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Wonderful moments and bad hair days at HIMB

Written by Valeria Senigaglia


My experience at HIMB was full of wonderful moments and bad hair days.


Coming from Australia, I (Valeria Senigaglia) landed on Coconut Island (where the Marine Mammal Research Program [MMRP] at the Hawaiian Institute of Marine Biology [HIMB] is based) after four months of traveling and during the stressful month leading up to my PhD thesis submission. Some might say I’m crazy, traveling half way around the world right before such an important deadline?


Yes, it was probably crazy, but I can say now that it was the right call. Living on Coconut Island makes you focused, inspired and … wet, but those rainy days were just the perfect setting to glue myself to the chair and get things done. Also, after spending 2/3 of my PhD in a different continent from my supervisor, it was fantastic to be able to pop into his office and discuss those steps that takes you from anxiety filled chaos to submitting a cohesive piece of work. And what a treat to have two pioneers of marine mammal acoustics in the same office, my curiosity would have loved to dive deeper in the dwell of knowledge around me, asking million questions to Paul Nachtigall and Whitlow Au. Just a couple of desks away, the new generation of marine mammal scientists were developing cutting-edge approaches that take advantage of new technology and UAVs. Sometimes it was hard to remember I had one, and one purpose only, finish my thesis.


Figure 1: Choosing a good writing spot

Yet, hard work was just one part of my experience at HIMB and, to be honest, not the most important one. In the last part of a PhD what needs management and nurturing isn’t the science but the mind. The information is there, the analyses are done, the writing is in a perpetual state of editing and what you need is clarity, a realistic plan and support. I was lucky enough to find it all. Lars made sure I was on track and kept reassuring my impostor syndrome that everything was going to be ok. My lab mates also took good care of me. I was lucky to know most of them already (a small Australian contingent in Hawaii) and even more fortunate to find new colleagues that were just as lovely. My long days and nights writing were rewarded by Sunday’ tours watching monk seals and photographing sleepy turtles (the “welcome to Oahu” signature tour), enjoying the moon rise over Kailua beach, sipping wine and making ornaments (it helps when your supervisor’s daughter is the right amount of sweet and sassy, thanks Melia!). My roommates at Coconut Island helped me navigate the everyday life of the island and the resident students were nice enough to shuffle me back and forth with the main Island despite the many times I got the schedule wrong. Also, if you decide for a thesis writing retreat on a tropical island, I strongly recommend choosing one that provides a preposterous amount of mangos, thanks Fabien for showing me “the mango trick” and fixing so many of my brekkies on Coconut Island. A big shout out to the amazing staff of HIMB, and to Drew in particular, for taking such good care of me and even providing a paddle board and made my lunch breaks the best I could dream of, because life is not just about work. What I find on Coconut Island is simple yet powerful, I found the warmest smiles.


Figure 2: Always be a turtle, PhD is a marathon.

So, let me sum it up for you. This is what you need when you feel overwhelmed by the humongous task of writing a doctorate thesis:


- Healthy diet. Choose a lab that worships coffee as much as you do - coffee and cake breaks are the best.


- Support, support, support! Wherever you can get it, from the wonderful Michelle that provides you with a home away from home, from Kirby and Sydney who makes sure that your daily life is fulfilled, from Fabien and Martin who listen to your venting and drive you around the Island, from Guido who took the time from his sabbatical to edit (even further) your abstract, and most of all from your supervisor who reminds you that you can do it and help you get there.


- Some fun. Taking it from a workaholic, I took four weekends off out of five and never accomplished so much. I wrote my thesis Introduction, Conclusions, most of my last chapter and prepared my pre-completion PhD seminar while also learning how to surf (almost), tanned and learnt the correct pronunciation of Hawai’i (again, thanks Melia) and explored a beautiful Island.


- Likeminded people. Venting is part of acknowledging how hard it is what you are going through. You love your job, you love your life, you wouldn’t trade it for the world. That doesn’t mean is easy. It’s ok to say it aloud.


- Smile. To everyone, every day. Because their smiles in return, it will change your day.


- Work hard. But you already know that or you wouldn’t be writing your PhD thesis ;)


Good luck to all of you out there who are going through the best and most challenging time of your life and my warmest thank you to those amazing human beings who populate the MMRP and the HIMB.


Figure 3: Friends and Nature are what happiness is made of.

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