Bridging Disciplines: How Two Friends Find Common Ground in Their Research

The School of Marine and Environmental Affairs hosts students from a diverse range of disciplinary backgrounds who have a shared interest in applying their work to the marine and environmental fields. Lindsey Popken studied anthropology and Abby Keller studied biology before coming to SMEA, so they’re from different parts of that disciplinary spectrum, but they still find commonalities in their goals and ways of thinking.

For this first piece in a series of articles highlighting the work SMEA students have done this summer, Lindsey and Abby caught up at the start of the school year to discuss their theses, summer adventures, and experiences writing for Currents.

Conducting ethnographic research at aquariums means that sometimes you get to partake in really neat experiences! Here Lindsey is helping with a sea otter training session at the Aquarium of the Pacific. Photo credit: Michael Popken.


Abby: For people that don’t know your thesis, can you just give a brief synopsis and describe what you hope to accomplish?

Lindsey: The title for my thesis is “First Nations Sea Otter Management as an Entry Point for Indigenizing Conservation.” There’s excellent work being done around this conversation of Indigenizing sea otter management on Vancouver Island. I am hoping that through my SMEA thesis, I can begin to contribute to the questions our field of study has on how we actually Indigenize conservation? We know it needs to be Indigenized to be equitable and just, but how do we actually implement the recommendations? The Nuu-chah-nulth, who live on Vancouver Island, were not consulted on the reintroduction of sea otters, so there’s a lot of anger and frustration. Sea otters are really cute, but they eat a lot of urchins and shellfish, and the Nuu-chah-nulth are feeling the loss of that shellfish now that the sea otter has returned to their waters. It raises a lot of questions about food security and food sovereignty. An ideal outcome of my thesis is that Nuu-chah-nulth leaders can take all of the information and arguments that are being produced in our field on why they are the rightful stewards of their waters to Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and my thesis will be one of many documents used to support their arguments.

Lindsey: How about you?

Abby: My thesis centers around the European green crab, which is one of the most harmful invasive species in the world. They compete with native shore crabs and destroy eelgrass beds, which are important spawning grounds for lots of aquatic species, and they have caused millions of dollars of losses in the shellfish industry on the east coast. They’ve made their way up to Washington in the last decade, and the line designating their presence and absence is constantly shifting. I’m working to develop a method of detection using environmental DNA (eDNA), which is the genetic material shed by an organism into its environment. I’ve been able to collect a bottle of water and genetically detect the presence of green crab without seeing one visually. What is still unknown is the relationship between a genetic detection and the actual presence of a green crab in space and time, so I’m hoping to help managers make sense of positive (and negative) eDNA detections.

However, it is important to note that what makes a species invasive, or even non-native, is often defined through Western, human parameters. Non-native species are typically only considered “impactful” when they affect human industry. Conservation biologists find difficulty defining “native,” when organisms are making necessary range shifts to respond to climate change. SMEA student and Pierce College professor, Jenny Liou, discusses how the words used to frame natural resource management practices are related to American xenophobia.

Abby: Tell me a bit about what you’ve been doing this summer in terms of your language studies!

Lindsey: I did my Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS) Summer Fellowship where I started learning Nuu-chah-nulth, an Indigenous language on Vancouver Island. It was an intensive course at the University of Victoria, which means we learned about a year and a half worth of material in one summer. Most of my classmates are Nuu-chah-nulth which has allowed me to start building a relationship with their community; I am so grateful to have been welcomed into this space as a non-Indigeous woman. This was about community and relationship building, which is an integral component of Indigneous studies. Learning Nuu-chah-nulth was also about showing respect for the fact that they are sharing personal and valued information with me as someone who’s not a member of their nation. There’s a fine line of me respectfully learning the language, rather than appropriating it. I’m trying to be less settler-colonial in my ways because there’s a lot of past trauma caused by unethical research where Indigenous knowledge was stolen. I don’t want to be a part of that  history.

It was also really cool to learn the words and the structure of the language. There’s so much context behind it. For example, there’s four different ways to say thank you that all depend on the scenario taking place. The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council’s fisheries department, with whom I co-developed my thesis, is called U-a-thluk, which translates to “taking care of.” The context and meaning behind that word speaks a lot to the goals of the department, and is a great example of the power of language.

Lindsey: How have you been able to address environmental justice in your work, considering you’ve spent a lot of time in the lab this summer?

Abby: You’re right, I’ve spent most of my summer in a genetics lab, but the implications of my research have roots in environmental justice. Globalization and international trade have rapidly increased the spread of non-native, invasive species. European green crab likely made its way to the west coast of the United States in ship ballast water. However, the international nature of invasive species makes them particularly hard to manage, especially in continuous aquatic ecosystems that are fragmented by multiple jurisdictions. Green crabs don’t abide by human geography!

