Coos Bay Adventures

It has been a busy second-to-last week on the nutrient uptake project. The first two days were spent finishing up our five replicates at Winant, a special little salt marsh that is near and dear to the hearts of many at the EPA. Wednesday was spent in the lab doing more data entry and looking at the cross-estuary results to see how they could be incorporated into my project on the effect of temperature on nutrient uptake. We also prepared for our two day trip to Coos Bay, which included scrounging up as many coolers as we possibly could to house all our precious nutrient spiked salt water for the overnight journey.


Hovercraft in Coos Bay

Thursday we began our trip to Coos Bay. Looking at Eric’s photos is seems like we got lucky in terms of getting a cloudless, fogless day. Above is a picture of the hovercraft at its peak of performance, hovering through the bay. Another researcher at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology wanted a ride so she got one. Below is the site we studied the first day. A fellow intern is seen walking through the mud. I lost both boots in this mud and had to pull them out with my hands. I think I need to work on tying them better. This site was more pristine than other sites and relatively devoid of human presence, which was ideal for our experiments and for our own pleasure. It was peaceful.

Coose Bay site 1

Taylor mud walking at first site

That night we went to the best and possibly only Thai restaurant in Coos Bay and then went to our yurt to sleep. I had always wanted to sleep in a yurt so I was excited, but after a nearly twelve hour work day I was too tired to marvel long at its yurtliness. The next morning we awoke early to get to our second site shown below. This site had its issues as dogs roamed free to poop and pee anywhere they pleased as it was near a trailer park, quite the contrast to our site from yesterday. My mentor had originally wanted to go to a slightly different location, but No Trespassing signs blocked our entry and he did not want us ending up on a WANTED poster. Our next attempted solution was to cross a section of the mudflat to get to some salt marsh islands. We brought some equipment out there, but quickly realized we would be screwed for getting out when the tide came in. We quickly returned to the mainland and sure enough, in the middle of the experiment the tide came, which would have made the passage quite difficult.

Coos Bay site 2

Coos Bay second site

In the end, we set up our experiment in the marsh where the dogs roamed. I am not sure about the quality of that data. After these experiments we quickly returned to Newport so my mentor could meet with some visiting EPA people from Washington D.C. It is important to show them that research is active and thriving (which it is!) so they know their funding is going to a worthy cause.

It is hard to believe that my internship is almost over here in Oregon. It has been a great summer with a lot of experience gained and a lot of memories created. I just need to finish it up by giving my presentations, writing my paper, and finishing the last bit of fieldwork on Monday. I am sad the summer of fieldwork is over, but it has inspired me for graduate school and beyond.

This weekend has been a lazy weekend of hanging around in Newport, which is fine for me because I finally–after nine weeks of deliberation–bought a ukelele! According to Google it is the easiest instrument to learn, so I am optimistic of my ability to make some good sound come out of it. I also hope to surf today. We will see how that goes.

Results are in!

Things are winding down on the nutrient uptake project. We finished the last replicate day of experiments for my temperature experiment on Monday. I have looked at the data now, but I don’t want to discuss it here as I still have to do some further thinking on it. I will say, though, that there are two bars on the graphs I have created that made me jump out of my desk chair with excitement. I stayed after all my coworkers had already left creating this graph and thus had no one to share this excitement with until the next morning. It was agonizing.

Putting this excitement aside, the mood in the lab this week has become more somber for me. I am realizing that this summer is drawing to a close and the great times I’ve had at the EPA are as well. I’ve enjoyed getting to know the people in the field group and the lab, sitting outside under the Oregon sun in sometimes boiling waders, tromping through mud, gaining strength by lugging stainless steel cores across varying terrain, pouring liters and liters of salt water while belting out Hakuna Matata, jumping in and out of boats and getting splattered with mud by the hovercraft. It has challenged me in many ways and helped me to realize that I truly love field work.

There are now two weeks left to get a ton of things done. I need to prepare my presentation, which I am giving to the EPA and to the Oregon Sea Grant. I also need to discuss with my mentor what sort of write-up he wants on my project. There is also a portfolio that I am doing for the Sea Grant. It should be a busy two weeks. We have collected a lot of data this summer from many different estuaries. I am curious to see what sort of “story can be told,” to use the words of my mentor.

