Dr. Jessica Glass never thought 1 class back in college would lead her to her passion. She is focused on the global seafood crisis where she studies the DNA of marine fish. Her passion has taken her all over the world to meet and work with other professionals where together they are focused on research and studying the DNA of fish so they can bring more awareness to the important role they play in our ecosystem.
Like many of us, she’s not sure where the future will take her but she’s excited about what’s to come and she’s hopeful she can continue making an impact and learning more to make the world a better place for all living creatures. If you’re interested in learning more about sustainable seafood, we encourage you to download the mobile app called “Seafood Watch” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium
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Dr. Jessica Glass completed her studies at Yale University, where she used DNA to study economically important marine fish known as jacks and trevallies. After volunteering at a zoo for seven years, her interests switched to fish when she learned of the global overfishing crisis. Much of Jessica’s research focuses on the western Indian Ocean, where she collaborates closely with government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and sport fishermen in South Africa, Seychelles, and beyond. Having worked on commercial fishing boats in Alaska and being an avid recreational fisherwoman, Jessica strives to design her genetics studies to be useful for the conservation and management of marine fisheries. She will soon be moving back to South Africa (along with her rescue dog!) to continue her research as a postdoctoral fellow at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity
Hey, Jessica. Thanks for coming on. Hi, Chris. Thanks for having me. To start us off and give us a little bit about your background. It’s so fascinating how you got into all of this. Oh, thank you. I guess it starts the problem. Most of us as a kid. I’ve always just loved animals in general. I used to want to be a horse cop in New York, and then when I was six years old, I read Call of the Wild by Jack London, which got me into Alaska and dogs and dog sledding and ended up training sled dogs. When I did a road racer in Minnesota when I was in high school and volunteered at a zoo where I grew up in Illinois for seven years just to get exposure to all sorts of animals, I was lucky that my parents kind of gave me the freedom to do those activities and kind of figure out what I liked and didn’t like. And when I got to college, I was at Yale and I miraculously got in there. I don’t know. How is this new? I want to study animals and of course, there’s not much practical there. But there was a, you know, major and ecology and evolutionary biology. And so I was able to take classes and learn more than I ever thought I would and kind of delve into different areas of research. It dawned on me when I was working at the zoo that maybe I wanted to do research on animals. And so, one summer after college, her. But this is in college. Actually, I was in Germany and setting the evolution of domestic dogs and their behavior and how they communicated with humans. And this is at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. And I helped out with a study where we’re trying to understand whether dogs can comprehend or understand the idea of competition with humans. So it was really cool. I got to speak to dogs and German and drive them around this little town and participate in this study. And I wanted to be, you know, and dogs was kind of always a love of mine. And then I thought, Well, maybe one of you know Alaska was still in the plan, so I wanted to study wolves and moves and that kind of thinking. And then I got into birds raining after taking a class on birds, and we got to go to Ecuador and for my ornithology class, and we saw 455 species of birds in nine days, which is about 10% of all birds. And that was pretty amazing. And the following summer he did a research project on Birds in Colorado and got to hike around the Rocky Mountains. This isn’t the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, which is a fascinating conservation lab. They’re doing all sorts of work on climate change and animal ecology. And so I was a bird lover for about a year, and then I got into fish really enough. It was working at the Yale the catalog. Specimens, mostly fish and reptiles identify fish that my adviser, who is a neck geologist so he was a fish biologist identify fish that he studied and would collect in Tennessee and Missouri in Alabama and worked on ducks the little bit. And so through that experience, I got close to more types of animal research because of my advisor’s research to fish, and I took a class on fish. It’s theology. It was eye-opening, I think because fish of the most abundant Berber animals there’s over 34,000 species of them, which is more than birds and mammals and reptiles and amphibians combined. I was just blown away. I really had no idea how diverse were. They could live in the Antarctic, that they could live in kind of volcanic like environments. And that really opened my eyes later on in the class to the global seafood industry and the kind of overfishing crisis that’s going on that I was completely ignorant to like I said, as a Midwesterner, I at the time was a vegetarian, but I eat fish because they were supposed to be helping U. S. So that was pretty cool. It was through a class. Another class I took on. The Management of Marine Resources where I got to do a project with two other students and we investigated Yale’s seafood and Yale has their progressive policies about their food that they serve in the dining halls like it has its own farm and we were eating organic. I said Beef, and this is back in 2008 to 