My new situation in the USA…

Hi everyone! It’s been too long since I wrote a blog post. I’m sorry about that!

A hell of a lot has happened since my last post. As friends and followers will know, I have moved from Canada to America! Since the start of September 2016, I have been living in Nashville, Tennessee.

PAUSE – isn’t this an Arctic guy? 

Given my background, and the fact that there are no seas or polar regions around here, my current residence may seem literally out of place. Know that I am still very much engaged in Arctic and marine subjects (see below), but as my previous posts show, I have long wanted to get more involved in science communication, especially teaching science to young people, and that is what I am doing now! 🙂

I have been working for Vanderbilt University, ranked the 15th best college in the US (2017), with an apparently very happy student and staff community. More specifically, I work for the Centre for Science Outreach, as one of four instructors in a program called the School of Science and Math at Vanderbilt (http://www.vanderbilt.edu/cso/ssmv/). At the SSMV we educate 4 groups of students each week, corresponding to the different grades of high school from 9 to 12 (ages 14-18). During the 4-year course, each student comes to Vanderbilt Uni campus one day per week during term-time, and more frequently in summer. We give them better-than-high-school education on a wide diversity of topics in science, math and engineering. They carry out large, highly original research and community projects during the second, third and final years, and some of the students’ works have been published (one in Nature – for real). The course has clearly helped past students obtain good scholarships and gain access into the best colleges in America.

The instructors at the SSMV are a notably interesting bunch! All have PhDs (except for me yet, as I’m currently waiting for my PhD jury in Quebec to review my thesis). One of the four instructors has a background in genetics and molecular biology, the second in neurobiology and human development. The third is a civil engineer who has worked extensively on the behaviour of carbon nanofibers in cement pastes, and then there is me: what seems to be the only marine scientist for miles around!

Wyatt Centre at Vanderbilt University: my new workplace (from http://cpc-fis.vanderbilt.edu/)

Together, I think we are doing something very special: giving the students the best education across a wide range of cutting-edge science subjects. It’s not unusual for us to talk biology, chemistry, physics, geology, politics, sociology and engineering all in one day. We do try to have “theme words” which link the lessons in a given day. For instance, Monday’s theme word was “stress”, so obviously the neurobiologist talked about anxiety, and obviously the civil engineer talked about how physical stress on concrete structures.

I have been involved in teaching the first years all about water. A few weeks back, we took them to the Nashville wastewater treatment works, where tour guides showed us all the processes involved in treating sewage prior to emptying the effluent into the Cumberland River. The following week, we found ourselves ankle-deep in a tributary of the Cumberland River (that link did me feel a bit queasy), where we examined the animals that live there. That was a fun day, a flashback to my high school biology project when I did exactly the same thing (setting myself up in the river, kicking the bottom so that the riverbed animals could be dislodged, and capturing in a handheld net). The kids seemed to love that day as much as me, also enjoying using equipment to record bird calls, and measure stream pH and velocity. And as if that wasn’t enough fun, the week after we toured the underground tunnels of Vanderbilt Campus (where water is moved around in pipes and you can’t come out without getting very wet and muddy).

So, as you see, even though there is no sea, there is still lots of work for an aquatic scientist in Tennessee!

Preparing river sampling equipment

One at a time: teaching students how to sample river animals

Lab work as well as field work

I am currently trying to build Arctic content into the SSMV curricula for the first time. I have given talks on many aspects of the Arctic and on climate change, and was happy to discover that all the students were concerned about rapid climate change. But it was much more of a challenge to convince them that plankton can be as interesting as cuddly mammals… or even non-cuddly, simply strange mammals such as hooded-seal males which blow weird nose balloons to impress the chicks. OK, maybe plankton can’t compete with that?!

Demonstration of an important difference between freshwater ice and saltwater ice (brine channels!)

I’m also hoping to work with some of my Arctic colleagues (e.g. bioCEED) on student projects, for instance to compare how insects and birds living in Tennessee and the high-Arctic have very different environmental survival strategies. I’d like to have sampling campaigns in both regions next winter/spring, although fieldwork for the SSMV students will unfortunately be limited to Tennessee (sorry kids) …

I’m very excited about another project to take the students out to the longest cave system in Tennessee (about 1.5 hours from here) where we will work with the lab of Dr. Jessica Oster (https://jessica-oster.squarespace.com/) to reconstruct the response of cave hydroclimates to past climate change, based on insights from mineral deposits. Can’t wait for the cave trips! I’m also getting involved in another project to build a database of animal photographs from different places, maybe caves too! (Hit me up if you want involved in that database from wherever you are)

I don’t want to forget to add that Nashville is a very cool place! It is indeed “Music City”, clearly demonstrated by the musical liveliness of downtown (Broadway) and Music Row around the corner from my office. Cowboy boots are the norm around here. Scottish accents are not. For me, the weather was so hot (and unbelievably humid) a few weeks back, but is now cooler. People are very friendly. When I got here, a lot of people helped me out by giving me furniture for free, which was awesome. However, in general, setting myself up America wasn’t straight forward, as there were so many government and university administration steps to complete before I could even get paid, and I had to be in the country (plus have a social security number) to initiate many of these stages. It is what it is, things are now settled and my house has proved adequate for friends already coming down to visit me from Canada:

My friend Kai visiting Nashville from Toronto

So, guys that’s a (long) update for you. I hope you guys are doing well, and I also hope to update this blog soon, which (I think) will now be easier! I will also be heading back north at some point soon to defend my thesis.

Take care of yourselves,

Jx

Comments (1)
  • Iain Allison

    November 7, 2016

    Message*Hi Jordan, Hope all goes well with the thesis review. I’m sure the Arctic will lure you back at some point
    Iain

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