Let me fintroduce myself

I’ve never been the person to broadcast my life on social media. I always found it a little obnoxious. Whether its twitter, facebook, instagram, tumblr, or a blogpost, it just seemed like a way to brag, or seek approval from complete strangers. I can admit I’m guilty of posting selfies and cheesy photos of my boyfriend and dog, but those have always been restricted to 200 people I consider to be my friends.

It wasn’t until I started my career in conservation biology that this feeling began to change. I walked through the doors of Columbia University on my first day of graduate school, and I realized I had no idea what I was doing. How do I make people passionate about what I do? Will my research make a difference? Do I even deserve to be here? I realized I had all this doubt and insecurity about starting this next chapter of my life because I had never heard someone in my field share their story. I didn’t take the time to ask others how they dealt with graduate school, what experiences they had and what they learned along the way. So that is why I am here! I want to share what I have experienced, good and bad, when starting off my career in conservation biology, and hopefully share what I have learned along the way.

I want to start off by briefly fintroducing myself (I really like marine puns … they will be used quite often, so I apologize in advance). I am currently in my second year of graduate school at Columbia University in NYC, completing my Master of Arts in Conservation Biology. My thesis work focuses on manta ray behaviour and conservation in Papua New Guinea and Fiji. I am from Canada, and have lived in Toronto most of my life, so get used to me apologizing multiple times in a post for absolutely no reason. I will stop here, because if I keep going I will get into my hobbies and personality quirks, and this post will feel more like a dating profile.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you stay for future blog posts 🙂

– Shannon Murphy

What did one ocean say to the other ocean? Nothing, they just waved.

4 Tips on How to be Environmentally Friendly in NYC

As a conservation biology student, I have started to take notice of all the ways I negatively impact the environment around me. I caught myself using plastic bags at CVS because I was too lazy to walk back to my apartment to grab reusable ones, or wasting food because I didn’t feel like washing my Tupperware container. It became easy to forget how much waste I was creating when surrounded by an industrial city like New York.

While NYC has taken leadership in understanding and promoting sustainability in some ways (effective public transportation system, cleaning up the Hudson River, etc…), there are still many ways to improve our environmental stewardship. I wanted to write this blog post to inform NYC residents of some ways they would reduce their environmental footprint, because while there are many people taking action, there is a lack of awareness on many of these environmentally friendly choices. In order to make a difference, we have to take steps to change what we consider to be the norm. Hopefully these tips can help educate those who want to start creating a new normal.

  1. Reusable bags and containers

According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. These bags then end up in our environment, particularly our oceans. Did you know it takes over 1000 years for a plastic bag to decompose? Many countries have taken steps to place bans or heavy taxes on plastic bags, such as Rwanda, China and Denmark. Even though our government isn’t pushing for this change, it doesn’t mean we can’t make the change ourselves. Buying and using reusable bags is simple, and a lot more effective than thin, flimsy plastic bags. You can buy them at almost any grocery store, or department store. There are now foldable reusable bags that can fit inside a small purse or pocket, so there is no excuse not to carry one around with you wherever you go. Also, Tupperware goes a long way and can keep your food fresh without the need to use plastic bags, plastic wrap or foil. Below I have provided some links to reusable shopping bags, as well as reusable produce bags (washable mesh bags to put your fruit and vegetables in, instead of the plastic bags provided at grocery stores).

Foldable reusable bags:

https://www.amazon.com/Reusable-Foldable-Attached-Polyester-Lightweight/dp/B01N6EGXUB/ref=sr_1_7?s=kitchen&ie=UTF8&qid=1508097894&sr=1-7&keywords=reusable+bags

Reusable produce bags:

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B012UBNQDE/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o06_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

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Reusable grocery and produce bags
  1. Compost

When waste goes to landfills, it releases methane and carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Composting is a great way to put your food and plant waste to use, as it helps fuel plant growth by acting as fertilizers for gardens and agriculture. While New York doesn’t have a good compost system in place, there are still many places to drop off your compost thanks to the NYC Department of Sanitation. They provide multiple compost drop off sites throughout the city, so you can drop off your compost close by at least once a week. I know what you’re thinking right about now – “I don’t want to have a bin of smelly, rotten food in my house.” Well here is the amazing news. You can freeze your compost instead, so there is no smell involved. Just place your food in a large bag, preferably a compostable bag, and freeze your food and plant scraps until you’re ready to drop it off at a compost collection site. Below I have provided a link to the NYC Department of Sanitation site to learn more about what you can and can’t compost and where you can compost around the city. I will also provide a link where you can buy compostable bags to store your food.

