This winter, New Englanders watched record-breaking amounts of snow layer up outside their doors. Snow is not unusual in the Northeast region of the United States, but the transportation-halting, business-closing, structure-damaging amounts witnessed this past winter had more people than ever questioning, “what is going on?”


When we talk about global warming, nor’easters are not typically part of our mental imagery – but they should be! Although global warming is not entirely responsible for these dramatic weather events, increased global temperatures are a major part of the problem. And I do mean “warming”; the dramatic New England winter we observed this year is connected to an oceanic warming trend.

The oceans are getting warmer at an extraordinarily fast rate. So fast that climate scientists have a hard time publishing reports as quickly as changes are occurring. While it may not seem logical that warmer water causes more snow, this temperature increase is a major contributor to extreme weather.

Flooding in Scituate, MA. Photo: Jesse Costa/

Water absorbs and retains heat very well. When cool air travels over the surface of warm upper layers, the water heats the air and then evaporates. The newly warmed humid air rises and cools as it travels, forming clouds and eventually precipitation (in freezing New England this comes in the form of snow). This phenomenon, known as the “lake (or bay) effect” is part of what caused coastal New England to be slammed with blizzard conditions this winter.

Cape Cod National Seashore in early March 2015. Photo:

It is not easy to fully understand the effects and extent of increasing ocean temperatures, even for oceanographers. Under static conditions, understanding vast ocean systems is difficult; surface observations and samples from depth each only give a small glimpse as to what is going on. However, current variable conditions mean that researchers must constantly gather new data and refresh records to keep up with the effects of ocean temperature rise. Extreme weather is only one consequence of these changes; the broader results of increasing ocean temperatures are felt globally and by all species.

The trend and results of global ocean warming are widespread, but not entirely understood. However, researchers do know that as ocean temperatures increase, the myriad of associated problems will intensify; including the cycle of cold air collecting moisture from the water and dumping on land. If current patterns persist, ocean warming will continue to wreak havoc at sea – and on land.

Frozen waves on Nantucket Island, MA February 2015. Photo: J. Nimerfroh/
Frozen waves on Nantucket Island, MA February 2015. Photo: J. Nimerfroh/

The PhD as a journey.

Few things can be soothing when difficulties come up. Each person has his own remedies against hardships, stress or feelings of unworthiness. One thing is certain: difficulties ALWAYS come up to EVERYONE. Yet how people manage them can result in either improvement and success or desperation and depression.

When I go through hard times, my way out is frequently the poem below (and illegal amounts of cheese).

I know of a few people that agree on how tough it is to be a PhD student. I did not realize what I was getting myself into; how perplexed my life was about to become. I enjoy learning more than anything else, and I am passionate about the conservation of the seas and their inhabitants. So, getting into this PhD seemed ideal for me. And it is. There are times though, that I am so ramfeezled, working long days until the small hours that I don’t have enough time to stop and look at the people around me, have long inspiring conversations, enjoy life.

I know of a few people that would agree how hard it is to live abroad. Having your family 10.000 km away. Struggling to keep your friendships through skype for 3 years. Striving to maintain feelings through online quick conversations done at 10 hours of difference. At the same time, trying to understand a different language and a diverse way of thinking. Understanding the words is easy. Figuring out what lays behind them is far complicating especially when the cultural gaps are enormous and the people are particularly stoical. On top of that, learning programming languages, whale languages, acoustic properties, oceanographic programs, statistical modeling, and a long list of academic skills.

The PhD route
The PhD route

It has not been easy but it has been a magical journey. I have made new friends and learned from their mindset. I made new “families” with the spectacular people I have lived with. I got numerous scientific skills and learned about the world away from the motherland. I have seen the world’s largest trees, luscious forests, grandiose mountains, blue whales and exciting wildlife, exuberant waterfalls and rivers, the Pacific Ocean. When I faced new challenges, I also discovered a part of the world inside me that I did not know of, and out of comparison, I appreciated things that before I would take for granted. My PhD challenge has been a learning experience in so many ways, through both pleasant and negative phases.

check out the whole comic here
Definitely check out the whole comic here

When my soul is troubled and I feel small facing everything that I do not know then sometimes I want to give up. Then I read Ithaka (and have a grilled cheese sandwich) and usually recover. This poem reminds me to go for what I am passionate about without focusing on the difficulties.

Constantine Cavafy  wrote Ithaka in 1911 inspired by Odysseys and his journey to his home at the island of Ithaka. This poem is about appreciating the journey of life, and growing through the experiences gained. Life (just like the PhD) is a journey , and everyone has to face and accept its difficulties that are simply part of it. Sometimes the more the difficulties the more the opportunities to build up defenses that make one stronger. The journey that takes us to the destination is more important than the goal itself.

To attribute an acoustic sense to this post you can skip the text and watch the video where Sir Sean Connery narrates this poem.


As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

-Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard-


The PhD has been the motivation for my journey, the reason that brought me on this route, because of which I am constantly learning. The road has not been flat, straight, or sunny, but I hear that a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.

What a magnificent ride!
Don’t forget to look around

Enjoy your ride.

