TCJ – 12: Final Days in the USA

The Chicagoland Journals

I realise that Altree has been a bit quiet lately! That’s because 1 month ago, on May 10th, I officially finished my placement at The Morton Arboretum. During the “grace period” of my visa, I continued collaborating with some people at the arboretum on a project, as well as volunteering in the prairie one last time. It was nice to see the prairie coming into bloom, particularly since it was the Spring ephemerals that were blossoming – plants that I missed flowering last year since I arrived in late Autumn. Here is Phlox pilosa (downy phlox or prairie phlox)[left] and Dodecatheon meadia (shooting star or prairie shooting star)[right]:

In the latter half of May, I was lucky enough to spend a long weekend in Washington DC and New York City. Washington DC has many galleries and museums that are part of The Smithsonian Institution – nineteen total, plus the National Zoo. I managed to visit six of these over two days: National Museum of Natural History, Portrait Gallery, Hirshhorn, Freer Gallery Of Art, Sackler Gallery, and Renwick Gallery.

The National History Museum was the first museum on the agenda. Instead of being greeted by the fossil of a beloved Tyrannosaurus rex, as I am at The Field Museum in Chicago, an African elephant stands guard at the entrance. Named the Fénykövi elephant, it was the largest land mammal on display in a museum at the time of its unveiling in 1959. This history museum is not without bones, however. There is a whole hall dedicated to bones and osteology and even has an augmented reality app that fleshes out and brings to life the specimens. After the museum, the Portrait Gallery was next, mainly to see Former-President Barack Obama’s portrait. Sadly, Michelle Obama’s portrait had been moved so wasn’t easily found. On the same day, I also visited the Hirshhorn, Freer Gallery Of Art, and Sackler Gallery. At the Freer-Sackler Gallery, I was particularly fond of the Peacock Room and Monkeys Grasp for the Moon.

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Neon “Silence = Death” slogan developed for the ACT UP campaign as part of the “Art and Commodity in the 1980s” exhibit.

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The following day, a day far hotter and drier than the previous one, I explored the National Mall – a large strip of land that features monuments and memorials. I particularly enjoyed the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, it’s large like the Lincoln Memorial but more empowering than it is imposing. Before that, however, I checked out the Burning Man exhibit at the Renwick Gallery. Burning Man is known for its large burning effigy, but what I didn’t know is that many artists exhibit other works, such as sculptures, at the event. The Renwick exhibit, known as “No Spectators”, houses sculptures that draw inspiration from Burning Man as well as pieces by artists who have previously showcased their work at the event. I particularly liked the giant sculptures of crows, Untitled by Jack Champion. They just look cool!

The day after checking out the National Mall and the Burning Man sculptures (exhibit named “No Spectators”), Diana, who was accompanying me on this whirlwind tour of DC and NYC, took me around Georgetown, a really pretty neighbourhood next to the Potomac River that also features a historic canal that is currently being restored. Since there had been a lot of rain before my visit, the Potomac was almost bursting its banks with rapids having formed along its length. From one of the bridges that crossed a sidestream, I was able to see rocks with tiny patches of vegetation hanging on for dear life – even a tiny tree struggling to stand its ground! One person was even kayaking in the main river, not for the fainthearted!

The next day we got a train to New York. Unfortunately, it was raining when we arrived and I, lacking a raincoat, got to ‘jellyfish up’ in a lovely yellow rain mac. The rain let off by the time we had eaten lunch, allowing us to see Times Square without being drenched. If you’ve ever been to London, think Piccadilly Circus but bigger – like most things in the US!

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On the following day, we explored many squares in NYC, as well as some parks and Lady Liberty from a distance. NYC has some lovely areas to see, although it’s very compact and pretty busy too. I ate a traditional New York bagel (again, huge) with some vegan garlic and herb cream cheese, which was pretty damn good. Later on, we saw the 9/11 memorial fountains which were quite a sight to see. After seeing the sights, it was time for the flight back to Chicago and catching an Uber to the airport was an absolute nightmare!

