UAF BLaST December scientist of the month: Senior Director Michael Castellini

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By Amy Topkok

Michael Castellini’s life in scientific research spans five decades serving as a research faculty and in many leadership positions at UAF and other respected institutions. He received his bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of California – San Diego (UCSD); his doctorate in marine biology and his first postdoc at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD; and further postdoc work at the University of British Columbia-Vancouver. He arrived at UAF in 1989 and has served as the senior director of the BLaST Research Enrichment Core since 2016. Castellini is retiring this December after almost fifty years of tireless effort in research, authorship, and service.

Castellini’s field focuses on comparative vertebrate physiology, biochemistry and behavioral adaptations in diving marine mammals and birds. Further research involved population health, and response to climate change. His fascination with seals, whales, other marine mammals and seabirds has led him to supervise over 20 sea expeditions in the Antarctic and the Arctic polar regions. 

Michael Castellini

In a recent interview with BLaST, he shared about how he got started in science, “I was always a science nerd, even in grade school. I was being groomed to be a lawyer, but I wanted to become a biologist. A friend of mine was a junior college biology teacher, and groups of us would go camping overnight in the deserts of California and Baja looking at bugs and all kinds of things in the desert.” Thanks to this mentor as well as several others who helped him during his undergraduate years, Castellini began seeing himself out in the field studying science. 

Highlights of his work includes presenting at the Sitka Whalefest since 1999, serving as the founding science director of the Alaska SeaLife Center located in Seward from 1995-1999 and being a main presenter at the “Polar Palooza” series from 2007-2009. Castellini was also integral in the start-up of the Research Vessel “Sikuliaq” at University of Alaska Fairbanks, a world-renown research facility.

“I enjoy events that bring marine science to the public that are educational and fun. It is both a challenge and very rewarding to talk with middle and high school students about science. What I do [mentoring students] is sort of paying it back to help young students to have that spark of interest in science,” he said. Castellini’s work ethic and openness have inspired many to enter the realm of scientific query, and to challenge themselves to do better and move forward in science discovery.

Castellini has mentored countless students statewide, nationally, and internationally, with over 40 undergraduate and graduate student committees; and over 50 funded research projects. He connects with students easily and personably, giving expert advice to students’ success. One of his favorite memories was being part of a 12-month expedition in the Antarctic, which he described as “the best time I have had in the field.”

“If given a choice, I like to be on a wind-swept, usually cold beach with animals, whether it be seals, seabirds, or penguins. It’s a challenge and inspiration to not feel totally alone [when conducting scientific research], but it’s special to be part of that process and really be able to take it all in,” he said.

Castellini said he has been fortunate to have the opportunity to spend weeks working on sea lions and exploring old-growth forests in his favorite location in Alaska, which is on the Forrester Island complex. This is “about 70 miles southwest offshore of Ketchikan and as far south in the Alaska panhandle as you can get…the islands are covered in Steller sea lions, birds, berries and fortunately, no bears… just amazing.” (Sitka Whalefest program, 2013)

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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