(One of) The Perks of Being a Grad Student

One of the best parts of being a grad student is when you are able to combine work and travel. Kylla and I had the opportunity to do that this past week when we attended the Western Society of Naturalists conference in sunny Seaside, California. From its name it sounds like this meeting might cover research from a broad range of biological habitats, and in the past, I’ve heard that it was dominated by terrestrial research. But in the last couple decades there has been a shift towards the sea, and now 95% of the research presented is marine-related.

Seaside, California is adjacent to Monterey, home of the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, also right down the road from Pacific Grove, home to Stanford University’s prestigious Hopkins Marine Lab, so it’s a great place to hold a marine biology conference. The beautiful scenery doesn’t hurt either. As an East-Coast native, who has only visited the West Coast a handful of times, I am always awestruck by the vast beauty and power of the Pacific Ocean. Luckily for me, Kylla is a California native, so I had an expert to show me around and ensure I didn’t miss some of the gems that they leave out of the sightseeing books.

In order to combine work with a little play, we flew into San Francisco and spent a day there, strolling through Golden Gate Park and visiting the world renowned California Academy of Sciences. Much more than a museum, the Academy has an aquarium, a natural history museum and a live rainforest nestled within its walls, all topped with a living roof that reduces energy usage and promotes air filtration.

A real live nautilus! In the aquarium at California Academy of Sciences

After a fun day in San Fran, we spent the following day driving down the coast on the famous Coastal Route 1. The views from this winding, cliffside highway are spectacular.

Additionally, there are many quaint towns and beautiful beaches and state parks along the way. Kylla brought us to Año Nuevo, a state park that thousands of elephant seals call home. While it is quite a trek over huge sand dunes to get to the beach where these seals like to hang out, it is well worth it. The lookout spots allow visitors to get within 100 feet of these magnificently huge animals. Click here to learn more about these seals.

This sign is no joke, those seals are huge! And they can move faster than you think…

After a couple days of fun we arrived in Seaside, ready to turn our brains into sponges, to absorb all the novel and interesting research being presented. The theme of the conference, and the topic that several renown researchers spoke on during the morning symposiums was: integrating real data and scientific theory to enhance our understanding of the natural world. The talks were quite interesting, and the speakers recognized and attempted to address the problem that real data often does not fit nicely into established theories, and that while models are very useful, we need to remember that they are simply models and may not represent what is really going on in our study systems.

Another presentation I found particularly interesting was one about the ecology of subtidal Antarctic algal communities. I learned that herbivory by little shrimp-like creatures called amphipods, can be so intense, that some small seaweeds actually grow inside of larger ones as “endophytes” to seek refuge from herbivory. The small seaweeds purposefully choose to live inside larger seaweed that is chemically defended, so that amphipods have no interest in eating it and both seaweeds stay safe. Click here to read more about this research.

Learning about awesome research, hanging out with elephant seals, and soaking up the California sunshine. I’d say we did an expert job combining work and play on this educational and entertaining trip.

Of course, we had to take a pit stop on our drive for some tidepooling!

Huge anenome at Pigeon Point!