Tag Archives: women in STEM

Tiabo for now, Kiribati

I’m currently sitting in the departure terminal in Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati. It is a small room made of mismatched wood paneling, with one wall open to the tarmac, and a concrete floor. There are no lights, and a huge fan in the corner keeps the air moving, although it’s still sweltering. My back is to the tarmac, and I can feel the heat rising off of the asphalt. It’s just before noon, the hottest part of the day, and we’re waiting for the plane to come in so we can board. We are getting ready to depart for Fiji, the first stop on my long trip back to Vancouver.

My time in Kiribati has come to a close, at least for now. My head is spinning slightly from just how quickly this trip flew by, which I’m sure is aided by whatever stomach bacteria I’ve been battling the last few days. Sadly, because I was sick, I spent most of our time in the beautiful Abaiang sleeping in a traditional sleeping hut and didn’t get to dive or explore much of the atoll. I did talk Max, one of the guys we’re working with from Fisheries, into giving me a motorcycle ride along the atoll’s single road the morning before we left (he said he could tell it was my first time on a motorcycle). Abaiang is lovely. People live in picturesque, mostly traditional style housing equipped with solar panels, and there is a surprisingly large kava bar with multiple pool tables and karaoke. Apparently, some of the guys sang karaoke our first night in Abaiang. I’m so sad that I missed it, but Heather thoughtfully recorded it for me so I could live vicariously through her. Fortunately, I brought antibiotics with me and started taking them as soon as I was feeling sick, so I was feeling better by the time we were heading back to Tarawa (we only spent two nights in Abaiang).

 

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An Abaiang sunset.

 

 

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Our sleeping huts in Abaiang.

 

The highlight of the last few days in Tarawa was our presentation of our findings to various stakeholders, hosted and organized by the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) Trust. We spoke to representatives from Kiribati’s Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources Development, the Ministry of Environment, Lands, and Agricultural Development, and the Ministry of Education (although Simon and Heather will give a more detailed presentation to the Ministry of Fisheries folks). People had a lot of great questions and I really hope that our work will be useful for them as they plan for the future of Kiribati. We spoke a lot about how coral reefs can help prevent erosion and therefore help protect against sea level rise. It’s an important reminder that those of us who travel to scuba dive on coral reefs tend to view them through a Western lens in that their value to us is in their beauty; to Pacific Islanders, the health of coral reefs is directly linked to the health of their communities and the survival of their islands. The meeting was a great reminder of how important this work is and it left me feeling motivated to do more.

 

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Explaining the differences in coral diversity between less disturbed sites (N. Tarawa and Abaiang) and more disturbed sites (S. Tarawa).

 

My advisor, Heather, and Erietera and Max from Fisheries all accompanied me to the airport this morning. Heather and Simon will both be staying in Kiribati for an extra week, but I’m returning early because of family obligations (oh, the joys of being a single parent in academia). It’s hard leaving when I know there’s still work to be done, but I hope to return to Kiribati in the next couple of years to continue my work here, and to continue working with the Ministry of Fisheries. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to spend time in Kiribati and to learn so much from all the people I’ve met. So, until next time … Tiabo (goodbye, pronounced sabo), Kiribati!

 

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Corals are smelly and other anecdotes from the field

There are so many things to love about fieldwork. As scientists, it’s an opportunity to finally get our hands dirty (so to speak) and interact with the systems we’re studying. It’s also invaluable to get to know the communities and people who live in the places we work (scientists commonly treat people as separate from our environments, but that’s never the case) … and what is the point of our research if it doesn’t serve local communities?

The work I’m doing here in Kiribati (and that my advisor, Simon Donner, has been doing for over a decade) will hopefully provide information that will help communities make informed decisions about how best to protect their marine resources and coastlines. We are working closely with the Kiribati Department of Fisheries and have been fortunate to have their divers join us on the boat. We also are collecting data about the coral reefs here that we can compare to other places to get an idea of how past ocean temperature may affect susceptibility to bleaching events. On this trip, I’m comparing the photosynthetic rates of corals collected from each of our sites, which I hope will give us an idea of how productive various sites are, and how the productivity of individual types of corals changes across sites.

