George gets nostalgic/reflective (miss y’all…its pouring in Fortuna)

Dear IGERT-BESS kiddos,

Que pasa Mates…hopefully all is Tranquilo and beautiful for all of you…now that I have “vamos-ed”, this is kind of sad to write, but your presence was too distracting so I could never get this done before! I began writing this post right after our toooooooo good trip to Bocas. I was so inspired by the weirdness of all the sea creatures and wanted to write something to honor them. This feeling coincided with our course coming to an end and a nostalgia towards all the crazies (yes, I am talking to all of you and definitely including myself in this descriptor!)  I grew to greatly respect throughout our course. So, with these two emotions brewing in my head, it became obvious: the amazing beauty and diversity of the coral reef is a perfect metaphor for our short-lived but wonderful crew. So I’ve picked 15 equally essential and beautiful members of the coral reef community and made an attempt to connect each of those sea creatures to an IGERT-BESS creature. Some of the analogies are stronger than others…sorry about that. But, for me this was not about making perfect metaphors. It was an important exercise in working to appreciate the people around me and attempting to learn from what they excel at. I find friends come and go a lot in this adventurous time of life. This is an amazing opportunity to take note of all sorts of people/ways of living/ways of thinking, but all too often I use the fleeting nature of friendships as an excuse to not dig too deep. So, this is a way of making notes for myself about what I learned from each of you, while also thanking you for being the great people you are and making me so happy for that one month…and giving props to some SUPER SICK sea creatures!

  • Phytoplankton – The base of the coral reef ecosystem which quietly supports all functionality of this system. Timing of phytoplankton blooms can be correlated with many other reef functions as they provide crucial nutrition. Understanding phytoplankton phenology is an extremely valuable tool for uncovering drivers behind trends and patterns seen in reefs.
    1. CAMILO- much like the phytoplankton of the reefs, Camilo provides a steady presence that flashy reef fish have evolved to depend on. Examples: Carrying Heather’s bag up the mountain, flushing my pee at the gas station when I couldn’t figure it out. Most importantly, in the last days of our course, at a time when we were all overcome with exhaustion but also feeling the need to rage, he provided a pulse of energy, like a phytoplankton bloom, delivered to us in the form of consistently fabulous dance moves. Not to mention, Camilo is working to help native people of Columbia find a voice in this crazy world and he sees all that we can learn from their deep respect for the natural world. Phytoplankton sustain all sorts of diversity within the reef ecosystem. Camilo emanates warmth and a sense of calm through his warm smile and excellent ability to fin spots to chill, which envelope everyone around. Its really nice, and it reminds me of phytoplankton…a quiet but vital part of the environment!
      1. I took the credit for ‘tranquilo’ this course by repeating the word toooo many times, but Camilo is the true embodiment. I will remember his quiet confidence, something that is challenging to find but is always so refreshing to be around.

El Hombre! Only Camilo gets a badass picture because I made him phytoplankton…

  • Cleaner Shrimp – These little guys patrol the reef eating parasites off fish, simultaneously ridding the fish of potentially harmful parasites while feeding themselves…another example of a beautifully mutualistic relationship. In reefs, the cleaner shrimp often group up and create cleaning stations along with other small cleaning fish making a convenient stop for large organisms. Cleaning shrimp have been noted to rock back and forth to attract larger fish to their cleaning service. The hungrier the shrimp gets, the more vigorous this dance becomes.
    1. CAITLIN – Undoubtedly, the adorable little cleaner shrimps are an essential organizational force and voice of cleanliness in the reef. I have witnessed a similar force in Caitlin through her attempts to organize a hopelessly messy lab full of rather hopelessly disorganized lab mates. Her corner is immaculate; its amazing! Every time I look at Catilin’s notes or chat with her about her life, I’m so unbelievably impressed by how much order she is able to achieve. She is determined and strong; if something needs to be done, she will do it; no worries. Speaking as one of the many fish that have been helped immensely by her “cleaning”, Id say it’s a really amazing skill! She thinks of everything, but not only for herself. Just as the little shrimps are cleaning up parasites off big fish around them, Caitlin really considers how her ideas will be helping everyone around her. And best of all, just like with all the reef organisms, when you look up close, the cleaning shrimp is just another weird, amazing creation. Caitlin has a dry sense of humor that catches you when you aren’t expecting it. She has great stories, a great smile and an amazing go-getter attitude!
