Reflecting on the graduate school experience

By: Amanda Holdman, MS student, Geospatial Ecology and Marine Megafauna Lab & Oregon State Research Collective for Applied Acoustics, MMI

This Thanksgiving I had a little something extra to be thankful for; two and a half weeks ago I successfully defended my master’s thesis, “Spatio-temporal patterns and ecological drivers of harbor porpoise off the central Oregon Coast”. It’s a good thing too because I think it was starting to turn me into a harbor porpoise. The last month, I was solitary, constantly eating, and I think I was starting to sleep with one hemisphere of my brain, while the other kept working.

In the weeks leading up to the submission of my thesis, I daydreamed about my life on the ‘other side’.  As a means of pushing myself over the final hurdle I envisioned what it would be like to be free of a thesis, to reclaim my weekends, and how relieved I would feel to hand over the culmination of two and a half years of work – and at last here I am:  on the other side, well almost.

The first week after my defense was just about as busy as the weeks leading up to my defense. I spent my time filing paperwork and moving things, packing up my office and house to head back to my home state of Indiana for the holidays, and tying up loose ends in Newport. For the past couple of weeks, I have been finishing up revisions on my thesis and formatting my work for publication, all while starting to look for a new job. After defending my masters I found time to “actually breathe” – I’m still as busy as always but now with a more consistent sleep schedule. The shift from all-research-and-writing-all-the-time has given me time to reflect a bit on what I’ve gained from the graduate school experience and what I know I still want or need to learn from it. Graduate school has supplied me with a tool box of skills that I didn’t realize I was acquiring day to day. Now, however, looking back over the years I realize how much I’ve grown as both a scholar and a person and in more ways than just learning how to craft scientific tweets in less than 140 characters (this really does take some skill).

Perseverance and Diligence

One big thing I learned from graduate school was how to transition from “panic” to “problem solving”. There were endless days of back breaking work that I had nothing to show for and days when I succumbed to imposter syndrome. I learned to pick myself up and solve the problems at hand though and find a way to move forward, sometimes even scratching my original idea to move towards something that worked in the end. That’s life. Things go wrong, plans don’t work out and yet our ability to pick ourselves up and carry on is one of the best skills we have. In graduate school you learn to never give up.

Time Management

I now assume that anyone who has been to graduate school is essentially an expert at multi-tasking. Between running a field season, taking and teaching courses, submitting research proposals, and trying to balance a social life, I didn’t realize how much of a pro I became at juggling many things at once. In other words, gaining a fundamental skill for being a working scientist


Graduate school taught me how to find the information I need. Every day I had a moment where I didn’t know an answer. In the beginning, I thought all you had to do was ask, but sometimes the first person you ask doesn’t know the answer either. Over time, I learned to dig through the literature, ask an expert in the field, or my favorite “try several different things and see how they differ”. Once I learned the hard lesson that there isn’t always an easy way out, I had subconsciously created an order of operations to figure it out.

Collaboration (and giving back the help to others who struggle where you once did)

Not many jobs teach us to work with a bunch of different minded people, but grad school does! I learned to work as a team, with scientists within and outside my lab who had personalities different from mine. Graduate school taught me to collaborate as much as possible and, more importantly, help someone with less experience to figure out their coding problems, or help them get their research proposals or publications out. Offering advice or expertise for a certain skill or method when I was busy helped me develop my team-building skills and proved to myself that I had skills to share.

There are good moments within bad moments

When a bad moment presented itself, I learned to focus on the good and recognize the moments that things worked out because I didn’t give up. These included following a bad presentation with a strong one, sparking the interest of collaborators, receiving an award for a conference presentation, or just the simple self-satisfaction of getting an R code to work properly. There are a lot of good moments in grad school, and it became important for me to celebrate them when they happened, but also not to take them for granted because they don’t come as often as the bad ones.

Importance of a strong support system

Unlike a harbor porpoise – I am very social person. Some can get through graduate school without any social interaction or encouragement from others, but there was no way that would have worked for me. Everyone copes with bad moments in graduate school in different ways – so my friends and family were my life-raft, especially those living in Newport. Mental and physical health are important to maintain in graduate school and it was beneficial for me to form a community early to help me through the tough moments. Although friends and family cannot completely relate to your situation (unless maybe they are also a graduate student) they will hear you out, care, listen and pull you out of a slump. Accepting their support and help drastically improved my mental health.

Work smarter, not necessarily harder, and forge your own path

When I look back at my past 2.5 years of graduate school now, I realize how hard I did truly work. I worked nights, weekends and evenings on weekdays. But in my last few months,  I became more competent as my productivity peaked. I learned how to multi-task and plan better – not just in school, but also in my daily life. Graduate programs force you to do unique research, as you can’t write a thesis by reproducing someone else’s work. You have to learn from what others have done and then get creative. Creating something original demands trust in yourself, and avoiding trying to compare yourself to others. Forging your own path can be uncomfortable, but necessary.