At the end of this week we have our last field hurrah down in Coos Bay. It will be an overnight trip and I think we are camping out somewhere. I need to get rest for this week as this weekend has been tiring. My roommates and I went up to Seattle and then down through Portland and Tillamook doing various touristy things, with a stop at Powell’s Books! I can never get enough of bookstores.

Conquering the Mudflat


Pounding in cores at Aquarium Marsh today

My work here in the marshes of Oregon has been challenging in ways I would not have imagined when I applied for the position. Not only have I dealt with the rigors of science in the field, but I have learned a number of survival skills. The picture above shows me using my weight to help with the pounding of the cores. Even though this job does not require physical strength, it does require bravery. (Though I don’t look very brave in this picture!) There is something unnerving about two 40 lbs. weights getting slammed three inches from your feet while two plywood boards holding you up gradually slip apart and the platform beneath you drops an inch each jolt. I have never felt an earthquake before, so perhaps this experience will prepare me a bit.

I have been informed that in the event of an earthquake within twenty miles offshore, the ground at Hatfield Marine Science Center will liquefy and we’ll have a heck of a time getting to high ground before the tsunami hits. My training in the mudflats of Yaquina Bay has given me some preparation for this. Friday we went up river from HMSC to a piece of marsh that had a great stretch of mud we had to cross to get to it. The plan was to take us three interns and the rest of the gear across the mudflat on the hovercraft from the boat. Once we were all piled in, we realized the hovercraft would not move. So Dave, our ever so kind driver, told Taylor and I to get out. Immediately upon stepping out, the mud swallowed Taylor’s leg. I helped pull her out, then walked a few steps away and I started sinking too. It’s a scary feeling being trapped like that. But you have to be patient. If you get too anxious and pull out too fast you can tear your leg muscles and ligaments. Jody, our dedicated lab tech, helped me out then gave me some quick advice for how to walk on mud. Lightly. Just glide across. Walk on the balls of your feet. Don’t stay in one place too long. So I could either stay and wait for the hovercraft to get me and sink possibly further, or charge across the mudflat with my own two feet. I decided the second option. So I made a run for it, sinking in four inches each step, feeling near doing a face plant multiple times. Once across, I was out of breath and exhilarated, having conquered a fear I had all summer!

I have also learned a few other potentially useful non-science skills. I know how to tie a boat to a dock, how to attach the boat to the trailer, and how to operate a jack to most efficiently pull cores out of the ground. It is nice learning to be more handy.

Today we did our last day at Aquarium Marsh, which is sad. I am busy now trying to collect the data into a spreadsheet for my individual project studying the effects of water temperature on nutrient uptake, and finding a way to analyze it and present it. While doing this, we are still continuing the overall project as we travel to Alsea Bay tomorrow and Winant in the Yaquina Thurs and Fri.

This weekend was a great one as my family visited from Seattle and Chicago. We rented a cottage near the beach south of Lincoln City and I got to visit and explore the coast with them. I took my grandpa on an estuary walk given by a fellow scholar, Brian. My grandpa was very adamant about learning everything he could about estuaries as he is a scientist as well, though estuaries are out of his area of expertise. Also, I loved watching my baby nephew toddle along at the beaches we visited. He is great at walking in sand and will one day be a fantastic mudflat walker I’m sure.

Yaquina Marshes Inspire Intense Thinking

This has been a thought provoking week for me. Since I am becoming more comfortable with the protocol for our experiments in the field, there is time between sampling to lay back, look at the scenery, and chat with my field mates. Wednesday’s discussion turned into an intense conversation on the nature of research at a government agency vs. academia and other topics regarding scientific research careers. There are pros and cons to taking up research at each place. At the EPA, people a number of levels up decide what questions they want to ask and the scientists are obligated to come up with projects that address these. There is less freedom than in academia. However, a government position seems more stable and less cut-throat in terms of acquiring funding for the research.