      1. I have tons to learn from Caitin and many years to do it…Ill continue to be inspired by her amazing organization and thorough thought processes, but also her great ability to be engaged and asking questions. Her determination and hard work will keep me on my toes!
  • Christmas tree worm – This amazingly extravagant worm is aptly named for the beautifully colored spiral structures that form a Christmas tree-like shape. These beautiful structures are used for feeding and respiration. Each of these intricate feeding structures is composed of many feathery tentacles which are each ciliated. Prey is trapped within these “mouth appendages” and then transferred the worm’s mouth. These worms create tube enclosures around their body attached to corals which they can retract into whenever they are threatened. They are seen in all sorts of different colors, decorating the coral reef environment brilliantly.
    1. LOTTE – I took many snorkel trips before truly believing that these amazingly beautiful structures belong to a worm…something that is very “unspectacular” to land-dwellers. But in the coral reef, even worms are extraordinary. These worms make swimming through the reef exceptionally fun… watching them retract into their homes as you swim by never gets old. Similarly, Lotte has a smile that penetrated all of the activities of the course and her competitive nature created games where they wouldn’t have existed without her presence, making for a much more exciting time! I like the idea that these beautiful worms have a distinctly beautiful, fun, feathery side as well as a more thoughtful persona. As much fun as Lotte’s competitive, possibly slightly gullible, excited side is, she compliments this with a different kind of awesomeness which allows her to be insightful and a warm presence for everyone to enjoy!
      1. I will be inspired by Lotte’s enthusiasm…for everything! Science/life in general is amazing when you can find excitement all around you…a wonderful trait for yourself and everyone who gets the great chance to be your friend/aquaintance!!
  • Seahorses– Such an unbelievably interesting, unique creature! Seahorses have a suite of attributes that you find no where else in the reef environment: camouflage, what you may classify as a prehensile tail (?!), males are impregnated and give birth to offspring, they suck prey into their mouths via a pressure release valve on top of their head. They have a neck! They have courtship dances in which potential couples dance in synchrony! One great turn on to the female seahorse is the “potbelly capacity” of the male. No scales. Unreasonable amounts of babies (over 1000)! There is sooo much amazing to the seahorse, a very unique gem of the reef environment.
    1. HEATHER – Maybe I can replicate my description of the sea horse with my description of the Heather. Such an unbelievably interesting, unique creature to which an unbelievable amount of crazy shit happens to. Heather has: epically failed while cooking eggs, watched a friend fall down an icy glacier, spent a rainy night in a tree, taught herself to sleep on her back etc etc. The specifics of all of Heathers crazy stories aren’t the most important part, but rather that in the end, she always seems to end up in an amazing place doing amazing things. The seahorse has compiled this outrageously random suite of traits to make an organism that is one of the great awes of the reef system. Heather seems to do the same, taking these crazy experiences on with a big smile, a little giggle and an ablity to turn things into a positive outcome. Seahorses have obviously questioned the normal bounds of sea life evolution in which fish have scales, and no necks and no tales. Heather questions everything through a genuine interest in her surroundings. These questions and intrigues seem to take her to all sorts of interesting places. Its amazing to hear about!
      1. From Heather I have of course been inspired to: Ask questions! Be interested! Open my mind to paths that are creative, non-linear and adventurous…and to take every opportunity to go snorkeling and diving!
  • Sponges – A primitive animal which are both structurally and functionally important to the coral reef ecosystem. As corals are decreasing in reef environments, sponges are becoming more and more essential. Sponges are important for their energy and nutrient conversion. They filter waste found in the water column and recycle compounds which are important for other reef species. Aesthetically speaking, sponges are weird and beautiful and bring the reef system diversity, structure and color.
