To Jargon or not to Jargon


Contributed by Elisha Wood-Charlson

Jargon, as defined by Google, consists of “special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.” So, you can imagine why jargon is a natural target for science communication training and workshops. Hey, science jargon even has its own April Fool’s spoof article.

Well, as it turns out, defining jargon and identifying jargon create a bit of inherent irony. A word is only considered ‘jargon’ when it isn’t well understood, so when are science words ‘jargon’ and when are they not? Google’s definition suggests that jargon can be specific to a group, and not necessarily restricted to a technical field. In addition, Google gives the entertaining synonym of “slang”, which begs the question – are scientists actually speaking our own form of “Science Jive”?

One of the most challenging parts of science communication is understanding your audience well enough to choose vocabulary that will communicate your science accurately while still getting your message across. Therefore, we need to start thinking about our “Science Jive” in layers. How far removed is our target audience from our science field?

The Russian Doll of Science Jive
Nesting Dolls (Photo Credit: James Lee)

Nesting Dolls (Photo Credit: James Lee)

As with all science communication efforts, you must first understand your audience(s) before you determine how much jargon you can layer on. The smallest, innermost ring is your peer group (you are the doll in the center). Your peer audience will include members of your lab group, your collaborators, and even your fellow participants in a domain-specific session at a conference. Almost everything in this ring may be considered jargon to a general audience, who resides in the largest, outermost doll layer. And, although some of the jargon translations from the far inner ring to the far outer ring may be the most challenging (discussed later), the dolls in the middle are where things get really interesting. How well do you know your audience two rings removed? For example, I recently attended the 2015 AAAS conference in San Jose, CA. Having never attended an AAAS conference before, I was surprised at the breadth of science topics presented. They ranged from looking at the effect of epigenetics on the brain to 3-D printing of 4-D mathematical models to microbial oceanography, my personal ring of Science Jive. So, how do you know when to jargon and when not to jargon?

The best way to figure out your audience is to understand where they exist in the science communication space. Do they read popular science articles, like those in Scientific American or Discover? If so, getting familiar with those journals (if you aren’t already) will help you determine which jargon level you should speak to. For example, in situations where “addition of viral concentrates resulted in decreased photosynthetic activity” might not work, something like “after adding more viruses, the cultures started dying” might be perfect. From another perspective, if you are writing something for a government office, you might consider getting in touch with whomever is in charge of science-related issues. Depending on their background, they may only be one or two jargon rings away. Or, if their background isn’t in the sciences, they may comfortably reside in the far outer general public ring.

Communicating Science Jive to the Outer Doll

Have you tried explaining your research to a family member? Megumi Chikamoto had a great post (4 Feb 2015) on Real Science at SOEST! blog about jargon, relating to her 7 year old son and making her message more understandable to a broader audience.

Translating jargon takes a bit of trial and error. Pick a prominent jargon word in your specialization and start trying out alternative vocabulary with the lab down the hall, fellow students at a departmental seminar, or with other science departments that meet up for pick-up soccer games after work. In the end, you may still end up with a word(s) that can’t be captured at the level of accuracy you require. Another strategy is to develop an analogy for your research. Can you capture the dispersal model or biogeochemical flux pathway in a metaphor or image? For example, Donn Viviani, a graduate student in C-MORE, is able to transform his research into the simple process of making a cup of tea!

In the end, only you can decide when to jargon and when not to jargon, and it will take practice. However, there should also be a collective effort by every science specialization to establish some translated terms that are acceptable replacements for their domain. In some areas, such as climate change, this is already happening. But we shouldn’t wait for a social movement to motivate us! Scientists are people too, and we should be making an effort to communicate using language that can be understood by our audiences.


Other resources
Scientific Jargon, Thompson Writing Program handout by Jordana Rosenberg 2012
Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public, log post by Andrew David Thaler at Southern Fried Science
Words Matter, AGU blog post by Callan Bentley

Elisha M. Wood-Charlson has a PhD in marine science, and has worked in a variety of research areas including coral symbioses, marine viruses, and viruses in corals. She is currently testing out life as a science communicator and is finding the creative latitude enjoyable. She works for the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) as an educator, designing #scicomm training for graduate students, postdocs, and early career researchers (check out the new Science Communication Portfolio training guide on the SOEST website!). She is also managing the EarthCube Oceanography and Geobiology Environmental ‘Omics (ECOGEO) Research Coordination Network (RCN), which demands structured communication between the scientists asking the difficult ‘omics questions and the bioinformaticians making the tools to help answer them.

Bad Data/Good Data: How a physical study ended up giving insight into animal behavior



Contributed by Katie Smith

In oceanographic research, we plan, hypothesize, and make observations as carefully as we can, but nature can still sometimes find ways to mess with us. After all, research is about investigating scientific mysteries, so we never really know what we’re going to find. That’s not a drawback to research—it’s a feature. Sometimes, the most exciting scientific mysteries are the ones that lead in a direction we never expected, as I learned in a recent study of Māmala Bay.

Typical day for a physical oceanographer

As a physical oceanographer, I study internal waves. These are underwater waves that can be found throughout most of the ocean. Similar to how surface ocean waves travel on the interface between two fluids of different densities (those two fluids being the water and the much less dense air above it), internal waves can move through water that has different densities at different depths. In the ocean, the main properties affecting water density are temperature and salinity, so generally less dense (warmer and/or fresher) water sits on top of denser (colder and/or saltier) water. Any disturbance to this structure, such as a current forcing water up and over an underwater ridge, can create internal waves that move through the water. We don’t see these internal waves with the naked eye, but we can detect them with underwater measurements of water properties such as temperature and velocity.

View of Waikiki and Diamond Head from Mamala Bay. Photo credit: Katie Smith

View of Waikiki and Diamond Head from Mamala Bay. Photo credit: Katie Smith

For six months, I had a sensor deployed in Māmala Bay at 500 m depth to look for internal waves. This sensor, called an ADCP (acoustic Doppler current profiler), measures water velocity using sonar: it sends out a brief pulse of sound through the water column, and the sound bounces back off of tiny particles drifting in the water at different distances from the ADCP. The time it takes for the sound waves to bounce back tells the ADCP how far away each particle is, and the amount of sound that returns to the sensor (the “backscatter”) gives a relative estimate of how many particles are in the water at different depths. The Doppler shift of the sound that returns gives a reading of the velocity of the drifting particles and, thus, the velocity of the water in which they are drifting. In order to get a good velocity reading, though, there need to be a sufficient number of particles in the water for enough of the sound to bounce back and return to the sensor.

Once my ADCP was hauled out of the ocean and back to the lab, I started to look at the data it collected. I used a method that essentially highlights repeating patterns in the data and the frequencies at which the patterns repeat. This type of analysis is useful when looking for signs of internal waves, because waves are themselves a repeating pattern. When I did this analysis, it showed a lot of activity occurring at a frequency of about one cycle per day. My experience with internal waves initially led me to think that this was a strong tidal signal, since many internal waves oscillate at tidal frequencies. Interesting! I might be observing an internal wave with a diurnal tidal frequency breaking at this location! But when I looked closer at the velocity readings, I realized that things were not what they seemed to be.

Animals are messing up my data!
The ADCP is hauled back on board after 6 months of data gathering. Photo credit: Katie Smith

The ADCP is hauled back on board after 6 months of data gathering. Photo credit: Katie Smith

When I looked more closely at my data, I saw that my “interesting” velocity signal was actually a false signal—an artifact of the ADCP receiving poor data. The ADCP had recorded consistently high backscatter near the bottom during daylight hours, but low backscatter at night. This means that during the day, the sensor received a nice, strong signal because there were lots of particles in the water for the sound to bounce off of. But during the night, the water near the bottom became incredibly clear, so the ADCP couldn’t get a good velocity signal. For the most part, the ADCP marked the weak signal as missing data as it is programmed to do. But sometimes, when the signal strength was at the border between too weak and maybe just strong enough, the ADCP recorded an unreliable jumble of numbers. The nighttime jumble was what caused my apparent “interesting” signal that was occurring at a cycle of once per day.

I now knew that my hypothesis of an internal wave breaking at a diurnal tidal frequency was based on false velocity readings, but this raised a new question: Why would my velocity readings be strong during daylight hours but weak during the night? The pattern repeated itself every day. To answer this question, I had to step outside of my usual research area of physical oceanography and into the field of biological oceanography. What’s happening is that there are organisms that migrate on a daily schedule in a behavior we call “diel migration.” Tiny zooplankton, fish, squid, and shrimp feed on plankton near the surface of the water, but they are vulnerable to being eaten by larger predators when they can be seen in the light of the sun. So during the day, they hide in dark waters too deep for the light to reach. At night, they swim upwards or “migrate” into shallower water to feed under the cover of darkness, when there is a lower risk of being spotted by predators.

My ADCP was located at a deep site where these animals were hiding during the day. This is why I had a high backscatter signal during daylight hours. At night, though, the animals would all move to shallower depths to feed, leaving such a low backscatter signal that the sensor couldn’t get good velocity data near the bottom. My backscatter signal was a record of diel migration!

