Student Spotlight: An Interview with Jonathan Huie

Jonathan working at FHL examining a CT scan of Aspidontus taeniatus, the false cleaner fish

Jonathan Huie is a recent graduate of both the UW Marine Biology and Aquatic and Fishery Sciences degrees. He is currently working at Friday Harbor Labs in the San Juan Islands as a lab technician. Part of his duties includes CT scanning UW Burke specimens as part of the NSF funded effort to scan all vertebrates and upload them to an online and open-source database. He kindly answered a few of our questions about his undergraduate experience as well as offered some advice for students thinking about pursuing a career in marine biology.

Why did you choose to major in marine biology?

Jonathan Huie: My journey to the marine biology major is almost completely accidental. What I mean by that is I came to the University of Washington not entirely sure what I was going to do. I thought I was going to be a pre-health major, but then I started thinking more about biology and the College of Environment. In my freshman year, I went to a recruitment event where different advisors from the College of Environment were talking about their majors. I met Joe Kobayashi and he was there advocating for Friday Harbor Labs and the marine biology minor. I thought, “Wow, that’d be really cool.” Joe told me I could get half of the minor done up at Friday Harbor and I was sold.

So I went up there spring quarter of my freshman year and fell in love. hat experience got me interested in both marine bio and fisheries as a major. Right after that I declared Aquatic and Fishery Sciences as my major, and thought I was going to go down that path since it was the closest thing at the time to a marine biology major. So I just thought I would major in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and minor in Marine Biology. After that, I went back to Friday Harbor a second time spring quarter my sophomore year and fell in love with research. In the spring they have the Zoobot program, which is a three-class program of marine invertebrate zoology, marine botany and a totally intensive research class where you’re paired with a mentor as a one on one experience. You’re given the framework of a project, but you have to develop it. You write a proposal, conduct the experiment, write a paper, and give a presentation within 10 weeks–all while still taking two very intensive lab courses. So that was crazy. That’s what got me really excited about CT scanning, fishes, biomechanics and just the kind of research that I do now.

As a student, how did you discover and get involved in various research projects?

The first time I went to Friday Harbor my freshman year, I didn’t really participate in research. But the funny thing is I had heard about Adam Summers and some of his work and I thought it was all very exciting. So towards the end of my program there for that spring, I emailed him something like, “Hey, I’m a freshman and I’m about to leave, but I’m really interested in your work, I just thought we could talk about it and if I could be involved.” We met in his office and we chatted a little bit. I tried to piece together what I was interested in which was very difficult at the time because, keeping in mind that a couple of weeks ago, I thought I was going to be a pre-health major with a minor in marine-bio. So I was trying to piece together what I thought was interesting. He advised me to start taking classes that I found interesting and to “get involved”  which really sparked my motivation to get involved with research. He was like, “Yeah, if you come back next year or the following year, then perhaps we can collaborate or we can work on something together,” and I was like, “Well, that’s cool, yeah, I’ll come back,” which was part of the reason why I was so interested in coming back my sophomore year.

Back on main campus, I asked my Biology TA if I could help with his research which I thought sounded cool. I worked for him for a couple of months, about two quarters, running experiments. I then left for Friday Harbor again which was the real game-changer where the mentor that I got paired with in Zoobots was proposing a project on these piranhas that eat the scales of other fishes. He wanted to CT scan all of them to compare the feeding morphologies of their jaws to try to identify what makes them so good at eating scales. I got lucky enough to actually get paired with him, and we CT scanned a lot of fishes. By the end of the 10 weeks, the project was so comprehensive that we were talking about publication, and at that point, I had no idea what that meant other than publication is good and was something I wanted to do. So they invited me back that subsequent summer for a couple of weeks to finish whatever needed to be finished for the project. They ended up fully funding my 3-week excursion in exchange for doing work around the lab which included CT scanning, helping visitors, basically being like a part-time lab technician kind of like what my job is now, but in exchange for being there.

CT scan of two cleaner gobies that Jonathan worked on for his capstone project.

What about the marine biology degree helped you find and prepare for your current job?

If I had to recommend anything to a marine bio major it would be to go to Friday Harbor Labs. Take either the Zoobot course in the spring or the marine biology program in the fall. Or even go during the summer. You can honestly go any time of the year. It’s phenomenal because the ocean and your lab are literally in your backyard–there’s no limit to what you can do. I think just being there and being around people that are passionate and knowledgeable about marine science, can teach you a lot. It makes Friday Harbor an invaluable resource both to the University, but also to anyone’s undergraduate career just because I think it’s a really, really good experience. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for Friday Harbor Labs.

