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

The first few days…

Well, it’s been a few days now and I think we have started to get the hang of the Groningen/Dutch lifestyle. To keep things a little more straightforward, I’ll just break it up into days. This may turn out to be a long post, as we have a fair amount to share.

*Warning: Don’t expect posts of this length for the entire 4 years we will be here. We’ll stick to big adventures and stories as time goes. I’ll pick up where Whitney left off:

Thursday:

Ascension Day, the 40th day of Easter. This means that everything in the city is closed. Although our apartment did come fully furnished, there were still numerous things we needed (mostly for personal comfort). So knowing that everyone is home from work today, we made the smart decision to go to IKEA. Although only a 15-minute walk from our apartment, IKEA was a bad idea. The entire population of Groningen had the same idea that we did and they were in no hurry to move through the store. These two, fast-paced Americans are certainly going to have to adjust to a slower paced lifestyle. Aside from the mass of slow-moving humanity, IKEA was interesting for other reasons. First off, as most of you that have visited an IKEA know, all of the product names are in Swedish and therefore a little complicated to read. Try adding Dutch descriptions to those Swedish names and things get really interesting. As with everything else thus far, we shopped by pictures and looks. The other interesting IKEA factor here? We don’t have a car. Therefore, everything you buy has to be carried 1.3km home. The solution to this problem? Rent a bakfiets (bike with giant basket/cart on the front) or pay to have it delivered. We chose the second option.

Following IKEA, we met briefly with my new P.I. and chatted about life in Groningen (for clarity: P.I. means principal investigator and I will likely use it frequently in future posts. It’s typically how graduate students refer to their boss, at least in the US. I’ll have to figure out how it is here).

Friday:

Today was a big day in our Dutch lives! We bought bikes! Not having a bike in Groningen is like not having a car in the United States. Walking is not an issue at all, as most places are only 10-15 minutes from us. However, once you jump on a bike and make that same 15-minute trip in 5, you gain a new perspective. The bike buying process was fairly easy (I think we had both secretly dreaded taking that step as we didn’t really know what to expect). There is a bike shop a few minutes from our apartment so on one of our many trips into the city center; we decided to just go for it. Half an hour later, we walked out with two used bikes. Whitney was able to get a very nice bike, complete with lights and a bell (both of which are required here or you get a sizeable fine, ~80 euros). Mine is a little more ‘used’ but it was cheaper and still works fine. I have a bit more bike riding experience than Whitney so we figured it better for her to have a good one so she can focus on the riding part. Bike theft here is a big issue, so we each had to get heavy-duty chain locks. Basically, from what we have been told, if you leave your bike unattended and unlocked, it will certainly get stolen. Those chain locks will get plenty of use…

After getting our bikes, we made the trip out to IKEA again (because you never get everything you need in one trip) and it was a breeze. I have to admit, I spent most of the ride laughing at Whitney but we made it with no issues. Let’s just saying that she is improving every time we ride.

One final story for the day: As Whitney mentioned in her last post, we live above a flower shop. The owner of the flower shop is our landlord so we stopped in to meet him. His name is Wally and he is very cool. He told us about the Chevrolet trucks that he and his son drive and how he recently made a trip to Pennsylvania, complete with trips to the junkyard for parts. We certainly made an impression on him. I say this because as we were leaving, Whitney (ever graceful) stepped in a puddle of water, slipped, and nearly took out an entire wall of flowers. As we went out the door, we heard Wally and his daughter saying “oh….”.

‘Welcome to Groningen’ flowers from Wally

Saturday:

For those of you that know us, food & cooking are a major part of our lives. You have probably even heard us tell stores about our butcher in Pittsburgh and how Saturday mornings were our ‘butchin’ days. Well being that it is Saturday, we had to find a way to butch!

We started out by heading to a local, organic butcher shop. It’s about 5 minutes from our apartment and it wasn’t bad. Ordering cuts of meat, like everything else, is an adventure. First off, we can’t read the signs so we just have to go by looks. Secondly, we use the metric system here (thanks America for being different) so we have to order by grams/kilograms. This will take some getting used too.

