The adventure continues!

Six years ago, we moved to the Netherlands so that I (Shane) could complete a PhD.

Last March, I completed said PhD. Since that time, I’ve searched for a postdoc position while working as a freelance science editor. Why such a long job search? Well, there are a couple of issues:

  1. My research interests are very specific.
  2. I need a long-term position; most postdocs are 1-2 years, which complicates Whitney’s ability to find a job.
  3. The location needs to have options for Whitney to work (i.e., biotech).

As you can imagine, these stipulations have severely limited my options and, to be perfectly honest, caused me to reconsider my academic ambitions. Nonetheless, we persevered (I say we because Whitney continually supported and encouraged me) and we finally have good news to share –

I got a postdoc position!

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Get it? The cat’s out of the bag…

In her last post, Whitney covered our recent train trip to Munich. What she purposely omitted from this story was that the trip wasn’t all fun and games (don’t worry, she’ll have a ‘fun times in Munich’ post soon enough).

In truth, I had an interview at Ludwig Maximilian University. To keep a long story short, the interview went well and I accepted the position!

Got the offer while we were still in Munich.

Safe to say, I am very excited for this position. Not only does it meet all of the requirements I listed above (my specific research interests, longer-term, and a good location), but it also fulfills additional ‘wants’ of mine. I’ll try to keep this as short as possible as I explain:

During my PhD, I studied how adaptation to the local environment can influence patterns of speciation and biodiversity. More specifically, I studied how visual adaptation affects behavior.

Why is this important?

Well, if you think of our our day-to-day lives, we humans are greatly influenced by our visual perception of the world. Vision influences the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the mates we choose, and whether or not we step in front of that on-coming bus. Thus, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that similar processes are important to other animals.

To this point in my research career, I have worked exclusively in fish model systems (threespine sticklebacks, zebrafish, African cichlids), as they are very amendable to studies of visual perception and behavior (fish have similar visual systems to humans). Obviously, it would make sense to continue within fish-based research for a postdoc position, as this plays to my expertise and comfort. However, postdocs are a time to expand and learn new techniques. Thus, we come to my new position at LMU.

I will continue to explore how the local environment influences visual perception and corresponding behaviors, but will expand to incorporate other sensory systems and aspects of neural anatomy. Excitedly, this project will not be fish-based, but focus on the Heliconius butterflies of Central and South America. Evolutionary biologists have studied these butterflies for nearly 150 years and, much like the African cichlids of my PhD, Heliconius represents a large radiation of multiple species that have adapted to differing environments. Thus, this project will challenge me to learn a new model system and to incorporate new variables into my research (e.g., chemosensory perception and the anatomy of the brain).

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image courtesy of: Wikipedia

The most exciting part of this project? It’s mostly field-based! Though I didn’t include this as a ‘requirement’ of a postdoc position, it was a strong desire. I’ve completed a fair amount of fieldwork over the past ten years (in British Columbia, Tanzania, and Corsica) and was hopeful I could continue to do. So, after a few months of organization in Munich, it’s off to Ecuador! Best of all, Whitney and Meatball will join!

That’s right, the whole clan is moving to Tena, Ecuador for 18-24 months!

At this point, details are still being worked out. For now, we know that I will start in early May and that we will need to find temporary housing in Munich. In ~July, we will move to Ecuador. Whitney has given her official notice at work and will finish up at the end of April. We’re not exactly sure what she will be doing in next ~2 years, but we’re hopeful she can find a remote position or, at the very least, work as a science editor as I have done for the past 6-7 months. Regardless, she’s not going to miss the opportunity to live in the rainforest for two years. After fieldwork, we will return to Munich for the remainder of the position (~2 more years), which should give Whitney ample employment opportunities (biotech is well-represented in Munich).

So, after a long period of relative quiet, the pace of life has picked up dramatically. Per tradition, we celebrated my new position with a trip to ‘t Pannekoekschip.

We’ve also started learning Spanish (we’re ignoring German language requirements for now) and will soon need to find apartments in Munich and Ecuador. As more details develop, life is sure to become even more hectic. Nonetheless, we’re excited. We’ve been anxiously awaiting our next move for a long time, so it’s fun to know that it’s finally happening!

Stay tuned for more updates. Up next, Whitney has plenty to say about her ‘independent woman day’ in Munich while I was interviewing.

