a pile of seals and a seagull on a rock

Current Research Blogs

Maren's Blog

Maren Duffy, undergraduate student

1 April 2024

Hello again!

Winter quarter went by very, very fast and was very, very busy. I am very glad to have finished up my classes and been able to relax a bit on spring break. I really appreciated the bit of sun that came out on finals week, it definitely helped get through that last push. I am looking forward to more of that in Spring quarter! Along with the nice weather, my little sister came down from Anchorage, Alaska to visit me here in Bellingham. It is exciting to show her around the town and get her out to the San Juan Islands and Canada! We stayed out on San Juan Island the past couple days, and I was able to find us some transient orcas from shore (plus lots of harbor seals and sea lions)! So cool to show her my favorite part of Washington. I get to get back on the water next weekend with the whale watching company I work for, and am very excited to be on the boat again.

Haley and me have continued to chip away at our project, working on data organization and getting familiar with ArcGIS and RStudio. I was not able to fit a GIS class into my schedule for Spring quarter, but I will continue to work on familiarizing myself with the program. We plan to put together a poster soon for the lab, as well as attending the 2024 Northwest Student Chapter of the Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference in Seattle with all the MMEL project leads! I also recently applied for the Summer Undergraduate Research Program through the Biology department at Western and was awarded funding, which is an exciting opportunity. I am very much looking forward to continuing working on the project with Haley during the summer.

Spring quarter I plan to continue helping with Erin D’Agnese’s diet study project. In the last two weeks of the quarter she trained us on DNA extractions. It was really exciting to learn how to do the extractions and get more lab experience, even though it's certainly intimidating at first. She brought more species up as well, so we have a variety of things to work on!

Until next month,
Maren Duffy

Jasper's Blog

Jasper McCutcheon, undergraduate student

1 April 2024

Hello again,

T-minus one quarter till graduation, not that I am keeping track or something. Winter quarter wrapped up with a busy week of interviewing potential undergraduates for our open research assistant positions. It was a lot of fun to meet other excited individuals and I know everyone in the lab is thrilled to welcome aboard all the new recruits! That said, it was very chaotic having those interviews, two final projects, and an early final exam occurring in the same week. That week and the following finals week flew by, but now it’s finally spring break.

This break I need to get my abstract written for the upcoming Northwest Student Chapter of the Society for Marine Mammalogy (NWSSMM) conference. I also plan on starting a draft of a poster for the conference and continuing data analysis. This latter task is once again putting up a fight. After my last blog, I had high hopes that I could bust through the analysis and have some results soon. Unfortunately, reality has since set in as creating the code for my GLMM model is proving difficult. Before you can even create the full model and begin testing for which predictor variables are most influential, you must run several other statistical tests first. These preliminary tests allow you to know how best to create the final model. This step is my current struggle as I am stumped on how to interpret some rather ambiguous results. I am hopeful that my meeting with Kyra Bankhead next week will help me sort out these issues.

By next month I will have a completed poster for the NWSSMM conference and hopefully some results from my statistical analyses.

Stay tuned,

Victoria's Blog

Victoria Vinecke, graduate student

1 April 2024

Happy April everyone! It is starting to warm up in Bellingham and feels like spring! With the spring quarter rapidly approaching I have been quite busy! Spring break has been full of thesis writing and lab work!

Toward the end of winter quarter the MMEL managers conducted interviews to bring on a new team of undergraduate researchers. With interviews complete and decisions made the MMEL will welcome 27 new researchers to join the lab!! It was really exciting to get to chat with a bunch of passionate undergraduate students and I am thrilled to work alongside the new recruits! I want to give a shout-out to the amazing undergraduate managers and leads that helped with the interview process. Your hard work is extremely appreciated, and the lab would not be what it is without dedicated and hardworking undergraduates!

Toward the end of winter quarter the MMEL managers conducted interviews to bring on a new team of undergraduate researchers. With interviews complete and decisions made the MMEL will welcome 27 new researchers to join the lab!! It was really exciting to get to chat with a bunch of passionate undergraduate students and I am thrilled to work alongside the new recruits! I want to give a shout-out to the amazing undergraduate managers and leads that helped with the interview process. Your hard work is extremely appreciated, and the lab would not be what it is without dedicated and hardworking undergraduates!

I will be presenting a poster at the Northwest Student Chapter Society for Marine Mammalogy annual conference, and I hope to get the results from my second field season fleshed out so I can present my entire data set! It is thrilling to start seeing my project take full form! I will be attending the conference with Alex and multiple undergraduate researchers! I am looking forward to seeing them present their research and spend quality time together!

Until next time,

Maya's Blog

Maya Mijares, undergraduate student

1 April 2024

Hi folks!

