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 ( 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: ( 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)

  • 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! 

A Marine Mammal Odyssey, Eh!

By Leila Lemos, PhD student

Dawn Barlow, MS student

Florence Sullivan, MS

The Society for Marine Mammalogy’s Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals happens every two years and this year the conference took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Logo of the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s 22nd Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, 2017: A Marine Mammal Odyssey, eh!

The conference started with a welcome reception on Sunday, October 22nd, followed by a week of plenaries, oral presentations, speed talks and posters, and two more days with different workshops to attend.

This conference is an important event for us, as marine mammalogists. This is the moment where we get to share our projects (how exciting!), get important feedback, and hear about different studies that are being conducted around the world. It is also an opportunity to network and find opportunities for collaboration with other researchers, and of course to learn from our colleagues who are presenting their work.

The GEMM Lab attending the opening plenaries of the conference!

The first day of conference started with an excellent talk from Asha de Vos, from Sri Lanka, where she discussed the need for increased diversity (in all aspects including race, gender, nationality, etc.) in our field, and advocated for the end of “parachute scientists” who come into a foreign (to them) location, complete their research, and then leave without communicating results, or empowering the local community to care or act in response to local conservation issues.  She also talked about the difficulty that researchers in developing countries face accessing research that is hidden behind journal pay walls, and encouraged everyone to get creative with communication! This means using blogs and social media, talking to science communicators and others in order to get our stories out, and no longer hiding our results behind the ivory tower of academia.  Overall, it was an inspirational way to begin the week.

On Thursday morning we heard Julie van der Hoop, who was this year’s recipient of the F.G. Wood Memorial Scholarship Award, present her work on “Drag from fishing gear entangling right whales: a major extinction risk factor”. Julie observed a decrease in lipid reserves in entangled whales and questioned if entanglements are as costly as events such as migration, pregnancy or lactation. Tags were also deployed on whales that had been disentangled from fishing gear, and researchers were able to see an increase in whale speed and dive depth.

Julie van der Hoop talks about different drag forces of fishing gears
on North Atlantic Right Whales.

There were many other interesting talks over the course of the week. Some of the talks that inspired us were:

— Stephen Trumble’s talk “Earplugs reveal a century of stress in baleen whales and the impact of industrial whaling” presented a time-series of cortisol profiles of different species of baleen whales using earplugs. The temporal data was compared to whaling data information and they were able to see a high correlation between datasets. However, during a low whaling season concurrent to the World War II in the 40’s, high cortisol levels were potentially associated to an increase in noise from ship traffic.

— Jane Khudyakov (“Elephant seal blubber transcriptome and proteome responses to single and repeated stress”) and Cory Champagne (“Metabolomic response to acute and repeated stress in the northern elephant seal”) presented different aspects of the same project. Jane looked at down/upregulation of genes (downregulation is when a cell decreases the quantity of a cellular component, such as RNA or protein, in response to an external stimulus; upregulation is the opposite: when the cell increases the quantity of cellular components) to check for stress. She was able to confirm an upregulation of genes after repeated stressor exposure. Cory checked for influences on the metabolism after administering ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone: a stimulating hormone that causes the release of glucocorticoid hormones by the adrenal cortex. i.e., cortisol, a stress related hormone) to elephant seals. By looking only at the stress-related hormone, he was not able to differentiate acute from chronic stress responses. However, he showed that many other metabolic processes varied according to the stress-exposure time. This included a decrease in amino acids, mobilization of lipids and upregulation of carbohydrates.

— Jouni Koskela (“Fishing restrictions is an essential protection method of the Saimaa ringed seal”) talked about the various conservation efforts being undertaken for the endangered Lake Saimaa ringed seal. Gill nets account for 90% of seal pup mortality, but if new pups can reach 20kg, only 14% of them will drown in these fishing net entanglements. Working with local industry and recreational interests, increased fishing restrictions have been enacted during the weaning season. In addition to other year-round restrictions, this has led to a small, but noticeable upward trend in pup production and population growth! A conservation success story is always gratifying to hear, and we wish these collaborative efforts continued future success.

