Dr. Andrew Read
In high school, Dr. Andrew Read knew that he wanted to be a marine biologist.
Born in England, Read’s family moved to Canada when he was a small child. His interest in biology grew in high school and flourished under the guidance of a high school science teacher.
“I had this dream that maybe a kid from the middle of Ontario could one day grow up to be a marine biologist.”
Read decided to follow his dream and apply to the University of Guelph to pursue an undergraduate degree in marine biology at the College of Biological Science at the University of Guelph.
“Guelph had a spectacularly good marine biology program, which really attracted me. The College of Biological Science had a strong focus on the animals I was interested in, so many of my peers were working on similar issues. Also, at that point, it felt like the field of conservation biology was in its infancy, and a lot of the people in CBS were helping to develop the field. It was a great time to be there," said Read.
In his senior year as an undergraduate student, Read asked one of his professors if there were any openings in his lab. Luckily, the professor was looking for a student, which Read eagerly accepted. This led to a master’s degree researching harbour porpoises in Japan.
When searching for PhD programs, Dr. Read sought to gain experience of another institution, but an opportunity arose with the late Dr. David Gaskin that was too good to pass over. Read was offered two PhD projects, one with a focus on an understudied species of porpoises in Peru and the other researching harbor porpoises located in Japan. The latter, which was a continuation of Read’s master’s research. Reflecting on the opportunity Read states, “They were such spectacularly interesting projects that I couldn’t say no, and so I ended up staying at the University of Guelph”.
Now a world renown researcher, Read has more than 200 published peer-reviewed studies. His research interests are in the conservation biology of marine vertebrates, with a focus on marine mammals, seabirds and sea turtles. His current research documents the impact of human activities on marine species and attempts to find solutions to such issues. Currently, he is a Stephen A. Toth Professor of Marine Biology, Chair of Marine Science & Conservation Division, as well as the Director of the Duke Marine Lab.
In 2022, Dr. Andrew Read was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve on the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission. If successful, he will act as a key leader in the Biden Administration to provide science-based oversight of domestic and international policies regarding marine mammals and their ecosystems.
Recently, Jillian Randall, Alumni Advancement Manager, College of Biological Sciences had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Andrew Rea to discuss his work, time at the University of Guelph and the evolution of marine biology. Read more below!
You completed all three of your degrees at the University of Guelph. What first attracted you to U of G? Why did you decide to continue your studies here?
I had a great biology teacher in grade 10 who really sparked my interest in biology, and I was interested in marine biology. I had this dream that maybe a kid from middle of Ontario could one day grow up and be a marine biologist. Guelph had a spectacularly organized mobility program so that's what really attracted me to U of G in the 1st place. They also did offer a specialization in marine biology, which was attractive to me. So that's why I went to do my undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph.
Then, when I was working in the summers between my second and third year, I got a job at the Science Centre. I had the opportunity to learn about working on a fin whale skeleton, I also had the opportunity to learn and became intrigued about marine mammals. During my studies, I discovered that Guelph was the leading Center for the study of marine mammals in Canada at that time.
In my senior year of my undergraduate degree, I asked one of my professors if he had any openings in his lab, and he did. So, I kind of fell into completing my master’s with him. After I finished my master’s, I was clear that I wanted to go somewhere else to do a PhD. I wanted to get an experience of another institution, but I worked in my master’s advisor’s lab. I worked for him running his field program for a couple of summers. When searching for a PhD program, I spoke with the late Dr. David Gaskin and he offered me two PhD projects; one working on a species of porpoise in Peru that was really understudied, and the other working on harbor porpoises, which is the species I'd studied for my masters in Japan. They were such spectacularly interesting projects that I couldn’t say no, and I ended up staying.
It is not always the best strategy to do all three degrees at one institution, but it worked out well for me. It provided me with a good fundamental background in organismal biology and ecology. Both my graduate advisor David Gaskin, and some of the other folks who are on my committee such as David Lavigne and Tom Nudds, were instrumental in forming my worldview and providing me with a skill set that allowed me to do what I do today.
What do you remember most from your time at the University of Guelph?
We had a strong biology program, with a focus on the animals that I was interested in. I had lots of peers, lots of folks who were working on similar issues.
I strongly remember, it was the era when the field of conservation biology was just developing and there were a lot of folks working in important ways at U of G. It was a great time to learn and be on the ground floor of how conservation biology was developing.
