In the Field, Finally

The last time I checked in here, the very first field season of my PhD career was just about to officially begin. I was filled with anxiety about my ability to handle the complex logistics involved in setting up a multi-year research project, to design protocols that would result in robust scientific data, and to serve as a mentor to two undergraduate interns when most of the time it feels very much like I myself have no idea what I am doing.

Four weeks in, I am happy to report that I’ve learned a tremendous amount in the last month. For instance, one of my biggest questions was whether the phenomenon I planned to study (insect herbivory on subalpine meadow plants) actually even existed at a level that I could observe and record. I’d been told by Elli, a previous student in my lab who spent years surveying the same plants I was interested in, in the very same meadows, that she almost never saw evidence of insect damage. For months, even as I made intense preparations for the summer’s work, I was wildly nervous that I’d get out there, squat down at a plot ready to count tissue loss on leaves, and see absolutely nothing. However, I can now report that there definitely are enough insects in the meadows making a living eating plants that their traces are there if you are looking for them. This fact—that you might not notice something you’re not actively looking for—is definitely no knock on Elli, and actually seems rather marvelous to me. It serves as a huge reminder of the value of personal observation. I’m still unsure of whether I’ll find any evidence for strong climate drivers of insect herbivory, as I had hoped; the levels of plant damage seem not only species-specific but very patchy, and there are lots of factors I hadn’t anticipated dealing with in my analysis (for instance, my new transect on the east side of the mountain is drier, as I’d expected—but it’s also greatly more disturbed by burrowing rodents). So far, it’s not clear that the climate-driven elevational pattern I thought I might find will actually emerge from the data. But that’s a bridge to cross later. For right now I’m just happy I’m not trying to study a ghost.

There have been smaller and more practical lessons, too. I now know that I should bring extra flagging tape with me when I go to the east side of the mountain, because there’s a good chance the ground squirrels there will chew up the flags marking my plots. Extra kill jars are also a good idea, because you never know when you (I) will drop one into a marmot hole. I’ve learned that on humid or wet days the insects caught on sticky traps will start to decompose extraordinarily quickly, even if you only leave the traps out for 48 hours. (In general I’m struggling to deal with storing sticky traps for later analysis, because they are a pain in the ass to handle and their catches are very easily squished.) And I’ve learned that while Rainier’s mosquitoes are a vicious and cruel tribe—each week I come away with dozens of bites on my head, face, waist, and hands, the places hardest to cover up—my hatred for them pales in comparison with my affection for their mountain home.

Perhaps the nicest discovery of all is that, after having been terribly nervous about becoming a DDCSP mentor, my time with James and Leila has been among the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of the field season so far. They are both smart, curious, funny, and kind. They take their own projects seriously—both involve aspects of plant-pollinator interactions in the same subalpine meadow ecosystem where I work—but are always happy to help out with mine. And they are wonderful company. As someone who fell in love with the outdoors in large part because it offered the opportunity to experience a vast and quiet solitude, I was afraid that I wouldn’t enjoy being the leader of a crew, no matter how tiny. But somehow we all seem to naturally fall into low-key moods and high-energy moods at the same time, and I have adored working with them. They’ve only got another two weeks before their program ends, and I know I will miss them more than I could have ever imagined I would!

I remind myself daily that I’m at an incredibly early stage in my project, and a lot could change. But while I am still not entirely certain of a great deal, I will say that it is far more comfortable to be in the field dealing with concrete day-to-day problems than it was to be imagining those problems from my desk. I’ll post another update here later on this summer—for now, it’s time for a night’s sleep in my own bed before I head out into the field again tomorrow morning for another week of work. I’ll leave you with a few images of the last month.


Lupinus arcticus with three well-chewed leaflets (probably by juvenile grasshoppers).


Valeriana sitchensis, my most abundant study species, showing signs of attack by an as-yet unknown gall-forming insect.


Bite marks on the developing fruit of an avalanche lily (Erythronium montanum). Not sure who the culprit is yet.


I have to be careful not to confuse mammal damage with insect damage. It was most likely a marmot that sheared off the tops of these tiny Castilleja parviflora stems.


