New job! Where I’m going and how I got here

Richmond, California’s Finances Remain Shaky
Richmond, CA from the air, showing the turbid waters of the SF Bay

Well folks, it finally happened. I found a permanent scientific job. On January 31st, I’ll be starting as an Environmental Scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI), working on the Nutrient Management Strategy (NMS) program. NMS is a group trying to understand how nutrient supply in the San Francisco Bay works.

The SF Bay is an extremely nutrient-enriched environment (eutrophic) due to human pollution and natural factors, to the extent that if all other factors were equal, scientists would expect it to be a nasty green sludgy mess. Yet up to today, due to factors that are still debated, the SF Bay is in much better shape than it should be. It is not a dead zone, choked off by algal blooms and oxygen-starved in the way that other high-productivity regions such as parts of the Gulf of Mexico have become. Those factors may include the cloudiness (turbidity) of the Bay’s water limiting algae growth, naturally rapid tidal mixing with ocean water, and the influence of clams and other grazing animals keeping the populations of potentially harmful plankton suppressed.

However, there is also evidence that this resilience may be fading as water temperatures in the Bay increase and the ecology of the system changes with climate change. Oxygen levels are dropping and levels of harmful algae are rising, which endangers the health and livelihoods of millions of people in the SF Bay area who depend on a clean, ecologically functioning SF Bay. In my role at NMS, I will be assisting in processing and interpreting huge quantities of environmental data on temperature, dissolved oxygen, water flow, light levels, algae concentrations, and harmful algae toxins, to help figure out how the SF Bay works and how we can protect it. I will be assisting another scientist joining the team in deploying more sensors to monitor the Bay on a minute by minute basis, and also packaging the data to help create models which allow us to figure out the various moving parts that make it work.

In a way, this is oddly similar to the work I’ve done during my postdoc at Biosphere 2, where I’ve been growing giant clams in their 700,000 gallon ocean tank since May 2020. The clams are biological sensors have been recording the environment of the Biosphere 2 ocean through their shells and valve opening/closing activity, and I have had to decode their diaries through comparison with the environmental data we collect on light, pH, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll and other measurements. The SF Bay is a site of enormously influential research which has been important to understand estuaries around the world, but it is still a mysterious body of water in many ways. NMS is trying to understand how all its complex pieces fit together, much like I’ve been doing at Biosphere 2, which is why I jumped at the opportunity to apply for the job.

I also am excited to get involved in this work because it’s immensely important for everyday people’s lives. The SF Bay provides millions of people with food, employment, recreation and overall well-being, and the science that NMS produces has real-world value for making policy and a concrete plan to keep the Bay healthy. It represents exactly the kind of science that I wanted to do since I first jumped into environmental biology as a 19-year-old at USC. At that time, I was interning at JPL studying historical trends in California rainfall data, so this new job represents a homecoming of sorts to California water science!

This job will be a bit of a change of pace from my present work as at first, because I’ll be part of a scientific team with a shared mission, unlike most of my prior research, where I came up with ideas, pitched them to my advisors and funders and then coordinated the projects to collect and analyze data. There will be more teamwork, and while academic publications will still be one of our products, we also will be writing reports for policymakers and stakeholders who are deciding on how to regulate nutrient levels in the Bay.

I also won’t be working with clams on an everyday basis! But as I mentioned before, clams do play a major role in the Bay in terms of filtering the water, and so it is likely we will need to understand the activities of the clams and other grazers to explain the trends in nutrients that we see. I didn’t start as a Clam Man, but my curiosity about clams meant that my attention kept being drawn to these enigmatic but influential creatures, and I expect that dynamic will continue. I am, and always will be, Dan the Clam Man.

I will continue to get my present clam projects out the door as publications, so there will be lots of clamsplaining in the future months as those get out the door. Regarding the Biosphere 2 clams, we still have four individuals of Tridacna derasa (the smooth giant clam) growing in the 700,000 gallon ocean tank, and intend to leave them as long-term research subjects and an exhibit for visitors to enjoy and learn about. We also have proposals in the work for new projects to expand on this work. I hope I can continue to visit in the coming decades and see our clams grow to be true giants, two feet in length! I also hope to acquire pet giant clams of my own, with names rather than specimen numbers, to be my friends rather than my research subjects.

