Author Archive - Ava

About Ava:

A climate change study that doesn’t end in tears

Friday, January 18th, 2013

Corals from the Ofu Lagoon, American Samoa

As an Earth Systems major, I can say it’s sometimes difficult to stay positive about my choice of field because there are so many urgent and intricate problems woven into the daily fabric of life–and in order to learn how to solve them, you have to appreciate how intricate and difficult to undo they really are.  So it’s nice when conservation research pays off, especially for animals in as dire straits as corals are.

Awesome Stanford professor Stephen Palumbi–who among other accomplishments has used molecular genetics to track the incidence of marine mammal meat in canned tuna and formed a band called ‘Flagella’–has found a key difference in the genomics of heat-resistant corals from the waters of American Samoa that might be used in genetic therapy for corals worldwide, potentially saving coral reefs from the worst effects of global warming.  When water temperatures rise above a certain extent, corals get stressed and their photosynthetic partners, zooxanthellae, are expelled from the tissue of the coral, leaving it hard-pressed to manufacture enough carbohydrates without the ability to make sugars from sunlight.    Palumbi and other researchers discovered in their warm-water corals that 60 heat stress genes were activated whether or not the corals were subjected to excessive heat.  If this pattern could be transferred to cooler-water corals, it could potentially avert cases of coral bleaching from extreme heat.

This treatment, if applied, doesn’t solve all the problems coral reefs are facing in the future, of course.  Corals will still have to contend with the rising acidity in the world’s oceans due to the excessive deposition of carbon dioxide from our increasingly CO2-filled atmosphere–an acidity change that makes it harder for corals to build skeletons, because waters become less saturated with calcium carbonate.  Runaway algae growth is also a possibility and a threat, and more frequent and violent tropical storms are predicted in future years, which could be a huge challenge for coral communities to withstand.  However, finding ways to combat heat stress is a necessary first step (we are committed to further global warming, we might be able to stave off the worst ocean acidification), and Palumbi and his team have unlocked a very important discovery.

Oak Creek: An Unexpected Journey

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

I guess it’s what you get for spending last quarter swimming in the Great Barrier Reef and pondering the infinite cuteness of the koala.  Like many of us who studied abroad, took a quarter off, or were otherwise not around for the fall, I’ve ended up in the infamous Oak Creek Apartments, renowned across campus for their forbidding distance.

Distance only slightly exaggerated.

But how is it really?  The apartments themselves are quite a bit more palatial than your average dorm, not quite competition for Toyon and Roble on the antique charm scale, but extremely livable.  There’s also a pool, sauna, private health club (currently being remodeled, but still), views of other people’s even prettier pools, and kitchens with capacious microwaves.  Additionally, I haven’t checked the statistics, but I think that you are about 7,000% less likely to die of impact with a rogue golf cart on the Oak Creek premises than almost anywhere else frequented by Stanford students.

But more than these materials benefits, Oak Creek seems like it fosters a particular way of life.  For one thing, going back to Oak Creek in between classes is impracticable for classes fewer than about 2 hours apart, so a typical day feels more like commuting to school.  But in one week so far, I’ve found that this constraint actually forces me to make better use of my time–instead of chasing the elusive power nap or re-watching Game of Thrones episodes, I end up reading, doing some light homework, or taking the opportunity to visit friends.  The walk/bike/drive to campus forces the residents of Oak Creek to be more punctual, since it’s hard to kid yourself about how fast you can get to classes when you have to navigate a meadow to arrive.  And if you feel like you need to develop some useful life skills, Oak Creek could be a great platform for improving your cooking, dishwashing, and interior design.

In short, although it involves a trek and a half, Oak Creek is not the horrible spector of bad housing it is often claimed to be.  Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to live on the edge.


4 Ways to Work Out, Besides the Obvious Ones

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Is this it?

Exercising at Stanford seems like it shouldn’t be that hard, and sometimes it’s almost involuntary, when your class schedule demands that you cross America’s largest campus…in ten minutes…multiple times a day. We get free membership to a really nice gym (I suppose it depends on where you’re from, but Arillaga Center for Sports and Recreation is leagues ahead of anything I saw back home), a beautiful campus to walk and bike across, and a thriving athletic program.  But for those contending with winter-quarter apathy, here are 5 novel though primarily facetious suggestions for how to get some exercise that might be more fun than a pair of dumbbells and Precor #2.  Note that this has not been evaluated by the FDA or anyone besides spellcheck.  I am not a doctor or a pre-med.

