Skip to Content

Featured Student: Keats Conley

The summer before she came to the University of Oregon, Keats Conley, now an environmental studies Master’s student, read Ted Danson’s book, Oceana, which discusses the prediction that in less than one hundred years, the only seafood remaining in the oceans will be jellyfish. “I was so haunted by this idea that upon arriving in graduate school I sought out an advisor who specialized in ‘gelatinous macrozooplankton,’” she says wryly.

From that advisor, Dr. Kelly Sutherland, Keats learned about the “Trojan horse” hypothesis: the idea that jellyfish may be proliferating because, in their polyp stage, they prefer to attach to the now-abundant artificial materials of docks, aquaculture facilities, and offshore energy turbines. Working closely with Dr. Sutherland, Keats designed an experiment to look into the possibility that coastal development may influence the scale of jellyfish blooms in the Northern California Current.

Being an interdisciplinary thinker, however, Keats was just as interested in how jellyfish affect humans as in how human actions affect jellyfish, so she designed a survey to see if jellyfish blooms are currently impacting commercial fisherman in Oregon, Washington, and California. This summer, Keats began working on both her projects simultaneously at the UO’s Oregon Institute of Marine Biology.

When asked what her research involves on a day-to-day basis, Keats replies “A lot of weird things! The one consistency is a lot of repetition—but repetition of drastically different kinds of things.” Things like stuffing 1000 survey envelopes, gluing down 300 postage-stamp-sized samples of typical coastal development materials, and pipetting 5,000 jellyfish larvae (which look like “little yellow submarines”) into a petri dish. There are highlights, though: “Last week, I drove up to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport and drove back down with a giant yellow trashcan of jellyfish in my backseat.”

Keats sees the interdisciplinarity of the Environmental Studies Program as one of its key strengths. “This program has afforded me the opportunity to work alongside my dream advisor and pursue research that I find genuinely exciting. I’ve had the flexibility to study marine biology against a natural resource management background that includes environmental economics and management of marine fishes,” she says.

After she finishes her thesis next spring, Keats plans to work with Dr. Sutherland at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Marine Laboratories on San Juan Island. Eventually, she hopes to go on to study aquatic or bioresource science and possibly work in an aquaculture laboratory in Japan. Her long-term goal is to help “further the development of rural aquaculture, which has the potential to relieve strain on wild fish stocks worldwide.”

Read about other Environmental Studies Program students and faculty members here.