Why Feeling Stupid is Great: How stupidity fuels scientific progress and discovery

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

It all started with a paper. On Halloween, I sat at my desk, searching for papers that could answer my questions about bottlenose dolphin metabolism and realized I had forgotten to check my email earlier. In my inbox, there was a new message with an attachment from Dr. Leigh Torres to the GEMM Lab members, saying this was a “must-read” article. The suggested paper was Martin A. Schwartz’s 2008 essay, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research”, published in the Journal of Cell Science, highlighted universal themes across science. In a single, powerful page, Schwartz captured my feelings—and those of many scientists: the feeling of being stupid.

For the next few minutes, I stood at the printer and absorbed the article, while commenting out loud, “YES!”, “So true!”, and “This person can see into my soul”. Meanwhile, colleagues entered my office to see me, dressed in my Halloween costume—as “Amazon’s Alexa”, talking aloud to myself. Coincidently, I was feeling pretty stupid at that moment after just returning from a weekly meeting, where everyone asked me questions that I clearly did not have the answers to (all because of my costume). This paper seemed too relevant; the timing was uncanny. In the past few weeks, I have been writing my PhD research proposal —a requirement for our department— and my goodness, have I felt stupid. The proposal outlines my dissertation objectives, puts my work into context, and provides background research on common bottlenose dolphin health. There is so much to know that I don’t know!

Alexa dressed as “Amazon Alexa” on Halloween at her office in San Diego, CA.

When I read Schwartz’s 2008 paper, there were a few takeaway messages that stood out:

  1. People take different paths. One path is not necessarily right nor wrong. Simply, different. I compared that to how I split my time between OSU and San Diego, CA. Spending half of the year away from my lab and my department is incredibly challenging; I constantly feel behind and I miss the support that physically being with other students provides. However, I recognize the opportunities I have in San Diego where I work directly with collaborators who teach and challenge me in new ways that bring new skills and perspective.

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    (Image source: St. Albert’s Place)
  2. Feeling stupid is not bad. It can be a good feeling—or at least we should treat it as being a positive thing. It shows we have more to learn. It means that we have not reached our maximum potential for learning (who ever does?). While writing my proposal I realized just how little I know about ecotoxicology, chemistry, and statistics. I re-read papers that are critical to understanding my own research, like “Nontargeted biomonitoring of halogenated organic compounds in two ecotypes of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) from the Southern California bight” (2014) by Shaul et al. and “Bottlenose dolphins as indicators of persistent organic pollutants in the western north Atlantic ocean and northern gulf of Mexico” (2011) by Kucklick et al. These articles took me down what I thought were wormholes that ended up being important rivers of information. Because I recognized my knowledge gap, I can now articulate the purpose and methods of analysis for specific compounds that I will conduct using blubber samples of common bottlenose dolphins

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    Image source: memegenerator.net
  3. Drawing upon experts—albeit intimidating—is beneficial for scientific consulting as well as for our mental health; no one person knows everything. That statement can bring us together because when people work together, everyone benefits. I am also reminded that we are our own harshest critics; sometimes our colleagues are the best champions of our own successes. It is also why historical articles are foundational. In the hunt for the newest technology and the latest and greatest in research, it is important to acknowledge the basis for discoveries. My data begins in 1981, when the first of many researchers began surveying the California coastline for common bottlenose dolphins. Geographic information systems (GIS) were different back then. The data requires conversions and investigative work. I had to learn how the data were collected and how to interpret that information. Therefore, it should be no surprise that I cite literature from the 1970s, such as “Results of attempts to tag Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins, (Tursiops truncatus)” by Irvine and Wells. Although published in 1972, the questions the authors tried to answer are very similar to what I am looking at now: how are site fidelity and home ranges impacted by natural and anthropogenic processes. While Irvine and Wells used large bolt tags to identify individuals, my project utilizes much less invasive techniques (photo-identification and blubber biopsies) to track animals, their health, and their exposures to contaminants.

