Centennial Story 19: Alexandre N. Zerbini (PhD, 2006)

It all started on a warm morning in the summer on the beach in my home country of Brazil when I was about 10 years old. I went for a walk with my father and three brothers when we came across a dead dolphin. It was a franciscana (scientifically known as Pontoporia blainvillei), one of the smallest cetaceans, and a species endemic to the western South Atlantic Ocean. It had been drowned accidentally in a gillnet — a worldwide problem that is taking many marine species, including the franciscana, to the brink of extinction. I had always liked marine animals, but at that time, still at an early age, I decided I wanted to pursue a career that would lead me to help with the conservation of marine life. Little did I know that my choice would eventually bring me to Seattle, and to have the privilege of being part of the SAFS family!

Alex Zerbini

I got my college degree and an MS in Zoology in Brazil, but wanted to study abroad for my PhD. I had always been interested in studying in the US. Generally speaking, when it comes to marine biology, the research done at UW is of the highest standard in the world. Also, if I wanted to pursue a career in marine science, I would need to improve my spoken and written English skills. Coming to a country where this was the native language seemed like the right thing to do.

My story with SAFS (at that time still called the School of Fisheries) started in 1998. After my MS, I was looking for a PhD in quantitative applied research. I needed to develop analytical expertise that could be used to inform management and conservation. A close friend and co-worker, Dr. Artur Andriolo was a visiting scientist at the NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC) in Seattle, connected me with Dr. Doug DeMaster, at the time the leader of Cetacean Ecology and Assessment Program at NOAA’s Marine Mammal Laboratory. While Doug and I shared similar research interests, he could not take me on as a PhD student. However, he pointed to SAFS Professor Glenn VanBlaricom (also assistant leader of the Washington Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit), who encouraged me to submit an application to the School’s graduate program. I had to act quickly to obtain scores on the TOEFL and GRE tests required by SAFS and to put together an application for a PhD scholarship with the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), the Brazilian equivalent of the US National Science Foundation. It was hard work, but the effort paid off! I was thrilled to learn, in early 1999, that I was accepted into the SAFS PhD program and was awarded a scholarship from the government of Brazil.

It was challenging at the start: a new country, new culture, new language, etc. However, SAFS made me feel very welcome. It is a very international community, with students coming from many continents. Also, the faculty and staff foster a sense of community that encourages a large contingent of foreigners to fit in. On top of that, colleagues in the VanBlaricom Lab and the Coop Unit were amazingly supportive and made me feel at home.

At SAFS, I learned the true meaning of quantitative research and was exposed to new (at least new to me) computer programing languages. I attended some of the most impressive courses and very much enjoyed the statistics (QSCI 480, 482, 483, 486) and stock assessment classes (FSH 456, 458 and 558). My research focused on population assessment methods for cetaceans, with emphasis on abundance estimation. I was only able to achieve my goals thanks to the thoughtful guidance I received from my PhD committee (Doug DeMaster, Jeff Laake [AFSC-NOAA], Glenn, Paul Wade [AFSC-NOAA], and Judy Zeh [UW-Statistics]), the great synergy between the SAFS faculty and the staff at the NOAA’s Marine Mammal Laboratory, and the support from colleagues and friends in the Francis, Gallucci, Hilborn, Punt and, of course, the VanBlaricom labs.

In addition to providing an exceptional academic environment, the SAFS program is an avenue to “real world” science. It provides an opportunity for students to focus their research towards addressing real management questions because many of the SAFS faculty are involved in organizations responsible for the conservation and management of aquatic resources at the regional, national, and international levels. While at SAFS, I became involved with the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC SC). The IWC is the world’s leading inter-governmental organization focused on cetacean management, and decisions made at the Commission shape the conservation of cetaceans worldwide. I value the opportunity given to me while at SAFS, and I continue to work with the IWC today, more than 15 years after I graduated. In fact, I recently had the honor to be nominated as the vice-chair of the IWC SC.

I currently work as a research scientist at NOAA’s Marine Mammal Laboratory and with two non-profit organizations in Washington—Cascadia Research Collective and Marine Ecology and Telemetry Research. My work focuses on cetacean population biology and conservation. I feel fortunate to interact with many outstanding people in these organizations, some of whom are SAFS alumni (e.g., Charlotte Boyd [PhD, 2012], Michelle Lander [PhD, 2008], Josh London [PhD, 2006], Tony Orr [PhD, 2002], Jeremy Sterling [PhD, 2009]). In addition to the IWC SC, I also serve on advisory committees such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature Cetacean Specialist Group and the World Wildlife Fund Advisory Group on River Dolphins. I feel my contributions to these committees have been greatly enhanced by the strong scientific background I received as a SAFS graduate student.

The SAFS research and academic program has no parallel. I feel privileged to have spent some of my best years at UW and for the many friends I made there. I miss those years. Congratulations to the School for celebrating its centennial and for the outstanding SAFS community for making it happen.

Members of the VanBlaricom lab (and a couple of SAFS’ friends) (December 2003 at the 15th Biennial Conference of Marine Mammals in Greensboro, North Carolina
Members of the VanBlaricom lab (and a couple of SAFS’ friends) (December 2003 at the 15th Biennial Conference of Marine Mammals in Greensboro, North Carolina
Back to Top