Fun fact: “Tacoma” means “mother of waters.”

Yeah, diving in the Sound without a drysuit is chilly, but as much as I love looking at it from above, it's really cool to see what's actually in there.  (Giant plumose anemones, anyone?)

Yeah, diving in the Sound without a drysuit is chilly, but as much as I love looking at it from above, it’s really cool to see what’s actually in there. (Giant plumose anemones, anyone?)

Anyone who knows me a little bit, or has listened to me reel off my list of major / minors / study abroad experience / career interests*, has figured out that I love water.  I was born in Southern California and lived about eight miles away from the beach until I was 11 years old, at which point my family moved away to Northern Virginia (not to be confused with Virginia).  I’ve been rowing for seven years, working on my eighth, and got SCUBA certified two years ago.  One of my requirements when I was looking for colleges was that it had to be on one coast or the other, nowhere in between.  Flying into Sea/Tac the day before freshman move-in day in 2011, I saw the dark blue of the Sound running through the dark green of the forests – I have a bit of a soft spot for evergreens – and I knew that I was in the right place.

Shameless advertisement for the crew team?  We're a nice group of people with a solid appreciation for water and the mountain.

Shameless advertisement for the crew team? We’re a nice group of people with a solid appreciation for water and the mountain.

“Mother of waters,” which was pulled from the Puyallup language, technically refers to Mt. Rainier, whose glaciers are the headwaters of several different watersheds in the area.  (Side note: if you’re outdoorsy and want to go on class camping trips, I recommend the environmental policy and decision making [EPDM] program.  I spent the first three weekends of this semester hiking on Mt. Rainier, rafting the Nisqually River, wandering around mud flats, and so on.)  Water is kind of important in this area, and I like this connection between the mountains and the Sound.  The physical landscape, as well as the regional economy, is kind of shaped and defined by water – even before the Sound existed, glaciers covered this region and carved out the Sound’s basin as well as all the hills that keep things from being flat and boring (not like I’m biased or anything).

And once I'm in the Gulf of Mexico, I'm just a hob, puddle-jump, and a boat ride away from my study abroad country.  Ah, the good old days of being able to dive in just a Puget Sound uni for the photo ops....

And once I’m in the Gulf of Mexico, I’m just a hop, puddle-jump, and a boat ride away from my study abroad country. Ah, the good old days of being able to dive in just a Puget Sound uni for the photo ops….

I’m going to graduate in May, which is weird, and means that I have to have an answer to people asking me if I’m going to stay out here or go somewhere closer to my family.  And actually, as it turns out, the answer that I happened to come across is: neither, at the moment.  Don’t worry, though, I’ll still be involved with water – I’ll be rowing the length of the Mississippi River, doing environmental education and water quality research with the UPS alum-created nonprofit group OAR Northwest.  Studying freshwater will be a bit of a change, but as Finding Nemo taught us, everything ends up in the ocean, and after a few months I’ll be in the Gulf of Mexico.  (And after that, yes, I do want to return to the Pacific Northwest.  Sorry, Mom.)


* “Hi, my name’s Leah Shamlian and I am a senior at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing and double minoring in environmental policy and religion; I did a marine field research study abroad program in the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean, and I want to go into science communication or environmental writing.”  Have to say it quickly, otherwise people lose interest.

Fun fact: The EPA has no desire to regulate your use of the puddles in your lawn.

One of the biggest perks of interning at a government agency is walking into a big, important-looking building like you own the place.

One of the biggest perks of interning at a government agency is walking into a big, important-looking building like you own the place.

This may be old news to some of you, but because the student blogs are just starting up again, I figured it’s acceptable to draw on my experience as a summer intern for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (yes, I know most of you would know the acronym, but it’s fun for me to throw the whole title around).  I worked with the speech writing department in the Office of the Administrator, and my first day of work was the day on which EPA made the biggest announcement of the past twenty-odd years – so my first impression of my supervisor was him running out of the office, shouting expletives, on his way to the press conference.  Basically, this internship put me at only two degrees of separation from the Grand Poobah, the Chief of the Pecking Order, the Muckiest of the Mucky-Mucks, Administrator Gina McCarthy herself.  When she came to Tacoma in early August, I sent some restaurant recommendations over to her schedulers (which made me quite jealous, because I have a distinct preference for one Washington over the other).  I have no idea whether or not anyone made use of my suggestions, but don’t burst my bubble.

