Monday, March 12, 2018

My graduate school turns 100 - reflections

The School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington is turning 100. I was asked by the Director, Andre Punt, to provide a short personal narrative of my time there. This blog post is a draft of that narrative.

When I walked out of my last exam in my final year of university, 1991 at the University of Victoria, I cold-called my intended PhD supervisor, Tom Quinn. I gave a long, reasonably well-prepared spiel about my passion for salmon and my desire to do graduate work in his lab. A modest silence followed my monologue and then a “Well, it sounds like you would make an excellent graduate student but, unfortunately, you missed the application deadline by 6 months.” Momentarily crushed, my enthusiasm recovered when he suggested that I come work for him over the fall. Thus began a 7-year stint with Tom at the School of Fisheries; starting with a fall working on chum salmon at Kennedy Creek in Washington, then a winter working with sockeye salmon fry exiting the Cedar River in Seattle, then a summer in Alaska working with the Fisheries Research Institute (FRI - of the School of Fisheries) camps Wood River – at that time lead by Don Rogers as well as at Lake Nerka and Iliamna Lake. FRI has now morphed into the Alaska Salmon Program

Me in 1992 at Iliamna, Alaska.
The next year I met the deadline for application to graduate school, applying at the same time for a graduate scholarship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). In the spring, I received a letter from NSERC denying me the option of taking my MSc scholarship to Washington University on the grounds that it didn’t have a very good fisheries program. I wrote back politely – but without much hope – to first agree with NSERC that Washington University indeed was not well known for its fisheries program but that the University of Washington was – and that it was the latter at which I wished to pursue my studies. All was well regardless as I received an H. Mason Keeler scholarship that enabled Tom to take me as a student and, a few months letter, I received a letter from NSERC saying, effectively, “Oops, sorry, our mistake. Here is your scholarship.”

Having just had a formative and inspiring set of field experiences in Washington and Alaska, I suggested to Tom that I do my MSc on topics similar to those the projects on which I had been working. Tom, as always, listened politely and then suggested I instead work on rapid evolution in Lake Washington sockeye salmon that were introduced earlier in the century. This suggestion turned out to be exceptional as it started my path to being one of the forerunners – along with my office-mate Mike Kinnison – in the study of rapid evolution. At the same time, I met the great – and ever enthusiastic – Fred Utter who helped me do my first genetic work with allozymes – and still, sadly, my only hands-on genetic work. Of course, all was not always smooth sailing, especially when the boat – the Nettie H – I had worked on for the FRI test fishery in Bristol Bay, sank a few months later while crab fishing, causing the death of all on board, including Blake Grinstein, the Captain for my two years working on the test fishery.

Blake Grinstein surveying the test fishery catch.
Having had my MSc project suggested to me by my supervisor, I decided I needed to do a PhD all my own. I therefore suggested to Tom a project at Pick Creek, Alaska, on the reproductive energetics of Pacific salmon. Then followed two extremely intensive summers of field work at the Lake Nerka camp, not only conducting research but also having a wonderful time experiencing – and photographing – nature. 1995 was particularly memorable for probably 50 bear encounters, most of them pleasant and inspiring but some of them rather scary. I continued to work at Lake Nerka until 2000, even after graduating, making it an even 10 summers of Alaska work with FRI. These years included the first research visits to Lake Nerka of Ray Hilborn and Daniel Schindler, both of whom still work there, as well as visits by crazy drunk Soviet fisheries biologists and crazy drunk Norwegian fisheries biologists.

The Lake Nerka camp, early 1990s.
The School of Fisheries at the University of Washington, now the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, was an outstanding experience for me. I am especially appreciative of my supervisor Tom Quinn, who gave me some great ideas, who shaped my manic approach to manuscript editing, who encouraged me to explore collaborations with others independent of him, and who had a knack for filling his lab with an exceptionally synergistic and energetic group of students. Especially formative for me was having my desk directly beside Mike Kinnison, now a Professor at the University of Maine, for 7 years. Although we played Doom and then Doom II with a serial cable linking our computers between 10 pm and 1 am, we actually did research for at least as many hours before that.

While I worked on "rapid" evolution in Lake Washington sockeye,
Mike Kinnison worked on "rapid" evolution in New Zealand
chinook salmon. He helped me. I helped him. I got the better deal!


  1. It was a great all-around grad experience for me as well. Tom and others at the School were very supportive of grads pursuing various side projects that drew their passions, and the availability of the H. Mason Keeler Endowment was a rare opportunity for grads to have the flexibilty of funding to do so. Makes me wonder if our rate papers would have ever happened had we been grads somewhere else. No doubt we still would have played a lot of DOOM.


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