Notes from the Field

Summer 2022

By Anne Beaudreau, Catalina Burch, Ellie Mason, & Emma Scalisi

Preface. The past two years have been filled with loss, change, and transition for so many people. Yet, everyone has had their own unique experience with the ways that COVID-19 has changed the world. For my family and I, leaving Juneau in late 2020 – our home for nearly a decade – became part of our pandemic story and struggles. When my graduate students and I traveled to Juneau in June 2022, it was my first visit back after moving to Seattle and I knew it would be an emotional one. The trip was filled with meaning, purpose, learning, and a lot of laughter. We shared results of our research with Juneau community members, interviewed fishermen and managers for a new phase of our work, and connected with colleagues and friends. Beyond our work goals, we each found personal fulfillment in unexpected ways. For me, it felt like a defiant recapturing of joy and connection that had been hard to grasp for so long. It was a reminder that for all the disconnection that the pandemic has wrought, it has also shown us countless examples of resilience and community. My students and I wanted to share our reflections on what this trip to “the field” meant for each of us and – more broadly – the ways that fieldwork itself can be challenging and healing. – Anne, 8/3/2022

Sensing our place in the story – Ellie Mason

June 13– the world is so vast and lush, growing and responsive. I want to yell with hope and joy, lie flat on my back flush against the barnacles and mussels, let saltwater drench every surface.

In a field, we stand against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains. It’s evening and yet daylight still hits sharp across our faces as we walk along the shoreline where the river starts to meet the sea. I wrote about this place before I even knew it. Months ago, I wrote a piece where I imagined myself here now: in Juneau on the docks, in a field, in the woods, letting rain pour over my body. I imagined myself crying. I had been imagining myself here for months. Like a book with no ending, I couldn’t understand the story until I was the story. Now, here in this field, I begin to write my own ending– one where I tell my mother on the phone about the way the eagles sound, how I brush my hand out as I run alongside the road each morning imagining the blue of the forget-me-nots as a stain on my skin, the scent of low tide pungent and familiar.

The Field. Photo by Ellie Mason.

June 17– the world is set up to fail you. The world doesn’t want you to succeed or find peace. Entropy drives it all. I was mad at the stories he told and confused about my place in all of this… I think about a version of myself that moves away from the noise of others. If I live alone, am I doing anything beautiful? Am I making my way into the places of hope? How is it possible to hold the fear with the serene? I swim and swim, just to have to touch shore again. I can not escape the thoughts of my mind. I do not think I can abandon them either.

It is hot here which I have been told is unusual. After a long morning, Emma and I go swimming in Auke Bay to cool off in the afternoon lull between interviews. The water is cold in a familiar way and after, we lie out on the rocky beach to let the sun warm our backs. Here, the ocean is so fresh–from glacier melt and rushing rivers–that when my skin finally dries I barely notice the salt left behind. I think about how quiet it is, how on the car ride home to change into swimsuits I was unsure about my place in all this research. I think about Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese:whoever you are, no matter how lonely/the world offers itself to your imagination/calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting/over and over announcing your place/in the family of things.” I think a lot about Wild Geese.

June 21– What does it all matter? The world continues on a slow march and I ask to stand still but it doesn’t work that way…whatever the fear, I want to indulge, soak up kindness, breathe in love. One more day here- I will keep my eyes wide open.

When the rain comes back it is okay. We spend the day inside poring over old regulation books in the Fish and Game office and I feel the weight of each decision on the lives of the people we have spoken to already these past eight days. I’ve picked up five mussel shells from the beach where Sheep Creek meets the Gastineau Channel and I think about packing all of them in my bag to bring home. It’s different. It’s the same. I keep thinking about all the versions of the field that I know and how Juneau is like an echo I’m hearing of my own voice across a big hollow valley. I have this memory from years ago–my first time in the field–of eating peanut butter and jelly in a skiff 20 miles from shore as a flock of gannets rained down around me in a feeding frenzy. The memory stops there, but I think I must have had the largest grin plastered on my face, caught in the midst of it all. This is what I mean by eyes wide open: around every corner another discovery, another sensation.

Sheep Creek Meets Gastineau. Photo by Ellie Mason.