I’ll be starting the new job remotely at the end of this month, to give myself time to tie off loose ends in Tucson, intending to move to the Bay Area by March. I will really miss Biosphere 2 and Tucson, but this isn’t the last they’ll see of me, because my collaborations with people here will continue into the future. I knew from the start as a postdoctoral researcher that my position would not be permanent, but it is still bittersweet to leave. I will miss hiking in the Sonoran desert, swimming in the Biosphere 2 ocean tank and also my advisor Diane Thompson and her lab here, full of people who have been a joy to work with.

But I am excited for this new chapter, because the postdoc life has been lately losing its luster for me. I’ve enjoyed being a postdoc for the freedom it entails, both in my research topics and the way I structure that work. But postdoc work is emotionally exhausting, as I have been a journeying academic contractor on “soft money”. My employment for the following year has always been contingent on the next grant coming through. Moving between different institutions on different continents has been a big weight on my family and my partner, who I miss greatly.

As a postdoc, while I’ve had fun and wouldn’t change anything about it, I have felt like a plane trying to take off in unfavorable weather. I could see the end of the runway approaching as my current funding ends in May, which was a scary feeling. I’m willing to hustle and fight for research funding, but not my basic income. Looking back, I have applied to around 45-50 academic positions (including postdocs) since finishing my PhD and got interviewed for less than ten percent of those, and received offers for two postdocs. When I got the offer from SFEI, which was itself a rigorous, multi-stage process over months, I cannot describe what a relief it was to clear out my “job applications” folder in my to-do list. This SFEI job will allow me to pursue marine science that helps the environment and people, in a more emotionally sustainable way.

I’m excited to start my next chapter and share with you all the discoveries our team makes about the SF Bay, while also continuing to clamsplain here on my own time. Keep an eye out for my Biosphere 2 studies, which will be rolling out over the next months as the data arrives!

A Make-Up Presentation!

Hi colleagues! Several weeks ago, I was supposed to present a talk at GSA’s annual meeting in Phoenix at the session “Advances in Ocean and Climate Reconstructions from Environmental Proxies”, but I shattered my wrist in a scooter accident the night before and was in emergency surgery during my talk time. So instead I’ve uploaded my talk with voice-over to Youtube! The whole video is about 15 minutes. You can view it above. Feel free to comment on this post or email me if you have questions!

This work is currently in the last stretch of drafting before submission, but I also discuss some ongoing research and am always open if you have your own ideas for collaborations!

Correction: we are working with geophysicists to understand the shell transport mechanism.

These are the references mentioned at the end:

Crnčević, Marija, Melita Peharda, Daria Ezgeta-Balić, and Marijana Pećarević. “Reproductive cycle of Glycymeris nummaria (Linnaeus, 1758)(Mollusca: Bivalvia) from Mali Ston Bay, Adriatic Sea, Croatia.” Scientia Marina 77, no. 2 (2013): 293.

Glycymeris nummaria (Linnaeus, 1758).” 2019. World Register of Marine Species. 2019.

Grossman, Ethan L., and Teh-Lung Ku. 1986. “Oxygen and Carbon Isotope Fractionation in Biogenic Aragonite: Temperature Effects.” Chemical Geology: Isotope Geoscience Section 59: 59–74.

Gutierrez-Mas, J. M. 2011. “Glycymeris Shell Accumulations as Indicators of Recent Sea-Level Changes and High-Energy Events in Cadiz Bay (SW Spain).” Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 92 (4): 546–54.

Jones, Douglas S., and Irvy R. Quitmyer. 1996. “Marking Time with Bivalve Shells: Oxygen Isotopes and Season of Annual Increment Formation.” PALAIOS 11 (4): 340–46.

Mienis, Henk, R. Zaslow, and D.E. Mayer. 2006. “Glycymeris in the Levant Sea. 1. Finds of Recent Glycymeris insubrica in the South East Corner of the Mediterranean.” Triton 13 (March): 5–9.

Najdek, Mirjana, Daria Ezgeta-Balić, Maria Blažina, Marija Crnčević, and Melita Peharda. 2016. “Potential Food Sources of Glycymeris nummaria (Mollusca: Bivalvia) during the Annual Cycle Indicated by Fatty Acid Analysis.” Scientia Marina 80 (1): 123–29.

Peharda, Melita, Marija Crnčević, Ivana Bušelić, Chris A. Richardson, and Daria Ezgeta-Balić. 2012. “Growth and Longevity of Glycymeris nummaria (Linnaeus, 1758) from the Eastern Adriatic, Croatia.” Journal of Shellfish Research 31 (4): 947–51.

