Early Career Ecologist Profile: Meet Lauren Kuehne

In my element. Deploying a temperature logger, John Day, OR.

After almost 10 years spent pursuing a career in environmental science, I still have a hard time getting the words out: “I study fish – the freshwater kind”, when asked what I do for a living. And even though I sometimes feel almost as taken aback as the person I’m talking to, looking at my roots it should be surprising that I would do anything else.

I grew up in New Orleans – as rearing grounds go, mine revolved around music, family, religion, hospitality, and food (lots of food). Tempering these, we had heat, sinking land, hurricanes, and floods. The environment, especially water, was something that needed to be held back, or at least treated with a healthy suspicion. I might have adopted that perspective without question, except that every summer I went to visit my dad in southern Utah, where it was the lack (rather than excess) of water that dictated the ebb and flow of life, politics, and land use.

As a kid shuttling between such drastically different places and seeing how our perspectives and culture are embedded in and shaped by the environment…well, it was almost inevitable that I would eventually grow up to study fish, the water that they live in, and the land surrounding. I don’t think of myself so much as a fish scientist as, ultimately, a people scientist, and it turns out that fish are a great conduit to people – to how we use, interact with, and value nature.

Between bayou and desert: making of an ecologist

I didn’t start doing research until my junior year at The Evergreen State College (Olympia, WA), when a general interest in science morphed into a fascination with phytoplankton, and I spent many an undergraduate hour over the next few years hunched over a microscope examining the bottom of the marine food chain.

Dinophysis (magnified 1600x) under SEM. From my undergraduate research at Evergreen State College.

But as I came close to graduating, I found myself wanting to contribute closer to the human end of the food web and gravitated to studying salmon as they are the culturally and commercially important fish around my adopted state of Washington. And because they live in fresh and saltwater (and migrate through everything else), salmon confront how we use water and land at a lot of different scales.

‘Fish checking’ in Neah Bay, Summer 2007

Following my undergrad, I had opportunities to do a variety of research with different management agencies – ‘fish-checking’ (creel surveys) for the State of Washington, juvenile salmon ecology in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, and multiple salmon projects with NOAA in the Puget Sound area. From there, I went on to do graduate research on interactions between juvenile salmon and invasive warmwater fish predators at the University of Washington, where I have the good fortune now to work as a researcher in the same Freshwater Ecology & Conservation lab.

Back in the desert – field work in Arizona, 2012

This position gives me the chance to participate in multiple projects related to conservation of freshwater species, from desert fish in Arizona to invasive aquatics in Washington lakes. To the extent that one has to eventually put a label on one’s interests, I consider myself primarily a freshwater ecologist – never forgetting that it’s just a few steps from water to land to people. I also still believe that people are strongly influenced by the experience of their environment (especially at a young age), which is why I have and always will be on the outreach bandwagon. Science really is only about as good as the audience that listens to it, and I think scientists have a responsibility to keep finding ways to share their knowledge – which is unique and often not easy to get – with the general public.

Arizona field work: ID, weigh, measure. Repeat.

In my free time, I love writing – about science and otherwise – much of which finds its way to my personal/professional blog. I enjoy biking, hiking, and backpacking with my husband and our families in Western Washington, where I bore them with anecdotes about fish. It’s a testament to my husband’s patience and support that he knows more about fish behavior than any engineer ever should, but married me anyway. We also like running, and try to fit in some travel to do marathons or triathlons in different places. No matter where I am, it’s inevitable that I’ll find my way down to the water, watching barnacles feed, poking at things with sticks, flipping rocks, or just contemplating connections.

You can find more info on my professional background and research here