June 23– the terns dove, chirped, dove again, hovering above the water in preparation. From the stern of the boat: the Chilkat mountains, the Mendenhall glacier, stony shoreline, miles of ocean, Lynn Canal. Is the meaning found in these names? Or in the colors of stone against purple fireweed, beach peas, and lupines? There is coastline I have not touched, but I’m not sure I’m meant to… From the plane I watch the mountains, the rivers and river deltas, small icebergs chipped off of expansive glaciers. What does it ask of us? How can I listen?

Whose story is it to tell? The wound of this place is that it is changing–no–it is changed and I have too. I want to hold onto seventeen-year-old me, the first time I went into the field, and tell her that she’ll never walk away unchanged and maybe that’s the point. There is kinship found through loss and all of us who work with the ocean know this story too well. Whatever the result, I have been here. I have watched the ocean swing in across the intertidal, sat crouched on a salmon gillnetter’s boat as the sun disappears, let questions and uncertainties swirl around in my mouth. This place allows one secret to become my own and I hold it close knowing that when I choose to share it, I might be letting go of a piece of myself.

Weaving knowledge and practice – Emma Scalisi

I came to grad school after spending the past several years working in outdoor education. My days revolved around convincing middle schoolers that it’s good luck to kiss a sea cucumber, trying to reassure eight-year-olds that no, we weren’t going to get eaten by a shark when we jumped in the ocean, and several nights a week, letting students draw all over my face with squid ink. (If you haven’t worked in outdoor ed, I promise this is actually pretty normal.) It was silly and challenging and rewarding, and I loved everything about it. But as almost anyone who has worked in outdoor ed will tell you, the seasonal, nomadic lifestyle often doesn’t lend itself to staying in that world indefinitely. So, knowing that I was passionate about supporting positive, sustainable connections between people and the oceans, I made my way to the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs.

During my first year of school, I had many moments where I was so excited to be back in the classroom – classes spent re-imagining some of the complex management structures we’d learned about, and turning in papers on topics that 10 weeks earlier I could barely have written a few sentences about. There were also moments that felt less exciting too (or, you know, sometimes just bad) like sitting down to take a test for the first time in 5 years, or having a list of readings that somehow never got any shorter.

However, mixed in with the readings, the papers, the lectures, and the occasional existential crisis that comes with being in grad school, there was always the lingering question of why does this matter? Is reading this law brief from the 1800s, or wading through this ridiculously long fisheries management plan really going to help me in the long run? The entire point of outdoor education, the world I had just left, is to provide hands-on experiences; to help students see how they can learn just as much from being in nature as they can in a classroom. It felt counterintuitive to be limited to the classroom (and for a time, limited to just a Zoom screen). With so much theoretical, hands-off work, I was having trouble imagining how all of these disparate ideas were going to be relevant to the “real world.”

Finding (and picking up) as many starfish as possible felt like the perfect remedy to all of the months spent behind a computer screen. Photo by Ellie Mason.

As it turns out, our fieldwork in Juneau, in addition to providing an opportunity to learn an amazing amount from all the people who we talked with, really answered this question for me. After so many months wondering what I had learned so far in grad school, it quickly became clear that the answer was a lot. From concrete things like “who is responsible for managing these species and how is that decided?” to more existential questions like “why do people stay in a struggling fishery?” I could feel the puzzle pieces of all of the classes, readings, and discussions of the past school year slowly start to fit together.

Over the course of 9 months, slowly but surely, knowledge about the murky, difficult to define, field of “marine affairs” has solidified in my brain. Before going to Juneau I wouldn’t have been able to predict this shift, or even to identify it as something I was hoping for. But, the time spent in the field, where our days were surprising and exhausting and (amazingly!) spent mostly outside, showed me that my time in the classroom has been well spent. It has left me more prepared than I thought, and excited to see what is to come during my second year. Even if I know that my reading list is just going to keep growing.

Finding adventure through stillness – Catalina Burch

I normally experience the world through movement. Although lately, I have been learning how to be still and sit with my thoughts more. During the first lockdown you could find me reading books or wandering through the woods of Western Washington, watching the spring fiddleheads emerge and the spruce tips grow. When the lockdown dragged on from days to months I used physical projects to help me stay sane, like building a greenhouse and then a surfboard. Getting back on my feet literally involved staying on my feet, and as the pandemic dragged on I took a very physical job doing stream restoration in Oregon. My days were packed with constant movement, felling trees, dragging logs, weaving beaver dams, planting willows, eating, sleeping, repeat. I think of movement as an essential component to adventure, which helped me to cope with the stress and grief of living through a global pandemic.

