The power of Art for Outreach- knitted birds!

For those that know me outside the academic world, know that I am a hobby-holic. If I can learn how to craft it, can it, tan it or felt it, you are just scraping the surface of what I have tried or will hobby into something. I started this blog as a way to provide some graduate student reference for life, to reach the public about Arctic science and the wonders of the natural world and have now truly discovered the power of using these hobbies and art-outlets, as I call them, to empower the public about awareness to the natural world.

It all truly has started at The Net Loft. No matter where you come from, you are welcome at The Net Loft. A cozy, quaint and enchanting store filled with any fiber, paper and inspiration for creation you can think of. And what makes it that much more of a place to connect with your inner artist, is the people; the staff that are just as passionate about your ideas and projects as you are. Bring in an idea and they help you source materials and references to get you what you need. But aside from the actual making of your craft is the sense of community. Knitting nights, tea with candied pecans (thank you Frances!), motivational support for getting through tougher projects or patterns, and encouragement to try something new. Seeing the wonderful art coming from your neighbors is what makes this place more than just a beautiful store.

The Copper River Delta Birds by Hand Project, through The Net Loft, was something I instantly wanted to be a part of. The project objective was to engage and inform knitters and handcrafters about the wonder of long-distance migratory shorebirds that use the Copper River as a prominent staging area, particularly during spring migration.

Copper River Delta Birds by Hand Project Information

Join the Facebook Group HERE

So knitters could submit any kind of hand made bird to the flock to be put on display at the Cordova Community Center museum. Birds would be individually marked so you could look through our book and find out each bird migration and how and why they made it to Cordova. The color banding scheme followed the Pan American Shorebird Banding Protcol. Leading up to the Festival and Spring migration 2018, birds started to arrive!

In celebration of the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival we worked for two full days constructing our scene and highlighting each and every hand made bird that was donated or temporarily contributed to the flock. I really enjoyed helping create this display. Our opening event was really well attended, offering snacks and punch and watching as people ‘birded’ and read about where each bird had come from.

Blank canvas in the museum, ready to set up the flock!


View from the front for the almost finished display.
A few shorebirds
A map generated to show where each bird came from, coloured by country.
With over 250 birds, it was hard to get them all in one photo.

So for those of you who love birds and want to get involved, follow these links to find out more about contributing a migrant to this flock. Each year it will grow bigger and bigger and everyone is welcome to be a part of this celebration of birds and the Copper River Delta 🙂 Happy Knitting!



New Years Resolution for the planet and my progress

It’s 2018. It’s that time of the year where people, like myself, make those New Years Resolutions.What are the most common ones?

Most common New Year’s resolutions


According to a recent ComRes poll, the most common New Year’s resolutions include:

  1. Exercise more (38 per cent)
  2. Lose weight (33 per cent)
  3. Eat more healthily (32 per cent)
  4. Take a more active approach to health (15 per cent)
  5. Learn new skill or hobby (15 per cent)
  6. Spend more time on personal well-being (12 per cent)
  7. Spend more time with family and friends (12 per cent)
  8. Drink less alcohol (12 per cent)
  9. Stop smoking (9 per cent)
  10. Other (1 per cent)


This year my resolutions are not for me but for the environment.

Back in November I attended the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Group meeting in Paracas, Peru. My first time in South America! Though there are several memorable and educational experiences I absorbed from this meeting, there was a poster that from an Argentinian man that has stuck with me. Despite my horridly poor Spanish and his moderately better English (thank goodness), I gleaned something from his work that disturbed me. We all know about the issues of plastic waste. The ‘islands’ of garbage that float around in the ocean. A quick google search gave me these results like the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” or the “Trash Vortex”. Regardless if these islands are myths or exaggerated stories going viral on the internet how can you dispute that there is a lot of plastic waste in the ocean, Trash Vortex or not?

Image result

It’s horrible and you want to look away. Only a few minutes online looking at wildlife affected by plastic waste was enough to get the blood boiling.

Back to the conference, this gentleman was creating awareness of his own plastic waste struggle. Several cross country rivers drain into the Laguna Mar Chiquita in the Reserva Natural banados de rio dulche. These miles and miles of river carry TONS of waste, depositing right into the lake within a protected reserve. Some of the coolest wildlife exist there. One of which is the Aguatero – Nycticryphes semicollaris.

Attempting to breed, shorebirds like the Aguatero establish nests right in amongst these piles of plastic bottles, bags and cartons.

He graciously allowed me to take some photos of his poster for reference.

Where does your waste go? When you throw away plastic in your recycle bin and in your trash bin, what happens to it? A teacher once said to me that the problem with garbage is that everyone thinks it’s not theirs. But how can you be so sure?

