Women in Science: Marginalization is Subtle and Very, Very, Real.

I’m an oceanographer. Oceanography, ocean science, physical science – however you want to put it, it’s a male-dominated field. That never deterred me in the slightest, and I never felt that I was disadvantaged by being female. Until my postdoc. It took my awhile to wrap my head around the full story, but in hindsight I was severely marginalized and type-cast from the outset. It would have been the end of my career if it wasn’t for my own tenacity, the incredible support of my science husband (Simon), and my the professional network that I developed during graduate school.

 To My Fellow Women in Science & Tech – Do Not Get Stuck in the Girl Box

I graduated from Scripps Institution of Oceanography with a PhD – a stellar school. I left with a great resume and outstanding reference letters. After an intentional break for maternity leave, I started a postdoctoral fellowship at an institution that will remain nameless in this post. My two children* both turned one year old during my postdoc, during which time I published three first author peer-reviewed publications. I only published one in which I was not first author, which was with my science husband Simon (my husband). That’s your first clue that something was off.

It took nearly the entire three years of my postdoctoral fellowship for me to realize how badly I had been placed into the girl box. It was a subtle slide that started off with an unfortunate combination – my enthusiasm and willingness to help out, coupled with an institution where the predominant demographic is white men over age 50, and some stereotypical attitudes associated with that demographic.

How It Happened:

I arrived on the first day of my postdoc eager to meet my new colleagues and get started on my proposed scientific work. There were a variety of hurdles to cross to get my computer, get my computer on the network, software installed, trainings completed, etc. My advisor did not make any major efforts to introduce me to the other scientists aside from those in our immediate research group, so I wandered through the hallways and asked people for help with various technical issues (Do you know where I can get a copy of MATLAB?) and tried to learn about what they do.

It should have been clear within a few weeks that I was in danger. I was asked to help plan a baby shower for a colleague, which I responded to with an enthusiastic yes thinking it would help me get to know people. More concerningly, no one had any interest in talking to me about science. I would ask them and incorporate others’ work in mine, but the curiosity and collaboration was not reciprocal. They were vaguely interested in my proposed project and said things like “that will be a useful study”. In hindsight, I now see they really couldn’t have cared less about my dissertation work on coral reefs and climate change. They didn’t know my advisor or colleagues from graduate school. Everyone had their own project or task, and almost no one was interested in deviating from that task. I was on a fellowship, which sounds great, but what it really meant is that no one had any investment in me or reason to loop me in to ongoing projects and research groups. I was on my own.

At the baby shower, the other organizers and I received accolades on the event planning. Several people, including my new advisor, had indicated to me that my new place of work sorely lacked the type of social events and mixing of disciplines that my graduate school did well. I like event planning. I am good at it. But I made a mistake when I started advocating the idea of the chili cook-off, which my advisor had suggested I do. People were excited! They were finally talking to me! About chili, but still – it was a start that would surely lead to scientific discussion and collaboration in the future.

Let’s cut to the chase here. The chili cook-off was great – a huge success by all accounts. Everyone up my chain of command arrived, brought chili, and thanked me for organizing. In fact, everyone including my highest superior liked it so much that they asked me to do another cook-off. Except they didn’t want another chili cook-off next year – they wanted another cook-off in three months. And another after that. Three cook-offs a year for chili, barbecue, and pies. Help planning the Christmas party every December. Organizing baby showers and lunches. Organize an elaborate potluck dinner for visiting external reviewers and also please make dessert. I worked in a place with very few women, and very few young people, so I was an obvious choice to spearhead and help with all of these activities. At every one, my praises were sung for party planning skills and ability to bring people together. I felt I couldn’t say no. I had become the token young female event planner. I was asked by my advisor’s boss’ boss repeatedly and in person to plan these events “or else the holiday party may not happen.” (Read – this extremely busy man went out of his way to personally track me down to ask me to plan a party, but not to congratulate me on my recently funded grant or publication or anything else pertaining to my actual job description, nor to ask how my job was going.)

I was not without party planning help – but my help had been at this institution longer, and was far wiser to not invest too much time or enthusiasm in these activities. (My help also came solely from the young female demographic, and you’ve probably ascertained by now that there weren’t many of us in this particular research division). I burned out on it too over time. It wasn’t fun, and the time commitment snowballed. People kept asking for more social events, and events with greater complexity.

I love organizing and planning events, but if I wanted to be the party planner I would not have gotten a PhD in science and I certainly wouldn’t be applying for high level research and science jobs.

Things started to get ugly after about two years. I had written a proposal for funding which my advisor submitted on an idea that we came up with together, but heavily relied on my expertise in coral reefs. The proposal was funded! However, I was not offered a permanent job, even though there was now an obvious source of money to start paying me from and I had demonstrated an ability to pull in outside funding. Simon was more concerned than me, and pushed me to start applying for other jobs. Soon we were both fully entrenched in finding permanent science jobs – an exhausting process. The full details of our dual job hunt are a story for another day, but what you need to know is that we found pairs of jobs at a couple of places that represented a net improvement in work and quality of life for our family. We found those jobs without any help from either of our postdoc advisors or the chain of command at my postdoc. Instead, we did quite a bit of leg work on our own and relied on our extremely wonderful support system from graduate school and some folks at a funding agency, who came through for us in a big way on many fronts.

