Five sure-fire survival tips OR For the love of God, KEEP MOVING!

Field Assistant

Emily Grason's field assistant

I have five tips for surviving the mud.  I have formalized my personal mud experience into survival tips because, today, I am responsible for a small cadre of motivated students who are helping me count, measure, and collect a few hundred of the estimated 12 billion invasive Asian mud snails (Batillaria attramentaria) in Padilla Bay, WA (O’Connor et al. 2001).  I don’t want to lose any students.

My students and I brave the mud to assess how large the invasive snails are, how many there are, and where they are found throughout Padilla Bay (~60 miles north of Seattle).  These observations will help us understand why there are so freaking many!  These snails ring the bay like soap scum around the bathtub.  It’s not just the number of snails that is astounding.  An estimated 86% of the snails in this bay is infected with a castrating parasite – that is, a worm that gets inside snails, and eats snail gonad tissue to reproduce themselves.  In the process of doing this, the parasite also causes the snail to resume growth.  As a result, 86% of the snails in this bay are both huge and incapable of making baby snails.  And yet there are still so, so many snails. How do they do it?  We must brave the mud to find out.

If there’s one thing I have learned on the mudflats, it’s that mud a great equalizer of humanity.  The mud does not care whether you are rich. The mud does not care whether you are smart. The mud will take the boots and dignity of sinners and saints equally.  The mud is a force of nature, but you do not force the mud.  This philosophy informs:


  1. Keep moving.  The more slowly you move, and the longer you stand, the more you will sink.
  2. Don’t walk through wet areas, but do walk across any emergent structure on the mudflat: shells, eelgrass, woody debris.  These things will keep you from sinking.  Don’t worry, the mudflat will recover.
  3. Walk on your toes.  Stepping flat-footed actually makes it harder to pull your foot back up, because you create a larger vacuum. The large size of your foot relative to your leg also pulls you down deeper – this is actually how clams bury themselves.
  4. If you do get stuck or start to sink, don’t panic.  Grab hold of your boots and try to lift your heel first, at an angle, to break the suction.
  5. Once you get unstuck, KEEP MOVING!  If you don’t move, you are standing near or in the same soupy mud that you got stuck in in the first place, and you will sink again.  I know your instinct is to rest, recover, get your bearings, but FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, MOVE, BECAUSE I AM NOT DIGGING YOU OUT OF THE MUD AGAIN!

I make it back without losing a single student – not even their boots. A few socks, maybe, but today it is enough to return with booted students.

My cadre of motivated students. We walked about 300 meters out into the mudflat, turned around, measured snails and came back – all of us. (NB: Though it is not uncommon practice, the author does not recommend wearing tennis shoes or knee boots on the mud. 
*Though my record is 100%, I feel compelled to emphasize that these tips are in no way guaranteed to save your life. They have not been evaluated by anyone who actually knows about these things. While I do believe they are helpful, they certainly will not protect your life in every situation.  I cannot be held responsible for damage, injury, or death on mudflats.  Please, people, let’s have some common sense out there.
Emily wanders the mudflats of Washington’s estuaries, seeking an understanding of how invasive species impact our coastlines, and stable footing in the mud.  You can learn more about her love of gastropods at Rah Rah Radula.

Getting to old-growth isn’t easy

Pre-commerical thinned stand on the Olympic Peninsula

By Andrea Watts

Making my way through silviculture classes, I’m learning to see trees in an entirely new way. Until now, I didn’t understand the complexity of growing trees.

Take this stand of western hemlock (see photo) on the Olympic Peninsula. At roughly twenty years old, it’s just the beginning for a species that can live for 250 years. But the future of this stand is already set.

When planted in the 1990s, these trees were identified as potential old-growth habitat suitable for the endangered marbled murrelet. This ducklike, brownish-colored bird needs branches seven or eight inches in diameter and 80 feet off the ground on which to nest. Or in other words – large old trees with thick branches.

What does it take to grow a large tree?

The base of a tree provides its structural support. These trees have slender bases and are tall. This characteristic means the trees have a high height-diameter ratio. Having a slender base is not a great feature if managing a stand in the middle of a wind-prone area. With wind storms common on the Olympic peninsula, there’s a good chance these trees won’t live for 200 years, the time when old growth conditions are beginning to form.

Spacing strongly influences the growth of a tree. If trees are clumped together, they compete for growing space and nutrients, and consequentially grow smaller and slower. Remove the competition by thinning and a tree increases its height, diameter, and branch size. The wide spacing between the trees show in the picture is due to a past thinning to increase the trees’ size.

