The Journey to Scientific Publication

Setting the mood and diving back into thesis graphs.

Setting the mood and diving back into thesis graphs.

I recently had lunch with one of my graduate school advisors to give her some reprints – hard copies of the paper we had published on my master’s thesis work. The project was years in the making, and had been built up in my mind as something practically unachievable, so it still seems surreal to me that I finally published my thesis in a scientific journal. It’s something that I think deserves more than a little reflection here in this space where I am charting my journey in science and writing and fish. This paper’s path to publication was certainly a circuitous and intermittent journey, with many fits and starts.

The paper was published in September 2015, four years and three months after I defended my thesis and completed my master’s degree at Moss Landing Marine Labs in the summer of 2011. The path to graduation was a challenging three-and-a-half-year journey in its own right that pushed and tested me on so many fronts. In the home stretch, it took everything in me just to finish my thesis presentation and format the final manuscript for San Jose State University, my home campus. By the time that was done, I was so ready to move on, so ready for something different – like diving headfirst into the world of science journalism. Almost immediately after finishing at Moss Landing, I went straight into a one-year science communication program at UC Santa Cruz. There I used every ounce of brainpower to learn how to translate science into popular writing. Between the crazy schedule of classes and internships and deadlines, the thought of picking up my thesis just seemed like too much. As far as I was concerned, I still needed a mental break from it. And that need for a break continued even as I finished the science writing program and started my current job.

Throughout my graduate career, I had heard many a cautionary tale of students who invested years into rigorous scientific work for their theses, studies worthy of publication, and who maybe came very close to publishing, but never did. What a shame, I would think. I vowed to myself that I would not become one of those cautionary tales. But the other take-home message was: do it soon. Don’t let too much time pass before you submit your manuscript for publication, or it may never happen. This is where I hit my obstacles in the seductive guise of “taking a break” –   break that became increasingly harder to return from. My housemates are currently Ph.D. students at UC Santa Cruz, where their advisor will not sign off on their dissertation until every chapter has been submitted to a journal. I watched how this requirement pushed my housemate in the grueling final stretch of her dissertation – and she did it, she submitted every chapter. Because publishing is optional at MLML, the responsibility usually falls on the student to make it happen. Some advisors are more involved than others as far as prodding their students towards publication. One of my advisors once told me, “I know I don’t need to nag you since I’m sure that you’ll get this done.”

Collecting gopher rockfish for my thesis in grad school.

Collecting gopher rockfish for my thesis in grad school.

As the months and then years went by, I sometimes wished someone would nag me about publishing my thesis – just to have some proof that this undertaking mattered to anyone besides me. I eventually realized that no one was going to do this for me. Just like finishing the research had been a grueling test of my own perseverance, getting the publication over the finish line would be the same – if it was something I really wanted, I was then one who had to find a way to make it happen. But this looming responsibility was a hard one to face. Every once in a while, the guilt and weight and fear of submission would rear up in me – sometimes while I was out for a jog on West Cliff Drive and caught sight of the smokestacks in Moss Landing across the bay. I would eventually put those nagging fears aside, and one day I realized with a sensation of panic that it was getting easier and easier to quiet my internal nagging, to live with the fact that my thesis wasn’t published. My window of opportunity was closing. The scales were tipping more towards me not publishing as opposed to publishing. Each day and year that went by would make it even harder to resurrect this work. In the fall of 2014, I attended a friend’s thesis defense that had been a long time in coming, and I received some reassurance from another former student: there was a home for my research out there somewhere. Even if it wasn’t in my first choice of a journal, even if it ended up in some obscure technical publication – as long as the analysis was sound, my paper would find a home.

These were words I needed to hear because they got to the heart of what was setting me back – the fear of rejection. Rejection is just as much a part of the scientific publishing world as it is in the popular science writing world. I had learned to become more familiar with the latter, but the thought of rejection for my first scientific undertaking was hard to bear. Far from the detached scientist, I was emotionally invested in this project. It had been part of my life for more than three years, and it was so difficult to disentangle myself from the manuscript – even though at its heart, science is supposed to be an objective undertaking. And because of everything I had poured into the project and receiving my degree, I realized I also owed it to myself to try to publish it. Because this is something I had promised myself I would do, my biggest failure would be not to try, to let the fear hold me back. So I set myself a deadline: submit by the end of 2014. It just had to happen, or it might never happen.

So began a push that lasted about two months. It was amazing how any minor obstacle threatened to become a major setback at every turn. Although San Jose State required me to format my thesis manuscript according to a journal’s guidelines so that it would in theory be ready for submission, I ran into my first stumbling block soon after graduation: I realized my manuscript was nearly 50% too long compared to the suggested word limit for the journal I had in mind. Rather than trying to parse my thesis into chapters, I had combined everything into one long manuscript, since everything was related. Figuring out how to pare it down was enough to discourage me for six months, a year, two years. Finally I got down to the business of cutting things out, only to put them back in. My final draft was still over the suggested word limit, but at that point I needed an editor to tell me what else to take out.

