Today was the first of what we hope to be annual Tri-Co Environmental Studies Student Conference. I enjoyed excellent oral and poster presentations about kelp, real food, Phragmites, solar power, volcanoes, fungi, energy, dispersants, homelessness, environmental education, crowd sourcing, Ogoni people, agriculture, the phyllosphere, farming, carbon cycling and climate change. Thanks to all who attended, the CPGC for rescuing us with caffeine in the break, and Vicki Algieri for helping me to organize the event. I look forward to doing this again soon.
Greetings from Mobile Alabama, site of the recently concluded Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Annual Conference (GoMRI), a multi-disciplinary symposium where oceanographers, businessmen, scientists, and policy experts from across the nation (and even the world) gather to share the results of their inquiries and research on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and its aftermath. So naturally the White lab is here to share the results of our own lab work. Currently attending the conference are Helen White, Rachel Simister, Patrick Williams, Shelby Lyons, and I (David, pronounced Max, Findley).
Why Mobile you ask? Well Mobile is Alabama’s main salt-water harbor, directly connected to the Gulf of Mexico, and therefore seemed an appropriate site for the conference. The conference itself is confined, of course, to the region’s Renaissance hotel. Actually, that’s not entirely true. There are three venues. There is the convention center, which hosted events for the first day until inclement weather (more on this later) caused the convention center to close; there is the main Renaissance hotel, which has hosted multiple seminars; and lastly there is the Battle House Renaissance Hotel, which is one block away from its sister hotel and served us complimentary lunches. The hotels are housed in the cities two largest buildings, a couple of 15-20 story skyscrapers.
Of particular interest is the Battle Camp Renaissance, where the White lab is staying. Supposedly the hotel stands on the battle camp of then general Andrew Jackson (hence its unique name). To reflect the historical quality of the site, the Renaissance has faithfully reconstructed the hotel in the style of 19th century American architecture: Viennese baroque. The lobby consists of four arches reaching towards a three-story dome, covered in cherubs. On each arch is the flag of a nation and its leader. One arch contains a rough approximation of the American flag with George Washington’s portrait underneath, while its British counterpart depicts the coat of arms of the British crown and King George III. The other two arches held French and Spanish flags with the Louis XIV and Ferdinand V depicted underneath (two monarchs separated by a rather sizable breadth of time from each other). I’m sure Andrew Jackson—a self-raised man who saw no worth in banks or pomp—would appreciate what we’ve erected in his memory.
Moving past our ahistorical residence, let me describe the conference. Each day consisted of multiple short—10-15 minute long—presentations from morning to dusk. Speeches were grouped together in sessions in separate rooms based on their general content. The Gulf of Mexico, however, is a complex ecosystem that supports a variety of human communities. Therefore chemists are not the only scholars attending the conference. Mathematicians concerned with modeling ocean currents and plumes are present. Accompanying them are biochemists examining the effects of dispersants (chemicals that prevent oil from coagulating) on benthic (deep-sea) communities. Additionally, public health specialists and even communications experts concerned with relaying messages about the spill spoke. And, of course, the chemists, geologists, and oceanographers spoke too.
The conference was an eye-opener for me in that, until now, I was not properly aware of how many disciplines are concerned with the Gulf of Mexico. This spill has prompted responses from the entirety of the scientific community. Since the White lab concerns itself with the chemical, and occasionally microbiological aspects of the spill, we rarely consider socio-economic effects, or even mathematical modeling of currents in the Bayou. This conference presented a venue for a wide breadth of studies to be presented and appreciated by the community as a whole. The conference was an example, at some broad level, of interdisciplinary collaboration. Environmental issues cannot be explained by one branch of science, but require multiple perspectives to be properly studied.