— Charmain Hamilton (“Impacts of sea-ice declines on a pinnacle Arctic predator-prey relationship: Habitat, behaviour, and spatial overlap between coastal polar bears and ringed seals”) gave a fascinating presentation looking at how changing ice regimes in the arctic are affecting spatial habitat use patterns of polar bears. As ice decreases in the summer months, the polar bears move more, resulting in less spatial overlap with ringed seal habitat, and so the bears have turned to targeting ground nesting seabirds.  This spatio-temporal mismatch of traditional predator/prey has drastic implications for arctic food web dynamics.

— Nicholas Farmer’s presentation on a Population Consequences of Disturbance (PCoD) model for assessing theoretical impacts of seismic survey on sperm whale population health had some interesting parallels with new questions in our New Zealand blue whale project. By simulating whale movement through modeled three-dimensional sound fields, he found that the frequency of the disturbance (i.e., how many days in a row the seismic survey activity persisted) was very important in determining effects on the whales. If the seismic noise persists for many days in a row, the sperm whales may not be able to replenish their caloric reserves because of ongoing disturbance. As you can imagine, this pattern gets worse with more sequential days of disturbance.

— Jeremy Goldbogen used suction cup tags equipped with video cameras to peer into an unusual ecological niche: the boundary layer of large whales, where drag is minimized and remoras and small invertebrates compete and thrive. Who would have thought that at a marine mammal conference, a room full of people would be smiling and laughing at remoras sliding around the back of a blue whale, or barnacles filter feeding as they go for a ride with a humpback whale? Insights from animals that occupy this rare niche can inform improvements to current tag technologies.

The GEMM Lab was well represented this year with six different talks: four oral presentations and two speed talks! It is evident that all of our hard work and preparation, such as practicing our talks in front of our lab mates two weeks in advance, paid off.  All of the talks were extremely well received by the audience, and a few generated intelligent questions and discussion afterwards – exactly as we hoped.  It was certainly gratifying to see how packed the room was for Sharon’s announcement of our new method of standardizing photogrammetry from drones, and how long the people stayed to talk to Dawn after her presentation about an unique population of New Zealand blue whales – it took us over an hour to be able to take her away for food and the celebratory drinks she deserved!

GEMM Lab members on their talks. From left to right, top to bottom: Amanda Holdman, Leila Lemos, Solène Derville, Dawn Barlow, Sharon Nieukirk, and Florence Sullivan.


GEMM Lab members at the closing celebration. From left to right: Florence Sullivan, Leila Lemos, Amanda Holdman, Solène Derville, and Dawn Barlow.
We are not always serious, we can get silly sometimes!

The weekend after the conference many courageous researchers who wanted to stuff their brains with even more specialized knowledge participated in different targeted workshops. From 32 different workshops that were offered, Leila chose to participate in “Measuring hormones in marine mammals: Current methods, alternative sample matrices, and future directions” in order to learn more about the new methods, hormones and matrices that are being used by different research groups and also to make connections with other endocrinologist researchers. Solène participated in the workshop “Reproducible Research with R, Git, and GitHub” led by Robert Shick.  She learned how to better organize her research workflow and looks forward to teaching us all how to be better collaborative coders, and ensure our analysis is reproducible by others and by our future selves!

On Sunday none of us from the GEMM Lab participated in workshops and we were able to explore a little bit of the Bay of Fundy, an important area for many marine mammal species. Even though we didn’t spot any marine mammals, we enjoyed witnessing the enormous tidal exchange of the bay (the largest tides in the world), and the fall colors of the Annaoplis valley were stunning as well. Our little trip was fun and relaxing after a whole week of learning.

The beauty of the Bay of Fundy.
GEMM Lab at the Bay of Fundy; from left to right: Kelly Sullivan (Florence’s husband and a GEMM Lab fan), Florence Sullivan, Dawn Barlow, Solène Derville, and Leila Lemos.
We do love being part of the GEMM Lab!

It is amazing how refreshing it is to participate in a conference. So many ideas popping up in our heads and an increasing desire to continue doing research and work for conservation of marine mammals. Now it’s time to put all of our ideas and energy into practice back home! See you all in two years at the next conference in Barcelona!

Flying out of Halifax!