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Is there a Doctorate in the house?

After years of schooling, final dissertation can feel a bit like defending your life

By Neal Matthews

June 4, 2003

"I f anyone wants to take a vendetta against Manu, now's the time."

Emanuele Di Lorenzo - Manu - looks over and smiles shyly at his academic adviser and mentor, Art Miller, who has just declared open season on him before a room packed with about 60 fellow students, oceanographers, world class authorities and family members.

The outgoing native of Rome has spent an hour accounting for his last six years as a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography with a PowerPoint presentation of his doctoral dissertation. Di Lorenzo's formal thesis defense, the final exam that every Ph.D. candidate must complete before the mantle of research scientist is bestowed, has an X-factor built in: It is open to the public, so literally anyone could theoretically challenge his findings.

Di Lorenzo's thesis uses ocean modeling to demonstrate that a one-degree average warming trend and a decline in zooplankton in the California Current between 1950 and 1998 are not attributable to global warming. Before the first question, Di Lorenzo glances at his mother, Annamaria Poeta, who journeyed all the way from Rome.

The former model (she resembles Sophia Loren) sits a few rows from the front, exuding joy and loving support, but Manu could be excused for feeling glad she doesn't speak English.

A candidate's mother entered the realm of academic nightmare two years ago at Scripps when she came to hear her son's defense of studies he had conducted on organic molecules in meteorites for his Ph.D. When the candidate's adviser opened the floor to questions, generally a tense time for the students, his mother tried to help by lobbing what she thought was a puffball about meteorites becoming contaminated when they enter Earth's atmosphere.

"He bluffed his way through, but it was a good question and she kind of stumped him," explains a professor who was there. "And the guy goes, 'Awwh, mom!', which you could hear throughout the room."

Di Lorenzo's mother smiles beatifically as her son fields audience questions having to do with spatial variations of zooplankton in the California Current (He hadn't looked at that), and whether the ocean model could track a recent cooling trend off California (He's working on it). Then, as his many friends, fellow students and working oceanographers file out of Nierenberg Hall, Manu sits down with his five academic advisers for the final "exam," in which the professors will grill him in private on any weaknesses in his paper.

As the door closes Art Miller can be heard saying, "OK, let's really nail him."

Only the big points
In theory that door could open and Di Lorenzo could come out disgraced, the brain trust having decided his thesis was a wash. But that's more a possibility in England, where traditionally one of the candidate's advisers is a world authority from outside the university, so the candidate's work may be judged more harshly.

"We wouldn't let them get to this point if there were serious problems with their thesis," says Dave Hilton, a geophysicist who mentored two of the candidates who defended in May. "At this stage, the students are virtually our colleagues, and you've been working with them for years. By the time they defend, you hope they've reached the point where they can get a job doing science, or anything they want. Even be a journalist."

Several of the 25 doctoral students who defended this year, the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Scripps campus, said they felt a complicated form of pressure, owing to the necessity to finish the thesis while simultaneously trying to line up a post doc position, a real job or finally allow themselves some foolish romance.

"It's difficult to put everything you've done in the last five years into a 45-minute talk," says Alison Shaw, a Vancouver native who delved into the belching mouths of volcanoes to sample 750-degree gases for her studies of how Earth's magma recycles certain chemical elements. "You don't want to overwhelm them, but you also want to show the breadth of your work. We'll see how I do."

A fellow student who defended in May, Justin Kulongoski, declares, "It's always a bit intimidating getting up in front of the world experts in your field. But all you can really do is hit the highlights of what you've done."

The 32-year-old Oregon farm boy's thesis is about using traces of Noble gases in ancient aquifers to piece together a climatology record in Botswana and central Australia.

"The defense is the fruition of all the work you've been doing. It's a bit nostalgic, remembering your early days at Scripps, and reliving a very intense period in which you're working six, seven days a week for 12 or 14 hours a day. Graduating from Scripps is difficult mentally, physically and emotionally, which is why not many of us get married while we're here. But you can only present a small aspect of it in the defense. That's the challenge."

Kulongoski says he wasn't nervous before or during his presentation, but when the crowd left and his advisers closed the door for his final examination, he felt a little fluttery. "There's always the uncertainty of what they're going to pose to you," he reports. "But a lot of it was discussing parts of the science that nobody knows. There are bigger questions being asked, and my work was just a piece of the puzzle."