I see a lot when I manage to look up, too.


We’ve had about half and half wonderful weather and days full of fog/rain/clouds. Those can be gorgeous too, though.


Leila at 2000m.


James and Leila at 1901m.


The three of us.


The mountain, writ large.

What I Don’t

I can’t decide if it was bravado, a love of irony, or the urge to cast a mad, sideways benediction on the summer that made me title my last post What I Know. In fact, what has occupied my mind more than anything over these last few days and weeks before the (official) start of my very first season of field research as a PhD student is the terribly long list of things I still don’t seem to know! (And I don’t mean the answer to my research questions.)

Some uncertainties are small, and slide sharply under my feet like scree. I keep answering one or another, but that only means I slip down to the next. What should I use to mark the corners of the new study plots I’m planning to establish? (At first I was afraid I would have to use expensive tent stakes, but it turns out landscape staples stay in place well enough, and I can make site ID tags out of folded-over Gorilla tape.) Will I need two lines of space for this observation on my data sheet, or four? (I’ve no idea yet. Designing a data sheet has been driving me absolutely insane.) Why did I buy specimen vials that taper at the ends, so that small insects get lodged at the bottom like kernels of corn? (They were cheaper, and hey, I didn’t know that would happen!) Other problems are bigger. Will I make the right choices about where to site my new study plots, given that I have to do it now, while much of the terrain is still covered in snow and I can’t tell what will grow there? Will any of the protocols I’ve planned work out in practice? Is it insane to think I can accurately quantify damage to thousands of leaves on hundreds of individual plants? How will a beginning bug-hunter like myself successfully identify all the insects I collect? (The answer to this one might be Twitter!)

The hardest doubts come at me with the heft of a tree trunk. Even if I manage to collect usable data this summer, will I find any signal in the noise? Does anyone but me think insect herbivory is an important phenomenon to study in the subalpine meadow ecosystem of the Cascades? Am I making a mistake trying to launch my tiny research boat mostly alone, instead of collaborating with my insanely smart and accomplished advisor on one of her successful projects that’s already midstream?

As I’ve been packing up storage bins and backpacks with sampling equipment, camping gear, and field guides, these worries and a hundred others seem to slip into the spaces in between. But lately, at least, a lot of joy has been squeezing itself in as well. Excitement, too. And amazing gratitude. Whether this particular project succeeds or fails—and I know I will have to be clever, flexible, and open to alternate options at every stage of the game in order to give myself the best chance of avoiding failure—I am incredibly lucky to be able to spend this time using my mind and body to explore scientific questions that interest me, in a beautiful mountain environment where the weather is only sometimes terrible. I’m also lucky to have the support of a tremendous lab whose members consistently embrace opportunities to help and support me. Just this morning I went to meet Elli, a recent grad in the HRL lab who also did her dissertation research in the meadow system, so that I could receive the latest in a long line of generous gestures from her: A soil moisture meter for me to use all summer long and a methods book to share with the two awesome undergrad conservation scholars I’ll be working with.

I’m definitely terrified. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. But one thing is certain: At the end of this road, no matter what happens, I’ll know a hell of a lot more—about ecology and probably about life—than I do today.

All right—time to give my trusty hiking boots some TLC and cross my fingers that they’ll hold up through one last summer. Wish me luck.

A fantastically lovely longhorn flower beetle I saw feeding on Trillium ovatum pollen last week on the east side of Mount Rainier—probably Evodinus monticola vancouveri.

A minute thrips—look in the southwest segment of the flowerhead for a black-and-white beetle-like insect—feeding on a desert pincushion.

What I Know

That a drowsy sphinx moth moving slowly across the back of my hand has feet that feel like nothing else in the world, tiny hooks so gentle and sublime I wish my skin were made of loops on which they’d catch and hold forever.

That a bee in search of nectar can unfold its guarded, golden tongue so far you’d think it learned the trick from watching a magician with her scarves, and once or twice in my life I will be close enough and lucky enough and watchful enough to see it.

