Friday, September 4, 2009

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Or, An Illustrated Guide to Sorting Plankton.

First the motivation: why would you want to spend all summer sorting plankton? Especially why would you go to La Jolla, beautiful warm sunny La Jolla, just so you could sit in a basement laboratory behind a microscope all day--sorting plankton?

Because in 2006 I went on this cruise, and I sorted plankton every night, and my findings were preliminary, but intriguing.
Because as part of this scholarship, I had to do some kind of research collaboration at a NOAA facility.
Because
it turns out that NOAA has been doing these cruises, and collecting plankton samples, every few years for decades, and that is an amazing dataset ripe for the picking.
Because
it made sense for the fourth and final chapter of my thesis to focus on squid spawning in the tropics, and that means looking for squid babies in plankton.

So, for all of these reasons, I found myself spending the summer in a rather surreal environment.

The fume hood:




The doorstop:



The bench full of open containers:





The best thing about my working conditions was definitely the company. A hilarious and energetic undergrad helped me out on her own erratic schedule, and next door to us was the reliable, friendly and knowledgeable collections manager, Annie. I admire Annie a great deal, in large part because she can look at crustaceans and see something biologically meaningful, instead of a crunchy reddish mess, as I do. But she also loves molluscs. Sort of the same way I love worms. We actually had this conversation:

Me: I would be a worm person if I weren't a mollusc person.
Annie: I would be a mollusc person if I weren't a crustacean person.

Unfortunately for me, plankton samples tend to be mostly crustaceans--copepods, ostracods, krill, shrimp, crab larvae, you name it--if it's red and crunchy, it's probably in the plankton somewhere. It will not surprise you to hear that I was looking for squid, not crustaceans. It's not as bad as a needle in a haystack, but . . . well, sometimes it is. After a few days, this is what I began seeing on the backs of my eyelids:



So, sorting squid out of plankton samples makes you insane! Hooray!

My job was made slightly more rewarding because I had decided to sort out fish also. There were more fish than squid, but (usually) not so many more that it really slowed me down. And at the end of the day, it feels like more of an accomplishment to have pulled 87 fish and 2 squid out of a jar than to have pulled out just 2 squid. Or zero squid. There are lots of people at NOAA who are very interested in fish, so I was able to give a little back to the people who were helping me out.

Plankton sorting is essentially a grown-up, scientific version of Where's Waldo? There are two fish and one squid in this image:




See?




It's not fair, of course, because I get stereo vision through the microscope, but you're just being given a single flat picture. Sorry about that. Here, I'll make up for it with some lolplankton:






These lolplankton brought to you courtesy of the Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. "The program is administered through NOAA's Office of Education and funded annually with one percent of the amount appropriated each fiscal year to carry out the National Marine Sanctuaries Act."

Yes, that means this is . . .

YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK!

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