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by Barb Hameister

Student Spotlight: Amanda Blackburn

Amanda Blackburn and fish
Fishing for samples in Mississippi.

When Amanda Blackburn’s sixth-grade class went on a whale-watching cruise, she was enthralled. It was her first time out on the ocean and she loved being surrounded by the water and the abundant marine life. “For as long as I can remember I have been interested in nature, and as a kid spent large amounts of time running around poking stuff with a stick,” the oceanography master’s student says with a quiet smile. “I also spent a lot of time asking questions about the world around me.”

Amanda grew up in Ogdensburg, a small city on the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York. Less than an hour’s drive north is Ottawa, the Canadian national capital. To the east lies the legendary Adirondack State Park, a favorite destination for the outdoors-oriented Blackburn family.

Many of Amanda’s family members have careers in medicine, and she entered college with the idea of becoming a doctor. In the end, however, her love of the ocean won out. During her studies Amanda became particularly intrigued by the question of how animal species interact with the physical environment. She graduated from the State University of New York, Potsdam, with a double major in geology and biology, concentrating in marine biology.

Pursuing different research opportunities kept Amanda busy throughout her undergraduate degree. She spent a summer at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory on Biloxi Bay, Mississippi, taking field courses through the University of Southern Mississippi. The area and the work appealed to her so much that she returned the next summer to intern at the GCRL Marine Microbiology lab. She also did an undergraduate research project on yellow perch in the Saint Lawrence River and assisted on two other laboratory projects, one on zebrafish and the other on bottlenose dolphins.

Amanda at Nevada mine
Amanda during her internship at a Nevada gold mine.

But Amanda also wanted more hands-on experience in geology, and was accepted for an internship in exploration geology at an open-pit gold mine in Nevada. She found it challenging but extremely rewarding, and the experience reinforced her resolve to pursue graduate work that was linked to both geology and biology.

However, she quickly discovered that finding a degree program with that particular combination was not going to be easy. Amanda recalls searching through numerous catalogs and resources before she finally found what she was looking for with her advisor Jennifer Reynolds at CFOS. The two are now applying marine geological mapping and oceanography to seafloor habitats, and collaborating with fishery biologists on current issues.

Amanda appreciates being able to play an active role in developing her thesis research. While reviewing possible topics with Jennifer, Amanda became very interested in the diverse geological history and ecology of Kachemak Bay and decided to focus her research there. With advice from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, she narrowed down the possible species to focus on and settled on Tanner crab and Pacific cod.

The once-thriving crab fisheries of the Kachemak Bay area collapsed by the early 1980s after a shift in climate conditions that no longer favored crab populations. Commercial crab fishing has been closed since 1994. Groundfish species such as Pacific cod, however, thrived. More recently there has been a shift back to conditions that favor Tanner crab, yet the population has failed to recover.

Amanda’s project involves the construction of habitat maps that examine the preferences and distribution of potential habitat for each species, and where these overlap. She will examine changes in Tanner crab and Pacific cod populations in the areas where both are found, based on ADF&G survey data. These maps will help determine whether Pacific cod, which are known to be aggressive predators of Tanner crab, might have prevented their comeback through what is known as a predator pit. In this scenario, a predator persistently beats down the numbers of a prey stock to a very low level in a way that would not be possible if their populations were more balanced in the first place.

The results of Amanda’s work will be useful not only for understanding the ecology of Kachemak Bay, but also for fisheries management, as Kachemak Bay is the area where ADF&G conducts surveys to determine population estimates and fisheries openings for Tanner crab in the rest of Southeastern Cook Inlet.

Amanda in Denali
Capturing the natural beauty of Denali.

Life as a graduate student keeps Amanda plenty busy, but she has many other interests as well. Since moving to Alaska, photography has become a major pursuit, and she enjoys taking long walks with camera in hand to capture the local wildlife and landscapes. Music has also been a big part of Amanda’s life. While growing up she sang in choirs and performed in several stage productions, and she is a fan of opera as well as Broadway musicals.

An avid reader since childhood, Amanda enjoys all kinds of books but admits to a weakness for English history, both fiction and nonfiction. She also particularly likes space science fiction and says her favorite author of the moment is Terry Pratchett. While she often uses her Kindle while traveling, at home there are always several stacks of books of all kinds awaiting her attention—and most days, despite a busy schedule, she carves out at least a few minutes to happily curl up with a good read.

See previous Student Spotlight and Faculty Focus Profiles here.

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