USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

July 30, 2014

Preparing the Expedition: Chicago to Lima

Filed under: Getting to Peru,Preparing for the expedition — Kathleen Ritterbush @ 3:44 pm

O’hare Airport, Chicago Illinois, 7:05 am

“…Stormy, husky, brawling,

City of the Big Sholders…”



"Cloud Gate" aka "the bean" in Chicago's Milenium Park

“Cloud Gate” aka “the bean” in Chicago’s Milenium Park

I spent the last few days hustling around Hyde Park and downtown Chicago getting ready for Peru. The last six month’s I’ve lived here as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago. I experienced my first winter, first fireflies, and at Friday’s geology department softball game against the chemists, my first mulberries!


On this expedition I’m planning to show off the work I’ve done the last few years to a gaggle of ambitious professors and collaborators bent on new research directions. As a paleontologist I look for signs of animal life, and indications of how those animals interacted with each other and with their ocean home. Two of our collaborators are chemists who study how erosion on land feeds crucial minerals to the seas, and how this changes the ocean through time.  We’re interested in how Pangea volcanically splitting apart influenced ocean chemistry, how the chemistry influenced the animals, and how the animals influenced their coastline homes.


Two hundred million years ago Pangea was splitting and an astronomical number of animals went extinct on land and in the oceans. Afterwards, dinosaurs got a good boost on land by expanding into new ecological opportunities. I spent the last few years looking at what happened in the oceans, and in addition to the usual new clams and new snails, there was a radical reorganization of which animals ruled the roost on the coasts.


Sea sponges spread out over vast areas previously occupied molluscs and crinoids, turning something that might have looked like the Florida coast into something more like the sponge meadows of the Antarctic shelf. I spent the last three years searching for their fossilized parts in the American west and Peru. When I found their tiny needles in microscope slides of rocks, I knew they were close. When I found their bodies preserved as three-dimensional blobs and sacks and vases strewn over fossilized seafloor rock layers, I couldn’t even believe my eyes. With a lot of help from professors and other grad students, I spent a few years analyzing the fossils in the lab and under the microscope, and returning to the field to look for more.


That search led to Peru, and to a remarkable professor who did her dissertation on a pack of rocks that happen to contain one of the best marine records of the Triassic/Jurassic history ever found. Several professors at University of Southern California decided to push for more funding, and now we’re on our way. It’s my job to show the chemists the rocks with the sponge fossils. It’s our job together to decide how to get more out of these rocks, how to take samples that might, after careful work in the lab, reveal what happened in the ocean 200,000,000 years ago.


In some ways I’ve been preparing for this trip since last May, when we learned our grant proposal was funded. I transformed a solo month of Peruvian field work into a scramble for materials the chemists could try out in the lab. A series of taste tests, if you will.  Now we go back together, armed with preliminary results.


We’re going to present our research at an international symposium in Lima, then head to the high Andes for two weeks. I prepared field guides for the crew, and I’m still preparing more detailed field notes for myself. Over the past year I’ve been scrutinizing almost 200 microscope slides I had made from the Peruvian samples from six different Andean mines and mountainsides. I’ve drafted schematics to represent the rocks, the fossils, and the microscopic contents. Together we’ve submitted two academic articles on the results, and I used these figures to prepare field guides for the crew.


There’s never enough time. I always want one more hour on the microscope, one more hour with my computer drafting station, one more hour to read over accounts of previous expeditions from the 1980s and 1990s. Then I export myself into the field and have only what’s in my head. This year I’m making a technological leap and using an iPad mini – my first tablet – to keep the photographs and microscope results and chemical test results at my fingertips in the field. I’m hoping the new graduate student on our team – Joyce Yeager – can show me some clever ways to use it.


I didn’t brush up on my Spanish enough, and what’s more I’ll be surrounded by the team members speaking English, which challenges my emersion. I didn’t write blog posts over the past month like I planned, and I still need to submit my research symposium abstracts for the big international meeting in October. I figure I have time for that in Houston before our Lima flight.


One last minute priority that paid off was getting physically and mentally into better shape. The cruel “polar vortex” winter, a cross country move, and time away from rocks took a toll on my motivation. After long consideration I took the plunge and joined a Dutch style Muay Thai kickboxing club. Learning to casually kick an opponent in the thigh is actually a combination of about eight sophisticated tricks of balance and rotation. Turns out it’s physically impossible to fret about job applications or impending research deadlines when someone’s about to punch me in the face. Three weeks later I’m feeling more human, and hoping my lungs do a bit better in the Andes. Academia can bring subtle isolation and stress that we each need to navigate cleverly to survive. I’ve been sparing and boxing; I’ve been getting my own big Chicago shoulders.