Other little things loomed large before me. I needed to change the font on one graph; I needed to change the depth units from feet to meters in another. It’s incredible how these things became monolithic in my mind, an insurmountable molehill turned mountain. The thought of tackling these problems filled me with anxiety because I wasn’t sure where to start. But with my deadline before me, I made a list and started carving out time in the evenings, trying to cross things off. I lit candles, I drank tea, trying to quiet the raging fears in my mind. Finding the right data files for the graphs in question took a fair amount of digging, but once I found them, the actual changes were straightforward and simple. I remember laughing to myself as I looked at the finished graph on my computer screen, feet having successfully been replaced with meters. This is what has been holding me up for months and years? Was it really that hard?

Analyzing gopher rockfish guts

Analyzing gopher rockfish guts

It was that hard because each little thing required digging deep into my emotional reserves. I agonized over the cover letter to the journal, worried that even the slightest misstep would be grounds for rejection. But at last, with everything in order, I submitted the paper from my parents’ dining room table on December 30, 2014 – a whole day ahead of schedule! The succinct online message that confirmed my submission hardly seemed worthy of the momentous occasion, but there it was – proof. Then the waiting game began.

The reviewer comments arrived in March while I was traveling in Vietnam with my family. I opened up my computer at our quaint lodge in Da Lat and stared at the email, slightly terrified to open it. As I skimmed through it, I saw the email provided the reviewer’s comments, but said nothing about the paper being officially accepted. My advisers later assured me this was implied, but I still felt uneasy without the paper’s acceptance spelled out explicitly. One reviewer had provided extensive comments, and the other had written a mere two sentences, saying that the manuscript needed work on the flow. For better or worse, I had just the one set of comments to work through. Some changes were small, but others seemed substantial: my paper was analyzing the diet of the gopher rockfish, and the reviewer questioned how I had grouped the prey items, saying the classification was too broad. S/he suggested running the analysis with new prey groupings.

Panic rose in my heart: if any additional analyses were required, that might set me back to the point of derailing the whole endeavor. I consulted with my advisers, who were all coauthors on the paper, and they felt confident I could defend why I chose the prey groupings I did. We went line by line through each of the comments, and I typed notes furiously. Having published dozens, probably hundreds, of papers among them, my coauthors seemed much less worried about the whole process than I did – they assured me that all of the comments I received were constructive, that they weren’t pointing out big holes or flaws with the paper. They felt confident that the paper would be accepted once I addressed each point, but I stuck by my conviction that I would believe it when I saw it.

Various prey found in the stomachs of gopher rockfish.

Various prey found in the stomachs of gopher rockfish.

One of my fears was that I would be asked for some piece of information that I could no longer find or remember, given all the time that had passed. For this reason, I was scared to delete a single computer file or recycle a single paper related to my thesis for years. Then, during the second round of comments I received from the managing editor, I was asked about the percent of variability in the dataset explained by a particular analysis. This would be a single number on the output of a single analysis – but which one? I had run dozens of versions of that analysis, and of course the one that I needed I couldn’t find. I had been very good about labeling and organizing some of my results, but not all – and this particular analysis was in the “not” pile. I began a deep search through my computer files. I no longer had a license for the software I had used for the analysis in grad school, but mercifully I still seemed able to open the output files I had generated – although they threatened to freeze my computer each time they loaded. I combed through file after file, and finally found that one little number I was looking for. Five percent! It was only five percent! The smallness of the number was a sharp contrast to the immense relief I felt being able to insert it into the manuscript.

Finally, on July 10, 2015, after two rounds of comments and edits, I received the email from the journal I had been waiting for. The subject line said, “Final acceptance,” and the message read, in part, “All the comments and suggestions have been thoroughly addressed and the manuscript is ready for publication. I believe the readers of MEPS will by very interested in reading this excellent paper and learning from the results of your efforts…Congratulations.” A month later, we received a set of proofs with the paper laid out as it would appear in the journal. And on September 29, my paper made its debut in Issue 539 of the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series. It was done.

Erin Thesis paper

In print at last!

But not quite done – at last I could do all of the little celebratory things related to publishing this paper. I had received a stipend during my final year of grad school from California Sea Grant (after two unsuccessful attempts at applying for the funding – so really I was no stranger to scientific rejection after all). The program periodically sent emails to their mailing list reminding former grantees to share any publications that had resulted from their work. One of the first things I did after the paper was published was proudly send an email to the Sea Grant office with the journal manuscript attached. I had fulfilled my obligation to the funder, to the project, and most importantly, too myself. I wrote a post on Facebook about the paper that I had been dreaming of crafting for years, and also shared the paper on the Facebook page of the collaborative fishing program that had helped me collect my samples. I sent an email to my family, added the publication to my resume, and at last I could unceremoniously part with the piles of notes and data sheets associated with my thesis – especially timely, since my parents had sold my childhood home, and I needed to do some serious purging of my “archives.” Months later, I have finally delivered the paper copies to all of my coauthors. All the loose ends had been finally tied up and tucked away.

