Destiny and Perseverance

A scientific conference attended by Giancarlo and colleagues pre-pandemic. From right to left: Giancarlo, Dr. Lorenzo Ciannelli (my advisor), Dr. Caren Barcelo, and Jennifer Wong-Ala (lab mate).

by Giancarlo M. Correa, PhD Student in Ocean Ecology and Biogeochemistry

Have you ever thought about how you got to where you are now academically? In my case, three clear events got me to where I am. I think every outcome is a product of something, and that something might be destiny or it might be perseverance.

Finding an ideal career by chance

When I was in school I loved math, and honestly, I was pretty good at it. I participated in many regional math competitions and I succeeded in some of them. I assumed that studying anything related to engineering after school would be the right path for me, and I left my amazing school life with that thought in mind. In Peru, where I was born and raised, there is a very competitive exam students need to take in order to be admitted into the very few good (and free) public universities, so applicants typically take classes at special centers (popularly called “academies”) after school during some months to be prepared to take that exam. I signed up in a center called Pamer to study for exams allowing me to apply to the industrial engineering program at San Marcos National University, the oldest university in America.

By then, I needed to review math and verbal concepts, but also subjects such as chemistry, biology (which I hated), and physics. So, one sunny Saturday, I made a mistake and I attended a biology class to which I was not assigned. The professor was renowned in Pamer for his way of teaching. And here is when destiny, for the first time, played a role in my academic formation. That Saturday I fell in love with biology in just two hours of class. The way this professor taught biology was extremely engaging and thought-provoking; I never realized how interesting biology was until that moment. I did not need to think twice — I knew at that moment that biology was going to be my future career. A few months later I was admitted to San Marcos National University to study biological sciences, and that was one of the best decisions of my life.

As a student in biological sciences, I had to travel a lot around my country. I will never forget the amazing places and people that I met. This is the most famous waterfall in Peru: Gocta, located in the Amazonas region.
My first opportunity in research

The first months of my undergraduate life were difficult for me, as adapting to university life was not immediate and I needed some time to adjust to working on my own and not having a professor pushing me. I wanted to specialize in molecular biology, which was a popular choice among most students by then, and I was quite good at my molecular biology classes. In the fourth year of study, every student must select a specialization to follow during the last two years, and there were three choices: zoology, botany, and hydrobiology and fisheries. I was unsure which path to take. Most students took zoology or botany since there were more professors and researchers to work with in those disciplines. However, I do not usually follow the herd so I chose hydrobiology and fisheries, beginning my fourth year at the university somewhat unsure about this decision.

A year later, I needed to look for a laboratory or institution in which to get mandatory research experience, and to do an undergraduate thesis. That was a critical moment in my academic life. I asked one of my professors about internship opportunities at the Marine Institute of Peru (IMARPE), and she introduced me to the leader of the Population Dynamics and Stock Assessment Unit, who accepted me to do a research internship for a few months (that was the plan at the beginning, but those months became years). Then came the second crucial moment in my academic life: I started to study the population dynamics of fish populations using statistical and mathematical methods, an amazing field that I am still in love with.

The first scientific survey I participated in taught me how hard and enjoyable can be working onboard. An unforgettable experience. This is one of the main research vessels of the Marine Institute of Peru (IMARPE): the BIC Jose Olaya Balandra.
An international jump

I worked for almost five years at IMARPE, gaining invaluable knowledge and experience. During that time, I undertook a master’s program in applied math, I participated in my first research cruise, and I published my first paper. I also participated in international conferences and met great scientists in Peru and abroad, and some of them were the source of inspiration for my next big step: pursuing a doctoral degree abroad.

Applying to American universities is not an easy task for international students; it demands time and money, but I was determined. I researched all the requirements, and soon identified the most important ones: passing the TOELF exam (to prove that I am proficient in English), taking the GRE, finding an academic advisor and getting funding. I passed the TOELF exam with a score that was good enough. Next I took the GRE, and I got an outstanding score in the math section, a not-bad verbal score, and a quite bad score in the written part. However, I struggled to find an academic advisor. I made a list of all the professors that I would have liked to work with, and I emailed them asking for opportunities. Sixty percent did not reply, 20% were not accepting new students at that time, 15% did not have funding sources, and 5% (one professor) invited me for an interview and ended up supporting my application to Oregon State University, although funding was not guaranteed. And here is the third crucial moment in my academic life: I only applied to one university and I was admitted. Was I lucky? Who knows, but this outcome was a consequence of perseverance and I am proud of it. Since fall 2018, I live in a small city in the Pacific Northwest (Corvallis), working with Dr. Lorenzo Ciannelli on projects related to population dynamics of the Pacific cod in the eastern Bering Sea. I have no words to describe how much I have learned during the last years and how beautiful is this area of the world.

When I applied to Oregon State University, I was not aware of how astonishing the Pacific Northwest is. I am truly lucky of living in this area. Here is a viewpoint in Newport, a city relatively close to Corvallis.
What about you?

Have you thought about the crucial moments that brought you to where you are now? Were they products of destiny or perseverance? Identify them and be thankful and proud of them. There is no better or worse place to be, there is only the right one, where you are now. Are you excited about which events will define your academic life? I am, and I have no doubt that I will make the right decision. Enjoy this moment and do not stop persisting to achieve your academic and life goals. Destiny might play an important role at some point, but it will need to be complemented by your perseverance.