Rachel Down Under!

To the races!

Posted in Australia, Sydney by rssmith218 on September 28, 2010

And we’re off! Following a full week of paper-reading mixed with thesis celebrations, partying South Americans, and an international Mexican night, I awoke early on Saturday morning for a classy day at the Randwick Royal horse races. Little did I know that my mom was simultaneously preparing for a trip to the World Equestrian Games in good ole’ Lexington, Kentucky; like mother, like daughter, I guess!

While the competition at Randwick may not have rivaled the horsemanship at the present World Games, it was Ladies Day in Randwick, and fashionable ladies were out in full force. If only I had known in advance that “fashion spotters” would be “roam[ing] the course looking for the Best Dressed Female on the track” maybe I would have had a shot at the $25,000 Thailand Spa Retreat holiday grand prize for the best-dressed lady. Good prize, huh? I tried to take pictures of some of the most outrageous dresses, but my efforts to get the perfect shot became a bit too creepy, even for me. Here are some pictures from the race- the track looks just like Kentucky!

And here’s the huge party taking place next to the track…did I mention that Ladies Day was sponsored by Yellowglen, a vineyard that specializes in sparkling wine ? Also, that’s my university on the hill in the background!

Here I am at the races- can you believe that none of us won the fashion contest?

So here’s the horse I bet on…I can’t resist those gray horses.

And how did my horse fare, you ask? Well, you tell me…

WINNER. That’s right. (sorry if the sound isn’t working on this video; just imagine me cheering loudly!)

My day at the races was followed by a birthday celebration at an 80s club with my lab. Can you see why I love my job? Photo credit to my labmate, Lera.

But the biggest adventure of the weekend was still to come- a trip to the Blue Mountains with some new international friends!

An early start to the day (as you can see below) and we were out of Sydney and into the Blue Mountains in a snap!

And again, Australia delivered another scenic and beautiful day. With perfect weather (sunny, light breeze, warm), we enjoyed a lovely day of hiking, and my legs are definitely still feeling it. Here are some pictures from a wonderful day in the mountains:

First glimpse of the mountains!

The famous Three Sisters. Legend has it that three sisters of the Katoomba tribe were turned to stone by a witch doctor who had hoped to protect the sisters from the trauma of a tribal war (3 suitors from a neighboring tribe wanted to marry the sisters and you know that Katoombas wouldn’t have any of that). The poor witchdoctor died in battle before he was able to change the sisters back to life, and so they remain frozen as rocks here today.

Can you see the tiny bridge that connects the first sister on the left to the mountain? Well pretend you are standing right there, and this is what you would see- the first of the three sisters is on your left!

Wow! From this point, we began our hike with a descent down the Giant Stairway, an extremely steep set of 900 stairs cut into the side of the mountain that leads down into the beautiful Jamison Valley. The only bad thing about going down, is that you have to go back up to get back to where you started:

Luckily, the rest of the hike was so incredibly beautiful that it overwhelmed the pain of climbing up and down hundreds of stairs. The path wove in and out of countless waterfalls, caves, ferns, and cliffsides. I just couldn’t get enough of it!

Now, in a cave!

First waterfall! Can you tell I was excited?

But the waterfalls kept coming…

And coming…

I’ll leave you with my favorite view from the day. It’s actually the view from the top of the waterfall in the above picture. Looking forward to the next adventure!


Life on the Edge

Posted in Australia, Sydney by rssmith218 on September 21, 2010

How to sum up yet another fantastic week in Sydney?

1. Papers, papers, and more papers

I have spent the past week in lab reading more papers than I would like to admit. I’m slowly figuring out an experimental design for the field season, and hopefully, with some insight from just a few more papers (hopefully?) I will be able to start setting up my project this week!

Of course, reading papers is always easier with the aid of our lab pet, Twiggy, a Giant Prickly Stick Insect (scientific name Extatosoma tiaratum), who normally resides quietly on the corner of my desk. Here we are, reading, while someone else is cleaning out her home!

Don’t be afraid! You can see that she might be better described as a Cute Prickly Stick Insect than a Giant, and I am glad to have her as a co-worker! Here is a video of a stick insect molting, which I think is pretty cool. Just ignore the cheesy music.

2. Busty ladies…

After exploring the Museum of Contemporary Art (they have a neat exhibit right now that features artists who use art as a form of environmentalism), and Paddy’s Markets with Aisha on Saturday afternoon, I met up with some girls from my lab to see the show BUSTING OUT, an act that has “women cheering on their feet and men gasping with amazement” according to the program.

The website for Busting Out claims that the play is “an uplifting celebration of bouncy songs, wobbly jokes, thigh-slapping sketches, and of course, practical demonstrations of the fascinating lesser-known uses of your drooping assets.” Yikes. A quick exploration of the website will prove that this play was definitely a bit more than I had bargained for.


