Thursday, May 17, 2018

Onwards to a New Home


I got that PhD.

You think this would be a momentous relief. But then you remember. Science does not stop. You can wrap some of it up into a nice bow and print it on oddly expensive paper, then turn it in to a series of administrators at your home institution with an eclectic collection of faculty signatures, but all that does is...well, put some of your work on oddly expensive paper.

There is still more to be done. There will always be more to do. Sometimes, the trick is to figure out what that is. Sometimes the trick is to back off enough so that you do not lose your sanity when it seems as if everything needs to be studied right now.

I am heading to the Netherlands in a little less than a month, where the study of coastal dynamics gets a bit more attention than here in the U.S.A. I intend to return in a few years, when perhaps we as a country have figured out that it is worth a bit of foresight to not pay billions of dollars in flood insurance every time an intense hurricane makes landfall. A bit of foresight to avoid lives lost and people displaced. I am thinking specifically of Hurricane Harvey at the moment (but also Sandy, Katrina, Irene, and...gods there is a list)

Sorry. I'm not at all bitter. I swear. But the truth remains: as a country, we need to be doing better at this. And we have the brainpower and technology do be better.

I hope to get more of the former in the Netherlands, to maybe figure out a reasonable way to present this information to America in an actionable manner. For one, what sorts of things should coastal communities expect from the government? How should this list differ between small coastal towns and large coastal cities? How feasible are hard armor structures? Soft armor structures? Pure reliance on evacuation routes? What do other countries do, and how can we adapt our variety of coastlines and governance models to these?

All questions that stay with me as I leave my entire life behind and head to a difference shore. This is going to be an adventure, and not one of those shiny ones.

It's real life. I have a PhD, but that has changed absolutely nothing about me and how I relate to the world. I just get a bit more expensive paper to shove into my box of books.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Grad School Doldrums

I wrote this earlier this year, and I have debated whether or not to publish it. 

What lesson is there to learn here, for application to science or to life? That occasionally, you do indeed hit periods where you need to reevaluate how things are going? That grad school is, unsurprisingly, difficult (though sometimes for surprising reasons)? That in the end, the hard work is the day-to-day drudge to get where you need to be?

I am not sure. Make of it what you will. Consider it an honest appraisal of a late-term grad experience, if nothing else.

In any case, it turns out that a significant effort on my part turned a potential failure of a project into a result (more on that soon, I hope). And that was after writing this post. So I still function as a grad student, even when hitting a low point in motivation.

The aches and pains are still around. But I am moving onto the next stage in my thesis, and keeping in mind that the best thing I can get out of a PhD is a better understanding of the world around me and how to communicate this understanding.

Original Post, written sometime in early 2016:

Today I learned what "nadir" means: the lowest point in the fortunes of a person or organization.

It was oddly fitting, because right about now my grad experience feels like it has hit a nadir. Which, when I think about it, hardly seems reasonable. In the latter half of 2015, I was not blogging very much because I was busy:

- Presenting at the CERF conference in Portland, OR (which was such an awesome place to visit)
- Resubmitting and finally publishing a paper (only three more to go! ...whee?)
- Getting through my third committee meeting (phew!)
- Organizing a bunch of seminars, program budgets, and undergrad research opportunities (relevant? Not really, but it did take time)

You see? There is much there to feel bad about. And yet, near the end of 2015 I was ready for a break. I took about a week off for the holidays, and then came back in 2016 to discover that I was still tired of my daily work routine.

People told me grad school would be hard, but no one mentioned that the person I would have to fight the most would be myself. I mean, I had a timeline which takes me from now to the end of my grad program. I had the steps as clearly defined as possible (each one contingent on something going right, of course). I felt confident in my ability to invent a "Plan B" when the need arose.

But honestly, something was still off. It was hard to conceptualize those bigger picture goals into daily tasks. It was even harder to convince myself that the bigger goals were worthwhile, in the end. To my surprise, I was fighting to remain interested in my own project, especially since so many cool things were happening in the world around me and by the nature of my work habits I was cut off from getting involved.

