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Behind the Scientist: An Interview with Kim Scribner

About the Scientist

Kim Scribner is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and Department of Integrative Biology at Michigan State University. Research in his lab involves applications of molecular genetic markers and evolutionary theory to examine questions in ecological genetics and conservation biology. Such investigations include determining levels of gene flow through heterogeneous landscapes, evolution of life history traits in changing environments, effects of environmental heterogeneity and mating systems on variance in reproductive success, and intra-specific and comparative phylogeography. Emphasis is placed on populations of management and conservation concern.

Kim has a bountiful publication record, with alomost as many publications as there are days in a year. In the the Journal of Heredity, articles include the 2018 editor’s choice Accounting for Age Structure and Spatial Structure in Eco-Evolutionary Analyses of a Large, Mobile Vertebrate, the 2018 article Hatchery Strain Contributions to Emerging Wild Lake Trout Populations in Lake Huronthe 2002 article Comparisons of Likelihood and Machine Learning Methods of Individual Classification and the 2001 article Group-Structured Genetic Models in Analyses of the Population and Behavioral Ecology of Poikilothermic Vertebrates. His other papers can be found via his ResearchGate.

The interview


MJW: The first question that I wanted to ask you is, do you have a favorite species or ecosystem that you’re particularly passionate about conserving and why does it resonate with you? 

KTS: Well, for 25 of the years that I’ve been at Michigan State University, I’ve been working with Lake Sturgeons. We’ve had an ongoing project that we’ve managed to keep funded for that long. And so, I guess my favorite species would be this simply because I spent a couple of months a year in the field working with students and technical staff in various life stages of the animal doing a variety of different things. It’s a species of conservation concern, it’s threatened throughout much of its range, including in the state of Michigan. It’s a long-lived iteroparous species which makes it really at high risk simply because of the long generation time. Coupled with low effective population size, it’s at considerable threat for extinction or extirpation locally simply because with the long generation time, 20 years relative to the rate of environmental change, it’s very difficult for these organisms to adapt, genetically, to what’s rapidly changing in their environment, particularly temperature and precipitation. It’s not just the mean, it’s the variability posing such a threat simply because all the environmental cues that are associated with what poikilothermic vertebrates, including fishes, do in terms of where to spawn, when to spawn, are just really changing and they’re no longer predictable of positive outcomes. It’s fundamentally changing recruitment dynamics in these populations. I would say lake sturgeon, particularly in the Great Lakes, inhabit these coupled Great Lakes tributary ecosystems, which are all at great risk. So, you have these adfluvial species, which exist for much of the year out in the Great Lakes, and they come back in if they can, to rivers to spawn and the offspring are rearing in these systems. You have pollution problems, you have dams, which have precluded access across most major rivers throughout the Great Lakes. And so, what’s happening is these dynamic Great Lakes tributary ecosystems are also at risk. And you know we’ve been using not only the research but working outreach and extension, including working with K-12 educators to try to get communities to get kids interested in this cool, big, charismatic, shark-looking, at least in terms of the heterocercal tail, species as an ambassador for endangered species and these threatened Great Lakes tributary ecosystems. 

MJW: Sorry, I’m trying to resist asking you more questions about sturgeon. 

KTS: You can go to our website It has all our publications, all the theses, all the lesson plans that we’ve developed for students are on that website. We had a citizen science program, all the citizen science stuff that we did with the kids, videography, et cetera is on there, plus this whole background of stuff about lake sturgeon ecology and early life history and things like that that are available. I always try to get people to tune in to that if there are questions. 

MJW: OK, cool. That sounds like an amazing resource. I’ll make sure I also link it. 

KTS: Yeah, please do. 

MJW: So, what’s the most rewarding moment you’ve experienced in your career as a conservation biologist? Or maybe the top three since you’ve probably had many rewarding moments? 

KTS: Well, it’s hard to pick out a single thing, but I would say generally, anytime the science that we produce is being used to direct management, to me personally, is very rewarding. You could take basic science and applied science and use genetic tools to answer questions in both. I think that the people, the geneticists say, for instance, or people generally in academia, or other people in agencies that are doing applied science are motivated by needs of the conservation or the management community. You need to go a little bit further in terms of how you’re taking your science because people want to use it a lot of times. You’re getting money in grants that are that are being paid to generate information that will be used. So it’s [management applications] an extra step. You’re not just publishing it, right? The end product is not a publication in a peer review paper and then you’re going on to something else. You still like to publish it, but what you’re doing is trying to take that [data] and influencing the direction and helping people use the information to make sound management or stewardship decisions. There are a whole suite of things that we’ve done throughout my career that have been used, techniques that have been developed, data that have been developed, background information on the ecology of the organism that had not been known up to that point. So, I would say, generally the most satisfying thing to me is that people on the ground are using the science that we’re producing to positive ends for the better management and stewardship of the resource. 

