I admit that my undergraduate experience was underwhelming. However, eventually (and fortunately) I found my way to the University of Maine to study for an MS degree in Zoology. In Maine, there were two seminal developments for my career: I discovered shellfish aquaculture and was fortuitously appointed as research assistant on a project to make triploid salmon. In time, these two paths merged, and I was integrally involved in the creation of the first triploid shellfish—oysters, clams, and scallops.
While I was there, the Maine aquaculture industry was being invented. These “downeast” types were conjuring up new ways to grow salmon, oysters, clams, mussels, seaweed, and the like. I was able to experience their growing pains and appreciate the value of practical research on questions of profitability. That appreciation has lasted my whole career.
At that time, the Maine aquaculture industry was not interested in triploids. Creating triploids is a value-added process, and Maine growers were most interested in keeping their oysters alive. I was therefore ready to swear off triploid shellfish. However, one day, standing on the shores of our cottage on the Damariscotta River, I wondered where my future lay, and I realized I needed a research license! I started looking around for a PhD program that combined aquaculture and genetics. I made a grand circuit of potential schools including UW. There were more logical places for me to go, but there was something about UW Fisheries that felt like home. Plus, Ken Chew, the iconic shellfish aquaculture pioneer, was there. UW Fisheries must have had the same effect on other New Englanders. There were four other graduate students also from the Bay State (Massachusetts).
Having sworn off shellfish, I immediately immersed myself in the salmon species of the Pacific Northwest, subjecting several of them to triploid induction. My abstention from shellfish research did not last long. Through fellow grad student Sandra Downing (MS, 1987; PhD, 1993), I learned that there was a large-scale oyster aquaculture industry based on hatchery production in the Pacific Northwest—the exact template needed for integration of a genetic improvement such as triploidy. I wrote a proposal to Washington Sea Grant, and it was funded. What followed for my graduate studies at UW was a brilliant exercise in practical shellfish research, working directly with the oyster industry—Coast Oyster, Taylor Shellfish, Wescott Bay Shellfish—to commercialize polyploid technology. Also overlapping my stay was fellow grad student Ximing Guo (PhD, 1991), doing pioneering research on induction of tetraploidy in oysters.
There was a cadre of grad students in Fisheries who were interested in genetics. We named ourselves the “old gonads,” since several of us were beyond the typical cohort age and took courses in Recombination and Mutation, Molecular Genetics (when the word “molecular” was still novel), Chromosome Behavior (with Larry Sandler), and Population Genetics (with Joe Felsenstein), both renowned in their fields. Better yet, many of us had the benefit of the mentorship of “the founding father of fishery genetics,” Fred Utter, and his extraordinary stable of graduate students and alums, like Fred Allendorf. My first official meeting with Utter was on the back of his 350 Honda motorcycle taking a trip to Goldies for hamburgers, beers, and science.
With this background from UW, I was able to land a faculty position with Rutgers University at the Haskin Shellfish Research Lab in the late 1980s, where Ximing joined me after a few years. At Rutgers, Ximing and I invented tetraploid oysters, which have had a worldwide influence on shellfish aquaculture. After 10 years at Rutgers, I moved to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science as the founder and director of the Aquaculture Genetics and Breeding Technology Center (ABC). ABC is arguably the largest oyster breeding program in the world, and we provide broodstock improvement and management for a large segment of the industry on the East Coast. That magical, formative period during my tenure at UW was, hands down, the most influential in my career.