© Greenpeace

So this year I’m going to eat healthy, sure, but I’m making specific attempts to reduce my waste.

So what could I do that was manageable and not break the bank?

  1. A lot of people are doing this but really make a commitment to reusable bags at the grocery store. Fabric bags for produce, BUY or make your own.
  2. Eliminate the use of plastic bags in any garbage bins in the house that commonly are only dry waste with using newspaper instead:

Substituindo o saco plastico.

This worked but I ended up still putting smaller paper bags into one larger plastic garbage. Not sure if this is the best method. Larger paper bags that you can fold over before placing in the dumpster will work better.

3. Make your own washable tissues. The hankie has been around since the dark ages, but why aren’t we using them more often in the house? So I did a quick serge on these cloth pieces and have a laundry net to hold used hankies to throw in the washer. This waste reduction method over the past few months has greatly reduced household waste but doesn’t reduce plastic waste.


4. Eliminate the need for cleaning products with chemicals by using natural options like essential oils and washable cloths. There are several environmentally friendly and safe for the house, children and pets. For example; NORWEX

We use these great cloths for everything from cleaning surfaces, including our dogs, managing spills and dirty floors, dusting, scrubbing, the works. It’s great to reduce waste camping too. Never buy another paper towel again in your life; help reduce waste and safe money.

5. Stash travel mugs at home, in your office and in your car to ensure no matter what time of the day or night you are feeling like a beverage on the go, there is a reusable mug. Trent University had a promotion, FREE coffee and tea for a whole MONTH on campus if you bring your own mug. So get on board and eliminate beverage waste!

6. Compost. If your city or town doesn’t have a compost waste pick up service then just compost in the yard, or even in your house. My lovely and adventurous friend actually has a worm system in her house that composts their family’s waste; aka vermicomposting.

Try one thing to reduce your waste. Those that are making the effort say that they feel empowered and proud of their efforts.

As for plastic reduction, I’m still working on improving my daily choices. One big one has been the use of compost-friendly dog poop bags. For all those dog owners out there, think of all that plastic going straight to the dump or elsewhere…..these are a great alternative.

Earth Rated Poop Bags Refill Rolls Lavender Scented 120ct

Compost-friendly dog poop bags -get them here on Amazon




Coffee and a lap blanket; time to get reading

One struggle I have faced with graduate school revolves around reading; am I reading enough? Am I reading enough about the things I should be reading enough? What are these things I definitely should be reading……and it goes on.

This summer around the dinner table with our research crew on Southampton Island, after a long day of hiking and soaking up the wonders of the Arctic tundra, we got on the topic of “have you read this?”. Books, articles, papers, not to mention the seemingly endless news feeds (apps on your phone) you can have at your fingertips.

Am I reading enough? Am I tapping into these sources sufficiently for what is expected of me? Though this post seems to be introduced more as a “self-doubt” piece, that is not its purpose. After some discussion with the research crew, I took mental note of a few recommended reads and went online several weeks later to buy a few more books. Though most peer-reviewed publications can be read online, there are a number of other ways to get information pertaining to your area of study. I am fond of books that are written about birds but don’t have to be scientific articles or textbooks. For example, 

The Narrow Edge is written by the lovely Deborah Cramer.×441.jpg

Here are some sources, some interesting books and sources to find the kind of information biologists are likely using, or are already using and I’m late to the game:

  • Obvious; Google Scholar. I can find more papers there for free than I can through my own University.
  • Talk to your colleagues. I found out more about books and interesting reads that are applicable to my discipline than I ever got from random searches.
  • Conferences; maximize what you can get from these events. Go to as many talk as possible, write down applicable citations and talk to people about their work. You will learn more in a couple days at a conference than weeks in a library.
  • Quirks and Quarks the Podcast. You don’t even have to read, they tell you cool stuff so you are free to do other things at the same time, like knit.
  • **Google Scholar Alerts, you can create target phrases or words that are of interest to you and when a new publication comes out it sends a notification to your inbox with the link. HINT: If there are important research scientists in your discipline that you want to keep tabs on and they aren’t on your research gate account, add their name as the target word!
  • For those of you with fancy android or iphones, apps are definitely a fun route. Just search podcasts or other apps.
  • Get on those email lists for your target journals! They will let you know when things are fresh off the press and you can quickly scan titles to see if the topics apply to you. I was late getting on this and wished I had started sooner……

Really though, I think I will always be behind and I’m not really fitting enough to provide reading sources but I am a graduate student currently surviving her PhD. When I’m working full time, I seem to spend more time reading and responding to emails than anything else. However, time management means I have to force myself to get a Google Scholar search done every once in a while. I also like to read actual books away from my computer screen, equipped with coffee cup, blanket and warm lap dog during a good reading sesh. In that case, hit up the library or request Amazon or Chapters gift cards and get the books in your hands. Fitting reading time in will be that much easier.

