Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Real Clemson Experience

 I’ve had many useful classes and engaging experiences throughout my time at Clemson, however none have truly captivated me the way that my involvement in the Conservation of Marine Resources creative inquiry has. Between field work in the Florida Keys, creating posters and presenting them at various conferences, and the friendships I have throughout the year, this one class has been the highlight of my Clemson experience.
            For me the choice to go to Clemson was an easy one. I grew up loving the school and knew from the first time I thought about college that I was going to go here. However, there was one set-back that was hard for me to overlook. I knew that one day I wanted to work on the ocean, but Clemson did not have a degree in marine biology, and was also one of the furthest schools in the state of South Carolina from the coast. My freshman year I often struggled with if I had made the right decision to make Clemson my home. It was not until I met Kylie and Dr. Childress that I knew I had. And now through this creative inquiry, I’ve gotten more hands-on experience than I probably could have anywhere else.
            Throughout this semester we have all been working hard to develop our projects and create posters that help to explain the work that we do as well as the importance that it holds. I personally worked with my amazing partner Taylor to better understand the influence of macroalgae on coral growth. To do this we mainly worked with two programs: CPCe and Image J. In working with these programs we learned how to identify different common species seen on the reef, from red rope sponge to octocorals. When it finally came time to put our data into poster form, we worked closely with Dr. Childress and Kylie who gave us hands-on statistical training.
            As many who work in research know, it sometimes gets a bit dull looking at a computer screen, working on data. But it is completely worth it when you finally put something together that matters. I felt so proud of everything Taylor and I had accomplished when I first saw our printed poster. But it was not until we presented it at CBASS and FOCI that I really understood how important it was. Seeing everyone who presented at these conferences and how the things that they did were helping to impact Clemson and society showed me how important our creative inquiry program is. It was also an incredible experience to put our poster up at SEEC in Athens where students from Florida State, Auburn and other large universities were presenting their research.
            While the conferences and lab work are a large part of what has made my experience in this lab a once-in-a-lifetime one, there a few others that can not be left out. One of the absolute best things about working in this creative inquiry is the field research. Over spring break Kylie, Daniel, Lauren, and I packed up our things and drove down the Florida Keys for the week. During our time there we logged over fourteen dives, saw quite a few sharks (my favorite animal), speared my first lionfish, had the best dive of my life and made memories that none of us will ever forget. There is truly nothing like spending the entire day on the reef observing parrotfish and getting to see why what you are doing is so important.
Coming back home after those trips to the Keys is always hard, but it gets a lot easier when you walk into lab a few days later and see some of the best people you’ve ever met laughing and joking together. That is the last and probably most important reason why I love this creative inquiry the way that I do. The friendships and bonds that we have all made in our lab extend to our personal lives as well. Its because of this one class that I have been able to understand what the Clemson family is truly about.
            Looking back now, I would never take back my decision to enroll here at Clemson. I am so thankful for this program as well as Dr. Childress, Kylie, and my friends in the lab. This was the best decision I have ever made and I would not change it for the world!

All About That CBASS

      Joining this lab has been one of the greatest learning experiences of my undergraduate career. The opportunities to grow as an individual and as an environmentalist have allowed me to finally understand what my goals can be and my options for success. CBASS, though, is the experience that sticks out the most in my mind. I wasn’t sure how interested I would be in the talks or even if I could present our poster without sounding like I joined the project halfway through the year. Needless to say, I was very surprised when the outcome was just the opposite of that. The talks, no matter how far from the marine field, interested me and the longer I sat in that room, the more sure I became that this was where I belonged. Once it came time for the poster session I was running over my “spiel” a thousand times over in my head. But, when we began our presentation, the facts just flowed like I hoped they would. It also helped that Dan was there to keep me calm and having fun. I suppose our judges were impressed, because they decided we tied with another group for second place. Although this was a surprising and proud moment for our group, it wasn’t what made my CBASS experience exciting. It was the simple fact that I was finally eager about something that I could build a future around.

