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Behind the Scientist: An Interview with Shawn Narum

About the Scientist

Shawn Narum is the Chief Scientist of the Fishery Science Department in the Hagerman Genetics Lab at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC). He has 20+ years of experience as lead geneticist with CRITFC and manages several studies of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin. He has many, many articles under his author belt, including a 2022 Journal of Heredity editor’s choice article, Implications of Large-Effect Loci for Conservation: A Review and Case Study with Pacific Salmon and the 2010 article Sequence Divergence of Heat Shock Genes within and among 3 Oncorhynchids. Check out his Google Scholar or ResearchGate profiles for more information. Outside of the lab, he enjoys fly fishing and time in the mountains with his family.

The interview

Can you describe your background and experience in conservation biology? What motivated you to pursue a career in this field?

I have always been interested in fish and pursued a BS in Fisheries Biology at Colorado State U, where I realized the potential for genetic tools to provide insights about fish biology and behavior. I then pursued a MS in Marine Science at U San Diego studying population genetics of marine rockfish, and then a PhD at U Idaho studying genetic variation and life history diversity of salmon and steelhead.

What techniques or tools do you use to assess the health and status of endangered species or ecosystems? Can you describe a specific case where you applied these methods?

The foundation of my work is centered in population genetics and genomics. To address questions in this field requires genetic data, and my group has made broad use of SNP marker panels for large scale genetic monitoring projects, but also whole genome studies that have provided critical insight to genetic drivers of critical traits and adaptive variation. In some cases, we’ve found gaps in existing technology or tools and we’ve made efforts to develop new resources. Examples include amplicon sequencing for efficient genotyping of large numbers of individuals (GT-seq), and a pipeline to process and analyze whole genome data (PoolParty).

Climate and other anthropogenic change are major threats to biodiversity. How do you incorporate climate adaptation strategies into your conservation work?

Climate change is an imminent threat to conservation and recovery of salmon in the Columbia River as water temperatures have become lethal at times to fish migrating and residing in the system. Further understanding of capacity for thermal adaptation within and among species is necessary as we consider that fish have few options to adapt (through behavior, phenotypic plasticity, or rapid evolution), move elsewhere to more tolerable conditions when/if possible, or through human mediated actions such as habitat modification or assisted migration.

Monitoring and data collection are crucial in conservation biology. How do you design and implement effective monitoring programs to track changes in wildlife populations or ecosystems?

Genetic monitoring has become a key aspect of salmon recovery in the Columbia River that contributes to both short and long-term goals for fisheries recovery. Our efforts to monitor specific stocks of salmon for abundance and migration timing are provided to fisheries managers to help make decisions on when and where to harvest fish in a sustainable manner and maintain diversity. Our studies of genomic variation have provided insight to local adaptation and life history diversity that will be necessary for species to persist in the long term.

Do you have a favorite species or ecosystem that you’re particularly passionate about conserving? Why does it resonate with you?

I have always been fascinated by aquatic species that are outside of our regular vision. I believe that amazing discoveries have yet to be uncovered for most aquatic species as technology continues to advance our capabilities and knowledge.

Can you share an amusing or memorable fieldwork anecdote that highlights the challenges and joys of working in the wild?

Exploring the desert canyons of southern ID to find redband trout has been grueling but rewarding research. These hikes on 100+F days through steep ravines can be rough, especially carrying a pack, a bucket of water/fish, while wearing full wading gear. However, these are some of the least explored areas of the western US and can provide spectacular views and insight into evolutionary adaptation to extreme climates.

Conservation is a team effort. Can you tell us about a particularly memorable colleague or mentor who influenced your work?

It is a fulfilling experience to work with native tribal members who are passionate about salmon and how their own well-being, physical and spiritual, is intertwined with the fish. Their philosophy towards natural resources is based on reciprocity: if we take care of the water and foods, they will take care of us. Tribal elders have shared indigenous knowledge of native fish species that has been passed over generations that has helped guide our research, monitoring, and recovery efforts for salmon, steelhead, lamprey and white sturgeon.

When you’re not out in the field or in the lab, how do you like to unwind and recharge?

I am always looking for adventures to find fish in special places and to spend time with my family in the outdoors. I stay active daily through mountain biking, running, hiking, or other activities that give me time to recharge both mentally and physically.

Is there an AGA author (or other scientist) that you would like us to interview? Let us know at or email the blog editor directly at mirandajwade (at) gmail (dot) com.

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