I figured that this summer I would put this blog to better use than just FSP. Might as well keep this going as a log of ecological adventures, right? So I’m picking up in early June, right when things get perfectly hectic.
After a long spring of many cover letters, interviews, and late nights tweaking my CV, I landed an internship through the National Science Foundation’s REU program, down at a research station in Louisiana (more on it soon). I was set to start on Monday, June 6th. However….per Dmouth’s quarter system, the end of the spring term was obnoxiously late: my last paper was set to be due June 7th. Slight conflict.
Resolution? A brutal couple of days. Chem final on Thursday, grinding all day packing and writing that night and the next day, driving back to Princeton Friday night, waking up early Saturday (jk who sleeps at all) to write again, and get on the road again, finish Geography paper due Saturday afternoon while driving all through the day get to hotel wake up get on road drive drive write drivewritedrive……
Lucky for me, I have an amazing mother, who helped soften the blow by driving down with me. Which resulted in her driving pretty much the whole time, while I wrote and (sorta) slept.
At about 5:30 (central time!) on Sunday, I dropped her off at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International, and rode the last couple hours on my own. For a second there, I was a little worried that I’d feel lost, or homesick, this far away from the Northeast. Just for a second. Because as I rolled down the windows, turned up the country music (I’m honestly trying it out, though a tough transition for sure), and let the humid hot air wash over me, I realized how amazing this place was and how excited I was. And I haven’t thought about missing home since.
After you pass through Houma, it’s pretty much a straight shot to get to LUMCON. The reason being, well, because there’s only one road. It’s quite a beautiful drive, and with each passing mile I was more and more excited.
Coming from the northeast, the first glance at LUMCON may catch you by surprise. Why is the building ten feet off the ground? Wait, why is EVERY building sitting a story above the ground? Well, the answer is obvious to anyone from around this area. And it becomes pretty apparent once the first thunderstorm hits (which doesn’t take long).
It floods like crazy around here — in part from the high precipitation, in part because of the proximity of several large bodies of water, and in part because the elevation doesn’t get higher than a meter for dozens of miles in any direction.
I’ll now provide some background as to what the hell I’m doing down in the bayou. But first,
bayou [bahy-oo, bahy-oh],
In other terms, a bayou is what remains when a river changes direction to run a different course. In Cajun Country, the bayou acts as an outlet to the ocean, a way to carry goods up or down river, and a place to catch some dinner (yes, catfish and gator, but also many other things).
Where are you?
Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, or LUMCON for short, is a research station loosely associated with the various universities of Louisiana. But like several other prominent marine institutes (including one that may be familiar…), it stands independent of an academic institution. Really, it acts as its own: LUMCON has its own labs, education programs (K-12, undergraduate, and graduate), and faculty. Pretty cool, right?
Yeah, sure, but what are you doing there?
I’m working in the Roberts lab for the summer. The PI (or primary investigator for those not in the business) Brian, focuses his research on the biogeochemistry of the salt marsh, looking at how nutrients, organics, and other compounds cycle through trophic levels, and geographic locations, in the salt marsh system.
Ok, so what does that mean for you?
Wow, great to see you’re so interested! Well, REU programs (Research Experience for Undergraduates) are funded by the NSF, to offer research opportunities to students, especially those that may not have many options at their host school. A lab or institution will apply for the funding to host an REU program. REUs usually consist of an independent project that is spearheaded by the undergraduate, accompanied by a series of workshops, lectures, or journal clubs led by resident faculty.
So what’s your project?
Well…haven’t quite figured all of it out yet. But it appears it’s going to involve looking at the grazing preferences of a herbivorous/detritivorous snail that is highly abundant across the marsh. I’ll update on that once it’s hammered into place.
I’m not in this alone though. There are two other interns in the lab:
Maddie Sorrentino is a ’19 at UVM, Wildlife and (Forestry?) Biology Major. She’s also from Jersey — went to MAST actually (we competed against them way back in my Envirothon days with Grace).