Reinhardt, Eduard G, Beverly N Goodman, Joe I Boyce, Gloria Lopez, Peter van Hengstum, W Jack Rink, Yossi Mart, and Avner Raban. 2006. “The Tsunami of 13 December AD 115 and the Destruction of Herod the Great’s Harbor at Caesarea Maritima, Israel.” Geology 34 (12): 1061–64.

Royer, Clémence, Julien Thébault, Laurent Chauvaud, and Frédéric Olivier. 2013. “Structural Analysis and Paleoenvironmental Potential of Dog Cockle Shells (Glycymeris glycymeris) in Brittany, Northwest France.” Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 373: 123–32.

Sivan, D., M. Potasman, A. Almogi-Labin, D. E. Bar-Yosef Mayer, E. Spanier, and E. Boaretto. 2006. “The Glycymeris Query along the Coast and Shallow Shelf of Israel, Southeast Mediterranean.” Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 233 (1): 134–48.

Israel: Field Report!

So I’ve been living in Israel since the start of November after a whirlwind of defending my PhD, moving out of Santa Cruz forever and suddenly moving to another continent for a postdoc. I’ve been working on clams, taking samples, using an SEM and planning a new manuscript, but I have also been learning a lot about living in a country that is at once strangely familiar and completely foreign. I’m coming back to California tomorrow for a Holiday break, so I took an hour to reflect on what I’ve learned about this country so far. Here are some random things I’ve learned about Israel during my time here.

Israel is small


Israel is a tiny country by my Californian standards. You can take a bus along the entire length of it in less than seven hours. I am in Haifa on the farthest northern part of the Mediterranean coast, but in 2016, I lived down in Eilat for two months. Despite its small size, Israel has a variable climate depending on where you are. Up in Haifa, they have have a classic Mediterranean climate which reminds me of California in a lot of ways (think chaparral and coastal dunes, though a little more humid than I’m used to and with more thunderstorms). The Negev desert is in the South, which is intensely dry, hot and sometimes completely devoid of vegetation.

Happy naturalists!

For birders, I’ve noticed the North is dominated by hooded crows from Europe while the South is dominated by house crows, an Asian species. In general, because they’re at the nexus between Europe, Asia and Africa and the gradient between those ecoregions, Israel and the Middle East overall are very biodiverse. As a result, there is a vibrant culture of naturalists in this country who want to know about every aspect of every species. When I post something to my iNaturalist, within a few hours someone who is an expert on that taxon confirms or corrects me, without fail.

Delicious food+drink

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Living here, I have been subsisting of a diet based largely on hummus, falafel, shawerma, tahini (try the dark kind!) and pita, with plenty of veggies thrown in. In fact, there are restaurants where they just serve you a bowl of hummus with pita and you have at it. Be prepared for the food coma. For beers, I guess Danish beer companies got a big foothold here early on because the defaults are Carlsberg, Tuborg, Heineken etc. The biggest native Israeli brewery is Gold Star, and they’re not bad! And there are a growing number of Israeli craft breweries. Overall I approve, though they sometimes experiment a bit too much and taste odd, and a lot of them don’t really seem to know what an IPA is.

Cultural diversity

Israel, as you may or may not have heard, is indeed a very complicated place. There is no doubt that the tensions are high between Israelis and Palestinians and Hezbollah and Iran, which is often in the news. But day to day on the ground, Israel is a very safe place and safer than what I’m used to in the States. The crime rate is much lower than almost everywhere in the US, and I can walk around Haifa at night without ever feeling at risk. That is more than I can say for Santa Cruz and many parts of LA.

Haifa is a special place. It is a uniquely diverse city with a significant Arab population. The student body at the University of Haifa is over 30% Arab in descent and I can walk through hearing four languages in one hallway. The main temple of the Baha’i faith is here in Haifa.

There are Israeli Jews of all sorts of backgrounds, including Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Yemeni, Ethiopian and more. There are secular Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews and the Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox), along with myriad others I haven’t learned about yet. There also is a huge population throughout Israel of Russian Jews who came here following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian is spoken heavily here and is on the street signs. Like America, Israel is a hugely diverse place and I believe could be a great strength for their future growth and prosperity.

Language and cultural challenges

As a secular American, there were some parts of Israel that have proved challenging to adapt to. The biggest challenge for me by far is that Israel’s national language is Hebrew, which is a very challenging language to learn. I now know the numbers, some letters and some words, but there’s no way I’m going to be able to pick up conversational Hebrew during my time here. And as all foreigners know, not being able to read and write makes literally everything about “adulting” more difficult. I have had to learn never to assume that English is understood here. I speak slowly and use hand gestures. I do everything in person, never over the phone. Trying to do something logistical over the phone has not once worked. Seriously, don’t even entertain the notion of trying to do stuff in English over the phone here.

