Dr. Michelle Staudinger: Studying marine biodiversity through a climate lens

Even though I knew from a pretty early age that I wanted to be scientist, I couldn’t quite name it as that. I knew I loved animals of all kinds, and the ones that lived in water were particularly interesting to me. I didn’t know how to become a scientist, the only scientists I knew were veterinarians or medical doctors. It wasn’t until college that I had the revelation that I could make a career studying fish and wildlife. My Masters and PhD research assessed marine food-webs in an ecosystem-based approaches to fisheries management. I found these areas of study to be fulfilling in that I did not have to choose just one organism to study but could instead investigate diverse complexes of species ranging from coastal and open-ocean fishes to marine mammals, seabirds, deep-sea cephalopods, and intertidal invertebrates. The common theme to all of these studies is to gain a better understanding of the ecological processes and environmental drivers that influence population dynamics and trophic connections. 

Resolving complex and interactive drivers of change is what propelled me to pivot from fisheries to climate science. When I was a Visiting Research Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington studying trophic interactions among large pelagic fishes, dolphinfish (aka Mahi mahi) populations appeared to be expanding. This warm water associated species was dominating the recreational catches in the South Atlantic Bight and they were being landed as far north as off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It remained unresolved if their populations were being released from predation of larger pelagic fishes like tunas and billfish, whose populations were overfished and at low abundance, or if climate change was playing a role. The literature at the time ambiguously named climate change as a potential force effecting many marine species but there was a lot of uncertainty in how it was manifesting. I decided I wanted to learn more and took a leap of faith by taking a post-doctoral position in Washington D.C. to work at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) on the 3rd National Climate Assessment. The project brought together experts from all over the United States from a range of disciplines spanning the natural and social sciences. The effort synthesized the current knowledge at the time on how biodiversity, ecosystems, and ecosystem services were responding to climate change and what could be done about it. It was a crash course in climate science, government policy, and how to coordinate large transdisciplinary scientific teams.

Soon after finishing that project, I took a permanent position with USGS and helped grow a new federal-academic hybrid program known as the Climate Adaptation Science Centers (CASC). For the next 10 years, I worked as the Science Coordinator for the Northeast CASC and was involved in a number of cutting-edge science initiatives related to climate adaptation. For example, I participated in efforts to develop new climate adaptation tools such as Climate Change Vulnerability Assessments and participate in pilot efforts to apply Scenario Planning to Endangered Species including North Atlantic Right Whales and Atlantic salmon. Studying systems through a climate lens again allowed me to assess many species at once to understand how socioecological communities were being affected by warming waters and sea level rise through shifts in the timing of critical life history events (known as phenology), range shifts, and other biological responses. I also became indoctrinated in the concept of co-producing actionable science. Co-production is an iterative process that results in outcomes that directly inform management actions. Natural resource managers and conservation practitioners are involved early and often in evaluating a system, developing research questions, and interpreting results. Often the managers know the species and habitats in different but equally important ways as scientists and help understand the system more holistically. Integrating different ways of knowing and diverse perspectives in science increases utility, accessibility, breadth and also links to my personal goals of making science more inclusive. 

Working as a federal scientist had a lot of benefits. Even before the pandemic when remote work became common, the government allowed for flexible schedules and telework as options, which as a science-mom, was a lifesaver after my twin boys were born. But I always felt a bit like a fish out of water at USGS given the agency’s focus on terrestrial systems. So when the opportunity came to return to academia and be part of a marine science-focused department, I somehow convinced my family to move to Maine and try something new with me. My faculty position within the School of Marine Sciences is somewhat unique in that it is partially funded by the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), and I have responsibilities to deliver science that helps the agency address the challenges that a warming climate brings. This relationship with the DMR has been a natural fit and builds on my prior work with state fisheries managers and State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) Coordinators in integrating climate change into their planning and decision-making processes.

The last year has been a huge transition, moving from Massachusetts to Maine, leaving federal service and beginning a position in academia, but the new start has been refreshing and energizing. My growing laboratory group at the Darling Marine Center merges my origins in marine ecology with the last decade of experience in climate science. Working collaboratively with ME DMR scientists and being part of the Maine Climate Council’s Coastal and Marine Working Group has allowed me to make fast connections and be part of real-time conversations seeking to address the impacts of extreme climate events that have affected the State during recent months. I am actively launching new projects to help the ME DMR better detect and track how climate change is affecting the fisheries they manage and adjust their monitoring and assessment programs accordingly. As faculty in the School of Marine Sciences, I feel at home amongst other researchers studying coastal and ocean systems. Being located on the beautiful campus of the Darling Marine Center also fulfils a dream to be able to look out my window and see the resources I study every day. I can now walk just a few steps out of my office and observe fish, invertebrates, seabirds, and marine mammals any time I want. I am also excited to design new field-based and hands-on curriculum as part of the Semester-by-the-Sea and 3D-Ecosystem Science National Research Traineeship programs that teach and inspire the next generation of scientists about the diversity of marine life and how we can use innovative and inclusive approaches to adapt and mitigate to global change.