The stress began showing in odd ways. I'm a pretty active person, and most of my activity would not generally fall under "gentle" exercise. So when I get aches and pains, it's usually just because I've been running a bit too much. But prior to the holidays, the aches and pains were much more frequent and intense than usual. Nothing was "wrong" per se -- nothing broken, nothing torn, nothing identifiable -- everything just hurt a lot more than I was used to. And things kept hurting in different ways, even though I was not running any more than normal, or doing anything else particularly debilitating.

I was also clearly unhappy at work. I would avoid talking to people (I'm pretty quiet on a normal day anyway), I would judge myself for taking breaks for tea or to stretch my legs, I would wonder why it was so hard to focus on the task at hand, or so hard to dream up a task to focus on. I would look forward to leaving for the day and just forgetting everything, then judge myself for not being dedicated enough to continue working late into the night.

And that is where I ended it. Motivational, eh?

It turns out. It turns out. I have a pretty awesome lab group a couple of hours away. I enjoy talking science with the people around me. And a robust scientific community is critical to any sort of success in research.

I think my personal struggle was balancing my natural desire to do everything on my own with the realization that science does not ever happen in a vacuum. My most recent result was owing to several consultations with labmates and people outside of my lab but elsewhere in my field. These people make the days in grad school worth doing. They make my projects interesting again, and they make coming to work an enjoyable experience.

I just needed to remember to interact with them. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

So, Why Are You Here Again?

This summer, in the name of sediment transport modeling, I find myself in the Netherlands.

I have no one else to blame for this turn of events, which is both empowering and frightening. Whatever thesis progress I make this summer will be my own. Whatever paper-worthy endeavors, if any, will be entirely self-driven.

In other words, if I screw up it is all on me. With that cheery note, you might be wondering what exactly I could screw up in a couple months' time. You might remember, from previous posts, that I am studying the dynamics of a particularly interesting inlet system in Martha's Vineyard, MA. I've written about some of the field work my lab (PVLAB) works on during the summer months. My goal, as an individual PhD student, is to use this field work and numerical model(s) to tease out the precise combination of physical factors that cause the inlet to behave in the way it does.

A truly successful simulation would capture both the hydrodynamics (waves, currents) and the sediment transport (i.e. where the sand goes) of the system. My model as it stands does a pretty good job with the former (paper forthcoming, with any luck!) but not quite as much with the latter. I have relocated myself across the Atlantic for the summer with the intention of fixing this. In short:

Goal: sediment transport simulations
Tools: TU Delft and all the people inside
Project direction: getting there. Slowly.

During the weekdays, you'll find me holed up here:

1960's monstrosity behind me (and my father) -- if you can't make out either of us, I've done my job right.

drinking americano (...I miss real American drip coffee. Small sacrifices, I suppose) or tea and sifting through mounds of code I did not write or trying to run an entirely new model for research purposes. Occasionally I poke my head into the office of the wonderful professor hosting me and annoy him for a half hour or so with myriads of questions.

During the weekends, things get a little more interesting. The way I see it, I've already done the hardest leg of any journey from American to Europe. I might as well take advantage of the fact that I am a mere train journey away from many interesting European cities, even if that means taking some time out of my head and my computer.

Let's begin with the Netherlands, because that is where all good things start.

Delft is an adorable little city with bike lanes and short, very old architectural marvels everywhere. Oh, and canals.

Apparently it is not uncommon for drunk students to drive their bikes into these things in the wee hours of the night. Heheheh.
If you want to spend a day in Delft, visits should certainly include the two gorgeous churches at the center of the city. Otherwise, get lots of walking in and see where it takes you.

More canals. And yes, everything looks about this beautiful.
Big, beautiful church. Lots of these around.
Rotterdam is a nice hour bike ride to the south. On the way, you have a canal to your right and a rural scenes to your left. I've seen cows, sheeps, tiny little stone towns, beautiful houses with moats, horses...the Netherlands ebbs and flows from city to rural so quickly that there is barely any chance for suburbs to exist. Y'know, I could get use to this.

