A Day in the Life with Mark Zimmermann '86

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

What was the path between Grinnell College and your current role?

After my four years at Grinnell, I had earned my BA in Biology (1986) but was burned out on academics. Veterinary medicine had been my career goal for many years and I did not get into veterinary school, so immediately continuing my education was interrupted anyway. I decided to make Seattle my permanent home and started thinking about alternative careers. House painting earned me some money for a while, and I learned some good lessons about preparation, presentation and thoroughness, but mostly that profession just made me think about going back to school to pursue an interest in fisheries. During a summer break from Grinnell, I had worked with a high school friend at a salmon processing plant in Alaska. That eye-opening experience inspired me to read about salmon, eventually visiting the University of Washington’s Fisheries-Oceanography library in Seattle for hours at a time, pulling volumes off of the shelves, and sitting on the floor, surrounded by dusty books and gaining an understanding of how little was known about these mysterious fish. I developed some research ideas and, with mentoring from some friendly fisheries folks, got into the UW Fisheries graduate school with no understanding of where this would take me.

At that time, there was a portion of the school called the Fisheries Research Institute (FRI) and it was focused on issues that directly impacted the fishing industry, such as predicting the salmon run size and ensuring sustainable harvests. I landed a research assistantship for a master’s degree project and worked on the third floor of FRI, reading and measuring the growth rings (just like tree rings) of a collection of thousands of salmon scales during the school year, and conducting field work on salmon and their pristine habitats in Chignik, Port Moller, and Bristol Bay, Alaska (where the Pebble Mine is proposed) during the summers. To me, FRI seemed like a distant place to land after spending so much time in the middle of the Iowa corn and soybean fields, so I was surprised to find fellow Grinnell biology majors Prof. Ray Hilborn (1969) and Prof. Bruce Miller (1958) on the same floor. Had I arrived at the right place?

As I was graduating with my masters in Fisheries Science, I applied for a job about 3 miles up the road at an office of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and began a career working on groundfish – the bottom-dwelling species that make up the bulk of the Alaska fisheries harvest. Many Midwesterners are understandably not familiar with NMFS, which is more of a coastal agency, but if you’ve ever heard a tornado siren, that warning is coming from some of my colleagues in NOAA, which also houses the National Weather Service and other national science organizations. To me, one of the most interesting parts of the job at NMFS is that almost all of the data we collect are associated with geographical position(latitude and longitude), and fisheries data show strong trends by location, but our maps of the seafloor habitats for explaining those spatial trends are inadequate. Many places in Alaska are unmapped or so poorly mapped that you can’t even look up the depth. Accurate and detailed maps have been a logical way for me to organize information since I was a child, hiking and trout fishing all over Yosemite National Park in California.

Trout fishing at Yosemite National Park circa 1970.

I always carried a topographic map of hiking trails to keep track of my location, constantly unfolding it to compare to the landscape that surrounded me and refolding it for storage once I figured out where to hike next and potentially find some more fish to catch.

Left: a detail of the Young Lakes area from my tattered, folded Yosemite hiking trails map. The blue polygons are lakes and the blue lines are streams. The topographic lines, representing constant elevation in feet, are in light brown - note that this area is about two miles high! The black lines are trails, hopefully guiding us to the lakes while crossing as few of the topo lines as possible, as we avoided any extra exertion in the thin mountain air. Right: a male eastern brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) in spawning colors.

So I embarked on a new phase of my career, learning how to use GIS (Geographic Information System) software to compile depth observations into maps of the Alaska seafloor that might be worthy of describing fish habitat, just like my topographic map of the landscapes of Yosemite.

Typical mountain lake destination for trout fishing in Yosemite National Park: light gray granite peaks and glaciers rising above the tree line, small green meadows, ice-cold streams, and beautiful, clear lakes.

What did you learn or do at Grinnell that has helped you in your career?

Basic reading, writing and critical thinking were the most useful skills that I received at Grinnell, starting with Jon Andelson’s (1970) mandatory tutorial class in the first semester of my freshman year. I enjoyed closely interacting with many of my Grinnell professors and learning about their educational backgrounds and career paths. Those sorts of casual conversations are not available at many schools and that access gave me the confidence to interact with my graduate school professors and with scientists from other agencies and nations. In the last semester of my senior year, I was able to do a guided reading project on aquaculture, inspired by my summer job in an Alaska salmon processing plant, and started thinking about a future career path.