I am confident to say that graduate school overall made me a better scientist, and a better person. I value the training and education that I was fortunate enough to receive. It seems everyone starts graduate school with stars in their eyes, and then sometime in the middle we get weighed down by the failures and frustrations of graduate life, and we can fail to remember what brought us here in the first place: Intense curiosity, a desire to learn, and a chance to improve the world. These factors made me opt for this experience and in spite of all the hardships along the way, grad school gave me a set of life skills. So if you are contemplating graduate school, currently working toward a graduate degree, or in a transitional phase of job-seeking or career-changing, I suggest taking a minute to reflect on what you have already, or could gain, from graduate school.

My days as a current GEMM lab member are dwindling down as finish my edits, preparing publications, search for jobs, and rekindle my network – but I look forward to being a long distance cheerleader for the current and future members of the GEMM lab.

When I entered graduate school – one of my committee members told me I would go through the five stages of grief – and she was right – but the end reward was more than worth it.

“Being a graduate student is like becoming all of the Seven Dwarves. In the beginning, you’re Dopey and Bashful. In the middle, you are usually sick (Sneezy), tired (Sleepy), and irritable (Grumpy). But at the end, they call you Doc, and then you’re Happy.”

Challenges of fecal analyses (Round 1)

By Leila Lemos, Ph.D. Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, OSU

Fieldwork is done for the year and lab analyses just started with some challenges. This is not unexpected since no previous hormonal analysis has been conducted with any gray whale tissue, and whale fecal sample analysis is a relatively new technique. So, I have been thinking, learning, consulting, and creating a methodology as I go along. I am grateful to the expert advice and help from many great collaborators:

  • Kathleen Hunt (Northern Arizona University, AZ, United States)
  • Shawn Larson (Seattle Aquarium, WA, United States)
  • Amy Green (Seattle Aquarium, WA, United States)
  • Rachel Ann Hauser-Davis (Fiocruz, RJ, Brazil)
  • Maziet Cheseby (Oregon State University, OR, United States)
  • Scott Klasek (Oregon State University, OR, United States)

I have learned that an important step before undertaking fecal a hormonal analysis is the desalting process of the samples since salts can interfere in hormonal determinations, leading to false results. In order to remove salt content, each sample was first filtered (Fig. 1A), to remove a majority of the salt water content (Fig. 1B) that is inevitably collected along with the fecal sample. Each sample was then re-suspended in ultra-pure water, to dilute the remaining salt content in a higher water volume (Fig. 1C).

Figure 1: Analytical processes: (A) Filtration of the samples; (B) Result from filtration; (C) Addition of pure water to the samples.
Figure 1: Analytical processes: (A) Filtration of the samples; (B) Result from filtration; (C) Addition of pure water to the samples.

After these steps were completed for each sample, the samples were centrifuged (Fig. 2A) to  precipitate the fecal matter and leave the lighter salt ions in the supernatant (the liquid lying above a solid residue; Fig. 2B). After finishing these two phases, the water was removed with aid of a plastic pippete (Fig. 2C), and I was left with only desalted fecal at the bottom of the tubes (Fig. 2D).

Figure 2: Analytical processes: (A) Samples centrifugation; (B) Result from the centrifugation; (C, D) Results from separating water and sample.
Figure 2: Analytical processes: (A) Samples centrifugation; (B) Result from the centrifugation; (C, D) Results from separating water and sample.

The fecal samples were then frozen at -80°C (Fig. 3A & 3B) and then freeze-dried on a lyophilizer for 2 days to remove all remaining water content (Fig. 3C). Finally, I have what I need: desalted, dry fecal samples, ready for hormone analysis (Fig. 3D).

Figure 3: Analytical processes: (A) Freezing process of the samples; (B) Frozen samples ready to go to the lyophilizer; (C) Samples in the lyophilizer; (D) Final result of the lyophilizing process.
Figure 3: Analytical processes: (A) Freezing process of the samples; (B) Frozen samples ready to go to the lyophilizer; (C) Samples in the lyophilizer; (D) Final result of the lyophilizing process.

Writing this now, this process seems simple, but it was laborious, and took time to find the equipment needed at the right times. The end product is crucial to get a good final result, so my time investment (and my own increased stress level!) was worth it. This type of analysis is very new for marine mammals and our research lab is still in the learning the best methods. Along the way we were unsure of some decisions, some mistakes were made, and we were afraid of losing precious fecal material. But, this is the fun and challenge of working with a new species and new type of sample and, importantly, we have developed a working protocol that should make the process more efficient and reduce our stress levels next time around.

At the end of this sample preparation process, our 53 samples look great and are ready to be analyzed during my training at the Seattle Aquarium. We are also planning to analyze the water that was removed from the samples (Fig. 2D) to see if any hormone leached out from the poop into the water.

