Katherine Thompson: The Department of Marine Resources' newest scientist

2013 SMAST alum Katherine Thompson talks about her experiences as a marine science student and her new career.

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UMass Dartmouth alum Katherine Thompson earned her master's degree at SMAST in 2013 and went on to complete her PhD in marine biology at the University of Maine. Thompson talks about how her academic experience at SMAST shaped her career trajectory, and discusses her new position as lead scientist with the Department of Marine Resources' lobster sampling program.

What inspired you to pursue a degree from SMAST?

 After graduating from college I did several marine jobs in Maine, including a boatbuilding apprenticeship, lobstering, shrimping, oyster aquaculture and a SCUBA diving internship suction sampling juvenile lobsters. It was when I was sterning on a lobster boat that I began to realize the important role of fisheries science in informing stock assessments and ultimately fisheries regulations. It was for this reason that I applied to graduate school. I heard that SMAST has one of the best fisheries programs in New England. I knew that I wanted to study sea scallops and several folks recommended that I speak with Dr. Kevin Stokesbury. A few months later I was his student.

Talk about your academic program, degree and experiences with faculty and other students at SMAST.

My Master’s thesis focused on the timing of sea scallop spawning on Georges Bank. SMAST faculty members were extremely supportive and helpful throughout both my coursework and my thesis. All of the resources that I needed to complete my thesis project were available between the resources at SMAST and the laboratory facilities at UMassD.

I formed valuable friendships with fellow grad students, many of whom have continued to be academic colleagues in subsequent jobs and in beginning my PhD at UMaine. Actually, when I first interviewed with my current PhD advisor at UMaine, he commented “You were Kevin’s student, so you must be good.” SMAST has a positive reputation in academia as well as among the fishing industry and my connections there have been very valuable ever since.

What makes SMAST special?

SMAST is unique particularly in its positive relationship with the fishing industry and managers. There are many opportunities to get directly involved with the fisheries management process including the Cadrin lab’s ICES stock assessment student reviews as well as attending management meetings.

SMAST faculty also has a good record in securing funding, providing opportunities for grad students to travel to regional, national and international scientific meetings to present their work.

Tell us about your work experiences in the industry.

I had a wonderful experience working with the fishing industry during my graduate studies at SMAST. The program has an excellent reputation with the fishermen and I took every opportunity available to go on research trips. I went on week-long video survey and dredge survey trips on commercial scallopers and really enjoyed working with the captains and crew. With the help of the fishermen, I collected all of the scallop samples for my thesis on these trips.

After graduating from SMAST, I got a job at Coonamesset Farm Foundation (CFF) coordinating the Seasonal Bycatch Survey on which I had previously collected my thesis samples. I had already built positive working relationships with the industry while at SMAST, which helped with the job. I also collaborated with the Stokesbury and Cadrin labs on two projects. The strong collaborations that I established at SMAST as well as the knowledge and skills that I gained there helped me greatly when beginning the job at CFF.

Tell us about your new position at Maine’s Department of Marine Resources (DMR), and how your education at SMAST has been pivotal in your work experiences.

I currently coordinate the Lobster Sea Sampling Program as well as the Ventless Trap Survey (VTS) at the DMR. I participated in the VTS as a sternman and have wanted to work at the DMR since then, however, I was not qualified enough at the time. At SMAST I learned the fundamentals of fisheries science and gained an appreciation for collaborative research. It was my experience at SMAST that enabled me to get the job at CFF, which provided me with the credentials for my current job (survey design and execution as well as supervisory experience).

What advice do you have for students who have an interest in pursuing careers in marine science?

I would recommend that new students gain as much field experience as possible. It is from direct observation of the marine ecosystem that you learn the most about organismal biology and population dynamics. Interacting with fishermen is also very valuable in understanding the ocean from hands-on experience. I would also advise new students to study a subject that they are truly interested in, since that is what motivates one’s research.


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