However, this interdisciplinary approach limited the conference. In my opinion, many speeches were repetitive—not because researchers were performing unoriginal work, but because presenters wanted to convey their ideas to all the participants. This required “dumbing-down” the content of their research; most biologists are not particularly concerned with the geo-chemistry involved in the aging of petroleum that may have entered the early phases of metagenesis, just as most chemists are not well-informed about the sedimentary perturbations caused by ghost shrimp (that’s not made up because there actually is a species of shrimp called ghost shrimp en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palaemonetes). The end result is that each presentation was informative, but not particularly in depth. This may be the limit of interdisciplinary research in large groups, where the presenter is limited by a well intentioned, but ill-informed, audience. However, if this research is not shared across fields, how is environmental research ever to advance?
Anyways, this concludes my more serious entry. Stay tuned for tomorrow, where I relate how a single inch of snow has paralyzed a city, how I felt presenting my first poster—including the moment where a man sighed and muttered, “This is shitty science”—the quality of the food, the people I met (both from Woods Hole and beyond), and what it was like spending the weekend of my 21st at a scientific conference in Mobile Alabama, that city that never sleeps until the clock strikes 9 PM when all the bars shut down. It’ll be fun!
How does the White lab do conferences, you ask? Hardcore!
Upon arrival in Mobile, AL Saturday morning, we headed off for a day of sampling to kick off the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill & Ecosystem Science conference. We sampled from four sites in Alabama and Florida to collect sand patties to study oil weathering and biological analysis.
Early Sunday morning, before the conference start time (1pm), we traveled to Mississippi to collect rock scrapings!
Upon arrival to the conference, I attended a 4-hour long panel on dispersants and a QA/QC panel to ensure that our lab is complying with standard procuedures. Max, Pat, Helen, Rach and I will all present posters tomorrow evening!
Finals week is coming. You can tell that we’re really excited
So what do we do in the White Lab to de-stress? Just take a look at just a few of the sticky notes on our door
So obviously, this is a very serious lab and only the bravest/stupid decide to endure the incredible levels of procrastination we do. Which is why I am writing a blog post instead of working on Superlab. Also, just as a side note, we have a new, universally adored member of the lab. Say hello to our snow leopard baby, Tar Ball!
Good luck on finals, everybody!
Members of the White Lab just had another opportunity this week to present posters at the Eastern Analytical Symposium (EAS). Pat, always the brilliant overachiever as some of you may know, presented on Tuesday as one of four student award winners!
All in all, the general consensus was that EAS was a good conference (even though most of the people there were older industry salesmen in suits trying to get you to buy their analytical equipment). Very much looking forward to the next conference now!
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.
The Sand Patty and You: Accepting Aged Oil as a Friend
So I’ve been getting some gentle prods to post my reflections on the recent trip to the Gulf of Mexico. Sadly, that entry is still in the shop; the whole project quickly snowballed into a massive philosophical epiphany (to describe it in the most modest terms), but transcribing my thoughts—riddled with more holes than the plot of a summer thriller novel—without sounding tacky has proven…freaking impossible.
To summarize: I’m receiving help editing the entry until it’s fit to publish (by the end of the week, I promise). To tide you over until then, here are some less complex ruminations.
The most surprising part of the trip—aside from how many pictures of me slumbering ended up on the blog (yeah…little creepy)—was how little we were pestered by law enforcement. We were warned weeks in advance that the Bayou rangers were particularly opposed to us removing sand patties from the beach. Potentially, they could cite us for improper activity on the beachfront and confiscate our samples (hardly a glamorous or exciting prospect).
When I had my first—and only—encounter with Bayou law enforcement, their reaction was anticlimactic. They waved, and drove off in their golf cart. The rangers did not even bother to ask why we were wearing latex gloves, had tote bags full of glass sample jars, and were armed with tweezers. Meh.
I suppose our brief encounter with the rangers is as close as ordinary science comes to the movies. No one is ready to kill a bunch of interns (with everything to prove/nothing to lose), to silence the truth the sand patties whisper into the surf.
