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 making the move 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. So 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, probably 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. Yeah, 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 like, 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, but I just knew I want to study animals and of course, there’s not much practical there. But there was a, you know, major in 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, 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 in 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 I want to, you know, Alaska was still in the plan, so I wanted to study wolves and moose and that kind of thing. And then I got into birds immediately 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 I did a research project on Birds in Colorado and got to hike around the Rocky Mountains. This is in 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, weirdly enough. I was working at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, as a student worker. I was hired to deal with the collections and the catalog specimens, mostly fish and reptiles. Identify fish that my adviser, who is an ichteologist, so he was a fish biologist identify fish that he studied and would collect in Tennessee and Missouri in Alabama and worked on ducks a little bit. And so through that experience, I got close to more types of animal research and because of my advisor’s research to fish, and I took a class on fish, ichtheology.
It was eye-opening, I think because fish of the most abundant vertebrate 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 fish 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, I don’t know. Sure. They were supposed to be healthy. 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 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 traceability and no effort at all about on 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 Sitka, and so the three of us convinced Yale to revamp their whole seafood policy and only serve sustainable seafood species. Wow.
And so I just, for the first day walking into the dining hall and seeing like Alaskan salmon instead of, you know, the farmed Atlantic Salmon that they were serving at the time, which came from, I think, Chile or Norway. And 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 but 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 our culture and fish farming. But it’s just fascinating.
So that kind of was the backstory of it. Wow. After college I went 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. Wow. In many hours monitoring the catch, it was quite the experience. It was like real life, Deadliest Catch. Okay. When we docked next to the boats on that show out in Dutch Harbor, and it really opened my eyes wo like, “wow, this is fishing in the US like.” This is industrial-scale fishing, how this works and the polllock 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 that fishery. And so to have a hand in that in making sure that the catches were being reported accurately, we were measuring the scales, making sure that everyone was following the rules. I felt like it was important and I was contributing to that.
Then I, this is a long story. I got a Masters in Fisheries, in the University of 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 funding 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 focused 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 main collaborator over there, and we ended up writing what I wrote a great proposal for my Ph.D. work that was proposing that I go back and spend a significant amount of time there in South Africa. And it got funded and then poof for my Ph.D.
It was suddenly this mix of jumping back and forth. I mean, back at Yale, New Haven, Connecticut, and Grahamstown, South Africa, which is in the kind of 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 Xhosa, 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 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, it 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 the 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 like tuna, but they’re not tuna. Okay. They’re big. They’re called the jacks and trevallies in South Africa. They call him King Fish, and they’re really popular for fly fishing and sportfishing. And so the giant trevally 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 there. They’re called “ulua” 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 waters. So, from South Africa to the Red Sea to Japan to Hawaii, these 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 look like? It depends on if you’re in a research institute or government institute. I 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 too. And so we did and start these acoustic tags and we 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. And a lot of my time, is 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 and trying to get federal, and you know, see another type of funding to continue the research, because there’s always new ideas, and we all rely on outside funding to complete the projects. And then I think the last big part is the writing, the publishing the results. I just submitted a paper last week on the diet of these fish and hopefully next week we’ll be splitting the big DNA paper. So 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 blank 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 tunas and pollack, 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 these 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? And what will make the most impact? The most difference?” And I think that genetics, looking at genetic diversity, genetic connectivity between different places is 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 is, then that helps countries and governments set, you know, biodiversity 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—. Then you don’t know where to begin. Exactly yeah, so I think DNA is a cool kind of starting point for those kinds of questions from ‘how many species there are?’ to ‘how are these species connected?’ ‘How are they breeding?’ ‘How healthy are they?’ You could look a genetic 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.
Yeah and now 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? Ooh, that’s a hard question. I think that in the States and developing—or sorry, 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. And that’s a lot to do with strong federal oversight. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management Conservation Act, which was, I think passed in the seventies and then has been renewed. Those kinds of regulations make an industry accountable, and with observer programs and things like that, which a lot of countries have, that has really helped. And I think there’s only a handful of fisheries in the U. S today that are considered over fished or 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, you know, interest and reliance on seafood. We have a long way to go for sure, and I think that in many cases, aquaculture 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. Right. And being more aware of that is important. Specially, I mean my family, like 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 grow 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 some—one 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 in 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 they’re tied 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 Ph.D. that’s back in South Africa, the South 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 after they finish 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 do I really want to do?” And I think the main thing is that I want to make a difference and do 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 in another countries and helping their governments kind of design fishery management plans or improvement plans could be an option. I’m trying to keep it open. Yeah. 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? 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 in 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 not 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, or 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.
Yeah and I mean 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 for me to hear about what you’re doing, and 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 have made, where one of them, for example, featured my research and it had, I think, 20,000 views on YouTube and never will 20,000 people read one of my paper. Yeah, right? And so it’s like, thinking 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, acknowledged scientist 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, or 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, you know, 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 have rescue dogs and foster dogs, and so I’ll take my dogs fishing with me. Very cool. But yeah, I think that’s it. Okay. Well, Jessica, thank you so much for coming on today, it was great to talk to you. Yeah. Thank you so much, Chris for having me. I really appreciate it.
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