"The First Quarter" with Dan Killam

First year Earth & Planetary Sciences PhD student Dan Killam shares his experience of transitioning to UCSC after earning his B.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Southern California.

January 12, 2014


Dan currently works with Dr. Matthew Clapham to better understand how past climate change affected marine ecosystems.

My watch read 1 AM. I was working my retail job, eyes red and Red Bull at the ready, arranging inventory at the end of a long day of holiday sales. I reflected on how I had ended up in that situation at that moment. Failing to find an explanation, I realized that trying to be a salesman had just made my love of science that much stronger. It was at that moment I decided that it was time to admit to myself that my scientific urge could not be suppressed. I had my applications ready to go, but I was worrying about whether I was ready. I had my BS in Environmental Studies from USC under my belt but making the jump to a PhD in Earth Science sounded like a leap too far forward to be feasible! But after trying out different post-graduation jobs and niches, I embraced learning and teaching as my natural skillset. My choice had become clear.

After a whirlwind few months of applications, paperwork, acceptances, interviews and travel, I had moved into an apartment in Santa Cruz, preparing for Fall quarter. I was ready to go back to school, but I worried about finding an area where I’d be able to contribute and create knowledge that other people would care about. My undergraduate coursework was very broad and general. I love to read and learn about so many topics that I accumulated a competent level of knowledge in many topics, but never really picked a specialty. Some of the other students in my cohort and among my friends at other grad schools seemed to be much farther along in picking their academic niche.

To build my confidence in my Earth Science foundations, my mentor and advisers recommended that I sign up for a selection of courses and work on any of the academic gaps that may have gone unfilled during my time in undergrad. I took eighteen units, which was an ambitious workload to say the least, but also refreshing because I immersed myself into a field in a way that I never really did during my undergraduate studies. And because all of the courses reinforced each other, I never really felt as overwhelmed by the study workload as I did when I was in four highly disparate courses each semester at USC.

Shell fossilThis quarter I’m enrolled as a Graduate Student Researcher. I’m taking some class units but I have made it my goal this quarter to dedicate most of my mental energy to brainstorming and cementing a research topic where I feel that I can carve my niche. I’m searching for research topics fresh enough to be a novel contribution to the field but focused enough to be achievable in the context of individual graduate work. Most importantly, I want to make sure I tie in whatever topic I pursue to the past skills that I have developed.

During my undergraduate career, I focused on modern anthropogenic climate change and its effects on precipitation. But I wasn’t really integrating my biological education into that work and so the opportunity to branch into Paleobiology at UCSC was a great shot in the arm for my scientific aspirations. I’ve been recently most interested in the growth rings of fossil shells and their application as a record of past climate change, a discipline known as sclerochronology. While I can’t claim that I’m a full-blown researcher at this early point, I have growing confidence that my decision last year to drop everything and pursue science was a good one. For the first time, I feel that with growth and preparation I could someday contribute to greater scientific understanding. Someday, I hope that I can help to characterize the impacts that climate change has on marine ecosystems, but in the meantime, I’m enjoying the quarter-by-quarter adventure that is graduate school.

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