A little late on the report for this one, but I recently got back from Portugal. Portugal! The warm, sunny Iberian peninsula.

For some reason it had never occurred to me to go to Portugal before. On my list of things to do in Europe, this wasn’t on it. No offense, Portugal: neither were a lot of other typical tourist things. But when my masters classmates and I were planning out our “winter school”, we had one primary criterium: cheapness. After that we were divided between whether we should go somewhere typically wintery and play in the snow, or go south. South won, and after a heated debate between Greece and Portugal, we ended up in Lisbon.

It was great!

My friend Lore and I built in an extra two days to be able to explore and do touristy things. We hit all the famous monuments, the gardens, big churches, and wandered the twisty, hilly streets of the old city. It was awesome. The first day, we arrived to our beautiful hostel right near Barrio Alto (Lisbon Calling; the rooms are beautifully designed, the beds comfortable, and the price cheap: an amazing community which will forever make other hostels seem depressingly inadequate), and wandered up the hill.

We got a “refresco” at a kiosk in the square; we sat at the foot of a huge statue. We ate petiscos, the Portuguese version of tapas, at Taberna da Rua das Flores. Holy cow, were they good. Lore doesn’t really like fish that much, but she was brave and ate them anyway – even more remarkable because it was mostly raw. But the flavors! Sort of fusion, but a little bit of tradition. The first dish we had was some kind of small herring-like thing, raw with a sauce and sesame seeds and seaweed. I’ve never liked pickled herring but I was floored at how good it was (and the seaweed too, yum!). I’m on a student budget and basically never eat out these days, so maybe the food seemed even more remarkable to me. It had just been a few hours in Lisbon, but we were already pretty sure we loved this city.

We slept well in our beds, woke up to a lovely Portuguese breakfast included in the hostel’s room fee, and set off toward Belém, west of the city of Lisbon proper. There, first we tried the famous pastéis de Belém, some pastries which I can’t even describe other than scrumptious. They were warm out of the oven; the line out of the pastryshop extended around the corner. Not even in Paris have I seen such a queue for a pastry. And, dusted with cinnamon, we soon found out why.


We spent several hours exploring a large Hieronymite mosastery, then wandering through some gardens, past a large monument to Portugal’s explorers, and up to the Tower of Belém. I’m fascinated by old things: we don’t have many of them where I come from. The Abenakis lived in our part of New Hampshire, and they don’t leave behind big monuments (which, of course, is actually better in a number of ways….). The first European settlers arrived in my little town of Lyme in 1764. We have a few very old houses, but nothing like this. While my town was a little collection of settlers and farmers trying to scrape by, Portugal was the richest empire in the world. (okay, well, it was a little past its prime in the late 1700s, but still)

I got to see that. It was cool.

Everything was beautiful. Everything was sunny. It was a perfect day.













I had been working quite hard before I left for winter school, and was really still working there: while I waited for Lore to arrive that first day, I had been busily typing away. In Sweden alone, we have one paper which has come back from review (and to which we must, of course, make huge changes), one which we are finalizing with co-authors, and one for which I’ve done about half the analysis and none of the writing. I’m also finally turning my Switzerland thesis into a manuscript. Plus, money is getting tight and I’m trying to apply for more grants (do you know of any small grants for graduate students? please!? I’m getting desperate!!).

So to walk along in the sun with Lore leaving all of our cares behind us – I can’t even explain how good that felt.

It felt good.

After our Belém sightseeing it was 2 p.m. and we were starving, so we were forced to stop and grab lunch at a touristy cafeteria and while not exactly disappointing, it was overpriced and nothing compared to our meal the night before. We headed into Lisbon proper and explored a bit in Baixa/Chaido, and bought gelato and sat looking at the river. Nice.

Then: we met up with my friends Marta and Gonçalo! They started the masters with us in Uppsala so many months ago, and Marta was one reason I was really excited to move back to Uppsala. I actually lived with her in January. They took us to a miradouro, basically a nice park up on a hill overlooking the city. Classmates Min Ya and Berenice soon arrived from the airport and joined us. We sipped beer and relaxed and were so happy to be together.

together by bere

Ah so happy!! (l-r) Lore, Marta, me, Min Ya, and Bere. Photo from Bere’s camera.

