grad alumni

Where are they now? Alumni Spotlight – Lisa Milke

Dr. Lisa Milke is a Marine Sciences alumna who received her Master’s in Oceanography from UConn in 2001 and her PhD in Biology from Dalhousie University in Canada in 2006. This interview was carried out by Patricia Myer, a current graduate student, on April 20th, 2021. We discussed her current job at NOAA, her path there from UConn, and advice for current graduate students.

Patricia: What is your current position?Lisa Milke portrait

Lisa: I am Chief of the Aquaculture Systems and Ecology Branch at the NOAA Milford lab in Connecticut.

Q: What does the typical day look like at your job?

Lisa: I think there’s no such thing as the typical day. Things are cyclical; you have seasonal activities that come and go. And at this point, I spend a lot more time leading a group of scientists than doing my own research. I consider myself the bureaucracy facilitator and problem solver for the group so that they can focus on the science. So, for me it depends what deadline or problem arises on any particular day.

Q: Could you expand a bit on how your work differs during Covid and before, and what kind of work you do at the Milford Lab?

Lisa: The Milford lab was started in 1931, and we focus on aquaculture research, shellfish research and the interactions between aquaculture and the environment.

Usually, this time of year we have experiments running, people out in the field, and the hatchery up and running. We would be doing research on effects of ocean acidification on different shellfish species. We would have oyster cages in the water, using cameras to identify at fish assemblages and how the cages can create habitat. There’s also ongoing work developing and testing probiotics for oysters in commercial hatcheries.  This is just a bit of the work we usually do.  There’s usually a wide variety going on research-wise.

During Covid, some research has continued, but in a very restricted way. Staff are only allowed to be in the facility if you’re deemed ‘essential’. There are protocols in place to make sure that two people aren’t in the same room at the same time and activities are being conducted safely. So, while we’ve been getting some lab work done, there is also a lot of writing being done by folks at home.  I personally haven’t been to the lab in over a year.

Much of what I do, which doesn’t change whether I’m home or in the lab, is getting people what they need to get their work done.  This could be managing budgets, trying to get approval for someone to be in the lab, finding money to get our research vessel repaired, putting a signature on some form, reviewing proposals and manuscripts or making connections among different groups inside and outside NOAA.

Q: What path did you take to get from UConn to your current position at NOAA?

Lisa: I did my masters with Evan Ward on, of course, shellfish feeding.  I really enjoyed the work I was doing, but I wanted to do something a bit more applied. I tried to get a technician position when I was finishing and couldn’t find something.  I knew I wanted to do my PhD anyway, so I ended up going directly into that after graduation.

I moved to Canada, where they had a national program at the time focused on applied aquaculture research. My work focused on identifying the nutritional requirements of postlarval sea scallops in an aquaculture setting.  As I was getting close to finishing, a job posted at the Milford lab for a shellfish physiologist, and it had been brought to my attention. I was like, no, no, I’m going to move to New Zealand and I’m going to do a post doc, that’s my plan. And the director of research at the National Research Council, where I was conducting my work, walked across the hall, and said, “you’re a shellfish physiologist, and there’s a job for a shellfish physiologist, so, if you don’t apply for that job you’re crazy.”

I ended up applying for it that evening and ultimately was offered the position.  I moved to CT before I was done with my dissertation, and it took me about a year and a half after starting at Milford Lab to finish. NOAA was really accommodating, largely because my dissertation research was the exact type work they wanted me to be doing. There was a lot of kindness from NOAA and the university as I was wrapping up.

I spent 10 years as a research fishery biologist at the Milford lab, where I really was in the lab doing hands on work.  About 6 years ago, my supervisor retired.  I offered to take over the branch chief position in an acting capacity with no intent to do it forever. However, once I was doing the job I realized that I didn’t hate it and I was kind of good at it, and so I switched positions. It was a very conscious move to leave the lab work side of things.  My current position is never where I aspired to be, but is a good fit.

Q: What about your graduate school experience, either Masters or PhD, would you say best helped prepare you for your career?

