Two weeks ago on a warm, lazy Saturday, a Facebook notification popped up on my newsfeed saying there was a spring festival going on in my town. I texted my friend Elena and we decided to go together. Before leaving my house I looked up the location on google maps: “Cerro Merced – 52min walk”. It was far but we had time to kill and it was a beautiful day to be outside.

We met in the bustling city center, following my map up the steep, long, touristy hill where Pablo Neruda lived. At this point we were hot, sweaty, and tired but we kept on following the hill up, higher and higher. Just when we thought it would end another hill would open up in front of us, seemingly never-ending.

“Just a little bit more,” I kept on assuring Elena, “it’s just up this hill”. I’m not really sure when it happened, but as we climbed higher the concrete sidewalks turned into dirt paths, the noisy commotion of the city turned into birds chirping, and the sea of colorful houses turned into rolling green hills sown with makeshift shacks. Like magic, the chaotic port town of Valparaiso had become a tranquil countryside that I never knew existed. The hills that I looked up at every day, in a town that I thought I knew so well, contained a whole other world – foreign to me. After getting a few weird looks from locals and a conversation with a helpful Chilean man we realized that my map had steered us wrong – this was not Cerro Merced and we were not going to find a spring festival. Our 52 min walk had become an epic 4 hour city-mountaineering adventure.

The deceivingly small hills of Valparaiso

The small yet enormous hills of Valparaiso

Remembering the warning from my study-abroad program to not go “too high” up in the hills, we turned around and started our journey home. Somewhere in the hazy border between city and countryside Elena stopped and looked back at me, wide-eyed,


I turned around and out of nowhere appeared two men on horseback, surrounded by a sea of barking dogs, nonchalantly weaving through parked cars on the street.

The city cowboys hauling produce down the hill

City cowboys hauling produce down the hill

I stared at them in awe, only managing to get out the phrase “Chile magic” 

Elena nodded: “Chile. . . mágico”

The next day I told my Chilean friend about my adventure. He shrugged it off, acting like the magic of the city in which he lives is no big deal. And the thing is, for him, and the other Chileans that live here, it really isn’t. The bizarre, fantastic things I experience here is everyday life for them – mundane.

Right now in my class on Latin American short stories we are learning about magical realism: a literary genre popularized in Latin America during the early- mid 20th century. In magical realism, the fantastic becomes mundane. Characters encounter angels, bake magical cakes, and have paranormal powers but no one acknowledges these magical elements as strange or out of place. They are treated as ordinary.

Being in Chile, I can’t help but to feel like the country is a book on magical realism and I am the reader. I seem to have fantastic, bizarre encounters every day but I am the only one in awe. No one else seems to see the magic around them.

Take my daily commute for example: when I hop on the bus (called “las micros” by the locals) I never know what I might encounter. I have been serenaded by hippies with guitars, enjoyed the original raps of a middle aged man with a boombox, and have even been entertained by full bands. If I am lucky, an interpretive story teller might hop on the bus and enthusiastically act out an epic, action packed short story. Sometimes, when I get on the bus, I am greeted with blacklights, blasting reggeaton music, and light up graphics of strippers- usually complete with an uncomfortable-looking old lady just trying to get home from the store.

Public transportation is at the heart of most of the magic I have experienced in this country. Entering a micro is like entering into a new world – an isolated vessle where the rules of time, space, and society seemingly don´t apply; anything could happen. In Chile, the normally mundane act of riding a bus is an everyday magical experience, to the point where I actually look forward to my daily commute to school.

Walking through the city is another magical part of my day. The city of Valparaiso is filled with large, colorful, psychedelic murals that accompany me wherever I go. It´s not uncommon to turn onto a new street and be delightfully greeted by stunning new art. In Valparaiso it is almost impossible for your eyes to get bored, there always seems to be something beautiful to look at – even the garbage trucks are painted with murals.

My walks through the city always include interactions with the street dogs: the most successful hustlers of Chile. Except for their dirty coats you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a street dog and house dog. They are surprisingly fat and happy, due to the fact that the whole town comes together in unspoken solidarity to care for them. These dogs know how to navigate the city better than I do. I have witnessed dogs wait for the green light at the crosswalks and even ride the micro to the produce market (where they have full access to all the rejected food). I am convinced these dogs have magical powers.

Magic also manifests regularly in Chile’s determined dedication to fútbol. One time I made the mistake of showing up to class during a national soccer game. Me and the only other gringa in the class were the sole ones there. Class had been cancelled without warning because, duh, how could anyone come to class when the fate of Chile’s international dignity is at stake? On my way back home the streets, which are usually bustling with people and traffic, were silent and almost completely empty. The whole country had magically disappeared. It felt wrong to be outside, almost as if the rapture had occurred and I was the only one left.