That the body can be bruised and scratched from the awl-edges of birch shrubs and the fine armored spines of devil’s club and the brittle bodies of dead trees, but none of it will hurt as much as the thoughts that rumble through the brain like summer afternoon storms, which are never announced and always expected.

That no matter how small the flower, there is an arthropod small enough to visit it.

That there is snow that you can trust and snow you cannot. I know the difference, sometimes.

That there are fears that you should heed and fears you should not. I know the difference, seldom.

That there are as many ways to make a living as there are living things. This is very nearly the greatest joy.

A minute thrips—look in the southwest segment of the flowerhead for a black-and-white beetle-like insect—feeding on a desert pincushion.

A minute thrips—look in the southwest segment of the flowerhead for a black-and-white beetle-like insect—on a very small desert pincushion inflorescence, photographed in Death Valley earlier this spring.




On The Downhill

Ross and I don’t tend to talk that much on the uphill when we’re hiking, largely due to the fact that I’m nearly always moving at a pace that makes me even less chatty than usual. But we often have wonderful, relaxed, surprising conversations on the downhill, after we’ve both had a chance to wring out the week’s preoccupations along with our sweat. Frequently these talks are about his science, my science, or some mathematical or statistical concept or other—I think because sore feet lead to a refreshed mind, and we’re both willing to take on sweeping or difficult ideas without much of a sense of expectation that we’ll get anywhere in particular.

Anyway, today I told Ross about a neat probability puzzle that Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary and theoretical biologist at UW, tweeted last night. While we were hurtling back down to the trailhead we talked about possible approaches to the puzzle; we talked about why certain seemingly important and seemingly missing pieces of information didn’t matter; and we talked about the answer, which is beautifully simple and elegant. (Carl called it “easy”, but I certainly didn’t arrive at it on my own—although I have the good fortune of being able to pretend that that’s because the tweet containing the solution was the first one I saw…)

In case you are interested, here is the puzzle, and here is the solution. You can have fun thinking through it now, or save it for the downhill on your next hike!

Today’s climb was notable for another reason. We had been promised a terrible weather weekend, with rain predicted in all directions. As it turned out, and as you know if you live in Seattle, today was an absolutely beautiful day—partly cloudy, but definitely partly sunny, and very warm. But since we didn’t know that beforehand, instead of venturing particularly far afield we decided to sleep in and settle for yet another hike of our old, slightly boring, and extremely crowded friend Mt. Si. To make things at least little more interesting we did it with full packs (this just means all the gear you’d need for a multi-day climbing trip, and for me personally ranges from about 35 to about 43 lbs, depending on the trip and what group gear I’m carrying. Today I packed something like 36 lbs, approximately a third of my body weight). Anyway, it had been nearly eight months since I’d hiked with a full pack, so while I thought I’d probably do fine I didn’t have especially high hopes for my pace heading up the mountain, which involves 3,200 feet of gain in 3.9 miles.

Notably, though, I wound up topping out at 1 hour and 53 minutes. I don’t usually like to get hung up about finishing times, since that tends to be (emotionally speaking) a poor way to judge success if you’re someone who is never the speediest in your group. But I’ll acknowledge that personal records can be worth a high-five, and today’s time was both a decisive 13 minutes faster than my previous best for getting to the top of Si with weight, and the first occasion on which I made it up carrying a full pack in under 2 hours. So that was nice…except probably for all the other innocent hikers on the trail who had the unfortunate experience of hearing what must have sounded like a gasping bulldog behind them as I came up. (I breathe hard on the uphill. I told you.)

Okay, folks. That’s me. Take it easy like Carl’s probability puzzle.

Si view

The unexpectedly good view from today.


So sweaty.

There’s No Accounting

An extra day—or rather, one that was outstanding in the ledgerbook we keep between ourselves, the planet, and the sun, and today was generously returned in more than full. I meant for it to feel momentous in some way, to spend it freely on what matters most—friendship overdue, or beauty, or some progress on the hardest questions—or at least outside. Instead I had a day much like the one I told you of last time, except a little harder here, a little easier there.

