The Alaska Fisheries Science Center is proud to have a Presidential Early Career Award winner on its team. Elizabeth Siddon received this distinguished award this summer. The Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) is the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government upon outstanding scientists and engineers in the early stages of their careers. It recognizes their achievements and community service. The PECASE also embodies the high priority placed by the Administration on maintaining the leadership position of the United States in science by producing outstanding scientists and engineers and nurturing their continued development.
Past Alaska Fisheries Science Center PECASE award winners include:
- Dana Hansleman in 2009 for his work developing alternative ways of surveying highly aggregated species such as rockfish. This was the first attempt at applying "adaptive sampling" methods to a marine fish population over a large geographic area of the open ocean. He also developed a generalized method to incorporate the uncertainty of abundance estimates from surveys into the calculation of catch limits.
- Alan Haynie in 2012 for his work developing innovative economic tools and models to predict fisher behavior amid changing environment, market conditions and management systems. He also worked with various stakeholders to create and implement new programs to reduce unintended catch of salmon bycatch, in the Bering Sea pollock fishery.
- Jim Thorson in 2013 for his work developing dynamic models showing variation in fish populations and productivity over space and time, developing innovative modelling tools for data-rich and data-limited species, and efforts to better estimate variation in fish growth and maturity (Jim was working for the Northwest Fisheries Science Center at the time).
Now let's take a closer look at this year's honoree. Elizabeth works for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in our Auke Bay Laboratories in Juneau, Alaska. She is a member of the Ecosystem Modeling and Assessment Program. Her work is predominantly focused on the Bering Sea, and connecting ecosystem science to management. She is responsible for developing the annual Ecosystem Status Report for the Bering Sea. This report is used by regional fisheries managers at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to inform fishing quotas each year. In 2018 she produced the first public-friendly Brief of this report. As a graduate student, she was part of the team that won a NOAA Gold medal in 2015 for the Bering Sea Project. Elizabeth is the first woman to be selected for the PECASE award for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center.
When did you first get interested in marine science?
I’ve been interested in marine science since I was a kid exploring tide pools along the coast of Maine! I got certified to scuba dive in high school (in quarries outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). I convinced my mother by saying, “if I’m going to be a marine biologist, I’m going to need to know how to dive!”
What species do you study?
My research focuses on juvenile walleye pollock in the eastern Bering Sea and how changes in the environment impact their survival. For the past few years, I’ve led the effort to develop an eastern Bering Sea Ecosystem Status Report. In that role, I develop ecosystem indicators with the help of experts on different aspects of the marine environment. I then synthesize that information in an annual assessment of the ecosystem. I provide that information to resource managers for use in setting annual fishing quotas.
What do you like best about your job?
I enjoy the collaborative nature of my work and interacting with lots of different people with various expertise. Probably my favorite thing is to bounce new ideas around, brainstorm, think outside the box and see where it takes us!
Can you describe a typical day for you in the office?
Let’s see... we are heading into the stock assessment cycle. That’s the time of year when we evaluate how commercial fish populations are doing and assess the status of the ecosystem.
A typical day for me will involve a lot of communication with contributors to the Ecosystem Status Report. For veteran contributors, this can be simple email reminders to send updates. For new contributors, I will work with them to develop the most effective indicator. An ideal indicator is something that fills gaps in our current understanding of the ecosystem and is (1) characterized at annual scales to match our annual stock assessment cycle, (2) a long-term time series and/or likely to be measured for many years, and (3) available for the current year or one year prior.
I will also chase down leads on ‘hot topics’ and follow developing stories to include in the Ecosystem Status Report. Two big stories this year are the continued warm water temperatures in the Bering Sea and the Unusual Mortality Event for gray whales. A larger than normal number of gray whales have stranded along the west coast of the U.S. from Alaska to California.
What are some ways you try to get students engaged in science?
I am very committed to education and outreach here in Juneau and beyond. I co-founded South East Exchange (SEE), a community partnership between local STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) professionals and teachers in the Juneau School District. SEE helps bring place-based and hands-on science experiences into classrooms. The idea was to leverage the wealth of expertise in our community and to have students see how their textbook lessons are applied in the real world. SEE has sparked lots of different collaborations across the district and we’re all excited to see where it goes.
This summer I co-taught a field course at the Shoals Marine Laboratory off the coast of Maine. It was a new undergraduate course called Integrated Ecosystem Research and Management. Students learned about the Gulf of Maine ecosystem and applied a holistic approach to addressing realistic challenges in the system. Students conducted field work, like, oceanographic sampling and beach seining. They analyzed historical datasets of temperature, fish abundance, and seabird productivity. Then, they used this information to provide tactical management advice for tern colony restoration in New Hampshire.
How does it feel to be recognized with an early career award like this?
It’s incredibly humbling and highlights all of the people and places that have been a part of my career path, influenced my research, and supported me along the way. It also feels validating–that the choices I’ve made along the way (about work-life balance, having kids, etc.) have been the right choices for me and have in fact added benefit to me as a scientist.
How important do you think communications and public education are to help you accomplish your work?
Oh my gosh … KEY! Over the past few years, Stephani Zador, a scientist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center and I have given many presentations on the Ecosystem Status Reports. We always highlight three “ingredients” to successful understanding, acceptance, and use of the information: communication, collaboration, and transparency. We’re also always trying to improve our communication to different stakeholders–the In Brief is a great example of that!
Any advice you'd give to someone interested in pursuing a career in marine science?
Say “yes” to opportunities (even if they’re outside your comfort area). Be positive and someone people want to be around. Be creative–unconventional links lead to cool new ideas!