A new direction

It turns out that the diel migration of these small animals in Oahu’s coastal waters is an area of active research. Previous studies have observed diel migration of these organisms, but they have mostly focused on shallower waters. I am now working with biological oceanographer Christina Comfort on a manuscript to report our observations of this migrating community of organisms. These observations could be important for the planned SWAC (Seawater Air Conditioning) system being built in Mamala Bay, as the intake pipe for the cold water feeding that cooling system is near 500 m depth and could affect or be affected by the presence of a large migrating community.

This study exemplifies why oceanographic research is an exciting, versatile line of work. Things don’t always go as planned, and data won’t always reveal what you expect, but that can be a good thing! You might find that your research takes you in a completely different direction that is still interesting in its own right. Oceanography is by nature an interdisciplinary field. The physics, chemistry, and biology of the ocean all exist everywhere simultaneously. Being able to start a project looking for a purely physical signal in the ocean and ending up with a manuscript about the behavior of small nearshore animals—this is one of the reasons I love doing oceanographic research.

Katie Smith is a PhD candidate in the Department of Oceanography at UH Mānoa. Her research focuses on the behavior and effects of internal waves in nearshore systems, and she is also interested in the interactions between the physics and the biology of the ocean.

What drives me to be a scientist?: Impacting society through science

“Originally, I was driven by the type of job that I didn’t want to have, but am now driven by the potential impact that I can have while solving marine environmental problems.”

Read on to find out more about what led Stu to his career!

goldberg pic


Contributed by Stuart Goldberg

If you put a label on me, I am a microbial oceanographer. I study the function of microscopic bacteria and phytoplankton in marine food webs. I do so because these organisms support healthy ecosystems and fisheries by transferring energy and nutrients to organisms at higher levels of the food chain. But how did I get to studying microbes in the ocean? Well, thinking back, what drives me to be a scientist has changed over the years. Originally, I was driven by the type of job that I didn’t want to have, but am now driven by the potential impact that I can have while solving marine environmental problems.

One of the first jobs I had was working for Pepsi Cola of the Hudson Valley, NY during summers and holiday breaks in high school and college. My co-workers were great – their good-natured humor help to make the days more enjoyable – but it was back-breaking work. Every day, I went to supermarket after supermarket, stocking shelves with soda and building gigantic soda displays, like the pyramids you regularly see. It was also tough to earn respect from store managers that I interacted with because I was so young. This wasn’t where I wanted to be, or end up.

Once I started college at the University of Maine, I pursued a degree that would help me find a job working outside, preferably on environmental issues. I started freshman year as a forestry major with the hopes of working on conserving New England’s forests for future generations. I quickly discovered that the majority of UMaine forestry graduates went on to work in the paper industry. What really turned me off to this career path was that the paper industry contributes significantly to air and water pollution. Every day, paper mills emit tons of gases into the air, causing acid rain and global warming. They also have discharged pollutants into freshwater ecosystems that can bioaccumulate in fish, contributing to some of the state-issued consumption warnings due to possible health side effects. Although there were other forest conservation career opportunities working for state and federal agencies, I felt the urge to change majors to marine science to live a life near the ocean studying how its processes support our lives.

Being by the sea had always provided a sense of comfort and ease while growing up, so the idea of a career on the water or understanding more about marine ecosystems was enticing. Fortunately, UMaine had just initiated an undergraduate major in marine science. After learning about ocean food web dynamics and nutrient upwelling in my first oceanography class, I knew that this topic area was the right fit because I was very interested in how nutrients are recycled to support productive ecosystems and fisheries. From there, it was up to me to discover a career path in this field. I embarked on undergraduate research experiences in Maine and Bermuda, and eventually began graduate school at UC Santa Barbara where I earned my PhD studying the marine carbon cycle. Soon thereafter, I moved on to post-graduate school research studying a variety of topics including aquatic nutrient cycling and ocean acidification. At this point in my career, I was motivated by the desire to eventually become a professor. As time went by, however, my career interests began to change. I wasn’t enjoying the long hours writing grants and papers, or staying up late at night working in the lab, and a change was needed.

A few years after earning my PhD, my spouse accepted a marine policy fellowship in Washington D.C. I was looking forward to a fresh start in a new place, but I would have to eventually find a job. Although being unemployed for a few months was stressful, it was during this time that I found new motivation for being a scientist at an unexpected event. Every year, the nation’s shellfish farmers come to D.C. to talk to their congressional representatives about their relevant concerns, some of which are focused on things that can improve the productivity of their farms and shellfish sales. For example, the proper training and equipment to monitor changes in salinity, temperature, and ocean acidity can help prevent juvenile oysters from dying, thus enhancing harvests and profitability. On the last evening of their visit, I was invited to an elegant party that was hosted by U.S. shellfish growers associations from around the country. While mingling, I began a conversation with a shellfish farmer from Northern California. Upon hearing about my background in oceanography and ocean acidification, he asked if I could help him predict upwelling events that would bring acidic waters over his oysters. Acidic seawater is harmful to juvenile oysters because it kills them by dissolving their shells. In this instance, I realized that my scientific skills and expertise could be used to help solve real-world problems while informing decisions about marine natural resources.

My newfound drive to work on applied scientific problems to assist everyday people helped me to land a policy fellowship at a non-profit in D.C. My first task was to build trust and collaborations with shellfish farmers, and then talk to federal agency leaders and congressional representatives about ways to help these farmers adapt to the negative impacts of ocean acidification on their shellfish harvests. As a policy fellow, I began to network with other ocean non-profits to advocate to congress and federal agencies on behalf of U.S. shellfish farmers for more resources to purchase and implement ocean acidification monitoring instrumentation at oyster hatcheries. As part of this outreach effort, I organized, facilitated and led a stakeholder meeting between ~20 shellfish farmers from all over the U.S. and representatives from the USDA to provide a forum for farmers to clearly state their concerns about ocean acidification’s impacts on their industry, including discussion about what that the agency could do to assist them in adapting to these changes in ocean chemistry. One of the shellfish farmers and I also met with his congressional district representative from Oregon and her staff to further discuss these issues. The experience as a fellow helped me learn how to better translate my scientific knowledge to a variety of audiences and has helped me become a more confident scientist and person.

Whereas I was initially driven by the type of career that I didn’t want, I now realized that there are endless opportunities for scientists to make an impact on society by learning to use our expertise to help solve real-world environmental problems. In the future, I see my career moving along this trajectory.

Stuart Goldberg is a postdoctoral scholar in the Nelson lab at the Department of Oceanography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His research examines the role that microbes play in recycling nutrients in marine and aquatic environments. Recently, he has become more interested in the cycling of nutrients in coral reef and coastal environments. 

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Why did I become an ecologist?

gold-medal-conCongratulations to Carolyn Faithfull for being the winner of our 1st SOESTblog Writing Contest “What drives you?”! Thank you to all of the readers and supporters of SOESTblog and congrats to everyone who entered our contest!



C FaithfullContributed by Carolyn Faithfull

I grew up next to a lake. You could always feel its presence, even though you couldn’t see it from our house. It made our farm the wettest in the district, miring us down in cattle-churned mud in the winter. Flocks of swans would fly towards it, flapping, honking and pooping. And in summer you could smell it, an occasional waft of rotten lettuce on the hay-filled breeze.

As you may have guessed, rotten lettuce is not the aroma of a healthy lake. Nope, this lake was big and shallow and totally unable to deal with the excess fertiliser being drip-fed from the surrounding farms. A regular pattern started occurring. It began with the stealthy overtaking of the entire lake by oxygen weed. Previously the weed had been safely far below us in our little boat. But by the end of the summer, rowing our little boat was like trying to row through a wet meadow. The lake was so clogged that on windy days it still looked calm, the water barely able to move between the thick weedy fronds. The swans loved it. Hundreds and then thousands came, honking and flapping and pooping.

Then the weed died. Choked by its own abundance, massive rolls of weed washed up, burying the swan nests and forming a stinking border around the lake edge. Free from the weed, the shallow sediments coloured the lake brown. Not for long though. The next summer the lake became a sickly green soup. We were not allowed to swim. Not that you would want to. The algal bloom became so dense that bacteria consuming the dead algal cells used up the oxygen in the water. Dead fish and mussels floated to the shore. The swans left. But, oxygen weed is a very hardy plant. It is an invasive species, and the small remaining fragments were slowly covering the bottom under the algal soup. Gradually, sediments were stabilized, the water became clearer and nutrients were absorbed by the rapidly growing weed.

My 14-year-old self wondered what was wrong: as the density of swans built up again, so did the oxygen weed – so was it the swans’ fault? Did all that pooping make the oxygen weed crash and the algae grow? My science fair project that year was particularly involved: I examined the effects of swan poop on algae in two types of jars, with and without oxygen weed.

Although somewhat misguided, the science fair project reflected something about me: I wanted to know. I knew the cycles happening to the lake were not how a healthy lake behaved and I wanted to know why.