As part of this celebratory sharing process, I also uploaded my publication to a few academic sharing sites: ResearchGate and When I recently signed up for a Google Scholar citation alert, I realized that my paper even received its first citation in February of this year! It probably doesn’t hurt that one of my coauthors is also a coauthor on this citing paper. I downloaded the manuscript and eagerly scanned it – there was my name in the list of references, there it was cited in the text – as an example of how a species that is considered a “generalist” may actually consist of several differing “specialists.” It was like when I saw my name in print in the Los Angeles Times, quite unbelievable, and not fully real. But there it is – I am a published, cited scientist.

From start to finish to publication, my master’s thesis has been my biggest test to date of how to take responsibility for a project and see it through, how to self-motivate through the difficult stretches. The final push to publish took many winter evenings, and many glasses of wine. It took me three and a half years from the time I graduated to actually submit my thesis to the journal, and it was published nine months after I submitted it – more than four years in total, but now it is out in the world for anyone to read. One of my advisors fortunately had funding to pay for the hefty publication fees, including paying extra to make the work Open Access. After all the effort it took to make the research happen, and finally get it into publication, I really wanted to make sure that anyone who wanted to read the study could easily access it, free of charge.

The research can now take on a life of its own – who knows, maybe someone will dig it up in 20 years and decide to repeat my study, to see what gopher rockfish are eating in marine protected areas, and whether anything has changed. I may publish other scientific papers over the course of my career, but I doubt if any will be as satisfying. This journey has been my first true test as a scientist. They say that closure is something you have to make for yourself. Now that my work is out in the world, and I have thoroughly marked and reflected upon its journey, at last I can say I can close the books on this project – and can move on to the next chapter.

Off the Grid

Fishing boat on the lake

There is both an uneasiness and sense of liberation that comes from being out of communication range. In an increasingly connected world, it’s becoming rarer and rarer to find places that are beyond the reach of both Internet and cell phone service. A few such places are the remote regions of northern Myanmar, where I am about to travel for the second time.

I got my first exposure to disconnecting for a significant length of time last year when I spent two and a half weeks at Indawgyi Lake in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State. When a group of backpackers traveled through the guesthouse partway through my stay, one of them asked me how I was faring without access to the outside world for so long. I somewhat surprised myself when I told him it had been great – and I meant it. It had taken a bit of getting used to, but the feeling of uneasiness quickly switched to one of liberation.

I would come back to the guesthouse after a day of community meetings and could just be present. I read a lot. I drank tea and beer with the guesthouse owner and other guests, and watched sunset colors fall on the lake. I wrote some, but mostly savored my ability to unplug.

The lake wasn’t entirely off the grid – the local 3G cell network did get some service. My Lao coworker had successfully acquired a local sim card and was able to check email and Facebook. At that time, the shops didn’t have the ability to cut the sim cards to fit my iPhone 5s. Trying to use the tenuous lines of communication also seemed too draining. One collaborator from the UK spent most of the evening trying to send an email home on a colleague’s local cell phone over the faint connection.

Bringing the technology

Even electricity was a bit hard to come by in Indawgyi, although when needed it could be provided in full force, thanks to a generator. It was a bit of an incongruous feeling, to spend the night at a guesthouse with a few dim bulbs powered by a small solar panel system, and no electric sockets for charging anything. Then in the morning we would haul computers, a printer, and even a projector to the local villages (all on the backs of motorbikes) and use them for our community workshops. One village even had a giant speaker set up complete with a wireless microphone – but it took a little jerry-rigging to get the electrical system up and working that day. Nothing a piece of tape couldn’t fix.

I find that I’m pretty good at switching off devices and unplugging. In fact, I often prefer it – which is sometimes at odds with my job as a Communications Director. That said, it’s a special thing to be able to share my travel experiences with others, which also helps me document these memories for myself. I’m still trying to find the balance between these two desires when I travel.

Fixing the electrical setup

For me, the most uneasy part about lack of communication while traveling is the fear of the unknown – and also worrying that my family back home is worrying about me (I guess it’s hereditary). Three weeks in a remote region felt like a long time to be without any contact last year, so luckily I was able to use a satellite GPS messenger from work to send periodic check-ins to my coworkers and family. When I came home, I learned that only about half of my messages had come through, even though I had tried to send them every day. This time around, I’ll try leaving the device on longer to transmit to the satellite, even after the “message sent” light flashes. Hopefully I’ll also be able to retrace the path of our upcoming trek with those GPS points.

