Enrico Corsi is a 29-year-old Italian marine mammalogist. He is currently doing his PhD in the Marine Conservation Ecology Lab at Florida International University in Miami. Here is his story.
A fascination for the living world
I was always fascinated by the life sciences as far back as I could remember. I was that 90s kid who grew up watching Jurassic Park weekly, dreaming of being a paleontologist. By the time I reached secondary school, I had realized that I was far more interested in the living than the dead; so my focus switched to biology. The choice to study biology for my undergrad was a natural one; I knew that was the field I wanted to get into and never really considered doing anything else.
A bachelor of Biological Sciences from the University of Pisa (Italy)
focusing within biology was a much harder decision, as the field is massive and easily overwhelming. I was never too attracted by anything biomedical. I like botany, but ecology and zoology were by far my favorite subjects. I’ve always liked whales and dolphins. Free Willy was the other 90s classic I watched weekly as a kid. Thus, I volunteered with non-profit organizations focusing on their conservation during my undergraduate years. The game-changer for me, though, was an ethology class I took around my third year. I never thought a subject could be as mesmerizing and fascinating as animal behavior. I knew there, and then that was going to be my focus moving forward.
A Master’s degree in Animal Behavior in Exeter, UK
It took approximately 4-5 years to finish my undergrad, reasonably average for my program. However, I was never a straight-A student, not even close. After a three-month internship in Namibia, chasing dolphins on a boat, I began my master’s degree at the University of Exeter, UK. Exeter’s Animal Behaviour program was challenging but fascinating. It’s part of the Psychology department; a magical place where the line between animal and the human mind is virtually non-existent. I drank in every lecture, every seminar, everything about the research going on at Exeter enthralled me to my core.
Though I got involved in an internship helping one of the PhD students run experiments on guppies, my thesis looked at social aggression in Southern resident killer whales. I worked under the supervision of Darren Croft, an incredible behavioral ecologist, and his collaborators Samuel Ellis and Lauren Brent. My first project was challenging but incredibly rewarding. British 1-year masters are very demanding and require keeping up with classes, assignments, and thesis work quickly. Despite many struggles, I completed the program in a single year.
From birds to whales: Enrico’s journey took him around the world
I did a total of four internships, two on my own and two within my degree programs.
A bird banding station in Italy
During my undergrad in Italy, I found an internship through the ethology professor who first interested me in animal behavior. All undergraduate students in the Biological Sciences program were required to complete an internship before graduating. My prof he set me up with the bird banding station. I spent approximately three months at a bird banding station, working closely with the park personnel and volunteers. This experience taught me how rewarding work in this field can be. I also found out I was infinitely better on the job than in the classroom. It led me to believe in my abilities and to work hard to achieve my goals. I found out you can learn as much about an ecosystem from an experienced park ranger as from a professor. The quality of science increases exponentially when the two work in tandem for the same goal.
The Namibian Dolphin Project
I did my second internship in the few gap months between my bachelor’s and my master’s. I searched on Google for any opportunity out there. The Namibian Dolphin Project was by far the most interesting out of all the options I identified back in 2015. I went to Walvis Bay, Namibia, for three months, working as an intern with the Namibian Dolphin Project. I assisted in collecting data on the boat and helping with photo-ID efforts and even bird surveys around the lagoon. We mainly worked with the local population of common bottlenose dolphins, though we would also collect data on Heaviside’s dolphins and the occasional migrating humpback whale.
I got to experience just how hard and rewarding fieldwork with cetaceans can be. Come wind, cold snap, heatwave, and (rarely) rain; we’d be out on the boat, cameras and data sheets at hand, rotating jobs and collecting as much data as we could. It showed me how field-based research truly is when you are at the mercy of the elements. It was challenging to adapt to this lifestyle at first. But by the end of my first month, I never wanted it to end.
From guppies to killer whales’ predation
My third internship took place in the University of Exeter’s guppy lab. I reached out to Safi Darden, a brilliant scientist and fantastic person, expressing interest in cooperating with her lab. One of her PhD students, Sylvia, was running some experiments on guppy behavior, and I decided to jump on board. British 1-year master’s programs are intense, and I had to balance a lot of things all at once. Yet, I still managed to put in a couple of months of experiments. I found this internship by “browsing” various research opportunities in the Psychology department. My project/supervisor’s choice was down to two potential candidates, either Darren Croft’s killer whale project or Safi Darden’s guppy one. It was a tough choice, but both offered an internship and a master’s thesis; so I opted to do my thesis with Darren and my internship with Safi.