MJW: I think that’s when science. Is at its best is when it’s actually applied. 

KTS: Well, yeah. I mean, there are a lot of real-life questions that aren’t being answered simply because information isn’t available, right? It’s one of these ‘What if’ scenarios, right? ‘What if we did that?’ Well, if you do it maybe scale down, but you do it [such as make a small environmental change] and you can’t see what’s going on [in systems where it is hard to make direct observations]. But you can make inferences through the collection of genetics data creatively. A lot of times then then I think, yeah, it’s really been a very powerful source of inference. 

MJW: Can you tell us about a particularly memorable colleague or mentor who influenced your work? 

KTS: You know, I’ve been fortunate to have a number of mentors directly through my academic [and] professional development as an undergraduate, as a master student, PhD and afterwards. First of all, I was an undergraduate and had an opportunity to do a three-week field excursion, people at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point and the natural resources [program], which is where I did my undergraduate degree, had to do a six-week summer camp. You had two weeks in soil, water science, two weeks in Fish and Wildlife, two weeks in forestry, Plant ecology very generally. So I did that and it’s like, well, okay, I can’t get a job, you know, for the rest of the summer, what do I do? And Stevens Point had this ‘go out in this field course’ in Wyoming. That sounded like a pretty good gig to me. So I did that and it turned out that one of the faculty members that was teaching the course was a guy by the name of Doug Post, and it turned out that Doug was the geneticist at the university. He taught introductory genetics, which was the hardest course I ever took, and people really didn’t care for it that much. But it turned out to be the best course that I had as an undergraduate. And what made it better is I was spending three weeks with Doug, you know, before that semester started because I took the course that fall semester. [We were] hanging out, drinking beer, picking bugs, catching fish all over all over the state of Wyoming. And so I went into the course with a different framework, but I just so enjoyed the course and then with all the students that he was working with, a lot of them were in fisheries. There was a fisheries Co-op unit there and they were using allozyme electrophoresis at the time to answer all sorts of questions, most of them in the Great Lakes. And I got to work with a couple of graduate students. And so that was an undergraduate experience. As a Master’s student, I was working in the lab with a respected individual, a guy named Ron Chesser, who was developing (you probably remember this because we used his literature, you know, in terms of behavior and mating systems as it affects the apportionment of genetic variation [in class]) So he was very, very influencing to me. Another guy by the name of Mike Smith, I worked as a technician [for him]. And Mike was sort of Mr. Mammal, well he worked on everything basically, but using allozymes as a tool to solve problems and answer questions in everything from mosquito fish to deer to a lot of other things. John Avise was my PhD advisor. John was just absolutely a brilliant individual and really was very instrumental in shaping my thinking about a lot of things and he was very much also interested in conservation, not just evolutionary [genetics]. My postdoctoral advisor, Terry Burke. He was one of the first people to use these mini satellite and microsatellites in a non-human vertebrate, he wrote DNA fingerprinting in birds, which was published in Nature in 1987, which just, you know, my eyes [were opened] I was just, [so impressed]. In the middle of my PhD program, I was going, oh my gosh, look what they’re doing. It’s not just for humans anymore, right? So anyway, so I’ve been very, very fortunate, you know, traveling around and being in places, really the right place at the right time. And these geneticists were all really very informative to me at different stages of my career. 

MJW: How do you stay updated on the latest developments and research in conservation science?