2010 we had cage-free eggs, like right at the start of the organic and slow food movement. But when looking at the fish, there was no real trace stability and no effort at all about sustainability. And so one of the students I was working with is actually from Alaska, and he had all these connections to seafood suppliers. He was from the little small town called, and so the three of us convinced Yale to revamp their whole seafood policy and only serve sustainable seafood species on DSO. I used for the first day walking into the dining hall and seeing like Alaskan salmon instead of, you know, the farmed Atlantic. Same and they were serving at the time, which came from, I think, Chile or war way. It was just so fulfilling that I was like, Okay, this is what I wanna do you like if I can study something that’s an interesting animal that also people care about, that people rely on that we needed to eat and maintain our economy. Then, if I could make this sort of change that not is enough to kind of keep doing what I’m doing. I mean, fish are the last wild, harvested, wild-caught animals that we essentially hunt for at a global industrial scale. And of course, that’s changing with the culture and fish farming. But it’s fascinating. So that kind of was the backstory of it after college I to work on commercial fishing boats in Alaska, and I was an observer, which means that I was monitoring the catch. I was certified by the federal government and living on the boats, living with fishermen, the only woman on the boat, usually in many hours monitoring the catch. It was quite the experience. It was like real life. Deadliest Catch. Okay, we docked nexus the votes on that show out in Dutch Harbor, and it really opened my eyes tilling, Wow, this is fishing in the US like this is industrial-scale fishing, how this works and the police fishery, which is what a lot of the observers worked on, including myself. That’s the largest fishery in the United States. In terms of volume, the number of fish harvested the billions and billions of dollars come from the fishery. And so to have a hand in that and making sure that the catches were being reported accurately we were measuring the scale is making sure that everyone was following the rules. I felt like it was important and I was contributing to that then, eh is the long story. I got a Masters in Fisheries, and you ever see Alaska Fairbanks and you know and I was studying a scallop fishery there. There’s an amazing small fishery for weathervane scallops which were the largest scallops in the world. And I did a really cool project where I got to interview Fisherman, asked them about climate change and technological changes and competition with the scallops on the East Coast and all sorts of cool work. And then I got a few T. I had fun ending from the National Science Foundation and weirdly enough, through my masters, which was a really interdisciplinary program, I was able to spend one summer in South Africa and I was doing similar kind of fisheries work, some genetics, which is what I focus on in college and then some kind of social-economic work. Looking at how well local ecological knowledge of sport fishermen in South Africa. And I worked with great people. It was an amazing institute, and I stayed in touch with my me and collaborator over there, and we ended up reading what I wrote a great proposal for my Ph.D. work that was proposing that I go back and stun a significant amount of time there in South Africa and it got funded and then poof for my Ph. D. U is suddenly this mix of jumping back and forth. I mean, back at Yale, New Haven, Connecticut, and Grams Town, South Africa, which is in the southeastern corner of the country and the work I’ve been doing. I think it’s a fascinating place for many reasons. I’ve been learning Zulu for three years, the language Tulsa, which they speak in Grahamstown. And importantly, still, Africa just has an amazing ecosystem. I mean, as an animal lover and biologist, I have felt like a kid in a candy shop, like everything was new. The birds, I mean they’re famous for their fame, boast their plants, the animals and where I was living was close to all of these national parks and game reserves. where they have safaris. And it was just a fascinating experience and being where South Africa is in the Indian Ocean, kind of straddling the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean that just has an amazing marine ecosystem, thousands of endemic species, meaning they’re only found in South Africa. But because of, like many countries, that’s around the Indian Ocean because of historical issues and conflict. There’s not a lot of money that is going towards very research, and so it’s almost like a blank slate. Still, which is interesting for me because I felt like I could really make more of a difference working over there. So I studied these one group of fish that they kind of look likes to know. But they’re not to know very. They’re big. They’re called the Jacks and Tamales in South Africa. They call him King Fish, and they’re really popular for fly fishing and sportfishing. And so the giant true quality is one of the largest species in that group. That’s what I focused on. People fish for them in Hawaii. They’re really culturally important. They’re called Lula in Hawaii. I was doing the first global study on the DNA of those fish and looking across their whole range. They’re found all throughout the Indian and Pacific oceans and tropical and subtropical water. So, from so the Africa to the Red Sea to Japan to Hawaii, the fish live and they are caught, and hardly anything is known about them. And so, by sampling their DNA, I was able to kind of see how these populations were connected and see if we had different stocks of those fish which could inform, you know, the management of that species in the future.
