Sunday, March 18, 2018

A brief updated on research and my life in general

It has been six months since my last posting and much has happened since September. I finished the semester well, glad to be done with classes, went to my relative's house in Alabama for Thanksgiving, and went home for an entire month at Christmas to rest, which I sorely needed. After thoroughly enjoying time with family and eating entirely too much food I flew back to MS in January, and got back into the swing of both classes and research. My classes this semester are particularly interesting and include Marine Botany, Multivariate statistics, and Ecology of Fishes. Research has been going along swimmingly (pun intended), and I have just about finished writing my research proposal from my PhD. work which I plan on presenting to my committee next month so they can (hopefully) sign off on it. Evidently they are also going to have me take my qualifying exams at the same time, but have yet to tell me what exactly that will entail (Every school I have been to is in my experience unnecessarily vague about what qualifying exams entail). In addition to research and classes I have also done a few trips for Zach (one of my advisors), one to Galveston Texas to pick up some equipment, a shorter trip to Deer Island to measure Fiddler crab burrows and count snails for a project he is doing with another professor (Dr. Biber who teaches my Marine Botany class) on the effect of a marsh restoration project on Deer Island, and several crab tagging trips in LA. Oh, I also started taking organ lessons in January from my choir director at church, Michaelle Harrison. Come the beginning of June, field work at the Chandeleur Islands will begin in earnest, and I can't wait to get started (I can only handle so many months starting at a computer screen). Once things really get going with field work I will make a stronger attempt to update my blog more regularly, but for now here are a few pictures of the last 6 months to keep you entertained.

Classic car from the Cruising the Coast car show in Ocean Springs 

Seamap cruise on the Tommy Munro R/V (I went along to learn how to ID fish) 

 Beautiful sunrise on the Seamap cruise

Larvae Fish lab Christmas door decorations (They won the contest)  
Ferry I took to Galveston

View off the ferry towards Galveston  

 My intrepid fellow lab mate Adam Kemberling on the ferry to Galveston 

 Me at the Mardi Gras parade in Downtown Ocean Springs
(It is apparently a big deal down here)

My potted herb garden for cooking 

Me stuck in the mud on Deer Island

Picture of the organ I am taking lessons on at First Presbyterian Church of Ocean Springs 

 Sunrise on a crabbing boat

Sunday, September 24, 2017

A brief introduction to my research

I have now been in southern Mississippi for over a month and I figured it was about time to finally give those who are interested (the brave few who actually choose to read this blog) an update on my research (Note: my plan is to update this blog about once a month). As a recap, last month I started my PhD. program at the University of Southern Mississippi at their research lab (the Gulf Coast Research Lab) in Ocean Spring, MS. The primary research objective of my research is to conduct a Gulf-wide assessment of habitat use and habitat-specific production estimates of nekton in turtlegrass. The above objective may seem a bit of a mouthful, so please allow me to give a better picture of what my research is about. Seagrass (as the name implies) are a group of plants that grows in marine and brackish (salty) environments (Mind blown right?). In addition to be simply being awesome because they are plants growing in highly saline environments (i.e. extremely difficult environments that most plants can't grow in) seagrasses are also incredibly important because they serve as nursery habitats for juvenile nekton (i.e. marine animals that can swim against the current such as crabs and fish) many of which are important for commercial fisheries. One type of seagrass, turtlegrass (Thalassia testudinum) is particularly important in the Gulf of Mexico as it functions as a climax species (look it up) that provides habitat for a wide arrange of animals as well as crucial sediment erosion control (i.e. it holds the sediment together with its rhizomes and roots), and considerable primary productivity (it photosynthesizes and provides lots of surface area on its blades for other things to photosynthesize). Unfortunately, we know from multiple studies worldwide (I can send you dozens of article on the subject if you are interested) that seagrass environments are being severely degraded worldwide which naturally makes us scientists wonder about the effect of this decline on the organisms living in the seagrass habitat. Because many of these organisms, such as blue crab (Callinectes sapidus), are critically important as a food source for much of the US, it is particularly crucial that we develop a better understanding of the nature of the relationships between the nekton and their turtlegrass environments in order to design management and conservation strategies that preserve both the environment and the fisheries for the foreseeable future. Consequently, I am doing research to investigate how nekton are currently using turtle grass as habitat in the Gulf of Mexico.

