffee consumed in a day. A cup means you are incredibly well rested; two red eyes, five cups, and one Frappuccino (or whatever PJs Coffee called it) signifies the exact opposite.
Confession time: that list of delicious beverages is not random. Rather, it is exactly what I consumed my last day in New Orleans, in addition two cups of tea and one can of Red Bull (scandalous and unforgivable, but necessary). Between sampling, driving, archiving, and—of course—blogging, I managed to smuggle in 19 hours of sleep in 96 hours (4 days), so the first word I would use to describe the trip is BUSY.
Since concluding the trip was jam-packed is like realizing water is wet (no $*!t Sherlock), let’s reflect for real, dig a little deeper if you will—but not for tar balls, which I am quite frankly tired of seeing in otherwise pristine sand. Trips can be busy and boring, but the work the White lab performed in the field can hardly be described as tedious. We sampled over fifty patties, many of which I will analyze over the next three weeks for characteristic IR peaks, pristane and phytane ratios (a way to quantify oil weathering based on the amount of branched isomers immune to biodegradation in a sample), and hopane/sterane fingerprints (allowing us to identify the source of our collected oils).
Aiding us—and dining with us—was the Reddy lab from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), including students from Skidmore, Boston College, and Harvard among others. Sleep deprivation was justified by the chance to meet experts and peers; the trip abounded with opportunities. And thanks again to Bob for looking over my GC-MS chromatograms at breakfast and identifying the earlier peaks. It was a lifesaver and a unique breakfast conversation (I did notice more than one head turn to listen into the conversation…and not just Helen’s!).
On trips with multiple opportunities, you inevitably miss a few, and you inevitably have regrets. Mine arose from a story Helen shared where she and fellow students were almost cited last year by park rangers, or were accosted by residents for collecting sand patties from the beach. The lab group, before we left, was advised to exercise caution around beachgoers as a result. We were told not be overtly abrasive, but were warned to give measured responses to enquirers, to be guarded.
During the trip, we encountered multiple residents and tourists, each with a strong southern accent asking why we were collecting sand patties. My initial responses revealed little, and the beachgoers could sense my hesitation, so they started to share their stories. One woman—the sister of a marine biologist who had just remarried—called the tar balls “the lost plague of Egypt,” while a family all reminisced how Dauphin Island used to not have more sand patties than seashells in the surf. One woman apologized for the smell, so pungent to her and yet unnoticeable to me. Each story prompted me to open up in turn (I think people with lockjaw say more than I did at first), and at the end each person wished me luck and, unfailingly, hoped the beach would return to normal soon.
I understand why caution was prerequisite, but I regret erecting a barrier between us, the scientists, and the residents, people most affected by this spill. The worst part is—after seeing the towns of the Bayou where Helen almost got cited—I understand their suspicion. Being born and raised in the rust belt exposes you to a unique kind of poverty; the death of the steel industry robbed towns of both their livelihood and their purpose. Those towns, nestled in the mountains by roads and rivers, were founded to facilitate the transfer of resources to steel mills, and without the industry they lack purpose. The loss of purpose steals motivation, and makes poverty crushing. The Bayou towns derive purpose and income from the ocean, either from tourism, shrimping, or oil. Losing the beach is simply unacceptable, both to their wallets and their pride. I suppose distrust towards us—ignorant, arrogant outsiders—is as natural as our distrust of them—ignorant, rustic busybodies.
It’s fair to say this trip put a human face on an abstract problem. Until now working in the lab always seemed an end in itself. One performed research for the sake of answering questions based on previous research, and that cycle was churning on in spite of happenings in the outside world. That interminable cycle started centuries before I was born, and would continue centuries after I died; research begetting new questions would prompt new research. Maybe the oil spill had directed our attention to a specific instant, but the Deepwater Horizon event appeared as a brief influence on the process of research for research’s sake. It seemed as though research and science occupied a different world from the human sphere, and I was choosing to remove myself from the everyday to study environmental sciences; it was hard to be excited about such an abstract ideal.
This trip reversed my opinion. It finally equalized science with other disciplines. I figured that the universe was so much grander than us, and science was dedicated to understanding it. Who needed humanities, disciplines that revolve around comprehending the human condition, when we are so puny? This trip broke that line of thought, though, by reuniting science with humanities in my mind. By forcing me to acknowledge the human side of the problem, our research—spawned by the spill—became centered on restoring the beaches. Research definitely begets questions and prompts new research, but this cycle is utilized to solve a very human problem.
Under this new perspective, the scientist delves into the natural world to solve problems for the human world. Science is translation, discovering a human way to understand the unspoken but quite real natural laws that govern everyday life. For comparison, the social sciences are about understanding human behavior on a daily basis throughout time and space (behavior that seems to follow laws that we do not fully comprehend), while the humanities and art struggle to voice the emotions and questions that have driven humans throughout time (fear, love, hate, death, life, and drive). And no, the natural world is not truly greater than the human world. After all, we have probably figured out more about the natural world in four hundred years than we have about ourselves, and we have been studying ourselves well over 6,000 years.
So, more than anything else, the trip was an opportunity to reassess my priorities and stances. Admittedly, it was unnecessary to drag you through my revelations to justify calling this trip an incredible opportunity (remember when I did that? Good…I don’t!). So congratulations! You just read through my bildungsroman! But, in all seriousness, the point of this article is that this trip served as a growing experience for me, both as a scholar and as a human being. It resolved a lot of unanswered questions and internal dilemmas. For that, I’d like to thank the White lab (Helen in particular), our collaborators at WHOI, and Haverford College for sponsoring the trip.
Hopefully I’ll write again soon, and write a little less.