KTS: You know, I was probably still getting journals after most people stopped. I used to get hard copies and then my wife basically said, “why are we spending so many hundreds of dollars on things that you’re just getting things from the library electronically?” I asked my graduate students, you know, “I’ve got all these journals. I’d like to get them out of my office, let’s put them in the lab. Raise your hand if you want to hold on to these.” Nobody did, and so no journals. I’m very much a reading person, something in front of me. I like to have a hard copy so I can write on it and things like that. If there’s something that I’m really interested in totally absorbing, then I’ll probably make a hard copy of it anyway. There are probably a dozen or so journals that I look at and there’s some keyword searches that I do on a regular basis. Having lab meetings and having students has been wonderful because you know that’s what they’re asked to do, right, is keep up on the literature in their own given areas. And so if you have a lab and you have people working on a diversity of things, that’s another way [of keeping up with advances in the field]. We’ve been really blessed at Michigan State University with hiring your major professor, Mariah [Meek], Sarah Fitz[patrick], Ingo Braash, and Julia Ganz, Heather Heath-Heckman, all these people that have come in. And I guess I’m a little bit biased, mentioning fish people, but, I mean, there used to be like 1 fish genetics person here and now they’re like a lot and it’s just been really wonderful. Discussion groups and journal clubs and things like that have been happening spontaneously since these people arrived [and] have been really great. Seminar series [are also helpful], we are very lucky to have not only departmental seminar series, but also the Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior program series. There’s stuff here on campus. There’s stuff electronically that’s out there. There’s EvolDir. There are things that you can subscribe to, like ResearchGate and other things like that, that will give you alerts when there are subjects and new papers in areas of interest to you. It’s really very interesting to stay plugged into what’s hot in your area of expertise. In fact, it’s hard to stay in tune to everything because typically you start out [with a certain knowledge base] and to [maintain] a level of proficiency in all the different areas that are [out there] right now, it’s increasingly very, very difficult except in a very cursory sense. Keeping up with what was available [was necessary in] actually teaching the class that I did (conservation genetics and molecular ecology). To be able to move my lectures forward every two years, which is when I offered the course, hopefully at a level that was consistent with where the literature was at, was also a challenge. I think that’s another nice thing about teaching graduate level courses is, it pushes you because the students push you to keep current with what’s happening in the literature because you’d like them to leave your course with sort of a state-of-the-art view of where the field is at. 

MJW: Have you ever worked on anything internationally? 

KTS: Does Canada count? I’ve done a lot of work with waterfowl genetics and genomics, including in Arctic Canada, so I’ve worked on dozens of species of migratory geese and ducks in Canada. My postdoc was in Great Britain, working on landscape genetics of crested newt and common toads. Many people think Alaska is a foreign country. I lived in Alaska, as project leader of the Molecular Ecology Lab for the Alaska Science Center of USGS. You know, a lot of the specimens that we’ve got for waterfowl were circumpolar distributed. When I was up in Alaska, we worked on polar bears, and we had polar bear samples that we got from colleagues. For a lot of it, you know, did I work there? Could I physically go there? No. But we were collaborating with a suite of biologists helping get the samples, other geneticists collectively on circumpolar distributed animals, and so in that sense, yeah, I was working internationally. 

MJW: Were there any like unique challenges you had to navigate with working with internationally sourced samples or in these different places that you don’t see as much working with mostly domestic samples or domestic systems? 

KTS: Yeah, the permitting system. This varies by species, but working with waterfowl, they’re migratory, they’re governed by international treaties, Migratory Bird Act, etc. They’re vectors of disease. Some of the work that we were doing included work in areas which had avian influenza. There were USDA disease issues that we had to deal with bringing samples in. Also, the preservatives [were a concern]. We had to preserve samples and we were using Sanger sequencing and microsatellites mostly at the time, and so we developed these different buffers that you could keep at ambient temperatures. Oftentimes people were out in the middle of nowhere with no electricity and no way to [refrigerate]. I guess you have permafrost in some places that people were using if they dug down far enough. So, you know, [we used] these really high salt buffers, sodium EDTA, sodium chloride EDTA, etcetera, etcetera, buffers that we developed for sampling tissues, mostly blood, blood quills (growing feathers) from multiple birds, et cetera. So yeah, the permitting thing and then the handling of samples, given disease concerns or [other] concerns, you know were always kind of challenge. Sample preservation and transport were [challenging] because often times, you know, it would take many days, if not longer, for people to go from, like Baffin Island or Greenland or other places where samples were coming from, and the samples wouldn’t get to you for weeks if not months later. So those were all challenges. 

MJW: Can you discuss some of the ethical considerations or trade-offs that you had to think your way through when working in conservation decision making? Were there cases where you had to prioritize this species over [that] species or this habitat suggested for restoration versus [that] habitat. How do you, I guess, make those kinds of decisions or how do you weigh the costs of things like that? 

KTS: Well, I don’t know if, as a geneticist or as a scientist, you’re weighing these costs of what to work on versus what not to work on; or a priority if you’re dealing with an ecosystem where you know you happen to be working on species X, but why aren’t you working on species Y? [Species Y], It’s just as deserving. Is that the question? 

MJW: Yeah, it’s a pretty broad question, so I think you can take it in many different ways. 