Now I know that the flipping between weed and turbid algal-dominated states I observed in the lake is common in New Zealand. “Flipping” has been observed in 37 lakes and is associated with both the presence of oxygen weed and high farming pressure in the catchment area.

With my science fair project, I had wanted to know what was causing the flipping, but I also wanted to fix the lake. I remembered Grandpa’s stories about catching 70-pound eels and jet boat races; I wanted the lake to be like it once was, safe enough to drink, clean enough to swim in. Perhaps subconsciously I also knew it was partly my family’s fault, and I felt responsible for the mess we had helped create.

A calm early morning beside the lake. This picture was taken in 2003 before native plants were planted along the edge.

A calm early morning beside the lake. This picture was taken in 2003 before native plants were planted along the edge.

Last year, my family, several other landowners and a horde of volunteers, planted native plants around the edge of the lake. Wetland restoration is underway and farmers have been given advice on how to manage fertiliser application to reduce nutrient runoff. The future of the lake is starting to look a little bit clearer. Who knows, perhaps one day I will swim to the other side. I will have to watch out for those 70-pound eels though.

So I confess, I didn’t become an aquatic ecologist because I wanted to swim with dolphins, explore the arctic tundra or investigate the deepest trenches of the oceans (although those are all nice perks). My desire to know the how, what and why of things that lie beneath the water’s surface was inspired by a smelly, unstable, fascinating lake.


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Carolyn Faithfull is a postdoctoral scholar in the Goetze lab at the Department of Oceanography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her research involves examining how tiny aquatic critters respond to different types of stress in their environment, such as excess nutrients, less light, or higher temperatures. Recently she has been very interested in what these tiny aquatic critters have for breakfast. Are they eating the equivalent of cornflakes every day, or a fruit bowl? The answer might just lie in a future blog post.



Inspiring future discoveries and changing the world

Here is our second entry of our 1st SOESTblog Writing Contest “What drives you?”! Each week, contestants will share what drives them to do their research day in and day out. Each article will be posted for 1 week and winners will be determined by the most # of reads on the site! Help Michelle this week by sharing her article!


Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 9.28.17 AMContributed by Michelle Jungbluth


What is it that scientists really do? And what drives them to do it?

The life of a scientist is not as straightforward as you might think. To the left is a list of 18 things I am expected to do as a graduate student scientist— in addition to the necessary daily human activities such as grocery shopping, maintaining personal relationships, and keeping my apartment clean.

Given that outrageous list, I sometimes feel that there aren’t enough hours in the day  So what keeps me going?

By being endlessly curious!

I love being out on the waves, feeling the sets roll in, seeing the blue-green of the water. What makes it even better is to know what caused those waves and what shapes them, how the smell and color of the sea is related to recent rainfall in the area, that the little moving specks in the water are actually living, breathing plankton that fuel healthy ocean ecosystems.

I would not be happy working in the office all day, every day, crunching numbers or making phone calls. I would not be fulfilled as a veterinarian, neutering animals half of the week and seeing sick animals the other half of the week. I would not be satisfied working with laboratory animals, born to a life in a cage living far from their natural habitats. I know these things because I have experience with them and decided that I wanted more. It is only through experience that you can truly decide if a career path is right for you, and I am thankful, and have deep respect for everyone who has been a part of these prior experiences.

The moment I decided to move to Hawaii with my scientist husband, Sean Jungbluth was life-changing. That is when I discovered my love for oceanography (and copepods!). Some of what drives me is the diversity in that long list of responsibilities I just gave. The inherent challenges in that list keep me feeling fulfilled, most of the time.

The less tangible outcomes of my work are also what drive me to keep at it. As a scientist, the work I do now and in the future could impact the world in so many ways:

  • Inspire future generations to be scientists; despite that long list of challenging work, my science includes a lot of fun; sometimes I get to cross the equator on a British Antarctic icebreaker, and chase storms for my research
  • Be the basis for future discoveries!
  • I could, if I’m very lucky and work hard enough, make a discovery that illuminates or changes our relationship to the world around us!

When I feel discouraged, or when an experiment does not go as planned, these are the things that inspire me to push onward.

Me at the 2013 SOEST Open House, where I helped create an exhibit teaching schoolchildren and families about zooplankton, hoping to inspire future generations!

Me at the 2013 SOEST Open House, where I helped create an exhibit teaching schoolchildren and families about zooplankton, hoping to inspire future generations!

I am thankful for the hundreds of people who have been my teachers or mentors throughout my life so far. From my parents and grandparents, to all my teachers in the 20+ years of K-12, college, and graduate education, my employers over the years, and the past and present scientists who inspire me. It is due to your inspiration that I am driven to be who I am, and do what I do every day.


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Michelle Jungbluth is a PhD candidate in the Department of Oceanography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She uses traditional and novel molecular techniques to study plankton food web interactions and the importance of highly abundant larval copepods in marine ecosystems. She is also a co-founder of the Science Communicators ‘Ohana and a Teaching Assistant for Introductory Oceanography OCN 201 at UH Manoa.


What drives me: Giving more, taking less

Here is the first entry of our 1st SOESTblog Writing Contest “What drives you?”! Each week, contestants will share what drives them to do their research day in and day out. Each article will be posted for 1 week and winners will be determined by the most # of reads on the site! Help Chantel this week by sharing her article!


FaceCrop_CChangContributed by Chantel Chang

I remind myself daily about why I subject myself to the challenges of graduate school (e.g., lack of sleep, free time, and money, feelings of incompetence, etc.) in order to answer questions from myself and others like, “Why am I back in school at the age of 30 while most of my peers own homes, are starting families, and get free weekends?”

The initial driver was that I knew what I did not want. I could not stand to stay in my previous career as an occupational therapist because it was missing something for me on a personal level. I believe everyone has a natural strength – a gift, and I recognized from grade school that mine was in mathematics and analysis. Today I realize how important it is for me to use mathematics, and to keep learning and growing. I chose to study oceanography because of the complexity and dynamic nature of the ocean. With an interest in biophysical modeling, I create computer models to assist with answering questions like, “What are the major physical, biological, and behavioral drivers that impact genetic or larval connectivity in the ocean?” Or “How might computer models be used to assess and improve placement of marine protected area boundaries?” I could study oceanography for a lifetime and still have more questions.

However, my primary driver goes beyond mathematics and my interests. My primary driver is that I strive to give back to Hawai‘i. As a fifth generation child of Hawai‘i, my favorite memories were of surfing and bodyboarding with my family in the crystal-clear blue ocean, while taking lunch breaks to feast on spam musubi and Hawaiian Sun juice. I’ve fished for ‘ahi and mahimahi, snorkeled and dove the Hawaiian coral reefs, and hiked the tall mountains of O‘ahu. Hawai‘i has provided a tremendously beautiful home and I hope to give back to the islands more than what has been given to me. I hope that many future generations will be able to enjoy Hawai‘i as I have. I’m not quite sure of what my specific contribution will be, but I believe that a deeper understanding of the ocean and environment is a good starting point.

During those moments of exhaustion, which are common in graduate school, I remind myself of how lucky I am to be allowed to live here in Hawai‘i of all the places in the world (less than 1%, about 2 in 10,000 people in the current world population, live in Hawai‘i) and to be in a situation where I am able to return to school for a career change. I focus on what I am grateful for, the give-take relationship between the land and humans, and I realize that the stresses of graduate school are temporary and trivial compared to those that Hawai‘i is under. Imagine the burden of Hawai‘i – the rise of industrialization, an increasing population and pollution have put tremendous stress on the islands, corals and marine life over the years. It’s common to hear stories of the ‘old days’ from my father’s generation when fish were plentiful and marine life was thriving. But now, “there’s not as many fish” in those same places where they used to be abundant. Even in my lifetime, I can remember what it was like to see open land instead of condominium upon condominium.

With everything back in perspective, I continue on with a renewed spirit and the mantra “give more, take less.” What can I do for Hawai‘i?

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Bedtime Science Stories

Contributed by Megumi Chikamoto

Every night, while sitting beside my 7-year-old son’s bedside, I ask him one question.

“What did you do today?”
“Work,” he replies, briefly. Sometimes he says, “math,” or “recess.” Some days, he turns to ask me the same question.
“Mommy, what did you do today?”

To answer his question, I try to explain one of my current research projects in detail. When I talk about the basic theory or hypothesis of my scientific topics, my son is really interested. Specifically, I have succeeded in catching his attention by talking about the drastic changes in marine plankton species that occurred around 15,000 years ago. After listening to my explanation, he comes up with his own hypothesis, which he tells me excitedly. This conversation with my son is much like brainstorming with my colleagues, and I am impressed that my son understands the big concepts of my research. But one night, I decided to take it one step further by explaining the modeling concept of my research. He fell asleep before I finished my story.

