Sunday, December 9, 2012

Women's attire at the AGU Fall Meeting

by Kim Cobb

Every year before the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, there is a flurry of conversation in my mostly female lab about what to wear. I understand that this was also discussed on the Earth Science Women’s Network listserv. For someone who has never been, it is impossible to know what to expect. This is science after all, and geology at that, so much of the online guidance about corporate conference attire is off-base. As women in earth science, it is especially difficult to balance several competing aims when packing for AGU. First and foremost, AGU presents a unique opportunity for professional development– one that is particularly important for younger scientists. Getting a job after graduation requires making a name for yourself outside of your lab. Presenting a polished, put-together appearance reflects a seriousness of purpose, self-confidence, and shows respect for the collective scientific efforts on display at AGU. Add to this the intuitive understanding that attractive people are at a distinct advantage in our society (see supporting research here and especially here), and these drivers would in isolation push women towards the coordinated, tailored suits that are so common in corporate settings. It is important to remember that science is an arena where individual intellectual accomplishment is highly valued, so there is more latitude for personal style than in corporate America.
However, several important factors push AGU women’s attire in the other direction, closer to the average AGU men’s outfit of jeans paired with a pullover sweater. Most obviously, attractive young female students are likely wary of distinguishing themselves from the sea of male colleagues by calling attention to their femininity. And then there’s the whole “geology” subculture:  rock hammer-toting, North Face-wearing, “I’m-so-busy-solving-earth’s-mysteries-that-I-hardly-have-time-to-shave”. In this world, a Mac laptop is a fashion statement. Finally, some recent research (summarized here) has uncovered a distinct bias against the hiring of attractive women in male-dominated fields. If young women are subconsciously aware of such a bias, it will also push them towards a more androgenous look.  

What follows is my attempt to provide some guidance for young women beginning their careers in geoscience, especially as they consider conference attire. It was also really fun to collect these images from well-dressed women scientists, as a fashion aficionado myself. I didn’t know most of them, so you can imagine the reaction I got when I asked to take their picture for an AGU fashion blog! They turned three shades of red and giggled nervously. Some preferred to remain anonymous, while some, like my esteemed colleague Adina Paytan, reveled in the spotlight. I owe a big thank-you to these ladies, who were great sports.
Below I present several looks and discuss why I believe they make successful AGU outfits. [Update:  Many readers have bemoaned the lack of pants featured here. I love wearing pants to AGU myself, and I in no way meant to suggest that one must wear a skirt and/or boots to AGU to look "acceptable" or fashionable.]
Lynn Soreghan, Prof. Univ. of Oklahoma. I love the
effortless-ness of the outfit, impeccably accessorized,
with matching coat and boots. It's "earthy" but modern,
 and the vest adds a touch of academic elegance.
Jen (awake) and Annie (asleep) Pierce, Boise State
University. What can I say, there is nothing that says "I'm a fearless female scientist" like a baby in a sling paired with some incredible red boots! Great wool skirt too.

Yours truly, sporting my new, ridiculous(ly cute)
Italian shoes. Matching bag is a coincidence. I do like
to wear skirts at AGU, most often with a plain,
unmemorable, but well-conceived (and warm!) top.
Here, it's all about the accessories.
Anonymous. I think this outfit hits all the right notes. She
looks nerdy and interesting, but attractive, in a Euro-styled aesthetic that is made particularly memorable by, once more, great red boots. I like her hair worn down here, which softens the look. 

Anonymous. I saw meters and meters of scarves at AGU,
whose gifts are on display here. The long skirt is flattering
yet nondescript, while the scarf and coordinated sweater
add interest and draw the eye to her face - a good thing.
Betsy Madden, an all-but-PhD'd grad student at Stanford. I love the ease that this outfit conveys, and the pairing of neutrals with the colorful textured skirt. She certainly seems ready to be at the front of a class.

Sylvia Dee, grad student USC. She is making
a bold statement with the all-black look, which
is very effective against her striking red hair and
blue eyes. The metal-studded flats are a good
choice, adding some playfulness to the ensemble. 
Adina Paytan, UCSC. Sporting a killer blue dress at the
AGU Honor's Banquet. She wears her sunglasses at night.
A brilliant scientist, close friend and colleague, and one
of my role models.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cobb lab folk at AGU

by Kim Cobb

I am thrilled to be at the Fall Meeting of AGU this year, thanks to my husband who is holding down the fort back in Atlanta. Joining me in San Francisco are graduate students Jessica Moerman and Stacy Carolin, and undergraduate researchers Eleanor Middlemas and Elizabeth Wiggins, who are all presenting TODAY (details below). I have to give a special plug for my students of course, especially the undergrads, who are presenting their first poster of many at AGU. If anybody wants some super-qualified, wildly enthusiastic, and exceptionally personable graduate students, you would be well-served in dropping by their posters to woo them today, or contact them by e-mail. They are free agents, and will be applying to grad school next month.