I’m all for sightseeing, but I found out what people really do in Lisbon: they relax and sit in miradouros with their friends. There are no laws against public drinking. It’s a lovely, lovely way to spend an afternoon. At some point a few days later, I stopped being so set on running all over the city to see this cool thing or that, and realized that hey, maybe we should take this message to heart, and stop and sit and relax and enjoy ourselves somewhere with a nice view and a glass of wine.

Man, this is getting long. The next day, winter school itself started. We moved to Quinta Sao Pedro, a lovely estate across the river, and it was more like a retreat.  It was a very productive session: we all workshopped the introductions of our theses, which was super helpful. The next day we worked on figures, each presenting three from our papers and getting feedback on what we did well, what we didn’t do well, and how our visual representation of our data could be improved. In another session we worked on our CV’s, comparing notes and how to organize things. It was, in all honestly, a much more useful and helpful experience than I thought winter school would be.

hard at work. photo: Lore Ament.

hard at work. photo: Lore Ament.

We did other things. We went to the beach, and to the aquarium. We ate a lot of good food. We drank a lot of beer and wine, and I fell further in love with Portugal’s vinho verde. We went to a fado house and listened to great music as we ate dinner.

message from bere

Our message for the half of our classmates who decided not to come to winter school. You lose, suckers!! Photo: Berenice Villegas.

group photo jump from bere

Photo: Berenice Villegas.

group photo from bere

Photo: Berenice Villegas.

Looking west. MEMEs from across the ocean (l-r): Brazil, Mexico/USA, just USA, and just Mexico. Photo: Berenice Villegas.

Looking west. MEMEs from across the ocean (l-r): Brazil, Mexico/USA, just USA, and just Mexico. Photo: Berenice Villegas.

beach relaxing from bere

phew. Arash and me relaxing. Photo: Berenice Villegas.

beach photo bere

photo: Berenice Villegas.

sunset bere

Sunset on the beach. Photo: Berenice Villegas.

In the end, almost everyone left. Min Ya, Lore and I stayed a little longer, and went to a beautiful botanical garden in Principe Real. We could have stayed there forever exploring.

DSCN1360 DSCN1363 DSCN1372 DSCN1393 DSCN1401

And then, after another night in the hostel and a morning sitting by the river soaking up the sun, Lore and I left too.

Getting home was a nightmare. Fuck Air France.

I’m left with nothing but happy memories of Lisbon, and I can’t wait to go back again. I can’t believe that I had never known how obvious a place this was to go visit. Go! visit it!

I’m back to work, back typing away at all those papers, but I feel quite a bit better after a week in a totally different place.




I’m excited to announce that I have a new paper in print! It is about the cushion plant Silene acaulis and responses to simulated climate change in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. My supervisor, Juha Alatalo, is the first author and organized the experiments, and I had the opportunity this winter to do the data analysis and help with the paper writing. I also went through the process of responding to the reviewer comments and fixing up the paper for final publication. Now it’s out! At SpringerPlus, which is an open-access journal so everyone can read it for free.

Check it out here or download a PDF!

It is funny because I didn’t help with the fieldwork at all on this paper. BUT…. my housemate Quim from the summer in Davos was working on Silene and I helped him for a day in the field. So I do actually know what the plant looks like at least and a little bit about it! Working on Silene can take you to places like this:


Where you are out in the big open but staring at little tiny things (Quim on the right, my Switzerland supervisor Christian Rixen on the left):

quim silene

I will see some Silene acaulis in my own fieldwork coming up this summer.

And as it happens, Quim is visiting Uppsala right now for a meeting about his work! So I’m off to meet him now for a tour of the botanical gardens and a nice fika. It’s great to see old friends!

eventually this is a post about science.

Ten days ago, you would have found me sitting here in Davos moaning.

Something like: “But I don’t want to go to the Netherlands! It’s so flat! And all we’re going to do is drink for a week! Why do I have to leave this Swiss mountain paradise? Maybe I’ll pretend that I’m sick….”