Tomorrow I’ll be traveling to some remote mountain villages in a different part of Kachin state. I’m not sure what kind of communication ability awaits after I leave internet connected Yangon in the morning. On the one hand, I was amazed to have a decent wifi connection at the small town I visited in Laos on a field project about a week ago. On the other hand, I got a taste for the “internet access” in northern Myanmar last year when I spent a day in the city of Myitkyina after returning from Indawgyi and waiting for my flight back to Yangon. My hotel professed to have internet, but I spent a whole day with a browser open, trying to send my first email home in almost three weeks. I wasn’t entirely sure if it went through in the end.

86 days later, my dad forwarded the email message to me, saying it had just arrived. Who knew emails could get lost in the mail too?

Signing off from the Humble Footprints guesthouse in Yangon, where my computer and phone still recognize and remember the password to the Wifi network from when I stayed here last year…amazing!

Finding the Fish Conservation Zone

Finally visiting a Fish Conservation Zone!

Finally visiting a Fish Conservation Zone in Laos!

As our boat rounded a bend in the river among the hills, I asked my colleague Sinsamout, “Are we near the halfway point?” We were touring a 5-km-long Fish Conservation Zone, or FCZ, on the Mekong River in an area in Laos called Kengmai Rapids. My company has helped four villages designate this FCZ as a no-fishing area to protect an endangered fish species. Sinsamout said, “Yes, it’s just past the curve.” My heart leapt – yes, I realized, I knew that curve in the river. Over the past year, I had seen a map of the FCZ on the regulation signs we designed – I saw how it partially wrapped around two bends in the river. Now, after more than two years of supporting this project from the office – helping to write the grants, manage the budget, and report to the donor – I was finally seeing a Fish Conservation Zone in Laos for the first time.

After overcoming our transportation challenges, we had visited the village of Ban Palat, where we had a meeting with members of the Fish Conservation Zone committee. We met in their village temple, under the gaze of a shiny golden Buddha. Each of the four villages around the FCZ has an enforcement team, and they rotate patrolling duties of the FCZ to make sure no one is fishing in the closed area. We talked about their experiences of patrolling and enforcing the regulations. After the meeting, our team traveled to the river, where we met the enforcement team from Houayla, the village across the river in Xayabouri Province. We ate lunch and I tossed bits of meat and rice to a pair of desperately skinny dogs that scrounged in the trash nearby.

Fish Conservation Zone on the Mekong River

Fish Conservation Zone on the Mekong River

Then we piled into a long boat for our tour of the river. Despite rain that morning, the sun was out and the sky was blue. The rapids, for which the Kengmai Rapids region gets its name, were mostly submerged, but I could see how the water rushed and swirled a bit faster in the middle of the river. Being on the river felt so good, to finally connect with the work I’ve been doing from afar. Leafy trees grew in the water, all but submerged along the banks of the river, which are steep and hilly. Near the center of the FCZ, we climbed out and scrambled up the hillside to visit a farmhouse near the edge of the river. I at last got to see the signs of the Fish Conservation Zones that I had helped design.

An old woman sat chewing betel as she harvested white roots, which I was offered to sample. It tasted a bit like a watery radish, but slightly sweet instead of spicy. As we walked to the farmhouse, little chicks and ducklings skittered across the dirt. I saw seedpods from a nearby tree that were cracked open to reveal insides that looked like cotton or dandelion down. Sinsamout it can be used to stuff pillows or mats. A young man sat cutting bamboo pieces to make a roof for a chicken house. Both he and the old woman told us that since the Fish Conservation Zone was put into effect, they don’t hear people using dynamite to fish in the river at night anymore – it’s very quiet. The woman said she used to fish right near their farm, but now she has to travel outside the boundaries of the FCZ, which is hard at old age. But she said she still thought the FCZ was a good idea to protect fish for future generations.

In the side channel beside a sandbar

In the side channel beside a sandbar

We traveled back down the river, and explored a side channel that becomes an isolated pool cut off from the main river during the dry season. The villagers have discussed wanting to open this pool up for a community fishing day to raise money for their FCZ enforcement activities. Small birds with swallow wings skimmed across the water, and a white egret flew past. Two small boys played with sticks along the sandbar, the only other people we could see for miles. As we motored away, the boys began to run along the sand, and cinematic movie music swelled in my head.

Further downstream, past the boundary of the FCZ, we came across a fishing camp. The fishers hadn’t caught much that day – one showed us a fish trap with a few flopping silvery fishes in it. We looked at their nets, and Sinsamout said he had photographed one of the fishers a few years ago on a previous trip to the area. I distinctly remember those photos, and it felt like pieces coming together to finally see this familiar fishing camp for myself. We ended our trip by handing over some binoculars to the enforcement team that I had brought from the U.S. Several of the enforcement team members are village soldiers or police officers, and they looked very official testing out the binoculars with their camouflage uniforms and rifles.

