Ice is slippery: We all fall down

I fall down a lot. This week, it was a epic fall-flat-on-my-face in front of lots of people after taking my chances on some exquisitely slippery ice. Last month, it was a trip induced tumble while crossing a teeny tiny little wood bridge near the end of a run. I’ve slipped down stairs in Nepal; I’ve made it through an entire Tough Mudder (literally the entire race) before falling face first in the mud two feet from the finish line; I’ve even forgot to clip out of my road bike and fallen over in the middle of a very busy intersection (bikers, you understand). But probably my most epic fall ever was not being accepted to graduate school the first time I applied.

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What I looked like falling on ice this week (people saw)

Receiving those graduate school rejection letters was hard. I had done everything I was supposed to: took extra classes, completed two research projects, worked in multiple labs, tutored other undergrads, but all of that experience (for reasons still a little unclear) wasn’t enough to get me where I wanted to be. Nothing was as embarassing as missing out on a dream I’d been working so hard for, especially a dream I was convinced I’d have no problem achieving. But still I fell.

If cliche quotes have taught me anything, it’s that getting up after a fall is everything. But even when it feels like the whole world just watched you smack your face into the cold, icy ground, it’s much easier to get back up after a physical fall than one that’s happened in your head. My own personal Inside Out mind characters probably looked a lot like the image below (Sadness obviously started touching things) when I got that last rejection letter. But up I had to go, and up I went (all the way, in fact, to a higher than mile high mountain town with one hell of a research university).

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Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear from Inside Out.

We all fall down. Some of us (hi mom), are masters of the hiking/running/oh-just-walking fall and we’re scary good at shaking those physical falls off. But all of us (don’t deny it), have fallen reaching for something great: a job, a dream, a home, even a championship game. The metaphorical ice is slippery, but up we must go.

 

Twenty fifteen, you were swell

It’s that time of year again (the end of the year) where we all wonder where the time has gone and admire all our glorious accomplishments (or not). A year ago I was living in a strange land (Chicago suburbs), working in a mythical place (asphalt plant), and running like a champ (… at sea-level). Now, I’m a one-semester-complished PhD student at CU-Boulder prepping for classes and TAing and planning my next six months of research, writing and conferences. Twenty fifteen, you were swell–so here it is, my year in review.

January Twenty Fifteen

Month of the most boring Super Bowl of all the Super Bowls… but that Puppy Bowl was serious business.

And yes, I’m still a bitter Packers fan.

February Twenty Fifteen

Month of Wisconsin Men’s Basketball making us all damn proud and Mike buying me a heart-shaped deep dish pizza (because he knows the real way to a midwestern girl’s heart).

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Taking down Kentucky was one of the best games I have ever seen, and being in Madison for the craziness that followed made that game even more special. Yeah, my guys lost the championship game to one of my most hated teams (Duke, I hate you), but we were one proud Wisconsin fan-base after that hell-of-a-run.

And heart-shaped deep dish pizza? I bet your boyfriend doesn’t buy you heart-shaped deep dish pizza.

March Twenty Fifteen

Month of deciding to frolic off to the mountains for graduate school at CU-Boulder.

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Source: CU-Boulder

It took one day on campus for me to decide that I absolutely had to come here to get my PhD. Okay, so probably more like 30 min talking with my advisor… but who can pass up that view!?! (Sorry, Wyoming and CSU).

April Twenty Fifteen

Month of “OMG I FINALLY GOT THE SEE THE HIMALAYA MOUNTAINS IN REAL LIFE!”

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It was almost a spur of the moment decision for Mike and I to join this trek in Nepal, but we are both so glad that we did. I mean, look at those giant icy beauties!

May Twenty Fifteen

Month of peace out suckinois.

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I love Chicago and really liked my jobs (minus the working in the steel mills and an asphalt plant), but the suburbs… not the most exciting scenery for a newly graduated outdoorsy 20-year old. It may not really be the “worst state ever,” but I wouldn’t wish the drive south through the state on anyone (except maybe my worst enemy).