Izza lonely pony (or something). Of all the pictures I could have taken, for some reason this is the only one I wanted.
Finally, the Hague. Den Haag, as I should be pronouncing it (turns out a Spanish language elective simply makes my default foreign accent entirely incorrect for the Dutch language). A half hour bike ride to the north, and way more hectic than I was anticipating. There are lovely museums, about a block and a half of a Chinatown (the Netherlands is trying. But I will go back to Boston for my true Chinatown experience, thanks all the same), a beach somewhere north, and too many little neighborhoods in between to count. I was told by some TU students that Den Haag does not appear to have a city center, and they were very correct on that account. The city is akin to what happens when you take the urban planners who auditioned for the job of organizing Delft, and then picked the one that was on the bottom of everyone's list to work with Den Haag.

Not Den Haag. No pictures from that place (was too busy getting lost!) Instead, have a kitty. They are everywhere.

One thing that strikes me about this city is how...trusting it is. You'll notice there are no signs warning people not to dive into the canals. There are all sorts of imaginary ways parents carry their children on bikes. No one wears helmets. People lock the back wheel of their bikes, and not much else. This feels very much like a society where the powers-that-be trust their citizens to be intelligent. Which is kind of mind-blowing, coming from America where every little thing has a disclaimer.

I intend to figure out how this mentality came about. I have about two months left.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Please, No Field Work in January least, not in the northeast corner of America.

I had suspected this would be a bad idea from the first, given that below-freezing temperatures and diving into waves tend to combine badly. My personal history with cold weather and the Great Outdoors is mixed at best: one memorable winter in undergrad, I went caving in a relatively "easy" cave with just a couple of dunks under water between the entrance and exit and managed to lose literally all feeling in my arms and legs about halfway through. Quick thinking by my trip leader and a helping hand from one of the stronger people in the group got me out safely, but I maintain a healthy respect for winter outdoor activities since.

I also tend to get cold after a couple of minutes in the ocean during the summer, so I was fairly certain that winter-plus-water-plus-wind-chill would be a recipe for disaster. Or at least a mild bout of hypothermia.

But what's the point of ingrained fears of the natural world if you can't use them as excuses to get out and test your theories?

That was precisely my intention yesterday, when I corralled a large group of lab mates and one undergrad freshmen into accompanying me to my study site, Norton Point on Martha's Vineyard, to take video for educational and research purposes in the middle of January.

The weather was actually the best we've had all month. There were minimal clouds, temperatures above freezing, and relatively low wind chill. The lab crew and I were optimistic that we would be able to take some good footage of the area and have a good time outside on the beach watching some really cool physics at work.

The beach was indeed really awesome, and it was amazing to see how far the Point had moved since I had last been out in late August. The waves on the ocean side were magnificent -- larger than I had seen in the summer and outlined crisply against the horizon.

We parked the lab truck as far down the Point as we could, then walked the rest of the (roughly) 2.5 miles to the end of the sand spit. Hats were worn, gloves were on, coats were buttoned as far up as they could be. The wind was at our backs for the trip down, so we felt confident enough to set up a couple of shots of the area and spend some time filming for an educational video the undergrad and I are working on (more on that later, I hope!!).

When we started getting further out to the point, however, the wind picked up. We were right on the ocean, with nothing (not even convenient dunes) between us and the breeze charging in from the Atlantic. Any video we got at the Point (which looked amazing! Maybe only 25 meters to go before closing) was overshadowed by the wind whipping at our backs.

And then it came time for the trek in the opposite direction. By now, the wind was going full tilt at our faces. You think it is hard to walk on sand on a normal day for a couple of miles? Try it with freezing wind impeding your every step, making your nose run to warmer climates, and solidifying any extremities unfortunate enough to have only one layer of cover.

That was miserable. And we were just walking. On a nice day. Imagine trying to carry sensors and tools through that wind in the same location. In the rain. Or snow. Imagine if you get the sensors into the beach, and then have to leave them for a month in the winter. I guarantee you are going to get ice, at best. Which means hapless grad students like myself will probably be tasked with returning at regular intervals during the month to scrape off the ice and check the sensors. Probably to bring a couple back for a nice burial. In the rain. Or snow. Or just plain ol' wind.

Now you know my opinion on winter field work. And why this kind of work is inherently difficult to do year round.