Webp.net-resizeimage (7)To make the most of the sunny weather in Chicago, Diana and I took a trip up to the Chicago Botanic Gardens (CBG), I was particularly interested in seeing the bonsai trees. It’s a huge garden so there was no way for us to see all of it in the time we had, plus, it was far too hot to stay for long. On another sunny day, we visited the beach and I got to play some volleyball – a sport I’ve missed playing a bunch whilst in the states.

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In the final few weeks before I left the US, I got to spend some time with some of the wonderful people I met whilst living in Chicago. We played games, went to the Lincoln Park zoo, had a boozy brunch, took an architectural boat tour, even went out to a club for a drag show. I’m very sad to leave them and my life in Chicago behind, but of course am excited for what the future holds back in the UK, including a summer internship with the Biology department at Edge Hill!

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TCJ – 11: Games & Visit

The Chicagoland Journals

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Towards the start of April, I went to not one, but two board game parties – both for the birthdays of some Chicagoans. Sarah from the Arboretum and Katie who is Arb-adjacent, the housemate of someone who works at the Morton. I finally got to play Settlers of Catan, a game I’ve wanted to play for about a year but never found the opportunity to – although simple in its basic rules, a lot of strategy can be implemented.

This year, I enjoyed my first Passover Seder, complete with vegan Matzah ball soup and many cups of wine. There was a condensed reading which was very informational and interactive – a piece of Matzah, the afikoman, was hidden before the service and since there were no children present to look for it, we did. Also, being the youngest at this dinner meant that I read a specific part of the text.

Over the at the Field Museum, I used the Bioanalyzer for the first time, which was slightly daunting if only for the fact that each individual chip costs around $60. I also attended another talk, this one by Nathan Lord on jewel beetles, their incandescence, and how and what they see. Fascinating stuff, stretching over a broad range of disciplines from biochemistry to taxonomy. Another Super Speaker, Meg Staton, was at the Morton Arboretum in early April also, presenting on a citizen science app, TreeSnap, which aims to help affiliated scientists gather data on specific trees such as the American Chestnut or Ash trees.

Back in the field, I was put to work outside as the prairie restoration project is coming alive again after Winter. The prairie needed to be burnt to rid the site of last year’s dead growth, and I assisted Mary-Claire in readying the plots so that they were in the best condition for ignition. Sadly, I missed the actual fire, as the conditions were so good that the burn team completed their work in a flash.

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Around mid-April, I was visited by a friend from home – Hollie, who went to the same sixth form as I. Fortunately enough, I had a few days off to show Hollie around the city and make the most of their time over here. Having come over in early Spring, Hollie got to experience Midwestern weather at its most capricious – with the weather nice enough for shorts bookended by light snow and heavy rain. Whilst the sun blessed us with heat, we trekked around the city, visiting The Bean and shopping in some indie “thrift” stores that didn’t seem to be entirely secondhand. I also took another trip to the Neo-Futurists to see The Infinite Wrench. As per the nature of the show, in the time between my two viewings, the individual plays had changed entirely. Although I preferred the shows during my first viewing, I did get to go up on stage this time, which makes two for two on ‘member of my party being directly involved in the show’!

On the rainy days of Hollie’s stay, we still braved the cold outdoors to visit the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium. Honestly, a highlight of the day we went to the planetarium was Pokemon Go Community Day – we both caught some gems including our first shinies of the game and the North American regional exclusive Tauros. On the last full day, I showed Hollie some of the best and worst that Chicago has to offer – the Impossible Burger and Malort – one being a delicious vegan meal, the other a harsh drink that has a lasting bitter flavour.