CI Swan Song

This past Christmas break, I had the opportunity to travel to West Palm, Florida to participate in the annual meeting for the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology, also know as SICB. I ended up being the only undergraduate student that was able to attend the meeting, but Dr. Childress’s graduate student, Kylie Smith and Kea Payton, a former lab technician and current graduate student in Charleston joined me. The event lasted for four days and consisted of short talks by both graduate students and faculty from universities across the country. Kylie gave one of the best talks at the meeting about her work with coral reef conservation in the Florida Keys. I was also able to hear about the work of several other graduate students from Clemson, and they all did a fantastic job. There were several large poster sessions for students where I was able to present some of the research that I had been working on that semester with the fabulous Randi Sims.  The project Randi and I are continuing to work on this year, correlates most directly with Kylie’s master thesis. By using two computer programs, Image J and CPCe, we analyze pictures from the field to estimate how much our coral transplants are growing and how influential macroalgal competition is. By going to conferences like SICB, I am realizing even more how important our work on marine conservation really is. I was able to hear so many talks on species that are directly impacted by the health of our coral reefs.

Conferences like SICB are just one aspect of the many wonderful opportunities I have had by being a part of Dr. Childress’s creative inquiry. I have learned more than I could have imagined outside of a classroom setting by both my peers and mentors in the lab. I have become a more effective student, researcher, and learner. As I near the end of my last semester at Clemson, I am incredibly thankful for the time I had in this program. In addition to the many lessons and skills I have obtained, I have also gained invaluable friendships and bonds.

Open doors

As I approached my senior year, I noticed I was seriously lacking the experience I wanted to have before entering the working world. I researched a lot of CI teams, interviewed with a few, but I found myself sparked with excitement at the thought of joining the Conservation of Marine Resources team. Not only would I be able to work under someone as passionate, knowledgeable, and fun as Dr. Childress, but I felt a deep connection to what the CI research stood for. It was real world research that was searching for patterns, and hopefully answers, on how to conserve the rich and magnificent world of our oceans. This lab offered me mulit-project experience and even field work in the Florida Keys! It has also allowed me to get my feet wet, literally, with hands on animal care. While apart of this lab, we have explored all sides of research! We have read and analyzed similar research papers and even attended conferences such as SEEC (Southeastern Ecology Conference). This lab has allowed us to evaluate our own teams’ research, produce posters, and also present our findings to public audiences. From beginning to end, this lab prepared me for what it takes to be a part of scientific research.  But despite how amazing the lab was at exposing me to the real world of research, the best thing this lab gave to me was a family. Dr. Childress, Daniel, Kelan, Ash, Kylie, Lauren, Jac, Taylor, and Randi are not just my lab mates but have become like a second family. I have not attended one meeting where there wasn’t some hysterical laughter or special moment. This lab is the best of both worlds. It combines cold hard science with a warm and friendly atmosphere. Joining this team has opened up so many opportunities and revealed new and possible paths to take in my future. As I get ready to walk across the stage at Littlejohn, I know that joining this team was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my college career. For some of you out there, this Creative Inquiry is just an unopened door, an unlocked opportunity to make the most out of your Clemson experience. My advice to all of you, is to open that door. You won’t regret it. 

DInner Time with CMR

It's hard to believe the school year and my time in the Conservation of Marine Resources CI is coming to a close. If the school year was a day then the table would be set, the food would be served and we'd be starting to eat. To properly review everything that happened since my last blog and bring closure to my tenure on the team, I thought it was fitting to do a best/worst for the year. As per usual, I'll start with the best:

3) FOCI: I was only able to get to one poster conference, but it was nice to witness the fruits of our labor and present our work to judges and "Taking a bite out of the reef" adoring fans. Unfortunately we were unable to achieve the same success as last years parrotfish poster, but I have to think that was do to our positioning in the back of the 3rd room.

2) Diving with a bull shark: I was lucky enough to go on census trips to the Keys two more times this year, first in October and then once again over winter break. Some secondary highlights of the trip include my first opportunity to dive with young Rhandi, becoming a life long bro with Shawn at KML, and watching a live performance of Juke Box Hero. To the average Keys diver this may be fine and dandy, but swimming with a 12' bull shark at 11' Mound took the cake. It was an exhilarating rush to see such a powerful and dangerous creature up close, and I got some footage to boot. Editors note: it was confirmed by Sarah who works with sharks that it was definitively a Bull Shark.