I often face this problem when I talk about modeling simulation to the general public, like my friends or relatives, not just my son. People, especially those living in Hawaii, surrounded by the ocean, tend to have a stereotypical image of oceanographers, thinking that we go out to sea for our research. I am an oceanographer; yet, I do not go out to sea. Instead, I sit down in front of a computer, peer at a screen, and write programming codes for over 6 hours everyday, 5 days a week. When I explain this to my friends and relatives, this unexpected research style seems to intrigue them, and they ask me to tell them more about my research. My research approach is using an Earth system model that is a numerical tool for calculating time evolution of the global climate system. The model calculates the atmosphere and ocean phenomena, such as wind blows, ocean currents and precipitation. Furthermore, the model includes components of marine ecosystems such as tiny plankton. My target is to elucidate marine ecosystem processes that link to climate change. But when I describe a model in such a way, my audience, like my son, loses interest quickly. This is one of the reasons why I want to improve my skill of public speech.


Map of present-day phytoplankton biomass in chlorophyll concentration in an Earth System model. Image Credit: M. Chikamoto

One thing I realize now is how much jargon my explanation contains! Due to the specialized words, my audience might hardly understand the basic concepts and their attention is lost. Generally, people prefer to relate to a personal story, or sometimes an emotional one like in a novel; no one cares about the specialized issues (if someone is very interested in the specialized issues, he/she might be close to being the expert!). I know now that I should avoid describing my research like a scientific presentation, which is what I have done so far. Rather, I need to focus on the storytelling during an interactive conversation. Without more ado, I will try storytelling.

Why do we simulate?

Just think about this. If you take photographs in sequence with a camera and then want to know what is happening between the photos, what do you do? You might convert these intermittent images to an image sequence by taking the gaps and try to predict what happened in between in your brain. I do similar things in my research. Oceanographers monitor signals of ocean phenomena when going to sea, but getting the data is like one photo snapshot at a time. In order to display an image sequence like you do in your brain, I simulate it using a computer model instead. The model simulation in the computer calculates the time evolution of the Earth environment. By analyzing the simulated results, I can know what is going on in the environment. In fact, I use many kinds of models for today’s environment as well as for the past or the future. Through past, present and future climate simulations, I want to know mechanisms of the earth systems – how the earth systems of several different rhythms play harmony.

Trying again

One night, I decided to try explaining model simulation to my son again.

“I simulate the Earth environment using a computer and study what is going on in the atmosphere and the ocean. When I was a college student, computers were very slow and we were waiting to finish the calculation for several months. But nowadays, technology has developed tremendously and computer speed is much faster than it was in the previous era. For example, my computer can finish a 500-year-long simulation while you are sleeping at night. In this way, we can go back to the past using very long simulations, even as far back as to the Ice Age. Using a computer, I can study all of the past, the present, and the future climate.”

“That’s great!” my son said, admiringly.



Megumi O. Chikamoto is an affiliate researcher in SOEST and a postdoctoral researcher at International Pacific Research Center. After getting her Ph.D in Atmosphere and Ocean Science at Hokkaido University in Japan, she has worked at the University of Minnesota, the University of Tokyo, the Japan Agency of Marine Science and Technology, and then the current position.  Her research focuses on marine ecosystem response to climate variability and changes in the past, current, and future.

It’s Not Always Bad to Cross the Line




Contributed by Michelle Jungbluth, e-mailed via satellite while battling rough seas along the Atlantic Meridional Transect. 

Monday October 13th was an exciting day for us at sea. This is the day we crossed the equator.

Me in the control room as we officially cross the equator - 0° 00.12’ N

Me in the control room as we officially cross the equator – 0° 00.12’ N

After a restless nights sleep, I woke up at 01:30 am to continue my normal early-morning routine before the big “Crossing the Line” ceremony at noon. Most of my daily routine included picking out hundreds of ~8 different copepod species (microscopic shrimp-like insects of the sea) into cryogenic tubes until breakfast. After about 21 days at sea collecting samples, my advisor Erica Goetze and I had individually isolated over 10,000 copepods, and at this point we still had three weeks of daily sampling to go.

That morning, I received an ‘anonymous tip’ from one of the police (a double agent?) recommending that as inductees we plan effective defenses, since it would be more fun for everyone. I made the last minute decision to save a portion of our stinky morning tow plankton goop for my defenses against King Neptune’s police force! This turned out to be quite useful when all of us not-yet-inducted line crossers got together before lunch to prepare our weapons: condom-water balloons!

My weapons to fight King Neptune's police force

My weapons to fight King Neptune’s police force

Why condoms? I would chalk it up to MacGyver-esque resourcefulness. The doctor had a large stock of condoms she did not mind sharing, since she too was crossing the line that day!   Condoms work quite well as water balloons. We also decided to include extra special “treats” in the balloons… purple dye, fabric softener for strong scent, and my favorite, the stinky plankton water. We then chose our hiding places, and I chose a location with two other line crossers, Ryan and Rafael.

At the strike of 13:00 the announcement came: “King Neptune has arrived on the ship, and any non-shellbacks (those who have previously crossed the equator) are to be put on trial for their crimes against his subjects!” That was our cue to quickly get to our hiding places and be ready to defend ourselves against the police. Seasoned veterans of the ceremony were chosen as the police force, so we knew who to expect.

Us "shellbacks" in our hiding place, on the defensive against one of the King's police

Us “shellbacks” in our hiding place, on the defensive against one of the King’s police

We were found within minutes. There have been many line crossings on this ship, the RRS James Clark Ross, so there were not many hiding locations left that the police didn’t know about. 

Once we were caught, trial and punishment were simple: sit before King Neptune and his lovely wife Aphrodite (i.e. John and Colin) and be put on trial. Guilty of a charge meant you received some volume of old, cabbage ridden, vinegary kitchen slop over your head, down your shirt, in your face … etc. Then before we were deemed an official “Shellback”, we had to kneel before the king and kiss a dead fish!

Me receiving a hearty scoopful of kitchen slop over the head!

Me receiving a hearty scoopful of kitchen slop over the head!

As you can see, not even I – sweet and harmless Michelle – was safe from the wrath of King Neptune! You might be wondering, what were my “charges”? In all I received 8 charges, and here are a few of them:

  • Forcing my study subjects through a tiny mesh thus causing a slow and painful death
  • Pronouncing tomato incorrectly (according to the British dominating the science team)
  • Distracting the bridge with my day-glo t-shirts
  • Wearing a ridiculous fireman’s helmet
  • Spending all day tanning at the CTD while I say I am working (I have to sit there for hours concentrating animals from the water!)

My hair exuded the scent of vinegar for at least three days afterward, and I am still finding remnants of our ‘water balloons’ on the deck of the ship despite an attempt to clean them up that evening. In the end, it’s all in good fun, and will be one of the most fun and memorable days of this shellback’s life.

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Finding my SOEST niche: From occupational therapy to mathematics to biological oceanography

 FaceCrop_CChangContributed by Chantel Chang

I had invested in a master’s degree and four years of work experience, but I could not imagine another 40+ years of constantly being around people in pain. As I, the occupational therapist (a.k.a. the pain bearer), gazed upon the agony in the patients’ faces during therapy, I realized that my career no longer reflected ‘me.’ Furthermore, I would often see readmissions and feel discouraged because we had just completed weeks of exercises, daily living and safety training. Although I have seen some successes, the failures took too large of a toll on me. The good income and job stability were not enough to lessen my heavy heart.

“I needed a change”

After reflecting on what I enjoyed most since grade school and did best in academically, I concluded that I should return to school to study mathematics. I wasn’t sure how I would survive Calculus III without having done any math for nine years, or where a degree in math would lead me, but I needed a change.

As a second Bachelor’s student majoring in mathematics at the University of Hawai‘i (UH) at Mānoa, I took Oceanography 201: Science of the Sea to fulfill degree requirements. I have always felt a deep connection to the ocean being born and raised in ʻĀina Haina, so my mind was blown away with how much mathematics was in oceanography!  I had no idea that waves could be explained with differential equations, and I never thought about the spreadsheets of data that are available to study the ocean.  At the moment I learned about the math-oceanography connection, I knew that I wanted to be an oceanographer.

Chantel standing in front of her poster at the ASLO/AGU/TOS Ocean Sciences Meeting held in Honolulu, HI in February 2014.

Chantel standing in front of her poster at the ASLO/AGU/TOS Ocean Sciences Meeting held in Honolulu, HI in February 2014.

After completing my B.S. in Mathematics and a certificate in the Marine Option Program in December 2013, I was accepted into the Biological Oceanography Division with a graduate research assistantship. Finding myself in another transition, I was nervous about not being able to keep up with the biological and oceanographic jargon and concepts. However, having one successful transition from occupational therapy to math, I felt that if I worked hard enough and remained passionate, I could survive. However, along with my stubborn determination to succeed in my new field and my perfectionism, I found that time previously used to visit ʻohana (family) and friends, exercise, and surf was all invested into studying night and day, while drinking unhealthy quantities of coffee.

“My life balance was off”

It took me hours to read one journal article, and then I’d need to read it again… and again… and again to comprehend it.  I felt that I was more than a couple of steps behind my classmates (most of whom knew that they wanted to be marine scientists pretty much since the day they were born) – in my mind, I was miles behind. The most common thing I’d hear from ʻohana and friends was, ‘long time no see,’ and fellow graduate students asked why I didn’t attend social events like ‘Coffee hour’ or Nerd Nite. I realized (after several months of study and no play) that my life balance was off.

