When Dan Killam was a little boy he saw the ocean as a world of its own, filled with mysteries to be discovered. His parents nurtured his natural curiosity with regular trips to aquariums and zoos.
Neither he nor his family had any way of knowing that early interest would lead the La Cañada resident down an academic path and scientific career that would earn him a doctorate in paleobiology from UC Santa Cruz, along with the assonant nickname “Dan the Clam Man.”
But in clams Killam found compelling answers to questions about how Earth formed over millions of years, and how an ever-changing climate was fastidiously recorded in the growth rings of humble Jurassic-era bivalves.
“The fact I can see a snapshot in time from 190 million years ago makes me feel very in touch with the life of the planet,” he explained, peering at the ridges in a shell fragment. “I like that feeling — getting to see how huge and wonderful all the history of life that’s happened on Earth is.”
Having officially graduated from UC Santa Cruz Oct. 8, Killam is spending a short time at home connecting with friends, former teachers and mentors before embarking on the next exciting leg of his academic career.
On Tuesday he heads to Israel’s University of Haifa, where he was recently accepted into the Zuckerman Postdoctoral Scholars STEM Leadership Program. Each year, the program accepts an elite group of U.S. researchers in several fields to work at Israeli universities.
Killam will study shells of the bittersweet clam, abundant on Israel’s Mediterranean shore despite the fact the mollusks don’t live there. The shells are thought to have been deposited by an ancient tsunami, whose path and pattern could hint at climate change on the delicate coastline.
“It felt like a real golden opportunity over there to continue to grow my expertise and an interesting mystery I wanted to help answer,” he said of the work.
Killam’s scientific curiosity has long, unbroken roots. At La Cañada High School, he dived into biology and earth science, studying sea life, weather patterns and climate change in and out of the classroom.
“I was interested in how life evolved in the ocean and all the unusual crazy critters we have out there,” the 28-year-old recalled. “A lot of people have that spark of fascination with the ocean and marine biology and science, and sometimes they lose that over time.”
But Killam never did. He volunteered as a tide pool docent for the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro and interned at La Cañada’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where father Dudley worked as a special projects manager.
After graduating in 2008, Killam spent summers working on oceanographic and climate projects with noted JPL climatologist Bill Patzert, since retired, even as he pursued an environmental studies degree from USC.
In 2010, Killam earned his SCUBA certification and began exploring sea life around Guam, Belize and the Micronesian archipelago Palau. In 2014, he co-authored the scientific paper, “California Getting Wetter to the North, Drier to the South: Natural Variability or Climate Change?” at age 24.
Patzert recalled being introduced to Killam by his father, Dudley, who passed away unexpectedly last Thanksgiving. The senior Killam told the climatologist he had a brilliant son who was interested in interning.
“He was such an enthusiastic and hard worker during summers, I actually put him on the payroll when he was an undergraduate at USC,” Patzert said. “Some students are just a pleasure, all they need is a little pressure and some guidance and they’re off — he was one of those.”
Now, as Killam packs up his SCUBA gear, box of clam shells and some clothes, mom Jennifer is enjoying this brief interlude with her son. She said with his innate curiosity and strong work ethic, she always knew he was destined for great things.
“I was hoping he’d cure cancer, but I guess it’s going to be the clam thing now,” she teased. “I think maybe he’ll be the spokesperson for clams.”