Eleanor will present her poster this morning in the Hadley circulation session:

PP31C-2049. The effect of lowered sea level on climate in the Indo-Pacific region as simulated by the SPEEDY AGCM
Eleanor Middlemas; Kim M. Cobb; Emanuele Di Lorenzo

and then this afternoon, Jessica and Liz will present their posters in the High Res paleo session:

PP33A-2094. Local and regional climatic controls on high-resolution rainfall and cave dripwater oxygen isotopes in northern Borneo
Jessica W. Moerman; Kim M. Cobb; Jess F. Adkins; Harald Sodemann; Brian Clark; Andrew A. Tuen

PP33A-2089. The Effects of Freshwater Dissolution on Coral Geochemistry and Morphology
Elizabeth B. Wiggins; Kim M. Cobb; Hussein R. Sayani

My own presentation on our greatly expanded fossil coral dataset (now back to 7,000 years ago) isn't until Friday morning, in the El Nino-Southern Oscillation diversity session (yes, we even want to promote diversity in ENSO these days):

OS52B-03. Testing late 20th century El Nino-Southern Oscillation variability against new coral-based estimates of natural variability
Kim M. Cobb; Niko Westphal; Hussein R. Sayani; Emanuele Di Lorenzo; Hai Cheng; R. Lawrence Edwards; Christopher D. Charles

I am especially happy to see Cobb lab alumni Jud Partin and Julien Emile-Geay here (Jud is presenting a poster this morning and Julien's talk is right before mine on Friday morning). They are both kicking some serious science &^%# and, not coincidentally, are happy and well.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Another day, another drip

by Kim Cobb
We’re back! Well, that is, we’re back from a week at Camp 5, the rustic outpost about 20km from Mulu Park headquarters. After a 45min boat ride upriver, we hiked the last 8km carrying a week’s worth of food and scientific equipment, and 2-3 day’s worth of clothing. Camp 5 provides a roof, some gas burners, freshwater (even cold showers!), and mosquito nets, so provisioning is relatively easy. My undergraduate research assistant, Eleanor Middlemas, and I had just stepped off the last of 5 planes on our 70-hr trip from Atlanta to Mulu that very morning, eager to get going. Sang, a new graduate student at U. Michigan, had met us at the Miri airport, fresh from a 3-day battle in Hong Kong for a Malaysian visa.
We arrived at Camp 5 very worse for the wear, in the midst of a true Mulu-style downpour, happy for the jungle oasis. The rest of our group, comprised of graduate students Stacy Carolin and Jessica Moerman and undergraduate Danja Mewes, had been caving with long-time collaborators and guide-extraordinaires Jenny Malang and Syria Lejau that day. They arrived mud-coated and exhausted, but full of stories from Whiterock Cave, our primary target for the Camp 5 research. The next day, we hit the trail at 7:30am after some wonderful Nescafe 3-in-1, and reached the Whiterock entrance after 2 hours of hiking and 4 stream-crossings. Once inside we went to work collecting dripwaters from the stalagmites we had cored on the 2010 expedition. Jessica, Syria, and I pushed farther into the cave, finding an incredible chamber full of HUGE stalagmites (some no thinner than my arm but more than 20’ tall). The British cavers who first explored Whiterock had given us their maps for this expedition (map? who needs maps anyhow?!?) had named this chamber the “Nightwatchmen” for the carbonate sentinels watching over us. There were many broken stalagmites strewn across the floor, most of them too large for us to pack out. We took some hand samples for dating, mostly out of curiosity. My lab’s work on climate reconstruction is focused on the very recent geologic past – the farthest back in time we go is 140,000 years. While heading back through the sticky mud that coats the cave floor, the sole of my shoe came unglued!! and I had to use my shoelaces to try to lash it on as I limped back to the rest of the group. Jenny did some emergency duct-taping upon our arrival, which worked great. We rounded up the rest of the crew and headed out. I’m not going to lie, it was a miserable trip back – over 2.5 hours of limping through the jungle (most of us had developed some pretty good blisters by now) to arrive at Camp 5 after dark. Syria’s birthday dinner was a welcome distraction from our aching bodies.
The next morning we tackled Cobweb Cave – a comparatively easy hike in but a dismal cave to navigate, full of huge break-down boulders the size of a house, and full of disorienting twists and turns. A few years ago some nestors (locals who poach cave swift nests to sell for the equivalent of ~$2-3 each – a small fortune around here) had gotten lost in Cobweb for 3 days. When they found them they had already laid down in the graves that they had dug for themselves. Yikes. Luckily we had not one but two expert cave guides with us, but it is even more important to stick together while doing our research activities in a cave like Cobweb. After a relatively easy day at Cobweb (we do not explore past a certain point, because we need ropes to traverse a huge 50-ft hole in the floor), we arrived back at Camp 5 to see that my brother Niko had arrived. When he hadn’t arrived at Mulu with us, we had assumed that he wasn’t able to make it after all. We all took a swim and gave our bodies a rest, in preparation for a long day at Whiterock the following day.
Our last caving day was a full one indeed. Niko took some great footage of the scientific operations (see the video!), so we’re excited to get back and become YouTube sensations.  ;)   We celebrated Stacy’s birthday back at Camp 5 with a blow-out dinner complete with pineapple curry, green mango sauce, chicken curry, and a Dutch pineapple dessert. It was a jungle-sourced extravaganza that none of us will ever forget. 
We slept in yesterday, before hiking out of Camp 5 back to Park Headquarters. Two porters carried about 150 lbs of rocks out – I have no idea how – and we left all of our extra food, including about 100 Cliff bars, so our packs were light, if our hearts were heavy. Leaving a place like Camp 5 isn’t easy, even if you are heading towards hot showers and cold beers in the near future, and loved ones in the not-too-distant future. Back at Headquarters, I am grateful for a safe trip to the remote caves at Camp 5, and for the extremely hard work that everyone did towards accomplishing the lab’s scientific goals. We sure have our work cut out for us over the next years! Jessica, Stacy, and Danja will be staying at Mulu for another 10 days, while Eleanor, Sang, and I will be jetting back to States to complete our busy semesters. Class?!? What’s that?

