Save Money & the Planet! Make Your Own Starbucks

There have been many times when people commend us on our environmental ethic. I am proud to say that some things Simon & I do are intentionally to try to help the environment- reusable shopping bags, walk/bike instead of drive, buying local foods, etc. However, there are many, many more things that we actually did to save money, and later realized that they had a big side benefit of helping the Earth too. Here are some examples – you might find a helpful hint for your own life in here!

First in the series – beating the caffeinated green giant.


Better than Sbux Iced Coffee. Bonus- served in a chilled beer mug
Better than Sbux Iced Coffee. Bonus- served in a chilled beer mug
Homemade vanilla simple syrup lasts for weeks at room temperature (not like we let it go that long!)

Oh how we love the ‘green sign of joy’ and their $5-6 beverages. However, we have gradually shifted to making all of our favorite coffee drinks at home upon looking at a credit card statement or two and gawking at the numbers going to starbucks. There are several helpful tutorials on the web for the more elaborate drinks, but the basics are the same for all of them. Here you go!

  • We use a french press ($20 at Target) – no filters to buy or plastic parts. Any coffee maker will do, however!
  • We get coffee at Safeway, and use the in-store grinder for a fresh taste and to get the ‘coarse’ grounds you need for plunger coffee, which ranges from $5-$9 a pound depending on sales. Safeway has been selling its coffee for $4.99 a pound for the whole month of June, and I admit to stocking up and freezing some!
  • I make a variety of simple syrups. As the name implies, these are very simple! Combine 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water in a saucepan and boil until the sugar is completely dissolved. Let cool to room temperature. Optional – add a teaspoon of your favorite extract (for us this is usually vanilla, but we do some fun drinks with peppermint extract and hershey’s syrup around christmas). These can be stored in any sealed container at room temperature or in the fridge.
  • For standard coffee, we use 4 TBSP grounds for our 8 cup press and brew for 2-3 minutes. Add milk and syrup of your choice.
  • For iced coffee, use 6 TBSP grounds for 2-3 minutes and let it cool right down in the fridge. I keep a pitcher of this in addition to iced tea ready to go in the summer! Add milk and syrup of your choice when you are ready to drink.
  • For mocha, frappucino, and other fancy delights, use 6-8 TBSP grounds and brew a bit longer – 3-4 minutes. This makes super-strong plunger coffee that can sort of pass for espresso.
  • Chill your faux-spresso for frappucino. Blend about 3/4 cup strong coffee with 1 cup milk (mix in some half-and-half for a creamier flavor), 2 cups ice, and 2-3 TBSP syrup. Mix in hershey’s chocolate syrup for mocha. If you’re feeling decadent, you can top with whipped cream from a can. Some folks on the internet add xanthum gum to stabilize the blend. We’ve never felt a need to do this, but ours do separate after 10-15 minutes.
  • For a latte or mocha, keep the faux-spresso hot and steam milk in a pot on the stove. A quick beat with a whisk or a dedicated frother will produce the latte-like consistency that we love. I mix the syrup into the hot coffee first, then pour the frothed milk on top.

Magic! We now prefer our home coffee drinks to those from starbucks and most other chains. You can customize your milk and sweetener to your tastes and wind up with the perfect drink for you. You can also make stronger or weaker coffee to meet your needs. When I was pregnant and minimizing my caffeine, I made super-WEAK coffee for homemade frappucinos (2 TBSP grounds for 1-2 minutes). Depending on how fancy, we estimate that an iced coffee costs us about $0.65 and a frappe with whipped cream about $0.85 (we use organic milk and raw sugar). Even if you add in hershey’s syrup or a frothing stick and buy your coffee maker, you beat starbucks within 4-5 drinks.

How making your own coffee helps the planet:

  • No single-use cups, lids, straws, or cup sleeves going into the trash (and you’re reducing demand for them to be produced in the future!)
  • You didn’t drive somewhere to get this.
  •  Starbucks and other multi-national chains have an impressive carbon footprint that you are supporting less.
  • Depending on your options, ingredients can be sourced locally.