    1. ANDREANNE –Through an amazingly contagious smile and laugh, Andrianne has spread beauty through our 3 weeks just as sponges do in the reef. There wasn’t a time when her presence didn’t make our experience happier. I hope to remember the sense of flexibility and positivity Adrienne emitted allllll the time…she was never perturbed by a change in plans or a little discomfort. Just as sponges filter reef water to keep a clean, healthy environment for all the other reef organisms, Andreanne replaced replace any negativity with a laugh, a great big smile and a colorful outlook on any situation. She has a relaxed, open-minded outlook on life that makes you feel like everything is going to be fine; she is a presence that makes you at ease. Sponges come in all sorts of diverse shapes and sizes. Andrenne too seems to have a unique ability to adapt and enjoy all sorts of different people and places…so cool!
      1. I will most definitely remember Andreanne’s consistent positivity. She doesn’t seem to get caught up in silly little things and instead spends her time enjoying the moment. She is intelligent and driven but willing to let life be a joke…a nice balance!
  • Nudibranchs – Strange, beautiful creatures that come with a huge variety of different colors and fancy adornments. These wild colors and patterns are warning against the toxins they secrete when disturbed. Some sea slugs are even able to store the stinging cells of prey they consume to help with defense. Interestingly enough, despite their slow-moving nature, they are carnivorous, eating things which will not flee such as coral, sponges and anemones.
    1. DANIEL – If we could compile a collection of Daniel faces, dance moves and comments, it would rival the strange, interesting diversity seen throughout the entire reef ecosystem. But if one class of organism were to exemplify Daniel’s uniqueness the best, it would be the nudibranch. They are fascinatingly diverse in a uniquely nudibranch way. Daniel managed to bring the flash and silliness of the nudibranch aesthetic while also providing very insightful questions/world views and badass R analyses. Daniel’s distaste for silly powerpoint backgrounds and the use of comic sans seems incongruent with his fabulous dance moves…but afterall, beneath the flash of the nudibranch is a slug, the least flashy of the body forms; not so cute, but certainly functional and straight-forward (this is in reference to his powerpoint background taste, not his actual body form, which is super cute…keep killin those yoga pants dude)
      1. Ill remember Daniel’s great awareness of the world and strong sense of right and wrong. I always valued hearing Daniel’s questions and analyses; always thoughtful, informed and communicated very well.
  • Parrot Fish– Beautifully colorful fish that are well known as essential member of the coral reef environment. Their importance comes in two forms. First, Tthey nibble all day long on algae and dead coral, constantly cleaning the reef and keeping algae from taking over the system. More impressively is the utility of their poop. They poop up to 700 pounds of white sand each year, continuously replenishing reef substrate (I promise I wrote this even before learning about your “shituation”…now I feel even better about this comparison!). They have beautiful color schemes that change through development, greatly adding to the aesthetics of the reef environment.
    1. STEPHEN – The brightly colored parrot fish brings some “pizzaz” to the reef ecosystem much like Steve and his special talent with the english language, which consistently brings lots of giggles to mealtime reminiscing/storytime. As far as I am aware, Steve doesn’t poop a substance with any special utility but through other means he carries out the ever so important task of keeping our crew stable and awesome. Parrot fish poop is background which allows beautiful reef fish to thrive. By finding quirks in every person and situation, and tactfully pointing those quirks out Steve fills this niche. It is clear that Parrot fish fill many important roles in the reef ecosystem. During our time in Bocas, I was lucky enough to witness Steve discovering that he, much like the parrot fish, has been blessed with many pivotal roles in our crew: 1.) Squid pop untangler 2.) Urchin dumper 3.) field DJ (and I think there may have even been a few more!!). There was a time that I accused Steve of being a “cheater”. This list is undisputable evidence against that terrible accusation.
      1. Beyond the laughs which I have for sure enjoyed, Steve reminds me of the importance of communication. He seems to stay informed about the world and through a reflective part of his personality is able to digest that information so that it can be communicated to others in an accessible manner. This skill is so cool and so necessary in linking science and people. Keep those rocking writing skills alive!
  • Reef Manta Ray – Manta rays are one of the most beautiful gentle giants of the reef community. They feed on zooplankton by filtering sea water and therefore must stay in motion throughout the day. It has retractable cephalic lobes which can be unwound to channel water into the mouth. Manta rays aren’t territorial or aggressive when choosing mates. They rely on small fish to clear dead skin and parasites from their bodies. In fact, there can be lines of mantarays waiting for their turn at “cleaning stations”, collections of reef dwelling fish who clean these large, docile rays.
