Susan B. Anchovy: the story of a whitefish

When you study fish in Alaska, you may find yourself covered in slime. During one slime-intensive day, Duncan Green and his field assistant were wading in knee-deep ocean 200 feet offshore. They looked back to see a polar bear perched on the bed of the truck, sniffing around for helpless terrestrial mammals covered in delicious fish goo. In reality, the bear was probably just checking out the truck, but Duncan had to call for someone to drive out and scare the bear away before they could head back in. Just another day in the life of Duncan Green, fish biologist!

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At the end of an exciting 2017 field season, 220 fish, including the illustrious Susan B. Anchovy and Edgar Allen Cod, were live-shipped on ice from the North Slope to the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. Duncan studies broad whitefish (Coregonus nasus), an Arctic Alaskan species that is an important subsistence food for coastal villages like Kaktovik, Nuiqsut, and Utqiaġvik. Although it is well known that the Arctic is warming faster than other parts of the planet, it is not well understood how ecosystems will respond to this change. To add one small piece to this big puzzle, Duncan is investigating how warming waters may influence whitefish growth rates. Will Susan and Edgar grow big and healthy in warmer waters? Or might they be stressed by an environment that’s just too hot, inhibiting growth? Time, and the data, will tell.

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Duncan is a well-rounded man. Beyond his identity as an aspiring fishy scientist, he is also a fat-tire biker (completed the White Mountains 100, a human-powered race through Alaska’s Interior), makes a mean pizza cake (fourteen layers of frozen pizza and pizza rolls, baked all together and topped with cream cheese frosting), and also ice fishes for fish for food. Itching to hear a classic cinematic monologue? Duncan delivers a moving recitation of Quint’s “Indianapolis” speech from the 1975 film Jaws. In short, Duncan is a most colorful person and adds a lot of life to any potluck, field expedition, or fish-naming production.

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P in streams

I work with some incredible grad students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Today, I’d like to highlight research led by Sophie Weaver, a student in the Biology & Wildlife department.

When asked about her research, Sophie likes to say she studies “P in streams.” Sophie is investigating how differences in nutrient availability might affect the growth of the organisms that make up the green scum, or microbial skins, that one slips on when crossing a stream. Besides phosphorus (the “P” in her descriptive quip), she also works with nitrate, ammonium, and acetate.

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Sophie with her little blue cups.

After adding various nutrients to little blue cups, she launches them in her research streams. Post-incubation, she collects the cups to measure the abundance of autotrophs (critters that produce their own energy) and heterotrophs (critters that, like us, consume delicious things to produce energy). The ratio of autotrophs to heterotrophs can tell her something about how nutrients impact green scum composition. This research is important because stream microorganisms directly influence water quality and ecosystem function.

Sophie conducts her research at the Caribou-Poker Creeks Research Watershed (CPCRW), a pristine watershed located about thirty-five miles northeast of Fairbanks. Rumor has it that Sophie and her labmates been known to pursue the other wonders of CPCRW besides what fuels green scum growth, from chilling ciders in wee arctic streams to stripping down, jumping in, and cooling off on a “hot” Alaskan summer day.

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To stay or to go: making the decision

In revisiting my academia to industry series, I’ve decided to write down some of the advice I’ve given in response to questions from those in academia since starting my job in industry. The scariest part of leaving academia was the venturing into the unknown. I’m going to write down things I wish I had known before starting this adventure, and you’re welcome to come along.

The first step on the journey from one career path to another is making the decision to go. Sometimes this happens organically. I have a friend whose postdoc advisor left her faculty position to help found a biotech startup, and my friend followed her from the University to the real world. Another friend who met someone at an academic conference and was offered a position in industry. These transitions happened seamlessly.

For me, it was a monumental decision that took me over a year to make, and another year to implement.

It started with an inkling, “I’m not sure I want to keep doing this.” I had started the career path towards the ivory tower with some basic understandings: I would never be wealthy, my choice of living locations would be limited, and I would work hard all the time. But I also saw some benefits in academia: I could pursue questions that I am interested in indefinitely. I could approach interesting ideas, and spend time collecting and analyzing data. I could hang out with people who are as passionate about biology as I am, indefinitely. And for a really long time that was enough. That was worth the sacrifices.

