Centennial Story 16: Amanda L. Bradford (MS, 2003; PhD, 2011)

Amanda Bradford studying western gray whales in the Russian Far East in 2002.

I didn’t start off a “dolphin hugger,” as they say in the field of marine mammal science, but rather came to appreciate the unique anatomical, physiological, behavioral, and ecological adaptations of marine mammals while pursuing my BS in Marine Biology at Texas A&M University at Galveston. There, I had an incredible mentor, Dr. Bernd Würsig, who was both world-renowned in this field and extremely supportive of students. Working in Bernd’s lab, I was exposed to many graduate students and was encouraged to think critically about my own graduate path and interests.

While I didn’t have a quantitative background, I had become keenly interested in marine mammal population dynamics, having immersed myself in papers by Charles Fowler (MS, 1966; PhD, 1973), Douglas DeMaster, and others. I also wanted to work internationally on rare or understudied species. I was already getting a taste for working in this arena through my association with Bernd, helping during my senior year to analyze photo-identification data from the little-known western North Pacific population of gray whales and then, upon graduating in 1998, going into the field to study these whales on their feeding grounds off northeastern Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East.

I believe I applied to three universities for graduate school in early 1999, but the University of Washington was the only one I really wanted to attend. I had written to Doug DeMaster, then director of the National Marine Mammal Lab (NMML) at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center and affiliate faculty with the School of Fisheries, about working with him on a population study of western gray whales. He was encouraging and open to collaboration, but could not supervise students, so put me in touch with Glenn VanBlaricom. I was beyond thrilled when I was accepted as Glenn’s student.

I went back to Sakhalin Island that summer for a four-month expedition. Glenn helped me arrange to take independent study credits during the fall, so I didn’t move to Seattle and start taking classes until winter quarter. In May 1999, I visited the School of Fisheries in a dated old building along Portage Bay. In January 2000, I entered the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences in a shiny new facility on Boat Street! Being offset a quarter from my cohort was more challenging than I thought it would be. All the prime office space was claimed (I was the only student in Rm 221!); it took me a long time to meet and get to know people; I had to take FISH 458 before FISH 456; and so on.

Over time, I began to make connections and thrive, in large part due to the dynamic and tightknit group of students within Glenn’s lab. While SAFS was finally recognizing the aquatic part of its scientific lineage, those of us studying marine mammals still felt somewhat on the fringes and looked to each other and to staff at the NMML for support on our projects, which were fraught with specific challenges in the field and lab. For some of us, the need to reach so far outward diminished over time as SAFS grew and diversified. The arrival of André Punt and his army of quantitative students, several working on marine mammal population dynamics, made a big difference to me and helped me overcome numerous analytical hurdles.

The first decade of the 2000s was a special time to be a SAFS student. In addition to a broadening emphasis on aquatic sciences, the School began to embody a focus on conservation, recovery, and resilience, especially in the face of environmental change. The practical framework for confronting models with data presented in The Ecological Detective, authored by Ray Hilborn and Marc Mangel, blew my mind when I first read it, and became formalized and part of the common lingo in FISH 458 and beyond. Program R came on the scene…and later classes in using R. I remember having to wait four nerve-wracking days for a thesis analysis to finish using Visual Basic for Applications! Finally, there were many international students and projects at that time, perhaps even more so than there are now. All told, my grad work encompassed data from 10 summers spent in the Russian Far East, so being part of a program with international ties was essential to my growth and development.

A few months before I graduated with my PhD, I took a position with the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center to conduct quantitative analyses to inform cetacean stock assessment. I’ve been here ever since and am still waiting for more SAFS alumni to join me. I know it’s extremely hard to leave Seattle, but if I can do it, so can you!

Amanda Bradford traded Mustang Suits for t-shirts, here studying cetaceans of the Mariana Archipelago in 2015.
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