How strange to call this planet 'Earth' when quite clearly it is ocean. Arthur C. Clarke

Monday, November 4, 2013

PhD Thesis Project Update

Graduate school is so fabulous because of the rate at which it turns impossibility into achievement!

I just gave away the happy ending to this post. Sorry. Here's the story that should have come before that punchline.

I came into my graduate program wanting to study evolution in marine systems. Specifically, I want to study how marine organisms change over time and affect their surroundings. This is the field of eco-evolutionary dynamics.

This broad interest is all I knew of my PhD dissertation project when I got to UCSC in September. I'll be here at least five years, so I wasn't concerned that I didn't have any idea for a project. Then, a week into the program, I had an assignment to write a formal research proposal for a national organization on what I would be doing for my dissertation--due in a month.

Uh, WHHHAT?! I just GOT here. How am I supposed to spit out a five-year project proposal in four weeks? was my first reaction.

One month. Image from

Regardless of what I thought, the deadline remained. It seemed like a monumental task, and I was pretty stressed about it, mostly because I knew I would be submitting the proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a five-figure grant.

What I didn't know then was that I would get an enormous amount of really great help! I have two advisors, and they were both extremely willing to toss ideas around with me.

Silly me. How could I have forgotten that I work under experienced researchers in my field who come up with new research projects in their sleep? As far as I know, that's not an exaggeration.

Since I have experience in intertidal organisms (and my advisors have >40 years of experience in intertidal organisms), I had an idea to study evolution in the intertidal zone, but we couldn't think of anything good enough I could write about in such a short time. Then I mentioned a potential project I had been introduced to before coming to Santa Cruz. The project involved evolution in a fish predator in kelp forests. It wasn't exactly what I had in mind, but I try pretty hard to be flexible and encourage serendipity.

I read, discussed, wrote, discussed, and revised. In just a week, I had a research plan and a rough draft. How did this come together so quickly and easily? It's one of the miracles of graduate school (or perhaps deadlines).

The real miracle was after the four weeks when I submitted a totally polished proposal that I am proud of. I sure hope NSF likes it as much as I do! I will now attempt to explain in a paragraph what I struggled to explain in two pages.

People do a lot of fishing off the coast of California. Some of these people just fish for fun, and they usually only like to take home just a few big fish. Lots of these people take home the weirdest or prettiest looking fish they can find, because they think it's cool. One such fish is called the California sheephead.

California Sheephead, 3 ft. long. Image from

However, there is a problem with taking only the bigger sheephead--only the bigger ones eat sea urchins. This may seem trivial, but sea urchins eat LOTS of kelp, and if there are too many urchins, they may eat too much kelp, which is a really important part of the ecosystem. The ecosystem is called a kelp forest for a reason! The kelp are the biggest part of the ecosystem, like trees. Take out the kelp and you take out a lot of places where other animals and plants live. I proposed to measure what happens when you take away big sheephead: do the urchins destroy the forest? 

Purple sea urchins. Photo by Richard Hermann.

Click here to see a video of a sheephead eating a sea urchin
Joseph See, who posted this video, has some great camera skills.

If you are thinking critically about all this, you might be wondering how I am going to take away the big fish. Then you would probably realize that sounds like a terrible idea because it involves killing lots of fish and potentially destroying the kelp forest. I don't have to do that, which is the great part about my proposal. In certain areas, people have already fished out the largest sheephead. All I need to do is see what the urchins and kelp are like in those areas. 

So there's a super simple description project idea in more than a paragraph, but still less than two pages! I'm not sure I will actually carry out this project for the next five years, but I sure wouldn't mind it. I like the varied research and field techniques involved, and how it combines society a bit. Mostly, I like it because it's a field manipulation on a huge spatial scale (the fish live from central CA to the southern tip of Baja California Sur, Mexico), and it awesomely explores how evolution can change ecosystems without us having to know if the fish are actually evolving. 

Now that that proposal is done, it's back to the drawing board because I want to explore other options for PhD projects. But I've learned not to be intimidated by this task, because in graduate school, impossibility is the mother of great achievement! I'm excited for what impossibilities lay ahead.


As a fun exercise, I am going to track the evolution of the title of my proposal:

My own original idea: Can Fisheries-induced Evolution of California Sheephead Alter Ecosystems?
After advisor read it: Impact of contemporary trait change on trophic cascade strength in a large-scale marine ecosystem
Revision: Impact of large-scale contemporary trait change on trophic cascade strength in a marine ecosystem
Revision: Impact of contemporary trait change on trophic cascasde strength in a large-scale marine ecosystem*
Final title: Impact of contemporary trait change on trophic cascades in a large-scale marine ecosystem

*This one is my favorite, but it was too long for the final proposal.

1 comment:

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