Our Own Oyster Reef

The Eastern Oyster in a Chesapeake Bay Salt Marsh
The Eastern Oyster in a Chesapeake Bay Salt Marsh
After all that hard work, we got to play trucks on the beach
Our PVC ‘staples’ we used to stabilize the reef
Simon dismantling the old oyster floats to be up-cycled to the new oyster reef
Working together to build an oyster reef. The bags of oysters are very heavy- at least 50 lbs each! So we floated them out on a windsurfing board.
Simon clips open the top of an oyster bag for Lauren to install on the new PVC frame

Eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica) are remarkably fabulous creatures. They start out life smaller than the head of a pin, drift through the open seas until they find just the right spot, the attach themselves onto other oysters and grow. They don’t hunt or even gather food – they simply filter the water that they live in, pulling out microscopic plants and animals to eat. This act of filter-feeding cleans the water around them. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water in a day.

Oysters are also delicious. So delicious to humans that the current oyster population of the Chesapeake Bay is less than 1% of its original levels. Dredging for oysters (essentially using enormous tongs to yank up chunks of oyster reef) destroyed most of their reef habitat over the last century and a half. Recently individual and commercial oyster farms have been taking hold – buy bags of baby oysters (called spat, smaller than a dime), and grow them off your own pier in floats. In a year or so, they are ready to be eaten. In the meantime, they clean the water! Commercial operations use in-water cages to protect oysters from predators. As a diligent young conservationist, Lauren first started farming oysters in Mathews at age 8.

Recently, we decided to take the oyster farm to the next level. This was in large part a response to the fact that our oysters kept growing (some of them are over 10 inches long!) and we didn’t really want to eat many of them, because we were more interested in having them clean the water and provide habitat for new baby oysters.

So, instead of a mass harvest or simply dumping all of the oysters out of their floats in a hopeful location, we combined our skills from science fieldwork in Hawaii, years of oyster farming, and general home engineering to produce our very own artificial oyster reef. We dismantled the previous floats into big PVC staple shapes that we filled with quick-set concrete and wiggled into the mud to provide a base. The bags were left with oysters in them, but we cut holes in the top. These were cable-tied onto the staple base.

One month later, everything is still exactly where we left it! Everytime we cruise past on a paddleboard or kayak we notice school minnows, and often a little blue crab or two. We are excited to see what happens with this new home project 🙂

How to Feed Your Baby Bananas

Just for fun 🙂 Simon’s engineering solution to Joey continuing to squish bananas before he can get them to his mouth is to trim back the peel with kitchen scissors to produce a handle section below the edible section. Works like a charm – and today he even figured out how to turn it around when he started chewing on the wrong end! (For future reference, he turns 10 months old tomorrow).



The Academic Interview

I have recently been getting to know the academic interview or “job talk” very well, as I search for an amenable position to begin in the late summer/early fall. I also have learned from the questions of friends and family that this is a somewhat unusual and unknown process, so I thought I’d break it down for you.

As with many jobs, academics start with some sort of job application. The specifics vary, but in general for postdocs I have been asked for a copy of my curriculum vitae (CV, a more academic version of a resume); the names and contact information for three references (I use my PhD advisor, co-advisor, and a collaborator from my dissertation committee); a cover letter; and a brief statement of research interests and/or proposed research.

Then a variety of hurdles must be crossed. Not everyone adheres to all of them, but in general the order is:

  1. Someone reads your cover letter, CV, and proposed research statement. If they feel that you are a strong candidate, they contact your referees for letters of recommendation.
  2. If your letters pass muster, you may be contacted for an interview via skype or telephone.
  3. Finally, if you are doing really well, you are invited to give a job talk.
  4. At this point (and possibly also before) a committee meets to discuss your merits compared with other candidates. They select a first choice, and make them an offer. If the first choice declines, they move on to their 2nd ranked candidate, etc.
  5. If you are lucky (VERY lucky in these days of limited funding for science) you have multiple offers and can use them to try to leverage more funds or a more flexible work schedule from your first choice.

The main interview I’m referring to in this post is the ‘job talk.’ I get the impression my friends in other fields that their interviews are scheduled events in which they dress up in a suit, visit a climate-controlled location, and answer questions from a committee for 30-75 minutes before being excused. The job talk is quite different.

Academics are wonderful people, but tend to organize these things at the last minute. You set up the date and time and arrange your travel to the institution. Usually the hosting institution pays for you, but not always. If it is particularly far away you may need to spend a night or two in a hotel.

