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

August 12, 2014

Beautiful Lima

Filed under: Life in Lima — Kathleen Ritterbush @ 9:32 pm

8/12/14, 11:30pm, Lima

I love field work, and the past ten days were amazing. Snow, hail, sunburn, constant intellectual challenges posed by my fellow scientists and by the rocks themselves. After about day eight, tired and riding three abreast in the back of the pickup truck for hours, I turned to Joyce, saying, “When we get back to Lima, let’s go to Baranco. I could use a Cusquena negra and a lobster risotto.” Later that day, holding my field notes with one pink mitten and writing clumsy notes with a bulky blue ski glove, I let my mind wander ahead to a hot meal and a night without an impending 6:30 am departure. Finally now we enjoyed such a night.

The cold permeated everything.

The cold permeated everything.

Silvia met us at the university, and after a break we went shopping and to the romantic turn-of-the-century neighborhood of Baranco. I bought an alpaca coat from a collective that pays the best rates to the workers and herders, which I’ve been wanting to do for years. In Baranco, we met up with Silvia’s son, niece, and family friend for an evening out at a 100 year old bar in the old part of town. Joyce got a passionfruit pisco sour and I got my Cusquena negra, my first beer in 3 weeks. Silvia and I shared a duck appetizer and we all shared stories. Science careers of our forebears, jokes in three languages, and general comfortable conversation and relaxation.
As a postdoctoral researcher living in semi-temporary employment gigs, and traveling constantly, it was a valuable night. In some ways going back to the states is difficult each time. And I realized tonight that in some ways I feel as at home in Peru as anyplace in the states. I am eager to settle into a faculty job, but in the meantime it’s good to embrace the wonderful and surprising chances that science brings my way. I’m thankful to all the professors, staff, and supporters who made this project a financial and logistical reality, and I’m grateful to the colleagues who are helping me grow into a more capable scientist. Lima, with her Los Angeles qualities, her smog and crowds and winding streets, Lima with her construction and horns, Lima is a place I love to be.

July 30, 2014

Moving forward by retreating

Filed under: Life in Lima,Preparing for the expedition — Kathleen Ritterbush @ 11:10 pm

Hola folks at home,

It’s been a packed couple of days in Lima.

Lima is amazingly similar to Los Angeles. Outside, too many cars on too few streets. Inside, great food and great people. It’s the winter here, so mid to low 60s, also just like Los Angeles.


We each have different ambitions and hopes for the field work. We need to balance these ambitions and decide a specific set of goals for the field work. Some of us are new at this kind of collaboration and new to the language, habits, and motivations of other kinds of scientists.

It takes years to know the rocks properly. I came in 2012 wondering if there were any sponge fossils. I returned to LA with dubious results from the field, unsure of what I’d seen. In the microscope that year I slowly learned, YES! there were sponges. So I came back in 2013 to determine when the sponges arose in time, how widespread they were, and how specifically they impacted the surrounding environment.


Yesterday geochemist Josh asked me, “Here on the schematic you indicate there are 60 m of mudrocks that are useful for geochemical analyses. Why did you only sample them every 10 meters?” The answer was that I had no idea they would be any good for geochemical analyses last year, or even certainty that they were mud rocks. Now that we know that, we can sample again.

It’s surprisingly valuable to be in Lima because we are all separated from our usual distractions. We spend the entire day talking about science. Some of these are conversations we’ve been musing over all year, but haven’t had time, focus, or clarity to resolve. The result is sort of spectacular to watch, as we are all very gradually adjusting our expectations and ambitions, and getting to know each other a little better. We’re here for logistics an preparations for the field, but it’s also becoming a “retreat” for the research group to regain our focus and ambition.

We’re assertive about our expectations and requirements for the work, about our desires to see more rocks that fit each of our needs. But we know we need a synthesis, and I’ve been so pleased that everyone has been patient and thoughtful as hours of discussions turn into days. Juxtaposing our different foci gets goofy. At a restaurant tonight after Frank’s talk:

Paleontologist Kathleen: Dave, do you want some of this squid?

Paleontologist Dave: Mmmmm, cephalopods! Kathleen is our enthusiast for ammonites.