If you were entirely lost by the long explanation above, do not worry, you are in good company. I too feel lost most of the time in the sheer scope of my project, but I am incredibly excited to see where the research will take me. I will be working with multiple faculty and government employees from multiple states, to conduct field samples, run isotope analysis, collect sediment samples, learn how to ID different fish, and do who knows what else for the next 4-5 years. I will also be doing the academic side of things, taking classes, passing checkpoints (such as quals and comps), writing a dissertation, and defending said dissertation, Is this ridiculous preponderance of work somewhat daunting? Yes, it is but also incredibly exciting to see where God is taking me.

To give those of you who aren't particularly enthralled with long scientific discussions something to actually look at I have put some pictures below of  random happenstances as well as pics of a recent crab tagging trip I went on to help out a labmate with their research. For anyone who is actually interested in more of the details of my research I invite you to take a look at my advisor's website (

Amazing sweet potato pizza that I made

 New pantiers on bike

 View of sunset on Biloxi bay from the Ocean Springs bridge

Some tagged blue crabs

The Mississippi Sound

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The beginning of yet another adventure

     It has been three years since I last updated this blog and so much has occurred since then. When last I took the time to write down my assorted musings about life it was in September of 2014, almost three years ago. At the time I had just finished my summer field work in Honduras and was ramping up to defend my thesis the following semester. Since then, I have: 1. Successfully defended my thesis (Yeah!), 2. Taught at two different colleges (Cedarville University and Judson University), 3. Got to see my older sister Heather married to Justin, an awesome guy from MI, 4. Attended an International Sea Turtle Symposium in Las Vegas, 4. Traveled all over the US, (from Washington to Michigan, as well as Washington to Mississippi), and 5. Joined a great church in IL, and  5. Started a PhD program in Coastal Sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi. My life, (as several of my friends have remarked), is rarely boring. God has truly led me to some incredible places.

     I have considered restarting the blog for some time now, but I didn't have quite the right motivation. Now that I have started my PhD. Program I will no doubt have plenty of material to talk about, as the ups and downs of research are often interesting and occasionally hilarious. Hopefully some of my meandering stories and musings will proof interesting, or if not than at least somewhat amusing. Rather than ramble on anymore I will simply post a few pictures of my trip out here and where I am living, and then get on to the more informative posts about my research later. Enjoy!

                                               My first car! (2016 Kia Rio I bought in July). 

 Bridge over the Colorado River, Moab

 Wilson Arch, Moab, UT

                                                    Bridge over the Colorado River, Moab

Colorado River, Moab, UT

Me and my dad at a Visitor center in MS

My Dad at the Stennis Space Center Visitor's Center Apollo 11 Replica

 Bently, my housemate's amazing, cute dog

 My room in the house I am renting (You will notice the beautiful bird painting by my Grandpa on the wall)

My amazing durable Ethan Allen desk that came all the way from WA with me. The picture is of one of the first Hawksbill sea turtles I ever saw (Courtesy of Stephen Dunbar).

 My bike (Same $80 dollar Roadmaster I have bought every place I have lived in the last 3 years)

