Saturday, April 23, 2016

It's Not Like Riding a Bike: Remembering How to Do Things at Age 20

Today I rode a bicycle for the first time in more than five years. The last time I remember riding a bike was sophomore year of high school, when I was a shy teenager who wanted to be a writer. Since then, I've learned to drive, applied to college, and accepted two internships in science communication. In other words, a lot has changed.

But that's not supposed to matter. As the old adage states, "it's like riding a bike." You don't forget how to do an essential life skill. At least that's what people kept telling me today: my roommate, as I retreated indoors after spending 20 minutes trying and failing to mount the bike outside our temporary Cape Cod home; my neighbor, as I walked the bike down the street to give it yet another go and she politely asked, "are you having some trouble with that?"; and my boyfriend, who should know better, as I later confessed over the phone the trouble I was in fact having. "It's like riding a bike," they all said. It was supposed to be comforting, I think.

That phrase has never really meant much to me.

I was a competitive gymnast for almost 10 years, and by far the biggest factor that caused me to stop competing was fear. If you haven't heard, gymnastics is scary. A lot of it involves throwing yourself backwards and hoping your hands and feet find the ground before your head does. But if you persevere through the fear, it can be a truly spectacular experience. And though the moves get scarier as you work your way up, they also become more exciting.

The problem I had was that I would learn how to do a cool skill, and then I would lose it. I'd forget how, or I'd stop believing that I knew how to do it. The back handspring on the balance beam, for instance, was the bane of my existence. I've done that move thousands of times, but I've spent even more time standing atop the beam, frozen in place, not unable but simply unwilling to make the jump backwards.

Many days at practice, after I'd spent hours alternating between standing frozen on the beam and crying, my patient but exhausted coach would say something along the lines of, "it's like riding a bike." As in, you just did this move yesterday. There's no reason you can't do it again.

This attempt at morale boosting was ironic for two reasons. 1) I didn't even know how to ride a bike at that point (yes, it's true, I didn't learn how to ride a bike until age 12 - thanks Mom and Dad), and 2) all the evidence pointed to the fact that I could forget how to do things. Even if we pretend that riding a bike is easy and you can never forget how, neither of which I really believe, that didn't apply to my experience with gymnastics.

When I was 12 years old, I stopped gymnastics because I, along with many of the people that cared about me, was tired of the constant mental tug-of-war. I was tired of learning new skills and forgetting how. I was tired of being scared. I wanted to try something easier - maybe something like riding a bike, which I'd heard so many good things about.

Though my time in gymnastics is long past, I never really escaped that feeling. Since then, I've seen numerous echoes of my experience with gymnastics in my everyday life. I forget how to do things and lose confidence in myself all the time. Sure, I'm not going to forget how to tie my shoes or make macaroni or whatever. But I've learned that many things, no matter how many times I do them, can still be scary.

Conducting interviews, a fundamental skill in journalism, is like that. In my classes and internships, I've had to make dozens of calls to experts and have approached plenty of people in the street to ask questions. Yes, it has gotten easier over time, but it hasn't stopped being scary. I don't think I'll ever feel completely comfortable making cold calls - I doubt any journalist ever really does. But I do hone my skills a little bit every time.

My current job is to write stories about the science that's happening at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Cape Cod. This position, I've discovered, involves incremental blocks of time spent reporting and interviewing multiple people, followed by hours of solitary writing. Both of those activities have their scary parts. Once I get through the hullaballoo of putting myself out there and asking questions, I feel relieved. But when I sit down at my computer to write the story, I always have a moment of paralysis where I'm worried I forgot how, or I won't be able to do it this time. It's in my nature to doubt myself. My editor tells me that feeling eases with experience, but also that it never completely goes away.

Being a science writer is not like riding a bike. It's a lot more like the back handspring on beam. It's like being afraid to jump backwards, and hopefully doing it anyway. And I think that analogy also applies more generally to being an adult.

Today, I spent a humiliating hour and a half pedaling laboriously up and down my street and trying to catch myself from falling. I don't really remember how to ride a bike - though I do remember now that I was never very good at it, and that I find it kind of scary. But by the end of the day, I was biking around the neighborhood with at least some degree of confidence. I even found my way to the beach, despite my notoriously poor sense of direction.

It was fun. I'll do it again tomorrow. But it'll probably still be a little scary.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Fun Facts About Aquaculture

Is it embarrassing to pick up a blog I haven't used for 15 months? I'm going to go with no. While a lot has changed since I last posted on here - I spent a year as editor in chief of NUScience Magazine, reached the halfway point of my undergraduate education, and spent six months working full time in the Corporate Communications department at Vertex Pharmaceuticals - my end goal hasn't really wavered at all. I'm still excited about becoming a science journalist, and am pursuing any and all opportunities I can to further that dream.