Nicole Farley is a ’17 at Wayne State, and is from Detroit as well. She’s a Bio major, and has been working in a genetics lab.
On our first day, we meet up with Brian at 9:15 (which we will soon learn is a late start), who gives us a tour of the station. We start with going up to the top of the observational tower, which presents a beautiful view of the marsh surrounding us on pretty much all sides. You can see gulls soaring above, swallows swooping after mosquitos and flies, and a roseate spoonbill landing softly next to the station’s pond. Brian points out several of the local field sites we’ll be using — we can’t tell what he’s pointing at, except some patch of grass surrounded by many other patches of grass, but we nod our heads eagerly of course.
There are five operational labs at the moment, with studies ranging from marine geophysics to coral ecology. We run into several of the other residential PI’s, whom Brian introduces us to. Soon enough, he drops us off at our lab again. The room is filled with glassware, several machines that are whirring and whizzing, and all sorts of chemicals and compounds that could kill you really easily.
We spend the rest of the day getting more acquainted with where things go in the lab, and some of the simple, busywork tasks that need to be done on a usual basis. The rest of the week ends up following a similar fashion, so that there’s almost semblance of a schedule to our days:
- wake up around 7:20 (well, once in a while 8:15 for me whoops)
- meet at the lab at 8:00 (8:18 on those few days)
- take care of tasks that need to get done in the lab: put glassware in the acid or contrad baths to clean them, take stuff out to wash off with nanopure water, pipette things, put away glassware (break glassware…), etc.
- lunch at noon
- rest of the afternoon is mainly split between researching for our projects, and meetings/workshops with Brian or the Post-docs, all of whom are mentoring us on each of our projects
- done around 4
- work out, go grocery shopping, etc.
- cook dinner around 6:30
And so on.
From the first week here, I’ve already found some aspects of the station that I really love…and developed some big pet peeves about this place.
Things I like about LUMCON:
- Everyone is friendly and always says hi
- The labs are great, and the whole station is really beautiful. There’s an amazing observatory tower with a great view over the salt marsh, and exhibits with aquariums.
- Going out in the field here is superb. Once you get out on the water, in a kayak or a boat, the bugs are gone, the sun is out, and it can’t be better.
Things I don’t like:
- Mosquitos. During the middle of the day, you can’t really go outside because it’s 95 degrees. And when it’s not boiling, the ‘squitos are everywhere. The 15-second trek from my dorm to my car leaves me with a swarm that will follow me through the door, which makes the first few minutes of any drive quite a bother.
- The wi-fi. Spotty at best. I’m starting to find where the best (meaning semi-consistent) locations are. Sometimes it’s about a 2-foot radius where you can get a connection, but nowhere else around.
- There’s no recycling. IT SUCKS! Nicole, Maddi and I have resorted to stockholding recyclables in our dorms, in hopes of depositing them somewhere in Houma that can do good with them. It’s pretty weird to come from the Dartmouth campus, which has ubiquitous zero-sort recycling AND compost…to a location that, at best, will recycle some tin cans.
Some things I hope to blog about soon:
So I’ve been playing a decent amount of frisbee down south. Every Monday night is the New Orleans Summer League– 8 teams named after local bars and breweries. Robert Livaudais, a rising sophomore on Pain Train, also is playing in the summer league, which is pretty great.
–Going to visit New Orleans (Zydeco festival, French Quarter)
This past Saturday, I decided to get away from the station to go check out downtown New Orleans for the first time. After a full lay-down on the music festival and concert schedule for the summer from Jacqui (one of the research assistants in the lab), it seemed as if the weekend’s Zydeco festival was the play to check out.
After getting some labwork done in the morning, I got into the city around 2pm. It was pouring at the station, and along most of the drive, but once I got into city boundaries the skies were completely clear. Such a great feeling to escape the constant storms.
The festival was at the Louis Armstrong Park, and it was a great scene. When I get a chance, I’ll write all about it.
–My Amazing Herp Day
So much to tell, so little time!