Mauritius is calling my name

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One of the draws to science for many undergraduate and graduate students is the opportunity to travel to far and sometimes obscure places around the globe, in the name of research.  My dissertation research keeps me local to the Chesapeake Bay region, but I have been fortunate enough to travel domestically and internationally to attend and present at conferences, as both a graduate student and also as part of my job.  I haven’t been traveling much as of late due to life happening (all good things!), but I’m excited to hit the road again soon.  I was recently selected to participate in the Embassy Science Fellows Program fellowship with the State Department through work.  Details are starting to fall into place…and it looks like I’ll be heading to Mauritius!

Mauritius is a volcanic island nation off the coast of Southern African in the Indian Ocean, to the east of Madagascar.  It is known for its beautiful turquoise waters and the world’s third largest coral reef which surrounds the island. Perhaps you have heard of Mauritius because it was the only known home of the now extinct Dodo bird!  Or maybe you have heard of the country because it is headed by a female biodiversity scientist, President Dr. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim (their first female President!).  Did you hear me?!  There is a female scientist ruling the country! The bulk of her research focuses on deriving pharmaceuticals from native Mauritian plants:  prior to becoming President, she was a Managing Director of a pharmaceutical research company, as well as a university professor.

Mauritius President, Dr. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim

The island is teaming with rare flora and fauna indigenous and there are breathtaking sandy white beaches and protected lagoons all around the island.  Similar to other nations with borders to the sea, much of the biodiversity and ecological resources of the island are now threatened by human development, coastal erosion, climate change and the introduction of non-native species.  There is particular interest by the government in protecting and conserving these natural treasures, all the while balancing sustainable population and economic growth.  One of the ways the country hopes to accomplish this is by promoting environmental and oceanographic sciences in the public education curriculum.  My main task during this fellowship is to lecture at the University of Maurtitus and advise the various government ministries on increasing the awareness of the importance of biodiversity and conservation at the national scale.

I am looking forward to this once-in-a-lifetime experience!  It is not every day that I get the opportunity to merge my marine science background with policy in an international context such as this one.  I am looking forward to also immersing myself in the culture…and getting the chance to meet with Dr. Gurib Fakim (I heard she is looking forward to meeting me- eek!). Details of my departure are still being worked out, but I will be sure to share photos and updates while on assignment.  Stay tuned until then!

-Treda Grayson, PhD candidate in the Fish Ecology Lab


California Failing: Why it is important to embrace failure in your research

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Hello from sunny La Jolla, California. I am out here working on my dissertation research from my committee member’s lab, the Antarctic Ecosystem and Research Division of NOAA’s Antarctic Marine Living Resource group. Dr. de Mutsert asked me to write a blog while I was out here, and I honestly had no idea what to write.  I come out here, not for the ocean views (which are awesome), not for the data (also world class), but for the community of failing and moving forward.   Yes, I come to California to fail, and that is a bit awkward to write about, but here goes.Fail big and fix it


It’s tempting to hide from failure

The de Mutsert Fish Ecology lab is a great group of people. We try to look out for each other, but we (at least the students) put on fronts of success for each other.  Ask any one of us how our research is going and we will automatically say “good, making progress”.  We show each other pretty lines of model predictions and recite high numbers of data collected.  I struggle A LOT in my research.  I am switching fields from behavioral ecology to ecosystem modelling.  Half the time I can’t tell if my model is doing better or worse than it was last week and I am terrified of breaking it beyond repair.  My labmates, while wonderful people who want to help, do not work in my ecosystem.  If I totally break my model they don’t have great ecosystem relevant advice to get it working again. Since I am (more than a little) desperate to graduate in a timely fashion, I have a fear of totally breaking my model. This is really counterproductive. Let me repeat that. The paralyzing fear of breaking your model, or more generally messing up your research, is really counterproductive. Sometimes you have to smash your model to smithereens to understand what it is telling you. Sometimes you need to make a bad assumption or learn a data handling lesson the hard way to truly understand the problem you are working on.  Sometimes the fear of failing can hold you back and do more damage to your research than actually failing.

Failure is always an option

I come to California to my committee member’s lab to fail.  We have weekly lab meetings here. They are delightfully called “Science Friday” and they involve lots of tasty baked goods. Most importantly every week someone from the lab gets up and lays their science bare. They talk about what didn’t work. Even if they haven’t fixed it yet or don’t have a clue how to fix it, they openly talk about what failed. Failure is OK and expected here.  There is an understanding that failure is part of the process, and if you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying. Everyone is encouraged to well and truly mess up some of their data analyses, to produce a model that truly stinks for a time and to generally spend their time trying to do things that might fail.

