Featured Alum: Amanda Fitzgerald, Biology 2011

Amanda Fitzgerald (Click on image for Amanda and Kay)

Part 1: Research Trip
Many of you know that I went on a boating trip to the Gulf of Mexico at the beginning of my graduate school experience. I have begun my program in marine environmental toxicology at the University of Texas at Austin this August. Every summer the lab goes on a sampling trip, I went this summer prior to officially starting classes to see what it was like. I have written a bit about my experiences on the boat and starting as a TA at one of the largest schools in the US. The boat trip in the Gulf was a lot like all my trips to the Gulf Coast Research Lab (GCRL), only MUCH longer on the boat.

Day One, on the Pelican (our boat see picture below): Current location: 29 deg N, 90 deg W; heading due south, temperature 85 deg F. The crew is very friendly and the cook is this old Cajun swamp guy who looks like he has never left this area. He stocked the fridge with all of the best foods, fruits and snacks you can think of and we have free reign of the kitchen. For dinner tonight I had an awesome sandwich with fresh blackberries on the side. We are pushing off at 11:44 pm and our first sampling is due to take place at 4 am. The little town where the boat was docked is called Cocodrie, LA, and it is totally isolated. There is only one road that goes in and out and the town is inhabited by about 400 people and most of them are fishermen or work for fishermen. The equipment on board the Pelican is extensive, if I had to guess I think the net worth of this boat is a few million dollars. There is a guy whose job is only to make sure that all the equipment works. We brought our own stuff including two huge boxes of dry ice and two travel containers of liquid nitrogen. As of now, we are collecting brains and gonads of Atlantic croaker and flash freezing them for later analysis. Due to the large amount of drought the hypoxic area, where we need to collect, is very small this year.

Research vessel: Pelican

Status update Pelican, Day 2. Current Location: 29.36 deg N, 90.00 deg W, water temperature 29.9 deg c. Total injuries=2: 1 blister, 1 puncture wound from angry fish. I can’t see the shore from the boat but it feels like I can due to the amount of oil rigs. It is impressive and the number is multiplied due to unused oil rigs and these miniature platforms that I assume are for trial drills. For every active oil rig there are at least three unused platforms. Sleep was hard to get last night, the sea was very calm but Kay and I, being the only girls and mere graduate students, were subjected to the room closest to the engine. There is also this constant sound of sloshing water due to the fact that our beds are actually underwater. I am thoroughly convinced that the shower is bigger than our bedroom. We woke up this morning to pancakes and fresh fruit and a fresh haul of croaker. One of the scientists on board is doing some tagging experiments and we all got a chance to tag a croaker with a radio transmitter. He then gave us a run down of this $500,000 robot that was lowered into the water. Most of the activity occurs in 10 minute intervals with a couple of hours in between, so I have been alternating reading and watching the TV to keep myself busy. The most interesting character so far has to be the head engineer. Upon his arrival he began cussing repeatedly about this and that, then he sat down and ate almost a whole chicken. He wanders around and grumbles at everyone then disappears upstairs in the cockpit. He’s ranked at about an 8.5 on my 1-10 scale of saltyness.

Status update Pelican day 3: Location 28 deg N, 90 deg W. All day today was spent driving in circles trying to follow the fish we tagged yesterday. Therefore the Internet and TV didn’t work because satellites don’t work in circles??! We finally started working after dinner and one professor didn’t really explain what we were doing at all, and I wasn’t allowed to touch anything. That made me, of course, incredibly frustrated and useless so I dissected brains out of about 15 fish just to keep myself busy. The weather is amazing, the moon looked awesome, I got to see a dolphin and a giant school of fish feeding at night. Drama On the boat: Salty man and Cajun guy got into an argument and I understood about three words total, two of which were curse words. I need to get in on this secret boat lingo.

