PhDs Take On Yosemite


The smoke from nearby forest fires casts a faint haze over the panorama of the Yosemite valley floor, but from 6,000 feet of elevation it’s still not a bad view.  Twenty-four Bren PhD students, two faculty, and three staff have trekked up to the top of Nevada Falls, where the water cascades down towers of granite to the Merced River 594 feet below.  School has officially started.

The Bren School PhDs kicked off the 2015-2016 school year by holding their annual PhD retreat amid the dramatic backdrop of one of the nation’s oldest national parks.  For incoming students, this weekend acts as an intimate introduction to the PhD program, and the people, opportunities, and resources that exists within the Bren School.

“Besides getting to know people on a personal level, it was also just a good demonstration of the PhD community” says Molly Wilson, a first-year student who will conduct research in the Gaines Lab. “It is apparent that this is something that Bren values, and it’s energizing to be part of it.”

Building and maintaining this scientific community has become an important part of the Bren doctorate program, especially for the students.  In fact, it was students who originally pitched the idea for the first retreat to the administration in 2012. They wanted bring together the PhD community who, unlike Bren MESM program, has no central curriculum to unite them.  The retreat allows the students to come together and cultivate relationships that will aid them throughout their Bren career and beyond.

Ian McCullough is a fourth-year student studying under Bren Professor Frank Davis, and a member of the Student Organizing Committee—also known as “the huddle”—that planned the Yosemite trip. During his time at Bren he has come to see the retreat not only as a time to get to know other students, but as a platform to improve the way in which researchers collaborate in their work.  “We have all heard that solving complicated environmental problems requires interdisciplinary methods and thinking,” says McCullough.  “But the first step is getting scientists from different backgrounds to share their interests and expertise with each other.”

And that is what the retreat allows for—sharing.  Though it is certainly not all about research.  In fact most stories from the weekend include snapshots of grueling but rewarding hikes to waterfalls, rousing games of charades, communal meals, and failed scavenger hikes. But Ian and the other student organizers, think that these activities are just as important as scientific partnerships.  In some ways they are actually stoking the same fire. McCullough says that “people are much more likely to form research collaborations when they understand the great things their various colleagues are capable of doing,” whether it is climbing a mountain or rolling on the floor in a ridiculous pantomime to act out an obscure movie title in charades.

Because at the end of the day, there is something bonding about piling in a cabin at the Sierra Nevada Research Institute; about sharing space and time in the grandeur of granite; hiking up Yosemite’s “Giant Staircase”; and soaking in the cold pools at the top of Nevada Falls.


A big thank you to all of the individuals who helped make this trip possible. The student organizing team: Ty Brandt, Laura Urbisci, Andrew Ayres, Jess Perkins, Ian McCullough, Elizabeth Hiroyasu, and Kendra Garner.  Special thanks to faculty members Dr. Sarah Anderson and Dr. Bob Wilkinson, and staff members Kristine Faloon, Casey Hankey and James Badham for participating in the event. It would be an understatement to say that opportunities to interact with staff and faculty outside of Bren are invaluable. Thank you to Kendra Garner and Elizabeth Hiroyasu who had the tall task of keeping 29 hungry people happy for three days and were overwhelmingly successful. Finally, the retreat would not even be possible without the support of the Bren School as a whole, who has wholeheartedly embraced the PhD student retreat as a positive addition to the overall Bren PhD experience.

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