“Well, that was weird”: Stories of science and discovery at the Loft

I was somewhere around the Gilman exit, on the edge of campus, when the instant coffee began to take hold. Knowing that the Loft at UCSD promised practiced tales of scientific and personal discovery (and beer), I pressed on. Following an impromptu conversation with a fellow 6th-year soldier in line, I marched into a menagerie of variously bright-eyed and bedraggled graduate students in myriad states of becoming. Pleasantly, the at-capacity crowd was rounded out with professors, administrators, and the ever-elusive public. The stage room was dimly-lit and a curious art collection hung on the East wall depicting colorful, abstract portraits of nameless figures without faces—where were their faces? (And do they represent us grad scientists now, or later?) I wondered this to myself as I opened my notebook and counted which manuscripts had been submitted, and which still needed fine-tuning…

The Storytellers

The performances were kicked off by Ariana Remmel, who launched into a story about discovering a confusing substance in her underwear as a young girl in Arkansas. Later, they–now identifying as non-binary–became fascinated by chemistry: the study of dynamic molecular entities moving through chaos in creation of something new. (Not unlike being a graduate student, I realized!) Ariana learned about the role of glycans in sperm formation and function. But this inspired them to wonder: what do we know about glycans in the female reproductive system? Could this be a (woefully understudied) molecular instantiation of “female choice”, through determining which sperm make it to uterine fertilization?  So began Ariana’s Masters proposal, which they presented to the (mostly male) gatekeepers of thesis feasibility. It was a hit, and interestingly enough focused on the original underwear stuff—cervical mucus. Not only would such a project help flesh out important knowledge about reproduction, but the innovative idea led Ariana to wonder: what would science look like with more diverse representation in practice and ponderance? After the official green light, and a lot of data collection, Ariana’s personal and scientific journey of discovery taught them just how beautiful and amazing the human body truly can be, when examined through the right lens.

Next up was Joseph Strehlow from the Physics department. As a young student, Joseph became interested in fusion energy—a long-theorized chemical reaction that, if harnessed, may promise limitless energy. This reaction of hydrogen isotopes is what fuels the sun that sustains life on our planet. Joseph completed an eye-opening fellowship in “stockpile stewardship”, an effort funded by the Defense Department for maintaining functional nuclear weapons. Since testing nuclear bombs is no longer ethically feasible, billions of dollars are invested in supercomputing in order to simulate operation. Through this clever workaround, the military is able to assess how bombs will function given the ravages of age and environmental degradation. (What if we could do this with humans, I mused.) Joseph realized that scientists and computer engineers can ensure predictability—rather than unpredictably—of the nuclear arsenal; thus, this portion of our defense budget goes toward maintaining peace, rather than instigating war. Nowadays, Joseph works with particle accelerators, or “cameras for exotic states of matter” that provide important information for how to one day harness the promise of fusion energy (and beyond), through laser fusion research.

The third storyteller was Nick Deason from the Biology department. An East coaster, Nick described how during a college internship he found himself in the wilds of the Michigan Upper Peninsula (UP; “Satan’s Mosquito Factory”), paired with another student named Laura. Laura was more experienced in the field and Nick became enamored with her (skills) in a place where “curiosity outpaced self-preservation.” One day when exploring an island, Laura and Nick discovered a deer skeleton surrounded by large droppings, and were tasked with solving the murder mystery—whodunnit and how did the culprits get there? They uncovered evidence of wolves on the island who must have crossed by ice bridge, solving the Poop Island Mystery. But Nick wasn’t done—he wanted to find the wolf den. So on his last night on the island, Nick set out and howled like a wolf.  In response—and to much amazement—he heard the “call of the wild!” Perhaps due to the need for some self-preservation, Nick realized that hearing the wolf howls was enough to make him feel alive without winding up dead. He and Laura parted ways that summer, Nick grateful for his newfound courage borne of Laura’s emboldening influence in a far-off land of wolves and mystery poops.

