Lessons from the laboratory: 5 tips for a successful move

It’s moving time in the lab. As in pack every little possible lab and office thing into a box, try not to break the mass-spec,  wrap all the fragile things (and accidentally yourself) in bubblewrap, re-label all the acids (and then label them again because safety first), dig up things you never even knew existed (do we really need all this melted tubing and why do we still have a lab coat from 1999?), organize thousands of samples (and then pack those too), move all the things 1.2 miles down the road to the giant new beautiful monstrosity of a building called SEEC, and then UNPACK EVERYTHING.

Moving is the worst. Okay, so not worse or more terrifying or seriously more worrisome than just the mere thought of Trump possibly becoming president…but you catch my drift. No one likes to move. It’s stressful. It’s tiresome. It’s tedious. But sometimes is necessary–like when you have a sparkly new lab waiting for you in a glorious giant new research building on campus. Now, imagine being a scientist trying to move your most precious possessions/life’s work (i.e. lab equipment, samples, papers, field equipment, perfect desk chair…) to a new place. It’s total [organized] chaos.

So, because most of you have at least the teeniest experience with moving some important part of your life (college futons don’t just move themselves) and because even less of you are experienced scientific movers (you care about this stuff, right?), I present:

Lessons from the laboratory: 5 tips for a successful move

1. Use all the bubble wrap

Our “official” orders were that every single piece of glassware and fancy-spancy equipment should be wrapped at least twice. But you should probably add 50 more wraps just to be safe, right? And then you should obviously steal some just for your own damn pleasure because you’ll need to relieve some stress after packing for the eighth hour of the day (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you clearly didn’t have a very enjoyable childhood).

2. Label all the things

Unless you want a migraine to end all migraines when you get to your brand-spanking-new lab, LABEL EVERYTHING. And then label it again. Label the outside of boxes. Label bags in boxes. Hell, label the boxes you’re putting in the bigger boxes. Just label everything. Label yourself if you have to (especially when you start losing it after having to to make the sixteenth trip out of the clean lab to get even more bubble wrap to wrap your precious things in).

3. Don’t know what an item is? Better pack it


These are probably important

Melted pieces of tubing leftover from some long ago experimental lab set-up? Screws to some long-lost part? Samples from the 70s that are labeled with nothing but a name? Manuals for now can’t be found machines? You never know when you might need those again (or when your advisor or former student will come looking for them sometime in the near future). Better safe than sorry. And I don’t want to be sorry. All these random things are probably super important, right?

4. Don’t touch the expensive thing. Leave that for the pros

Thought warming up/maintaining a mass spectrometer was hard?–you know nothing, Jon Snow. Decomissioning a mass spectrometer is vital to said mass spectrometers survival through even a short travel down any road. Take a piece off and you better make damn sure you memorize what that piece looks like and where it goes. And when you get to the magnet, you better have a serious game plan (like watching your advisor spend an entire workday planning how the movers are going to simply slide the magnet out of the machine without catastrophic failure). Graduate school stipends won’t cover the “oops, I just broke the mass spec.” So, leave all the expensive, super-breakable things for the pros (aka advisors).


Fabulous Dexter

5. Do daydream about merriments in your new lab

It may be the only way you get through the packing pains. Just pretend that absolutely nothing will go wrong (it will), that everything will arrive in perfect in perfect condition (it won’t), that nothing will get lost (you think it won’t, but…), that removing said magnet above will go flawlessly (please, please do), and that everything you just packed will magically find its way to its perfect home in the new lab (it most certainly will not). Dream about all the happy lab days, crushing, cleaning and dissolving forams (or maybe even dancing when no ones around), you will have once you’re all settled in the new space. Just think happy thoughts–like Fabulous Dexter in his fancy laboratory to the left.





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.


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).


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.


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?


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.








The to-do list of a new graduate student


This week’s Wednesday post-day is short and sweet. No quirky intro; just a list of things I’ve been mentally adding to my own to-do list and things others around me have been adding to their own.

