and so it begins
Today, I had a good day.
It began entirely too early - just slightly past six. I am not now a morning person, and I will never be. Still, I managed to pull myself onto the road an hour later after only a single cup of coffee. Sometimes there are reasons to get up in the morning, and sometimes I will find the proper motivating force to drive me forward through the hazy cloud of sleep. Today, I will meet my advisor in the flesh for the first time, and today will truly mark the beginning of my graduate career.
I drive East out of Palmetto, heading towards Interstate 75, which I will follow South to Naples. In Naples, I-75 will turn Eastwards again, and suddenly become "Alligator Alley", a turnpike cutting through the very heart of the Everglades. Endless miles of hungry swamp ensue, with only a thin chain-link fence holding back the horde of hungry alligators - as well as the occasional invasive burmese python. Of course, the truth is actually rather disappointing: the fence is there to protect the alligators and panthers (and pythons, oh my!) from us, and not vice-versa. The "untouched purity" of the wilderness that some would like to romanticize no longer exists. Our greatest natural heritage and our best national parks must be managed, lest their structured ecology slowly phase into the cultured environment of 'civilization'. It leaves them as artificial an environment as any zoo, if not more grandiose.
Two hours of swamp later, I find myself on the edge of Miami. I can tell I am getting close when the number of SUVs and expensive sports cars make a marked increase in both diversity and abundance. I take the turnpike around Miami, avoiding traffic and hopefully shaving another half hour off of my total travel time. The city follows me around, and construction stays very dense along the main roads until I branch off to head out into the countryside Southwest of Miami. Farmers' fields open up and replace the crops of WalMart and strip malls with long rows of peppers and citrus or nurseries for exotic orchids. I find that in many ways, Homestead is the Conroe of Miami - but to the South instead of to the North of town.
My way to the research facility is made slightly more complicated by an absence of road signs. Many of them were blown down in the last hurricane, and the city hasn't bothered to replace them yet because all of the locals already know where they are going. Once I find the place, I am finally introduced to my advisor, Dr. Catherine Mannion, and rushed off to an excellent Thai restaurant for lunch. We return, and I meet some more of the lab staff - and then it is down to business.
We discussed the timetable during which I would need to complete the required coursework for the degree, and then I was introduced to the other person who will probably contribute significantly to my early graduate career, Dr. Dakshina Seal. Dr. Seal has done most of the foundational work on the chilithrips, Scirtothrips dorsalis - but most of his work has been done outside of this country, and I will be one of the first to research them stateside. This will be important, as I learned to my relief that one of the reasons I could not find more authoritative information on this species is because it really hasn't been written yet - much of their reported behavior and ecology is inferred from similar species, but there are some interesting contradictions.
As a result, three major forks have been identified for the focus of my research:
- The first will address the mechanics of sampling: how and where do you test for the presence of these organisms, and how does this capture number compare to the actual population present in a given sample field? This will aid in reporting the presence of the organism, and may present opportunities for the timely application of control mechanisms.
- The second tier would address the ecology of chilithrips in several different host plants in order to reconfirm their life-cycle history and efficiency on those different hosts. This might aid in the determining a host-preference, or point out unusual or significant elements in their life-cycle that would aid in the effective use of a variety of control methods.
- The final focus would be to explore the effectiveness of various natural enemies or potential competitors on a given host, hopefully in order to develop novel control mechanisms for the species.
These thoughts were spurred by the relative paucity of confirmed data on chilithrips as well as a few anecdotal observations of possible interest to the project:
- Chilithrips have probably already spread much farther into Florida than is currently suspected on ornamental roses, but this has gone relatively underreported, as they have not yet successfully made the jump to commercial vegetables in numbers significant enough to be noticed by growers.
- The lab chilithrips really seem to make an effort to infest cotton at high densities in preference to their alleged traditional host, the chili-pepper.
- This thrips appears to attack all leaves on young plants, but on some slightly taller and more mature plants, the top leaves are curiously untouched.
Our meeting complete, I was left to my own devices until the next morning where I would meet up with Dakshina again for a closer look at the lab's facilities and some of his work. While in search of a place to crash for the night, I passed a road sign. It reminded me that I was less than thirty minutes up the road from the largest of Florida's keys: Largo.
I haven't been to the Keys in a very long time, but I remembered eating conch-fritters at a little shack on the side of the road, and I have missed them ever since. Nothing but traffic could stop me now: I was en route to Largo to find and consume them. It was an entertaining and scenic drive down US-1; I was passed by a boat on my left, and passed several boats still stuck in the trees after the last hurricane tore through here. It is a two-lane highway with numerous signs reminding you that passing into oncoming traffic is probably not a brilliant idea, and that it resulted in the untimely and premature demise of fourteen persons in 2005. I couldn't find that same little shack that once served me a small fried lump of heaven, but with a little help from my cell phone and my folks' internet access, I still managed to find an excellent place to eat them. Should any of you happen to drop by and visit while I am living in Homestead, I will be certain to take you there... they also made a key-lime pie that was to die for.
From there, I chased down another set of memories - but these were cinematic. While I am certain that most do not appreciate it, there are at least two major pieces of Humphrey Bogart memorabilia lying around the island. Not only does the original bar from the eponymous "Key Largo" still stand, but a Holiday Inn just down the road from it plays berth to the "African Queen".
My evening complete, I turned North once more to finalize my sleeping arrangements at a hotel in Homestead. Heading up the two lanes of US-1 in the dark, I passed an orange road-sign announcing "crocodile crossing". I suspect that this was just a nickname for road crews working in the nearby construction, but I'd still like to imagine a heaping great saltwater crocodile lying in wait for hapless SUVs who wander a little too close to the water when they are drunk and passing in the lane of oncoming traffic with reckless abandon...
Largo Key rules.