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  4. Struggling is part of the solution. Science is about discovery and without the feeling of stupidity, discovery would not be possible. Feeling stupid is the first step in the discovery process: the spark that fuels wanting to explore the unknown. Feeling stupid can lead to the feeling of accomplishment when we find answers to those very questions that made us feel stupid. Part of being a student and a scientist is identifying those weaknesses and not letting them stop me. Pausing, reflecting, course correcting, and researching are all productive in the end, but stopping is not. Coursework is the easy part of a PhD. The hard part is constantly diving deeper into the great unknown that is research. The great unknown is simultaneously alluring and frightening. Still, it must be faced head on. Schwartz describes “productive stupidity [as] being ignorant by choice.” I picture this as essentially blindly walking into the future with confidence. Although a bit of an oxymoron, it resonates the importance of perseverance and conviction in the midst of uncertainty.

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Now I think back to my childhood when stupid was one of the forbidden “s-words” and I question whether society had it all wrong. Maybe we should teach children to acknowledge ignorance and pursue the unknown. Stupid is a feeling, not a character flaw. Stupidity is important in science and in life. Fascination and emotional desires to discover new things are healthy. Next time you feel stupid, try running with it, because more often than not, you will learn something.

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Alexa teaching about marine mammals to students ages 2-6 and learning from educators about new ways to engage young students. San Diego, CA in 2016. (Photo source: Lori Lowder)

Over the Ocean and Under the Bridges: STEM Cruise on the R/V Oceanus

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

From September 22nd through 30th, the GEMM Lab participated in a STEM research cruise aboard the R/V Oceanus, Oregon State University’s (OSU) largest research vessel, which served as a fully-functioning, floating, research laboratory and field station. The STEM cruise focused on integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) into hands-on teaching experiences alongside professionals in the marine sciences. The official science crew consisted of high school teachers and students, community college students, and Oregon State University graduate students and professors. As with a usual research cruise, there was ample set-up, data collection, data entry, experimentation, successes, and failures. And because everyone in the science party actively participated in the research process, everyone also experienced these successes, failures, and moments of inspiration.

The science party enjoying the sunset from the aft deck with the Astoria-Megler bridge in the background. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki)

Dr. Leigh Torres, Dr. Rachael Orben, and I were all primarily stationed on flybridge—one deck above the bridge—fully exposed to the elements, at the highest possible location on the ship for best viewing. We scanned the seas in hopes of spotting a blow, a splash, or any sign of a marine mammal or seabird. Beside us, students and teachers donned binoculars and positioned themselves around the mast, with Leigh and I taking a 90-degree swath from the mast—either to starboard or to port. For those who had not been part of marine mammal observations previously, it was a crash course into the peaks and troughs—of both the waves and of the sightings. We emphasized the importance of absence data: knowledge of what is not “there” is equally as important as what is. Fortunately, Leigh chose a course that proved to have surprisingly excellent environmental conditions and amazing sightings. Therefore, we collected a large amount of presence data: data collected when marine mammals or seabirds are present.

High school student, Chris Quashnick Holloway, records a seabird sighting for observer, Dr. Rachael Orben. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki).

When someone sighted a whale that surfaced regularly, we assessed the conditions: the sea state, the animal’s behavior, the wind conditions, etc. If we deemed them as “good to fly”, our licensed drone pilot and Orange Coast Community College student, Jason, prepared his Phantom 4 drone. While he and Leigh set up drone operations, I and the other science team members maintained a visual on the whale and stayed in constant communication with the bridge via radio. When the drone was ready, and the bridge gave the “all clear”, Jason launched his drone from the aft deck. Then, someone tossed an unassuming, meter-long, wood plank overboard—keeping it attached to the ship with a line. This wood board serves as a calibration tool; the drone flies over it at varying heights as determined by its built-in altimeter. Later, we analyze how many pixels one meter occupied at different heights and can thereby determine the body length of the whale from still images by converting pixel length to a metric unit.