It helped that parts of his thesis, like those of most other Scripps candidates, had already been published in scientific journals.

No matter the money
Kulongoski's interest in measuring the properties of groundwater so that the resource can be better managed fits the pattern in which most doctoral projects strive to be of beneficial use to humanity. "If it doesn't connect up to the real world, it's just not as interesting," explains Catherine Johnson, 34, who recently defended her thesis examining the dormancy period of copepods, tiny planktonic crustaceans, which are important to both fishermen and submarine sonar men. "But really I just think it's a neat problem - how organisms change environment and behavior from part of the year to another, and how they interact with climate variability."

Much of her work was funded by the Office of Naval Research, and she also received grants from the San Diego Chapter of the ARCS Foundation, Achievement Rewards for College Scientists.

Like Kulongoski, whose technical skills allowed him to help build two gas spectrometers in his adviser's lab, and whose ability to speak Indonesian helped him organize expeditions to that part of the world, Johnson had a special talent that was invaluable. The granddaughter of a tool and die maker, she used to be a bicycle mechanic, and being good with her hands was crucial on many occasions during her six long cruises and 10 one-day cruises on Scripps research vessels.

Johnson became expert at deploying and recovering a complex oceanographic instrument called Moc Ness - the Multiple Opening and Closing Net and Environmental Sensing System, which has 10 separate nets that open and close at different depths. Twice she had to completely disassemble and reassemble the monster at sea.

"She's a true-blue oceanographer," says Dave Checkley, her mentor and chief academic adviser, as he approaches a table holding a copepod-shaped cake (with red licorice antennae) at a small seaside party after her thesis defense. A thank-you card signed by fellow students, most of them a year or two behind her, is filled with effusive notes of gratitude for her help with their projects.

Manu Di Lorenzo was also popular with fellow students and professors because his special skill - facility with computers - led him to be of great assistance to them. At the end of his thesis defense, when he was offering thanks while displaying funny pictures of friends and colleagues who contributed to his work, he became touchingly nostalgic when he showed a picture of fellow-Scripps grad Kim Cobb, his fiancee, both of whom have landed teaching jobs starting next fall at Georgia Tech.

"It's a sign of incredible civilization for an institution like Scripps to actually pay for me to come here from Italy to get a degree," Di Lorenzo says.

Indeed, virtually nobody pays for a Ph.D. out of his own pocket; if you get accepted at Scripps (this year 400 applied, 70 got in), all of the $16,000 annual cost in tuition and fees, plus another $17,000 a year in living expenses, is covered by research grants, fellowships and other outside funding sources. Basically, the candidate is not allowed to pay out of his or her own pocket, a mechanism that ensures a fat checkbook is not a factor in selecting students.

Clink to success
As Di Lorenzo and his advisers huddle behind closed doors, his mother and his future in-laws, Sara Cobb and Carlos Sluzki, fidget around some picnic benches on a bright quadrangle overlooking the Scripps Pier. Cobb is director of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, near Washington, D.C., and Sluzki is a psychiatrist.

"Academic communities are always polarized," says Cobb, "so the questioning of Manu's thesis signaled affinity and dissonance with the thing that's edgy about his work - building models that simulate data. The war is between those who think getting away from observational data is dangerous, and those who think observational techniques can be limiting. Modeling is a departure from the safe haven of observation."

Di Lorenzo's future father-in-law is feeling less analytical, more philosophical. "This is a ritual, Manu's entry into the professional world," he observes. "But it's also an ending. He's getting out of the cocoon."

Annamaria Poeta, the candidate's mother, tries to relax but can't stop smiling. This is her first trip to California. The dazzling sun illuminates the lines of breakers in a silvery dream light as Poeta says through an interpreter, "Ever since he was a little kid, when we spent summers on the island of Elba off Tuscany, Manu would be in the ocean from 6 a.m., out to sea with the fishermen."

When asked if he showed early signs of high academic achievement, she bursts out laughing. "I thought he was normal! He was good in school, but was always more interested in sports. He was strongly opinionated, though, and always followed his passions."

Then the door opens and Di Lorenzo is hugging his mother before pouring champagne for all his advisers, his fiance, Kim Cobb, and his future in-laws. As Cobb snaps pictures, Manu looks relieved as he clicks every glass and offers a misty-eyed, "A salud."

Italy's loss, oceanography's gain.

Neal Matthews is a freelance writer in San Diego.

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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