Dec 6, 2019 | Atlanta, GA
The first year OSE students welcome incoming students! If you’ve been accepted into the program and are packing your bags, 1) CONGRATULATIONS! and 2) you know by now that OSE is an interdisciplinary program just starting its second year of being awesome. OSE is a unique program that hosts a group of motivated students with a diverse skillset in the ocean sciences and engineering fields. I am one of those lucky students! My name is Abbie Johnson and my “home school” is Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EAS - yes…get used to the never-ending flood of acronyms). Like OSE, this is the start of my second year here at Georgia Tech (and my fifth year of grad school overall), so here are some of my experiences and some tips on how you can get the most out of this new program (and grad school in general if you’re new to that, too).
A World of Opportunities
OSE is still in its infancy, so we (the students) have the unique opportunity of helping mold the program’s structure into one that most effectively drives collaborations across schools, and trains students (us!) to bridge such collaborations. Our research ranges from building robots that dive under the ice shelves of Antarctica, to better understanding global ocean circulation, to discovering survival strategies of ocean microbes using pressure vessels.
During my first year, I developed a completely new project in our lab to study proteins that bacteria may use to bind subseafloor methane ice as a survival strategy. Since methane ice has been detected on other celestial bodies, like Titan and Mars, this project may have applications for the discovery of life in the cosmos! Because methane ice grows under high pressures, I’ll be employing high tech pressure vessels in collaboration with engineers from the Civil and Environmental Engineering department. I’m currently conducting trial tests by growing crystals that are similar to methane ice, but stable under atmospheric pressure, using a fiberglass-insulated refrigerator (which I built with the help of the engineers). It’s an honor to be involved in developing an interdisciplinary project incorporating the fields of biology, geology, chemistry, engineering, and astrobiology.
My first research endeavor in the OSE program began before I even started my PhD! During my entrance interview with my current mentor, Jennifer Glass, I inquired about potential cruise opportunities. Fortuitously, she informed me that an upcoming research mission to explore the microbiology of the world’s largest Oxygen Minimum Zone off the coast of Mexico aboard the R/V Oceanus still had an open space for a bright young student such as myself. Needless to say, I accepted without hesitation! At this point, I had already been on several research cruises and knew how valuable the experience at sea is to up-and-coming ocean scientists. During that three-week venture, I learned how to cast and recover the CTD (conductivity-temperature-depth), carry needles and handle mercuric chloride-containing bottles on a moving boat, and how not to get seasick (raw ginger root and ginger-ale became my best friend). It was an incredible experience and all I really had to do was ask. Others in OSE have also had some exciting field opportunities during their first year. For example, Ben Hurwitz travelled to Antarctica for a few months to test an underwater robot; and Roth Conrad has been doing local fieldwork sampling the Chattahoochee River to study biofilms on plastics. Be sure to ask your mentors sooner rather than later about your interest in fieldwork; the sooner they know you’re interested, the more likely they’ll be able to find opportunities for you.
Conferences are another important tool for students in OSE (and grad students, in general) for use in developing new collaborations and sharing novel research to the scientific community. They’re also useful for those who tend towards procrastination (like myself) since they create deadlines. I’ve definitely had my share of conferences during the past year (unusual for most first-year grad students). At the fifth annual Southeastern Biogeochemistry Symposium (SBS), founded by Dr. Glass (another example of OSE faculty expertise), I presented my first Georgia Tech poster sharing my PhD project plans to the local biogeochemists, who were excited to see a compelling project developing. Conferences also lend themselves to lasting memories. I’ll always remember the road trip to SBS when my academic siblings and I greatly enjoyed listening to our mentor read gripping, road trip-related excerpts from Hope Jarhen’s “Lab Girl”. Local conferences, like SBS, can be just as valuable (and fun) as the larger conferences because they give you the opportunity to meet the folks in your specialization. I also attended AbGradCon, ASM and a couple of symposiums that were hosted by Georgia Tech. Tech is a choice spot for several national and local conferences, so ask around and see if you can volunteer for any of the upcoming conferences in Atlanta that are in your field. All in all, the opportunities are endless! You just have to be proactive and ask for them.
What do we do in OSE?
The OSE directors have kicked off the program with a big bang!
Immersion week. First off, a jam-packed “immersion week” introduced us to the faculty involved in OSE and their research and provided an orientation into OSE and our home schools. I can say, without a doubt, that we were indeed “immersed” in information that week, but several social meals and outings between info sessions made the experience less intense. It was exciting (and only slightly intimidating) connecting with the other OSE students and faculty with whom I would be spending the next five years.