One of the biggest downsides at interning in one of said important-looking buildings is stairs.

One of the biggest downsides at interning in one of said important-looking buildings is the stairs.

This internship was a fantastic experience, and I learned a lot about U.S. environmental policy – and also about public perception of U.S. environmental policy.  I have a certain fondness for water and water-related issues, so one of my favorite speeches to work on was given at an agricultural conference on the subject of the Clean Water Proposal.  Not only was this a policy area in which I was particularly interested, but it was also an intriguing situation because the agriculture industry is not all that fond of EPA.  I don’t imagine that giving a speech to a hostile audience is very fun – but writing one is, especially when some (note: not all) of the arguments you’re rebutting sound like the one dismissed in the title of this blog post.

So, how does this relate to student life at Puget Sound?  Well, Puget Sound was represented in EPA’s Office of the Administrator, alongside places like Boston University, Cornell, and George Washington University, and I think that’s pretty cool.  (We’ve been represented on Capitol Hill occasionally as well.)  Also, speaking as someone who has loved UPS since I saw it for the first time the day before freshman move-in day but was somewhat concerned because no one in the DC area had heard of it, I am delighted to somewhat alleviate some of your fears: no, we does not have the name recognition factor that big public and private universities have.  But – and this is an important “but” – that’s okay; it won’t limit your options.  Because wherever you are, you’ll have to make your own opportunities, so might as well be somewhere you love.

Gotta love clichés.

Fun fact: UPS has produced more ocean rowers than any other university.

Okay, I haven’t verified this particular fun fact, but I heard it from the mouth of the most famous of UPS’s ocean rowers, so I figure he’s a decent source.  Jordan Hanssen, class of 2005, came to campus last week to give a talk about how, this one time, he and some friends thought it’d be pretty cool to row across the Atlantic Ocean.  Long story short, not only did they think about it, they actually successfully did it, which landed them in the Guinness Book of World Records, created a nonprofit group called OAR Northwest, and inspired a book called Rowing into the Son in the process.  Now they’re doing research and environmental education expeditions.  No big deal.

Let’s just get this out there: how crazy impressive is it that this group of Puget Sound grads (all of whom, let the record show, were a part of the crew team as students here, thank you very much) rowed across an ocean?  The physical and mental endurance to do something like that is a bit inconceivable to me, just sitting here at a table in the SUB typing away at my laptop.  The general Puget Sound population already thinks us rowers are crazy enough, with our 4:30 a.m. alarms for chilly morning practices on our good ol’ American Lake, and we aren’t the ones crossing 3,000 miles of open ocean in a 29-foot boat.

This coming Saturday morning, April 12, alumni of Puget Sound Crew will gather at American Lake for the team’s 51st annual dual (or duel, depending on how you think of it) with Pacific Lutheran University, known as the Meyer/Lamberth Cup.  Years of tradition will comingle at the grassy and slightly muddy hill of Harry Todd Park, represented by present rowers and past, along with any non-crew-related students who feel like sitting around watching boats row by.  A four-foot-tall papier-mâché sculpture of a person’s head may make an appearance.  You never know what these alums might come up with.

And, because you all were wondering, the number of ocean rowers who are also Loggers is five.

Fun fact: the first woman to summit Mt. Rainier did so wearing an “immodest” flannel bloomer suit.

I hadn’t given any thought to the history of women’s climbing in Washington prior to a recent event I attended: Washington State Senate Resolution 8694, which honors women and girls in sports (including climbing, as referenced by the title of this post), was being recognized by the state senate.  And so a handful of Puget Sound representatives, myself included, found ourselves in the state capitol building, on slippery leather seats, looking down onto a room of senators and shiny desks and oddly flowered carpet, and heard the following statement:

WHEREAS, The University of Puget Sound athletic department offers eleven women’s varsity sports at the Division III level, giving two hundred ten female student athletes the opportunity to compete in collegiate athletics; its women’s soccer squad has won twelve consecutive NWC titles, the longest active title streak in Division III women’s soccer history; and its women’s crew squad has reached the NCAA tournament eleven years in a row….

