How I got into science

By Donn Viviani

Donn Viviani“Aw Mr. V., you ain’t a scientist.”  I was used to a lot of personal criticism from my students.  They had opinions, frequently negative and freely expressed, on the clothes I wore, the food I ate, the car I drove, my breath.  Generally I found this pretty funny- what do preteens know about neckties?  It isn’t as if they fly off the rack at Hot Topic, apparently the apex of fashion for many of my students.  Somehow, though, the fact that my students didn’t see me as a scientist bothered me far more than their opinion that riding the city bus to my job made me a loser.

“I am a scientist and a teacher,” I told them.

“No, you’re a teacher Mr. V., not a scientist” another student replied.

I pointed out that I had worked as a lab technician in a molecular biology lab and my contributions had been acknowledged in a published paper.  They still didn’t agree, so I gave them all detention (well, I considered it).

A few weeks later I was chaperoning a group of my students through the Getty Center Museum, looking at an exhibit that included sketches and specimens of plants, ferns, and insects prepared by early European explorers.  I should have been thinking about state content standards and how to use the exhibit and field trip to plan exciting hands-on science lessons for my classes. Instead, I was wondering about ecological interactions between these organisms in their environments. Daydreaming about making field observations and conducting experiments to test these ideas.

The truth was that while I enjoyed teaching and liked my students, I was tired of enforcing dress codes I didn’t care about and prepping my students for weeks of standardized tests.  I was sick of riding the bus halfway across the city to the classes I needed to maintain my emergency teaching credential.  I was downright resentful of the instructor whose class often consisted solely of asking us if we had questions or issues from the past week. If he received no interesting answers, he would say ”well, you have to be here for three hours to get credit for today”, and lock the door and read the newspaper.

So I didn’t go back to teaching the next year.  I worked part time and took a few more science classes at my undergraduate institution.  In one of those, I geeked out by looking at bugs on beach wrack and spiders on riverbanks.   The next semester, I found myself an apprenticeship program at Friday Harbor in Washington State, where I went out to sea, and measured the oxygen content in Puget Sound.  Oxygen is one of those things we cannot live without, like water, and love, and coffee. Because it is invisible and freely available in air, I hadn’t thought much about oxygen before that.  Once I started measuring it, however, I was hooked by the way that biology, physics, and chemistry combine to control how much oxygen is in seawater.  I started looking for a graduate program where I could further study dissolved oxygen in the ocean.

Since this is posted on a graduate student blog, I obviously was accepted to graduate school!  I earned my master’s degree looking at how photosynthesis and respiration change in different parts of the Pacific Ocean (by looking at changes in dissolved oxygen), and wrote a paper on my work.  I’m now working on my doctorate.  Since coming to graduate school, I’ve spent nearly a year at sea.  I‘ve seen the Southern Cross and the Perseid meteor shower from the darkened deck of a ship.  I’ve crossed the Great Pacific Plastic Patch, the Equator, and (nearly) through the track of a hurricane.  I’ve learned much about the ocean; more importantly I’ve learned that there is so much we still don’t know.  Most importantly, I think, I’ve truly become a scientist.

Donn Viviani is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Oceanography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.  His current research involves looking at how open ocean primary production (via photosynthesis) is partitioned between particulate and dissolved pools. He has spent 329 days at sea doing scientific research.

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