High school student, Alishia Keller, uses binoculars to observe a whale, while PhD student, Alexa Kownacki, radios updates on the whale’s location to the bridge and the aft deck. (Image source: Tracy Crews)

Finally, when the drone is calibrated, I radio the most recent location of our animal. For example, “Blow at 9 o’clock, 250 meters away”. Then, the bridge and I constantly adjust the ship’s speed and location. If the whale “flukes” (dives and exposes the ventral side of its tail), and later resurfaced 500 meters away at our 10 o’clock, I might radio to the bridge to, “turn 60 degrees to port and increase speed to 5 knots”. (See the Hidden Math Lesson below). Jason then positions the drone over the whale, adjusting the camera angle as necessary, and recording high-quality video footage for later analysis. The aerial viewpoint provides major advantages. Whales usually expose about 10 percent of their body above the water’s surface. However, with an aerial vantage point, we can see more of the whale and its surroundings. From here, we can observe behaviors that are otherwise obscured (Torres et al. 2018), and record footage that to help quantify body condition (i.e. lengths and girths). Prior to the batteries running low, Jason returns the drone back to the aft deck, the vessel comes to an idle, and Leigh catches the drone. Throughout these operations, those of us on the flybridge photograph flukes for identification and document any behaviors we observe. Later, we match the whale we sighted to the whale that the drone flew over, and then to prior sightings of this same individual—adding information like body condition or the presence of a calf. I like to think of it as whale detective work. Moreover, it is a team effort; everyone has a critical role in the mission. When it’s all said and done, this noninvasive approach provides life history context to the health and behaviors of the animal.

Drone pilot, Jason Miranda, flying his drone using his handheld ground station on the aft deck. (Photo source: Tracy Crews)

Hidden Math Lesson: The location of 10 o’clock and 60 degrees to port refer to the exact same direction. The bow of the ship is our 12 o’clock with the stern at our 6 o’clock; you always orient yourself in this manner when giving directions. The same goes for a compass measurement in degrees when relating the direction to the boat: the bow is 360/0. An angle measure between two consecutive numbers on a clock is: 360 degrees divided by 12-“hour” markers = 30 degrees. Therefore, 10 o’clock was 0 degrees – (2 “hours”)= 0 degrees- (2*30 degrees)= -60 degrees. A negative degree less than 180 refers to the port side (left).

Killer whale traveling northbound.

Our trip was chalked full of science and graced with cooperative weather conditions. There were more highlights than I could list in a single sitting. We towed zooplankton nets under the night sky while eating ice cream bars; we sang together at sunset and watched the atmospheric phenomena: the green flash; we witnessed a humpback lunge-feeding beside the ship’s bow; and we saw a sperm whale traveling across calm seas.

Sperm whale surfacing before a long dive.

On this cruise, our lab focused on the marine mammal observations—which proved excellent during the cruise. In only four days of surveying, we had 43 marine mammal sightings containing 362 individuals representing 9 species (See figure 1). As you can see from figure 2, we traveled over shallow, coastal and deep waters, in both Washington and Oregon before inland to Portland, OR. Because we ventured to areas with different bathymetric and oceanographic conditions, we increased our likelihood of seeing a higher diversity of species than we would if we stayed in a single depth or area.

Humpback whale lunge feeding off the bow.
Number of sightings Total number of individuals
Humpback whale 22 40
Pacific white-sided dolphin 3 249
Northern right whale dolphin 1 9
Killer whale 1 3
Dall’s porpoise 5 49
Sperm whale 1 1
Gray whale 1 1
Harbor seal 1 1
California sea lion 8 9
Total 43 362

Figure 1. Summary table of all species sightings during cruise while the science team observed from the flybridge.

Pacific white-sided dolphins swimming towards the vessel.

Figure 2. Map with inset displaying study area and sightings observed by species during the cruise, made in ArcMap. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki).

Even after two days of STEM outreach events in Portland, we were excited to incorporate more science. For the transit from Portland, OR to Newport, OR, the entire science team consisted two people: me and Jason. But even with poor weather conditions, we still used science to answer questions and help us along our journey—only with different goals than on our main leg. With the help of the marine technician, we set up a camera on the bow of the ship, facing aft to watch the vessel maneuver through the famous Portland bridges.