While our work has serious implications, it’s great that we can have some fun doing it. We get to dive some of the most beautiful reefs in the world (although we also dive some of the most degraded reefs). I mentioned in my last post that people in Kiribati love to laugh, which makes every day on the boat a joy, even when we’re diving in rough conditions. It definitely helps the days go by faster, too — we’re usually on the boat for around 10 hours a day, and then we come back to our hotel room to do data entry and do coral measurements before we go straight to bed, so having fun while working is imperative.

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Measuring photosynthetic rates of coral samples with a PAM fluorometer. I do these measurements in the dark (hence the headlamp). We took this photo after I’d finished the measurements for the night (it’s staged!). (photo via Heather Summers)

 

Collecting coral samples is fun but challenging. I lost two sets of sample bags in the first few days because they are buoyant and will float away if you’re not careful, so I’ve had to come up with a system to weigh them down. Some of the corals are really difficult to break, so I dive with a hammer and a chisel for the bigger corals and a rongeur (which is usually used for cutting bone during surgery) for the smaller, branching corals. I have to wear a full wetsuit (even though the water is around 30 degrees Celsius) to protect my skin because I’ve gotten slammed into the corals by big ocean swells. But the most challenging part of sampling corals is also probably the most surprising: they smell horrible!

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Collecting samples of Heliopora using the rongeur.

 

I have to dispose of the coral samples each night after measuring them with the PAM (pictured above), and we very quickly learned not to empty the water from the cooler (where we keep the samples) in the bathroom because it smelled so bad that we could barely stand to use it. I’m learning that some corals smell worse than others, too — I hate sampling Pocillopora, for example, because it stinks so badly, and the massive Porites emit a stinky mucous that looks like snot. The smell was so bad while we did the measurements earlier tonight that I had to hold my breath to keep from throwing up, and we were so desperate that we sprayed half a bottle of sunscreen in the room just to try to cover up the stench afterward. It turns out that corals are really gross when you take them out of the water!

By far my favorite part of fieldwork is getting to know the communities we’re working with. My colleague Heather, a masters student in Simon’s lab, is doing some really interesting work looking at reef complexity and erosion, and as a part of her work, we are taking a few days to do some on-shore measurements. We usually get a lot of attention from curious onlookers when we’re doing measurements on the beach. Children here are not shy and it’s so much fun to engage their curiosity. I’m not exaggerating when I say that sometimes children will come running from all directions to see what we’re up to! It’s a great opportunity to get them involved and to talk about the importance of coral reefs.

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My colleague, Heather, on the left and my advisor, Simon, on the right, with a curious onlooker  in the middle.

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These kids were super curious and it was great to be able to involve them in our work.

Fieldwork isn’t for everyone and there are certainly a number of challenges, but it’s my favorite part of my work and what keeps me motivated to keep going. I feel incredibly lucky to be here in Kiribati. We’ll be heading to Abaiang, an outer island atoll, tomorrow and will be offline until Tuesday night (late Monday in North America). Tomorrow is also my 33rd birthday. I couldn’t ask for a better way to celebrate!

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Diversity in geoscience: Participation, behaviour, and the scientific division of labour at a Canadian geoscience conference

I’m taking a quick break from posting updates about fieldwork in Kiribati to announce that a study I co-authored has been published!

Some colleagues and I attended the 2017 Canadian Geophysicists Union meeting in Vancouver with the goal of examining diversity through observations of participation, presentation content, and behaviour in conference sessions.  We found that women and people of colour participated in the conference in different ways than the majority (white men), which suggests that there is an intellectual division of labour in the geosciences. We also examined audience behaviors when women and people of colour were presenting and found that a “chilly climate” exists for women and other marginalized demographics. This work suggests that just bringing minorities into the geosciences isn’t enough to make the field more inclusive, and we suggest pathways that may help to make the geosciences more welcoming for everyone.

I’m really proud to be a coauthor on this paper and to have had a chance to participate in the study. Science has historically been dominated by white men, and the geosciences are the least diverse of all scientific disciplines. The other authors and I are hopeful that this work will help to make the geosciences more welcoming for women and people of colour, in particular women of colour.

The paper is open access, so you’re welcome to download the full thing here. If you find this interesting, I would also appreciate if you would share it with your networks, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback! If you’d prefer not to share your thoughts publicly, please feel free to reach out to me by email at secanno@gmail.com.

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