Even the physical terrain of Chile holds magic. Almost every week I have felt an earthquake, or as the locals call them, “temblors”. The word earthquake or “terremoto” is only deemed worthy of use for magnitudes 7.0 or greater. Earthquakes here are so common that when they do happen nobody seems to care, other than the occasional “ay chucha!” (oh sh**!) from my host dad when the movement messes up his electrical drawing plans for work. In Chile, talking about last night’s earthquake is like talking about the weather. The usual response to “did you feel the earthquake last night?” is “nah, I slept through it,” at which point I find myself lying by saying “yeah, me too,” pretending as if I didn’t wake up terrified, ready to run out the door, and going over tsunami evacuation plans in my head. Unlike me, the whole country has an incredibly relaxed attitude towards weekly reminders of looming natural disasters.

a map of all of the earthquakes in my region within the past 20 days

a map of all of the earthquakes in my region within the past 20 days

However, these weekly terrors are also reminders of the awesome powers of the earth and the beauty that the movement of the terrain creates. Thanks to its seismic activity (and science that I won’t get into) Chile has an astonishingly diverse terrain. The geography of Chile is magic in itself. If you were to travel the whole country from north to south you would go from the driest desert on earth to gigantic glaciers and ice-fields,  with almost every climate imaginable in between.

The mystical "Valle de la Luna" in the Atacama desert

The mystical and appropriately named “Valle de la Luna” in the Atacama desert

Valle Ocoa - home of the endangered Chilean Palm

Valle del Ocoa – home of the endangered Chilean Palm

With all of these fantastic and magical experiences I can’t help but to be completely enamored with this country. Every day I am bewildered by the new, bizarre and strange aspects of Chilean culture. Chileans, on the other hand, are unastounded. Don’t get me wrong, they have a lot of pride and love for their country, but they aren’t naive – they will be quick to point out its flaws:

“There’s a lot of poverty in the city, especially far up in the hills,”

“The micros are too unpredictable, we need a better transportation system”

“There’s too many street dogs, its out of hand.”

They are critical of their society – immune to the everyday magic that exists here.

But then I remember a couple years back when my family hosted an exchange student. She was amazed and entranced by U.S. culture. Small things that I took for granted everyday would nearly bring her to tears in awe. At that point I would just laugh because I didn’t really understand how my everyday life could seem so glamorous and fascinating when to me it was just normal and mundane.

Now I get it.

The thing is, my everyday, mundane life is magical. Maybe not to me, but it is to someone else who is unfamiliar with my country, my culture, and my routine. When you get used to that routine, you start to take those everyday magical aspects of your life for granted.

I think that may be one of the reasons why so many people are drawn to travel: to get out of our routine, to experience the fascinating and enchanting routine of another, and to find the everyday magic in their lives.

But if its magic were looking for, we shouldn’t be so quick to look past ourselves.

I know when I get back to the states I will probably mold right back into my ordinary routine. Life won’t be nearly as enchanting as it is here. No more party micro rides, no more hustling street dogs, no more daily street art, and certainly no more weekly earthquakes. But that doesn’t mean an end to the magic. As I readjust to U.S. life I am going to try my hardest to not just settle back into the ordinary. I am going to make a point to find the bizarre and fantastic in my life because now I know that magic exists – and not only in Chile. If there’s one thing Chile has taught me, it’s that we all live fantastic, bizarre, and magical lives, we just don’t always have the right perspective to see it.


For Tom Petty

I have a distinct memory of being five years old, sitting in the back of my mom’s car, and stubbornly looking out the window of the car, watching the raindrops form on the window and the cows sulk in the fields. My mom had just put Tom Petty’s album Wildflowers in our CD player for what I considered the umpteenth time and I desperately wanted to listen to the Steve Miller Band, because of their funky audio techniques and “made up words.” (To be fair, it took years for me to register that “The Joker” was the song I wanted to hear, or even that the Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits was the CD I was talking about…) But I was confident and stubborn and convinced Tom Petty was the worst artist of all time.

I retold this story a few weeks ago, sitting in the Cellar with a group of friends late on a Friday night. I was wearing an old Tom Petty shirt and it came to light that he was my favorite artist. I received a few smiles and nods and one, “I’m so proud of her, I can’t believe Tom Petty is her favorite artist.”

To which I followed up, “Yeah, and I had a Rod Stewart phase in sixth grade.” Which, to be fair, brought more confused looks than anything else.

But sometime in between kindergarten and my “Rod Steward phase” my opinion on Tom Petty shifted. Somehow I knew all of the words to every song and instead of being irked when my mom put in Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits album, I would loudly sing along and roll down the windows.

I burned CD’s of my favorite songs and convinced my mom to go his concert the summer before my freshman year here. Hunted down a watercolor painting on Etsy with the phrase, “You belong among the wildflowers” as a homework break during my freshman year, for a Christmas present for my mother.

And Wildflowers, that album five year old me was convinced I’d hate forever, is still the album I pull up on my phone, whenever I’m having a bad day. There’s something about Wildflowers and the sun peaking through a rainy day on Commencement Walk that can’t help but make me feel better. For that, I’m grateful.

For more on Tom Petty, here is a wonderful article by the New York Times.

A day in the life of a gringa in Chile

I have been living in Valparaiso, Chile for almost 2 months now and I am finally starting to settle in to a routine here. When I say routine, I don’t mean the same ordinary schedule on a day to day basis. That’s almost impossible in Chile where new, strange, and wonderful things seem to happen every day. Just today I saw a man walking a pack mule through the middle of the city and a street performer juggling fire in an intersection.

However, I am starting to become accustomed to Chilean life, or, as close as I can get to accustomed as a blond-haired, blue-eyed, 5’7″ extranjera. Living with a Chilean family has given me a deep insight into typical Chilean life and allowed me to partake in their routines as well. The following is a description of my Thursday:

8:30am – Wake up and stay in bed for 5 minutes convincing myself to roll out of my covers and brave the biting chill of my apartment in the morning. It’s winter here and there’s no central heating in my building (and in most buildings in Chile). Instead, Chileans bundle up and drink lots of tea.

