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Three questions that are often asked by someone applying to graduate school are:

  1. What kind of research can I do?
  2. In whose lab will I work?
  3. Is there funding for me in this program?

In the MIT-WHOI Joint Program, many faculty members at both MIT and WHOI may be seeking graduate students at a given time. One important consideration for an applicant is whether a faculty member has a project in the works that includes funding for a graduate student, because perusing the backlog of a scientist’s papers may not give the right picture of that person’s ongoing projects. Our Academic Programs Office created this page where faculty in the Joint Program can post about ongoing research projects with specific needs for new graduate students. Because the vast majority of these are “funded positions”, the faculty member has funding in-hand to support you (meaning pay your tuition and stipend, the latter being essentially a salary)  if you end up working in the lab.

In Research Radar, we interviewed one of the Joint Program faculty currently seeking a student–about graduate school, about their work, and about what graduate student would be a good fit for their lab. Last time, we interviewed Adam Subhas, who then took on Chloe Dean. Chloe now writes for Through the Porthole, in addition to being an ocean chemist. If you’re reading this and feel like you would be a good fit for an advisor/lab in this program, reach out to that person!




Without further ado, we present Dr. Sophie Hines!

From Chemistry to the Ocean

Dr. Sophie Hines grew up in Brookline, MA, in the orbit of Boston [Author’s Note: and has at least one bar with incredible cocktails]. She shipped off to Minnesota for college at Carleton, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry. During college, she took a shine to environmental chemistry and took a class about historical climate changes such as glaciation. Sophie found out that her pure chemistry background was useful in looking at the chemical records we use to figure out how, when, and why the global climate has changed in the past. 

The roles of the ocean in the climate and in storing information we use today (like layers of sediment) didn’t become Sophie’s main focus until graduate school at CalTech. Consequently, the fundamentals of oceanography were something she learned in graduate school: “You learn a ton in grad school, and when you’re ten years down the line, you forget how little you knew and how much you had to learn along the way.”

After she graduated with a Ph.D., the newly-minted Dr. Hines did postdoctoral research at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, and ended up back in her home state, albeit in good old Woods Hole.


Some Notes on Pedagogy

We spent some time talking more about classes in graduate school. For Sophie, isotope geochemistry is important, and that’ll be the case for her graduate students. It’s what her lab does, so her students would want to take Marine Isotope Geochemistry, for which a good chemistry background is required. What was more surprising was her fond reflections of taking a physical oceanography course. 

The fluid dynamics of the ocean might be a far cry from what her potential students normally think about, but the ocean is huge, and tracing its chemistry–especially through the distant past–is more informative if we understand how the water and chemicals in it move and mix. Physics is an “important way of thinking for how things change and what’s possible when looking at hypotheses.” For example, Walter Munk’s landmark 1966 “Abyssal recipes” asked “What can we learn about deep ocean circulation by looking at chemistry?” The paper is taught in required classes for chemists in our program, but uses more physics than a fundamental chemical oceanography class.

A class that’s out of your discipline can be hard. Sophie put it bluntly: “Nobody cares if you’re getting an A in the class.” Taking a class outside your comfort zone is not about acing it, but about learning the concepts and attempting to apply them. When we asked about her approach to learning in grad school, she explained that the mixture of fundamentals and research-specific classes is a balance. Ultimately, it depends on your goals as a scientist: you take classes ”that help you do the science you want to do.”


Getting Your Feet Wet

“Going to sea is one of my favorite parts about the job,” said Sophie. She adds that fun as it is, being an ocean-going scientist is intense–some people end up not enjoying it, but “it’s not a requirement.” Plenty of projects have little or no open-ocean cruise component, and many ocean scientists do work in the proverbial backyard, on coastlines, salt marshes, or even as mathematical modelers. For those that do opt for a seafaring project, it doesn’t matter much if you’ve actually had experience. Much like the classes, there are many people to help you learn the ropes. “Everyone has roles on a research cruise, and part of that is teaching people. Everybody is working together for a common goal.”

Whether or not you are considering ocean science, the Earth sciences are broad, and your expertise can be useful whether or not the famous quirks of your field are your cup of tea. Just be sure to ask your potential advisors about what you may be expected to do!


The Parts of a Grad Student

We asked Sophie some broad questions about her thoughts on research during grad school–specifically, what’s important aside from learning how to physically conduct the research. Sophie said that she wants to help students learn to tackle problems:

“[The most important part is] perseverance...There are a lot of things about doing lab work or trying to work through a dataset that can be difficult. It’s part of a process, and I’m here to help. It’s hard to be at the cutting edge of understanding–nobody knows the answer! That can be exciting, but also hard. It’s about being excited through the hard parts.

“It’s hard to put data into a broader context and think about what it means, for the ocean and climate system as a whole. It gets easier as you gain experience, understanding, and knowledge of the work others have done…Generalizing is necessary and hard; sampling can be limited. That’s all harder than doing lab chemistry or running an instrument: understanding the data you get holistically. It’s also the cool part.”


What Does it All Mean?

We asked Sophie what a student might learn in her lab–not in terms of a scientific paper, but what a student might be able to go back and tell their family. She started broadly: It’s about the carbon cycle, in her case about how and where carbon goes during glacial cycles. Her research goes beyond a single element, and she referred to “building new tools and gaining a better understanding of the tools we use.” For geochemists, “tools” are more conceptual than a wrench or table saw: the periodic table is a toolbox, and the different elements can tell us about the Earth simply by where they are and how they move around.

Closing Remarks

We interviewed Dr. Hines over Zoom–she was about to embark on a cruise to take mud from the ocean floor. Specifically, sediment from the Iberian margin, and a lot of it: 7 kilometers of sediment cores over the course of two months. Each core is a slimy library of deposits stretching for thousands of years. Coincidentally, this cruise is similar to Sophie’s first (and only) cruise during graduate school, in that both are part of the IODP (International Ocean Discovery Program) which focuses on ambitious rock- and sediment-based projects and includes scientists from all over the world. 

She did have some things to say in closing. To anyone who reads this and thinks Sophie Hines might be a good fit for their graduate school advisor:

“I’m excited to have a student. [This project is] a collaborative project with a couple of other [scientists] so we’ll all be working as a team. I’m looking for someone who’s excited about ocean circulation and climate, even if they don’t understand exactly how that all goes together yet. I don’t have preconceived notions about what my student should be, but I think people coming from other backgrounds would be useful! 

No one is expecting students to come in knowing all the answers. Being excited about the process is the important piece. We’re all learning together. You never finish the process of learning more.”


Read more of Through the Porthole Issue #7

Learn more about Through the Porthole

Learn more about the MIT-WHOI Joint Program