Near the end of the semester, I was approached by Anela Choy, a recent PhD graduate and co-founder and program manager of the Maile Mentoring Bridge Program (ʻMaileʻ for short).  Maile is a program that supports Native Hawaiian and other underrepresented minority undergraduate students interested in ocean and earth sciences by pairing them with graduate student mentors within SOEST.  Anela indicated that she was leaving Hawaiʻi at the end of the year and that she needed another local person from Hawaiʻi in the SOEST graduate program to take over her program management duties… and that I was one of about five current SOEST graduate students who were from Hawaiʻi.

I knew there weren’t many of us locals in SOEST, but I was shocked with the lack of kamaʻāina (from Hawai‘i) graduate students in SOEST.  It’s baffling that there aren’t more kamaʻāina in SOEST, when we have grown up with a beautiful ocean surrounding us and active volcanoes nearby.  Perhaps many kamaʻāina are like me; we love Hawaiʻi’s natural beauty, but just havenʻt thought about studying it for a career. I wasn’t sure if I should take Anela’s offer to be an alakaʻi (leader) for Maile because of my life balance struggles from the last semester, but I took it anyway because I thought of the possibility of helping more kamaʻāina realize that great science is being done in their backyards!

“Maile has been a blessing”

I found Maile has been a blessing in helping me to improve my time management skills and feel at home in SOEST.  My position as program manager forced me to actually take lunch and study breaks, in order to attend SOEST events where I could meet colleagues. Although every single person has been very welcoming and I enjoy meeting people from different places, it was interesting to feel almost an instant connection and comfort in meeting other kamaʻāina within SOEST.  They understand the local culture, mentality, pidgin language, and the challenge of being in a rigorous graduate program while being home which involves juggling large extended ʻohanas, friends from ʻda hanabata (childhood) days, and new friends. They recognize the importance of ʻohana, but also the importance of being a part of SOEST because of the need for diversity in creating a more comprehensive and accurate scientific perspective. Being a part of Maile and meeting well-balanced and successful kamaʻāina in the ocean and earth sciences gives me fervent hope that I, too, will be a role model for future kamaʻāina in SOEST, find my balance in graduate school, and a career that is more ‘me’.

Chantel talking to Kapi'olani Community College students at a career mixer

Chantel talking to Kapi’olani Community College students at a career mixer



Chantel Chang is a graduate student pursuing a M.S. in Biological Oceanography, working with Dr. Anna Neuheimer on a project involving biophysical modeling of holoplankton.  She is also an alakaʻi for the SOEST Maile Mentoring Bridge.  In her re-found free time, she enjoys spending time with her ʻohana, surfing, reading, and eating House of Pure Aloha shave ice. Check out Chantel’s professional website!


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Name the Three Types of Rock: Balancing Music and Minerals

Contributed by Christine A. Waters

Phaedrus Quote

iPhoto by Christine A. Waters

Igneous Geologist Under Pressure

Graduate school is an inevitably stressful experience. I entered with a mix of feelings: optimism, adventure, skepticism, motivation, and fear. For the first two years, in an attempt to channel these emotions in a positive direction, I practiced extreme discipline which I hoped would contribute to my success as a graduate student:

  • I made my job a priority (above everything, even my health)
  • I frequently pulled all-nighters without sleep and followed a “military minimum” rule (a minimum of four consecutive hours of sleep per night).
  • Almost every single day of the year, I went to the office to work as if the stock market’s opening bell rang.

Believe it or not, there was little tangible or emotional reward as a result of this behavior. Every scholarship or honor that I received (i.e. National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, a three-month work internship, accommodations/travel to a conference) contributed to a growing pile of tasks. My discipline had created an environment progressively more challenging and harder to maintain day by day. In fact, the bullet points above, when adhered to strictly, had the effect of greatly increasing the negative stress of graduate school.

In a study recently discussed on Science Magazine’s Life and Career blog, 78.5% of graduate students in science feel overwhelmed, with 60% feeling exhausted, hopeless, sad, or depressed nearly all of the time. That seemed like a discouraging statistic to me! Hoping to not become one of the students in the study, I decided to re-balance and take control of my life. I reassessed my standard operating procedure for daily activities by making some non-work time with one of the recreational niches offered at my own institution.


I decided to return to an activity that always made me smile. I joined the UH Summer Band, a community band that rehearses at the university during the summer months. As I entered the rehearsal room for the first time, I felt like a school girl on her first day at a new campus: “Where do I sit? What do I do? How do I talk to these people who are already gathered in circles?” Admittedly, the freshman feeling was refreshing given my long comfort with academia. There were music majors in the group, and others, like me, who just wanted to play. I slowly made acquaintances and then friends. Every week, I looked forward to working with new music.

UH Fall Campus Band playing at Ala Moana

The UH Fall Campus Band, led by director, David Blon, performing at Ala Moana Center Stage, on November 26, 2013 | iPhoto by Greg Bagnaro

Kismet and Positive Stress

Kismet, to my friends, is the feeling we get when the music is just right – when it fills our body and mind. Music is my second language. I began with a Yamaha keyboard when I was in the first or second grade, picked up the flute in the fourth grade, and played the latter through my last year of high school. Music, for me, is a lifelong chase and a clandestine love. However, since the world is full of flautists with greater talent, I retired my flute to explore more sensible and less competitive career opportunities: electrical engineering, the military, and graduate school. For the past thirteen years, I dabbled on the flute for my own enjoyment when I could – playing for the 304th Signal Battalion in Korea during special events, marching with the Miners at the University of Texas at El Paso in 2006, and touring with And the Furies Say in 2007.

It is humbling to note that my stress-relieving activity actually produced some stress. The difference is that this stress was ultimately positive and inspiring! Returning to a retired pastime required much willingness to bruise my self-esteem. It was a struggle to be a born-again intermediate, to no longer be able to play with the same elegance and technique of years ago. Initially, there was frustration. Later, there was acceptance for the growing nimbleness in my fingers and awareness of my embouchure. The practice is challenging – just as it was when I first began learning to play. Quitting is sometimes reason enough to remain quit. I was deterred to begin again from fear of my growing lack of conditioning – as one might be from a sport she has left. For hobbies that required years of training, I recommend a modest relapse, as clumsy as it may be. For me, the experience has brought a harmonious (pun intended) balance to my previously work-controlled life.

Sedimentary Fill and Collateral Effects

Loosing work ties for two hours a week in one recreational niche became a gateway through which I am now able to enjoy life as a graduate student. So far, I have played with the UH Fall Campus Band, and I have also enrolled in the UH Concert Band. Music is an incredibly mindful experience, and I’ve found that playing with the university bands has been a generous and wonderful outlet for my stress. During rehearsals, I concentrate on the sound I’m producing, the combined sound of the band, the instructions given by the director, and the feel of the keys beneath my fingertips. There is something elevating and magical about being a part of a large creative force – kismet indeed. I believe that many others who have “retired” their instruments can identify with this and remember it sentimentally. I encourage my fellow students to go out and find the activity that challenges, motivates, and inspires them – outside of graduate work. And, if there are other mélomanes (music-lovers) in our science group, I’d love to hear about your own experiences below!

The UH Summer Band will be performing at Ala Moana Center Stage on July 24th at 7:00 p.m.

“Vesuvius” by the University of Hawaii Concert Band Aloha Concert on May 4, 2014, from†musicAENni†YouTube



Christine A. Waters is a veteran of the United States Army and a graduate student pursuing a M.S. in Marine Geology. She is working with advisor Dr. Henrieta Dulaiova on submarine groundwater discharges off the Kona coast of Hawai’i.

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Networking and events at a major scientific conference

The biennial Ocean Sciences Meeting kicks off this upcoming Sunday with talks, workshops, mixers, and events galore. It is hosted by three major oceanographic associations (ASLO, AGU, and TOS) and it is an event where you not only showcase the work you’ve been doing with an international audience but where you network with peers and scientists from various organizations and universities.  As we think about what we might be doing after our various degrees, it is important to prepare ourselves for the networking madness that will occur at events such as this one. So in preparation, we decided to post some links. Hope they are helpful!

Some Important Tips to Networking at a Conference

  • Student events page:
    • Includes student workshops, student mixer, and announcement of a special Nerd Nite happening during the conference week
  • Keynote Address:
    • Kick off the meeting on Sunday by listening to Elizabeth Kapu’uwailani Lindsey, a Polynesian National Geographic Explorer and the first female Fellow in the history of the National Geographic Society.
  • Plenary Talks:
    • Tuesday- Speakers include local professor Bob Richmond, and there will be a panel discussion on ‘Why aren’t they listening?’ to scientists about climate and environmental science which will be a panel of experts including NPR journalist Richard Harris, science communication professional Christine O’Connell, Director of Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication Edward Maibach, and President and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific Jerry Schubel.
    • Thursday- Speakers include Roger Hanlon and Mary Jane Perry
  • Social Events:
    • Opening mixer reception, beer breaks, poster session receptions, Tuesdayevening Jam session at Mai Tai bar, 5k Fun Run at Ala Moana ParkWednesday morning, Nerd Nite, and an opportunity for RV Falkor Tours are detailed here!
  • Facebook page and Twitter hashtag (#2014OSM) and profile (@2014OSM)
    • Tweeting live from talks is a good way to get people involved who couldn’t attend the conference!
  • Presenting a poster?  Make it available online for more exposure throughePosters!
 Drop us a note or write in comments if you come across other useful links! See you at the Convention Center!