Classes. Like every graduate program, you’re required to take a few classes. In OSE’s course curriculum, it’s intended that we take a few core courses from the three schools (BIO, CEE, EAS) to introduce us to key concepts from different fields and develop the skillset we need to be able to discuss these topics more effectively in our interdisciplinary research collaborations. As part of OSE I got to pick my own classes. This year, I took “Physical and Chemical Oceanography” through EAS, “Microbial Principles” and “Environmental Microbial Genomics” through CEE, and “Microbial Symbiosis” through BIO. Taking the microbiology-related courses side-by-side was intriguing because it gave me the perspective of both the biologist (what I’ve considered myself to be during my college career) and the environmental engineer (the more practical and tech-focused viewpoint). Classes should supplement your research project and be in balance with the time you spend on research and any teaching responsibilities you may have.
Teaching. I also taught an intro environmental science course during the Spring semester. I’ve TA’d before, so I wasn’t shocked by the time sink but, as usual, it brought me joy to see students’ faces light up as they learned the basic concepts of my field. If you want to hear more about TAing at Tech, read Melissa Ruszczyk’s blog entry from May 2018, “To Teach or Not to Teach?”.
OSE Seminar. We invited OSE faculty to our weekly seminar to share their current research. Right from the beginning, I was impressed by how the nature of the projects presented by the faculty were just as interdisciplinary as the program. These meetings were also used as a regular check-up for the students to discuss how we’re doing and what OSE can do for us to make our time here more productive, educational and fun. It’s been made abundantly clear to me that OSE students are valued. The directors let us voice our thoughts/concerns and they listen and make changes because they know we’re here to make a difference.
Socials. OSE gets together a few times each semester to take a break from the grind and check up on each other. There are also events offered by the different schools that welcome OSE, including BioBuzz, a weekly after-work beer and snack social that was co-founded by our own OSE student, Roth Conrad, where biology-focused students and professors chat about science over a cold one. EAS also offers a similar event called Beernoulli, where EAS students go off campus and check out the different pubs around town. Remember to give your brain a break and kick back with your peers on occasion!
Some quick tips about OSE and grad school life
There’s plenty of support to go around. When entering a new program at its inception, a strong support group is imperative. In OSE, we not only have our OSE faculty, but we have our home schools as well. And since I interact most often with my lab and office mates, we lean on each other regularly. You’ll find great solace in your personal support system.
Speak up and get involved! This group still has plenty of room for growth and ideas, so if you think of something we can do as a group or how to structure the course curriculum to fit your needs better, bring it up! Our director, Manu, is friendly and always open to new and exciting ideas!
Read read read. It’s important, especially in the first year, to read and learn as much about your project and related topics as possible as you dive into research. I spent my first semester reading at least 25 hours per week while developing my research project on top of the reading for classes. As a GT student, you’re expected to be at the top of your field; that means having a thorough understanding of your own project, but it also means having a broad understanding of your general research field (e.g. climate change), which allows you to collaborate with other researchers.
Remember to have fun and take care of yourself! Grad school can be very rigorous and it’s critical to take breaks and rejuvenate, especially with your favorite activity. During my first semester, I played violin in a community orchestra every Sunday. These days, I’ve been working on my sketching, catching up on my reading list, birding and hiking. Just do what makes you happy… you’ll be more productive if you’re happy.
Network and collaborate. Grad school is, of course, more fun when you’re around friends and enjoying your favorite hobby, but it’s also more fun when you network and get involved in the different research communities on campus, which has been one of the largest perks of grad school for me. When I began developing my thesis, my advisor helped me to develop research collaborations. I now attend another lab’s weekly group meetings so I can be more proficient in the engineering aspect of my project. I’m hoping that having these connections will give me a leg up while I’m looking for opportunities at and outside of GT. Remember to take advantage of your advisor’s resources.
Last tips. Remember, all you have to do is ask for opportunities and show interest. And don’t forget your ginger root on your next seafaring adventure!
The future of OSE looks bright!
We’re very much looking forward to having you and other students join in on the fun over the next several years. This is an exciting time for interdisciplinary research, and here you have the privilege to develop collaborative research networks across various disciplines like I am doing. Because this program is so new and well supported, you also have the freedom to make your research dreams come true… so make it happen!
Welcome aboard the OSE vessel! Feel free to drop a line if you have questions! firstname.lastname@example.org
Your new friend,