With 2016 having come to a close, so has my Masters of Science journey. This blog post was scheduled to air the day of graduation (December 14) but things got super hectic and I dropped the ball on that… oops!
I’ve had a few people interested in my Master’s pathway and my results, so I decided to explain the deep sea shark science I was immersed in. #deepseascience
HOW DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THIS OPPORTUNITY?
I had just graduated with my Bachelor’s degree from New College of Florida (shout out to my alma mater) and was looking into graduate programs. A major problem I found was that either the labs I was interested in didn’t have space or wanted me to come in with funding for a project (which I didn’t have). So, I was being rejected left and right from all graduate programs and was feeling super low. Aimlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed, PhD Candidate Brit Finnuci posted on the Gills Club Facebook page that her advisor was looking for a Master’s student. New Zealand had never really been on my traveling list, but I didn’t have anything to lose by applying and decided to give it a try.
HOW DID YOU APPLY?
I sent out an e-mail to the advisor stating my interest in the proposed project and attached my CV outlining my qualifications. At this point I was gearing up to leave on a week-long trip to the Bahamas with the esteemed Jim Abernethy and was worried that if I fell off the face of the planet for a week that I’d get passed over so I let him know I was still really interested but I’d be off the grid for a while.
DID YOUR FAMILY KNOW?
I let my parents know that I applied, as well as (my then-fiancé) Josh. In fact, as soon as I saw the opportunity I called my parents and we talked about it. I get my wanderlust from my mum so she was super encouraging while my dad was a bit more hesitant (I’m sure he wasn’t pleased at the idea of his little girl being so far away). Josh, as always, was behind me 100%. I’m really lucky that I had their support!
WHEN DID YOU FIND OUT?
I had been back from the Bahamas for a day. I was still on a complete high from the awesome trip, and I guess my body missed the rocking of the ocean because I woke up at 4am for some reason. I couldn’t fall back asleep so I read through some e-mails and saw one from the advisor. The e-mail was a continuation of the thread I had started when I first shot him a message, so I wasn’t sure if it was good news or bad. I took a deep breath and clicked “open” … and cried. Turns out I had gotten the position (which included a scholarship)!
HOW DID YOU FEEL?
I was completely overwhelmed with emotions. I was super excited because I had finally been accepted somewhere! I was pumped because it was a project on animals I had heard of but never really research, so I was thrilled to be expanding my knowledge. And, last but not least, I was terrified because New Zealand is super far away. The program started in August which left me less than 5 months to formally apply to the school, get my VISA, pack up my life and go. It was a lot to process at 4am (and the subsequent days)!
WHEN DID YOU SAY ‘YES’ TO THE PROGRAM?
I gave it two days to chat with my family and what this would mean. Josh and I were in the middle of planning a wedding and that brought up a ton of questions (such as would we push it back until I was done?), and I had to make sure it was financially feasible to take on. My family continued to be supportive, something I am SO grateful for. I didn’t announce it to my friends until everything was finalized, but once I did everyone was excited for me!
WHEN DID YOU LEAVE TO NZ?
I left in the middle of August—the tail end of the Florida summer and tail end of winter in New Zealand. I would be attending Victoria University of Wellington, which was located in Wellington, New Zealand (nicknamed Windy Welly for the insane winds the city bears). I went from shorts, flip flops (jandals) and a tank top to three layers of clothes, scarf, boots and jeans.
HOW WAS THE FLIGHT?
I took multiple flights and had a pretty direct flight (Orlando à Dallas à Los Angeles à Sydney à Wellington). The 14 hour flight from LA to SYD was pretty foreign to me (my longest being 7 or 8 hours), and I bought special compression socks, a neck pillow and a sleeping mask. I also picked up Z-quil which helped me conk out and not have such a problem with jetlag.
HOW WAS MEETING YOUR ADVISOR FOR THE FIRST TIME?
I was early and he was out of the office. We failed at a good handshake (awkward hand positions) and I was enthralled with his axolotls all named Dave. In summary: it gave me a sneak peek into our relationship (which I treasure). My advisor has been instrumental in my growth this year, both professionally and personally. Shout out to him!
WHY DID YOU DO A ONE-YEAR MSc?
I opted for the MSc by research route, as my degree from New College qualified as an honours degree and allowed me to go straight into the research.
DID YOU REGRET THIS?
In some aspects, yes. I didn’t take any classes, which meant I only really knew my advisor at the school and that made this route quite lonely for a while. I worked a fulltime job (at one point TWO jobs and TFUI) and was exhausted by the end of my shift and vehemently hated hiking up the hills to get to my university, which is why I never used my office space (I did my best writing at home or at the local library… I felt the student longue was too stuffy).