June Twenty Fifteen

Month of “I can’t believe I actually live here! It’s like a painting! Seriously… like a real life painting” … oh and moving in with Mike… and living through him buying a couch (#adultmoves)… and learning to run again (at altitude).

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(1) Boulder is absolutely beautiful. I still can’t get enough of the amazing views I get to look at every day.

(2) Mike doesn’t like making decisions. And when he has to make a big decision… things get hilarious. Hours of research, mostly him not being able to decide what he wanted and where he wanted it from, and four trips to IKEA later, he finally managed to buy his couch (because he couldn’t fit himself on the normal-size people couch I already owned).

(3) Running at altitude is hard.

July Twenty Fifteen

Month of making friends with the ICP-MS.

While not the exact machine I made nice with over the summer, the photo above is pretty similar looking to the behemoth I spent most of July learning how not to break.

August Twenty Fifteen

Month of hiking and making friends with real [geology] people.

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Hiking in Colorado is like a fairly tale–for my eyeballs not my lungs. And there’s nothing like bagging some 14ers with some awesome geology ladies (Left-Ice, Middle (me)-Marine, Right-Beavers).

September Twenty Fifteen

Month of learning how to (and how not to) TA… or just starting to.

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Source: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham. http://www.phdcomics.com

I swear I’m not a nazi-TA. Hopefully.

October Twenty Fifteen

Month of “what am I doing again?”

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Embarrassing myself (slightly) at my first committee meeting, losing my mind (slightly) finishing my NSF GRFP proposal, writing my very first mid-term exam ever… grad school is fun! (It is guys, don’t worry).

November Twenty Fifteen

Month of Harry Potter world and butter beer and family and food and turning 1/4 of a century old.

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Because the most important moment of this whole month couldn’t be anything school related after my glorious day (really a few hours) spent at Harry Potter world drinking my grand ole one butter beer (it was glorious). A girl can only hope she’s as cool as Hermione.

Seeing the DiGiovacchino family was obviously more exciting than butter beer. I think they still like me. But I’m never participating in a vodka tasting again.

Getting older is weird.

December Twenty Fifteen

Month of “how do my students still not know what a sedimentary rock is?” and eating my weight in lefse. Oh and selfies with Amber.

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The dog is Amber. She sort of loves me.

Final exam grades were depressing. Lefse made it better.

Amber is the cutest dog who has ever lived (all six pounds of her). And now that she’s toothless, she rocks the Marnie look from time to time.

 

Fare-thee-well twenty fifteen.

“The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone”

As a geologist, I often take for granted the years of practice I’ve had comprehending geologic processes and time. Earth is not the same as it was 4.54 billion years ago (birth of Earth), 65 million years ago (Dino extinction) or even 21,000 years ago (the Last Glacial Maximum), and it’s not easy for humans to grasp changes that occur on timescales much, much longer than our lifespans. Things have changed: oceans once existed where there is now land; strange animals, like t-rex, [giant] megafauna beaver, and my personal favorite, the terrifyingly large megalodon, once prowled the planet; and Antarctica once played home to tropical plants and animals. And things will continue to change.

My mind was blown when my Geology 101 “rocks for jocks” professor stretched a piece of string across the 200-seat lecture hall with ticks for important events in Earth’s history illustrating that earthly human habitation barely stretched one cm at the end of the string. While not exactly the same, the clock below may serve to similarly blow all your minds (or not, if you live and breathe this stuff everyday). But if you react anything like me, this kind of analogy is a strong eye-opener for how little our species has experienced on earth.

But geologists don’t shrink away from that realization–we thrive in it. Geology is a science because, well, humans simply don’t understand very much about Earth’s history. We know a hell of a lot more than we did 100 years ago… For example, scientists once believed a great flood was responsible for the appearance of marine fossils and rocks on the summits of the world’s highest mountains, but we now know that these rocks and fossils were deposited in ancient oceans and then uplifted through plate tectonics… But there is always another piece to the puzzle to sink our crazy geologist teeth into, and we can’t wait to see what we find next.