Monday, September 8, 2014

A final goodbye to Honduras, field work, and my home for the last three months

     Well, as mentioned in the last post, this post will be my final one pertaining to my crazy adventures in Honduras. Tomorrow I leave for CA and the day after that for WA, so this may be my last post for quite some time. If by chance in my crazy life, I happen to run across some story or even interesting enough to write about, I'll be sure to let you know about it. Anyway onto the actual post.
      My time here in Honduras has had many ups along with more than a few downs and has taught me not only what real field work is really like, but much about the nature of people, culture, and faith. Let's begin with research. Field work, as anyone who has actually done it will tell you, can be one of the most rewarding and fun aspects of being a scientist. Unfortunately it can also be one of the most aggravating, nail-biting experience in which everything that can go wrong does so spectacularly an you are left wondering at night why anyone in their right mind would let you step foot outside the lab :). Fortunately, my field work has, on the whole, been more of the former than the latter, but it has not been wholly without its difficulties. I remember at one point, near the beginning, we were having a lot of trouble finding turtles and were already two weeks in with only a handful of turtles. During that time I also found out that because of our inability to find turtles outside the marine park, I would be unable to attach time depth recorders and radio tags to any turtles, which was a large component of my study. Needless to say, it was a rough couple of weeks, but gradually things began to turn around as we started to get an idea of the proper places to look for turtles.
     Undoubtedly the best part of my research this summer, that I'm sure I will reflect fondly many years from now, is the ridiculous amount of diving I got to do. Everything about diving is incredible. The water, the equipment, being several stories under the sea yet breathing, seeing incredible creatures you've only ever heard about or seen on planet earth; yeah diving is pretty incredible. The turtles as well were (And are) incredible. Spending 15-30 min every day just staring at these incredible creatures (For a total of ~16.5 hours over the entire three months) gave me a deeper appreciation for these gentle reptiles. Sure, I had spent countless hours reading about turtles before I got to Honduras, but simple head knowledge pales in comparison to actually observing these creatures in the wild, seeing how they live, and observing how their very being glorifies the Creator.        In addition to swimming with turtles I spent a fair amount of time talking and working with people, some of which were awesome and helpful, and others not so much. As weird as it sounds, my job is really as much about communication as it is about science, for unless you can get people on board with your project and convince them that it is actually worthwhile, your research will never get off the ground. During my time down here I talked to divers, dive shop owners, numerous NGO representatives, Marine Park volunteers, boat captains, village people, tourists, and a whole plethora of other assorted people I can't remember. Sometimes dealing with all these people all the time was a pain, other times a delight (I made a few friends down here I will attempt to keep in touch with after I'm gone), but always a crucial part of my research.
     This Friday I gave a presentation summarizing the key findings of my research (Which you'll have to wait for a possible future post to find out, or simple talk to me in person). Finally, after 3 very long months in which I did 138 dives and spent over 100 hours underwater, I actually had reliable, meaningful data I could show to people who were interested (or at least appeared to be interested) in my work. It was a long meeting (4 hours when it should have been 1) but a good presentation and that night I slept soundly.
     As I take off on a plane bound for home in a few hours (and yes this post was not finished last night as planned) I want to leave you with an exhortation based off my experiences in Honduras. Treasure the world God has given us, and take care of it as the truly incredible gift that it is. It is not enough to simply assume it will take care of itself, that things will continue always as they have in the past,  or some "conservation specialist" will take care of the environment for you. I have seen firsthand in Honduras what happens when environmental stewardship is neglected and forgotten amongst all the other "more important" concerns of life. The results are disastrous and create a world that harms the creatures that call it home, and cannot glorify God in the way it was intended. And before you start ragging on the Hondurans for the deplorable state of their polluted beaches and rivers, you must realize this is not merely a Honduran or Central American problem, but a global one. Yes the symptoms of the sickness may be more visible in this part of the world, but the disease of environmental misuse and wastage are just as alive in the US as Central America. We simply hide it better. All one need do is visit any major city in America (Or minor one for that matter), or the poorer section of town (Environmental degradation is often the worst, I have found, for people who either do not have the money or the necessary knowledge (i.e. environmental education) to take care of the environment), if they want to contest my claim. I do not make these disparaging comments with the purpose of making my readers angry or despondent. No, instead, like any good doctor, I mention the disease so that the patient can hear about the possible treatment. Rather than despair for the state of the natural world, of which I have a deep abiding love, I choose to maintain an optimistic (Though somewhat tempered by reality) view of the environment, for God has not called us to a spirit of despair but of hope. I have done my best this summer to work towards that eventual world in the end times when man, beast, and the environment will exist in perfect relationship giving glory to an infinite loving God, and I can only trust that God has somehow used my feeble efforts to bring him glory.



