My Summer at Friday Harbor Labs

(August 6th, 2019, San Juan Island) Dave, during his Ecology of Marine Birds and Mammals class, doing a transect on a research vessel near San Juan Island. Dave was responsible for tracking and alerting a recorder to all marine birds within 200 meters of the port side of the vessel. Photo by Dave Berndtson.

In 2014, 80 feet underwater in the Galápagos, surrounded by hammerhead sharks and black-striped salema, I experienced a moment of emotional clarity that sparked my desire to protect this planet. This underwater moment, with all its unimaginable curiosities and bursting biodiversity, affirmed my commitment to promoting marine conservation over my lifetime. 

In the years since, I’ve wandered the world leading wilderness trips, writing stories for PBS NewsHour, substitute teaching, coaching tennis, working temp jobs, and fumbling through all the responsibilities and obstacles that come with being a twenty-something — the clarity of my life’s mission and my confidence that I could make a meaningful difference in the world becoming faded and fuzzed along the way. Seeking to reignite my passion and give me the skills to live a life I could be proud of, I applied to the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs here at the University of Washington. I’ll be honest — social science and environmental policy are not in my wheelhouse or comfort zone, and this first year at the SMEA has been a challenge, albeit a crucial and necessary learning experience. It can be hard to immerse yourself in the world of policy, because those enthusiastic desires to protect the planet you love become overwhelmed by wicked problems, economic issues, governmental roadblocks, and other social obstacles that don’t enter your mind when you’re 80 feet underwater surrounded and inspired by breathtaking wonders. What I needed was to be re-inspired, re-invigorated, and recharged. 

Enter Friday Harbor Labs.

(Various dates, Friday Harbor Labs) Sketches from Dave’s course notebook. Clockwise: A tardigrade, a porcelain crab, and a rose star. All specimens were collected on San Juan Island by Dave and other members of his inverts course.

After seeking advice from SMEA Professor Ryan Kelly on how I could find that inspiration again, I applied for two FHL classes (FHL 432/492): Marine Invertebrate Zoology and Ecology of Marine Birds and Mammals. My first inkling that this summer was going to be life-changing came from this meeting with Professor Kelly, when he showed me his laboratory notebook from when he took the inverts course years ago (right: a page from mine), filled with detailed taxonomic sketches of worms, molluscs, cnidarians, and other marine inverts. My second inkling came when I found myself wandering the tidepools of Cattle Point on day one of the inverts course, picking up sea stars, chitons, nudibranchs, while surrounded by passionate and knowledgeable professors and students. My third was when I parkoured down ½ mile of rocky coasts to get a close up video of transient orcas. My 482,364th inkling came when I found myself timing the duration of Harlequin Duck dives with a stopwatch after developing a research question about their foraging behaviors.

The inverts course, taught by the inimitable Dr. Gustav Paulay and Dr. Jingchun Li, was a heavy dose of information and wonder. During lectures, we learned detailed anatomical descriptions and phylogenetics of all the major phyla. Lab work consisted of field days at different locations around the island, collecting specimens to bring to our lab’s water tables. We had personal microscopes and could study whichever organisms we were interested in for as long as we wanted. We sketched each animal in detail, labelling on the drawings anatomical structures learned in lectures. I can confidently say that I am an expert when it comes to annelid excretory systems. All jokes aside, this learning experience was top tier, and I will forever carry with me an inextinguishable desire to learn more about the bizarre world that inhabits our coasts and waters before we lose them to changing climates, and an understanding that I’m not alone on that quest.

(June 19th, 2019, Deadman’s Bay on San Juan Island) Dr. Gustav Paulay, teaching the FHL 432 class about the different types of invertebrates that could be found in the rocky intertidal area of Deadman Bay on San Juan Island and how to find them, during our third field day.

The birds and mammals course, taught by Dr. Eric Anderson and Breck Tyler taught me more about what it means to be a good scientist than any class I’ve ever taken. The rigor that goes into developing a good research question, collecting and analyzing data, then making sense of the patterns to write a cogent research paper is something I will never take for granted after this course. This class gave me the hands on research experience that had been lacking from so many of my cover letters and resumes, and a new understanding of what goes into producing the sound science that we hope informs decision makers. Through this class, I’ve become a more effective science communicator, positioned to better bridge the gaps between science, the public, and policy making.

Overall, this summer taught me that I’m in the right place here at SMEA. The policy world does not exist in a vacuum, and neither does the world of science and research. I’m not the only one who has felt inspired then deflated – we just have to keep flipping over some rocks until we find what we’re looking for. We can make a difference.

Figure on the left. (August 17th, 2019, Cattle Point, San Juan Island) Histrionicus histrionicus, or Harlequin Ducks. Both birds in this photo are flightless as they molt their wing feathers during their non-breeding period. Dave studied the behavioral time budgets and foraging behaviors between male and female ducks against tidal conditions and habitat zones. Photo by Dave Berndtson.
Figure on the right. (August 12th, Friday Harbor Labs) Melibe leonina, or a lion/hooded/lion’s mane nudibranch. These molluscs are visible off the docks at Friday Harbor Labs. Fun fact: these smell like watermelon and they engulf their prey by capturing them in their large oral hoods. Photo by Dave Berndtson.


(July 19th, 2019, Friday Harbor Labs) Students and professors in the Marine Invertebrate Zoology class proudly show off the t-shirts they designed for the summer – a yearly tradition for FHL 432 classes. Photo by Dave Berndtson.