I want to do graduate research on cephalopods. What do I need to do?

K M Hoster

Jul 6, 2015
West Indies (variable)
My apologies if this is covered in a different thread, but I couldn't seem to find one that addressed applying for graduate studies on cephalopods.

Briefly, after getting undergraduate degrees in math and biochemistry from Texas A&M, I went to graduate school at University of Texas for neuropharmacology. I have worked as a lab assistant in a genetics lab and an electrophysiology lab. I also did a summer internship in a neuropharmacology lab in Kansas. Unfortunately, I dropped out of grad school for personal reasons, then got a graduate degree as a chiropractor and did that for 10 years.

For the past 2 years I have been living on a boat in the West Indies, observing cephs through snorkeling and scuba diving along the island chain. My tentative plan is to be here in the Antilles for another year or so and then move, possibly to Europe. I'd like to enroll in a graduate program studying cephalopods and am flexible about the project, though I think my background makes me better suited to genetics, biochemistry or neurology.

So how do I get into graduate school? Do I need to plan to move somewhere they are actively researching cephs or would it be possible to enroll in a marine bio/biochem/neurology program and collaborate with ceph researchers remotely? Do I need to research grant opportunities beforehand? Do I email prospective graduate studies departments or try to meet with them beforehand or do they not like that?

Since I don't really have current people for letters of recommendation, it seems like conducting my own research project here in the Caribbean would be a way to show that I am a good doctoral candidate. Or is there something else I can do to improve my chances?

Thanks for any help or advice!
:welcome: @K M Hoster! Since my degrees are totally unrelated to the ceph world and I am US bound, I can't be of much help in your quest. Hopefully some of our more international members can contribute suggestions. Here are a few recent activities that may give you some ideas.

In the US, @Taollon (Dr. Kirt Onthank) has a new ceph lab at Walla Walla University. He won the TONMO Monty award this conference for his video blog, Octopodium, documenting this year's undergraduate intern study with cephs at the rosario beach marine laboratory.

@Octo Girl (Chelsie Bennice - Florida Atlantic University) and @Gabrielle Winters (Whitney Research Moroz Lab) are both currently completing PhD candidacies in FL and gave presentation at our TONMOcon VI gathering in Sarasota this October.

@Octo Girl's presentation on YouTube:

@Gabrielle Winters' presentation on YouTube:

@GPO87 (staff - Aaron Boyd Evans) and @Heather Braid are both studying squid in New Zealand where @Tintenfisch (staff - Dr. Kat Bolstad) is their advisor at the Auckland University of Technology.

@gjbarord (staff - Dr. Greg Barord) completed his defense this year with his nautilus studies at the City University of New York (Brooklyn)

Less timely educational endeavours by members:
@perke finished her undergraduate in NZ at University of Otago, took a position with a UK aquarium then negotiated getting her PhD with her employer. She has not been active on TONMO for a couple of years but I hope the mention will elicit recommendations. Her instructor @Jean (Dr. Jean McKinnon) may also have suggestions.
Hi @K M Hoster ,

Glad to have you here!

There are a lot of questions in there, which is good, I just apologize if I miss something in my response. I'll offer up some advice and suggestions that should cover your questions.

I graduated from Texas A&M as well so that's awesome! Gig em!

I would first start out searching through the literature. You may not be able to download the actual papers, but you will be able to get a sense of the current researchers, their affiliations, and email contact information. I'd then research several of the researchers you are interested in working with by checking out their personal/university research pages to see where their interests lie. After that, I'd email them and give a short background of yourself and what your future goals are. If you do not hear back right away, don't worry. Many of us are very busy, not a great excuse, but just don't think you were blown off. If you don't hear back within a week or two, I'd follow up with another email. I haven't come across too many folks who are offended by a follow up email. If they are, then you probably don't want to work with them.

Are you talking about a PhD or Masters? I am not sure how Europe is, but at least for your doctorate in the USA, you should do everything you can to make sure you are not paying for your degree. You will be doing research for your adviser and the university, they should have the funding for that. If not, it's probably not a good choice of schools for many reasons. I would not worry about research grants beforehand, necessarily, but if you have that information on hand for potential advisers, that will make you look much better and more prepared. Again, your adviser should have the funding for you.