Lisa: I would say that there were two big pieces. One was learning very practical and broad problem solving. Some days you’re fixing plumbing, some days you’re growing algal cultures, some days you’re spawning animals, and some days you’re doing spreadsheets. Just being able to solve all those different problems and jump from thing to thing is great.  I no longer feel like I’m an expert in anything since I am more removed from day-to-day research, but there is a broad portfolio of things that I’ve done that informs my ability to participate productively in lots of different activities. I think that’s true to much of marine science; there’s a lot of interdisciplinary pieces to getting work done, and that backgrounds is a plus.

The other thing that really prepared me was just, the people. I think you have a tendency to make really long-lasting relationships when you’re in grad school, and those are people that I’m still in touch with.  And even people you don’t keep in contact with you are still connected to.  Last week actually, I was invited to participate in a review panel by a fellow UConn marine sciences alum who I haven’t seen in 15 years. It’s a small community, so having those people and building those relationships is helpful.

Q: What kind of advice would you have for current grad students?

Lisa: First, is to remember to breathe. Grad school is really hard. I think it’s this really weird time where you, in some ways, have a lot of freedom in your time and how you structure your day. But otherwise, you have a lot riding on something that you don’t have complete control over. A lot of different people are influencing your journey. I think that this dynamic can be really hard, and research is hard, and classes are hard. I think it’s okay to feel overwhelmed. To breathe and just move forward I think is a big piece of advice. I probably didn’t do that enough.

I would also say, do what feels right to you. I never had a career path or an end goal in mind, but I’ve always done what felt like the right thing to me.  It might not have been what my advisor thought I should do, or my parents thought I should do, or a fellow grad student thought I should do, but I’ve been true to myself and I think that has worked out really well.

And the other thing is kind of getting back to that people part of it. It’s such a small community. So, spend time getting to know people as people, because those relationships can be really helpful in starting your career, really helpful in continuing your career, and it’s just really lovely to have people to rely on when you come against bumps in the road.

Lisa Milke at coast

Where are they now? Alumni Spotlight – Amina Schartup

Amina Schartup measuring air temperature
Amina in Bamako Mali, measuring air temperature.

Dr. Amina Schartup is a Marine Sciences alumna who recently started as an assistant professor at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. She is currently working on setting up her lab at Scripps. Amina received her PhD in Oceanography in 2012. At UConn, she studied mercury cycling in sediments with Dr. Robert Mason. This interview was carried out by Patricia Myer, a current graduate student, on October 23rd, 2020. We discussed her current situation, unique career path, and advice for grad students.

Patricia: Would you mind telling me about setting up a lab during these times?

Amina: I think that setting up a lab in normal circumstances is quite challenging, because you have so many moving pieces. It’s really difficult to know where to start. You have to build the lab, the physical space, but then you also have to build the group – build that cohesion between you and whoever comes into your group, and start a culture. People don’t think about it sometimes, but that’s when you decide what the culture of your group is going to be.

You also have to equip your lab. You need to buy the instruments, deal with salespeople, choose what you want down to the smallest beaker. It’s just a lot of details, and now we’re doing a lot of this remotely, without the option to meet in person. Bringing in students and creating that culture in your group when you cannot be in the same room is not ideal.

Q: What path did you take to get to your current position from UConn?

Amina: After I graduated in 2012, I started as a postdoc at the Harvard School of Public Health, working with Elsie Sunderland. I was there for two and a half years, and then she actually moved to a different position at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. I moved with her as a Research Associate until 2017. In 2017 I started an AAAS Science and Technology policy fellowship. I was placed at the office of Polar programs at NSF, and I was there until 2019. After that I came to Scripps.

When I started the AAAS position, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do career-wise. I wasn’t decided on whether I wanted to remain in academia or not. There were three reasons why I wanted to do this fellowship. One – I thought that if I wanted to stay in academia, considering that a lot of students who get a PhD do not necessarily end up in academia, I thought it would be difficult for me to advise them on career paths and choices if I had no experience with what a career looks like outside of academia. AAAS has such an amazing track record at placing PhDs in all kinds of private and government positions, they have a vast network of people that you can reach out to at any time. I thought it would be great to have these connections, so if my students decide they don’t want to stay in academia, I have someone to reach out to, and I also know what these jobs look like.