At last I got to see a Fish Conservation Zone sign I helped design!

At last I got to see a Fish Conservation Zone sign I helped design!

The specter hanging over this idyllic river scene is that the site of a proposed dam on the Mekong River is just downstream of our project site. If constructed, it would likely turn our project area into a reservoir, flooding the shallow spawning habitat that many native fish need. Sometime it’s hard to work in the midst of such uncertainty. At least now I can carry with me the memory of those two boys running along the sand.


Over the Bridge and Through the Mud


Just two hours after my plane touched down in Laos on Wednesday, I was in a van on the road to one of our project sites. I had been able to time my trip with a visit from a representative of our project donor, who wanted to assess the project in the field. With barely time to repack my things, and definitely no time for a shower, I ate a quick lunch of fried tilapia, sticky rice, and papaya salad with my Lao colleagues at the office, and then we were off. The weather was cloudy and cool, like I was right at home in Santa Cruz. Just minutes into our three-hour drive, it began to rain – hard. I worried that tomorrow’s rainy forecast didn’t bode well for our field trip.

Mist and rain over the Mekong River

The paved road turned to bumpy dirt as we got closer to our project site. We were traveling east of Vientiane. On the other side of the river was Thailand, with hills shrouded in rainy mist. I saw rocky islands and green plants in the Mekong River for the first time – I had seen photos of these from my colleagues who had visited the project site, but had never seen them for myself. I had only seen the river as wide and flat and brown. When we reached the town of Sanakham, the head of Sanakham District in Vientiane Province, the rain had stopped, leaving puddles in the reddish brown mud of the roads. I was bundled up in all the layers I had brought, thinking it strange to feel so cold in Laos. While I think I prefer the cold to the heat, I was thinking about what my grandma had said about the cold in Hanoi, Vietnam – a damp cold that cuts to your bones. It feels impossible to get warm in such conditions, but I asked for any extra blanket at our guest house, and slept in several layers, which helped a lot.

The next morning we ate noodle soup at a streetside restaurant. The smell of the wood burning fires and the coolness of the morning reminded me of camping. As we left, one of my colleagues approached a black mynah bird in a cage with striking yellow feathers around its eyes. He said “Sabaidee,” or “Hello,” in Lao. The bird answered “Sabaidee,” in a deep, eerily human voice. It could also say “Do you want to buy some beer?” in Lao. It’s pretty common to see beautiful birds in cramped cages in Southeast Asia. I was amazed at the bird’s mimicry, but also sad to see it reduced to a party trick.

Our first stop the district governor’s office for a meeting about the Fish Conservation Zone, or FCZ, our project helped establish in the area. The district deputy said they had tried to create Fish Conservation Zones with local communities in the past, but these efforts didn’t really succeed because of a lack of training and outreach for the communities to understand and enforce the rules of the no-fishing zone. He hoped that our project, for which we held many meetings and trainings, could become a model for other villages.

By this point, the rain had stopped, but as we headed toward one of our four project villages that shared management of the FCZ, we realized it wouldn’t be a smooth ride. A new bridge was under construction, with piles of rocks blocking the entrance on either side. A dirt side road skirted around the bridge, but a truck had gotten stuck in the mud at the lowest point, blocking the way. Trucks were backed up on either side, and a small crowd of spectators stood on the bridge, watching and commenting on the effort to get the truck unstuck from the mud. A steam shovel arrived and began clearing the rocks to open up the bridge. The local fisheries office offered the use of their truck, since our van had to wait for the bridge to be cleared. I was worried that our project plans would be foiled, but after an hour, we were on our way. It was a good reminder to me that when working in countries like Laos, just getting to the project location is a small victory in itself!

Indawgyi Folk Song

Indawgyi Folk Song Recording

One pleasant surprise about my trip to Indawgyi was the number of other foreigners who were also working on the project. It was exciting to feel like a part of something bigger in this isolated place, and I felt like I always had company. I met a French couple, Claire and Hugo, who had lived for several years in New Caledonia, and were volunteering their time with Fauna and Flora International to make a video about the project. Claire shot video, while Hugo recorded audio.

Fallen MangosThe pair decided they wanted to record some local music to use as a soundtrack to the video. Very few people in the village where we stayed spoke any English, but somehow Hugo managed to convey that he was looking for someone to sing a local folk song about the lake. He invited me to come along while he made the recording. We walked to one of the little stores in town to wait for someone to take us to the folksinger. It wasn’t clear how long we’d have to wait, so we ordered some mangoes and other snacks.

