Zach Koehn

Zach Koehn

Graduation Year

Why did you major in Religious Studies?

The Joint Major in Philosophy and Religious Studies was an ideal combination for me. I searched for a major with analytical rigor but flexibility in terms of learning about alternative interpretations and perspectives on our diverse planet. As part of requirements, formal logic was an incredibly important skillset and I was surprised to have enjoyed it as much as I did. I also appreciated the major's flexibility in being able to accommodate a broad suite of religious literature, from Dante to Zhuangzi (yes, I am one of Lee Yearley's advisees). Ultimately, I also completed a Co-terminal degree, where I turned my focus towards ethics in practice, particularly regarding coastal and marine environments. Many, many thanks to Brent Sockness and Lee Yearley for enabling me to follow my passions with my co-terminal degree.

Tell us about your senior capstone research or a favorite research project in Religious Studies.

At the time, there was not a thesis requirement for joint majors. Not sure if that has changed. However, I did take the two quarter sequence on Dante with my advisor Lee Yearley. I treated the culminating paper for that course as a "thesis." In it, I combined perspectives of Zhuangzi and Dante to explore how earthly perfection can prepare the pilgrim for spiritual ascendency and what happens to the notion of identity during this transformation under the two perspectives. I found it critical to compare spirituality across disparate world views disconnected in both space and time.

Where are you today, and how has your degree in Religious Studies shaped your future path?

Currently a PhD student in Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences at University of Washington, while I will have a degree in "fisheries science" I continue to be broadly transdisciplinary thinker. My PhD dissertation research focuses on creating a foundational understanding of the current and potential role of seafood production in alleviating public health concerns along the West Coast and in the developing world, particularly related to inequity and malnutrition. This work draws on literature from Rawls and Sen to development economics and international trade to discourse on food security and sovereignty to ecological modeling. I am also deeply involved with a nascent dialogue on social responsibility in the seafood industry, where ethical concerns regarding human rights violations and inequitable supply are reaching a fever pitch. Read through Associated Press articles for more information.

My path into a PhD program certainly not direct. After graduating with the BA/MA in 2012, I took a full time position with Stanford's ocean science think tank Center for Ocean Solutions. I worked there for a year and a half as a policy analyst. I became interested in fisheries and began to work on research questions specific to smaller scale fisheries with strong sociocultural ties in the developing world. After my grants were completed, I was not ready to go back to school so secured a position as a manager for a local seafood supply business that focused on direct to consumer marketing, based in Monterey California. We bought, filleted, marketed, and delivered fish in house. The goal of these "fish shares" is to intervene in the current status of seafood supply, which is so global that it is difficult to form any sense of social or cultural value of seafood (seafood is the world's most traded food commodity), by creating a direct connection between fisher and consumer. I also helped the company through multiple rounds of investment with social impact investors in the hopes to scale. The firm brought me back to Stanford in two ways: first to deliver seafood in our van(which was a remarkable experience as an alumni) and second when we reached the finals of an investment competition called Fish 2.0. I also worked side-jobs on research for the company, both regarding market expansion and sustainability. After another year and a half, I preferred engaging in research and sought work in Seattle, which is an epicenter for marine science. I took a contract working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences agency researching social vulnerability to fishery planning change and that, along with a National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship fellowship, provided the gateway to starting my PhD. As part of my PhD I have traveled extensively across the states and also the Western Pacific. I am actively collaborating with Harvard's school of Public health on creating nutrition databases useful to fisheries experts and with the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation's Samoa office on in-country food security assessments.

Across these wide experiences and fields, I frequently find myself in situations where objectives in reality are different from my preconceived notions. The degree in Religious studies offered a unique pathway to combine my diverse interests with intellectual rigor, and enabled the development of a skill set to manage the variety of viewpoints and objectives that arise not only in our society but across the complexity of diverse perspectives around the world. Maybe to the surprise of my friends or family wondering why I did not major in marine science, economics, or computer science, my background in Religious studies and Philosophy has timelessly proved useful across a wide variety of fields, from discourse in economics to international development to differences in objectives for sustainable management of marine resources. 

Why should students today consider Religious Studies today?

Religious studies offers an incredibly diverse set of viewpoints and perspectives that are critical to understanding the complexity of the modern world and openly greet the unknown. You can expect a challenging set of questions that will not only push you intellectually, but personally. Curiosity about the unknown is a necessary prerequisite to the degree. My undergraduate pursuit provided me with the foundation to look at complex issues from multiple viewpoints and belief systems. There will be times when students are unsure why they need to take certain courses, either in history of religion or in critical methodology, but these narratives both motivate changing current events and allow you to look critically at these changes.