Abby (left) and SMEA professor, Ryan Kelly (right), collect water samples at a mudflat in Drayton Harbor near the U.S.-Canada border. European green crab are successful non-native species because they can tolerate a wide range of environments. Photo credit: Emily Grason.


Successful invasive species management involves sharing management practices and knowledge, and in the Pacific Northwest, this knowledge includes traditional ecological knowledge and respect for Indigenous sovereignty. Although I’m primarily working with Washington Sea Grant (WSG), some of my samples are collected from the Lummi Nation and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s lands. WSG scientists have a pretty great relationship with Indigenous scientists and Indigenous managers, and this partnership has developed over a long period of time through consistent trust building. European green crabs significantly alter marine ecosystems, so trust is critical in this scenario where shared natural resources are at stake. I feel lucky to have entered a space where this relationship has already been built.

Lindsey: What brought you to SMEA? Are you doing what you thought you would be when you started a year ago?

Abby: I primarily have a natural science background. Before SMEA, I did microbial and deep-sea research, but I felt so distant from the people most impacted by the ecosystems I was studying. It felt too intellectual and not very practical. It’s funny, because despite those concerns, I’m still working in a lab! I really love working with environmental DNA, though. I like how I get to use my biology skills while collaborating closely with managers to understand their information needs, and then using genetics and statistical modeling to produce useful information. I feel like I found this perfect genetics/management niche that I didn’t know existed. How about you?

Lindsey: When I came to SMEA I knew exactly what I wanted to do, which was a continuation of my undergraduate thesis where I looked at the benefits of using sea otter narratives on social media to further conservation. But I took Cleo’s Critical Ecology course in the fall, and it was the first course I ever had where we had readings that challenged the very construct of nature and wilderness. It changed everything for me. I had never realized that my views of nature were really problematic and often harmful and that I was excluding Indigenous peoples in my work, because I had been trying to save sea otters no matter the impacts on humans.

Abby: It seems that a similarity between what we’re doing is producing management-relevant knowledge. I think we’re coming at it from different directions: you use qualitative data while I use genetics and statistics. What I like about SMEA is that you learn how decisions are made and how to produce information that will be useful and will impact the decision-making process.

Lindsey: Yeah, I imagine us sitting at a future policy table where we’re off in a corner looking at every angle of the issue. It’s really fascinating. And another similarity between our work is that we both enjoy the knowledge-building process and we want to produce the information to give it to the people who know what to do with it! Maybe I’m not the right person to develop a policy or implement a plan, but I can work with really incredible people in the process of getting the knowledge needed to make necessary and important changes.

Lindsey and Abby, who are in the same small germ circle, went hiking in Rainier National Park, where they had a very dramatic car ride that entailed blasting “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield and getting lost while trying to find their way out as smoke from the Oregon wildfires starting creeping into their car. They made it out alive and ate ice cream at the base of the mountains. Photo credit: Lindsey Popken.


Abby: Besides making me pasta and laughing at Spongebob GIFs I send you, what have you been up to this summer?

Lindsey: I think the only really cool thing I did this summer was buy a car and name her Moira Rose. It gave me a lot of newfound freedom because I was able to see more of Washington and start hiking again. I started playing Dungeons and Dragons [virtually]. I never thought I would do that, but it was a creative way to spend time with friends while maintaining social distancing.

Abby: In a way social distancing has made me feel way more connected to Seattle. I know a lot of what makes Seattle “Seattle” doesn’t exist right now, but I have definitely learned to slow down and appreciate my surroundings more.

Lindsey: Yeah, I think it’s important for grad students to be kind to yourself and that you allow yourself to take a step back, and strike that balance.

We’ve talked a lot about thesis stuff, but I would love to hear about what Currents has done for you as both a writer and as our new managing editor!

Abby: In the past year I’ve definitely improved as a writer, not just in style, but also in finding fresh and interesting topics that will hopefully captivate readers. I always have a hard time explaining SMEA or the field of marine and environmental affairs to my friends and family. It is really about looking at one environmental phenomenon from multiple disciplinary perspectives and connecting the dots we would normally place in separate boxes. I think Currents really captures the spirit of SMEA and inspires writers to challenge their audiences to think in new ways.

Lindsey: On a personal level, it’s been really cool to flex my writing muscles and get more practice, while also learning to write within a science communication setting. It’s great to be on the board with you and with James and Sam. We have a shared vision and we’re trying to amplify voices that have been and still are underrepresented, through projects like our summer series. There’s also a sense of instant gratification, because unlike a thesis, a Currents article only takes a few weeks to publish. Also, the relationship building with you all as my colleagues has been great. You and I have been friends for about a year, but you’re also a colleague now because of the work we do together on Currents. I really value that.

Hiking went much smoother for Abby and Lindsey when they completed a five-mile trek to Cherry Creek Falls. Photo credit: Katie Shelledy.