The life of a PhD student

I was starting to get a little jealous of Becky and Stephanie writing all the recent posts. So I’ve decided to make my own return to the blogosphere, today, by posting my answers to a few questions sent to me as part of a high school assignment. I enjoyed taking the time to answer them, and think they fairly succinctly summarize what life is really like for me as a grad student. (hint: it’s not all splashing around in the tropics or making grand discoveries).  So, here they are, with some minor additions and corrections:

What does a day of work look like for you?

There isn’t really any ‘average’ day for me – during different times of the year or different stages of a project, I have very different tasks to do. I would guesstimate that I spend 40% of the year analyzing data, 20% doing lab work, 15% preparing for fieldwork, 15% doing fieldwork, and 10% doing other tasks.

Data analysis is huge for me because I work with many terabytes of genetic sequence information, and have to learn and write code in multiple programming languages in order to handle it all. Sifting through that data and finding interesting patterns takes a lot of time! So on those days (which include today), I generally wake up, check the status of scripts that were running overnight, have breakfast, and then go to my office for the rest of the day to do statistics and scripting work on my computer. Veteran readers of this blog might remember the last few posts of mine, where I detailed some light data-wrangling and mapping tasks that were occupying me at the time. Most of my computer work is slightly more dry than even that… But to me, the results of this work can be the most exciting part of the job! And getting scripts to run smoothly and efficiently is an extremely satisfying experience! 

I suppose an average day for me looks something like this.

Before I can do data analysis, though, I have to collect samples and generate the data. Prior to traveling and getting into the water for sample collection, I have to do a lot of paperwork and preparation: gathering supplies, applying for permits and travel visas, arranging housing and transportation, establishing on-site emergency procedures, brushing up on my SCUBA and first-aid skills, and researching what kinds of corals I expect to find and collect at each location. A lot of this is by far my least favorite part of the job, and is a major reason that I’m feeling a bit burnt-out from fieldwork, lately! Paperwork and bureaucracy were not what I signed up for! But following the law and being safe are extremely important, so I spend a lot of time trying to make sure I do everything right when I travel.

Acquiring permits is my favorite part of the job... Wait, no, that's not quite right...

Acquiring permits is my favorite part of the job… Wait, no, that’s not quite right…

Of course, the most fun portion of my work is the fieldwork itself! There’s no point in describing that here when you can instead watch this video: https://youtu.be/whQTKjexHCw. Again, veteran readers of this blog will also know what fieldwork is like for me from my previous posts and photos.

Ahh, that's right, diving is the most fun part of my job!

Ahh, that’s right, diving is the most fun part of my job!

After collecting samples in the field, I have to process those samples in the lab here in Oregon. I often say my lab work consists mostly of moving clear liquids from one tube to another – extracting, cleaning, aliquoting, and amplifying DNA, enzymes, and other colorless chemicals. It’s the kind of work that becomes rather mindless once you’re experienced, and can sometimes serve as a good time to get lost in thought. Ultimately, the result of all my liquid-mixing gets placed in a DNA sequencing machine, which spits out the aforementioned terabytes of data for analysis.

Moving liquids around in prettily-colored tubes isn’t so bad, either, though…

Why did you choose to become a marine biologist?

I had a pretty good idea that I wanted to be a scientist of some sort for as long as I can remember. I’ve also always been in love with tropical ecosystems, for some reason that I can’t explain. I think I decided more specifically on biology gradually throughout high school, during which I had a couple of important experiences. I remember in Sophomore biology class being fascinated by the workings of the cell; how diverse proteins are and how they act like such perfect miniature robots. My AP Biology course during my Junior year was exciting and incredible to me for all sorts of reasons. And between my Junior and Senior years, I worked as an assistant in a pathogen genetics laboratory here at OSU, which kind of sealed the deal for me. Choosing marine biology was a somewhat spontaneous decision that I made when I was applying for college… I don’t actually know why, but at some point during that process, I just decided that that was the program I was looking for. It probably had something to do with having had 5 fish tanks as a kid, playing water polo and swim team, and having loved learning to SCUBA dive on a family vacation to Hawaii. I just loved being in the water and seeing the beautiful and strange animals that inhabit it. Then, after I had started studying it, I realized just how amazing life in the ocean really is, and there really wasn’t any going back!

What are challenges you face in your studies/at work?

I think right now my biggest challenge is the communication of my work to my fellow scientists and the public. That communication is really the most important part of a scientist’s work; we get paid by publicly-funded grants so that we help everyone gain a better understanding of the world around us. Our primary mode of communication is through the publication of peer-reviewed manuscripts, and right now, I have a lot of discoveries that I need to share, that I’m struggling to write about. Part of that struggle is due to some perfectionism: nothing in science is ever 100% proven, and I always want to find better evidence and consider every possible alternative before declaring to the world that something is true in a publication. But at some point, I will need to write things up according to my current understanding, while simply acknowledging that parts of that understanding are bound to change.

This blog is another important form of communication for me, because I get to speak more freely to the public. But communicating our science to the public is also a major challenge. A lot of people want to live vicariously and hear about the fun parts of my job, but if that’s all I ever talk about, other people start to wonder whether my job is worth the tax money. So I try hard in my posts to blend fun stories with useful educational material, and it’s not at all easy for me.

Do you work more in a lab setting or out in the ocean?

As per question 1, the majority of my work is not out on the ocean. But a significant fraction of it has been! As my project progresses, I will be spending less time on the water, but I’m really not complaining at this point. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s exhausting and disruptive to my career and personal life. 

What is your favorite part about being a marine biologist?

I really like to think that my work can somehow contribute to a better understanding of the world. Coral reefs in particular are in a real mess at the moment, facing threats from pollution, overfishing, climate change, etc., and I want to do what I can to learn about them, and maybe even help them, before they’re gone. Of course, experiencing them in-person during fieldwork is also amazing!

If you are more curious, check out a summary of my work here: http://oregonstate.edu/microbiology/vegathurberlab/global-coral-microbiome-project, and also the videos that we’ve been producing during that project, here: http://marinestudies.oregonstate.edu/global-coral-microbiome-project/.

Thanks for the questions, Sophia!

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