Results from this process will aid in future whale fecal hormone studies. Perhaps only the centrifugation step is needed and we can discard the water without losing hormone content. Or, perhaps we need to analyze both portions of the sample and sum the hormones found in each. We shall know the answer when we get our hormone metabolite results. Just another protocol to be worked out as I move ahead with the hormone analysis of these fecal samples. And through all these challenges I keep the end goal of this work in my mind: to learn about the reproductive and stress hormonal variation in gray whales and to link these variations to nutritional status and noise events. Onward!




Good news: You are Brilliant, the Earth is Hiring

By: Erin Pickett, M.S. Student, Oregon State University

GEMM lab UPDATE: Amanda Holdman successfully defended her master’s thesis this week!

Amanda wisely planned her defense date for November 7th, 2016, the day before Election Day. As I anxiously watched the New York Times election forecast needle bounce back and forth, from left to right on Election night, I thought to myself, why didn’t I think of that? If you are unfamiliar with what I am talking about, this “forecast needle” was an animated graphic on the NYT website that bounced constantly all night between the two Presidential candidates. It caused a great deal of unease for those of us that found it difficult to look away. The animation sparked some debate online among bloggers and tweeters, my favorite comment being, “it borders on irresponsible data visualization”. I came to the realization pretty quickly on Tuesday night that despite the outcome of the election, I would still need to turn in my thesis the following week.

Personally, I did not feel motivated to get out of bed on Wednesday. I wasn’t feeling inspired, or overcome with positive thoughts about what my day of thesis writing would bring. Thankfully, here at OSU, we graduate students have good leaders to keep us on track. Wednesday afternoon, we received an encouraging email from our Department Head, Dr. Selina Heppell. I took away two important points from this email. The first: stay positive, and remember that we do great work with great people and that our work matters. Secondly, think about the lessons that we have learned from this election. For those of us that were shocked about who our country has chosen as the next President of the United States, one important lesson is that we need to focus more on engaging people who exist outside of the echo chambers of our scientific communities.

The recent election has left many scientists and environmentalists concerned about what the future political climate will bring in terms of research funding, job opportunities, and environmental protection. More so now than ever it is important to remain positive and hopeful, and to reconsider the way we communicate our research and engage outside communities whose views are unlike our own. Both of these tasks are particularly challenging due to the long list of environmental problems we face. As it turns out, having a hopeful outlook is important for tackling seemingly insurmountable conservation issues, and empowering others to want to do the same (Swaisgood & Sheppard 2010, Garnett & Lindenmayer 2011).

The title of this blog comes from an eloquent commencement speech by Paul Hawken about the importance of remaining optimistic when the data tells us otherwise. While the address was given to the University of Portland class of 2009, I think it is worth reading because it is a relevant and moving reminder of why hope is important.

But, before you read that, take a look at what has been done recently to protect biodiversity around the world-

Photo credit: Mark Sullivan NMFS Permit 10137-07/NOAA

President Obama quadrupled the size of a marine national monument in Hawaii. You can read more about the significance of this monument, called Papahānaumokuākea, in a previous blog of mine.

Photo credit: Northeast U.S. canyons expedition science team and NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program (2013)

Soon after announcing the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea, President Obama established the first marine national monument in the Atlantic. You can read more about the aptly named Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument here.

Photo credit:  Ari Friedlaender

And finally, to top it off, an international body comprised of 24 countries, called the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, recently came to a consensus to designate a vast portion of the Antarctic’s remote Ross Sea as the world’s largest marine reserve.



  • Garnett, S. T., & Lindenmayer, D. B. (2011). Conservation science must engender hope to succeed. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 26(2), 59-60.
  • Swaisgood, R. R., & Sheppard, J. K. (2010). The culture of conservation biologists: Show me the hope!. BioScience, 60(8), 626-630.


“Evolution”: a board game review

By Florence Sullivan MSc student, Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Another grad student once told me that in order to survive grad school, I would need three things:

(1) an exercise routine, (2) a pet, and (3) a hobby. My Pilates class on Wednesdays is a great mid-week reminder to stretch. I don’t have a pet, so that advice gets fulfilled vicariously through friends. As for my hobby, I think you’ll find that even when scientists take a break from work, we really don’t get that far away from the subject matter…..

Board games have evolved significantly since the early ‘90s when I grew up on such family staples as Monopoly, Risk, Sorry!, Candyland, and Chutes and Ladders, etc. Now, table-top games tend to fall into three loose categories – “Euro-games” that focus on strategy and economic themes as well as keeping all players in the game until the end, “American-style” that tend toward luck and direct player contact so that not everyone plays until the end, and “Party” that are easy to learn and are often played in large groups as social icebreakers or to provide entertainment.

A few of my favorite games.