Cycling around Chicago's brief wonderful summer, at Buckingham Fountain

Cycling around Chicago’s brief wonderful summer, at Buckingham Fountain

I’ve been worried about the upcoming trip, and discouraged, and unsure how it will go. I know it’s going to be cold, I know I’m going to wish I’d looked at my slides differently, and I know I’m going to wish I had another week on the rocks. Every time I revisit a field site I see it with new eyes, and bringing a pack of wily senior scientists along is sure to revolutionize my perspective. I find field work so captivating because it is completely transformative. Sure I like the llamas and the food and the people and the travels, but the way a week’s passing brings a whole new outlook on science and deep time is just unbeatable. I don’t know what I’ll find, but I’m expecting the good kind of trouble.


We’re keeping a team blog too:

June 19, 2013

Back in Lima, getting ready for another trip back in time

Filed under: Getting to Peru,Life in Lima — admin @ 9:03 am

Greetings from Lima!


Apparently I’m in South America. Six months ago I relished the idea of traveling down to the winter lands of Peru to flee the heat of another Southern California summer. I miscalculated. We’ve been having June Gloom in Los Angeles. Surely it’s no time and place to be stuck in a car, where the 80 degrees will sneak up on you and you’ll wonder what sadist invented jeans, but outside there’s a breeze and an overcast sky and even the animals are holding their breath til the real summer begins. Here in Lima, I’m sipping manzanilla tea and looking over a little casa courtyard under the perpetual white sky. In fact just as a write, pinches of blue are breaking out, and blinding light. 60 degrees, give or take, for the week.


It’s a stunningly well-appointed casa in a nicer district of Lima. Beyond the eclectic furniture and original art, the walls, floors and counters are lined with different kinds of fairly stunning stone – what do you expect from a pair of married geologists? I’m staying at the home of my collaborator, Silvia Rosas for a couple of days before we head to the field. She sent a car to the airport, and I was delighted at my first experience of having a man hold a sign with my name on it! I’ve only seen that in movies. I’m almost thirty, but I’ll take my thrills at burgeoning professionalism and self-importance when I can get them.


Last year I came to the Andes on a hunch, and it paid off big time. Well, in some ways. I’ve been studying the aftermath of the Triassic/Jurassic mass extinction event, which clobbered marine life 200 million years ago. In Nevada I found staggeringly vivid evidence of widespread siliceous sponge dominance in the kinds of habitats that were once dominated by biocalcifiers – corals, clams, snails, and their more obscure prehistoric friends. For various reasons I wanted to see if Peru’s rocks recorded a similar phenomenon across the mass extinction. The trip was brief, but a huge success. I opened several cans of proverbial scientific worms.


Six months ago I might have thought this would be my last trip down here for a while, but the tides of fate are shifting a bit and I hope to return often.  One condition is the same as last year. I have multiple co-authors in publishing this research, and it’s still not in print. This means I can’t share too many esoteric specifics of what I’m looking for and where I find it. I hope, though, that readers might enjoy some updates about the search, and it’s more fun and accessible context; where we go, what we see, what adventures we might find.


They had earthquakes here, the last two days. When Silvia showed me around the house on my midnight arrival last night, the tour included the fastest earthquake exits. It doesn’t really bear thinking about. Earthquakes down here can be much more severe than those back home in Southern California. The reason is a giant slice of the Earth’s crust is still shoving it’s stubborn way beneath the slab that carries this continent and it’s Andes mountains.  Back in Los Angeles, in contrast, the offending plate has long since been slurped underneath North America, and only a relatively small piece remains, plunging slowly under the mountain volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest.  Coffee country.


A small washing machine buzzes intensely. Some carved wooden owls dangle in the sunlight. Outside in the yard there’s a shy rabbit. I’ve got work to do. Manuscripts to revise, citations to edit on my thesis, reports to submit to my generous funding agencies. And the subtler work, the intellectual preparation for this impending geological adventure.  I’m not really sure what to do, resting my feet in the warm sunshine over the cold stones.