For the past couple of lab meetings, the krill modeler (an actual PhD scientist who gets paid to do this) has talked about the numerous failings of his model. He showed where the predictions are off. He showed a number of things he tried to bring those predictions in line that didn’t work. He talked about how a recent outside expert review of his model found flaws and then he gave some strategies for exploring those flaws. He did not sugarcoat his model’s failings.  He has been doing this for years, yes years.  After years of failing, and publicly exposing his failure, his model is better.  He has a job, and people think well of his research skills. This should not be revelatory, but for me it is. Failing, and failing publically, is an important part of the science process.

Face your failure head on

When I got to California this trip I had a model that was recreating historical trends for three of my modelled species really well. I was ready to give up on three other species because no matter what I did, I could not get a better fit for them without destroying the fit for the others. In other words, I had modelling paralysis because I wanted to show something “successful” for a quickly approaching conference. I was also horribly embarrassed to show off my broken model. But I was encouraged by how open everyone here is about their failures, even showing off and laughing at their R code that failed for no good reason.

So, I laid my model bare before my committee member. I explained to him what I thought I understood about the predictions it was making, and he pointed me to new data to fix one of my modelled species. He was right about the new data, although initially the fit got worse when I incorporated them.

I knew that there were problems with the ways I was handling fish in my model, so I went and spoke to the fish expert here. He laughed and told me that my handling of the fish in my model was horrible (yes he used that word) but he pointed me to unpublished data and encouraged me to keep trying. The model now successfully recreates historic trends two of the species I was going to give up on.  Yup, a scientist laughed in my face about how horrible my model was, but he helped me to fix it.  There are worse things.

The other day my committee member came into my office and found me enthusiastically talking (or perhaps muttering words not suitable for public consumption) to my model output. My model had once again broken. He laughed and declared me to be turning into a true modeler. We had a nice science conversation about the ecological hypotheses I was testing each time I broke my model. I confessed that sometimes I felt like less of a scientist testing hypotheses and more like a kid playing Jenga. Stacking up all the groups in my model and then watching them come crashing down when I change one value. Here’s the thing:  each time I broke my  model, I learned about how the software was handling my input,  or even  better I actually was testing an ecological  hypotheses.  I am learning how to be more targeted with my changes in the model. I am seeing some ecological patterns emerge that I knew to be important from the literature, but I had no idea had how to deal with in my model. My new motto when approaching my model is now “Stack ‘em up and let ‘em fall!”

Go forth and fail!

Just being in a community of scientists where failure is an option has helped me to succeed. I have gained confidence in my model and my skills.  My model is still a work in progress, but it is so much better than it was when I got here. Without anyone making a point about it, I have been encouraged to put my science out there and expose its flaws for all to see.  I am working on an abstract for a meeting of experts that I never would have considered presenting to, but here I am.  So go forth and fail!  Rebuild your research from its own ashes!

-Adria Dahood, PhD candidate in the Fish Ecology Lab

We have a winner!

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Award winning photo, Gentoo penguins porpoising in the Antarctic Sound, 2013.


Adrian Dahood, a PhD Candidate, in the  De Mutsert Fish Ecology Lab, won the 2016 Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) Fieldwork Photo Competition.  In addition to bragging rights, Adrian won a travel grant to a polar conference of her choosing.  There were 57 entries in the competition and the general public voted on their favorites.  Adrian’s photo received the highest number of votes!   You can view all of winning photographs here:

Adrian’s dissertation research focusses on designing a new marine protected area in the Western Antarctic Peninsula Region.  To this end she is creating foodweb models and spatial models to describe many of the species that live in the region. The winning photo shows one of her study species, gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua ) porpoising in the northern part of her study area. The day the photo was taken was an unusually sunny and calm day, allowing the travelling penguins to perfectly reflect on the water’s surface.