A Bittersweet Cruise

A guest blog post contributed by Donn Viviani

I conduct my oceanographic research on a 186-foot-long ship at Station ALOHA, 60 miles from ‘Oahu and the site of the 25-year-old Hawai’i Ocean Time-series. Cruises last five days and are scheduled well in advance.  So I was surprised one evening when my advisor emailed, “we have to go sample the molasses plume right away!”  I thought he was joking: What molasses plume?

Hundreds of thousands of gallons of molasses were spilling into Honolulu Harbor, and fish were dying by the thousands.  As microbial oceanographers, we immediately wanted to know how bacteria were responding.  Were they using the molasses to grow like crazy and breathing all the oxygen in the water?  We knew the Department of Health would look at fish and potentially harmful bacteria.  We didn’t think they would be very interested in the vast majority of microbes that are not dangerous to humans, but we sure were interested!

Thirty-six hours later, seven scientists, myself included, arrived at the University of Hawai’i Marine Center with all the equipment we might possibly need.  Scientists, captain, boxes of equipment, and the CTD (conductivity-temperature-density) sensor package crowded our 20-foot-long boat.  Out in Ke’ehi Lagoon, it was evident that something was wrong. The water was an odd dark color and the air smelled sort of like bread.  Later, I saw aerial photos that really showed the discoloration of the water.


Lowering the CTD into the molasses plume.
Photo credit: Fenina Buttler

We motored down the channel to the places the Department of Health had collected water samples.  I’ve never seen so many small crafts in the harbor on any of my past 60 cruises.  There were dive flags up everywhere and guys scooping nets for dead fish.  It was surreal.

Station one, near Aloha Tower, was confusing and disorganized.  None of us had used this boat before, and we were crammed like sardines between boxes of empty sample bottles.  Two scientists lowered the CTD over the side.  To check the sensor depth readout on the laptop screen, I had to crawl along the outside of the boat.  Eventually, we figured it out, filled our bottles with samples, and moved on as more boats arrived.

Our second station stunk.  Off Pier 38, there was a strong rotten egg smell, causing some of us to say “yuck” and others to say “Wow! Smells like hydrogen sulfide!”  We suspected the water below us might be anoxic (no oxygen).  Sure enough, the CTD oxygen sensor reported almost no oxygen between the surface and just above the bottom.  Anoxic water could explain the dead fish, which would have been suffocated.  The molasses was like a huge holiday buffet for bacteria living in the harbor.  They ate up all the molasses, breathed all the oxygen, and now some of them were living anaerobically (without oxygen) and releasing hydrogen sulfide.   Water at the next two stations also contained very little oxygen. We didn’t smell any hydrogen sulfide, but  there were many dead fish floating under the docks at the final station.


Taking oxygen measurements on board our “research vessel”.
Photo credit: Fenina Buttler

Back in the lab, we analyzed our samples to calibrate our CTD sensors, and to figure out what kind of bacteria were in the harbor and how fast they were growing.  We planned a second trip, to look for changes.  After washing some bottles, looking at data, and talking to some reporters, we were ready to go back out.

Our second cruise, a week later, was like going to a totally different harbor.  I saw both Jacks (‘ulua) and flying fish (malolo); I’ve never seen either in the harbor before.  At station one, the water surface was covered with a film of zooplankton, small organisms that eat bacteria and phytoplankton.  We didn’t smell hydrogen sulfide, and none of the stations were anoxic.  It seemed like microbes and water mixing through the harbor had cleaned up the molasses, and larger organisms were moving back in.


Interviewing the “TV Star”.
Photo credit: Fenina Buttler

We’re still analyzing our measurements, but I’ve learned a few things from this experience. First, people get way more interested in my science when it affects something relevant to them, like my Aunties calling me “TV Star” because they saw me get interviewed on the news.  Second, lots of interesting science happens in my own backyard.  Third, even harbor bacteria have a massive sweet tooth!

Donn Viviani is a PhD student studying the partitioning of primary production between particulate and dissolved phases in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. He is looking forwarding to contributing more guest posts on spontaneous research in his backyard and beyond.


Photo credit: Fenina Buttler

Q&A Part 3: You got in! How to survive grad school

Thanks for continuing to read about the “Path to Graduate School.” We have a new category, Part 3: “You got in! How to survive grad school!” Here are answers to questions 12 and 13, and we will post questions 14-15 next week, finishing up our Q&A session! Hope this has been helpful to all of you!

Question 12: I got into a graduate program! Should I take time off before starting graduate studies?


Some say yes:

“yes” – Alma Carolina Castillo 3rd Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“It depends on your personal circumstances. If you’re feeling burned out or have personal things to take care of, take a semester/year off. If you’re feeling ready for it, jump right in!” – Kendra Lynn 2nd Year PhD Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“Yes.  Recharge your battery, get in some travel and relaxation time to prepare yourself for the rigors of grad school.” – Allison Fong 6th Year PhD Biological Oceanography – Microbial Ecology

“Sure, if you can.” – Saulo Soares 6th Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“YES” – Astrid Leitner 1st Year PhD  Biological Oceanographer

Some suggest that it is not worth putting off:

“why?” – anonymous 

“You will likely find out whether you got accept in March-May, but you will not start grad school until August/September. You can use the summer before grad school as the “”time off””. If you need more time off for whatever reason, talk to the folks in your department about that and check if it is okay with them.” – Myriam Telus

“Depends on the reason. It doesn’t necessarily hurt, but I don’t think there’s a benefit either.” – Joy Leilei Shih 5th Year PhD Marine Geology and Geochemistry

“Why put it off?” – Sarah Maher 3rd year MS Geology and Geophysics

“Not necessarily if you are eager to continue coursework, research, etc. and really like the academic environment.” – anonymous

Question 13: What are the best tips for surviving grad school?


My personal favorite answer:

“thats what I want to know…” – anonymous

But more seriously, it is important to maintain a BALANCE between work and your social life:

“Have friends and hobbys.” – Alma Carolina Castillo 3rd Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“Balance. You must have balance. A graduate degree is a big investment of your time, energy, emotions, and intellect. You cannot expect to be productive working 24/7 for four years – there has to be a balance so that you can appreciate the work you’re doing. Make sure to take time to sleep, eat properly, socialize occasionally, and work hard when the situation calls for it.” – Kendra Lynn 2nd Year PhD Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“My #1 tip: become friends with your cohorts and get mentors. Grad school, especially your first year with all the classes, is all about comaraderie and students helping each other out.  Be friends with the technicians in your labs. They will help you tremendously.

My #2 tip: Allow yourself to relax.  Manage your time wisely and allow yourself to pick up a hobby that lets you blow off steam or not think about grad school for an hour. Be it yoga, sport, art, hiking, etc., take care of your well-being for a healthy lifestyle.

Also check out this link:” – Shimi Rii 4th Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“Relax, do your best. Maintain broad interests but still focus on what you are doing.” – Saulo Soares 6th Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“Work hard and play hard.  You work a lot as a grad. student, but make sure that you have other activities in your life so you don’t feel stuck in research and come to despise it.  I joined a paddling team.  It opened up my social circle and it’s a very fun way of exercising.” – Samantha Weaver 1st Year PhD Geology and Geophysics

“Dont fall behind, stay organized, develop a good relationship with colleagues, lab mates, and your advisor.  GO TO THE BEACH – mental health days are clutch” – Astrid Leitner 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanographer

“Strike a balance between school, social life, and rest.” – Joy Leilei Shih 5th Year PhD Marine Geology and Geochemistry

Other general tips: stay focused, take ownership of your work, communicate with your advisor and classmates, and work hard:

“Stay focused on what you want to get out of it all.  It wasn’t meant to be easy, it also wasn’t meant for everyone to do.  There will be times when you question why you started, but the rewards should outweigh the costs and you need to see the light at the end of the tunnel.” – Michelle Jungbluth 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“Choose an advisor you will enjoy working with because you will have to deal with this person on a regular basis.” – Myriam Telus

“Grad school is a marathon, not a sprint.  Don’t treat it like undergrad, where you just need to pass the classes; take ownership of your project.” – Donn Viviani 4th Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“Be self motivated. Make a timeline and stick to it, because nobody is going to do your work for you.” – Sarah Maher 3rd year MS Geology and Geophysics

“Be proactive with respect to your classes and research. Be honest with your advisor. Work hard.” – anonymous

“Study with classmates.  Go to faculty if you have questions about the material and need further explanation.  Build a good working relationship with your adviser.  Learn to manage your time and energy efficiently.  Build and invest in a support network.” – Allison Fong 6th Year PhD Biological Oceanography – Microbial Ecology

“Just keep swimming. Let it be. Keep a positive mindset. Live Aloha. And, work your darn booty off!” – Christine Waters 3rd Year PhD Geology and Geophysics

Thank you for checking out the answers to Q 12 and 13! We will post the answers to our last 2 questions next week! Happy New Year!

