One of the great traditions among deep-sea scientists is the shrinking of polystyrene cups by sending them down to our research sites. Polystyrene (or Styrofoam) is mostly empty space. When sent to the bottom of the sea, the massive pressure (an additional atmosphere for every 10 meters depths) squeezes the air out of these empty spaces reducing the cups–or, in some more dramatic examples, mannequin heads and prop skulls a la Hamlet–to a fraction of their former size. With a little bit of creative doodling during down time, we end up with a nice illustration of this physical phenomenon that is undoubtedly an insufficient gift for our loved ones, of whom we’ve abandoned to spend 30+ days mucking about on a boat*.
Fortunately, on my last expedition, I had the wherewithal to get before and after photographs of each cup the went over the side. So, for your enjoyment, for the next few weeks I’ll be posting some of my favorite shrunken cups. Enjoy!
Welcome to the Cayman Abyss!
*Though, it could be worse. Rumor has it one group of researchers was so confident in their ability to deploy and recover remote deep-sea landers, that they all affixed their wedding rings to the deepest rig before sending it over. Fortunately, it returned, rings unscathed.
Over dinner one cold winter night my last year as an undergraduate, my advisor casually mentioned that unless I was offered a stipend, it wasn’t really an acceptance into graduate school. This was specific to my case to a certain degree – looking for a PhD program in the environmental sciences – but his words stayed with me. When it came time to choose schools, the 5 years of funding Duke offered me made a large part of my decision as to which graduate school I attended.
In a world where PhD students begin bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but often graduate unemployed, I’ve come to reflect upon this advice a bit more. I’ve had 5 years of support, essentially as an employee, and am now on my own to find my path in the world. But I didn’t saddle debt for my graduate education and could choose to parlay many of the skills learned (writing, teaching, project management) to any other career, should I choose. Compare this to other students, who saddle enormous debt for a master’s or doctorate expecting that this guarantees them a job able to pay off that debt. Thank goodness I listened over ziti that night. Continue reading Advice I Took For Granted For Grad School
At 7 AM EST on Monday, February 25, the ROV Isis rose from the depths of the Cayman Abyss, bringing to a close the 82nd cruise of the RRS James Cook. During JC82, we explored two recently discovered hydrothermal vents fields in the Cayman Trough: Von Damm, named for the late marine geochemist Karen Von Damm, and Beebe, named for the 20th century explorer William Beebe. By any measure, JC82 was a massive success. The samples and videos we’ll bring back will provide ecologists, geologists, and chemists with new insights into fundamental ocean systems for years. The images alone, some beautiful, some heart-breaking, have already inspired.
Eyeless shrimp, dancing anemones, and a garden of filamentous bacteria. I’m a pretty good writer, and I can’t even begin to describe how beautiful this is. Photo Credit: NERC
Since I last updated the blog on our adventures exploring the Cayman Trough, we’ve had a steady stream media coverage, most of which has been excellent, some of which has been… strange. It’s been fascinating watching the articles come out, seeing what different media outlets consider the story, and, most important to me, getting a chance to share our adventure with a wide audience. Now that the #DeepestVents cruise is officially over (and we’re in transit to yet another, equally exciting bolt on cruise to investigate submerged lava flows off the island of Montserrat), I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on the cruise, the story, and how the media shaped it.
Modern deep-sea science is built on broad international collaborations. We share resources, expertise, and ship time. These exchanges allow scientists from around the world to benefit from a global research fleet that includes dedicated oceanographic platforms like the RRS James Cook or the RV Atlantis as well as novel vessels-of-opportunity that could include Norwegian container ships, North Carolina ferries, or Papua New Guinea tug boats. There are small differences between the operation of vessels from different nations – new acronyms, different power supplies, and an enduring disagreement regarding what constitutes a proper biscuit (ask a North Carolinian to take you to Bojangles sometime) – but the rhythm of a ship at sea is dictated, above all else, by the ocean.
The international and interconnected network of deep-sea scientists is how I now find myself, as an American, sailing aboard a British ship, in a role that could best be described as a Benthic Mercenary.
The R/V Cape Hatteras. Photo by Andrew David Thaler.
At 0930, January 30, 2013, the research vessel Cape Hatteras made her final voyage through the Beaufort Inlet to dock at Pivers Island. The Cape Hatteras served as the flagship of the Duke/University of North Carolina Oceanographic Consortium for 31 years. During that time she logged more than 5000 days at sea over the course of hundreds of research cruises.