Video 1. Time-lapse footage of the R/V Oceanus maneuvering the Portland Bridges from a GoPro. Compiled by Alexa Kownacki, assisted by Jason Miranda and Kristin Beem.

Prior to the crossing the Columbia River bar and re-entering the Pacific Ocean, the R/V Oceanus maneuvered up the picturesque Columbia River. We used our geospatial skills to locate our fellow science team member and high school student, Chris, who was located on land. We tracked each other using GPS technology in our cell phones, until the ship got close enough to use natural landmarks as reference points, and finally we could use our binoculars to see Chris shining a light from shore. As the ship powered forward and passed under the famous Astoria-Megler bridge that connects Oregon to Washington, Chris drove over it; he directed us “100 degrees to port”. And, thanks to clear directions, bright visual aids, and spatiotemporal analysis, we managed to find our team member waving from shore. This is only one of many examples that show how in a few days at sea, students utilized new skills, such as marine mammal observational techniques, and honed them for additional applications.

On the bow, Alexa and Jason use binoculars to find Chris–over 4 miles–on the Washington side of the Columbia River. (Image source: Kristin Beem)

Great science is the result of teamwork, passion, and ingenuity. Working alongside students, teachers, and other, more-experienced scientists, provided everyone with opportunities to learn from each other. We created great science because we asked questions, we passed on our knowledge to the next person, and we did so with enthusiasm.

High school students, Jason and Chris, alongside Dr. Leigh Torres, all try to get a glimpse at the zooplankton under Dr. Kim Bernard’s microscope. (Image source: Tracy Crews).

Check out other blog posts written by the science team about the trip here.

The Land of Maps and Charts: Geospatial Ecology

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

I love maps. I love charts. As a random bit of trivia, there is a difference between a map and a chart. A map is a visual representation of land that may include details like topology, whereas a chart refers to nautical information such as water depth, shoreline, tides, and obstructions.

Map of San Diego, CA, USA. (Source: San Diego Metropolitan Transit System)
Chart of San Diego, CA, USA. (Source: NOAA)

I have an intense affinity for visually displaying information. As a child, my dad traveled constantly, from Barrow, Alaska to Istanbul, Turkey. Immediately upon his return, I would grab our standing globe from the dining room and our stack of atlases from the coffee table. I would sit at the kitchen table, enthralled at the stories of his travels. Yet, a story was only great when I could picture it for myself. (I should remind you, this was the early 1990s, GoogleMaps wasn’t a thing.) Our kitchen table transformed into a scene from Master and Commander—except, instead of nautical charts and compasses, we had an atlas the size of an overgrown toddler and salt and pepper shakers to pinpoint locations. I now had the world at my fingertips. My dad would show me the paths he took from our home to his various destinations and tell me about the topography, the demographics, the population, the terrain type—all attribute features that could be included in common-day geographic information systems (GIS).

Uncle Brian showing Alexa where they were on a map of Maui, Hawaii, USA. (Photo: Susan K. circa 1995)

As I got older, the kitchen table slowly began to resemble what I imagine the set from Master and Commander actually looked like; nautical charts, tide tables, and wind predictions were piled high and the salt and pepper shakers were replaced with pencil marks indicating potential routes for us to travel via sailboat. The two of us were in our element. Surrounded by visual and graphical representations of geographic and spatial information: maps. To put my map-attraction this in even more context, this is a scientist who grew up playing “Take-Off”, a board game that was “designed to teach geography” and involved flying your fleet of planes across a Mercator projection-style mapboard. Now, it’s no wonder that I’m a graduate student in a lab that focuses on the geospatial aspects of ecology.

A precocious 3-year-old Alexa, sitting with the airplane pilot asking him a long list of travel-related questions (and taking his captain’s hat). Photo: Susan K.

