Saturday, January 5, 2013

US Research trip, part 12: SVP, the hurricane, and the future

 We're finally at the conclusion of this long set of posts about my month-long trip back to the US. I've sort of told it in sequence, with the exception of SVP, which was in the middle of the trip, and right before the trip down to Charleston. The SVP meeting was great - my 8th meeting, and the 6th at which I've presented research. I gave my second SVP talk this year - this time, I presented results of my master's thesis research on marine vertebrate fossils from the Purisima Formation near Santa Cruz, California.

I carried out my master's research from 2008-2011 at Montana State, and collected taphonomic data from fossil vertebrates I had collected, as well as specimens from UCMP and the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. We have a very poor concept of the taphonomy of marine vertebrates - and sought to clarify some of these issues by studying changes in preservation among different shallow marine depositional settings.

Title page from my SVP talk. The image is taken near Halfmoon Bay, with my wife 
Sarah standing in for scale beside stacked beds of hummocky cross-stratified sandstone, 
characteristic of the "middle shelf".

Most previous taphonomic studies of marine vertebrates have focused on single skeletons or bonebeds - which admittedly doesn't tell us much about the big picture. I'll spare you the details for now (least of all because it's not published yet), but the research addresses some of these big picture questions and patterns. The talk went off without a hitch, and I was able to meet with quite a few colleagues. The night before the talk, I did benefit from finding a jacuzzi with a few friends in a vain attempt to relax. I'd given the talk before, three other times - at my defense, at the aquatic tetrapods meeting, and again at Fossil Coffee at UCMP - but getting up in front of a huge audience at SVP is something else altogether. Unfortunately, because the talk was on the last day of the conference, the meeting flew by way too quickly - one of the reasons I enjoy poster presentations much more.

Another slide from my talk, showing examples of Purisima Formation marine vertebrates.

SVP is also a fantastic time because it's one of the few times you ever get to see old friends. Many friends of mine I had not seen since my wedding last year; it was a bit difficult waking up the day after SVP and not being able to go find mobs of familiar faces milling about in the hotel lobby. Nevertheless, there is always next SVP.

I'm currently nearing submission of the manuscript version of my master's thesis, something I've been looking forward to for a long time. I try to keep projects moving, and would rather not get too caught up and sit on them; it's only been a year and a half since I graduated and completed my master's, so I suppose I'm doing well. The manuscript has taken a lot of time to modify - I've spent almost as much (or even more) time editing it over the past 6 months than I did writing it in the first place, and it is a far better piece of writing because of it. With this, and the September submission of another monstrous manuscript (also 100+ pages), I've cleared off a sizeable part of my research backlog.

After SVP, and Charleston, I had another week in Washington D.C. I was scheduled to fly out to California on Halloween. I kept hearing things on the news while in Charleston about a hurricane, but didn't really think too much of it - after all, hurricanes only happen on the east coast, right? As a Californian, I've always sort of filtered out news like tornadoes and hurricanes. And then I remembered, like some sort of bizarre moment of existentialist realization - that I was in Washington D.C. of all places, with a gigantic hurricane heading more or less right for us, with landfall in about four or five days. Fortunately, I was staying in D.C. with my childhood friend (and aide for the Senate Committee on Veteran's Affairs) Ben Merkel - who lives in a brownstone north of downtown, on a sloped street far from any drainage, and separated from the street by about 15 feet of steps. I felt pretty safe. Unfortunately, it also meant that I'd have to miss two days of museum work. Well, shit happens, and I was able to come in over the weekend before Sandy hit. We spent the 48 hour period while the city was shut down watching movies, eating and cooking, and drinking a healthy amount of beer. We only lost power for half a second when the lights flickered - once. We had internet the whole time, and I was able to work on some peer reviews and writing up a short manuscript on Herpetocetus. It was actually a pretty fun and productive time. Best of all, I was even able to make it out to the Garber facility for a few hours on my last day in DC to get some much needed photos. The storm had largely bypassed DC - we had some pretty heavy rain and high winds, and they had to close down the DC metro and buses and sandbag a bunch of federal buildings, but all the damage we saw included a few newspaper stands blown into the street. And my flight even left on time!

All in all, the trip was a total success, and I was able to arm myself with all the data and photographs necessary to complete my thesis here in New Zealand. I even had enough time while on the trip to start and finish an entire manuscript (a short one, anyway).

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