I also really appreciated the field opportunities that we had. Even though we were in Guelph, we spent a lot of time having hands on experience. We had a field site in the Bay of Fundy and that was formative to me to learn real skills. I also had the opportunity to bring younger students through that field site.
The last thing about my time at Guelph, I was lucky to live in the Arboretum during my PhD. I had a great house with four housemates, and it was a wonderful experience. I love the Arboretum. It was wonderful to walk through to work every day. That is a special place on campus Guelph is very lucky to have.
Has the field of marine biology changed since you were a student? How has your own research evolved?
It has changed significantly, mostly with the evolution of new tools that allow us to gain insights in different ways. And that's particularly the case with the animals that I study. Whales are so hard to study as they spend most of their time underwater. I’ve always envied my colleagues who work on primates who can watch them continuously. If you're studying baboons, you can sit there and watch a group of baboons interact with each other. My animals, we get fleeting glimpses of them at the surface and then they submerge.
Now, we have tools that really allow us to get incredible insights into what the animals are doing underwater. For example, genomics now allows us to get small samples of skin and blubber. We can genotype animals, we can tell whether they're pregnant, we see who's related to each other, we can further understand stress hormones. We can even see what the animals are eating just from a little tiny sample that we can collect remotely. Then through tags, we can follow animals underwater. Through this technology we can reconstruct their three-dimensional movements, listen to the sounds that they produce and listen to the sounds that they are hearing. We can measure how deep they go as we track them via satellites. We can even measure their heart rate during their movements. Those are the tools that have developed over my career and have changed our field tremendously. Today, I am not so envious of my colleagues who work on primates. It is still challenging because we’re in small boats working around animals, but the insights we can get now are something that we were only dreaming about when I was in graduate school at U of G.
Regarding how conservation has evolved since my time at U of G it has completely changed. We now have the Species at Risk Act in Canada, which we did not have when I was a graduate student. At the time, I didn’t really understand how conservation worked and I was very fortunate that my mentors taught me how to interact with stakeholders, particularly in government. At the time, we were just starting to address how we could conserve animal populations and how to bring stakeholders into those discussions. Now, that is just something that is done routinely. I think that the field of conservation has matured. There are still lots of conflicts, but we have better tools to deal with those now. There’s still lots of important issues to address. I tell my students, the easy conservation problems have been largely solved. Now, we a lot of wicked, difficult problems that the next generation of conservation scientists are going to be addressing.
Another aspect that has changed is the field of conservation biology was separate from human communities. In a lot of ways we said, well, if we can just keep animals apart from humans, then we will be able to solve problems. That’s not how the world works. Today, integration of social science into conservation is critical and integral. We are much better at learning how to allow human communities to live with animal populations in a way that benefits both. It is a more mature and nuanced field than it was when I started.
What is the best part of your job?
I would say two things: one is field work. I kind of got into this field because I love being in the field. I love being on the water and I still get to do that. I just got back from a trip to the Galapagos. I'm happiest when I'm in a small boat around animals I love, and I continue to love. The other thing I really love is teaching. I was lucky when I was a PhD student, I got to teach a class and then after I graduated with my PhD, I had the opportunity to teach another class. I taught a class on marine resources, and another on animal population biology. That early experience really fostered a love of teaching and I still I teach a class every fall on the biology marine mammals. I love it and it has been wonderful to be able to share these incredible animals and what we have learned about them with my students. Those two things I really love doing.
Do you have any advice you would give to current students or recent graduates?
Yes, the most important thing is to follow your heart. I remember when I was an undergraduate at U of G and I was torn between this dream of following my early childhood desire to become a marine biologist. At the time, some of my approach was to get a degree that will allow you to get a job. I am glad I didn’t follow that advice. I think for students who are thinking about how to set-up their careers, how to star their careers the best advice is to follow your heart and do what you love. If you do what you love with passion, they’ll always be a place for you.
My other advice would be, don’t be in too much of a hurry. Take some time to explore. I really encourage all our students here (Duke University) to take gap years to travel, to experience the world, to think really deeply about what makes is going to make them happy, content and satisfied in their careers. Take time to make sure that you're doing something that you love.
If you’re interested in being featured in a future publication, please reach out to Jillian Randall (Alumni Advancement Manager, CBS) at 226-821-3659 or email@example.com.