I learned that a study on any creature, be it a whale, an ant, or even a guppy, can be a fascinating investigation if powered by a good question. I learned how rewarding testing hypotheses in a laboratory environment could be, with near-complete control over every variable. Meanwhile, my thesis taught me how to manage and process data and formulate complex research questions. It also introduced me to the thrill of running a statistical analysis and see significant results. It also showed me how to work with older datasets, with decades worth of sightings and observations. They can allow scientists to answer the most ambitious and crucial questions our imagination can conceive; even without the fun and glamour of fieldwork.
Working on whales with Cascadia Research Collective
My fourth and last internship was in 2017 when I moved to Olympia, Washington, USA. I worked with Cascadia Research Collective for a whole year. It all began with a National Geographic documentary featuring one of their principal investigators, John Calambokidis. While looking for internships, I remembered seeing him placing cameras on blue whales with the NatGeo crew. I thought, “Maybe his research group accepts interns.” It turns out they did; and, on top of that, they offered me a potentially publishable project! It was by far the best offer out of all the opportunities I scouted after my master’s.
Like all CRC interns, I got involved in photo-ID in the office, necropsies of stranded animals, and data collection on whale-watching boats. However, my primary duty was a research project comparing predatory scarring from killer whales on humpback, grey and blue whales. I just published the study! During this internship, I met my wonderful partner (a fellow intern), Annette, who now works full-time for CRC. While at CRC, I also met Robin Baird and began discussing the possibility of doing my PhD with CRC. That led to a long search which ended when I finally met Jeremy Kiszka of Florida International University, my current PhD supervisor, who invited me to join his lab at FIU in Miami.
My time at Cascadia Research Collective taught me the value of initiative and being proactive. I was given a lot of freedom in my project, and I had the immense satisfaction of seeing my project start, expand and grow from a simple one-species assessment to a three-species comparative study. I published my first publication with CRC, and I still closely cooperate with them for my PhD.
Internships are worth gold.
I cannot stress strongly enough that I wouldn’t be where I am today without internships. First, I wouldn’t have met my partner Annie, I wouldn’t be a PhD student, and I might not even have managed to finish my master’s. Also, I was never a top-of-the-class student, and at times I struggled to stay motivated. Internships sculpted me into the person I am today, gave me the confidence and determination needed to grow in this field. They also helped me identify my strengths and weaknesses.
What is Enrico up to today?
I’m a PhD student in Jeremy Kiszka’s Marine Conservation Ecology Lab at Florida International University in Miami. As of August 2021, I just started my second year. For my thesis, I use CRC’s Hawaiian data to assess the socioecology of toothed whales via a technique called social network analysis. I work very closely with Robin Baird, the principal investigator for the Hawaiian division of CRC. For this project, I use the over 20-years-worth of photo-ID data collected in Hawaii to map and quantify dolphin and beaked whale social structure. I then investigate whether or not the variability in social structure is linked to the environment they inhabit. A lot of what I do is read papers on network theory (more algebra than biology), and identify the best ways to measure and compare social structure across species and populations.
I also teach labs to undergraduate students as part of the teaching assistantship that funds my research. Despite my first class being on Zoom during COVID-19, I am now in my third semester as a teacher and love this job. I found that there is something deeply gratifying about teaching, and it feels cathartic to finally have a shot at being the teacher I always wished I had as a student. I feel very close to my students and love helping them and advising them in any way I can.
What are the advantages and drawbacks of a PhD?
In many ways, graduate school is the most vulnerable stage in a scientist’s career. You have a staff member’s workload, but on paper, you still only count as a student. I see many of my peers struggling to find funding and often losing entire semesters’ worth of data collection because of the weather or an equipment malfunction. It’s the reason why I’m glad I waited a few years to start my PhD and got the chance to work on my current project. All my data is secured and already collected. Most of my work revolves around finding statistics and network theory to analyze my data. My supervisor and committee members leave me a lot of freedom in my schedule and research, which I greatly appreciate. PhD programs are an incredible opportunity to network with other young scientists and even co-author side projects.
Since my funding relies on a teaching assistantship, I spend a lot of my time teaching labs and grading quizzes and assignments. Interacting with young undergrads helps me keep in touch with my younger peers. I’m always up to date on what concerns or issues they may be facing. Though I love being a teacher, it can be hard sometimes to see your students struggle under the weight of the many exams they need to study for and not say more than “I’m sorry.” During COVID-19 remote learning, I saw many students struggling to keep up with classes and staying motivated. No matter how many sections I teach and how well my students perform, I can’t help but feel bad for that one or two students who keep struggling no matter what I do.