As the speaker read the names of the people attending, the senators rose and applauded.  So now I can say I’ve gotten a standing ovation from people far more powerful and influential than I am, how’s that for a bucket list item?

Disregarding bucket lists for a minute, though, I have to say that I’ve achieved far more athletically and personally at Puget Sound than I expected as, say, a junior in high school who was a bit surprised to find herself rowing in the top varsity 8.  I’ve had conversations with people here about how excited we are to see this person beat us on the upcoming 2K test and how impressed we are with that person’s progress.  Maybe I was just an exceptionally self-centered high schooler, but things like that would have made me a bit bitter a few years ago.  Watching and learning from the examples of past and present UPS rowers has both inspired me athletically and helped me grow as a person.  And, as the WA state senate has pointed out, personal growth is an integral part of athletics.

But seriously, how cool is it that the state senate has a proclamation and an event specifically for female athletes?

Fun fact: UPS has great professors (as if that were news).

According to one of many college rankings that people keep churning out, Puget Sound is one of twelve colleges with the best professors.  I tend to be a bit distrustful of these types of statements (What criteria were used?  How did you quantitatively measuring and ranking qualitative information?  How did you gather the data?  Who did the ranking?), but in this case, although I concede to having limited experience with professors outside of UPS, I lean toward agreement.

As a freshman, I was a bit nervous about starting college courses.  Don’t read that as me attempting to sound naïve and nervous and cute and relatable; it was a legitimate concern – I had spent about 50% of the final five months of my high school career in some degree of incapacitation due to an extensive series of migraines.  My high school teachers knew me well enough to cut me the appropriate slack, but I had no idea how college professors would react to a new student walking up to them and saying “Hey, my name’s Leah Shamlian, mind if I skip class and turn in assignments late without marking me down?”

But, to their infinite credit, in six semesters of college, my professors almost without exception have been sympathetic and worked with me rather than looking down their noses and waving me off with flared-nostriled sneers from the lofty heights of their ivory towers.  They’re also lots of fun to chat with, and usually go by their first names (to the shock and horror of my aunt, whose sons both went to schools of more than 30,000 students).

Basically, the professors at Puget Sound are great.  Indeed, I might even posit that they wield mysterious therapeutic powers – because the correlation between college and decreased migraines is obviously due to causation.

Fun fact: Tacoma’s record high temperature in January is 66 degrees.

Part of me wishes I could have flown back to Washington immediately after returning to the United States from studying abroad on the island of South Caicos.  Think of the culture shock of Tacoma versus a fishing village in the Caribbean – cloudy skies, elevation changes greater than twenty feet, people (with working cars, no less), buildings taller than two stories.

When I was flying from Providenciales to South Caicos last October (a grand total of thirteen minutes and ten seconds from takeoff to touchdown), I watched the ocean vary in shades of turquoise and the spits of white sand illuminate the water from beneath.  When my flight from Providenciales was landing in Charlotte, NC in December, I (along with my study abroad classmates who were on the same flight) was glued to the window, marveling at all of the colorful electric lights marking the runways.  When I was landing at Sea/Tac last week, I watched the imperturbable snowy slopes of Mt. Rainier as the plane descended through the steely clouds.  It’s been a rather varied month and a half, location and climate-wise.

But in my first week back in Tacoma, I have realized two things: first, that the best way to reacclimatize to the Washington weather is to lose your jacket, and second, that if you struggle with seasonal affective disorder, the way to cope is to move to an off-campus house with a dimly-lit bedroom that forces you to rely almost entirely on your happy lamp.   That being said, though, I’ve always found Tacoma’s grey skies to be rather nice – like a calm grey blanket hiding the Pacific Northwest’s beauty and character from the rest of the country.  But I have to say, seeing the gleaming pink queen conch shell (Strombus gigas) on my windowsill juxtaposed against the evergreens and mist outside is still just a bit startling.

Fun fact: winter nighttime temperatures in the TCI rarely fall below 65 degrees.