The flights were not tough, save a headache I’ve been entertaining since somewhere over the gulf of Mexico. On a 6.5 hr flight from Houston, all the tiny screens buzzing movies from the top of one seatback to the face of each passenger presented a chilling apparition. In and out of sleep, I felt like when I opened my eyes to look around I was peering into people’s dreams. Bouncy jeep rides, passionate romances, fist fights, shootouts. Tough men in the wilderness and hot women in tight skirts. I gave up working on a presentation and had a budwieser while watching Ghostbusters.  Later when the turbulence was too fierce to write or work on my translation practice, I resorted to a recent and impossibly scripted Jason Stathem action movie.  Explosions, grappling battles, car chases.  I’ve loved action movies since childhood, and would daydream about Indiana Jones-esque predicaments. On Friday Silvia and I will ride in a big 4×4 truck up a treacherous mountain road, albeit in the hands of a calm and seasoned professional driver. Then the mines, not that we’ll actually go underground, but there’s an atmosphere of importance and intensity when you’ve gotta show steel toed boots and a slew of medical clearances. The real work is looking carefully at the sand and tiny fossils in massive walls of rock, but the context – professional workers in hazardous jobs, challenging environmental degradation risk, passing llamas and sheep, snow and rain and wind. It beats the hell out of sitting at my computer at home. And I’ve been sitting at my computer at home, finishing that ol’ dissertation, for several months. It’s time I get out and live my own action movie. Sans fistfights, of course.


And the love story? We’ve got that too, folks. I got married just four months ago, to the same seismologist I left behind to come here last year. When I get back in three weeks we have about 30 hours together before he heads to central Alaska for a week. Then we embark on the post-doctoral fellowship years, the years of funding and professional improvement, years of commuting between states for weeks or – hopefully – months at a time to see each other. Until we get two good jobs… It’s this kind of thinking that can make the mountain hard to climb. Hard to start the manuscript revisions, paper submissions, and presentations that stand between me and the next years of settled family life. But I’ll be in the Andes this week. If nothing else, I’ve got to take one step at a time. OK, back to work. Thanks for following, all. I’ll post more specific updates soon.

August 7, 2012

Time Travel

Filed under: Getting to Peru — admin @ 7:12 pm

Charles Darwin, writing on the HMS Beagle, January 11, 1832:

“Again did I admire the rapid course of the setting sun. — It did not at first occur to me that it was owing to the change of Latitude”


HMS Beagle in Sydney Harbour 1838, Painting copyright Ron Scobie

I was reading through my old notes from a class about Darwin and noticed the snippet above.  Moments ago I glanced out the window and thought, “Damn but it is so dark out!” It’s 6:40 pm California time.  What Darwin experienced during five years at sea we can now experience in hours.  I’m flying into the night. Soon I’ll be flying into the winter.  I am a Greek myth right now.


10:02 California time.  Soon we’ll be descending into Lima.  Baggage check, a taxi to the hotel.

I’m crossing my fingers I get enough sleep to act sensibly tomorrow. Tomorrow is a big day.  In the afternoon we’ll go to the university and meet the chair of the geology department.  She wrote her dissertation on these rocks, specifically, how they formed 200 million years ago in the crucible of plate tectonic motion.

While I’m in Lima, my favorite seismologist is flying to Alaska.  What, do we think California’s mighty San Andreas fault is too boring?

[If you’re reading this and live in southern California, stop by the market later today for a couple gallons of water to store in your home.  The southern San Andreas is overdue for what Angelenos cheerfully call, “the big one”.]

The San Andreas cuts right through California.  People joke that California will “fall off” of North America but actually it’s just the opposite.  California is built out of geological what-nots that SLAMMED onto the side of North America.  Conveniently for us, the famous San Andreas represents the seam between the true North American plate and the enormous Pacific plate.  Right now, around North America, the two are basically sliding past each other.  So whatever earthquakes the San Andreas and friends dish out will be at least a mutual affair.  In the grand scheme, both plates get what they want.

Consider two plates colliding head-on.  Look at Peru via Google Satelite.  Google now includes details of the seafloor topography; now we can look right at the seams the separate these tectonic plates that are hidden under water.  It took geologists decades to find and interpret this information, and now any ten year old can google it on an iphone.  Mind boggling!

Via Google we can see a chunk of crust under the ocean named the Nazca plate.  This one is diving under Peru right now.  Only, I wouldn’t call it a mutual affair between the plates.  No, this one is very unpleasant.  At their collision, an enormous belt of mountains forms – those mountains are my destination on Friday.