NYC Department of Sanitation:

http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/dsny/collectionandcleaning/collection.shtml

Compostable Bags:

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B013XGQXVW/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o02_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

  1. Buy locally

NYC has Greenmarket Farmers Markets, which provides locally grown produce from family farmers all around the New York area. Not only are you supporting local business, but you are supporting sustainably run farms that do not have as great of an environmental impact. My favourite is the market right behind the American Museum of Natural History that happens every Sunday, and it also has a compost drop off site. To learn more about NYC Greenmarket Farmers Markets, and where to find a market near you, check out the link below.

Greenmarket Farmers Markets:

https://www.grownyc.org/greenmarket/ourmarkets/whylocal

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79th Street Farmers Market behind the American Museum of Natural History http://wearablecollections.com/greenmarkets/
  1. Recycle

Similar to composting, recycling helps reduce the waste sent to landfills, thereby reducing the amount of harmful gases like methane and carbon dioxide released into our atmosphere. NYC also makes recycling easy for us – the blue bin is for mixed paper products and the green bin is for glass, metal and rigid plastic. If you want to learn about what you can and can’t recycle in NYC, please take a look at the links below.

NYC Gov:

http://www1.nyc.gov/nyc-resources/service/1239/residential-recycling

NYC Department of Sanitation:

http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/dsny/zerowaste/residents/what-to-recycle-for-residents.shtml

Thank you for reading, and I hope you stay for future blog posts 🙂

– Shannon Murphy

Why are pirates so eco friendly? Because they always follow the three arrrssssss

5 Things to Know as a Graduate Student

  1.  Not everything will go as planned

When you first start graduate school, you will do A LOT of brainstorming and planning. You will write draft after draft, until you have created the perfect project proposal. But remember, just because you have your project planned to the very last detail, does not mean everything will go as planned. Field work is unpredictable. This is especially true if you are working with wild animals. When I travelled to Papua New Guinea, I knew of an island that has a predictable manta ray aggregation, and that is where I planned on doing all of my satellite tagging. Once we arrived, we did not see a single manta rays for 4 days. My advisor and I had to start thinking of alternative sites to visit, or I would have no data for my thesis. We finally identified an alternative island that local communities and satellite tags confirmed had manta rays. Once we arrived, we saw at least 4 manta rays in one day, and even more the day after. I learned that no matter how much planning I did, I still had to be prepared to re plan once I was in the field.

  1.  Embrace failure to achieve success

This point ties in with the first point. It is pretty self-explanatory, and can be applied to almost any experience, but I think it is still important to emphasize here. You will often find yourself working your ass off to discover your final product is useless, or that there is a better method to achieve what you want. Don’t let this put you down, or distract you from your work. Failure is important and you will learn from your mistakes.

  1.  Networking is your key to success

This is probably the most important lesson I learned during my first year of graduate school. Put yourself and your work out there, whether that is on social media, at scientific conferences, or within your own department. Don’t be afraid to approach people and have a conversation about your work. You will be surprised with what tools other people have to offer that you may not have considered before. One student in my program found her advisor at a scientific conference because she approached him during a coffee break. I met someone while presenting a poster at a conference who does similar work, and he offered to help me with the statistical analyses of my project. Networking opens up the door for collaboration, which is particularly important in the field of conservation.

  1.  Don’t be afraid to disagree with your advisor

You advisor will typically be an expert in your field of study. They have had years of experience in research and teaching, and can be a great source for advice and guidance for your thesis. All of these qualities can make your advisor appear intimidating, and it can be easy to fall into a pattern of agreeing with everything your advisor suggests for your thesis. As a graduate student, it is really important to remember that you have valid ideas and opinions as well. You were accepted into your program and chosen by your advisor for a reason. You should never be afraid to express your own opinions, and reject changes your advisor suggests you make to your thesis. Even if your idea ends up failing, it is important to think for yourself and test out your own ideas before immediately using someone else’s suggestion. There have been many times I have fought for projects to go my way, and I think some have turned out for the better because of it. Even if every idea you have isn’t accepted by your advisor, or turns out to be the lesser of the two, it is important to have those conversations and break down each proposal brought to the table.

