How to apply my PhD?

By Leila Lemos, PhD candidate, Fisheries and Wildlife Department

Time has flown. It seems that it was like a month ago that I received the news that I was approved in a public notice from the Brazilian government to study abroad, and began the process of moving to Oregon. But actually almost three years have now passed, and I am starting to wrap up my PhD, since I need to defend it in a little bit more than a year.

Our team is now starting the third and last fieldwork season for my PhD project. I am also working on my study plan to determine the last classes I need to take, and our first manuscripts are ‘in press’ or ‘in prep’ for submission to journals. So, it’s time for me to think about what comes next.

I am from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and I am studying in the US through a Brazilian government program called Science Without Borders. This program aims to send students abroad to learn new techniques and to develop innovative projects. The projects needed to be original to be approved by the public notice. The main idea is to bring these students back to Brazil, after their PhD completion, to disseminate the acquired knowledge by applying the learned techniques.

My project includes a few novel aspects that allowed for funding by this program. The main focus of my thesis is to develop an endocrinology study of a cetacean species. This was (and still is) a critical field in Brazil, as reported by the “National Action Plan for the conservation of aquatic mammals: Small cetaceans” (2010). According to this Action Plan, cetacean hormonal analyses are rare and of high priority, but there are limited labs with the capacity to study cetacean endocrinology in Brazil. Other limiting factors are the associated analysis costs and a lack of human knowledge and skills. In addition to the hormonal analyses (Figure 1), I am also using other ‘new technologies’ in the project: drones (Figure 2; Video 1) and GoPros (Video 2).

Figure 1: Learning how to perform hormonal analysis at the Seattle Aquarium, WA.
Source: Angela Smith


Figure 2: Learning how to fly a drone in Newport, OR.
Source: Florence Sullivan


Video 1: Drone flights performed in Newport, OR, during fieldwork in 2016.

* Taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111 to John Calambokidis.


Video 2: Video of mysid swarms during a GoPro deployment conducted in Port Orford, OR, during fieldwork in 2016.


The importance of studying cetacean hormones includes a better understanding of their reproductive cycles (i.e., sex hormones such as progesterone, testosterone and estradiol) and their physiological stress response (i.e., cortisol) to possible threats (e.g., acoustic pollution, contaminants, lack of prey). In addition, through photographs and videos recorded by drones we can conduct photogrammetry analysis to monitoring cetacean body condition, and through GoPro recordings of the water column we can assess prey availability. Changes in both body condition and prey can help us explaining how and why hormone levels vary.

Through my PhD I have obtained skills in hormone analysis, photogrammetry and video prey assessment by studying the logistically accessible and non-threatened gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus). During method development, these features are important to increase sample size and demonstrate feasibility. But now that the methodologies have proven successful, we can start applying them to other species and regions, and under different circumstances, to improve conservation efforts of threatened populations.

Many cetacean species along the Brazilian coast are threatened, particularly from fishing gear and vessel interactions, chemical and noise pollution. By applying the methods we have developed in the GEMM Lab during my PhD to cetacean conservation issues in Brazil, we could enable a great expansion in knowledge across many fields (i.e., endocrinology, behavior, photogrammetry, diet). Additionally, these skills can promote safer work environments (for the scientist and for the object of study) and cheaper work processes. However, many countries, such as Brazil, do not have the infrastructure and access to technologies to conduct these same analyses, as in developed countries like the USA. These technologies, when sold in Brazil, have many taxes on the top of the product that they can become an extra hurdle, due to budget constraints. Thus, there is a need for researchers to adapt these skills and technologies, in the best manner possible, to the reality of the country.

Now that I am starting to think about ‘life after PhD’, I can see myself returning to my country to spread the knowledge, technologies and skills I have gained through these years at OSU to new research projects so that I am able to assist with conservation efforts for the ocean and marine fauna in Brazil.