WERE YOU HOMESICK?
Initially no, because I would be going home late November/early December to get married (so it was a “see you later” not a goodbye). The first birthday without family was hard, as was the first few holidays. Leaving my family after the wedding was tough because I didn’t know when I’d be home again (it’s been over a year now).
HOW WAS THE WRITING PROCESS?
Brutal. Some days the words flew off my fingers while others I sat staring at a blank page for hours because I didn’t know how to write what was going through my brain at rapid speed. I had three chapters (with multiple sections) and the one that took the longest was the first, which included my literature review.
HOW WAS JUGGLING A JOB/DOING A MSc?
Super duper tough. The jobs I had were not even related to my degree, and had long hours for little pay. It was a real test to make myself write after a 10 hour shift and not just fall asleep on the couch!
HOW DID YOU GROW (PROFESSIONALLY, MENTALLY, ETC.)?
I think all of what I learned from graduate school boiled down to two main things: (1) that “failure” is normal and not a reflection on me as a person and (2) that you need support from your “people” to get through grad school.
I’ll elaborate. The first point, failure, has always caused me anxiety. I don’t like to lose, I don’t like to be incorrect and I don’t like to fail. Yet, failure is normal in grad school (and life!) and I had such a hard time stomaching that. I felt what I was doing was insignificant (because I was learning a new language: R Programming and that was a long process), repetitive and that all I was doing was insignificant. My advisor basically held my hand as we navigated through R (I had known the basics before, not even close to what we were coding now) and encouraged me through the lows. He, and this process, taught me to not only come to terms with inevitable failure but to overcome and learn from it.
The second point was made very clear to me from the beginning of this journey. My parents, my fiancé (/husband), my friends were all ridiculously supportive of me. As 2016 began, some things didn’t go as planned and for a few months there was a lot of frustration and tears. At the time I was the sole breadwinner and then my job shut down, leaving us completely blindsided and struggling. My mental health took a nose dive and… well, it was just really rough. But, life has a way of sorting itself out and taught me perseverance, diligence, and mental toughness. As I regained employment after a month of being unemployed, I once again learned time management, writing and communication skills and broadened my analytical and critical thinking skills. Mental health (as well as physical) is critical to a good graduate school experience, and mine was all over the place by the end of it.
ANY TIPS FOR THOSE SEEKING A GRADUATE DEGREE?
For the actual process of applying to grad schools, make sure first and foremost that your CV is up-to-date, and that you have copies of your academic transcript galore. I reached out to specific advisors I wanted to work under, expressing my interest in their lab, the work they were involved with (usually citing papers of theirs I had read), and listing a few reasons why I would be a good fit for the lab. It's helpful to have a few ideas on a project you are interested in pursuing to discuss with a potential advisor, so they can see you've done your homework as to what their lab can/cannot offer you.
As for the process of writing: I forbade myself from working on weekends and on most days after 5pm (unless I was really feelin' the writing gods speak to me) after I was halfway through my thesis; I was working 24/7 for the first half and absolutely burnt out. I alternarted listening to music with lyrics (Hamilton Musical's "Nonstop" was my jam) and classical music so I wouldn't get bored while writing. I downloaded the following programs to make sure I stayed focused and didn't stray onto social media or stay on the computer for too long:
WHEN DID YOU TURN IN YOUR MSc?
I finally turned it in mid-August 2016 (a few weeks before the school was expecting it)! I went to NIWA to wrap up the final edits with my advisor, print it, punch holes and bind it. I was elated (so much I even gave my advisor a hug and thanked him—he was like, “This won’t be the last we see of each other! I’ll see you soon, it’s not goodbye!”).
WHAT WAS THE PROCESS AFTER THAT?
Wait. I had to wait two months for reviewers to read and critique my thesis, giving recommendations for edits and ultimately giving me a grade. In October I got the edits back, made the necessary changes, printed it out and got it bound to turn into the school so I could graduate. Graduation was set for December 14, so we had to have a PDF and hard copy in by mid-November. We ended up getting an earthquake (followed by a week of crazy weather that led to many of us thinking the apocalypse was breaking loose) that shut most of the city down, including where I got my thesis bound! Thankfully VUW was understanding of the situation and allowed us to turn in the bound theses in late and still graduate in December.
SO WHAT’S THE THESIS ABOUT?
My MSc thesis, “Habitat use throughout a Chondrichthyan’s life” will be open access on the VUW archives (soon I hope!), so any interested persons can read it in full. This research was supported by the New Zealand Seafood Scholarship, the Deepwater Group, as well as researchers from National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) who provided insight and expertise that greatly assisted the research (although they may not agree with all of the interpretations/conclusions of this paper).
