On procrastinating in grad school

I’m back from blog hiatus! Firing it up again to tell a few stories and mull over what’s next.

Dissertation year (2013-2014) was hard. I spent a lot of time fighting with myself and needed help getting through it. It’s hard to remember to be gentle with yourself when setbacks feel like personal failures, or feel connected when your friends have moved away, or keep perspective when your job is a mix of “Spend every day realizing how much you don’t know” and “Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let it show.” I loved it best when colleagues put away their grant-writing, everything-is-awesome faces and we could all just admit we were learning on the fly together.

So alongside the research were the self-reckonings and the ways I learned to work with myself, which my mom (herself a Ph.D.) pointed out was perhaps the true value of the degree. I am very grateful to my advisor and Duke’s counseling center for the lessons on non-judgment and compassion for myself and others. (Insert plug for CAPS’s mindfulness courses. So, so glad they were there.)

Today’s topic: that most human of habits, kicking the can down the road. For me, the procrastination monster reared its head early and often. In fifth grade my mom got mad at me for spending the weekend sculpting a clay bird due next Friday while neglecting a report due Monday. In college, I relied on my knack for pulling off term papers hours before they were due. Same thing for grad school—I worked and re-worked grants until the absolute submission deadlines. I was never late, but man did I get things in under the wire.

Fear of failure and the accompanying perfectionism hovered nearby, and still do. The bioinformatics learning curve I (and others in biology) have been ascending is steep. Tasks like figuring out programming pipelines and working with massive amounts of data for the first time were daunting. I didn’t know where to start, felt bad asking for help all the time, didn’t yet have the vocab to Google my way around, and ended up putting off a crucial step for months out of sheer paralysis.

And, of course, the mental pile-ons included beating myself up in comparisons to friends who made steady progress, whereas all I had was a habit of thriving under pressure. It took therapy to accept that needing deadlines is just how I work. I also noticed that I was hard on others who procrastinated because I so disliked the trait in myself, yet I couldn’t stop succumbing to YouTube or Wikipedia when hitting an analysis or writing block.

In emotional terms, practicing mindfulness gave me that vital moment of awareness before clicking “New Tab” for a temporary distraction. In practical terms, what saved me were productivity tools for focus and writing. Here are the ones that worked for me — you can find lots more with Google searches (example here).

researchPaperI mean, this is what we’re up against. (credit) And I have no interest in implying that I have conquered procrastination. That is laughable, because there are ALWAYS more crosswords to solve.

1) Leechblock: I found this website-blocking program in January 2013, after my friend Jason posted “SOMEONE TAKE THIS INTERNET AWAY FROM ME SO I CAN WORK.” You list the websites you want to block and specify how long to block them. Alternatively, you can specify how long per hour you’re allowed to visit before you’re blocked. You can create separate lists with separate settings, and you can force yourself to type a password before the program gives you access to change settings.

Pros: This is SUCH an effective tool. I’m going to use it forever. It broke my pattern of automatically escaping to the Washington Post (my homepage) when I was facing a rough patch in the writing. My passwords have been either miserable sentences featuring my advisor’s name or questions on how I’d like to be spending my time. The act of typing them when I’m trying to access a site is often enough to wake me up. The program works because I set the permissions, but during my moments of weakness, like Odysseus yelling to be untied from his ship, it’s an external control saving me from the Internet sirens. Now that it’s been in place for two years, it’s trained me really well to recognize new distractions and to wait until my nightly window to read blocked sites.

Cons: You can game it, of course. There are lots of news sites carrying the same stories. And if you mess a lot with your settings, the power of your password gets diluted fast. I had to figure out a balance between lax and draconian measures so the program could do its job.

2) RescueTime: After I submitted my dissertation to the grad school in March 2014, my friend Mari told me about this plug-in, which monitors your computer use both online and off-. It categorizes each website/software from Very Distracting to Very Productive (tweak as needed) and gives you a productivity score at the end of the day. You can pause monitoring, receive a weekly summary newsletter, and track your scores on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.


Pros: If you’re grade-oriented, as I am, you’ll find it useful. In the week between submitting the dissertation to the grad school and my committee, I was sailing on high scores from all the time I spent revising. Nowadays I average 50-60% productivity, which seems low but usually means I’m on track. The visuals are good at showing to your face when you’re the most (un)productive.

Cons: I had to manually configure Windows for it to start up with my computer by default, which is lame given its purpose. Also, multi-purpose websites are tricky to categorize. Where does email fall—neutral, productive or distracting? Probably neutral, but because I spend so much time per day on it writing professional emails, it adds less than it should to the productivity score at the end of the day.

3) Write or Die 2: The name caught my eye when I was Googling around in August 2014 to kickstart manuscript revisions. It’s a web- or desktop-based plugin that’s targeted for the NaNoWriMo crowd: your goal is to write text non-stop without worrying about formatting or editing. The fun part is the reward or punishment settings you choose to help make your writing goal. Below is an example from the Consequence category. (An additional perk is Kamikaze Mode, where if you go a certain time without writing, an invisible monster starts eating all the vowels in your sentences.)


Pros: We have birds in our lab that are rewarded with birdsong when they accomplish certain tasks. Likewise, I wrote an entire introduction to the soothing sound of crickets. Thank you, cognitive behavioral psychologists.

Cons: It’s buggy, costs money, and is mostly good for the novelty. It’s also not great for revising because you can’t format EndNote or other fields, so eventually I had to abandon and return to Word. So I’ll mainly stick to using it to jump-start drafts.


Finally, perspective really helped.

Russ’s passing during my dissertation year consistently nudged me forward. I wrote a few words to myself after he died.

Do it for Russ.

Remember the short-term pain that you want to avoid is countered by the long-term sense of accomplishment, and of success, and of getting the credentials you need to do the things you want. Don’t shortchange yourself now. Don’t torch your dissertation out of procrastination. At the end of the day, it is yours, and you want to be able to own that statement with every cell in your body. Now go forth and make it something you’re so proud of you can’t wait to share it with the world.

Remember how much you want to know the answer. Remember the excitement. Remember the difference between liking and loving your research. Sometimes you may dislike it intensely. Often you are convinced it’s so shitty and clumsy that anyone else could do better. (Which is maybe why you put it off.) But behind the anguish and the fear and the uncertainty is the love you have for your work. The love you have for birds, and sunrises, and that puffer fish in the silent mangrove. The love you have for the people who have gotten you here.

In closing, the PostSecret card that got me through.


Happy muddling. And thank you all for your beautiful brains. 🙂

A Craigslist ad I never posted

For sale: Vibrator. Used twice. On tiny songbirds.

Science is exciting and requires supplies. But now that my experiment is over, it’s time to send this Sexy Things Pop Vibe onto its next chapter. Will you be in it?

The story behind your newest addition:

Scene: Adult store, April 2012.

Well-dressed salesperson: Hi, welcome to [XXX] Adult Emporium.
Me: Hi. I’m looking for your smallest vibrators.
Salesperson: Great, let me show you our Bullet collection.

They were neatly arranged down one side of a kiosk. They were also nearly as long as the birds themselves.

Me: Actually, do you have anything smaller?
Salesperson: Um…
Me: I’m trying to collect samples for my graduate work.
Me: I need semen from a bird.
Me: It’s for a “friend”?
Salesperson: Okay! I can suggest these three models within your price range.

They were $8, $12 and $15. We went to the counter. He turned them on and I put them in the palm of my hand.

Me: Whoa. These are all really strong.
Salesperson: Your hands might not be sensitive enough, so if you want a better idea of the sensation, you can touch it to the tip of your nose.
Me: Oh my god.
Salesperson: How does it feel?
Me: I’m afraid they might cause nerve damage.
Salesperson: Try turning it to the lowest setting. This one has a bunch you can choose from. You can control the pulses too.
Me: Is there anything I can do to lessen the strength?


Salesperson: We’ve…never had anyone ask that before.
Me: Maybe wrap a towel around it?
Salesperson: I’m sure you’ll be creative enough to come up with a solution.

I picked the $12 one and biked to school.

Half an hour later, I realized I’d forgotten to ask for a receipt. The guy picked up, and I explained that I needed to be reimbursed. I think that’s when he finally believed me about the whole thing.