I think we all have an innate curiosity about the world around us (geologist or no), and John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World is a perfect example of geologic curiosity spilling over into the non-geology world. Annals of the Former World is a non-fiction masterpiece about the geologic history of North America. When I first picked up this book, per the requirements of an undergraduate course, I was admittedly a bit grumbly. But McPhee’s writing was incredible and, while not a geologist, his ability to write about geology in an extremely approachable way astonished me. I was already a geology major, but McPhee’s writing would have sent me running to geology faster than a One Direction fan running to a meet-and-greet.

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“When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, 
they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived 
in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly 
as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains 
had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the 
movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict 
all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The 
summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.” 
--John McPhee, Annals of the Former World

The passage above is one of my favorite’s from McPhee. After spending a paragraph explaining, in great detail, how the summit of Mt. Everest evolved through time, he very bluntly [and humorously] sums it up: “The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.” McPhee does this throughout Annals of the Former World, and I love him for it. Geology is serious business, but we do like to have some fun.

Fun with Forams

hqdefaultOHHHHHHHHHHHHH….Who lives in a carbonate shell under the sea? Forams. Forams do.

I work with forams (but really the forams are working for me) so that I can reconstruct some pretty crazy cool paleoceanography. They’re not as sexy as t-rex (big head, little arms) or as terrifying as the giant North and South American terror birds (google it, they were terrifying), but they play a major role in some of the coolest geology every done and obviously, in the science being done by my advisor and me now. Forams are pretty awesome, and so of course I had to share.


The live ones

Forams are little critters (protists if you want to get specific about it) that live (and have lived) all over the world’s oceans. Forams are generally quite small, but some can get as large as tens of centimeters in length, and can live anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple years. There are around 4,000 living species of forams in the oceans today, but only 40 of those species get to spend their gloriously short lives floating around in the water (this is what we call planktic foraminifera). The rest of these guys spend their lives living in or on ocean sediments, rocks or even plants at the bottom of the ocean (this is what we call benthic foraminifera). Many species are pretty picky about their habitats (the shoe has to fit, right?), but they can be found pretty much anywhere.

What does something that small eat, you may ask? Well, some forams eat algae that  grow inside their shells (symbiosis!) and others eat organic molecules or even brine shrimp. Forams “catch” their food with their whisker looking pseudopodia, which they also use to float around in the water. And since I know you’re dying to watch a foram feed on a brine shrimp… I found a fancy video by a famous foram scientist, H. Spero, for you to do just that (really, it’s awesome though…so watch it).

Very little is understood about live foraminfera. Even species that are relatively well studied show such a variety of characteristics that makes it difficult for scientists to determine a pattern in characteristics. In [FUN] fact, scientist have never been able to successfully reproduce a foram in the lab. We can catch them. And feed them. And keep them alive. But we can’t make them reproduce. This is a huge barrier for understanding the mechanisms behind shell creation, and there’s obviously still a lot to learn.

The dead ones

Live forams are cool and all, but I care more about the dead ones. To get really specific, I care about the once floating dead ones that lived between 29,000 and 14,000 years ago whose shells have been preserved in marine sediments in the equatorial Pacific. These lucky bastards, lived through some very important climate variability in the recent geologic past and their glorious carbonate shells recorded it all!  I suppose I owe these little buggers a great big thank you, because without them there would be no PhD for me.

Besides being useful for the geochemical climate information recorded in the shells of long dead bugs, forams are also extremely useful for determining relative ages of marine sediments. Different species are found at different times, and as I mentioned before, they are found in marine sediments from around the world making forams a fantastic universal tool for relative dating. This is why oil companies love forams…and love people who love forams. Oil formed at specific times in Earth’s history. So when someone who loves forams can tell oil companies when their sediments contain forams from the oil window age–money gets made.

Dead forams (well, really their shells) have also been used to reconstruct past geography and ecology. Specific species are found in specific geographic and ecological “niches,” and therefore can be used in the geologic record as a proxy (i.e. recorder) for those conditions. Scientists can then pick forams from ancient marine sediments, and tell a story about how a single location has evolved through time with respect to sea level, temperature or even acidity.


So yeah, forams are cool(er than t-rex and terror birds…and PhD students stuck in a basement office)
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forams even make star sand!