PAN, 2010. Plano de ação nacional para a conservação dos mamíferos aquáticos: pequenos cetáceos / André Silva Barreto … [et al.]; organizadores Claudia Cavalcante Rocha-Campos, Ibsen de Gusmão Câmara, Dan Jacobs Pretto. – Brasília: Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade, Icmbio, 132 p. Em: < stories/docs-plano-de-acao/pan-peqs-cetaceos/pan_pequenoscetaceos_web.pdf> Acessado em: 27 de Maio de 2015.


The Recipe for a “Perfect” Marine Mammal and Seabird Cruise

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

Science—and fieldwork in particular—is known for its failures. There are websites, blogs, and Twitter pages dedicated to them. This is why, when things go according to plan, I rejoice. When they go even better than expected, I practically tear up from amazement. There is no perfect recipe for a great marine mammal and seabird research cruise, but I would suggest that one would look like this:

 A Great Marine Mammal and Seabird Research Cruise Recipe:

  • A heavy pour of fantastic weather
    • Light on the wind and seas
    • Light on the glare
  • Equal parts amazing crew and good communication
  • A splash of positivity
  • A dash of luck
  • A pinch of delicious food
  • Heaps of marine mammal and seabird sightings
  • Heat to approximately 55-80 degrees F and transit for 10 days along transects at 10-12 knots
The end of another beautiful day at sea on the R/V Shimada. Image source: Alexa K.

The Northern California Current Ecosystem (NCCE) is a highly productive area that is home to a wide variety of cetacean species. Many cetaceans are indicator species of ecosystem health as they consume large quantities of prey from different levels in trophic webs and inhabit diverse areas—from deep-diving beaked whales to gray whales traveling thousands of miles along the eastern north Pacific Ocean. Because cetacean surveys are a predominant survey method in large bodies of water, they can be extremely costly. One alternative to dedicated cetacean surveys is using other research vessels as research platforms and effort becomes transect-based and opportunistic—with less flexibility to deviate from predetermined transects. This decreases expenses, creates collaborative research opportunities, and reduces interference in animal behavior as they are never pursued. Observing animals from large, motorized, research vessels (>100ft) at a steady, significant speed (>10kts/hour), provides a baseline for future, joint research efforts. The NCCE is regularly surveyed by government agencies and institutions on transects that have been repeated nearly every season for decades. This historical data provides critical context for environmental and oceanographic dynamics that impact large ecosystems with commercial and recreational implications.

My research cruise took place aboard the 208.5-foot R/V Bell M. Shimada in the first two weeks of May. The cruise was designated for monitoring the NCCE with the additional position of a marine mammal observer. The established guidelines did not allow for deviation from the predetermined transects. Therefore, mammals were surveyed along preset transects. The ship left port in San Francisco, CA and traveled as far north as Cape Meares, OR. The transects ranged from one nautical mile from shore and two hundred miles offshore. Observations occurred during “on effort” which was defined as when the ship was in transit and moving at a speed above 8 knots per hour dependent upon sea state and visibility. All observations took place on the flybridge during conducive weather conditions and in the bridge (one deck below the flybridge) when excessive precipitation was present. The starboard forward quarter: zero to ninety degrees was surveyed—based on the ship’s direction (with the bow at zero degrees). Both naked eye and 7×50 binoculars were used with at least 30 percent of time binoculars in use. To decrease observer fatigue, which could result in fewer detected sightings, the observer (me) rotated on a 40 minutes “on effort”, 20 minutes “off effort” cycle during long transits (>90 minutes).

Alexa on-effort using binoculars to estimate the distance and bearing of a marine mammal sighted off the starboard bow. Image source: Alexa K.

Data was collected using modifications to the SEEbird Wincruz computer program on a ruggedized laptop and a GPS unit was attached. At the beginning of each day and upon changes in conditions, the ship’s heading, weather conditions, visibility, cloud cover, swell height, swell direction, and Beaufort sea state (BSS) were recorded. Once the BSS or visibility was worse than a “5” (1 is “perfect” and 5 is “very poor”) observations ceased until there was improvement in weather. When a marine mammal was sighted the latitude and longitude were recorded with the exact time stamp. Then, I noted how the animal was sighted—either with binoculars or naked eye—and what action was originally noticed—blow, splash, bird, etc. The bearing and distance were noted using binoculars. The animal was given three generalized behavior categories: traveling, feeding, or milling. A sighting was defined as any marine mammal or group of animals. Therefore, a single sighting would have the species and the best, high, and low estimates for group size.