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So I’m curious when you say you study fish, I mean walk us through like, what do you do? What is an average week or day locally? It depends on if you’re in a research institute or government institute have just finished my PhD. And so I think one of the fascinating things about this that they think a lot of field biologists would say. This, too, is like it’s always different. There’s never just one thing. So in a typical week, I might be in the field catching these fish, taking samples of their fins for DNA, and we get a lot of tagging them. And so we didn’t start these acoustic tags and he could track their movement for up to eight years, 8 to 10 years, actually and then release the fish back to the wild. So that was a big part of it. I got to spend a lot of time going in the field, to Seychelles, to Mozambique, to Mauritius in South Africa. I had a lot of my time. Is that in the lab sequencing the DNA? We’re using really cool novel methods that are basically looking across the whole genome of this fish to really understand the genetic diversity using these new methods. So in the lab, making sure that I’m following the protocols that we use to extract the DNA. Make sure it doesn’t get contaminated and then catalog all the specimens and make sure they’re in the museum for years and years to come that they’re preserved. A lot of my time is spent writing grants is trying to get federal, and you never see another touch of funding to continue the sweetness. There’s always new ideas, and we all rely on outside funding. to completes the projects and then I think the last big part is the writing that publishing the results. I just submitted a paper last week on a diet of these fish and hopefully next week we’ll be splitting The big DNA paper said a lot of writing. So the mix of everything Really? Wow. I mean, it sounds really interesting because like you said, if you’re in such an area of the world, I mean, you’ve been all over the world and you’re in this length slate. Where do you begin? Right. What do you focus on first? It sounds like every day is just something new. I think that following the research of others and really being familiar with a system either a place or an organism, you realize how much we really don’t know. Still, and there is a lot that we do know, especially for like to and the species that are industrially harvested. There’s a lot of research attention going on in South Africa. There have been a few studies on the kingfish and these trevallies. I’ve certainly learned a lot from those, but it’s almost like Okay, well, what are my skills? What do I have funding for? How much time do I add? That what will make the most impact your most difference and genetics? Looking at genetic diversity connectivity between different places as one of the first starting points because, first of all, we’ve found that in a lot of places and times, like there’s actually more species than we think. And that is key. Because if you can identify the number of species and what the biodiversity it is, then that helps countries and governments set, you know, biodiversity, see conservation metrics. We want to conserve, let’s say, 30% of our biodiversity by 2030. But if you don’t know what the biodiversity is, if you don’t know how many species there are exactly yeah, so I think DNA is a cool kind of starting point for those kinds of questions from how many species there are two Howard this species connected. How are they breeding? How healthy are they? You could look a genuine diversity, and that gives you an indication of, you know if it’s really low. That means that there may only be a few individuals that have kind of found in that population and therefore disease or something comes in. Then they’re gonna be more susceptible to the disease. They don’t have the variation that might exist that could protect that population. If that makes sense and I’m curious. I mean, because you’re so close to this. What is your perspective? How do you view the global seafood crisis and what’s going on? Who? That’s a hard question. I think that in the States and developing or fully developed countries, it’s a lot better in the United States. In particular, Alaska is a model of sustainable fisheries management that the entire world kind of looks on and follows him. And that’s a lot to do with strong federal oversight. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management Conservation Act, which was, I think past in the seventies and then has been renewed. Those kinds of regulations make industry accountable, and with observer programs and things like that, which a lot of countries have, that it has really helped. And I think there’s only a handful of fisheries in the U. S today that are considered over fish store overfishing, other places it depends. I think a lot of people are assuming that aquaculture is going to be the solution, and I think in many cases if done well, it can be a huge help to the growing population and no interest and reliance on seafood. We have a long way to go ahead and short, and I think that in many cases, aquiculture does more harm than good, especially in countries that don’t have strict regulations. Like, for example, there’s a lot of shrimp farming in Southeast Asia and in South America that are destroying mangroves, too, so that we can eat shrimp for super cheap on a cocktail. And being more aware of that is important. Actually, my family, inflexible in the Midwest like a lot of them don’t really know about overfishing. And it’s hard to see that and be aware when we’re not actually directly connected in a way like if you don’t go up on the ocean or not witnessing it firsthand. And I think it’s difficult. Yeah, you’ve studied so many different things. I’m just curious. Is this where you thought you’d end up? No, not at all. I’m like, ironically, that marine biologist who never wanted to be a Marine biologist and wanted to