Skype a Scientist – Are you smarter than a middle schooler?

By Florence Sullivan, MSc

What do baby whales eat?

Does the mom whale take care of the baby whale alone?

How do whales communicate?

What are their behaviors?

These are the questions 4th grade students half a world away asked me.  They are studying biodiversity and were very curious to meet a real life scientist.  It was 2:00pm on a Tuesday here in Newport, OR, while in Australia, this classroom full of students was sitting in their 9:00am Wednesday science class.  We had an hour-long conversation about gray whale behaviors, habitat, life cycle, and general biology – all thanks to the wonders of science, technology and the computer program, Skype. The next day, I did it all again, and Skyped in to a classroom in British Columbia, to field questions about gray whales, right whales and science careers from a group of enthusiastic 5th and 6th grade students.

 

A class of Australian 4th graders had many imaginative questions for me through the Skype a Scientist Program.

But how in the world did I end up answering questions over Skype for a classroom full of kids in the first place? Like many good things, it began with a conversation.  During the 2016 USA election cycle, it became apparent that many people in this country distrust scientists. Sarah McAnulty, a PhD student at the University of Connecticut who studies the immune system of bob tail squid, had already been engaging in informal science communication through a profile on tumblr.  But posting things on tumblr is like preaching to the choir – your audience tends to be people who are already interested in your subject. If the problem is trying to change the public perception of scientists from aloof and insular to trustworthy and approachable, you need to start by finding people who have a lot of questions, and few pre-existing prejudices.  Who fits the bill perfectly? Kids!

After conversations with colleagues, she came up with the idea of using Skype to reach classrooms of students outside of the range where scientists usually congregate (large cities and universities).  Sarah started by connecting a handful of UConn colleagues with K-12 teachers through Facebook, but the idea quickly gained steam through mentions at a scientific conference, posts on the ‘March for Science’ Facebook group, media coverage, and word-of-mouth sharing between colleagues on both the teaching and the research side of the story.  Now, there is a full-fledged website (https://www.skypeascientist.com/) where teachers and scientists can sign up to be matched based on availability, topic, and sometimes, demographic.  When pairing classrooms and scientists, Sarah makes an effort for minority students (whether this means race, gender, disability, language, or other) to see themselves represented in the scientists they get to talk to, if possible.  Representation matters –we are beyond the age of old white men in lab coats being the only ‘real scientists’ represented in media, but unfortunately, the stereotype is not dead yet! In less than a year, the program has grown to over 1900 scientists, with new fields of expertise being added frequently as people spread the word and get interested.  The program has been, and promises to continue being, an excellent resource for teachers who want to show the relevance of the subjects being discussed in their classrooms. As evidenced by the fact that I spoke with a classroom in Australia, this is a global program – check out the maps below to see where students and scientists are coming from!

This map shows the locations of all participating classrooms, current on Oct 12, 2017.
This map shows the locations of all participating scientists, current on October 22, 2017.

As for myself, I got involved because my lab mate, Alexa, mentioned how much fun she had Skyping with students.  The sign-up process was incredibly easy, and when I got matched with two classrooms, the organizers even provided a nice mad-libs style ‘fill in the blank’ introduction letter so that I didn’t waste time agonizing over how to introduce myself.

Introductory Mad-libs for scientists. Courtesy of the Skype a Scientist program.

I sent the classrooms the youtube video of my field work, and a couple of these blog posts, and waited to hear back.  I was very impressed with the 5th/6th grade class from British Columbia because the teacher actually let the students take the lead from the get-go.  One of the students replied to my email, told me what they were studying, and started the process of scheduling a meeting time that would work for both of us. When I called in, two other students took the reins, and acted as spokespeople for the rest of their classmates by repeating questions from the back of the room so that I could hear everything clearly. It was so fun to see and hear the enthusiasm of the students as they asked their questions.  Their deep curiosity and obvious excitement about the subject matter was contagious, and I found my own tone, body language, and attitude shifting to match theirs as I helped them discover the building blocks of marine ecology that I have long accepted as normal. This two way street of learning is a good reminder that we all start somewhere.

If you are interested in the program at all, I encourage you to sign up at this link: (https://www.skypeascientist.com/). Who knows, engaging with kids like this just might remind you of the innocent curiosity of childhood that brought you to your scientific career in the first place.

 

Here are some of my favorite question that I was asked, and the responses I gave:

  • How do gray whales communicate?

With songs and underwater sounds! Check out this great website for some great examples, and prepare to be amazed! (I played the Conga and the belch-like call during the skype session, much to the amusement of the students)  https://www.sanignaciograywhales.org/project/acoustics/

  • What do baby whales eat?

Whales are mammals just like us, so believe it or not, baby whales drink their mother’s milk!

  • How long have you been a marine special ecologist for?

My favorite bit here was the mis-spelling, which made me a ‘special’ ecologist instead of a ‘spatial’ ecologist.  So I talked about how spatial ecology is a special type of ecology where we look at how big things move in the ocean!

  • My question is, can a grey whale bite people if people come close to them?
    This was a chance to show off our lab baleen samples!  I also took the time to look this up, and it turns out that bite is defined as “using teeth to cut into something” and a gray whale doesn’t have teeth!  Instead, they have baleen, which they use to sieve stuff out of the water.  So I don’t think you need to worry about getting bitten by a gray whale. That being said, it’s important not to get close to them, because they are so much bigger than us that they could hurt us on accident.

