Centennial Story 41: John Williams (BS, 1969; MS, 1975; PhD, 1978)

I grew up expecting to attend the University of Washington as had nearly all of my close relatives (my maternal grandmother graduated in 1909.) I applied to the College of Fisheries at the suggestion of Dixy Lee Ray (high school friend of my mother) and started in fall 1965 with the intent of becoming a marine biologist. The freshman class had over 100 students, of which possibly two were females, and it included SAFS own Charles “Si” Simenstad! While most classmates had interests in salmon and fish, I did not. I chose the fisheries science curriculum as it was intended for those planning graduate work, which consisted of a broad range of science classes from across the University and fewer fisheries courses.

Collecting shrimp in Hood Canal on the RV Commando
Collecting shrimp in Hood Canal on the RV Commando

When I was a freshman, my lack of good study habitats quickly rose up. My advisor Al Sparks sat me down and said, “If you don’t buckle down and get better grades, you will have to drop the fisheries science curriculum and go into fisheries management.” I buckled down. Don Bevan’s class in Basic programming taught a life’s lesson on the need to pay close attention to details, as mistypes on IBM punch cards could lead to hours of walking back and forth to the computer center on upper campus. Doug Chapman’s fisheries statistics classes made me want to focus on real animals as I disliked ANOVA and ANCOVA analyses. The most exciting “aha” moment in my undergrad education occurred in laboratory experiments we conducted, where we followed growth from fertilization of eggs (chickens and newts) to hatching or birth through all stages of embryo development.

In spring of my senior year, Ken Chew introduced me to field research by setting me up with Terry Nosho for a project on Manila clams at Big Beef Creek. I graduated in 1969 with a BS in Fisheries, and Ken then arranged a summer job for me at the Washington Department of Fisheries (WDF) Brinnon Shellfish Laboratory on Hood Canal. He also offered me a teaching assistant position for his classes the following year if I went to graduate school. However, Uncle Sam had other ideas. During the spring, I received a notice to take a draft physical. Not wanting to go into the Army and likely Viet Nam after graduation, I joined the US Coast Guard and served as a line officer for three years.

I returned to the College of Fisheries in Winter 1973 to start graduate school, but dropped out after six weeks. Ken arranged another job for me at the WDF Brinnon lab for the summer, at which time I started some research on the Dungeness crab sport fishery. By fall 1973, I was back in school, and over the next several years most of my graduate coursework was in invertebrate zoology and ecology from the Zoology and Oceanography departments—with a few Center for Quantitative Sciences classes and a fisheries course on disease taught by new faculty member Marsha Landolt. Gil Pauley had just joined the Washington Cooperative Fishery Research Unit and Dick Whitney assigned him as my thesis advisor, with Ken Chew as a committee member. While I had high visions of what I could obtain from my research, my committee suggested a toned-down thesis that was feasible. I analyzed data collected in 1973–1974 and submitted a MS thesis at the end of spring quarter 1975.

In fall 1975, I started on a PhD program to study natural settlement of Manila clam larvae and subsequent growth with Ken Chew as my advisor. Ken arranged with Justin Taylor (head of Taylor shellfish) to let me conduct research at a commercial clam bed in south Puget Sound. With no assurance of funding other than the GI Bill, I structured a dissertation that I could finish in several years. Fortuitously, however, Ken offered me the TA position for his mollusk and crustacean courses, which I then taught through winter 1978. Additionally in spring 1976, Randy Hansen offered me a TA position for his fishery methodology course that exposed students to field exercises using a variety of sampling gears. I had the best office location of my adult life from 1976–1978—the space now occupied by Aqua Verde!! As one might expect in a Ken Chew class, where appropriate, at the end of a lab session, we would cook and eat examples of what we had just studied. The best annual field trip was on the RV Commando each winter when we “sampled” shrimp populations in Hood Canal. I submitted my dissertation by the end of spring quarter 1978. As I was leaving the UW, David Armstrong, the new crustacean professor, asked if he could use the lab manual I had written. Sure! He subsequently collected a few dollars from each student and gave me $50 with the admonition, “Buy, wine!” To this day, I have religiously followed his advice.

John Williams (left), Francoise Travade, Michel Larinier, and Mary Moser after a hard day looking at fish passage facilities on the Rhine River.
John Williams (left), Francoise Travade, Michel Larinier, and Mary Moser after a hard day looking at fish passage facilities on the Rhine River.

I did not find a university position in marine biology within the one and one-half years I allotted to the effort. In order to stay in the Pacific Northwest, I broadened my search and secured a temporary job in early 1980 at the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Science Center at Montlake, ironically in salmon research on the Columbia River—neither invertebrates nor marine! I was submersed in hydraulic engineering issues while working in my first permanent US government job, dealing with salmon passage at Columbia River dams and while working in Portland for the US Army Corps of Engineers. I returned to NMFS at Montlake in 1987 and worked there on Columbia River salmon issues until my retirement in December 2010. I owe success in my career in part to the formal coursework in fisheries and statistics I took as an undergrad and grad student at the UW, but also to the interactions with other fisheries students while in graduate school. Most were studying and researching areas quite different from mine and our interactions and discussions about research provided me a broad-based knowledge of fisheries research and science.

In 1989, I began collaborating with Jim Anderson, and concurrently became a SAFS affiliate assistant professor. I provided funding for graduate students for the next 20 years, served on several graduate student committees, and provided informal mentoring to other graduate students in SAFS, and was promoted to full affiliate professor in 2010. Much of the mentoring I have provided to students has been based on mentoring I received while in graduate school, reinforced by experience guiding a large NOAA Fisheries research team.

A summary of some of this advice:

  • From Gil Pauley: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth publishing.”
  • From Paul Illg: “Write to publish.”
  • From Peter Jumars: “Read ‘Strong Inference’ by JR Platt (1964 in Science) annually.”
  • Dick Whitney: “Give us people who can communicate effectively in writing and speech; we can teach them everything else they will need to know!”
  • John Williams: “Go to graduate school to learn how to, and show that you can, develop, conduct, and communicate research results. Don’t expect to conduct research that will win a Nobel Prize. Don’t spend needless years in graduate school. Get out and get a job where you will get paid well for your abilities. Employers seldom hire someone just based on their dissertation.”
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