During my days back at the Arboretum, I’ve been making progress on the work that’s going into the upcoming paper I’m working on with Lane and Andrew. I’ve already managed to create a few nice boxplots and we’re starting to see some interesting results from our analyses – time to get it written up into a suitable format! Working inside at the arboretum whilst it’s sunny and fairly warm outside makes a change from last Autumn when I was working in the prairie. Over at the Museum, I’ve assisted on the bait capture stage of the experiment, a stage that is similar to using the Bioanalyzer in that although it’s a simple procedure, the pressure is on with timing and expensive reagents.

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TCJ – 10: City Excursions and Super Talks

The Chicagoland Journals

Shortly after returning from Boston, I took a trip to Garfield Park Conservatory. The conservatory hosts a number of rooms, each with a different theme – the front room is home to palms, the centre room to ferns, and another to aroids. The showroom at the time of my visit was featuring the Spring Flower Show, “Hashtag No Filter”. Next up on the list is the Chicago Botanic Garden, hopefully, I’ll make it up there in time for their orchid show.

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Also towards the end of February, I saw a reading for a play written by a new friend, Hannah Verdon, called Eleanor Absolute, which is based on true events and tells the story of a journalist, Lorena Hickok, and her romantic relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt – whilst questioning who gets to decide on a person’s legacy.  I went to another show in March, this one with Molly, who drove up for the weekend. This show was called The Infinite Wrench and was by a group called the Neo-Futurists. The show is an hour long and the aim is to perform 30 short plays, with interrupting “wrenches” that add a new dimension or obstruction to the performance. Some plays were silly and short, others were longer and heartfelt, Molly was even chosen to dance in one of the shows. It was worth enduring the cold for as we queue to get in (we arrived far too early).

The following day, Diana and I made it down to Maggie Daley Park on the final day of ice-skating on their rink. Having not skated in years, and never being proficient at it anyway, I think I faired fairly well by simply not falling over. Diana pointed out that it was easier to skate with speed and, although far more nerve-wracking, she was right – we picked up a decent pace as we made a few loops around the ribbon. Our time on the rink was cut short by the Zamboni, but it was a nice day out and the park was nice to walk around.

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Whilst I spend most of my time in the city now, since I work in the Pritzker Lab at the Field Museum labs instead of at the Arboretum, I do work at the Arb on Thursdays. During this time I’ve been analysing the data gathered from biomass and vegetation indices in R, working on a potential paper. I’m quite proud of the various graphs I’ve made, utilising the “ggplot” package. Since this is a group effort, we’ve taken to using GitHub to streamline our workflow. Although I’ve used GitHub to access other people’s data before, I’ve never used it to upload my own data and collaborate on others’. The process has been largely straightforward and we’re making good use of the system.

I made an exception to my usual schedule the other week when I worked at the arboretum on Monday. This was because there wasn’t just any Tree Talk happening, there was a Super Tree Talk. Presented by Nathan Swenson from the University of Maryland, this talk was on the structure and dynamics of tree assemblages, from traits and phylogenies to transcriptomes and functional phylogenomics. Back at the Field Museum, I’ve recently also attended talks on indigenous archaeology and the root microbiome.

Just down the road from the Field Museum is Adler Planetarium. I’d never been to a planetarium before until a few weeks ago when I went to “Adler After Dark” with Diana. As you might suspect, the event was in the evening, at a time when the planetarium would usually be closed. Although there was a theme (game-night), we’d never been to the standard exhibits or shows, so those were the priorities of the evening. The two shows we saw were on the “Cosmic Wonders” of the observable universe and of the sky as seen from Chicago on that night. The first showed the many deep sky objects humanity has observed, including the incredible photo of 5,550 galaxies from Hubble’s eXtreme Deep Field, featuring galaxies formed just 450 million years after the big bang, and a photo of gravitational lensing on a galactic scale. The second pointed out the many asterisms and constellations visible in the night sky. We also were given a tour of the telescope and got to turn the roof – very fun. That night also marked the second time I’ve held a piece of the moon and Mars!

TCJ – 07: Biomass? Weighed.