Until next time,

Shane

Corsica, France

“Are you going to blog about your trip?”

“You never blog anymore.”

“You’ve been home a month and a half!”

“The blog is dead. It needs your contribution on account of I have nothing.”

….maybe I should write a blog post about my trip to Corsica?


I spent the entire month of June on an island in the Mediterranean Sea! Believe it or not, this was a work trip; a fieldwork to trip to be more precise. Not a bad place to work, huh? For all it’s frustrations, science can be pretty cool sometimes.

Perhaps I should explain how this came to be. Last year, I interviewed for a postdoc position in Tübingen, Germany. Ultimately, this position did not pan out, but it did lead to further discussions of potential collaboration. Simply put: this is science lingo for saying “write your own project and come do it here”. As an aspiring academic researcher, this exactly the exciting/scary/adventurous/bold opportunity I was looking for. To survive in academia, you have to 1) develop your own, independent line of research and 2) fund that work through grants. If this is to be my chosen career path, then why not start now?! So, since finishing my PhD, this has been my focus: I have written and submitted my own grant applications, in hopes of continuing my research career in Tübingen.

As part of this process, I have been in continual contact with my potential postdoc host. In one such conversation, I was offered an opportunity to join the group on their upcoming fieldwork trip. Naturally, I accepted. The fact that this trip would be to Corsica, France was an obvious plus, but more relevant was what it would mean for my research experience. For both my Master’s and PhD, I completed fieldwork very early in the project. These experiences proved invaluable to my later work – in evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology, it’s important to place your work in a larger context and to remember that these are natural systems, with real implications. Fieldwork definitely drives this point home. For all those non-science nerds out there, it’s also really freaking cool to spend a month diving in the Mediterranean!

Getting to (and from) Corsica was an adventure in itself; not because Corsica is so remote, but more so due to the logistics of scientific research. Any fieldwork trip, by necessity, requires lots of gear. As you can imagine, transporting all this gear to and from the field comes at a great expense. Scientists would much rather spend their hard earned grant money on actual research, so if a cheaper transport opportunity presents itself, you take it. Case in point for getting to Corsica: drive. For me, this meant the following travel schedule:

Day 1:
Groningen -> Amsterdam (2 hour train ride)
Amsterdam -> Stuttgart, Germany (1.5 hour flight)
Stuttgart -> Tübingen, Germany (~1 bus ride)
Overnight in Tübingen

 

Day 2:
Tübingen -> Savona, Italy (~9 hour drive)
Savona -> Bastia, France (overnight ferry)

 

Day 3:
Bastia -> Calvi, France / Stareso (~3 hour drive)

Station de Recherche Océanographiques et sous-marines or Stareso, for short, is a marine biology research station, located just outside of Calvi, in northern Corsica. Originally built in the 1970’s, Stareso has been the annual fieldwork destination of the Tübingen visual ecology group for the past 10 years. There are, of course, many other research groups that also make use of the station, many of which also have a long history of coming to Stareso.

I’m not going to go into much detail of our work at Stareso, as it’s not my research to share. However, I will give a quick rundown of what we did. In short, we conducted a large-scale behavior experiment using a small fish that naturally occurs in the Mediterranean Sea. This is particularly relevant for me, as this is one of the fish species I want to study (should I get funding).

Can you spot the fish?
A triplefin blenny – in the aquarium

For this trip, we had an array of experimental tanks anchored in a seagrass bed at ~10m (~33 ft) depth.

Each day, we’d work in small teams of 2-3 divers to transport fish to the tanks and then run a behavior trial for ~1.5 hours. A second team would then return to the tanks to collect the fish and GoPro’s used to record the trials. Meanwhile, there was the continual task of collecting wild fish for use in the next day’s trials, as well as the general upkeep and maintenance of the tanks themselves. As you can see from this list, we spent a lot of time under water. I logged a lot of dives on this trip!

Again, I won’t go into any details of the experiment or the results, but I can say that it was a very successful trip! All-in-all, the experiment worked well, we had no diving- or fish-related issues, the weather was great, and to top it off, the food at Stareso was phenomenal! This was certainly a much different field experience than when I worked on Lake Victoria.