(I never did submit the receipt to NSF. After someone in our lab was asked to justify an order from the Container Store, I just couldn’t bring myself to fill out the expense report.)

I tried it out on two test birds. You know how cartoonists indicate the force of a power drill by drawing squiggly lines around cross-eyed people? The poor males were blurry in my hand. Also…nothing came out. Conclusion: Cloacal vibratory stimulation is an ineffective way to obtain bird spooge.

Anyway, my scientific failure is your gain! Act now, supplies won’t last! Waterproof and comes with free batteries.



Moments with Russ

One of my undergraduate thesis advisors passed away in late October after a yearlong battle with cancer. I wrote this six-part entry to honor his research accomplishments and to thank him for being my teacher.


The first time I met Russ, a triceratops almost made me late.

It was 2004, the fall of my junior year, and I was somewhere in D.C. trying to find the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Making my way down a tree-lined private road, I suddenly came upon an enormous statue parked in the trees. No sign, no explanation. Just your average dinosaur. I stared, then hurried off to find the MBC a few hundreds yards away. Perhaps Russ and the others had passed it so often they no longer considered it a landmark. I like to think it was their way of saying hello.

A few months earlier, I had decided to embark on my senior thesis at Maryland. I don’t know if “decided” is the right word. Instead, I had allowed myself to be propelled, through that strange mix of encouragement and pressure in college, along the conveyor belt of undergraduate research. Ahead lay the vague defaults of grad school and professorship. Some reasons for this path were that I loved birds and bird-related work (good) and I was afraid and ignorant of other options (bad). But I think the larger incentive was that I was just hoping to belong somewhere, to that circle of academia inhabited by my parents and teachers, and so I wanted in on research for so long that I never really questioned why. The day I scrolled down the list of Maryland faculty, I found an adjunct professor who studied tropical birds. An email led to the MBC, which led to Russ.

I entered the double-wide trailer and was immediately intimidated by him. First, this was back when I still regarded professors as mystical beings. For eight months I called him Dr. Greenberg until someone in the field told me to stop it already. Second, his mannerisms were inscrutable to me. He was a tall, thin man with a hooked nose and a calm, bearded mouth. He favored baseball caps and old conference shirts under long-sleeved flannels. He was sparing with his words and facial expressions. I never actually heard him laugh. Instead, he would huff softly out his nose and fire back something quiet and clever. He was a master at deadpanning.

I didn’t know it then, but he was also a total rock star. He’d gotten his Ph.D. at Berkeley with a cohort I call the League of Extraordinary Ornithologists. His early work looked at all the things about a group of migratory birds called warblers. Gradually, while postdoc-ing with a Smithsonian researcher (the professor who’d referred him to me, in fact), the warblers turned to sparrows and the focus turned to neophobia, or fear of novel objects.

He found that habitat specialists were more afraid than habitat generalists of approaching unknown objects, potentially explaining why some species stay put while others expand their ranges. Two decades later, his work helped spark the field of animal “personalities,” or behavioral syndromes. (I know this literature because in 2007, I stumbled on his papers while picking the same topic for my Florida internship project. Upon realizing it was the same Russ Greenberg, my reaction was “Huh. Figures.”)

While continuing at the Smithsonian, he also moved into conservation and outreach. He’s the guy who brought us shade-grown coffee, which prevents clearcutting and habitat loss for wintering birds. He co-wrote one of the earliest papers about the threats facing migratory birds. Congress under George Bush Sr. approved funding to establish the Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo. He was appointed director. He founded International Migratory Bird Day and a huge educational initiative spanning two continents.

But to me, he will always be the person who introduced me to Web of Science. It’s our Google of journals, and it’s a classic moment in researcher initiation. I have thought of him every time I witness an undergrad learn about citations.

Since I had already done birdsong analysis with a Maryland postdoc, Russ suggested my project could compare the songs of a bird called the swamp sparrow. People knew that the coastal subspecies looked and sounded different from the inland subspecies. My project would ask: Were their songs systematically different, like dialects? And did they respond differently to their own vs. to foreign dialects? Bernie, the postdoc, agree to be my co-mentor. And we were off.


It was May of junior year, my first day in the field. Russ had picked me up before dawn and was driving me to the Delaware tidal marsh. We crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and reached the site as the sun rose.

I was a total rookie. I had never seen or heard a swamp sparrow. I put my waders on backward. I didn’t realize the marsh was mushy and nearly fell in. I didn’t own binoculars and had to borrow his. I didn’t have a hat and got sunburned. Russ was cool with it all. He got me oriented and showed me how to watch and listen. I saw his head swivel whenever he heard a female chip, revealing the location of her nest.

Russ’s grad student Brian was also there, doing surveys for his own project, and Bernie had come out too, to teach me how to record songs and run playback experiments. I was astonished to see the experiments actually worked. We played songs on a male’s territory and watched him turn into a feathered ball of fury, spitting out songs and ricocheting off dead cattails in search of the intruder.

At the end of the day, Russ and Brian and I were standing in the marsh. Russ asked Brian, “Should we tell her about the deer flies and the greenheads?”

“What are greenheads?” I asked, dewy-eyed.


This is a greenhead. They ignore DEET and their mouthparts slice your skin.

Brian looked at me like I was a lost baby animal. Russ said: “Mallards.”


On the way back, Russ said he wanted to show me something and detoured to the Delaware Bay. We got out of the car and saw a combination of these pictures:



(copyright Lukas Musher 2013)


In front of us were piles of horseshoe crabs in all stages of reproduction, surrounded by little brown birds jackhammering the ground with their bills. It was a migration stopover site, teeming with shorebirds that had left southern Argentina a few weeks ago. They were flying nine thousand miles north, to the Arctic Circle, for the breeding season. Delaware was one of their final pit stops, and it happened to host one of the finest sources of fuel: the fatty eggs of the horseshoe crabs, which had come ashore to spawn. The timing was uncanny, and nobody knew how the birds did it. They called to each other against the crashing waves.

What I remember most, though, is Russ standing next to me and pointing out, one by one, all the species before us. I didn’t know yet that shorebird ID is so hard it routinely brings birders to their knees. (Especially during migration, when everything is a crazy mix of winter and breeding plumage, you basically want to burn your field guide and go home.) But Russ made it look effortless. Beyond identification, he also told me that increased crab harvesting for bait and pharmaceuticals was leading to a plunge in shorebird survival. Fortunately, there would soon be a moratorium on collecting. Finally, he asked if I knew that horseshoe crab blood was blue. As we headed home, I thought about how cool it was to hang out with someone in his element, who could decipher the scene in front of him and share with others what he saw.

We went out to the field once more. I spent my 21st birthday wearing waders while sober. (Not much has changed since then.) One week later, the semester ended and I drove out to start the official field season. It was my first solo road trip. With me were my first cell phone, my first digital camera, my first set of field clothes, and $500 of recording equipment purchased with my first grant. I liked it so much I’ve spent every summer in the field since then.


As senior year began, I transcribed hours of tapes, went to class and thought about my future. Grad school was enough of an uncertainty that I chose to delay applications and focus on work. Every few months, I took the Metro from campus to D.C. to discuss my progress with Russ. I loved the mile-long walk to the MBC over the Duke Ellington Bridge, past dignified townhouses and around a playground filled with dust-bathing house sparrows. Near Thanksgiving I surfaced from the Metro to find the city covered with the first snowfall of the season. When spring came, the tree trunks dampened to rich black against a riot of green. I heard my first red-eyed vireo outside the center. Always the triceratops was there, guarding the little road to the double-wide trailer.

Russ and Bernie helped big-time with data analysis and drafts. They attended my poster session in March and my defense in May. (They passed me, which was nice.) Russ offered me a post-graduation job working with the Delaware crew and was gracious when I opted for something new in Maine. In October, he helped me prep for my first talk at my first conference. There I met his vast network of colleagues, including those for a project he was launching on a threatened species called the rusty blackbird. At his talk, he pitched his latest book, a hefty volume he’d co-edited on migration, by telling us to “go to Amazon and buy one for all your friends.”