I’ve learned to adapt quickly. I hop out of bed and scurry to the kitchen to heat up some water.

8:45am – My parents are still in bed and the house is quiet so I make myself breakfast: oatmeal, an apple, and Nescafé® – the national instant coffee of Chile. Long gone are the days of the strong artisanal roasted coffee of the Pacific Northwest.

9:20am – Kiss my parents goodbye (one kiss, or rather a notion of a kiss, on the left cheek – as is custom in Chile) and run out the door to catch la micro (the bus). My first class is 25 mins away in the town next to mine. Unlike in the U.S., Chileans don’t live on their college campus. Instead, commuting is an everyday part of life for students here.

9:25 am – Catch la Micro.

This is an event in itself. The buses here have no designated schedule. Instead, its a game of chance. I count on pure luck and hope for an empty bus. This flaky system works surprisingly well as I rarely have to wait more than 10 minutes for my bus.

a full bus. With the way the bus drivers whip around corners and come to halting stops, standing on the micro is a full body workout.

a full bus. With the way the bus drivers whip around corners and come to halting stops, standing on the micro is a full body workout. I literally broke a sweat the last time I did it.

10:05am – 1:15pm – Class (Social Psychology). I attend a Chilean University so all of my classes are taught in Spanish and most are with Chilean students. I am one of three gringas in this class of 30+ Chilean students and the professor takes no pity on us. I only understand about 60% of lecture because she talks so quickly. The Chileans in the class say they can barely keep up. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking signing up for a psychology class in Spanish with absolutely no background in psychology. However, its a great chance to test how much my Spanish is improving. About 6 weeks ago I only understood about 25% of the lecture, so at least that’s something.

1:20pm – Hurry to the closest bus stop to catch la micro. My classes are spread out in buildings across two towns and I only have about 30 minutes to get back to Valparaiso for my next class (to think I used to complain about walking 10 mins across the UPS campus).

I hop on the bus. A man gets on at the next stop and shoves a three pack of band-aids into my hand. He returns to the front of the bus to preach about the everyday importance and necessity of band-aids and how we could improve our day-to-day medical preparedness for only 100 pesos. Although compelling, I choose to save my money and continue living recklessly without band-aids. I give them back to him on his way out as he moves on the the next bus.

This scenario happens almost everyday. I have heard short, passionate speeches given by bus entreprenuers on everything from nail clippers to books on meditation.

2:10pm – I arrive 10 minutes late to my next class – as I do every Thursday. My professor doesn’t mind. Time in Chile is more or less a suggestion. The whole country generally runs half an hour late.

3:30pm – I buy a big slice of my favorite cake from the school cafe for my walk home. It costs 250 pesos (40¢). I eat half then give the rest to one of the surprisingly fat street dogs on the corner. Valparaiso is filled with stray dogs and they are well cared for by the residents here. Its not uncommon to see makeshift dog shelters along the road complete with food and water.

The dogs return the favor in their own way. They often accompany me when I’m walking home late from a night out with my friends, or simply let me pet them when I’m having a down day.

one of the many thriving street dogs of Valparaiso

one of the many thriving street dogs of Valparaiso

My walk home is long (about 1 mile). But I don’t mind. The dogs are cute and the path is beautiful, lined with palm trees and old colonial buildings from the times when Valparaiso was the largest port in South America.

"El Arco Británico" a gift given to Valparaiso from Britain in the early 1900s. I walk by the arch everyday on my way home from school. Oddly enough I have never seen anyone walk under it (including the man in this picture). I have an irrational fear of walking under it myself as I feel like its an unspoken rule that no one does it.

“El Arco Británico”
a gift given to Valparaiso from Britain in the early 1900s. I walk by the arch everyday on my way home from school. Oddly enough I have never seen anyone walk under it (including the man in this picture). I have an irrational fear of walking under it myself.

4:00pm – I return to my apartment and eat late lunch with my family. It’s winter so we usually eat soups or stews. Today my mom makes La Casuela: a traditional Chilean stew with meat, corn, pumpkin, potato, various other vegetables and a little pasta. It’s warm, comforting, and reminds me of the wholesome soups my mom used to make me on cold winter days like today.

La casuela

La casuela

Everyone is there for lunch: my mom (Alicia), my dad (Carlos), my sister (Carolina), my cousin (Patricia), and the housekeeper (Tina). We’re all crammed together at a small table in my parents room. We have a dining room but everyone prefers to eat here for informal family meals. My mom says its more intimate. Plus there’s a TV which we always watch while eating. Chileans love TV.

Lunch is long. In general we spend a lot of time at the table throughout the day, talking, laughing, crying, catching up. Family is an important part of Chilean culture so family time makes up a large part of the day.

5:00pm – Siesta.

I asked my mom once if Chileans have siesta – she said no, but she takes one anyway. I gladly follow her lead.

6:00pm – I go out to check out the artisan street fair by my house. The city streets are constantly lined with street vendors selling everything from kleenex to fresh empanadas. It seems like I can’t walk anywhere without coincidentally shopping on the way. My bank account suffers but my stomach does not.