The Chicagoland Journals

In my last blog post, I was excited to have all the biomass collected and waiting to be dried – hopefully before the end of December. Well, that was certainly a low bar, since all the biomass was weighed by the 13th December! My house is now empty of plant matter – and looking slightly empty for it. Looking back, it’s almost unfathomable how many bags I ended up weighing, I’m incredibly grateful to Lindsey and the volunteers for helping out in the field, collecting just wouldn’t have been possible without them. Now all that’s left to do is empty the remaining weighed bags of biomass back onto their original plots.

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It may not be visible, but it was snowing when this photo was taken.

In addition to collecting all the biomass from the prairie, it has also been winterized – the hoses, sprinklers and electric fence removed, as well as data from the weather station downloaded. It certainly feels like winter has arrived, to me at least, with light snow every other week, temperatures regularly dropping below freezing, and winds that often cause my phone to flash a “Weather Warning” alert at me, however, I get the impression that the worst is yet to come! I’ve received numerous sets of thermals from family as presents for my birthday, however, so I feel suitably prepared.

The past few weeks have seen Thanksgiving – which I spent with my supervisor, Andrew Hipp, and his family – and my 21st birthday, which I spent with my dad, doing various touristy things over the weekend, such as visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, Field Museum, Shedd aquarium and Skydeck. For my birthday (observed) the following weekend, I went out for drinks and a meal with many of the other research assistants (RAs) at the Arboretum, since I am now legally allowed to drink (odd since I have been able to drink since 18 back in the UK). Since it was also the third night of Chanukah, menorahs were lit and dreidels were spun.

 

I also got to see Molly again, as she visited to see Illumination (which I have started volunteering for). Finally, after my last attempt was left incomplete by the threat of the setting sun, we took the trip over to Big Rock – it was conquered. We also baked pie and visited a mall, where I saw my first Hot Topic – an unexpected American Bucket List item.

During Molly’s visit, I was disappointed by a store-bought vegan pizza. Thankfully, my faith in fake cheese was restored the following weekend when I visited the city with Diana, one of the RAs. We saw some local theatre and a drag show – I think the first I have been to. Both shows were great, but Lizzie, the punk, feminist, musical preceding the drag show, blew me away. Described as “American mythology set to a blistering rock score with rage, sex, betrayal and bloody murder” by the theatre, it was like nothing I’d ever seen.

Aside from the prairie work and social activities, I’ve got a university assignment to focus on, which is proving harder than I thought! Identifying problems at the Arboretum that can be discussed and solutions proposed is challenging when the place is pretty shipshape!

TCJ – 02: More Of Illinois

The Chicagoland Journals:

I’ve been in the US for just over two weeks and when I think about it, I’ve packed a fair bit into that time – lots of new experiences. One such experience was my first visit to The Field Museum of Natural History! After walking through the city, alongside the huge mass of water that is Lake Michigan, I received my own lanyard and ID, along with a set of keys for the Arboretums office space. It’s official. I’m a research affiliate at one of the largest natural history museums in the world, with roughly 30 million specimens! As I walked the corridors behind the scenes of the public museum, the sheer number of resources available began to sink in. Admittedly, I got lost walking back to the office.

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“Sue,” the largest, best-preserved, and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found.

During the rest of the weekday mornings, I was back out in the prairie doing the necessary work of weeding plots that had seen undesirable species encroach, as well as sowing some eco-grass along the walkways to held guard off against the more nasty weeds and to prevent soil erosion. Wednesday and Thursday afternoon held a training session on R and a lunchtime meeting. The R training lecture was largely things I already knew, however, there were a couple of techniques which I was unfamiliar with. Also, different ways to achieve the same results – just goes to show how people have their own solutions to situations. The lunch meeting was helpful in further orienting me with the work being completed at the Arboretum and who by. Listening to people talk about their research is a wonderful thing, and I’m very excited to help out with more projects, specifically the work relating to the hybridisation of the Quercus genus. Another fun thing we established that meeting was the book that we’re going to read, hopefully before Christmas. I’ve read the introduction already, and if the rest is anything like it then I think I can say that I will enjoy it.