Two years later, we are entering the late stages of the pandemic. Vaccines are available, there are better treatments for fighting the virus, schools have returned to in person teaching, and restrictions have progressively lifted. I am currently a graduate student at the University of Washington studying groundfish diets in the Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab. Our program has phased back into a new normal, which allowed our lab team to finally plan a trip to Alaska to conduct thesis research. Although, for me, this spring was anything but “back to normal.”

At the start of April I dislocated and broke my ankle requiring surgery and some serious new hardware. I missed two weeks of school where I could barely get out of bed, and returning to class involved navigating Seattle public transit in a wheelchair. My life became limited to paved surfaces, which often required help from others. I couldn’t drive and I needed assistance getting the wheelchair up and down the stairs to my house. Cooking was generally hazardous, and cleaning involved a bit of one-legged acrobatics. Switching to crutches after a month helped create some independence as I could crutch up to a mile at a time with the help of some anti-chafing lube (thanks REI). Three months post-surgery, I had survived the quarter and was preparing to embark on our trip to Alaska. This trip marked my last week on crutches and my first time leaving the continental US since the start of the pandemic.

When I boarded the flight from Seattle to Juneau, I knew that I was embarking on a unique adventure, for once not driven by constant movement. Anticipating the trip, I felt very aware of the things I could not do, like hiking up a mountain or wading through the intertidal. What I didn’t expect was how much stillness could bring me joy. When I arrived we went straight to the docks, where we spent hours listening to fishermen talk about their experiences at sea and with fisheries management. This imparted knowledge is invaluable to me as a student, who has learned about these issues in the classroom but can now connect real experiences of people working in the industry.

In the summer in Juneau the sun sets after 10pm, but it’s worth the wait. Photo by Anne Beaudreau.

Exploring the coast and waters of Juneau helped me to understand the wealth of beauty and wildlife that the fishermen described. Crutching my way onto a boat was a challenge, but I was rewarded by the playful display of a juvenile humpback breaching countless times. I also made the journey up to the famous Mendenhall glacier, maxing out my 1 mile crutching abilities. Normally, I would run around and get all the possible views from the less touristy angles, but I found I was satisfied with taking the classic shot from Panorama Point which I used to make a pastel drawing. Being still allowed me to connect with people, and I shared meaningful conversations with local NOAA scientists and school teachers, as well as my lab team.

It has been a month since our trip to Alaska and I am now off the crutches and working on getting back to normal activities. As I reflect on these past two years I am beginning to rethink the criteria of what makes an experience adventurous. I’m starting to understand that adventure doesn’t require constant movement of your physical body, but rather movement in the form of changing and growing relationships. Alaska strengthened my relationship with my lab team and the scientists, fishermen, and teachers that I met in Juneau. The challenges of the last two years have also deepened my relationship with myself. I am learning to be more compassionate and I am in the process of developing a sense of self-worth that is innate and not only tied to my accomplishments. I will always value independence, but I am also working on asking for help and finding support in others. I can’t wait to run and climb and be physically stronger than I was before, but until then I know that I am worth more than just what my body is capable of.

Pastel drawing of the Mendenhall Glacier from Panorama Point. Drawing by Catalina Burch.

Connecting in the here and now – Anne Beaudreau

What is the field? Is it a place, or a state of being? I have been fortunate to experience many versions of “the field,” from a fishing vessel on the open ocean to the muck and mud of a glacial river delta to the kitchen of a 90 year old fisherman. Far beyond finding answers to questions we formulate from the limited vantage point of an office or classroom, fieldwork is about letting the answers to questions yet unspoken reveal themselves to our more attuned senses. When I am in the field – even a place I know as well as Juneau – all my senses are heightened: I listen more intently, observe more closely, and am more present in my interactions with people and our surroundings.

Most of our time on this trip was spent in conversation with fishermen and managers, to learn about the challenges they face and what gives them hope for the future of their fisheries. Every interview was a master class in Southeast Alaska fisheries, every person we spoke with expanded our thinking, challenged our assumptions, and shared a new perspective we hadn’t considered. Our team would spend hours at the end of each day talking about what we learned and beginning to piece together broader narratives about leadership, stewardship, and change in fisheries from the collective expertise of the people we interviewed.

