Monday, July 27, 2009

times a' passin.

In two more weeks I'm going to head for home. This is a good thing.
One of the day trips I've got planned is to take my wife and boy down to Woods Hole, MA, for the day. I used to live and work there, 12 years and a lifetime ago.

For those of you not in the know, Woods Hole is the Mecca of marine biology in the world. The Oceanographic Institute, owned by MIT, is the most prestigious center of marine sciences in the world. My dad worked for WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) for years before relocating to the Boston area, and I worked at the Marine Biological Laboratory as a marine biologist... well, as a basement troll, really, I guess. Technically, I guess I am still a marine biologist, when the money's right and all. Dreams of running away to sea aside, I'm still paying $700 a month for 6 years of a rather expensive lesson on what I ended up not doing when I grew up.
My career as a scientist was exactly like my career as a mariner; I am a generalist- a subject matter expert on nothing, but able to perform in a workmanlike fashion on many levels.

When I first started flying solo as a scientist, I performed research on the reproductive habits of the lowly green sea urchin Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis (I can still type that name fast!), an animal that suffered the most rapid decline from overfishing ever recorded, after becoming a popular item in sushi restaurants. I created a simple and fast way to measure the ability of sea urchins to repopulate in heavily fished areas, which could also be used by fishermen to help them target more lucrative fishing grounds themselves. I got to take my show on the road and talk at scientific conferences, and basically dined out on the popularity of uni, urchin eggs served over rice.

Much like the urchin population, there wasn't much of a future for me in the sushi-support industry, and I ended up spending 6 months living on beer and being rained on in Scotland, shortly thereafter, before writing a tortuous volume on the environmental impact of market globalization in Salmon farming. Unlike the sea urchin paper, my salmon study gathered dust rapidly- to date, I don't think even I have ever read the report cover-to-cover. When all was said and done, I ended up coming home from Scotland jobless, to catch some lobster with my old high school teacher, Mr. D.

God was good to me that summer, and I received a job offer almost immediately after gettting home. I was offered a position at a lab in Woods Hole's Marine Biological Laboratory...I suspect mostly for my incredible skill of being able to procure large quantities of lobster at below-market prices, but fuck it, I had a job. I continued to fish with D a couple of times a month, but I was working on something more cutting edge. Woods' Hole is only a little over an hour from my home, and I was able to find a place to stay by renting an incredibly expensive beach house along with a bunch of other junior scientists. More beer science, and fun followed, and it was a wonderful time.

My background as a lobsterman allowed me to get into a research study on lobsters' nervous systems. I had to have a crash course on neuroscience in general, and had to carry out a study without being an expert on the matter. I had a good academic advisor, who chained me to a basement laboratory, and made me spend the next 3 months studying and researching, whilst also living as the social coordinator of a bunch of brilliant (and mostly female) science geeks like myself. At the end of that time, my part of the research grant was broke, my study was complete, and I was able to go to conferences again, and get to know people. I was already getting tired of travelling so much with no job stability in sight. Really, it set the stage for me; I knew I wanted to catch lobster, but I also wanted to do something extraordinary, like being a marine biologist, or being a merchant mariner, like my dad. Being a biologist was just easier for me, so that was the route I took.


So, with all that baggage, I'm going to bring my family to see the public face of Marine Biology in the US. My old lab relocated to Boston a few years ago, so I can't bring my boy through the dank basements full of odd sea creatures, but there are still plenty of other labs that I can sneak a peek into. I figure with all the fuss of the past month, I could use a trip down memory lane.

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