  • Read. All. The. Things.
  • Make friends (with people, not lab equipment).
  • Impress your advisor.
  • Find your advisor if he/she is or has gone missing.
  • Start all the glorious research.
  • Hunt down all the advice (like learning where the free pizza is or how not to throw your computer out the window trying to use an online textbook).
  • Find your office.
  • Set-up your office.
  • (And if you’re feeling fancy) Get a name-tag for your office.
  • Don’t get lost.
  • Be a cool TA. Not be an awful TA. Just get your students to turn in their assignments.
  • Add “cheers” to the end of all your mass class emails (because you’re a classy individual).
  • Take all the cool classes you couldn’t as an undergrad.
  • Take less classes than you did as an undergrad.
  • Find the BEST coffee.
  • Find the nearest coffee.
  • Sniff out the free food.
  • Go to the free food.
  • Find the beer. And the bars. (Especially the Wisconsin bars).
  • Learn all the matlab.
  • Get all your keys.
  • Don’t lose your keys.
  • Write a clever blog about how super well-rounded you are (or just ramble on about silly things forever and ever).
  • Mingle with the cooler, more experienced grad students.
  • Find non-geologists to bug sometimes.
  • Exercise… ? Or just learn to bike to class without dying.
  • Attend all the colloquiums.
  • Go outside. Sometimes.
  • Have fun. Don’t cry.

Appreciating the gap year-point-five: Five ways work has prepared me for graduate school

It’s the first week of classes at CU Boulder, and as I find myself being bombarded with quasi-first-week assignments and TA responsibilities (and some logistical where-the-hell can I print this problems), I can’t help but feel quite fortunate for my real world working experiences and the time away from lectures, homework, and the non-stop go-go-go attitude of life in academia. And while I’ve been going non-stop since last Wednesday with training and new graduate trips and TAing and finding the damn ATOC classrooms along the outside of Folsom Field (and I apologize for the scatter brain this post probably is), it’s Wednesday post-day. So here is this week’s genius, straight from the jumbled brain of a busy new grad, all about looking back and appreciating the gap year-point-five between undergrad and grad.


