Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Final Blog Post From D.C.

By Ian McDonnell

After a tough but rewarding summer, I packed up my few belongings and departed from Union Station at 2am on a Sunday. I had a long time to reflect on the experience, considering the bus ride was over 14 grueling hours and I forgot a book. Many of the great things that happened these past few months have been covered in previous posts, so I will focus on things learned and skills sharpened.

Here are a bunch of those things right in a row as a nice sample: there are no rough drafts outside of academia; if you are only on time, you’re late; it is very easy to spend a lot of money while living in the city; you can never, ever be unprepared for anything; people like to work with other people who aren’t jerks; wear suits all the time because girls will check you out 70% more; Shake Shack is fantastic, but not for your health; live near the metro/Harris Teeter when in DC; never turn down a free lunch (as if that even needed to be said); and many more that only come with the premium subscription to the SPIA Abroad blog.

Looking forward, I have one more academic year in which I can target and acquire specific skills, namely those that I now know are important in the business world. My writing improved, but I still done need to get betterer. I need to expand my repertoire of sources when it comes to research; gone are the days in which World Bank Data stuffed into a graph is adequate. On a related note, doing wizardly things in Excel proved to be a valuable skill this summer, evidence of the importance of a math degree perhaps? There is always room for improvement however, and throwing a few macros or low-level coding into the arsenal could pay off in future endeavors.

All in all, the summer was great, and the internship experience was an extraordinary opportunity in innumerable ways.

I do have to say that Maine has a few things the big city does not. The day after I returned to Bangor I climbed Mt. Katahdin on an 80-degree and windless day and saw no signs of civilization. Another driver on a one-lane dirt road politely backed up and pulled into the woods to let me by. I bought a sandwich for less than 8 bucks. I have seen zero cockroaches, etc. etc. etc. What Maine does not have are the amazing career opportunities I was given in DC; and the network of intelligent and accomplished people there was impossibly vast. I would count myself lucky to be among them someday.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Until We Meet Again, Belize

8/12. About every five years, sections of the Rio Grande River are GPS habitat mapped and a color coded map is compiled showing the overall health. This includes point source pollution, farm land close to the river banks, slash and burn, water quality, and tons more. We took off early in the morning and began our journey down the river in kayaks in the middle of a huge storm. I was worried my kayak was going to fill with water and sink because it was raining so hard! Kayaking down a river sounds relaxing, does it not? Not in a rainforest. It was a constant battle of crashing through vines, navigating around and under fallen trees, complete with spiders and lots of different kinds of bugs continually falling on me. And it was fun! Minus the giant spiders. It’s a really cool feeling to actually be out in the field knowing it is not just a classroom experiment and that the data you are collecting is actually being used.

8/13. Day two of river bank monitoring. My arms are so sore from yesterday that it was a struggle at the end of today. Got lots of scrapes and bruises trying to navigate the river. Later in the day we packed up and headed to the private lands for reforestation and ecosystem rehabilitation work.

8/14. After two days of kayaking, I turned out pretty useless with a shovel today. The boys worked long and hard shoveling and scooping mud, the women used the day for some shut eye and painting some educational signs.

8/15. Woke up early this morning and headed up the river for reforestation work. For years farmers were using land close to the river banks and this caused lots of erosion, habitat loss, and biodiversity loss. TIDE takes this land and plants native species of trees and fruit trees along the banks to recreate a stable environment. As we went up the river the rangers pointed out what trees were planted x years ago, y years ago, z years ago. It was incredible to see the difference and the impact that has already been made. Hiking, digging holes, and planting trees is no easy task when its boiling hot out with no wind and you cannot jump in the river because there are crocodiles. A little upset I have not gotten to see a crocodile yet. After that work we packed up and headed back to BF. 

8/16. Today was a bit of a free day so a group of us caught the bus into PG, hung out in town (aka wifi), and did errands. Turns out the bus time we were planning on taking home doesn’t run on Saturdays, but luckily our awesome friend Bevington took care of us and got us headed in the right direction. We then all decided to go out for a fun night. At our first bar I was walking down a staircase that had water on the stairs (sober), slipped and fell the entire way down the staircase. I have a bruise the size of a soccer ball. It was so embarrassing as everyone in the room paused and looked over at me. My cohort could not stop laughing.