There is both freedom and uncertainty that comes from being in the field, because we are not always operating on our own schedules. Fieldwork is about making a plan and then letting the plan reshape itself in the moment, as tides and fishery openers dictate. The days are full—sometimes sleep is short—but each moment is drawn out, slower, and with no place to be but in communion together. I have found this to be true whether I’m walking along the docks talking with fishermen or picking fish from a net. When you have a really great field crew (as we did on this trip), you quickly fall into a rhythm of work where everyone seamlessly takes up tasks as they’re most needed. But the work itself does not alone define success; instead, it is the camaraderie, the shared sense of adventure and discovery, and the inevitable moments of joy and sleep-deprived silliness that make the experience. When the work is going well, the team is happy; when the team is happy, the work is going well.

Can you find the researchers? Photo by Catalina Burch.

Fieldwork has always been a transformative element of my work as a researcher and teacher. It expands what we think we know into a living, breathing, evolving space of learning, allowing a deep and, at times, vulnerable connection to people and place. The most meaningful connections are made through reciprocity—the mutual sharing of knowledge, time, care, work, meals, and laughter.

As we reached the “sleep-deprived silly” stage of our fieldwork, we began riffing on the idea of making a parody promo video for our lab that lightly pokes fun at some of our most often-used academic jargon. Credit goes to Catalina for the brilliant editing.

Love at First Fish

by Anne Beaudreau & Chris Sergeant

Editor’s Note: The University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (UW-SAFS) will celebrate its centennial year in 2019. As alumni, my husband Chris Sergeant and I were asked to write an article for a series about partners who met each other at UW-SAFS. Our article below was published as part of the Centennial Story series, along with other contributions from our friends and colleagues: https://fish.uw.edu/2018/08/centennial-story-24/. We have lots of great memories from that time and enjoyed reminiscing about the early days of our relationship as graduate students in Seattle.

♦♦♦

“Hey, what does your Leslie matrix look like?”

During my final quarter as a Master’s student in 2004, Anne and I had already become good friends and regular study buddies. We shared mutual embarrassment when Dr. Don Gunderson looked over our shoulders and could barely hold back his disappointment as we struggled to fill in an age-structured Leslie matrix. Our early days as friends shaped our future together. Anne likes to believe she shifted my dreams of semi-pro bass fishing and lure testing to PhD fisheries researcher. In turn, I honed Anne’s research acumen by increasing her acceptance of salmon and freshwater ecosystems as legitimate and interesting study subjects. –Chris

“Have you ever tried a drop-shot rig for lingcod?”

This was said during Chris’ intensive bass fishing phase, when he tried to bring his warmwater recreational sensibilities to a marine reserve in the San Juan Islands. It turns out that the drop-shot rig worked great, as did sight fishing for aggressive lingcod in the kelp canopy. I had many volunteers help me fish for science over the years – around 60 in total – but Chris was the cream of the crop. He had the highest catch per unit effort of any volunteer (yes, I kept track) and also picked the best snacks. We wrote a rap together about the life and times of Jethro, one of my acoustically tagged lingcod, as we tracked his stealthy movements through the night. It was in the field where we really got to know each other. Chris helped me hook lingcod in the San Juans, I helped him pull gillnets on Lake Washington. In the early days, we debated (only half-jokingly) about the merits of fresh- versus saltwater ecosystems; in the end, we have found shared curiosity and wonder in both places. –Anne

Beaudreau & Sergeant (1)

Safety first for Anne and Chris at Friday Harbor Labs, circa 2004. Photo by Danny Garrett.

“We can move wherever you want, except to an island.”

It was time for Anne to realize her years of hard work and find a fulfilling faculty position. I did my best to keep an open mind about potential locations. Juneau – with no connection to a continental road-system and surrounded by impassable icefields (i.e., basically an island) – was pushing the limits of my comfort zone. But we did it, and seven years have flown by. Anne is an associate professor of fisheries at University of Alaska Fairbanks and I am an ecologist with the National Park Service. We still go fishing and even write the occasional paper together. In 2014, we welcomed James Neil Sergeant to the world and have enjoyed watching him become a resilient, puddle-loving Alaskan kid with an intense interest in everything around him. –Chris

Beaudreau & Sergeant (2)

Fishing is a family affair now. Photo by Eric Ward.

“Hey Dad, the velcro star has a lot of pedicellariae.”

