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New PhD program in Oceans Department launches this fall

The new doctoral program in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability will take an interdisciplinary approach to global marine challenges.

A Pacific mole crab, or sand crab, at Hopkins Marine Station, where a researcher was working on a parasite that infested mole crabs and affected otter populations in Monterey Bay. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

This fall, the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability is launching its first degree program in the new Oceans Department. The doctorate in Oceans offers students a new way to think about ocean issues and find the tools to solve them.

The Oceans Department formed in September 2022 with the launch of the Doerr School of Sustainability. It brings together 15 faculty members from departments across the university, including Earth System Science, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Biology, and Anthropology.

That merger of disciplines is a key component of the new doctoral program.

“There are graduate students at Stanford pursuing research in oceans within different departments and programs,” said Fiorenza Micheli, chair of the Oceans Department. “One of the motivations for forming an Oceans Department, and now a PhD program, is to create a focal point to bring together students and faculty from across the university and fully leverage Stanford’s assets in oceans.”

Through the program, students will have access to expert researchers and lab spaces on the main Stanford campus and the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California. Located on the shores of Monterey Bay, Hopkins is the oldest marine laboratory on the West Coast and home to many of the Oceans faculty.

“By gathering all of these assets together in a department and a PhD program, we can do a much better job training the next generation of scientists, decisionmakers, and policymakers with the multiple types of skills that are required to address today’s formidable oceans sustainability challenges,” said Oceans Professor Giulio De Leo, who co-chaired the committee that created the new program. “The problems that we’re dealing with – the ocean problem, the sustainability problem – are too complex to approach them in an incremental, sector-specific way. The breakthroughs will come through novel interdisciplinary approaches that fully recognize the complex and multifaceted nature of the ocean sustainability challenges and integrate ocean science, technology, and policy.”

The issues facing our oceans are a complex marriage of social, economic, political, and scientific challenges, and the solutions must be as well, according to researchers. Rising water temperatures and acidification, plastics and pollution, deteriorating reefs and unsustainable fishing practices are the tip of the iceberg for ocean health and its impact on the climate, as well as on economic and social systems.

“The future of our planet is the future of the ocean; we cannot decouple them anymore,” Micheli said. “The next 10 to 20 years are going to define the fate of our oceans and planet.”

Comprehensive curriculum

Interdisciplinary approaches are built into the core requirements of the new doctoral degree. The students will take a two-quarter interactive introductory seminar, Getting to Know Your Ocean, where faculty will give students an overview of the basics of their discipline, share their own academic journeys, and introduce the students to their lab facilities, research methods, and current topics. 

“It gives them an awareness and appreciation for the breadth of the department as well as the knowledge of who they can call on if they need expertise in any area,” said Oceans Professor Karen Casciotti, who co-chaired the doctoral committee with De Leo.

The students will also go into the field and visit labs, Hopkins Marine Station, and other research sites to continue to build a shared language and understanding around ocean studies. 

The program features a sequence of courses focused on the core skills necessary to succeed in a doctoral program and beyond, such as professional development, scientific communication, proposal and paper writing, and fundraising. 

Other unique aspects of the program include the opportunity to minor in a different area of the Oceans Department, as well as pursue a practicum experience, such as an internship with a government agency, industry, or nongovernmental organization. 

“Ultimately, this program aims to support and train leaders in sustainability,” Micheli said. “That means excellence in research, but also training in all of the aspects that relate to how you apply that knowledge, how you catalyze and advance change. Ocean leaders need to be literate in these different disciplines and skills.”

Finding the best and brightest

The Oceans doctoral program will begin accepting applications in September for the fall 2024 cohort. However, the program will be active this fall with a cohort of students transferring from existing departments around Stanford. 

Those students will begin the fall quarter with an “Ocean immersion” retreat to help them get to know each other, their new faculty, and the department’s resources. The students represent the kinds of interdisciplinary breadth the department is aiming for – while each will have their own research focus, faculty members will be intentional about finding overlap in their research and ideas, Micheli said. 

“Students will pursue different tracks, including physical oceanographers, marine ecologists, social sciences, and others. But there will be discourses and activities to bring them back together,” Micheli said. 

Because in the end, it’s about solving these issues together.

“We want to bring together a cohort of students who are really passionate about making a difference,” Micheli said. “They have their specific questions, but they’re curious about what else is happening. They want to be part of a community. Our hope is that this program will prepare professionals in the academic fields, but also much more broadly in all the important fields that require ocean literacy.” 

Micheli is also the David and Lucile Packard Professor in Marine Science, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions; De Leo is also a professor of Earth system science, a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, faculty fellow at the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health, and faculty affiliate at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence; Casciotti is also the associate dean for facilities and shared labs, a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, member of Bio-X, and co-chair of the GEOTRACES Scientific Steering Committee.

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