Adrian Dahood, PhD candidate in the De Mutsert Lab

The Importance of Attending Scientific Conferences: A Grad Student’s Perspective

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BY: CJ Carroll Schlick

As the past student representative for the Atlantic Estuarine Research Society and student member to several other organizations, I think it is extremely important for both undergraduate and graduate students to attend local and national conferences. I have participated in about 6 national and 10 regional conferences during my time as a graduate student. My conference participation has helped to enhance my CV and more importantly, it has helped to hone my abilities to communicate science to a broad audience. To that end, I am always surprised when I meet students who have never been to a conference or have never considered going. Below, I share the benefits I have received from attending professional scientific meetings and hope to encourage other students to do the same.


When people think of conferences, they are usually aware of the networking potential. You can have conversations with professionals you have never met before. Most students are intimidated by this concept but shouldn’t be. Conferences are designed for networking with researchers in your area of interest and most attendees seek out opportunities to engage with students. Students are not seen as “newbies” who only attend meetings to learn. We will soon be or already are contributing to our respective fields of study and engaging with established scientists earlier in our careers provides the potential for years of collaboration. Professionals who attend the conference can tell you their story, for instance sharing what attributes helped their career (or adventures they would recommend not repeating). Attending conferences allowed me to network outside of the “academy,” to collaborate on projects through organizations not affiliated with a university. Networking also informed me of what other career opportunities were available, since I recently decided that I did not want to pursue a career in academia. Through this process and exploration, I could then direct my focus on scientists who were currently working outside of the university setting. I recently networked at a conference with an environmental consultant and this relationship has provided a new outlet of knowledge that I can tap into. Effective networking takes time to develop but is one of the most useful things you can do as a new or even seasoned student. So my advice:  Start networking early and often. Build relationships and don’t be afraid to be your own advocate.

New Point of View

So you want to attend a conference and you don’t have any results or your results are confusing or your methods aren’t working….Sound familiar?  I have been there!  And actually, this point is the best time to attend a conference. Many students believe they must have a finished product to present, but then they graduate and never present the work (or only attend one conference). Preliminary results and proposed projects are acceptable presentations at a conference. I personally use poster presentations for my proposed projects because you have more time to discuss the project with interested attendees. The goal here would be to discuss problems/road blocks you are having with your study while presenting your poster.  If someone is interested in your work, they may have a new point of view that will help catapult you into the next phase of your work. Also, if you plan on pursuing another degree, you will meet other professors in your area of interest that could potentially be your next advisor or supervisor.  My advice: Present your research or your research plan even if you haven’t started it!  Talking about your current work or proposed work is the best way to expand your breadth of knowledge.

 Maximize Your Experience

GET INVOLVED!! Just attending a conference can change your work, perspective, and career but you are still missing a lot of what conferences and scientific societies have to offer. Meet with your society’s student representative to ask how you can be involved or to offer an idea of something you wished the conference provided (trust me student representatives are always looking for ideas for workshops and luncheons). You could also approach other board and committee members at the society and ask them how to help. Program committees, social event coordinators, membership committees, website/media committees are a few examples where help is often needed. Many positions on society boards are voluntary, with the individuals working full time somewhere else, so help is readily accepted. Many of these volunteer activities do not take more than a few hours a semester (and they can help enhance your CV). Additionally, working as a volunteer increases your exposure (increases your networking) and can have a huge payoff (especially if you are shy and need help getting outside your comfort zone). For example, if you want to meet a profound leader in your field but you are too scared to introduce yourself, you can use your position within the society as a jumping off point to start a conversation. In addition, if you are volunteering for a board member, for instance, they could (and most likely would enjoy) introducing you to said person, thus reducing the stress of the experience.  My advice:  Volunteer to help the society or conference organizers and use that position as a platform to develop a sense of confidence to meet new scientists in your field.

Cheap Workshops on Valuable Tools

Workshops and fieldtrips are an added advantage to most scientific conferences. They will usually take place a few hours to a day before the conference begins. Many are free or a low attendance fee is added (I’ve paid up to $140 but that is unusual). Workshops that are offered vary widely between topics. More generalized conferences have a wider range of options. For example, at the last Coastal & Estuarine Research Federation (CERF) in Portland, Oregon, workshops covered topics like “Social Media and Science”, “The Academic Job Search: From A to Z”, and “Tutorial on Scientific Writing and Publishing.” However, more specialized conferences may offer more specialized workshops, like the past American Fisheries Society (AFS) conference in Portland, Oregon offered workshops on “Beginning/Intermediate GIS for Fisheries Scientists,” “Analyzing Fish Diets to Assess Trophic Status,” and “Age and Growth Analyses with R.” Regardless of the specialization of the workshops, these opportunities provide a resource at a reduced price that may not be available through other means. For example, I participated in the AFS “Age and Growth Analyses with R” workshop and learned information pertinent to my dissertation. Learning these procedures through other means could have included teaching myself (a long arduous task), taking a class (or two) that would have cost several hundred dollars in tuition, or more than likely a combination of the two. Moreover, some topics covered in workshops are not even available through at the university level. I participated in the CERF “The Academic Job Search: From A to Z,” which provided valuable insight into preparing to apply for jobs in academia (this was obviously before I decided that academia wasn’t for me). This information is not traditionally taught to students, making this workshop important to someone who is about to go on the job market. So my advice: When you are preparing to attend a professional meeting, make sure you research what workshop and field trip opportunities that are available at the conference.