Our stomachs dropped. Was our only child going to become an invertebrate biologist? Until recently, our almost-four-year-old was not a big fan of boats and we would have to lure him (pun intended) onto ours with donuts. Fortunately, young James seems to enjoy all manner of aquatic creatures – the finned, the spiny, the squishy, and the slimy. Chris and I both still do a lot of fieldwork, so James is often parented by one of us at a time in the summer while the other is off doing “fishy work.” It’s just a matter of time before he’ll be right alongside us in the field, teaching us how to identify sea stars and reminding us of the joy we felt when we held our first fish. –Anne

Beaudreau & Sergeant (3)

With fish nerds for parents, James is already learning the tools of fisheries ecology. Photo by Cheryl Barnes.

 

Tips on Data Management from Someone Who Learned It the Hard Way

by Rhea Ehresmann

Experiences in data organization and management

It was 2 AM the week before a fisheries conference, and I was attempting some last-minute analyses. Having added a couple hundred lines of new code for figures, my code would no longer run from the beginning and I had a hunch it was because I hadn’t set everything up correctly initially. Ten hours and 25 Stack Exchange posts later, I had the realization that no researcher wants to have: my data needed to be completely reorganized from the ground up. I should have organized my data months ago (or ideally from the get-go) but instead I ignored it until it became absolutely necessary. Further complicating this issue was that I am a remote student working in Sitka (most of the faculty and students are in Juneau or Fairbanks) so finding the solution was entirely on me. Data organization is like working out or eating healthy: we all know we should do it, but often it is given the “I’ll do that tomorrow” excuse. Out of this minor meltdown, I learned a lot about data organization and management and even how to overcome roadblocks independently.

R Error Message

The message you don’t want to see at 2 AM when you’re trying to finish a presentation. Source.

How things go wrong

It often feels that life as a remote student is all about learning things the hard way. Being on my own in Sitka, I can’t walk down the hall to talk with another student about a problem or spontaneously chat with a professor in passing or after class. Only having my screen in front of me, I don’t have much opportunity to compare other students’ code writing techniques or data management practices. With my complete dataset nearly 4 million lines long, bad habits were started without corrections: developing a “run the code until it’s broke” philosophy, overwriting and deleting code I didn’t think I’d need, and even naming files poorly by just tacking on another number or “new” at the end of the name.

While these are now commonsense practices I avoid, I learned these after much trial and error, as well as after reading other articles on data organization and management using R. There are many other struggles that come along with being a distance student, but I believe it ultimately pushes me to be a better researcher. And the best part of being remote is no one can see your meltdowns! But you don’t have to wait until you are in a panic to start some best practices.

Code Confusion

What typically happens when you don’t follow best practices for coding in R. Source: https://imgur.com/gallery/x0ml8

Five data management tips

Careful organization and management of data and code is essential for any analysis. Taking the time and initiative to make clear notations for code, to be consistent with code-writing techniques, and to organize script files in your directory will help with more than data management of the entire project. These steps also protect against data loss and analytical errors while allowing your analyses to run smoothly from one to the next. There are many tips and tricks for data management taught in classes and online, but here are the top five I’ve learned from my solo trek to good data practices with links to more information on each:

  1. Keep raw data as a “flat” table saved in an open data format (like .csv) with records saved in rows, using descriptive and concise names for the data files. Though it is tempting to quickly add in a new column or delete some rows of data in Excel, don’t do it in the raw data file (more here).
  2. Be diligent and consistent with notation, syntax, and commenting lines in script files. Comment often! This will help to remember what/why you did something when revisiting an earlier analysis, as well as helping others make sense of your code if you need to share it. Also, don’t delete code you think you don’t need. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone back to this “unused code” months later, only to tweak it a bit and make it useable. Keep separate analyses in their own script files. Style guides like Google’s and Hadley’s R Style Guides are great resources.
  3. Use Stack Exchange to solve an issue or google your R questions. I’ve developed a special knack for figuring out how to do obscure things in R by scouring these websites. My philosophy is that anything I’m trying to do in R has already been done, and usually that is the case. It just requires a bit more patience and persistence to identify the search terms needed for finding the solution.
  4. Back up everything and keep your folders organized. Time spent searching folders for an older version of a script or data file is not efficient. I save script files and raw data files on Google drive for ease of access at any computer, along with an external hard drive. Dropbox is commonly used because of its simplicity of automatically backing up files. There are other options for version control and backing up data like Git that I don’t currently use but are worth looking into (more here).
  5. Don’t cut corners to save a few minutes in the short term. It’s so easy to make quick-fixes to get that figure to run or to get to the desired output, but these shortcuts aren’t worth the time you’ll have to spend fixing the code or trying to remember what you did down the road. Take the time to establish a good workflow for yourself, and be consistent with this while working on your analyses. There are great resources for establishing a solid workflow (more here).