Geochemist Josh: Wait, are cephalopods mollusks!?

Paleontologist Joyce: [long incredulous stare]

Geochemist Josh: What’s the molecular weight of Tungsten!??

Running with such a diverse crowd means we can’t declare things to be “obvious.” It’s fun to be reminded of this and to remember to keep a broad perspective. The paleontologists expect everyone to understand references to the taxonomy of long-dead critters, and the geochemist points out that this is like expecting us to have currently memorized the periodic table.

Today Silvia took us to lunch at an archeology museum near the college where a few of us paid to see the exhibits of pre-Inca pottery and metal work. It was spectacular. I took a few photos for my dad, who’s a pre-Columbian art enthusiast. And it was his birthday today! After 45 minutes we needed to head to Frank’s lecture for the Peruvian Geological Society.


It was fascinating for me to watch Frank’s talk. Two years ago I gave a talk to the same society, the day after my field work. I hardly scraped together photos of my immediate field results, and I was still in the dark about the microscopic sponge evidence. I didn’t present a strong discussion to make sense of why I was here. Tonight Frank gave a thorough and compelling overview of the mass extinction, climate and chemical environmental change, and the significance of the siliceous sponge expansion. The talk had many overlapping parts with faculty audition job talks I’ve delivered lately, as Frank helps critique my presentations and he was presenting results from my last two years of work, in the context of our overall project. Over the years my relationship to the rocks, to the science, and to the intellectual camaraderie evolves, and that is a wonderful process.

A fun day, but now we’ve got another big day tomorrow. Negotiations, contemplation. We’ll go to a local ruin, I think of a pre-Incan coastal society. It’s so interesting to get a chance while we’re here and debating our science, to see these ancient structures and stretch a different part of our intellect. We have days-long conversations broken up by stretches of looking at the wonder and mystery of a far more human past.

Sleep now, more meetings and adventures and negotiations tomorrow. Adios Los Angeles, Thousand Oaks, Fairbanks, and Chicago!

June 23, 2013

Last day in Lima

Filed under: Life in Lima — admin @ 5:03 pm

Friday, 6/20
11:35 pm, Lima
In the morning we go to the Andes. Like last year Silvia arranged for me to rent a truck and a professional driver. This time for about three weeks. The first site will be a new one for me, and we’ll look at outcrops around an active mine. I might actually go in one of the mines in the next few days – just to have a look at the geological features, which Silvia says are quite spectacular.

These days in Lima have been quiet, and I’ve had plenty of time to focus. Not that I HAVE focused. Instead each hour has been a bit of an urgent frenzy down one scientific rabbit hole or another, as I try to get ready for this trip, and ready for the coming year. Which ammonites will indicate the time frame I’m looking for? Or rather, what time frame should I be looking for? Maybe I should expand it, think more broadly, think about the way these deposits all around the world differ and test what they might have in common. Then there are all these cool side-tracking papers I find, like investigations of healed scars on ammonoid shells; the ammonite survived the attack, but an attack by what?? Another ammonite!?!? Bum-ba-ba-buuuuuuuum crimeshowtheme!!

I finished my dissertation this spring, but an unusual circumstance eliminated the job I’d had arranged to start in the fall. So at graduation time I wore the costume, half-heartedly, wondering what the coming year would bring. My husband, meanwhile, earned two postdoctoral positions, back to back, one of them very far away. I’ve been happy for him but it’s been bittersweet compared to my own publication rejections, position dissolutions, and general insecurity about the future.

Things have been looking up since I came to Lima. Simple things, like positive correspondences with international collaborators or experts offering opinions. Plus Silvia arranged for me to use an available office, so I’ve made the most of that! Skype and phone calls from various professors in the states, who were duly impressed that I was in an office at a university in a different hemisphere. It’s funny what prestige a door can give!

I gave a seminar talk on Thursday, which went very well. Like most seminars, most of my audience was politely but marginally interested in the content, so I tried to keep it upbeat and showed lots of interesting pictures. A handful of students and professors were professionally curious, and I wanted to represent my university well. PUCP is developing key connections to high level universities in Europe and the states, so I’m really proud that USC is able to connect here as well.

