Happy New Year !

  We Went to Amsterdam!

The view from central station.

Well, not for New Year’s Eve. We stayed here in Groningen for that which was an experience in itself. Fireworks are legal here for only three days (Dec 30 – Jan 1) and during that time you can expect to hear them non-stop. The legal fireworks aren’t so huge but they make a lot of noise. To top that off you can easily drive over the boarder to Germany and buy the giant ones we are accustomed to. The difference is they aren’t set off in a controlled situation. They are set off in the middle of the streets and in between buildings resulting in the city sounding like its being bombed. Granted, I’ve (fortunately) never been in an actual bombing so I realize it’s not the same, but the point is it’s non stop fireworks for 24 hours. Enough to scare the sh*t out of the cat and make her needier than usual. Top that off with bonfires (that included bikes) in the streets and ya got yourself a Dutch New Year’s Eve party!

Cat’s opinion on the fireworks… Not. Cool.

Anyway, back to Amsterdam!

For my birthday Shane surprised me with an overnight trip to….. somewhere! All he told me was to pack a bookbag because on Saturday we were catching a train at 10am. We had to change trains about 30 min away, but until then I had no idea where we were going. We arrived around noon, and started walking to find our hotel.

Unbeknownst to him, the hotel Shane booked is a historic landmark!

We stayed in the Hotel Amstelzicht, on the Amstel Canal, and is one of the “Dancing Houses”. Apparently, when it was built in 1659 (whoa) it was built on wooden stilts. It’s location next to the canal and the sandy/swampy land caused the houses to shift and “dance”. They have been fully restored so you don’t feel it, but you can see the obvious tilt in the house!

After checking in and dropping our stuff we headed out to wander. First stop was Dam Square, which is the historic center of the city. On one side of the square is the Royal Palace which was first constructed as the City Hall during the 17th century. Later it became the Royal Palace, home to King Louis Napoleon, and now is used for Royal events amongst other things. Across from the Royal Palace is the National Monument dedicated to World War II. Dam Square is also home to the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) which we forgot to get a picture of.

From Dam Square you could wander straight into the Red Light District. We sort of knew what to expect since Groningen also has a Red Light District, but Amsterdam’s was much larger, and looked to be… aahem… of higher quality. If you catch my drift. One thing we didn’t anticipate was the number of families walking through with their children. I mean, I realize that we as Americans are very conservative as compared to Eurpoeans with this stuff, but I just can’t ever picture saying ‘Hey! Family stroll through the Red Light District?…. Sure!’.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Rembrandt Square people watching and playing around.  Oh, and we found a hole in the wall (yes, sounds sketchy) sushi place which ended up not only being delicious, but our table overlooked the canal.

In the evening we headed back towards Central Station for Shane’s surprise birthday activity. A canal tour! Amsterdam is currently holding it’s third annual Light Festival, and Shane booked a tour specifically to see the various art displays. Needless to say, I was excited!

It was hard to get good pictures in the dark on a boat….but it was fun! Each piece of art was representative of the city in some way, and a lot of them were interactive with the public. For example, the tulips are originally under the water, but as pedestrians pass by they can pedal certain bike pedals on the bridge. This causes the flowers to rise up out of the water and light up. They stopped pedaling, and the flower went back into the water. We both agree we would like to do another canal tour, but one that is more focused on sightseeing or history of the city.

Day 2: Woke up to SUNSHINE!

This is kind of rare this time of year so we were up early to take advantage of it!

First stop, the I amsterdam sign at the Rijksmuseum! We unfortunately didn’t have enough time to go in this museum because we THOUGHT we were going to see the Anne Frank house (more on that soon), but its a must see when we come back.

Next stop, Anne Frank House!

Just Kidding! Yeah, if you look closely across the canal you will notice the line to get in. It turns the corner and goes all the way to the next block. We heard it was this crazy during peak season, but we thought we would be ok this time of year. Didn’t take into consideration it was a holiday weekend. Oh well. Note to self: buy tickets ahead of time. I guess technically we did seeeeeeeee the Anne Frank house. (1st house on the left in the picture above).

Since that was a fail, we decided to get breakfast then check out the Amsterdam Museum. This was nice since we were both wanting a little history after the canal cruise the night before. Wrap your mind around this: Amsterdam was an established city 789 years before the United States had it’s first president. It’s crazy to think about it like that!

