More Stories from the Mud (And Apiary)

People seemed to enjoy my first set of anecdotes from the mudflats, so here are a few more.

After I finished my undergrad, I stayed on as a research technician for the summer between graduation and the start of my post-graduate degree. It was a lot of fun – I had multiple years of experience, but zero responsibility with project design. In other words, a better paycheck…and a whole lot less work!

Our research lab did a lot of cage work – we’d build them out of bamboo sticks and aquatic netting and then track impacts on diatom and amphipod densities (the primary food sources for sandpipers), and snail movements in control vs treated areas (the netted cage areas prevented plovers and sandpipers from foraging). Setting up semi-permanent cages in the mud required a major team effort. We had to get everything set up during low tide, so it was a race against the clock. Or, more specifically, the gravitational pull of the moon!

One day, we were installing cages about 500 meters offshore. We had huge metal mallets, rebar (also metal), and one very tall lab tech named Colin. It was a warm, overcast and muggy day. At one point another tech looked at me and said, Elisabeth, what’s wrong with your hair?

Apparently, my hair was standing completely on end – like I had my hand on one of those statically charged balls at a science exhibit.

Static electricity can be blamed on winter weather |
Like this…

Problem was, I wasn’t touching a ball!!! Within seconds, we heard the first boom of thunder.

Here we were in the middle of a mudflat that had only recently been uncovered by the ocean. It was flat. Covered in a thin film of salt water (highly conductive). We were the tallest objects for miles around. We were working with metal tools and supplies. And we were 500 meters away from shore. Our supervisor happened to be with us and gave us the all-clear to drop our equipment and run (knowing that if the storm didn’t pass in time, all those tools and supplies would be swept out with the tide).

We managed to find some humour in the situation; as we raced back to shore we were quick to identify that Colin – at least half a foot taller than anyone else – would be the first target in any lightning strike. (Spoiler alert: He survived and went on to become a doctor…but apparently mudflats are pretty dangerous places!)

We had come to the site in two vehicles and one lab tech had taken the second vehicle to another site. So when we arrived back on shore there were 8 of us and one pickup truck. A few people – including me – drew the short straw and had to hunker down in the truck bed.

The storm passed after 30 minutes and we rescued the equipment but it was a real hair-raising experience (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Working on the mudflats was incredible exercise. It was exhausting but in a good way. The natural resistance of mud, along with walking kilometer after kilometer along transects, all while carrying giant backpacks full of samples (heavy mud and/or water) was an excellent cardiovascular workout. Not surprisingly, mud would splatter everywhere and we came back to the lab absolutely filthy.

It was the early 2000s and I was young and didn’t always remember to use sunscreen, especially on my legs. One day we were out for hours and hours and hours and mud had splashed on my legs and dried. When I washed it off that night it looked like I had leprosy. There were giant white spots (in random patterning) ALL over the back of my calves. For the rest of the summer, my legs looked absolutely ridiculous. I wish I still had pictures because I would 100% share them but, alas, I lost most of my photos from this pre-OneDrive era.

That same summer, one of my friends and fellow labmates wanted to research nocturnal feeding habits of sandpipers – low tides happen at night, too! Our team received funding to purchase night-vision goggles. But, for obvious reasons, military-grade night vision equipment is not available at the local hardware store. For some reason, I was the one tasked with calling the supplier (who normally dealt with military contracts) to ask: Um…we’d like to purchase some night vision equipment. Why you ask? Just to look at birds. I promise!

Fun fact, John and I had only been dating a few months when he volunteered to come with us on one of those night shifts. For safety reasons (see above and my mud “quicksand” story from last week) we had to have a set number of crew out at any given time, so he trudged to the mud at 2:30 am (unpaid, I might add) with me. True love!

Speaking of John and mud, I might have told this story before, but it’s one of my favourites from our love story. When we had only just met and were arranging for our first “date”, I asked him to meet me at the lab mid-afternoon. There was a mix-up and I was convinced he had stood me up (he hadn’t). In the end, we rescheduled for that evening. I got there very early and selected a microscope right in front of the window so I would look all sciencey. And so it was by design that I was bent over a microscope looking very intense and studious when he walked by the window. He tells me seeing me like that took his breath away and he said to himself: Don’t screw this up. We’ve now been married almost 14 years but I was looking at…NOTHING. It was all a ruse!