 

  • When you go out to see the whales, why don’t you use slightly bigger boats so you don’t flip over if the whale gets too close to you, or when you get to close to the whale?
    Our research kayak is a never-ending delight. It’s less expensive than a bigger boat, and doesn’t use fossil fuels. We want to be quiet in the water and not disturb the whale, and actively avoid getting within 100 yards so there shouldn’t be any danger. Sometimes the whales surprise us though, and we have to be careful. In this case, everyone has safety training and is able to rescue themselves if the boat should flip.

(This led to an entertaining discussion of field safety, and the appalling idea that I would make my interns jump out of the kayak into cold Pacific water on purpose during safety training)

There were many more questions, but why don’t you give the program a try, and see what kind of questions you get to answer?!

Safety First! 

Observing humpback whales through the clear New Caledonian waters

Solène Derville, Entropie Lab, French National Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD – UMR Entropie), Nouméa, New Caledonia

Ph.D. student under the co-supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres

Drone technology has illustrated itself as particularly useful to the study of cetacean in the GEMM Lab (see previous post by Dawn and Leila) and in the marine mammal research community in general. The last Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Halifax staged several talks and posters describing the great potential of drones for observing animal behaviors, collecting blow samples, estimating the size and health of animals, or estimating densities. The GEMM Lab has been conducting leading research in this field, from capturing exceptional footages of lunge feeding blue whales in New Zealand, to measuring gray whale health on the Oregon coast.

Using drones in New Caledonia

In September 2017 I participated in a scientific cruise undertaken by Opération Cétacés /IRD to study New Caledonian humpback whales, and we were lucky to be joined by Nicolas Job, a professional diver, photographer and drone pilot. It was one of those last minute decisions: one of our crewmates canceled the week before the survey and we thought “who could we bring on instead?”. We barely knew the man but figured it would be good to get a few humpback whale drone images… We invited him to join us on the research expedition only a few days before the trip but this is not the kind of opportunity that a photographer would pass on!

Far from trying to acquire scientific data in the way the GEMM Lab does with blue whales and gray whales, we were only hoping to take “pretty pictures”… we were not disappointed.

Once we got past a few unexpected issues (YES you need to wear gloves to protect your fingers when trying to catch a flying drone (Fig 1), and NO frigate birds will not attack drones as long as they don’t smell like fish), Nicolas managed to fly the drone above our small research boat and capture footage of several humpback whale groups, including mothers with calf and competitive groups.

Figure 1: Frigate birds are known to attack birds in flight to steal their meal straight from their beak…luckily they did not attack our drone! On the contrary, it seems like they could help scientists one day as it has been suggested that UAV builders could learn from their exceptional soaring behavior that allows months-long transoceanic flights (photo credit: Henri Zemerskirch CEBC CNRS) .

As I said, no groundbreaking science here, but this experience convinced me that drones can bring a new perspective to the way we observe and interpret animal behavior. As a known statistics/R-lover in the lab, I often get so excited by the intricacies of data analysis that I forget I am studying these giant, elegant, agile, and intelligent sea creatures (Fig 2). And the video clips that Nicolas put together just reminded me of that.

The clear waters of the Natural Park of the Coral Sea allowed us to see whales as far as 30 meters deep in some areas! This perspective turned our usual surface observations into 3D. We could see escorts guarding maternal females and preventing other males from approaching by producing bubble trails. Escorts also extended their pectoral fins on either side of their body, a behavior supposed to make them look more imposing in the presence of a challenger. Competitive groups were also very impressive from above. During the breeding season, competitive groups form when several males aggregate around a female and compete for it. These groups typically travel at high speed and are characterized by active surface behaviors such as tail slaps, head lunges, and bubble trails.

Figure 2: This female humpback whale was encountered in 2016 and 2017. Her white flanks make her particularly easy to recognize. On both occasions it put on a show and kept circling the Amborella oceanographic vessel for more than an hour. To provide a sense of scale, the vessel on this drone footage is 24 m long (photo credit: Nicolas Job).

Drones and seamounts

Since the discovery of humpback whale offshore breeding areas in Antigonia seamount in 2007 and Orne bank in 2016, a lot of research has been conducted to better understand habitat preferences, distributions and connectivity in oceanic waters of New Caledonia (see previous post). Surveys have always been strongly multidisciplinary, including boat-based observation, biopsy sampling, and photo-identification, satellite tracking, in situ oceanographic measurements and acoustics. Will drones soon become an essential component of this toolbox?

One potential application I could imagine for my personal research questions would be to use aerial photogrammetry to measure the size of newborn calves. Indeed, we have found that offshore seamounts are used by a relatively great number of mothers with calf (Derville, Torres & Garrigue, In Press JMAMM). This finding is counter intuitive to the paradigm that maternal females prefer sheltered, shallow and coastal waters as shown in many breeding grounds around the world. Yet, we believe unsheltered oceanic areas might become more attractive to maternal females as the calf grows bigger and more robust to harsh sea states and encounters with competitive adult males. Drone photogrammetry of calves could likely help us confirm this hypothesis.

But for now, I will leave the science behind for a bit and let you enjoy the sheer beauty of this footage!

Film directed by Nicolas Job (Heos Marine) with images collected during the MARACAS3 survey (Marine Mammals of the Coral Sea: IRD/ UMR Entropie/Opération Cétacés/ Gouv.nc/ WWF/ Ministère de la Transition écologique et solidaire).