Q&A Part 1: Deciding to go to grad school, Questions 4-5

Thanks for continuing to read about the “Path to Graduate School.” Here are answers to questions 4 and 5 for our first category, “Deciding to go to grad school.” Next week, we will post answers to “I decided, Yes! How best to apply to grad school.”


Question 4: What if I want to go to grad school, but am not sure which field to choose?

There were a variety of great advice that resulted from this question! An overwhelming group of students advised to get some experience before deciding:

“Try getting an internship or volunteering in a field you think might interest you. Take classes in potential fields if you can. Grad school is not like undergrad where you can usually sample different classes for two years before picking a major. There may be limited opportunity to switch fields early in your grad school career, but it’s rare and you should really go in knowing what you want.” – Katie Smith, 5th year PhD in Physical Oceanography

“Shoot for a Master’s, because it will let you gain experience but not at great cost of time and energy. Only pursue a Ph.D. if you’re sure of what you want to study. Alternatively, gain a few year’s work experience or complete an internship or something to help you decide.” – Kendra Lynn, 2nd year PhD in Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“Get experience! Volunteer or try to get an internship in a lab that does research that interests you.  Summer is often a good time to get experience in the field or lab, because grad students are most actively doing research during the summer.  Browse through lab websites in departmental webpages and don’t be shy about emailing a professor, post-doc, or grad student to ask if they need help.” – Shimi Rii, 4th Year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“Choose the field that has researchers you would enjoy working with. Talk to many researchers and graduate students in the fields you are interested in, and get their advice about what decision you should make. Going to conferences in the fields you are interested in may help you make your decision. If you are still not sure which field to choose, get an internship in one of them. Another option is to get a Master’s degree, this should take 2-3 years.” – Myriam Telus

“This is where it is important to gain experience in what you think you want to do prior to diving into a graduate program. You may save time in the long run.” – Michelle Jungbluth,1st year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“I think it’s easier to find an appropriate program and gauge your interest in specific research projects when you know what field you want to study.  Internships or part-time positions in different research fields may help you decide what really interests you and in what type of graduate program you can pursue that line of inquiry.  I found that short (1/2 year) investments on different projects allowed me to narrow my focus and determine what field to select for graduate school.” – Allison Fong, 6th year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“Sit in on some classes, look for internship on labs, ideally before you graduate from college. – Saulo Soares, 6th year PhD in Physical Oceanography

“Take different classes in undergrad to find out and take time off after undergrad to learn a little bit more about yourself.” – Samantha Weaver, 1st year PhD in Geology and Geophysics

“I would recommend taking some time off to pursue an internship or fellowship in one of your fields of interest. This will allow you to become better acquainted with the job. Some students decide after an internship that the job is really not for them. This could be said, in my case, for the first four years of my military career in telecommunications. Don’t allow your experience to take four years like mine did. Go for something that is just a summer or one year long. ;)” – Christine Waters, 3rd year PhD in Geology and Geophysics

“Talk to the professors of the classes you enjoyed. Read lots of papers – go to the online databases and type in stuff you are interested in and read what’s going on in those fields. Do you want to do something like that? If so, you may have found a good place to start. Now go find professors that are working on that kind of research. Talk to them, volunteer for them. – Astrid Leitner, 1st year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“Invest your time in a summer internship or temporary/part-time positions in prospective labs or institutions.  This, way you can explore options and ‘try-out’ different paths you might pursue in graduate school.” – Sara Thomas, 3rd year MS in Biological Oceanography

Another overwhelming group advised against grad school if you are not sure what field to go into (check out this article about not using grad school as a way to postpone making life decisions, “The Involuntary PhD“):  

“Don’t use grad school to put off figuring out your life.  Figure it out by traveling, living,  working,  socializing  with people who are doing interesting things.  An inspired applicant trumps an unsure one.” – Anonymous

“Then you shouldn’t go to grad school until you know.  Grad school isn’t an extension of undergrad.  You should only go if you really know what you want and why you want to do it.” – Donn Viviani, 4th year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“Don’t go. Find something you’re passionate about first, and then apply. Otherwise you will just end up wasting years of your life and burning up savings when you could be working an industry job and saving for your future.” – Sarah Maher, 3rd year MS, Geology and Geophysics

“Then you should not go to graduate school in research science. Maybe try an MBA or a law degree instead.” – Anonymous

“You should know which field you want to be in before you commit to something like grad school.” – Joy Leilei Shih, 5th year PhD in Marine Geology and Geochemistry


Question 5 – How much money will I make after I get out of grad school?

Your pay range seem to depend highly on whether you decide to stay in academia or go into the private sector:

“Depending on which sector I enter after my degree, I can expect to make between $50,000-$100,000 (academia vs. industry).” – Kendra Lynn, 2nd year PhD in Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“This is a hot topic – it depends of course on what you do out of grad school.  Typically, with a M.S. in sciences, a job as a technician at the University or a government job might pay starting at $45K.  In a biotech corporation, this pay could be as high as $60K starting.  With a Ph.D., the pays will range from $70K-90K, starting salary. It also depends on your negotiation skills.” – Shimi Rii, 4th Year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“No idea. An industry job (drilling, oil) can make a six-figure salary, but anything else will be a lot less. It depends on what you want to do.” – Sarah Maher, 3rd year MS, Geology and Geophysics

“Dependent on your credentials, your career goals, and your discipline.  There’s no general answer.” – Allison Fong, 6th year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“Between $70K-$100K” – Joy Leilei Shih, 5th year PhD in Marine Geology and Geochemistry

This concludes our first category of questions, “Deciding to go to grad school”! Thanks for reading and we look forward to your comments!  Stay tuned for Part 2: “I decided! How best to apply to grad school” next week.

Q&A Part 1: Deciding to go to graduate school, Questions 1-3

As a continuation of our ‘Path to Graduate School’ topic, we asked our SOEST graduate students to answer 15 questions about the graduate school experience.  These questions are broken down into categories, and today we are posting the answers to questions 1 through 3 for our first category, “Deciding to go to grad school.”  Stay tuned for answers to our other categories, “I decided, Yes! How best to apply to grad school” and “I got in! How to survive grad school” in the coming weeks. 


Question 1 – When do I go to grad school and when do I decide?  Immediately after I receive my bachelor’s degree? Should I do an internship?

The answers were varied! For example, some applied right after their baccalaureate programs:

“Based on personal experience: I had decided that I would go to graduate school when I was very young (nerdy, I know). It was always my dream – so, when I was wrapping up my B.S. in Geology, I started applying for graduate programs. I started graduate school the fall after I graduated with my B.S.” – Kendra Lynn, 2nd year PhD in Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“I started thinking seriously about grad school my junior year of undergrad.  I was in my second year of an internship and found that I enjoyed research and wanted to advance my understanding of marine ecology beyond what I had learned in my coursework.  I applied for grad school my senior year and started grad school the following year.  At this point, I had already completed three internships and knew I wanted to study biological oceanography.  I decided to continue into grad school immediately after receiving my B.Sc. because I knew what field I wanted to pursue and it required I had more research experience and training.” – Allison Fong, 6th year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“I chose to go to graduate school immediately after receiving my bachelor’s degree, mostly because I felt like I had a lot of momentum going into it (that I didn’t want to lose by taking time off). In retrospect, I wish I had taken a bit of time to relax my brain, because now, in comparison to other students, I seem quicker to intolerance for failure and burnout when deadlines are numerous and on short time scales.” – Christine Waters, 3rd year PhD in Geology and Geophysics

“It depends on how long you want to live on your parent’s couch. The ideal time to apply would probably be the last fall semester of your undergrad to limit the amount of down time in between schooling. If you’re not doing anything related to your field of study after you graduate, the sooner you apply the better.” – Sarah Maher, 3rd year MS, Geology and Geophysics

Some, on the other hand, took some time off to work: 

“I took a couple of years off after my bachelors and worked. This allowed me to determine that the focus of my bachelor’s degree was not what I wanted to continue doing and I discovered my love for Oceanography.” – Michelle Jungbluth, 3rd year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“I worked for eight years before I went to grad school.” – Donn Viviani, 4th year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“I took a year off and worked as a technical assistant in developing a volcanic crises awareness course.  While it was a great experience and I enjoyed the time not worrying about classes and homework, it made me realize that I did not want to be somebody’s assistant.  I wanted to work on my own research instead.” – Samantha Weaver, 1st year PhD in Geology and Geophysics

“Go when you are ready, that is, when you have a good idea about what you want to study and when you find a couple professors/departments you would really like. I worked (paid work) for a year in a lab before going to grad school. During that year, I had lots of time to think about what area of geology/planetary science I really enjoyed and I got to research different schools and I spoke with many people about the various departments I was interested. I took a GRE course and I got to visit many of the schools I applied to. I did not have time for all of that during my senior year in undergrad.” – Myriam Telus