When Charles Darwin sailed around South America on the HMS Beagle, he was as much a geologist as biologist.  But he, like the rest of his society, was totally baffled at the puzzles hidden in rocks and fossils.  The very concept that a mountain of sedimentary rocks might have formed slowly over time was still a new topic of discussion.  How MUCH time was hotly debated and politically perilous.

Enter Darwin, young, rich, curious, and very sea sick.  He spent much of his journey exploring the land while the ship surveyed the coast.  [His entire diary from the five year trip is online, and is a fascinating read.  Insofar as I have time I’ll find and share snippets.]  Darwin marveled at sea shells high up on coastal cliffs. Did the sea level fall or did the cliffs rise up?

Before long Darwin got an answer first hand.  He was in the forest in Chile when a huge earthquake shook the land, literally knocking him on his butt.  Later the Beagle traveled north to Conception, which was wrecked terribly in the quake.  Because of his earlier observations, Darwin recognized rocks moving up, containing the fossils of sea shells from an earlier time.  This process built the mountains that contain sea shells from the Mesozoic, fossils I hope to recognize later this week in the field.


It’s pretty convenient for me.  Animals lived and died on the seafloor 200 million years ago, and I get to wait for them to be moved about and exposed in beautiful mountains, where I just show up and look at them. Time travel, made easy.

Ah, ready for descent.  Time to pack up, and turn off the computer.  Next time I write will likely be after my first day at the university.

Science never sleeps!

Filed under: Getting to Peru — admin @ 7:02 pm

I often say this (even on my facebook page) when I’m excited about my research.  I don’t mean it in a competitive way; I’m not the type to brag about being up all night running experiments in the lab.  I tried that in college; it didn’t work out too well.  I was dissecting octopus eyeballs to make slides for a laser microscope, but I kept nodding off while processing them at 2am.  When I say “Science never sleeps!” the subtext is, “but I do!”

Work/life balance is tough in any career, but it can be especially tricky in science. I’m concerned that I can’t keep up with changes in my field, or the peripheral disciplines that affect my research. Or if I can, how do I keep up with the rest of my life?


Two weeks ago I began preparing specifically for this trip.  Until that point I’d been pushing other projects so hard that August seemed half a year away.  Also two weeks ago, my two closest friends took a sudden opportunity to move to Portland.  When I get back to Los Angeles, it won’t be the same.


I’ve been a close friend with Jen for about fourteen years, and with her husband Paul for about 7.  Above is a picture of Jen and I at her fabulous wedding last year. Since I moved from their hip Silver Lake neighborhood last winter I’ve missed walking up the street to watch movies on lazy evenings.  Now I’ll miss brunches where we’d review the week’s developments in the music business, comedy scene, and paleontology finds.  I’ll miss that moment in each conversation when Jen shrugs and says, ‘They’re just rocks’, and Paul wants to know more about the specific fossils and physics.


Saturday afternoon I found myself still on campus, pouring over my sponge fossils one by one, organizing and packing and planning.  It was time to leave for Jen’s going-away barbeque, which was characteristically festive if a little bittersweet.


Now I’m on an airplane bound for South America, into the land of Darwin’s confusion and birthplace of the potato.  Out my window, between the equatorial storm clouds, I can see just a narrow slice of spectacular sunset.  Brilliant pink and tangerine on a single white cloud sandwiched between the grey.

Academic life will keep me moving for a few years, I guess.  It’s lucky I got to live in the same town as long-time friends for most of my PhD years.  It’s just tough to be a grown up, and to watch the wonderful adventures and opportunities we gain also draw us apart.


Written over the southern tip of Mexico, 6:15 California time.




I’m on a chair in the SKY!

Filed under: Getting to Peru — admin @ 6:41 pm

5:03 pm California time

We’re flying over the Sea of Cortez between Baja California and the rest of continental Mexico.  A teen near me has been watching a Justin Beiber documentary for what seems like several hours.  I guess we’ve only been in the air about two.  Back at the gate in LAX, boarding started so abruptly that I shut down my laptop immediately to queue up.  I laughed because my attempt at social media, which requires constant updating, was woefully inadequate.  Anyone actually “following” me would wonder if I ever made it on board.