So why and how did geospatial ecology became a field—and a predominant one at that? It wasn’t that one day a lightbulb went off and a statistician decided to draw out the results. It was a progression, built upon for thousands of years. There are maps dating back to 2300 B.C. on Babylonian clay tablets (The British Museum), and yet, some of the maps we make today require highly sophisticated technology. Geospatial analysis is dynamic. It’s evolving. Today I’m using ArcGIS software to interpolate mass amounts of publicly-available sea surface temperature satellite data from 1981-2015, which I will overlay with a layer of bottlenose dolphin sightings during the same time period for comparison. Tomorrow, there might be a new version of software that allows me to animate these data. Heck, it might already exist and I’m not aware of it. This growth is the beauty of this field. Geospatial ecology is made for us cartophiles (map-lovers) who study the interdependency of biological systems where location and distance between things matters.

Alexa’s grandmother showing Alexa (a very young cartographer) how to color in the lines. Source: Susan K. circa 1994

In a broader context, geospatial ecology communicates our science to all of you. If I posted a bunch of statistical outputs in text or even table form, your eyes might glaze over…and so might mine. But, if I displayed that same underlying data and results on a beautiful map with color-coded symbology, a legend, a compass rose, and a scale bar, you might have this great “ah-ha!” moment. That is my goal. That is what geospatial ecology is to me. It’s a way to SHOW my science, rather than TELL it.

Would you like to see this over and over again…?

A VERY small glimpse into the enormous amount of data that went into this map. This screenshot gave me one point of temperature data for a single location for a single day…Source: Alexa K.

Or see this once…?

Map made in ArcGIS of Coastal common bottlenose dolphin sightings between 1981-1989 with a layer of average sea surface temperatures interpolated across those same years. A picture really is worth a thousand words…or at least a thousand data points…Source: Alexa K.

For many, maps are visually easy to interpret, allowing quick message communication. Yet, there are many different learning styles. From my personal story, I think it’s relatively obvious that I’m, at least partially, a visual learner. When I was in primary school, I would read the directions thoroughly, but only truly absorb the material once the teacher showed me an example. Set up an experiment? Sure, I’ll read the lab report, but I’m going to refer to the diagrams of the set-up constantly. To this day, I always ask for an example. Teach me a new game? Let’s play the first round and then I’ll pick it up. It’s how I learned to sail. My dad described every part of the sailboat in detail and all I heard was words. Then, my dad showed me how to sail, and it came naturally. It’s only as an adult that I know what “that blue line thingy” is called. Geospatial ecology is how I SEE my research. It makes sense to me. And, hopefully, it makes sense to some of you!

Alexa’s dad teaching her how to sail. (Source: Susan K. circa 2000)
Alexa’s first solo sailboat race in Coronado, San Diego, CA. Notice: Alexa’s dad pushing the bow off the dock and the look on Alexa’s face. (Source: Susan K. circa 2000)
Alexa mapping data using ArcGIS in the Oregon State University Library. (Source: Alexa K circa a few minutes prior to posting).

I strongly believe a meaningful career allows you to highlight your passions and personal strengths. For me, that means photography, all things nautical, the great outdoors, wildlife conservation, and maps/charts.  If I converted that into an equation, I think this is a likely result:

Photography + Nautical + Outdoors + Wildlife Conservation + Maps/Charts = Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna

Or, better yet:

📸 + ⚓ + 🏞 + 🐋 + 🗺 =  GEMM Lab

This lab was my solution all along. As part of my research on common bottlenose dolphins, I work on a small inflatable boat off the coast of California (nautical ✅, outdoors ✅), photograph their dorsal fin (photography ✅), and communicate my data using informative maps that will hopefully bring positive change to the marine environment (maps/charts ✅, wildlife conservation✅). Geospatial ecology allows me to participate in research that I deeply enjoy and hopefully, will make the world a little bit of a better place. Oh, and make maps.

Alexa in the field, putting all those years of sailing and chart-reading to use! (Source: Leila L.)


Migrating to higher latitudes

By Leila Lemos, Ph.D. Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, OSU

On September 10th of 2015 I was catching an airplane to start a whole new phase of my life in Oregon, United States. Many thoughts, many doubts, many fears, many expectations, and one big dream that was about to come true: I was finally going to United States to work with whales.

I am from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a big city known for pretty beaches, tropical weather and restless nights. Thus, to arrive in a really small city on the countryside that usually rains for about six months a year was the opposite of what I was always used to. Trying to understand another language and culture differences was also not an easy step.