8/18. Because turtle high season is almost over, today we headed out to Moho Caye to spend a WHOLE week camping on the island in cabanas. This decision was made because the cayes we monitor for turtles are closer to Moho and we will be spending all night into the mornings patrolling. The cabanas are incredible! It’s almost like Bora Bora, the cabanas are over the water with incredible sunrise and sunset views. No electricity. Dropped our belongings off early in the morning and headed out to Abalone to get the dive gear. We did two conch monitoring dives then headed back to Moho for dinner. After dinner we went out and did night beach patrols for turtles. The stars were incredible tonight! 

Our cabana on the island

8/19. Did not do any dives today, but we did go out for some incredible snorkeling and hung out on the island.

8/20. While we waited for the boat to pick us up from the island we went kayaking and snorkeled from some of the closer islands. Today we finished the last two conch monitoring dives.

8/21. Our last Thursday in Belize. Incredibly sad. Today we started sea cucumber monitoring dives. No one in Belize eats sea cucumbers, but recently it has become popular to harvest as this is an Asian delicacy. They have an ongoing research project to monitor the impact of sea cucumber harvesting. This involves two teams, one on each side of the anchored boat dropping a cement block with a buoy attached to it. A tape is then attached to the buoy and about every four meters until we hit 11.28 meters, we travel in a circular pattern looking for sea cucumbers. If one is found, its length and width is measured, then taken up to the boat to measure its weight. Much easier than the conch monitoring dives. Out of the 19 research dives, whatever we do not get to the research team will finish for us. Tonight we started all night beach patrols. Our group was split into two and we spent all night until 5:00am patrolling two different Cayes. This was not all fun and play. The wind made it very cold, and the sand flies are treacherous little creatures. Oh and the occasional rain. The reason for these patrols is a group called EcoMar provided TIDE with a turtle tracking tag (not cheap by the way). This group is interested in the Hawksbill turtle, so not only did we have to watch for a turtle to come up to the beach and lay its eggs, but we were looking for a particular species as well. Did not see any turtles tonight, but we did get to see the sunrise from Moho Caye!

8/22. Woke up in the afternoon, and went on a fun dive. This dive was a max depth of 60 feet and the corals/fish we saw were gorgeous! The biggest fire corals I have yet to see here. Tonight we did an all-nighter beach patrol again. I was just about asleep on the beach when at 12:30am Javier went to water the plants and came running back saying “I think we missed a turtle”! We went to investigate and there were turtle tracks, the turtle was just digging its hole to lays her eggs! Waited half an hour to confirm it was a Hawksbill turtle, then the boat went to pick up the second team on another Caye who had the tag gear. Ever tagged a turtle? Sounds a lot easier than it is. The men had a hard time getting the turtle, then once it was stabilized on the cooler they had to physically hold it in place as the turtle was trying to use its powerful limbs to escape. The whole process took about three hours as we had to clean the shell, apply the glue, wait for it to dry, put another layer on, wait for it to dry, and release the turtle back into the water. Started at 2:00am and finished at 5:30am. We were some tired little campers once we reached our cabanas. 

4am waiting for the glue to dry

8/23. Woke up in the afternoon and went for two fun dives. The first dive was a deeper dive at about 60 feet, and the second dive was a shallower dive. I was finally able to take my iPhone on a dive! It’s been hard because we have either been doing research dives or the dives have been too deep for the phone to go. Surfacing was very bitter-sweet as it was officially our last dive before we return to our respective homes. Once I was back on the boat, I realized I will leave something forever in Belize. On my very LAST dive, one of my diamond earrings managed to fall out. I consider it a gift to the reefs. To celebrate our last night on the island we had some fun and relaxed the whole night.

Iphone photos underwater :)

8/25. Spent the day in town last minute shopping and enjoying the day. Tonight we are going out for a big dinner, relaxing tomorrow, then Wednesday we depart Belize. It’s been fun, it’s been real, and I am very sad to leave. Gained some awesome friends, had wonderful experiences, and now as this chapter closes, the next chapter of my last year of grad school begins. If I have my way, after graduation I will be back in Belize for six months. 

Sunrise on the island

Friday, August 22, 2014

Challenges of the Future

One of the questions I always ask myself when I research space policy is, why is funding always so low, when there is so much amazing stuff that is coming from space technology? I find that most people that I interact with find the funding for NASA to be far too low, and it is something I obviously agree with. As a percentage of the federal budget, NASA’s share in funding has gone down drastically since the 1970s. Interestingly enough, at its peak, the budget for our space agency made up 4.4% of our nations spending back in the 60s. That is impressive statistic, especially when compared to the fact that our defense spending makes up 3.8% of the federal budget. But, my point isn’t to argue one of the other, in fact there are hidden development bonuses for space technology that exist within defense spending.