After that, we headed home. For only 28 hours I think we really packed in a lot. We certainly walked a ton, and we didn’t even get close to seeing everything there is. Hurry and come visit so we have an excuse to go back!

Tot Ziens!



Merry (Almost) Christmas !

I would just like to start out by saying that the city right now is just beautiful. So many lights everywhere! Each street has its own unique set. There are candles, twinkling diamonds, icicle lights, you name it. It actually makes it easier for giving directions… “Meet me on the street with the sparkling holly!” It’s also incredibly hard to get pictures that do it justice, but here are a few.

I would just like to make note that I took some of these WHILE BIKING. Considering that when we first moved here it was “white knuckle” biking everywhere we went I (despite the obvious safety risk) count this as huge progress in my skill level.

We got a baby Christmas tree from the market which Shane brought home on his bike…so I suppose that his biking skills are still ahead of mine.

And cat is obviously thrilled that its Christmas time again.

Now for the real deal. A Christmas miracle has occurred!

I got out of Groningen!

Seriously, I haven’t left the city since we moved here except to pick up the cat from the airport.

Yesterday we rented a car and drove to Münster, Germany for their Christmas Market!

We both agree that if you take away the windmills, driving through the middle of nowhere Germany looks very similar to driving through the middle of nowhere North Carolina/Virginia/Pennsylvania.

About 2 hours later we arrived to Christmas Extravaganza! First stop, Glühwein! It’s a mulled red wine that’s served warm. It’s basically Christmas in a mug, and I’ve been pretty obsessed with the ‘warm wine’ since it first showed up in the grocery store a few weeks ago.  Every Glühwein stand was packed with people, and it came with a cute souvenir mug!

Last year we went to a ‘German Style’ Christmas market in Pittsburgh, and I must say, now that I’ve seen a real one,  Pittsburgh’s was quite authentic. Lots of gifts, ornaments, and food.

Curryworst, pretzels, chocolate covered bananas & freshly smoked salmon!

We didn’t see much of Münster itself, but what we did see was very pretty. It’s definitely somewhere that could use a little more exploring.

The spoils of our market trip… sshhh don’t tell Meatball. The bowl is her Christmas present.

This will probably be the last post of the year, so until then Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

Tot ziens,


Lake Victoria !..the follow-up

And…..I’m back (only a month late)! I know, I know, I should have done this post a long time ago. However, things have been very crazy as of late. For starters, my 4-week trip to Tanzania ended up being extended twice, for a total of 6 weeks. Then, after finally making it home, I had exactly 6 six days before I left once again to drive to Switzerland (10+ hour drive) for 4 days, then to a conference for 3 days in the southern part of The Netherlands, which was then followed up by a 2 day “retreat” with my research group. All and all, things have FINALLY settled down which means time for a blog post. So, with that, let’s talk Africa!

Warning: this may not go as you would have expected. In previous posts, I told about my project and what we were doing daily on the lake. For the most part, this didn’t change. So, instead of saying the same thing again, I’ll deviate a bit and focus on a completely unexpected part of the trip. I’ll throw in a lot of pictures along the way.

Have you ever stopped to think about how amazing the world is? Seriously, have you ever really thought about it? I know it’s a pretty generic question. In fact, it’s probably just as easy to argue the opposite – just watch the news. The world is full of some pretty nasty people and places at the moment. However, after spending six weeks living and working in Tanzania, I have to argue the opposite – the world is an amazing place. I had the opportunity to work on the largest tropical lake in the world, day after day, for a month and half. I went days without electricity or running water (on multiple occasions), slept only a few hours a night, burned most days under the African sun, and on the  others got so sea-sick and cold from some of the strongest, nastiest storms I’ve even seen. Every plant, fish, bug, or rock that I touched had some sort of spine, edge, or chemical that resulted in a cut, burn, or rash. If I wasn’t being eaten alive by mosquitoes (with a risk of malaria) then I was being attacked by some of the most ferocious ants I’ve ever encountered. Retreating to the “safety” of the lake (away from most insects) just meant you had to watch the water (where I’m trying to catch the fish I study) for the ever-present threat of crocodiles. Basically, what I’m trying to say is, I spent six weeks in Africa and it is something I will never forget. In fact, I can’t wait to go back!

