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Natalie Lowell

PhD student, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington

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Sometimes we think we are not good at things or we won’t enjoy things, but we actually don’t know until we try.

What do you do?

I collect scallops and sea cucumbers from across the Pacific coast of North America, and investigate whether they are different at the genetic level across their range. This means I’m in the lab pipetting and also on the computer coding. The goal is to inform the aquaculture industry on whether they are different enough to warrant rules about whether we can mix them during aquaculture practices, like collecting adults to make seed or selling seed to be planted in faraway places. 

For the other half of my research, I’m using computer simulations to understand how farming shellfish can affect the genetics of wild shellfish. In a nutshell, I’m simulating shellfish hatchery practices, such as breeding many offspring from relatively few parents, and simulating interbreeding between the farm and the wild. Because this can have negative consequences, I’m exploring how different shellfish growing methods could mitigate these impacts.

Why did you choose this field?

Growing up, my dad and grandmother took my tidepooling, snorkeling, and fishing. Marine life has always been a central interest. Then, in high school, I volunteered at a zoo and I remember a formative conversation where another student volunteer referred to poachers as bad people. My supervisor explained to us that often poachers don’t have a lot of choices about how to put bread on the table for their families, and that one poached animal could mean life or death for the family. It made me think about how human behavior around conservation is incentivized or disincentivized, and it’s not usually about individual morality. This made me very interested in natural resource management and policy.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

My master’s thesis. It wasn’t really within natural science at all. I researched how two agencies compare in terms of hallmark “good science” standards, in their implementation of the Endagered Species Act. I didn’t have a lot of literature to build upon or pull methods from, so I had to be very creative. Getting that work published made me feel incredibly powerful – like I could research anything or answer any question, so long as I worked hard and was creative.

Why do you love working in STEM?

Surprises! Learning something new! Feeling good at skills that I’ve developed over time! Collaborating with others!

Best advice for next generation?

Sometimes we think we are not good at things or we won’t enjoy things, but we actually don’t know until we try. I thought I didn’t like computers or coding, but once I had to learn it for work I found out I was very good and it and it is still one of my favorite things to do at work. Find out how to advocate for yourself and know things for yourself, and ignore the naysayers!

Inspo quote / fun fact

A big part of my love for wildlife and conservation science comes from growing up loving Pokemon!