KTS: I mean, a lot of times you know [what you are working on]. Well, you’re paid, you know you can’t do the work without the funds to do it. Oftentimes, like when I worked for the federal government, USGS, there were internal funds. And there were projects you were working collaboratively with teams of researchers, field people. We were the genetics people. You know, [there were] people with other expertise, quantitative biologists, GIS people, just a whole suite of people working on a project. But the project that you had was specific to a thing typically. Oftentimes the mandate was to go out and study a system, so you weren’t collecting a specific species, but you were selectively collecting [samples]. The objective was broader than just one species. Maybe it was a group of species, right, like a community of fishes. For a community of fishes and other organisms, a lot of the environmental DNA work [with] metabarcoding using amplicon sequencing. We were interrogating entire communities; you know and using the power of PCR and next gen sequencing to be sequencing communities. [If] you wanted fish you use fish primers. You wanted plants, you use plant specific primers. You want insects, you use yet another gene and a different set of primers, right? And so in that case, we were looking at entire communities. We might have been focusing on invasive species or [detecting] threatened and endangered species, but we were able to collect whole community data. We could use that community data to put the specific question of, say, aquatic invasive species into the context of the ecosystem, you know, across different trophic levels that those organisms existed in. But I don’t think that as a scientist it was ever our decision to be working on something and therefore we couldn’t work on something else. Those weren’t decisions that we had because we were afforded the resources to be focusing on, you know, questions that the grants laid out as objectives. 

MJW: Can you share an example of a project where you faced a completely unexpected obstacle or set back? And then how did you adapt to overcome the situation? 

KTS:  I can think of a couple involved in working in very remote areas in Alaska. The first one was we were working in Glacier Bay. We were working on Coho salmon. They are spawning in the fall, and we would travel to Glacier Bay, and we would go out in a Boston Whaler. We would go out from the National Park Service station in Gustavus, and we would meet up with the boat. It was a boat with a small cabin. We were in this particular year, tent camping and the weather, if you’re familiar with SE Alaska, it rains all the time. October is not exactly the warmest month during the calendar year. And you put rain with cold weather then you know you were wearing very heavy raincoats/suits. We were out in waders, and we were out sampling, trying to get adults [and] juveniles. And we were going all over. If you’re familiar with Glacier Bay, it’s got two forks, an East and West fork. And the reason why it was raining so hard is there was they call them typhoons or hurricanes. And there was a hurricane that was kind of off a ways. But it was generating rainfall. We would go in these inlets for periods of days at a time. We would be totally off of the grid in terms of radio contact with the National Park Service headquarters. And we came out and we noticed that the waves had gotten a lot larger than when we went into this one inlet. We had been in there for a couple of days. And we finally got contact and they said that Typhoon Tom was coming directly to hit the mouth of Glacier Bay and we were to proceed at any speed we could to get in front of it and get out of it. So we did that going up bay [in] very large waves and we got into a tidal inlet, fortunately, that you can only access at high tide. It was fortunately high tide [when] we got in there. [We] battened down the hatches and the hurricane came in and we spent two days in tents. We had one person who stayed on the boat just to make sure it wouldn’t be marooned against the rocks. So we were in tents for two days until the hurricane passed. We had to wait another tidal cycle, so the tide was high enough we could exit the inlet. That was really kind of interesting riding out a hurricane for three days in Glacier Bay.

I guess another one [was when] we were doing work with bears. We were doing capture, mark, recapture getting DNA from scat samples in Katmai. And this was grizzly bears. We were in a place called Hallo Bay, which was kind of famous because this grizzly person was mauled. (This really famous kind of nut cake would get up and take pictures of bears until he and his girlfriend got eaten.) But anyway, so we were actually there, unbeknownst to me at the time, before he got mauled. We were in this campsite, and bears were all over the place. That’s why we wanted to do the mark recapture work there. The bears were congregating in these sedge meadows waiting for the salmon to come in and there were just hundreds of them walking around all over the place. It was, of course, raining. It was one of another one of these fall Alaska things. We were sitting there under a tarp with a big fire trying to dry our stuff out. We were sitting right on the coast, the Shelikof Straits, which separates Kodiak Island from Katmai, which is on the mainland. And here comes this sow with two cubs. And she’s walking right at us. And she finally stops, really close. And then she turns around, and then she digs a hole and we’re just freaking out, right? I mean, we had our pepper spray. I think somebody may have had a shotgun, but she digs a hole. She sits down, lays in it, and she starts nursing her cubs like about 50 feet away from the fire. And we are, to say the least, besides ourselves, wondering what the hell we should do. So that was [wild]. And then we had several other encounters when we were out, you know, with bears, that would just be walking very, very close distance to us, doing different things. And they pretty much didn’t care that we were there. It took a while, as somebody that hasn’t worked in that situation before, to get used to the whole situation. [We were] working for a week or so in living in a tent. We got to the campsite and all the tents had driftwood around each tent and then they had pots and pans on top of the driftwood. I mentioned to somebody that was there, I said, “That’s really interesting. What are the pots and pans for?” And he said, “Probably about 5- or 10-seconds extra time for you to get out of the tent before what’s climbing over making the noise comes in after you.” and I said, “Oh OK. Thank you.” 