On Friday morning, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology documented the biggest wave ever recorded in Tasmania, a wave that was a whopping 18.4 meters tall! Wow! That is like three Sydney Buses stacked on top of each other, according to this picture:

Oh Buoy! Admittedly, Tasmania has only been recording wave heights since 1998, which makes that statistic (biggest wave ever!) less notable, but that is still a big wave! This same weather pattern brought huge waves to Sydney as well, and Aisha and I enjoyed these impressive waves on an afternoon stroll along the Bondi-Bronte coastal walk.

Bondi Beach doesn’t look so friendly today, does it?

But the waves only got MORE INTENSE as we continued our walk.

And yet, as the waves became increasingly FIERCE, we encountered MORE people testing their limits in the surf. For example, what is this guy thinking? (photo credit to Aisha)

And what are these crazy girls doing? They better be careful!

As we neared the end of our walk, we found a few brave surfers hanging out at Bronte Beach- here I caught one on video!

So maybe this wave doesn’t compare to the “biggest wave ever ridden” or even to “once the biggest wave ever ridden“, but I was still impressed.

Afterwards, our surfing friend was glad to talk about the waves….

Haha, just kidding, but I really love that video.

Under the Scope…

Posted in Australia, Sydney by rssmith218 on September 13, 2010

Imagine that you’re sitting in lab. Perhaps it’s been a long day at the microscope, as you can see here for my labmate, Damo.

You’re tired and look up from the scope to see THIS VIEW just outside the window of the lab. You are instantly rejuvenated for another couple of hours at the scope!

When you’re done sorting your samples, you walk down to replace them at the dock. And again, THIS VIEW reminds you why working as a marine biologist is awesome.

Haha, that all said, the above pictures are definitely a bit misleading, as these photos were taken on a daytrip to the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS), and not at the slightly less glamorous UNSW lab where I work on a daily basis, but you still get the idea. Sydney is a great place to be doing marine science, and so far my time in lab has been really great.

And what exactly have I been doing? Good question. My Fulbright “media profile” offers a polished overview of my project, but I have to say that the development of my project in real life has been a bit tricky.

The work I wrote about for my Fulbright research proposal is part of a lab-wide “linkage project” meant to assess ecological changes in highly disturbed vs. undisturbed estuaries. The fieldwork for this project begins in November, and I will be developing an independent project and question to address as a part of this project (more info to come later!).

In the meantime, I have been developing a series of experimental designs for another Johnston Lab project. The lab is contracted for a 3-year impact study of a newly constructed desalination plant, and we get plates in twice a year to assess the plant’s effect on the surrounding marine community. The “plates” are basically just pieces of PVC that we set out in the water for a couple of months; with time, the plates are settled by different organisms, mostly invertebrates (my favorites!), and eventually the plates develop discrete marine communities- pretty cool, huh?

These plates are particularly cool because, based on the location of desalination plant, they are settled mostly by native species, so these plates are a great tool for manipulative experiments in invasions ecology. Anyway, before I was able to use the plates for one of my brilliant experimental designs, I first had to “sort” all 128 plates by doing an assessment of species density and percent cover that was necessary for the impact study.

This involved two weeks of long days at the microscope, but then again, look at the cute invertebrates I was counting during this time:

It’s a polychaete- Galeoraria hystix to be exact!

Just another friendly ascidian- wait is that Herdmania momus?

So handsome! Lookin’ good,  Megabalanus rosa- a PINK barnacle!

After the first couple of days, I noticed that even the barnacles were starting to slow down, and my work quickly became a race to finish the sorting before all of the inverts died! I diligently changed their water and grew them delicious sea monkeys to eat, but in the end it was all for naught- I came into work on the Monday of my second week to find all of the barnacles covered in a mysterious white substance- all of my inverts suffocated in a deadly fungal infection! Boo!

Haha, such is science, and now that I have finished all of my sorting, I am set to begin the experimental design for my portion of the “linkage project.” So unfortunately, I again can’t give much information on the direction of my future project, but hopefully I will have a better idea by the end of this week.

Finally, a bit of a research update! In terms of a weekend update, there is not too much to report. On Saturday, I went back out to the lovely Watson’s Bay for a bit of adventuring, and today I enjoyed Bondi’s Festival of the Winds!

And what a festival it was! KITES, food, entertainment- we saw it all! Here are some photos from a day out in the wind:

Lots and lots of little kites…..but look at these guys:


And now, Fulbright visits the beach!

Overall, a very “sejuicing” day. Haha. Anyway, glad to finally update about my research even if I still don’t really know what I’m doing. Everyone in lab is so friendly and helpful, it really has been a great first month at work and I can’t wait to start designing my new (and hopefully more successful) project. Here’s to a productive week ahead!

Happy Spring!

Posted in Australia, Sydney by rssmith218 on September 7, 2010

Spring is in the air here in Australia! In fact, the Australian spring actually started this past Wednesday, September 1st, though it is unclear why Australians don’t begin spring on the vernal equinox like the good majority of the world (New Zealand and South Africa are the other two rebel nations; similarly, summer begins on Dec. 1st, autumn on March 1st, and winter on June 1st in these countries).