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

Five ways work has prepared me for graduate school:
  1. Effective time-management. Most of us spent undergrad refining our procrastination skills, experimenting with the minimum amount of work necessary for the grade you want and learning how to work at all hours of the day, but this undergrad time-management doesn’t build the most successful worker. Out in the “real world” (you know, the one where people garb themselves in business casual and work in fancy or not-so fancy offices in or near large bustling cities), work usually gets done during the workday. There is no room for procrastination, and there is definitely no room for being lazy (you might slide for a little, but the big guys and gals in charge will find you eventually). You don’t get to take three-hour lunch breaks, and you certainly don’t get middle of the day nap-time. Graduate school is more like a job than our undergraduate years ever were: we’re responsible for our own research (a job) and classes (another job) and even teaching when our funding or interests require (yet another job) all of which must be done by specified deadlines, within certain timeframes, with outcomes elevated above the undergraduate norm, and with expectations that we’re ACTUALLY putting in the amount of work we were brought to graduate school to do. Sure, graduate students procrastinate, sometimes put in the minimum work, and yes, even work at all hours of the day; however, if you want to keep some sanity during you graduate years, you probably don’t want to make a habit of any of these things. Work taught me to be diligent with my time-management–it required constant revision of my work week and longer-term project goals, and it really beat the “I’m just a student with all this glorious workday free-time” mentality out of me (thank god).
  2. Meaningful multitasking. I’m not talking about the undergraduate-esque kind of multitasking where you sit in front of the TV watching Friends while blasting out a research paper or hanging out in the library with your friends to study or even working on two class assignments in the same day. I’m talking about the meaningful kind of multitasking that comes with juggling multiple projects, for multiple clients, with multiple due dates and variable products. I did a lot of this during “vacation” into the environmental consulting world, and while I’m no expert, my experiences prepared me well for the multitude of things I’m having to deal with my first few weeks of my first semester of graduate school. On top of being a new graduate student who is taking classes, attending colloquiums, working on research, and trying to have a life outside of the lab, I am a graduate teaching assistant responsible for 40 students in 2 different introductory lab sections for a class where I am the sole teacher. This requires me not only to be responsible for myself and my research (which is a daunting task in itself), but also for students who have a variety of different interest levels in the geology class they are taking. I feel a little bit more confident taking on all these things at once knowing that I was able to juggle projects of all shapes and sizes at the same time as an environmental consulting geologist.
  3. Embracing group work. Group work might have been the most dreaded works of our undergraduate years, and there are probably many (like myself) who avoided group work like the plague (or just did all the work themselves). But in the real world, all work is group work and there is no way around it. You have to learn how to work with all sorts of people (loud, quiet, shy, obnoxious…). There is very little “OMG, we’re friends so let’s work together.” You are thrown into projects with people you don’t always like or even put in charge or put under a person who just rubs you the wrong way, but you are still expected to get things done. If you’re in graduate school, hopefully you’re working with an advisor and/or research group that you hand picked and get along swimmingly with (if not, dear god what are you doing?)–but you don’t get to pick your new graduate department peers and if you’re a TA you certainly do not get to pick your students. Working exposed me to more group work situations (with consequences beyond a letter grade) and formal training than I ever got during my undergraduate years, and it will help me tremendously over the next five(ish) years as a PhD student.
  4. Getting things done in a busy office. In undergrad, I always went to quietest library with the creepiest cages to avoid being distracted by others while studying, but this was never EVER an option in my big-girl jobs. Instead I got something a little crazier: cube farms. Cube farms teach you a lot about being productive in high-activity environments, and my work over the past two years exposed me to cube-farms ranging in size from the insanely large (100 people on a single office floor) and super small (five people sharing a very small office). In both cases, I struggled with distractions and the seemingly never ending socialization hours. I had to find ways to shut off the outside world when I needed (like spotify and ninja concentration), and to tune back in when I was able. Being in a office room full of other new graduate students is definitely the most exciting part of the beginning of this semester because we’re all super excited about our projects and all bonding over our grumbles in regards to surprisingly un-user friendly online textbook programs, but I won’t always have the time to socialize with everyone. Eventually (even though all you guys are great), I’ll have to find ways to tune out the noise and get (for lack of better words) shit done.
  5. Knowing when to ask for help. In undergraduate, many of us were either one of two things: (1) the compulsive question asker or (2) the diffident question avoider. Neither of these scenarios is particularly ideal, but it takes practice to find the happy medium in the middle of the spectrum. I fell more towards to diffident question avoider end of the spectrum as an undergrad, and it really wasn’t until I was set free into the world of work wonders that I learned how important it was to not settle in the peripheries. It doesn’t take long sitting your desk in the middle of a busy office pretending that you understand you know what you’re doing when you absolutely do not have the slightest idea of what you’re supposed to be doing to make you realize that (OMG) questions are actually super, super useful. And on the other end of the spectrum, it doesn’t take long bugging your boss and/or co-workers every five minutes with unimportant or non-vital questions to realize that (OMG) sometimes you should spend some time trying to answer your own questions before rushing for aid. As a graduate student, you have to learn how to let your advisor advice (who would have thought!?). Advisors are there to guide you through the graduate world, but they are certainly not there to hold your hand through the process. In other words, us graduate students need to be curious not obnoxious.

I could go on and on about all the wonderful things real world work taught me, especially in terms of preparation for grad school, but I’m tired. And hangry. And Mike made me dinner (and it’s ready). So… that’s all she wrote.

Lab life: the cleanroom, the machine, the clothes, the work, and the fun

Last week was all about me, but this week is all about the lab. As I dove into in my About me bonus, I am a paleoceanographer, paleoclimatologist and a geochemist. Specifically, I use certain elements, mainly Mg/Ca ratios, to reconstruct past oceans and climate. To do that, I need a lab. But not just any a lab; I need a lab with a (very) cleanroom, a very nifty inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS), some wonderfully fashionable and functional clothing, and of course, a lot of interesting and exciting work. Here at INSTAAR, we call that lab the ICP-MS Trace Element Lab. And it’s in this lab where all my PhD dreams will come true (or explode catastrophically).

The cleanroom

What’s a cleanroom? Well, a cleanroom, is a room that limits the introduction of contaminants (i.e. dust, airborne particles, pollutants, etc.) through engineering controls to preserve process or sample integrity. Why do I need a cleanroom? The samples I work with are very specific to a source (where the sample came from) and a time (when the sample was “made”). This means that all the elements stored within a sample will be different from a sample taken somewhere else. The elements will also be different from the environment, let’s say, in a geology building. If a processing or dissolved sample (i.e. a sample that is being prepped for analysis on a machine) sits out in the un-protected geology building environment, it can uncontrollably “take in” or react with the set of elements its composition differs from because of its vulnerable state. This isn’t good. A contaminated sample will no longer accurately represent its source and time, thereby possibly changing the history the geochemist (i.e. me) will try to discern from said sample. This is where the cleanroom comes in; it limits sample contamination by controlling the environment.