March has been a SUPER busy quarter for the lab! To start, we have officially welcomed 27 new research assistants to our team! I am very excited to get to know everybody and get back out in the field this quarter. We are having a welcome meeting on April 5th to do some introductions and explain all the different aspects of working in the lab, and I am very excited to see the whole MMEL in one room. We are up to 50 MMEL members (graduate and undergraduate students) for spring quarter to help with all the different projects!

I think my favorite part of the recruiting process was getting to run the interviews. I was a little nervous because I had never been an interviewer before, but the interviews ended up being so fun! I loved getting to meet all the candidates and hear about their love for marine mammals and interest in the lab. Hearing how excited people are to work with us and getting to talk about how amazing working in this lab is made me immensely grateful for the experiences I have had throughout my time in the MMEL. Interviewing our research assistant candidates was also a very educational experience for me, and I definitely picked up some tips for the next time I interview for a position!

I know that Isabel and I’s goal for the mtDNA project was to have all of our lab work completed before spring break, but unfortunately, we ran into some issues with supplies and were not able to get all of our lab work done. However, we completed a successful PCR plate with NO evaporation (thank you, strip caps!) right before spring break started, and ran the PCR product on gels. The PCR was successful with no contamination in our negative controls, so things are looking up! We are planning to have the next PCR’s completed and gels run by April 8th so that we can send out the products for sequencing. We want to have sequencing data back as soon as possible, so that we have enough time to analyze it, and then present our results at the NorthWest Student Chapter of the Society for Marine Mammals (NWSSMM) conference on May 4th.

I want to wrap up my March blog by just saying how grateful I am for the graduate students in this lab and my fellow managers. Going through the recruiting process in the middle of finals was definitely a stressful experience at times, but working with such amazing people made even the most chaotic times a blast! So, thank you to Alex, Vic, Jack, and Jasper for being so awesome! I really appreciate you all.

Maya Mijares

Olivia's Blog

Olivia Balaban, undergraduate student

1 April 2024

Hello again everyone!

I hope everyone has had a relaxing and enriching spring break! March has been really busy for me, but I am almost done with my code. I’ve been mostly taking it easy during spring break which has been a nice relief. A week ago, I noticed a problem with the data, but I met with Dr. Schwarz, and we solved the problem. In the original data set I’ve been working with there were no references to invertebrates because they were not separated by adult and juvenile states. The final diet matrix, however, does refer to invertebrates so we had to come up with a formula that would allow us to get the same data without the adult and juvenile states to consider. So far, I’ve been having trouble figuring out how to perform the final calculations based on columns instead of rows, but I think I’m close to a solution. Every step has taken me longer than I thought, but I’m starting to get better. I also registered for the conference in May which I am looking forward to.

Thank you so much for reading,

Isabel's Blog

Isabel Shier, undergraduate student

1 April 2024

Hopwdy all

Happy Spring Quarter!

As I’m writing this, the end of spring break is approaching, and with it the beginning of my final quarter at Western, which is both scary and exciting.

I’ve had an awesome break! I’ve gotten to go on some beautiful hikes that were new to me, and it’s just been wonderful to be able to spend some time in nature. The break has been a nice mix of relaxing and productive. I did some lab work, and it was really nice to be able to fully enjoy it, without the stress of classes in the equation.

Our team is getting close to being done with lab work, which is the majority of what we’re doing right now. We just finished our second PCR, and on Tuesday we’re planning to run our third and (hopefully) final PCR. We’re planning to send all the samples out for sanger sequencing soon. Maya and I have also been preparing for a conference! We sent in our abstract and registered, and the conference will take place in May.

I recently had the opportunity to help interview candidates to join the lab this spring, which was an amazing experience! I get very nervous when being interviewed, so it was really valuable to have the chance to be on the other side of the process. It demystified things, and gave me a greater appreciation for what interviewers are looking for. This is great, given interview skills will be coming in handy soon with graduation!

That’s it for now,
But more updates soon!


Haley's Blog

Haley Recob, undergraduate student

1 April 2024

Hello all!

I hope everyone is currently having a relaxing spring break from school. My spring break has been very eventful to say the least as I traveled from Vancouver Island in Canda down to LA in California. After some car trouble and getting caught in a blizzard in Mammoth Lakes, I (barely) made it home in time to spend Easter with my family.

Regarding school, March was a busy time due to finals. I was also given the opportunity to interview the incoming research assistants. It was awesome to be on the other side of the interview process and meet some of my potential future lab mates.

Involving our project, Maren and I have been working hard condensing and organizing large data sets from scat samples collected from harbor seal haul out sites. I’ve had a few battles with excel but succeeded in the end. We’re looking at how to apply this data to GIS and satellite maps. Maren and I have also been working hard to get summer funding to continue working on our project this summer. Congratulations to Maren for securing the SURP grant! With the spring conference getting closer, Maren and I have been starting to work on our abstract as well and thinking about our presentation and poster for the conference. I’m excited for spring quarter to start and to get back into the flow of things!