By my definitions, I had the research cruise of my dreams. There were moments when I imagined people joining this trip as a vacation. I *almost* felt guilty. Then, I remember that after watching water for almost 14 hours (thanks to the amazing weather conditions), I worked on data and reports and class work until midnight. That’s the part that no one talks about: the data. Fieldwork is about collecting data. It’s both what I live for and what makes me nervous. The amount of time, effort, and money that is poured into fieldwork is enormous. The acquisition of the data is not as simple as it seems. When I briefly described my position on this research cruise to friends, they interpret it to be something akin to whale-watching. To some extent, this is true. But largely, it’s grueling hours that leave you fatigued. The differences between fieldwork and what I’ll refer to as “everything else” AKA data analysis, proposal writing, manuscript writing, literature reviewing, lab work, and classwork, are the unbroken smile, the vaguely tanned skin, the hours of laughter, the sea spray, and the magical moments that reassure me that I’ve chosen the correct career path.

Alexa photographing a gray whale at sunset near Newport, OR. Image source: Alexa K.

This cruise was the second leg of the Northern California Current Ecosystem (NCCE) survey, I was the sole Marine Mammal and Seabird Observer—a coveted position. Every morning, I would wake up at 0530hrs, grab some breakfast, and climb to the highest deck: the fly-bridge. Akin to being on the top of the world, the fly-bridge has the best views for the widest span. From 0600hrs to 2000hrs I sat, stood, or danced in a one-meter by one-meter corner of the fly-bridge and surveyed. This visual is why people think I’m whale watching. In reality, I am constantly busy. Nonetheless, I had weather and seas that scientists dream about—and for 10 days! To contrast my luck, you can read Florence’s blog about her cruise. On these same transects, in February, Florence experienced 20-foot seas with heavy rain with very few marine mammal sightings—and of those, the only cetaceans she observed were gray whales close to shore. That starkly contrasts my 10 cetacean species with upwards of 45 sightings and my 20-minute hammock power naps on the fly-bridge under the warm sun.

Pacific white-sided dolphins traveling nearby. Image source: Alexa K.

Marine mammal sightings from this cruise included 10 cetacean species: Pacific white-sided dolphin, Dall’s porpoise, unidentified beaked whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale, gray whale, Minke whale, fin whale, Northern right whale dolphin, blue whale, humpback whale, and transient killer whale and one pinniped species: northern fur seal. What better way to illustrate these sightings than with a map? We are a geospatial lab after all.

Cetacean Sightings on the NCCE Cruise in May 2018. Image source: Alexa K.

This map is the result of data collection. However, it does not capture everything that was observed: sea state, weather, ocean conditions, bathymetry, nutrient levels, etc. There are many variables that can be added to maps–like this one (thanks to my GIS classes I can start adding layers!)–that can provide a better understanding of the ecosystem, predator-prey dynamics, animal behavior, and population health.

The catch from a bottom trawl at a station with some fish and a lot of pyrosomes (pink tube-like creatures). Image source: Alexa K.

Being a Ph.D. student can be physically and mentally demanding. So, when I was offered the opportunity to hone my data collection skills, I leapt for it. I’m happiest in the field: the wind in my face, the sunshine on my back, surrounded by cetaceans, and filled with the knowledge that I’m following my passion—and that this data is contributing to the greater scientific community.

Humpback whale photographed traveling southbound. Image source: Alexa K.