  1.  You must know why your work is important

This point is important not just in the field of conservation, but any type of research. This will be the question that grants, scientific publications and potential funders are looking for. People need to know why giving you money, or publishing your research, will help your field of study. Your reasoning needs to be more than “will provide valuable information to local organizations and government.” You should have measurable outcomes and realistic goals that will covey important information to your area of study, and can be applied to similar areas of study.

Please comment with other important things graduate students should know that I have not included here!

Thank you for reading, and I hope you stay for future blog posts 🙂

– Shannon Murphy

How do you make an octopus laugh? With TEN-tickles!

An Ofishial Overview of What I Actually Do

I strongly believe that you shouldn’t be in your field of work unless you love what you do (of course, this is a privilege and I understand this is not an option for everyone). Not everyone is going to know exactly what it is they are passionate about right away. I definitely was not one of those people. While completing my Bachelor’s in General Biology, I had a variety of different summer jobs. I started as a cell biology research assistant in the basement of Sunnybrook Hospital, pipetting and washing test tubes every hour of every day. Next was writing grants for a small charity, Toronto Foundation for Student Success, that focused on student education and well-being. I then found myself as an educator at Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. This mostly involved me yelling at people to stop splashing water, to not grab animals or take them out of their tanks. People would pick up sharks by their tails and take them out of the water. YES, I said sharks. Ok, I will move on because I could write an entire blog post about some of the insane things I have seen people do at the aquarium, and it is already beginning to stress me out. Finally, I had the amazing opportunity to be a student intern for an NGO called Conservation International at their office in Singapore, where I was introduced to the elasmobranch world of sharks, skates and rays. This job introduced me to the species I work with now, which is the reef manta ray.

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A reef manta ray circling a cleaning station in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea

Manta rays are in the family Mobulidae, and there are two species, the reef (Mobula alfredi) and oceanic (Mobula birostris) manta ray. The reef manta can grow up to 5 meters wide, and the oceanic manta can grow as large as 7 meters wide. They are gentle giants, as they have no stinger and they feed on microscopic plankton. During my internship at Conservation International, I travelled to Bali to scuba dive at a dive site called Manta Point, and a reef manta ray circled me for about 10 minutes. That moment in my life made every other moment completely irrelevant. I know I will experience amazing milestones in my life, like buying my first house, getting married, having a child, etc … but for now, that was hands down the coolest thing I have ever experienced.

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A reef manta ray circling around me in Bali, Indonesia

Unfortunately, the reef manta ray is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, in part due to targeted hunting to harvest their gill plates to supply demand in southern China (where the gill plates are believed to have medicinal value). Although these predictable aggregations put manta rays at risk of overfishing, they also provide reliable snorkel and dive sites for marine eco-tourism industries. Eco-tourism has the potential to be an effective economic replacement to hunting mantas for their gills. Ultimately, I want to show that manta rays are worth more alive than dead. I decided to focus my project in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, because there is an understudied population of manta rays in the area. My project focuses on satellite tagging reef manta rays in Papua New Guinea, so I can find out what areas around Milne Bay they visit frequently to help promote ecotourism and inform conservation management. As manta rays are being overfished, it is important to protect populations in areas before the gill plate trade expands and they are put at risk. A perfect outcome of this project would be to have several community-based marine protected areas set up around these newly discovered manta aggregations to help conserve this species, but also to promote areas for local tourism operators to take their guests diving and snorkelling. This will obviously be a lot of work, and any scientist or conservationist reading this would tell me that projects never go exactly as planned, so I will keep this in mind while completing my project.

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A close up of a reef manta ray in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea by Sarah Lewis from Manta Trust

To date, nine SPLASH10 archival satellite tags have been deployed in Milne Bay. All data is just starting to be analyzed, which means I have a fun couple of months ahead of me sitting on my computer and drinking way too much coffee. I am hoping to travel back to Milne Bay at the end of this year, to explore the sites identified by satellite tags, and also to tag more manta rays. I am also hoping to talk more with local communities about manta conservation and protected areas.

I thought I would just use this post to give you an overview of what I do, as well as show people that it can take many years until you discover something you are passionate about. If you have the opportunity, don’t just settle for the first thing that interests you. Try out different jobs and experiences so you can compare them to one another, and don’t be afraid to step into something that is out of your comfort zone.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you stay for future blog posts 🙂

– Shannon Murphy

What did the beach say to the wave? Long tide, no sea.