MJW: Oh my gosh. Nerves of steel. 

KTS: So those were those were two interesting adventures in collecting samples for genetic analysis that involved rather interesting circumstances. 

MJW: I think we are about out of time. To wrap up, is there any advice that you have for early career researchers or people who are interested in getting into conservation or ecological genetics work? 

KTS: I think that as an undergraduate student coming into a university setting, one of the things that I advise undergraduates is to get yourself into a lab as early as you can. Even as a volunteer, just to get experience. And try to experience as many different things as you can. I mean a lot. Some people may be lucky enough to to say basically, you know, I’m coming in and I’m going to be here and I’m going to have this degree and I’m going to go out. And this is what I’m going to do, and they go and do it. And they’re very, very directional. Many people aren’t like that. I started out thinking that I was going to be a chemical engineer till I had two semesters of physics, calculus and chemistry and had a really horrible GPA and just didn’t like it. But I liked biology. I liked being out of doors. I appreciated conservation because I had spent so much time before I got to be an undergraduate student camping and hiking and fishing and hunting and appreciating all things out of doors. And I realized that things were changing in a not a great way. So I went into natural resources and biology. But I think you really need opportunities and people aren’t going to come to you. You know, you’re not going to sit there as you’re going through your classes through your undergraduate career, and faculty aren’t going to be stumbling over themselves to get you to help work in their lab, right? You need to take the initiative and you need, and you need to make breaks for yourself. You need to go out and you need to work professionally as early as you possibly can, simply because you would like to be in a position when you’re applying for something where you may have a bit more direction. Where somebody that’s worked closely with you in an informative position would be able to write a letter that basically says something more than “Johnny got a 4.0 in my class and was there every day”, right? That’s not going to tell somebody very much. But if you could, on the other hand. Johnny had worked in somebody’s lab and said, you know, a faculty member could say, “I worked with Johnny, [he] did this and this and this, he was involved in these projects. He did an excellent job”. Meticulous, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera based on first-hand experience, whether it be in the field or in the lab or whatever capacity you could work. Get into positions where you know, it might not be the thing that you ultimately want to do, but just get the experience. The second thing is, don’t be afraid to try different things. There are many people that ended up working in the lab and would hold their nose when somebody uttered the ‘genetics’ word, but they ended up really doing well and really liking it. In fact you have somebody that’s working in your lab right now, Grant. He was an honors student, wanted an honors project. Looking for somebody he was interested in biology. He came in. And then he worked the second year. And then he got a prestigious fellowship at San Diego Zoo in their conservation genetics program. And now he’s working, you know, with Mariah and your group. He had no idea that’s what he was interested in. But he got into it, and he did a really, really good job. And he made things happen for himself. I would advise young career people to take the initiative, make things happen for yourself by going out there and getting the experience so people can stand up for you and say, “This person is worth the look because they’ve done a really good job and = they’re really competent and I think they’ll do good work for you,” If you’re going to be going on and you want and need to (and you probably do need to) go on to Graduate School or a postdoc. Do your homework and contact people, but really be informative because when it gets down, hopefully past the first e-mail exchange where you’re expressing interest and they’re responding or not to your e-mail, that the next step is face to face or, you know, virtually or over the phone. You could put your best foot forward by knowing what they’re doing, being excited about what they’re doing. Just don’t carpet bomb the landscape with applications or resumes and “hey, my name is so and so and I’m interested in what you’re doing” without really expressing knowledge about what they’re actually doing. So I guess that’s it. I mean, I found myself in situations where just I happened to be in a situation and got to know the people. [Those interactions] turned out to be, you know, really causing me to think about things that I hadn’t thought about before. And, you know, making things happen in terms of opportunities moving forward to go to Graduate School, to get a job in a technical capacity, to go back to graduates who get a post doc to get, you know, something after that. So, you know, a lot of it is who you know and make it happen for yourself. 

MJW: OK, with that, thank you so much for your time. This was a delightful interview. 

KTS: You’re welcome. Well, it was nice to talk to you and nice to see you again. I might catch you at an EEB Seminar. But if I don’t, I hope you enjoy the holidays with family and you have a very successful PostDoc. 

MJW: Thank you. Same to you, happy holidays. 


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