Saturday, March 2, 2013

Hiatus OVER!

Obviously, things have been crazy busy for me to ignore you all since September and I have so much to tell you. The most important piece of news is that I AM DONE MY PhD!!

I successfully defended my thesis on Dec 7 at 10 am. The defense is an oral exam where you present your thesis to your committee, supervisor, an external examiner and because it is open to the audience. My presentation lasted 20 minutes and the question period was only an hour!! I have been to defenses where it has lasted 2-3 hours! I was lucky, I had a great committee with interesting and thought provoking questions... it was actually FUN! Not too many people can say that about an oral exam! I also had great support from friends, colleagues and family. There were about 25 people in the audience and even my parents came for the defense and the celebration afterwards! Now we can look forward to even more fun at my convocation in the spring!

The best part of finishing up was my reward. We went to Mexico for 3 weeks over the holidays! We spent most of our time eating and snorkeling in a marine reserve in Puerto Morelos, a small town of only 3 streets parallel to the beach and separated from the main highway by a huge protected mangrove. As Frank Sinatra said it...This is my kind of Town... Every day that we were there we indulged in delicious food, happy hour, family and of course LOTS of snorkeling!
 Who can resist this assortment of sweets brought to your table by vendors that just walk up and down the beach selling their wares from a tray that they carry on their head!

 We had Arracherra, or skirt steak at least 5 times while we were there...if you like beef, this is to DIE FOR!
 We went to a restaurant that served authentic cuisine from the Yucatan region and had panuchos (the first of the 3 photos) which are fried tortillas with beans, some type of meat, pickled red onions, avocado and of course salsa. The second photo is of papadzules which are corn tortillas dipped in a pumpkin seed sauce then filled with hardboiled eggs, topped with more pumpkin seed sauce and a bit of tomato based sauce. Lastly, the soup is called sopa de lima. Lima is a type of citrus that is the size of a lemon but greenish and sweeter than either lemon or lime, it is sometimes called sweet lime. The soup has chicken and pieces of fried corn tortillas and is delicious!

We also ate at a lot of street vendors that were recommended by locals...Tacos, chile relleno (stuffed chillies), tamales and all kinds of other amazing street food! If in doubt, ask a taxi driver where he/she eats and you are guaranteed to get something good. When we showed up at one cart in Cancun we were surprised that there was actually two different did we know which one to eat at? When a truck load of police showed up to eat at the one cart, we knew that was the right one! It was delicious!!
The AMAZING thing about a marine reserve is that they actually work to protect large predatory fishes and other sensitive species. There was not a day that we did not see at least 10 or more barracudas that were as large or larger than me!!!! The above photo is of a school of 30!! The smallest one in the school was at least the length of my arm (or about 60 cm long!).

 This is a school of snappers (predatory fishes that are very tasty so on unprotected reefs you almost never see even one and here they were schooling by the hundreds!!!
 We also had the pleasure of seeing at least 2-3 turtles everyday with the largest one being about the size of a smart car!
 Sting rays (top photo) and spotted eagle rays (bottom photo) were VERY common, almost a daily occurrence and on some days more than one at a time!
 We saw a number of lobsters hanging out under coral heads which are very rare outside of marine reserves.
 We saw a lot of coral and the health of the reefs themselves was patchy. Some areas were in great shape while others were covered in algae (bottom photo). The reefs in the Caribbean have taken a beating with hurricanes, eutrophication (high nutrient levels in the water from run off and sewage) due to coastal development and climate change. The high nutrients stimulates algae growth that then either smothers the corals or prevents them from recolonizing and phytoplankton in the water shades the corals and can cause bleaching and loss due to lack of light.
The seagrass pictured here can help to act as a filter by taking up a lot of nutrients but we are putting more than it can handle so there is obviously enough for the algae too. The seagrass beds were extensive and healthy so the eutrophication has not yet started to affect them but more nutrients and the seagrass beds could disappear too since they are also sensitive to light reduction and overgrowth by algae.
 Another very common sigh was this beautiful lionfish. On one day we counted seeing 12. You might think wow, what a great fish to see but in fact, it is not native to the Caribbean. It is from the south Pacific and was likely introduced by people with marine aquariums that no longer wanted them so they released the fish into the ocean. This fish is a voracious predator and is affecting local fish populations because nothing eats them and they eat everything! There is an active bounty on these fish in the Playa del Carmen region of Mexico but sadly it is not enough of an incentive to fish them and since they are underwater, they are out of sight and out of mind. You can read about lionfish control and management measures in the US here. Hopefully this will be a coordinated effort among all Caribbean countries.

Of course we spent a lot of time with family over the tree weeks we were there. We did all of the typical Christmas and New Years traditions with all 30 family members that were visiting this year!! So that is it in a nutshell.

I am looking forward to catching up with all of you!


  1. You were so amazing at your defence, cool, composed and right on with your answers! Congratulations again on your tremendous accomplishment! We loved being there and looking at your beautiful pictures of Puerto Morelos this is a place we would surely enjoy too. Lovely photos thankyou for posting them. Hugs to you, Louise

    1. Thanks! I was so glad to have you there. Maybe next time you will be in Mexico with us to enjoy everything under the sea. :)

  2. Yay! So glad you're back! And I didn't know that defenses were open to partyers! I would have brought cake. :)

    1. I would have loved to have you there! I guess I should have said it was open... I would say next time...but I am not planning on doing another one anytime soon! :)

  3. yay!
    The photos in Mexico are gorgeous! especially of the sea reserve :)
    so glad you had a lovely time! welcome back :)

    1. Thanks!! I look forward to hanging out sometime soon. :)

  4. Congratulations on completing your Ph.D.!!! What an accomplishment! Your vacation sounded perfect; I'm so envious you got to eat all that great food. And the marine life is amazing at that preserve. It's so nice to see some pristine waters with healthy wildlife.