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“Root beer,” a non-alcoholic soft drink.

I read the introduction on the train, Friday night, as I was going to Macomb to see my friend, Molly, who was studying abroad at Edge Hill last year. Fortune has it that she lives in the same state that I am currently working in, so it’s almost easy to meet up! The time it takes me to get the train over to see her, across half the state, is roughly the amount of time it takes me to travel from my hometown to my university – that’s roughly half the country. Since I arrived quite late, we had a meal, went shopping, and then hit the hay. But not before I tried both root beer, and spiced apple cider (both non-alcoholic, despite their names) for the first time. The cider was truly delicious, especially when warm.

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Myself (left) and Molly (right).

Another reason for visiting Molly when I did, was that is was her homecoming. Along with trying various soft drinks, going to the homecoming parade and football game were valuable entries on my American Bucket List. Although I’m not all too familiar with the rules of American football, it was fun to watch, especially for the halftime show – the band sounded wonderful and the baton twirling was a sight to behold as well. Molly had even altered a bear mascot head to represent Rocky, the bulldog mascot of Western Illinois University.

I finished off that busy week with walking three and a half miles to the shops, bumping into an exceedingly complimentary man whilst waiting for my Uber back to the arboretum. Once again, I have to wonder if the next week will be quite as packed with activities as these first two.

TCJ – 01: Getting To Know The Prairie

The Chicagoland Journals:

So I’ve been in the US for a week now! That’s four days of work down at the prairie – weeding, digging and planting – as well as two-three days exploring the city. It’s been hard graft in the field, especially after the flight; jet lag is a real pain. But really just getting back into the fieldwork mentality and adjusting to the heat is the main issue.

During my first week here at the arboretum, I’ve been shown around the research building and introduced to many new people – colleagues, you could say, because i’m actually working here! (I’m still absorbing it all.) Everyone has been very friendly and welcoming, and I’m told that’s partially a midwest thing, but also that the arboretum staff really work together, so there’s almost a familial sense about it. I’m excited to start doing work with more members of the team.

Before I arrived, I knew I was to be doing work relating to the prairie (and how phylogenetic diversity affected the restoration of it) as well as work relating to the phylogeny of oaks. Now that I’ve got here, I know the immediate plans and some of the specifics of what I’m to be doing. I know that I’m going to be focusing on the prairie up until roughly January, and that when the current project leader goes on maternity leave, I’ll be filling her shoes to keep things running. Also on my agenda is to help figure out how to measure the biomass we’re to collect from the prairie to assess the level of restoration – and from that, if there’s a way to incorporate data from drones as part of a method.

Despite only being here for a week, I’ve managed to get into the city and attend VeganFest with a colleague, as well as get the train into (and the loop around) Chicago to see a film at the Reeling Film Festival (the film was Cat Skin, which was filmed in the UK so was a nice reminder of home). More locally, I walked down into Lisle, visited a 7-11, to get a slushie (something to check off my “American Bucket List”), and the local Aldi – again, a reminder of home.

It’s been a busy week and I am thoroughly exhausted. At this rate, I should be able to give a nice update on my activities in another week! Then again, perhaps this week has been so packed because it was the first.

Day 27: More of Umeå

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It’s been a quiet few weeks since I returned from Gällivare, which has left me with plenty of time to explore the city of Umeå and experience life here. A few days after my return, it was the weekend of Brännbollsyran – a music festival that has grown quite large in recent years that also sports a tournament of Brännboll (rounders) during the daytime. As well as the official event, there are many unofficial happenings that occur over the weekend, one of which was an outdoor DJ basically on our doorstep. After meeting some more wonderful people at pre-drinks, we arrived the party outside our apartment and I ran into some friends I met the week before! A coincidence that made the night even greater. There was a slightly harrowing part of the night, however, where we entered what we thought to be a regular party bus, but was actually full of Swedish nationalists. A Swedish-speaking friend clocked what was happening (as they understood what the bus-people were shouting), then led us swiftly back off the bus and explained the situation.