And yes—in keeping with my opinions on heavy emotions directed at wads of congealed, weathered, odorous oil mixed with sand and seawater—if you are ready to kill over sand patties, please find help. Any kind will do.
To be fair, my own opinion on tar balls has changed. When I look at one now, I remember this trip, the people I met, the fantastic food I ate, and the long car discussions of how Maroon 5 can consistently release best-sellers when every song sound identical (another thing you should never do: tell someone you didn’t want to stop seeing them because it’s hard to start with someone new…like loving tar balls it won’t end well). So every time I select a new patty, or start to extract it, or Helen forces me to smell a sand patty—an event that occurs with disturbing frequency—I’ll think back to some happy, extraordinary memories.
Promise I will post the real entry soon. That will be a bit more serious, and a bit more relevant to a blog dedicated to science. That will cover some real regrets I have, as well as some things I really learned on this trip. Until then, our underwhelming brush with the law will have to do!
It ended up being 4 days, 9 sampling sites, 289 photos, over 400 miles, too much junk food, and (undoubtedly) gallons of sunscreen later that we boarded the plane in New Orleans. We had a great time in NOLA and though we joked about taking shots at 10am on Bourbon Street, we didn’t actually do it:
So in retrospect (and with some refreshing sleep in my own bed), I think this trip was an absolute success. I don’t know exactly how many sand patty samples we collected, but I do know that Max will have plenty to analyze for the remaining 3 weeks we have for summer research. As for me, it will be strange going back to my coral samples after such a thrilling journey from Pensacola to New Orleans with the amazing White and Reddy labs. I’m already looking forward to doing the exact same thing next summer (well, minus the sunburns and the stress in Atlanta) and we haven’t even unpacked the samples from this trip yet!
In any case, you can bet that we’ll be coming back to the beautiful beaches of the Gulf Coast for more sun, more sand, and more samples before too long!
On Day 3, the White Lab decides to break less rules than intended. (Except that no more doughnuts rule; we did make a doughnut stop before our first site. So that rule was broken.) At our first site, in Grand Isle, we collected oil soaked sand patties as usual. There were people at the beach even though the sand was brown and muddy, the sun was not out, and it was muggy. The second site, the state beach at Grand Isle, was even better. On our way in, there were more cat tails and puddles than humans on earth, and Max met up with his best friend (a dead fish that looked like an aligator). The pier here was incredibly long, and on the beach there were tarballs galore. The wetlands are different than anything I have ever seen, and seem almost mystical. Also at this site, there were dolphins close to shore! (This trip seems to be filled with sampling and dolphin sightings, both of which are pretty great. Here, Helen spoke to a local and her daughter about the spill and Hurricane Katrina, as well as the changing beaches. Hearing about the spill from someone not in academia was really interesting. After searching for sand patties on the dunes (which we probably weren’t supposed to be on), and successfully finding a few, we left for the next site, Elmer’s Island!
Upon arrival to Elmer’s Island, the gates were closed, and two men were telling us to leave. Supposedly, there was oil spill cleanup occurring on the beach (making us want to access the beach even more now), and nobody was allowed to enter. Local fishermen were planning on heading down to the beach after the spill workers left, but something told us we shouldn’t try to break and enter (well, the “something” was actually the voice of Chris Reddy). After this attempt to collect samples failed, we made our way to Port Fourchon, which is the beach that Helen and Pat got kicked off of for sampling last year. As we approached the gate, there were about 10 signs that stated that anyone who entered without permission would be arrested, so once again, we played it safe and headed back to New Orleans.
For our last night in NOLA (I keep seeing signs that call it that), we went to dinner and then to a hotel lobby to hang out with the Reddy Lab. It was just like that R. Kelly song but not really. Today is our last day here, and we’re all going exploring with Big Bob, which should be exciting! And then everyone will head back to Haverford, where we can analyze all of these samples.
Also, check out our twitter! (twitter.com/HKWLab)