It was time for the yearly Summer School in my masters program. The program itself is disparate – with five partner universities and students rarely spending two semesters in a row in the same place, we sometimes lose track of each other. Summer School seeks to remedy this sad side-effect of an otherwise unbeatable situation by bringing together the new students, the graduating students, and the cohort in between. That’s me. For a week, everyone meets at one of the universities for lectures, excursions, and thesis defenses.

My memories of the last edition, held in Montpellier, France, are hazy. Was it fun? Yes. But I was jet-lagged, my luggage was lost and only returned the last night of the program, and I was trying to put my best, most sciencey self forward so I could impress people. As a new student your first week of school, with two older cohorts and all the professors, is a bit nerve-wracking.

So as much as I wanted to see my friends, the prospects of a week like that seemed pretty dire compared to the Alps.

Here’s a reminder of what Switzerland is like, seen through the four days before I left. Thursday:

day 1


day 2


day 4

Nevertheless, I got on a plane to Amsterdam. After taking a train into the city, I met up with my dear friends Daniel and Inga and all of a sudden – bam! I could not be more happy to be in the Netherlands! I realized immediately that this was going to be an amazing week and that I would absolutely not regret coming.

We wandered around Amsterdam and I was amazed at all the canals, the markets, the narrow three-story buildings lining the waterfronts. We drank beer at a picturesque old wooden two-story bar that was listing to one side, about to fall into a canal; we ate piles of Chinese food at a greasy restaurant, and then got waffles. Somewhere along the way we picked up Min Ya, then found an amazing distillery. The chatty, comedic gay bartender who would ask you what types of flavors you liked, and then pick you out a glass of something that he thought would suit you. It always did.

Finally, we got on the 10 o’clock train and tried to stay awake all the way to our final destination, Groningen, a university city far in the north of the country. Checking into the hostel at 1 a.m., we assumed that everyone would be asleep – especially since we were arriving a day early and most people weren’t there yet. But as we walked up to the desk, we ran into Flora and Maryam, two graduating students. They were just grabbing dinner. Despite being exhausted, we sat down with them in the lounge and chatted for two more hours.

It was so great to see my schoolmates again! I filled with a warm, tired glow before passing out in the tiny hostel bed.

The next day, more of our cohort arrived. While the new students were off getting introduced to the program, we reveled in seeing each other again. We got coffee where Nikki works as a barista; Daniel, Min Ya and I tried the local specialty of raw herring rolled in raw onions; we all played pool, where Lore showed her prowess as a mathematician by understanding physics much better than all of us, and then went bowling, where everyone got a strike except for me.

Coming from Switzerland, I had the added bonus of feeling like I was queen of the world. For the first time in six weeks, I felt like I could go out to dinner. Everything was so cheap! I could order a million beers! I could choose whatever I wanted from the restaurant menu! Not only did the city offer infinitely more options and more to do than here in Davos, but I could afford to sample the options. This was the lap of luxury.

This happiness at social and financial freedom continued all week. In our eagerness to spend time together, we accepted every activity, every new idea. Not once did I go to bed before three in the morning. Once, tipsy, we were drawn to the fair downtown and strapped ourselves into a ride that ricocheted us back and forth on a giant pendulum, tumbling and spinning us upside down in the process. Another night we saw that the locals’ favorite bar had a good brand of Mezcal, so we drank the whole thing and told them to order four more for the next night. We played endless rounds of the game Jungle Speed.

But by Wednesday, we had more to do. School started. We listened to lectures – good ones and bad ones, featuring results or just professors imploring us to go forth, be fearless, and do a new kind of science. We listened to the new students introduce themselves one at a time, listing far more research projects and travel experience than we had had.

That was the first moment I got the feeling that I had better try harder: shit, these new kids are good. Get in the game, Chelsea.

Thursday was a pleasant excursion to a national park, and then Friday the graduating students defended their theses. They had been drinking and partying just as much, in fact almost always more, than we had all week. But they showed up to the presentations and told us about amazing projects. Many had traveled to cool places, but others had simply done lab work where they discovered something – actually discovered something. That’s pretty amazing for a six-month masters project.