But will marbled murrelet ever nest in these trees?

Unfortunately, this stand will never become home to the marbled murrelet. These trees will never achieve a large size because the thinning occurred too late; the tree’s slender shape is formed and cannot be reversed. It is also unlikely large branches will form to provide suitable nesting habitat. Now, forest managers have to decide whether it’s in the public interest to cut the trees now or later. If allowed to continue growing, the stand could be cut and turned into pulp. If cut now, managers could “reset” the stand and replant to try again to grow marbled murrelet habitat in two hundred years or more.

Growing large trees is more than just planting seedlings and letting them grow.

Andrea Watts is a Master’s student the University of Washington School of Forest Resources. Her areas of study are silviculture and English holly.

The Dark Side of Food Aid

By Gabrielle Roesch

You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.”
– Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari

I remember waking up in Zambia to crowing roosters, while my Ba’mama boiled water for our morning cup of overly sweet tea. By the time I was up everyone in the household was already cleaning, milking the cows and digging in the fields. I remember the long hours of digging water retention holes next to young plants. This is a strategy used by farmers, who lack access to irrigation, to help crops survive drought. I remember the blisters, covering my inexperienced hands. Naomi, my Ba’mama, was so worried about me; her concern over my few blisters in comparison to the suffering in her village was surreal.

It was Naomi who first took me to witness food aid distribution. Huge USAID trucks carried large sacks of corn — all products of the USA. Food aid, as Naomi and others would share with me, means short term food security in exchange for long-term dependency. In the U.S., and to a lesser extent Europe, surplus from subsidized agricultural commodities are distributed internationally through the machinations of the aid industry.


On more than one occasion, during a fellowship to study food security in Sub-Saharan Africa, farmers expressed to me a desire for regionally sourced, African produced, food aid. Unfortunately, countries strapped for cash are more likely to keep their own commodities in store for trade rather than use this aid to feed hungry people. Who can blame them when they can get much higher prices in the global freemarket? International food aid depresses the price that farmers get for food crops sold locally.

Additionally, most countries giving international aid have an incentive to get rid of their surplus commodities rather than give money to purchase grain produced in or near the region in need. When you add genetically engineered, patented seeds which must be purchased each year from large agribusiness,  farmers become further divorced from true food sovereignty.

My journey to Zambia opened my eyes to the very real challenge of hunger and poverty, resource management and economics in a way that no classroom could. I would like to see food aid policy focus on building up regional food security in Africa by supporting local production and technologies that don’t rely on expensive agricultural inputs. In the meantime, my Ba’mama and her family is still working the land as their family has for centuries. I miss the early morning tea, watching the young boys milking the cows as the mist rises in the early morning light. In an effort to maintain our American farmland and agribusiness we plant the seeds of global food insecurity.

Photo was taken by author at a food distribution site in Ethiopia.

Gabrielle Roesch, M.S. Candidate School of Forest Resources, is studying environmental economics and sustainable forest management. Her research employs social science methodologies to explore the values people have for forest ecosystem services.


Does Research Have a Dress Code?

Athena Pantazis

Athena Pantazis

By Athena Pantazis

Research sites can be a world away or in the very town you live in. Mine happened to be both. I took the bus across town on steamy New Orleans mornings or walked the length of the French Quarter at sultry dusks to get to my two research sites. Typically, I was preoccupied with two things: 1) Did my outfit make me seem like I was both serious and approachable?; 2) Had I sweat through said outfit in a way that would be disgusting to my interviewees?

When collecting data from a person, I always think a good deal about how I will be perceived. My research questions are consistently, deeply personal. I ask people things they normally discuss with at most one or two other people, and I seldom look anything like the people I interview. The people seeking reproductive health services at these free clinics were visibly of different economic class and usually of a different race. You have to look like someone they can talk to and who is decidedly not getting cheap thrills from their story. I asked women about their douching practices. It still seems pretty scandalous to me.

I was shocked in every one of the 20 interviews at the openness and frankness with which women discussed their feminine hygiene. Turns out, people love to be listened to. And I listened. I crossed town to listen. I listened actively, recorded what they told me and then transcribed it. I cared about what they said so much that I would keep listening long after they finished speaking.

Probably, the only one who needed me to look professional and approachable was me.

Athena Pantazis is a sociology graduate student who studies HIV and fertility in Africa.