When I finalized my plans, Bernie and Russ wrote recommendations for my applications to grad schools and internships. At the time, I was nuts over the prospect of working with the professor who is my current advisor. Russ broke from his usual reticence to suggest that I consider factors beyond the advisor, reminding me that people did things like move or pass away and that I should ensure other resources would help me succeed. I wondered if he was speaking from experience, and, for the first time, what his life was like before I knew him.

I went on my interviews. When I was at Miami in December, I caught a glimpse of Russ’s letter sticking out of my admissions file. In his last sentence, he had called me a winner.


After my senior thesis was published in the second year of grad school, I mostly kept in touch with Russ over Facebook. Soon after he joined, he invited me to a group called “Fans of the Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrow.” The posts were hilarious and weird.

A primer on our favorite sparrow:


And one of his many digs at the zoo’s attention hogs:


We saw each other in August 2012 at a major bird conference. I went to his talk on yet another new research program linking bill size and climate. One of his papers that described how sparrow bills enlarge during the breeding season was later mentioned during “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live.” You can only hope your results will be broadcast to seven million people.

And then it was September 2013, and we were back across the Bay Bridge at Washington College in Maryland.


I found out about Russ’s illness at a one-day conference held to celebrate his work and 60th birthday. Several attendees had been generously given lodging at an old field house. As the place filled on Sunday night, I overheard odd phrases, gingerly spoken. The first time I feigned knowledge; the second time I felt uneasy. I pulled aside a friend I’d just made. We went upstairs and she told me about the cancer.

Being blindsided was hard. It was nobody’s fault. I had been out of the loop, and Facebook doesn’t tell you these things. The meeting was cast under an entirely different light. All I could think of was how to keep my composure the next day.

But the wonderful thing about a scientific meeting is the instinctive focus on research. As we entered the spacious faculty lounge, decked out like an awards banquet, our minds were distracted in just the right way. Of course the focus was punctured at times for everyone. The excitement over ideas, though, helped dim the emotional noise. (It didn’t hurt that the meeting had begun with four hours of birdwatching.)

What I will never forget was the sense of kinship in the room. It was amazing to see Russ’s scientific family returning to him for one final rally. Everyone from the MBC was there. The League of Extraordinary Ornithologists had flown in from Charlottesville, Berkeley, Ithaca. (They flashed photos of their shaggy-haired graduate days on the screen.) The emcee was one of the most famous names in cooperative breeding. Coworkers from Alaska, Indiana and Maine had arrived. Colleagues in Central America sent their regrets and greetings. A lot of speakers had independently come up with the phrase “What Would Russ Do?” in their talks. Close to 80 people showed up that day: professors, industry folks, federal scientists, postdocs and grad students, all of us counting Russ as our friend.

Wearing a Cal Bears cap, long-sleeved flannel and a Galápagos finch shirt from his field trip this summer, Russ was flanked by his wife, Judy, and his son in the front row. He got up twice, once to thank his own mentors and again to thank the meeting organizers. During breaks, he received a steady line of people who sat and talked with him. When I told him that I automatically flip to the citations every time I see a “Greenberg” reference, he said, “You might have missed my work in computer science.”

The meeting ended with a banquet under a gazebo overlooking the chilly Chester River. For a while it felt like the closing of a normal conference, where we caught up with old colleagues over food and drinks. But the poignancy returned, sharply, when Russ and his family got up to go back to their hotel. How do you hug someone knowing there won’t be a next time? What do you say when, literally, this is it?

I fumbled my moment and blurted something about research updates. I watched one of the oldest attendees, a 78-year-old man, depart from the embrace with his eyes full of tears. I watched Russ descend the stairs into the night. And then, all of us wielding our marvelous ability to compartmentalize, we went back to the party.

In the words of Samuel Beckett, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

(photo by N. Diggs)


In the days after the meeting, I found the CaringBridge site that Judy created after Russ’s diagnosis last November. Her thoughtful entries detailed Russ’s condition, their rebounds and obstacles, and all the papers and grants accepted while he was in treatment. One post featured a photo of them on their wedding day, beaming next to the man and woman who had married them. Upon closer inspection, I realized I’d had an entire conversation with the couple while waiting for dinner. I felt like Harry Potter learning the true connections between the adults in his life. What other milestones had been shared among the people in that room?

I did manage to see Russ once more. The reasons were selfish—I didn’t want the conference to be the last time I saw him. I couldn’t bear the thought of letting more time slip away, not when so much already had. I felt guilty it took an illness to get back in touch. I felt worse admitting my tendency was to take teachers, even the most influential, for granted. In the time that was left, I wanted him to know how much he mattered to me.

Ray, the postdoc who had organized the conference, helped arrange the visit to Russ and Judy’s home. Russ was pretty sleepy that day and I wasn’t the most articulate, but we had good moments anyway. I dropped off a letter from a friend who’d also worked with him. I recounted the time he told me greenheads were mallards. (He said, “I’ve changed the protocol.”) When it came time to leave, I looked at him looking at me as I went out the door.

Shortly after that, Russ entered a hospice facility for a brief stay. He bounced back and went home, but soon he returned to the facility for professional care. I was in my office when I got the call from Ray.


The night I returned from the conference, I read a New Yorker article about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn DOMA. One of the last lines read, “To give someone a really beautiful death is the greatest gift.” Perhaps the main source of comfort is that we were able to give Russ that gift. The conference was gratitude at its deepest. We thanked him for being.

The other comfort is that Russ is still mentoring me. Thinking of his productivity motivates me through this final stretch of grad school; thinking of his generosity encourages me to keep paying it forward. Thinking of his life leads me to the answer, at last, of why I do research: for the joy of discovery, and of sharing it, and of making my way down tree-lined private roads.

I’ll let Russ close this post with one of his own, in the spirit of the approaching season. Love to a researcher who cared about his work. Love to a teacher who cared about the people he worked with. Let my words and my science be my way of saying goodbye.


On death in the field (tricolored blackbirds)

I wrote two posts about death last summer. The one about sacrificing animals said what I wanted it to. The one about coming to terms with death did not. It always read a little schmaltzy and unfocused to me. In re-reading, I realized what it was was desperate. I took an easy example of death being manageable and tried to persuade myself I was okay with the whole thing. There are still contexts, mainly when I am a Scientist, where that strategy works. But just outside those lines, I can’t handle it at all.

This season I saw a lot of death in the field. Specifically, a lot of dead babies. Two reasons explain their occurrence and my rational vs. emotional responses.

The first reason had to do with the biology of hatch order. In the other blackbirds I’ve studied, the female lays one egg a day but begins incubating only after she lays her penultimate egg. This means that if the female lays four eggs, she waits until her third to get on the nest. The first three eggs all start developing together, with the last egg a day behind. You show up on hatch day, and there are three pink babies and an egg. You show up the next day, and there are four pink babies, one smaller than the other. Hatching is relatively synchronous. The runt’s disadvantage is slight.


Here are three red-winged blackbird chicks from Bahamas 2011, around two and three days old. The runt is on the left. Since they’re so close in age, sometimes size isn’t the easiest way to tell them apart. The key is to look at the thickness of the gray line (the feather shafts) in the wing. Within days the feather shafts erupt from the skin and start growing outward.

Unlike those species, the female tricolored blackbirds had very strong hatching asynchrony. I showed up on hatch day, and there was one chick and three eggs. The next day there were two of each. Evidently females began incubating as soon as they laid their first egg. This means that in a four-egg nest, the first-laid egg had three full days on the last egg. I came across a nest once, and this is what I saw.


When you have only eleven days to gain ten times your weight, and when you’re out-muscled for a fixed amount of food, three days means the difference between life and death. Many nests started with four chicks. No nests finished with four fledglings. I lost count of the number of times I found the pale, sunken body of the runt buried under its nestmates. Usually the parents practiced good nest sanitation by removing and dropping it into the water. But occasionally the faint smell of rotting flesh wafted through the marsh, indicating that somewhere close by were fat chicks resting on the carcass of their sibling.