Lastly, if your supervisor gets hard copies of applicable journals in the mail; ask them if you can borrow them.

Happy Reading.


Alive and Living Well

Today is Oct 4th, and I’m sitting at a table in a loft apartment in Healy, Alaska, population 1,021 (est. from 2010 Census).

alaska-mapOne year and 5 months ago I lived in a suburban town in Southern Ontario, Canada with a projected ‘life path’ that was taking me to some cool places for PhD field work, interspersed with long periods at a desk quietly working under a dim light, post-it notes in front of me with reminders saying ‘oil change’ and ‘sale on spinach -Sobey’s’. Life was okay. I was content and in my comfort zone. However, since then my life has been nothing of that. It’s better than I could ever have imagined.

I have discovered Alaska and a life that truly makes me happy. I have visited Alaska by road driving the Alcan, seeing wildlife and mountain views that actually exist outside of postcards at the airport duty-free places, seen most of the road system though still more to see, and spent some of the best times of my life in Cordova.

Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken

How did I get here and how is it that one person’s life can change so much in such a short period of time? I guess the short answer is saying yes. Dive ahead, even if it’s a little precarious; say yes to new things.

The past 48 hours I travelled from Cordova, Alaska to Valdez by ferry, drove (or should I say, a wonderful man drove) 6 hours north to Fairbanks. I was fortunate that people in Alaska are so generous and I was given a car to drive from Fairbanks to Healy on Hwy 3 to Denali National Park to stay with a friend whom technically we met only once, though she stayed at my house a couple nights and we follow each other on Facebook keeping in touch for years before making contact about my visiting Fairbanks and she graciously allowed me to come for a visit…..Give these parameters to a statistician and I would say these circumstances are less than one in a million.

As I sit at my friend’s table and look out on this beautiful fall day….it’s snowing here….and think about this past year and almost a half, I’m struck with the emotional gravity of how happy I am. I’m addicted to saying yes, despite the fact that my stomach churns at the thought of driving on a highway I’ve never been on with someone else’s car full of stuff headed to a place I’ve never been with no cellphone, or getting onto plane after plane to visit someone I desperately want to see with the thought that at some point I’ll have to turn around and get on a plane to leave him. All the pain of leaving that comfort zone is far outweighed by the surges of wonderful experiences and life-long lasting memories.

My mother always says that in life she wants to give my brother and I two things, ‘roots and wings’. I call home often, and I need to because I get home sick and I miss my family terribly, but man am I going to use my wings. The more I travel, whether it’s in Alaska or elsewhere, the more I’m struck by how much I would have missed if I didn’t just take those chances and book those flights. Salmon spawning, bull moose, halibut fishing, watching mountain goats climb, picking wild blueberries and edible mushrooms, hiking through rainforest, watching whales in the ocean and being splashed by a Dall’s porpoise diving and jumping around the boat, only to turn with a huge smile on my face to a thoughtful man ready to capture that moment on camera is something money could never buy.

Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken

I consider myself blessed at having discovered saying yes early enough in life that I have decades more travel and adventures ahead of me. My flexible lifestyle right now allows for this kind of travel and I’m going to take full advantage of it!


Life is too short to spend it counting red blood cells

I wrote and successfully ran my first Macro….I have no idea what Macro means but I know it’s a piece of code used to perform a function on my computer.

I have entered the phase of data analysis in my PhD. If feels like my entire life is trapped within this little black box supposedly filled with 2 terabytes of digital what-not. As a potential future doctor of philosophy I have been stretching and yoga-ing my brain muscles and attempting to use higher order thought processing (in other words, how can I get more done in less time).

One of the numerous digital hurdles I’m entering into, is dealing with blood smears. On the tundra during summer in Nunavut our team captures breeding shorebirds and takes a variety of quick samples including a drop of blood. This drop (or even smaller than a drop) is smeared on a glass slide to generate a single layer of red blood cells so we can see them under a microscope.

Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) Red Blood Cells
Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) Red Blood Cells

Each slide contains hundreds of thousands (or even gazillions) of cells. Often scientists report the number of different cells or the prevalence of infection/disease within an observed 10,000 cells. It’s easy to miss the odd infected cell so the greater the number of cells the better. That’s all fine and dandy but counting 10,000 cells per blood slide for over 150 birds is just not what I want to be doing for 6 months of my life straight. My time is much better spent using my brain to do ‘science’ interspersed with watching Netflix or knitting baby hats.

