Science on vacation

Following the end of my academic year back in May, I was fortunate to be able to take a couple of family vacations. In traditional American style, we first loaded up our most fuel-efficient family car and drove a whole day across the country to find an ocean. A few weeks later, we drove in a different direction across the country to reconnect with family and friends in the Midwest. Some people who work in an academic environment (like me) and many scientists (also me) seem to find it difficult to let go of work and just enjoy some downtime. I was determined to take advantage of the time away from home to relax, enjoy the people, and explore local adventures. But science popped up here and there on my travels, so I thought I’d relay a few informal “sciency” things I noticed that stayed with me after I returned home. (In the relaxed spirit of vacation, I’ve not included my usual batch of outside links in this post.)

On visiting the ocean

Oceans — I visited the Atlantic Ocean along the coastline of North Carolina and stayed in a community built essentially on a sand bar, with ocean on one side, and shallow, protected waters on the other. It was mesmerizing and very relaxing to walk along the beach and watch the waves hitting the sand, tumbling up shells and rocks (the latter smoothed by many years in the water), as well as an occasional unfortunate sea jelly. But the power of the ocean was evident everywhere along the island, as the effects of Hurricane Florence in 2018 were still visible in many places. The dunes were swept back, and many structures sustained damage, some of which were still undergoing or awaiting repair. It was an important reminder that oceans and sand are in a constant state of motion and can change, and so our relationship with them can be precarious, especially in light of changing ocean dynamics due to climate change.

Sea turtles — Sea turtles are found up and down the coast of North America. We learned of local efforts to help protect turtle nesting sites and to aid injured or cold-stunned turtles throughout the year. Occupation of coastal and sandy areas by beach-loving humans (not to mention their light pollution) has made it hard on turtles to successfully breed. It was really remarkable to me to see the care that local people are taking to try to mitigate those effects. I had hoped to see a sea turtle nest in person, but it was not to be. I’ve been following updates online about nesting successes, however, so I know the turtles have been busy laying eggs since my time on the coast.

Birds — In the salt marsh on the protected side of the island along the mainland coastline, habitat abounded for birds large and small. While I didn’t recognize most of the local species of songbirds, I was familiar with the osprey that nest atop channel markers, and with the cormorants that flew overhead patrolling the shoreline like avian Coast Guard crews. The shorebirds created a musical backdrop for my seaside vacation that was hard to ignore and are part of the vibrant biodiversity of the area.

History — The history of how and why humans occupy coastal regions is interesting and varied: from commerce (and piracy) to military missions to today’s modern vacation homes, there’s no shortage of ways in which people have changed the landscape to suit their needs, for better or worse. I enjoyed learning the local human history of the coastal area alongside its natural history; the combination gave me a lot to consider about how a place I’m exploring for the first time came to be the way it is today, how the presence of people changed the area, and how it might continue to change in the future.

Climate change — A heat wave struck North Carolina when we were there. I couldn’t help but consider the ways climate change may alter our relationship with summers and the features of the biodiversity of different parts of the world in years to come. And of course, broader concerns about rising sea levels, changes in tidal patterns, and more hurricanes threaten the long-term habitability of coastal regions. These issues hummed along underneath the fun activities of our visit and reminded me that many of the things we take for granted (such as a summer trip to a beach) may be different in the years to come.

Beach and pier, Atlantic Ocean. My own photo ©2019

On visiting the Upper Midwest

Wind turbines — A few weeks later, we embarked on a drive across the Midwest of the United States to Minnesota. One feature that breaks up the monotony of the drive is the collection of wind turbines dotting the farmland for miles in northern Illinois. These wind turbines harness the energy of wind to produce electricity and are hard to ignore as they tower off into the distance beside the interstate highway. Whenever I drive by them, I can’t help but think of the challenges facing us to incorporate more sustainable energy systems. Wind turbines aren’t a perfect solution, but they are an important part of the conversation. Wind turbines and geothermal energy are also featured prominently in evolving efforts to supply the energy needs of the college I attended as an undergraduate student, which is where I finished up my vacation by attending a college reunion.

Native plants — One day, I took a walk to a park near a lake in Minnesota. Minnesota is famous for having many natural lakes, and they are a common feature of public parks. The park also featured a small “pollinator garden” with native flowering plants, as well as an “insect hotel” of sorts, with materials for feeding, overwintering, and the like. Signage, a walking path, and a prominent location near the playground encouraged families to enjoy the plants and learn about the importance of pollinators. By using sun-loving native grasses to plants that function in clever rain gardens that promote good drainage and water purification, parks, campuses, and communities across the Midwest are finding new ways to simplify and beautify their landscapes with native plants that benefit the local ecology, too. On my college reunion, I especially enjoyed a walking tour and update on a demonstration prairie restoration project that has been underway for several decades. What we learn by adding native plants to our environments continues to spark exciting new ideas about sustainable habitats for the future.

Conservation biology — On a sunny afternoon, we popped in to a local zoo to look at the animals, both familiar and not so much. Zoos today have a big challenge: how to transform a visitor experience from just gawking disinterestedly at caged specimens of animals to building visitor support for broader efforts in biodiversity conservation around the globe through ambassadorship by the animals that are in captivity (via accidents, breeding programs, etc.). Through signage, trainer chats, and interpretive guides, visitors to zoos today are inundated with information about the challenges facing animals around the world and close to home due to habitat destruction, poaching, climate change, and other problems that have shrunk natural populations of many species to alarming levels. The conservation mission is important but difficult to appreciate in everyday life in my part of the world. Zoo programs and conservation/breeding efforts help bring that uncomfortable (but hopeful) message closer to home for many people.

Science education— The last stop on our Midwest trip was a fun-filled weekend college reunion. I attended a liberal arts college where my science education was integrated broadly with other areas of study. During the event, I had the fun of reconnecting with former classmates, professors, staff, and local friends. Since I’ve been teaching undergraduate biology students for most of my career, it was especially interesting to hear updates on my alma mater’s curriculum, facilities, and programmatic elements over the years since I was a student. I even got to look at Jupiter and three of its moons through the observatory telescope! Strengthening personal friendships that have stood the test of time, getting to know other classmates better, learning more about science careers some of my classmates pursued, and sharing ideas across disciplines in a casual networking environment was fun and stimulating, and it left me with a lot of food for thought in the months and years to come. Taking time to reflect on my own education and science path also helps me appreciate the needs and concerns of today’s science students.

Restoration prairie in Minnesota, after recent burn management. My own photo ©2019

On taking a vacation…

I’ll just wrap this up by saying that a vacation—a little actual time off from the daily demands of life—is a wonderful privilege that I value each year. Much has been made of how difficult it is to take a break from work, or to disconnect from the online world and recharge. This is clearly not something everyone is able to do, for various reasons. But I have made it a priority, especially in recent years, to take advantage of even the small moments I have to recharge my own battery, even as I recharge my devices. I teach courses to undergraduates over two traditional academic semesters, and I use my summer weeks to bolster my work–life balance. I appreciate being able to regroup and reprioritize my pursuits, to spend quality time with family, to start planning fall courses, and to engage in creative and professional development activities. And, oh yes, I even find time for some pleasure reading and a TV show or two. In new contexts and with fresh eyes, I can even consider the interesting science happening around us every day. Science really is everywhere you look. Even on a vacation.

Ambassadors for coral reef communities in an aquarium. My own photo ©2019

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