During spring and fall school breaks, as part of my preparation to become a veterinarian, I volunteered at a large animal veterinary practice in rural, southwestern Iowa, living with a veterinarian’s family and riding along for farm calls on cows, pigs, horses and sheep. This was vastly different than the in-city cat and dog volunteering that I had previously done at home and gave me my first taste of farming life in Iowa. The farmers were having a difficult time with climate, and also a financial crisis, so times were tough in Ringgold County. Despite not going into veterinary medicine, I learned a lot about life in a non-academic environment from watching how the veterinarian interacted with animal owners whose main concerns were about trying to survive economically. I still exchange Christmas cards with that veterinarian.

What do you wish you’d done at Grinnell?

I was so focused on veterinary school and my Biology major, that I purposefully bypassed a lot of other interesting opportunities. For example, it would have been useful if I had learned more about computers. I also wish I had spent more time maintaining bonds with my fellow Biology majors. Some of them were also bound for graduate school, but I did not know much about continuing education except for my focus on veterinary school.

What are your favorite & least favorite things about your job?

I think that the favorite aspect of my job is using my creativity to solve problems. A close second place is the location of my job, as I love living in Seattle. It has been a very steady job, which is quite a rarity these days, except for the federal government shutdowns. While working at NMFS I have met some awesome, intelligent, hard-working, devoted, service-minded employees who epitomize what government work should be all about. There are also good opportunities to learn new skills and go back for more school.

Dealing with a large bureaucracy can be challenging at times, although I understand and appreciate the reason for so many rules (avoiding nepotism, discrimination, quid pro quo, etc.). Inwardly I have a hard laugh whenever some non-Federal employee complains to me about government bureaucracy – “Ha! What do you think I deal with every single day?” Career advancement is slower in Seattle in comparison to other locations, and that has been frustrating, along with the expectation that I continually bring in outside funds to conduct basic research. Also, there are lots of mandatory trainings, and science all too often takes a backseat to the administration of science.

What role does civic engagement and service play in your work and life?

At NMFS, our general goal is sustainable fisheries management, not ivory tower research that is out of reach of the public: the last word of our agency name is “Service” and I am proud of that. I have found that this agency goal of service all boils down to being relevant, or doing work that is relevant. In other words, everything that I do has to have an applied use. I am proud that my seafloor maps help with research cruise planning, data analysis, predictive modeling, population estimates, and are even good enough for geological interpretation and inclusion in the larger seafloor maps of GEBCO, the international seafloor mapping group based in Monaco. Recently, several of our Alaska maps were included in a new map of the Arctic seafloor (International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean, v. 4.0).

Pics: Recent maps published of the eastern Bering Sea slope (left) and western Gulf of Alaska (right). For the Bearing sea slope, we focused on defining the location, number and size of the slope-incising canyons, which are among the largest in the world. For the western Gulf of Alaska, we focused on describing relic glacial features, leftover from the Last Glacial Maximum 20,000 years ago.

We conduct most of our fisheries research cruises on chartered fishing vessels that are staffed and operated by fishermen, so our work is scrutinized face-to-face on the front lines of where the idealism of science meets the cold, harsh reality of Alaskan waters. If we try to do something really impractical at sea, we get immediate feedback and a quick dose of reality. After about 50 research cruises totaling almost 1,000 days, I have about as much time at sea as I did at Grinnell. During those cruises I have met and bonded with some fantastic people from diverse backgrounds that include professors, undergraduate and graduate students, curious volunteers, professional fishery observers, guests from other agencies and other NMFS offices, and, of course, numerous deck hands, engineers, cooks and captains. I have become friends with numerous fishermen, understanding their points of view about how my agency manages fisheries, and describing how NMFS science is benefitting the fishermen by sustainably managing fisheries. My comfort in dealing with fishermen helped me launch a new project to make better use of their fish catch and effort data in our formal population estimates. This direct interaction with the fishermen is similar to the relationship I had with my Grinnell professors and that I observed between the large animal veterinarian in Iowa and his farmer clients.

At home, my wife and I donate to numerous local charities, including schools, public media outlets, the local food bank, and our library system. During the pandemic, we have made an extra effort to patronize local businesses and assist those people we know who have lost their livelihoods. My wife is a quilter and she has been sewing masks and distributing them to those in need. We consider ourselves very fortunate to have steady jobs.