Then a woman arrived, and we followed her down one of the dirt roads in the village. A big storm had blown through the day before, and the wet dirt was littered with leaves, tree branches, and tiny green mangoes. I discovered the hard way that the mangoes attracted big red ants. They peppered my feet with fiery bites through my sandals.

We arrived at a house where we met a woman and her daughter, who spoke a little English. Hugo struggled to explain that he needed total silence to make the recording. The first time, a phone rang, and the clock chimed in the background. The singer, whose name is Daw Yee Tee Tin, seemed a little nervous, but obligingly sang us a lovely song. Then we changed positions to have her sit closer to natural sounds from outside, and asked her to sing again. This time, I turned my camera on, trying to keep silent and not intrude on the recording. That was especially hard at 0:52 seconds, when I discovered an ant had hitched a ride on my pant leg and started to bite…

This time, she accompanied the song with graceful hand gestures. I imagined how she might have performed the song with others when she was younger. Will anyone learn these songs to pass them forward? It was a special moment that filled my heart, and I felt fortunate to be part of it, to have captured it. We played the song for others, like the owner of our guest house, and he smiled at the familiar references to the birds and beautiful golden pagoda; he mimed rowing a boat on the lake. Claire had the song translated when she returned to Yangon, and passed them on to me. Learning the words makes the song truly enchanting.

Like a vast silver mattress,
News about this place should be passed,
Let’s go pay homage to the holy pagoda with a boat,
Birds are playing in the water,
In the northern state of Kachin,
Imagine the scenes,
The Shan ladies are pretty,
In renowned charming Indawgyi Lake,
O fellow countrymen and countrywomen,
You must come to Indawgyi,
Residents of the lake have pure hearts,
When you row a boat,
Looking to make friends,
The sound of Shan drums,
Can be heard,
O Burmese brother from the plains,
If you stretch your legs to travel,
We invite you to visit Indawgyi.

You can hear the song at the end of Claire and Hugo’s video here.


Moments in Myanmar

Bittern flying across the lake

In one week, I’ll be heading to Asia on a trip that will include 10 days in Myanmar. It feels like a fitting time to post these snippets of moments and memories I jotted down as I was sitting in the airport, preparing to leave Asia last June. In May and June of 2015, I spent nearly three weeks in Myanmar as a consultant to Fauna and Flora International to help communities around Indawgyi Lake establish Fish Conservation Zones, or community protected areas for fish. While at the lake for two weeks, I was almost completely off the grid. It was an experience I had approached with much apprehension, yet it ended up being an incredibly unique and liberating time…

There was the time we rode a boat around the lake and watched the birds take flight. The purple swamp hens ran across the algae mats like they were walking on water.

There was the time when the ladies at the meeting tried to marry me off to an eligible older bachelor with 25 acres of rice fields.

There was the time when I taught the restaurant owner the English word for “cucumber.”

There was the time that the whiskey delivery truck got stuck in the mud and everyone came to observe and offer advice.

There was the time when a few fireflies glowed green in the darkness, one and then another.

There was the time when the little baby with a shiny bald head waved at me and blew me a kiss.

There was the time when we walked down the road littered with fallen green mangos after the storm, and firey red ants bit my feet.

There was the time when the ants bit through my plastic bags and Cliff Bar wrapper, and one lucky fat pig got to eat the chocolate chip bar I tossed in the pile outside the guest house.

There was the time the village head joked with the villagers not to fall asleep during the meeting, then proceeded to doze off during my presentation.

There was the time when all the frogs starting singing at night, and one lone frog croaked forlornly.

There was the night after the big rain that insects swarmed the walls at night, turning the guesthouse into an entomological curiosity.

There was the time when two mating dragon flies skimmed right over my face as I floated on the water, never breaking their concentration.

There were so many more special moments and little stories. Thanks to inspiration from Amy West and other courageous creatives, I’m committing to sharing these moments, both past and present, more regularly in this space.

An Oral History

Ba interview 1

This weekend marked a very special milestone on the Dragonfish Path, one worthy of awakening the sleeping Dragonfish Blog. I achieved an major goal for the year by recording an oral history interview with my grandmother before our family Christmas gathering. Part of understanding where I come from is understanding who I come from – and I know my mom’s mom (known as “Ba” in Vietnamese) is full of stories that I’ve never heard.

A few months ago, I sent my grandmother a list of nearly 50 questions, everything from what toys and foods she liked as a child, to how the conflicts in Vietnam affected her life. In a more perfect universe, I would have been able to understand and speak Vietnamese well enough to conduct the interview myself. But in this case, the importance of getting the story surmounted my language hangups and I enlisted the help of my mom as an interviewer. Rather than interrupting their flow to get things translated, I just sat back to bask in the interaction of these two important women in my life, content that I could pick out enough words to know which question they were on, and requesting more elaboration at some points.

