Like the paths that many others have followed, my road to becoming a stock assessment scientist was a series of fortunate events. I spent much of my childhood recreational fishing, but never really had the goal of becoming a marine biologist, mainly because I was unaware the option existed. I moved from a little dairy farming community, where I grew up, to Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand, to do a Bachelor of Science with a double major in zoology and computer science. I chose this unusual combination because, although I liked them both, I preferred zoology, but computer science was more likely to get me a job. The first fortunate event was taking an advanced calculus class in my first year in which the first couple of weeks focused on proving 1 + 1 = 2. I thought this made no sense and was just a complete waste of time, so I dropped the course and took a standard calculus course. After this experience, I took very few math courses during my undergraduate studies. Despite the obvious importance of math in stock assessment, I attribute the success in my career to intuition and creativity that I suspect would have been hindered by math courses. Interestingly, I now attribute some major failings in stock assessment to the reliance on theoretical mathematical ecology.
The next fortunate event was my inability to get the type of computer science job that I wanted. This was, in part, due to my inability to write essays, in combination with nonacademic pursuits that resulted in somewhat subpar grades. All the zoology midterm tests were short answer questions, but the final exams included paragraph or multi-paragraph answers, and I was unaware that I did not know how to write (some might argue that I still don’t). I did not want to be just a computer programmer, so I decided I should continue my education to enable me to get a more interesting job. It was not until my first essay in my MS studies that I realized I could not write. Fortunately, I found an engineering professor who specialized in helping students write better.
The fortunate event that turned my path towards stock assessment occurred when I was trying to decide how to continue my education. My cousin had just finished his MS in marine biology, and while I was discussing education options with him, he mentioned that you could use computers to model fish populations. I had absolutely no idea what that meant, but it sounded cool. So, I talked to a professor who did this type of work and he wanted me to model some Australian reef fish populations, but only if Prof. Brian McArdle, a biostatistician, would agree to be on my committee. I did not want to study a small Australian reef fish—I wanted to study a commercially important New Zealand fish. Brian said that if I was his student, I could model anything I wanted. Fortunately, the biology department was having trouble getting MS students, so they let me in even though my grades were not up to their usual standard. My thesis involved conducting a stock assessment of snapper (Pagrus auratus), an important commercial and the most important recreational New Zealand species. This was the first thesis in the biology department that did not include collecting data, and it took a bit of persuasion by my supervisor to convince the head of department that I did not have to collect data to do a good thesis.
Nearing the end of my MS studies, I started looking for job and PhD opportunities; I had a few interviews, one of which was for a fisheries management position at the New Zealand Fishing Industry Board (NZFIB). The interview panel thought that I was completely hopeless for the position, but one member, Paul Starr, was surprised to see someone coming out of a New Zealand university with stock assessment experience and convinced the NZFIB to create a new position and hire me to help him with assessments. Working at the NZFIB is where I met my future UW PhD supervisor, Ray Hilborn, who was working as a consultant for the NZFIB. I also met André Punt, who has been a mentor throughout my career and still is, as well as other UW postdocs and students. I learnt a lot about stock assessment at the NZFIB from the NZ scientists and UW consultants, and I took some distance learning courses in statistics to understand the more technical details.
Career advancement options in NZ without a PhD were limited, so Paul Starr encouraged me to obtain a PhD. With financial support from the NZFIB and through its connections with UW, Ray Hilborn took me on as a student. To be honest, my goal was not to go to UW to learn, but simply to get my PhD. However, I did learn a tremendous amount—from the projects I worked on and the people I worked with, many who were UW students (e.g. Billy Ernst [PhD, 2002] and Murdoch McAllister [PhD, 1995]), and alumni (e.g. Ana Parma [PhD, 1989] and Jim Ianelli [PhD, 1993]). One of these projects was to develop Coleraine, the first general Bayesian stock assessment package programmed in AD Model Builder (ADMB), long dead, but it’s influence can still be seen in the widely used general stock assessment program Stock Synthesis (developed by Rick Methot [BS, 1975]).
After receiving my PhD, I accepted a stock assessment position at the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) under the direction of Rick Deriso [UW Biomathematics, 1978], where I still work on stock assessments supervising other UW alumni (Carolina Minte-Vera [PhD, 2004], Haikun Xu [SAFS post-doc], and Juan Valero [MS, 2002; PhD, 2011]) under the direction of Alexandre Aires-da-Silva [PhD, 2008]. This was another fortunate event. My wife and I had lived in Wellington (New Zealand) and Seattle for six years and decided we wanted to move where the weather was a bit warmer. So, I wrote letters to the NMFS in Hawaii and Miami and to the IATTC inquiring about possible options for employment. Unknown to me, when the IATTC received my letter it was in the middle of interviewing for a stock assessment scientist, and so I was brought in for an interview. I was selected for the position, which was fortunate because stock assessment positions at the IATTC rarely become available, and I consider them among the best such positions in the world. My first task was to work with UW alumni George Watters to develop the stock assessment program ASCALA, an ADMB version of Dave Fournier’s MULTIFAN-CL, and apply it to the eastern Pacific Ocean tuna stocks.
The connections that I made at the UW remain invaluable. For example, a large part of the success of the award-winning Center for the Advancement of Population Assessment Methodology (CAPAM) stock assessment methodology workshop series is due to the involvement of UW professors, their students, and alumni—particularly, Brice Semmens (UW Zoology) who is one of the other two cofounders of CAPAM, and André Punt who has been a keynote speaker at many of the workshops, has edited the special issues in the journal Fisheries Research, has contributed many publications to the special issues, and has encouraged his students to attend and contribute presentations and papers. In 2020, we are planning to hold a CAPAM workshop on natural mortality in Seattle in collaboration with UW and the NMFS. Similarly, the success of the ADMB Foundation, that I cofounded with John Sibert and Anders Nielsen, was facilitated by people associated with UW, particularly Ray Hilborn who helped us obtain funding to purchase ADMB from the developer Dave Fournier and Rick Methot who helped obtain ongoing funding.
Finally, the most important piece of information I can transfer to current UW students is that working with others is the most effective way to learn. I have been fortunate throughout my education and career, including much consulting work, to work with truly exceptional people. In many cases they had already done the hard work and it was my task to understand what they had done and work with them to make improvements. Without them, I would not know what I know today. In particular, I am grateful to Grant Thompson for putting up with all my questions and model run requests for the Pacific cod assessment over so many years.