It’s funny; now it’s almost over, the debt seems quite unpaid.

Nancy Ekholm-Burkert’s James and The Giant Peach


This Monday in the Life of a First-year Biology Phd Student

Before I started this round of grad school, I had no real concept of what it meant, on a lived daily basis, to be a PhD student in the sciences. Of course, schedules vary dramatically from lab to lab and discipline to discipline, and I know things will also change profoundly from quarter to quarter and year to year over the course of my own graduate career. Still, I thought I’d document, for myself and anyone else who is curious, what life currently looks like happened on this particular Monday.

  • 5:57 am: I got out of bed, got my shit together, and biked to the gym.

This quarter I’m taking a spin class, which for trademark reasons the university rec center refers to as “cardio cycling.” It meets at 7am three mornings a week, and it is the worst thing in the world.

(Actually, considering that it consists of an enthusiastic young woman yelling at you to leave everything on the bike while loud music plays and a giant fan works in concert with the ceiling lights to create a strobe effect, it’s surprising I don’t hate it more. It does hurt like hell if you’re doing it right.)

  • 8:45 am: I arrived at my office.

Ian, a 4th-year in my lab who is both one of the smartest and one of the most patient people I have ever met (not always a pair of traits that occur together), sits across a divider from me in the same office; he is typically there when I arrive, and still there when I leave. Part of this is down to personal preference/style/work-life balance, but part of it is also that life really does look very different when you’re further along in this process. On Mondays, Ian and I usually swap weekend adventures. This Saturday he led a snowshoe with a bunch of potential grad students who were here for their interview weekend, and they learned a valuable lesson about how high up in the mountains you can go out here and still get rained on.

I spent the following few hours at my desk. During this time I reviewed a bunch of lecture notes for a class on chemical communication I’m taking that meets on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. I also read three papers for an advanced ecology seminar that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. While I read the latter, I annotated each source in Zotero, the reference manager I’m using to create a personal library of relevant scientific literature. Organizing and annotating papers is a pain, but I hear it’s something my future self will be glad I did. I hear a lot of things about how my future self will feel regarding all my current actions. I have to say—I’m not her biggest fan. She’s a little demanding.

Another thing I did this morning was send an email to a professor whose class I was interested in TA-ing for in the spring. Like most of the students in the bio program at UW, being a teaching assistant is probably how I will fund my salary most of the time. I’m guaranteed a teaching job whenever I need one for the first five years, but I won’t always get the positions I most prefer. The system of matching grad students with faculty or courses in need of TAs is so complicated and takes so long that it’s starting now for the spring, just a few weeks into winter quarter. (I heard back by the afternoon; the position was already filled with one of the professor’s own grad students. This was not surprising.)

  • 11ish am: I moved to a cafe in the Genome Sciences building, which I like because it has many large windows and feels light and open.

While I ate, I started reading this week’s discussion paper for my chemical communication class. As a result of this habit my laptop could really use a cleaning, but having lunch without doing anything else at the same time is generally a luxury saved for the weekend. (Whee!)

  • Noon: I went to the departmental seminar.

Every week, the whole biology department gets together to hear a speaker—often one of our own, but sometimes an invited guest. Today’s event was particularly neat because it was a mini-seminar in which five postdocs spoke about their work in the Pecha Kucha format. After the seminar I chatted with a few friends from my cohort; as a group, we don’t see each other as often as we used to last quarter, so Monday’s seminars are one of the few times I get to catch up with folks who aren’t in any of my classes. When we said goodbye, I went back to my office, read and responded to emails, and made some notes for my biweekly meeting with my advisor.

  • 2 pm: I met with my advisor.

Even though she’s wonderful (and wonderfully direct, which is one of the reasons I think we have had such an excellent working relationship so far), I still get a tiny bit nervous before every single one of my meetings with my advisor. Today we talked among other things about how my quarter is going and discussed a potential tweak to the project I’m planning on working on in my multivariate statistics class. The analysis will make use of a dataset from the lab’s citizen science project, and I’m excited about it, but hadn’t had a chance to talk to her about it yet because she was away when I came up with the broad strokes. She sketched on the whiteboard in her office during the discussion—something that no good meeting is complete without. (I am here to tell you from this side of the door that scientists really do love their whiteboards.)