Sunrise

Status Update Pelican day 4: Location 29.7 deg N, 90.12 deg W. We are headed to the Mississippi delta to get a severe hypoxic sample and will arrive there at around 2 am. That is how long it takes to get there from our current location. So we are going to be working at 2 am, because that is when we will get there and we have a schedule to keep. I am ready. I slept a lot today so I am prepared for tonight. Today was another long day of nothing, I read about 5 hours and burned through my biochemical book. I also already finished a book I brought with me and am halfway through another. I officially stayed up all night and it has confused me in such a way that I now don’t know what day it is or even when “last night” was. I can’t even really piece together the past two days because I slept a little during the day and a little at night, but not a lot in total. For those skeptics out there, I do have a picture of the sunrise. We went to the mouth of the Mississippi river and that area that was supposed to be severely hypoxic is in fact not at all. We ran a trawl anyway and all we caught was pelagic fish, no oceanic species, so we had to throw them all back. We did however catch a small shark on the last trawl. We snagged the net on something, and it came up with a hole in it. We were pretty worried for a while, but really why should we? We have a Cajun bayou born sailor in our midst and he quickly returned with a small pair of glasses and an old wooden net repair kit. He then proceeded to repair the net by hand. Those Cajun men, they are like a Swiss army knife, I think everyone should have them in their fav 5. The next two trawls we got a whole bag of starfish and a bunch of sponges…so we are running a little low on samples right now. Currently, we are East of the Mississippi in an area that is supposed to be “normal” or unaffected by runoff, because the current moves to the west. The water is a lot darker and there is significantly less wildlife, but the water is deeper so it supports different types of species. Hopefully we will get more than a bag of rocks next time.

We are officially done sampling and on our way back to Lumcon, which is the home base for this boat. There is a storm coming from the south so I am kind of glad that we are done today and not a few days later. It started raining today so I didn’t get to spend too much time outside. We were pretty unlucky with trawling, we only got about 10 fish, but that was enough for our sampling. We are going to spend the night on the boat anyway, even though we will be near land but the town where we are going is like two hours away from the nearest hotel. I’m kind of glad to be back, because it has been however many days and I have cabin fever and I have read all my books and I’m ready to get off the boat! This is my last day on the island, where the laboratory is. It is a barrier island called Mustang Island, South of Corpus Christi. I am spending it recovering from the trip. Now that I am back on solid ground, I have been feeling constantly dizzy and nauseous. If I stand up too fast or for too long I get the feeling I might fall over. All 16 of us on the boat did grow pretty close, it might be due to the forced proximity of sharing just 2000sq feet together or because of how much we had in common. All of us (almost) were there voluntarily and it probably takes a certain type of person to want to spend time on the ocean. Though I did go through some serious bouts of cabin fever, I could see myself getting used to being on a boat for a while which is good because if things go my way I will be doing a lot more of this in my graduate career.

Part 2: Teaching Assistant (T.A.)
I thought I would also share a bit about my first days as a T.A. at one of the biggest universities in the US! I had my first three lab sections and my first full week of class. I thought I would keep you updated on my attempt on turning college freshmen into worldly thinkers of the 21st century…or something like that. The first lab was on nautical navigation, which is pretty cool and just includes being familiar with lat & log. I did manage to make it through all three classes that I teach with only one person asking me “um do we need to know this” and another guy who was using his cell phone to answer all of the questions. This lab was pretty heavy on the math part and I was a bit nervous about how in depth I would need to answer questions, but I pulled through in the end. It’s hard to try to convince people this is something worth knowing when everyone in the class has an iphone with a gps on it. One of my classes is at 8 am and I’m at least 90% sure that no one even remembers what I said the whole time. I’m not sure I even remember what I said. I think everyone’s heart rate and body temperature returned to normal at about 9:30.

Later in the semester: the freshmen had their first exam yesterday. I received a ton of emails such as “I don’t know what to study”, and I even had three students miss lab, because they didn’t study for the test enough. As we were entering the classroom, my professor surprised me by telling me that he had chosen me to stand up in front of the whole class and go over the test. ME?? Talk to 300 students? I have to say it was quite daunting standing up there with a microphone, talking to all 300 of them. However, after a few minutes I have to say I got over it. Two of my labs I T.A. in are really awesome, we are getting along great and all of them are doing well. They even laughed at one of my jokes!!!! But my 8 am is struggling, I walk in and there are 20 crusty eyed college students in their PJs staring back at me, with all the hate and dislike they can muster up at 8:00. I feel about as respected as a DMV employee. I am working on ideas to liven them up, like throwing cereal and bananas at them or brewing coffee in the lab. Next week I’ll experiment. I also have my first exams next week and I am anxious to have them under my belt so I can gauge how the rest of the semester will be.

So far I’m having a great time, I seem to have gotten used to all of the walking around this huge campus, but not quite accustomed to the commute time. I never allow enough time to get anywhere so as a result I am still usually late. All in all I feel well prepared for my life as a graduate student and I’m enjoying the change of pace. Austin is fantastic! Hope you enjoyed reading about my first Gulf sampling trip and the start of the semester from the other side. It is overwhelming at first the size of the classes compared to CBU, but the graduate classes are smaller and the labs that I teach are, too. Until next time.