Monday, January 5, 2009

The glamour of marine biology

When people ask what I do, I sometimes tell them I am a "marine biologist". There is a certain glamour to it, at least in the public eye. Sadly, sometimes, I am just too tired to answer the more truthful "evolutionary biologist" and risk incurring the wrath, judgement, and "breathtaking inanity" of a brainwashed anti-evolutionist.

Once, I was collecting sludge in Half Moon Bay, California, in an attempt to find Euphilomedes ostracods. A group of 10 or so girls, about aged 11 or so, were having a picnic nearby on the beach with 3 or 4 or their moms. The gaggle of young girls soon came running over toward me, yelling girlishly, and separately..... "Are you a marine biologist????". I paused. I looked down at my sludge, and my wet suit, and then threw out my chest slightly, and lowered my voice, "Why, yes, I am a marine biologist". I had just gotten a shrimp in my sieve, flopping around, and I showed it to them. For that one shining moment, I felt like a rock star.

But my type of marine biology usually has far less fanfare, and far more sludge. Case in point is my most recent collecting expedition. I am curretly in Boston at the SICB conference, having a great time. Given the proximity to the famous marine lab Wood's Hole Oceanographic Inst., I thought I would make a quick trek there to collect a mystacocarid crustacean. These are tiny animals that live on beaches in between sand grains, below the surface of the beach. They are close to my main study group, ostracods, and mystacocarids lack any eyes, given their lifestyle of living several cm under the beach. Do they have genes for vision? I'd like to answer this question, but I need live animals to answer it. My quest to find them fully lacked glamour.

It started with a tragedy of errors. There was a problem with my hi-tech amphibious vehicle. Oh wait, I mean my rented Nissan Sentra from Dollar Rent-a-car. Who knew that there was a 209 Cambridge St. and a 209 E. Cambridge street within a few miles of each other in Boston? Who knew I would trek to the wrong one and find not a Dollar Rent a Car, but an abandoned flower shop? Who knew that I'd go all the way back to my hotel to find out the problem before going back to find the amphibous vehicular remotely operated submarine.... I mean Sentra?

Given my very late start, I'd be lucky to get to the beach in Wood's Hole before dark. It's an hour and a half drive from Boston. Given that I scribbled down driving directions on paper, luck would not help me. Hwy 28 is where I needed to be - but I crossed it earlier than my scribbled directions suggested. I made the choice to get on 28 right away, but it was slow, painfully slow. Had I followed my directions, I'd have found Interstate 495 and taken that in a much faster way, before finally hitting 28 again. Then there was the bridge that was under repair. But mostly, I was ill prepared.

I finally found the beach in question. A place that was sampled for mystacocarids, near the place that these enigmatic crustaceans were first discovered. I parked my amphibious marine vessel - I mean Sentra. It's January. The wind was howling and the sun had already set. Collecting these animals involves pounding PVC pipes into the beach to obtain cores of sand. But the cold made the pipes brittle, and they broke on the small rocks. I persevered, fighting the howling wind, and my frozen hands. It's times like these I take solace in the fact that I feel like a dedidated biologist. Glamour be damned.

I brought the buckets of sand back to the car and back to my hotel. Cheap bucket, $4. Rented Sentra $38. Hauling buckets of beach into the Boston Waterfront Westin - priceless.

I haven't yet found the mystacocarids in the sample. There is still more sand to look through under the scope set up in my room. But I am not optimistic.

Marine Biology. Frolicking with dolphins in azure Carribean seas? No. Marine Biology: Fighting howling winds and frozen hands, only to come up empty.

Until next time!


Frank Anderson said...

At least you live near an ocean. I also sometimes call myself a marine biologist rather than an evolutionary biologist (and if I really want to be evasive, I'll say "systematist" or "phylogeneticist")...but I've now lived in Illinois for almost ten years!

I last saw an ocean in...the summer of 2007. Pathetic.

Todd Oakley said...

Frank (Andy) - Yes, I can't complain about location. We have a nice view of the Pacific from my lab....

Edward said...

Todd: Could you drop me an email edward-at-fieldofscience[dot]com. I'd like to invite you (and your blog) to join the glamorous

Frank Anderson said...

Yes, I can't complain about location. We have a nice view of the Pacific from my lab....

Well, see, there you lose. You just have an ocean -- I have a nice view of our communications building, a street and a bunch of currently leafless trees. Once in a while a large red-tailed hawk swoops low over our building and roosts in those trees, though, so I can't complain too much.

And it could be worse. I didn't even have an office window until a few years ago!

Bjørn Østman said...

Todd. Tagged. Traction.

Mona Albano said...

One word: sunblock. Or you'll look like a fisherman.

If you know the people over at EEB, please tell them that their comment mechanism is broken: it demands that you type a word but doesn't display it. Tnx.

Eric Heupel said...

Did you ever find the mystacocarids?

Just down the road (figuratively) and always looking for an excuse to dig up their beaches!

Adux said...

Glamorous, eh? I never found it to be glamorous. I used to have a cartoon in my office of a chap feeding a dolphin. The dolphin had a thought bubble that read: "Twelve years of college just so you can feed me my lunch. Your parents must be so proud, Mr. Marine Biologist." :)
Then there's the joke about the young woman who walks by a lily pond. A talking frog jumps out at her and says: "Miss, I'm under a spell. If you kiss me I will turn back into a my human form and I promise I'll take care of you forever."
"What do you do for a living?" asks the woman.
"I'm a Marine Biologist."
The young woman grabs the frog, stuffs him in a bag and says: "You're worth more as a talking frog." :)