Another reason is that I did not want to commit to a career path in academia for myself without knowing the other options out there, and whether this is the one thing that would work well for me in the long-term. This exposed me to those other jobs. I decided to go back to academia.

The other reason was that if I want to go into academia, I needed to know how proposals work and how to get funded. Being at NSF is a better place to learn how to write a good proposal, what gets funded, and how the review process works. A lot of people go into NSF as a rotator later on as academics. I thought it would be really nice to go in early on before I start the position, and that would increase my chances as I pursue my academic career. Those are the main reasons why I wanted to go into AAAS.

The difficulty was that if you want to go to academia, you have to maintain a productivity output of sorts. Which means I actually had two jobs. I had to do my AAAS job and I also had to do my academic job, so I was working three 11-hour days and one 7-hour day at NSF. Then the rest of the week would be science work, so, papers and research projects. I went out to the field on vacation time and did all kinds of crazy things to make sure I could still produce science while I was at NSF.

Amina incubating soil cores
Amina in North West River, Labrador Canada incubating soil cores.

Q: What did you study at UConn, and how does it compare to what you do now?

Amina: I did my PhD in Oceanography with Rob Mason, and I studied mercury cycling in sediments mostly for my PhD work, and then I had one side project where I was looking at what was happening in the water. I would say that the work I’m doing now is still quite similar, I still work on the same element for the most part. I think that where I grew was on the scale. I was mostly focused on smaller coastal areas, and as I moved through the different positions, I think the scale of my research changed to a more global and more of a systemic perspective, rather than just one aspect of the system such as sediment. This still in flux, this is partially what I’m trying to decide in my new position. What is it that I want my research to look like and what is it that I want my lab to do? It’s actually quite exciting.

 

Q: How much freedom do you have in choosing exactly what your lab does? I know a lot of people working on their PhDs aren’t sure if they’re locked into similar projects for the rest of their career.

Amina: In theory, you have unlimited choices, I can go out there and decide I want to study leaves. Your limitations are your own capabilities and knowledge of course, but also what people are willing to let you get away with. As a scientist, you can be curious about anything, but at the end of the day you need to get your research funded and your papers published. Somehow these aspects are also related to what people’s perceptions are of your capabilities.

I recently submitted a proposal about something that I thought was super interesting, and I really wanted to do, and I thought that I could actually do it – that even if I ran into difficulties that I could figure it out. And the proposal reviewers said ‘you have no experience in this thing, you can’t do it.’ So that’s where you get the pushback, you want to try something new, you want to try something different and branch out. You think you can do it, but people tell you that you can’t, so they don’t give you the money to actually try it out. I think that’s the issue.

When you’re trying to do something new, you have two options. You can work with somebody who is already well-established in the field and get in this way. Or, you can do the preliminary work and publish it, and show that you know something, and then you can rely on this to try something new.

Q: What would you say during your grad school experience best helped you prepare for your career?

Amina: It’s really difficult to pinpoint exactly what made a difference. There are a few things. One thing was that I didn’t have a set project that I came in to work on. I really had to come up with my own science, and I didn’t necessarily have all the extra cash that comes in with a project to get analysis done and so on. I had to just run around the department and figure out how to use the instruments that were available, and think hard about how I can use my resources to do impactful science. Just having the freedom to think through it and work through it at my own pace, without the pressure of being on a specific project that needed deliverables, I think in the long run was helpful to me. I got lucky that what I tried out worked, it could have not worked and impacted my career in a negative way. So, in a way it was a combination of luck and the fact that I could just run around and do whatever I wanted, which was really nice.

Q: What advice would you have for current grad students?

Amina: I think maintaining a life on the side is really important. I had two children during my PhD, my son was born in my first year and my daughter was 7 months at my defense. My husband always jokes that having children was really good for me because it forced me to have a life outside of the lab. That if it wasn’t for them, I would be there 24/7, and I think that’s true. I think that being forced to get out of that space and stopping the constant working and pushing yourself to extremes, and having a side life is good. It gives you the time to let ideas mature in your head, because I think our brains continue to work even if we’re not necessarily focused on something. So, if you’re stuck with an issue in the lab and can’t see the big picture, I think having some time and space outside will let your brain do the work in the background.