While the older cohort had, for two years, been having a good time, they also had not been wasting their time. Many already had impressive PhD opportunities lined up. As I thought of trying to apply for a PhD while still finishing this program, shudders ran down my spine. How did they do it?

My friends and I found ourselves often turning to each other and muttering, “maybe this is a prestigious program after all.” Our three-month projects in Montpellier had been on the whole unimpressive, and we assumed that was how things would continue. But this gave us a new view: there was real science going on here, good science, and we had better avail ourselves of the opportunity.

(Or at least that’s how I felt. I can’t speak for the others.)

This could not have come at a better time. Davos is the perfect place for me in many ways, and I am living the dream with all of the mountains and hiking around me. I’m making the most of finally living back in a community where, like me, everyone is crazy about the outdoors – I’m the normal one, not the recipient of side-eye when I describe my weekend to my friends.

But my project is not going perfectly. Things weren’t set up quite right, which is a combination of my fault and my supervisor’s fault, and it’s creating a big headache for the analysis phase that is drawing ever closer. Fieldwork is all well and good, but soon I will have to buckle down and do some statistics. And how to do them? I’m about to walk into a nightmare.

Listening to the older students, though, it became clear that many of them also experienced significant (p < 0.05) difficulties with their projects. And yet they would say: if you like your project, then stick with it, push through, keep working. You can find a way to do it. And they did. They had results, they learned things.

It was a clear message for me that I need to put some time into finding away around my problems, and that my project still has a lot of potential to have some interesting and relevant findings. Will it be exactly what I imagined in my first interview? No. Definitely not. But that’s no excuse to half-ass things.

As I traveled back to Davos, I was exhausted. Usually my body protests after one night of staying out late and drinking. This had been a whole week. I struggled to stay awake; I lost my voice the next day, developed a sore throat and cough and fever.

But I had a newfound motivation when I walked back into the SLF lab. I am going to do this project right. I’m going to do my homework so I know how it fits in to what we know, and what we don’t know. I’ve already made a major decision about what kind of model to use for analysis. I had been paralyzed at the decision-making step, because I had no impetus to get moving – but now, one has been provided.

Summer School was a jump start. Sometimes you need to see a different set of people, listen to new ideas, hear about diverse experiences. We get stuck in our own heads and our own labs, but that isn’t always productive.

So, no more moaning. Long live the Netherlands!

a sense of community.

(l-r) me, Robyn, and Ewa getting our nerd on. photo: Marie-Eve Monchamp.

(l-r) me, Robyn, and Ewa getting our nerd on. photo: Marie-Eve Monchamp. other photos are mine unless otherwise noted; click to enlarge to better quality.

I recently returned from a weeklong evolutionary biology workshop in Guarda, a small village in the Swiss Alps. Now that I’m back, people are asking, did you learn a lot?

Well, yes. But that’s not exactly the point of the workshop. There’s an “armchair lecture” from a member of the staff every night after dinner, 45 minutes of speaking from the sofa with no powerpoint or visuals. Other than that, the workshop is about how to work together to develop scientific ideas, and it’s about the process of, well, thinking about science. I think that’s an incredibly important thing to work on, every bit as important as sitting in a classroom listening to lectures – if not more important.

And this style of workshop got me really excited about science after a long spring doing a project that really burnt me out in a country where there’s so much paperwork and administration that it’s sometimes hard to focus on research. No internet, no resources? At Guarda, you had to use your head and your logic to think about scientific questions. And it was really fun.

More than that, though, I was incredibly inspired by the people around me. Both the professors and the 26 students made up a very diverse group. It surprised me how much this meant to me since I am in an international masters program with students from all over the world. The whole point of my masters is to bring diversity and provide a wealth of different opportunities in various areas. But in MEME, I am one of the oldest students. With only a few exceptions, most of the students have come straight out of their universities. Yes, the academic experiences we have had are diverse, and the countries we come from are many, but there still seems to be, for the most part, one path towards a career in science: undergraduate, masters, PhD, beyond.

photo: Marie-Eve Monchamp.

photo: Marie-Eve Monchamp.