 

Image sources

Photo 1: http://collections.nmnh.si.edu/media/?i=10419480

Photo 2: http://www.geo.uni-bremen.de/forschung/bilder/106-2big.jpg

Photo 3: http://www.sjvgeology.org/geology/fossils/forams.jpg

Photo 4: https://carriekravetz.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/starsand2.jpg?w=460&h=333

 

 

 

Finding the pickle and other glorious Christmas things

Every family has their holiday traditions, and for my family, it’s traditions associated with the 25th of December and jolly-ole Saint Nick. I love Christmas-time with my crazy, wonderful family, and I love our Christmas traditions even more. So in the spirit of the holiday season, I present a compilation of some of my favorite Christmas things.

Finding the pickle

For those of you not in on this odd (and awesome) German-sourced tradition: a pickle ornament is hidden in the Christmas tree with good luck or a reward for the person who finds it first. This is a new one for me. Mike is German, so when I walked into one of Epcot’s German shops over Thanksgiving break and saw the giant tree of pickles I knew I had to bring one home. The pickle now proudly hanging amongst my glittery and shiny balls, and it’s glorious.


 

Lefse

I’m Norwegian. And for Christmas (and Thanksgiving… and really anytime of the year), Norwegians make lefse. If you’re not fortunate enough to have put this glorious tradition on your taste buds, you my friend, have been really sucking at the Holidays. Lefse is made out of potatoess and it is often described as a flatbread; however it’s really more like a tortilla. Making lefse is serious business in my family, and if you don’t have the right gear (i.e. lefse stick, lefse grill, ricer…) the making won’t go well for you. Smother it with butter… or sugar… or fill it with all the meat and gravy you can get your hands on. It will change your life.


 

“Give up your dough for Christmas yo!”

We all have favorite Christmas jingles. But among the Rongstads, this is not one of them. This masterpiece by Run DMC found its way onto one of our epic Christmas CDs, and every single time we put on our Christmas morning tunes it finds its way to the playlist. We grumble. We complain. We laugh. But not a single one of us gets off our lazy butts to change the song. (I think it’s growing on us).


 

Frosty Friends

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Frosty Friend 1990 ornamen; source: http://www.etsy.com

Hallmark’s Frosty Friends ornaments have been hanging on my Christmas tree as long as I can remember. My mom has been collecting them since before I was born, and since moving out on my own (with my own big girl fake tree), I have started my own collection too. Some of my favorite holiday memories come from post-Thanksgiving decoration days finding the perfect place on the tree for my favorite Frosty Friends ornaments.


 

Pizzelles

I’m Norwegian… but I’m also Italian. And Italians make the best desserts. Pizzelles are one such scrumptious treat, and my 100% Norwegian father was trained to make these (on a special Pizzelle grill) by members of my mom’s Italian family. He makes them every single Christmas, and they go so fast you better not blink around them.


 Fuzzy socks

Remember when you were little and you absolutely HATED when someone gifted you socks. Well, now we’re all grown up and socks are better than gold. I love all socks, but the colorful, fuzzy Christmas socks that my wonderful mother manages to find year after year are by far my favorites things ever. (And yes, I wear them all year long). (And no, I am not ashamed to admit that).


 

Yelling over Christmas lights

When I was little, it was my dad. He would spend hours (and I mean hours) un-tangling the hundreds of feet of lights we shoved into boxes in our post-Christmas slump the year before. Yells. Half of the lights wouldn’t work, and then he’d spend more time trying to find the one bulb out of thousands that was causing the problem. Yells. He would then have to go outside (in Minnesota winter) and attempt to hang everything before dark. More yells. Now, it’s Mike. He was tasked with hanging one string of lights (yes, one string), and the task was so frustrating for him that he lasted a grand total of five minutes before throwing the lights into our flower pots and storming back inside. Yells.


 

Yelling over everything else

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Like who gets to ride the toboggan first or who gets the leftovers of broccolli cheese casserole or just yelling because we’ve been sitting in the same room for far too long. Yelling is a part of Christmas, and we do it because we love each other too much (I think).

