Friday, July 18, 2014

Gringa in Peril

Fig 1. View of Volcanos from lowlands
Costa Rica is a beautiful ecological gem of the Earth.  Unfortunately, I speak zero Spanish (and somewhat regret 5+ years of French).  Everyone speaks Spanish; all the signs and labels and menus are in Spanish too.  I have never been so confused in a grocery store.

Fig. 2.  House on outside
What exactly is a gringa like me doing down here?  I'm helping Prof. Sean O’Donnell with research on how birds interact with army ants in Monte Verde.  With absolutely no previous knowledge on birds (or ants for that matter), I have absorbed massive amounts of information.  Field research is fun!

This is our house, behind a lovely farm in the forest.  The Internet is spacey; life is simple, and there is plenty of fresh produce.  The bananas are the best I have ever eaten.  Upon arrival, I found 3 spiders in my bed… Every night you have to check your sheets for scorpions, and tap out your shoes to make sure nothing crawled into them overnight.  You can hear mice in the walls, and every so often something jumps onto the roof at night.
Fig. 3.  House on inside
Even though it’s summer, the nights get chilly.  It is almost always raining or misting.  We are living in a “rain” forest, after all.  Sunrise is at 5:30am so it is difficult to stay asleep, and there are no streetlights, so after sunset you are in complete darkness.  When you look up at the sky, you can see millions of stars and the Milky Way galaxy!  The stars are so dense they look like clouds.
Fig. 4.  Abandoned house

Every day, we go to the reserves and hike.  We hike mostly on trails, but Sean enjoys leading us into dense vegetation where no man has gone before.  He drags us up muddy mountains, over and under rotting fallen trees, all the while saying reassuring phrases like “I think the trail is a little further up this cliff”, while hacking at branches with a rusty machete.  Sometimes we pass abandoned houses that have been sacked or overgrown.

Fig. 5.  Friendly neighbors
When we (somehow) find our way back to the trails, we hike and hike and hike until we come across columns of army ants.  We collect ants in aspirators and collect data, and then we go home to rest.  The field crew (6 people, including me) gets together for dinner and we make delicious food!  

The rental car got a flat on the second day, because the roads are unpaved, bumpy gravel.  Everyone in the area is strangely nice.  We befriended a welcoming Quaker population too!

I have calluses on my ankles from all the hiking; sometimes up to 10km per day through all elevations.  We hike in rain or shine; sometimes it’s hard to tell if we are soaked because of the rain or because of our own sweat.  I feel completely out of shape when my 50-something year old professor is scaling a steep trail and I can hardly keep up.  There are a lot of farms, so we are on constant lookout for cow shit.  I found a huge spider in my shoe a couple days ago and I almost cried.  I hate spiders.
Fig. 6.  Waterfall in reserve

Fig. 7.  Double (possibly triple) rainbow!
We are obsessed with these glorious chocolate dipped cookies called Chiky’s and Trululu Banana gummies (similar to laffy taffy flavor).  Everyone in our crew is fun to be around.  We discuss topics ranging from global warming CO2 levels to which type of animal testicles are edible.  

Yesterday we climbed to a cliff face to watch sunset.  We saw a double rainbow and everyone was freaking out and scrambling to get a picture of it.

I am making a desperate attempt to pick up Spanish (with the help of  My progress so far includes: por favor, mucho gracias, de nada, dónde está el baño, and no hablo español.

I will try to post more, but I am sadly at the will of our temperamental Internet connection.  

Enjoy the pictures!
Hopefully there will be more to come ~
Fig. 8.  Panorama of Monte Verde

Monday, July 14, 2014

Germany World Cup Win

Last night me and the guys went out to the City Square to go see the Argentina vs. Germany final game.  The entire square was packed.  We luckily got there early enough to find a nice comfy rock to sit on.  In front of us was a German family who rented out the entire restaurant just to see the game.  Behind us was a group of French friends who were singing songs and chanting.  They tried to talk to us and we told them we were from Philadelphia, which made them think of basketball for some reason.

