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Faculty Spotlight: An interview with Dr. Jamie Pierson

May 19, 2020

Just prior to all non-essential HPL faculty and staff being ordered to work from home back in mid-March, Communications Specialist David Ferraris had a chance to sit down with Dr. Jamie Pierson in what has become the first in a series of HPL faculty interviews. Get to know the scientists behind the science!


So Jamie, when did you first arrive at the Horn Point Laboratory?

I arrived in 2006 as a postdoc with (HPL Director) Mike Roman. I had just finished my Ph.D. at the University of Washington and brought a little bit of money for a project that was still going on in Seattle. So I was back and forth to Seattle the first couple years. I was promoted to research faculty, then to tenure track faculty a few years later when HPL had positions available for tenure-track faculty, which brings me to where I am now.

So at this point would that make you one of the longest tenured people here?

Yes - 13 years. I went up for and received tenure in 2018.

What would you say are some of the ways the campus has changed since you first arrived?

A lot of people who built Horn Point up to what it currently is have since retired. I miss them, but it’s also been exciting to see the lab grow and switch over to a whole new generation of scientists. 

The number of graduate students seems to hover between 30 and 40 each semester? Has it always been like that?

I think we're probably down a little bit from that number now, mostly because we fund graduate student projects through grant funding primarily. We've churned out a lot of scientists, which translates into more people looking to get a piece of a (funding) pie that's shrinking. 

Have you noticed any general differences in the students over the years? Are they coming in more prepared, less prepared; interested in different applications of environmental science?

My background is more in oceanography and more basic science, and here at UMCES we have more of a focus on applied science more than some other places - applied meaning for societal benefit. I think that in the 13 years that I've been here, I've seen more students interested in those kinds of questions - the applied questions. Climate change is a big one; more so certainly than when I was in grad school. We talked about it a little bit in oceanography, but not with an urgency like you see with the students these days.

Reminds me of people going into the military after 9/11. There was a crisis and people inherently want to get involved and help.

I think that’s a really good analogy. People want to do something, and if you read into the science literature, we’re viewing this as a huge experiment that we’re undertaking. We don’t have a control group. We don’t have another Earth, so that makes it really hard to do some of the science we want to do, but people are seeing this as there are huge changes that are already happening and we’re trying to understand what they are and what they mean.

Do you have a specific research-related or student story to share...something or someone who stands out over the years?

I had a student who finished her Ph.D. in 2015, Nicole Millette, and she just got hired as a tenure-track faculty at VIMS (Virginia Institute of Marine Science). She’s the first student who graduated under my advisement, but she started at HPL with my friend and colleague Diane Stoecker who has since retired. She found a lot of her own funding and really created her own program during grad school. We just got a paper published along with another HPL scientist, Elizabeth North, and this was the last paper from her dissertation work. It describes a model to look at how winter temperatures affect zooplankton abundances and how that might relate to fish recruitment in the Choptank River and Chesapeake Bay. I didn’t realize how proud I’d be to have a student get through everything and get a good job and really be successful. I think that’s probably the best story I could tell.

That sounds very rewarding!

Yes, it’s really rewarding and we’re continuing to talk and do some work together, which makes it even better!.

Where are some of the places you've been able to travel as a result of your work?

Puerto Rico is one place that I’ve been to quite a bit  and that I really love, and where I have made some great friends(insert link to research article). I got to do a bit of work in Italy working with a research group in Venice. I’ve been to Conferences in Poland, Southern France, Northern Spain, and Norway. But workwise it’s really Puerto Rico, Italy, and the Gulf of Mexico. I did a bunch of work down in the Gulf with Mike Roman after the BP oil spill.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a life for a career in science?

So when I went to my high school reunion, my friends were saying that I had said I wanted to be a marine biologist in 7th grade. I don’t exactly recall saying that, but it makes sense. I grew up around the ocean in New Jersey and I’ve always really liked science. So I think that I always knew I had an interest in it and then during my senior year in college I got a work study job where I was able to work in an oceanography lab and go out on a research cruise. That was the thing that really tipped me towards the zooplankton ecology that I do now. It was a great opportunity to go out on these big research vessels for 2 weeks at a time with people I genuinely enjoyed being around. This was before email and everything else, so we were truly off the grid.

Looking back at Junior and/or Senior High School, what would you say your favorite class was? 

In college it was definitely the marine science courses that I took - biological oceanography. Going back earlier, I actually had a wonderful calculus teacher and I really loved calc in high school. I had some really good science teachers in high school. I loved AP Biology and had a very good instructor.

If you could go back in time, what if anything would you do differently as a student?

I would have probably taken more math classes in college. I took a bunch in high school and some in college, but I think having some more of that in the forefront of my mind could have helped me get some papers out a little quicker.

Totally random question - favorite books, films, albums? Top 3, top 5, whatever you’ve got!

So, there’s The Endless Summer (points to poster on office wall) - one of my favorite movies. It was traveling, it was surfing, and it had this great soundtrack. I had started surfing around 13 or 14 years old, and it was just really soothing. I also really like The Big Lebowski. I just think it's a well done movie and great storytelling. The whole family is into the Star Wars movies. Music’s a tough one. Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot got me through grad school. I read a lot of Carl Hiaasen. Another standout book is Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. 

If you weren't a scientist you might be...

Something related to science. If I wasn’t in academia, I’d probably be an agency scientist  or something like that.

So what are some easily digestible takeaways about your specific field of science that readers can walk away with?

So let’s start with what is plankton. Plankton is a lifestyle, basically. It comes from a Greek word that means wanderer or drifter. So these are organisms. They can be plants, they can be animals, but they drift around in the ocean. Some of them can swim but they can’t swim against the currents of the ocean. Generally speaking they’re microscopic, but once they get big enough they can swim up and down because vertical currents in the ocean are a lot less strong than the horizontal currents. Plankton is not one thing: it’s plants, animals, bacteria, baby fish,  jellyfish, all these different things. 

More specifically, I study a type of animal plankton. They’re called copepods, and they are plankton their entire life. These are tiny little animals that are about 1 to 3 millimeter long, usually. Copepods are probably the most numerous animal on earth. There's 15 or 16,000 named species right now, and we think there are probably more than that that we haven't discovered yet, because they’re found everywhere from high mountain lakes to the bottom of the ocean, in saltwater and freshwater. If you think about the fact that the Earth is 75% covered with water and It's about 4 km deep on average, that's a lot of water.

That's something I would bet most people are not aware of...that there are more copepods that any other animal on Earth. And it just so happens that you'll be talking more about this topic and how it relates to climate change in the near future, correct?

Yes - I'm excited to be the first faculty member who will present for our first video segment of Byte-Size Science later this month. I hope many of the people reading this will tune in!