Without any support from my advisor, I published a peer-reviewed paper on my work as a postdoc. He told me in front of Simon to abandon the work after I had nearly finished, my first and so far only publication in a new field, but I submitted it anyway. It was accepted first go with minor revisions on the same day that my advisor’s boss’ boss, the same man who repeatedly gave me glowing accolades for bringing the division together, who told me with a straight face that he valued me immensely as a scientist and wished me all the best in my new position, who gave a sincere speech in front of others emphasizing that I should reach out to him for help if I ever needed it, notified me that he was uncomfortable providing reference letters for me for the faculty jobs I am currently applying for.

I am forgiving, and I give people the benefit of the doubt. Simon will say that I am far too forgiving and trusting. He has a point, because it actually took me the entire three years to realize that none of the folks I worked with ever valued or respected me as a scientist. They never had any intention of hiring me into a permanent position. They appreciated me organizing social events for them on my time, and thought I was a nice person. They were happy to give me an office and get credit for my publications and presentations when I was funded by a postdoctoral fellowship. They were happy to take the money I brought in. But I will go so far as to say that most of them pigeonholed me from the start as an idealistic young female that wanted to save the world, and to the subsequent conclusion that I was not a “real” scientist.

This is the trap. Simply by being an enthusiastic young female, if placed in a sub-optimal setting (and there are many – I now have a keen nose during job interviews), you risk being labeled as “not a serious scientist” and placed in the girl box. By being female, and particularly by being a younger female, you are at high risk of being asked to spend time performing historically female roles such as planning holiday lunches, which do not further your scientific career whatsoever. If you decline, people then think that you are both not that great of a scientist and mean. If you accept, you have to spend a bunch of time organizing events, and you’ve also given yourself a life sentence that significantly reduces the time available to you for your actual job.

It wasn’t obvious. I’ve heard stories from people involved in cruel or abusive relationships – everyone starts off with high hopes and good intentions, so it is harder to see the warning signs at the beginning – that remind me of the chain of events that occurred. Once you realize that you’re in trouble, you’re already in too deep. Let me be explicit that I did not experience anything at my postdoctoral position that would alarm an HR department or fall into the category of abuse or harassment. Rather, I realized over time that I had been marginalized, likely as a result of my demographic, which was harmful in the long term for my career.

I was naive. Our graduate school, Scripps, is a special place where most of the scientists and students are genuinely curious and want to hear about research outside of their area of expertise. Offering to help with social events is a good idea because lots of people do, so you not only meet the other people helping out, but you have more name recognition and a better chance of knowing your local expert on carbon chemistry or predatory plankton when you need them. I honestly thought that by instigating a few social events at my new place of work, I could foster that type of environment.

Experience as a student, postdoc, or professional scientist depends so much on the institution. I wish I had realized just how different attitudes are from place to place before I launched into my postdoc bright-eyed and expecting the same type of atmosphere I had recently graduated from at Scripps.

As much as I hate to say this, I am sharing my story as a cautionary tale. Avoid pigeonholes. Volunteer strategically. Learn to say no without being offensive. The more we do it, the more women in science will be seen as equals. Use caution when choosing a new workplace – entering a position where you are in an extreme minority is going to mean you have an uphill battle ahead of you. Really talk to other employees, especially more senior women (or more senior folks close to your demographic). Now I’m generalizing, but senior women have always been willing to take time to chat with me behind a closed door about the truths of working at a particular institution. I underestimated that battle in a big way. I hope that you learn from my mistake. I sure did.

 

* I have two small children. I do not think that being a mother played a major role in this story. The biggest thing that may have gone differently if we waited to have kids is that I would have been more willing to take one of the other postdocs I was offered, which were geographically further from Simon’s position but involved a more engaged group of scientists. I may have picked up on the issues described above sooner and been able to get out faster if I hadn’t been dealing with a newborn and associated concerns about job security.

Advertisements

Lessons From Malpelo: Patience

Patience.

I now hear that word in my head almost daily, spoken with a soft Columbian accent.

Patience.

Malpelo was a tough trip for me. It was expensive, both financially and in terms of time away from our kids. It came at a time when we didn’t have much spare money or time. We went anyway. And I arrived ready to make good on my investment and see some sharks. I asked the dive guide on the bus ride to the boat when we would see the schools of hammerheads.

Patience, he said.

IMG_8212
The Yemaya at Malpelo, strongly listing to port.

We finally got to the boat in a lonely fishing town in Panama, and then waited for two hours before boarding so that we could clear Columbian customs.

Patience.

We boarded the relatively uncomfortable and very top heavy Yemaya and steamed at 7 knots for 36 hours to reach Malpelo.

Patience.

We went diving. The diving was OK. It wasn’t great (we are so spoiled with great diving, and it pains me to write the previous sentence, but that’s really what we thought). There were not schooling hammerheads or whale sharks. My enthusiasm waned with each dive.

Patience, said Juan. Patience.

