By Barb Hameister
As a Ph.D. student in marine biology, Casey Clark certainly knows the importance of detailed planning, careful measurements, and organization. He is also a firm believer in serendipity.
Casey was born and raised in Bellingham, Washington. He spent his earliest years on a small farm, wandering through fields and exploring the neighboring forest—all the while developing a keen sense of curiosity about biology and nature, and why things are the way they are.
After high school Casey still felt strongly drawn to biology and the outdoors but didn’t yet have a sense of how that interest would play out. He also knew he wanted to see Alaska. These two dreams came together in what he calls a serendipitous opportunity to work in Kodiak with UAF professor Kate Wynne, whom Casey describes with a smile as “a friend’s mom’s friend’s sister.”
Kate took on Casey as a summer intern, and he spent an amazing summer assisting with Kate’s whale research, living alongside a great group of graduate students, and reveling in the natural beauty of the area as well as the seabirds, fish, and marine mammals all around him. After that summer he was completely hooked, and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in marine biology at the University of California Santa Cruz.
Before moving a few miles down the coast to work on a master’s degree at Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, Casey took a detour to South America, where he spent a few memorable weeks on the Galapagos Islands. He then spent four months in New Zealand, where he assisted a Ph.D. student with field research on Hector’s dolphin, the world’s smallest dolphin species. (Ask him sometime what it’s like to sit for hours in a chilly, damp coastal sheep pasture at dawn, intently scanning the ocean and waiting patiently for dolphins to surface!)
Soon after Casey completed his M.S. on humpback whales in 2013, serendipity struck again with a chance encounter on the streets of Dunedin, New Zealand. Casey had just arrived in town for a big conference and was trying to find his way to the meeting venue. He fell into step behind a man carrying a conference bag and eventually they struck up a conversation in which Casey mentioned his interest in pursuing marine mammal research in Alaska. Impressed by the encounter, the man passed on Casey’s name to a colleague who was actively looking for a Ph.D. student. The colleague, as it turns out, was Dr. Lara Horstmann of CFOS, and this connection led to Casey’s enrollment in a Ph.D. program at UAF under the guidance of Dr. Horstmann and Dr. Nicole Misarti.
Casey’s doctoral research focuses on the impacts of climate change on Pacific walruses. He is investigating the effects of previous warming and cooling in the Arctic on walrus foraging and movements, and hopes to be able to better understand how walruses adapted to previous periods of low Arctic sea ice cover and to determine whether the changes that walruses experienced in the past are analogous to current and future Arctic warming.
To accomplish this, Casey (with the help of many others) has compiled a collection of walrus bones and teeth from archaeological sites, historical collections, and present-day Alaska Native subsistence harvests. These samples together create a timeline that goes back about 4,000 years, with consistent sample coverage from the past 2,000 years. By measuring stable isotope ratios of the walrus bone collagen and trace element concentrations in the walrus teeth, Casey hopes to learn how walrus foraging and movements changed during periods of high and low sea ice cover in the Arctic.
“My work is part of a larger project funded by the National Science Foundation that includes investigations of changes in walrus hormone concentrations, population size, and genetic variability through time,” he says. “Taken together, these multiple lines of evidence will provide important information about the resilience of Pacific walruses to climate change and sea ice loss.”
Many of the samples in the collection he is working with came from the St. Lawrence Island region, and recently Casey had the opportunity to visit the island to present some of his preliminary work to walrus hunters and talk with them about the subsistence harvest, walruses, and how things have been changing in recent years. The trip had a big impact on him.
“Interacting with the walrus hunters on Saint Lawrence Island was an important experience for me, reminding me of the impacts my research may have on Alaska Native communities and of the depth of knowledge people in these communities have about the natural world,” Casey says. “These were things I knew conceptually before the trip, but traveling to Gambell and Savoonga to meet face to face with the hunters who provided many of the samples for our research made these concepts very real for me in a way that they hadn’t been before.”
Casey’s dedication to his graduate program doesn’t leave him with much free time. But when he can squeeze it in, he likes to explore a bit of Alaska by going on camping trips in summer with his partner and their dog. Casey confesses he’s not a huge fan of outdoor winter activities, but he’s always been fascinated by natural phenomena of all kinds, especially the aurora borealis—and he is thrilled to be living in a place where he can experience its magic simply by stepping out his back door on a quiet winter night.