Thursday, August 29, 2013

Why I'm going

At one point close to 5 years ago, I was in Munich, Germany, sometime around 8 pm, sitting in a dark (as in, no lights on and the window in the door blacked out) coldroom (not a cold room, a coldroom, which is like a walk-in refrigerator) doing science, which at the time involved babysitting green sulfur bacteria while they attempted to do photosynthesis from astoundingly low light fluxes. There was not much to do except sit and watch the dimmed computer screen monitoring their activity. So I did a lot of thinking. At the time I was in a committed long-term relationship that seemed to have nowhere else to go except permanent, and while I had long accepted that, a part of me recoiled. I wanted to get married, settle down, raise kids, have a job I loved. But I felt like I still had a whole lot of things I wanted to do first.

It looked like this, all the time, and was very cold.

And that's when the dream hatched. I started writing a list of the things I wanted to do. Ride the trans-Siberian railway. See penguins. Work on a farm on a continent I'd never been to before. Bike across China. Do a backcountry snowboarding tour in the Andes...then, snowboard on every continent. The list went on for days, weeks, and has continued to grow. My bucket list. My travel list.

My S.O. at the time and I pledged that before marriage, before kids, after graduating with our Ph.D.s, we'd take a year to travel the world together and check off as many of our list items as we could.

We had biked across Scotland and Eastern Europe...why not level up and do China?
We had ski toured all over the Western U.S., and wanted to expand that to everywhere else, too.

The relationship ended (fairly amicably) a year later.

Not long after that, I met a kindred spirit who, on our first date, started to tell me about his dream for once he graduated--it was nearly identical to mine. We spent the next year and a half dreaming up our travel and life plans together before that relationship, too, ended (significantly less amicably), leaving me with a very badly broken heart.

I had never traveled alone for more than a few days. The thought of traveling around the world alone scared me. I'm an introvert who doesn't like to be alone--is that weird? In addition, a tough two years of one medical issue after another significantly drained the Travel Fund that I had worked so hard to save for. I gave up on being able to do it. I was depressed, restless, unable to commit to or get excited about anything.

One of my only solo trips: a 4 day road trip down the California Coast in my beloved Tomatomobile
Sleeping in the Tomatomobile solidified our deep and lasting bond, best car ever
After about the 200th time a mentor or stranger had asked me about my post-graduation job plans and I gave a half-hearted answer of "I'm looking for postdocs" (a lie, because I wasn't) and feeling totally inadequate for not being excited about the next phase of my life, I remembered the dream. And I fought with it, and it grew in my head, and I started to tell my friends and family about it again, until one day my response to "you need to start looking for postdocs" was to break down and sob and admit that I didn't want to find a postdoc...not yet. I had a dream to follow.

That person (my advisor) was incredibly supportive, as were other people I was close to as I started to feel more comfortable talking about what I really wanted to do. Suddenly the sun started to come out, I started to get excited, I realized that I don't need a boyfriend or a full savings account or any other suite of excuses to travel. I may not make it around the world or snowboard on seven continents, but I can do a snowboard tour in the Andes (stop #1), backpack at the end of the world (stop #2), and work on a farm on a continent I've never been to before (stop #3?). And we'll see where it goes from there.

Seven or so months later, I am days away from leaving. I am unspeakably, deeply, buzzing in my bones excited. I am also terrified, but in a good "this is going to be an adventure" way. I like doing things that terrify me. I need to do things that terrify me. It reminds me that I am, alone, capable and tougher than I sometimes think. But I won't be alone: I'll meet people along the way, I always do. And I'm not alone: I have an incredible network of people who love and inspire me every day, even when I'm miles or thousands of miles away. To all of you: stay in touch, and I look forward to sharing my adventure!

Much love,

In 2003, swimming with my sister at Mendenhall Glacier (Juneau, Alaska), where my parents got married almost exactly 40 years ago. I swear not naked in that photo, just wearing a rather too-close-to-skin-colored top.


This just happened. (WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!)

So now the big news:

I'm fulfilling a long-held dream to do a year-long round-the-world trip, starting in Santiago de Chile, and I fly out on Saturday!

And I have a blog!


More to come, but set your bookmarks now, because it's going to be awesome.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Wilbur Hot Springs: Geobio scouting expedition

Streamers and exciting mystery crust
On my way out of California, I couldn't resist stopping off for some geobio-tourism. I had heard rumors of some beautiful mats at some sulfur springs somewhere within a day's drive of Chico, and when I checked in with Russell, next thing I knew we had a field trip planned.

The site was Wilbur Hot Springs, site of a beautiful, historic, clothing-optional (whee!) hot springs health resort. The good folks there generously let us scout the area as a potential research site.

Sulfur deposits on the hillside
The site reeks of sulfide (i.e., the sweet smell of science). Stepping into the main lodge my first thought was, "I would never get away with this in the lab". Anywhere outside a health spa, those levels of sulfide would not be considered healthy for long-term exposure, but hey, what's good for plants (in this case, low doses of sulfide) has got to be good for us, too, right?

Skepticism about the human health benefits of the spa aside, it's definitely making the microbes happy. I'm a total sucker for pigmented anythings, and there were all sorts of pretty colors here. Mostly carotenoid brown, but there were also bright pinky reds (rhodopsins? purple sulfur bacteria? what are you, pretty pink stuff?), deep blue-greens (hello, sulfide-tolerant cyanos!), and the flowing white tassels of sulfide-oxidizing streamers (maybe Aquificales?). I restrained myself at Russell's request and didn't take samples, but I did do some mat-fondling, couldn't help it.

There were also mineral structures, including little salt towers (tasted like halite, looked like mini-tufas) and crusts that were probably dominated by elemental sulfur, including some adorable little proto-stromatolites.

Sulfur proto-stromatolite
What are you, pretty red stuff?

Russell then took me on a short hike on the surface of Venus (sweet Jeebus it was hot out) away into the neighboring nature preserve. It was like walking into a scene out of Steinbeck's East of Eden, or what I've always pictured California looking like, with the golden grass-covered hills dotted with manzanita and oak groves. Also poison oak, so we were wearing jeans, which provided no respite from the venusian oppression. However it was well worth it for the views, as well as for the fossil methane seep we came there for. The hillside was littered with chunks of fossil bivalves in the float material, as well as chunks of less macroscopically striking (but no less interesting) carbonate that were practically pleading to be isotope-d. According to Russell if you hike through the area different seep facies become apparent, but I was kind of distracted by the whole "woah! you can see the hinge on this one!" fossil thing.

Classic California Coast Range
Russell hunting for bivalves
Found some

One interesting geobiology question to ask at this site is how the specific mineralogy (and trace metal geochemistry) of the locality and spring waters influences the microbial communities present. This site sits at an old sulfur mine. Other nearby sites have springs that run through mines for other metals, gold among them. What an excellent testing ground for the Baas-Becking hypothesis ("everything is everywhere, but the environment selects")!

I'd love to get my grubby hands back in here again. Wilbur, I hope to see you again soon! (you too, Russell!)