Feature Stories 2024: Jessica Kittel PhD '24: Diving into discovery

SMAST PhD student Jessie Kittel
Feature Stories 2024: Jessica Kittel PhD '24: Diving into discovery
Jessica Kittel PhD '24: Diving into discovery

PhD student and 100-ton captain Jessica Kittel is using climate data to better understand fish stocks

"I got scuba certified at 15 years old. I was hooked as soon as I got underwater, and I've been in love with the ocean ever since." 

Jessica Kittel PhD '24 has sailed catamarans, tagged whales and sandbar sharks, and earned her 100-ton captain's license. Now, she's working on her PhD at UMass Dartmouth's School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) studying yellowtail flounder.  

Kittel grew up in Oregon when Keiko, the orca who starred in "Free Willy" and captured the attention of people worldwide, was housed at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.  After graduating from Oregon State University, Kittel moved to Maui where she worked in ecotourism sailing catamarans and leading snorkeling trips. She earned her master's degree in applied marine and fisheries ecology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland before returning to Maui to study whales. Her goal of obtaining a PhD led her to SMAST.  


"After spending a year in the UK getting my master's degree in Scotland, I moved back to Maui and started working for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. It was an incredible experience. We tagged whales with a device that's like a Fitbit to track their movement patterns, energy expenditure, and other behaviors.  

"I also got my 100-ton captain's license, which required me to work 720 days at sea.  

"It was my life's goal to get a PhD, so I started in the Intercampus Marine Science (IMS) program at UMass Boston and worked at the New England Aquarium. One of the great things about the IMS program is that you can take classes at different UMass campuses. I signed up to take a few classes on stock assessment at the SMAST campus and fell in love with SMAST and stock assessment.  I switched advisors and joined Professor Steve Cadrin's lab researching yellowtail flounder." 

Jessie Kittel freediving in Maui
Jessie Kittel freediving in Maui

Tell us about your research. What's the question you're trying to answer? 

"Using data from Northeast Fisheries Science Center surveys, we're looking to incorporate climate and environmental data into stock assessment models to get more accurate projections for better management decisions. 

"Yellowtail flounder populations have dropped despite limitations on fishing. Fishing pressure is usually one of the main factors affecting the size of a fish stock, but that's not the case here. Previous assessments weren't accurately capturing the changes that were occurring. It was assumed that if fishing was limited or stopped, the yellowtail flounder population would bounce back. But that's not what we're seeing. 

"Yellowtail flounder are affected by temperature, and their habitat is experiencing temperature fluctuations due to climate change. We want to see if incorporating climate data into our assessments can give us a more accurate model for determining how many fish are in the stocks.  

"I enjoy this research topic because it's very actionable. I loved studying whales, but that work felt somewhat abstract. It was hard to see how our data would be used to make a difference in the present. The research we're producing now goes straight to decisionmakers and will have a direct influence on fishing communities."  

What's your favorite thing about SMAST? 

"I love SMAST. We have a great community here, and it's a very collegial environment. We often get together to talk about our work, or we'll all go out after a research seminar. And everyone here is obsessed with marine science so it's easy to make friends.  

"The faculty are truly amazing, too. I have a ton of support from my professors, Dean Kevin Stokesbury, Gavin Fay, and Alex Hanzel at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. Students here are so fortunate to benefit from SMAST's connections with other scientists and institutions in the field.  

"I couldn't ask for a better advisor than Steve Cadrin. He is extremely supportive but offers just the right amount of autonomy. He is always there to help when we need it and truly does whatever he can to set us up for success. 

What advice would you give to someone considering graduate school for marine science? 

"Take advantage of all opportunities that come your way.  Ultimately, your level of experience will be more important than your GPA, because each opportunity will lead to something else. So, volunteer to help with other people's projects, seek out new experiences, and get out of your comfort zone. And get good at coding. It's becoming a requisite skill for the field, so try to learn at least one coding language. It will be a very useful skill and an attractive quality for grad school applications. 

"I would also add: the best advisor is going to be the one who shares your research interests and is generous with their time. Find someone who cares about your success and is invested in the work."