From the sea floor with love: Lessons from Dr. Cindy van Dover

Dr. Cindy van Dover, from Duke University, recently came to SoMAS as the 2018 Okubo Distinguished Scholar, where she gave talks about her career path and current research, met with fellow colleagues and faculty, and most importantly, spent time with graduate students imparting wisdom and advice accumulated throughout her career.

Dr. van Dover is an incredibly impressive scientist with a very long and ever-growing list of achievements: she studies deep ocean ecosystems, served as the director of the Duke University Marine Lab from 2006-2016, and is the only woman to ever pilot the Alvin submersible, just to name a few. Considering the sheer length and weight of her resume, the chance to spend quality time with her and to pick her brain for any advice or guidance was an incredible opportunity. And while my head is still swimming with awe and inspiration, there are a couple of points that left a particularly strong impression on me, and I wanted to share them with you, my readers. So from Dr. Cindy van Dover, through me, here are some tips for success.

  • It never hurts to ask.

Dr. van Dover started working in the deep sea before she was even a graduate student. She had a chance meeting with a prominent member of the field at the time, and simply asked for the chance to come aboard their ship and learn from the team. Remarkably, they let her and that was the start to her entire career as a deep-sea biologist. She simply asked.

Oftentimes our dreams, desires, or requests can seem trivial, silly or even outright stupid. But we must remember that we are oftentimes our own harshest critics. Asking for an opportunity certainly feels awkward, and we easily convince ourselves that it’s a bad idea (and maybe that’s a way to protect ourselves from potential embarrassment or humiliation), but the vulnerable act of asking can be all that’s needed to open a whole suite of opportunities. And like Dr. van Dover says, “the worst they can do is say ‘no’.”

  • Keep your wits about you.

Another thing I found so remarkable about Dr. van Dover is her ability to adapt, learn, and work through whatever was going on. Whether she was trapped thousands of meters below the ocean on the sea floor or trying to learn how to be a director of an entire marine lab, she always managed to find success despite whatever learning curve there was. Because despite her lack of knowledge at the time, she always trusted in her training, in her abilities, and in herself that it would work out.

In graduate school, and I suspect in life in general, you are constantly throwing yourself into the unknown and while it may be exciting, people tend to leave out how challenging throwing yourself into the unknown can be. Between experiments that don’t work out, data that don’t makes sense, constantly fielding questions from your demanding thesis committee, it’s incredibly easy to get swept up in your failures, the unanswered questions, your imposter syndrome. We joke among ourselves (at least, they’re mostly jokes…) that grad school is just a constant beating of your self-worth. But maybe if we trust ourselves and our abilities to make it work and make it through this PhD, we can also get ourselves off the sea-floor lab floor.

  • Be kind.

What will be the most memorable thing about Dr. van Dover’s visit to SoMAS (and this is true with every Okubo Scholar I’ve met so far) is her kind spirit and her openness to helping graduate students find success. Despite all her accomplishments, her qualifications, awards, and success, she understood how important it was to speak frankly and openly with graduate students and to provide the best possible advice she could. It’s a reminder that compassionate leadership is another way to make a lasting impact in science.

I unfortunately never had a chance to meet Dr. Akira Okubo. I’ve been told by many that he was an extremely warm and kind scientist – something we sadly don’t see very often. Not just a brilliant mind, but a great mentor, someone who saw the value of building your trainees up to something even greater. I like to think that Dr. Okubo would have greatly approved of Dr. van Dover as this year’s Okubo Scholar – someone who has achieved great things in her field, made huge contributions to our knowledge of the world around us, but also someone who supports and builds up the people around her.