Saturday tradition: butcher then coffee

Following the butcher, we visited De Vismarkt (the fish market) and it was amazing! It is a huge open-air market that has everything. And when I say everything, I mean everything! All types of meat and fish, any fruit or vegetable you can imagine, nut/seeds, eggs (chicken/duck/something we couldn’t figure out), spices, bread, cheeses, and too many other things to name. The best part of it all? It was cheap! Spices were certainly the highlight of the trip as they were only 1-2 euros for a very large bag. Another highlight involved Whitney getting very excited over fresh spinach and ordering a ‘kilo’ of it. Know how much a kilogram is? 2.2 pounds. We have 2.2 pounds of spinach and only paid €1,50. I reiterate; the market is amazingly cheap. We will be shopping there from now on.

So there it is: way too much detail for our first few days in Groningen. As I said at the beginning, we won’t be doing every post like this. I just wanted to share our first couple days here since a lot of you have been asking and it has certainly been exciting for us. Work will be starting next week, along with interviews for Whitney (fingers crossed!), so things will be settling down significantly. All in all, life in Groningen is good. We have bikes, we found a place to grocery shop, and assuming we can adjust to the time/daylight (it is daylight from 5am to after 10pm here, ridiculous), we will be just fine.

Until next time,

Shane

P.S. Vegetables from the market are much larger than we are used to. Take this carrot as an example. This is 100%, unedited, straight from the market (we didn’t realize it until we got home and unpacked).  Sorry mom…..you have to admit, it’s pretty funny.

A Netherlands riddle for you

What’s black and blue and has 16 legs?

Give up?

My suitcase! …with ALL my pants. …that the airline lost.

Awesome.

Well, we are finally here! Three flights, two long layovers, and a two-hour train ride later we are finally in the city we will call home for the next four years. Considering we checked six pieces of luggage and only lost one, things aren’t so bad. The airline has already found it, and it should be delivered by Friday.

I let Shane navigate “the board”. The train schedule in Amsterdam probably wouldn’t be that complicated if we could read Dutch…
Getting all of our luggage on and off the train was the worst part (i.e. I struggled with one bag which kept getting caught on a seat while Shane managed to load the other four in the same period of time….)
Breakfast of Champions! When in Ireland…Do as the Irish do. Drink a Guinness!

Groningen (pronounced with a hard ‘H’ at the beginning, in a harsh German kind of way) greeted us with “below normal temperatures” and steady rain, but we live above the CUTEST flower shop and that makes me happy! Our apartment is about a 10 minute walk to city center which has all the shops and restaurants, and when the listing said ‘fully furnished’ they meant it. We expected the couches, desk, and coffee table, but we didn’t expect a high efficiency washer and dryer, a king sized bed, and full set of dishes/kitchen utensils. Did I mention it’s above a flower shop?

Our new home

Today, our first full day here, we took care of all the boring stuff: bank accounts, cell phones, etc. We did find a neat little breakfast place with great iced coffee! That’s one thing we will never be without here. Coffee. Strong coffee. I’m not complaining.

Tomorrow is Ascension Day (the 40th day of Easter?) so everything is closed. However, it’s supposed to be warm and sunny so we plan on just walking the city and exploring a little. City pictures to come soon!

Tot ziens! (Goodbye, in Dutch!)

Whitney

Netherlands Bound!

It’s crazy. You all always hear about this kind of thing on TV or in the movies, but we are actually doing it!

Well, it’s official: we are on our way to The Netherlands! After months of preparation and a seemingly endless string of paperwork and forms, it’s hard to believe that it’s finally happening. By this time tomorrow, we will be settling into our new apartment in Groningen. We have a pretty long trip to get there, with 4-hour layovers in both New York and Dublin. Add to that, the flights and the train ride from Amsterdam to Groningen and we are looking at about 24 hours worth of travel. Certainly not the ideal travel plan but I guess that’s what we get for moving on Memorial Day weekend…

In related news, the third member of our clan, Meatball, will not be joining us right away. We had some issues with the Vet and she will be coming next month (we’ll save that story for another post).   We know a lot of you are curious to hear how that whole process will go so we will be sure to update once she makes it over. For now, she is living the good life with Whitney’s mom.

So with that being said, we bid everyone farewell! We will certainly do our best to keep this up to date with our adventures and we hope to hear from you all. Facebook, Skype, Google +/Hangouts, iMessage, and email are all viable options to keep in touch with us. In the mean time, if you haven’t already done so, get your passports! We want EVERYONE to come visit! What’s the point of living in Europe if you can’t have friends and family to experience it with?

See you all soon!