Friday, October 19, 2012


Today is the third day that we have been in Mulu. In my last sequence of Caltech posts I chose the theme throughout to be trying to teach the advanced chemistry used in my thesis work to readers with little-to-no math and science expertise. For this trip my new idea is to treat each post like a journal entry, which can uniquely provide a personal window into the around-the-world fieldwork that we are doing. Hope you enjoy.

Friday, October 17, 2012

Woke up at 6:30am. Jessica was setting up her rain gauges as I went into the research center and began separating out what we needed to pack for today’s trip to a decorated chamber within Gunung Mulu. Small 4ml vials and funnels to collect drip waters, flagging tape for collecting broken stalagmites on the cave floor, lab notebook, lab camera, ect. We covered our bodies in insect repellant then walked over to the park’s restaurant to eat breakfast. Pancakes, fruit from the jungle, tea. Then we went back to the research center, grabbed our cave packs, quickly threw in our caving kneepads, gloves, helmets, and rubber shoes, and went out to meet Syria at the boat dock.

Beautiful 15-min boat ride down the river to arrive at the Cave of the Winds. We collected a few drips at the entrance -- a fun sight for the tourist groups as they shuffled past with their park guides into the show cave -- then followed Syria off the visitor's path and into the deep chambers of Gunung Mulu.

It’s been four years since my last time adventure caving with Syria here in Mulu, and I still love everything about it -- the mind-blowing gigantic chambers, the non-stop rock climbing, the slippery muddiness, the darkness, the nervousness, the adrenaline. But it’s Syria who makes the caving incredible. She is a god-- there is nothing she doesn’t know or can’t do, and I am in constant awe. Plus she is hilarious and fun. I have looked forward to seeing her again ever since I left four years ago. One of my few idols and an amazing friend. At one point while we were walking to the next chamber she stopped suddenly. “Stacy! Come here!” How nice -- she found a 6ft long racer snake gliding along outside the path to show me. She sees everything! I’m amazed. 

We arrived in the decorated chamber after about 2 hours of climbing. Sat down, ate some clif bars, then separated out to start our fieldwork for the day. I started searching around the chamber floor for some attractive broken stalagmites. I found a few, and carried them back to our lunch spot. Then I set up a 1-liter bottle on top of a tripod over a growing stalagmite to collect a large sample of dripwater to measure its trace-uranium concentration. Syria disappeared off to explore more of the cave chambers and look for new stalagmite decorations we hadn’t studied before.

At 3:00pm it was time to begin our trek back through the cave and catch our boat back to park headquarters. Covered in mud and sweat, the boat ride back in the rain was refreshing and fun. We showered, then went to the park restaurant to eat dinner. Laksa, jungle ferns, Milo. It was 7:00pm, but had already been dark for a few hours, and the rain was pouring. We returned back to the research center exhausted. I lay on the bed for a quick nap. Alarm set for 30 mins. I woke up at midnight.

