Aloha World !

Updated: Sep 8, 2021

By Phil Patton

Almost exactly one year ago, I read an advertisement for a research assistantship with the Marine Mammal Research Program at the University of Hawaiʻi and choose to apply. I was feeling nervous because, after six months of scrolling though the job boards, this was the only PhD project that drew me enough to apply. While I had considered other projects, this one, which involves evaluating the health of whale populations in the Main Hawaiian Islands, was the first one that checked all my boxes. It married the things I like to do for work—statistical modeling and programming—with things that I’m passionate about—island biodiversity and management-focused research. The research is funded through the NOAA Quantitative Ecology and Socioeconomic Training (QUEST) Fellowship program, which trains students in management -focused research relevant to federal scientists. As someone with a bias towards research that's relevant to managers, this is an ideal fellowship program.

Another thing that attracted me to the position was the lab’s emphasis on public communication. I’m happy to join that tradition by writing this introductory blog post.

Exploring my home state of Oregon

I feel incredibly lucky to be starting my PhD this month, especially considering the circuitous path I took to get here. Unlike many students entering the Marine Biology Graduate Program, I never thought that I might become a marine biologist. As a kid in Portland, I was mostly interested in Greek mythology and ancient Egypt. This later morphed into an interest in science, particularly astronomy, physics, and cosmology. In high school, I figured that I should translate this interest in science into a practical career, and I halfheartedly chose pharmacy.

Unfortunately, to become a pharmacist, you need an advanced degree, and to get an advanced degree, you need to do well in high school. I did not. I earned universally horrible grades, except in chemistry (hence, the pharmaceutical interest) and math. By my junior year, my parents and I decided that it would better for me to just drop out of high school. My parents encouraged me to get a GED, but I resisted this path because of the stigma. Once I understood my position, however, I relented and took the exam. After a year and some meandering, I enrolled at Lane Community College, about 100 miles south of Portland in Eugene. The change of scenery seemed to break the pattern because, finally, I started passing classes.

I initially declared a major in chemistry. While I enjoyed the coursework, my prospective career path didn’t inspire me. During my freshman year, however, I read the book Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman (a gift from my granddad), whose description of the biodiversity crisis alarmed me. After that I read The Diversity of Life by E.O. Wilson, which quickly convinced me that conservation was my calling. To that end, I wanted to bring my grades up and transfer to a school with a conservation focus.

I eventually transferred, via the University of Oregon, to the State University of New York – College of Environmental Science and Forestry, a university that claims to have the longest name in the country. Although I only spent two and a half years in Syracuse, my time there shaped me. I entered the university without any specific interests or passions other than a general desire to conserve biodiversity. I developed lifelong friendships, and, through coursework and research experiences, I discovered island conservation and statistics. I became passionate about both topics and wanted to ensure that they would be part of my career going forward.

After undergrad, I took a year off, during which I worked on a wind farm and, taking the shotgun approach, applied to around 75 master’s assistantships in ecology. This approach has its merits, but I think potential advisors can sense the lack of passion from the applicant. As a result, I received very little interest. Eventually, however, I found a M.S. project that genuinely excited me. The project focused on developing statistical models to inform conservation decision-making in Puerto Rico. The principal investigator, Krishna Pacifici at North Carolina State University, offered me the position, contingent on my willingness to take undergraduate math courses and graduate statistics courses. To me, this was a bonus, and I happily accepted.

Taking a break from sampling in a Puerto Rican stream

For the project, we designed a study that would compare bird community diversity between forests and two types of coffee plantations—one planted under trees with other fruits, and another planted like a row crop out in the sun, like corn. The comparison interested the local department of natural resources because they were planning an expansion of protected areas on the island and wanted to assess the conservation value of these agro-ecological systems. It wasn’t long before we realized that these shaded-coffee plantations harbored a rich diversity of birds and must provide some conservation value.

During sampling, I noticed that the shaded-coffee plantations also housed the Shiny Cowbird, a brood parasite (i.e., a bird that lays its eggs in other species nest) that is invasive to Puerto Rico. Researchers had shown that Cowbirds cause population declines in native bird species where they co-exist in the lowlands of Puerto Rico. For one chapter of my master’s thesis, I estimated the co-occurrence of the Cowbird with its favored hosts between coffee plantations and forests on the island, accounting for the fact that the presence of the hosts may influence the presence of the cowbird. We found that the invasive parasite was most likely to co-occur with its hosts in the shaded-coffee plantations, adding a layer of complexity for land managers on the island.

A Puerto Rican coffee plantation

While finishing my M.S., I decided to continue my graduate education with a PhD. Using a more targeted approach than I did for my master’s, I contacted a few professors in quantitative wildlife science. After a few phone conversations and email exchanges, Beth Gardner invited me to join her lab at the University of Washington. I gratefully accepted the opportunity to take courses through the Quantitative Ecology and Resource Management program and to work with Beth on interesting problems in modeling. Primarily, we explored how animal movement affects our ability to estimate population sizes. This was a great opportunity for me as a researcher because it encouraged me to work on new types of models and systems.

After a few months in the program, I realized that I had rushed into the PhD without interrogating my reasons for wanting the degree. After some further reflection, I decided that I should take a break from the academy and explore other career paths.

Initially, it was a bit of challenge to find a relevant job—academic resumes often look strange to outsiders—but I persevered and found a position as a data analyst with the public electric utility in Seattle. I worked on many kinds of problems for the utility, from project management to data storage and reporting. While I enjoyed working in public service, I missed the creative aspects of graduate school, particularly coding and statistical modeling.

After a year with the utility, I received an offer to work for a large retail company. I eagerly accepted because it would allow me to tackle hard problems with trained programmers and statisticians. I worked on a development team that was building an algorithm in Python that automatically restocked store inventory. At the time, to restock the store, a manager would have to count the remaining supply, forecast how much they would sell tomorrow, then order the appropriate amount. We wanted to automate this whole process. It was an amazing opportunity that made me a much better programmer and immersed me in the predictive and algorithmic side of statistics, otherwise known as machine learning.

It's not all terrestrial

I enjoyed this opportunity until I decided it was time for me to take an extended vacation and travel. I chose to go to Latin America because, ever since living in Puerto Rico, I had wanted to learn Spanish and immerse myself in the many cultures of Central and South America. I spent eight months in the region until a virus sent me home in March 2020.

My travels gave me plenty of time to reflect on what I wanted from life and my career. Eventually, I realized that I would like to merge my interests in conservation, research, and public service, ideally as a federal scientist. To that end, I knew that I needed to go back to school for a PhD, but only for the right opportunity.

I’m grateful that Lars, the NOAA QUEST Fellowship program, and the Marine Biology Graduate Program gave me that opportunity. I’m looking forward to the next four years.

After a Ti planting ceremony with the Marine Biology Graduate Program, 2021 cohort.


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