In a period where science funding for oceanographic research is at an all time low, the decommissioning of the Cape Hatteras represents a significant loss to America’s research capacity. The Hatteras is the only regional class research vessel on the eastern seaboard south of Delaware. She served a region ranging from the mid-Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico and as far east as Bermuda. She can handle equipment as simple as a box core or trawl or as sophisticated as the ROV Nereus.
The Hatteras was more than just another research vessel, she was a home to many and a symbol of pride for Carteret County. It is estimated that she contributed more than $4 million a year to North Carolina’s economy. Beyond that, she was a friend.
This morning, the Beaufort community came together to welcome the Hatteras back from her final voyage.
Welcome to graduate school. If you’re enrolled in a Ph.D. program in the sciences, you should expect to get a stipend. Stipends vary significantly depending on the program and university that you’re enrolled in. Some schools guarantee five years of support, some only guarantee one. Masters programs may or may not provide a stipend. The quality of the stipend is not necessarily a reflection of the quality of your program, but reflect the economic realities of academia.
Often, new students think that any stipend is too good to be true. After all, someone is paying you to go to school! Because of this confusing situation, graduate students may be uncomfortable talking about their stipend or discussing financial issues with their peers and mentors. But that stipend is central to your success as a happy, healthy, successful graduate student for one very simple reason:
Graduate school is a job, and you should expect to be paid for your work.
Newsweek, in is new and impressive digital format, released a series of articles this week on deep-sea exploration, the challenges of human occupied and remotely-operated vehicles, and the decline in funding for ocean science, particularly in the deep sea. The main article, The Last Dive? Funding for Human Expeditions in the Ocean May Have Run Aground, is a deep, detailed look at the state of deep-sea science, seen through the eyes of Dr. Sylvia Earle and Dr. Robert Ballard, two giants in the ocean community. The follow-up, James Cameron Responds to Robert Ballard on Deep-Sea Exploration, provides insight into the mind of James Cameron, who last year successfully dove the Challenger Deep in his own deep-sea submersible.
Both the articles continue to perpetrate the canard that there is a deep chasm between the human-occupied submersible (HOV) and remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) communities. The reality is that deep-sea scientists use a variety of tools, from mechanical samplers to autonomous robots, to study and understand the deep. The choice comes down to which tool is most efficient, least expensive, and currently available. Absent a sea change, ROV’s will continue to be the workhorses of deep-sea research. And that is a good thing. I sang the praise of my robot underlings the last time this debate breached the public consciousness. I also discussed why basic deep-sea research and training highly skilled ROV pilots is a matter of national security.
Ah, graduate school. For approximately 5 years you will live awash in the intellectual stimulation that comes with the pursuit of knowledge. You will learn more than you ever have before. Now at the forefront of the human data engine, you are not just being taught, but pushing the limits of human understanding imperceptibly, but significantly, further. In the immortal words of my own Ph.D. advisor: “Andrew, get a life.”
And that’s the problem. Because, while you’re doing all this discovering at the brink of discovery, you also have a life, and lives need to be maintained by a steady influx of cash, food, sleep, recreation, and numerous other non-thesis-related distractions. These “distractions” are actually essential to your well-being and contribute meaningfully to your productivity. But, while there are many guides to how to manage a dissertation, there are relatively few that discuss how to survive the graduate student lifestyle.
I’m here to help. The arc of my graduate school career is pretty well documented in this blog. Suffice to say, it has been a bumpy ride, with plenty of highs and lows.
So, for 2013, I’m launching “Surviving Grad School: A Practical Guide to an Impractical Lifestyle”, a series about the other half of a graduate student career. I’ll focus on some of the gorier details, including managing your finances, what to expect from a student contract, how to take care of yourself, and how to navigate towards that mysterious island known as the Work-Life Balance.
Obviously my advice is based on my own experience and will not universally apply to all grad students. It is necessarily biased towards life science in the United States with a strong field component, and it is a male view of the world from a fairly privileged background. Still, I hope you’ll find something of value in these posts.
First up on the docket is perhaps the most important and most difficult challenge facing graduate students — dealing with your finances. Check back this month for advice on what to expect from your stipend, managing your finances, building credit, dealing with travel and field expenses, and taking care of taxes.
Plastic consumables from a molecular lab. Photo by Andrew David Thaler.
To complement my post earlier today on the need for best practice guidelines to minimize plastic waste in a conservation genetics lab, I asked my labmates to save all of their consumables from a day of molecular benchwork. The above picture (Sharpie for scale) is the result. All told, we produced about 1/2 kilogram of plastic (it’s hard to get a precise weight, since many of the tubes still contain liquid). With only 3 people working a the bench, this was a relatively light day.