Marine Mammal Ecology Lab

JULY 2021

Kyra's Blog

Kyra Bankhead, undergraduate student

1 July 2021

This month consisted of getting more students into the lab. I haven’t had time for much else as school was finishing up and I was trying to interview as many students as I could for the summer. So far, I have found many good candidates and I’m excited to get started on summer observations. I had an orientation with the three new students and have found that many things will be changing now that COVID restrictions have been opening. I believe I will be continuing to have the students come to my place to pick up the noise meter and simply send an email to me an hour before the observation. My place is closer to the observation site than the university so hopefully this will be easier for everyone. Other than that, I believe summer observations will stay the same as last year with very little contact with others. I can’t wait to continue my research!

Kyra Bankhead

Holland's Blog

Holland Conwell, undergraduate student

1 July 2021

As always, this month just flew by! In the blink of an eye, my sophomore year has come to a close, and I’ve eased into a busy summer work schedule. This month, in a day-long burst of activity, I finished the last of the scat samples that I had been working on for Zoë’s project, and I’m now officially done with that lab work. I never would have guessed that I’d have so much fun in a position that can certainly get quite icky at times! This is truly a testament to how much I enjoyed working with Zoë and Maddie on this project, as well as a testament to my new-found love for working in the lab. These last ~6 months in the lab were a blast, and I hope to participate in many more lab projects over the coming years!

This summer, I’ve been balancing my job as a seafaring tour guide with work on my own project in the lab. This has been a bit of a challenge thus far, but I’m laser-focused on cleaning up my introduction before receiving the full dataset in early July. I’ve written the full introduction, but I’m currently playing around with the logical flow of this section, with Alejandro’s guidance. I also need to expand on certain concepts that require more explanation than I had initially written. As I’m reviewing the flow of the introduction, I additionally noticed a spot in the first paragraph that could be more broadly written and include additional context from other papers. What this means is I’ll be reviewing more literature to locate some appropriate studies to discuss in the introduction of the paper before zeroing in on pinniped-specific content. I’ve got my work cut out for me, but I’m excited nonetheless!

Kathleen's Blog

Kathleen McKeegan, graduate student

1 July 2021

Summer is here! We just had a major heat wave in the PNW, which was very abnormal for this early in the summer. I thought I was leaving behind the 100-degree weather when I left Southern California!

Despite the heat wave, summer is off to a good start so far. The quarter ended a few weeks ago and everything went great. Classes ended well and I officially finished my TAship. I am very happy to report that I was awarded a full tuition waiver from the Associate Dean of the Graduate School, so I will be able to use my Graduate Student Research Award from the North Pacific Research Board to fund a full RAship next academic year. This will allow me to dedicate more time and effort towards photo processing, data analysis, and outreach. I am very grateful for all of the support I’ve received from the Biology Department and from the Graduate School here at Western.

So far this summer, I have been working on cleaning up the catalog of confirmed harbor seal IDs. I’m about halfway through the current catalog, meaning I have worked through about 114 seal IDs. This process involves looking through the raw photos and ensuring we have a right side, front side, and left side for each ID and that the left side definitely belongs to the right side. So far, I’ve found a couple of mismatched seals or unconfirmed IDs (for example, we only have a few blurry RS photos). Once I finish going through the catalog and confirming all IDs, I can begin working through Ocean Initiative’s photos and IDing all seals that were present in Fall 2020. My goal is to finish confirming the catalog by the end of the first week of July so that I can begin the seal ID process. Hopefully by next month, I’ll have a huge chunk of the photo IDs done. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Kate's Blog

Kate Clayton, undergraduate student

1 July 2021

Finally, summer is here! I am so happy to be done with Spring quarter and to get a break from school.

I helped Zoë with scat cleaning again this month which was super fun. It is nice to get a bit of experience with the molecular side of the lab as well as the ecological.

I started my NASA scholarship work about a week ago which is very exciting. I can’t think of a better way to spend the summer then looking at sweet seal faces. I have been focusing on getting through the cropping from November observations as well as IDing the individuals I am familiar with. It is slow and somewhat tedious work but with some breaks interspersed, it goes pretty fast. I have seen several individuals that I have yet to find in our catalog so we may need to make some new IDs. Hopefully Kathleen and I can have a meeting in the next couple weeks to determine if the individuals need new IDs. We still have to get through the images from Ocean’s Initiative too so it will be a very busy summer! Wish me luck!