This sight (and smell) was something I could deal with. For starters, the chicks were dead when I saw them. Second, hatching asynchrony is a known reproductive strategy. Although there is some debate about its evolution, the classic hypothesis is that parents shoot for a big clutch and then raise as many chicks as possible on that year’s food supply. If everyone survives, then the bet pays off and the parents get the highest possible returns. If the late-hatching chicks die from insufficient food, then so be it. It’s just a chance that’s taken as part of a given tactic. Science could explain the little bodies in the nest.

The second reason had to do with the snakes.

One day I was banding a female when the marsh exploded with alarm calls. Lots of birds have a mobbing call, a high harsh “reh! reh! reh!” that I have only ever heard in the presence of two things: humans and snakes. After I let the female go, I headed toward the crowd, attracted to the racket like everyone else. The last time this had happened, I was in Florida in 2007 and got to see an enormous coachwhip hanging out in the scrub.


Oh shit. It was a California kingsnake, and it was in a nest.


Science went out the window. Like a fool I shook the cattails and yelled at the snake to stop. I even whacked it with my field book to make it go away. When it didn’t leave, I decided all I could do was document. I figured as long as its mouth was full, it wouldn’t strike.



Since the mobbing had been going on for a while, I’m pretty sure the mid-body bulge is a chick from another nest. I know this snake cleaned out at least three.

Photos didn’t capture the moment at all, so I switched to video (don’t worry, no blood or gore). I originally thought the chick was still alive, but I’m not so sure any more. The bill can move if you press certain parts of its body. Also, the toes are splayed instead of clenched, which is how live birds usually hold their feet.

The worst part was when the female, for reasons unknown, amped up her shrieks as the snake left. I don’t know if she’d been there the whole time, or if she had arrived with food to discover her nest had just failed. Again, no blood or gore, but it’s hard not to anthropomorphize.

The kingsnake slipped into the water and vanished, leaving a nest that was empty but for the dud egg it hadn’t touched. I stood there for a few minutes, then retreated through the cattails. All around me, within arm’s reach, chicks rested quietly in their nests. The closest nest to the depredated one was a foot away.

I hated how any of them could be next. I hated how they were so helpless their only defense was to hold tight to the lining. I hated how the adults could do nothing as the snake played duck-duck-goose with their kids. Most of all, I hated witnessing the moment of no return, when the snake had chosen and bodies went into alarm and systems failed. The first moment of the end of life was terrifying to watch. And it was all too obvious why.

Clearly the impartiality I said I’d achieved in the old entry was utter BS. Here I was, projecting like crazy, siding with Team Blackbird and brimming with resentment that the snake had to eat. I took the food chain and the “no value judgments in nature” and threw them against the wall. A pathetic sense of injustice settled instead, the little-kid kind where you wallow in the unfairness of the world. I went home, showed the photos and video to my colleague, and learned I was the first person to observe kingsnakes as blackbird predators.

A few days later the exact same thing happened in a different part of the marsh. The chick was days from fledging and was taken head first.



Knowing what to expect, I had a little more time to process what I was seeing. It felt so much more immediate and violent than coming across a withered chick in a nest. I think I winced the whole time.

But I also know I would have been miserable if I’d watched the runt in the act of starving too. Maybe the only difference, then, was that I’d been present at the death of one and not the other. Maybe the deciding factor was simply how well I could relate to the moment. When I see death this up close, in a situation so easy to personify, I can’t not get scared. And the only bizarre comfort is that I know it would be strange to feel otherwise. These are the moments when death stops being “comfortably abstract” (thanks, Carolyn Hax), gets in your face, and freaks you the hell out.

So. That epiphany (or platitude) explains some uncomfortable truths. Like: why I wept for Newtown but don’t for Syria. Why we can eat factory cow, strategically slaughtered hundreds of miles away, but not the family dog. Why I predict wonders for my emotional stability when death strikes closer to home. I decided it’s a good thing to feel unfocused when writing about it. It means one’s family and friends are still here.

To the snakes and the surviving chicks, who can all flee from danger now, I wish you long lives together in the marsh. Stay just the way you are.


You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

This is a story about two women in science.

I finished fieldwork on Monday and drove down the next day to San Francisco to hear my friend Laurie’s practice talk for an upcoming meeting. We first went out to dinner at a Korean restaurant, where we were seated at a tiny table for two. To our left was another pair of diners, a man and a woman, close enough that we could have all linked arms and sung Kumbaya if we’d wanted.

Except things went from fine to sour. While summarizing my fieldwork to Laurie, I noticed the man (next to me) twitching his head in my direction and gesturing to his companion. Was he indicating something about me? Then I heard him say: “Upspeak. She’s using upspeak. Do you know what that is?” The woman replied no. “It’s where people’s voices go up when they talk. She’s doing it. I can’t stand it.”

Reflexively I began checking my speech. First, his definition of upspeak was wrong. While I was certainly altering my pitch, I was not turning every sentence into a question. (Hold on, why did I instantly try to correct myself?) Second, it became impossible to continue the conversation. It was like talking on a cell phone that echoes — mid-sentence, I’d see the head jerk and lose my train of thought. We were not happy.

Laurie tried to tell me about her own latest work, using tools to scan the genome for transcription factor binding motifs. Ignoring the fact that we were talking shop, the man started gesturing toward her with his chopsticks. “Women do it more than men,” he informed his companion. “Girls more than guys.”

Laurie soldiered on, asking me an actual question ending in an actual question mark. When he waved in dismissal at her upward inflection, the irritation boiled over. I turned to him and said, “I’m sorry, it’s really annoying to have you commenting on our conversation.”

I stared into the blue eyes and frozen smile of a middle-aged man; I registered wispy light hair and a sport jacket. Who was this person who thought it was okay to treat us like bugs under a microscope?

We were all flustered. I wanted to say more, but I knew I would trip over my words. Laurie and I recall his reply, “Well, it’s more annoying to have to hear it. And I didn’t realize you could hear us,” followed by the woman’s apology. (Hold on, why was she the one to say sorry?) Everyone returned to their respective conversations, but of course the tension remained.

He quickly made himself disagreeable in other ways, undermining his companion with statements like “You never know how to make a long story short, do you?” Also, he said “No!” when requested to eat his food.

The awkwardness flared again when we made room for them to leave. The man turned before reaching the door, looked at us, and said, “I hope you have a nice night.” I gave him the benefit of the doubt, managing a tight smile and thank you before watching him exit our lives.

We spent the rest of the night talking in upspeak. Oh, wait, no, we worked for two hours on Laurie’s talk, which contains two years of impressive and meticulous findings on recombination rate variation in great apes.

Then we spent the rest of the night talking in upspeak.


The offenders in question? Clearly we need some more recent photos?


Some thoughts:

(a) I re-read the recent commentaries on vocal fry, the latest women’s speech pattern to throw everyone up in arms. Quotes:

  • “For years, women have been criticized for raising their voices at the end of sentences…So we’re wrong when we raise our voices, and we’re wrong when we lower them.” (Amanda Hess, Slate, 7 January 2013)
  • “Judgments about speech are judgments about the speakers themselves…Inherently there is of course nothing unsophisticated about vocal fry, up-talk, or using ‘like.’ All this is to say that normative judgments about linguistic prestige are relative, and merely reflect social attitudes.” (Gabriel Arana, Atlantic, 10 January 2013)

This isn’t to say I don’t notice those tics myself. After all, my peers and I grew up with those same social attitudes. But something about that man’s fixation was especially grating. He interrupted a serious work discussion to comment on our voices and not our words. We were judged for something unrelated to the content of our character, then treated to an unsavory glimpse of his. I only hope those judgments weren’t shoved directly into a mental bin of All Women Are. Given his behavior, I’m not optimistic. But I can still hope.

(b) Corollary 1: Even if we had been talking about clothes/hair/dating, we still shouldn’t have felt obliged to defend our intelligence or ourselves. Corollary 2: Would he have done the same thing if one or both of us had been male? If there had been a man with us? (“Further experiments manipulating sex ratio will test whether the subject’s reactions are always this awful.”)