A cleanroom to a geochemist is like a operating room to a surgeon; IT’S VERY IMPORTANT. It’s where we work our science magic (or sometimes where our dreams are crushed). Without getting too technical, my samples need to remain as clean (i.e. not contaminated) as possible through crushing, cleaning and dissolving steps (i.e. prepping for analysis) in order to accurately represent its history. Engineering controls, such as air filters, negative room pressure, laminar flow benches, and even coated metals (or better yet, metal substitutes) are used to limit sample contamination. Because we’re scientists, we have all sorts of checks to determine if contamination did indeed occur, such as: running a acid blank (no sample) test prior to using said acid to dissolve a sample or analyzing acid blanks during a sample run to determine if contamination occurred while dissolving samples. However, even in a cleanroom, contamination does still occur.

The machine

What’s an ICP-MS? It’s a mass spectrometer with energized plasma that ionizes a dissolved (liquid) sample to analyze a set of specific elements. Decoded: an ICP-MS will take a dissolved sample, analyze it and report a specific suite of elements. The suite of elements the ICP-MS reports depends on a couple things, mainly: the analytical precision and sensitivity needed to complete a run (some samples are smaller than others and thus require more precision and sensitivity to be successfully analyzed) and the interests of the researcher using the machine. I could go into all the physics behind this glorious machine, but as I myself am still learning them… I won’t. Just know this: Mg/Ca are the elements I’m mainly after and I will use this machine to find them. I will also analyze my samples for other elements, but that is a discussion for another day.

The ICP-MS is housed in an adjoining room to the cleanroom, and like the cleanroom, is a vital part of the lab I will be working in throughout my entire PhD career.

The clothes

IMG_5010I’ve been talking a lot about the air contamination, but contamination doesn’t just come from the air; it can also come from particles trapped in clothing. Because outside clothes and shoes, are well, from the outside, they must be covered at all times when in a cleanroom. In most geochemical labs, the coverings include a stunning white tyvek suit and booties. This makes us cleanroom geochemists the most stylist of the geology bunch.

Fashion joking aside, personal protective equipment (PPE) is a huge and vital part of any lab. The main function of the tyvek suit and booties is to protect the cleanroom from outside contaminants, but a secondary function is that it can protect one’s body from minor chemical spills. Gloves and googles/glasses top off the glorious cleanroom ensemble to protect our dainty hands and seeing organs–safety first. My PPE is designed to handle less hazardous material as the chemicals I work with are very dilute; however, I do still handle chemical stock solutions and other concentrated chemicals, so I still have to be very careful in the lab.

The work

Of course, working in any lab requires a significant amount of training (and often a very large learning curve). From safety training, to process training, to day-to-day maintenance, to just finding the damn pipette tips… a new labbie could spend anywhere from a few weeks to an entire year getting comfortable in a new lab. When a lab contains a cleanroom, one must follow an even higher level of scrutiny. Lucky for me, I worked in a similar cleanroom setting as an undergrad, so some of the basic concepts (i.e. upkeep, storage, cleaning, safety) are review for me. Unlucky for me, lots of other parts of my new clean lab (i.e. anything and everything foram and ICP-MS) are completely new to me, and it will still take some time (and lots of mistakes) for me to get 100% comfortable.

Lab Hazard Rating System

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

My PhD will likely be lab heavy in the first couple of years. Some days, I won’t leave the lab (probably not by choice, but hey, when in PhD mode, one must PhD). Others, I’ll run far, far away from it (hopefully to be super productive reading and writing, but more likely I’ll be looking for beer). During my PhD, my lab work will include all sorts of tasks: foram picking, crushing, cleaning, dissolving and analyzing; chemical dilutions; lab cleaning and organizing; beaker/cup cleaning; ICP-MSing (i.e. sweet talking the inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer); and many, many more. The foram tasks will take by far the longest, and most of those tasks require use of the cleanroom. Use of the ICP-MS will also be somewhat time consuming, especially when the machine is being difficult (as I write this, my advisor and I are trying to keep it from overheating so we can finally run some samples). However, I’ve spent my summer learning a lot about the machine, and hopefully by the time my own samples are ready to be run, I’ll be a super knowledgable (or at least semi-knowledgeable) ICP-MSer.