In other news, we have been pretty low-key lately. Whitney has been busy working, while I am writing funding applications. Thus far, I’ve submitted one proposal and will soon submit a second. These processes are annoyingly slow; it will be November, at the earliest, before I hear any result. In the meantime, I’ll keep myself occupied with a few remaining publications for my PhD work and also enjoying life with little responsibility. After 5 years of intense PhD research, it’s nice to relax.

Stay tuned for blog-life to return to normal, as Whitney will be posting about our upcoming trip to France (in September).

Until next time,
Shane

Arolla, Switzerland

Last week I had the opportunity to attend an Evolutionary Biology Workshop in the Swiss Alps

(yet another perk of living in Europe – spending the week in the Alps, no big deal…).

In a nut shell, the purpose of this workshop was to aid people early in their science careers (aka me) in the process of grant and proposal writing. Basically, to survive in science research, and more specifically, academia, you have to convince agencies and governing bodies to give you money to do your work.  As you can imagine, this is no small task.  When you’re someone like me and that research involves a group of fish from central Africa, this tends to be a bit more challenging – the normal response when describing my work: “but why, who cares”?  With this in mind, off to Switzerland I went to gain every bit of help I could get!

Without going into too much more detail, the workshop was a collection of scienctists, both in early and late stages of their respective careers from all over the world.  This is by far one of my favorite aspect of working in science – people from all walks of life coming together with one common interest.  No one cares about where you are from or what you believe or don’t believe.  Everyone is just excited to meet other people and hear about their work.  That and talk about Donald Trump….everyone wants to talk about Donald Trump. Sorry world, it’s not a joke.

As I mentioned above, this workshop was really intended to help people like me develop their skills in grant writing.  So, to aid in that process, we were dividied into teams of 5 and tasked with creating our own research project, writing it as a formal proposal, and presenting it at the end of the week. Along the way, we were given constant feedback by 5 senior scientists in Evolutionary Biology, all of whom have had lots of experience with the granting process.   All-in-all, it was a great workshop!

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For the sake of those non-sceincetists reading this, I’ll stop with the science talk now and move onto the other exciting aspect of staying in the Swiss Alps for a week…the Alps! To say that it was incredible is an understatement.  In fact, the pictures that follow do not even do it justice.  It was amazing, so beautiful!  

To begin with, Arolla is not easy to get to.  It is a small alpine village at an altitue of about ~2,100m (~6,900 ft).  So, just getting there required a flight to Geneva, then a train from Geneva to Sion (~1.5 hrs), and finally, two buses to get from Sion to Arolla (~1 hr).  On the plus side, views are incredible the entire way.  The down side: a long trip and a bit of car sickness winding up the mountains on the bus.

As I said, Arolla is a small village…

We stayed at the Grand Hotel Kurhaus, which was orginigally built in 1896 but has more recently been upgraded to modern standards. The hotel was great!  It was full of memorbilia from early exporation of the Alps but, due to my lack of knowing French, I was not able to read too many details.  Nonetheless, very cool to look at the old pictures and equipment.

While the purpose of the workshop was to work and develop grant writing skills, it still allowed plenty of time to explore the local area and, for those interested, lots of hiking opportunites. And hike I did! This is something that I did not realize how much I miss.  Living in a flat country like the Netherlands, there isn’t much in the way of hiking.  Sure, people here go ‘hike’, but it’s not really what I have in mind.  To me, hiking is about elevation change, scenery, and getting away from everything.  The Alps provided all of these! The Alps also provided much less oxygen than I am used to when hiking….talk about a workout!

I won’t go into detail about every hike I did, but I will say that I certainly got my fill.  Luckily, there were two other workshop participants who also liked to hike so the three of us pushed it every chance we got.  Our longest hike (on our half free day): ~6 hours, to an altitude of 2,928m (+9,600ft), covering a distance of +17km (~10.5 miles).  Along the way, we crossed a galcier, hiked through knee-deep snow, went up and down ladders bolted to the side of the mountain, and even did some rock climbing.  It was hard and I paid the price for it later but totally worth it! My love of hiking has been re-awakened.  We will definitely be going back to Switzerland for more hiking!

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So, as I’ve said multiple times throughout this post: a great workshop and a great trip! I met amazing people, learned valuable tips on future grant writing, and enjoyed beautiful scenery.  What more can you ask for?