1. Walk, Don’t Bike

I have to confess this one has ulterior motives–I don’t have a bike appreciate lack of bike traffic.  Stop using a bike for a week and make it a point to walk a lot.  You don’t have to be aimless; pick places to go that will obligate you to walk.  Take the opportunity to walk to a professor’s office hours when you usually chill between classes.  Have lunch or dinner with friends at a different dining hall.  Take some homework and a snack and walk to the Dish/Lake Lag/your favorite library/the Oval.  Expand your definition of walking distance.  I don’t have a bike and I’ve found I actually end up willingly taking the opportunity to walk to farther places more than I did when I had a bike.

2. The SLE workout.

Bringing new meaning to the phrase “heavy course load,” the SLE workout maximizes the cardiac potential of the philosophical canon.  On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, use SLE books as weights (you can move up from one book, to one week’s worth of books, to a quarter’s worth).  On Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays, take a hike across campus to secure meals when FloMo Dining is closed.  On Sunday, take a break and enjoy the Indian food.  You deserve it. (more…)

Living down “Jaws”: Shark Week and beyond

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

You may have heard that this week is Stanford Shark Week, especially if you’ve been frequenting Y2E2 or Herrin Hall.  If anyone had told me, as a high school senior applying to college, that Stanford had a week of events dedicated just to sharks, I might have taken my chances and skipped applying to those 11 other universities.  This week celebrates the passing of the CA Shark Fin Ban AB 376, which came into effect this January 1st.  California was the last of the West Coast states to ban the sale and possession of shark fins, hopefully closing the U.S. ports to the trade.  The author of the bill, Paul Fong, will be speaking at Stanford on Thursday at 6pm, and there will be additional lectures from superstar biologist Barbara Block on Wednesday, as well as film screenings on Tuesday and Friday.

Really, it’s about time sharks got some positive publicity.  They are more than simply giant toothy fish–in fact, they are an entirely different branch on the evolutionary tree, closely related to rays, skates, and the inexplicably adorable ratfish (tell me you don’t love that face!), but evolutionarily speaking are about as closely related to the bony, scaly fishes we all know as us humans are to our close cousins the lizards.  Sharks have not only some of the most impressive but also the most ancient jaws in the animal kingdom–they are the oldest creatures with jaws alive today, and there are over 300 species found in both freshwater and saltwater.  There is even a shark that lives off the coast of Greenland (creatively titled the Greenland Shark) that has on at least one occasion eaten a reindeer.  In addition to their famous eating abilities, some sharks can leap out of the water like whales, sense a millionth of a volt of electricity in water, and give birth to live baby sharks, which are called pups.

Why is it s difficult for us to appreciate sharks in the way that we admire other top predators like polar bears and wolves and birds of prey?  Do we have affection for only predators with feathers or fur?  I’m sure most reasonable people would agree that harvesting shark fins for soup is cruel.  But sharks are hardly cause for concern for most of us. They should be.  They should be a priority not just because they are endangered and useful for balancing the ecosystem but because they are unique and beautiful in and of themselves.  We don’t want the sharks to disappear before we can get the Jaws theme out of our heads.



Salzburg…more like Waltzburg.

Monday, January 30th, 2012

design by Kat (Meng) Jia, image from


The Viennese Ball is the last vestige of Stanford’s bygone BOSP in Austria.  Students in Vienna (ok, not Salzburg) apparently created the ball after they returned home.  I imagine the class of ’78 students going to an on-campus party their first weekend back and feeling nostalgic for the classiness they left across the pond.  Their dreams of class and capering were limited only by the fact that the first Viennese Ball was held in Toyon, and lacked the glamour of a capacious off-campus location.  Now it is held in the swanky Hyatt Regency in Burlingame near the San Francisco airport.  It’s a pretty place–the kind of hotel where all the guest rooms have iHomes.  The hotel features, among other things, a 24-hour fitness center, a sunday champagne brunch, and a “historical sports bar” called Knuckles.  There are separate rooms for waltz and swing, performances by a host of really talented Stanford dance groups, competitions for brave waltzers and swingers, and food in the lobby.