By contrast, look at the picture above. We’re all white, we’re all from Europe and North America. In that sense, not diverse. But these were the people I lived with in a flat for a week and we had an amazing wealth of experience. The photographer, Marie-Eve, is from Quebec. She went to culinary school and worked as a baker for a while. On the left is Lina from Switzerland, the only one to go straight through. Robyn, in the blue shirt, took time off to work some conservation jobs at home in England. Raphi, in black, owned a bar and managed ten employees before returning to science, and also works as a sound engineer for bands at live performances and helps run a music festival. Ewa studied pharmacology and started working at a community pharmacy for a few months before, as she likes to joke, “I knew that if I had to keep standing there handing out aspirin pills I would kill myself.” Instead, she’s now doing a PhD trying to find better model organisms with which to study the complex mental health diseases that appear in humans and have no analogs on which to test causes and treatments.

Then there’s me.

where should we go? photo: me.

where should we go?

Spending a week with these people was like a breath of fresh air and a sigh of relief at the same time. They were all so passionate about their research areas, and also just lot of fun to be with. One of the professors had studied music before becoming a computational biologist, and is an amazing cello player who was having a concert the day after the workshop ended. In Guarda, nobody judged you for not taking the straight path to a PhD. Instead, they appreciated what additional insight these life experiences might have brought you, or the fact that you must have returned to science because you were really motivated – after all, it would maybe have been easier to keep being a pharmacist, a bar owner, a baker…. a ski journalist…

So we worked hard on our projects all day, trying to reason our way through tough questions and find model organisms for our projects. We bashed heads, agreed to sorta-agree, moved on to the next step, started over again. It was exhausting. At lunch we would slink back to our flats for lunch and then head out into the mountains for the rest of the break, breathing in the cool alpine air and letting the endless diversity of floral shapes and colors inspire us some more.

The first lunch break was amazing. We still barely knew each other, but here we were, wandering around this paradise. It took me about five minutes the next morning to run the same distance that we made it up the trail that first lunchtime, because we spent so much time stopping and taking pictures. All around us was so much splendor, it was hard to keep moving.



Usually I think of hiking or walking as an opportunity to go some significant distance; I want to get exercise, and I take in the views at the pace of a run or walk. But I had absolutely no problem wandering off into a meadow and realizing 20 minutes later that I had barely moved.

IMGP1741Nevertheless, the next day we were determined to cover more ground, see more sights. We walked past the meadow that had diverted us the day before and climbed steeply up through the trees. It was sort of hard going, especially with the altitude, but the reward was that after not so much distance, we were already high above the village. We found a small pond and lingered for a few minutes. In one corner there was a nursery of tadpoles and we enjoyed watching them swim around frantically until the water seemed to be boiling every time a shadow passed over the water.

That day we did cover more ground. But there was a healthy dose of botanizing and naturalist-talk too. One of the things that was so fun about hiking with these other students was that so many knew something about plants or animals. There were birders and botanists. I was behind the curve trying to translate my knowledge of Rocky Mountain flora to Europe; sometimes I’d recognize a genus or a plant that looked to similar to something in Crested Butte that I would swear it must be the same species.

But few people were complete experts on alpine flora and fauna. Instead, they brought hefty volumes of Flora Helvetica and we would all gather round, peering over each other’s shoulders as we identify that purple orchid in the boggy part of the meadow. We’d see a beetle or a frog or a butterfly (or a dead mouse in the trail) and the default response was, how cool!

IMGP1708   IMGP1743



Curiosity was the theme of the week. That, and making the most of these new friendships that we had for the week – no internet to distract us, no e-mail to the outside world, just enjoying each other’s company on adventures both intellectual and alpine.

Barbecue above the village at the end of the week. photo: Christina Holm.