The game was really intense, with Argentina and Germany both unable to make a proper goal for the first two halves (although there were some nailbiting moments where both got the ball in the net).  When Germany finally scored, the entire plaza went nuts.  Fireworks went off, everyone stood and hugged each other, and people were standing on tables leading songs.  While I was taking a picture, the Frenchmen behind me started laughing and chanting 'Philadelphia!' to us.

The walk home was even more exciting.  Cars were covered in German paraphanelia and honking at pedestrians.  Many people were hanging out the windows of the cars and shouting.  People in the upper floors of buildings set off fireworks from their balconies.  The largest gathering was at a train stop, right on the railroad.  People were singing and dancing in the middle of the rail tracks.  A policeman had to walk in front of the train just so it could get through.

Our lungs tired from singing and yelling 'Deutschland!', we finally made it back to the hotel where we fell asleep so we could go to work in the morning.

German transportation

    While I could take this time to post about how awesome it is here in Germany I want to take time to highlight one amazing thing about Germany. It has one of the most advanced transportation systems I've ever seen. For starters, I have not seen a train later than 10 minutes, which is very small compared to the 45 minutes I've seen in Philadelphia. The conductors also can contact each other, which is super helpful.
   On the way to Munich the first train Tim and I had to get on was running 10 minutes late. Because of that we missed a layover. We had an hour before our night train departed from Mannheim, but we were going to get there 3 minutes late. I asked the conductor if it would be possible if they could hold the night train for 3 minutes because otherwise we would miss it due to the delay. Thankfully there were enough people (including American's from Georgia tech) who needed to catch the train that they waited for us to arrive. I know that this would not happen in America and I'm very thankful.  If we had missed the night train Tim and I would have had to wait another three hours to catch a train to Munich.

   Munich also had a great transportation. You could get anywhere, including neighboring suburbs by public transportation at a cheap price. The guys and I were able to travel all around the city for 2 Euro each. The 2 Euros covered subway and bus transportation for a day... wish Philly had something as nice as this.
Here is a picture of a Munich subway station.

Here is a picture of the guys on a subway train.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Alone, Cold, and Labless

Work at the INM is very interesting. There are so many people here, doing crazy experiments that would blow anyone's minds. For me, I am working electrospinning nanofibers out of biocompatiable materials for cell culturing. The interesting thing about that is the fact that this project is very interdisciplinary intensive. This puts me in the position where I encounter almost every Drexel student's group, with the exception of Adam who is another building. This also means that my job involves a lot of walking up and down stairs, because the three labs that I work in are all on different floors. This enables me to do my leg day at work, and do core and upper body in the form of rock climbing.

We don't just get husk at the rock gym, we also enjoy climbing outside to get the nice Saarbrucken sunsets.
Or just to fool around (Don't tell Hotel Weller)
As another good note, I did not have to go to GoodWill, because they fashioned me with my very own lab coat so I will be protected from the nontoxic chemicals that I use. During one experiment, I may or may not have gotten a little bit of chloroform sprayed onto my lips, luckily it wasn't the movies and I managed to not pass out immediately.

My mentor, Dr. Atchison, is leaving me again after only being here for a short while. However, in the couple of days that she was here I learned a lot about what needs to be done. There are also plenty of people at the INM willing to help out, if needed.

Somewhere in this post, I hit every point of the post title, jokingly. Hopefully if any official reads this it doesn't come across as complainy. I'm having an awesome time at the INM, and look forward to some promising research.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Fistfight in France (Pay Per View Only)

Tim Reppert
My mentor came back from America and started training me on Thursday on how to electrospin polymers. After a short work day on Friday, I left to go to Paris for the weekend to see friends and family.

I took an ICE train from Saarbrucken to Paris, and was placed in a snazzy 2nd class cabin on the train. 10/10 would recommend for traveling on train's that have reservation seating, it was a cool experience. After getting to Paris, I meandered my way around and found Gare Du Nord so I could take the rail system to my uncle's house. No more than five minutes into my Parisian experience there was an elderly women brawl on the train platform. It was my first multiracial foreign elderly women fight. I had no idea what was said because it was very quick and aggressive French, words that wouldn't be taught in a high school French class. The white old lady wound up on the ground and people were there to pick her up, but it was quite the experience.