Throughout the week I have also been talking with almost everyone from the lab group and they all have different stories and different reasons for obtaining the degrees they did and taking on the position they have. Perspectives have been both positive and negative, so I am trying to take them in and not let any one opinion dominate or take over my own view of the world. I need to figure out what path would be best for me. After all of these discussions, I met with Robert Allan who is the Director of Student Development at the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU. It was a very helpful conversation as it gave me a direction to go in toward making my own story, after I was overwhelmed by so many other opinions.

This week should be another good week on the nutrient uptake project. Last week we went to this beautiful marsh up the Yaquina called Winant. We are going to be doing a lot of samples there because it is our baseline marsh, so we may not be travelling as far in the next few weeks. This may give me more time to look at the data and start to figure out how I want to present my work. There are only four weeks left now to get so much done!

The Trilogy and Other Lab Adventures

It has been another action packed week on the nutrient uptake project! The pictures below show the onslaught of the tide as I work under pressure to get the samples taken. Inside the chamber is a relatively controlled environment with artificial water and carefully measured nutrient concentrations, so an invasion by the raging sea would not be conducive for reliable results.

Salmon40-1207-03-scn-08In this particular instance we had to shorten our time intervals for sampling so we could get what we wanted before what happened in the second picture. It was great fun sticking my hand in to collect the sea grass from the bottom, especially with all the sediment swirling up so I couldn’t see what I was doing.



In the midst all this fieldwork we also spend some time in the lab. It is always strange to walk inside after a day in the field. Going from sun and mud to fluorescent lights and shiny tiled floors shocks me a little. Last week I learned a new instrument, the Trilogy. Because of the strange results we were finding in our nitrogen concentrations over time using the ISUS instrument, we decided to try this new instrument which measures the same thing in a slightly different way. The Trilogy is situated in a room with a fume hood and no windows and we wear white lab coats and gloves, quite the contrast to the field atmosphere. We also cannot engage in any horseplay as we are dealing with a carcinogenic nitrogen reducing agent in the form of a powder. One sneeze will kill you. Our results still came out funny but a different kind of funny, so we’re not sure what to do about that yet.

Another activity we carry out in the lab is plant biomass sampling. In the field we cut down all the plants in a chamber and in the lab we sort out dead and live plants to be dried and massed to determine percentage live plant mass. This involves untangling each individual blade of grass, separating brown from green. Each chamber takes about an hour to do. If this fact wasn’t overwhelming already, today we learned that the contractors who are working on the project with us do not have this part of the project in their contract…so only us interns are allowed to work on it. Such is the nature of government-contractor politics! And there are three of us interns and thus no time to get this done. So we will freeze the plants until an unspecified date. I am relieved.

This past weekend we had our mid-summer check-in with the Oregon Sea Grant. It was great to hear about all the other interns’ projects. I also worked in the Sea Grant booth at the DaVinci Days and showed many kids about the dangers of pollutants to the watershed. The pollutants for our demo were Kool-Aid, soy sauce, baking soda, and cocoa powder and spray bottles for rain. The kids were fascinated by the model of the town and all the flowing water. I enjoyed attempting to make an impression on young minds.

This week we do more field work. Who knows what the week will bring? There is always something new and interesting that happens. Like last Thursday we left one of the ~60 lb weights sitting in a mudflat in Nestucca, so today we had to use a regular old brick. We’ll have to venture back there with the hovercraft soon to retrieve it…hopefully the ground will not have swallowed it up by then.

The Ground is Thirsty!

It is currently raining/misting here in Newport. It is strange to me that just a few hours ago I was in nearly cloudless, sunny weather in the valley. We drove from near Eugene to Newport from the Oregon Country Fair and from Corvallis we could see the clouds layered over the hills as we drove toward them. Such are the drastic weather differences on the coast vs. the valley. Yesterday I also experienced my first heat of the summer at the Fair (mid-80s) and got to see thousands of very interesting people. This fair is known for its eccentricity. There was also great music, food, dancing, and lectures. I heard part of a talk by the author of a book called Biology of Belief whose talk went from discussing Native Americans to religion to the House of Representatives to the Higgs Boson to support his ultimate point…but I had to leave before I could hear it. I may look into the book sometime.

