Centennial Story 46: Kirstin Holsman (PhD, 2006) and P. Sean McDonald (PhD, 2006)

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

An excerpt from Sea Fever, a poem by John Masefield.

It’s a well-kept secret that Willapa Bay is the most romantic spot in the western hemisphere. That’s because true love could only bloom between the aptly named points of interest, Cape Disappointment and Grayland. Willapa Bay is the kind of place where hip boots count as formal wear and oysters (a well-known aphrodisiac) outnumber people 1,000 to 1. Thus, it is probably no surprise that Sean and Kirstin came together while doing fieldwork on those titillating tide flats. Throw in some sun-warmed mackerel, thousands of ornery crabs, acres and acres of up-to-your-chest mud, and a leaking (sinking?) Lund, and you’ve got the recipe for amoré. These may not seem like the most obvious ingredients, but apparently they are the best ones.

Visiting dear friends in Denmark, 2015.
Visiting dear friends in Denmark, 2015.

Although Willapa Bay may have sealed the deal, it all started back at the turn of the century at the University of Washington. Kirstin and Sean affectionately remember boxes of data on punch cards and tape reels, clanking pipes, and TGIT in the brick behemoth down the road we now call, “Old Fish.” They met in Lobo Orensanz’s (PhD, 1989) crustacean fisheries course. And whether it was discussions of protandric hermaphroditism in pandalid shrimp (hubba hubba) or dinners and guitar serenades with Jan and, their advisor, David Armstrong, the flame was kindled. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. They’ve been together as long as SAFS has been SAFS, and before iPhones, reality TV, or even Twitter, which is of course Sean’s other love.

Despite growing up less than 50 miles from each other (and the University of Washington), they followed different trajectories to eventually arrive at the SAFS nexus. Sean began his journey knowing from an early age that he would be a marine biologist, and then bobbing and weaving his way through aquarium docent gigs, internships, and eventually a stint at Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes. That’s where he met Greg Jensen (PhD, 1999) and became acquainted with the wonderful world of carcinology. From there it was a short trip to graduate school and a pursuit of the vicious, voracious, cat-eating (probably), world-ending (possibly) European green crab for his PhD.

Kirstin’s path was no less direct, but perhaps less obvious. Raised in the cradle of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, her life was defined from an early age by the sea. However, when asked she sometimes says that her career, and life as she now knows it, really began with a jellyfish; it was Ted Pietsch who helped Kirstin identify the critter she’d seen during a sailing trip back to Seattle from Hilo. He encouraged her to take his ichthyology course, and from there she was hooked (pun intended), and subsequently switched from pre-Med to the Fisheries major. She went on to a summer course with the Alaska Salmon Program, where she met David Armstrong during a snorkel survey in Iliamna, and decided to pursue a PhD, with his guidance, studying Dungeness crab.

The family at Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau 2018
The family at Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau 2018

Life after graduate school was a whirlwind of adventures, post-docs, and research. Eventually Sean found a home teaching in the UW Program on the Environment and continues his work on shellfisheries, aquaculture, and invasive species in SAFS. Kirstin landed at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center, where she focuses on the impacts of climate change and other factors on North Pacific fisheries and ecosystems. Along the way, Sean and Kirstin have been mentored and surrounded by amazingly talented friends and colleagues who, more often than not, have strong ties to SAFS.

Sean and Kirstin are now a fairly prototypical Seattleite family raising an amazing 8-year-old aspiring aeronautical engineer/artist/sailor/chicken-expert daughter. They feel truly blessed to have found an academic home in SAFS, and know their experience there provided far more than a professional foundation; it was the start of life-long friendships as well.



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