But. Then again. As I said in the beginning, there is no point to having an irrational fear of the natural world if you can't use it as an excuse to get out and do some science.

So, yes, in the end I might be that hapless grad student, freezing on the beach in January while trying to maintain enough dexterity in my fingers to put a sensor back in working order. Because science. And if it were easy, it wouldn't be nearly as much fun.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Writing Style

I have determined that I need to read more Terry Pratchett (of Discworld fame) before writing these blog posts.

About one book per post should be reasonable.

This occurred to me after skimming some of my earliest posts, notably "In the Beginning". I rather enjoy the irreverent, vaguely rambling style that occasionally sneaks into my writing after reading some good ol' English satire It tends to fade as I try to write more "proper" scientific prose, worthy of journals and newsletters, which is a shame (I really wish that this irreverent style could make it into the hallowed halls of Nature or Science. I think this would say something rather positive about humanity on the whole). 

Because, let's face it, science should be able to look at itself and laugh. Or at least giggle. You see, as scientists, or engineers (for those of us who think we get our hands dirty enough), we attempt to write the rules to something (rather, everything) which may not follow any rules at all.

We pretend to understand, and further our understanding, of a particular discipline, all the while waiting for that next clever upstart to turn our worlds upside-down.

I personally look forward to whomever takes the position of paradigm-shifter in my lifetime. Makes life a hell of a lot more interesting.

In the meantime, we scientists get along with the daily grind, focused on the microcosm that is our discipline while rarely picking our heads up long enough to really see the world we are trying to autopsy. I move along (hopefully) in the understanding of inlet migration and sediment transport, throwing out phrases like "current profiler" and "coupled model runs" as if they will lead me to a discovery that will hold water (har, get it?) in a centuries' time.

So it does us good to laugh once and a while. At ourselves, at our endeavors, and at what we know about what we do not know.

I will try to make future project-related entries as irreverent as possible, in the spirit of scientific discovery and, more accurately, scientific honesty.

Hence my desire to read lots of Pratchett in the near future. Elements of fantasy writing, I believe, can only assist the dissemination of science.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Measuring in a Continuum

How do I begin to explain the field work that goes on in my lab?

In essence, our goals are to characterize the physics of surf zone and nearshore processes. We hypothesize that waves have a large impact on both. For that matter, so do currents. And the interactions between waves and currents. Which mean tides become important in many cases. And don't even get me started on what happens when you throw silt-laden water into the mix...

I guess I should begin as simply as possible. So this post is going to focus on how we go about measuring some basic flow conditions in a nearshore environment. We are going to ignore sediment, bathymetry (i.e. water depth, mapping the sea floor), silt-laden water, significant changes in salinity and temperature, and anything else that goes beyond good ol' waves and currents meeting in shallow water.

This still leaves us with a lot to cover. So let's get to it.

In the last post, I gave the short version of my graduate project. I mentioned that my lab conducts field experiments to gather (as) accurate (as instruments will allow) data to understand how storms, waves and currents cause an inlet to migrate. I also mentioned that I use this data to validate a numerical model which also tracks how the inlet migrates.

Why do I need both data and model?

In an ideal world, field data would give us all of the answers. Because it is, in fact, as close to real life as you can get, field work can best approximate what happens when every variable imaginable impacts our system and moves the inlet. A model, by necessity of computation and limitations in our physical understanding, has to simplify a lot of the dynamics to calculate what is happening (or has happened, or might happen...more on that later). Fieldwork, in essence, extracts measurements directly from what we want to study. It is the only experimental tool we have to capture real world phenomena which keep every good fluid mechanist and climate scientist up at night.

The problem is that fieldwork is hard. And really expensive. So you're not likely to get anywhere near as much data as you need to answer some of Life's big fluid physics questions.

Let's give an example to drive the point home.

We use a variety of instruments to measure currents. One typical instrument is an ADCP, or Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler. The name alone gives a sense of what this does: it uses sound waves to measure velocities in the water over a range of depths. It looks something like this:

Mmmm, standard Nortek brochure images of three ADCP configurations.

Now, out of the water these instruments are not going to do very much. If you put them somewhere in water and point the acoustic receivers (black circles in the above picture) the right way, you can get measurements of how fast the current is flowing.