I also confessed the relative lack of progress I’m making on figuring out a clear plan for what I’m going to do in my first field season this summer—which is not a problem yet but will be relatively soon if I don’t get over my fear of being the purveyor of bad scientific ideas and just get cracking. (I didn’t confess my fear of being the purveyor of bad scientific ideas, but if I had, I’m pretty sure she would have very kindly told me I was being an idiot.)

The last thing we did before I left her office was agree on two tasks for me to complete before our next meeting. Then she decided that wasn’t enough, so we added a third task. Good things come in threes?

  • 3:45 pm: I finished up the paper I was in the middle of reading and then headed to the bird lab at the Burke Museum.

I don’t always skin on Mondays, but one piece of advice almost everyone I’ve met in grad school has offered—even if they don’t adhere to it themselves—is to make time for doing what you love. And besides getting out to the mountains and the desert and the ocean, skinning is one of the great loves of my life. Plus, even though prepping birds has no real relation with the research I’m going to be doing, learning to skin is what started me off on the journey that brought me here in the first place. It’s a little bit sacred, and so I try to go when I feel I can spare the time. Skinning also tends to help me kick things out of my mind that have been going around and around in it, and these past few days I’ve been having a hard time letting go of a situation I screwed up recently and am ashamed of. So: space for the sacred and for sanity.

Today I skinned a female Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), one of 40 specimens from the North Slope of the Brooks Range in Alaska that the museum acquired from the Fish and Wildlife Service. She was fat and broken-winged and bloody and so molty she lost about a third of her feathers while I worked, but she was still a wonder and brought back many happy memories of her Willow Ptarmigan cousins (Lagopus lagopus) who were my camp neighbors in Alaska in 2012.

It was especially fun to prep her because she turned out to have eight developing ova inside her, including one that had started to form a shell and was likely days from being laid. I have a photo of her eggs and collapsed follicles all laid out like a red and yellow palette, but it seems kinder to show you her wing instead, in case you are also multitasking while having lunch. (Let me know if you want to see her eggs and I’ll post the photo in the comments.)



  • 7:30 pm: I walked back from the Burke to my office to get my bike, and rode home for dinner with Ross.

After dinner I spent a few minutes cleaning half the kitchen (Ross cleaned the other half), because some rotten and frankly wholly unnecessary part of my brain seems really invested in keeping the house in good order.

  • 9:12 pm: I decided, for reasons that are now utterly obscure to me, to write this post instead of going to bed.

And here we are.

(The door in my head looks exactly like this.)

Reasons For Not Writing

So many winter days begin in rain and end in rain; and thoughts, you know, do have to be dried out quite thoroughly before they can be used again. It is too wet to make a scrap of sense. Instead you put your bike away and drip onto the floor, and wipe damp forehead with damp glove, and think: When summer comes.

The part of you that’s always done the actual labor of it—dragging sentence upon sentence into place, each heavier and more awkward than the last—has recently begun to take appointments, every hour in different buildings. The part of you that knows how this should work—it’s elsewhere. Getting up to god knows what all kind of brand new nonsense. Making bad sketches of the invertebrate olfactory processing system, some days. Or calculating correlation coefficients. Peering at a screen and typing “Phenodata$Bud_rank <- factor(Phenodata$Bud_rank, ordered=TRUE, levels=c(4, 3, 2, 1))” like a damn fool, as if a thing like that could ever actually mean something. I know you think you’re having fun, but you’ve really lost your head.


You’re nervous, tell the truth. You’ve never stood on this side of the door before—you know the door. It’s got a sign on it. The sign says “SCIENTISTS, COME ON IN AND DO SOME SCIENCE!” You just don’t know what your new voice sounds like on this side, so it feels much safer to be silent.

Well, it’s a new year. Maybe time to clear your throat. Stay tuned.

(The door in my head looks exactly like this.)

(The door in my head looks exactly like this.)