Zoë's Blog

Zoë Lewis, graduate student

1 July 2021

Happy July! Although school is technically out for summer, I’m spending more and more time in lab as my knee gets stronger and I’m able to spend more time doing lab work (and less time reading and researching about modeling….)

Scat processing is getting faster and faster… By mid-June, my undergraduates and I had finished all of our December-June scat separation. All of us pushed hard amid finals and other coursework to finish these scats. As of today, I am also sending out these samples for both DNA and hard parts analysis! This marks over 200 scats sent out. I likely will not receive any of these data results until all of the scats are processed, but it feels good to have the samples moving along through all stages of the project.

On the scat collection side of things: The May and June scat collection expeditions for harbor seals scats were all unsuccessful. Liz and Jon tried multiple times both month to access seal haulouts and collect scat. However, the combination of weather, tides, and lack of scat prevented their success. Good news is, we have lots of extra materials left, and we will continue to collect Steller sea lion scats for the July and August months! It will be a really interesting data set to have samples from winter, spring, and summer months… and I’m grateful we have the resources to stretch out our field season.

Speaking of field season, next week I’ll be heading out to Neah Bay to hang out with the Interns and work with Adrianne and Jon out in the field. I’m currently developing an activity that mimics the methods from my project, using chocolate pudding to mimic scat processing! I’m a little nervous to see how it turns out but I’m excited to try something new… and spend more time on education again.

I’m also working on a project with Dietmar Schwarz to use qPCR sex determination on approximately 2000 harbor seal scat samples. As soon as I had caught up with my scat work for my thesis, I spent 2 weeks diving deep into this project, decoding the data and finishing up 92% of these samples for an initial report. Today, Dietmar finished up this initial report, with some interesting trends in sex specific consumption of salmon by harbor seals. I look forward to digging into this a bit more, and finishing up the last 160 or so samples when I return from the field.

One last thing: A huge congratulations to both Grace Freeman and Bobbie Buzzell for finishing up their thesis defense and graduating! It has been an honor to work beside these two inspiring, intelligent and ambitious individuals. I am so thankful for all of their guidance throughout my first year. We will miss you in MMEL!


Grace'ss Blog

Grace Freeman, graduate student

1 July 2021

Well, I guess after two-years of monthly blogs with project updates, we’ve reached the end:

June started with my pre-defense meeting before which I submitted a copy of my mostly-final thesis to my committee. We discussed the draft at the meeting, and they were able to ask questions and give feedback on everything. I went in very unsure about what to expect, but I came out of that meeting with confidence and some new ideas to improve my paper. After the meeting, I had three weeks before my thesis needed to be officially “tabled” in the department. Rather than wait, though, I decided to get it over with and make all the necessary changes right away. Then, when I left for a two-week road trip in the middle of June, I was able to pull my head out of the thesis and know I had already put in the hard work.

After the road trip, I needed to really dive into presentation practice. I had most of a talk already prepared from our conference back in May, but a defense seminar is much longer and requires more detail than that talk did. So, I spent some time putting that together and getting ready to present. Then, I decided to again pull my head out of it and complete a Wilderness First Responder recertification course over the weekend before my defense. Not how I would recommend preparing for a defense, but it was nice to have the distraction – and access to a little AC during the unprecedented heat wave!

Finally, my defense arrived on June 30th. I wasn’t nervous before the presentation, which actually made me a little nervous in itself. Instead, though, I was excited to get to talk about my research and show off all the hard work I’ve completed over the past two years. The presentation and defense went about as well as I could have hoped, and I was proud of how I handled questions. It felt great to see the culmination of the past two years of my life. At the end of the defense, Alejandro asked me to reflect on what aspect of my work I’m most proud of and what skills I will be taking forward, and it took me a minute to sort through it all. I’m so grateful to have been surrounded by a wonderful team during a difficult time, and I’m proud of all the hard work my team and I did to pull this project off. I can certainly say that at the end of this experience, I’m leaving with far more skills than I started with, and I’m leaving the project in a better place than I found it. I moved out to Bellingham from Wisconsin two years ago having seen a single seal in real life. Well, now I can say that I’ve seen many – and thousands of pictures – and despite plans to bring this marine biology degree back to the Midwest, the experience was absolutely worthwhile!