I would not try to do anything remote that is significant to your thesis project. You never know what might go wrong or how hard that might be. And if you do that, I'd wonder why you aren't at that university that you are remotely working with in the first place. Definitely collaborate, but try to make sure that you are able to accomplish your project at your home school.

Email the department, the professor, and even the post-docs and former PhD students. That will help give you a better perspective.

Finally, I don't know if doing your own research project in the CA would help your chances. I guess it depends on what type of project you are talking about and who you plan to work with. Certainly having ideas about future projects and designing the experiments (an awesome skill to have) would put you on a good path. Since you plan to be in the CA for the time being, you might try finding some researchers doing similar work there or with similar species and offer up your time to help out with something since you are there. That might actually be your ticket in somewhere.

Lastly, I'd hone up on recent genetic/biochemistry/neurology papers and research. If you cannot get the papers, that's also another good chance to email the authors and get your name out there. Those topics are pretty hot right now and the research/methods are moving fast so I'd definitely make sure you are at the top of your game with those.

To me, what makes a good doctoral candidate is someone who is hardworking, has a diverse background, and is creative. The rest can sort out later.

Happy to keep having discussion here. Good luck and keep us posted!

Woot! Aggies!

Thanks for the great advice. I really appreciate it. Sounds like permission to gluttonously read more research about cephs. I have been doing that already, so that works out. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I've been able to download pdfs of many research papers. Lots of researchers post them on their university pages and it is glorious. After reading through Dr. Rosenthal's super cool RNA editing work, I've also been going through a biochemistry textbook and a textbook on current applications and procedures. There have been huge advances in the last 10 years!

As far as moving to Europe, I'm not 100% set on it. I just don't want to go back to Texas. It's so hot there. Plus, they've got some interesting ceph research on going on in Europe right now. Laure Bonaud applied for a grant to sequence squid genomes in France, there's that research center in Trieste and who wouldn't want to go check out the sites in the Med where Cousteau filmed Octopus, Octopus? His book includes maps to all the dives sites.

It is nice to know that contacting researchers is acceptable and they may even email you back. I was in Puerto Rico a few months ago and never got up the nerve to contact Dr. Rosenthal, even though I am dying to tour his lab. Next time!

Sorry I didn't make it clear, but my goal would be a PhD with the eye towards continuing on with ceph research as a career.

As far as doing some kind of research while I am down here in the islands, I did contact some researchers in Florida about collaborating on a water quality evaluation in the Antilles, but didn't get anyone interested. It seems that the ceph research community is much more willing to communicate with the public. For example, Dr. Ragsdale graciously responded to my questions about the bimac genome when I know he was busy. Over the next 6 to 8 months, I will be slowly sailing up the island chain from Grenada to the USVIs, stopping at spots where I have previously found cephs or I have had reports of them. Rather than just floating there, staring at them, or chasing them around with my camera, I was trying to think of something constructive to do. I could probably repeat some of Dr. Mather's behavioral research, for example. Or there was that research paper about how octopus prefer Red Stripe beer bottles to longnecks for making homes. That could be fun!

Thanks for the positivity!
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Hi KM Hoster, I will add a little advice too - I am sensory physiologist working with cephalopods at San Francisco State University, and I got my graduate degree in NY also on cephs (same place as Greg, who replied above). And I also did a postdoc in electrophysiology at UT Houston, so I know what you mean about Texas!

Regarding finding advisors, outside the US it is standard to communicate with a potential advisor well in advance of applying for grad schools. In the US, it's ok to apply first to the school and then contact the person you're interested in, but I would still recommend contacting first, even in the US. Keep your email fairly short, since researchers get a lot of enquiries from potential students. Just a bit about your experience, and why you are interested in that person's work is enough, and a request to communicate further. Anything more is generally superfluous.

Regarding funding, bear in mind that funding for cephalopod research is typically not that easy to come by, so you should consider it likely that you will be asked to write your own research training grant. If you do a Masters before your PhD, Masters programs often do not offer the same financial support as PhD, so you would be looking at a considerable expense taking that route, unless you can get a fellowship.

What kind of work are you interested in? It sounds like genomics might be one of your interests if you've been in touch with Cliff and are interested in Josh's work too. You might want to contact Gabby Winters, who is a grad student in Leonid Moroz's lab, who could give you some insight into the current genomics research their lab is doing.