    1. CHLOE – Chloe is absolutely the member of our crew that I thought best embodied the Manta Ray. She has a confident, strong, yet peaceful presence. I find it hard to believe that anyone could feel anything but comfortable around Chloe; I suppose the beautiful reef fishies feel the same way about the manta ray when they stop by for a cleaning. Manta rays epitomize a special kind of confident wisdom. Chloe brought so much interesting knowledge and understanding about the world and I was always impressed by how well she was able to articulate her thoughts and questions. But although I hold the manta ray on a pedestal of “tranquilo” wisdom, it is certainly not above the silliness of the reef fish; it adds to the interesting beauty of the reef system just as Chloe did for our course through great insights and a great laugh!
      1. I would like to remember Chloe’s ability to strike a nice balance between being totally flexible to life’s uncertainty while also being informed, knowledgeable and prepared. Sometimes I feel like these are separate…you are either “tranquilo” or “on top of your shit”…Chloe seems to do both impressively well!
  • Caribbean Reef Octopus– These octopI are known for their beautiful green and blue coloration which they are able to change easily allowing for amazing camouflage capabilities. Although this octopus is slower than others, it compensates through an ability to flatten its body onto the sea floor in order to look like just another object in the reef. This species is thought to be the smartest of the octopi, which is impressive given the great intelligence of all octopi. And get this…octopi have BEAKS.. which are used to break crustaceans…so weird and awesome!
    1. ANGEL – The octopus is one of the most fascinating, intelligent reef animals. Through his impressive computer wizzing and awesome array of interests, Angel embodies this beautiful, strange reef creature. This octopus has chosen a highly alternative method of escaping predators…possibly this was due to evolutionary pressure derived from an inability to make hasty, graceful escapes…maybe Angel can relate?! But these octopi more than make up for their lack of speed and grace with amazing colors and flexibility as did Angel’s excitement and enthusiasm throughout all different parts of this course (ranging from the video blog posts to genome-ing, to smashing plantains, to metal tunes to sharing about Puerto Rican politics). Most clearly Angel shares his intelligence and kind, smiley nature with the Caribbean reef octopus…his knowledge and of data analyses and genomics was certainly impressive and these skills are in the right hands with Angel who is very willing to share and communicate his unique skill set…such an important one in science today!
      1. Angel is going to take me to my first metal concert which will be cool. But also, I will remember Angel’s great enthusiasm for all sorts of unique things and his unbelievable knowledge. It is inspiring to hear someone talk with so much understanding!
  • Angelfish – These beautiful fish always seem to me to be the iconic tropical reef fish…something an inland child dreams to see one day! They have beautiful, bright coloration and elegant, interesting body forms. Color patterns change a great deal as angelfish mature seeming to indicate a change in the social hierarchy of the fish. Angel fish eat mostly sponges. Due to the indigestibility of sponge framework, angelfish have developed special adaptations including specialized teeth, a protracted jaw and the ability to secrete mucous to cover the bits of sponge.
    1. IVON For Ivon I instantly thought of an especially beautiful reef fish. Beyond her outward beauty (great hair, cute outfits and the coolest luggage), her smile and laugh which were shared with everyone brought so much happiness to our time together. Her beautiful smile and warm presence are just the beginning; Ivon is also a loyal friend, amazing dance partner, and a thoughtful presence. She had great ideas and a thorough, linear thought process which is an immense help in the group project setting. The beauty of the reef is certainly a team effort but the angelfish really brings it…and really, where would our dance parties have been without Ivon…not as fun, that’s for sure!
      1. I will remember Ivon’s caring nature because being aware of those around you and taking care to be sensitive to their needs is such a special gift! And I will remember to have a smile and laugh for everyone!