Now I know what most of you are thinking – what’s wrong with me? To be honest, had I not experienced it myself, I would be thinking the same thing. None of the things I listed above sound fun, nor where they fun when they were happening. However, I think it is more about perspective than it is actual inconvenience. Despite all of the hardships and difficulties that I list, I was never in any danger. Never did I feel unsafe, or did I go hungry or thirsty. I simply had to do without most of the modern conveniences that I (and most of you reading this) am accustomed to. For everyday day that I went without Internet access, TV, or a hot shower (or without a shower at all), I was continually rewarded by the opportunity to live and work in a place we only see on the Discovery Channel. It’s Africa, it’s the where we all come from (aka the origin of the human race), and it’s a completely different way of life. Things I would never even think about in ‘normal’ life became commonplace. For an example, let me share a quick story:

Some days we would not go out on the boat and would instead sample at a near-by stream. This stream was only a few minutes walk from our rest house and was off of a fairly busy road. As such, we would often draw a lot of attention to ourselves by simply fishing in this small stream. On one particular day, I was alone fishing and soon had a group of 6-8 children (probably 8-12 years old) watching me very closely. Being that I had a lot of supplies that these kids did not have, I gave each of them some hooks and worms so that they could catch fish as well (they were there to fish for themselves and their families so that they could eat). I couldn’t help but notice that one of the kids kept hanging quietly around me and did not join his friends to use their new angling supplies. Not only did he watch me very closely, but he also was very intent on checking out all of my belongings (not uncommon, we “scientist” had a lot of strange things). It was only after a while did I realize that of particular interest to him was my unopened, 1.5 liter bottle of water. When I opened the bottle and offered it to him, he quickly drank ~1/4 of the bottle, before turning to share it with some of the other kids as well. It was only at this point did it occur to me that we did not have running water at the moment and that it had been out for a day or two. Whereas we had cases of drinking water in our rest house, there was a good chance that these kids were not as fortunate. For me, a lack of running water just meant I couldn’t shower and had to risk smelling for a few days. For these kids, it may have meant little, if any, drinking water. Before leaving for the day, I gave the boy all the bottled water we had with us.

Talk about putting things into perspective….

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t say these things or share that story to make myself seem all knowing or above anyone. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I share that story to highlight what I experienced from the people of Tanzania. Despite all of these hardships and inconveniences that would have most of us running away (believe me, I was ready to be back!), the people that I interacted with daily where some of the nicest, happiest people I’ve ever met. A lack of running water or the absence of electricity wasn’t a reason to panic and be angry, it was just a fact of life and life went on. One other thing that really stuck out to me was the theme of various conversations that I had with any number of individuals who wanted to talk (and everyone wanted to talk to the American!). The common theme of just about all of these conversations? Race…but not in the way that you’d think. To summarize what I was told on no less than 5 separate occasions, usually while having my white arm directly compared to their black arm: we all need to realize that, regardless of color, we are all human. Black, white, yellow, or brown, it doesn’t matter, we are all human. I being from America and they being Tanzania meant very little. I was simply a friend that did weird things with small fish.

Again, it’s all about perspective…So in case you haven’t been able to tell, my time working on Lake Victoria was nothing short of amazing! For this biology nerd, it was truly a once in a lifetime trip and I’d go back tomorrow if I could. It sounds a bit cheesy to say, but I couldn’t help telling myself that this is what I want from life. I mean I spent six weeks in Tanzania, “working” on Lake Victoria. How cool is that?! And the fact that I did this for my PhD thesis makes it even cooler. It’s crazy to think that fish, by working with them and knowing a bit about them, have taken me all over the world. How is this even fair? As I said before, I think the world is and is full of amazing places. For a biologist, the wildlife and scenery that I was able to see in Africa was absolutely incredible, but then again, watch the Discovery Channel can see you that. For me, the unexpected surprise was the people. And to be honest, it was sad to leave. I spent nearly everyday working hand and hand with two local Tanzanian men, our boat drivers Mhoja and Muhammad. Mhoja and Muhammad have been working with cichlid biologists for over 20 years (30+ for Mhoja). For this reason, they are an invaluable resource when trying to complete our research. Not only are they the steady hand driving the boats in rough water, but also their knowledge of the fish is second to none. Their know-how and skill is impossible to replace.