So I took to the world of code and programming to solve this seemingly impossible endeavor.

Little did I know…..stuff like this can be really easy. There is definitely some trial and error but free software (Imagej) and a macro (some code thing) can run a batch containing all my images and count the cells for me.



Download Imagej if you are ever counting cells. And process your image using a macro like mine:

Convert the colours in the image to something recognizable for the program and then tell the program to count the number of those things…..

Hit the process button under a Batch function to run the macro for a whole suit of images and watch the magic happen (or don’t watch; just walk away and let your computer work). I was able to count 10,000 cells in just over 200 images in 10 minutes. I would have walked away and done something fun like eat cookies but I was sitting on a plane on my way to Seattle. Plus, I was so stoked ‘something was happening’ that I sat starring at the screen praying my computer didn’t suddenly self-destruct.

So next time you are faced with the challenge of managing large amounts of data, or with technology in general, try to experiment with some different options out there to save you time. Most of the papers out there say “we counted 10,000 cells per slide for the 1000 individuals of mice to determine….something something”, and what it should say is, “A poor unsuspecting undergrad student was roped into volunteering to count slides for 12 hours per week for 2 whole years to determine…..something something”. Likely most of us don’t have the luxury of hiring technicians or bribing undergrads with Tim Horton’s gift certificates to work endlessly on something mind numbing. So scientists, “don’t always just work harder, work smarter”, so you can free up time to have fun, (like get on a plane to somewhere exotic) life is too short to count red blood cells.


For a day when you’re lost in your emails…..

Being a graduate student has it’s challenges. I’m finding most of my challenges are psychological; how can we get everything done we need to do each day and avoid drowning ourselves in coffee? Some days it’s hard to put down the knitting and take on my inbox that says I have 94 unread messages. On a particularly weak day, I find myself asking the hard questions; “what am I going to do with my life?” and “am I going to be able to get a job after this?”. Those are the dark days, and I don’t even want to go there. Many of us graduate students push those black clouds to the back of our minds because we have 94 unread emails to get to.

These past few weeks it’s like my life has been a series of R code errors and I’ve tried debugging only to find that my errors are NOT as simple as I forgot a comma or I didn’t close a bracket….


As part of some extra curricular work, I’ve been giving skype lectures to elementary school classes between grades 3-5. It’s been really rewarding and it reminds me that when you take away all the emails, the grant applications, the due dates and the stack of marking, I’m lucky and privileged to be doing the work that I do; life is pretty great. Trying my best and doing what I can is all that I can ask of myself. A wonderful student even sent me some fan mail.

polar bear

At the end of the day, I’m a scientist and I think I am too quick to forget that. So I now keep this drawing at my desk at work as a reminder of how far I’ve come and to keep working to get where I want to go.


Out of the Office Reply

So the countdown is on. I have less than 24 hours before leaving Ontario, flying from Ottawa to Iqaluit- Iqaluit to Southampton and being dropped off on a gravel ridge on the arctic tundra by Twin Otter. If you imagine putting your whole life in civilization on hold for two months, there is a fair list of things to do in advance. From paying bills, reducing insurance coverage on my vehicle to talking to my loved ones every chance I get, things have been busy. I’ve also felt compelled to eat all sort of things I know I won’t have access to (aka McDonald’s Big Mac) despite the fact that I rarely eat “bad” food during the rest of the year. Why is it that when posed with the lack of convenient amenities we want them so much more than usual? But there is no more waiting, it’s a reality that I’m now leaving for the summer.

One amazing aspect of all of this, is the ability for my loved ones to come to my aid with regards to taking care of parts of my life in my absence. Additionally, the fact that my closest friend accepts and supports my absence, and I leave knowing that regardless of the time we spend apart or the length of time we go without talking to one another is irrelevant. Within seconds of reuniting, it’s like we haven’t spend any time apart at all. Knowing the people you care about support you and will wait for your return means more than anything else.

So, this post of dedicated to all the family and friends of researchers that spend long stretches of time away for their work. It’s those that keep the ship afloat during our absences that make coming home so much more wonderful. And, if I could, this post would be my out of office email reply so everyone knows how grateful I am.

out of the office


The glory of snail mail: arctic connections

So you’re leaving home for several weeks. If you’re doing research then time will likely fly and creep at various times. It’s those slow days where we tend to think of home, of the people we are missing and you secretly tally the number of days until you are reunited with your loved ones.