Trading a turtle for a shark: hook, soup and survey come together

Coming to land

By Mark Mizrahi

Market Research

Hello? Yeah, so, do you have a minute?

Who is this? 

Well, sir, we are conducting a survey on a great new product and we were hoping you could answer a few questions

click, dial-tone … You know those guys, right? Cold calls for surveys. Annoying. Rude.

I’m one of them. My product? A hook.

It’s called a circle hook. Small, metal, curved inward tip ­–­­ used to catch fish. It’s a hook that can alleviate thousands of unnecessary turtles deaths that occur while long line fishing (exactly how it sounds, you have a long line filled with hooks trailing you), a standard industry practice used to get fish from the ocean to your plate. And the circle hook works. Significantly well. Only it comes with 2 distinct problems:

Problem 1: it increases the catch of sharks.

Problem 2: Sharks are a taboo, desirable catch that fetch top dollar for their fins in the open market. Something like $880 a pound in the US, even more in Hong Kong where 85% of the catch goes.

That’s a lot of money for a fisherman in a developing country whose average salary is 40 dollars a month. But. The turtle is endangered. Well. The shark is threatened, close to being endangered. The turtle is a significant part of the eco-system, one of the only species helping maintain healthy sea grass beds. Ah. But. The shark is an apex predator, an essential part of how the food chain functions.

We have a difficult choice: promote the circle hook, which can limit turtle death but increase shark death, or continue current practices at the expense of the turtle. It’s not an easy decision. It’s one that organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Worldwide Wildlife Fund, and Inter American Tropical Tuna Commission,  have made in favor of the turtle. Me? I study that decision on a social and economical level. With surveys.

Project Intact, the project I have been working on for nearly a year, examines the way in which NOAA, WWF, and IATTC have promoted the circle hook, and the perceptions of Costa Rican and Ecuadorian fishermen about the hook’s advantages.

I  flew down towards the equator and with a team of researchers, created surveys for long-line fishermen. We surveyed them in Esmeraldas, San Mateo, Manta, Quepos, Playas del Coco, covering as much of the coast line as we could. Science as market research.

It matters why people choose to use a hook, because that affects what they catch. Give me a hook that helps me catch more sharks and, knowing how much I can get for sharks, I just might start catching a few more. Multiply that by the thousands of boats that line the shore, multiplied by the hundreds of shores … that’s a lot more dead sharks.

It’s not an easy decision. We still need to make one. The more knowledge we have – catch statistics, ecological systems, social pressures on fishermen, economical pressures on fishermen, life cycles of turtles and sharks ­­– the better decision we can make. Hopefully this means that the not so little survey I conducted means a lot more than the typical annoying phone call you occasionally get.

Pesticide Exposures in the Yakima Valley, Washington

Jenna Armstrong

By Jenna Armstrong

Yakima Valley, Washington is one of the most productive and diverse agricultural regions in the country. Tree fruits and vegetables are have been stable crops, but unfortunately, the application of numerous toxic organophosphate pesticides (OPs) has become a common way to combat regional pests like the coddling moth.  Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) selected this area as one of ten Environmental Justice Showcase Communities due to multiple environmental health concerns of contaminated drinking water and air.  Over the course of the last few years, my own research has been to identify cheap and safe air sampling methods for quantifying residential exposures to aid rural community-based health projects. 

Scientists argue that the amount of OP pesticide use cannot go unnoticed because of the numerous health effects resulting from exposures. Data on residential exposures are important to look as associations with long-term health outcomes such as asthma, cancer and neurological disorders. Young children, genetically susceptible individuals, and farm workers and their families in the region may be particularly vulnerable– even if they are not involved in farm activities.  They can be exposed to pesticides in outdoor and indoor environments if pesticides drift from nearby fields or family members bring home contaminated work clothing or materials.  

During my field work experience, I had the chance to speak with many local residents who rely heavily on agricultural and food manufacturing industries to support jobs and sustain local livelihoods. Farmworkers often dream of transitioning to higher ranks and purchasing their own farmland, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation have been cultivating and leasing farmland for generations.  In fact, the role of a pesticide applicator is usually one of the highest paid jobs on the farm.