We had seven days of diving planned. On days 1-3, we saw large schools of jacks, silky sharks, and a few Galapagos sharks. The diving was OK (I know. Spoiled). On the night of day 3, I gave up. I commiserated with other passengers that weren’t super wowed with the trip. I accepted that we had spent more money than I wanted, and that we may not see the iconic schooling hammerheads. I resolved to make the best of my time with Simon disconnected from the rest of the world.

On day 4 dive 1, I was visited by my aumakua (Hawaiian guardian spirit), an oceanic manta ray, when I was the only diver left in the water aside from our dive guide.  On dive 2, we saw a whale shark. After dive 3, we snorkeled with schools of silky sharks numbering more than a hundred. The ocean answered. We saw hammerheads too – far in the distance, but we saw them.

Patience.

On days 5 and 6, we got closer. We saw more hammerheads. We saw one large school, but couldn’t get too close. They stayed just out of sight. On day 6 we completed four dives instead of three, because we had to leave early on our last day so that the crew could repair a generator that failed before they set off with their next charter. Day 7 would have only two dives.

Patience.

On the last dive of the last day, we splashed into a school of hundreds of hammerhead sharks. They made space for us to descend to a small rocky reef, and closed in around us on all sides. Walls of hammerheads. Hammerhead silhouettes blocking out the sun. When finally our group neared their time limit at depth, we swam towards them. Hammerheads above, hammerheads below. This used to be the norm at Malpelo. Now, it is a phantom sight that not all visitors get to see.

Patience.

We returned home from Malpelo at peace. We had both remembered our priorities in life, and realized that we needed some serious adjustments in our day to day life. More patience. Less rushing. More letting things be. Less stress.

Patience.

I have never been patient (my family are laughing by now at this post). Quite the opposite. For that reason alone, the trip to Malpelo was worth it to me. We’ve just put our first home, our dearly beloved house in Alexandria that Joey has grown in and Blake came home to, on the market for sale. I’ve arranged for everyone to be away from the house for the first week so that people can come and view it. Day one – not a single person has scheduled a showing yet.

In the back of my head, I hear a soft Columbia accent.

Patience.

I’m holding out for days 4 and 7.

 

Malpelo Island

IMG_8072
Malpelo Island.

We were in a strange situation. Malpelo Island is hallowed ground for many divers. A “once in a lifetime” sort of place, a mecca for shark diving. The Columbian government will be closing Malpelo at the end of the year to charters that operate from outside of Columbia, or all the reputable operators to put it another way. We should have been super excited. But the timing of the trip could have been better. The only places left on any charter of the year were on dates that meant we would miss Joey’s 4th Birthday. Unbeknownst to us when we booked, the trip would also happen during the middle of intense job hunting by both of us, trying to solve the two-body problem after we had made the decision to leave Washington D.C.

So, at the risk of sounding impossibly spoiled, we weren’t sure we wanted to go on this trip. We are still not sure if it was the right decision, even though the kids had a great time with their grandparents for a couple of weeks and Malpelo lived up to its reputation for us.

We are still uncertain, but I figured it would be worthwhile to write a post and let you decide whether it was worth leaving the kids and a job situation in flux for a couple of weeks, just to visit a lonely rock 500 km off the coast of Columbia…

Malpelo

IMG_8090
No traffic here…

Malpelo island is an old volcanic core that rises from a solitary undersea volcanic ridge in the eastern tropical Pacific. Surrounded by deep water, this area of the ocean does not offer up many islands. One has to travel a long way from Malpelo to get to land – Columbia is around 500 km away and Panama even further. 600 km to the north west lie the Cocos islands and to the southwest the Galapagos islands, both more well-known and far more frequented. The isolation of Malpelo is part of its appeal for us – difficult to get to, relatively undisturbed and no boat/scuba traffic (the Columbian government severely limits the number of boats that can visit). Malpelo is famous for one thing: sharks. Type in “Malpelo Island” on google image search and you’ll see massive schools of hammerheads circling over some lucky photographer. While you can see hammerhead schools at Cocos and Galapagos, the schools of silky sharks and the reliability of the hammerheads are two more reasons why we made the effort to come out to Malpelo instead of Cocos.

There are few reliable and safe operators that take divers to Malpelo. A recent set of diving fatalities, where divers were swept away by strong currents and died adrift, underscored our desire to charter a reputable operation (the Columbian group responsible for the dead divers didn’t alert authorities until someone else did, then did not have sufficient fuel to search for their missing party…).

After some time searching, we came across the Yemaya – a Panamanian boat with a great reputation. We booked with Ed Stetson out of UCSB and headed down to Panama City. Ed’s group of divers were unusual. All seasoned folks and no yahoos. We were humbled – everybody was unique in some way. A surgeon, a charter boat owner, a financial analyst based out of NYC, a successful real estate developer, the world editor of dive magazine. Everybody turned up with dive alerts (pneumatic whistles), 2 m long inflatable safety buoys, signal mirrors, signal strobes and Nautilus lifelines (AIS-based VHF position transmitters). No corners were being cut in terms of safety – becoming lost would mean being set adrift in the open ocean with no one but the others aboard your boat to rescue you.