About 0.25-24 hours before you arrive, you will be given a schedule of the day’s events. This consists of tightly packed meetings with as many scientists and researchers as possible at the institution to discuss one another’s research, some kind of lunch meeting, and a scheduled talk. Here is a sample schedule from my interview at Princeton/GFDL:

(Lauren – wake up at 5:30, drive to metro station, take metro to union station in downtown DC to get on Amtrak northbound at 7:20am)
9:46am pickup at Trenton Station
10:30 – Scientist Meeting 1
11:00 – Scientist Meeting 2
11:30 – Scientist Meeting 3
12:00 – Lunch with Scientist 1 & 4
1:00 – Scientist Meeting 5
1:30 – Head to seminar location
2:00 – Seminar – “Oceanographic Controls on Coral Reef Habitats in
Present and Future Climates” (given by me)
3:00 – Scientist Meeting 6
3:30 – Scientist Meeting 7
4:00 – Scientist Meeting 8 (Phew! at least this is someone I went to grad school with!)
4:45 – drop-off at Trenton Station
(arrive in Union Station DC at 8pm. Metro and drive. Hope to arrive home by 9:15 so that I can kiss my kiddo goodnight)

Since you are traveling to this place, you spend that time googling each individual on the list so you know what they look like, what their general field is, and what they have recently been publishing on. (This is especially important if you have never heard of them before.) I must note that Amtrak is great for this as you have spacious accommodations, free wifi, outlets for charing, and access to a snack cart with coffee.

The entire day is an interview. While it is best to appear relaxed, intelligent, and entertaining, you (should be!) constantly thinking in the back of your head – this person will get to vote on whether or not I get a position here. Make sure that they know it would be foolish to vote no. The meetings will focus on science, but topics can range from microbreweries to family life to fine literature. You don’t have to study these things ahead of time, but you may have to discuss them with some degree of charisma. Scientists love debates and analytically solving problems, so healthy disagreement is great – just be prepared to back up your claim. (For example, I am willing to point out unsustainable seafoods offered on a restaurant menu at the lunch event.)

The schedule is quite tightly packed (see above). You are unlikely to have a reasonable number of chances to go to the bathroom, fill your water bottle, or get a much needed coffee since you woke up at 5:30 am to meet with these people. If you see even the tiniest opportunity or someone frees you early – take it. Even if you just went to the bathroom 45 minutes ago, go again, and at least take the 2 minutes to yourself to regroup.

The talk is either the best or worst part depending on how you look at it. For about 45 minutes, you are allowed to speak uninterrupted about yourself and your research. For about 45 minutes, everyone is staring at you and you must be careful to not say ‘um’ or play with your hair. This is an excellent time to be confident and engaging. The talk itself is usually adapted from one you gave in the past. I started with my PhD defense talk and have made several spin-offs since. No two talks are identical, but once you have the pieces to work from it isn’t that hard to put it together. The delivery is key. After the talk, you don’t have to spend half of each meeting explaining what you do, and of course you will be more relaxed.

The job talk day is different to a classic interview. You certainly want to look presentable, but most academic institutions don’t expect you to wear a suit (I don’t – but I do switch out my everyday flip-flops for flats). Your demeanor and your science are the two most important factors. The meeting rooms may be hot, cold, small, dark, or really nice – but almost never a polished conference room with aircon running and a large fancy wooden table in the middle. You may have to walk up and down hills or stairs (this was a particularly big deal at Scripps – I remember feeling terrible for visiting scientists as I led them up and down ‘the hill’ along the 300 meter high sea cliff). Finding the locations of meetings is almost impossible if you don’t already have familiarity with the complex, so always ask for help. Instead of feeling scrutinized, there is a much warmer, welcoming feeling. Often scientists engage you with tales of how much they love their institution and how much you will also love it there. Because the truth is, you are interviewing them too. This full day process gives you a very real chance to learn who you would be working with and what science life is like at this new place. You get the sense that it is a low-key private club. If you leave thinking that everyone wanted you to join and also feeling that you would like to join, you have done well.

Finally, the wait time on this whole process can be REALLY long.  I still have pending applications that I submitted last October. So rest assured, I will be letting you know when I have accepted an offer. I am far more anxious about this than you are!