Street vendors in front of my apartment

Street vendors in front of my apartment

8:00pm – Once (pronounced: Ohn-say). Once is small meal at the end of the day usually consisting of bread, cheese, meat, jam, and tea. The name once literally translates to “eleven” however we rarely eat that late. My family and I sit down at the same small table in my parents room while watching our favorite Chilean telenovela. Before coming to Chile I was never a fan of melodramatic soap operas. However, after two months of watching them every night I find myself deeply invested in the characters lives and genuinely disappointed when I miss an episode.

Again, we spend a lot of time at the table talking and eating. The small plastic table next to my parents bed seems to hold this family together.

10:00pm – My friends invite me out to a Cervecería (alehouse). We drink artisan beer at 2000 pesos/pint (about $3 USD). After, we go get empanadas from a street vendor. By now its past 11pm on a Thursday night and the streets are full of people. For most Chileans, the night is just beginning. It’s typical to stay out past 5am.

My friends invite me out dancing but I have an early morning so I decide to head home.

my friend Neto and his beer. Although I may miss the PNW coffee, I am certainly not deprived of good beer in Chile.

My friend Neto and his beer. Although I may miss the coffee of the PNW, I certainly do not miss the bitter IPAs. I prefer the sweeter, smoother taste of Chilean beer.

12:00pm – I get back to my apartment and hop in bed. I check my phone which says I have walked over seven miles today. In general, I walk a lot more here than I do in the U.S. My first couple weeks here I went to bed with sore legs every night. Walking is a primary form of transportation for Chileans because many don’t own cars, including my family.

Before I fall asleep I think about home. I miss it, but at the same time Chile is, in so many ways, my new home. My routine here feels familiar and comfortable and I find myself amazed at how quickly I have adapted to so much new in so little time. I still struggle with the language and cultural barriers everyday, and I know by that there is no way I will ever be fully integrated into Chilean society. But that’s not the reason I came. I came for many reasons, but one of the biggest was push myself out of my comfort zone, to challenge myself to survive amidst a language and culture foreign to me.

Now, two months in, I realize that I am comfortable here. Of course the past two months have been filled with ups and downs and incredible difficulties that have challenged me and will continue to challenge me in ways I didn’t know possible. However, despite all of this I have found a sense of home here – a new comfort zone that I didn’t know could exist outside of my life in the States. My family, my friends, my classmates, and even the street dogs have accepted me as their own. The street names, landmarks, and bus lines have become ingrained into my head. The sounds of the language and the feeling of Spanish words rolling off my tongue have become familiar.

I have found my routine.



Riding the Bus

Today was my first day of classes! I am very excited to begin my life as a student in the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics program. It’s actually not too different from living at school. Except the language… and customs…… people ……… currency……….. most things……… there’s no water fountains in any of the buildings? ……………..

While this is very exciting, I want to use this first post, and generally my section of this blog to advise any UPS students who may want to study abroad in Europe, and especially in Budapest, with either in the AIT computer science program, or the mathematics program. In particular I want to discuss public transportation.

Public transit has always fascinated me. I always wonder about the relationship between the economy of a city or a country, and the quality of the public transit system. I will not be discussing any of these questions, nor have I done any research… Instead, I will talk about the practical realities of using public transportation in Europe.

Public transportation can be scary for people who aren’t used to it. The rush hour crowds, the stress of running late. Especially if everything is in a different language, it can be extremely confusing, and difficult to ask directions. But public transportation can be a vital part of your time abroad in Europe.

For people who are used to taking lots of trains or buses, the information in this post may all be familiar. But for people who aren’t used to using public transit, there can be a learning curve; not just in learning the different train lines, but with actually getting used to the large number of complete strangers you may have to be uncomfortably close to.

First, a little background on why I am a big fan of public transit. (Two big reasons are that cars are evil metal killing machines, and public transit is much better for the environment, but those are secondary.) The main reason is my personal reliance on public transit. I live in Oakland, but I went to high school in San Francisco. For those (few) UPS students who are not from the bay area, these are two adjacent cities, and this required me to take a train and a bus nearly every morning for four years. As a result, I had some sort of odd Stockholm syndrome attachment to the San Fransisco public bus and tram system (MUNI, as in municipal transportation), and thought it was amazing. Especially since the public transit systems in many of the neighboring cities and other places I have been to are terrible (I mean, Sound Transit is nice, but you know). The only public transit better than MUNI that I had seen were the Portland street cars, or so I thought. But after visiting Europe for a few weeks, I realized that most public transit in the US is total garbage somewhat lacking in comparison.

My parents used my semester abroad as an excuse to plan a short tour of Europe. As a result, I got to see first-hand several public transit systems. London, famously has the underground, which was pretty remarkable (except for all of the stairs). In Amsterdam, they have something similar to Portland street cars. Unlike Portland however, the longest I ever waited for a train was 6 minutes. Paris also has a great underground metro system. In San Francisco on the other hand, I remember waiting for the 44 (a MUNI bus) for 44 minutes, and laughing at the irony. Of course, I was also pretty pissed.