Rhea Hard at Work

As her code now runs flawlessly, Rhea can relax and enjoy tea while finalizing a figure in R over winter break.

Wrapping up

Even though data management ranks up there in fun with tasks such as doing your taxes, folding laundry, and weeding the garden, the short-term pain will save you a lot of headache and time by having a well-organized and accurate end result. As I move onto new analyses for the next chapter of my thesis, I now know how important it is to set things up correctly from the beginning. Being a remote student during all of this has been challenging, but it has ultimately made me a much stronger student and more self-reliant. Meltdowns not included.

♦♦♦

Rhea is a Master’s student in the Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab and is studying the movement ecology of juvenile sablefish near Sitka, Alaska.

Unexpected Gains

by Natura Richardson

Editor’s Note: Grad school is hard, there’s no question about it. It is a time of immense personal and professional growth, which can be exciting but is also challenging and intense. The process of learning to master a craft – whether in the sciences or arts – requires confronting uncertainty, climbing steep learning curves, and a deep and sometimes uncomfortable examination of one’s own strengths and limitations. It takes perseverance. Natura Richardson, a Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab alum and author of today’s post, would call it grit. It also takes a support system of peers and mentors, friends and family. (We will discuss the importance of mentorship in an upcoming post.) Even with that support system, many graduate students – and post-graduate professionals – face feelings of inadequacy. The term impostor syndrome was coined in the late 1970s to describe people who feel as though they are a “fraud” despite evidence of high achievement. There have been some excellent articles written about this phenomenon as it applies to early career scientists (e.g., here) and the importance of scientists from all career stages sharing their own stories. In this post, Natura reflects on how she confronted her own feelings of being an imposter and other stresses of grad school, and the strength and resilience she gained from her experiences.

♦♦♦

I officially graduated from the Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab in May 2016, although that already feels so long ago. How can something that was only a year and a half ago feel like it happened way back during the Jurassic period? I’ll tell you how: because graduate school is HARD and you try to forget it. While in school, I had amazing support from my husband who drew a bath and put me to sleep, an employer that provided field support and reasonable use of work time, an advisor who knew how to encourage, push, and laugh with me, and fellow students and lab mates that would lend a listening ear or help me with analysis or R script. The deck was stacked in my favor, and yet, for me, graduate school was this weird alternate universe, where I worked harder than I ever had, yet I often felt inadequate and irrelevant. After graduation, I was ready to move on and never look back. But the truth is, I do look back. A lot. There are certain experiences and lessons that I continue to positively draw from for my personal and professional growth.

Everyone has a different experience and not all students struggle so hard, but for those of you who are in the throes of grad school and need a little pick me up, here’s what I have to offer for motivation: my unexpected but oh-so-great gains from graduate school.

Out-running the anxious stress monster

Over the years I practiced all the standard graduate student responses to stress and anxiety: crying, complaining, getting frustrated or angry, drinking, and avoiding my advisor and hoping she would somehow forget I existed. Shockingly, none of those worked.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks campus in Juneau is located on Lena Point, with access to forested trails leading to ocean views, right out the front door. One day, rather than break down in the student offices, I put on my sneakers and went for a walk. After a few walks, I started to run (although it was more of a shuffle). Be it walk, shuffle, or run, whenever I did something, I felt better. I tried to be consistent in going outside and getting exercise but with a constant fear of deadlines, it was hard to justify 20-40 minutes away from the computer. So I did something else I feared. I signed up for a 50-mile race. I was not a runner, had never run a marathon in my life, yet somehow I thought running almost double the distance while working on my Master’s thesis was a good idea. Boy, grad school was making me really crazy. But that commitment forced me to take a break, get outside, and do something else every day. From that daily commitment, I improved my mental clarity, physical energy, and perspective, which in turn helped me to become a better student, researcher, and less of an anxious stress monster.

