Hilary Kates Varghese

Oceanography Ph.D. '21
Group of students in their red immersion suits.
Alumni Spotlight Q & A:

Where are you from, Hilary?

I am from Syracuse, NY.

What was your major at UNH and who was your adviser? 

Earth Sciences–Oceanography, I was pursuing a PhD, I was in attendance from September 2017–December 2021, graduated Dec 31 2021. My research looked at the effect of deep water ocean mapping sonar on the marine acoustic environment and marine mammal foraging behavior. My adviser was Dr. Jennifer Miksis-Olds.

Why did you choose UNH?  

Primarily because that is where the adviser was that I wanted to work with. Jen had just recently moved from Penn State to UNH. However, I was also very happy to get back to New Hampshire. I worked as the lab manager at the Shoals Marine Lab off the coast of NH/ME (affiliated with both UNH and Cornell) the summer after my undergraduate degree at Cornell University. During that time I fell in love with New Hampshire (mountains and ocean both close by!), so I was definitely looking for an excuse to get back. So it worked out really well that the person I wanted to work with was in New Hampshire.

What were your favorite courses and which professors had the greatest impact on you?

One of my favorite classes was Geological Oceanography because I went in with the expectation that I was going to hate it and I was surprised to find that it was extremely interesting and outside of my wheelhouse (which I considered to be biology), so challenging, and I like challenges! The professor Joel Johnson had a way of turning each lesson into a story, filled with his own experiences of times out at sea.

I also really enjoyed my Neurobiology course with Dr. Win Watson. He made such a complex topic approachable and extremely interesting. He also turned the classroom around a lot and had the students teach one another. I think we each had to give 2-3 presentations throughout the semester on a scientific paper related to neurobiology. The course covered everything from the neurobiology behind impacts of harmful algal blooms on marine life, to hormones that block your ability to differentiate sweet and sour taste.

I had so many wonderful professors its hard to pick just one, but Dr. Thomas Lippman’s class on Time Series Analysis definitely had the greatest impact on my research work. During the class we learned a lot of practical programming skills and techniques which I used immediately in my research.

What was student life like and were you involved in any extracurricular activities?

When I first started I participated in intermural sports with the “Grad to the Bones” graduate student team. It was fantastic. I learned broomball, and got to play soccer and volleyball. I really found my community in the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping where I did my research assistantship. This was a wonderful community, one of my favorite aspects was the diversity of students, there is always a cohort of international students each year learning about ocean mapping. It was also an opportunity for the rest of us to learn about many new cultures. The rare times I ate at the dining hall, I was in heaven. So much delicious food!

Row of color photos of student in action.

What was the biggest transitional issue you faced when you started at UNH?

Learning how to code in MATLAB! This was something that was critical for my research but not something I had ever dabbled in. Several of my grad schoolmates helped me find the ropes.

How is UNH addressing the social cause you are most passionate about?

UNH is doing a lot to help many social causes I care about, from sustainability to recognition of the tribal lands the school sits on to diversity, equity, inclusion issues. While at UNH I got to participate in a program called URGE – Unlearning Racism in the Geosciences. It was a very eye-opening, peer-guided curriculum with a goal of not only understanding racism in the geosciences but working toward actionable changes within the UNH community.

What is your current position and why is your work important?  

I work as a Marine Bioacoustician (a biologist specialized in acoustics) for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in their Center for Marine Acoustics headquartered in Sterling, Virginia. What I like best about this job is that I get to work at the intersection of science and policy. I no longer do my own research, but I get to synthesize and use the collective information available about impacts of human-made noise on marine life to help shape best management practices and help inform policy. Right now the work I do largely relates to the growing offshore wind industry, and potential noise impact issues on marine life. I get to interact with various stakeholders including other federal agencies, private companies, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, as well as the general public. In this virtual world, I may host a webinar with international colleagues in the morning, meet with other federal agencies to talk about processes in the afternoon, and have an internal team meeting to talk about a new initiative in the evening.

What are your future career plans? 

I am very happy in my current position, it actually is my dream job, so I am going to continue to ride this wave as long as it lasts.

How did UNH contribute to your career and where you are now?

My research work and experience at UNH gave me the exact skills and understanding I needed to be prepared for taking on the job I am in now.

Some of my best memories are the opportunities I had to go to sea. Within the first 6 months of starting at UNH I went on a 25-day research cruise in the Atlantic Ocean as part of the ADEON project my advisor was leading. It turns out flying fish are real! I also spent 3 weeks in the Bering Sea (near Alaska) turning over equipment for a long-term passive acoustic monitoring project my advisor had up there. I got to see walruses and grizzly bears! I also was incredibly motion sick. These experiences will definitely live in my memory forever.

"I hope that the work that I do will help ensure that marine life exists for people to continually discover in awe, and that we have natural, beautiful, and healthy marine environments to enjoy perpetually."

Any advice for undergrads/grad students who are conducting research?

Get as much hands-on experience as you can. This is the time. Don’t be afraid to get outside of your comfort zone, this is exactly where you will find success and growth.

What was something you would have changed about your graduate research experience?

I was always bad at balancing my work and personal life. I would encourage other students to try and strive for this. I was in school essentially until I was 33. I wouldn’t recommend waiting to enjoy life until you are done with school. If you figure out how to balance it appropriately during school this will set you up better for life after school.

On a totally separate subject, don’t wait to ask questions. You have to be your own advocate. No one else knows your thoughts, frustrations, or confusions better than you do. Get help if you need it.

What makes you proud to be affiliated with UNH?

I think UNH has an excellent reputation when it comes to research, in terms of rigor, integrity, and quality. UNH has woven itself into every aspect of life in the seacoast area. In every place that it has, things are better as a result. That makes me proud.

What impact do you hope your work has on future generations?

I hope that the work that I do will help ensure that marine life exists for people to continually discover in awe, and that we have natural, beautiful, and healthy marine environments to enjoy perpetually. I also hope to inspire other people to follow in my footsteps (but better than I have done) so that when I am gone this mission can continue.



Are you or is someone you know an alum who conducted research with us? Do YOU want to be featured in an upcoming Alumni Spotlight? We'd love to connect! Please email Rebecca.Irelan@unh.edu with details.