We’ve all been there but if you are a wildlife ecologist, botanist, work outside or work in remote areas of the world, it’s part of the deal. Last summer when I was preparing for the ten week stint away from home, being in a remote camp in Nunavut with nothing but spotty satellite phone reception, anxiety was a dominant emotion. But this time around, not surprisingly, the second field season prep has been a breeze. However, this does not alleviate missing home any less.

One thing that can really ease homesickness is snail mail. Let’s face it, current snail mail consists mostly of unwanted flyers, bills and items that go directly to recycling. However, the odd time you get something hand written and addressed to you personally, and there is a magic, a nostalgia that makes you feel like you’re received a gift.

So The Great Unwashed, my most cherished friend has taken the time to write each technician I have in camp with me this summer a personal letter.

Additionally, each person has an envelope with their name on it, containing inside a list of fun, likely odd and embarrassing questions to entertain us on a rainy day. So thank you in advance to the Great Unwashed for no doubt providing us with a few good laughs and a little homey warmth during out stay in the Arctic.



Heading to a remote camp? How much STUFF do you need to bring?

This post could only come AFTER my first field season to the Arctic. I’ve learned a lot about what to bring into a remote field camp, how much to bring and what I can reasonably carry. Yup, made that mistake last year. I had to drag bags from one spot to another, pointing at strangers saying in desperation, “Hey you! Can you help me carry this?”. Needless to say, if you can’t carry all your gear on your own, reduce what you have until you can. Admittedly, I’m sure it was the excess volume of STUFF that led to some sweet lil’ biceps goin’ on at the end of the field season. Who knew I had muscles under there?

So, you’re going to be away for ~2 months. What is essential? What is non-essential? What is the balance between these things that you can reasonably carry all at once?

These are pictures of the breakdown for what I bring into a remote field camp for 2 months. This is all personal stuff so doesn’t include first aid, firearms, food, shelter etc. Those things are provided for me. 

NOTE*** All my socks, underwear, t-shirts and smaller cloth items are shrink-wrapped to reduce volume.


NOTE*** EVERYTHING FITS INTO THESE TWO PACKS. I carry one on the back and one on the front.

personal hygiene personal extras personal craft nonessentials head and handsclothes

THEN, I take this shampoo, soap, laundry detergent combo and condense into three small little travel bottles from a hotel room.


NOW, you might say that this all won’t fit into the two packs. HA. This is true. The morning of travel when officially  leaving civilization, I wear the rubber boots, several layers and accessories on the plane. Do you look, well….a little strange. YES. But who cares? You’re headed on a flight to Iqaluit, and you can only carry so much on your back. I will also have my laptop with me and a few data notes / information for my Iqaluit supply shopping. All essential grab-n-go items need to be in the carry-on.

Some of the non-essentials you see above are; GoPro camera, digital SLR camera with lenses, tripod, My personal coffee kit, decent coffee to have at the end of the season when NABOB is getting kind of boring, a few dried goodies and candies. I also like to have a craft, this ball of yarn and knitting needles will make 2 pairs of wool socks! Ya, baby!

Now keep in mind nowhere in these photos do you see personal toiletries ie; toothbrush, hair brush etc, or my lady undergarments. These items are shrink-wrapped as well and I’m still using a lot of the stuff so it can’t be packed yet but when in doubt, you can never have too many undergarments and socks. Happy Packing!



Gettin’ Crafty: doing something other than grad work

Moving away from science and science-related topics, every once in a while you need to think about something other than your project, your grad work and how the heck you’re going to get everything done in time. Sometimes it just feels like too much. There are not many times in life that cause you to have an entire 4 years planned for a project that is solely your responsibility on top of teaching, applying for grants, thinking about jobs and executing everything without your mind exploding. How do you cope? Me? I knit. Legit, I get my kicks from counting stitches, reading patterns and making something with my hands. Each stitch is some tangible progression towards a finished project. I just don’t get that kind of satisfaction outside of the field season sitting at my desk and typing or reading all day long. I was given a challenge by a friend and fellow biologist, Clark Nissley to make him a hat. But not just any hat, a hat shaped like a goose with the markings of his specific study species the Brant (Branta bernicla). I replied by saying, “Challenge Accepted!”. Two months and ~45 hours of glorious procrastination later, Viola! The Brant Hat. A couple photos of the hat are featured below. This fleece-lined knitted ridiculousness has been shipped off to Delaware where Clark can either wear it out in public and accept the stares from strangers and friends alike or hide it away. The choice is his. Either way, it was fun to make and reminds me that days where I don’t think about science are good days too!

Happy Friday Everyone.

Photo by Abby Follett


Photo by Abby Follett
Photo by Abby Follett