What skill has been most useful to have in your career?

I think having a sense of empathy is critical for successfully interacting with the general public, environmental groups, fishermen, and other scientists. At Grinnell, I met a wide variety of people from all over the US and from numerous foreign countries, learning that there were many points of view on topics that I had never discussed seriously before. I enjoyed Grinnell dorm life, sharing a floor with students of all ages, going as a group to meals, playing intramural sports together, and practically becoming a family by year’s end. Getting advice from upperclassmen was really helpful and living in close quarters with so many peers was good training for boat life on research cruises. I excelled in some of my non-biology classes in history and anthropology because of the focus on the human experience.

Understanding the other person’s point of view is the most useful guide for being able to communicate, and, if you can’t get your message across, then you are unable to interact and demonstrate your own relevance. I am always asking myself “What are they going think” or “What message are they going to derive” when I am creating posters, slides, email replies, press releases, manuscripts for publication, and maps – most especially my maps. Just like my Yosemite hiking trails map spoke to me about catching alpine lake trout, I want the maps that I make to communicate a clear message. It’s also been my experience that some of the smartest scientists are the worst communicators because they lack empathy. Listening to or interacting with people like that makes for many cringe-worthy moments.

Pics: Pictures of me posing with fish, such as a very large “bucket head” Pacific cod (Gadus macrocephalus) (left) during our 2016 Aleutians cruise and with an “old growth” shortraker rockfish (Sebastes borealis) (right), perhaps decades older than me, in the 2017 Gulf of Alaska cruise, have become my calling cards. Both fish were about a meter in length and weighed about 20 kilos, with the head awkwardly balanced on my shoulder and the tail dangling behind my back. These fish are much larger than anything we would catch in Yosemite, but, I have been told, not nearly as attractive as those tiny, alpine trout from my youth. When we catch large, old fish like this in our research cruises it shows that we have healthy fisheries in Alaska. When people see these pictures of me in my rain gear, splattered in fish slime and scales, comparing the size of my head to the heads of the gigantic fish, they quickly get an understanding of my job.

What is (or was, pre-COVID) your typical day like?

At work, the season dictates my typical day.

From late winter through summer, my colleagues and I focus on conducting our fisheries research cruises. These cruises collect the data that powers a lot of the science that we do, managing the multi-billion dollar fisheries of Alaska. First we have months of preparation (cruise planning, logistics, and staffing; packing, loading and shipping all of our supplies; classes in software, hardware and methods updates; and training in cold water survival and remote duty first aid) before the cruises start. Then we fly to some rather remote locations in Alaska to meet our boats and exchange crews, taking turns going out to sea for ~3 week legs, or doing multiple legs in a row, working 12 to 16 hour days catching, sorting, identifying, weighing and measuring groundfish. In odd-numbered years we conduct the Gulf of Alaska bottom trawl survey, which lasts for 75 days, and in even-numbered years we conduct the Aleutians survey, which lasts for 70 days, so they occupy a big chunk of our calendars. At the end of each cruise leg, we come home with data that has to be proofed, edited, and processed into estimates of fish populations by a hard deadline.

Pic: Processing the second tableful of a large catch of Pacific Ocean perch (Sebastes alutus), the most abundant Aleutian species, during the 2014 Aleutian Island bottom trawl survey.

In September, I take some vacation, if I can, to decompress and recover from injuries and sleep deprivation that are an inherent part of the 80 hour work weeks during the cruises, and enjoy my favorite month to be in Seattle. Otherwise, I reconnect with colleagues about ongoing projects, write grant proposals and papers, and finalize a speaker schedule for a weekly Groundfish seminar series that I run from October-December.

Fall and winter are conference season, so I may be trying to distill some new project into a short presentation or a poster and interacting with my international seafloor mapping colleagues at a GEBCO meeting. So far I have attended GEBCO meetings in Monaco, Busan, Stockholm, Canberra, and New Hampshire. Once my research cruise obligations are done, most of my office time is spent on making seafloor maps. I usually have a large backlog of vacation to take at the end of the year, between the date of the last Groundfish seminar in December and New Year’s Day. Once back at the office in early January, my focus once again turns toward prepping for the next summer cruise and completing any projects or papers that I can finish before I fly north to Alaska.