study wolves. But I don’t know. It’s kind of crazy how someone class, for example, can totally change your perspective. And I think that studying fish has been able to take me all over the world like I’ve gone to the conferences and Tahiti and in Norway and one in Germany next year, and so that I think is really cool, because by setting the species going there to these places where they’re found. In Tahiti, for example, I learned a lot more about my species in the culture and the reliance of these different places on fish and how important it is to conserve them because there’s tide so deeply to the culture of so many places. So then what’s next for you, Jessica? What does the next five years look like? Right now I have a postdoc fellowship lined up, which is a research fellowship. That’s pretty common to do after the phD that’s back in South Africa, this African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity. And so I’ll be there between 1 to 3 years, and then I’m not sure. I think that there’s an endless possibility of things to do. Like I could be a professor or work for government work for Noah or one of the state fishery agencies. I think the most important as I’ve been thinking about this, most people kind of think about what they want to definitely finished college. But I had eight years of grad school, So I was able to put it off until recently. And then I had this question of what I really want to do. And I think the I mean thing is that I want to make a difference and D research that really allows me to feel like it’s impactful and meaningful and contributing positively to improving the global overfishing crisis and the management and sustainability of our fisheries. And maybe doing consulting and another country isn’t helping their governments can design fishery management plans or improvement plans could be an option. I’m trying to keep it open. Well, it sounds like you probably have a lot of stamps in your passport, right? So what’s a few more? What have you learned over the last few years that you didn’t know about you? But that’s a good question. I think what I have learned the most is a couple of things. One, like I said, it’s very important to me that the work I do is meaningful, that I feel like I’m making a difference. And that might be, you know, in the form of a nonprofit or doing kind of international fisheries consulting. I have spent a lot of time and institutions that are very prestigious and that isn’t as important to me is the work that I do. It doesn’t matter where I am as long as the people I’m working with are friendly and courteous and the work is important and I think that that’s kind of been a big lesson. It’s always the like, next most famous thing. That’s the best thing. It could be something right down the corner or in my case back in South Africa, are back in Alaska in the long term, which is ultimately I want to go back to Alaska. It’s just a place that I really love. I feel like I have a strong community there and people have a great mindset about the environment. They’re just more aware of the tides and fisheries and a lot of people fish and hunt for a living. And so I think for me that’s been a big part of it is not kind of giving up that sense of place and community for something that has a fancy title and I think that I could do meaningful work all over the world, maybe continue to work in Africa. And ultimately, like I said, back in Alaska, as long as I as my heart is in the right place, if that makes sense and you’ve got just such a fascinating background from where you started and like you said your love of dogs and wanting to do sled racing and then setting birds and now fish and working in a zoo, I mean it just seems like as you said, there’s so many possibilities of areas that you can focus on, and it’s really interesting to be to hear about what you’re doing in the impact that it can actually have. Like you said, there is an impact in terms of all of the information you’re tracking and reporting and studying because we’re all together on the same blue planet, right? And we’ve got to be smart about what we’re doing. Yeah, exactly. And I think that one of the major forms of impact that we measure in academia and a university is through publishing papers. But those papers are really read by other scientists. You have to subscribe to them or pay thousands of dollars to make them free to the public. And I’ve learned that in my research background over the last five years, there’s been a couple of kind of YouTube videos that I have made or colleagues of Meade, where one of them, for example, we featured my research and it had, I think, 20,000 views on YouTube and never 20,000 people read one of my paper on. And so there’s like curtsies. Think about your impact and what you need to succeed in your own career, to show that you’re important and you’re in kind of accredited, acknowledge scientists and what has a broader impact you for the rest of the world. I think there’s a good balance between those two types of outreached products, like the scientific papers and the talks and the videos and stuff like that. And I think that it’s up to scientists like me, and a lot of us are all of us actually could be more open about what we’re doing and what the implications are for management and conservation. Well, Jessica, this has been really fascinating to talk to you. I’m really glad you came on today or anything else you want to mention before we wrap things up. I don’t think So I think I’ve been lucky to have this. No love of dogs that then grew into animals and then fish. I still love dogs the most. I think they are my favorite animal. So I, uh, have rescue dogs and foster dogs, and so I’ll take my dogs fishing with me. Very cool, but yeah, I think that’s okay. Well, Jessica, thank you so much for coming on. Today was great to talk to you. Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
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