Barbecue above the village at the end of the week. Not every day do you stand around drinking beer with Stephen Stearns and Robert Trivers. photo: Christina Holm.

joyful hiking. photo: Raphi Sieber.

joyful hiking. photo: Raphi Sieber.

watching new friends make more new friends. photo: me.

watching new friends make more new friends. photo: me.

I'm pretty pleased (and the handbag is back). photo: Antoine Juigner.

I’m pretty pleased (and the handbag is back). photo: Antoine Juigner.

A Week in Montpellier.

I shamelessly stole this photo from my friend Min Ya’s facebook page. Thanks for taking photos, Minya! These are just a very few MEME (my program: people I met this week: me, Nikki and Kristel from the Netherlands, Daniel from Mexico and Portugal, Paul from the Netherlands, and Katie from England. All but Paul are newbies in the MEME masters program; when Daniel, Katie, and I head to Uppsala in a few days, Paul will be there finishing some things up to graduate and he will be able to show us around.

Before going on, I should explain a bit about my program. It’s evolutionary biology, which I’m really excited about. I’ve been an ecologist for all of my scientific “career” (HAHA) but I have realized that I find evolution really fascinating at a large scale. Okay, that isn’t anything new. What’s new maybe is that I also realized that knowing some genetic techniques would be really important to be able to answer some bigger, more interesting research questions, and also that having those skills will make me a much more competitive applicant for ecology jobs. So, evolutionary masters degree, here I come! Our program is two years, or four semesters, and you pretty much have to switch campuses (there are four main ones to choose from, or you can do an “external project” anywhere else as long as someone from one of the four universities signs on as a co-advisor) every semester, and attend at least two different schools. We will be traveling a lot.

In all, almost 50 students were in Montpellier for the week along with five or six or so coordinators. And they were all awesome! The biggest contingents were from the Netherlands, Colombia, and Mexico. I am the only American in my class but there are a few in the years above me, and a few Canadians too. Mostly, though, it’s people from other places. That’s already taught me things like…. in the U.S. college takes a year longer than everywhere else. Yet another reason I feel kind of old. There are two students in the year ahead of me who are actually 20 years old. They must be geniuses.

Our program was a combination of things for different people: orientation on the first day for us newbies, graduation on the last day for the oldest students, lectures and outings and a journal club in the middle for all of us. The first day was learning about the different campuses, what research opportunities there are, how we can fulfill all the various requirements from each university to get our two masters degrees (that’s right, I’m going to be a double-master when I am through with all of this). For each university, one of the coordinators gave a presentation and then a few students talked about what it was like to live there, what trips to go on during the weekends, how to find housing, and what to do in your spare time. At the end of each of the four university’s presentation I was convinced that THAT was where I wanted to go.

So: I am off to Uppsala, which sounds like it is definitely one of the favorite places of everyone who has been there. After that my tentative plan is to do spring in Montpellier, next fall in Munich, and then my final term back in Uppsala. But as the older MEMEs have told me, plans will change and evolve and mutate (ha!) a million times between now and then.

On day two, we had lectures by a few of the Montpellier faculty. All were interesting; my favorite one was by Sonia Kefi, who looks at patterns at the landscape level and what makes those systems resilient to change – or where the tipping point is in processes like desertification. I am thinking of how I can blend that with evolution to do a project, although there are also so many other interesting things in Montpellier I could work with (like Tour de Valas). You can see more about Kefi’s work at her website.

We also had presentations by all of us newbies about what we have done so far – both in science and in life. None of us were sure what to talk about. I put up some pictures of me skiing, which I think confused people (less so, though, than when they saw that I had my ski bag with me: “you are never going to have time to use those!”). Other people talked about where they’ve traveled, what their favorite movies are, or some things about their country. I learned that so many of my new classmates have already done amazing research, and been all over the world. We are a pretty cool group of people, if I do say so myself.

Then we went to Tour de Valat, which I wrote about. On the final day, a few of the graduating students defended their thesis projects. It was so interesting to see that they worked on – one was looking at using genetic sampling to estimate population size of primate communities, one at the evolution of trees depending on fire regime, another at the important of self-pollination in a plant community. Completely different topics, highlighting that we all have the ability to really do whatever research interests us. What is better than that!

