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!


Read this original post at:

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.

Read this original post at:

Related articles


From garbage sorter to marine bioacoustician

By: Brendan Rideout

Brendan RideoutIt’s hard to pinpoint when my path to grad school began, but one possible beginning is the summer after graduating high school. Going into my final year of high school, I knew I wanted to go to university (I’d known this since I could spell ‘university’) but still hadn’t chosen a major. Theoretical physics, math, engineering, and even the Catholic priesthood were all paths I considered. A mentor suggested I more seriously consider engineering. After some research, the Mechatronics Engineering program at the University of Waterloo (UW) sounded very interesting; this was the first year it was being offered at this school, and the focus on robotics appealed to the little kid inside me who remembered watching Transformers cartoons growing up. Looking back, I’m amazed at how little thought I put into this decision and how, despite this lack of careful planning, things have worked out remarkably well.

I accepted UWs offer in March 2003 and graduated high school in June. That summer I taught violin lessons (along with working at a garbage transfer station, but that’s another story) part time so I could afford to buy a laptop for college. By all outward appearances, my students dad, Scott (not his real name), was a hardworking farmer who lived a few miles up the road and who I’d known for years. However, after getting to know Scott I discovered that in addition to being a beef farmer he was a SONAR system programmer for the navy. I’d heard of the field of underwater acoustics before, having read a steady diet of Tom Clancy novels growing up, but had never thought to wonder if people actually worked as researchers or designers in that field. It sounded like a neat field to work in. I didn’t know it at the time, but that afternoon spent learning a few things about underwater acoustics would have a dramatic influence on the path my life would take.

In September, I started my engineering degree and spent the next 4 2/3 years specializing in pattern recognition and signal analysis. I never forgot that afternoon I’d spent with Scott, though, and whenever possible I took elective courses (such as remote sensing and advanced fluid dynamics) which might one day let me work in underwater acoustics. During this time, I also spent 2 years in co-op work placements in manufacturing, food processing, package sorting system design, MEMS research, ship maintenance planning, and defense contracting. For my senior design project, I was finally able to combine my interest in acoustics with my engineering skills, coupled with my many years of musical experience, and with two other musical classmates in Mechatronics designed and built a software program which generates the sheet music based on the live performance of a guitar or violin. This project would prove to be very important in my eventual acceptance to grad school.

In February 2008, I was two months from finishing my engineering degree and, somewhat mirroring my experience at the end of high school, still didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduation. Most of my classmates were starting full time jobs while others (less than a third, I estimate) were continuing on to grad school. I was exploring both options, but after living on spaghetti sauce for months the thought of an income sounded quite appealing. I had a couple interviews for a computer programming job close to my parents’ place which I was strongly considering taking. To keep my options open, over spring break, when most of my friends either went home or on holiday, I was looking into acoustics graduate schools in the United Kingdom when I stumbled upon the website of the Canadian Acoustical Association, a collection of scientists and engineers (mostly Canadians) working in acoustics-related fields in disciplines as disparate as architecture, medicine, and oceanography. Acting on an impulse, I looked up the backgrounds of the association officers and came across their past president (Dr. Stan Dosso, at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada), and learned that his research interests included underwater acoustics and geophysics. His underwater acoustics research sounded really cool, although I didn’t understand much of it. I contacted Dr. Dosso, sent him my resume & transcript, described my sheet music project to him, and asked him if he was looking for grad students.

The first of several underwater acoustic data collection trips (this one in July 2008) I went on to the Chukchi Sea (northwest of Alaska).  Note the sea ice in the background!

The first of several underwater acoustic data collection trips (this one in July 2008) I went on to the Chukchi Sea (northwest of Alaska). Note the sea ice in the background!

After that first discussion, things fell into place. Dr. Dosso flew me out to Victoria to meet him in person and see the campus. Our meeting went very well, and he got me in contact with an underwater acoustics consulting company (JASCO Applied Sciences) in Victoria who I would work part-time for throughout my MSc degree. JASCO also partially sponsored my MSc research, and to this day I maintain ties to them. I started in the MSc degree program at the University of Victoria in the fall of 2008.