There’s an “Abby” inside me, we just hadn’t met her yet.

I planned to continue avian work for my Masters and, for the first few months, actually put together a project in this area of study. But I ended up switching gears to bees. (Yes, I have heard plenty of “birds and bees” jokes over the years.) Because I didn’t need a large number of hives for my research – and because the beekeeper providing us with hives lived quite a distance from the university – my supervisor offered to store them on his property. Every day John would drive me in my giant beesuit to collect a fresh set of bees. This all happened while I was pregnant with Abby and battling morning sickness. There is a sickly sweet smell around beehives and it made me very nauseous. One warm summer morning it was more than I could handle…and that’s how I came to upchuck my breakfast smoothie all over my supervisor’s rhododendrons.* (*I don’t actually know if they were rhododendrons; I was too busy barfing to worry about my horticultural proficiencies.)

Fun fact: I only got stung a single time in two years of working with honeybees! I was studying operant conditioning and had to secure individual bees into modified pipette tips. Once, I didn’t quite get enough wax in place and the bee managed to wiggle free and straight down into my latex glove where she proceeded to sting me.

Fair enough.

Your turn. Any weird workplace stories? Are you a fan of thunder and lightning storms? Any bizarre tan line stories to report?

24 thoughts on “More Stories from the Mud (And Apiary)”

  1. I love the stories Elizabeth. And the intense studious you!
    I grew up on a dairy farm and would sometimes have to help in the milking of cows (using milking machines). The first thing to learn is being careful to not get kicked which I never did. Although one twilight evening the cows had escaped the barnyard and my brother and I had to herd them back in. I think because of the diminishing light a cow felt threatened and knocked me down (usually they were docile). I have never gotten through a barbed wire fence to safety on the other side so fast. It was a small farm (around 40 cows) and my parents named all the cows.
    I don’t mind storms but I think growing up on a farm on flat prairie land, only as long as I’m somewhere safe!

    1. I grew up close to a dairy farm and have such fond memories of playing in the barn, but I was always very, very wary of getting too close to any cows! I actually got to name a new calf one time and called it Cherry (after Don Cherry; I used to be obsessed with Hockey Night in Canada).

  2. Wow Elisabeth, this is interesting! It’s always fascinating to hear about people’s “other” lives. I actually love thunder and lightning, but I don’t think I would love it out on the mudflats! But I think I would love spending all that time outdoors.
    Your job now seems so different from what you used to do- do you ever miss your old work?

    1. Great question. I definitely do miss some aspects of my research career. I loved the sense of satisfaction I felt at the end of the day. It was physically intense but, since it was part of the job, I never ever felt like I was “exercising” and yet I was in great shape and slept like a baby each night. I enjoyed the bird work more than the bees; most of my bee research was in a lab and quite tedious (plus, I was pregnant and had a lot of morning sickness).

      I also miss the working atmosphere. The bird/mudflat lab was like a mini-family. Labmates came to our wedding, my former supervisor was the first person to come see Abby when she came home from the hospital as a newborn. We did life and work together seamlessly, so I miss that dynamic, too. That said, if I was still doing that work today, it would be different. I’m older, have kids, a husband etc. So it was a very special period of my life, but it wouldn’t be the same now if I were to try to recreate it…if that makes sense?!

  3. I never really thought about mudflats as being somewhere dangerous in a storm, although now that you mention it, it makes sense! I was hiking in Colorado above the tree line when a big thunderstorm rolled in and that was definitely scary. I did not really have anywhere to go but forward in the location that I was in, so I just kept moving, but I was rehearsing in my head over and over what I should do to not be the tallest thing out there (not many options to be honest!)

    I used to do disaster recovery work and I was in New Orleans right after hurricane Katrina. I have some interesting stories from that time, like walking around basically a ghost town with the National Guard everywhere and having many areas restricted or patrolled. Or all of the electricity being out so none of the stoplights worked, but it didn’t matter because there was nobody around. Or driving around the ninth ward to do evaluations, but there were no people and some of the houses were off their mooring or just completely gone… it was quite an experience!