Finally, we had a journal club – several groups of students were assigned to each of seven articles and had to present the papers to the rest of the group. All in all, this was a good way for me to ease back into school. I haven’t been in school for three years. I’ve read papers and helped edit them in our lab in Oregon, but it is one thing to look at how a paper is written when you know everything about the project was about and how everything was done beforehand. It’s something else to read about an experiment you are completely unfamiliar with – sometimes completely, if it’s modeling or genetics – and parse everything out. That I haven’t done as much in the last few years.

Most fun, of course, was getting to know the other students. Every night we would sit outside our dorm rooms and just talk and drink wine. It is such a fun group of people! We are going to have a really good time in the next two years. It reminded me of my freshman year of college, when you automatically and instantly make friends with people and are inseparable. Because we were all fairly bewildered – only two of the incoming students had ever been to Montpellier before – we moved as a herd, fifteen-strong, wandering to the supermarket, cafes, the campus, back home. One night all fifty of us were supposed to go have a picnic on the beach but we missed the bus, so there was a long straggling line of us walking the 20 minutes along the road to get to Carnon. I’m sure it was a sort of funny sight.

It is sad that we are splitting apart and heading off to campuses all over Europe and even America (a few second-year students are going to Harvard for the fall), but I love the people who will be in Uppsala with me, and we will see some people again at a winter school in January. And we’ll visit each other. The absence will make it more exciting when we re-shuffle to different campuses in the spring, too – we will get to see people for the first time in several months.

What is climate science, after all?

So I am done with the conference in Seattle, and it left me thinking about climate science. What are people really doing when they study climate change? What is useful for people who are not scientists – that is, managers, policy-makers, and voters?

There was a lot of great stuff at the conference, but there were also quite a few presentations that were just not my cup of tea. I had predicted that the conference would be a 50/50 mix of on-the-ground science and modeling. Well, I’d say that only about 15 percent of the presentations included actual empirical data that the researchers had collected themselves. Bummer.

It’s not just that I felt out of place in a sea of modelers, but worse than that, I wasn’t entirely sure that I supported so much money and effort being devoted to making computer models. I think there is a place for them, definitely; it is amazingly helpful to be able to predict what will happen in the future, and without models, we would have no way of communicating to the public why, exactly, climate change is going to be bad.

But listening to presenters stand up and present slightly different models of the same thing, using the same data, made me wonder if this was really helping. Instead of competing to see who could make the best model and endlessly tweaking it, couldn’t all these modelers work together, make one good model, revisit it periodically, and devote the rest of the resources to observing what is actually happening.

I discussed this with both Laurel, the postdoc who is my boss, and Scott, the professor who is her boss.

“Modeling is what helps managers,” Scott said  (or something like that). “You show them our data, and they go, well what am I supposed to do with that?”

But in my mind, the response shouldn’t be to show them some computer-generated numbers instead. What was a little disappointing about the conference was that the modelers and the ecologists didn’t seem to have come together in a lot of cases. The models were of temperature and water flow, and were being used to predict, well, weather and flooding, for the most part. But you would think that those climate models could dovetail with on-the-ground science to give us a better clue about how to care for our ecosystems.

There were a couple presentations which were spot on. Dr. Kevin McKelvey of the Rocky Mountain Research Station talked about his work on wolverines. McKelvey and his colleagues had noticed that the wolverines only denned in places where there was year-round snowpack, and hypothesized that the animals also only traveled through these corridors. They did some modeling and some work with radio transmitters, and found that this was true. Then, they thought, how is this going to affect the wolverines when the climate changes? So they found a modeler, made a map of the places where wolverine habitat would be in the future, and bingo, you have data that can help manage wolverine populations.

That’s the kind of work I want to do! Maybe. I’m not sure. But if I keep doing ecology, I want to see more projects like this. It just makes sense – and shouldn’t be limited to wolverines. (Although they are certainly interesting: here’s an article about McKelvey’s work in High Country News.)