 

Happy Holidays!

 

ENSO (is taking over my life)

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted some hard-core science (and I’m totally a day late on my Wednesday post-day), so I felt this week was as good as any to let you all in on my not-so-well-kept secret of a PhD project that has been taking over my life. The topic: paleo-ENSO.

To start, let me define what the heck that means. Paleo = ancient. ENSO = El Nino Southern Oscillation…so I will be studying ancient El Niño Southern Oscillation. Still have no idea what ENSO is? Well for one, you should. And two, ENSO is the leading mode of climate variability on Earth today. In non-ENSO-studying-PhD-student terms, ENSO is incredibly important for short term changes in climate and has a massive impact on weather, precipitation and drought patterns around the world, including the current drought and resultant fires slamming Indonesia (click here for good review on the variable impacts of El Niño around the world — I promise it’s not a trap). ENSO is initiated in equatorial Pacific (you know, the region in the Pacific ocean that’s closest to the equator), but that doesn’t stop it from dipping it’s selfish hands in everyone else’s business.


 

Diverging from the paleo for a bit, let me explain a bit more about ENSO.

ENSO includes two very prominent phases, which I’m sure you are at least somewhat familiar with in the deepest parts of your brain: El Niño (“warm” episode) and La Niña (“cold” episode).

El Niño

El Niño is the “warm” phase of ENSO. I put warm in quotations because the warm refers to sea surface temperature anomalies (the difference between observed sea surface temperature and average or normal sea surface temperature) in a very specific location in the eastern equatorial Pacific, which is referred to by all us fancy scientists as the Cold Tongue (named because under normal conditions, this area is cool). Simply put, during an El Niño event (like the one that we are in right now), the water in the Cold Tongue warms up.

Now, this sea surface temperature warming doesn’t just sit there all by itself doing nothing–the atmosphere wants to play too (sometimes). And when the atmosphere decides to play ball, that’s when things get interesting. Anomalous warming in the eastern equatorial Pacific (often, but not always) triggers a response in the atmosphere, which results a shift in atmospheric circulation. This shift in atmospheric circulation brings rain to the southwestern US and northwestern South America, and drought to Indonesia, parts of northeastern Australia and even South Africa.

La Niña

La Niña is the “cold” phase of ENSO. Again, I put the cold in quotations because the cold refers to sea surface temperature anomalies in the Cold Tongue of the eastern equatorial Pacific. During a La Niña event, the water in the Cold Tongue gets colder (yes… it does that). The atmosphere feels these cooler temperatures (just as it feels the warmer sea surface temperatures during an El Niño) and “cool” stuff happens. An opposite shift in atmospheric circulation brings rain to Indonesia, northeastern Australia and South Africa and drought to the southwestern US and northwestern South America.

Some final notes on ENSO before I move back to the paleo side of things:

(1) Not all El Niño or La Niña events are the same–there is a lot of variability in how these events present themselves both in the ocean and the atmosphere and in what impacts are felt around the globe.

(2) If the atmosphere doesn’t want to play ball, a full blown El Niño or La Niña event is highly unlikely. (Case and point, last year’s failed El Niño).

(3) El Niño events tend to me much stronger in amplitude than La Niña events, and therefore tend to gather more interest in the popular media. (There are also scientists who believe that La Niña events are simply just a slight amplification of normal conditions, and therefore not a “real” event… but that’s a discussion for another time).


Okay, now back to the paleo.

Why study paleo-ENSO?

(1) Paleo for paleo’s sake.

It’s interesting! The Earth is cool, guys, and studying everything about it is super exciting (#geologyrocks). But sad-face, I had to pick one topic to focus on for the next few years and ENSO just won me over.

To get more serious: The way in which ENSO presents itself today in the modern is likely not how ENSO presented itself in the past. Studying ENSO in the past can help us better understand the phenomenon itself. (But really, it’s just super cool).

(2) Paleo for the future’s sake.