Some did internships:

“Grad school’s focus on research makes it different enough from undergrad that it’s useful to go in with an idea of what it will be like. If you did an undergraduate research project with a thesis, that could be enough, but a summer research internship or a job in research after graduation may also help. You can also go to grad school once you’re sure your career goal requires another degree. I worked for two years in science research after graduation. I really liked it and wanted to continue in that field, but it was clear the only way to move up was with another degree. That’s when I made my decision to go to grad school.” – Katie Smith, 5th year PhD in Physical Oceanography

“When I earned my bachelor’s I knew I wanted to continue on to higher education but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go or what I wanted to study.  It wasn’t until after I invested my time in a summer internship that I realized what field I wanted to pursue.  I was able to begin my graduate studies a year and a half after completing my undergraduate studies.” – Sara Thomas, 3rd year MS in Biological Oceanography

In conclusion:

“You can go to graduate school anywhere from immediately after you graduate to MANY years after graduation. It really depends on opportunities and frame of mind.” – Anonymous

“Definitely after getting some life experience” – Anonymous

“Go when you are certain you need a further degree or when you know what your research interests are.” – Astrid Leitner, 1st year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“You should go to grad school … when you feel like you have a question you want to pursue about an organism, ecology of the location, how certain processes work, etc… Graduate school doesn’t discriminate against age (though the time commitment can be more difficult as you get older, with family and other obligations).  However, I recommend getting some experience in the field you are interested in before heading straight into grad school – it is a commitment and you want to be passionate, excited about the topic you are studying, and why! I worked for a year after undergraduate to start my M.S., and after my M.S. worked for 2 years before going back to school for my Ph.D.” – Shimi Rii, 4th Year PhD in Biological Oceanography


Question 2: How much does it cost to go to graduate school? How much money will I need to live on?

Since most professional schools cost a lot of money, and undoubtedly there are many who are still paying off student loans from undergrad, money is a big concern for many considering graduate school.  Good news! Graduate school education in basic research, especially in SOEST, is often more wallet-friendly than most people might think:

“ZIP! NADA! In the sciences you either are funded through a teaching assistant position or a research assistant position. They waive your tuition costs and pay you monthly (just enough to get by)” – Astrid Leitner, 1st year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“I have free tuition at school and my adviser pays me $1800 per month, which is confortable for one person” – Alma Carolina Castillo, 3rd year PhD in Physical Oceanography

“For me, graduate school doesn’t cost anything. I was supported by my department on a Teaching Assistantship (TA) for the first year of my degree, which included a tuition waiver and a bi-monthly stipend that covers my cost of living and expenses etc. For the rest of my degree, I am supported by an NSF Research Assistantship (RA) that will cover these expenses.” – Kendra Lynn, 2nd year PhD in Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“Often times in graduate school you will get a Research Assistantship, either as a Teaching Assistant or Graduate Assistant, which means that at UH you get your tuition waived and you get a stipend that basically equals half-time pay (starting = ~$18-20/year).  With a tuition waiver it’ll only cost you the basic fees to go to grad school (~$300/semester) plus books, study materials, etc. On top of that you will need money for rent, food, etc., and the stipend (barely) covers but is enough to get by.” – Shimi Rii, 4th Year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“My fellow G&G grad students and I are pretty much all either RAs or TAs, which means we get paid and also get a tuition waiver.  So the cost of school itself is limited to roughly $400 per semester of student fees, plus books and other supplies.  Class field trips off-island are common and may cost another few hundred dollars per year.  Most expenses, however, come from non-academic areas: rent, food, transportation.  I find that I have enough money to live comfortably without taking out loans, and I get about $1700 per month.  (I have a car and pay $750 a month for rent; food takes up at least a couple hundred dollars more, plus the same in utilities, bills, etc.)  It helps that I got summer overload salary, which basically doubles your pay over the summer; this is not uncommon and it definitely helps to fund trips to the mainland, car repairs, etc.” – Emily First, 3rd year PhD in Experimental Petrology

Prospective graduate students should take note, however, that the stipend you get per month depends on what stage you are at in your graduate career and what degree requirements you have completed. Research the school you are applying to and talk to the graduate students in the department to find out a more accurate value of what your stipend would be!

 There are, of course, other experiences:

 “I went to graduate school in England.  It is VERY expensive to be an international student.  One year cost me $45,000!  At the same time, it is the only debt that I have from education (I paid my way through undergrad and fortunately PhD’s in our field receive a stipend) and with all of the great experiences that I had, I have no regrets for going into debt for it.” – Samantha Weaver, 1st year PhD in Geology and Geophysics

“I applied to five graduate schools. Each application was approximately $75. Add to this the cost of the GRE (~$160), which I took twice… Also, since I moved from El Paso, Texas, to Honolulu, Hawaii, from a house that I was renting to a sublet condo, my move cost me approximately $4,000. As an Army veteran, I had many more items than I think the usual undergraduate student might have (full living room set, kitchenette, bedroom set, and household accessories – most of which I sold prior to moving, but I had to move the rest). There was a lag between my last paycheck in El Paso and my first paycheck in Honolulu, too, of almost three months! This was the toughest part. I had just shelled out a ton of money for the move, and now, I was not making money. That’s the part I think you have to prepare yourself for the most – how to pay rent, buy groceries, etc … for the few weeks or months your university takes to get you into the system. I ended up borrowing from EVERYBODY.” – Christine Waters, 3rd year PhD in Geology and Geophysics

Some good advice about how to wisely use your stipend:

“Whatever department you are interested in working in, check whether they cover your tuition and provide a stipend. The stipend depends on where you go to school. You have to check how much it cost to live in the city you are interested and compare it to the stipend they are offering you. Make sure it is enough to pay for an apartment, utilities (water, gas, electricity, phone) and food. In Hawaii, if you share an apartment, my guess is that you will need a stipend that is >$1500/month.” – Myriam Telus

“In Oceanography, at least here, we are paid enough for basic living costs (rent, food, etc) and we get a tuition waiver.  So if you are careful, you won’t leave graduate school with more debt than you came in with.  Our department has a bit of delay between when you first start and get your first paycheck, so be prepared for a couple of months of out-of-pocket expenses prior to your first stipend check.” – Michelle Jungbluth, 1st  year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“You have to be prepared to make an initial investment (rental deposits for housing, buying furniture, a bike or car to get around, miscellaneous expenses). Depending on your major you can actually be paid to go to school or at least get tuition waived, but most stipends will only cover the most basic costs of living (rent, food, and insurance) so you won’t be saving money. In Hawaii, about 50% of my paycheck goes to rent, so making wise choices about where you live initially can pay off in the long run.” – Sarah Maher, 3rd year MS, Geology and Geophysics


Question 3 – How long will it take me to complete my graduate degree?

The answers depended on whether the student was pursuing a M.S. or Ph.D.:

“7 years” – Alma Carolina Castillo, 3rd year PhD in Physical Oceanography

“My master’s degree will take 3 years.” – Sarah Maher, 3rd year MS, Geology and Geophysics

“4-5 years, since I am a Ph.D. student who did not complete a Master’s degree.” – Kendra Lynn, 2nd year PhD in Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“Depends on where you go and what degree you want.  In England, I did a one year Masters.  Here in the U.S., my PhD will take at least four years.” – Samantha Weaver, 1st year PhD in Geology and Geophysics

“Depends. A PhD will take 5-7 years depending on the field. A Master’s, 2-3 years.” – Saulo Soares, 6th year PhD in Physical Oceanography

“I’m not done yet, but the average for a Ph.D. seems to be 5 years. Master’s degrees seem to take 2-3 years. It depends on your progress with your research and writing.” – Myriam Telus

“I came to UH Manoa for a two-year master’s degree. Having obtained my own funding through the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, I will complete a five-year PhD (hopefully).” – Christine Waters, 3rd year PhD in Geology and Geophysics

Those are “average” number of years . . . obviously the time depends on you:

“How hard do you want to work?” – Anonymous

“It is what you make it.   If you are motivated to finish quickly, you will be more likely to get done earlier.  I got my Master’s degree done in 3 years, and hope to finish my PhD within 4.” – Michelle Jungbluth,  1st  year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“It depends on the program, the project you are working on, how hard you work, and sometimes on luck in lab.” – Donn Viviani, 4th year PhD in Biological Oceanography

“This is course-load and project dependent.  I was able to earn a Plan A (thesis-based) M.Sc. in 2.5 years, but the average in my program is 3.75 years.  The intent was that my Masters experience would prepare me for doctoral research and it did, but I shifted my focus and started to work in a different research group.  This shift added time because it was not a direct continuation of my Masters research.  The Ph.D. alone took 6 years.” – Allison Fong, 6th year PhD in Biological Oceanography

Thanks for reading the answers to questions 1-3 for our first category of questions, “Deciding to go to grad school”. We hope you found them useful, and please comment below, we’d love to hear from you. Stay tuned for questions 4-5 next week!