That’s a wrap, folks. In just a few hours the clocks will strike midnight and for the next several weeks I’ll write the incorrect year on every document I sign.
This week my computer has been busy running a very long genetic analysis. Notice I say my computer was busy- it took about five minutes for me to start the analysis, but it’s going to take close to two weeks for my computer to churn out the results. And, while new and upgraded, my computer doesn’t have enough oomph for me to run other programs while genetics voodoo happens in the background. Luckily, this was just a trial run. Eventually I’ll have to do a much more extensive analysis that will take even longer to run. I can’t wait.
I’m always a little nostalgic on New Year’s Eve. Sure, I could be wishful and think about all my resolutions for 2017. But, let’s be honest. Those are empty promises. I won’t read or vacation more, it’s unlikely I’ll get back to running a 10k a week, and I just don’t have the self-control to be less grumpy. But, 2016 still holds some magic. It’s like a story where the last line is about to be inked and the chapter closed. We survived another one, and there’s no better way to spend this day than retelling the story of 2016 with some pictures I never got to share.
If I’m telling I story, I think it needs a title, and I think “Wayward Wanderer” captures the essence of 2016 pretty well. I traveled. A lot. And I didn’t have any idea what I was doing most of the time.
In January I was finishing a three-month stint in West Virginia where I was collaborating with the USGS Leetown Science Center. Using their experimental stream lab, we were mimicking climate change to see how individual fish differed in their response to rapid increases in stream temperature. I’ll report on those data eventually, but suffice to say fish aren’t swimming robots and do react much differently from one another. We are exploring the data to see if we can figure out if some fish are predictably better than others at tolerating increases to temperature, but it will be awhile before we get that data.
While in West Virginia I got snowed in under 43 inches of snow, and then less than a week later I was on a plane headed for Panama City, Panama. I volunteered to help someone else in my lab with their fieldwork, which entailed a six-week trip to the rainforest. I can still remember sitting on the plane, taking off from Richmond, Virginia thinking to myself “what have I got myself into.”
And, to this day, I still don’t really know what I go myself into. I’ve done a lot of field work, but nothing prepared me for that experience. Hiking miles upstream to remote sample sites that few people in this world had ever seen, spying on howler monkeys, getting surprised by boars while collecting data, and of course the snakes. So many snakes. It felt like a real life nature documentary. But, it wasn’t just about the science. I was living along the Panama Canal in a small neighborhood shared among canal workers and a handful of other American scientists who are some of the most intelligent and fun people I’ve ever interacted with. Some days were spent roaming the streets of Panama City trying to remember enough Spanish to order food and find my way around. It was an experience that will no doubt rank among the most memorable times I had while in graduate school.
Leaving Panama was bittersweet. After six weeks I had grown a little tired of watching out for dangerous creatures (I came within inches of stepping on a fleur de lance, one of the most venomous snakes in South America, and had a caiman lunge at me from the banks), and I was there at the height of the Zika scare. Someone on my field crew even contracted the disease, and I was working on a species of fish that feeds on mosquito larvae. But, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the cultural and social experience. Plus, as long as I was there, I didn’t have to worry about my own pending field season.
But, all good things must come to an end and in mid-March I boarded a plane back to the United States, spent an unexpected night with the pigeons of the Newark airport (seriously, Newark, get it together), and then finally got back to State College. I had a little over a month to apply for permits, finalize field sites, organize crews, buy supplies, etc. And, within hours of getting back to the office, we were awarded a grant to work on the gene expression project that is now showing early promising results. So, I also needed to work on my poker face, because I had no idea was I was doing. Like, zero clue. I had never done telemetry or tissue sampling, had no real idea how the fish were going to behave, nor, honestly, did we know if the fish would survive everything we were doing to them. While I had a long list of people that could provide guidance with a few pieces of the puzzle, I felt the pressure to make it work.
And I did. Usually. Telemetry officially started in early May and for seven months I felt like I was making it up at I go. But, as normally happens, the things you stress out about the most turn out to be the things that aren’t that difficult. Tagging and sampling? Psss…a breeze. And the fish survived. But, tracking every day? That turned out to be a bit harder. It shouldn’t have been a surprise; field work is a long string of judgement calls that can make or break your entire project. The longer you are in the field, the more of those calls you have to make. No pressure, right? Things like should I wait the rain out, is it really too dark to keep going, are flows too high to wade, should I dig after this tag that seems to be moving in the bank? There’s a fine line between good data collection and stupid data collection, and it takes practice to find it, flirt with it, and ultimately make good calls. While I have a few years under my belts, I always feel guilty and think I could have done more or better.
Ultimately, the biggest hurdle with telemetry was the mental game needed to stay engaged and committed. I walked the exact same streams every day tracking the same fish, often to the same exact spot. Every day. For seven months. But we made it- through dropped tags, harsh weather, wildlife encounters, human encounters, and broken bones. And, I think we got a great dataset. And, now that I’m on the other side of the hurdle, I think back to all the times I was standing beside the stream, tired and wanting to call it a day, but took a deep breath and continued on. Stubbornness is one of my best properties, and it helped that Savannah, Dan, and David kept me entertained.
During telemetry I basically lived in Loyalsock where phone service is non-existent and internet is sparse. It made communication difficult, particularly in summer when I was working on publishing a manuscript (which was finally accepted, woohoo!). But, as an upside, it’s a great way to disconnect and motivation to work hard during the day to guarantee an early bedtime. But, I was still largely living out of a suitcase. I think I packed in November 2015, and it wasn’t until September 2016 that I fully unpacked, bought perishables from the grocery store, and enjoyed a full week at my apartment. Even then, I was still making regular trips to Loyalsock, a 4-hour roundtrip commute, so I was still a stranger to the office.
Telemetry season ended in November, and since then it’s been more travel, only this time to spend holidays in Virginia with my ‘research assistant.’ As the year comes to a close, we are working hard to analyze and publish data for the genetics of brook trout in Loyalsock. Where will we go after that? Your guess is as good as mine.
Finally, perhaps motivated by lack of communication and entertainment this summer, but mostly interactions with interested anglers and citizen scientists, I started this website in June. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I can say the response has been far more receptive than I imagined. In less than six months this website has gotten nearly 17,000 views. Most importantly, it has connected me to people with questions about stream ecology, organizations like Trout Unlimited, news stations, and other academics. I also received an award for scientific communication. So, thanks to all of you for joining me on this ride, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes us in 2017.
So, did I earn my paycheck this year?