September 1st also marks National Wattle Day here in Australia. And what exactly is a wattle? A wattle is a plant of the Acacia family and the Golden Wattle is Australia’s national floral emblem. Here is a picture I found online (I have yet to see a wattle myself) of a beautiful blossoming wattle:

Wattle Day has been celebrated since the early 1900s and according to the National Wattle Day website, the Sydney Morning Herald from September 1st, 1910 suggests that, “To many Australians the wattle stands for home, country, kindred, sunshine and love- every instinct that the heart most deeply enshrines.”

I can’t think of a nicer way to welcome in the spring than with a celebration of this flower! That said, the National Wattle Day website offers more information than you would ever think to know about wattles, and also includes suggestions of things you can do on Wattle day (for example, greeting one another with the phrase,‘Happy Wattle Day’) in addition to a free mp3 of a Wattle Day Song. Did you know that the rose is the floral emblem of the United States (thanks to Ronald Reagan in 1986)? Makes me wonder why the US doesn’t have a similar holiday….

It has been cold and rainy these first few days of  “spring”, but I have been trying to make the most of this dreary weather. I went to my first UNSW ultimate frisbee practice and had a couple of drinks with the team at the university’s bar, the UniBar. What? There is a bar at the University? Yes. According to the UNSW website, the UniBar is “a great place to go after a hard day of lectures. You can…kick back in the beer garden, soak up some sun, fresh air, and free entertainment.” Why didn’t we have this at Northwestern? Rarely did I “kick back” or casually, “soak up some sun” in Chicago. No wonder students here seem more relaxed, calm, and less stressed out!

On the weekend, I met up with Aisha for a daytime adventure around Sydney. We met at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, had a quick coffee, and set off to explore the museum. The museum space is awesome and it is filled with Australian and Aboriginal art. By far, my favorite was this piece (sculpture?) of hanging bats- I love the bats here- they are called flying foxes!

Afterwards, we made a quick stop by the one-room Museum of Australian Currency Notes, as Aisha had picked up a free pass (!). We were followed around by an enthusiastic guide, and learned about Australia’s colorful currency. For example, did you know that Australia was the first country to develop a polymer-based bill? Cool.

As we were leaving the museum, my eye caught a glimpse of purple and white and I thought I was delusional when I spotted a guy in Northwestern wildcat sweatshirt! A closer look revealed that he was also wearing a Northwestern t-shirt- this guy was practically bleeding purple! My first Northwestern alum abroad! I obviously had to approach him. My hopes were so high- and yet he turned out to be the most unfriendly person I have thus encountered in Australia! His one-word responses to my eager questions made me remember why most Northwestern girls spend significant amounts of time complaining about the NU male dating pool. I had hoped for better from the NU class of 2010!

In the wake of my disappointment, Aisha and I headed to the Queen Victoria building (QVB) to do some shopping and I have never shopped in a more beautiful place! The building was built as a produce market in 1898 and continues to house shops and boutiques today. Here is the inside…

And now the outside!

Hungry, Aisha and I turned to our tour books for a good place to eat and ended up on a wild search that took us through Darling Harbour to the edge of Chinatown. The restaurant we were looking for, Zilver,  was, according to my guide, supposed to boast “Classic Chinese cuisine…with interesting and delicious food choices and complementary fruit,” with “legendary” custard tarts. After passing just about every other restaurant in Chinatown, we came to a large office building that had the address we were looking for. The main entrance was locked, but we managed to sneak through a cracked door to enter the building. Once inside, we were met with a remarkably packed Zilver restaurant, and we settled into delicious dim sum. Aisha was able to grab a subtle snapshot, shown below.

Mmmmm. Note the “legendary” tarts in the background.

On Sunday, I ventured out on another solo walking trip, this time to Watson’s Bay, which ended up being a bit further away than I had expected. But what a beautiful walk! Below I’ve pieced together several Google maps from mapmywalk.com so you can get an idea of the geography.

To the left of the point is Sydney Harbour and Sydney city proper! To the right is the PACIFIC OCEAN!

I had originally intended to follow a guided walk from my tour book, and so I walked from Bondi to the book’s suggested start point, the Macquarie Lighthouse, the first lighthouse built in Australia. I then followed a coastal trail along a series of cliffs all overlooking the ocean. So pretty- here are some pictures!

First, the real starting point of this walk- Macquarie Lighthouse!

And cliffs:

Rach on a cliff:

The thing about Sydney is that from one second to the next you never know if you’re going to find yourself:

1. In the bush

2. In the city (well, at least viewing the city)


3. At the beach!

Or more specifically, at a nudist beach:

Haha. Anyway, my walk took me past more views than can be recounted here, but let me say that Sydney continues to impress me with its beauty!

Another marathon post! And I still have not updated on the research side of my life!  Again, I’m afraid that will have to wait for another day. For now, suffice it to say that lab is keeping me busy, happy, and excited about science! Off to get some sleep before work tomorrow!