After a four-hour bus ride from Panama City we arrived at a dinky old river port in the jungle. The muddy tide was running too low, so we cleared customs, loaded all our bags on to the dive tenders and drove out 45 minutes to the river mouth where the Yemaya was waiting. She was all that we needed, and some more we could have done without. Yemaya had her own water maker, air conditioning, nitrox bank for rapid filling, a substantial oxygen bank, two screws and three generators (5 engines total) and a wonderful crew of Panamanians who loved their jobs. She also had a slight list to port, a very high centre of mass and a vibrant population of giant tropical cockroaches. This was going to be a trip to remember.

From the river, it was a 36 hour transit over open water until we came to Malpelo: a tiny rock in the middle of the ocean. For the next 7 days, we did not see another vessel.

Diving Conditions

There are many similarities between diving Malpelo and other offshore islands, like the Poor Knights Islands in New Zealand, the Brothers Islands in the Red Sea or La Perouse rock at French Frigate Shoals, NWHI. Imposing cliffs and no beaches. Nesting seabirds. Deep drop-offs. Raging ocean currents that bring in the big schools but also threaten to remove your mask upon a sideways glance.

However, Malpelo differs in a couple of ways. Firstly, it is truly in the deep ocean. There is no fringing reef, nor does it occasionally receive licks of a coastal current and day fishers certainly don’t make it out here. Consequently, real ocean-going animals can be seen. Wahoos were the first sign. Then came bonito schools and big, fat yellowfin tuna. Ascents and safety stops in bottomless blue water were the norm and rather than being a featureless and boring affair, there was always the anticipation that at some point a large and majestic creature would materialize out of the blue. Sometimes it was a giant oceanic manta. More often it would be sharks.

The Sharks of Malpelo

The magic of Malpelo is made by the truly impressive number of sharks that migrate to and from, and live around the island. Hammerheads, Galapagos and Silky sharks are the main species seen here but there are also occasional sightings of ocean-going blacktip sharks and “el monstruo” or a rare species of sand tiger, which is usually only seen during the winter. Contrary to what you may think, sharks are a good sign. The first part of an ecosystem that is removed when humans encroach is the top of the food chain – it’s easy to catch sharks and their fins are valuable to unscrupulous Chinese. Next to go are the big fishes – the tunas, wahoos and big snappers. The cascade that results from their removal fundamentally changes the entire ecosystem and reduces it to an alternate stable state: the prey population explodes, meaning their food sources (coral, algae) are depleted, leading to barren reefs that can’t protect juveniles so no recovery can take place. That is a story that has played out all over the world, but has not yet destroyed Malpelo.

In fact, the ecosystem remains so intact at Malpelo that you can witness inter-species teamwork on a grand scale. Anecdotal evidence suggests this kind of behaviour used to be common everywhere, but the depletion of predators has all but eliminated observations of this kind: Picture a reef filled with many small fishes swimming about and grazing on plankton. All of a sudden: pandemonium. A large school of leather bass (groupers) hundreds strong, blue fin trevally and moray eels arrive quickly and purposefully on the scene. Small fish dart everywhere, trying to escape by finding small holes in the reef. The morays are able to squeeze in to these tight spots and eat/flush the fish out – straight into the mouths of the leather bass, waiting just outside. If some make it past the bass, they succumb to the blue-lined jacks waiting right behind. We witnessed these ‘gangs’ attacking reef fishes on a daily basis and we could get very close – the predators were so focused on getting a meal they seemed oblivious to us taking photographs from just centimetres away!

IMG_8706
An incredible cloud made of thousands of enormous mullet snapper, Lutjanus aratus, at Malpelo. The ball is perhaps 60 m across.

Another thing that can be seen here and perhaps nowhere else are the numbers of mullet snapper. These predatory fish are large – about 1.5 m in length and 40 kg or more. They can be solitary but sometimes assemble in schools. At Malpelo, ‘schools’ doesn’t really describe the size of these aggregations. ‘Cumulonimbus cloud’ was the first thing that came to mind when we saw them. Untold thousands. Each an impressive creature, but together an almost prehistoric scene. The school wasn’t a spawning aggregation or some special event – the snapper frequent a particular reef next to the island every day.

IMG_9347
Galapagos and Silky sharks could be seen on the reef and in open water. They were very curious and non-threatening. We spent many hours diving and snorkelling with these inquisitive creatures.

One more good sign is that the sharks are naturally curious – they aren’t wary of people. With the exception of hammerheads, which are a notoriously flighty species, sharks at Malpelo will approach you with a genuinely inquisitive demeanour that is so obviously unthreatening you’re embarrassed you ever considered them dangerous. The feeling is exactly the same as when you are approached by a strange yet friendly dog in the street. Relaxed and languid movements, a preoccupation with the surrounding fishes, casually sniffing out potential morsels under rocks on the reef, all within arm’s reach. The feeling remains the same even when surrounded by a school of silky sharks in open water, miles from the island.

IMG_9122
Snorkelling with a large school of silky sharks miles from the island in open water was one of the highlights of the trip.