Enrico’s tips to aspiring whale scientists
Grades are not everything
My main piece of advice for aspiring scientists is to keep an open mind and remember that there’s always a way into this job. Many schools, acting in good faith, tend to present a very all-or-nothing view of what science, research, and academia are and the harsh requirements to get into this career. According to most of the information I received as a student, I should not be in a PhD program right now. My CV and grades were not optimal for the fierce competition for graduate school spots. Yet, after many internships, experience, and hard work, here I am: I have completed my first year and a published first-authored paper in Marine Mammal Science.
Make sure you get practical skills
Everyone’s story is different, and the advice that would have worked for me might not work for someone else. Yet, remember that people in this career aren’t all straight-A students with Ivy League degrees. Many began as photographers or technicians; some didn’t even have a scientific background, just the right skills or attitude in the right place at the right time. Though being a good student with good grades will help you, make sure to prioritize internships, research projects, and any other form of hands-on experience. A good employer or admission committee will be far more impressed by practical experience than by a high test score.
Publish as much as you can
You should also publish. Publish as many papers as you can, co-author or first author, anything you can post on your CV.
Keep pushing for your dreams
The final piece of advice that I’d like to give prospective scientists is not to give up. This field is a war of attrition. You will face failure 50 times before you succeed. Stay calm, get set up with a temporary job or even an alternative career if you have too and keep sending that application out relentlessly. Send 200 more applications to other departments and universities. Send them worldwide, not just your own country, everywhere an interesting research question is being investigated. Some people got into this field after decades of working in a different career (often getting married and having kids in the meantime), and most will tell you it was worth the wait. Patience and adaptability are the keys to a career in science. There is no such thing as too late or too old for this job.
What does the future hold for Enrico?
At the moment, I’m focusing on my PhD. I want to make this the best study that I possibly can. However, I often branch out and co-author side projects, whether with CRC or my labmates. I genuinely love what I do, and applying it to other questions and datasets helps me improve my project in the long run. I am sure that I want to work in research after my time in graduate school is over, whether in academia, government, or non-profit (like CRC), I don’t yet know. It will all depend on what the job market looks like around the time I graduate. My ultimate dream is to one day run my lab as a principal investigator, though I’ll always be happy as long as I’m doing research.
Finding love at a stranded whale
There are a few fun stories I accumulated in my time as an intern or student. I think the best one, though, is how I met Annie, my partner. We were both interns at CRC. I worked in the West coast office at the time while she was in a different room in the Hawaiʻi office, so I hadn’t run into her yet. One day, we received an email saying that a fairly rotten grey whale was found stranded, and we were being called in for the necropsy. I went to collect my stranding gear and, on the way back to the office before meeting the other at the car, I ran into Annie for the first time.
Long story short, one of the very first things she got to see me do was meandering through decomposed grey whale entrail soup with a large hook moving stuff around so that Jessie, our necropsy specialist, could find the remains of the liver. I hadn’t packed my necropsy boots and had to do the entire thing in regular hiking shoes. I emerged from the carcass, reeking like a seafood processing factory while Annie was writing down data. On the way back, my shoes stank up the entire car, and I had to wash them about ten times before the stench fully got out of them. Now, every time I do something stupid, she gives me “that look” while I smile and say, “Well, what do you expect when you pick up guys at whale carcasses?”
What does a typical workday look like for Enrico?
My routine is pretty erratic and changes every semester depending on when I teach. I also move back and forth between Miami and Olympia a lot since my project is a collaboration, with different weekly schedules depending on where I am.
When in Florida…
In Miami, I have two daily plans depending on whether it’s a teaching day or not. If I teach, that’s usually all I do for the day. I get everything set up and ready to go before lab starts, teach and then take care of all the grading I need to do for that section by the end of the day. If I have time to spare, I’ll catch up on things like buying groceries or cleaning my room.
If I’m not teaching, I work on my project from the moment I finish having breakfast, with a lunch and a dinner break. My project work varies a lot, with days where I essentially do nothing but read papers, figure out how to calculate some strange network metrics, and then assess whether or not they can be helpful for my project. Other times, I do intensive network analysis and run more analyses through the 2-3 programs I use.
When in Olympia…
In Olympia, I follow the same work schedule as my partner Annie (8-9 hour workday with lunch break). We generally wake up very early, commute to Cascadia Research Collective’s office, and work until late afternoon. When at CRC, I’m not teaching, so I follow the same work schedule as during non-teaching days in Miami. The data I use is archived and stored there. I usually keep a copy with me in Miami, but CRC holds supplemental data that I can use to establish my models. Therefore, if I have any more explorative work on data I haven’t processed yet, I generally try to get that done while at CRC.
I could pretty much do my entire thesis with nothing but a computer and one or two big enough hard drives. It makes my schedule reasonably flexible, which I greatly appreciate.
Did you enjoy reading Enrico’s story? You can contact him here: firstname.lastname@example.org or on his ReasearchGate page.
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