For the next six months or so, that pursuit will take the form of an internship at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI, pronounced "who-y"). I'll be living in Cape Cod and working full time as a Science Writing Intern in the communications department of this incredible research institution. The first couple of days have been pretty quiet, but I've already started to dive in to the world of oceanography and marine science.

From what I've seen so far, both the researchers and communicators here already have a grasp on what I prioritize most in science writing, which is presenting complex information in a clear and interesting way. On my first day, I attended a meeting entitled, "Challenges and Opportunities for Robotics and Automation Applied to Aquaculture." Other than the extended essay I wrote in high school that focused on the pros and cons of genetically modified salmon, aquaculture is a topic that before Monday, I knew little about, and my knowledge of automative technology was even more poor. I was pleased and surprised to find that the information that was presented in a way that even someone who had minimal knowledge of the basic concepts could understand. Just for fun, here are a few of the cool facts I learned about aquaculture during my half-day immersion:

  • Aquaculture is one potential solution to the population problem. The world population may exceed nine billion before the year 2050, and humans may consume at least 40 million tons of seafood per year by that point. Much of our fish is farmed already, but the aquaculture industry is likely to expand to meet that growing need. 
  • Fish farming is one of the most environmentally efficient ways to make animal protein. This means that concerns over increased greenhouse gas emissions may steer us toward more aquaculture in the future. 
This graph shows the efficiency of farming fish compared to other animal protein (figure courtesy of
  • Most of the population views seafood as healthy but expensive. As a result, seafood is purchased more often when people are feeling wealthy, but people gravitate toward cheaper options of chicken and steak when they feel they can't fund a seafood diet. Currently, human seafood consumption is increasing. 
  • Most aquaculture today is done close to shore, but there are plenty of advantages to open ocean fish farming, including better water quality. However, logistical problems and a rougher environment have prevented major expansion of open ocean aquaculture thus far. 
An example of what an open water fish farm - this one is known as the Aquapod - looks like (image courtesy of 
  • Innovation in robotics technology may provide a solution for the above problem. Automation is already used for activities like feeding and cleaning, but as the technology develops, the possibilities for improvement are essentially endless. The use of Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) could allow aquaculture technology to expand significantly. 
An example of an AUV used at WHOI (image courtesy of Chris German). 
  • While salmon/cod aquaculture is accomplished through large cages or enclosures, mussels are captured solely through the use of frayed ropes. The mussels stick to the ropes and are later placed inside mesh tubes - sort of like a cotton sock. The sock eventually disintegrates in the water, and within a couple of years, the mussels are ready for harvesting. 
An example of mussel farming - the mesh covering is the "cotton sock" referred to above (image courtesy of
  • The biggest threat for mussel farmers is predation from ducks, who approach the ropes and can swallow the mussels whole. Automative technology that involves a combination of light and sound is being explored to scare the ducks away from their prey. 
This duck has a mouthful of zebra mussels (image courtesy of David Stimac)! 
  • Robotics technology is also used to target harmful algal blooms (HABs), which are the main cause of many forms of shellfish poisoning. Forecasting technology allows researchers to track the distribution of the resting cysts that lead to contamination in sensitive areas. 
I'm amazed by how much I learned in just one day, and overwhelmed by the variety of science that goes on here. Good thing I have six months to take it all in. Here's to a few great months of reading writing, and learning in an exciting new place. 

Sources for this article: Presentations by Hauke Kite-Powell, David Kelly, Scott Lindell, Dana Yoerger, and Donald Anderson. See above for image sources. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Back to Busy-ness

After four months of living at home, I am finally back in Boston for the fall semester. I can hardly believe it! Actually, it was the lead-up that was so confusing; now that I've been here about a week, I'm pretty sure I believe it. Being at college in the city - surrounded by people, schoolwork, and various modes of transportation - is a completely different experience than being at home, and I was definitely nervous about the transition (in fact, a part of me wished my already-long summer could have just kept going). However, now that I'm going to new classes, living in a great apartment with my friends, and trying out more Boston restaurants, I remember why I picked this lifestyle.

When I'm away at school, life moves faster, people talk more quickly, and it seems like there's always some activity I should or could be doing. All of that's kind of exhausting, but it's also completely ideal. If my weeks weren't chock-full of 8am classes and science magazine meetings and ever-looming exam dates, it would be pretty difficult to move forward and to become a more skilled writer, a stronger leader, and in general a more organized, successful individual.

I've realized that the part of me that wants to go to The University of Sitting on the Couch With My Cat doesn't quite jive with the part of me that wants to pursue a career as a science journalist. And I've realized that once I tap into the latter personae, I actually like doing homework, sending emails and going to meetings. As a college student, I'm supposed to be busy, and I thrive on it. That doesn't mean I won't still take time to sit on the couch (albeit without my cat) but I'm ready to be back at Northeastern, and I'm excited for what's in store.