If you simply toss one of these in the ocean, however, you probably will never see it again. The currents it is measuring will sweep it right along and make your PI very sad, having just lost a couple grand in instrument funds.

If, on the other hand, you put this thing on a large, weighted plate at the seafloor, or mount it on a long pole which you then jam into the seafloor (the pole, not the ADCP), you have a good chance at being able to come back and find the thing again when you want the data. Or when it runs out of batteries.

The fact that the instrument remains in one place at all times means that it is an Eulerian measurement device. It can only monitor the water right above it, so you get a single depth profile at a point in space over your deployment time.

If you want to know what the current fields look like over a larger area (say, the entire inlet system), you need to deploy multiple ADCPs at different locations and pray that nothing exciting is happening anywhere you have not placed an instrument. The issue is that if something exciting is happening somewhere you are not measuring, you will probably never know.

Another issue, often overlooked in typical physical oceanography classes, is the deployment of said instruments. How do these things get jammed into the bottom of the seafloor?

Divers. Yup.
In my lab, people take the instruments down to 7 meters (~21 feet) or so depth, and then wrestle them into whatever sediment has decided to act the part of the seafloor for that day (and, yes, this can change). Of course, when you are throwing people overboard with an expensive instrument, you want to make sure that both they (primarily) and the instrument (secondarily) come out unharmed. This limits your deployment sites. A really interesting place with high currents is hazardous.

Katama, thankfully, has a fairly predictable tidal schedule. In fact, last summer our divers had all of 15 minutes of slack tide to get things in the water before 2 m/s currents swept them out to sea.

And you thought your work had strict deadlines.

The field team members who hang out with the grad students in my lab are (thankfully) incredibly competent at their job. They are divers, technicians, tenacious, and very dependable to get things done in a safe manner. I am fairly certain I would be too frightened to attempt some of the deployment techniques they come up with to get my instruments in the water. The best I can do is make sure I do not put them in a particularly dangerous spot, and to make sure that they have all of the equipment they need to get the job done safely.

Speaking of equipment, there is more where the ADCPs came from.

Boat which can carry an assortment of instruments, divers, slackers, and occasionally one dog.

We have several different instruments which measure, in addition to currents

PAROS, or pressure gages which measure the depth of water above the sea floor

Another stock photo, alas -- I do not seem to have many of these in action. AWAC (Acoustic Wave and Current profiler)
The trifecta of waves, currents, and pressure provide a thorough picture of what is happening at any given location in the Katama system. Locations like these:

Yes, this is how we plan field deployments. With large maps and pumpkin stickers.
We choose different locations each year based on results from the previous year and what the model suggests might be interesting spots. I've had the luxury of returning to the same area again and again to reconfigure instrument locations for maximum spacial coverage. Not many scientists get this option, which is another hitch when it comes to getting useful field measurements.

In essence, fieldwork boils down to safety, funding, a great field crew, and competent decisions made by the scientists running the deployment. All of these need to come together to gather a useful data set, but even when they do there is no guarantee everything will go as planned.

Despite the difficulties, fieldwork can be incredibly rewarding. Three years of deploying instruments in and around Katama Bay have yielded a fascinatingly complex picture of how the system works. My model helps to fill in some of the spacial and temporal gaps in our data, but the measurements alone give a sense of how this system behaves.

More on that...later. I need to go an finish a paper first. And I have not even begun to explain what you can do with field techniques that move, instead of staying in one place like all of the instruments mentioned above.

Indeed, it gets more interesting. I see I have a lot to cover in the near future on this thing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Where has all the beach gone?

It's been a while, hasn't it.

I have excuses! Qualifying exams (passed!), thesis proposal (also passed!), life (grade pending)...but none of these seem quite appropriate. I've been busy, yes, but so have most people. And I realized today, at the end of the semester, that I've actually been doing research worth sharing.

It's time to finally tell you what I do for a living (if, indeed, grad students are allowed this "living" thing).