Our research team recognized it was difficult to collect good air quality data in rural and remote areas.  There are unstable electricity sources, variable housing quality, free-ranging farm animals and pets, and in homes with high residential density.  Some farmworker families are surrounded by the constant anxieties of legal/non-legal status.  They have busy lives with large families to support.  It is important to develop new air quality measurement methods that are easy to deploy, inexpensive, and inconspicuous. Our prototype air samplers are not that glamorous– they don’t use electricity or high-tech equipment. These are called “passive air sampling” techniques

It is our top priority to explain to local farmworkers and their families about their air quality and informing them of simple steps to improve what they are breathing indoors and outdoors. The use of passive air sampling techniques is a great way to cut costs and invasiveness for future air monitoring projects. With time and patience, we can only hope that better data on air quality will be well connected to health outcomes, especially in rural areas.

About Jenna Armstrong:  I have always had a strong interest on the environmental health impacts of agriculture. Currently my research involves designing air monitoring projects to examine rural air quality, including: pesticide use and drift, agricultural occupational health and safety issues, bio-aerosols, and combustion byproducts.  Outside school, I love to run– just qualified for my first Boston Marathon next year.   

Scientist at Work: Surveying in Maplewood

Kelly / Yu Chi

5:40am. Monday. Arrive at Maplewood neighborhood. Map… present! Pen… in the bag! Questionnaires…ready! Yellow envelopes…good to go! Smiley face… uh, wait, it seems like now I’m missing the last thing I need. Instead, at this hour, I have droopy eyes and the stiffness of my body and brain.

I am surveying a Renton neighborhood next to the Cedar River, which floods every winter.  Hard to imagine on a peaceful day like this.  I am here because of widespread interest in  restoring the watershed to mitigate this flooding. King County wants to buy properties outright, and non-profits want to plant trees on private property.

I seek to understand the residents’ opinons, which I will discover through a photo survey, which allows them to show their preference for different landscapes. Officials can then use this information to better engage residents in tree-planting, which stabilizes the riverbanks in their backyard.

So here I am, on my third visit. This time I am set to stay the entire day.

In the early morning, an elderly friend I made in the neighborhood, Ken, sees me eating breakfast in my car. “Why don’t you come in? Have a cup of coffee?” I gladly accepted. This is my first time having home-made coffee in Seattle, heartwarming, indeed. After the third cup, I was ready to go.

A map in hand, I navigate door by door, welcomed by all kinds of dog barks. With a smile and the accent of a non-native English speaker, I briefly introduce myself and the survey before people shut the door. A bulky man simply tells me to go away, “I hate UW. Go to another school, and I’ll do it for you.” Still, most residents agree to take the survey, reluctant or kind. One woman grabs my pen and questionnaire, asks me to come into her house, and have a cookie while she fills out the survey, providing me with an overwhelming amount of verbal information.

I return to Ken’s house by noon, have lunch, read his paper, and an hour later I am walking his dog in his backyard on the river, while he’s doing yard work. It is a beautiful sunny day, so clear that I have an encounter with a deer walking across the river and vanishingh into the bushes. It’s not until this moment that I realize why people want to live here. Flooding is a risk indeed, but how can you resist swimming on a warm sunny day in the river and watching wildlife in your backyard?

I hit the neighbors again in the afternoon and into the evening. Ken joins me later with his dog. He is surprised to see that I talked two residents who seemed unfriendly into doing my survey. “You think I might be able to serve on the neighborhood committee?” I joke, with tiredness in my eyes. ”Sure you can, you totally can!” Our laughter follows us back to his house in the dusk.

PhD in Planning Things I Have No Control Over

By Helen Gerns

Eighty days until my flight leaves for a two month work trip to Kenya. The logistical tasks that need to come together before I leave, which I have no control over, are adding up. Forget the science. Pulling off these organizational feats is what the PhD is awarded for. I haven’t earned mine yet.

First on the list: To perform my assays, I made arrangements to borrow space and equipment in a collaborator’s lab. The collaborator graciously agreed and put me in contact with the human resources department to ensure I had all the access and permissions I would need. Hiring paperwork, biosafety quizzes, lab safety tour, and three and a half hours later, I was badged and ready to work. Unpaid, of course. I should really consider a job here when I graduate, they’ve practically hired me already.

Kits in hand and lab space arranged, I email the lab where the plasma samples are stored to coordinate when I can collect them. The lab technician, and gatekeeper of all things frozen, is on vacation for two weeks. Geez. Didn’t see that coming.

The second project in my dissertation involves collaborators out of state running assays for me. It is stalled again. The plan to send some of the plasma samples to the collaborator’s lab directly was complicated by human subjects’ applications, modifications, and material transfer agreements. “What about your MTA?”, my boss asked me one day. Hmm, what about it indeed.