I think another thing that is really important is understanding that this is a personal journey, it is a collaborative journey, but it is a personal journey. You should make sure that you work with people and not compete with people, and really think about the fact that we all have our own paths to success, and it’s really hard to tell what somebody’s path will look like, you can only see it in hindsight. So, if you’re competing on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, it’s not good, because you don’t know where the person is going to go, and where you are going to go. If I was really focused on looking at what everybody was doing and how this reflects on me, and whether I fit in, having two children, I probably would have given up, because I wasn’t as productive as I should have been or working as hard as I should have been. I just left that on the side and did what I needed to do. And it just worked!

Former Marine Sciences graduate student, Dr. Maria Rosa, named as an Emerging Scholar by Diverse: Issues In Higher Education magazine

Former Marine Sciences graduate student, Dr. Maria Rosa, named as an Emerging Scholar by Diverse: Issues In Higher Education magazine (https://diverseeducation.com/2020-emerging-scholars/). For the past 19 years, Diverse: Issues In Higher Education has recognized an interdisciplinary group of minority scholars who represent the very best of the U.S. academy. Emerging Scholars are selected from hundreds of nominations, and those professors selected have distinguished themselves in their various academic disciplines and are actively working to make our society more equitable and just. This year, former Marine Sciences graduate student, Maria Rosa was one of fifteen professors nation-wide selected for the honor. Maria completed her PhD degree in 2016 (major advisor: Dr. J. Evan Ward), spent two years as a NSF-funded postdoctoral scholar at Stony Brook University (mentor: Dr. Dianna Padilla), and is currently the George and Carol Milne Assistant Professor of Biology at Connecticut College.

Where are they now? Alumni Spotlight – Michelle Fogarty

michelle fogarty portrait
pictured, Dr. Michelle Fogarty

Despite the 2-hour time difference, Michelle Fogarty answers my Skype call with enthusiasm at 8:30am MDT. Michelle is a recent Marine Sciences alumna, who is now based in Boulder, Colorado working at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). While at UConn, she studied air-sea interactions with Dr. Melanie Fewings. She graduated with her PhD in 2018, and her dissertation is available online for those interested in learning more. We spoke about her job search process, her current position, and advice she has for current graduate students. Interviewer: Molly James

 

Molly: What is your current position?

Michelle: I am a Postdoctoral Researcher in Marine Energy Resource Characterization at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Flatirons Campus, in Boulder, CO. I’ve been there for 8 months, since February 2019. NREL is a DOE-owned, contractor operated national lab, and we work with industry and academic partners to accelerate the commercialization of renewable energy technologies and diversify the US’s energy portfolio.

 

Q: How did you hear about it?

Michelle: I remember seeing the posting online somewhere — probably on LinkedIn, the Coastal List listserv or the MPOWIR jobs board. But, I didn’t apply based on the posting because there was no contact information for the principal investigator (PI), only instructions for submitting an application through the online portal. Without being able to research more about the group I’d be working with, I didn’t pursue it further. Later when I attended the Mid-Atlantic Bight Physical Oceanography and Meteorology (MABPOM) conference, I spoke with an acquaintance who knew about the NREL position and offered to send an introductory email to the PI. After a phone call with the PI, I decided to apply.

 

Q: What was the hiring process like?

Michelle: Over the course of three months, October to December 2018, I submitted my cover letter and CV, had a phone interview with Human Resources, and visited Boulder for an in-person interview. During the in-person visit, I gave a 15-minute presentation and fielded questions from a group of about 10 people, which was followed by a 1-hour Q&A session with a smaller interview committee that covered a larger range of topics and allowed me to ask questions of them as well.  A few weeks later, I was offered the job. I drove from CT to CO and reported for work at the beginning of February [2019]. I think it’s worth pointing out that from a hiring standpoint, there’s a difference between being brought on as a researcher or as a postdoc. As a postdoc, the main focus is on building your professional capacity, and NREL is committed to providing opportunities and mentorship along the way.

