Black biologist from Vancouver leads others to new heights within the nice open air


“People who grow up and look like me may not have a chance to learn about hiking, rock climbing and outdoor recreation.” “They might not even think they belong. We have to overcome all of these cultural barriers.” — Rikeem Sholes (Nic Raingsey)

Tangible sense

Sholes’ scientific activities took him to the Pacific Northwest.

“All the different things in my life started queuing here,” said Sholes, 38.

In 2017, he landed a job as a fish biologist at the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Vancouver office. He recently took part in a June 16 bike ride in Portland, where he happened to meet a scientist who teaches at WSU Vancouver. She brought Sholes with her faculty colleague Dr. Allison Coffin, a neuroscientist working on the sensory systems of salmon.

Within weeks, Sholes said, he was accepted into the graduate biology program at WSU Vancouver, where his academic research fits well with his work for US Fish and Wildlife. They both focus on hearing salmon and growing salmon ears.

Yes, salmon have ears. (“That’s the most common question I get when I’m lecturing,” Sholes said.) But farmed salmon don’t hear as well as wild salmon, nor is their “pointed eye” as well honed, he said. As a result, the hatching salmon waste a lot of energy struggling and swimming erratically on their way back from the ocean upstream, Sholes said.

“Wild fish tend to have more developed neurological systems,” he said.

Hatchery fish — which are fed on a schedule, are not exposed to threats, and swim in circles all day — have fewer.

“We spend millions to send these fry out to sea hoping they’ll come back to us, but they can’t hear very well,” he said. “My research is focused on what part of the hatchery system is causing this and how can we mitigate it?”