(c) It felt so good to speak up, even if I wasn’t totally composed. Credit to Women in Science and Engineering, “Lean In,” biology seminars, and my mom (who once stopped in the middle of a violin recital to tell the audience to shut up). I wish it hadn’t felt revolutionary to be assertive to a stranger, and I wish I’d stayed articulate under pressure. But this just means next time will feel a little less boat-rocking, and I’ll keep my presence of mind a little longer, until it will no longer be blogworthy to ask for respect. I want to try again.

(d) So, to the man at dinner, wherever you are: I hope you understand our perspective and why your behavior was upsetting. My friend and I were engaged in normal adult conversation and deserve to be treated like normal adult diners. Please refrain from judging us, and judging us incorrectly. I hope we made an impact on you as much as you did on us.

Also, we are very sorry about your penis.

Hit it, Feminist Taylor Swift.

Clusterf*ck in Cuba, part 4 + bonus photos

Days 4-11

So began the process to get me out of Cuba. I spent the rest of my truncated time emailing a LOT of people, changing my return flights, writing the official proposal, visiting my (I hope) future site, and coordinating the California field season. By great good luck, the California birds are in a lull between breeding cycles, and there’s still time to sample them.

I just want to say here that the lousiest part of this ordeal has been the amount of work I created for others. I feel humbled and embarrassed by all the costly fires my lab and family had to put out for me — getting me cash before the trip, amending permits, buying the plane ticket to D.C. It royally sucked to learn that the international health insurance coverage, paid for by my advisor, was nonrefundable.

And while I was in Cuba, things were exacerbated by the unusually limited connectivity. I would have been completely screwed if my landlady didn’t have email and the generosity to share her account. My field site and R’s town have even less access. Out in the countryside, it is rustic. While being offline was romantic in theory, the past week made it clear I need to find a reliable way to stay in touch, should I go back next year.

Speaking of next year: Currently, the plan is to do so. Despite the absurdity of coming all the way out here just to learn about the requirements, now we know what they are. And the face-to-face contact was helpful beyond measure. But I am not going without written proof from the Cuban side that I’ve complied with 100% of their latest requirements. I’m not putting my family and lab through another rescue mission. And I’m getting a Ph.D. in biology, not in bureaucracy.

Day 12

Fittingly, my last day was just as insane. With the clock ticking, I had to explain at check-in that I needed to hang on to a bag so I could re-pack my confiscated materials. Then I was immediately stopped at Immigrations because of a note someone had written on my tourist visa. I had to explain the situation twice before anyone got moving. (Mentally: “I am leaving without working, like I’m supposed to be doing! Why is this taking so long? Please let me gooooo”)

Once I got to Customs, I was interviewed in a tiny room with a long table and fluorescent lights. Luckily, it was with another agent who’d been friendly to me on my first day. He mainly wanted to make sure I really hadn’t done any work while in Cuba. And here I learned another lesson: Even in the most rigid of hierarchies, people soften when you talk to them about your science. They want to know what you study. Their eyes light up when you mention wild animals. I pulled out the magical handwritten proposal, and before he’d even finished reading the cover letter, we were flipping through “The Birds of Cuba” together.

Finally, another agent came in with my bag of science equipment. Amazing! I mentally hugged my mist nets and Potter traps, packed them away, and got them checked in.

The flight out of Havana was delayed, I just made my D.C. flight, and then, after 16 hours of traveling, it was over. Twelve days in Cuba. An experience as vexing, contradictory, unpredictable, surreal and humorous as the country itself.


After particularly discouraging days in Maine 2006, my mentor Brent used to tell us field techs: “There’s no such thing as frustration in the field.” I’ve always loved the validation in that sentence, and it’s come in seriously handy these past two weeks. Somehow, politics and insufficient information combined to make me outrageously ill-prepared for the Cuban weed-whacker of bureaucracy. Yet through this whole ordeal, I’ve been a lot more okay than I thought I would be.

My time there was not wasted. The Duke officials pointed out there was literally no other way for me to have found out about the regulations on the Cuban side. So I went and I did. And most encouragingly, the biologists I talked with were always enthusiastic about my project. If this collaboration overcomes the political hurdles, we are still looking at an exciting exchange of skills and ideas.

I’ll end with a few photos of interesting things I saw while running my errands. I wish I could convey the car fumes, the cigar(ette) smoke, the roosters, the honking, the conversations, the music, the people. But I hope these hint at the voice of the city, and the backdrop against which my story unfolded.




Julio Antonio Mella (founder of the Cuban Communist Party), Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos (revolutionary whose wire portrait is mounted across Che’s in the Plaza de la Revolución)



“Playa Girón” is Cuba’s name for the Bay of Pigs Invasion.


“Long live [International] Workers’ Day”


“The powerful and victorious revolution continues”


Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) are grassroots community organizations. Or, depending on how you look at them, neighborhood snitches enforcing good citizen behavior.



I’m all for recycling, but perhaps not with vigilantes.


“Guilty: The U.S. government shelters terrorism”

The man on the right is Luis Posada Carriles, “Cuban-born Venezuelan anti-communist extremist” (Wikipedia).


“We can triumph and we will triumph”
“Never will we renounce our independence”
“The wealth of the cities lies in its heroes—they will return”
“Resolved to triumph or die”
“Ideas are our weapons”


“With our feet and our ears on the ground, we will triumph”


“Towards victory always” (commonly associated with Che)



The field site! Which looks just like Pennsylvania! God, I hope I can go back next year.

Those trails in the marsh are from wild cattle (pronounced BOOF-a-lo). I’m glad they leave you alone, because they are HUGE.


Ox-drawn plows in a corn field. I could not stop watching.


A tawny-shouldered blackbird. Actually, this was back in Havana. Within five minutes of my spotting them, the male copulated with the female, and the female started picking up nesting material. Bastards.


Parque John Lennon, near the travel agency. But where are his glasses?


Turns out they were nicked so often by souvenir hunters that they’re provided only when the guard on duty sees someone taking a photo.


“You may say I’m a dreamer…”


An agromercado, looking much better than the grim warehouse next door where people received their rationed eggs, rice and oil.


People waiting in line for entrance to Coppelia, the block-long ice cream parlor. Across the street was the Yara movie theater, showing “Life of Pi.”


The embassy of North Korea. Wow.



This was one of the only times I saw U.S. products: Sprite, Pringles and Fanta. Want some Tukola?


People also use Microsoft and Windows.


I’m so confused.


“For what, if not for peace among men, must advances in science be?”  —the ultra-quotable José Martí, Cuban giant of the Latin-American independence movement

P.S. That’s my casa to the left of the flagpole. I typed up my proposal sitting in the open, third-floor balcony.


Statue of José Martí at the Plaza Anti-Imperialista. The plaque beneath contains a quote from Simón Bolívar: “The United States, which appear destined by Providence to plague the Americas with misery in the name of liberty.”

He has a point. We were huge pricks to Latin America in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is why I bristle at immigration policy hardliners. It feels ironic that we helped destabilized Latin America but now deny the chance for recovery to those who endured the civil wars and dictatorships. It’s bad enough to perceive immigrants as dangerous scum but even worse not to realize that the U.S. was a major contributor to the economic disparity.

Soapbox over.

Sentimental graffiti

Why yes, I am a sap.



“Invisible woman seeks transparent man to do the never-before-seen.”

Okay, not exactly sentimental.


“One can love without being happy. One can be happy without loving. But to love and to be happy is something wonderful.” Oh, Bubu. I hope you were also not arrested.


Tucked away in a little Old Havana alley: “While the city sleeps, I think of you.”
I don’t know why, but I really loved finding this one.



Hasta luego, Cuba. Onward to California. Here we go, take two.

Clusterf*ck in Cuba, part 3

Day 3

Except we got the death knell instead. The vice-director immediately launched into the 45-day rule, then said in order for me to do any kind of scientific collecting, there would have to be:

  • a meeting between all involved agencies to discuss my research.
  • a collaboration established between a Cuban and U.S. institution. (I, as an individual, could not be the official party.)
  • an official invitation from Cuba to conduct a project with explicit benefits to the country.

In short, even if I were to initiate the paperwork immediately, the earliest I could expect a work visa and the accompanying permits would be January.