I study coastal processes, specifically how waves and currents influence sediment transport. To get a sense of what that means, I give you the following illustration:

Hurricane Sandy occurred in Fall 2012. It hit the eastern coast of the United States with surprising force, severely damaging the shorelines, beaches, and accompanying properties of many states. The picture above shows one instance of damage along the New Jersey coastline, in which a large chunk of sand was removed by the storm, along with it any house unfortunate enough to be built there.

How did one storm move that much sand? Where did all of that sand go, and is it ever coming back? My research works to answer, in a slightly tangential manner, both of these questions.
Sandy, the Aerial View.

Hurricanes are to be reckoned with -- mainly because they enhance natural forces already present in a given water environment. With a hurricane comes bigger waves, stronger winds, faster currents, storm surge (think a wall of water piling up on the coast)...when they combine in just the right way, as they did in Sandy, they can generate enough energy to loosen and transport a whole lot of sand away from its bed.

Currents and waves move sediment on their own, also, typically over longer time scales than a couple of days (more like decades, or even centuries). They've been slowly changing the shape of our coastlines for all of human memory, and yet exactly how they do this remains a mystery. The science behind sediment transport in general, actually, is still a problem society needs to grapple with. We know waves and currents move sand, but we don't know enough to be able to predict their effect.

That is where I come in.

My lab works to monitor the flow conditions (waves, currents) in the surf zone. If you've ever been to a beach, you know what the surf zone looks like -- it's the place closest to the dry part of the beach where all of the waves are breaking. If you've ever had a wave crash on you, you know that breaking waves carry a lot of energy (that stuff can hurt!). That energy gets transferred to the mean flow in the surf zone, which in turn can do all sorts of delightful things like move sand (which is why water in the surf is often brown-colored), generate alongshore currents, stir the water, and basically make a mess of things.

The Surf Zone: where the white stuff begins
This "mess" is one of the reasons the surf is an exciting place to work. Unfortunately, I am not quite that shallow yet in my research. See, I take my lab's data and use it to validate numerical models which help me study the forcings behind sediment transport, both in the surf and in slightly deeper water. The surf is such a complicated area that I cannot be confident yet in my model's ability to capture it.

Instead, I'm looking at about 2-7 m water depth for my current research. My "lab's data" is also a poor choice of words to describe how I figure out how things should behave in the real world. This "lab" is actually more my lab group, which includes a wonderful field crew of divers, technicians, and grad students. The "data" is actually more measurements that we make using a number of different instruments, usually stuck to the bottom of the surf zone and left to ping in the water for a couple of months.

The Lab, exhausted after a day in the field.
The field site I am interested in at the moment is located in Martha's Vineyard, MA (not a bad place to get to during the summer, I have to admit). Though my lab group could have chosen numerous environments to study waves-currents-sediment transport, such as the places in New Jersey devastated by Sandy, we picked this particular site because of one particular interesting feature:

The Island of Martha's Vineyard, with key locations outlined in orange and black.

The body of water on the eastern side of the island (right in the picture above) connects the Vineyard Sound in the north (top) to the Atlantic Ocean in the south (bottom). Most of the time. Most of the time. As you can see from the series of images outlined in black, the connection between the Bay and the Ocean is not always present. Nor is it always the same size, or even in the same position.

In fact, this transient inlet is what makes the Martha's Vineyard site so interesting to study. The inlet breaches every couple of decades or so when a large storm system comes through (hello hurricanes!). The breach then spends the next 10-15 years migrating to the east, closing again once it reaches the eastern bank of Katama Bay.

This migration cycle is ideal for sediment transport study in part because it occurs on relatively short time scales, and in part because it is such a strong transport signal that you can begin to quantify it from Google Earth images alone. One of the largest barriers in sediment transport field research is obtaining accurate measurements with sufficient spacial and temporal resolution to actually say something useful about how sand is moving. It is my hope that by looking at a relatively obvious signal, and combining some remote observations/some gritty in-the-field measurements of whatever we can get our hands on with a numerical model, I can use this field site to understand large scale sediment transport better.

How do we get these field measurements? Why can't the model just do everything alone? How feasible is this project, really?

And, most importantly:

When a hurricane next hits the East Coast, how is the shoreline going to change? Where is the sand going, and where is it coming from?

All this and more as I (hopefully) continue with more frequent updates.