Journey to Borneo!

After loading three chests full of scientific equipment (and at least a million clif bars!), four packs of personal gear, and a slew of carry-on bags into two cars, our journey to Borneo was finally underway. In spite of reminding our second driver to be sure to take I-75 to the new international terminal of the Atlanta airport, I proceeded to take the old route to the airport via I-85, as muscle memory took over. Correcting this added an additional 20 minutes to our journey, but we made it to the check-in counter with plenty time to spare, so all’s well that ends well! The first leg our journey was a 15-hour flight to Seoul, South Korea, which departed on Sunday Oct 14 at 12:30 am EST. Thankfully, we were all able to get a decent amount of sleep during the flight. We arrived in Seoul on Monday Oct 15 at 4am local time, and stared a 12-hour layover in the face. This was made more bearable since we booked a hotel room near the airport and were able to sleep for several hours. We certainly crashed hard! Eventually we managed to pick ourselves up and explore a little bit of South Korea by train before heading back to the airport for our 6-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, the capitol of Malaysia. We arrived in Kuala Lumpur at 9:55 pm local time, a little less travel weary than before, but we were very thankful for our beds once we checked into our hotel. We spent all of Tuesday October 16 running necessary errands around Kuala Lumpur, like picking up our federal research passes and buying food for when we are at the remote Camp 5. But along the way were able to see many of the sites of the city, including Kuala Lumpur’s huge twin towers! We were also asked to pose several times in photos with other tourists, which was a little strange but made us feel a bit like celebrities! After completing all our official tasks and taking in a few of the sites, we were back at the hotel for our last night in ‘civilization’. At 8:30 am local time on Wednesday Oct 17, we finally boarded a flight headed for Borneo and Gunung Mulu National Park. After a quick stop in Borneo’s coastal city of Miri, we hopped on a puddle jumper plane to Mulu and flew over the rainforest. More than 72 hours after leaving Atlanta, GA, we were finally at Mulu. It was a pleasant surprise to find park manager Brian Clark waiting at Mulu airport to take us and our dozens of bag to Mulu park. After settling in at Mulu Park’s research center, we were ready to start the next leg of our expedition – the science!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Galápagos Adventures

Weather monitoring at one of our sites
by Jessica Conroy
Hello from the Galápagos, where I’m in the midst of the second leg of my water-sampling journey, following my adventures in Kiritmati last May.  Again I’ve hitched a ride on a paleoclimate project, this time with my graduate advisor, Jonathan Overpeck, long-time collaborator and mentor, Julie Cole, and UA graduate student and good friend Diane Thompson (who you may remember from Kiritimati). It’s a great group, and we’re doing some really exciting science!

I have been working in the Galápagos since I was a baby graduate student, back in 2004. My ultimate goal is to try to understand long-term climate change and climate variability in this region.  There are very few climate observations, like precipitation and temperature, for the 20th century from the Galápagos. Thus, we don’t know much about long-term changes in climate here. And it’s important to understand how 20th century climate was different (or similar?) to past climate, since what goes on in the tropical Pacific can ripple across the atmosphere, influencing climate in many parts of the world.

About to begin the climb down to Genovesa Crater Lake
My graduate work focused on finding the climate signal in Galápagos lake sediments. I’ve found that I can match my more recent lake sediment measurements to the limited climate measurements in the region over the last 50-100 years. This is a super cool approach, not always done in the field of lake science, that can really enhance our understanding of the climate histories we reconstruct from lake sediments—less arm-waving, you could say. But, many questions and uncertainties remain, and there is much more work to be done.

La Pirata, our home for the week.
My postdoctoral work takes up the challenge of better understanding climate signals in lake sediments and in other paleoclimate proxies, like corals. I’m focused on understanding the links between the stable isotope values in seawater and rain and local and large-scale climate. 

 This means I’ve been taking lots of water samples all around the Galápagos—off our awesome boat, La Pirata, from the black shorelines of volcanic rocks, and from some pretty sweet beaches. Life is tough.

Trying to stay clean at El Junco, an unlikely prospect.
Unlike Kiritimati, it’s barely rained here, since it’s the peak of their dry season. However, we did notice as we ventured to a special lake called El Junco into the cloud-covered highlands that it was wet wet wet, with lots of mud to go along with all the misty rain. It was wetter in the highlands than last time I was at El Junco, in 2004. Is this part of a trend? Or just the interannual variability at this elevation? Hopefully I’ll have a good answer to that question soon!

