2010-02-25 / Front Page

Island friends reach academic milestone together

By Holly Benton

Brooke Longval and Chris Calabretta Brooke Longval and Chris Calabretta Jamestown residents and roommates Chris Calabretta and Brooke Longval are not only recent graduates of the incredibly demanding University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography – they’re also best friends.

In 2002, just two weeks apart from each other, Calabretta and Longval began the Ph.D. program that can take anywhere from five to 10 years to complete, side by side.

“We were in the same office from day one,” Longval said. “We took all the same classes, had all the same issues and we understood when one of us was frustrated and could help each other out. You need a lot of support to get through grad school. You can’t do it alone.”

The GSO program includes a number of components, such as four initial qualifying courses, 72 credits, an oral and written comprehensive exam, a research cruise, a dissertation proposal and defense, and ultimately, the fi- nal dissertation.

Chris Calabretta and Brooke Longval process benthic samples collected in Narragansett Bay while onboard URI’s research vessel Cap’n Bert. Chris Calabretta and Brooke Longval process benthic samples collected in Narragansett Bay while onboard URI’s research vessel Cap’n Bert. According to Longval, the workload can be frustrating because although the goal is to get your degree, there are so many additional requirements.

“Getting your Ph.D. is much more about perseverance than it is about being brilliantly smart,” she said.

In addition to the heavy academic workload, both students had assistantships that required them to work a minimum of 20 hours a week and full time in the summer.

Longval described the assistantship program as a “funding source” that allows students to financially work their way through grad school, but adds an additional layer of stress to the program.

“The thing with grad school is that you think it’s school and it’s not,” she said. “It’s a job that you just happen to get a degree out of at the end. So if you approach it from this job perspective, it makes a lot more sense. We get paid to go to school, but in exchange for that, we have to work for our advisor in addition to doing our classes and working on our dissertations. If you could do two of those three things, you would have more time, but you can’t.”

Calabretta said he felt fortunate that he and Longval were able to do their assistantships in the same office, despite the fact that they were focused on different research. Longval’s assistantship was nutrient based, while Calabretta’s was centered on benthic ecology, the topic of his dissertation.

“I like to think of myself as a coastal ecologist,” he said. “But I did specialize in benthic ecology, which is the study of the critters that live in the sediments of the bay.”

In contrast, Longval’s assistantship and dissertation focused on the fish community.

“It took a long time to decide what I wanted to do,” she said. “The assistantship that I started working on when I came to grad school was looking at nutrient dynamics and that’s what I thought I wanted to do my dissertation on, but when I got into it, I realized it wasn’t. It took me until 2005 to actually get a topic.”

Calabretta and Longval have similar views on why they’re passionate about oceanography – both said that they love the sea.

Calabretta, a Jamestown native and graduate of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, said, “Every time I went to the water, something was different, it was constantly changing and I wanted to know why. In undergrad, I learned that I really enjoyed research, so I wanted a field where I could continue to do research and oceanography was something that really interested me. And I picked GSO because I wanted to stay here. I spent my childhood on the beach and have always loved sailing and the water.”

Longval, who grew up in Chelmsford, Mass. and graduated from Boston University, said she picked oceanography in an effort to combine her passions.

“I felt it would combine my science interest with my love for the water,” she said. “I spent summers on a lake in New Hampshire sailing, so I’ve always liked being on the water. I have my own boat, which I sail here.”

Both Calabretta and Longval said their academic fieldwork was a highlight of graduate school, which required that they either be on a boat or physically in the water, sampling. Their work with the Environmental Protection Agency in Narragansett Bay and at the Cape Cod National Seashore allowed them to utilize their studies.

“After going through the original core courses and learning all the specific processes, we then got to go out on the bay and sample and look at what’s actually happening,” Calabretta said. “For me, that was a big highlight.”

Calabretta and Longval both stayed fairly general in the Ph.D. studies, which has made them marketable, they said.

Calabretta currently works in the marine ecology division at Science Applications International Corporation in Newport, where he had an internship after graduating in August. He said he hopes to always enjoy going to work and to continue to do research.

Longval, who graduated in December and hopes to stay in R.I., is currently job searching with an open mind, she said.

“I’m trying to find something where I can do a lot of different things and use a broad range of information,” she said. “I’m not so concerned with what that actually is, or what context I’m doing it in. I want to be doing something that I’m happy to be going to work every day, something that I like doing, but still lets me have my life.”

While Calabretta and Longval share a great deal in common, it was actually their differences that made them so invaluable to one another throughout the program. With Longval having too many hobbies to name and Calabretta a self-proclaimed “workaholic,” they balanced each other perfectly.

“It’s been good, because I tend to want to go do all the fun stuff, but he made me work more, and I tried to make him work less,” Longval said. “And I think we both sort of succeeded.”

According to Calabretta and Longval, the support of their family and friends made the seemingly impossible task of graduate school a possibility. On behalf of both of them, Calabretta stated, “I know I couldn’t have done it without my family or my friendship with Brooke. Your support group is really important and she was a big part of my support group.”

Longval summed up their seven years of graduate school and friendship, saying, “I always think, what would grad school have been like if he wasn’t the person there for me. He’s such a part of my graduate experience. We did everything together, we did our comprehensive exams a week apart, we defended our dissertations a week apart, we went to graduation together and had a graduation party together…I can’t even separate the two.”

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