But anyway, here are the major similarities between good public transit systems:

  • All of the train or metro lines are color coded as well as numbered and named. This seems to be a very universal system for public transit systems, even in the US.
  • The name of a train or metro line almost always refers to the first and last stops the train makes. This gives you just enough information to uniquely determine which stops you can get to from your current station or stop. e.g. If I need to take the red line toward Déli pályaudvar, this tell me that this train will stop at all of the stops along the red line in the direction of Déli pályaudvar.
  • Often a single public transit system will include multiple modes of transportation, for example buses and trams. In this case, the name of a line will often indicate the mode of transport. Here in Budapest, the red line toward Déli pályaudvar, is actually the M2, as in the second Metro line towards Déli pályaudvar. This reduces confusion since there is also a number 2 tram or street car line. But these have different stop names, and are yellow lines.

Remember, Google Maps is your friend! Occasionally the names of the stop will be partially in English, and it can be quite stressful when the name almost matches the name on your phone, but not quite. It’s ok, Google is just trying to be helpful and instead is giving you terrible anxiety.

But, remember Google is based in California. As a result, they have a very good grasp of public transit in the United States, including places to transfer. In Budapest, however, there are so many different options (bus, tram, train, cable car, boat(!?)) that Google maps simply cannot always give a good route to your destination. If you have some free time, especially if it’s a weekday say around 11am or 2pm, take some time to just ride around to different places. explore the different systems. I was lucky to have around a week to get used to the city and its public transportation. Since my parents were staying at a hotel, and I already had an apartment, this was a good excuse for me to take the public transit system back and forth. After a while, I started to notice that Google maps was not actually giving me the best route. Or even a good one. For example it might suggest taking a train, but then getting off and taking a long bus ride, when I knew for a fact that I could just transfer from the M2 line to the M4 line.

While the naming convention is nice and is an easy way to uniquely determine which direction a train is headed, it often doesn’t actually help. Usually I have no idea if the station I am trying to get to is in one direction or the other. Instead, I recommend looking up (if you can) which station is right after the station you are currently in. But otherwise, there should be a (clearly labeled) map, usually only showing the lines which stop at your current station.

Here are some other things to keep in mind about buying tickets:

  • The ticket vending stations almost always have an option for English. If you don’t see the word “English”, you will see different country flags. Occasionally you will see a US flag, but usually you will see a British flag (which, by the way looks like this).
  • You will probably be encouraged to do this by your program, but buying a monthly pass (if available) is always going to be a better option than buying a new ticket each time. This is strangely not always true in the US.
  • Make sure you look understand how to actually use your ticket. Most underground train systems have an electronic gate. So you either scan or insert your ticket into a slot, and you are allowed to enter. If you insert the ticket into a slot, you usually have to take the ticket with you onto the train. However, on buses, trams, or street cars, you may simply scan the ticket once you get on. Often you do not have to show your ticket to a person. Instead, you are required to have the ticket on you at all times on the off chance that a ticket inspector shows up. Not having your ticket, or having an invalid ticket will lead to a fine.

One thing to note about the last bullet point. In Budapest almost all of this is different. If you buy a single use ticket, on every mode of transport, there is a little machine with a slot to “validate” your ticket. However, if you get the recommended monthly pass, you don’t need to do any of this. Instead, you simply always carry your pass and some form of picture ID on you with a number associated. Your school ID for example. When you buy the monthly pass, you will enter your ID number, say your school ID, and this number is printed onto the ticket. Then, on most modes of transport, you simply carry your pass and ID on you, ready to prove to the ticket inspectors that you did in fact buy this monthly pass. The one very odd exception are the metro lines. At every staircase or escalator, there will be a few people in uniform standing around. You then simply flash your pass to them and they let you by. That’s right, there is no physical barrier to the underground train system. This is the only system I have every seem like this.

I really believe that, while it can be terribly confusing at first, getting a good grasp of the public transport system is very liberating. Instead of always taking the same few routes, being able to get around the city without staring at your phone gives a nice safety net and a wonderful opportunity to explore places you otherwise might not have thought to.

Cloning, Harvesting, 117 Grilled Cheese … and Counting

Ryan Apathy photo Grand Park, Mt RainierWeeks before the summer even began, Dr. Bryan Thines, PhD, my research advisor and a professor of biology and genetics at Puget Sound, challenged me to a beard-growing competition. “I like to have friendly games within our labs,” he told me after I received my research grant. “It encourages both competition and camaraderie.” I had already been pranked once by my lab after I misspelled the word “assess” on a poster for a presentation, so I should have assumed that our summer work would be just as mischievous as the previous semester.

I and two other students, Lily O’Connor and Tina Chapman, are working hard to characterize F-box proteins in Arabidopsis thaliana through molecular, genomics and bioinformatic approaches. Through weeks packed with genotyping, gels, culturing, cloning, harvesting seeds, and extracting DNA, we have finally begun to identify knockout lines, develop gene constructs, and locate brand new candidate genes for further study.

Throughout the hard work we’re putting in at the bench, our lab has found additional ways to entertain ourselves. Any given day often alternates between lab meetings discussing research progress, thesis writing sessions, miniature genetics or molecular biology lectures, bench work, and discussing how many grilled cheeses we have each eaten since our research began (I’m in the lead with 39).

Lily, Tina and I are entering our final year at Puget Sound, and we collectively decided to capitalize on our mentor’s time by bombarding him with questions about scientific writing, life after college, applying to and attending graduate school, how to make the best cup of pour-over coffee. As we enter the penultimate week of our ten-week grant program, our lab has collectively grown countless pots of plants, run dozens of gels, eaten 117 grilled cheese sandwiches, and grown two significant beards.