Besides the splendor of the location and the undeniable coolness of getting off campus on a Friday, you get to watch people who really, really know how to dance (the Opening Committee) just before you step out and try your feet at the waltz.  If you don’t know how to waltz, you have several options.

1. Learn to waltz before the ball.

If you’re taking Social Dance 1, the illustrious Richard Powers has probably been teaching you the waltz for a few weeks, but for others the Viennese Ball holds Austria Fortnight, a series of dance events for two weeks designed to teach beginners how to do the kinds of dances that will likely be featured at the Ball, as well as give more experienced dancers a chance to practice and get really excited about February 10.

2. Fake it.

Pretending that you know how to dance is a time-honored tradition itself. This approach works much better when your dance partner is aware of your deception.  This also tends to work better with swing than waltz, because the nature of the waltz requires you to pretend you know what you’re doing in the same direction that everyone else is actually doing it.  However, swing is fairly easy to improvise, and it’s possible to look snazzy and not have a clue what you’re doing as long as it goes with the beat and style of the song that’s playing.

3. Watch the performances.

If you really don’t want to dance after trying and failing to synchronize yourself, you can hop from room to room and watch the performances and competitions.  You don’t come to a ball to stand around, but there are far more irksome ways to pass an evening than by standing around in formal clothes watching incredible dancing.

So for those who enjoy their pomp with a dash of circumstance, or anyone who loves to dance, get tickets!  It’s happening on February 10.

Was that an earthquake?

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

<You are the red part.

Yes, Stanford, it was.  Actually, the epicenter was located about 1 mile east of  our dear rival, UC Berkeley.  The final reported magnitude was 3.9–not dangerous but perceptible enough to awaken hibernating Golden Bears.  Anyone at Stanford feel the quake?  Personally, I didn’t feel it (or I mistook it for somebody’s stereo), but I’ve heard from a few other students who said they noticed some rocking.  Notably, today was supposed to be a massive earthquake drill in California–the “Shakeout.”  I suppose if you live in an active fault zone area long enough it is inevitable that some of your drills will be interrupted by actual earthquakes.

3.9 may be just a twinge for old Richter, but for those of us like me who were born and raised smack dab in the middle of the North American Plate, it seems fairly momentous–a similar earthquake (smaller magnitude) around my town a few years ago was quickly dubbed the “Great Illinois Earthquake” on Facebook and stories of suspicious jiggles and jolts were eagerly swapped online.  My mother, as any self-respecting Midwestern mother would, e-mailed me after the quake–she speculated that the quake was a seismic metaphor for Berkeley’s obviously imminent defeat in the Big Game.

On a tangential note, best website font of the day:

Police Department


You have the right to remain chill.

Stanford Shopping Center Scavenger Hunt

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011
Oh the Stanford Shopping Center.  Purveyor of the pricey, merchant to the moneyed, seller to the spenders.  It’s certainly not the most student-friendly mall there is.  Nonetheless, I’ve developed quite an affection for the outdoor behemoth, based on its excellence as a primer on the lifestyles of the rich and canine.  Honestly, there are more dogs in Gucci in those metallic pavilions than you could get if you put the Westminster Dog Show and Milan Fashion Week into the Hadron Collider.So what would a lazy Sunday be without the Stanford Shopping Center Scavenger Hunt?  To win the scavenger hunt, you must find all of the following4 dogs in designer clothes

A little kid carrying a Starbucks

Purple chocolate

Green chocolate

An off-duty model

A dress that is more than 1,000 dollars

More than 15 people in line at La Baguette

Someone carrying more than two Apple products (Apple employees don’t count)

Two boyfriends standing around awkwardly in Victoria’s Secret

A freshman wearing a lanyard looking for a Frosh Formal dress

The perfect Frosh Formal dress

Those shoes that have super-defined toes

At least two wealthy tourists speaking another language (bonus points if it’s Dutch)