Saturday, August 30, 2014

Recollections and memories

      Well I have but one week left till I leave Honduras bound for home. By the time I leave I will have completed 140 dives, ID'd 66+ turtles, spent 17 hours staring at turtles underwater, and eaten more than enough baleadas, macaroni, and peanut butter to last a lifetime. Island life certainly has it's upsides (i.e. diving, easy access to beach, incredible fruit), but after a while monotony begins to set in, with every day resembling the last and nothing to do when you're not diving. Needless to say, I am very happy to go home, and I will bring back with me many memories and stories (If anything can go wrong in research it will go wrong) that probably should end up in a book someday. I have most definitely come away from this summer having a substantially deeper appreciation for the underwater creation. So much life, lying just beneath the waves, that most of don't even realize exists. In addition to the memories, I also bring back a whole assortment of random photos from my adventures on the island to astound and astonish anyone that cares to look at them. For your enjoyment, I have posted several of these pictures below (Some of these photos are from my fellow research Dustin Baumbach).

P.S. I will put up a final post at the end of next week giving a more substantial reflection of my time here, my research, the environment, and Honduras in general.

Me during a particularly wet morning on the way out to a dive

 A sea cucumber

 Brain coral

 Sea anemone

 Large Moray eel

 Seed pods from mangrove trees

 Vase sponge

 Brain Sponge

 Puffer fish

 Yellowline Arrow Crab

 Me in my diving regalia (And yeah I look a tad bit ridiculous)

 Christmas tree worm

 Channel Crab (About the size of my backpack)

 Two brittle stars in a vase sponge

Angelfish beside a brown tube sponge

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The incredible individuality and character of creation

     One of the most marvelous things I have been pondering recently is the sheer individuality and variety displayed in creation. I will use the hawksbill sea turtle as an example (hm, I wonder why) When the average person looks at a sea turtle, they think "hm that is a beautiful animal, I do believe it is a turtle" and if by chance they happen to know their sea turtle species (Yeah!) their thought process may be along the lines of "oh look it's a turtle and oh, I see it happens to have a curvy beak like a hawk and a serated shell. I bet it's a hawksbill (Don't I feel so scientific)". If, however, you make a daily job out of staring sea turtles (And particularly hawksbills) underwater for extended times (13 hours, 8 minutes, and 58 seconds total), you start to notice other amazing things. Every sea turtle you will ever see (Which, yes I realize may not be very many for those of you reading from the Midwest), is a unique individual that is entirely distinct from every other turtle out there (even individuals of the same species). Scratches on the carapace, unique birthmarks on the face, the space between individual facial scutes (Large scales), anatomical proportions. All these and more distinguish every living turtle from another. One of the most telltale marks that makes identification of hawksbill individuals much faster is the pattern of coloration on the beak. Similar to the dark spot coloration on the labrum (Lip) of wasps, (And yeah I'm a nerd), every hawksbill has a unique pattern of dark coloration on their beak that acts as a sort of name tag for the turtle. Don't believe? Take a look at the following 3 pictures and tell me I'm wrong. Think of it as a count the differences game. The differences are staggering. Like humans, every turtle has it's own face and (Potentially) personality to go along with it. So much so that I can use a digital program (I3s pattern) to distinguish between turtles via the scute pattern.

(And yes in case your wondering I have spent way too long looking at turtle faces)

The real crazy question is why? Why did God not create turtles all with the same scutes? It surely would have been simpler and easier? Is their some sort of adaptive advantage to these patterns as in the wasps (i.e. indicates a level of social status)? Not as far as I can see, but who know? My theory is God made every turtle with it's own scutes and unique characteristics simply because he wanted to. To show his love, his power, and infinite mind, he lavished his creativity on all His creatures. 

Psalm 104:24
"O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great."

