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

Thanks for continuing to read about the “Path to Graduate School.”  Today completes this theme and the last 2 questions of Part 3: “You got in! How to survive grad school!” We hope this has been helpful to all of you!

Question 14: What sort of career planning and/or professional development will I need to be doing while I’m in grad school?

Attending conferences, workshops, and seminars seems to be the key to networking with other professionals:

“Your advisor will be a great resource for this sort of thing. Hopefully they will mentor and counsel you regarding your professional development and career goals while you work towards your degree. You can also take your own initiative by working to attend conferences, publish your work, and attend workshops and seminars that are geared towards proposal writing, teaching, and researching different topics.” – Kendra Lynn 2nd Year PhD Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

“Attending conferences and workshops are a great way to network with people that have similar interests in similar fields. I volunteered to be an organizer for a major international Ocean Sciences conference and it has been great for my professional development. Volunteer to review papers for a journal you appreciate.” – Michelle Jungbluth 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“Mostly building some contact network.” – Saulo Soares 6th Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“Talk to your advisor or chair about what’s important in the field. Networking with people in the field.” – Joy Leilei Shih 5th Year PhD Marine Geology and Geochemistry

“Go to conferences, give talks, do outreach and education, go to workshops” – Astrid Leitner 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanographer

Also, put yourself out there and take opportunities to give talks and apply for fellowships:

“Public speaking/communication skills and writing skills are the areas where grad students seem to need the most improvement. Take classes and go to workshops that will help you improve these skills. Volunteer to give talks. Apply for various awards, fellowships, because these applications will help you communicate the objectives of your research clearly.” – Myriam Telus

“Looking to your future can be terrifying, but you need to plan ahead. Apply for that grant, look into PhD’s early in your masters, and talk with professors about the subjects that really interest you. They might have suggestions about programs or professors with similar interests.” – Sarah Maher 3rd year MS Geology and Geophysics

However, since we’re all busy, target your professional development towards your career goals:

“It’s always good to keep in mind what your goal after grad school is – if you are interested in teaching, get some teaching experience. If it’s communication, practice science communication. If it’s being a professor in an academic institution, network and talk to other professors, set up collaborations, and go to conferences. Tailor your professional development to what sort of activities will give you the skills you need for your career. Grad school is already extremely time consuming, so be choosy about how you spend your time” – Shimi Rii 4th Year PhD Biological Oceanography

Finally, get started early on preparing your resume materials:

“Development of CV, cover letter, and resume materials.
Writing skills, knowledge about best practices for publishing and reviewing manuscripts and writing proposals.
Teaching experience.
Professional meeting presentations, domestic and international (oral and poster presentations)
Leadership and management skills
Improving communication skills to inform diverse and broad audiences.
Involvement in departmental, school-wise, or societal level service.” – Allison Fong 6th Year PhD Biological Oceanography – Microbial Ecology

Question 15: Should I become a Teaching Assistant (T.A.) or a Research Assistant (R.A.)? Is this enough to live off of or should I get a student loan?

First, ask around and get information:

“There are many options to get paid in graduate school, talk to people and investigate” – Alma Carolina Castillo 3rd Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“T.A. and R.A. salaries vary from one department to another. In my situation, both T.A. and R.A. salaries are enough to live comfortably on. I would research the funding provided by the department you want to work for, and then make your decision based on that information.” – Kendra Lynn 2nd Year PhD Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology

Here at SOEST, it is definitely enough to live on:

“TA or RA all the way! If you’re responsible with your money and live in a reasonable rent apartment you can live off of it for the entirety of your degree without getting a student loan.” – Sarah Maher 3rd year MS Geology and Geophysics

“Don’t get a loan! You don’t need one! We make enough to live off of and even have fun once in a while 😉 Just live within your means and accept that you’ll be living a life that is rich and fulfilling in many ways, even if you don’t have a lot of spare cash. You won’t be living in a palace with an ocean view, but who wants to be that pretentious, anyway? Sharing a place with roommate(s) makes things a lot cheaper, too. *Caveat: Getting to Hawaii, or back to the mainland, to start school is the exception–you’ll have to hand out a wad of cash for plane tickets, security deposits, etc. before your salary kicks in, and if you don’t have savings or financially supportive family members then a small loan could potentially be necessary.” – Emily First 3rd Year PhD Experimental Petrology

“R.A and T.A should be enough to live off of, unless you have a family to support. Then I don’t really know.” – Saulo Soares 6th Year PhD Physical Oceanography

“Try to live off of a T.A. or R.A. and only get a loan if you have to. Some departments pay better than others.” – Joy Leilei Shih 5th Year PhD Marine Geology and Geochemistry

Some sound advice about T.A. or R.A., if you have a choice:

“The way it is set up here, you can live off either, but TA-ships are time consuming and will probably extend the total time to graduation if you choose to do it for multiple semesters. I recommend applying for fellowships and grants to get your own funding.” – Michelle Jungbluth 1st Year PhD Biological Oceanography

“A T.A. is great for gaining teaching experience and looks good on a C.V. if you want a job that involves teaching (such as being a professor) after you graduate. But it can be a lot of work, taking time away from your research, which is ultimately what you need to complete to graduate. An R.A. could also turn into work away from your own research, but ideally, an R.A. will actually fund your research–that is, the research you’re getting paid to do is also the research that you’re doing for your thesis/dissertation. I have an R.A., and I’ve found it’s enough to live off of and have not needed to get any loans.” – Katie Smith 5th Year PhD Physical Oceanography

Thanks again for your readership and participation.  Any comments or suggestions are always welcome!  

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!