That’s all for now,
Haley Recob

Alexandra's Blog

Alexandrea Otto, graduate student

1 April 2024

Hello Spring!

Last quarter was a race to the finish line and even then, the “finish line” did not end until ½ way into Spring Break last week! Whew though and I’m glad to be on the other side of things somewhat! I just passed off the pooled GT-Seq primers for the 6th and almost final primer optimization run! From optimization run 5, we ended up with roughly 316 SNP primers pooled. In the last optimization run, we’ll do a final primer removal and should end up with a quality SNP panel of about ~200 SNPs hopefully, fingers crossed! Usually GT-Seq optimized SNP panels will vary around the ~300 SNPs range.

Since the EPMOHC conference, many things have also happened. I presented a 20-minute thesis oral presentation for our BIOL523 class. It was neat to have Dietmar, Isabel, and Jack be able to make the class/presentation as well! The extra support, friendly faces, and feedback was much appreciated!

We also held applications/interviews for the MMEL again this winter quarter! It was so fulfilling again to talk and meet with such young, eager scientists during interviews. It was especially sweet to see past and current BIOl204 students of mine apply and make the lab (: I also could not imagine working and interviewing over ten hours without the amazing lab managers this quarter! It was a tiring few weeks for all the lab managers but we all did it with such team effort and laughter. One could say recruiting new lab members is a bonding activity in itself for the lab managers!

Additionally, I serve as the second-year graduate student representative for the Biology Graduate Committee and this quarter entailed some extra tasks! As graduate student representatives, we gathered feedback from other GTAs and presented it to the committee and we have also helped provide edits for the new summer funding applications. It has been a cool experience serving on the committee thus far! I do seem to like being part of a committee, and it’s been since my undergraduate days that I have been able to take an active role in an extracurricular as so! The committee has been a fun extra role to change gears and take a break from thesis world.

BIOL204 ended well this past quarter as well! This Winter 2024 lab I had was one of my favorite groups of students and I already miss them dearly! Good news, for my last quarter of teaching I will be a Super TA once again! This is a double bonus as I only have one section, I can focus all my attention to and I get to help in some Super TA items to organize things and give back to the BIOL204 group that’s given me such joy and a job these past two years.

Wrapping up the end of the quarter, I was also able to get the ball rolling and got a preliminary first draft of my introduction out for feedback! In addition, the student subchapter and national Society of Marine Mammalogy called for abstracts! I was lucky enough to submit abstracts to both conferences. I was also had the honor to be put as second author on WDFW’s and Wild EcoHealth’s abstract submission. I am beyond gratitude and words to be part of such a supportive and amazing group of advisors and researchers. I’m learning more and more how science/research really is a team sport. It is easy as a graduate student to get wrapped up within your thesis project but it is good and refreshing perspective to be reminded the research project’s goals/objectives are shared with others and we are all wanting the same end product! I am not alone in finishing this project out strong!

Talking about teams, the last half of Spring break has been helping Maya and Isabel with their mtDNA lab work! Isabel and I have been cranking out the gels and PCRs all spring break long. As so, Maya and Isabel are almost ready for shipping and I cant wait for them to explore the data they get back. In just the preliminary sequencing they’ve done so far, they were able to infer some interesting things! It is very neat to be so close to sequencing results in both the GT-Seq and mtDNA projects, fingers crossed!

Til next month,

Jack's Blog

Jack Mezzone, undergraduate student

1 April 2024

Hello again!

As Winter quarter wrapped up and with Spring quarter on the horizon, I came to the realization that my last quarter at Western is already here. Time has flown by over the last few years and especially these last few quarters.

Recruiting folks to the lab was a great experience as we got to meet a bunch of awesome individuals. We will be working with them and passing along our knowledge and passion for the MMEL over the next quarter. In the interview process, we shared the projects going on in the lab and gauged interest in which one people were most interested in. It was incredible to see that so many folks were excited about doing the Smolt Project and observations at 5:30 in the morning! Personally, I can't think of a better way to start the day.

As for the Smolt Project specifically, some exciting things have happened. Maddie and I worked on an abstract for the project. After many revisions and working to keep the word limit to 300, we got the abstract submitted for a conference in May. The conference will be held by the Northwest Student Chapter Society for Marine Mammalogy (NWSSMM) at the University of Washington in Seattle. Maddie and I will present a poster on the Smolt project at this conference which we will start working on in the near future. There is a bit of work to do over the next month in preparation for the project in terms of coordinating, training people, getting biology building keys for the early and late observations, and gathering release forms. Overall, everything is looking positive and I'm super excited to be bringing on so many passionate individuals to help with this research!

Until next time,