In addition, taking my first classes was a big challenge. It was hard to understand everything that was being said, but recording and listening to the classes afterwards definitely was what helped me the most. Also, my first meetings and discussions where I needed to explain my thoughts in another language was difficult, but when I look back and I can now see how much I have improved and it is gratifying to know that all of my efforts were worth it.

Feeling welcome was essential to start overcoming all of the difficulties. My advisor Leigh and my lab mates (Florence, Amanda, Rachael, Erin, Dawn and Courtney) always created a friendly atmosphere and I started being more confident over time. I also had amazing and understanding teachers who were patient and helped me along the way. My first roommates Jane and Angie, from US, and the students and teachers from Crossroads (an English group that I attend) made me practice English every day and I started feeling more comfortable about speaking (and also thinking) in English, and they became my “Oregon family” together with new friends I made from different nationalities. Also important were my family and friends back in Brazil that never stopped encouraging and supporting me.

Figure 1: GEMM-Lab, from left to right, starting at the top: Leigh Torres, me, Erin, Amanda, Dawn, Rachael, our interns from 2016 season (Catherine, Cat and Kelli), and Florence.


Figure 2: Practicing English at Crossroads.


The weather and seasons here are also very different from Brazil. We don’t have cold weather or snow, and we don’t see all of the changes that happen here from season to season. The first season I saw was the fall. Seeing all of the fall colors in the trees for the first time was magical and I can already say that fall is my favorite season here. The winter was a bit cruel for me, not because of the cold or eventually the snow, but because of the rain. There is a saying in my city that “people from Rio de Janeiro do not like gray days” and it is true: my mood changes with weather. However, I did travel a bit around Oregon during winter and got to enjoy the snow, and how fun is to slide in the snow, make snow angels and throw snowballs. The spring starts bringing sunny days after cold months and endless rain. Also all of the flowers around the Corvallis campus are so pretty and colorful. Finally the summer is hot, and in some days it can almost be as hot as Rio de Janeiro. However, I spend summer days in the coast, where the temperature is mild. For me, summer days are synonymous with fieldwork, since gray whales are migrating northbound and becoming resident along the Oregon coast to feed, and this is right when the fun begins!

Figure 3: Different seasons in Oregon: (A) Trees during the fall in Corvallis, (B) Winter in Crater Lake, (C) Spring at OSU campus: my office at Hovland Building, and (D) fieldwork in Port Orford during the summer.


I finally saw my first gray whale in July of 2016 and got to dive into all of the methodologies we wanted to apply in this project. I learned how to photograph whales for photo-identification, how to take important notes, how to collect fecal samples for hormonal analysis, and how to fly with a drone for the photogrammetry method.

Figure 4: Learning how to fly with a drone over gray whales.
Source: Florence Sullivan


I had to digest a lot of information while trying to equilibrate in the boat and to not get seasick. However, it was so pleasurable to see how my field skills were getting better over time and how close I was to the Pacific marine fauna.

During my master’s degree I worked on toxicology in dolphins, which means working with dead carcasses. I remember telling myself all of the time that I wanted to do something different for my PhD – that I would be involved in a project with live animals. I am very glad I could accomplish that goal. Gray whales, sea lions, seals and a variety of marine birds are just some examples of the great diversity the Pacific Ocean has to offer and I am totally amazed.

Figure 5: Great diversity of the Oregon coast. Source: GEMMLab (Leila Lemos, Leigh Torres and Florence Sullivan)

After months of fieldwork it was time to return to the land and start learning how to work with all of the data we collected. We have amazing collaborators working with us and I have had wonderful opportunities to learn from all of them about the different methods we are applying in our project.

Figure 6: Learning the hormonal analysis technique at the Seattle Aquarium.


Thus, after one year and a half in Oregon I can already say that I feel home. The experience as an international student is not easy, but that’s what makes it such a valuable and gratifying experience. It has been a great journey, and I hope to continue to see improvements over time and keep learning throughout this amazing project studying gray whales.