West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Summertime, Part II

In the past few weeks I’ve been traveling to scientific conferences, enjoying the rarefied world of academia and coping with—if not enjoying—the attendant stress and jet lag. I even managed to look the part of an up-and-coming scientist, in a professional black jacket and skirt I found in one of the Ropa Americana stores in Heredia the weekend before I left (dry-cleaning tag still attached; sorry, Jennifer Smith!), after realizing at the last minute that all my nice clothes are in storage in Maine. Last Thursday I left Costa Rica at the crack of dawn to travel to Snowbird, Utah, to present a workshop on robust statistical methods for biodiversity estimation. Rob Colwell, one of my committee members, wrote a classic program that implements a lot of these methods, and he was invited to give the workshop originally, but he had to decline due to family commitments. He suggested me as a substitute, so there I was, filling some very big shoes. The lecture and workshop were very well-received, though.

The conference at Snowbird was a joint meeting of the Botanical Society of America and the Mycological Society of America, and the workshop beforehand was a group of fungal systematists. I think the trait that most unites scientists of all stripes is their passion for their study systems. I, for instance, will argue at great length about the beauty and conservation value of tropical secondary forests, and don’t get me started on lianas. At UCONN I knew a number of parasitologists who could wax rhapsodic about the ultrastructure of a tapeworm scolex. And at Snowbird, I met a great many fungus enthusiasts. One quote that sticks with me, from conference organizer Tom Bruns, on rust fungi: “If it’s got five hosts and two spore stages, you’ve got to respect it!” I learned a great deal about fungi and their role in ecosystems, although (the mycologists will be disappointed) I’m still not convinced that fungi run the world.

On Friday I had a chance to climb up to the ridge above the resort, passing through steep alpine meadows in full bloom. Roses and gentians, bluish geraniums, and a host of others I couldn’t name, all faintly fragrant when a wind came up the slope. Near the high ridge, patches of grainy snow were still present under the trees. I climbed slowly, fighting for the thin air at 11,000 feet and watching fat ground squirrels chase each other among the flowers. I hiked barefoot for a little bit, but the trail was mostly gravel and not so pleasant.

Saturday morning was the workshop. We had originally expected 30 or 40 people, but 70 registered and nearly 100 showed up. I didn’t get nervous during the lecture, though. I think my inner diva relishes the spotlight. The difficult part was the workshop, when participants had a chance to use the software and try out some analyses. I wasn’t sure how I would manage with that many people. Fortunately one of the postdocs on the organizing committee had worked with the program extensively, so he was able to help out, and it all ran smoothly in the end. It was very rewarding to see results popping up on everyone’s laptop screens.

The only disappointment in Utah was that I wasn’t able to meet up with my uncle Pete. He’s a fungal systematist, and I haven’t seen him in almost ten years. He was planning to attend the meeting and we were going to have dinner on Saturday, but his flight out of Alabama was delayed and we weren’t able to meet after all.

I left Snowbird on Saturday evening for a red-eye flight to New York. The plane was delayed until almost 4am, and I spent an uncomfortable sleepless night in the Salt Lake City airport, cursing the plastic chairs with arm rests that made it impossible to stretch out, the grimy carpet that I decided not to stretch out on either, and the inescapable CNN broadcast that permeated the entire terminal. I spent the next day in the JFK airport in a fog of jet lag, eventually finding my way to the Lufthansa terminal, waiting for check-in to open, and waiting for the plane to board. This being a German airline, it was perfectly on time. It was also, sadly, full of boisterous Spanish high school students returning from a trip to New York, and so I didn’t sleep on this plane either.

Thus, after two sleepless nights, I arrived in Frankfurt at 5am. I passed quickly through customs, found my way to the train station, and figured out my connections to the picturesque town of Marburg an der Lahn for the annual meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation. I arrived at the conference just in time for the first plenary speaker. My own session was scheduled for the afternoon. Stefan Schnitzer, a professor at Wisconsin and an all-around good guy, had worked with me to put together a symposium on the topic of changing liana abundance in tropical forests. The theme of the meeting this year was climate change and tropical ecosystems, so it seemed natural to put together a session on lianas. A lot of new evidence suggests that lianas can respond favorably to increased drought and increased carbon dioxide levels, even to a greater extent than co-occurring trees. Data from South and Central America suggest that lianas are increasing in abundance already. Despite their relatively low biomass, lianas have a huge impact on forest dynamics. If lianas do increase with climate change, they have the potential to radically alter the structure of tropical forests, favoring soft-wooded, fast-growing trees that store much less carbon than slower-growing hardwoods. We put together a diverse group of speakers to address this topic and various other aspects of liana biology.

About an hour before the session was scheduled to begin, I checked with the conference organizers to make sure that all the speakers had arrived and loaded their talks. Everyone had—except Stefan. He was scheduled to give the introduction to the session. We’d talked a little bit about what the talk would include, and so he put me on it as a co-author, but I’d never actually seen the slides. With a sinking feeling, I checked my email, and sure enough there was a message from Stefan around midnight the night before: he was stuck in Newark and probably wouldn’t arrive on time, and did I want to give the attached talk? At this point it was 40 minutes before the session. Well, I was listed as a co-author, and didn’t have much of a choice. I downloaded the Powerpoint and found that it was 40 slides long, for a 15-minute slot. I think Stefan must talk faster than I do. I took about half an hour to cut the presentation down a bit and fix the format—the font size was screwed up on about half the slides, and some of the graphics didn’t load. My friend Luitgard Schwendenmann, bless her heart, showed me where the delete key is on a German keyboard and offered calming words of wisdom. Then I took about five minutes to figure out what to say, do some deep breathing, and vaguely wish I was religious so I could put it all in the hands of my deity of choice.