  • Cuddle Fish – Actually a mollusk, these amazing creatures have an internal shell called the cuddlebone. The cuddlebone is porous which provides buoyancy that can be regulated by alteration of the gas: liquid ratio. They have very sophisticated eyes which cannot see color but can detect the polarization of light which allows for enhanced contrast detection. Crazily enough, it is thought that cuddlefish have fully developed eyes before birth and can therefore watch their surroundings while still in their eggs. Cuddlefish are able to communicate through 34 different color combinations, 6 different textures, 8 postures and 6 locomotion elements. Different combinations of these elements lead to quite a complex cuddlefish language. Cuddlefish have an amazing ability to change color through muscles which control the exposure of their pigments. Additionally, they have a variety of color pigment layers which can each be exposed/contracted…basically Cuddlefish are constantly putting on an amazing color/light show.
    1. KIRA- A girl with a personality as colorful as the outrageously beautiful cuddlefish…and one of a kind! I remember the first time I met Kira…when we realized we were going to Panama together and she told me all about her birds. I was like…sweet, this will be such a fun girl to be around..and I was super right about that!!! Much like the cuddlefish mode of communication, Kira thinks a mile a minute on many levels at once. With the upcoming semester in charge of her research, herself and her techs, this amazing ability to think about something from all directions will definitely be an asset. I could read about cuddlefish forever…they seriously have a ridiculous amount of sweet traits. Kira too exposed all sorts of interesting facts throughout the last few weeks which made her even more amazing. She has a love for pirate metal, crazy youtube videos, pasta, her stellar new field belt, her beloved old keens, BIRDS, “meow-ing” Christmas tunes, adorable PJ’s, “GET WRECKED”…and all sorts of other amazing-ness. And clad in her adorable PJ’s, she is learning to be a badass Spanish-speaking coder…Awesome!!
      1. I will keep Kira’s fascination in all sorts of interesting things with me…remembering that there is always more out there to learn about! I will remember her enthusiasm. And when I forget that details exist, I will remember her ability to think of everything!!
  • Arrow Crabs– One of the most unique, fascinating crabs of the coral reef ecosystem. It has long spidery legs and sports a super pointy head. It is slow moving due to its oddly disproportionate appendages. Unable to rely on speed as a defense against predators, arrow crabs are often found living in or around other animals/structures that can provide them protection. They forage at night, finding feather duster worms and other tiny reef animals to feed on. Arrow crabs are highly territorial and in keeping with the behavioral observations made throughout “crab day”, the arrow crab is aggressive and generally angry.
    1. KARTHIK – This comparison seems fitting not because Karthik is actually an territorial grouch, but if I am accurately likening our crew to a marine ecosystem, it must be noted that Karthik would be highly dissatisfied with his life submerged under water and may therefore resort to a crabby existence (hehe). Beyond that, the odd direction evolution took in arrow crab evolution reminded me of the fascinating suite of facts we have learned about Karthik and his life in the past few weeks. Most importantly, throughout our snorkeling sessions arrow crabs were one of my favorite little dudes to find; different and interesting. This is partially what draws the crew to Karthik as well as his amazing scope of knowledge and overall sense of respect and care for others. Also: Karthik is a true crab about puns.
      1. I think I’ve learned from Karthik and the odd arrow crab that its best to own yourself with confidence. Its seriously impressive and such an important thing to remember going into a field with so much room for both collaboration and competition.
  • Hawksbill turtles– These are a small, agile species of turtle that navigates the reef environment well feeding on all sorts of things: sea grasses, sea urchins, barnacles. Favorite meal: sponges…mmmmmm…made accessible by its beak-like mouth. Most of their life is spent solitary but they meet to mate and lay eggs on uninhabited beaches. Amazingly, females are able to return to the same beach they were born on every two or three years to lay their own eggs. They are known for their beautiful shells which are unfortunately harvested for jewelry.
    1. JAVIER- Sea turtles are one thing that everyone is unanimously stoked about…every snorkeler hopes of finding one of these gems to hang out with! Javier too has been a presence of consistent happiness, kindness and laughter… always positive and welcoming. Just like the beautiful little hawksbill, no one wouldn’t want to hang out with Javier because he’s able to find humor in everyone’s quirky jokes, an attribute which makes everyone around him feel great! The same instincts that lead a mama turtle back to the beach she was born on after hundreds/thousands of miles of migration, lead Javier to find ants anywhere and everywhere. This instinctual sense of direction and navigation Javier also used to keep the crew organized which meant that things we talked about doing together actually happened…and they happened smoothly!. He has an impressive ability to organize and plan even with a crew full of all personalities…some of whom have a completely unplannable, “tranquilo” attitude.