The fun

But life in the lab goes beyond the lab, the clothes and even the work; you learn along the way to have a little fun and to make a little fun of your mistakes or tragically embarrassing situations. To let you in on the “fun” part, I’ve decided to write about some of the funny situations you could find yourself in while working in a cleanroom. So, without further ado, I present:

You know you work (or have worked) in a cleanroom when…

  • You can replicate the delicate dance of putting on and (the often more difficult task) of taking off your tyvek (“bunny”) suit and shoe coverings in your sleep
  • You’ve fallen over trying to get your limbs out of your tyvek suit (probably in front of your advisor or professor or a very important world-renown scientist)
  • You’ve made the mistake of completely suiting up after drinking five cups of coffee… and not running to the bathroom first
  • You’ve found the “slippery” part of the cleanroom floor and know first hand what it’s like to feel as if your life is about to end (since you’re holding very delicate samples, and/or scary acids, and/or your advisor is standing right behind you)
  • You don’t care what you wear to work because nothing’s more fashionable than tyvek white
  • You’ve tried to sit down on a normal office chair while donning your tyvek suit and have gone flying off the chair Christmas Vacation sledding style
  • You’ve made the mistake of leaving your notes on the wrong side of the cleanroom and not realizing it until after removing all your fancy cleanroom clothes
  • You’ve made the mistake of leaving your notes in another room and not realizing it until after completely suiting up
  • You know what it feels like for people to think you’re about to get into some serious shit… but you’re really just going in the lab to clean some beakers
  • You look like a giant marsh-mellow… and like it
  • You know the struggle of trying to get your cell phone out of your back pocket once you’re already suited and zipped up
  • Your favorite time of the week/month is when you get to rip off the nasty sticky pads at all door entrances to reveal the brand new sticky pads underneath
  • You know what it’s like for something to come up in the lab where you need help from your more experienced advisor, lab manager or the lab’s grad-student/postdoc extraordinaire and have the internal debate about whether you should completely un-suit to hunt him/her down… or shamelessly text him/her until he/she comes to your rescue
  • You get angry over someone using the tyvek suit CLEARLY labeled with your name


About me bonus: what I do, why I do it and the basic science behind my PhD

By now, most of you are well aware of my love affair with geology. However, some of you may still not exactly understand what I do or why I do it or have any idea what my upcoming PhD focus means. Because my work will never be an easy explanation for those unfamiliar with what I do, I decided to take this week to describe as best I could (and as un-jargony as possible) what I do, why I do it and the basic science behind my PhD. Eventually, I’ll add or link a shortened version of this to my about me (hence the title), but I felt these words were probably best served first as a standalone post.

As with many geologists, I study the past. I do this for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, I enjoy it. It’s exciting for me to dig into Earth’s history and learn something we didn’t know before or better understand something than we did before. Second, Earth is extremely complex. Studying modern-day change is vital to understanding the complex relationships of Earth systems, but studying the past, and all its glorious “natural experiments,” allows scientists to explore Earth dynamics beyond modern constraints. The past was different than today, and understanding the differences between ancient and modern Earth is extremely important. Lastly, studying the past allows scientist to apply past analogs to future scenarios (i.e. using the past to inform the future) not only in an effort to predict possible outcomes, but also to help the world prepare to face those outcomes. The latter point is the most important to me. We live in a rapidly changing world where human actions have a resounding impact on Earth’s future. Understanding how our planet responded and reacted to past changes, is our greatest hope to predict, plan and prepare for (and in an ideal world, limit) the negative impacts stemming from modern human actions on the complex Earth system.

climate comic

Extremely relevant Joel Pett cartoon, USA Today (2009)

There are lots of ways to study the past, which is why there are lots of different types of geologists (and paleo-[add your science here]-ists). There are geologists who study large, massive structures in ancient formations that are visible for miles away, and there are geologists who study the chemical make-up of rocks and minerals that can only be be discerned after hours of laboratory prep and machine analysis. Some geologists focus on deep time, while others focus on more recent events. Then there are geologists who wander all around the geologic boundaries, putting on all sorts of geologic hats in an attempt to better understand our wonderfully complex planet. Pick any topic and any time period (or even multiple combinations as insane as it may seem), and I guarantee you there’s a geologist somewhere dedicating his or her life to that very geologic niche.