We also had a TAFIRI scientist, Godfrey, joining on most days to learn more about the cichlids of Lake Victoria. Godfrey, being very well spoken in English, was a key resource for our work, both on the lake and beyond (ever tried to speak Swahili?). Outside of the boat team, there were countless people at TAFIRI who made our job much easier (and many of which we made their jobs extremely difficult – with no complaints at all). Individuals such as Makoja, our driver picking up things in the city while we were out sampling and Leticia, our house “mom” who kept food on the table and our rest house clean, made it possible to complete the amount of work we were able to do (and believe me, there was a lot). Even if we were not working directly with them, you were never offered anything less than bright smile and an extended greeting to see how your day and work was going. All and all, the people* are what made things bearable and kept you going day after day.

On the science side of things (aka the whole reason for going), I was able to collect all of the fish and samples that I need for my PhD project. In fact, I got more than I had planned and will basically spend the next three and a half years trying to analyze all the data – yay science. I also collected ~100 live fish and, despite being shipped all over the world (Tanzania – Switzerland – The Netherlands) they are now in our aquarium and doing well. If all goes as planned, these fish will establish lab populations that will can be used for years to come.

So now that life is more or less back to normal, it seems I can get back to work on this whole PhD thing. Granted all of this fieldwork was directly related to my project, it didn’t feel like it. I got to spend 6 weeks in Africa, “working” on the largest tropical lake in the world, interacting with amazing people, and having the time of my life! If this is what ‘work’ will be for the rest of my life, I think I made a wise career choice…we’ll just overlook the whole ‘hard to find a job in academia thing’.

Until next time!


Sinterklaas has Arrived !

Sinterklaas arrived today!

He, as I’m sure you probably assumed, is the Dutch version of jolly ole’ St. Nick. The story goes something like this…

Sinterklaas comes to Holland on a steam boat from Spain, and he brings with him his ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (Black Pete) helpers. Together, between his ‘intocht’ (arrival) and his birthday on December 5th, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet go down the chimneys of the good children in Holland and deliver gifts. Traditionally, kids would leave shoes and notes to Sinterklaas by the fireplace and the gifts would be left in the shoes. I’m not sure if this tradition still happens today, but regardless I think the incentive for children to be good year round is higher here in Holland as opposed to North America. If you’re on Santa’s naughty list in the U.S. you get some coal in your stocking. If you’re on Sinterklaas’ bad side then you get ripped from your family, thrown on the boat & taken to Spain when he heads back home. It should also be noted that Sinterklaas is NOT part of Christmas. These are two separate things. Traditionally, presents happen during Sinterklaas, and Christmas is a more low key celebration with family over a nice meal.

To welcome Sinterklaas & the Zwarte Pieten the city has a 2 part arrival parade! First, he arrives on his boat and navigates through the canals. This part was really fun. EVERYONE is excited for Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piete, and each boat was like its own little party. One boat had a marching band, one had some very active Zwarte Pieten & everyone on the boats were waving and singing. This one is stuck in my head now. Translates to…

St. Nicholas I beg you,throw something in my shoe, throw something in my boot, thank you St. Nicholas! 

After Sinterklaas makes his rounds through the canals he disembarks and heads into the city on his white horse surrounded by Zwarte Pieten handing out candy and small spiced cookies called ‘pepernoten’. Eventually, here in Groningen, he ended up in city center where the Mayor was waiting to welcome him. I read somewhere that the city parades were made up of things that represented the province of that particular city. I’m not sure if that is true or not, but based on today it would make sense. Groningen is farm country, and today’s parade had lots of horses, Zwarte Piet handed out fruit as well as candy, and there were even sheep!

Sinterklaas seems like a pretty cool guy.

So. Let’s talk about the elephant in the blog. Zwarte Piet.

Yes, they are in full black costume/black face paint. No, it’s not meant to be racist.

It’s been quite the hot topic here lately as the holiday has approached (you can Google it). The entire tradition is being debated, and coming from an outsider’s perspective it’s easy to see why. White Sinterklaas and his black helpers? You can’t help but instantly think the worst. My impression? The Dutch genuinely don’t see it this way at all. To them, Zwarte Piet is a beloved & respected character. I think the Dutch see Zwarte Piet in the same way that we see Santa’s elves. So why is he depicted this way? He is supposed to be part of the Moors of Spain who, according to the story, started working for good ole Sint when they were chased into the Sierra Nevada by the Catholic Spaniards.

Since this has drawn more attention recently The Netherlands has been working on shifting the tradition some. Each year one city hosts the National Arrival of Sinterklaas (it was in Groningen last year, one year too late!) and in this parade Zwarte Piet looks like he is covered in soot rather than full face paint, and I’ve seen candy and figures in the stores with blue, yellow, or red faces.