No, the School for Field Studies did not get a Thanksgiving break.  But we go home on Thursday, December 5, so I guess that’s understandable.  And we did get a Thanksgiving dinner, despite the fact that (1) as a study abroad program, we’re kind of by definition not in the United States, and (2) half of the staff members are British and are therefore horrified by the thought of sweet potato casseroles with marshmallows.  It involved a bit of logistics, because if you want to make something, you have to order the ingredients far enough ahead of time for them to arrive via the infamous food ship, and then juggle the baking of various things with the restraints of having a single functional oven to cook for 50+ people.

I suppose the "big blue" beyond the wall of the reef is rather aptly named.

I suppose the “big blue” beyond the wall of the reef is rather aptly named.

In the spirit of recognizing that the semester is almost over, our last two dives were yesterday (diving in December without wetsuits!), so our gear will be ready to be packed up once it’s dry.  Those dives, incidentally, are worthy of a blog post in and of themselves – the divemaster said we were going to drop in “over the big blue,” and none of us realized what that was until we backrolled off the boat into the water, let the air out of our BCDs, started descending, and realized that, despite the perfect tropical visibility, there was nothing around us.  We descended without a single point of reference, freefalling into a sort of vast emptiness, before levelling off when we hit a hundred feet and swimming up to the wall of the reef, watching it slowly appear through the blue haze.  I don’t know why we haven’t been doing that all semester, but at least none of us will ever forget those final dives here.

Final exams are over, data collection has finished, directed research papers are turned in, and research presentations, cleaning, packing, and an afternoon visit to the tiny and uninhabited Long Cay are all that’s left.  When we first got to South Caicos, it took a while for me to really accept that this was going to be my home for three months.  And now that it’s just about time to leave, it’s hard to accept that I am, most likely, never going to see this place again.  I won’t miss the mosquitoes.  But I will miss Cerano’s Jamaican jerk chicken.

It’s also just about impossible to picture the transition from 90-degree weather here to 30-degree weather at home in Northern Virginia.  I don’t think I’ve felt a temperature below 75 degrees since May in Washington.  You know the scene from Cool Runnings where the Jamaican bobsled team flies to Canada – how they feel the icy grip of below-zero temperatures through an open door in the airport and gape in horror?  I’m unspeakably glad to not be flying from the Caribbean to Minnesota, like one of my roommates.  Call me Sanka, but I somehow suspect that my cold tolerance will be a bit lacking for a while.

Fun fact: the TCI Department for the Environment and Marine Affairs has twelve officers nationwide.

There’s nothing like the feeling of being done with exams – which I now have been for several delightful days.  So here I am on my tropical island, no more classes, and two weeks until I go home to DC; clearly, all I’m doing with my life right now is tanning and swimming in the clear, warm, turquoise ocean, right?

Actually, right now I’m sitting in my room wearing a fleece jacket and looking through the window to grey, Tacoma-esque skies.  I just got back from a snorkel at a site called the South End of Long Cay, and for some reason the elements never cooperate when we go there.  Last time, there was a huge current; today, it bucketed rain.  But hey, an eagle ray swam right next to us, so there’s that.

Lectures are over, but we’re still collecting data for our directed research (DR) projects (thus the necessity of the stormy snorkel).  Our papers are due a week from tomorrow, which is an absolutely terrifying thought, and then we spend a few days presenting our research to the community and the rest of the Center.  And then we return to the world of normal winter (as opposed to winter here, which means sleeping under a sheet and without a fan on).


But before that, we have to get these papers written.  It’s already looming over my head, and we haven’t even finished collecting data – and then there’s the analysis of said data.  I’ll be creating a management plan based off of my group’s findings regarding the abundance of the invasive lionfish Pterois volitans, which basically means that I’m acting as a middleman between the scientists and the policy-makers, synthesizing and interpreting our results to suggest methods for controlling the lionfish invasion.  Think about it as a report for a government environmental agency, giving them scientific knowledge in a way that gives them a basis for creating policy – because may be what it turns out to be.  Fun things can happen when you’re at a prestigious field station in a small island nation.

Fun fact: over 90% of the food consumed in the TCI is imported.