The Princess – she keeps me up all night!

by Hussein Sayani (@hsayani)

Scientists will often name instruments and equipment in the lab. I like to think it’s out of pride and love, kind of like how people name their cars, and not because we talk about them all the time and just want to blend in with normal people waiting in line for coffee. For example, our Delta V plus mass spectrometer and Kiel carbonate device are called Matilda and Damien (named after certain movie characters). My friends know this, so I’ll occasionally get calls that essentially go: “I haven’t heard from you in a while. How’s Damien doing?” See, it makes us sound normal! Anyway …

The NENIMF houses two ion microprobes, the Cameca IMS 3F and the Cameca IMS 1280. For this project, we’ve been using the IMS 1280, a very large beastie affectionately known as The Princess.

The obligatory glamour shots

A quick rundown of how this ion microprobe works:
Schematic of the IMS 1280, borrowed from the NENIMF site.
A duoplasmatron (a type of ion source) is used to generate a primary beam of oxygen ions.  This primary beam then digs into the sample, ejecting ions from its surface (this is called sputtering).  Various lenses and deflectors are used to channel the sputtered ions towards a large magnet which separates the ions by tiny differences in mass (every element has a different mass).  After being separated, our charged particles are sent to the ion counters which tell us how much of each ion is present in the sample.  Pretty nifty, right?  For my samples, the measurement process takes about 15 minutes per spot.  We measure about 60-65 spots a day and the sampling is only partially automated. Hooray for 17 hour work da … wait, what?

The Princess and her bling:
Preparing samples for The Princess is a little different. With the other analytic techniques we employ, we usually mill some coral powder and then dissolve it in acid. The Princess on the other hand, prefers smooth, flat, and shiny gold discs. SIMS samples are prepared by cutting of a small section from the slab. The coral skeleton is very porous, so the side of the coral section that we want to measure is embedded in epoxy to create an even surface. After some polishing to completely flatten and smooth this side, a small slice is taken and attached to a glass slide with more epoxy. Then come the hours and hours of polishing the slide to get it perfectly smooth and flat. Finally, the slide is coated in gold (ooh shiny!). 

The thin sections (slightly larger than a quarter) are locked into a steel mount and loaded into the SIMS (red arrow).

Since the slice of coral on the slide is very thin (hence the name thin section), we can use a microscope shine a light through it and see the various different crystals that make up the skeleton. Besides being very cool, this lets us know what features within the skeleton to avoid (as different features have different chemical compositions).

The left side is what we see on the SIMS. The right side is what the slide actually looks like.
You need a map of both to know what to avoid (e.g the black line running down our column - see the white arrow).

I'm sorry, Earth!
Loading the sample into the SIMS and waiting for the instrument to reach high vacuum can take a couple hours, so it’s best to know beforehand where you want to make your measurements. After spending some time familiarizing myself with each slide (and series of slides as we have 2-3 per coral), I use the microscope to build a map to help me navigate each slide. Back in January I did this using paper, scissors, and tape (and you thought science was complicated). Out of kindness to trees and the planet, this time I made the maps on my laptop instead.

Now that we’re all familiar with the SIMS technique, let’s take a look at what this beastie can do. We’re interested in figuring out past ocean temperature, and so we’ll be measuring the ratio of strontium to calcium (Sr/Ca) at each spot on the coral as this is a commonly used  proxy for such reconstructions. Remember, our goal is to determine how useful, reliable, and reproducible SIMS measurements are. So the first thing we want to check is whether or not our SIMS measurements look like temperature. We measured Sr/Ca at almost weekly resolution (one measurements every 6-8 days). As you can see on the graph (light red line), the data looks very noisy and it’s hard to see any long-term trends. What we want to see is an annual cycle (a warm summer period and a cool winter period), and to get that we’ll have to do some averaging.  Since we’ll be comparing these Sr/Ca measurements to monthly ocean temperatures, a monthly running average is appropriate.  Applying this to the data set, we get a Sr/Ca record that happens to look a lot like temperature (thick red and black lines)! This is great because it tells us that we’re doing something right.

We still need to test how reliable this technique is – i.e. can we measure similar samples and get the same numbers? To test this, we measured samples from different corals that grew at the same time.  The idea is to get the same Sr/Ca record for each of them.  Surprisingly, the records from two of these overlapping corals were an almost 75% match. That is much better than what we were expecting.

There is much more data left to analyze, but it looks very promising. We’re hoping that the 800 measurements we’ve made will provide us with a roadmap to the most efficient and effective way to use this technique to test the integrity of our fossil corals.