In the spectrum of geologic possibilities, I am a paleoceanographer, paleoclimatologist and geochemist focused (for now) mainly on the more recent geologic past. To decode that geological jargon: I study ancient (but not too ancient) oceans and climate, and I use elements (i.e. chemistry) to discern past events (i.e. geology). Simply put, I’m one of those that wears lots of hats. And to make it even more confusing for you, all of the aforementioned words I used to describe myself as a geologist don’t necessarily make me a geologist at all. Paleoceanographers and paleoclimatologists come from all walks of scientific life. Some are geologists, yes, but many are atmospheric and oceanic scientists, or physicists, or chemists, or even biologists and statisticians. And like the word spells out for you, geochemists are often trained chemists “dabbling” in the world of geology. I will spend the next five years dipping my toes into geology… and all the other wonderful sciences that play a role at the cross-section of paleoceanography, paleoclimatology and geochemistry. Needless to say, I will be very busy as PhD student (gathering lots of pretty hats).

g. ruber foram

An example of fossil foraminifera. See source for detail: Thirumalai et al. (2014), Globigerinoides ruber morphotypes in the Gulf of Mexico: A test of null hypothesis. Scientific Reports 4, 6018. doi: 10.1038/srep06018

Now for the technical stuff. For my science readers–this will probably be easy for you to follow. For all my other readers–I’ll do my best to de-jargon. During my PhD, I will be using (i.e. picking, processing, dissolving and analyzing) fossil foraminifera (a marine protist with a calcite shell–here’s Wikipedia) that have been preserved in ocean sediments to determine and understand past ocean and climate states, changes and relationships. How will I do that?: magnesium (Mg) and calcium (Ca). Mg/Ca ratios can be used as a paleo-proxy (i.e. recorder of the past) for temperature. Simply (and without sending this post down the rabbit-hole of Mg/Ca relationships), the amount of Mg in a calcite mineral relates to the temperature at which that mineral was formed; the more Mg that is in a calcite, the higher the temperature was at the time of formation. In the case of formanifera, or forams, the temperature recorded by a calcite shell is the temperature of the sea water surrounding the foram at the time of shell formation or its calcification temperature. Pretty cool, right? (Yeah, I think so). Measuring Mg/Ca ratios in fossil forams allows scientists to calculate past ocean temperatures! (I know you’re as excited as I am). The exact Mg/Ca-temperature relationship can be dependent on other factors, including foram species, habitat, salinity and even dissolution effects (all things I won’t get into here as it would turn this post into a lengthy research project), but some very, very smart people have developed a myriad of calibration equations (i.e. equations that directly relate Mg/Ca ratios to temperature) to isolate the temperature signal.

Phew. If you made it this far–HIGH FIVE!

Now, some of you are probably wondering exactly how ancient ocean temperatures are going to help me determine and understand past ocean AND climate states, changes and relationships–and that would be a very fair thing for you to wonder. The ocean plays a major role in the Earth climate system, which also includes very important things such as the biosphere and the atmosphere. A perturbation in one part of the system often affects the other parts of the system. For example, a major shift in surface temperatures on Earth will cause a shift in ocean temperatures, which will cause a change in atmospheric winds and weather, which will affect the plants and animals dependent on all those things (…so on and so forth). Understanding the whole Earth climate system requires knowledge of all its parts. And knowledge of one part can also lead to insights on others. I choose to study the ocean because it’s a part of the Earth climate system that we probably know and understand the least about. And while the ocean is only one piece of the giant, complicated climate puzzle, its piece and its close connection with other pieces can tell us a lot about the past. So really, my ancient ocean temperatures will actually tell me a lot more than a simple reading on a thermometer. For those curious about exactly what my PhD project will be, I’ll probably reveal more about that later down the road. As a new graduate student, I’m focused mainly on catching up on the slew of wonderful Mg/Ca-foram literature (I still have a lot to learn), and while I have a pretty good idea where my project is going, things can always change.