Until, gradually, it wasn’t.

When asked why I left, I have two answers: 1) death by 1000 cuts. I wanted to be able to pay off student loans, and live comfortably. I wanted to be able to work normal hours, with normal expectations of the jobs. I was really tired of being “required” to do things for which I was not being paid. And I wanted to be able to keep asking questions, and answering them with data, without having to constantly write grants begging for money. Finally, I wanted to stop worrying how we’re going to fund the lab, and paying for research out of pocket.  (I’m still paying off the costs of some of the experiments from my PhD).

And the second answer: 2) I was walking around London and realized I wanted a different life than the one I have. Hear me out. I have always been a big city girl, but through my academic career I kept moving from one small college town to another. I did my undergraduate, Masters, PhD and postdoc in relatively small cities and rural towns. I had to – I went where the job was. Where the research was. I don’t regret any of these decisions, but I was walking around one of my favorite cities in the world and I knew I wanted to be able to choose to live here. And that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That was the final cut. I still love biology, and this summer especially, I miss the field work. But I needed a life, in addition to a job. And I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to have that in the Ivory Tower, where working more hours and for more efforts than you will ever be paid is glorified and promoted.

But I also realized in that moment that I wasn’t going to just drop everything and leave (it’s not my style). So I started planning, finished up projects, did another full field season, and prepared. I’ll write about my preparation next week, but the decision to leave came gradually and then all at once. And it’s the first step to figuring out what’s next.

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The view from our field van/home during my last field season. No regrets, about then or now.

 

A bear and its forebears

The spectacled (or Andean) bear – which turns out to be more common around Machu Picchu than previously believed – is the only South American bear, found in the ranges of the Andes from Venezuela in the north to Peru and Bolivia in the south.

But the species isn’t unique just for being the only bruin on a huge continent: it’s also the sole remaining representative of a bear family that once encompassed some of the all-out most formidable mammals ever to exist.

Want to read more? Check it out here.

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The Best April Fool’s Joke

I am rarely aware of what the date is. Along with struggling to remember which is “right” and “left” this is one of my most basic flaws.

So I’m almost never aware when it’s April Fool’s Day, and when I read the tweet from Richard Lenski:

I was fooled. I’ll admit it. But then I read the post, and realized, while hilarious, he was kidding.

See follow up post for confirmation. 30-years, 70,000 generations and we’re just scratching the surface.

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Are Rats Innocent of Spreading the Black Plague?

A new study suggests that human parasites—like fleas and lice—and not rats, may be responsible for spreading the Black Death that killed millions of people in Medieval Europe.

A personal favorite infectious disease of mine is the plague, what a perfect confluence of infection agent (the bacteria Yersinia pestis), susceptible population (do you know what passed as cleanliness standards in medieval Europe?), and good environmental factors (over crowding).

But it turns out that rats, previously thought to be the main culprits of spreading the plague, may not be responsible for spreading the Black Death (also, GREAT name).

Want to know more? Read about it here!

 

 

Oldest fossil on earth?

The history of life on earth is fascinating, and largely one of the reasons I started studying evolutionary biology.

There is solid evidence of life dating back to 3.5 billion years, at which point the earth was a billion years old.

Last August, Dr. Van Kranendonk and his colleagues reported discovering fossils in Greenland that are 3.7 billion years old and were once mats of bacteria that grew in shallow coastal waters.

But then, a new study, published in the journal Nature, Mattew S.Dodd, Dominic Papineau and their colleagues at University College London studied rocks that are older.

They came from a remote geological formation in Canada called Nuvvuagittuq, which stretches across four square miles on the coast of Hudson Bay.Researchers have variously estimated its age at 3.77 billion years or 4.22 billion years — just 340 million years after the formation of the planet.

Want to read more? Check it out at the Washington post!

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Iron-rich chert, shown here in red, containing ancient fossils was formed near hydrothermal vents on an ancient seafloor, according to a new study.