As an outsider, I think one thing we have to remember is that when it comes to the traditions of other cultures you can’t jump to conclusions. As an American, I think we have to be even more conscious of this since we live in a world where you are constantly having to evaluate if something is offensive to the masses. This is not to say that both sides of this argument can’t be seen, and perhaps it’s OK (and time) to modernize some traditions. #endrant

Yay Sinterklaas! 🙂

OH! I forgot! I saw this at the grocery store the other day. It’s a pig made out of Marzipan. Not sure the significance of the pig *update – the pig is for goodluck!* , but Marzipan is a big holiday treat along with the pepernoten & olieballen (deep-fried dough covered in powdered sugar. de.lish.)

On a completely different note, Shane did indeed make it back from Tanzania! And here is proof….

He has lots of pictures and stories and science to share, but November is crazytown Netherlands for him. (I would usually say crazy town USA here, but that doesn’t seem appropriate…). Once things calm down I’m sure he will start dishing.

Tot Ziens!


Happy Taylor Swift Day !!

Ok ok, that’s not the point of the post.

Her new album did come out today, though. Which means I’m obsessing. Can’t help it and I’m not even a little sorry.

Which leads me into my next piece of news. Shane is STILL in Africa. He was supposed to be home on the 20th, but his trip has been extended twice now due to unforeseen circumstances. They didn’t have all the fish or shipping supplies they needed so it’s looking like he won’t be home until the first week of November. BUT! This actually works out in HIS favor, despite the cold showers and lack of electricity. He won’t have to listen to me talk Taylor non-stop! I think actually he would take the Taylor talk at this point, but I’m trying to be positive here. Mom had the same idea when I told her…

Moms always know what to say! 🙂 haha

So that’s why it’s been quiet on the blog! (Sorry Aunt Ann!)

So I’ve been a single lady for the past 5 weeks! I’ve been up to the normal things. I’m still going to the market on Saturday’s, and actually discovered these cupcake things ‘Luxe Koekje’ (I think). It’s just like pound cake with fondant icing, but they are so delicious! And see that coffee? Guess who ordered that TO GO in Dutch! I’ve been really working on my speaking skills, and now I can order pretty much anything in Dutch with confidence. Granted this is still pretty limited, but it’s a start! HUGE thank you to my friend, Danielle, from work for helping me with this!

Fall is definitely in full swing now. We had daylight savings time on Sunday, so this week I’m only 5 hours ahead of Mom & Dad! Its just overall a little more grey, and the days are significantly shorter.

One thing I’ve noticed here about fall is the lack of all commercial fall related things. I knew there would be no Starbucks PSL or halloween candy (oh candy corn how I miss thee!), but you can’t even find canned pumpkin! Which for me is a travesty. I’m having to learn how to make my own pumpkin puree out of a real pumpkin! (I know, I know, it’s really not hard I’m just lazy.) I also had to go on a hunt for molasses. Interestingly enough I found it at the health food store. Holland is really making my usual fall baking extravaganza a lot of work! I’ll be attempting a pumpkin pie sometime this month so I’ll report back. I also asked about Halloween since a few people have asked me if it is celebrated here in The Netherlands. Overall, the answer is no. There are some haunted houses/scary movie kind of things being advertised, but the kids don’t’ trick or treat and it doesn’t seem like costume parties are very popular.

So I’m here! Life as (almost) normal.  Just me and Cat hanging out!

(She says hi).

November should be a fun month with the arrival of Sinterklaas & Zwarte Pete on the 15th, Shane’s birthday, and Thanksgiving so hopefully I’ll have more exciting things to write about soon! 🙂

Until then, Tot Ziens!


Lake Victoria !

Greetings from Tanzania!

I would do a Swahili greeting but I’m still working on that one. From my understanding, it is ‘habari’ which means hello/how are you? The problem is, ‘habari’ is typically followed by more specific things like how is your work, how is your family, etc. I haven’t mastered that part yet…..so Greetings!