 

Q: What are you researching?

Michelle: As a member of the Marine Hydrokinetic Energy (MHK) group within the Water Power team, I am working on tidal energy resource characterization. My first project is to calculate characteristic flow and turbulence statistics from data collected at the Western Passage site near Eastport, Maine and write a journal article describing the results. That data was collected before I began at NREL. I’m also working on preparations for another tidal energy site resource characterization field campaign in Cook Inlet, Alaska. The results of both projects will document relevant flow conditions at potential tidal energy sites, to be used to validate regional circulation models, and will help device simulation tools estimate realistic loads on tidal turbines. More recently, I’ve started to coordinate with outside partners to get two new wave buoys deployed in 2020 to increase our wave resource characterization efforts. I am motivated by knowing that the results of my research will be used to help solve real-world problems.

 

Q: What is your work life like and how does it differ from your experience during grad school?

Michelle: There is little obvious hierarchy at NREL on a day to day basis like there was in grad school (undergraduate students/graduate students/postdocs/staff/faculty, etc.). While I still do a lot of work independently, we work in teams. On a weekly basis I participate in more collaborative efforts than I typically did during grad school. I work with people at all stages in their careers, and the tasks I’m given are based on my skills, my willingness to participate, and my availability.

I work a 40-hour week and complete a time sheet that accounts for each hour of work and which project the work was associated with, so that’s quite a bit different than the grad school structure. It feels more like a consulting job, where you are required to bill out your hours to a specific project. I have a cubical, and most of my time is spent working independently at my desk, with various project-based and MHK or Water Power group meetings throughout the week. I will continue to attend conferences like Ocean Sciences to keep in touch with the network of people I developed during grad school, and will get to know a new community of people at marine energy related conferences, too.

 

Q: What advice do you have for current graduate students?

Michelle: Talk to as many people as possible, you never know which connection will turn out to be useful. Keep notes of those interactions. Start doing this as early in your graduate school career as possible so 1) you get comfortable with it and 2) you develop relationships out of genuine interest and aren’t making the initial attempt to network at the moment you need something. Talk with people who have jobs like the one you think you want and to people who have jobs you’re “sure” you have no interest in. Do this through informal conversations at conferences, at events that have nothing to do with work, and invite people you’ve met in person or found online to participate in informational interviews with you on the phone or in person. I highly recommend sending hand-written thank you notes after those informational interviews, too. I have always been impressed at how willing people are to give their time and sending a thank you card is a small way to show how much you appreciate the kindness.

Where Are They Now? One Year After Avery Point

In 2018, seven graduate students from the Department of Marine Sciences completed their degrees, five with master’s and two with doctorates. We checked in a year later to see what they’ve been up to.

Michelle Fogarty landed a postdoctoral researcher position in Marine Energy Resource Characterization at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. On the other side of the country, Ellen Johnson is in San Diego, California working as a content writer and science communicator. Check out her blog, currentseablog.com, to read some of her articles about sustainability and the ocean. After completing his undergraduate and master’s studies at UConn, Matthew Lacerra began his doctorate at Princeton University where he is studying paleo-oceanography in Dr. Daniel Sigman’s group. Almariet Palm scored a position as a Project Geologist with HRP Associates Inc in Farmington, Connecticut. Gihong Park conferred his doctorate and continued at Avery Point as a postdoctoral research associate with his PhD advisor, Dr. Hans Dam. Julie Pringle moved back to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts and began working as a Field Science Coordinator for a local non-profit called the Great Pond Foundation. She commented on being back in the field, “after spending the majority of my graduate research in the lab, I’m really enjoying all the field work!”  Last but not least, Heidi Yeh started her doctorate studying oyster aquaculture at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She is “employing genetic techniques to promote sustainable seafood production.”

Some recent alumnae/i entered the next step in academia, while others moved into the work force. This just goes to show that a graduate degree from the Department of Marine Sciences can prepare you for a variety of career paths. It will be interesting to see where they wind up next!

 

Molly James