    1. Wow! Those are both very intense experiences, Kyria. Clearly you made it through in one piece from that hike in Colorado, but how scary!
      And I can’t imagine what New Orleans must have been like in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I’m sure those experiences and images will stay vivid for life.

  4. That is hilarious about how you set up to look more “sciencey”… and also that it worked. I used to have a fun outside job (park ranger) and I miss it sometimes, although it’s not practical with a family. Do you feel the same way? Do you think you’ll pursue something like this when the kids are older/grown up?

    1. I’m hoping that it would have “worked” even if I hadn’t staged my “sciencey” look – but we’ll never know 🙂

      My Dad’s dream job when he was a teenager was becoming a park ranger. He became a Baptist minister instead, but he still LOVES to roam through the woods.

      I don’t miss research per se, but I miss the camaraderie and the physical labour involved with this particular job. It would be impossible to recreate now that I’m older/have kids and even how the world has changed. No one had cell phones back then and we were in our own little (dangerous) world on the mudflats which really added to the experience.

      I don’t see myself getting back into this sort of career when the kids are older and that’s okay by me; but for that period in my life, it was a great fit and I have many wonderful memories.

  5. That love story ruse is awesome! When Phil and I were dating, he lost a button on his shirt and I was like “Oh I can sew that on for you!” It was the first and last time I ever sewed a button, I just wanted him to think I would be a great wife and mom 🙂

    1. I have sewed a handful of buttons over the course of our marriage, but most of the time I keep a stack of sewing for when my Mom comes to visit…SHE has sewed/repaired and hemmed MANY things for both of us + the kids over the last decade. I’m helpless with handwork of any sort.

  6. I love that you baited John by looking all sciencey! Too funny! Reminds me of the song “Mastermind” by Taylor Swift! 😉

    I’ve mostly worked in finance and much of that experience is on trading floors. So Nicole’s recent post about the work environment on a trading floor sums up a lot of my experiences. I’ve witnessed a lot of really bad male behavior. I used to sit by the commodity traders when I worked in Charlotte. I could not take client calls at my desk because I never knew when one of the traders would blow up and scream at his colleague, someone on the phone, or his computer. They were so tightly wound and clearly had a lot of money on the line and were incredibly volatile people. It was really hard for someone like me who is very even keel and would never raise my voice. I cried on the trading floor a view times which is a huge no no in a male-dominated industry. I hated that crying was seen as a horrible display of emotion but screaming was just part of the job for some groups. And I didn’t even witness the worst of the environment… I heard stories about people breaking their phones, physical fights on the trading floor, etc. I am very very happy to be on what is called “the buy side” of the industry. Everyone I work with is so nice and calm and rational. That was NOT the case on the sell side!

    I love hearing these stories of earlier in your career, though!! It’s all so foreign to me! I only took 1 science class in college – chemistry. I didn’t like it even though I did well in science in HS. I am much more of a math gal!

    1. Your trading jobs sound HORRIBLE (for my personality at least). I’m always horrified/intrigued when I see videos and/or dramatizations of how trading floors work. It looks like pure chaos and very, very high emotions.

      I HATED Math at the university level. For my Biology degree, I had to take Calculus (and multiple statistics courses, but that made a lot of sense for designing research projects) and that was probably my least favourite course throughout my degree. I also had to do Biochemistry and Physics which were also a struggle, but I eventually broke through the wall and really “got” the material. With Calculus, I never “got” it.

  7. Your research work is interesting to hear about. Collecting things from mud flats is a job I’ve never thought much about.
    I ended up with similar tan lines at band camp one summer. There was a thunderstorm and as soon as it passed we were back out on the field marching. Lots of mud got kicked up and I ended up with tan lines around the mud spots. (Sunscreen at band camp wasn’t really a thing). I played flute/piccolo so I also ended up with a goofy tan line on my arm from the flip folder.

    1. It is a rather bizarre research niche, admittedly!

      I’ve never met anyone else with wonky mud tan lines. Welcome to the club. And your flute/piccolo tan line is fascinating. I once read a Harry Potter book (so, long) in a single summer day. The way I was sitting on an apartment balcony, I ended up with one arm exposed to the sun (which became very tanned) and the other arm stayed in the shade (which stayed looking very pale). It took weeks for my arm pigment levels to reach a comperable level.