1) Animated Powerpoint slide: the list is long and impressive, but by far my crowning achievement for the year was when Jac and I dropped knowledge on the lab about parrotfish species of the Florida Keys and our census methods. They say actions speak louder than words and a picture is worth a thousand words, so a picture that moves and requires no words to explain what is going on must be very loud and verbose.

Now on to worst,

3) Lobsters: these little critters were the bane of my existence this year. One of them tail flipped and sprayed me with water when I was trying to feed him. Another one molted precisely a day before my feed day knowing that Daniel would but half the molt on top of the tank and scare the crap out of me when I glanced up. Big Joe was alright though.

2) Almost dying: I think I almost died at least a handful of times this year. Obviously the bull shark spared my life and could have killed me at any moment. Randi almost got into a car accident pulling in at AutoZone. Davy Jones himself almost took us and the SS Argus on our way to Porkfish reef. But alas I'm still standing, and what doesn't kill you makes you stronger I hear.

1) Poisonwood: Allow me one throwback to the summer if you will, because this was one of the most annoying experiences of my life. No longer will I take having unswollen and pain free hands for granted, and never again will I touch Daniel's guitar. Simply put, man is not meant to float underwater with red balloon hands while trying to zip tie vexar predatory exclusion cages.

Between The Hedges

       On one March afternoon, a group of my colleagues and I caravanned down to Athens, Georgia to attend The Southeastern Ecology and Evolution Conference (SEEC).  Armed with a will to win and truckload of confidence derived from a 2nd place victory in a previous poster competition, my partner Jac Whitt and I had our eyes set on first place.  Athens however, proved to offer more than what can be gained from victory.
       We began our weekend with dinner in Athens as a group, then after a late-night board game session in the lobby of the hotel, it was off to bed to rest up for SEEC in the morning.  The first thing we all noticed when driving onto campus was the beauty in the architecture of UGA's buildings.  With stone archways and marble columns, it looked more like Greece than Georgia.  The next aspect of SEEC that swept us off our feet was the plenary lecture given by Dr. Nalini Nadkarni.  I believe she inspired us all to be better scientists and better people.  Following Dr. Nadkarni's lecture, there were talks being held all over about a multitude of different ecological topics and research projects.  It can best be described as an all you can eat buffet of science.  We attended several talks until noon, when we were served a box lunch provided by the SEEC organizers at UGA.  Following the meal, my Clemson colleagues and I took the remaining lunches to homeless shelters in the area.  While this was not associated with SEEC, it was a memorable and fulfilling experience that I believe deserved mentioning.  After the afternoon session of talks, the poster presentation began.  Strangely our cut-throat attitude and drive to win seemed to have faded in the wake of our experience thus far.  I believe it was then that we learned that conferences such as SEEC aren't about winning, but about fellowship with like-minded people from around the country.
       SEEC proved to be an unforgettable experience that renewed our appreciation for what we do.  We were able to present our research with perhaps a bit more pride than before.  We made new friends and shared new experiences with old ones.  I certainly look forward to returning to SEEC in 2016 with more research, a new poster, and a fresh outlook on science. 
-Daniel Coster
I have been an avid diver for about a year and fell in love with it from the beginning. I’ve done numerous dives along coral reefs and wrecks but I was looking for something more than just being a tourist of the sea. Then I got the opportunity to go to the Keys as a member of the Childress lab for spring break, which completely changed the way I look at diving.

To start from the beginning of the week, a group of six students from the Childress lab accompanied our graduate assistant, Kylie Smith, to Athens, GA to present at the SEEC conference. This was great experience to see the incredible research that other undergraduate and graduate students were doing. We got to see a very impactful keynote speaker who presented on her overlap of forest conservation and social justice. This inspired our lab to work on community outreach with our lab studies. We also got to present posters of our own research to graduate students. This weekend was a lot of fun for our lab group because we got to bond and become close in a way we weren’t able to before. We even delivered all of the unserved food from the conference’s lunch to a nearby homeless shelter. This was an enriching experience for us that brought all of us close to each other.