Instead, I recommend going to the place you need to go, ask the person for help with a dumb blank smile on your face, and people will try to help you do what you need to do, whether that is opening a bank account, getting your bus card, or signing a lease for your apartment. People here are generally very direct and no-nonsense in everyday business dealings, but they also have proven very generous and willing to help me, which is not something I can say about service in America. However, on the rare occasions when I’ve found someone who speaks English, is available, and is exactly the person who can help me with the task at hand, I feel as though I should drop to my knees and thank the God of Abraham for his mercy. Day to day life here is tough for a non-Hebrew speaker.

If there was one aspect of life in Israel which I will openly complain about, it is Shabbat (from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). In most of the Western world, we take for granted that Saturday and Sunday are the days of rest. But here in Israel, it is Friday and Saturday, and Israel is very hardcore about their days of rest. On Shabbat, any eating establishment that wants to be Kosher has to be closed. Almost all public transport is shut down.

There are a small number of more secular, diverse cities, luckily including Haifa, where a couple buses stay running Friday night and Saturday. But on Saturday, if I realize I need groceries, my choice is to splurge on a cab or walk 25 minutes down to the nearest 24/7 market (basically a convenience store). There is a reason Shabbat is a big deal in Israel and I get it. There is no other country on Earth where Jews of all creeds and colors can know that they will get to observe Shabbat in the way it was practiced by their ancestors. But for me as a secular person without a car, it presents a lot of logistical challenges.


Here is a list of other things I found notable and unexpected about life in Israel

  • They really like malls. There are new malls opening everywhere and they are always full of people. As an American, I think of malls as very last century, but they’re still the main social place here for many people.
  • They don’t really use mops. Instead, they use giant squeegees to clean their floors. I still don’t get how to use one.
  • When you sign a lease, many landlords want twelve pre-signed checks. I thought this was very strange (where do they keep them?!) and then noticed an option in the ATM to save checks for “safe-keeping.” Weird.
  • Israel is a cell phone paradise. I can get an unlocked SIM card with 30 gb of data, unlimited voice and text for $21.50. This is absolutely insane. How is this possible?
  • In Israel, they charge tenants a bimonthly property tax. That is annoying!
  • People say Israel is super expensive and yes, prices on food and basics are somewhat high by standards of some US States. But coming from California, I have been so relieved. I now can afford to live in my own apartment and pay <25% of my income on rent rather than 50%. I can once again stay under $10-15 a day on food which wasn’t possible for me in California for the last couple years. So I have more discretionary income for fun stuff which has been refreshing.
  • As I’ve noticed in Europe as well, it’s fun paying with coins! They have 10, 5, 2, and 1 shekel coins and I find myself actually using them, unlike the useless pocket change in the states that I just save to trade in later. There are around 3.7 shekels to the dollar.
  • They have an excellent bus system (except Friday or Saturday 😉 ). Buses come by frequently in all parts of Haifa, are clean, and cost about $1.50 per ride (1/3 less than that if you set up your student access card). The bus card allows you to connect for free within a certain time period as well.
  • Most locks in Israel use keys on the inside and outside. I’m not sure if this is an Israel-specific thing, or just something the rest of the world has that the US doesn’t, but it was surprising to see that I’d have to use my key to lock my front door from inside.
  • They have smarter crosswalks in Haifa that generally bridge over a median, with two separate pedestrian lights. You may have to stop in the middle but it means less risk of someone doing a turn and hitting you, and that is good urban planning in my book. Eilat has done away with streetlights altogether, completely converting to roundabouts. I frickin love roundabouts.
  • Israel has a semi private system of healthcare, but with generally very high quality care and low cost.
  • In Israel, life is completely transformed by their mandatory military service. While I have been out of college for a few years, many Israelis are only just starting college as they enter their late 20s after being discharged. So the student body trends older at Israeli universities.
  • I thought I’d stick out as an American goy being here, but apparently I don’t. People keep asking me for directions in Hebrew and Russian and I just say “sorry, English only”, and they look at me with disappointment. I guess I can say I look Jewish!

In conclusion, I have enjoyed my time in Israel so far, and I have found myself just watching life going on around me with great curiosity, because it is a very interesting place full of constant unexpected moments. Let me know if any of you visit anytime soon 🙂