Deploying underwater acoustic recorders in the Chukchi Sea in August 2009.

Deploying underwater acoustic recorders in the Chukchi Sea in August 2009.

In the fall of 2010, as I was nearing the end of my MSc research and was starting to write my thesis, I had much less uncertainty in my career path than at the end of my college days. My job prospects were good, I was more confident in my abilities than I was leaving college, and I enjoyed living in Victoria. In November, I attended my first major scientific conference: the 2010 Acoustical Society of America meeting in Cancun, Mexico. I presented my research into underwater passive acoustic localization and tracking of Pacific walruses, and got some good feedback from the other members of the bioacoustics community. Upon returning to Canada, I got an intriguing email from another grad student who had seen my talk. She was a PhD student at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (a lab at the University of Hawaii), and had been asked by a professor (Dr. Eva-Marie Nosal) at the University of Hawaii (UH) to keep an eye out for students who might be interested and capable of pursuing a PhD in passive marine mammal acoustics which built upon concepts in electrical engineering. This student suggested I get in touch with Dr. Nosal, as the work I’d presented in Cancun sounded similar to the type of work Dr. Nosal was looking to do. With visions of long sandy beaches and drinks with tiny umbrellas, I contacted Dr. Nosal and a train of emails culminated in an hour-long Skype discussion with me in my lab at the University of Victoria and her in her office in Honolulu. We came to the decision that my abilities, experience, and research interests were a good fit for the project she had funding for, and so in January 2011 we started the process of enrolling me at UH in January 2012 (I still had to write and defend my thesis, and had a prior commitment to work at a NATO acoustics lab for the fall of 2011).

Grad school isn't all work and no play.  In March 2010, two friends and I drove from Vancouver (British Columbia) to Inuvik (Northwest Territories) and got to see the reindeer herd managed north of town.

Grad school isn’t all work and no play. In March 2010, two friends and I drove from Vancouver (British Columbia) to Inuvik (Northwest Territories) and got to see the reindeer herd managed north of town.

The rest largely fell into place. Dr. Nosal and I stayed in touch during 2011 as I tracked down some insidious bugs in my software, finished my research, and spent 3 months working at the NATO lab in Italy (then called NURC). I ended up defending my MSc thesis on January 4th 2012, submitting my final paperwork to the Graduate Studies department on January 6th (including the revisions to my thesis), packed my house up on January 7th (bequeathing my IKEA furniture to my bemused roommates), flew from Victoria to Honolulu on January 8th (never having been to Hawaii before), spent my first month in Hawaii staying with a friend I knew from my time in Italy who, it turned out, was also a grad student at the University of Hawaii, and started at UH on January 9th. Since coming to UH, I’ve finished all the recommended courses for the PhD program in Ocean and Resources Engineering, presented at two international acoustics conferences and a seminar on marine bioacoustics, had my first paper accepted for publication (based on my MSc research), and am continuing to work on ways to leverage my experience in signal analysis and underwater acoustics to gain information on the properties of the ocean using underwater acoustics. I like the work that I do, although some days it can be frustrating. As it turns out, my initial interest in underwater acoustics all those years ago hasn’t been fleeting. However, even if I don’t work in this field for my entire career, attending grad school has been a very rewarding experience for me; grad school has taught me, and is continuing to teach me, how to work and think like a scientist. I’m confident that there are many transferable skills which I am gaining during my time here, and am grateful that I chose to continue my university career after college rather than jump at the first job which came my way.

Brendan Rideout is a PhD student in the Ocean and Resources Engineering department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa where he works as a Research Assistant for Dr. Eva-Marie Nosal.  His current research involves adapting and developing algorithms to estimate ocean waveguide impulse responses using vocalizations created by underwater marine mammals.