  8. Oooooh the birds and bees jokes– I am telling them to myself and laughing so hard 🙂
    Your kids are super lucky to have a scientist mom– you have so much to teach them about how to experience the natural world. I have been thinking about my own lack of observational skills lately because I am teaching a unit on Aristotle, and he grounded his philosophy in his own scientific study in a way that’s just so satisfying.

    1. To be honest, I’m not a sciencey Mom. I have several friends with science backgrounds and/or they teach in the sciences and they go out of their way to incorporate experiments into their days. This is NOT me. I’m interested in science, but my first love has always been English and literature. Ironically enough, (especially for the bee work) my favourite part of research was writing everything up for publication! For most researchers it’s the exact opposite.

  9. So many life and death experiences on the mudflats! I had no idea you had so many close calls. Research is not for the faint-hearted!

    I worked at a family fun park for several summers in high school and college and was even a manager at one point. We had mini golf, go-carts, batting cages, and an arcade. There was a sudden thunderstorm and I had to basically call everyone in and stop the go-carts and batting cages immediately. Well, this one guy refused to bring his go-cart in and we ended up having to call the police. We offered refunds or for folks to wait out the storm and go later, but he was adamant that he had paid for a full round and he was going to get it. It was the only time I ever had to actually call the police! We certainly had our fair share of drunk folks and rowdy groups, but that one was really scary because he could have hurt himself or staff.

    1. Dealing with unruly customers is NOT fun, especially when it is literally a life-and-death moment. Ugh. That would not have been a pleasant experience and sounds very scary. An irate customer can wreak havoc and do physical damage, but you also don’t want them to get hurt because of their unwise choices!

  10. Loved to read these stories about your “previous” life… is John not disappointed that you didn’t pursue work in the sciences after he was so smitten with you looking into a microscope? I am sure he’d love for you to come home all muddy every night, too 🙂

    1. Ha! He doesn’t seem too upset I don’t do mudflat work anymore; we get plenty of wet, muddy gear from the kiddos…

      He does still lovingly call me his “biologizer” which makes me laugh.

      It was such a different life – it seems soooo long ago and since it happened pre-kids it almost feels like a different universe. Yet, clearly, many of the memories from that era really stand out for me!

  11. I’m so glad you decided to write a bit more about your research days. So fascinating. I have a few stories from my post-grad days, although they are not adventurous, being in the lab. Still, the lab turned out not to be that safe … and not because of me.

    On the subject of lightning, the park ranger at Bryce Canyon (where they have an enormous number of lightning strikes) said the best strategy in a thunderstorm was to bend over, so your backside was pointing to the sky. Make sure your arms are not touching the ground or your legs. This way, the lightning would hit your backside and go straight down your legs to the ground and avoid going through your heart. This makes sense, but I’m not sure whether it works. Now I have a fun image of your research group stuck in the mudflats with your backside in the air for who knows how long while the storm passed.

    1. That would be quite the look. I feel like bending over without touching the ground or your legs would get TOUGH! I’ll keep this trick in my back pocket, but hopefully never have to test the validity of the park ranger’s claim…

  12. So interesting. Thank you for sharing. I admit I miss a few vocabularies and so I didn’t get everything but it sounds so interesting. I am wondering why did you stop working in this field? Or do you still? It seem like an area lots of research is done specially the honeybees.

    Anyway here is a tan story. I don’t tan much but get red a lot. Not so my sister. In my teenage years I read somewhere, that you can do a sun tattoo. You put some sort of shape on your body, tan and then have said shape imprinted. So my sister and I cut out hearts and put ourself on the blanket. After like 10 minutes she was bored and went away. I stayed the entire day in the sun – also very bored. At night we looked at our skin and while I could see nothing (I used sun screen) she was proudly wearing a heart.

    1. I don’t do research directly anymore; now I’m a project manager, so help oversee research…but don’t have any hands-on role.
      I had Abby at the end of a major project and that changed my career trajectory. To be fair: I really didn’t want to keep working in a lab and the outside manual work I did in the field for my undergraduate degree would be almost impossible to carry out with a baby home!

      I’ve heard about sun tattoos before! I don’t tan quickly either, so it would take a long time for one of those to have an impact, I think!

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