Hammerheads

One thing that stood out to us almost immediately was that while we were at Malpelo, the hammerheads were going to remain very shy. The dive guides tell us that five years ago, schools of hundreds could be approached almost by accident. You know they’re there because you’ll occasionally see them at the edge of visibility – their wing-shaped head and large dorsal fin are unmistakable. But they never willingly came close. Our time at Malpelo quickly became an effort to get as close to and see as many of these elusive creatures together as possible. We were eventually able to get fairly close to hammerheads coming in to a cleaning station to be groomed. Divers would settle on a rocky ledge and remain still and low, breathing smoothly and making as little noise as possible. Eventually, they would come up from the depths, replete with little butterflyfish picking parasites off their skin. One mistimed strobe flash or careless move would send the nervous animal bolting back to the depths. Patience and timing paid off: Lauren (who uses much less air than I do) was eventually able to get some great photos of these very special animals.

The classic image from Malpelo is of giant hammerhead schools circling overhead, reminiscent of those old photos of enormous bison herds or clouds of passenger pigeons, now long extinct. This kind of hammerhead photo is very hard to take, especially on open circuit scuba, because of 1) the noise you make and b) rising bubbles in the frame. We learned that in order to witness these majestic schools, and to photograph them, many cards had to fall in our favour. In fact, we were only able to witness truly schooling hammerheads on the morning of our last day. The factors in our favour then were: 1. Early morning before other divers. 2. A strong current that bought the schools to a reef and swept our bubbles away behind us. 3. Rough weather meaning our bubble noise was obscured by wave noise. 4. A deep reef with nothing overhead. 5. A shallow thermocline that compressed the available warm water overhead.

.

In stormy open water, we descended without a line to a barnacle covered rock at 31 m, where the temperature dropped from 27 C to 15 C and the current was roaring. We became part of the reef. Slowly they appeared overhead, first in small numbers but then in their hundreds. They could be seen cavorting and displaying to each other, languidly cruising in mid water. They seemed oblivious to the freezing, breathless divers below, desperately trying to focus their cameras on the silhouettes above. I didn’t need to try to be quiet – at some point I realised I had been holding my breath for a minute or so (not recommended on scuba). It was worth the pounding headache. We hope our kids can see this one day.

IMG_3270
Schools of giant, shy creatures silhouetted against the morning sun.
IMG_9553
What we came to see.

Family Fieldwork V2.0: Notes from the Field

The last three weeks zoomed by on this little island, and we are wrapping up data collections and switching over to conference mode for our last week in Hawaii.

So how is it going? The short answer is fairly well. We (I) spent a huge amount of time prior to arriving carefully selecting a house that was suitable for kids and grandparents, planning travel to arrive a few days early so we could adjust & set up, finding local stores and restaurants, sussing out activities for them, and packing items like power outlet covers and night lights so we could quickly “baby-proof” the beach house. These efforts paid off, as the children made a fairly smooth transition to life in Hawaii. We had a very long day of travel and arrived after their bedtime, so thankfully they were tired enough to sleep until 5am local time the first morning (that’s 10am in Virginia- they usually would wake up at 7:30). Joey was good to go after that. Blake had a few tough nights and we had a little more trouble getting his nap schedule on track, but we are now cruising along with a good routine for everyone. The team agreed that the most crucial piece of planning to everyone’s happiness was the house – easy walk to the beach, bedrooms for everyone plus a lab, and a spacious backyard safe for the kids to play in.

We got into work relatively quickly, sorting out instruments, unpacking gear, and connecting with local colleagues. We had tank experiments up and running within days. Weather kept us off of the water longer than we had hoped, but we managed to start collecting in-water data within a week of arrival and are now on track. Our first week was very busy and the boys started asking for more time with us. Thankfully we crossed off a few big hurdles early on (tank experiments!) and were able to adjust our schedule so that we had a fun family activity with them every few days. We are living in Kailua on the windward side of Oahu, so grand adventures like kayaking, hiking, and swimming are easily within reach for morning play before nap.

The boys love spending time with their grandparents, and the beach is a few minutes walk from our front door, so in general their days are spent playing in the sand, swimming in the surf, and enjoying our luxurious backyard complete with banana trees while Simon & I work. When the weather keeps us off the water and/or we are able to schedule half a day off, we take them further afield to different parts of Oahu for hiking, beaches, tide pool exploration, and a couple of memorable boat & kayak excursions.

We have almost completed our data collections, both in water and in tanks with collaborators at the University of Hawaii. We have a few instruments still taking data that we need to pick up early next week before we ship our equipment back to NRL on Thursday, but otherwise we are starting to clean and pack gear. In terms of work, we have shifted to preparing our presentations for the ASLO Meeting this week. My talk is tomorrow morning, so I’m finalizing the details of my powerpoint presentation today while Simon takes the kids on a rock pool adventure (apparently the sea urchins were their favorite animal). We are also taking care to back up data, start running codes for quality control, and organize our notes and photos from the trip.

A few highlights from our time here include Joey’s growing knowledge of sea animals. After reading a couple of books about sea turtles ingesting trash by mistake, he has led us on quite a few beach clean-ups. Blake is now walking confidently on grass, sand, and rocks. Both boys love to play in the ocean, and scramble around on dark black lava rocks in bare feet with smiles on their faces. We are very happy with our decision to bring them along, and are immensely grateful to the spoilers (Grammy & Papa) for caring for the boys so well and on an ever-changing schedule while we take care of our fieldwork requirements and juggle work needs with family time.

