GSO Profiles – GSO Graduate Christopher Orphanides

May 26, 2020 

Welcome to the eighth in our new series: GSO Profiles!  Each post will feature a brief interview with a member of the GSO community. Our first several profiles will be of GSO students who graduated over the past year. These profiles are one way we can celebrate the accomplishments of those graduating in this unusual time of COVID-19, and also welcome them to the ranks of GSO alumni.

We are continuing our series with Christopher Orphanides, who finished his Ph.D. with GSO professor Jeremy Collie last August. Chris grew up only an hour from GSO in Groton, Conn., but took a circuitous route to GSO.  He went to Colby College in Maine for his undergraduate degree, lived and worked in Boston for an environmental consulting company, earned a master’s in environmental management from Duke University, and then worked for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) on various protected species issues in Narragansett. While there, Chris decided to pursue his Ph.D. at GSO. Other GSO graduate students have taught courses, as Chris did, but he has the distinction of also being the Chief Scientist on a research cruise on the R/V Endeavor that was part of the course.

Here’s Chris, in his own words:

GSOP: Tell us about your work/research at GSO: what question(s) are you trying to answer?

CO: My research investigates foraging ecology of marine mammals to provide data and methods to improve management of marine mammals by considering how ecosystem components such as prey resources influence the distribution of marine mammals.

Shows GSO graduate and colleagues preparing equipment on Endeavor.
Chief Scientist Chris Orphanides (middle) with colleagues and crew preparing equipment to be deployed off the R/V Endeavor (photo courtesy V.M. Berounsky).

GSOP: What is your favorite thing about your work?

CO: My favorite thing about my work is getting out in the field. I love just about all aspects of conducting research at sea, and through my degree I was able to transition to leading research trips, which has been both challenging and rewarding.

GSOP: What led you to your studies/career in ocean science?

CO: I grew up along Long Island Sound and that nurtured my initial interest in the ocean. After working at a consulting firm after college, I was considering going back to graduate school for a master’s degree. At that point I decided that if I went back to study something, it might as well be something that I love and an attempt to do something that makes the world a little bit better.

GSOP: What brought you to GSO?

CO: It was right across the street! Obviously GSO has a great reputation, and since I work at NOAA in Narragansett and am a Rhode Island resident, it was an easy choice.

GSOP: How have the COVID precautions affected you?

CO: The COVID restrictions have had a mixed effect on me. The most direct effect was the cancellation of some planned field work on Nantucket Shoals looking at right whale distribution relative to prey distribution and oceanographic factors that may influence whale distributions. Otherwise, it has forced me to work at home exclusively. At times, this adds some extra efficiency without having to drive to Narragansett or Woods Hole from my home in Westerly, R.I. but it can be challenging with all my family home and a new puppy.

Shows Karen Wishner and Chris Orphanides on the Endeavor.
GSO Professor Karen Wishner and Chief Scientist Chris Orphanides on the R/V Endeavor taking URI undergraduates to sea to look for Right whales and their food sources (photo courtesy V.M. Berounsky).

GSOP: Who have been your role models or mentors?

CO: My core committee members (GSO professors Jeremy Collie and Melissa Omand, and Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Science professor John Hoey who is also a NOAA Research Fisheries Biologist) have each played a large role mentoring me in my career. NOAA Research Fisheries Biologist Debra Palka has also guided me throughout my career. GSO professor Karen Wishner has been inspiring in my right whale work and helping me learn to serve as a chief scientist on a research cruise (read more about that research cruise) . 

GSOP: What do you do for fun?

CO: I like to do just about anything active outside. Mountain biking and skiing are a couple favorites, but I enjoy anything on the water (kayaking, surfing, boating, etc.) and I like to swim at the beach below GSO in the summer.

GSOP: What is your favorite spot or view at GSO?

CO: I love the view from the library, as well as the quiet there.

GSOP: What have you been up to since you graduated?

CO: I’ve continued my job as a Research Zoologist at NOAA Fisheries on Tarzwell Drive, still across the street from GSO, although with some new responsibilities. I’ve been leading a few foraging ecology research efforts on right whales, particularly in southern New England, and I am serving as the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s lead person dealing with potential protected species impacts from offshore wind development.

head shot of GSO graduate Chris Orphanides
GSO graduate Chris Orphanides (photo courtesy NOAA).

GSOP: What is your advice for someone considering ocean science for their academic/professional career?

CO: Network with many different people to find stimulating research/work, be open to interesting opportunities, and don’t be afraid to say yes—you never know where it will bring you.