Ryan Apathy’s summer science research at University of Puget Sound is supported by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust’s Science Research Program.null

Anxiety Abroad: Travel from the perspective of an anxious college kid

I was born a worrier. I can’t remember ever making a decision without thoroughly examining every single thing that could possibly go wrong – no matter how extreme. I remember when I was a little kid and my parents would leave home to go get groceries I would worry about them getting into a car crash and never coming back. My imagination would run wild with visions of seeing my mom in a hospital bed and moving to Ohio to live with my grandparents. If someone knocked on the door while they were gone I would hide under my bed, scared that they were there to rob me. I always had a tendency to jump to the worst conclusions no matter how ridiculous they were, and that habit carried over into my adulthood.

Now, if I am on my own I am very rarely in the present. My mind has a tendency to wander, to think about the past and the future: everything that has gone wrong and everything that could go wrong; and that is exactly what was happening last Monday when I stepped on a plane to study abroad in Valparaiso, Chile for five months. As you can imagine, for a person like me who tends to be a nervous wreck… I was a nervous wreck. Of course I was excited and thankful to be going on this journey, but at the same time my mind was endlessly racing. I had never crossed a border by myself before, I had never lived with another family before, I had never touched foot in South America. Plus it’s junior year – the year everything seemed to come together: my new love of Tacoma, my school routine, my relationships with my friends, my boyfriend, my professors. It was all familiar – it felt like home.

Just as I was getting comfortable with my new life at Puget Sound, I was leaving everything I knew. I would have to start all over again in a new country with a new language and new family and friends. I was terrified. . . and thrilled. . . and sad. . . and incredibly happy. This is what I wanted right? A new country, new experiences, time to grow and change. But as I was stepping onto that plane, a million doubts were running through my mind and at this point, there was no turning back.  

Nine hours, two cups of wine, and a couple of desperate attempts at sleep later, my plane began its final descent into Santiago, Chile. I was exhausted and excited and nervous, going over the instructions I had been told for getting through customs and meeting up with my group. Would I get there on time? Would I be able to find them? What happens if they don’t let me in the country? I opened up the window on the plane and immediately all my worries melted away. The Andes mountains spanned for miles out in front of me, their snow-capped ridges lit up by the warmth of the sunrise. I sat in awe, realizing that I was going to be able to call this country and all of its beauty my home for the next five months. For the first time that day I felt ready to take on the journey ahead of me.

The Andes mountains

The Andes mountains from my airplane window 

When I stepped off the plane, any sense of calm had completely vanished. The airport was complete chaos with people rushing to get their bags and long winding lines forming for customs. Airport security could barely control the crowds around them. Plus, everyone was suddenly speaking in rapid Spanish. I was in shock. Every ounce of energy and brainpower I had left was focused on the present: on quickly translating, navigating where to go, what to do, how to get there. However, in this chaos I found a new sense of calm. Everything was so new and exciting and stimulating that I had no time to worry. I had to be on my toes in order to survive.

This inner calm has continued for my first week here. The new language, new town, new people, and new culture are vitalizing. I am constantly learning and experiencing new things. My mind has no time to wander anymore. I am completely and utterly immersed in the present.

For a person like me who is constantly anxious you would expect me to hate travel. It’s full of the new and unknown and millions of things that could go wrong. But I actually love it. In fact, I thrive in it. All of the new stimuli, from the cuisine to the multicolored houses and even being catcalled on the street, force me to be in the present. I think that’s the beauty of travel; it reawakens your mind and body by forcing you out of your routine and into a world of constant excitement and stimulation. Oddly enough all of this new stimuli is somewhat meditative as it holds me in-the-moment and has reintroduced me to the gift of now. 

Completos - hot dogs served with avocado, tomato, onions, and mayo. A traditional Chilean food

Completos – A traditional Chilean food – Hot dogs served with avocado, tomato, onions, and mayo. We had this for Sunday lunch.

A mural on the streets of Valparaiso.

One of many murals on the colorful streets of Valparaiso.

This is why you come here

Me just hanging out up a tree.I and the other student researchers in the Woods Lab have just completed our first full week of field work in the Hoh Rainforest, on the Olympic Peninsula. Today I spent four hours suspended in a tree, collecting moss samples, surveying bryophyte species, and hanging lines in the canopy for other data collection efforts. Each of our days has been filled with similar activities, which continue to excite our minds and challenge our ingenuity.

The sheer beauty of the environment we get to work in continues to amaze me. The human eye can perceive the most shades of green, more shades than those of any other color, and I feel as though I enjoyed them all while I was working in the canopy today. And amidst the focus of the work and the adrenaline of the climbing, I was feeling another emotion—belonging. I know that this work is what I want to do for the rest of my life. If not in the canopy of a tree, then maybe under the ocean, or on a small island somewhere just as green.

The process to get here was not a short one. I took a research class this past spring semester to aid in writing the extensive research proposal, as well as other grant applications, to be able to earn this opportunity. But I was assisted the entire way by professors who genuinely want me to succeed, and most of all by my research advisor Carrie Woods. And now we’re out in the field, Carrie and I, and my three lab mates Eric, Kimmy, and Micaela, and I just think—this is why you come to a school like the University of Puget Sound.