Prepping for Departure to Hawaii Tomorrow!

Everything is wrapping up in DC as we prepare to fly to Honolulu tomorrow. Inevitably a few fires popped up at the last minute, but in general we’ve been quite organized as we prepare for our great family fieldwork adventure.

Our scientific equipment was shipped on Monday, which meant we spent a good chunk of last week packing. We’ll pick up two pallets of scientific equipment, ranging from a hydrophone array and underwater spectrometer to lab and office supplies, on Thursday in Honolulu.

Our personal gear was mostly packed the prior weekend. Since we are traveling to a different climate, I was able to pack everyone’s clothes well ahead of time. There are a few last minute things to add to the suitcases tomorrow morning (the baby monitor, my electric toothbrush, and the kids’ water bottles for example).

We have detailed lists of data collection objectives, listed by priority. We have fancy schedules & dive plans that will inevitably be modified by weather. We also have children’s books and toys, a tiny snorkel set, and two little wetsuits. We have plane tickets for six people. We are, for all practical purposes, ready.

Both Simon & I have been chipping away at preparation tasks for the past month, and I have to say this is possibly the best job we have done to date with trip prep. We are both excited and anxious for family fieldwork v2 to go well!

img_3053
Pro Tip: Bungee diapers/inserts & wipes to car seats before placing them in gate check bags.

Curious what we are taking for the kiddos? Two car seats (bundled with compostable diaper inserts and wipes), one double stroller, and two baby hiking backpacks (packaged as a stroller). About five days worth of clothing, with extra layers for wind, rain, and warmth after a swim. Cloth nappies for Blake. Wetsuits and lifejackets. Snorkel set for Joey. They each have a small carry-on bag packed with their favorite toys, books, and stuffed animals. All of our personal belongings have miraculously made it into three checked bags.

More soon! For photo updates follow us on instagram @adventuretoddlers. Next stop, Honolulu 🙂

Family Fieldwork V2.0 – Hawaii!

We ticked off a major bucket list item recently with our first Freeman & Freeman peer-reviewed scientific paper. Another is on the horizon, our first joint family fieldwork adventure with kids in tow!

This expedition has been years in the making, from applying to proposals & gathering funds, sussing out a timeline, and making a plan where we could bring the boys, caregivers, and still get our work done. Here’s what is going to happen & how we got there:

img_2611
Our destination (more or less)

Me & Simon (the science team), Joey & Blake (the nuggets), and Grammy & Papa (the caregivers) are flying to Honolulu on February 1 for one month. We are staying at a rental house by Kailua beach, a short drive from the Kaneohe Marine Corps Base and Coconut Island in Kaneohe Bay, where Simon & I will be working. In addition to space for the six of us, the house has a semi-attached “in-law suite” that will serve as our lab.

It all started with a NASA proposal two years ago that I developed with my postdoc advisor, to inform the HySPIRI satellite mission during an expedition to Hawaii. NASA will fly over the Hawaiian Island chain with hyperspectral remote sensing imagers to simulate HySPIRI data, and during the same time a science team will be collecting data on the ground to validate and test the imagery. We are on the coral reef team. My question is how well coral reef health can be determined from some of the highest quality satellite imagery, utilizing the relative proportion of coral and fleshy macroalgae as the metric of health. This proportion can be detected from space with the correct sensor, and is a well established indicator of coral reef ecosystem state. A healthier reef has more live coral, and a more degraded reef has been overgrown with fleshy macroalgae.

The Freeman & Freeman paper that came out in December was a thorough investigation of passive acoustic indicators of coral reef state in the Hawaiian Islands from our 2012 fieldwork. One of our most interesting finds was that different acoustic signals come from reefs with lots of coral (healthier reefs), versus reefs with lots of fleshy macroalgae (more degraded reefs). We were very interested in testing this further, and seeing if we could use remote sensing & acoustics together to improve the overall ability to determine coral reef state from afar. When Simon started his fellowship as a federal scientist in June, he was given start-up funds and has been able to dedicate part of them to his own, complimentary experiments in Kaneohe Bay in February.

The timeline was heavily constrained by flight time for the NASA aircraft and instruments, but thankfully it was confirmed with enough advance notice that we have been able to get all of our coordinating pieces into place. Simon requested and scheduled his experiment. My parents were able to take a month away from work & home duties, which meant that we could bring the boys. We can’t express enough gratitude to them, as neither of us would be willing to leave our kids for a month right now. The kids, in turn, are so excited for a month on the beach with their grandparents:

We have dreamed for far longer than we have been parents about conducting joint fieldwork and having our children along, a-la Rosemary and Peter Grant style. What an incredible experience for them – an opportunity to live in a new place, enjoy a new culture, and learn about the diversity of the natural world. Not to mention lots of QT with the grandparents. We are beyond excited that this is happening, and can’t wait to share it with you over the blog-channels in the next few weeks.

 

The Annual Honeymoon

We’ve written about our vacation deal before – we promised one another before we were parents that every year we had dependent children, we would go on at least one vacation without them. So far we’ve managed to pull it off, and one of our friends started to use the term “annual honeymoon.” It is a perfect description of why we do this.