How has COVID/remote work impacted your work?

I left the office in the middle of the day on March 11, when the WHO announced that this new virus strain had achieved pandemic status, and I started teleworking from home, the same day that my wife decided to experiment with teleworking. The island in our kitchen has been my temporary office since then and I’ve had to rely on phone calls, emails and video meetings to stay in touch with my colleagues. Our campus officially closed on March 24, so I have not seen any of my colleagues in person for months. I know a lot of people have had a very difficult time dealing with the isolation, but it has rarely bothered me because, I think, of all the time I have already spent doing remote duty work, being physically so far away, and relying on very frayed strings to try to stay in touch with home. It’s nice to know that something positive came out of those years spent at sea.

In mid-May, after a lot of the usual cruise prepping was done, my office finally canceled all of our summer research activities because they could not ensure employee safety at sea. Due to a lingering injury from my 2018 cruise, I was not going out to sea anyway, but it is nice to have the official announcement for all of my colleagues who were sweating out family-care duties during these difficult times.

Summer in the Pacific Northwest, with the long, dry, but mild days, is one of the major reasons for living in Seattle, but for me this favorite season has always meant being away from home on research cruises for long periods of time. The only recent full summers I’ve had at home have been 1989 (my middle year of graduate school, when I was behind on making my salmon scale measurements) and 2002 (when my father passed away), so each summer day is very precious to me. I am envisioning a retirement of spending every summer at home, or at least, on land, and very much looking forward to that future.

What’s your work/life blend like? Tell us about your hobbies, family, pets, whatever—what is post-Grinnell life like for you outside of work?

These last several years have been really busy for me at work because my seafloor maps have opened up a new avenue of collaboration and community. Meeting the international seafloor mapping crowd, attending their meetings in exotic locales, and contributing to their global maps has really changed my work perspective, inspiring me to think more about non-fisheries research topics, but costing me additional effort and time.

I typically exercise at the end of the work day, weight lifting and strength training more in winters, and walking, hiking, or running more in the summers. My wife and I spend a lot of evenings and weekends gardening or working on our food. We grow flowers, vegetables, fruit, berries, and herbs; tend a small moss garden and a shade bed of native plants; and we have a small, flat lawn that we can mow in about ten minutes. Sometimes I just sit on our back deck, with a glass of wine or a newspaper, and enjoy the garden view – it is a place that brings me tranquility and grounds me in my land-life, a location and feeling that I try to tap into when I am out to sea. Weeding takes up a lot of my gardening time and, I am convinced, is the physical equivalent of the digital data proofing and editing that I do to make my maps. We made our kitchen oversized for our house during a remodel about 10 years ago, with lots of counter space and storage, because we are always cooking, baking, canning, freezing, BBQing and smoking bacon or salmon. One July weekend is usually reserved for picking wild blackberries from our neighborhood, which is one of the secret perks of living in Seattle, and an August weekend is reserved for picking our apples and canning applesauce.

In 2013 I took advantage of the extended government shutdown to indulge in another of my passions and volunteered at a favorite, local winery, learning about fermentation, crushing and bottling.

Travel, for me, has meant long, uncomfortable flights to various far-flung fishing ports such as Dutch Harbor, Alaska, so it has not been my favorite thing (see, for example). Now that I have had some very positive travel experiences with the international seafloor mapping GEBCO meetings, I am inspired to do more long-distance trips. Paris in 2021, maybe? Last year my wife and I vacationed in Amsterdam, which was my first long-distance trip not associated with a meeting or cruise in a very long time, and I visited the Van Gogh museum, achieving one of my life goals.

More about Mark's work:

Mark's office, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, which is part of NMFS/NOAA.

Mark's AFSC profile page



Meet Habitat Scientist Mark Zimmermann, NOAA Fisheries Feature Story, July 2, 2020

Older maps

Papers on my newer maps of the western Gulf of Alaska, with associated press release, and eastern Bering Sea slope at the journal Geosciences.

An online StoryMap for panning and zooming into various maps.

Feature Story, for National NMFS web page, “Volcanoes and eelgrass transform salmon habitat” March 5, 2018.

AFSC Press release, “Maps from the 1930s Help Find Potential Fish Habitat in the Digital Age” March 20, 2015.

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