“This is what I would do if I weren’t afraid” – New Zealand blue whale field season 2016

By Dr. Leigh Torres, Assistant Professor, Oregon State University, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Two years ago I documented a blue whale foraging ground in an area of New Zealand called the South Taranaki Bight (STB) – the country’s most industrially active marine area with intense oil and gas exploration and extraction since the 1970’s, elevated vessel traffic, and potential seabed mining (Figure 1). Over just five days of survey effort we observed 50 blue whales and documented foraging behavior. But we still know next to nothing about where and when blue whales are in the STB, how many whales use this area, how important this area is as a feeding area, or to what population the whales belong. Without answers to these questions effective management of human activities in the region to protect the whales and their habitat is unfeasible.

I am now heading back to New Zealand to collect the data needed to answer these questions that will enable successful management. That’s my goal.

Figure 1. Illustration of a space-use conflict between industry activity and blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight, which lies between the north and south islands of New Zealand. Blue whale sightings and strandings recorded between 1970 and 2012.
Figure 1. Illustration of a space-use conflict between industry activity and blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight, which lies between the north and south islands of New Zealand. Blue whale sightings and strandings recorded between 1970 and 2012.

Such research costs money. In collaboration with the Bioacoustic Research Program at Cornell University (, we are deploying five hydrophones to listen for blue whales across the region for 2 years. We will conduct vessel surveys for 1 month in each year to find whales and collect data on their habitat, behavior, and individual occurrence patterns. As far as field research projects go, this work is not very expensive, but we still need to pay for vessel time, equipment, and personnel time to collect and analyze the data. This is an ugly truth of scientific research – it costs money and there is not a lot out there.

For two years I’ve had my fund raising hat on (Not my favorite hat. I much prefer my research hat). I believe that industry groups active in the STB should take an active role in supporting the necessary research. They exploit the natural resources in the region and should therefore take responsibility for ensuring the ecosystem’s sustainability and health. Right? They did not agree.

I emphasized to these groups that by supporting the project they would demonstrate their environmental responsibility and ultimately be engaged in discussions of management options based on project findings. Despite hundreds of emails, phone calls and discussions, all the oil and gas companies, the seabed mining group, and the maritime traffic organization declined to fund the project, claiming lack of funds or lack of relevance to their interests. Meanwhile, other groups who prioritize conservation management are supporting the project. I am grateful to The Aotearoa Foundation, The National Geographic Society Waitt Foundation, The New Zealand Department of Conservation, Greenpeace New Zealand, OceanCare, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, and an anonymous donor.

Lately I have been reading Sheryl Sandberg’s poignant book, Lean In, which I feel is a call to women to take responsibility for our equality and leadership. Those familiar with this book will recognize the opening of my blog title from her valid push for women to take more risks and push ourselves beyond our comfort zones. In many ways I feel I am doing this now. It would be much easier for me to withdraw from this project, say I tried, and let things carry on until someone else takes the challenge. Funding is short, last minute contract issues abound, equipment logistics are running late, I fear political pushback, and I have a sore throat. But it’s time for this project to happen. It’s time to recognize biodiversity’s innate right to healthy habitat. It’s time for industry groups to acknowledge their potential impacts on blue whales through elevated ocean noise, vessel strikes, and habitat degradation and displacement. It’s time for management to have the tools to act.

Figure 2. A blue whale surfaces in front of an oil rig in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Deanna Elvines.
Figure 2. A blue whale surfaces in front of an oil rig in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Deanna Elvines.

I remain hopeful that industry groups will engage in this research effort. Through diplomacy, transparency and robust science I want to bring together industry, NGOs, and management groups to develop effective conservation strategies to protect blue whales and their habitat in the STB. Collaboratively we can balance industry activity and biodiversity protection.

Since reading Lean In, I’ve been wondering if the conservation movement suffers because of women’s reluctance to challenge, take risks, and ‘sit at the table’ as Sandberg says. The conservation field is heavily dominated by women. For progress to happen we must be willing to force issues, be perceived as aggressive, and not be nice all the time. Just like men are expected to be.

Over the next four weeks colleagues and I will conduct research in the STB on blue whales. Stay tuned to this blog for updates.