We, as four undergraduate students, have been given the opportunity to design our own research projects and pursue them in such an incredible environment as the Hoh Rainforest. We are finally out here doing what we spent so long proposing to do, and it’s a million times better than we could have hoped for. And we get to work with and learn from a fantastic professor and an expert in the field of epiphyte community ecology. That’s quite the student-to-professor ratio.

If you don’t know what you want to do yet, just try it all. Anything I can learn in an environment like this, even if it doesn’t end up being my life’s passion, will continue to make me a better student, and my goal, a better scientist. I have already learned more in this process than I ever thought possible (and I’ve got some great moss facts if you’re interested). No matter what your interests are, even if they’re a mile away from bryophyte ecology, this school can give you the opportunities to explore them. In my opinion, this is why you come here.

What we get to work in every day

McKinley Nevins summer science research at University of Puget Sound is supported by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust’s College Science Research Program.

The Case for Type 2 Fun


I often bring up the “Fun Scale” to describe certain activities. Type 1 fun is always fun – I’m talking about climbing trees, 5.9-5.10a slab, and good food/sex/conversations with people you love. Type 2 is the fun-after-it-happened kind of fun, like some transect work and most mountain experiences. Type 3 is… Well, it’s just NOT fun. At all. Like falling on a cactus. Or getting dehydrated as all hell in the desert and almost dying. (This post by Kelly Cordes describes the scale in more detail for those interested.)

Most people think that Type 1 fun is the “best” kind of fun, because it’s the most enjoyable in the moment. But I disagree. There really is something to be said about Type 2 fun.

Picture this. You’re climbing up a mountain, and you’re fucking TIRED because of x, y, and z reasons, the flies are attacking you from all sides even though it doesn’t make any sense for them to be attacking you, cause isn’t there a bigger, better-tasting creature SOMEWHERE that they could be bothering instead of you, like those ridiculous mountain goats that keep following you because they like the smell of your sweat?, and god DAMN this mountain just won’t give you a downhill (or even a flat!) section to hike on. But then you look down at your chaco-laden feet and look at the incredible mixture of dirt-and-sweat-and-more-dirt that coats them, and they’re still trudging along. Step by step. Over the pink and purple and green of the high-alpine plants that you so missed. Taking you ever-closer to your goal. And then maybe some other things go wrong and you find yourself butt-scooching/down-climbing down the scree/sheer rock face you climbed up on because you literally couldn’t find the trail to save the life of you and thought that yeah, you climb, so this is definitely a good idea! as the fog rolls in from Port Angeles and you think to yourself more than once that HOLY DAMN THIS IS HOW PEOPLE DIE UP HERE. But somehow you make it, an hour later, back to the trail that you found far too late. You’re sore and even more tired than you were before, but you’ve never been so happy to see a patch of dirt in your life. And then you look back at where you were, and you don’t remember how crazy the journey up was, but you remember that you did it. And you realize that you loved every second of it even more than you appreciated the view from the top.

And that’s the thing about type 2 fun. Sometimes, it really fucking sucks. It’s miserable, and you question everything you knew about yourself and your abilities as a human. However, in the process of complete suffering, you grow. Type 2 fun is all about being uncomfortable, and it is through discomfort that we grow the most. And eventually, the stuff you used to find to be Type 2 fun becomes Type 1 fun – your comfort zone grows as you do.

College (and research, in some parts [like writing the proposal, not so much the research work itself – that is definitely Type 1]) is much the same way. It pushes you to be uncomfortable. It prods you and pokes you and sometimes it feels like you’re going to die under all the work you have. But then you get through it, like you do when you climb a mountain – by either slowing your pace down, or speeding it up so you can take a rest at the top of the hill. And you realize that you’re stronger and capable of more than you once thought.

So other people can have all the Type 1 fun they want. I’ll take Type 2 any day of the week.

IMG_6122 2 IMG_6123 IMG_6128 2


First-hand impressions of Trump in Poland

Hello again,

I’m writing now, a month after my original post, from Warsaw, Poland, where I planned to spend the month of July. Long story short, things have not gone to plan, and my research has now taken me back to Budapest. The details of my troubles getting access to the archives would only be interesting for those sad and lonely souls* who enjoy discussions about Eastern European bureaucracy, so I’ll stay away from that as a topic.

*I am one of those sad and lonely souls who enjoy such discussions myself.

Instead, I’ll write about Trump’s visit to Poland a few days ago, which I observed first hand with a lot of interest. For transparency’s sake, I think it’s important that I say that I was part of the anti-Trump demonstration in Warsaw on the day of his speech. Poland has been one of the most pro-American countries in the world over the last century. The modern Polish state’s birth out of the ruins of European empire after World War One is tied to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s ideas about the right to national self-determination. Since then, Poland suffered under Nazi and Soviet occupation during World War Two, and experienced the worst that being in the Soviet Union’s Cold War sphere of influence had to offer. Even the best efforts of communist propaganda could not sway public opinion away from the US. Since the Cold War, and especially after Poland’s admission into NATO, US military presence in Poland has been a pillar of stability — the perceived threat presented by Russia makes Poland an extremely welcoming place for American troops.


