Centennial Story 68: Ivonne Ortiz (MS, 2002; PhD, 2007)

My 20-year relationship with SAFS started back when it was still SOF (School of Fisheries), and I was still in Mexico City. One of the co-advisors for my BS in Biology, and later supervisor at the National Fisheries Institute, was Pablo Arenas. A SAFS PhD graduate himself (1988), he was, at the time, organizing a hands-on workshop to be taught by Carl Walters and Ray Hilborn in Mérida, in English. Plans changed a couple of hours into the workshop when the need arose for an impromptu translator, and thus, I translated for, and mingled with, Carl and Ray for the next five days… Encouraged by Pablo, and advised by Ray, I arrived in Seattle for the first time, having been rejected by QERM (as predicted by Ray), accepted by SOF, funded by the Mexican government, and neglected to look up what the typical weather was like.

Ivonne reading while on a tagging research cruise to the Aluetians in 2003
Ivonne reading while on a tagging research cruise to the Aluetians in 2003

SOF was, and SAFS still is, a place of opportunities: guiding salmon tours for little kids, organizing the Friday Quantitative Lunchtime Seminar, attending annual seminars with Carl’s lab alternating between UBC and UW, a welcoming community with international students (among whom the Latin American students instantly recognized you were one; as they saw you crash full-on against the glass door of the back entrance of the old fisheries building!—outswing vs. inswing or double swinging doors). The old fishery building had arguably one of the best terraces on campus overlooking the ship canal and the lake, and only one open kitchen that was like a waterhole due to the seemingly inexhaustible coffee pot supported mainly by staff and faculty and shared generously with students.

However, it was as a TA, and in a new building, that I really started to appreciate SAFS. While SAFS has always had great and challenging courses and a first-rate faculty and staff, SAFS wouldn’t be what it is without QERM and SMEA (back then SMA). QERM students increase the level of quantitative skills among one’s peers, while SMEA students bring depth of insight and analysis. While TAing PBAF 590 (Environmental and Policy Processes) I benefitted from reading essays from students with a policy background, rich with in-depth analyses compared to their more quantitative counterparts (economics, engineering). I also benefitted from TAing FISH 456 with Bob Francis. SMEA students would provide multiple solid paragraphs of policy implications where others would only write a few sentences. As a student, you benefit from discussions and chats with your peers even when you don’t take the same advanced quantitative or policy courses. As a TA, you get to read/review everything, sometimes discussing with other TAs, and you get a better appreciation of students’ strengths and the breadth of their contributions. But I digress.

While doing my MS, I got a graduate certificate on environmental management and then applied for what I thought was a job to work on ecosystem dynamics in the Aleutian Islands related to Steller sea lions. Only it wasn’t a job, it was a PhD. Offered by Kerim Aydin (PhD, 2000), it was to be co-advised with Bob. Bob had been part of my MS committee, and we had tried—unsuccessfully—to get funding for a PhD. So once I was assured there would be no TAing (I had already done it for seven quarters), I started my PhD and going regularly to the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Upon graduating, and after one year as a contractor at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, I went back to collaborate with Kerim as a postdoc, but this time as part of André Punt’s lab, until I became a research scientist at SAFS, and ultimately moved to JISAO, where I still work on ecosystems, still occasionally on the Aleutians Islands, still with many of my peers from SAFS, and with an ever-increasing number of colleagues from diverse disciplines.

So, what was/is it like to work with Ray, Bob, and André? Well, from Ray I learned to have fun with whatever you’re studying; his enthusiasm is contagious. From Bob, I learned to rejoice in your work, work collaboratively and incorporate multiple perspectives using anything from theatre to scientific papers, visual arts, novels, or music. Bob is an eternal student, and teaching with him was incredibly rewarding. We’d sometimes leave early and catch a Kubrick film shown as part of the class taught in the same room before his own FISH 101. Only Bob was there to learn from the professor, who was highly experienced at teaching large classes while that year was Bob’s first. From André, I’ve learned to respect and value efficient administrative work. He might complain, but he’ll also be quietly smiling as he watches people having a good time at the Spring Picnic from the comfort of his office.

Bob Francis (circa 2003)
Bob Francis (circa 2003)

Enough nostalgia. Ray, Bob, and André provide explicit, masterly worded, straightforward feedback—devoid of sugar coating, but also of malice. And this in turn teaches when and how to defend a point of view, however unconventional. They all are a little irreverent themselves, not only when it comes to science but to defending their students or the quality of academic endeavors too. Room FSH 203, so fondly remembered by Jason Cope (PhD, 2009) for its extensive use as a place for defenses and seminars, among other SOF activities, comes courtesy of Ray. Upon learning the room was strictly off-limits for the Friday Quantitative Seminar, Ray barged downstairs to the administrator’s office to argue otherwise… Or Bob, writing to UW’s Athletic Department that under no circumstances was their “one million dollar wonder boy” (Richard Neuheisel, then Huskies head football coach, first to be paid an annual salary of about one million dollars)  to grant student football players a week off from Bob’s class without his prior authorization. And then André, refreshingly candid about his professional and personal experiences. While they all take their work seriously, they don’t take themselves too seriously. And the three are incredibly good sports when it comes to withstanding students’ irreverence, be it doctored images, hula-hooping, or a dunking booth. This channeled irreverence is part of what I think helps fuel innovation within SAFS, building self-esteem in everyday circumstances and confidence in one’s technical knowledge and professional abilities. So for all that SAFS, here’s to a hundred more years of irreverence.

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