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In other exciting news, in about 10 days time the Wright clan will be coming to visit! Dad, mom, and Alex will be making the trek to Groningen, after which we will also visit Paris and Amsterdam.  To say that Whitney and I are excited is an understatement.  We love to travel and see new places, but it’s not so often that we get visitors! We have lots planned and will share the details following their visit.

Until next time,

Shane

eseb 2015/Laussane & Noorderzon

Remember the days of book reports in middle/high school? Remember how you always waited until the very last minute to start working on it (don’t kid yourself, everyone did)? The night before it was due, there was a frantic rush to find the cliff notes (had all the free sites saved) and the constant battle of line spacing and margins just to get the required number of pages.  Well, that’s kind of how I am with blogging.  I always have these grand ideas of writing a post but when it comes down to it, I can never make it happen.  My grand ideas slowly turn into cliff notes versions of various events, only to be shown up by Whitney as she enthusiastically posts the day of an event (I’ve said all along she is much better at this than I am).  The post that follows is no exception.  I’ve been intending to write this for over two weeks now. On the plus side, we’ve done a few more things in the mean time…


Way back at the beginning of August, I traveled for the first international conference of my PhD.  The conference, eseb 2015 (Congress of the European society for Evolutionary Biology), took place in beautiful Lausanne, Switzerland on the campus of the University of Lausanne.

Instead of going into way too much detail about science and my excitement over the various talks, I’ll just sum up by saying that there were 1,500 participants from all of over the world, over 300 presentations, and two different poster sessions.  In other words, it was a big conference. Of all of the talks/posters I saw, I do have to admit that one stood out among all of the others…

An interesting side note: eseb is a biennial meeting and therefore will not take place again until 2017. The next location of this large meeting? Groningen.  While part of the fun of these conferences is getting to travel some place different, it will be nice to be able to come home every night. I’ve already told Whitney she can come with me to eseb 2017.

Outside of the conference, I did get to explore Lausanne a bit.  First and foremost, I finally got to experience some sun and summer temperatures (I’m still wearing a jacket nearly every day in Groningen) so of course I took advantage and went swimming in Lake Geneva.  For those of you from my neck of the woods (southwest Virginia), this is no South Holston Lake.  Lake Geneva is crystal clear, refreshingly cold, has great beach areas for relaxing, and is surrounded by the Alps.  It’s beautiful.

Following my swim, I went into the city for a bit of sightseeing.  One thing to note, Whitney and I live in a completely flat country. Walking around a city like Lausanne (lots of elevation change) in heat and humidity was completely different from our typical day-to-day.


In other happenings, Noorderzon 2015 is currently happening in Groningen. This is a performing arts festival that takes place every year in a large park near our house. If I remember correctly, it runs for 10 days and is the place to be: lots of food, drinks, shows, and concerts.  We were able to experience this last year, but on a very limited scale.  For one, Whitney had yet to start her job so we were trying to be careful with money. Secondly, we now realize that we were very timid at that point in time. In fact, timid might be an understatement.  We were scared that we were going to do or say something wrong. The simple thought of us not being able to speak the language was enough to cause us to just pass by and watch.  Fast forward to this year and we don’t think twice about ordering a drink/food or walking up to random tents and exhibits. To think about it now, the idea that potentially saying something wrong would prevent us from checking out a local festival is ridiculous.  However, at that time is was 100% true.  It’s funny how things change in a years time.  Moral of the story here: being able to speak the local language, if only on a limited basis, makes life so much better/easier.  But even if you can’t, you still got to go for it! In the whole scheme of things, no one really cares.

In other exciting news, Whitney will soon be heading back to the US for a wedding. While I’m quite jealous of her getting to go, I’m not jealous of her travel schedule.  From the time she leaves Groningen to the time she gets back, it will only be 4 days.  Let’s not forget that includes flying half way across the world…twice. Nonetheless, I’m sure she will have plenty to tell in a later post.

We will also be traveling to the south of the Netherlands for a quick diving trip and to complete our Advanced Open Water certifications. This was originally supposed to happen following my trip to Lausanne but we had to reschedule.  If things work out, we may try to mix in an additional small side trip along the way.  As with Whitney’s trip, it will all be covered in a later post.

So that’s it for now. Stayed tuned for Whitney’s crack at the blog. It’s sure to be more timely and entertaining.

Until next time,

Shane

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!

Shane

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…

Travel

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!

Shane