Back in the lab, Charlotte and I had been tasked with transferring the previous year’s insect collection from their containers filled with glycol to specimen jars with ethanol – tedious work, but important nonetheless. Another production-line-esque job was the transplanting of aspen seedlings from agar to soil. Charlotte and I switched roles of uprooting and replanting a few times so we each got the full experience and, working together with another researcher, we completed this task pretty swiftly. I found this much more enjoyable than the insect bottling, and really quite rewarding – I look forward to seeing the plants grow during the next few weeks.

 

 

 

Around a week ago was when I got my first pang of longing for home. It hit me that, after being in Sweden for around 2-3 weeks, I was really missing Ormskirk – a town I’ve grown to love – and my university friends that live there. After being surrounded by them since September 2016, this was probably the longest I’d gone without seeing them. I know that the two months of summer I have before (hopefully) heading out to the US will have to be spent seeing at least a few of them. This was also around the time of the snap general election and the unfortunate events at London Bridge.

A problem that we didn’t encounter in Gällivare which struck me the other day in the field was that of mosquitoes (and other flying insects). I can’t stand them. I was warned that there would be many, but I was not ready. The incessant buzzing of the flies as they whizz past your head, the omnipresent cloud of mosquitoes in your vision and the occasional bite together made it an unbearable experience. Next time I will be adequately equipped with a head net; hopefully, that will lessen the torture of the mosquito cloud, but will, unfortunately, do nothing to the sound of flies as they barrage obnoxiously close to my ears.

Snapchat-630975932Back to exploring the city: I went into the centre of town to witness the last part of the Swedish Gymnasium graduation – a parade with students on floats fitted with birch bundles, handmade banners, and music. It’s quite a sight coupled with their unique graduation caps and other traditions. That week I also experienced a BBQ by the lake, where BBQ means open fire in a concrete container whilst balancing food on sticks. Having such fire pits available to freely use allowed that event to take place a lot easier than a BBQ in the UK, and was really enjoyable. Another aspect of Sweden which I was informed about but not prepared for was the price of a drink in a bar, it rivals London on New Year’s Eve!

Day 13: A Taste of the Field

Well, my wishes of seeing reindeer have been granted! Whilst driving to and from Gällivare, where we were to set up some window traps to collect invertebrates, we spotted a few herds. It was quite a long drive, roughly a seven-hour trip including a lunch break. The day after our arrival, Charlotte and I took a hike up one of the small mountains nearby – we originally had our eyes set on the larger mountain, but Charlotte rightfully deemed it too great a task for a single morning.

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An assembled window trap in the field.

After lunch, we then set out into the field proper, marching through snow not for recreation – but for science. Needless to say, it was an exhausting day, made even more so by the fact that I checked out of my hostel at 3am the previous day due to being woken by an extremely loud snoring man! We covered a lot of ground and managed to get all the traps up that we needed to – a very productive day. Unfortunately, I was struck by a nasty cold the following day, so I stayed in the cabin and assembled the remaining traps. I’m glad I was able to be of use inside rather than out that day – I fear I would’ve only slowed the others down had I been in the field considering my state. In the end, it only took those two days to put up all the traps, with us waking early to travel back to Umea on the following day.

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Before heading up to Gällivare, however, Charlotte and I had coffee and pizza with two of the postgrads at SLU, beside Nydalasjön – a beautiful lake. It’s been nice getting to know people who live here, especially other students. I’ve learnt valuable things about the surrounding area, including but not limited to reputable tattoo parlours, revered local clubs, and really good pizza. Also, by this point I’ve become familiar with the wonder that is fika – and I love it.

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