As board games proliferate, we see the use of many themes and often, there are valuable educational lessons included in the game design!  There are militaristic or survival games (Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Dead of Winter), economic and engineering (Settlers of Catan, Istanbul, Ticket to ride, Carcassonne), fantasy and art (Small World, Dixit), cooperative vs competitive (Hanabi, Forbidden Desert vs. 7 Wonders), and some of my favorites – the sciences (Compounded, Bioviva, Pandemic).

Today, let’s talk about my current favorite – Evolution. It is immediately obvious that the game designers responsible are either giant nerds (I use this in the most loving way possible) or have spent some quality time with ecologists.  Not only is the art work beautiful, and the game play smooth, but the underlying mechanics allow serious ecological theories such as ‘predator and prey mediated population cycles’, ‘co-evolution’ and ‘evolutionary arms-races’ to be acted out and easily understood.

Players set up their species around the watering hole, and contemplate their next moves.
Players set up their species (1 green/yellow tile = 1 species) around the watering hole, and contemplate their next moves.

In game play, as in life, the point of the game is to eat – victory is achieved by the player who has managed to ‘digest’ the most food tokens. All players begin with a single species, and with each turn, can either add traits (ie. fat tissue, scavenger, etc.) to the species, increase the body size of a species, gain a population level, or gain additional species.  Next, players take food from a limited, random supply until there is no food left. Species that have not been fed to their full capacity (population levels) will starve, and can even become extinct – much like the reality of environmental cycles.  Finally, all food that has been ‘eaten’ is digested, and the next round begins.

Since a player can never be sure how much food will appear on the watering hole each turn, it is a good strategy to capitalize on traits like foraging which allows a species to take twice as much food every time it feeds.  If your species cooperates with another, that means that it gets to eat every time you feed the first species. A player who combines foraging traits with multiple cooperating species in a “cooperation chain” can quickly empty the watering hole before any other players get a chance.  Much like a species perfectly adapted to its niche in the real world will out compete more generalist species.

The pack-hunting carnivore on the left can easily take down the fertile defensive herding species in the upper right. The efficient foraging species in the middle is protected by its horns, and cooperates with the next species to the right. The burrowing species is protected from carnivores only as long as it is full (and presumably no longer needs to venture out of its burrow).

One way to avoid the competition for food at the watering hole is to play the carnivore trait.  This species must now consume other species in order to feed itself.  A few caveats; a carnivore must be larger in body size than anything it tries to eat, and can no longer eat plant food as it is an obligate carnivore. As soon as a carnivore appears on the board, the evolutionary arms-race begins in earnest!  Traits such as burrowing, climbing, hard shells, horns, defensive herding and warning calls become vital to survival.  But carnivores can be clever, and apply ambush to species with warning call, or pack-hunting to a species with defensive herding.  In everything, there is a certain balance, and quickly, players will find themselves acting out a classic ‘boom and bust population growth cycle’ scenario, where herbivores go extinct due to low food supply at the watering hole and/or high predation pressure, and carnivores soon follow when there are no un-protected species for them to feed upon.

A flying creature must first pay the ‘upkeep cost’ of its body size in food, before it can feed its population. Good thing it has the extra cliff-side food source that is only accessible to other species with wings!

An expansion has been released for the game – it is called Flight – and introduces traits such as flight, camouflage, good eyesight, and others.  From an ecologist’s perspective, it fits the original game well both scientifically and thematically.  To achieve flight, a higher price must be paid (in terms of cards discarded) to gain the trait card, and unlike other species, an ‘upkeep cost’ must be gathered in food tokens before the species actually eats any food tokens during the round.  However, flight also gives access to a cliff-side watering hole that is not accessible to earthbound species. This neatly mirrors the real world where flight is an energetically costly activity that also opens new niches.

The next expansion is just arriving in stores, and I can’t wait to play it! It’s called Climate, and adds traits such as nocturnal, claws, and insectivore. Perhaps more exciting though, are the ‘event cards’ which will trigger things like desertification, cold snaps, heatwaves, volcanic eruptions and meteor strikes. A climate tracker will keep track of whether the planet is in an ice age or a warming period, and certain traits will make your species more or less likely to survive – can you guess which ones might be useful in either scenario? I think it will be enormously fun to play through different climate scenarios and see how traits stack and species interactions evolve.  Perhaps this new addition to the game will even cause a new game review in Nature – check out their initial assessment here:

Games like evolution are useful thought exercises for students and researchers because they promote discussion of adaptive traits, predator-prey cycles, climate, and ecosystem dynamics as related to our own projects. Watching a story unfold in front of you is a great way to truly understand some of the core principles of ecology (and other subjects). This is especially relevant in the GEMM lab where we continuously ask ourselves why our study species act the way they do? How do they find prey, and how are/will they adapt(ing) to our changing climate?