My boss proposes a new plan: I travel to the collaborator’s lab, conveniently located in the same town as my parents, to learn the lab technique myself over a couple days. Room and board with my parents will be free, sort of. My two week long written general exam is scheduled to start next week. I TA classes on Monday and Wednesday. My plan for Thanksgiving was a car camping trip around Vancouver Island, much to my parent’s displeasure. When exactly is the trip out of state going to occur?

The kits to bring to Kenya still need to be ordered, but only if the assays work here. And the assays here still need to be run. Where and how I will run the assays in Kenya needs to be considered. General exams need to be passed. Mt. Kilimanjaro needs to be climbed before I arrive in Kenya to do work. Work life balance supposedly.

Eighty days is plenty of time my boss reminds me. I am not convinced. PhD still in progress . . .

About Helen: When I am not pursuing my passions for travel, the outdoors, and cooking, I am working on a PhD in epidemiology at the University of Washington. After I graduate, I hope to continue to work on issues related to immunizations globally and domestically.

But What of the Mudflats?! OR Ecology in GoGo Boots

By Emily Grason

Within the discipline of marine biology, those who study rocky and cobble shores get the glamorous work. In the Pacific Northwest, I bet the places that most of us imagine marine biologists working are the dramatic sea stacks of the outer coast (rocky), or amidst the mind-blowing diversity of sea beasties uncovered at Alki Beach (cobble) on good low tides.

But what of the lowly mudflats? I am a marine biologist. I study mudflats because they harbor more invasive species than other intertidal environments. But what does it mean to study mudflats? If no particular images pop into your head, allow me to help.

Mudflats are muddy, and expansive, and flat. They are muddy and expansive because they are flat. They are flat, because they are calm. Just like a raging river is brown with dirt dredged up from the bottom, big waves scour seashores of sand and other small sediments. Only big heavy stuff remains, cobble and bedrock. On the other end of the spectrum, sediment settles out of the very calm waters of estuaries, even tiny mud particles, much like how Metamucil accumulates at the bottom of your glass if you stop stirring.

So, start by imagining me out there, way out there, even farther out there than you are already imagining me, in the middle of this huge, flat, muddy … flat.

The author in her natural environment. Mudflats at Scandia, Liberty Bay, WA were the site of a study on the effects of invasive predatory snails on native oysters during the summer of 2011, in partnership with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund. Photo Credit: Nima Yazdani

And there is an amazing, bubbling, sizzling sound coming from every direction, as the water slowly drains off the flat with the ebbing tide, trickling into rivulets, through the eelgrass meadows and oyster hummocks. It’s a sound you can feel in your skin, like the noise bath bubbles make when you’re submerged up to your neck in the tub. My plunging, lurching traverse of this mudflat is echoed in the arrhythmic “thwock, thwock” of my boots, as they break the vacuum of mud suction with each step.

Olfactorily, mudflats have a bouquet that some consider “bad” or “heinously offensive”. Because there are no waves to replenish the water in the mud, the worms and such that live in the sediment rapidly deplete the oxygen. But, far from being devoid of life, this mud harbors rich communities of bacteria that don’t require oxygen to breathe. The unfortunate downside of doing business as an anaerobic bacterium is that you release hydrogen sulfide – you smell like rotten eggs. Unfortunate, of course, only by human standards. The bacteria don’t particularly mind, I imagine. I even like the smell a little bit, because it’s a visceral reminder of highly productive ecosystems.

And the mud. There is no version of mudflat fieldwork that is clean, even relatively. Mud becomes a part of my wardrobe, my car, my diet, and every interaction in my life throughout the field season.

The author finds a worm in the Willapa Bay mud in 2009.

So, this is mudflat ecology. I come home from the field, smelling like brimstone, looking like the child of Swamp Thing, and tracking God-knows-what  through the building. But, maybe I underestimate the glamor involved. We do have our own soundtrack, signature fragrance, and fashion line (hip waders = ecology GoGo boots!). It’s not ecological limos and red carpets (imagine the footprints!), but research on the mud is every bit as engaging as research on the rocks – if you’re not afraid to get your boots a bit dirty.

Emily wanders the mudflats of Washington’s estuaries, seeking an understanding of how invasive species impact our coastlines, and stable footing in the mud.  You can learn more about her love of gastropods at Rah Rah Radula.