Alexis Bahl

Salp diel vertical migration and its impact on carbon export in the Southern Ocean
Evgeny Pakhomov
United States of America
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I am the first of my family to pursue undergraduate and graduate education. Given this, the path I took, and why I ultimately decided to pursue a graduate degree, is not a traditional one. In fact, I found my way into oceanography because I was determined to contribute to our understanding of climate change and fill a knowledge gap. When I was studying for my Bachelor in Science at Loyola University Chicago, despite majoring in Environmental Sciences, I grew fascinated with the impacts of climate change on marine systems. Given I was in the Midwest, there were no courses on oceanography, so I started teaching myself about coral bleaching, shark finning, and more. I volunteered as a research assistant in northern Scotland to tag whales and monitor their migration patterns; I went to Borneo to plant corals and learn from local fishermen on how their ecosystems were changing; and I conducted labwork on microplastic contamination in fish. From these experiences, I learned about the central role policy and government has in marine conservation and climate change mitigation, all of which I had no education in. I then went on to complete my Master in science degree studying environmental science and policy at Johns Hopkins University. During this time, I interned in Washington, D.C., at the Climate Reality Project, led several meetings with Congressional leaders, and worked full-time as a Research Assistant with the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. This research experience focused on ocean mixing and its representation in global climate models, and propelled me into the oceanography world, where I learned of the field’s knowledge gaps on the biological carbon pump. After working at the National Geographic Society upon graduating and taking part in earth science research, I went on to pursue my Ph.D. in Oceanography at the University of British Columbia, where I am today. Ten years ago, I never would have expected to be working on Southern Ocean zooplankton behavior, but the expertise I’m gaining in this field will allow me to contribute to policy change with an improved understanding of small-scale processes and how fundamental they are for maintaining global climate.

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

My decision to study for my PhD at the University of British Columbia (UBC) was based on a combination of factors. Firstly, UBC has an outstanding reputation for research excellence and innovation, particularly in the field of Oceanography. The university has state-of-the-art research facilities and a strong commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration, which I knew would provide me with the opportunity to work with leading researchers and tackle some of the most pressing issues facing our oceans today. Secondly, I sought out a Southern Ocean zooplankton expert, like my current advisor, Dr. Evgeny Pakhomov, who was accepting new students at the time and was specifically looking for a student to focus on salp-related work. Making a connection with him solidified my choice to apply. Third, I was very interested in completing my PhD abroad, whether it be in Canada, the United Kingdom, or Europe, I knew I wanted to move outside of the United States. This largely stemmed from already having an MSc, and despite already having completed graduate coursework, nearly all U.S. PhD programs required approximately two years of coursework at the start of the program. Canada, however, did not require coursework and allowed the incoming graduate student to take courses if they wished. This was ideal for me to dip my toes into oceanography courses without having to postpone my research by two years. Overall, my decision to study at UBC has been one of the best decisions I've made in my academic career. My advisor and the university have provided me with a world-class education, exceptional research opportunities, and a supportive community that has helped me grow both personally and professionally.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

Connecting with my advisor (and the people in his lab!) was, first and foremost, what attracted me to study at UBC’s Department of Earth, Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences (EOAS) and Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries. However, I was also attracted to the funding opportunities open to international graduate students. This allowed me to study without incurring debt or bearing the costs of studying abroad. Further, upon learning of the yearly opportunities offered through the departments for additional awards, I knew I could maintain financial stability while studying for my PhD. I was also attracted to the union that encompassed the program’s Teaching Assistantship positions. To have security and be paid a liveable living wage on top of award/fellowship opportunities was more than I could find within other universities elsewhere.

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

The outdoor life! I moved to Vancouver with my partner, and neither of us had ever visited before, so upon arrival, we were stunned by the beauty of UBC’s campus, and all Vancouver had to offer. Looking out at the mountains and the ocean and being surrounded by lush greenery nearly all year round has been a dream come true. It truly is the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived, and am constantly thankful that a hike in the woods is just a bus ride away.

My decision to study at UBC has been one of the best decisions I've made in my academic career. My advisor and the university have provided me with a world-class education, exceptional research opportunities, and a supportive community that has helped me grow both personally and professionally.
What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

Having previous research experience prepared me in a number of ways. I not only learned firsthand what goes into producing a research paper, but I had experience collaborating with others and publishing - these are the three tenets one has to become comfortable with in order to succeed in a PhD program. From this experience, I learned how to improve my science writing, but most importantly, I had a good grasp on some of the field’s knowledge gaps, so I knew going into my program what I wanted my research aim to be. Most importantly, I learned that producing research, from start to finish, can take years, so “making change” from getting a PhD wasn’t going to happen overnight and I had to learn patience in that.

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

Meet with prospective advisors at least 6 months ahead of applying to the program. This will give you time to get to know the person and learn about the benefits/challenges of the program from the person and their students. While an aligned vision on what research you want to conduct is important, ensuring you are compatible personally and professionally is key because your research focus is going to change at least three times. Your advisor will be the most important person in your life, not only through your program, but in supporting you to attain a position afterward. Secondly, it’s no secret that grad school is taxing, but what many people don’t understand is how profoundly personal the process is. Your research is intended to be a product of your personal thought, so it inevitably feels like when things are going wrong, that you are the problem. For those interested in entering a science field, know that this is the definition of doing science! I strongly recommend incoming students have a research aim that they are extremely passionate about. Even though that aim will shift in focus throughout the program, it’s the passion that will carry you through the hard days and allow you to succeed.


Learn about our faculties, research and more than 300 programs in our Graduate Viewbook!