My work has also been going well this week. It has been very busy with the overnight trip to Bandon to do our experiments in the Coquille estuary. The logistics were complicated as I had expected. We had tons of water to keep cool and samples to keep frozen and equipment to wash outside of the comforts and convenience of our home laboratory. But we were flexible and it all worked out in the end.

One problem we are having is the water in some of our chambers is draining before the hour can be completed. To get a realistic representation of the rate of nutrient flux in these marsh habitats we need the water to stay around, but the ground drinks it up too fast. We had this problem at Coquille where the sediment was very sandy and we are having the problem in our projects at the Aquarium Marsh where the marsh is high and rarely gets wet by the tide, so it less saturated with water already. It is frustrating as a lot of work goes into preparing to go into the field, getting to the sites, setting up the experiments, cleaning up from the experiments, and analyzing the data, and sometimes we get nothing for all our efforts. For instance, on Monday 5 of 6 chambers drained early. Our final sample ends up getting taken with only a centimeter left of water and we take up part of the sediment, which is probably leading to the strange results I discussed last week.

Knowing that hard work is not always leading to results is difficult, but such is the nature of research and often life in general. Our lab group is still pushing forward, though. We plan to try a different instrument next week to analyze nitrogen amounts and we may try staying lower in the high marsh to where the soil may be more saturated. Next week we carry out more experiments and I think we are going to the Nestucca estuary. Friday is also the mid-summer check-in with the Oregon Sea Grant. It’s amazing how fast the time has gone by!

Difficulties of Experiments in the Field

This past week we traveled to Salmon River again and to Siletz Bay for more testing on the nutrient uptake project. I chose to work on the chambers placed in the channel at Salmon River and we were surprised to find shortly into our experiment that the tide was coming in fast. Apparently the low low tides we’ve been having also come with high high tides. The experiment takes one hour so we hurried to get the clock rolling. Near the end, however, water was close to pouring over the top of the chamber, but we managed one more water sample before it all was ruined.

We’ve also looked at the results from our first two days of experiments testing the effects of temperature and nitrogen to phosphorous ratio on nutrient uptake of the harsh marsh behind the aquarium. In previous experiments, our graphs for nitrogen content in our water samples have a set height at time zero, indicating the amount we know we put in, and a lower bar at time sixty minutes, indicating the marsh plants have taken up nitrogen. We were surprised to find in our first day of these new experiments that some of the treatments were gaining nitrogen as time progressed. These odd results were sporadic throughout the treatments and the second day showed none of these oddities.

While discussing these results with my mentor, I mentioned that on the first day there was some dog poop on the path to our study location. One of my coworkers stepped in it and he put his foot on the boards we used to pound the chamber in. Everything stunk after that as the poop clung to the boards. My theory was that some of the poop may have fallen in and gradually leeched into the water. My mentor then said, “So all this data from the first day is sh*t.” I replied, “Yes, literally.” Who knows? But the moral of the story is that we cannot use that data.

Next week we do more replicates for our experiments and we have an overnight trip to Coquille, which is three hours away and we need to time the tides right. I feel like all the logistics will be a challenge for this trip. There will be two field days in a row and we have to keep the water cold for the second day, so we’ll need 8 large coolers with ice. It should be interesting.

Celebrating the 4th in Newport was enjoyable. We looked at the tide pools in the morning, and then I went clamming with my roommates Hilary and Maryna, and managed to dig up…one! Maryna is very good at it, though. Sticking my hand into a dark hole of mud to find a squirmy, shelled creature is a little scary to me. I must be more brave!

Gaining New Strength Out On the Estuary

The lab group and I have accomplished a great number of things this past week on the nutrient uptake research project here at the EPA. We traveled to the Salmon River and the Tillamook Bay estuaries where we carried out our experiments. At each study location we set up six chambers like the one shown below: two in the channel, two in the low marsh habitat, and two in the high marsh. The chamber is about two feet high so, as you might imagine, this chamber has been pushed into the ground. And that, my friend, has been the challenge of the week! We must use every bit of weight (human bodies and 2 sixty pound weights) plus muscle power to get these things in the ground. Each estuary and habitat is different so we never know what difficulty will await us. I’m always up for a physical challenge, though, being a runner!