 Remember Funding!

Even though the registration for students is usually reduced at professional conferences, finding the funds for all the other expenses can be a challenge. Between transportation, hotels, registration, and food, a conference can be cost prohibitive. But don’t fret! Many societies offer ways to help students attend a conference. Some offer student travel grants, while others offer to reimburse registration if the students work at the conference. These opportunities will usually be listed on the society’s webpage and/or sent out on a list serve to members (good reason to be a member). Both opportunities can help defray costs of the conference and travel awards can certainly be added to your CV! Additionally, you are usually recognized at the conference, further increasing your networking opportunities. Students receiving travel awards are usually presented with the awards at the business meeting, putting you face to face with the board of the society. Student volunteers are presented with t-shirts, acknowledging they are able to help attendees with questions or directions. Both opportunities increase your exposure at the conference and give you reasons to speak with attendees around you.  My advice:  Apply for any and all grants and awards offered by a conference.  Volunteer if that waives your registration fee.  Also, check with your department, student organization or college to see if they offer travel grants.

Conferences are exciting networking opportunities designed to share current research, ideas, and questions throughout the scientific community. Most societies, professors, managers, and schools encourage student participation. You just have to be willing to get out there and immerse yourself. Become a member of scientific societies and organizations to enjoy all of the benefits of being a part of that community. Many groups provide job list serves, funding opportunities, research spotlights, and member directories (showing who is also participating, giving you a way to introduce yourself). Science is a field that is dictated by communication and conferences are a primary tool that can easily be mastered early in your career. Take advantage of it!

A Game of I Spy: Ichthyoplankton Use and Identification in Ecological Research

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Larval smallmouth bass and egg close to hatch.  Photo credit: Amanda Sills

By Amanda Sills

As a recent graduate working in the de Mutsert Fish Ecology Lab, one of my primary responsibilities has been sorting and identifying ichthyoplankton samples collected as part of long-term monitoring studies in tributaries of the tidal freshwater Potomac River.  A large portion of my master’s thesis was devoted to developing an identification guide and functional dichotomous key for commonly found ichthyoplankton in these tidal freshwater habitats.

Here, I provide an overview of this important growth and developmental stage for fishes, as well as an introduction to the, sometimes tedious, process of ichthyoplankton identification.

What are ichthyoplankton?

Ichthyoplankton are the larval development stages of fishes. This stage is marked from the time an egg is fertilized to the point where a fish begins juvenile metamorphosis (where a fish has developed almost all adult anatomical features but remains sexually immature). Because larval fish are part of the planktonic community, they cannot swim strong enough on their own to control their location – often relying on currents and tides to carry them to nursery habitats where they can thrive.

Typically, larval fishes are divided into two growth stages, yolk-sac and post yolk-sac larvae. Most larval stage fishes will be underdeveloped when they hatch, lacking functional mouths, eyes, digestive systems, and fins. Because they are incapable of capturing their own prey during this time, a portion of the yolk is retained on the body after hatching, dubbing the term yolk-sac larvae. You can think about this yolk-sac as an energy drink for the fish, providing highly nutritious energy for the fish to use in developing features, like mouths or fins, that will enable them to catch their own food and maintain position in the water column.

Post yolk-sac stage larval fish have completely absorbed the yolk-sac retained after hatch, and are self-sufficient in finding their own food in the environment. While many ichthyoplankton at this time have developed fins, they are still not strong enough swimmers to move out of the area where the currents or tides have carried them.


Upper panel shows yolk-sac stage moronidae larvae, lower panel shows post yolk-sac stage moronidae larvae. Photo credit: Amanda Sills


Why are ichthyoplankton important?