Over the last few decades, much effort has been devoted towards evaluating and reducing bycatch in marine fisheries. There has been a particular focus on quantifying the risk to chondrichthyans, primarily because of their relatively high vulnerability to overfishing. A key part of risk assessment is evaluating the distributional overlap of the fish with the fisheries, where fish distribution is influenced by habitat use.
WHAT IS RISK ASSESSMENT?
A risk assessment reviews species characteristics and stock status to ensure that appropriate management and protection are applied to shark species. This allows for prioritisation of those species/stock where management measures are critical and also identifies those stocks where improvements to management measures are needed. Risk, in this context, is defined as: “Population-level risk, which is a function of impact and depends on the inherent biological or population-level characteristics of that population.” Generally for risk assessments, appropriate indicators of risk are identified, data are collected and analysed to calculate them, and the indicators compared against reference points or simply used to order species relative risk.]
An M-Risk assessment similarly identifies the species/stocks of sharks of potential concern and their relative level of concern.
HOW IS THIS DONE FOR SHARKS?
For sharks, M-Risk assessment includes a lot of variables: there are a number of shark species (approximately 112 species of sharks have been recorded from New Zealand waters) with many different lifestyles, differences in their market value for different body parts (like meat, oil, fins, cartilage), what body parts they use for sharks (like some sharks have both their fins and meat utilized but not their oil, some just have their fins were taken, etc.) and how to identify sharks once on the market (Fisheries Agency of Japan, 1999; Vannuccini, 1999; Yeung et al. 2000; Froese and Pauly, 2002; Clarke and Mosqueira, 2002).
WHAT WERE YOUR METHODS?
I ended up synthesizing published observations of habitat use for different life history stages of Chondrichthyans, and hypothesise the associated catch composition in terms of fish sex, size, and maturity (this research I hope to publish in 2017). Using R Programming, we searched for these catch compositions, and thereby locations, using New Zealand research vessel catch data (provided by NIWA).
WHAT ANIMALS WERE IN THIS STUDY? WHY?
There were five chimaeras of specific interest for this thesis: Callorhynchus milii (MPI code ELE), Hydrolagus novaezealandiae (GSH), Hydrolagus bemisi (GSP), Harriotta raleighana (LCH), and Rhinochimaera pacifica (RCH). These species were chosen because they cover a large range of depth (7 m – 1306 m), and had been noted as being abundant despite extensive fisheries (Ford et al., 2015), and they were of special interest to the Deepwater Group (who funded the scholarship for the MSc).
AND WHAT WERE YOUR RESULTS?
Results show that some life history stages and habitats for certain species could be identified, whereas others could not. Pupping ground criteria were met for Callorhynchus milii (ELE), Hydrolagus novaezealandiae (GSH), and Hydrolagus bemisi (GSP); nursery ground criteria were met for Callorhynchus milii (ELE); mating ground criteria were met for Callorhynchus milii (ELE), Hydrolagus novaezealandiae (GSH), Hydrolagus bemisi (GSP), and Harriotta raleighana (LCH); lek-like mating criteria were met for Hydrolagus novaezealandiae (GSH).
For those life-history stage habitats not found, this may be because these are outside of the coverage of the data set (and likely also commercial fisheries), or because they do not actually exist for some Chondrichthyans. On the basis of the results, I proposed to change the order of species in the risk assessment, and raise relative risk for Hydrolagus bemisi (GSP), given the species vulnerability of pupping grounds.
HOW IS THIS INFORMATION UNIQUE?
This approach differs because we developed hypotheses for characteristics of different habitat use, rather than “data mining” for patterns, and it therefore has a structured and scientific approach to determining shark habitats. Quantitative stock estimates are unavailable for all species (Ministry for Primary Industries, 2016).
I also came up with never before done analysis of the relationships between adult habitat and pupping grounds as well as sexually mature female and male habitats in regards to each other (also hoping to publish information in 2017).
and that's all!
So what's next? I turned down a PhD offer at the end of my MSc, and while I was at first ashamed of it (and sometimes still am for “not being strong enough”) this whole process has made me question if I truly enjoy my field (I do!) and was the PhD project I had in mind what I wanted to do. While I was interested in the research, it didn’t play up all my strengths and that’s why I ultimately stepped away. For now I'm content with finding a job that I can use my shiny new degree in, publishing some papers, learning new skills and strengthening other skills, and traveling all while I look for a PhD that not only has scientific research but a science outreach/communication component to it.
talk to me about your graduate school experiences!
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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