I don’t remember much of the talk, actually. People say it went pretty well. By the time my own talk came along, at the end of the session, I was on auto-pilot, in a zone beyond stress and sleeplessness. It was almost as though I was watching myself stand up there and be articulate and compelling, the diva delivering the goods no matter what the cost. I thought what happened in China was stressful. This was so much worse. Double red-eye, unexpected talk with no prep time. I’ve never been happier to be finished with my part at a conference. Stefan finally arrived during the last set of talks, so at least he got to see a few of the speakers that we invited.

The rest of the conference I’ve been hanging out with La Selva friends, attending talks, and exploring the almost-too-cute town of Marburg. The historic part of town is up a steep hill, so steep that the town has installed a public elevator. Along the cobblestone streets, many of them too narrow for cars and giving way to stairs every few blocks, narrow little houses with painted wooden beams and slate roofs stack up like Escher creations. The castle on the hilltop and the slow, green waters of the Lahn River below frame a scene that, aside from the elevator, seems to have slipped out of a book of Medieval fairy tales. Apparently Marburg had no heavy industry at the time of WWII, and so escaped unscathed. Everything has a patina of Old Europe about it—the bike paths along the river, the sidewalk cafes, the little chocolate shops and bakeries. The seal of Phillips Universitat, our host institution, bears the numbers 1527. It took me a while to resolve that as a date.

And the unbearable cuteness of everything: “German kitsch,” my sister Lucy says, “is the most kitschy of all kitsch.” (She should know; she lives in Berlin.) In the garden of the house next to the youth hostel—a brick mansion with a date in the 1700s over its door—there is a miniature mill staffed by garden gnomes. Gnomes feature heavily in the stores in the old district, along with more utilitarian ceramics, Pashmina scarves, chocolate, mysterious liquers, and all manner of postcards, all in cheery colors and impeccably tidy. The names of all the mouthwatering treats lined up in the bakery window all end in -chen, which is more or less “cute little.” Brötchen, cute little bread. Lahnstangchen, cute little pretzels. Even the way people talk is cute, the sing-song of “danke schön, bitte schön, tschüss!” (the lattermost with a curious high inflection and divided into two syllables, a sort of Teutonic “buh-bye!”).

My own extremely limited German skills are limited to bad pickup lines learned from La Selva researchers, a few half-remembered famous German poems that I learned when I studied music theory, and the remnants of a phrase-a-day travel calendar that my sophomore-year roommate gave me. The latter was probably the most useful (“Ich habe ein kreditkarte… das ist mein koffer… um wiefiel uhr beginnt das führung?” something more or less like, “I have a credit card… that is my suitcase… what time does the tour begin?”). My two most successful German transactions were buying an internet voucher at the youth hostel (“halbe stunde von internet, bitte”) and finding some wrapping paper with hearts on it. I bought some chocolates for Dixon at a charming little candy store. Next door there was a charming little store that only sold wrapping paper, apparently, much of it ancient and wrinkled and reminiscent of the paper we used to save every year from one Christmas to the next. I wondered whether people returned wrapping paper to the store after using it, and I also wondered how a place like this stayed in business. My German skills did not extend to such things, though. The attendant was a woman about half my size and nearly three times my age, with an extravagant bouffant. She asked something; I assume it was probably “can I help you?” “Ich suche papier mit herzen,” I said. I am looking for paper with hearts. Almost grammatically correct, I think, and not to be found in any phrase book. I was proud of that sentence. Most of my transactions usually ended up with me at a loss for words, and the salesperson effortlessly switching to English. At the end of my stay I could finally navigate the finer points of “ab steiβen oder zu mitnehmen” (here or to go), but any questions outside the script left me flustered. People politely tolerated my efforts. It’s hard to imagine a coffeeshop waitress in the US just smiling and switching to German for someone who says, “sorry, I have little, little English. Please talk me in little words?”

It is strange to reconcile this life—international travel, recognition, scientific dialogue—with the life I was living in Costa Rica. I’m trying to figure out my next step. I think I will stay with OTS for a few more years, assuming that OTS stays solvent, but there are times when I wonder whether that’s the right decision. I see people my age who decided to go into research postdocs instead of teaching amassing publication records I could never hope to match. And then there are other thoughts about life priorities… I would love to have a family. I would love to have a career in science, really contribute something to the field. I think it’s possible to do both, but I don’t know how. Should I wait to have children until after I have tenure somewhere? Will I even be able to? Will I have the energy to work towards tenure and also raise a family? I have a lot to think about, and a lot to talk about with Dixon. I don’t know whether our goals and priorities will match in the long run. I have to start, I guess, by figuring out what my goals and priorities really are.


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