Roger Hanlon's lab at the MBL is the preeminent place for behavioral ecology, but its a very tough lab to get into.

If your interests are more neurobiological, there are several researchers in France that do behavioral and developmental neuroscience. There is a well known lab in Israel that does cellular neuroscience on octopus too. I also am a neuroscientist, but I only take Master's students, not PhDs. However, if neuroscience is your thing, feel free to email me - I'm happy to chat about your interests and perhaps suggest other people you might like to contact.

Good luck with your search for advisors! Ceph labs are relatively uncommon but they are out there - this is a great place to start off your search, too.
Thanks for the links. I didn't realize the whole TONMOcon was available to watch on YouTube. Gabrielle Winter's presentation was totally awesome except for the sound cut out in the middle. It was so great to see a current discussion of where aquarists and researchers are at present. Exciting times!
Oh I agree. It was SO awesome to be able to watch all the presentations on YouTube like that. I'm definitely looking forward to attending the next TONMOcon.

After doing more research into cephalopods, it looks like the biggest need researchers and aquarists have is for live shellfish culture to feed them. I'm thinking research into the aquaculture of a commercially valuable crab or mussel species might be the best contribution I can make. Crabs have such a stupid expression on their faces, though. :smile: Oysters are a popular farmed species, but I don't think they are particularly good for octopus, are they?
Our experts can weigh in but I don't recall much talk about oysters here.

About 10 years ago or so, I had a website called shrimpstuff.com (dumb name) where I was a middle man for an aquaculturist of brine shrimp. I would process orders and handle general customer service, and the supplier would fulfill the orders and ship (or drop-ship if orders were very large... more economical as well, if the buyer were interested in picking up directly from the airport). Eventually the supplier had some problems with his system and he was no longer able to take orders... but it was a pretty good relationship we had for a while there, and I was able to supply TONMO members with feeder shrimp for their octopuses :smile:
Octopuses will eat oysters but clams are far better for the health of the aquarium as the oysters get pretty nasty when not immediately or fully eaten. Not all the octopuses we keep can open either one but most will happily take them on the half shell. I keep clams in the tanks most of the time, they live for several years if not consumed but are there if the octopus decides to tackle them.

Currently, fiddler crabs are the crab of choice because they are obtainable most of the. I prefer small saltwater crabs as they are much less trouble and don't smell :eek2:. They keep easily in a plastic saltwater container with an airstone and small filter but are not easy to obtain (I get mine, hit or miss, from a collector in FL). What would be REALLY nice is to find a source of crab zoa but I don't think there is a large market and it is not likely to produce a cash positive flow. It is the only food that has been fed to small egg octopus hatchlings with success (with VERY small numbers living to adults).
Oh I agree. It was SO awesome to be able to watch all the presentations on YouTube like that. I'm definitely looking forward to attending the next TONMOcon.

After doing more research into cephalopods, it looks like the biggest need researchers and aquarists have is for live shellfish culture to feed them. I'm thinking research into the aquaculture of a commercially valuable crab or mussel species might be the best contribution I can make. Crabs have such a stupid expression on their faces, though. :smile: Oysters are a popular farmed species, but I don't think they are particularly good for octopus, are they?

You also have to be aware that many species of cephas actually won't feed on molluscs! None of the species I've worked with here in NZ would touch clams etc nor dead food, it was live crustaceans all the way!!

Also check out the NZ Green lipped Mussel industry......these have been cultured here for many years.

I agree with what everyone has said regarding grad work. NZ might be an option. University of Otago has a Marine Science department and there are scholarships available for international students. Check out http://www.otago.ac.nz/international/otago004129.html for heaps of info on coming to Otago as an international student, you'll need to weed through the undergrad stuff!! Also, look here for Marine Science Department of Marine Science, Department of Marine Science, University of Otago, New Zealand

Kat Bolstad (Tintenfisch) also works with Cephs in NZ but at Auckland University of Technology (opposite end of the country!)....rest assured neither location gets as hot as Texas, Otago can get cold in winter but not to the point of six feet of snow or anything drastic like that!
Yep there are a few of us down here in Oceania. I would add for your consideration Dr Jan Strugnell at La Trobe University in Melbourne, who does a lot of molecular work on cephs if your interests lie in that particular field. We do some molecular work here as well but our main genetics person (Heather Braid) needs to finish her own PhD before she can supervise :wink:

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