Without the relentless stress of grad school, who knows how long it would have taken me to figure out that doing something for myself everyday would have enormous impacts on my mental and physical health? I’m done with graduate school now, but I am not done with running. If I ever feel the anxious stress monster trying to come out, I pull out my sneakers and run away from her. If you’re familiar with the anxious stress monster, I recommend identifying your stress-relieving, non-school activity and figuring out a way to make it mandatory. Believe me, it will be there for you after you’re done with your thesis.

Natura Kesugi Ridge_photo by Michael Bach.jpg

Natura outruns the anxious stress monster on Kesugi Ridge Trail near Denali National Park, Alaska. Photo by Michael Bach.

Liar, liar, pants on fire

While in grad school, I said to myself over and over, repeated like a broken record “I can’t,” just like a whiny adolescent child. As it turns out, I’m a liar, liar, pants on fire because I could do it. I am capable. Working on my Master’s thesis was the first time that I realized how often I play that broken “I can’t” record and how much wasted energy goes into that. It was also when I discovered how capable I am and that I need to quit lying to myself. So it is from my thesis days that I now frequently draw strength when I start to doubt my abilities.

Remember that 50 miler I signed up for? At mile 35 the “I can’t” record started playing, but then I thought, “If I can finish that thesis, I can do this!” I bucked up and finished that race…then puked.

I have accomplished other goals, big, small, professional, and personal. I applied for a competitive job that I didn’t think I could get, and then got it. I busted out written management plans and fishery summaries in very short time frames. I painted the exterior of my house by myself, when I was certain I couldn’t without my 6’6” tall husband or hired help. Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that because I finished a Master’s thesis I am now Superwoman in disguise, but I do remind myself to quit wasting time lying to myself with the “I can’t” talk and get cracking on whatever it is I want to accomplish.

Go through the grits

Many individuals are capable, smart, and maybe they are Superwoman in disguise. But just because someone is Superwoman and she can do something difficult, doesn’t mean she will.

My thesis did not happen overnight, over a month, over a semester, or even over a couple years. It took several years of field work, lab work, data analysis, writing, re-processing lab samples, re-running data analysis, re-writing chapters, incorporating edits. Did I mention re-writing? There were feelings of failure, adversity, and frustration that came with what felt like only minor victories or successes. But for some reason, I just kept going. And going. And going. Relentless. Forward. Progress.

Post-graduate school, and thanks to psychologist Angela Duckworth, I have put a name to this determined behavior: Grit. Angela Duckworth says grit is passion and perseverance for long term goals. Having grit means maintaining determination and motivation over long periods of time despite experiences with failure and adversity. How many folks actually hold to their new year’s resolutions? Or lose those 20 pounds? Or write the peer-reviewed journal article after the committee has signed off on the thesis? Not that many. It takes some serious will-power to turn down chocolate cake, or put on your running shoes, or close your web browser. Pick a goal that cannot be achieved in a few days (or even just a few hours), throw in a lack of willpower and some tough challenges, and I bet that goal is likely to sit by the wayside, especially when the new season of [insert popular TV show] is released.

Sandpaper grit is measured as the number of particles per square inch. Wood can start out rough, scratched, and blemished but sanding with increasing levels of grit removes the scratches from the previous grit until the scratches are so fine that the wood is smooth as a baby’s bottom. Like a woodworker, I had to “go through the grits,” starting with a stripping 80-grit, to a smoothing 150-grit, and finishing with a 360- to 600-grit. In hindsight, I recognize that all those perceived failures or setbacks actually gave me grit. Now when I get a report back from a colleague that is bleeding red with edits, instead of crawling into bed and hiding, I don’t think anything of it. That’s just the first stripping grit; I want to get to the polishing grit. When it gets hard and you want to quit, just remember to go through the grits.

Graduate school is arduous, but for all your sleepless nights and caffeinated days, you do gain some great skills. You might graduate with fluency in computer programs like ArcGIS or R, you might become a stock assessment modeling genius, or you might be the expert on Pacific staghorn sculpin reproductive strategies (a highly coveted title, by the way). But for me, it has been the unexpected gains of healthy life habits and recognizing my capabilities and grit, where I have found the greatest value.

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It takes a village to raise a child…and to get through grad school. Natura (3rd from left) gives her advisor a break from parenting duties and enjoys the camaraderie of labmates.

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Natura Richardson received her M.S. in Fisheries from UAF in 2016 and is a groundfish and shellfish management biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Kodiak, Alaska.