Another really interesting presentation, I thought, was by Tobias Kock of the U.S. Geological Survey. Kock studies salmon, and talked about how the downstream migration of salmon through dams will be affected by climate change. In the river where he was doing his research, there is one of the tallest dams in the country, and salmon can’t get around it; if they go through the turbines of the upstream dam, they end up as landlocked salmon in a large reservoir above the tall one, stuck forever. Amazingly, the dam operators have installed a fish catchment system below the upstream dam, and they drive the fish they have caught to below the downstream dam where they can then swim their way out to the sea.

Because catching the fish is a pain in the butt and driving them around is expensive, the fish-catching system isn’t operated year-round, but rather only when the yearling salmon are migrating for a few months in the summer. Kock looked at how many smaller fish get washed through the dam in high-flow situations in the winter (hint: it can be a lot) and suggested that managers in the future might switch priorities and use the catchment system in the winter as more and more extreme weather events come to the northwest. He also suggested adjusting the system so it could catch the smaller fish, which it currently doesn’t do well at.

Again: pretty cool stuff, and useful for wildlife managers!

I found some of the pure modeling/statistics talks interesting, too – for instance, one mapping household water use in Portland by neighborhood – but overall, there were just too many of them. I wanted to see more presentations like these two, or the ones that Scott and Laurel gave about our project.

Overall, I was really glad I went to the conference – besides seeing some interesting science, I got a reality check about what climate science really is these days, and where all of the research money is going. As an ecologist, that’s a little sobering, but it’s good to know.

The best part of the trip? Having dinner and ice cream with my old housemate Liz Embick! It was so fun to see her, so exciting, and I didn’t want to say goodbye. Hopefully we’ll see each other again soon!

Because while we know that climate change is taking place – quickly – we still don’t know, necessarily, how the world is going to change in response. We have theories, some of them supported by data and others less so. But it’s really hard to convince people to

Working on the Beach (updated).

My exit from Craftsbury was abrupt, much more abrupt than I meant it to be. After looking for jobs for the month-and-a-half after I decided to leave the Green Racing Project, with little success, I had decided to move back in with my parents for the spring while I continued to search for employment.

Then, my life took a U-turn. On a Friday, I applied for a research technician job with the University of Florida. I was interviewed over the phone the next day and by Monday had a job offer. I had less than a week to tie up loose ends in Craftsbury and move out, and then I drove down to Florida.

(And for the haters: the 1998 4-Runner got 22 miles per gallon, on average, over the course of the more than 1,400 miles I drove. Not so bad.)

So here I am, working on the beach in Navarre, Florida, studying the Santa Rosa beach mouse.

Every day we leave our cars at the Navarre Beach State Park and walk fifteen minutes along the beach until we come to our first field site. At 7:15, it’s a beautiful walk: it’s still cool and breezy, the sun is still rising, and the morning light is soft and pink. I drink my Earl Grey as we stroll but the surroundings are more than enough to jolt me awake.

Work so far is pretty much manual labor, but then again, fieldwork often is. Theoretically, we are looking at the foraging behavior of beach mice. Practically, we spend eight hours each day planting experimental plots of broom sedge in the sand.

My boss is awesome – she served in the Peace Corps after college and her last batch of fieldwork was in Bolivia. I am lucky to be working for someone who is happy to discuss the particulars of the study with me, and to explain how she selected an experimental design and all the nuances of what we are doing.

That interaction and education always makes it worthwhile to provide the legwork on a study like this. I’m not treated like a nobody; I’m treated like someone who also has a stake in whether the research works out. As such, I’m privy to a lot of the details.

Plus, we have to talk about something while we’re planting all that broom sedge.

Another fun part of the job is that our free housing is in a FEMA trailer in a trailer park. It still has its official U.S. Government plates on it, leading our neighbors to joke that we work for the CIA. Nope. We’re just beach mouse workers, hoping not to suffer from the formaldehyde that supposedly plagues these trailers. We spend a lot of time sitting at our picnic table outside.

So: it’s a pretty drastic change from New England. Exactly a week ago, I was skiing with Jennie Brentrup at Oak Hill. Now I’m watching people waterski as I work. Wow.