Wednesday, March 30, 2016

When life gives you lemons, pick bugs.

“Sit back, relax, put on your favorite tunes, and pick.”
                On my first day volunteering in the Cross Lab, I saw this line from the bug picking protocol. Little did I know that I would take these words literally as I encountered the most challenging semester of my college experience. After making the decision to quit running for the MSU Track & Field team for the sake of my education, I bugged Wyatt about letting me into his lab so I could take advantage of all my newly acquired free time. Luckily, Kate needed someone to help speed up the process of ashing filters and entering data, so I gladly volunteered my time during the fall semester. Eventually I gained her trust, and when the filters ran out, Kate offered me the opportunity to continue my lab work in the form of bug picking, and I accepted. Turns out, this was the worst decision of my life.

                Totally kidding! Bug picking can be tedious . . . all right, bug picking IS tedious! Always. But along with a break from the never-ending schoolwork, picking offers a chance to slow down and sort out the racing thoughts of everyday life.
Here we have Kinzie diligently picking…and picking…and picking…
A certain sense of wonder follows the shift from looking at the Bridger Mountains to looking through a microscope at these little guys.
“Mite I ask you a question? How did I get here?”

The good company of the lab (bugs and people alike) kept me coming back, even though the training sessions took a toll on my untrained eyes and the delicate ostracods tested my patience. Working in the lab offers a chance to contribute to the ever expanding world of freshwater ecology, a gentle reminder that the balancing act of student life is worth the work it requires. With a summer in Iceland to look forward to and plenty of work to keep myself busy, I’m reassured that the decisions I’ve made have landed me right where I wanted. 
And of course, in the Cross Lab, safety is #1.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Passing It On

Now that we're back from Iceland (by the way, we're back from Iceland!), we can finally think beyond the Hengill weather forecast for tomorrow. On Friday, E.O. Wilson came to MSU to help present the American Computer & Robotics Museum's E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Awards. During a question and answer session, a student asked Dr. Wilson how to get people to care about biodiversity, even when it doesn't provide any direct benefit to the person. Dr. Wilson's response? "Three words: education, education, education."

At that point I was feeling pretty good about myself, since it just so happens that I spent most of Friday knee deep in a creek, getting middle schoolers interested in stream bugs. Here's a secret: it's actually pretty easy. Throw some waders on them, hand them a net, and make sure they don't wade into a deep pool. Then step back and let them explore.

"Who wants to hold a bug?" Just about everyone.

Many of them were amazed how easy it was to find life in the stream, especially once I pointed out that all those "sticks" were caddisfly cases. Notable catches of the day included a cranefly larvae as big around as my pinkie, a crayfish, and one very confused sucker. But the real highlight was seeing a bunch of kids get excited about a world they hadn't known was there.

Future stream ecologists?

The aftermath: well worth it!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Assuring our immortality

Our intrepid film crew has arrived! Meet Dennis Aig and Hans Glasmann - both a bit bleary-eyed from the jetlag, but in good spirits. Dennis is the director of the School of Film and Photography at Montana State University and has many years of experience on a very wide rage of projects (check out his upcoming film: "Unbranded" at:  Hans is a 3rd year MFA student in the Science and Natural History Filmmaking program at MSU. You can check out some of his work here:

Over the next week or so, their plan is to capture footage, imagery, interviews, etc. of our science team in action. We're looking forward to a fun trip. . . stay posted!

Monday, June 22, 2015

International Science and the lovely Stofan Cafe in downtown Reykjavik

It's rare that we get the opportunity to work closely with so many talented students and scientists (and student scientists!) from around the world. Our Hengill research is making this a reality. Here is a great shot of MOST of our broader team this summer (with the exception of Jill Welter and Jon Benstead, standing behind the lens - and the rest of the Alabama crew back in Tuscaloosa [Alex and Phillip]) at the Stofan Cafe.

Lots of representation here - Ireland, England, USA, Germany, and Canada. Cheers to many more great times!!  . . and may most of our paychecks continue to support the Icelandic cafes!!

Cheers!  Sk├íl!

Friday, June 19, 2015

15N isotope releases completed successfully (woot woot!)

As previous posts have made clear, it was a slow and difficult start to the summer because of the weather, as well as problems getting the stream-side channels set up. The channels are now looking great but it all compounded to push the start of the planned 15N releases back by a few days. When we were finally ready, the weather did not look good. Finally, it looked like the rain might clear up, so we took the plunge - and it stayed dry for the entire 5-day period! Phew. The four simultaneous drips into streams 6, 9, 11 Upper and 18 and all the sampling went off without a hitch and the team just completed the first post-drip sampling. We're really excited to see where the 15N has ended up and where it will go over the summer. Watch this space.

Here are the pumps in the four streams, going from coldest (~5C) to warmest (~13C).

Three dweebs

Jon, Wyatt and Jill looking very proud of their Icelandic sweaters. Wonder how many team members wearing "lopapeysur" we can get in a picture...

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Hengill Landscape, According to Hilary

Hengill is a land of the sublime in every sense of the word. During the height of the Romantic period, artists across Europe and America were painting landscape works of art to show the awesome power of the landscape and humanity’s submission to the will of nature. Depictions of towering mountains or dramatic lighting across the plains add to the sublimity. All of this was to contrast with the familiar in pastoral works depicting rural communities or familiar places. In the case of Hengill, the sublime is apparent in the harsh conditions and the volcanic activity.

Boiling hot springs and warm, steaming fumaroles (that’s where much of the rotten eggs smell comes from), and recent lava fields across Hengill are just a few of the traits that show the environment’s power and might. The volcanic center of the earth is literally shaping the environment in new and majestic ways.

Furthermore, the dramatic lighting of a sublime scene inspires terror and awe in the viewer. Iceland has lighting in spades. While we are here in the summer it never truly darkens which could give the illusion of a friendly environment. But the midnight sun illuminates the volcanoes on the horizon and the jagged rocks formed when a volcano erupted under a glacier holding all the ash underneath. Some of the landscape may be covered with soils and mosses, but the volcanic origin of the island reawakens the memory of Mount Eyjafjallajokull which shut down air traffic in the whole region, far beyond the boundaries of Iceland.

But that’s all at the macro scale. What about the microscale sublimity? Just think about the diversity of organisms that exist in Hengill streams. We are capitalizing on the wide temperature gradient of streams to look at the diversity of organisms from bacterial to bugs but it’s incredible to think about the diversity that separates streams that distinguishable by temperature variation alone. Then there are also the various bacterial communities using sulfur as an energy source instead of photosynthesizing like plants. That’s a completely different energetic pathway compared to everything that grew to make your salad!

I love the romantic perspective, but in our modern age there are emerging post-romantic and the technological sublime. Now is there a way we can quantify the sublimity of nature? We are doing our best, looking at stoichiometry, nutrient cycling, populations, and communities in these streams to see if we can predict into the future what the fate of streams may be in the event of changing temperatures. In the meantime, I believe it’s pretty sublime to be invited out to Iceland to partake in a small share of investigating the Hengill streams.