Steller Sea Lion

Following a brief intermission, the stories continued with Margaret Stack, a Masters student in Environmental Health at SDSU. She recounted moving to Alaska at 21 for a project studying Steller sea lions (pictured) and the potential disruption of their breeding grounds by local boat traffic. At first, she was terrified by one of her primary tasks: performing pap smears on 700lb hormonal sea lions! But with composure, Margaret assured the audience she’s learned that being a scientist is partly about being able to maintain optimism in the face of failure. After all, it was “Free Willy” that had inspired her to become a scientist. She also told us of a college chemistry professor who had forcefully suggested that science isn’t right for her, yet here she was. In Alaska, her cultivated boldness had escorted her down the aisles of a drug store to buy a pregnancy test… for one of her sea lions. And although the test was inconclusive for sea lion physiology, her Alaskan adventure proved a valuable experience of grit and insight. In the end, she even got to email that one chemistry professor to let him know, by the way, that she now works in an analytical chemistry lab. Margaret: 1, crusty professor: 0.

The next presenter was Brittany Fair, current science writer at the Salk Institute, who began with themes of life and death. The first time she’d experienced the process of death, up close and personal, was with her grandmother. However, much of her story was about dissecting cadavers as a Neuroscience graduate student. Through this involved process, she came to understand a level physiology and function that the body’s (previous) owner probably didn’t know–knowledge which she could not even access about her own body. For example, she described isolating nerve bundles within an obese cadaver as fishing for “pieces of string within a bathtub of opaque yellow Jell-O.” Though she learned much from this portion of her graduate training, Brittany left school with a Masters after becoming frustrated with research she was pursuing about the brain correlates of personality—“an extremely interesting topic with extensive null results.” Nuance, clearly, is not dead. While pondering her next step in life and how she might apply her recently-gained knowledge, her 96-year-old grandmother fell seriously ill. Her grandmother passed and it was on Brittany and her mother to plan the impromptu funeral in Virginia. Armed with intimate knowledge of cadavers, Brittany volunteered to do her grandmother’s makeup for her “final party.” Brittany was successful in making her grandmother appear how she would have liked to be seen, and is still today grateful for all that her cadaver once taught her: anatomy, humility, and death.

The final speaker of the evening was James Bruce, Masters student at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. James was once working on a US Coast Guard ship tasked with monitoring fishing practices on the “high seas”–where rules are dictated only by the international Law of the Sea–when they discovered Chinese fishing vessels. James watched in horror as the fishermen trapped sharks in a 20-mile-long illegal “drift” net, sliced their fins off, and tossed them back in the ocean to flounder in futility. Feeling like a “pissed off Captain Planet,” James approached the first boat only to discover the fishermen were barefoot and shirtless (and this wasn’t San Diego). Perhaps this job was not by choice. So, he warmed up the fishermen with cartons of Marlboros and sleazy American porno magazines and gathered information which was later used to bring their companies to justice. But international crime fighting on the high seas was not all numbing sadness—e.g., James’s crew once came across a baby sperm whale that had snagged in one of the illegal driftnets. It was a heart-warming scene of human-whale collaboration to facilitate the rescue, not achieved until the whale itself turned their belly upward to present the tightest knot. James ended by pointing out that fish are one of the only modern food products truly harvested from the wild, and continues work in marine biodiversity and conservation.        

By the end of the night, I was able to make out definitive faces at the Loft—most importantly those of the speakers themselves, who proved eloquent, reflective scientists and people. They breathed relatable vitality into the type of life often conducted from the lab, field, and desk in the pursuit of knowledge. But fortunately I also got to meet and thank the event’s organizers for putting it on. First there was Margot Wohl, a Neuroscience PhD candidate who also makes time to run the KPBS-affiliated Rad Scientist podcast. Margot contacted NeuWrite with the idea and a partnership was born, with NeuWrite members agreeing to help workshop the presenters’ talks. Also playing key formative roles were Ariana Remmel, Ashley Juavinett, Alie Caldwell, and Megan Kirchgessner. Even after the instant coffee wore off, this battle-tested 6th-year regarded the night a smashing success. Keep your eyes peeled for more science storytelling events, folks–the aforementioned ragtag team who have dubbed themselves SASSY (SAn Diego Science Storytelling, Ya’ll) will serve you. For certainly more than knowing which exit to take, or even the path you’re on, it can really help sometimes to stop and listen to the paths and passion of those amongst us.