Bed time, bed time. I repacked my bags, so I’ll leave behind the airport wheely with some city attire, and bring along tools and packs and a duffle of rougher clothing. I also sat on the bed and measured the strike and dip of a chair with my brunton compass. Thank goodness this time I got it right the first time! I guess it’s like riding a bicycle, if I was usually drunk every time I got on a bicycle after several months. But now it appears I’ve got the correct muscle memory, and I won’t fumble about in the field.

OK, tomorrow: Up the Andes, Back in Time!

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 16, 2012


Filed under: Life in Lima — admin @ 9:00 pm

Howdy, y’all.

Here are some pics from our journey down the mountain yesterday:

Last morning in the Andes

Raul stopped by his grandmother’s farm to get some potatoes for breakfast, and to deliver to his family in Lima on our way back to the hotel.

And as a treat on our last day in the highlands we saw a herd of dozens of alpaca.  yay!


A successful field session all around! Last night we arrived back in Lima.  Tonight I gave my talk at the Geological Society of Peru.  About 25 people came – not bad for a last minute meeting.  And it was simultaneously broadcast to 5 other universities across Peru!

A few people were avidly interested, and we had a good discussion during the question session about other sequences in Peru, and other records of the mass extinction.  Afterwards, a couple of people wanted copies of the slides.  I chatted and had a bit of wine – finally!

Dave and I have both been a little sick – it seems inevitable with so much international adventuring.  I’ve just got to keep my act together so I can finish up at the university tomorrow.  I’ll discuss our results with Dra. Rosas, show her some fossils, and hopefully get started to plan my next visit here!

August 9, 2012

In the morning: Up the Andes!

Filed under: Life in Lima — admin @ 9:38 pm

I keep promising myself I’ll go to bed sooner…

It’s been a whirlwind of microscope time and also getting to know our collaborator and her beautiful university.  She took us to lunch and a tour around the campus.  The arcitecture is a mix of mid century, local cubey-modular, and very modern.

Plus they have deer – wild deer – grazing around campus.  This campus is surrounded by bustling Lima on all sides, so there’s nowhere for these deer to go but on campus.  They’re totally docile and get along with the students.  They don’t even eat the flowers!

Here’s a model the mining students made of the Chilean mining collapse and rescue route – I recognized it from a diagram at the Smithsonian from my visit last month.  The Smithsonian has the escape pod on display.  It’s so eerie.

We were in a rush to pack up so I had Dave catch a picture of what I’ve been doing all this time.  Very glamorous!  I especially love the dopey racoon face I have; combination of blinking and the goofy impressions the eyepieces leave on my face.

In the morning a truck picks us up early.  I’ve packed everything back together with my gear ready for action.  As we’ll be at elevation – over 5k meters! – we will not hike much tomorrow.  I’m so excited to finally see these rocks.  I’ve been looking at photographs and, now, microscopic images of them for so long.  And before this trip I was holed up in my Los Angeles apartment for months doing math.  It will be AMAZING to see real rocks, and hunt for our favorite fossils, once again!

Oh, and here’s a flyer for my talk for the geological society on Wednesday!  Yikes!

August 8, 2012

The Ghost Hunters

Filed under: Life in Lima — admin @ 9:15 pm

Time for bed and a big day tomorrow.  Nothing drastic to report.  I’ve been ghost hunting all day.

capturing photographs from the microscope with the computerized camera

Most things that live on planet Earth go extinct without leaving a fossil behind.

Today I’ve been ghost hunting.  I’m searching microscope slides for pieces of ancient sponges that have been almost entirely obliterated by time and minerals.

It’s hard enough to even begin to preserve microscopic glass needles from a squishy sea floor sponge.  Then the sediments became rocks, got buried under kilometers of other rocks, got cooked by contacting hot volcanic eruptions, and got uplifted and exposed in the enormous Andes mountains.  A lot goes on during 201,300,000 years!

Maybe I’ll find more, and maybe I won’t.  Either way, Friday we head to the Andes to look for fossils.  I want to know what the marine ecology looked like on the shores of Pangea after a mass extinction.  It’s not like I expect this to be easy.  It’s time travel, and ghost hunting.  I’m a Greek myth right now!

