The path that led O’Brien to a career studying Antarctic fish at UAF began with her fishing trips with her dad, led her through a BS in zoology at Duke University, and after several more twists and turns — including a two-year stint as a National Marine Fisheries Service fisheries observer in Alaska — took her to doctoral studies at the University of Maine, in Bruce Sidell’s laboratory.
She had heard Sidell give a talk just after she graduated from Duke.
“His research on lipid metabolism of Antarctic fishes was fascinating, but equally enthralling were his photographs of the Antarctic and his clear passion for the place,” O’Brien says. A few months later she applied to study in Sidell’s lab. It was the start of a 17-year collaboration and friendship.
In a 2009 interview about icefish in The Antarctic Sun, an online publication of the U.S. Antarctic Program, Sidell said, “I just want to figure out how these critters work. We get a chance to ask some questions with these [animals] that you can’t ask with any other animals on the planet.”
“He had a big influence on my life,” O’Brien says. “He was my academic father in every sense of the word.” She says Sidell often mentioned that one of his greatest pleasures as a professor was mentoring graduate students.
Sidell asked O’Brien to collaborate on an NSF grant while she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado, which launched her career working in the Antarctic. While she was on her way to her faculty position at UAF, Sidell asked if she’d write an icefish research proposal with him.
“I may have paused as long as 10 seconds before replying with a resounding ‘YES!’” she says. O’Brien calls Crockett, who was also a graduate student under Sidell, her “academic sister.”
“When you work that closely with a person a lot rubs off,” Crockett says. “Bruce’s greatest influence on me has been probably more about life than about science. I think both Kristin and I try to emulate some of those qualities that were so superlative in Bruce. He knew how to get right to the heart of things.”
Sidell’s academic lineage continues through the students O’Brien supervises at UAF.
Her most recent success story is Irina Mueller, initially an exchange student from Germany who came back for advanced work in O’Brien’s lab. Mueller was awarded a PhD at commencement last May but couldn’t attend the ceremonies. She was already at Palmer Station, preparing to spend the Antarctic winter working with a scientist from Northeastern University researching bone development in icefish.
“I started working in Kristin’s lab during my [2005 – 2006] exchange year to supplement my income,” Mueller said in an email interview. When the offer to be a grad student came from O’Brien and included the opportunity to spend the 2011 season in Antarctica, she leapt at the chance.
“By the time I signed on as her PhD student we knew each others’ personalities, working approaches and expectations, which made my years as a student in her lab a very positive experience.”