To give you an idea of the experiment, we fill the chamber with artificial seawater made up in the lab (a rather tedious process) that contains various concentrations of nutrients. Then, over a one hour time period we take water samples every twenty minutes that will be analyzed later to determine how much nutrients have been taken up. We measure a bunch of other things like temperature, salinity, water depth, and plant biomass. All of this data will be looked at later and we hope by the end of the summer to tell a story about how nutrient uptake in Oregon coast estuaries works.

My fellow intern and I have also designed our own experiments to carry out and did our first experiment on Friday in the marsh here in Yaquina Bay, behind the Oregon Coast Aquarium. She is looking at how the ratio of nitrogen to phosphorous affects uptake and I am going to see if temperature of the water plays a role. This involves carrying 14L of water in a large cooler of ice to the study location…another physical challenge!

Overall, I like this sort of research. I am enjoying being outside and getting to see great stretches of the Oregon coast and its various estuaries. The people in my field group are also great fun to work with. Below is a picture of me on the Tillamook River, headed to the marsh.


Some aspects of the fieldwork get stressful as you have to remember to do every tiny task or it will make the data worthless. With so much effort put into packing for fieldwork, getting to the field site (driving, hovercraft, and boat) and setting up the experiment (pounding the chamber in), one small mistake would make all that work pointless. For instance, on Monday, just after some of us had gotten to lab at 6AM to prepare and we were about to pull away at 8AM, my mentor, who is the primary investigator and calls all the shots on this project, found out that the water hadn’t been stored in the cooler overnight. He initially told us to scrap the whole field day, and I almost cried! However, someone had the brilliant idea to let the cubitainers of water incubate in the river before the experiment, which worked to keep the temperature down and all our work that morning did not go to waste.

Next week we work on our experiments two of the days and then travel to other estuaries the other two days. The 4th of July, our day off, my roommates and I plan to explore the tide pools since there is supposed to be record low tides that day.

Jumping Right Into Fieldwork Week One

It has been a great first seven days in Newport, Oregon! I began my work at the US EPA Western Ecology Division last Monday. Immediately after finishing up the orientation with the Oregon Sea Grant, I was introduced to the labs and offices at the EPA and I then started in on the rigorous safety training required of EPA government employees. My mentor wasted no time in getting me finished with that part because he has ambitious plans for the research this summer, which I am excited to be a part of.

To briefly introduce myself, I’m Kate and I’m from Illinois, near Chicago. I go to a great school in that area, North Central College, where I major in Biology. Through this Oregon Sea Grant Scholar program, I was fortunate enough to work on the project I was most interested in studying nutrient uptake in tidal wetlands of the Pacific Northwest. Wetlands do the kind service of taking up nutrients from the water like reactive nitrogen that could be harmful to fish and other wildlife or that would cause harmful algal blooms. The experiments our lab group are doing will look at various parameters (nutrient concentration, ratio of one nutrient to another, habitat type, light, temperature) and see how nutrient uptake is affected by changing them.

Basically, I’m involved in three different things: doing experiments for the big, overall project where we will travel to estuaries all over the Oregon coast, assisting an REU intern with her independently designed experiment, and carrying out my own independent project, which she and others will assist me with. Our projects will take place in the local estuary here in Newport. Wednesday I was introduced to basic fieldwork techniques and then Thursday I was out at Alsea Bay taking measurements important for the master project. I learned quickly that field work requires a lot of planning and a lot of teamwork. We forgot the gas for the boat on Thursday, but thankfully we were only a twenty minute drive away when we realized it. Good thing we weren’t two hours away!

This coming week we are carrying out experiments at Salmon River and Tillamook Bay estuaries. We will also scout out good places to do our independent experiments in the Yaquina Bay estuary here. I also need to formulate my plan for the experiment I will be responsible for and then start preliminary testing later in the week. It sounds like a huge challenge as there is limited time and manpower to get quality data this summer. I need to be deliberate in whatever I do.

In the midst of all this work I’ve been enjoying the cool weather (in Chicago it is sweltering), playing tons of volleyball, meeting the neat people here at the HMSC, and exploring Newport and the beaches and trails around here. Next week should be good!