Serendipity – How Not? To Choose a University for Graduate Studies

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(I’m dedicating this post to one of my mentors, F.E.J. Fry, and to University of Hawaiʻi, a great place for me.) Choosing where to obtain one’s graduate education is important.  Choosing well is even more important, because a future career can depend on where you set the starting blocks.  I did everything wrong!

University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa campus, now with more buildings and less open space, occupies the mouth of Mānoa Valley, inland from Waikiki. I spent four wonderful years there.  Photo © University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

Born in the tropics, I spent my formative years, and gained most of my education in Canada, culminating at the University of Toronto.  There, as a beginning undergraduate in Zoology, I was fortunate to fall into a summer job in the lab of one of my professors as many students do.  In my case, the professor was F.E.J. (Fred) Fry, a fish physiologist of very considerable achievements and reputation.  I did not just look up to him, I genuflected every time he entered the room.  The lab was a small research hatchery.  Operated by the provincial Department of Lands and Forests outside Toronto, it was close enough to my home that I could commute by bicycle – the only wheels I owned.  That summer job led to weekend employment (chiefly to feed the fishes), and a second summer job running some temperature tolerance experiments on trout which resulted in my first technical publication.

Revealing a generosity increasingly rare in academia, Dr. Fry (as he always was to me) steered my feeble attempts to write science into something respectable, then took over the process of submission and any final edits.  The paper appeared in print with me as sole author!  I had expected it to be Fry and Sale, as it would have in most labs even back then.  I’ve never forgotten that gift.

Feeble attempts?  I vividly remember the first ‘editing’ session when Dr. Fry sat down with my beginnings of a first draft in front of him.  He read the first page in silence.  And the second page.  My anxiety level was increasing.  Then he began page 3 and paused, drew a line striking out the first line and a half.  He returned to page 2, drawing a diagonal line straight through it, and then back to page 1, where he produced another diagonal line that reached up to two sentences below the title.  He turned to me, with a slight smile, saying, “We are not writing this for Field and Stream.”  Given I had only drafted about seven pages at that point, I knew I had a little more work and learning to do.

By my third year as an undergraduate, it had dawned on me that one could actually make a career out of studying nature, but a higher degree or two would be required.  Dr. Fry gave me his second gift – my summer job following my third year put me in northern Ontario to learn about the relic species of trout I had done temperature tolerance tests on the year before.  This would become the start of a Master’s project.  That meant two field seasons could be fitted in before I enrolled as a Master’s candidate, seemingly completing the Master’s degree just one year after the Bachelor’s.  On paper, I suddenly looked a much hotter prospect academically than I really was.  Thank you, Dr. Fry.

And so it came to pass that in the fall of 1963, I sat down with Dr. Fry to get some advice on possible graduate schools.  I remember that conversation vividly.  I told him I wanted to continue working with fish, on their ecology and behavior rather than their physiology.  I told him I knew I should leave U of T to benefit from new ideas in a new place, and that I wanted to study fish in an environment different to a northern Ontario lake.  He suggested five different universities, usually naming specific individual faculty in each.  They were University of British Columbia, University of Michigan, University of Miami, UCLA, and University of Hawaiʻi.

Now I was still pretty naïve, despite looking academically hot on paper.  But even I knew that the University of Hawaiʻi did not belong on that list.  In fact, until the possibility of obtaining a PhD there appeared, I did not even know there was a University of Hawaiʻi.  But this was my Dr. Fry; he must have his reasons.  So I asked him, “Why Hawaiʻi”?  It turned out he had spent some sabbatical time there a couple of years back, thought highly of a couple of the faculty, and thought it would offer me some interesting possibilities.

I scratched Michigan from the list – too much like Ontario – and sent letters enquiring to each of the other four.  (Formal applications and application fees had not yet been invented.)  I did not hear back from UCLA, but I was soon corresponding with interested faculty at both UBC and Miami.  Both were offering interesting opportunities for research and funding to support it.  Then I got a letter from Honolulu offering me a teaching assistantship.  Suddenly I lost all interest in UBC or Miami.

I was going to Hawaiʻi.  Without even a professor identified in whose lab I would work, I was turning down the opportunity to study with outstanding researchers at the University of Miami or at the University of British Columbia, two of the strongest campuses in marine biology at that time.  They still are leaders in marine science.  But while the university offered me a teaching assistantship, Hawaiʻi offered me Polynesia and coral reefs.  I chose with my heart, not my head, and began learning how to pronounce Hawaiian place names before I even set off from home. 

The trees have grown a lot on Maile Way (which has been renamed McCarthy Mall!), but the campus was still familiar to me when I got to see it late in 2018.  I walked back and forth across this mall with punch cards to feed into the universityʻs computer to run simple statistical programs.  It was a different world. Photo © Jamm Aquino/Star-Advertiser.

To get to Hawaiʻi, I drove my car across Canada, put it on a ship in Vancouver, and in mid-August 1964 boarded a DC9 bound for Honolulu.  I traveled a third of the way round the planet from home and back to the tropics to become a coral reef scientist, and I never thought twice about my decision. 

Edmondson Hall, extensively renovated since I was there, was the home of Zoology in 1964.  They call it Biology or Life Sciences today, but the same kinds of science get done, behind doors now locked with keypad locks.  I sense the place is less relaxed, more productive, but I learned a lot there.  Photo © Martin, Chock & Carden.

I don’t recommend what I did as the best way to make decisions concerning graduate school today, but I did do some of it right.  First, I found my way into a professor’s lab.  When you are one among hundreds of undergraduates, you need to separate yourself from the crowd, and volunteering in a lab is a great way to do that.  Some of us professors are pretty cavalier in how we treat the unwashed undergraduate, but many of us find ways to make such lab experiences interesting.  A great way to learn if that field is of any interest to you!  Second, when considering graduate studies, do not settle for staying put no matter how great your university is.  Changing campuses brings a whole set of new ideas that can only enrich your education.  The best schools, such as U of T, actively encourage students to go elsewhere after completing the bachelor’s degree, and I knew deep down that I had to break away.  Third, the idea of moving away from home did not trouble me; in fact, it made the whole journey exciting.  It is not necessary to travel a third of the way around the world, but choose based on what is on offer, not on how far away it is.  Now, I had lots of luck, and that may be in shorter supply today, but go with your heart, and gamble.

Talk about serendipity!  My naïve stumbling about led to me going places I would never have dreamt of.  This is how I began a lifelong career as a coral reef scientist, a career that would take me around the world doing a job I loved.  One of the most stupid, yet best decisions I ever made – choosing Hawaiʻi over UBC or Miami – and choosing a lifetime of discovering the wondrousness of coral reefs.

There are more stories about reef science in Coral Reefs – Majestic Realms Under the Sea.