Scientists have no idea how climate change will effect ENSO. Models disagree about how variable (i.e. how often El Niño and La Niña events occur) ENSO will be in the future. One way to resolve this issue is to test models against data collected from ancient time periods to observe how well these models simulate paleo-ENSO (i.e. run these models for a time period we understand well in the past and compare the model outputs to non-model data from the same time period). Any divergences between these models and robust (i.e. accurate, precise and thoroughly vetted) ancient data would suggest a huge misunderstanding of the basic physics of ENSO in the models. However, in order to do this you need really, really good data. And for anything older than ~10,000 years, we don’t have that. And this is where I (super-paleo-ENSO-PhD-student) come in.

To condense that whole paragraph down into one sentence: Understanding ENSO in the past is vital for understanding how ENSO will change in the future.


Okay cool, but how do you study paleo-ENSO?

GEOCHEMISTRY!

Specifically carbonate geochemistry (see my about me bonus for a lengthy discussion). I’m not going to get into all the dirty details, but simply put, scientists can extract a glorious amount of climate information from carbonates. One of these things is sea surface temperature. And when sea surface temperature data is collected from ENSO affected regions in the equatorial Pacific Ocean (particularly those regions which are being used to monitor ENSO today)–BAM, you have a way to reconstruct ENSO. Now of course there a lot of complicated things that go into this sort of analysis, such as the need for high resolution records (i.e. a record that preserves the short-term variability of ENSO) and incorporating other proxy data results from around the world, but it can AND has been done. (And I’m going to do it–for a period of Earth’s history for which we have absolutely no idea what in the world ENSO was doing).


 

I’ve spent most of this semester learning all things ENSO. I’ve written a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program proposal on it. I’m collecting all the papers I can find about it. I’ve been talking to members of my PhD committee about it.

And the best part… I get to do this for five years.

#HappyENSOing

 

 

 

 

 

 

Farting around

In the wise words of the the greatest writer to ever live: “I tell you, we are here on earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.” Kurt Vonnegut was a magician with all his words (and if you’ve never read any of books, drop everything you’re doing immediately and proceed to arguably his greatest masterpiece: Slaughterhouse Five… or Cat’s Cradle… or in my opinion The Sirens of Titan), but this particular quote from A Man Without a Country, is one of my all time favorites. Per the ultimate source on odd words and phrases (Urban Dictionary), farting around can be defined as “The act or process of wandering aimlessly with no particular goal.” And like Kurt Vonnegut, I am a firm believer in farting around.

farting aroundMost of us spend our adult lives chasing something. A job. A house. A beautifully written thesis in paleoceanography on El Nino Southern Oscillation during the Last Glacial Maximum. We become so focused on one thing for so long that we forget to look around. We forget what it’s like to explore with no plan. We forget what it feels like to get lost (and afraid) only to discover something absolutely amazing. Growing up shouldn’t have to mean we have to leave our farting around behind. In fact, I think it means we need to quite a bit more of it.

Now, I’m a planner (I got that from my momma), and I’m late if I’m not five minutes early. I hate running behind schedule and I don’t really “go with the flow.” I freak out about all things future, and my closest friends know they have to work hard to find the spontaneous buried under all my layers of “guys, I was just going to sit on the couch tonight.” Farting around does not come naturally to me. I have to remind myself that some of my greatest accomplishments in life have come from wandering aimlessly, and I really need to do it more.

Fart around somewhere strange. Go somewhere unexpected. Hang out with people you just met. Try something totally new with absolutely no reason for doing so. If you don’t know where you’re going, don’t freak out (or do it spectacularly). Lots of wonderful things came from periods in my life when I wasn’t sure what I was doing, or where I was going. Farting around brought me to science. It sent me to East Africa (to the ultimate surprise of literally every single member of my family) to study abroad. It even lead me to CU-Boulder and to working with my fantastically brilliant advisor.

But farting around doesn’t have to be all about big life decisions. Let yourself procrastinate a little. Spend some time digging up obscure facts on the interwebs. Go running without your glasses. Get lost in the Canadian wilderness snow-covered swamp land (the best way to make friends… and boyfriends). Go on a trip with people you don’t know in a place you’ve never been. Just do it… fart around that is.

#happyfarting