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Q&A with Alaska Fisheries Science Center Research Biologist Dr. Jeremy Sterling



Dr. Sterling surveys a beach inhabited by Steller sea lions. His work frequently takes him to places that few humans have been before. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

Dr. Jeremy Sterling is an award-winning research biologist with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center based out of Seattle, Washington. He began his science career with the Marine Mammal Laboratory nearly 20 years ago and has since established himself as a leader in interdisciplinary research for NOAA Fisheries, bridging the gap between fish ecology, oceanography, and marine mammal ecology.

His current research focuses on marine mammal species, specifically northern fur seals and Steller sea lions, in and around Alaska. Whether he’s catching seals at the beach or crunching numbers in the lab, Dr. Sterling is contributing greatly to our understanding of these important marine species and the marine ecosystem as a whole. Learn more about his work and what it takes to make it as a marine biologist.

Did you grow up on the West Coast around the marine wildlife you now study?

I did grow up on the West Coast—lived in Redondo Beach, Huntington Beach, Santa Cruz—and I currently reside in Seattle. I grew up spending a significant part of my youth playing in the ocean, mostly surfing.  The ocean was and is a valued resource and I loved seeing the gray whale migration, seals and sea lions, sea otters, and seabirds. I thought that if I became a marine biologist then I would always live by the ocean, I would have a career that required me to live in a coastal community, and I could always go surfing. Ironically, I ended up in Seattle where the quickest surfing fix is 2.5 hours away without traffic.    

You initially studied marine biology at UC Santa Cruz. Were you always interested in a career in biology? And what were some of your influences that led you to pursue such a career?

Initially, I did not focus on marine biology because I was intimidated by the idea of taking a science-related pathway. So, I studied business at Orange Coast Community College, but quickly realized going into business was not for me and that I needed to overcome my science-related fears.

When did you become interested in northern fur seals specifically?

In 1996 I was given the opportunity to volunteer on Dr. Mike Goebels’ Ph.D. thesis work on St. George Island, Alaska. I was an undergraduate student at UC Santa Cruz working with Dr. Dan Costa and needed to do a senior thesis project to graduate. Dr. Costa proposed that I work with Mike on northern fur seals. Mike was an amazing mentor, and both he and Dan inspired much of the work I’m doing today. Last year was my 20th year studying fur seals. In fact, I’m working with Mike now on the data we collected back in 1996. It turns out his observations are extremely valuable in a long time series of northern fur seal observations.  

Have you studied other marine species?

Yes, I spent three seasons working in Antarctica from 1996 to 1999.  I assisted researchers studying Antarctic krill, Antarctic fur seals, southern elephant seals, Gentoo penguins, chinstrap penguins, and skuas. 

While at UC Santa Cruz, I cut my teeth as a “whale hugger” studying cetaceans in Monterey Bay, and also assisted with northern elephant seal research. 

Why do marine mammals pique your curiosity? And can you explain why they are so important to the health of our marine ecosystems?

Nature in general piques my curiosity, and studying marine mammals gives me the opportunity to explain a very small fraction of it all, while contributing observations and results into a management and conservation process. Marine mammals occupy a niche and have their role in marine ecosystems like all other marine species. They are an indicator species and give us insights as to the health of marine ecosystems.

What are some of the most interesting things you’ve learned studying northern fur seals and Steller sea lions?

I’ve learned many amazing things about these animals, and the most interesting to me is the recorded history of northern fur seals.  Documents, studies, and observations date back to the 1800s due to fur seals being a profitable resource. Many observations detailing diet and behavior are similar to what we’ve learned today with much more advanced technologies and methodologies.   

Dr. Sterling and colleagues navigate the rocky Alaskan coastline in a small research vessel searching for northern fur seals and Steller sea lions. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

Can you describe a “day in the life” during the survey season vs. when you’re not in the field?

A day in the life in the field could vary from working off a boat in the Aleutian Islands conducting Steller sea lion research, to hiking along East Cliffs on St. George Island, to conducting northern fur seal research.  Much of the work I’m involved in requires handling wild animals, so it can be stressful at times.  My time in the off-season is spent analyzing the data we collected while we were in the field.  So, lots of computing time. 

How do you capture data on fur seals and assess population health? What are some challenges you face in the field, and what kind of technology or equipment have you and your colleagues used to combat those challenges?

Our program uses several techniques to assess population health: tracking population trends, examining diet collections, taking blood samples for disease and contaminant analyses, and satellite tracking individuals to learn where they’re getting their food.  When working in Alaska our biggest challenge is the weather and getting observations throughout the entire year, especially during the winter.  Technology has helped us tremendously by allowing us to deploy remote cameras to monitor seal sites year-round, supplementing our aerial plane surveys during foggy days by deploying drones to get the necessary photos to assess populations at specific sites. And advanced satellite telemetry technology allows us to monitor individuals and their environment year-round. 

You started out as a research assistant at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center not long after graduating. How important was it for you to get a foot in the door there and can you speak about your experience moving up the ranks from research assistant to getting your Ph.D. and becoming a published author?

I was living in Santa Cruz when I applied for an entry-level position at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory.  I had the goal of attending graduate school as well. In the same week I was offered a term position at the lab and was accepted into graduate school at UC Santa Cruz. I made the choice to put off graduate school and get my foot in the door at the lab but communicated to my boss at the time (Dr. Thomas Loughlin) that my goal was to eventually attend graduate school.  He was supportive of that goal and helped with much of the research I did for my dissertation at the University of Washington. Having mentors like Mike, Dan, and Tom while working with a dedicated, professional, and experienced team at the Marine Mammal Laboratory was extremely helpful to my career development.

Do you have any advice for current biology students trying to navigate the world of professional research?

As far as advice for current biology students, if part of your career path involves going to remote field camps I would recommend the basics of being comfortable living in close quarters with other people and sharing daily life responsibilities.  Diversify—have a few standard meals you’re good at preparing for dinner, learn a bit about mechanics and construction.  Good food and camp maintenance skills make remote field camp life so much better.  And, of course, be sure to understand the biology and research goals of any project you may be interested in pursuing.  From a more technical perspective, I would highly recommend learning to use R statistical software.  R is an extremely powerful tool to explore recorded observations of your study species.  Today, the data collected are published with your research article.  Having your research methods all coded up in a common language will make the end product of your research more accessible and repeatable. 

You’ve won NOAA Employee of the Year twice in the past 15 years. What work were you recognized for specifically, and how does it feel to receive that acknowledgement from your peers?

My work utilizes observations from many different data types, ranging from wind/storm observations to fisheries survey data and remotely sensed data, such as altimetry.  All these data types, and more, are helping us explain seal foraging behavior and demography. The first award I received in 2003 was a result of my work in helping with Steller sea lion–related research and analyses. The most recent award came after the Science Center held an independent panel review of our ecosystem science. I gave a 1-hour presentation summarizing our work on northern fur seals.  The presentation was recognized by both the review panel and my peers for helping identify several key ecosystem components important to fur seal demography.  Both awards were surprises. It feels amazing to be recognized by your peers.

Dr. Sterling snaps a selfie while out on the water. Credit: Dr. Jeremy Sterling.