November 7, 2018

Story: Staff Spotlight: Collin Closek

By Elizabeth Ramsay


For this Staff Spotlight feature I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with one of our Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions Early Career Science Fellows, Collin Closek. Read on to learn about his work on environmental DNA, his love for photography and hiking, and his affinity for nature.


What do you do at COS?

I am an Early Career Science Fellow at Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions (COS). I work primarily on the environmental DNA (eDNA) project, where I work with collaborators to collect and process eDNA (DNA shed by organisms left in the water) to better understand marine biodiversity.

Tell me more about the eDNA project.  

The eDNA project is part of COS’ work to explore opportunities to leverage technological innovations to address ocean challenges. eDNA uses filtered water systems to capture and then identify DNA from organisms present in ecosystems.  These capabilities show potential as a monitoring and stock assessment tool, as eDNA can detect organism occurrence or patterns that may not be easily observed through scuba diving or other means of sampling.

Our projects have been mostly conducted in Monterey Bay and in the Florida Keys. The work we do allows us to better understand ocean health and biodiversity both locally and regionally. We've made many efforts to increase the efficiency of the technology and we’re coupling the eDNA assessments with traditional monitoring methods to better understand the extent at which these methods can be used. In time, eDNA collections and technologies will be scaled up to broader geographic regions and in doing so we will enhance our understanding of biodiversity and ecosystems.

What was your favorite opportunity so far working for COS?

I would say field-wise, going out on the research cruises with our collaborators. Those can range from one week to a month or so going up and down the California coast. I say that not just because I enjoy being out in the field, but also because it allows you to understand how dynamic these environments are and get a better idea of the diversity of organisms, their interactions and how their distributions differ along the coast. The oceanographic conditions and habitats are so vastly different and they attract all different types of wildlife because of those differences. It really makes you appreciate those geographical differences instead of reading papers or driving to a specific spot on the coast. Being out in the environment is eye opening and I think there’s no better way to learn.

At an organizational-level, I’ve really appreciated the work and discussions revolving around policy and management that is influenced by science and vice versa. Being able to have those conversations and having colleagues who are working on those important topics is exciting.

What inspired you to apply for a fellowship with COS?

During my dissertation a lot of my work was on diseases and that research made me recognize that as we're doing research it's important that that work is being done in tandem with local governments and that the information is going to be ultimately used for determining certain policies or enhancing management. I knew that COS had these same values and I wanted to be part of that conversation. I applied because I felt it was crucial as a scientist to really start having conversations about how to communicate science better. I knew this fellowship would give me the opportunity to learn how to incorporate research into management and how to build relationships with various representatives and stakeholders. This fellowship has been extremely important and helpful and very transitional because I will use these skills as I continue doing my work.

What is your academic background? Is this the field you thought you’d study when you were younger?

I pretty much always knew what I wanted to be. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia - not very close to the ocean. However, I watched every possible show as a kid about wildlife and the ocean and around the age of 5 or 6 I became enamored with the ocean. In high school I took a summer course in Wilmington, North Carolina and that exposed me to marine ecology and marine processes. That was when I decided I wanted to be a marine scientist.

As an undergraduate, I attended the University of Georgia to study Biology with an emphasis in marine science. I went to the University of California, Merced to start my Ph.D. and completed my degree at Penn State.

What is your favorite childhood memory?

As a kid I very rarely stayed indoors. We lived in the southeast of Georgia where there is a lot of forest area. I would go out and collect animals daily, keep them for a day or two and then let them go. I had snakes, box turtles, frogs and all sorts of animals. My parents were on board with this hobby, but my sister did not appreciate it as much. I think my parents were supportive of it because they saw how much I enjoyed wildlife and they would not let us get a dog – so they were okay with the other animals I brought home.

What are some of your favorite hobbies?

I love to go hiking in Toro Park and other places along the coast. I also really like photography. I like to take pictures of architecture or any type of juxtaposition between anthropogenic and natural lines.

If you had one message for a young scientist what would it be?

Use people’s advice critically, with a grain of salt, and then follow your own compass. I think there is a lot of great advice that is given. Just because something you care about doesn’t fall in line with what someone else thinks has value, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value or isn’t worth pursuing.