Ba interview 2

The quality of the video is far from professional as I futzed over the background and lighting. Most important was trying to make sure Ba was comfortable, and it seemed most fitting to shoot the video at her kitchen table. And at the end of the day, the main thing is that we captured her story (or at least the parts that she was able to tell in our hour-and-a-half  recording session). When I first sent her the questions, Ba had told my mom and aunt she wasn’t sure who would want to listen to her stories. But I think we convinced her how much this would mean to her children and grandchildren, and at the end of the interview, she said she was happy to be able to share something with us in this way.

I hope to work with my mom on the translation and try to stitch it together with video I collected on our family trip to Vietnam with Ba earlier this year. With any luck, I may have something to show for it by the time Ba turns 90 next September…At any rate, the dream of the Dragonfish Path is still alive, and I hope to keep moving forward on it step by step.

One last note on that illustrates the intricacies of the Vietnamese language. There are no simple words for “I” or “you.” Everything is contextual (which means just starting a conversation with someone is rife with pitfalls for the beginning language learner). Before we started the interview, my grandma asked how she should refer to herself. We decided that the more formal “toi” was too impersonal, and so she referred to herself as the more familiar “me” or “mom,” since she was talking to her daughter, my mom.

Small Fish, Two Ponds

Pile o' data for checking

Today I put on my scientist hat for a decidedly unglamorous task. I spent a number of hours poring over data sheets and referencing them with a database, making changes on the computer where our intern had noted discrepancies between the written and the typed data. There is nothing like tedium to drive you to reflection.

I admit, I can appreciate my share of mindless, repetitive tasks. You can’t beat ‘em for that satisfying feeling of productivity. What else could have powered me through dissecting 1,000+ fish stomachs for my master’s thesis? Even data checking itself is a somewhat comforting and familiar zone, in which I also spent many an hour of grad school. But sometimes, now as then, this kind of work makes it hard for me to keep my eye on the end goal. What’s the point?, I wonder.  What’s the value in how I spent my day? How is this work meaningful?

These data I’m wading through are from the village fishing survey project that I helped organize last fall – which has been one of the most challenging and rewarding projects I’ve worked on at FISHBIO so far (and which I have yet to write about…).  And if I still want to call myself a scientist, I can’t just drop in for all of the “fun” parts of doing research. It can’t all be just hanging out with the fishers, holding workshops, going out on boats, taking pictures of pretty fish, and drinking Beer Lao – as much as I’d like it to be. (I once told someone that my dream of being a science writer was to tag along for all of the hands-on field science, then play with fun ways to communicate it while the scientists wrestled with analyzing the data. “That’s cheating!” he said. Is it?) But I don’t want to just pay lip service to this science, I want to be able to say I really understand it – and mean it. So I have to be willing to dive into the frustrating minutiae of the nitty gritty. It’s part of piecing together a bigger picture that will only be as accurate as every pixel that makes it up – every fish length, every net size, every fishing time.

So now that means trying to make sense of all of the information we asked ten fishermen to collect for three months – and at the most basic starting point, it means making sure we’ve cataloged all of that data as accurately as possible. I’m learning small things along the way: how to decipher Lao handwriting, how to translate the difference between “didn’t catch fish” and “didn’t go fishing,” understanding how fishermen measure the height of their nets in the number of mesh holes, not in meters.

It’s easy to get impatient – how is this leading me toward my goal, down my dragon fish path? I find myself wanting the pay-off now – I want to be an expert, a credible source of information, I want to be making a real difference in conservation and help people understand and care about this complex and fascinating setting that I’m just learning to understand myself. Staring down a few massive binders of datasheets sure forces you to take the long view. I’m trying to learn as much as I can in a new environment, which takes time. I’m building my confidence, which comes with experience, which takes time. I’m still on the path. But I have to pay my dues, and I have to earn it.

Illustrated American Idioms

Today my Lao coworker was leafing through his dog-eared copy of “Illustrated American Idioms” from 1982 – a gem I found buried in the closet yesterday while trying to make an inventory of our books.  It’s quite the slice of American culture – illustrated in the style of ClipArt. Someone has turned it into a coloring book, probably before Sinsamout came to own it. He flipped to the phrase “big fish in a small pond” and asked me what it meant. I said it’s like feeling important in your small village, then coming to the big city, being surrounded by lots of accomplished people, and realizing you don’t really know very much. Naturally, this also introduced the concept of a “small fish in a big pond.” Actually, the book listed the phrase as “big frog in a small pond,” which I had never heard of – so we both learned something.

Today I definitely find myself relating to the small fish (frog?).  And I often think I’m swimming in two very big ponds – one called science, the other called storytelling. I’m trying to paddle my way through both of them, realizing I have a lot to learn about being one small fish among many. Humility. Patience. Letting go of ego. Finding reward from the work, not the recognition. This path that I’m on is the work of a lifetime. So as a wise fish once said, just keep swimming, just keep swimming…

Big frog?