It was a bad moment. And, I knew everything she said about collaborations and benefits to Cuba would not go over well on the U.S. side. Last year I learned that even co-authorship with a Cuban counts a benefit that the Treasury Department has to approve. I suppose it’s to be expected for two countries that have dug in their heels for 52 years.

I skirted the issue by sticking to the science and handed over the proposal,  explaining the conservation benefits to the two species, one of which is endemic and listed as vulnerable in Cuba. The vice-director slowly flipped through the pages and read the last section R had helped me prepare. All of a sudden, she began to smile. “I think we have a new project,” she said. (Pause. Flip.) “Your Spanish is so good. And your handwriting is so beautiful.”

We couldn’t overcome the time issues, but Puerto Rico 2012 and my third-grade teacher got us through the door.

The vice-director referred us to her assistant, who gave us the low-down on the paperwork. With a few clicks, she pulled up the forms for me to fill out. The forms that looked a lot like the Bahamas forms. The forms that I’ll never know why I never saw before I arrived.

Here is the complete list of agencies that I finally know are involved in obtaining permission for science research in a protected area:

  • the Center for the Inspection and Control of Agriculture, for the collection permit and export permit
  • the Ministry of Armed Forces (!), for work in ANY Cuban territory
  • the Ministry of Agriculture, for the work visa and import permit
  • the Ministry of Exterior Commerce, for officializing the cooperation between a Cuban and non-Cuban entity
  • the National Enterprise for the Protection of Flora and Fauna, for also officializing the cooperation and reporting to the above agencies

It was a lot to process. I finally admitted defeat, telling her I would submit the proposal for approval to sample next year.

R and I had spaghetti at a local cafetería. A nearby mall played Usher, Backstreet Boys and more “Gangnam Style.” R told me he honestly hadn’t heard of any of those the requirements, and that previous researchers had in fact successfully changed their visas after arriving. (F, in a subsequent email, expressed similar surprise.) So it seemed as though some recent overhaul had invalidated everyone’s knowledge of the paperwork involved.

I asked him what caused the change in their reactions when I produced the proposal. He said I have to remember that my research (even with WAY toned-down genetics) is uncharted territory. Nobody in Cuba has the resources to do what I’m proposing. I guess that means they could still balk, but I’m going to believe they’re fascinated by the idea of measuring a population’s genetic health. We’ll know in January.

R told me kindly that he still wanted to take me out to the field site. At least I’d get to see the blackbirds and have an idea where I’d be working. I nearly lost it then, but I swallowed my spaghetti and thanked him for his generosity.

At the rice-and-beans place that evening, I struck up a conversation with a fellow diner who gave me his salad. He looked like what I’ve come to think of as the average young Cuban male of Hispanic descent: slender, tattooed, chain-smoking, spiky-haired. He told me his favorite places in Havana were the discotecas and invited me to come meet his friends. I walked him to the Plaza Anti-Imperialista on the Malecón and he said, “Listen, if the police come, just say we’ve known each other for a long time.” Kid, I’m like a decade older than you. I have emails to write on a Friday night.


The plaza was constructed as a forum for protests over the 2000 Elián González controversy. Later, people erected 138 Cuban flags in front of the U.S. Special Interests Section. Handy that you can’t see through 138 flags.


Further down is the Memorial for the U.S.S. Maine, the ship whose sinking (from infamously unknown causes) started the Spanish-American War and ended with the U.S.’s winning Spain’s last colonies: Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.  There used be an eagle on top, but it got decapitated during the revolution.

The plaque on the other side reads: “To the victims of the Maine, who were sacrificed by the imperialist voracity in its zeal to gain hold of the island of Cuba.” Bad, bad blood.


I wanted to sit there for hours that night.

Clusterf*ck in Cuba, part 2

Day 2

In the morning I met my contact R, who was going to help me get the paperwork to work on his reserve. We hopped in a taxi colectivo and headed for the Ministry of Agriculture. And by taxi colectivo, I mean colossal ’50s town car.

If the taxista sees you’re a tourist, he won’t take you because tourists are supposed to use the taxis that charge in tourist pesos. So I tried not to let it show it was my first time inside a car that had rolled out of the factory when segregation was still legal. The teal paint was flaking at every layer, the beige leather ceiling was rotting at the edges, the dashboard dials reminded me of a vintage Kitchenaid mixer. The original door handle was entirely gone and replaced by a cheap metal one, several inches to its right, that was also the only thing pinning the upholstery to the door. I tried to see how fast we were going until I realized the speedometer was stuck at 10 km/hr. Yet this thing carried me, R and three other passengers through town, until R handed the driver 20 national pesos and asked him to stop. After disgorging us, it lumbered away, spewing exhaust into the street.


I eventually did take some stealth shots of the most craptastic taxi I rode in. Doesn’t the front seat immediately make you think of black-and-white movies?



That would be the road you’re seeing between my feet.

In the beginning I was still hesitant to take pictures of government buildings. But during our two-hour wait for a Ministry representative, I had ample time to stare at the people and the illustrated slogans that stretched across the lobby. It was a very Peter-Hessler-in-China moment.

(a bucolic farm where a smiling pig rested its front feet against a fence, a decal horse ate some decal grass, and the rabbit family was almost as big as the cow)






I also watched the employees return from lunch and go back to work. It took a while to identify what I found so strange, but I eventually realized that, excluding people in uniform, there is no office dress code in Cuba. Many women wore spaghetti-straps, jean shorts, mini-skirts and flip-flops. The men wore anything from jeans and T-shirts to slacks and button-downs.

After R reminded the front desk we were still there, we were finally called to meet with a protocol officer. He was a man of a certain age who told us that changing my visa status wouldn’t be easy and that the Ministry could do nothing until we had approval from an agency called Flora and Fauna. We would have to go to the local Flora and Fauna headquarters to talk to a man named B.

Old man: (pulling a random piece of paper out of his breast pocket and writing down my name) Are you of Chinese or Korean descent?
Me: I’m Chinese.
Old man: (ignoring me) I was an ambassador to North Korea. Did a lot of work there.
Me: Oh. Good.
Old man: I knew Kim Il-sung very well.
Me: What were you doing there?
Old man: (Pause.) Working.

I have to remember that all the older people here have memories of a time that I learned only from textbooks and movies. (Or not so old: the “Período Especial,” a time of extreme shortage, resulted from the fall of the USSR and lasted through the ’90s.) And that some of them probably were involved in projects I don’t want to know about.

We took another taxi colectivo to the local Flora and Fauna HQ, housed in a dusty set of low green-and-white buildings among native trees. The guard was a very young woman in uniform, bored and leaning back on her squat chair. A blue velvet rope theoretically prevented trespassers from entering. Except it didn’t quite reach my knees. After recording R’s name, she unhooked the rope, and we stepped over it pretending we couldn’t have done so five seconds ago.

As we walked toward the building, R told me that absolute high director was a comandante in the revolution who still wielded enormous power. Once, R’s agency was having trouble receiving permission to conduct biodiversity surveys, simply because people from different provinces were involved.  The director made a phone call, and in ten minutes they had their permission. Sigh.

B was a half-blind man who looked like Gandhi. He warmly asked about R’s family but snapped into business mode as soon as the conversation turned to my visa. I would have to submit a letter and a project description to the Director General of Flora and Fauna. Things finally started to make sense. No one had ever asked for a formal proposal—of course they’d want to know why I wanted to sample the birds. Here was my chance to present my case and my credentials.

So I spent the night cobbling together recent proposals, then translating the whole thing. Because I had no printer access, I wrote out the text in cursive onto seven pages of notebook paper torn from my journal. It looked like a homework assignment for 9th-grade U.S. History class.


With R’s help, I added a section about the conservation benefits of my study, modified from my work with the endangered Puerto Rico birds. It would turn out to be critical to the big Flora and Fauna meeting the next day. We attached a letter of recommendation from my advisor and were ready to go.

P.S. We stopped on the way back to visit Habana Vieja (Old Havana), the eastern part of the city famous for its grand colonial buildings. On the way back, R helped a young woman push her broken-down car, blasting “Gangnam Style,” to the side of the road. I have seen a car being pushed by helpful passersby almost every day.


The Capitolio Nacional, which used to house the Cuban Congress but is now home to the National Academy of Sciences. Much better.