      1. I will definitely learn from Javier’s organizational skills. I have been super impressed by his ability to think through things extremely thoroughly and follow through on ideas. He makes an amazing leader!
  • Clownfish– Clownfish are best known for their mutualistic relationship with anemones which has led to highly specific coevolution between species of these two organisms. Clownfish receive leftover scraps from anemone meals, sometimes including dead anemone tentacles, and more importantly are sheltered and protected by the toxic anemone tentacles. The clownfish returns these favors by protecting the anemones from predators and parasites and by supplying the anemone with nutrients from their poop. Additionally, clownfish movement within the anemone alters water flow and increases oxygen levels aiding both organisms. It should also be noted that the clownfish reproduction situation is quite a strange one. All clownfish begin life as males and later become females. A dominant female is the top of the hierarchy who mates externally with one male of the group. If she were to die, the mating male would change sexes and become the breeding female of the clownfish colony.
    1. CATHERINE – It is of course impossible to think about clownfish without the adorable story of Nemo taking hold of your feelings toward this species. As I describe Catherine as the clownfish of our crew, I will be focusing on the anthropomorphized friends we all know from Finding Nemo rather than the strange gender conversion hierarchy I just described above. These beautiful little orange dudes undoubtedly bring beauty to the reef environment, not in the form of overly flashy adornments, but a more simple, agreeable, fun. Catherine has been a steady presence of adventure, happiness and laughter…8/10 times we make eye contact, I crumple in laughter and its amazing. But, also important to note is the 2/10 times when Catherine’s presence doesn’t overwhelm me with a desire to embark on a giggly adventure. Catherine has an optimistic and kind outlook on the world which is rare and an unbelievable treasure. Although clownfish, among the reef society, mostly receive praise for their silliness (which is awesome), nemo showed us the deeper suite of character traits they posses. Catherine strikes that balance so well…fun, adventurous, open-minded and insightful!
      1. I will for sure remember the optimism and absolute openness of Catherine. Especially in light of all the hatred being stirred up in the world today, this outlook is refreshing and important. I will remember to go running/swimming/laughing with any spare minutes…and that “just because someone wrote it doesn’t mean its true”!!! I will also never chose a powerpoint background without laughing again!
  • Nurse shark– Although they look like the aggressive creatures we have been taught to fear, nurse sharks don’t ravage but rather “slurp” their prey. Nurse sharks are bottom dwellers with small mouths and are thus unable to chow down on large reef fish. They associate with large groups during the day but these group seem to be simply for the sake of protection. Displays of hierarchy or dominance aren’t seen; they are docile, beautiful reef treasures.
    1. SARAI- As the nurse shark of our crew, Sarai gets to simultaneously appear to be the biggest badass while actually being right in the food chain with the silly looking reef fish (although not quite…no one eats the nurse shark and no one messes with Sarai…we all know about the knife). I imagine nurse sharks face challenges ingesting enough food through their tiny mouths to sustain their large body size. Although Sarai’s body size is particularly not-large, it can hold a shocking amount of rice, beans and beer…so cool. Beyond the silliness, the best way to see Sarai’s happy beauty is to watch her face while she is talking about the evolution of eusociality in her tiny bee’s or enjoying a view out the window or off the side of a boat. In these moments, her face will show a deeply seeded, pure smile. She is passionate and loyal for the things she cares about and finds peace and reflection in alone time, a special attribute that leads her to unique insights. I love learning new tidbits about Sarai’s unique life and view on the world because its always something new and thought provocative. She is so intelligent and has so much to offer her friends and colleagues!
      1. Sarai has inspired me to think about how I can improve the way I present myself and my research to fellow scientists…gotta get that elevator speech down! More importantly she reminds me of the amazing diversity of life history and personality that make amazing grad students and great people…and most importantly, she inspires me to sing and have fun!


Lots of love,


P.S. Ill be in Panama and Champaign IL (wha whaaa) for many years to come…never hesitate to give me a ring if you are anywhere near these places!!


If this doesn’t make you want to come visit me in Fortuna, I really don’t know what will!!



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