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Traveling Problem-Solver Lisa Milke Named Ecosystems and Aquaculture Chief

December 16, 2022

Whether tackling a scallop production bottleneck, building a deck with her family, or leading a research division, Lisa Milke is ready to meet the challenge.

Woman scientist wearing NOAA hat and smiling stands in front of blue water with land and marsh grass in the distance.

In November, Lisa Milke took the reins of the Ecosystems and Aquaculture Division, arguably our science center’s broadest in geography and research mission. About half of this division is dedicated to aquaculture research. It also pursues diverse inquiry on habitat ecology, fisheries ecology, deep sea coral research, and oceanographic monitoring and research.

“My background is predominantly aquaculture, but I look forward to learning more about all of the fields the division represents. I will rely on the branch chiefs and staff, who are the true experts in those disciplines. I’m excited to learn how to advocate for and integrate this broad portfolio,” explained Milke.

Fortunately Milke enjoys traveling, because the division is also geographically diverse. Staff are located at every laboratory of our center, except the one in Maine. We interviewed Milke to find out more about her plans for the division and her path to the job.

Aquaculture and Climate Change Top the Agenda

Milke remains committed to working closely with aquaculture businesses and research partners in the region.

“We have always worked closely with industry and focused our science on industry- and management-specific problems. We will continue to build on that,” said Milke.

“I’d like to stress, though, that we are broader than aquaculture. This division is uniquely suited to explore our region’s rapidly changing environmental conditions. There are many questions to answer regarding climate change, habitat change, potential impacts of wind energy development and their collective influences on natural resources.”

She will be coordinating science and leading scientists in her new role. “We have diverse expertise. Regardless of position, every member of this division is an expert and brings a different perspective, all of which are essential to our success.”

The Road to Studying Shellfish and Aquaculture

Milke grew up in Maryland and was sailing on the Chesapeake Bay with her family from a young age.

“One day in 10th grade, I had this ‘aha’ moment. I learned about lake turnover in ecology and thought that was one of the coolest things ever. I came home and told my parents that I was going to be a biologist and I ended up going down that path.”

Smiling woman scientist with short brown hair stands in front of an aquarium tank containing four green silos of PVC pipe that contain flowing water called downwellers.
Lisa Milke conducting research on scallops during her doctoral program.

Milke received a scholarship to study at a joint program at Salisbury University and University of Maryland Eastern Shore. As a college student, two research opportunities influenced her path. One summer she worked with Victor Kennedy (who literally wrote the book on oysters) at the Horn Point Laboratory, studying the dynamics of crabs and mussels on oyster reefs. The following summer she worked with Evan Ward on shellfish feeding physiology.

These experiences got her looped into the scientific community. Both Kennedy and Ward were strong mentors that she still looks up to today.

Milke earned her master’s degree studying the feeding physiology of oysters and mussels at the University of Connecticut Avery Point. She continued to work with Ward, who was by then on the faculty there. She investigated how temperature and food quality affect feeding under Ward’s mentorship.

Problem-Solving With the Scallop Aquaculture Industry

While Milke was working on her master’s thesis, Ward let her do things her way even when he was skeptical about whether it would work. She credits this dynamic with helping her develop as a researcher. For Milke, part of graduate school was running into problems and figuring out how to solve them.

Smiling woman scientist with short brown hair sits at a desk in front of a scientific instrument and a computer.
Lisa Milke using an instrument to count microalgae as part of her scallop feeding studies.

As she was finishing her degree, she knew she liked the scientific community, but wanted her research to be directly applicable to aquaculture. She did her doctoral work with Monica Bricelj at Dalhousie University and the National Research Council of Canada in Nova Scotia, Canada. She studied an aquaculture production bottleneck: the post-larval stage in scallops. The aquaculture industry had asked for help with this problem.

“Scallops have a planktonic larval stage, and then they ‘set’ and live on the seafloor. Between the planktonic and the juvenile stages, scallops were dying and the industry didn’t know what was causing it,” said Milke.

Milke was happy to give living abroad a try. “It was kind of terrifying because I put my cat in my car, drove to Canada, and applied for my visa at the border. I ended up spending four awesome years in Halifax. I loved my time there and made lifelong friends.”

Milke fed post-larval bay and sea scallops different diets and analyzed their growth and survival, as well as their lipid content and enzyme development. She presented her findings to the aquaculture industry.

“Sea scallops are challenging to grow. They grow slowly, have a long developmental cycle, and are tricky to keep alive. We found that some diets are better than others. Some microalgae strains have particular lipids that help scallops grow and thrive.”

Milke reflected on her experience as a Ph.D. student.

“I learned a lot about resilience. I learned how to work with different people, live in a different place, do excellent science, and take a deep breath and keep moving forward when things are challenging.” All skills which will undoubtedly come in handy in her new leadership role.

Developing as a Scientist and Leader at the Milford Laboratory

Smiling woman scientist sits at a microscope wearing a purple lab coat and gloves.
Lisa Milke at the microscope at the Milford Laboratory in Milford, Connecticut.

Milke was finishing her doctorate when someone brought a job posting at the NOAA Milford Laboratory to her attention.

“I got great advice from the director of research at the National Research Council Halifax. He said, ‘this is a job for a shellfish physiologist, and you are a shellfish physiologist. You are crazy if you don’t apply for this. This opportunity will not happen again.’” Milke joined the lab in 2005.

Milke cites the development of ocean acidification research as a highlight of her time as a research scientist in Milford. “Around 2010, NOAA started building the brand new Ocean Acidification Program. I learned a whole bunch of new things, because I was a shellfish biologist, not a carbonate chemist.”

Milke helped build up this science. She collaborated with colleagues at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Stony Brook University. “I enjoyed studying shellfish physiological responses to environmental change and working with external partners who bring new ideas and ways of doing things.”

Milke has also enjoyed co-running the Milford Aquaculture Seminar for many years. This meeting, in its 42nd year, brings together the aquaculture industry, academics, and managers to have conversations about the latest research. “It’s one of my favorite things I do. I always look forward to it.”

Becoming chief of the Ecosystems and Aquaculture Division’s Aquaculture Systems and Ecology Branch was an unexpected challenge. She did the job temporarily after the previous chief retired and found it was a good fit.

“Being branch chief allowed me to solve problems, help get people over bureaucratic hurdles, and facilitate science. That is my happy place.”

Approach to Work-Life Balance

A smiling woman, man and boy wearing winter hats and coats are standing on the side of a snowy mountain with a ski lift, trees, and a crowd of people in the background.
Lisa Milke watching ski racing with her husband and son.

“Work-life balance is so important!” Milke said, “I love my job, but it isn’t my whole life, and sometimes you need to pause and step back. I try to remind colleagues of that, and I appreciate it when they remind me too! We’re in this together.”

Family is a priority for Milke. “My boys and I are a close little unit. My husband, my 10-year-old son, and I are avid skiers and big travelers. We are always busy with something. If it isn’t something athletic, it is home projects. Our pandemic project was building both a front and back deck. Next up is building a treehouse with a zip line.”

Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on August 09, 2023