Cuba in 51 seconds: Bici-taxis, old cars, pedestrians, and sounds of the city. My favorite of the videos I took.

Clusterf*ck in Cuba, part 1

Hi everyone. Cuba didn’t allow me to do my fieldwork, so I’m back in the States.

Yeah. I know.

From the government’s perspective, I basically showed up to do fieldwork without a shred of authorization. In a country that loves its authorizations (and is quite protective of its natural resources), it turned out to be completely wrong to assume I could get things taken care of there.

But the frustrating part is that it was only until I physically arrived that I learned about all the paperwork that should have been submitted. I now know the poor information I received was due to inertia from the officials I’d contacted, plus outdated knowledge by the people who did want to help. It took a lot of tongue-biting to get through the official disapproval for not having my ducks in a row.

But there was no shortage of quiet success, crazy sights and acts of great kindness during my 12 days there. I’ll share those stories, as well as the story of my stunted field season, in the next four entries.

And, the great news is that I’ve been able to save my field season. In a few days I’ll be in California sampling a population of tricolored blackbirds and rewriting Summer 2013.

Day 1

The trouble started as soon as I landed. As usual, Customs searched my bags and I was questioned about my work. I was ready with my tourist visa and U.S. paperwork on hand. From my Bahamas experiences, I knew the agents would scrutinize the odder supplies like needles and mist nets.

Except this time, what caught their attention were my three little bottles of EDTA. EDTA is a chemical that helps fix the blood sample on my filter paper cards. I make the recipe in lab every year and divide it into miniature Nalgene bottles.

It turns out you cannot bring in chemicals that are out of their original packaging. Another Customs agent came over, and then another. They pointed immediately at the EDTA, then the cards, which unfortunately are labeled “Human bloodstain cards,” and the four large Potter traps sitting on the inspection table. They asked, “Do you have an import permit for this medical and scientific equipment?” Say what now? Who said anything about an import permit? Then they asked me for my passport and visa. The real trouble started when they saw it was a tourist and not a work visa. Without a work visa, I was totally unauthorized to enter the country with work-related materials.

I was tempted to reply that if I had actually waited until I received my work visa, the blackbirds would be decomposing somewhere in the mangroves. Instead, I explained that my strategy had been to enter with a tourist visa and then change it to a work visa. It was the first of many times I got the “you must start the application for a work visa 45 days before you enter the country.” Tongue-biting, tongue-biting. If only I’d heard as much before I had arrived. I kept calm and told them it was absolutely not my intention to violate the rules.

The day was a repeat of Bahamas 2010, where I sat with my luggage while a group of officers decided what to do with me. I’m glad I have that experience under my belt, because this was exasperating and inconvenient but nowhere near as terrifying. The worst-case scenario in 2010, which came to pass, was that I’d lose a summer’s worth of work. The worst-case scenario this time was that I’d pack up my stuff and go to California, or maybe write some overdue papers.

In the end, they confiscated all my materials but listed them on an official, itemized IOU. I had 30 days to obtain my work visa and an import permit. After that, my stuff (worth more than $2000) would get tossed. Looking back, it’s clear Customs didn’t know the agencies involved, or the much longer timeline that would actually be required for me.

Seven hours after landing, I finally got some Cuban money and left the airport. On the highway I saw my first ’50s-era cars, passed the famous Plaza de la Revolución with the mounted wire friezes of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, and arrived at my wonderful casa particular. After unpacking, I had dinner at a local place, then went for a walk along the Malecón, the seaside promenade that divides the city from the ocean. It became my nightly routine, and my favorite part of the day.




It’s the same age as my mom. I asked.


Plaza de la Revolución on May 1, May Day/International Workers’ Day. This year’s theme was “Unidos por un socialismo próspero y sostenible,” as well as a memorial to the late Hugo Chávez. People from Turkey, Colombia, Venezuela, Russia, South Korea, France, and a ton of other countries all marched in the parade.

On the street, I quickly learned to say I was a tourist from Taiwan. Initial reactions to “U.S.” were mixed, and claiming to be from Taiwan equated me with being from China, which had its advantages. (“Are you a Red?” asked one man. “Ah…not really, Taiwan has its own government,” I said. “Orange, then!” he said.)


Rice and beans, a couple fried eggs, boiled potatoes and salad. Total: 15 national pesos. (Sixty cents.)


My casa was right next to the tall eyedropper building. The location was perfect.


Letter from (almost) Cuba

Dear friends and family,

In 2009, when I first pitched my Big Dissertation Idea to my lab, my advisor Steve concluded the discussion by saying, “I think Cuba is in your future.” He was far more prescient than I was. After three years of receiving lip service, the notion of traveling there gradually became a reality over this past year. On Wednesday I board a flight to Havana and will spend the next two months in southwest Cuba chasing blackbirds.

Because I don’t expect to have internet (more on that later), I’m writing this post as a stand-in message before going offline. It covers why I’m going; how my contacts and I got this thing in motion; and what I know about my living conditions so far. I’ll say upfront that I’ve never kicked off a field season knowing so little about what’s on the other side, so there’s a fair amount of speculation about that last part.

Anyway, enjoy!

What I’m doing in Cuba

I’m going so I can sample two of the five blackbird species I study. Basically, I need to know how much they cheat (ahem, “engage in extra-pair mating”) relative to the other three species. I collect blood samples from Mom, Dad and the kids, then run DNA paternity analyses to see which of the kids weren’t fathered by Dad.

[Aside: If you’re interested, here is a video of me giving a five-slide research talk in early April. The fourth slide shows the distribution of my five species and explains why I go where I go each summer. My segment starts at 07:40 and is followed by fascinating talks from fellow grads who have all summed up years of their lives in five minutes.]

For multiple reasons, I predicted that the three species in the Caribbean—the one I sampled last year in Puerto Rico, and these two Cuban species—would cheat less often than the two continental North American species. Initially, I was going to sample just the Puerto Rico birds, then extrapolate their behavior to the Cuban birds.

To my surprise, I found that the Puerto Rico blackbirds basically cheated as much as one of the continental species. Out went my ability to infer the Cuban birds’ behavior. And in came the excited responses after I presented my findings at a conference last summer. In describing my project to a roomful of witnesses, I inadvertently made it official that I was going to discover what those Cuban birds were up to.

Still, it wasn’t clear that Cuba would even allow samples to be exported for genetic analyses. The country is a signatory of a biodiversity convention adhering to rules stricter than anything the U.S. belongs to. And, like Brazil, there is a measure of commercial protection of its natural resources. I was initially told that taking out blood samples would be out of the question.

But to my great good luck, I recognized a contact early one morning, at the conference 5K, who has since become one of my life-lines. (Kids, this is why Google-stalking is an important life skill.) I’ll call him F here. F traveled to Cuba last fall to talk with officials about his own projects and to ask the current policy on exporting blood samples. Back in 2001, he had received a yes. With the Bush years, that answer turned to no. I got the phone call in late October where he told me they were saying yes again. Full speed ahead!

Where I’ll be

Here’s Cuba.


I land in Havana, spend a few days sorting out paperwork, and then…somehow…will travel 80 miles southeast to that lovely green peninsula inside the blue box. Also: I cannot believe how close Cuba is to Florida.

The green spot is Zapata Peninsula, home to Zapata Swamp National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the largest tract of preserved wetland in the Antilles. It’s home to almost 200 species of birds, as well as a staggering amount of peat moss and all three genera of a rodent called a hutia. (Wikipedia: “They are hunted for food in Cuba, where they are often cooked in a large pot with wild nuts and honey.”)


Alas, I may not get to see the hutias. Because of unknown political stuff going on at the Ministry of Science, I was ultimately not given access to the park. I was told I’d have to get so-and-so permits from so-and-so agencies, and that previous U.S. ornithologists were similarly denied entrance to the park’s protected areas.

Before the bad news broke, F had connected me with a colleague (I’ll call him R) in the Ministry of Agriculture who manages a reserve just to the east of the national park. After the bad news, it suddenly became my only option, as well as the first of many times F would save my ass.

