I’m Kristin Aquilino, and I get out of bed every day to save an endangered sea snail.
Officially, I’m an Assistant Project Scientist at University of California, Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, managing the white abalone captive breeding program. Unofficially, I run a highly specialized fertility clinic, health spa, and nursery for charismatic snails. We’re trying to save the white abalone — a delicious and adorable marine mollusk — from the brink of extinction. I collaborate with other scientists, state and federal agencies, aquariums, and aquaculture farmers who are all trying figure out the best way to get the abalone in the mood to boost their numbers.
Hailing from Iowa, I feel equally at home among rustling rows of corn and towering forests of kelp. I also feel incredibly fortunate to get to dedicate my life to something I love. Because I’m often asked questions about what I do and how I got here, I’ve compiled my answers to some common questions below.
How does a kid from Iowa grow up to be a scientist trying to save an endangered sea snail? Growing up so far from the ocean, I had never even heard of an abalone for the first two decades of my life. However, I have always had a passion for being outdoors and wondering how the natural world works. A trip to the Galápagos Islands in high school was particularly influential on my career choice – I was ecstatic to stand on the same islands that helped materialize Darwin’s powerful and elegant theory! I was also fortunate to participate in laboratory and field research as an undergraduate at University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as spend a semester abroad in Costa Rica. These kinds of immersive, hands-on experiences cemented my desire to discover nature through science. The interdisciplinary quality of my current work coalesces much of my scientific training in ecology, population biology, and endangered species reproduction. Looking back, it’s surprisingly sensible to see how this Midwest kid grew up to direct a breeding program for an iconic marine snail.
What makes you so passionate about your work? Where do I begin? There is certainly a sense of purpose that comes with trying to correct past environmental mistakes. We humans were responsible for the decline of white abalone, and I believe that we have a responsibility to save them. But at the heart of what fuels me is the ability to inspire people to find value in science and in nature. I love helping people realize the importance of science to decision-making that improves our quality of life. I also love inciting wonder and a sense of belonging in nature. Few things bring me more joy than showing someone an abalone’s beady, black eyes for the first time and hearing an exclamation like, “Oh! It has a face!” Efforts to save an endangered species allows for an excellent opportunity to engage in meaningful communication about the importance of science to our quality of life. Good science communication makes the universe smaller and bigger all at once. It brings new and accurate information to the public, bolsters a stronger understanding of the research process and its relevance to society, and provides context to the human existence. It makes kids from Iowa — like me — identify with sea snails, and kids from San Francisco value the loess prairie. I enjoy sharing my research through social media, video production, science outreach seminar series, and K-12 education. Although this outreach represents a small percentage of my time, I think it has some of the biggest impact of anything I do.
I also genuinely enjoy my colleagues. It is incredibly inspiring to be surrounded by so many amazing scientists, aquarists, aquaculture farmers, policy makers, and volunteers, all dedicated to making this world a better place.
What is a typical workday for you? My first priority is always making sure our captive endangered white abalone are the most pampered snails in the world – animals that aren’t thriving tend to not reproduce as well, and we need to optimize reproduction to restore this tasty species. Fortunately, we have fantastic research technicians taking care of our abalone and making sure their daily routine reads like a Sonoma County spa retreat.
My primary role in the White Abalone Recovery Program is to use science to figure out the most effective and efficient way to make a whole lot of high-quality baby white abalone as quickly as possible. I essentially run a very specialized fertility clinic for endangered sea snails. To accomplish these goals, a huge amount of collaborative effort is required, and a large part of my role is to enhance communication and facilitation among partner groups to optimize results. Strengthening the collaboration among white abalone partner institutions has been the thing I am most proud of during my time thus far with the recovery program. I think that our concerted effort is the single thing that has most contributed to the increase in captive production over the past five years.
Do you think white abalone can be recovered? What might that look like? Yes. I absolutely think white abalone can be recovered. One of the great things about restoring this species is that their habitat is relatively intact. If we can make enough white abalone in captivity and figure out the best way to place them back into the wild promptly, this should be a relatively easy species to save.
Above all, I would be very pleased to see a self-sustaining wild population of white abalone sometime in my lifetime. I wish this for all our US abalone species. My husband grew up sport diving for red abalone on the northern coast of California, and we look forward to taking our young daughter abalone diving with us when she is old enough. Abalone are very tied to the identity of many of the people living on the US Pacific coast, and I would love to see this cultural, economic, and ecological resource thrive for future generations.
Beyond that, I it would be amazing to see farm-raised white abalone on restaurant menus someday. Many people remember white abalone as being the most tender of all US abalone species. It would be wonderful to enjoy these prized animals as a healthy and sustainable food source in parallel to restoring wild populations.
More broadly, there is a growing recognition that the development of sustainable aquaculture is necessary to feed our increasing global population. Science will play a critical role in providing innovation and management tools to improve the security of our natural and commercial marine resources, especially in light of the uncertainties imposed by climate change.
Who inspires you? I have many role models, first and foremost are my parents. My mother embodies the wisdom, grit, and emotional fortitude of the most advanced Jedi Master, and whether it’s promoting global public health or running errands, she is the human embodiment of the optimal foraging theory – informed, calculated, and efficient. My dad understands the seriousness of play and the power of storytelling, yet he has the work ethic of aDoozer from Fraggle Rock. I strive to emulate my parents in everything I do.
Beyond family, I admire naturalists like Jackie Sones (check out her incredible blog!), Kathy Ann Miller, Ed Ricketts, and Charles Darwin; movers and shakers like Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold ... Kermit the Frog is up there, too. I tend to look up to people (and frogs) who have a lot of passion and enthusiasm for what they do – I think it makes the world go ‘round.
What advice would you give others about pursuing careers in STEM? Chase the things you love. Challenge yourself with new experiences – being a little uncomfortable usually means you’re learning something. Reach forward with one hand to seek the wisdom of your predecessors, and reach back with the other to facilitate those who follow you. Above all, surround yourself with supportive people.