My point however is to illustrate the situation that our national space program finds itself in. The agency is not able to fund all of the projects that it wants, but instead has to shelf many missions that while not vital, could still serve to advance both the economy and tech level of this country. Thus, NASA has found itself in rather dire straits in the past few years. Things seemed to have gotten worse earlier this year when NASA was ordered to cut ties with ROSCOMOS, as sanctions against Russia started to pile on. This factors into my internship in a couple of important ways. First, collaboration on projects for space programs is already dicey for US institutions because of the ban on working with Chinese nationals – a major problem considering the rate and spread at which the Chinese are exhibiting in their aerospace industry. Any projects that the ESA works with Russian could complicate NASA’s working relationship with the former. The second reason for this importance is actually a more positive note. The space embargo on Russia was met by a boon. Both private company SpaceX and the ESA have had several successful resupply missions using automated transfer vehicles; avoiding a collapse in supply chain that many individuals thought would happen if space ties were cut with Russia.
         The next major feat that NASA will have to work on either its domestic and international partners will be further developing astronaut deliver vehicles to the ISS. SpaceX has become the leader in this path with its re-usable Dragon Capsule, which is capable of making controlled landings. The continued development of this technology and its eventually deployment will mean that the ESA, as well as our other international partners, can focus on a closer working relationship without fear of losing space capability. This will hopefully set up a path for a future manned mission to Mars; teamwork will be important for this one as the financial costs will be high, as well as further advances in technology to make it safer for our astronauts.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A New Voyage

Góðan daginn!

I told you folks I'd learn something in Icelandic and here it is! This is essentially a common greeting that I hear quite often in the office. There are a few other words I have picked up, but the scariest part about my 12 week internship is I've been able to differentiated some of the Icelandic words and phrases, even starting to recognize some of them.

This week I am finished my internship! I gave a final report and presentation to the top management here at Eimskip USA, which lasted of course about 3 hours long. Everyone was quite pleased they had a breakfast prepared for me and my departure. What an amazing experience!

View from the bridge of the Skogafoss
The last thing I got to do was actually one of the first things that I wanted to do -- get on board a ship! As you can imagine, that is no easy task with the security credentials and escorts required to get on. Since by now they know me pretty well, I mentioned in idle conversation that I had yet to be on a ship and they immediately knew it was time to change that. Further, the twice-a-month ships had been off schedule a bit the past few trips by about a day or two, which meant they were arriving on Saturday instead of a Thursday or Friday. Basically this meant that the office had been closed when the ships were in port, which believe it or not but the planning, paperwork and documentation is handled before a ship comes in, so there is no need for the office to be open while a ship is in port. It also meant that I had missed many opportunities to get on board. None the less, I did finally meet my goal.

The view looking due east towards Portland and the Old Port
            Immediately coming aboard the ship, I had to give them my photo ID. That makes pretty good sense, as you can imagine you need a way to verify your identification. Further, I had to sign in with my escort. Once on-board, our tour guide, Nelson, showed us around. The crew cabins and mess areas were first. We visited the small kitchen and dinning room, which were actually quite nice. The crew cabins were also very cozy. There were 5 primary decks above the main deck that housed all the crew's facilities. The top deck of course was the bridge, where I met the captain. From there, I had a great view of the entire port, and Portland itself. It was a fantastic treat as it revealed an angle that I've never seen of Portland in my entire 25 years of living in the area.

The final stop in the tour was the engine room. For those who are mechanically inclined, the engine was an 8 cylinder in-line engine. I didn't get the make of the engine, as our tour guide wasn't sure what it was (And also it was his first trip to Portland on this ship). All in all, it was a fantastic experience, and really was the great finale for my internship.

So what comes next you may ask? My company sadly didn't have an immediate opening, but did tell me that I'm at the top of their hire list when they need someone. Actually, they did offer me some contract work on projects they need done this upcoming Fall. Also, a strong recommendation was promised which is always a plus. Since adding this 3-month Internship to my resume and applying to jobs in the International Shipping industry, I've been getting a lot of hits and phone calls. For me, it is gratifying to know that this experience has no doubt paid off immensely. Furthermore, it's nice to have my foot in the door with a great company right here in Maine. I imagine in a few years when they've built the business quite a bit more and they do need more people, I'd enjoy coming back. For now, I've got my sights set out of state but now much more prepared for what comes next. I'm truly thankful to SPIA, the University of Maine and the Maine International Trade Center for making this experience a reality for me. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Just Keep Diving, Diving, Diving

Finding Nemo reference :) 

8/2. I discovered one of the shops near the TIDE office sells Starbucks iced coffee in the glass bottles!! My caffeine life in Belize just got exponentially better.