August 7, 2012

The Science Nightlife

Filed under: Life in Lima — admin @ 8:02 pm


Ah, a quiet night in Lima.  So much work to do!  But this blog is a welcome way to procrastinate and process what we’ve done today.

I got to sleep around 3am; customs took about an hour longer than we expected, but was otherwise pleasant.

Honking notwithstanding, life in the touristy areas of Peru seems surprisingly laid back.  Visitors and locals seem comfortable with their setting.  The streets around Miraflores are packed with tourists, business people, ditch diggers, taxi workers, security guards, and police in determined expressions.

Dave and I walked to the coast to get our bearings, then headed to the Pontifica Universidad Catolica del Peru.  Like our beloved USC, PUCP was a giant construction zone with classes out of session.  We met with the chair of the engineering and mines department, Dr. Rosas.  We had much to discuss; our field work starting Friday, her plans for new geology classes at the University, the rocks themselves.  Dr. Rosas earned degrees published in Spanish, German, and English. Amazing!

And she’s an enviable organizer.  All the microscope slides from her dissertation research are carefully numbered, stored in wooden boxes, and keyed to descriptions in her dissertation.  Yikes!  Dave and I marveled; what if a plucky young student from another contient comes to look at MY thin sections in 20 years?  I should probably at least formalize my terribly haphazard system of nicknames for sponge-bearing rock units…

Then the best part – her new petrographic microscope with a color camera and computer attached.  Heavenly!  I’ve gotten spoiled using sedimentologist Frank Corsetti’s scope at USC, and didn’t guess I’d have access to a scope camera here.

So with a few hours to go, the hunt began.  Microscope slides of rocks are fascinating; you can see every crystal of every grain of sand, the details in bubbles of muck that formed around sea shell fragments, even little burrows from microbes that bored into shells. The detail, however, is daunting. Overwhelming.  In fact, the crystals are often new features that obliterated fossil fragments.  I can play with the light and focus to find the ghosts of shells that disolved 200 million years ago.  Spooky, no?

At first I felt like a kid in a candy store with so many slides – hundreds! to look at.  Soon, though, it felt overwhelming.  After all, Dr. Rosas worked on these for years herself.  Is there anything special, some little clue, hidden among some of the slides that will help us decide where to look for fossils on Friday?

All day long people ask us, “Oh, when are you going to Cuzco?”, that being the hub for Machu Pichu travel. No one can really understand why we’re staying in Lima.  At least half of the science that seems to happen on these expeditions happens in our heads, happens in hotels, happens while we’re standing in line at customs on the way back to US soil.  When I’m not in the microscope room I’m thinking about the minerals and fossils I saw today.  We’re talking over dinner about what to say in my talk next Wednesday.


Oh!  Yes.  Dr. Rosas invited me to give a talk at the Geological Society meeting on Wednesday.  I jumped at the chance – but it will be a ton of work.  Though I can do the talk in English, the audience will be “economic geologists”, miners.  We speak very, very different languages.  I may as well try to give the talk in French!


Estamos en Lima!

Filed under: Life in Lima — admin @ 1:04 am


Yes, we made it to Lima and it’s beautiful!  A great flight, no troubles.  In a little later than expected.  I’ll be up around 10:30 local time tomorrow, and ready to go to the university.

We took a taxi through town from the airport.  Much of it feels like home, like Los Angeles.  But the poverty is more pronounced, the building codes and practices more haphazard in the poor areas.  For various reasons we’re staying at a fine hotel in the very clean touristy area of Miraflores.  It’s beautiful.

I was able to converse with the cab driver well enough particularly because we drove along the coast.  We talked about when people go to the beach, comparisons to LA.  He was very familiar with Santa Monica and Malibu beaches from television.  When reviewing spanish recently, mostly I could remeber sentences about going to the beach.  I thought they would be totally useless in our academic setting, but at least I could use them tonight.

It really reminds me of an Eddie Izzard bit about how we know stock phrases of other languages that become impractical in daily situations.  If anybody can post a link in the comments I’ll love you forever!

Well buenas noches!  Pictures and posts I wrote on the plane tomorrow.  Now for a good night’s sleep!!