***This post is dedicated to my OSU adviser Holger who has literally reached his Ithaca, since he moved there already. I bet his journey was long. Metaphorically too. Now he is helping us, his students, to reach our own. Also to my ORCAA lab-mates Selene, Michelle, Danielle and Samara for being inspiring and motivating; excellent traveling comrades. Also to Jeffrey and Sharon for always being there for me when any short of hardship appears. And to the precious people I have met on the way and the ones that have always been there. You know who you are***



Soundbites is a biweekly feature of the coolest, newest bioacoustics, soundscape, and acoustic research, in bite-size form. Plus other cool stuff having to do with sound. 

Multimodal signalling in redwing blackbirds in noisy situationsmore bird stuff this week to start off. Redwing blackbirds attract mates both acoustically (with songs) and visually (by showing off their fancy red shoulders). The visual signal was thought to be a sort of backup for the acoustic signal. In noisy conditions, these authors found that birds will change their calls but not their visual signaling, implying that the two signals are separate.

To be loud or not to be loud, that is the questionFemales of many acoustic species tend to prefer their males loud because being loud requires energy. Or so we thought! Here the authors found that singing loudly in zebra finches is constrained more by social context than it is by energy expenditure. You should click on this link if only for the diagram of the zebra finch inside a respirometry mask. It’s adorable.

Fun link of the week: you guys know I love the science side of YouTube, right? I’ve made no secret of that. So for this week’s fun link, I give you a video from Joe Hanson of It’s Okay To Be Smart about the loudest sound:

(also, look! I finally figured out how to embed videos!)

When I first started grad school in OSU’s College of Oceanography I learned a few important things. The first, is what the acronym “PhD” actually stands for (see title). The second was a trick for finding out if you were ‘really‘ doing oceanography, if it’s too heavy to lift, too expensive to lose, and you drop it to the bottom of the ocean anyway, then you are in fact doing oceanography. I’m not sure if I’m happy to report or not, but after three and a half years of grad school (I know, even I’m surprised I’ve been here that long) I can finally understand what I was taught on that fitful first day of class.

The life of a PhD student
The life of a PhD student

To say that I’ve been busy is true, but isn’t very interesting. Busy is relative.  So instead I’ll highlight a few of my major accomplishments from over the past month, and the friends and colleagues who helped me get there — because as I’ve said many times before, science is collaborative.

Accomplishment #1: Build anchors

Luna Tunes inspects an errant chain link and wonders why we didn't use this as an anchor.
Luna Tunes inspects an errant chain link and wonders why we didn’t use this as an anchor.

Team: Myself, John Flynn (my husband), David Culp (my intern), special guest appearances from Florence van Tulder of the Marine Mammal Institute and Vista and Luna Tunes (my dogs).

My dissertation research hinges on the successful deployment of four Autonomous Underwater Hydrophones (AUH) which are mounted on aluminum landers and sunk to the bottom of the ocean in Glacier Bay National Park. These hydrophones are recovered six months later with the use of an acoustic release system (see my earlier blog posts from Antarctica for details on the acoustic release). This system only works if the hydrophones don’t drift away. There is no handbook for studying acoustic ecology (there is no really handbook for getting a PhD either… it’s more of a choose your own adventure book). While this system has been deployed in all the worlds oceans, each deployment is unique.

Concrete, Aluminum, and lead.  Whale research at its finest.
Concrete, Aluminum, and lead. Whale research at its finest.

Which means we had to design a mooring system, including the anchors. Sparing you the nitty gritty details of why I couldn’t just buy anchors (4 landers x 4 feet on each lander = 16 feet needing anchors = $$$$$) what ended up happening was a little lesson in density (100 pounds of concrete on land = ~ 60 pounds of concrete in water), a few hilarious interactions with the great folks over at Englund Marine & Industrial Supply (“Hi, I’d like to buy 600 pounds of lead cannonballs.  Oh, that’s all of the cannonballs?  Ok, yeah.  I’ll take them.  And all of your 5-gallon buckets too.”), a few very long days of pouring concrete (where my intern David proved to be the most valuable intern on the face of the planet, and not just because his truck could hold 2500 pounds of concrete, and I realized I totally married the right guy), and voila we now have twenty lead/concrete anchors weighing 100-130 pounds each to keep our equipment snugly on the sea floor. Phew.

Accomplishment #2: Host Conference

Florence van Tulder and I after moving 600 pounds of lead weights from the back of my Mazda hatchback to safety at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.
Florence van Tulder and I after moving 600 pounds of lead weights from the back of my Mazda hatchback to safety at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Team: Myself, Shea Steingass (MMI), Courtney Hann (MMI), Selene Fregosi (ORCAA), Niki Diogou (ORCAA), with guest appearances by David Culp (my intern… again), and Kat Nikolich (former intern and Western Washington Grad Student)

So, I am one of two student representatives to the Northwest Student Chapter for the Society for Marine Mammalogy (NWSSMM).  I attended my first chapter meeting in 2012 and have been an active member in the chapter ever since.  This year we offered to host our annual chapter meeting, for the first time, at Oregon State University.  I spearheaded the conference along with Shea (mistress of swag) with the logistical support of ORCAA and the grad students of MMI.  Kat and David jumped in to help with shopping and set up (phew). I’m also proud to report that this year’s conference was sponsored!  The Hatfield Marine Science Center, the Marine Mammal Institute, and OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife all generously funded this year’s conference.  As a result we were able to offer free registration to all of our undergraduate students, and to provide mugs to each of our conference attendees (with a super cool logo, designed by Shea).  We had record high attendance with 70 conference goers, not including our panel of experts, and our generous graders (Holger was one of our generous graders- thanks Holger!).