Big frog?

Low Water, High Heat

Mekong riverside garden

A Mekong riverside garden

Well, you can disregard the report in my previous post of this season’s cooler temperatures. After I experienced one day of refreshingly chilly weather, the heat has flipped back on and stayed there. People are remarking that it’s turned warmer earlier than usual this year. “You’ll learn to love an air conditioner,” one friend said. One of the traditions of Lao New Year that I’m looking forward to experiencing next month is people relieving the oppressive heat of April by throwing water on each other. I’ve heard more than one proposition that maybe this practice ought to start a month early this year.

Tending a riverside garden by the Mekong

I am still fascinated by the low water level of the Mekong River in the dry season. One product of this recession is I’ve noticed people tending gardens on the exposed land along the river. These riverside gardens are an important seasonal component of Lao culture that cycles with the river. When the water level is high during the rainy season, fishing is in full swing. When the river drops, people plant gardens on the fertile riverbank soil. My FISHBIO colleagues have taken photos of riverside gardens in Lao villages – it was interesting to see some for myself right in the city of Vientiane.

Organic farmers market (in September)

Farming is a very important part of life in Laos, and farming and fishing often go hand in hand. It seems like a lot of people are part farmer, part fisher, depending on the season. Rice is the primary crop in Laos, and other important crops include corn, sugar cane, sweet potatoes, soybeans, and various fruits and vegetables. Coffee is also grown in the southern part of the country. At the organic farmer’s market (where I think it’s more likely to find crops grown locally rather than imported) I’ve seen bananas and many vegetables and herbs, including cucumbers, pumpkins, okra, and leafy greens.

Fishing in a side channel

Despite the lack of water, people are still fishing in the cut-off side channels, searching for whatever hapless fish are trapped in what essentially amount to large puddles. I can only guess as to their success. The Mekong is known for its highly variable water flow between the rainy and dry seasons, so I shouldn’t be so surprised by its contraction. But seeing so much dry land is a sight I haven’t quite gotten used to.

Coupled with the heat and the low water is the dust. If it seems dusty here in the capital, I can only imagine how it must be in the villages, with a lack of paved roads and an abundance of red dirt. Lots of plants and trees here look like they’ve received a dusting of cinnamon. When I asked a friend about the haziness of the sky, she thought it was a result of the dust ­– I suppose that’s a bit more comforting than my smog hypothesis, though my guess is the true cause is probably a mix of both.

Fishing in a side channel

Fishing in a side channel

Leaving a drought-afflicted state to land in another country’s dry season heightens my constant thirst has me craving rain. I’m thankful to hear California is finally receiving some much-needed rain and snow back home. I’m increasingly reminded how precious water is – especially when you have to drink it from a bottle. But more on that later.

Hazy morning sky

A New Season in Laos

Low water on the Mekong RiverAfter nearly four months in Laos, then less than three months at home in California, I’ve just arrived back in Vientiane – and am navigating an interesting sensation where my surroundings are both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.  This trip isn’t filled with the same novelty of my last one, when everything around me was new.  But after hopscotching on to Laos after a vacation in the Philippines, coming back feels decidedly surreal, like it hasn’t quite sunk in yet that I’m here. Much is like I remember, some is not.

Part of the change is that I’m experiencing Laos in a new season. My previous trips have been in late summer and fall, and now it’s winter. It’s odd to feel like I could use another layer of clothing or a blanket on the bed – although the temperature flipflops from hot to cold from day to day. I’ve missed the legitimately cold weather of January, and I’ve heard people refer to February as spring, since April brings the scorching feeling of summer. I’ll get to feel it for myself, since I’m planning to stay until mid April to experience Lao New Year. There’s a haziness in the air, and the color looks bleached out of the sky along the horizon – could be that the lack of rain means there’s nothing to wash the city smog away.

Orange flowers blooming

In perhaps the biggest change, I was stunned to see the water level of the Mekong River so low. People were walking and playing soccer on wide expanses of sand that I remember being covered with water, and fishing platforms stand high and dry among clumps of exposed vegetation. I felt like it would be nearly possible to walk across to Thailand. It is the dry season, after all ­– although my coworker thinks that the river is lower now than it used to be, due to dams and water diversions upstream. There are other changes, too: work at the construction site next door to my office grinds on, relentlessly grating and rumbling, as a massive concrete structure rises. Neighborhood puppies have grown into shaggy dogs, some trees have lost their leaves, while others bloom with bright orange flowers I’ve never seen before.

But other things are familiar and the same – the restaurants, the night market, the aerobics class by the river. It’s comforting that I’ve built up a handful of go-to places and favorite spots. I hope these will help me get back into my routine, while I’ll open myself up to new experiences and learning in this latest season.

Familiarly delicious