If you click on the map, you’ll have a better view of the little lake east of the green area. That’s where I’ll be, near a town called Guamá. Apparently it is home to a recreated Taíno village and a crocodile farm. (Rough Guide: “On a tour round the swamp you can witness a mock capture of an exhausted-looking baby crocodile and are then invited to eat one at the Croco Bar.”)

I’m there until late June, and then I spend my last week in Havana getting my affairs in order until returning to the States. I come home on the Fourth of July.

Also, check out the inlet between the park and the lake. That’s the Bay of Pigs.


Getting there

This has been a long and painful process. On the U.S. side, I have travel and import permits from three federal agencies plus Duke. On the Cuban side, I have…no visa, no site permits, and no export permits.

At minimum, I needed a visa even to board the charter plane in Miami. Ideally it would have been a work visa, issued from the agency overseeing the field site, that would allow me to work for 70-odd days. Things were looking good, until my Agriculture contact R disappeared from email. As my flight date approached and no visa appeared, my travel agent and I switched to Plan B: Fly in with a 30-day tourist visa, buy myself a month to meet with Agriculture people, and lobby for the work visa once I’m on the ground.

[Travel agent: So, I will book you a round-trip ticket with the 30-day tourist visa. Once you’re approved for an extended stay, then you can buy a one-way ticket for July.
Me: Wait, why can’t I book two one-way tickets, one for April and one for July?
Travel agent: As a U.S. citizen, it’s illegal for you to book a one-way ticket to Cuba.
Me: Right. Yes. Got it. Very good.]

Tomorrow I receive the round-trip ticket in the mail. Major thanks to my advisor for footing the bill for this unwieldy itinerary.

There’s a happy epilogue (so far): R’s brother, with whom he shares an email address, wrote and gave me R’s cell phone. He added, “The sound is really low, so you’ll have to speak loudly.” So there I was, in my lab with the door closed last week, shouting to R how much I looked forward to coordinating the work visa.

Bottom line, I’m boarding that damn plane on Wednesday.

Okay, now for some stuff about living conditions.


Internet in Havana is of the 56-Kbps, five-minutes-to-load-a-webpage, $8-an-hour kind. Internet at my field site is probably non-existent. So, while I may be able to send little email telegrams at the beginning and end of my trip, I’m going dark in May and June. It’s the longest time I’ll be without internet since acquiring the internet.

As for phone, the 2009 lifting of the telecommunications ban means my phone could work in Cuba. But after getting slammed with roaming costs in the Bahamas for checking one voicemail, I’ll save way more by renting/buying one in Cuba. I’m not sure whether that, or payphones with phone cards, is the better bet. Either way, phone calls to the U.S. are more than $2 a minute, so goodbye to heart-to-hearts for now.

I’m also not sure how the communications cut-off will turn out. I think it will be good for me to run around experiencing a life untethered by email. But, you’ll have to indulge my two-month-old version of the world when I return. (“Guys, did you hear the Supreme Court’s decisions on gay marriage/gene patenting/baby Veronica?!” “Yes.” “Oh.”)

Plus, high probability of seeing unusual things + inability to share = Irene writing pages and pages of observations to herself. Every time I see something breathtaking in the field, I’m reminded of this line from Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family, a story that begins with a solitary hunter:

“One winter night, as he looked at the stars that, blazing coldly, made the belt and the sword of the hunter Orion, a great green meteor went slowly across the sky. The hunter’s heart leaped, he cried: ‘Look, look!’ But there was no one to look.”

Expect a huge blog blast when I’m back, so we can look together 🙂


You can’t get Cuban money outside of Cuba, so everyone must bring in currency to convert to pesos. There’s a 10% fee for the conversion. If the currency you bring in is USD, you get charged an additional 10% fee. So last week, my friend Matt accompanied me to Wells Fargo, where I picked up a giant f-ing order of Canadian money. ATMs are rare, and no U.S.-issued credit cards are accepted. I am traveling with all the money I have.

Cuba has a double economy to accommodate the vastly different financial situations of tourists vs. Cuban nationals. Tourists pay with convertible pesos (CUCs; I’ll call them “tourist pesos” here). Until 2004, the tourist peso was pegged to the dollar, but the consecutive conversion fees obviously elevate its value.

In contrast, Cuban nationals, whose salaries rose to $19 last summer, use a subsidized currency of national pesos. The conversion fee is 1 tourist peso to 25 national pesos. Each of their pesos is literally pennies for me.

Depending on whether their clientele is predominantly tourists or Cuban citizens, different places use different currencies. In theory, I’m supposed to stick to tourist pesos, but I know I’ll inevitably receive national pesos in change. Those I can use to buy food and drink from places accepting national pesos. This will be the fastest way to cut costs.

Tourism is Cuba’s cash cow, with salaries in that sector way higher than in others like medicine. As a result, it’s not a very cheap place to travel, with daily costs around $75-100 per day in Havana. Since I’m neither in Havana nor doing “normal” tourist things, I anticipate spending far less. Mostly my expenses will be in lodging, food and transportation (including taking the driver to lunch).

Health and safety

Fortunately Cuba has a reputation for being a safe place, especially compared to other Latin-American countries. But I’m aware that I stand out in this part of the world, so I’m taking the necessary precautions. Crime in Havana is higher because of all the tourism. I don’t know about the situation at my field site, which is part small-town and part tourist attraction.

The mosquitoes are supposedly horrendous. Hello bug shirt (haven’t seen you since Maine 2006!), 98% DEET that will melt paint, and permethrin on my sleeping bag liner. Anything to avoid dengue fever, an underreported tropical disease for which there is no vaccine. Everything else (Hep A/B, typhoid), I’ve gotten shots for.

Drinking water straight from the tap isn’t recommended, nor is the usual eating raw or peeled food. Please don’t let me get firehose diarrhea.

Lodging and transportation

In Havana, the alternative to a more expensive hotel is to stay in a casa particular, a kind of bed-and-bath where Cuban citizens are licensed to accept either other citizens or tourists as guests, but not both. (Keeps the currencies separate.) I have a place in Havana, recommended to me by a fellow Duke grad.

Beyond that…eugh? Most likely I will rent a bedroom from someone at my field site.

Since it’s way too expensive to rent a car for two months, I will be working with local drivers to pick me up and drop me off at the reserve each day. I probably won’t get to drive…but just in case, over the weekend I re-learned stick shift with Steve.


Also a wild card. Rations are in place for Cuban citizens (for example, only children under 7 can receive milk), so it sounds as though supplies are hurting from the embargo. I anticipate eating a lot of rice and beans. Also, because I really can’t give up PBJs as energy food for 12-hour days…


Behold, 11-and-a-quarter pounds of lunch.

Bucket list

A neighbor’s friend reports that the Bay of Pigs has great snorkeling. This statement is bizarre and wonderful in so many ways. I’ll report back.

The bee hummingbird, endemic to Cuba, is the smallest bird in the world. It weighs TWO GRAMS (just over a paper clip) and its eggs are AS TINY AS PEAS. Its Spanish name is “zunzuncito.” This is the best word.


The worst-case scenarios are still out there. I could be kicked out of the country in 30 days (I really think this is unlikely). All my money could get stolen. The Ministry of Science could change its mind about genetic samples and completely deny my export permit. But at this point, I think I’ve done everything to at least ensure a smooth arrival.

This entry is way too long and I totally have to get back to packing, but before I leave, some thanks are in order.

To those of you who listened to six months of developments; to those who called me “brave” and “strong” these last few days (know that I feel the same way back!); to those seasoned travelers who assured me that things are infinitely easier face-to-face; to my committee members who agree that even if everything goes down the toilet this summer, I still have enough for a dissertation…

Thank you. I hope you know how much those comments have meant to me. It hasn’t been easy dealing with the uncertainty, especially considering the value of this trip to my research. But your confidence in me has been contagious. So here we go: I’m going to Cuba, I’m going to do science, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it when I’m back.

Tell the cicadas I said hello.



Some recent articles on Cuba:

Raúl Castro to step down as Cuba’s president in 2018 (NYT, 24 Feb. 2013)
How capitalist are the Cubans? (NYT, 1 Dec. 2012)
Where is Cuba going? (NYT Magazine, 20 Sept. 2012)