“Always Close #safertogether”


Even so, the amount of support for Trump was surprising. On the days around Trump’s visit, I saw more Make America Great Again hats than I ever would have thought, and I saw multiple displays of the confederate flag. Given Trump’s history of shying away from strong statements about his commitment to NATO and how flippantly he has treated Russia (Poland is strongly anti-Russia), one would think that there might be some worry about Trump in Poland, but this was not the case.

I think this is an indication that the the main phenomenon the democracies of the world have to deal with right now is understanding and responding to the prevalence of ethnic nationalism among their constituents. Decrying ethnic nationalism as simply “racist” and not engaging with the difference in ideology, is, I think, useless. For a Polish ethnic nationalists such as those in PiS, the current ruling party, the Polish nation is defined by Catholicism and a national historical narrative that highlights only the times of Polish victory or heroic martyrdom. There’s nothing political about it.

I reckon Trumpism to be very similar. Americanism is not understood as being defined in political terms, but rather in a mercantilist, hard power-based framework. Trump has no need for soft power, which the US has historically used to promote democracy around the world, or at least pay heavy lip service to it. Enemies such as fascists, communists were defined by political terms. With Trump, the US’s enemies are not those who undo democracy such as Erdogan or Putin, but those who are viewed as living fundamentally different lives than the West. Trump and PiS share this worldview, and therefore, share a disregard for a democratic processes when their societies face existential threats. The Confederate flags and general support for Trump in Poland, then, is something beyond support for Trump himself, but rather, an celebration of alignment in world views. For a country with history of foreign control, both at the ideological and hard power level such as Poland, having the world order’s leading country support the country’s worldview is tremendously powerful. I think it’s safe to say the we’re currently in the midst of a global upswing of confidence in the idea of ethnic nationalism, and this plays right into the hands of Trumpists, while dealing true liberal democratic around the world a strong blow. 

   IMG_3986                   IMG_3968

These are just reflections and thoughts from a hostel common room; there’s a reason I’m not on the editorial board of any prominent news sources. Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts.

Research? Or Closure?

한국에가고싶어요…. 한국에돌아오고싶어요. 나의엄마보고싶어요. 

Translation: I want to go to Korea….I want to come back to Korea. I want to see my mom.

These three sentences are probably the most complicated sentences I can manage to string together in Korean. I can say this much as well as some basic restaurant and travel phrases. The thing is… I’m not a tourist, I’m not a Korea-enthusiast (e.g. Koreaboo), I’m not a KPOP fan, and I’m not majoring in international studies with an interest in Korea. I am Korean. I’m Korean-American; more specifically a Korean Adoptee. For my 2nd Summer Research grant, I will be living and researching in Seoul, South Korea for 30 days. I’ve returned to South Korea on 2 separate occasions but this will be the longest and most in-depth experience yet.

On March 9th, when I marched up the steps of Jones Hall to pass my application on to the powers that be, I paused for just a moment outside the building. March 9th also happened to be my 21st birthday. I paused for a moment to think about what it would mean to receive the Summer Research Grant in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences from the University. I paused to think about my mother and whether or not she was thinking of me on my birthday. I paused to think about all of my potential subjects and their stories. My summer research is an Oral History project of Korean Adoptees who have returned (indefinitely) to South Korea. I’m recording narratives of return and hoping to map the diverse journies from birthland to adopted land and back again. My goal is to record a community’s history and find out how the phenomenon began in 1998/1999-2007, when almost no Korean social worker ever believed adoptees would even come back to visit. I know that some of them will be stories of joy, found families, and amazing personal growth. However, I also know that many stories will be stories of pain, rejection, and failed adoption. So, I paused outside of Jones, and for just a second, I considered turning back and foregoing my application. I was worried I would find things about adoption that I wouldn’t be able to emotionally handle, I was worried that living alone in Korea for 30 days would be too taxing, and I was worried that my motivations for doing this research were far too personal and not academic in any way.

Here’s the question: Am I truly doing this research for the pursuit of knowledge and justice for the advancement of understanding human history? Or am I using University dollars to go on a 30-day personal journey to find more closure in my birthland where I had always dreamed of moving since my first visit in 2009? Am I doing this to scope out if returning would be a good option for me? I struggled with these questions while I wrote my application, when I handed it in, and when I received my notification of acceptance. When I received my notification of acceptance, I went to a friend and confidant of mine. I asked them, “Am I doing the right thing? Is this okay? Am I actually doing real research or am I just going on some sort of self-discovery?” They looked at me and simply replied “Why can’t it be both?” In that moment I remembered something really crucial about what it means to be a scholar of Art, Humanities, and Social Sciences. In fact, I had no idea how I could have forgotten because it is my favorite aspect of these disciplines. In the arts, humanities, and social sciences students often pursue scholarship that allows them to self-explore, feel their emotions, and share their experiences with those around them.

So again…

한국에가고싶어요…. 한국에돌아오고싶어요. 나의엄마보고싶어요. I want to go to Korea…I want to come back to Korea. I want to see my mom. While it is unlikely that I will ever find my mother (less than 10% of Korean Adoptees do), I hope that by living and learning in Korea with other adoptees for 30-days, I will come away with not only historical knowledge of the history of adoptees but also with a found-family of my own.

I hope you stay tuned.

-김 재우


Me, June 2016 at Eastern Social Welfare Services in Seoul