The point isn’t to get away from our kids – we adore them both, and we love spending time with them. The point is to spend time focused on ourselves and each other. You know – what we used to do all of the time before we were Joey’s Mom and Blake’s Dad. We had full lives with hobbies and activities. We’ve been fortunate enough to find ways to carry on most of those hobbies with our little explorers, but in some cases it just can’t be done. Scuba diving comes to mind (and will be featured in the 2017 honeymoon…!).

That’s why we have the annual honeymoon. Special bonding time for me and Simon, to keep our relationship happy and healthy so that we can best serve our family. Special bonding time for the older and younger generation, where the grandparents are given full control and the grandchildren receive exotic treats like juice for breakfast, pet fish, and all the educational toys they can get their little hands on. It is always hard to leave, but wonderful to come home well rested and energized to hear of their adventures at the Grammy & Papa resort.

We have been long due for a honeymoon, as our last was a dive trip to Raja Ampat, Indonesia in December 2014/January 2015 (it was a big enough trip that we counted it for both years). Blake arrived in December 2015 – making it tricky to plan a trip in 2016. Fortunately, a good friend planned a New Year’s Eve wedding in San Diego and gave us the perfect excuse to fly as a duo at the end of the year, just after Blake had cleared his first birthday.

In our four day trip, we visited old friends, favorite restaurants, and re-lived many of our graduate school dates. (Most of them involve take-out burritos and a hike on cliffs overlooking the sea). We had hours of time to talk to one another without interruption. We didn’t worry about nap time or bedtime, and slept late in the morning. The wedding was beautiful. It was time and money well spent. There is truly nothing better to come home to than my sweet boys’ smiles and hugs.

Oh, and Dory the pet fish lives at Grammy and Papa’s house now 😉

 

Re-Thinking Gifting: Save Money & The Planet Holiday Edition

Our family resolution for 2017 is to spend less money on things, and to start to reduce the amount of stuff in our home (in other words – make a more pronounced shift towards minimalism). Between that and our desires to reduce waste and leave a small environmental footprint, we have been brainstorming some less than ordinary gifting strategies this year.

Experiences

  • Instead of a physical gift, wrap up tickets to a theme park or activity (great for kids)
  • Make plans with another family to not exchange gifts, but instead go on a special weekend trip together (works well for other families with similar age kids)
  • Say that a financial contribution towards a vacation is your holiday gift. Simon & I agreed happily that our only gift to each other is our diving trip next year.
  • Take a person or couple out for a day – to a show, for a pedicure, hiking, for dinner. For most busy grown-ups, having an all-expenses-paid fun afternoon with no planning is nearly as good as a stay in a fancy resort.

Handmade Gifts

  • Kids’ arts & crafts are a time-honored tradition, and the options are endless (check out google image search or pinterest). These are wonderful for caregivers & relatives. When I know we are making a gift I use higher end materials so the finished product will look better and last longer. Creating wall art on a canvas or putting it in a frame are great touches.

    img_9300
    If you have the skill to crochet this R2D2 hat, by all means please do. Pattern here.
  • Edible gifts are another time-honored tradition where you really can’t go wrong. We’ve gifted cookies, wine & hot cocoa jars, but again the possibilities are endless here.
  • The world of DIY seems to get bigger every day. We have received many adult-handmade gifts that we love including blankets and wall art.
  • If you aren’t crafty, check out Etsy to support local small businesses & find exactly what you want – i.e. Blake’s Halloween shirt from Simply Cloth Boutique.

Donations

  • For Blake’s upcoming first birthday (where did that year go??) we requested donations to the American Civil Liberties Union in his name in lieu of gifts.
  • For an older child, it can be a great experience to walk the donation over them self (i.e. to the animal shelter). Let friends & relatives know if
    you are requesting money or specific items, and have your child(ren) help package everything up & bring it to their charity of choice.

Booksimg_7201

  • Another favorite for both of our kids and give to others are books. New, used, hand-me-down, and maybe signed, these don’t take up too much space are timeless. True to our science-family style, we love a house full of books!

Second-Hand, Thrift Store, & Hand-Me-Downs

  • Buying second-hand is an easy way to save money & have a positive environmental impact. Check out Goodwill, Salvation Army, & thrift stores for just about everything under the sun. If you’re crafty, you can re-finish or paint wood pieces to then use as extra special gifts (not that I have time for that… I’ve been watching too much Fixer Upper!)
  • Hand-me-downs are another wonderful gift, in particular to a child younger than yours. Most kids clothes will easily last through several children since they outgrow them quickly, and parents are grateful to reduce their costs. Swimsuits, sun hats, flip flops, snow boots, coats, and other seasonal items are particularly good hand-me-downs because they are pricier and generally not heavily used any one child.

    img_6681
    A neighbor kindly shares the monthly onesies with Blake, which is perfect as each kid only wears them once!
  • Cycling toys between families is a great way to keep your playroom interesting without letting it get too cluttered. If you are buying & selling used, there is a far lower monetary cost too.