Columbus Day at Stanford

Monday, October 10th, 2011

I had actually forgotten it was Columbus day until I went to the Stanford Shopping Center yesterday and saw that GAP was selling a whole bunch of expensive clothes for slightly less than the usual.  But I thought a lot about our continued celebration of Columbus Day when I saw the chalk messages that the Stanford Native community had written across White Plaza.  These messages ranged from the classic and simple (“Native Pride”) to the provoking (“Columbus Day: Celebrating Genocide Since 1492”), to the  factual (“When Columbus Landed in 1492 He Found Land; It Was Native Land”).  (FYI, I’ve added punctuation to give a sense of how these looked spelled out.)  I liked the display immensely, and I will remember it for a long time, even after the afternoon rain has smeared all the chalk (although I swear there is still a TWAIN!  from 2010 hanging around).  It was simple, truthful, and forced me to think about celebrating Columbus even as many of us dislike the historical figure and his extreme and systematic cruelty to the Native peoples he encountered.

Everyone has heard of the controversy around Columbus Day, but I think many people accept that it has become a tradition, a national holiday, a day to buy cheaper jeans.  While many people who paid attention in history class will remember Christopher Columbus as the enslaver of thousands,  America has chosen to remember him as a pioneer, a hero, a sort of 15th century entrepreneur.  Whether or not Columbus’ discovery of America was the sort of heroic act it’s often depicted as is debatable, that thousands of peaceful people were enslaved and brutalized under his command is not.

The chalk writing in White Plaza did not suggest a definitive course of action, a way to right this wrong.  We cannot drag Columbus before the International Criminal Court.  We cannot force King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to pay reparations to the descendants of those whose lives were ruined because of European invasion. We cannot restore the lives of those victims of genocide.  True, there are people today who are responsible for crimes against humanity who are still leading countries, unbothered or at least not seriously threatened.  But the Native community got it right–there is value in remembering the specific case of Christopher Columbus.   We cannot fix this part of the past, but we should remember that a distance of 500 years cannot turn cruelty into heroism.  We should not choose to ignore the unpleasant parts of our nation’s founding; false memories of the past obscure the issues of the present.  Thank you to the Stanford Native community for reminding us all of  this.

How to Succeed in Foreign Language Without Really Trying

Friday, October 7th, 2011

Of course you should try to succeed in foreign language, but if you’re really missing your teachers from high school, learning Xhosa for the first time ever, or figuring out how many verbs Spanish really does have, you may be discouraged by your classes occasionally.  But there are lots of ways to study for foreign language classes without just endlessly reviewing conjugations (although you’ll have to do that sometimes too.)


And make it something that you know very well in English.  The ideal situation is to find a book you read in English that was originally written in the language you’re trying to learn for maximum authenticity, but anything will work.  I read Harry Potter in French and that is where a good 40% of my French vocabulary comes from.  Plus, the mental exercise of reading something you know in a different language is quite cool–it’s like reading two books at once, one of which is printed in some normally inaccessible parallel dimension.  How many times has verb conjugation given you a psychedelic experience?


If you’re trying to keep up with the news and don’t feel like you have enough time to keep track of current events and your homework, mix the two together.  Try to find a free online newspaper in your language of choice (Arabic has Al-Jazeera, French has Le Monde, etc.)  Find a particular column or read the headlines about whatever you’re interested in.  It’s an excellent way to pick up more specialized but useful vocabulary, especially if you’re going abroad and want to take classes in a foreign language.  I like reading the science and environmental news for the vocabulary, and the movies reviews for their challenging style, which is less factual and straightforward and far more literary.


it’s especially useful to listen to one with subtitles in the same language so you can see which words are actually being said–avoid foreign mondegreens!  Play it all the time, get it stuck in your head, try to parse out the lyrics, sing it in the shower.  Repeat.


Family, friends, professors, campus staff, the nice waiter at your favorite restaurant, your great-aunt from Germany, international students, your teachers from high school,whoever.  Even if it’s just a short exchange.  Most people who know another language will be forgiving of mistakes and speak slower to help you understand.  It’s useful not just to practice your own speaking skills, but also to listen to a real accent and the ineffable authenticating speech patterns you can’t pick up from a textbook.

And last but not least…


Ever seen Fabrique en Chine?  Hecho en India?  Reading the product information on packaging may not be the most exciting use of your language skills, but it can be an enlightening one.  In Canada, this very activity has given rise to what a friend of mine called “cereal box French”–everyone knows how to say things like “calories,” “carbohydrates,” “organic,” and “new look, same great taste” because of bilingual packaging!