It also sounds like the earlier you can go the better because you will make all these valuable connections. You can sort of figure out what you like and have all this access to these different research topics?

Yeah. I mean my first year that I went as a freshman, I was the only freshman there. Everyone else was at least a sophomore, junior, senior, or even super-senior. Being the only freshman there really gave me a head start because it gave me an opportunity to test the waters a little bit. Be like, “Oh, this is cool. I want to do this.”

At Friday Harbor you see all these different labs and you have all that access to the saltwater right there in the Puget Sound. Do you feel like there are more opportunities for you up there to do traditional marine biology work because you have access to all these resources, whereas in Seattle, you might not have that kind of access?

Oh, yeah, most definitely. I mean, you have the setup to do saltwater experiments with all these different labs with different tanks and none of it is really behind closed doors. It’s a lot more accessible. For example, I am currently trying to start a new project with live specimens, live fishes, which is not something I would have been able to do on the main campus. It would have been much more difficult to get both permission and the setup. Whereas just yesterday, I was going down to the docks to gather food for my fishes and I was thinking, “Wow. I am literally just walking down to the dock, getting food, and just walking back to the lab like this is a normal thing.” I didn’t have to order food online. I didn’t have to wait for it. It’s just like, “Oh, I should probably go collect some food,” so I did. But yeah, so I guess to answer your question, there’s a lot more that you can do up here that you cannot do down on main campus.

CT scan of the Aspidontus taeniatus, the false cleaner

What advice would you have for a student who is concerned about leaving campus to study at FHL for a full quarter in a whole new social scene?

I really love the people, anyone that I’ve ever met at Friday Harbor Labs, especially my freshman year. One of the things that kind of compelled me or motivated me to go to Friday Harbor was that I was a little unhappy with where I was in my freshman year when I applied to go up. In retrospect, I think a lot of that had to do with the weather and not being used to seasonal depression, especially coming from California. So I was looking for an opportunity to kind of just get out and go somewhere else. At the same time, the people that I met there became some of my best friends. The friends I made plus the Friday Harbor experience really made me want to stick around UW. The second time I went was similar. You’re all going through a difficult time with classes and there’s a lot to do. You are kind of bonding over that mutual stress that everyone feels. So, anyone that’s worried about showing up for Friday Harbor and not being able to make friends, I think you shouldn’t worry about it because you’re almost forced to make friends. You’re stuck with these people for 10 weeks and at least one of them you’re probably going to share a room with. Some of them you might have to camp with and share a tent with. You’re going to share a lab space, desk space. There’s just no way you couldn’t make friends.

Photo of me and a few members of my FHL cohort spring 2016 on a camping trip in the San Juans.

In 10 years where do you see yourself?

So I am applying to grad school this fall, with the intent of starting next fall. I’m mostly looking into Ph.D. programs, completely skipping a master’s degree because I know at this point, my end goal is to get a Ph.D. I have a pretty solid idea of the kind of work that I want to do. My goal is to become a professor at some university, potentially a curator of some collections, just because along the way, I’ve really fallen in love with natural history collections. I think it would be really awesome. Honestly, I’d love a job like Luke’s [Tornabene], where he’s both curator and professor. I really want to be a professor because I really want to mentor students and mentor other people like I’ve been mentored. The mentors that I’ve had have played such a large role in how I got to where I am today, which sounds very cliche and cheesy, but it’s the truth. I would not have been able to come here if some mentors that I had did not give me the opportunities to do what I was interested in or didn’t push me to do more than what was expected or required. So I really want to be in a position where I can both keep doing research and also giving forward to other future generations of potential scientists, and just mentor other people like I have been mentored.

What would you say to that student who loves marine biology and they want to do something in the field, but are worried about finding a job?

I would say do what you think is interesting. I think above all else, that is what really matters. You’re not going to be the happiest you can be if you’re stuck in a job that isn’t making you happy or if there’s another job out there you’d rather be doing. I think even if can’t major in marine bio, or you can’t make that a solo career, there are so many different ways to stay involved. You can do the minor, volunteer at the aquarium, or do research. I guess my advice would be to persevere to the extent that you can do what you find is interesting. Do what makes you happy.