We even caught a salamander…

Hey everyone, welcome to my second blog post since I touched down on American soil last fall!

As is now the norm, I will start this with an apology for length of absence. This is the third country I’ve set myself up from scratch in, after Norway in 2008 and Canada in 2012, and it takes time. It’s never easy to establish yourself as a student or employee in a new country, though having done it before did make the acclimatization process easier for me. In the last 6 months, I have had so many awesome experiences, but a lot of challenges to overcome too.

From: http://www.investopedia.com/financial-edge/1012/u.s.-or-canada-which-country-is-best-to-call-home.aspx

The biggest challenge I’ve had here has been transitioning from one era of my life to another. I am talking about the move from my status as full-time student in Arctic ecology, to full-time teacher of varied science subjects to motivated teenagers. I got back comments on the PhD thesis from my PhD jury last November, and used them to prepare for my defense (which I gave in December in Quebec). These comments were generally positive, but also included many useful suggestions on how to improve various chapters. For my defense, I produced an interesting presentation that summarized all 5 chapters in half an hour. After working on a project for 5 years, it’s not an easy task to compress everything you have found out into 30 minutes, but I managed it, focusing on my most interesting results, rather than showing every single figure and table.

Following my 30 minute presentation, the committee of four professors asked me pressing questions in French and English. They wanted to know how my results related to the big picture of marine ecosystems, or to other locations where chaetognaths live. I think I did a good job! I did wish that the audience would have had the chance to ask questions too, because I know some of them wanted to, and I think they deserved to say something after me speaking for an hour. Following the questions, the jury deliberated on my fate, before telling me I had passed. This means that I would finally get my doctorate, following submission of a revised, final version of the thesis in March.

My defense talk

After my defense presentation, with the lab. Yeah, I wore the kilt!

My parents flew in to see my defense, and we had a few really nice days together, staying in probably the nicest hotel in Quebec: the Château Frontenac. Thanks Mum and Dad!

My mum in Quebec

The few days I was in Quebec also involved going through the stacks of personal items and paperwork that I had hurriedly abandoned in a friend’s house, and deciding what to keep, and what to throw away. When my parents left, I flew to Toronto with hefty excess baggage fees and stupidly full pockets, and stayed with Kai for Christmas. This was a fun, and much more relaxing period, even if the return journey to Nashville at New Year meant missed flights and more baggage charges.

I made it, as I always do. The months since then focused on finishing the last draft of my thesis (I also submitted one of my papers for publication in Journal of Plankton Research).

Finally, I can report what I’ve been up to at the SSMV this semester! Since I haven’t blogged in so long, I thought I would remind you of how our program works. We teach four cohorts of high school students corresponding to different years 9 to 12 (there are 20-26 students in each class). The fall and spring semesters, whilst both pretty intense, are very different. During the spring semester, we leave behind the lecture-based style of the fall curriculum. All four cohorts do project work.

The fourth-years carry out projects that help to improve the Nashville community. One of the two fourth-year groups that I supervise has been re-designing an exhibit at the famous Adventure Science Center in Nashville. This exhibit teaches kids and adults alike about the human body. However, it is a bit outdated, so our students have came up with cool ideas to make it more modern and interactive. My other group from this senior class has been identifying ways to better include topics of sustainability and climate change in the Nashville high school curriculum. Very important stuff!

Sophomore class: The 7 projects carried out by individual groups of sophomore students are supervised by us, your faithful SSMV instructors. For me, this has been a major highlight of the spring semester. That is because I run two projects that are not only proving to be interesting to the students, but allow me to continue working on aquatic ecosystems, my fave.

Since January, the Stream Team have been out to a local Nashville stream about 5 times, using a bunch of traps and nets to sample populations of stream animals over time. I wanted to show the kids how some species may be more common at certain times of year, rather than others. This relates to their life cycle, and indeed we saw a lot of fruit flies in January but not later. In March, we started to see more crane flies in our sticky insect trap (attached to a tree). It was pretty cool to see the stark differences between the river-dwelling larvae form of the crane fly and the adult crane flies that are yellow or green in color. We also caught a salamander. We put images of all the things we catch into an online database.

Crane fly larvae

Crane fly adult

Ruby, Carlos and Ana have been building a phone app to identify arctic zooplankton. Such apps are really useful for anyone working on animal identification (like for big cats), but I couldn’t find one for identifying zooplankton, so I worked closely with these students, and with Norwegian and Polish colleagues, to determine the anatomical features of zooplankton that need to be described to correctly identify species. We also got hold of lots of awesome photos to include in our app, and are in the process of coding everything in.

Ruby figuring out the zooplankton ID question tree

A ghostly zooplankton, Apherusa spp. Courtesy of Malin Daase.

Finally, the freshmen! Each Monday, I put on my Bill Nye hat to teach about all kinds of science topics, and do all kinds of experiments. This is a lot of fun too. This spring, we simulated oil spills, demonstrated the principles of refraction, built geodesic domes, and went to the Dyer Observatory to look at stars and planets through a microscope. 

VIDEO: Freshmen invisible beaker experiment: the beaker appears to disappear because it has the same “refractive index” as the canola oil in which it is immersed.

The freshmen-class project has involved the dissection of the boluses (i.e. the regurgitated gut contents) of seabirds from Hawaii. Specifically, they’ve been looking for bits of ingested plastic, a big pollutant in the seas. Unfortunately, this was very common in the boluses, so the students are going to write a report about what types of plastics they found, using all the great statistical techniques we’ve been teaching them! Null hypotheses and things like that.

Disturbing seabird bolus contents

Freshmen hard at work

I guess that brings you guys up to date. It’s been a packed semester but it’s going in a great direction! Next week and the week after, all our students present their projects, so wish them well! Now that my thesis is handed in, I should be able to blog more frequently. At least, it can’t be less frequently, can it?!

I hope you are all well, Jordan xx

Salamander caught at the stream

Comments (2)
  • Joanne McAuley

    April 15, 2017

    Message*always interesting although I don’t understand it al!
    Keep up the great work young man 👏👏👏

    • Jordan Grigor

      April 15, 2017

      Thanks! I’m sure you understood most 🙂

Leave a Comment

* required