Centennial Story 34: Mike Sigler (PhD, 1993)

When I went to college, my plan was to become a veterinarian. But then I went to the Shoals Marine Laboratory off the coast of Maine between my junior and senior years and my life turned in another direction. I loved the power of the ocean and was curious about the interrelationships of the animals and plants (or should I say fish and phytoplankton). “Shoals” remains a great place for learning hands-on marine science—it changed my life’s path and led me to decide to become a marine scientist.

I grew up in upstate New York and earned my BS and MS at Cornell, an hour away from my childhood home. About a year before finishing my MS, I decided that I wanted to go to a far away, wild place and the first place that came to mind was Alaska. My parents weren’t too happy about that, as my younger brother had just joined the Navy and had a similar idea. College friends who’d been to Alaska encouraged me: “It’s a great place,” they said. I traveled to Alaska in 1982 for a job in Sitka and haven’t looked back since (well only once, to go to the University of Washington to earn my PhD).

Mike aboard the FV Dominator during the 1996 Gulf of Alaska bottom trawl survey conducted by NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Photo by Bob Lauth, NOAA

Cornell University gave me a great education in biology, which has served me well. However, after five years at the NOAA Auke Bay Lab in Juneau, I realized that I needed more quantitative training to expand the types of problems that I could tackle. Two of my mentors at the Auke Bay Lab, Jeff Fujioka (MS, 1970; PhD, 1978) and Jerry Pella (MS, 1964; PhD, 1967), and a professor at the University of Alaska, Terry Quinn (PhD, 1977), steered me to UW. UW’s broad course offerings in probability, statistics, and fisheries stock assessment gave me the quantitative training that I sought. Professors John Skalski (advanced population dynamics), Ray Hilborn (fisheries population dynamics and management, and his always fresh way of thinking), and Michael Perlman (mathematical statistics) stood out for me.

I regularly went to sea until 2005. I enjoyed the fieldwork and working on the ocean and spent over 800 days there. My favorite was a study of Steller sea lions in southeast Alaska with year-round fieldwork where I got to watch how much things changed between seasons. Herring concentrated during winter, spread out to spawn during spring and then scattered to feed during summer. Sea lions shifted among seasonal concentrations of herring, eulachon, and salmon. During the last 20 years of my career, the best part of my job has been working with scientists from other disciplines of marine science. It’s fun to learn about areas new to me; it’s challenging and a bit scary (keep foot out of mouth) to analyze data and write papers.

I retired in 2017 as the Habitat and Ecological Process Research Program Leader with the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Juneau, after working since 1982 in Alaska. Now I want to spend some time giving back. I continue as an Affiliate Professor at the University of Alaska serving on graduate committees and analyzing oceanography data from the Chukchi Sea with Phyllis Stabeno. And, I plan to teach a class on integrated ecosystem research and management at the Shoals Marine Lab in 2019.

The projects that I am most proud of in my career are: starting the sablefish longline survey, now 32 years old and still going, with Harold “Skip” Zenger and Captain Jerry Kennedy; the Southeast Alaska Steller sea lion project (my first multispecies field project); and the once-in-a-lifetime Bering Sea Project, which provided substantial understanding of the effects of loss of sea ice on plankton, fisheries, seabirds, and marine mammals in the eastern Bering Sea and won a Department of Commerce Gold Award. I enjoyed a career that spanned fisheries stock assessment and marine ecology, carried me around Alaska and the lower 48, as well as to the Azores, Norway, and New Zealand to provide scientific reviews and advice.

The UW gave me the quantitative skills needed to successfully complete these research projects and scientific reviews; these quantitative skills combined with my previous biological training helped propel me through a varied and interesting career.


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