The flight has been very pleasant so far.  It’s a packed plane, but everyone seems relaxed, owing in part to little televisions set in every seat.  This is only my third time leaving the United States, and my domestic travel standards are very low budget.  Consequently I am totally impressed by airplanes, especially international flights.  Free wine!

Comedian Louie CK famously summarized the foolishness of whining about airplanes this way:

“You’re on a chair in the SKY.  You’re a Greek myth right now!”

It’s good advice about life in general, for those of us lucky enough to sit around writing and reading travel blogs.  Since seeing that comedy bit, my friends and I remind each other often not to take the conveniences, and even the slight inconveniences, of modern technology for granted.  We’re all very lucky to be here.




August 6, 2012

I spoke too soon…

Filed under: Getting to Peru — admin @ 1:22 pm


Here I go bragging about how easy the trip is, and we’ve already got our first amorphus, cryptic delay.  They’re checking the plane for something technical.  An hour after the originally scheduled take-off, we should have info about a new take-off time.

This is the only daily non-stop flight to Lima from LAX.

For my part, the delay doesn’t mean much.  Maybe they’ll send us home and I fly tomorrow.  It would be lousy to get routed through Miami… I was really looking forward to starting at the university tomorrow with a full tank of sleep.  So far, these delays are just an opportunity to practice my spanish.  I listen carefully to the first announcement, try to translate it, and get the english version right after!  Fun!

Its rough, though, for people who have connections, or have come a long way to be here.  The terminal is packed now.  many people are lining the isles because they were standing, anticipating boarding.  The clerk actually announced that we would board in ten minutes then… Well I’d rather have a delay than a technical problem in the air.

July and August are the hight of tourist season in the Andes.  Next to me are some russians with bags from Hawaii and big packs of outdoor gear for the ruins ahead.  Many of the tourists here are headed to Machu Pichu.  Most people who ask about my trip assume that’s where I’m going.  A dear family friend who led university trips through the region for decades could not BELIEVE that I would be in Peru two weeks with no archeological tourism plans.

Mostly, though, it seems like people here have been visiting the states and are returning home.  Families, young children, business men, stately older couples with carefully coiffed hair.  They’re gathered around iphones or newspapers, stratified by decade.  A healthy smattering of ipads.  Actually, given the free internet and the electronic devices on hand – mine included – this is the least grumbling I’ve ever heard out of a room full of people delayed an hour At Least.

Dave, for his part, is always cool as a cucumber.  He’s just relaxing into his New York Times like this is any Sunday morning over breakfast.  I am a compulsive worrier.  I rarely relax, but when I do, I feel guilty and assured there’s something I should be worried about. I’ve been trying to turn over a new leaf the past year or so, and it’s going well.

Another hour on the ground is just another hour to read.  When I get on the rocks, everything will become finite, questions will be answered.  Until then, I have time to imagine what we might see, and to create the questions themselves.





At the airport

Filed under: Getting to Peru — admin @ 12:01 pm

WOW.  I’ve never had an experience like this at LAX.  No lines at checkout, no lines in security, polite clerks everywhere.  And now free internet?  I’m convinced I’m still in my bed dreaming and in fact will miss my flight…

Easy traffic too!  So I’ve arrived before Dave, with a full two hours before we board.  I’ve got a bagel and some orange juice, you know, so I can carbo load before sitting on my duff for 8 hours.

It’s remarkable how easy everything has been so far, logistically.  Our Peruvian collaborators have been outstandingly prompt and easy going with recommendations and reservations for the past six months. Part of my brain isn’t remotely contemplating the journey I’m starting, but my body is here and so is my luggage, so I guess it’s really happening.

This is my carryon bag, amusingly.  In it I’ve got all my electronics, my camera, my gps, brunton compus, microscope slides, laptop, sweater, leisure reading, etc.  It’s an amazing field pack for hauling rocks – one of the first packs ever made with an internal frame.  It was my mother’s, and she gave it to me when I started grad school.  With it she packed a dissertation’s supply of trilobite fossils out of Nevada’s Great Basin, now a national park.  We’ll see, in a week’s time, whether I find any rocks worth hauling.

It’s funny now, looking at this picture.  I took it during my first short research trip out to Nevada, in 2008.  I was still looking for snails back then.  A lot has changed.

Ah!  Dave is here too, after patiently wrangling his reservation with airline staff.  I’ll get settled, then write about the geology of our destination and adventures the last few days.  Writing for this blog will be a nice way to break up the 8 hr flight.