8/3. Got the day off. Spent most of it playing around with Photoshop CS6 and Lightroom thanks to a very awesome person!

8/4. Went on a fun dive. Max depth was supposed to be 60 ft, but due to location it turned into a 70 ft dive. Because visibility was not the greatest, the group ended up getting split into two by accident. It was rather nice though, being in a small group, and just getting to relax on the dive.

8/5. Headed to Paynes Creek for the week to do research dives. Dive one of the day was an introduction to conch monitoring. Over-fishing is a serious problem, and this ongoing research is to help further identify fish and game regulations. Currently there is only a size limit (length). Multiple studies done by Stoner et al (2012) show that conch can grow faster than anticipated and be a legal size limit, while still a juvenile not capable of reproduction. This causes a crash in the available conch as less are reproducing before they get harvested. This study is being replicated here in Belize to try and figure out a true “legal size” as Stoner has proved that the size of maturity (lip thickness) varies around the world. There are twenty selected conch monitoring sites. At each site, five transect lines measuring 50 meters are ran with a tape measure, five meters apart from each other. One meter on both sides of the tape is looked at, and any conch residing in that area are recorded. What we record: conch classification (adult or juvenile), length, lip width, and lip thickness. Now, this doesn’t sound too hard. Until you realize we are underwater with currents, surges, fire coral, etc… trying to run tape measures and picking up conch! It definitely takes some practice.

8/6. Our team is split into two- morning and afternoon dives. We were out on the boat by 7:00am and I was assigned to the morning dives. We did a total of three dives between two dive sites. It most certainly is a workout, in and out of the boat multiple times with all your gear. The afternoon I lounged around Abalone while the others were out on their afternoon dives. And let me tell you, Abalone is cool and all, but living on an island is overrated. I didn’t know what to do! Should have brought a book. Headed back to Paynes Creek right before dark. This location and the people have become a home-away-from-home. When we got in, rangers were there with the music on, and having a good time. We are out in the middle of nowhere without wifi, and living simply- it’s awesome to have good company.

8/7. Today I was on the afternoon dives. Yesterday was a bit frustrating trying to learn and get the hang of everything. So much going on at once… trying to measure a conch while maintaining proper buoyancy, while breathing, while accounting for current and surge. Dive one was hectic as we ended up deviating from the original dive plan on how the transects were to function. Visibility was not very good so confusion led to a longer than anticipated dive time. By the time we got up, I had to switch tanks for the second dive. Did I mention I was a fish? I consume lots of air underwater. Dive two was wonderful! We finally nailed the procedure and these series of dives is the first time everything finally felt natural. Putting on the gear, getting in the water, setting the lines, taking measurements, etc… It was one of those AH-HA moments of hey I finally have the hang of it.

8/8. Due to time restrictions, the whole team headed out at the same time to do two dives each. The first two dive sites we could not dive because the current was too strong. Third time is a charm. The last dive site we were able to dive. It was close enough to Abalone that we took about twenty minutes to swim back to shore after ditching the dive gear in the boat. After that we headed back into PG for some volleyball and a BBQ. A lot of the TIDE fam was there, and some of us ended our night with a midnight swim in the ocean.

8/9. This morning Caz had to give a presentation to the board of directors at the office. The rest of the crew stayed behind at BF, but I tagged along. In my previous blog I mentioned how I wanted to see the data analysis side of things as I am not sure if I am better in the field collecting data, or at the computer analyzing. I was able to sit down with James the Science Director for a little and got a peek into the data processing/analysis side of things. I was also able to learn some more about how a large NGO with tons of different ongoing projects creates the yearly budgets, yearly schedules, etc…  I was blown away at the amount of time and detail that goes into planning. Afterwards, Julia and I were supposed to catch the 4:00 bus back to BF. We thought we missed the bus as we waited 40 minutes (typical Belizean time), so we tried hitchhiking. Every truck that stopped for us was not going to BF. Eventually, a random bus rolled up that was headed in our direction. That night we had people over to the house for some guitar around the bonfire and a chill night. Willie also made his fantastic seaweed and rum drink. Never imagined I would be drinking seaweed and liking it. This coming week we will be kayaking down the Rio Grande from BF with a GPS, habitat mapping the river banks and taking water quality measurements.