Ichthyoplankton have been utilized in research in a variety of different ways. For example, simply looking at the abundance of ichthyoplankton in a tow sample can be used as an indication of the amount of spawning occurring in a system. If ichthyoplankton have been regularly collected, examining changes over time in the species composition of samples could be indicative of changes occurring in environmental parameters or available habitat areas in the ecosystem of interest. Because fish in their early developmental stages are in most cases less resilient than older conspecifics, they are frequently utilized in ecosystem monitoring.

How can ichthyoplankton be identified?

Because larval stage fishes can look dramatically different from adult conspecifics, or even more developed ichthyoplankton of the same species, identification can be challenging. Several techniques, depending on budget, survey design or resources, can be used to classify larval stage fishes as far taxonomically as possible.

Up and coming in the realm of ichthyoplankton research is the use of genetics and DNA to identify samples. While these methods can be pricier, there are a large collection of studies, which have had great success employing such techniques.

Clearing and staining involve dissolving all of the tissues of a specimen, and staining the remaining skeleton a bright color for analysis. The bone structures of different families, genus, or species of fishes can differ, making this identification technique not only handy but artistic.pic4

Top Panel: Before clearing and staining a preserved lutjanidae specimen. Bottom Panel: After clearing and staining a preserved lutjanidae specimen. Photo credit: Brandon Conroy

Lastly, ichthyoplankton can be identified manually using known morphology and meristic characteristics. Typically, these methods involve the use of a dissecting microscope and counting features like myomeres (bundles of muscle fibers), fin rays or pigmentation spots to classify specimens.

Tips for easier identification of preserved specimens.

I won’t sugar coat it – manually identifying ichthyoplankton can be a challenging and sometimes frustrating process, especially when you are first starting out. Myomeres can start to blur after a few long hours, and some specimens can be damaged or poorly preserved, distorting the anatomy essential for you to classify it past a family taxonomic level.

Here I’ve put together a few tips that I’ve picked up over the past few years identifying larvae, that I find can make the process a bit easier. Especially when dealing with large volumes of identifications, the littlest maneuver or tweak can make a difference in not only your accuracy but efficiency as well.

  • Familiarize yourself with anatomy basics. This is helpful when working frequently off of dichotomous keys for identifications. If you have a solid understanding of where dorsal, anal, pelvic and pectoral fin rays should be located or the relative location of dorsal-lateral pigmentation spots, then you can work much quicker through your specimens without getting hung up on the location of anatomy you should be looking for.


Head and body pigmentation patterns on a preserved post yolk-sac smallmouth bass larvae. Photo credit: Amanda Sills.
  • Line up a bunch of fish to measure at once. Over the past few years, I cannot put a total on the number of clupeids I have had to identify – waging a guess it would be in the thousands. What I’ve found is if my samples are loaded with similar species that can be broken in to size classes, instead of working one individual at a time I instead will line up several and work through the keys there. This allows you to knock out a bunch of repetitive tasks all at once. For example, need to take a standard length to total length ratio? Work through those specimens all at once instead of jumping around different size classes.
  • Lighting is your best friend. Finding pigmentation spots and exact myomere counts is perhaps one of the trickiest aspects of larval identification. I’ve found that playing with different levels and positioning of light is ideal to locate faded supracaudal pigments or faint myomeres around the nape region. Underlighting, external lighting, or even working on a black background can really make a difference in what you can and cannot see, so be sure to play around with what works best for you and your microscope.
  • Maneuvering is everything. It’s very easy for dorsal and anal fin rays and fin folds to get tucked under the body, making them difficult to see when you need them. Be sure to flip specimens around and over a few times to make sure important features aren’t actually hidden instead of absent.
  • Keep your specimens hydrated. Lastly, whether you are working in ethanol, tap water or another type of preservative, your specimens can shrink or grow depending on how hydrated they are or what you are working in. This is important to consider if you aren’t aware, because it can mess up measurements or ratios of features. For example, working in ethanol, specimens can dry out if not careful, often resulting in damage or reduced ability to identify.



De Mutsert Lab Presents at CERF in Portland, OR

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Pictured from left to right, PhD candidate CJ Schlick, recent Master’s graduate, Amanda Sills, Dr. Kim de Mutsert and her postdoc Dr. Kristy Lewis.


In November 2015, Dr. De Mutsert and members of her lab presented their research at the 23rd Biennial Conference of the Coastal Estuarine Research Federation (CERF).