Recycle & Re-Use

  • Recycle gift wrap, bags, tissue paper, & ribbons
  • Paint newspaper or brown packaging paper (handprints or finger painting are especially fun) to use as gift wrap.
  • Use cardboard as party decor – paint signs or banners or make a big card for guests to sign. Love this idea from Meredith Tested!
  • When it can’t be re-used anymore, recycle wrapping & tissue paper

 

Everyone loves giving & receiving presents, our family included! We are grateful for all manner of gifts that come through our door. This list is simply a collection of some different ideas we have tried to cut costs, be kind to the Earth, and maintain a festive & happy holiday with our friends and family.

Family Fieldwork v1.0: North Carolina Edition

One of our long-term dreams as a science family is to take on “family fieldwork.” The idea is that Simon & I would conduct joint or collaboratory fieldwork in the same location, and bring along our kids and caregivers for them. We are so excited to have the opportunity to do just that during the month of February when we will return to Hawaii. In the meantime, Simon had a short work trip to Nags Head, North Carolina last weekend and we were able to put together a mini-version of family fieldwork to try it out.

We visited Nags Head to facilitate collection of large, fresh, whole pelagic fishes including tuna and wahoo. These fish subsequently traveled with Simon & a colleague to San Diego for high resolution scanning in an MRI machine. The resultant data are a key first step to Simon’s newest project at NRL developing a fish-inspired autonomous underwater vehicle.

November is the tail end of the season for the fish of interest, so a three-day window was allotted where Simon could assess the daily catch from his vendor fisherman and pick the specimens he wanted, then carefully package them for shipping to San Diego. Time was critical as he wanted to ensure the fish were whole fresh specimens (fresh is better when it comes to MRI) and never frozen.

img_9899
The beach in front access across from our rental house – a highlight for Joey & Blake

The fish collection window fell over a holiday weekend, so I made plans to join Simon and bring the boys & their grandparents along for the ride. We rented a house in Nags Head across the street from the beach and brought along a stroller and sand toys. Overall, everything worked. The kids and I made it home safely, Simon is in San Diego proceeding with data collection from the fish scans, and the grandparents are still excited about our trip to Hawaii.

That said, we learned quite a few things to operate more smoothly next time!

Our children are still very young (3 years, 10 months) so having a safe space for both of them to play indoors is critical. When we travel to Hawaii I’ll bring/buy extra outlet covers, baby gates, pop-up toy storage, and doorknob covers.

This past weekend was REALLY hectic because of the aforementioned time crunch on getting the fish into the MRI as quickly as possible. We were only in Nags Head for three days. In addition, we had extra people coming and going from the house. This was definitely stressful for the boys. I was reminded (again) that we need to keep everything as simple as possible for them, and preserve their routine. I think things will be easier in Hawaii since we are there for a whole month, and they’ll have more time to get settled and used to the family fieldwork norm.

On the same note, buffer days are really critical for kids. I had a free day with them after arriving in Nags Head, and spent another day with them at the grandparents’ house in Williamsburg before returning to our home in Alexandria. That extra time really helped them re-group and stay happy.

The final challenge with family fieldwork is delineating my time between work and kids. At home, I never work when I’m with them – I reserve all work things for when I’m at my office, or when they are asleep. This is a harder line to draw with a shared house in a new place. We are still piecing plans together, but now will prioritize a clear schedule of work time as well as a separated office space in the house that the boys will not usually be allowed to access. I’m glad a have a few more months to brainstorm before we go so that V2.0 Hawaii Edition gets off to a smooth start!

img_9858
Time with Grammy is always special. We love that family fieldwork gives both our kids and our parents extra special memories together.

Why Force Posed Photos On My Kids?

We love photography – something that started as a means to chronicle our travels and underwater adventures, but we’ve recently been adapting our techniques to document our children growing up. It is a fun hobby for both of us, and generally rewarding.

img_4483
Sit with your brother and smile – nailed it.

My favorite family/kid photos are not posed. I love shots of the boys engaged in activities or with one another, unaware that I’m off to the side with a camera. If you follow us on Instagram or Facebook (or even backtrack through the photos featured here), you’ll pick up on this theme quickly. That said, I force posed photos on our kids frequently. Trips to cool places, birthday parties, holiday weekends with friends – none of these are complete for our family until I’ve piled all of the children together unwittingly, promised them tasty snacks as a reward for their cooperation, and played peek-a-boo with the camera for a few minutes in hopes that they might all smile (ha!) or at least look at the camera at the same time.

 

These photos look posed. Generally at least one kid looks pissed. Joey now says cheese and intentionally turns his head away from the camera. Why bother making everyone annoyed for what tends to be a mediocre photo?

img_8667
Smile guys!

Because one day, we will all want to see the posed photos. I’ll still love the shots of Joey chasing seagulls down the beach more, but he will want to see himself with his brother, family and friends. And some of the posed photos look awesome (about one in a thousand, but who’s counting?) Who was there? What did they look like? Did you really make me and Blake wear the same outfit EVERY TIME mom?

Yes dear. Yes I did.

img_8045
Both boys on the verge of laughing at my winning humor on animal sounds – success.

love, life, and adventures of an ocean science family

%d bloggers like this: