Wandering Wobert

I hate staying in one place.

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A Chance Encounter

Starting this spring, one of my housemates is resurrecting a student publication called “The Muse” that allows seniors to share stories and reflections of their time  at Cornell.  Knowing that the majority of the people who read this blog are not Cornell students, I figured I’d share my thoughts with you as well.  The following is an excerpt from the essay I’ve submitted that is relevant to my travels and my time here in Woods Hole:

Instead of spending my senior spring in Ithaca, I chose to pursue a research opportunity, and have been living in Massachusetts for the semester.  If you’ve ever been on Cape Cod or to any New England beach town in the winter, you may know that even in the best weather, the towns that line the coast, full of beach goers and pale tourists during the summer, can feel dreary and empty in the off-season.  Where I live, there are only two restaurants open for dinner this time of year.  Both serve the same fish, the same chowder, and have the same tiny television hanging over the bar, showing whatever Boston-based sports team happens to be playing at the moment.

On this particular night, there were maybe ten people in the whole restaurant, with four of those people, myself included, sitting at the bar.  Two stools away from me sat an older gentlemen and a female colleague, who, through their unnecessarily high-volume discussions considering the place was practically empty, I learned had been spending the week having dinner with clients all over the cape.   In the time it took me to finish a cup of chili, the man and woman both recounted their numerous gastronomical conquests, as if the sole reason for their business was to explore the dining options of the area.  As they began their appetizers, the conversation became slightly sparser, yet just as loud as before, and their voices were replaced with the sound of shells cracking and utensils clinking.

Out of the blue, a conversation erupted on the quality of tomato sauce at various restaurants.  As I flagged down the bartender to ask for the check, the older gentlemen began to recall in great detail a meatball sandwich he once had at a supermarket he described as the “the size of two Walmarts.”  As I tried to disregard his humorous attempt to explain the qualities that made the tomato sauce so special, I caught mention of “central New York,” at which point the woman exclaimed “I wish there was one outside of upstate.”  I was drawn in.

“Excuse me,” I said, “I’m sorry to have been eavesdropping, but are you talking about Wegmans?”  “Yes,” he replied, “the meatballs at the one in Ithaca, in upstate New York, were some of the best I’ve ever had.  My daughter went to school in the area and Wegmans alone was motivation to visit her.”  For the first time since moving here, outside of describing my research background to someone I worked with, I introduced myself as a Cornellian.   Immediately, the woman sitting with him began to hum the tune to “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters,” and with that exchange, another bond was established in the name of that beloved supermarket.

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I left a present for everyone when they go to put their lunches in the fridge in the morning.  Technically, it’s just shellfish.

I left a present for everyone when they go to put their lunches in the fridge in the morning.  Technically, it’s just shellfish.

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New species of krill, or just the result of forgetfulness and a dish of bromothymol blue?  You decide.

New species of krill, or just the result of forgetfulness and a dish of bromothymol blue?  You decide.

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There’s nothing like starting off the morning with a fresh cup of coffee and a big jar of formaldehyde, then taking some time to sort through a soaking wet pile of eyes, legs, and spines to really help ease you into the work day.

It took almost two months of being in Woods Hole, but I’ve now begun my own project.  Most of the work I’ve done so far has been small segments or analyses of larger lab-wide projects.  My own research will be no exception, but the hope is that for at least this one sub-set of data, I run the show, start to finish.

I’m working with krill.  And I mean really working with krill.  I close my eyes at night and the outline of the krill thorax I’ve been looking at through the microscope is there.  My office is now filled with boxes of glass quart jars, filled with everything that gets caught in a 333 micron mesh net.  Some jars are just the usual plankton, some have a few small fish that didn’t swim away fast enough, and I had to pick a two-foot eel out of a jar last week to be able to strain out the rest of the sample.  

The first set of work required for my analysis involves identifying the different species of krill present, and their distribution within the sites I’ve chosen.  When I first planned on coming here for the semester, I knew I was weakest in my biological knowledge of oceanography.  By choosing to work on this project, I’ll get to focus heavily on krill taxonomy of the North Atlantic.  Where some may be interested in sitting down with a good book, I’m content flipping through a species identification key. It’s pretty much just a picture book with a mystery plot, but the story is mostly in Latin.

So, for a long time to come, I will go to lab in the morning, strain my sample out of formaldehyde, and sit down at a microscope. Then krill by krill, go through my species check, starting with the eyes, the legs, and the spines.

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As I start to process samples, I’ve been taking pictures through the microscope to make myself a cheat sheet for krill identification.  If I ever needed another reason to not eat shellfish, the mental association I now have between the smell of formaldehyde and things that look like shrimp will forever reinforce kashrut. 

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Even if it means an extra 10 miles on your ride, always take the scenic route.  You never know when you’ll find a new public beach.

Even if it means an extra 10 miles on your ride, always take the scenic route. You never know when you’ll find a new public beach.

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Don’t worry, you haven’t missed much.

It doesn’t surprise me that in light of Purim, a considerable amount of people have suggested I dress up as a Krill and go in to lab.  What would surprise me is if any of the people who have made this suggestion know what krill look like.

I know it’s been a while since I’ve updated the three people that probably read this on what I’ve been up to, but in all honesty, if there was something to report,  I would have reported it.  These past few weeks have consisted of a lot of small projects, tinkering with a lot of computer code, and working on other researcher’s side projects to both educate myself and to keep busy while taking the time to figure out exactly what I’m capable of and what sort of project I will pursue on my own.

I’ve narrowed down my options to two data sets, and by early next week, I hope to be elbows deep in one of them, either plugging away at lines of code, or bumping up my glasses prescription spending all waking hours staring into a microscope.  Either way, I’m sure it won’t seem that interesting to anyone besides myself (and my lab), but I’ll be sure write a nice long description, even if just to finally explain what exactly it is that I’m studying.  I’m sure in many people’s minds what I actually do floats between the spectrum of yelling at whales under water and making dead tiny shrimp cocktails, both of which I’ve done in the past, but not necessarily for research, and definitely have no relation to my current work.

But regardless, living on Cape Cod has left me with no complaints, especially since walking along the beach in February doesn’t seem so bad when it’s 60 degrees out.  However, as I sit here looking out my office window to the nice, warm sunny day, I’m reminded of the weather report that says it’s supposed to snow tonight.  It may not be Hawaii, but at least it’s not Ithaca.

I’ll part with one thing I’ve learned about myself while living alone (and having cable television) for the first time in college: I am incredibly loud when watching television.  From laughing out loud during Colbert, to yelling at players during sporting events (oh, the Lin-sanity), whenever someone does finally move into the other half of the house, they are in for quite a shock.