Even without trading tears for electric shocks, graduate school is a painful, mostly thankless slog with rare moments of fun and rarer moments of reward. (NSF and Kristen sittin’ in a Petri, F-U-N-D-I-N-G.) If that weren’t lonely enough, try spending graduate school studying fragile, dying creatures in hopes of someday possibly contributing the tiniest bit of help to one of the biggest disasters mankind has caused. It almost makes you want to study fruit flies.
One of the few delights I have while studying (the end of) coral reefs is watching baby corals just after they’re born. Coral “birth” involves collecting gametes on night dives, mixing them on shore, having panic attacks while rinsing them and trying to keep them from dying and exploding in the lab, sleeping from 5 to 8 am, finding sanity in iPod shuffle mode, repeating for three days, then beginning the year’s experiments. Okay, that’s not the delightful part.
Last fall, I watched through a microscope as a coral blastula (that’s a ball of cells, laypeople) just a few hours old started to fold back in on itself to form two cells layers (that would be gastrulation for those keeping score of cell divisions at home). Corals are diploblasts—they only have two cell layers—and in that moment, the little ball of coral cells was fulfilling its first mission in life (“You’re kinda cute, baby, are you new in town?”). Totally mind-blowing, but it gets even better.
Shortly after fertilization, coral embryos develop into ciliated, swimming larvae that can travel anywhere from a few centimeters to hundreds of kilometers through the ocean. Yes, they swim. They don’t just drift passively, they actually swim, and sniff around, and sense light, and make decisions about where to stick onto the reef based on what chemicals and surfaces they find. Coral swimming, thanks to all this nuance, is hilarious to watch:
This is my kind of Maslowian peak experience: watching tiny, determined, swimming blobs of cells that can grow into structures you can see from space, structures that host the food supply for the world’s coastal populations and something on the order of 10 million other species. (“Don’t love me for who I am but who I’m destined to be.”) In the middle of a lonely thesis, at least there is meaning and potential in my little Petri dishes. I just wish it still mattered.
In my dissertation research, I’m using the Janzen-Connell model of forest diversity to investigate how bacteria from adult corals affect survivorship of juvenile corals in space and time. I’m also studying behavioral patterns of larvae in various microbial environments. (Um… there’s no funny music lyric at all related to what I just wrote.) I know you can’t scoop me because my corals won’t spawn again until fall, but I’m not going to reveal all my secrets. Suffice it to say that pretty much EVERYTHING we do to coral reefs affects microbes, and pretty much every alteration to microbial environments on the reef and in the lab has a consequence for the behavior and/or survivorship of our dear baby corals. Which brings me to Why you didn’t really want the job, Reason #3: Existential despair.
The conservation implications from my research are as dreadful as any: don’t do ANYTHING to the ocean, and the corals will be fine. So much for my chance of saving the coral reefs. All I have to do is convince everyone to change everything. (“Humor me with this request?”) In the meantime, little reefs of the future will be swimming around, sniffing for a habitat worth their effort, waiting for Godot, and wondering if there is a point to having the potential to grow into a coral reef but no chance to do it anytime soon. (“Please don’t leave me to remain… in the waiting room.”) It’s excruciating to think about on a daily basis. Still, I have my sliver of meaning in the world of the Petri dish, even if there’s no hope beyond it. The NSF won’t catch me hanging out with fruit flies anytime soon.