Centennial Story 36: Kelli Johnson (PhD, 2018)

As a native of the Olympic Peninsula, I grew up thinking everyone had access to fresh oysters in the half shell, spotted shrimp straight from the bay, and mountain peaks minutes from their house. Every day I did something outside that involved animals, mostly feeding domestic ones and harvesting wild ones. Sometimes, my sister and I would ask our teachers for extra-credit assignments so we would be too busy to feed the horses and cows; schoolwork was the only excuse that would work on our mom. The choice to go to college was simple. If I was in school or working on the farm, my parents would foot the bill for my horse addiction and going to school seemed easier than working on the farm. The harder choice was deciding what I wanted to go to school for. I knew it had to involve animals and the outdoors, but I did not want to be a farmer and I did not think I was smart enough to be a veterinarian. Consequently, I thought my options were being a zookeeper or game warden.

My first fishing trip to Alaska. Pictured with my dad and a salmon he landed while on our friends boat, "The Salmon Spirit". 
My first fishing trip to Alaska. Pictured with my dad and a salmon he landed while on our friends boat, “The Salmon Spirit”.

While attending the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, I quickly found that I loved biology. I particularly enjoyed learning about population dynamics because I could relate it to the hunting and fishing regulations I grew up attempting to skirt around. The classes were hard at first because I did not take biology in high school, but I enjoyed it so much that I did not mind the challenge. More importantly, I learned that biologists could work outside. Eventually, I landed an internship, and then a job, at Cascadia Research Collective, a non-profit marine mammal research group in Olympia. Soon, I learned that I needed more quantitative skills to analyze the data we were collecting.

Upon finishing my MS in resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University under Andrew Cooper (PhD QERM, 2000), I still felt I needed more skills. I set my sights on SAFS. I believed UW was the best university for teaching quantitative skills in an applied sense, and it was within a commutable distance from my family. Immediately, I gained a profound amount of respect for André Punt’s ability to teach quantitative concepts to people without mathematical backgrounds and for the approachability of the SAFS faculty in general. Initially, I found it difficult to ask for help from other students, but the benefits were immediate and substantial once I found the courage. By my second year, I was learning more from working on side projects with my peers than attending organized classes. Soon everyone was trying to teach me how to say “No” to new projects (AEP: she never really managed to learn that).

A side project that involved searching for puffins in the Gulf of Alaska with John Piatt (SAFS affiliate faculty). 
A side project that involved searching for puffins in the Gulf of Alaska with John Piatt (SAFS affiliate faculty).

Graduate school can be rough, but I honestly feel that even if I do not do anything related to my PhD ever again, attending SAFS was worth it. Many communities operate similarly to Ricky Bobby’s philosophy that “if you ain’t first, you’re last.” Fortunately, SAFS does not. Instead, SAFS thrives through the sum of its parts. Once I accepted that everyone there—past, present, and future—knew more than me about something, I began to grow as a researcher. The collective knowledge of the SAFS community is like a never-ending resource. SAFS taught me how to learn; you ask around, you pick up a book, you ask around again. I am genuinely excited that now as a biologist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center I still feel like I am a part of the SAFS community. Maybe one day, I too can lure a graduate student away from their dissertation to work on a side project that helps them learn how to learn.

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