I don’t have the best Internet connection here so I’m going to keep my text short and just upload some pictures (it’s better than my describing it anyways). As a quick overview: I’m two weeks into my stay and have two weeks remaining. So far, work has been going very well as I’ve been able to collect a large portion of the samples and data that I need. A typical work day consists of packing the boat full of gear and people, traveling to one of four islands, setting up an “office” on the rocks, and processing samples and fishing all day. We generally leave between 6-8am (depending on which island we go to) and then return around 5-6pm. At this point, there is usually lots of fish that need to be sorted and processed so it’s not unusual to work until 10 or 11 at night. After a quick dinner and shower, it’s off to bed to repeat the process again the next day. It may sound boring, but it has actually been quite fun. I’ve seen lots of wildlife and the scenery is amazing. Most days are very hot and sunny (I’ve gotten a nice tan), while other days are nothing but wind and rain. Regardless of the weather, we are on the lake, working as usual. Wind, waves, and rain just mean you wear a rain suit and hold on a little tighter. There have been a few days where we all got a little seasick, much to the enjoyment of our Tanzanian boat drivers. Nonetheless, it really has been fun and I’m glad I got to come.

Below are some pictures of Tafari (the research station near the house), the boat, and various pictures of the lake and islands we work on. There has been a lot more that I’d love to have a picture of but I don’t dare have my camera out when the weather is bad. I guess sunny weather makes for better pictures anyway…

The main gate to Tafari.
Office and lab space at Tafari.
The hatchery where we keep live fish. You can see the lake in the background
Our boat full of gear. The only thing missing is 6 people.
A typical “office”.
A tornado on the lake!
It takes an hour to get to one of the islands which means some extra sleep.

Until next time!


Happy Birthday, Sissy !!

Today is my darling Sissy’s birthday!

We’ve been really lucky the past few years, and have started a “sister birthday trip” tradition. Let’s recap…

2011: 21st Birthday in Boston

2012: 22nd Birthday in Pittsburgh

2013: 23rd Birthday in Nashville

aka: the Totally Taylor Swift Tennessee Tour

…and that brings us to this year.

2014: 24th Birthday in Groningen!

Why sis! How lovely it is that you came all the way to The Netherlands for your birthday!

Naturally, I had to pick her up at the train station.

We had SUCH a delightful time! Meatball was equally as excited to see her Auntie K, and to find out that it’s her birthday

Sis and I took a little stroll through the Noorderplantsoen on the way home from the train station and met up with Shane.

Even though it was a short trip the weather was great. We were able to enjoy some coffee with a great view of the Martini Tower and casually stroll through the fish market.

Fish or no fish? What do you think Sis?

We wrapped everything up with a visit to my new work, and sis got to spend a little quality time with the best kitty everrrrrrrr (after Willie, may his kitty soul rest in peace)!

Happy Birthday, Sissy! I wish you were actually here with me!

And I would just like to point out that I think you’ve officially won the long hair contest since you’ve had your long luscious locks since at least 2011. #justsayin …not that I’m jealous or anything. I’ll still be hap hap happy to cut it for you! 😉

Love ya Sis, Mean it!


Tanzania, here I come !

Well, it’s official; I’m heading to Africa!

This time next week, I’ll be on my way to Tanzania for fieldwork. Despite a few months of uncertainty and a significant amount of delay (to be expected when working with African nations), I’ll leave Sunday, September 21st and won’t return until October 20th. Living in Africa for a month and working on the largest tropical lake in the world? I’ll take it! To follow is a brief overview of where I’m going and what I’ll be doing.

Where am I going?

As I just mentioned, Lake Victoria is the largest tropical lake in the world (by surface area) and it is located in East Africa, bordered by the countries of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. It is home to around 500 different species of cichlid fishes (among numerous other types of fish), most of which have come into existence within a very short period of time. Geographical data has shown that the lake was completely empty for several thousand and only refilled about 12,000-13,000 years ago (no water = no fish!). For this reason, Lake Victoria is an excellent place to study how new species comes into existence. Speciation is typically a very, very slow process, taking millions of years to form separate species. Cichlids in Lake Victoria have formed 500+ species in only a few thousands of years (a very short time frame in terms of species development) and therefore give those interested in studying it an opportunity to observe speciation in ‘real-time’. This is what my project focuses on, speciation of cichlid fishes.

I will be living and working on the southern portion of the lake, near the city of Mwanza. All work will be based out of a research station, and from my understanding, I’ll be living in a house nearby. I’ll be joining a group of researchers from Switzerland, most of whom traveled to the lake last week. In addition, there are a few locals who we will rely on to drive the boats and serve as our general guides on the lakes. All in all, it seems I will be working with a diverse group, many of which have lots of experience on the lake

What will I be doing?

