Episode 24 – Navigating the choppy waters of the US PhD application process

On this episode, Rafa Lobo introduces two new members of our team: Rebecca Horan and Junyao Gu. Junyao runs the show, exploring the ins and outs of a PhD program application process. She interviews five PhD students and our doctoral program coordinator, to learn about the biggest challenges, reasons to do it, tips for those wishing to apply, as well as some systemic inequalities inherent in the process – and how to potentially overcome them!

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Junyao Gu head shot

Junyao Gu, 3rd year PhD candidate at Dr. Zachary Johnson‘s lab.

Junyao grew up in a coastal city named Lianyungang in Jiangsu Province, China. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Science and a Bachelor of Laws degree in Law from Jilin University, China in 2017. She graduated with a Master’s degree from the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University in 2019, where she found her deep love for exploring the tiny mysterious microbial world and had a wonderful time doing research in Dr. Sarah Preheim’s lab. She joined Dr. Zackary Johnson’s research group as a Ph.D. student in 2019 and she currently studies the microbial ecology and metagenomics of marine phytoplankton.

Instagram: @gu_junyao


Rachel Lo Piccolo head shot

Rachel Lo Piccolo, Marine Science and Conservation PhD Program Coordinator

Rachel has a BS in Biology and Spanish from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. She graduated from the Univercity of Central Florida with a Master’s degree in Zoology with a study on human impacts on wild bottlenose dolphin behavior in the intercostal waters of Florida. While in Florida, she began working for the marine mammal stranding network and took a position with NOAA at their Beaufort, NC laboratory as the state stranding coordinator.  She continued in that position as well as teaching Biology for Carteret Community College before transition the Duke Marine Lab campus as the PhD Program Coordinator in 2010. She has continued her work at Duke with PhD students in marine conservation, overseeing a summer international Global Fellowship program and most recently has trained as a Wellness and Life Coach through the Duke Integrative Medicine Program. She is passionate about marine conservation, education and inspiring students to become the best well rounded versions of themselves. In addition, she enjoys traveling to National Parks with her family and anywhere in Maine.

Julia Bingham head shot

Julia Bingham, 5th year PhD candidate in Marine Science and Conservation at Dr. Grant Murray’s lab

Julia has a bachelor’s degree in Biology and one in International Studies from Oregon State University. She has been an intertidal ecology research assistant at Hatfield Marine Science Center and the Oregon Institute for Marine Biology, developed environmental education plans for the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, helped develop social-economic indicators of coastal resilience and equity in northern Cuba and the US Gulf Coast. She is the 2021-2022 Anne Firor Scott Graduate Fellow in Public Scholarship. Her current research focuses on environmental knowledge, social values, and equity in coastal governance and management using traditions of Political Ecology and Critical Geography.  Her dissertation work is conducted in the traditional territory of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations, with the collaboration, permission, and leadership of Tla-o-qui-aht and of Ha’oom Fisheries Society.


Website: www.juliaabingham.com

Yutien head shot

Yutian Fang, 1st PhD student at UC Santa Barbara, Duke CEM Alumna

Yutian grew up in Beijing, China. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Biology from UC San Diego in 2019, and Master of Environmental Management Degree from Duke University in 2021. During her time at Duke Marine Lab, she found her research passion in mitigating bycatch between fishing activities and marine megafauna. Based on her interest, she is currently a Ph.D. student at Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, UC Santa Barbara. During her time at Bren, she will continuously explore using spatial tools to reduce global bycatch in data-poor environments, with her ultimate goal to create benefits for both human society and the natural world.

Twitter: @Yutian1207

Website:  https://bren.ucsb.edu/people/yutian-fang

Dana Grieco head shot

Dana Grieco, 3rd year PhD student in Marine Science and Conservation at Dr. David Gill’s lab.

Dana’s current research focuses on how fisheries and conservation interventions (such as climate change and conservation interventions) impact marine social and ecological systems, with a particular focus on small-scale, data-poor fisheries systems. Her methodology includes data-limited fisheries modelling, interdisciplinary systems-based approaches, and participatory research techniques that value fisheries stakeholder knowledge. Dana graduated with a B.S. in biology from Villanova University in 2016. She spent the following three years working in marine ecological research and many facets of the fishing and dive industries in Cape Cod, MA, and the Bay Islands, Honduras. She then came to Duke to work with her advisor, Dr. David Gill, in 2019.

Twitter: @dana_grieco

Instagram: @danagrieco

Website: https://sites.duke.edu/davidgill/dana-grieco/

Greg Merrill head shot

Greg Merrill, 3rd year PhD student in Marine Science and Conservation at Dr. Doug Nowacek’s lab 

Greg is a 3rd year PhD student in the University Ecology Program whose dissertation research is broadly focused on assessing the impacts of plastic pollution on energy metabolism in the blubber in marine mammals: whales, sea lions, seals, etc. His previous work at the University of Alaska Anchorage where he earned his Masters of Science has focused on investigating maternal foraging behaviors of Alaskan northern fur seals in an effort to establish an effective and relatively inexpensive long-term monitoring index of foraging success and pup survival in the face of climate-mediated shifts in ecosystem structuring. Greg enjoys kayaking, hiking and camping.

Twitter: @GBMerrjr

Website: sites.nicholas.duke.edu/nowacek/students/ 

Dana Wright head shot

Dana Wright, 4th year PhD candidate in Marine Science and Conservation at Dr. Andy Read’s lab.

Dana is a conservation biologist and marine ecologist interested in community structure and ecological niche under changing climatic conditions. To date, her research has focused primarily on whale species in the North Pacific and subarctic. Her current research in the Read lab focuses on the conservation case study of the North Pacific right whale, a species of whale on the brink of extinction from legal and illegal commercial whaling. She graduated from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in 2014, with a Master’s Degree in Marine Biology. After which, she started contract work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, WA. She started her PhD at Duke University in 2018. Dana is currently an NSF Graduate Research Fellow and has received the North Pacific Research Board Graduate Fellowship. In her free time, she enjoys swimming, hiking, and surfing.

Personal website: www.danalwright.com 

Twitter: @danawr8

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/wrightdl8

Transcript & References