The feedback we got from our panelists (Drs. Leigh Torres of MMI, Markus Horning of MMI, Ari Friedlaender of MMI, and ORCAA’s own Sharon Nieukirk) was that the caliber of the presentations was impressive, the day ran smoothly (we had coffee breaks!), and that the students were engaged.  The feedback we got from our students was that the panel was insightful, the presence of a wide range of professionals at the conference was exciting, and that the keynote talk by Dr. Ari Friedlaender was “tha bomb”.

The inclusion of a panel was new this year, and reflects the wide range of marine mammal professionals that we have in the OSU community.  We talked a lot about the pros and cons of technology and the role of the human observer as well as the pros and cons of a PhD, and balancing life and work. I know that for those of you in the field of marine mammal science that this doesn’t seem like a breakthrough, but these fundamental topics are essential to both the progress of our field, and our humanity.  When asked what he looked for in a graduate student Dr. Markus Horning astutely brought up animal welfare, and seeking students who had a vested interest in the safety and health of the animals we study.  Dr. Ari Friedlaender pointed out that a drive to understand the science is as important (or perhaps more important) than the drive to love the species.  Sharon and Leigh both spoke up about the role of quantitative skills (modeling, programming), as well as what it means to travel abroad, and to spend time in the field observing.  Perhaps most poignantly was the conversation about what we sacrifice to study marine mammals, and the loss of women between the post-doc and faculty stages.  These conversations continued long into the night after the conference, and were rehashed this past Monday when Holger took the lab out to dinner (thanks again Holger!).

I think that is largely the point of these conferences, to learn about the science, to network and meet new colleagues or revisit old ones, and to inspire conversations about topics that may not always make it into the room (like when we’re too busy pouring concrete to think about whether or not having a baby as a PhD student is realistic). In any case, the conference was a great success (from which I needed some serious recovery).  Here’s a photo to prove how happy everyone was.

Northwest Marine Mammal Students Unite!
Northwest Marine Mammal Students Unite!

Accomplishment #3: Ship Hydrophones to Alaska (as well as the rest of the gear)

Team: Myself, Matt Fowler (NOAA), David Culp (you really should know this name by now), Holger Klinck, Sharon Nieukirk.

This post is getting long (you’re still reading!  I’m shocked, I would have checked out a few paragraphs ago… but then again I’m ‘busy’). While this section has actually taken up the bulk of my time, describing exactly what it was I’ve been doing is difficult.  The answer is fitting shackles, splicing line, shopping at Costco (thanks Sharon!), assembling and programing hydrophones (thanks Matt!), zip-tying, drilling holes in metal, taping things, buying heavy things, lifting heavy things, talking about heavy things (thanks David! for all of the ‘heavy things’), and then finally shipping heavy things (although they were nicely packaged onto pallets in meaningful ways).

David and I deliriously tired and borderline giddy to see this container ship out.
David and I deliriously tired and borderline giddy to see this container ship out.

I had a student ask me a few weeks ago what studying whales was like: industrial, I said. This is the little glorified part of field biology. The ability to assemble moorings, and work through the logistics (3/8″ line vs. 5/16″, where do I buy nylon insulator bushings?), problem solve on your feet (we can’t afford that much heavy chain, what else is heavy and made of lead?), paired with the ability to handle problems calmly when they arise (the manufacturer sent the wrong pair of release housings and now the instruments don’t fit.  Hmm…what to do).  I haven’t seen a whale in months; meanwhile the nice guy at Englund Marine went surfing with porpoise while watching gray whales this week. To study animals that live in the ocean in a meaningful way means developing a method to observe them, without changing them.  This can be hard, labor intensive, and logistically complicated.  It’s also satisfying, practical, valuable, and at times ridiculous.  So I’ll tell  you  this, when the foam inserts that I needed to ship my acoustic releases were accidentally thrown away by the custodians Matt Fowler gave me the grand tour of dump sites at HMSC, and when we got to a large dumpster with my boxes in it?  I didn’t hesitate.

Miche standing inside the dumpster.  Whale research at its finest.
Miche standing inside the dumpster. Whale research at its finest.

In the end, we got the container loaded with gear (anchors, landers, hydrophones, food, shackles, lines, buckets, tarps, and one hula hoop). Matt and I sighed a collective sigh of relief before we closed the door and gave that metal box a pat.  Working with Matt was a pleasure, and as he pointed out now that the hydrophones are built and shipped, our job together is done.  This caught me off guard a little; building the hydrophones is just the beginning.  Next stop, Glacier Bay.


Matt and I say goodbye to the Acoustic Spyglass field gear

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