Cichlids are a diverse group of fishes that are found all over the word, in South America, India, and Africa. I would venture to guess that anyone reading this has actually had close interactions with a close relative of cichlids, tilapia.   Yep, the same tilapia you fix at home or order at Red Lobster is actually a close relative (in scientific terms: an ancestor) of the fish I will be studying. Cichlids of the East African Great Lakes – Lakes Malawi, Tanganyika, and Victoria – represent about 2,000 different species and have been studied extensively for a number of years. As I mentioned previously, Lake Victoria is an extremely young lake, whereas Malawi and Tanganyika are millions of years old. Additionally, Lake Victoria is relatively shallow and the water very turbid. In comparison, Lakes Malawi and Tanganyika are among the clearest lakes in the world. For this reason, the speciation processes that act in Lake Victoria are much different than those that act in Malawi and Tanganyika (and seem to act at a much faster pace).

I will be working with two very closely related species of cichlids, Pundamilia pundamilia and Pundamilia nyererei (Latin scientific names – no common names such as bluegill or bass). For simplicity, P. pundamilia is the ‘blue’ fish and P. nyererei is the ‘red’ fish. The two fish are very similar, differing mostly in the bright coloration of males. They occur at the same locations in the lake, with the blue fish in shallower depths and the red fish existing much deeper. Being that they are found at such different depths, the two fish live in very different lighting environments. Previous work has shown that the females of each species prefer the specific color of their species (red females prefer red males) and the way they perceive color differs (fish in deep water can see red much better while fish in shallow water can see blue much better). The purpose of my project will be to test how the different light environments has played a role in the formation of these two species (this is putting it very simply as there are lots of factors involved). This matters because Lake Victoria has recently undergone a dramatic change due to human activity around the lake. Increased agriculture and deforestation has caused the lake to become progressively more turbid. If vision and coloration is key to new species arising and maintaining their separation, then human activity could have detrimental effects. There is also the fact that the processes underlying speciation are of great interest but that only matters to science nerds like me.

My work will consist of not only collecting live fish to ship back to Groningen, but also taking light measurements at different depths in the lake and numerous preserved samples to be used later in molecule work. Outside of this, I’ll also be helping the rest of the members of the group with their respective projects. I’m not sure what all this involves but it will let me see much more of the lake and numerous other species of fish.

Males of each species we have in lab. The red one didn’t want his picture taken…


Since I am frequently asked about travel, I figure it’s worth sharing quickly. To get from Groningen to Mwanza, I have to do the following:

  1. 2 hour train ride from Groningen to Amsterdam Sunday afternoon (Sept. 21st)
  2. Leave Amsterdam at 9:00pm and land in Nairobi, Kenya at 6:10am (Sept. 22nd)
  3. Leave Nairobi at 8:10am and land in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania at 11:05am
  4. At this point, I have to collect all of my luggage and change airlines to a domestic carrier. This means rechecking in and going through security again. No worries, I have a 7-hour lay over…
  5. Leave Dar es Salaam at 6:50pm and land in Mwanza at 8:20pm
  6. Hire a driver to take me the research station at Lake Victoria

For those of you keeping track, that means a full 24 hours of travel from Groningen to Lake Victoria. Yay science!

Other News

Aside from prepping for the upcoming trip, life in Groningen is still going great! We now once again live in a college town, as school has restarted and all of the students have returned. I think we got a little spoiled with everyone being away for summer holiday and the streets being relatively empty. Biking now, with thousands of students, is quite the adventure. Weather wise, it’s already starting to get cooler here and most of the trees are beginning to drop their leaves. I’m sure by the time I return from Tanzania it will be quite cold.

Whitney is now two weeks into work and seems to really enjoy it. There was a bit of an adjustment for her, going into industry after being in academia for so long (industry is much more strict) but luckily it wasn’t too bad. She seems to really enjoy the people she works with and has already made plans with a work colleague to go clothes shopping once they get paid (I’m very thankful for this…better than me!). Being that she works with a small group of people, all of which are Dutch, she is really starting to get the hang of the language. In fact, she was able to order all of our meats for groceries in Dutch, without having to repeat anything! At this rate, I’ll have my own personal translator by the time I return.

So with that, I’ll call this post finished. If Internet is freely available at the research station, I’ll try to do another post while I’m in Tanzania. If not, I’ll take plenty of pictures and update in October.

Until next time!