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A sense of place

      Often when I am away from home (And by home here I mean my home in Washington State) I reflect on what it means to have a sense of place, that is an innate longing, knowledge, and love of one place. Often this sense of place is attached to where you grow up. Sometimes it is found in a place where you spent some of the most memorable days, weeks, months, or years of your life. I personally have experienced this sense of place in only a few places. First and foremost my home in Port Orchard, WA. There is something entirely soothing about being home that is directly tied to both the land and the people on it. Here amidst the verdant evergreens, fresh air, and drizzling rain my entire person is at ease. I know these woods, I recognize these trees. I can climb into the treehouse in the forested gorge out front and remember the many days I spend in the woods reading a book or playing with my siblings. Life here makes since. Second there is Whidbey Island, also in Washington state. It is here that my love of God's Creation truly came alive and my desire to study and care for it flourished under the tutelage of the teachers at Pacific Rim Institute. It is an island I gladly called home for a month and would do so again in a heartbeat. It is where I saw my first Orca pod plunge through the water, sun shining off their massive dorsal fins. Third there is the Au Sable campus in Northern MI. Ah the memories I made there, the incredible conversations I had there with people of like mind and faith, the everyday encounters with nature that my heart earnestly aches for. In Northern MI (Mancelona to be precise) I encountered true tranquility. A rest away from the modern world, to simply sit in a hammock and read Wendell Berry while an Eastern Phoebe fed its chicks in its nest by the pond, or rest in a boat and lazily fish while the stars come out. Pure bliss. It is here that I slept under the milky way and watched the Pleiades meteors roar overhead, lighting up the sky with their fury. It is here where I fell in love with forested paths and seeing the beauty in the seemingly mundane.
      Because I have experienced a true sense of place, however, when I am gone from those places,when I am separated from those places my dad would call "God's beauty spots" , I feel the ache of homesickness. Other places I visit, like the Bay Islands of Honduras, the deserts of California, and the forested hills of Pennsylvania may be truly amazing and beautiful in their own way, but they are not home. Home, as the old saying goes, is where the heart is, and mine is held captive by the mountains, forests, and seas (And yeah that was a bit mushy sounding and not entirely accurate, but it is true). The more I look around, however, the more I find that many people never develop this sense of place. In the helter-skelter rapidity of modern life, most people are simply to busy with their education, working on their career, or occupied by the digital world, to take the time to develop a sense of place. Rather than taking the time to understand the many facets and aspects of part of God's world, we prefer the far simpler task of knowing bits and pieces of the world (whether through travel or the internet) and never truly know a place for what it is (Note: do not attempt to treat this sentence as a polemic against traveling. If done properly traveling is a truly wonderful thing that can teach you much about God's world and people).Often in my travels (WA, OH, MI, CA, Honduras) I meet many people flitting from place to place with no sense of belonging, adrift on the winds of chance as it were, with no real home, no salvation in Christ, and no goal in life. Such people make me sad. Why is there this lack of placeness in people's lives (And yeah I totally just made that word up)? Is this the result of sin's curse upon mankind, or is it simply that some people are wired differently than others?
     Anyway, this has been a brief discourse on a subject that is very dear to my heart and directly connected to environmental issues and conservation. If we do not know the land and nature in which we live, how can we even begin to care for it properly? I think often about issues of place and purpose and I highly recommend if you are interested in additional discussion about this and other issues to read a collection of essays by the Brilliant agrarian, Wendell Berry entitled The Art of the Commonplace. To finish off this post I leave you a poem from Berry's Timbered choir which aptly, I believe, describes our need for a sense of place.

"Coming to the woods edge
on my Sunday morning walk,
I stand resting a moment beside
a ragged half-dead wild plum
in bloom, its perfume
a moment enclosing me,
and standing side by side
with the old broken blooming tree,
I almost understand,
I almost recognize as a friend
the great impertinence of beauty,
even to the fallen, without reason
sweetening the air
                                  I walk on,
distracted by a letter accusing me
of distraction, which distracts me
only from the hundred things
that would otherwise distract me
from this whiteness, lightness,
sweetness in the air. The mind
is broken by the thousand
calling voices it is always too late
to answer, and that is why it yearns
for some hard task, lifelong, longer
than life, to concentrate it
and make it whole.
But where is the all-welcoming,
all-consecrating Sabbath
that would do the same? Where
the quietness of the heart
and the eye's clarity
that would be a friend's reply
to the white-blossoming plum tree?"

-Wendell Berry in A Timbered Choir


Christian Hayes

P.S. I understand if you think a lot of this particular post is somewhat rambling. It was intended to be. Feel free to shoot questions at me via posting, FB, or email. Always interested in discussing this topic.

A beautiful tropical palmate leaf that reminded me of the leaves of buckeye trees in Ohio