Researcher Reflections with Kristina Cammen

Helping inform decisions about how we value, protect, and utilize our coastal marine resources

Kristina Cammen

Kristina Cammen is an assistant professor in the School of Marine Sciences and Mitchell Center Faculty Fellow. Her emerging research program focuses on improving our understanding of marine mammal ecology and ocean health, and advancing the use of genomic techniques in conservation biology. Genomics is the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes, or the genetic material of an organism.

What problem/s are you working to solve?

As a molecular ecologist by training, my academic toolkit is honed to study the genetic underpinnings of adaptation. When facing problems, such as exposure of coastal ecosystems to anthropogenic (manmade) threats, I consider how marine species have adapted over ecological and evolutionary timescales, and what this may mean for their ability to adapt moving forward. Since starting my faculty position at UMaine, I have expanded my toolkit and my network of collaborators to include many other interdisciplinary approaches beyond genetics. Yet, I remain focused on addressing problems of ocean health.

I am currently working with collaborators across New England to understand trends in marine mammal stranding rates, factors that lead to viral epidemics in local harbor seal populations, and the social/ecological implications of gray seal recovery. I am part of an interdisciplinary team that is studying various aspects of the Western Passage ecosystem, an area with large interest and potential for future tidal energy developmentlocated between Eastport, Maine and Canada.And with innovative and excited students, I am exploring new non-invasive approaches to monitor marine mammals, including developing protocols to leverage environmental DNA for studies of marine mammal genetics.

What progress are you making toward solutions?

The past year has been one of rapid and exciting protocol development in my lab. We have developed models to explore environmental, ecological, and social elements that affect marine mammal strandings. We have tested promising approaches to characterizing genetic variation in gray and harbor seal immune systems. We have developed new protocols to successfully extract and study marine mammal DNA from water samples collected in rehabilitation centers, riverine, oceanic, and tidally turbulent environments. These are critical first steps towards gathering data that can inform solutions to some of the ocean health issues facing Maine’s coastline.

How could your findings contribute to a more sustainable future in Maine and beyond?

I hope that my research helps contribute to more informed decision-making about how we as a society choose to value, protect, and utilize our coastal marine resources. In doing so, I hope that the science that I and others at the Mitchell Center carry out can help provide support for local communities, of people, flora, and fauna.

Why did you decide to join the Mitchell Center?

As a new faculty at UMaine, I was attracted to the energy and commitment of Mitchell Center faculty working in diverse ways to tackle sustainability issues in Maine and beyond.

What’s the best part about collaborating on Mitchell Center research projects?

The people. I have had the pleasure to work with great collaborators from across disciplines with a shared passion for conducting impactful research.

What sustains you?

Sunshine, blueberries and baked goods, and my family.