As the two day conference came to a close, I hopped in a giant truck and drove down to the Florida Keys with two other students and Kylie. It was a twelve hour drive full of singing, laughing and great conversation. The drive was a perfect way to kick off the week in the Keys and we were all so excited to get there. We began our mornings early and acted together to get the boat loaded and ready for the day’s work.  We did reef condition reports and parrotfish behavior analyses. This took my love for diving to a completely new level because, for the first time, I was diving for a purpose. I wasn’t just going underwater to look at pretty fish anymore – I was doing productive research for marine ecology. It was a hard day’s work as we visited multiple sites in one day. I spent half my time under water doing condition reports on our transplanted coral as well as following parrot fish around to observe their behavior. The rest of the day was spent on the boat loading and preparing gear, and assessing the water quality. The work was long and could be challenging at times but we kept good attitudes the entire time, laughing and joking around all day long. Most of the time, the work did not actually feel like work. It was just fun to be with such a great group of people in a beautiful place, researching something I am passionate about.

We had five days to complete our research but the three of us undergraduate students decided we wanted to get it done in three days so we could have time to play in the Keys. Kylie did not think this would be possible but we worked very hard and put in extra hours on the boat on the second and third day and shockingly we were able to finish by our goal! Our last two days in the Keys were incredible and I will never forget them. We spent our first free day doing some fun dives where we saw an incredible amount of turtles, nurse sharks, and even a sea horse! These dives were the highlight of the trip for me and we even got to spear some lion fish, which are horribly invasive to the reef. On our last day we went to Key West and had a great time site seeing, particularly watching all of the crazy street performers at the Sunset Festival! While in Key West, we sat down over dessert and reflected on the amazing week we had. None of us wanted to leave and we got to share our favorite part of the week. We all agreed it was difficult to choose only one event!

I think the best part of the week in the Keys was that the four of us did everything as a team. We grocery shopped together, cooked together, and spent all of our free time together. This allowed us to bond very quickly and, even though it was a long and intense week, we never complained or got sick of one another. This week taught me a lot about team work because we made all of our decisions for the good of the group. We were brought together by our love for diving and our passion for marine conservation but we established friendships that go far beyond that. 

 A beautiful day on the boat, about to go diving!
The view from our spring break house as the sun began to set. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


         This semester, I got to attend my first major science conference, The Southeastern Ecology Conference. The lab had attended a smaller conference at Clemson earlier in the semester, but SEEC was on a whole different level.
         The weekend began on Friday, we caravanned over to Athens, GA. After two hours of trying to keep up with Kylie on the road, we arrived at our hotel. We all got checked in and we all began to get really excited! Since it was already getting kind of late, we decided to head over to downtown to get checked in for SEEC and eat dinner. We ate at Mellow Mushroom and all bonded over pizza. After hours of exchanging ghost stories (which weren't exactly my favorite) and quizzing each other with trivia questions, we headed back to the hotel to get rested up for the big day.
         Saturday morning began early. We all woke up and got ready and convened in the hotel lobby. As we headed over to the UGA campus I began to get really nervous and excited all at once. I had had the opportunity to present my work to my fellow Clemson peers but the crowd that was going to be at UGA was diverse and new. The morning began with a wonderful keynote speaker who talked about unique and innovative methods of reaching out to more people about conservation issues. Her ideas ranged from the Tree Climber Barbie Doll to hosting parties in the jungle inviting all different types of artists. Her topic was very interesting and relatable seeing as a major focus for all of us in the lab is conservation and conservation awareness. After the keynote speaker we got to walk around and attend different talks that interested us. My favorite talk was from a guy who studied fish who had symbiotic relationships with sharks. It was really cool to see all the different research going on in schools across the Southeast. After the talks, it was our turn to present at a poster session. Me and Lauren had a lot of people come talk to us about our poster and it was really fun to discuss our project to other ecologists and behavioral scientists. They provided us with a lot of good input and commended the work we had done.
          After the conference was over we all went downtown to eat. We were all pretty tired at this point but it was a great time to reflect on all that had happened that day. Overall, attending SEEC was a lot of fun! It offered us time to bond as a lab, learn about a ton of other research projects going on in the Southeast and ultimately share our project that we have worked so hard on with more people. I can't wait to attend my next big conference!