Wednesday mornings have the best scenery of any day of the week.  When I look out from the Center, I see a stretch of sparkling turquoise water, hopefully flat so it doesn’t limit our water activities for the day, the limestone-and-scraggly-vegetation hill of Long Cay, maybe a flamingo flying around or a local fishing boat getting some air off of wave crests on its way out for the day’s work – and a ship.  Well, possibly multiple ships.  But what makes this one particular ship exciting is that it carries all of our food for the next two weeks.


The availability of food isn’t something that you really think about in the Unites States.  I know there comes a point in every semester when all you want is a home-cooked meal, but still, the SUB exists so at least the food is there and you have the opportunity to eat it.  This isn’t to say that we go hungry here on South Caicos at the CMRS – just that fresh food is less readily available than some places in the world (although certainly more readily available than others).  Depending on a floating piece of metal with some boxes on it showing up every so often in your backyard is rather different than popping over to Safeway because you need your own personal jar of peanut butter.

In 2008, Hurricane Ike slammed into the Turks and Caicos Islands, severely damaging or destroying a third of the buildings on South Caicos and temporarily preventing the food ship delivery.  Now, five years later, a lot of the buildings still haven’t been fixed – at East Bay, a favorite beach bonfire site near the Center, the remnants of a hotel development are scattered around the sand and pine trees.  On any given visit, if it weren’t for the number of pine needles on top of the piles of lumber and insulating materials, the hurricane could have happened last week and we could be out surveying the damage for the first time on empty stomachs.

Basically, the ability to walk to the Met and take as many free cheese samples as your conscience will allow (not that I’m speaking from experience or anything) is a luxury.  Which sounds a bit cliché.  You don’t realize how different things are in other places until they are suddenly made relevant to you – like eating rice and cabbage for the fifth time in as many days while watching rusty shipping containers come trundling towards you over the algal plains and patch reefs of the Caicos Bank.

Fun fact: lionfish create jets of water to orient their prey for headfirst consumption.


Back in September, we were taken to a site called Admiral’s Aquarium for our first snorkel of the semester.  There wasn’t much of a current, but there was more than we were used to, and the swell was pretty big – as in every time you lifted your head to try and listen to the intern showing you around, you got a face full of water.  My first night snorkel here was at a site called Shark Alley, which is really quite spectacular, except that we had no idea what we were doing and ended up on a shallow shelf of coral, turning it into a mind game that went along the lines of “if I suck my stomach in enough I won’t hit those corals.”  My bazillionth snorkel here had both big swells and shallow reef – and I was carrying a laboratory.

This is the usual amount of scuba gear - bulky, yes?  Now add several additional pieces of equipment.  Carabiners are basically the most useful thing ever.  (Side note - look closely for a shout-out to UPS Crew.)

Okay, not quite, but it was our second time collecting data for directed research and we hadn’t gotten used to the equipment yet.  Directed research projects started last week, and the resource management professor and three other students and I are studying the proliferation of the invasive lionfish, Pterois volitans, at various sites near South Caicos.  When we go out for a research dives or snorkels, we carry underwater slates, pencils, transect tapes, clip weights for the end of the transect tapes, and plastic T-bars with centimeter increments.

Besides the fact that it means I get to dive between four and eleven times a week, this is a fascinating and relevant research project because it involves the world’s most ecologically-harmful marine invasion ever.  You know the stereotypical look-at-this-reef-and-all-the-pretty-fish-isn’t-nature-amazing type of picture?  A lionfish will eat pretty much every single fish in that picture as long as it can open its mouth wide enough.  They eat up to 6% of their body weight per day (even as a rower, I can’t eat nine pounds of food a day); not only that, but native reef fishes haven’t figured out an effective defense mechanism to avoid their predation, and the only fish that eat them are the hugely-overfished grouper.  Also, they’re venomous.

The environmental morals of the story: don’t let your cool aquarium fish out into the ocean because they will take over everything, and use reusable water bottles instead of buying those single-use plastic ones.  That latter part was absolutely unrelated to lionfish, just something I thought I’d throw in there after a recent lecture on pollution and marine debris (remember that campaign on campus last spring with the plastic jellyfish hanging in the SUB?).  I’ll get down from my soapbox now.