Questions that drive my research curiosity

By Mattea Holt Colberg, GEMM Lab summer intern, OSU junior

Science is about asking new questions in order to make new discoveries. Starting every investigation with a question, sparked by an observation, is enshrined in the scientific method and pursued by researchers everywhere. Asking questions goes beyond scientific research though; it is the best way to learn new things in any setting.

When I first arrived in Port Orford, I did not know much about gray whales. The extent of my knowledge was that they are large baleen whales that migrate every year and feed on plankton. I did, however, know quite a bit about killer whales. I have been interested in killer whales since I was 5 years old, so I have spent years reading about, watching, and listening to them (my current favorite book about them is Of Orcas and Men, by David Neiwert and I highly recommend it!). I have also had opportunities to research them in the Salish Sea, both on a sailing trip and through the dual-enrollment program Ocean Research College Academy, where I explored how killer whales respond to ambient underwater noise for a small independent project. Knowing more about killer whales than other species has caused killer whales to be the lens through which I approach learning and asking questions about other whales. 

At first, I was not sure how to apply what I know about killer whales specifically to research on gray whales, since killer whales are toothed whales, while gray whales are baleen whales. There are several differences between toothed whales and baleen whales; toothed whales tend to be more social, occurring in pods or groups, eat larger prey like fish, squid, and seals, and they echolocate. In comparison, baleen whales are less social, eat mostly tiny zooplankton prey, and do not echolocate. Because of these differences, I wanted to learn more about gray whales, so I started asking Lisa questions. Killer whales only sleep with half of their brain at a time, so I asked if gray whales do the same. They do. Killer whales typically travel in stable, long-term matriarchal groups, and I recently learned that gray whales frequently travel alone (though not exclusively). This new knowledge to me led me to ask if gray whales vocalize while traveling. They typically do not. Through asking these questions, and others, I have begun to learn more about gray whales. 

Figure 2. Mattea on the tandem research kayak taking a break in between prey sampling. Source: L. Hildebrand.

I am still learning about marine mammal research, and from what I have experienced so far, marine mammal acoustics intrigues me the most. As a child, I developed a general interest in whale vocalizations after hearing recordings of them in museums and aquariums. Then, two years ago, I heard orcas vocalizing in the wild, and I decided I wanted to learn more about their vocalizations as a long-term career goal. 

To pursue a career studying marine mammal acoustics, I will need scientific and communication skills that this internship is helping me develop. Sitting on the cliff for hours at a time, sometimes with gray whales swimming in our view-scape and sometimes without, is teaching me the patience and attention needed to review hours of sound recordings with or without vocalizations. Identifying and counting zooplankton most days is teaching me the importance of processing data regularly, so it does not build up or get too confusing, as well as attention to detail and keeping focused. Collecting data from a kayak is teaching me how to assess ocean conditions, keep track of gear, and stay calm when things go wrong. I am also practicing the skill of taking and identifying whale photos, which can be applied to many whale research topics I hope to pursue. Through writing this blog post and discussing the project with Lisa and my fellow interns, I am improving my science communication skills. 

Figure 3. Mattea manning the theodolite watching and waiting for a gray whale to show up in our study area. Source: L. Hildebrand.

As an undergraduate student, it can sometimes be difficult to find opportunities to research marine mammals, so I am very grateful for and excited about this internship, both because of the skills it is helping me build and the field work experiences that I enjoy participating in. Another aspect of research this internship is helping me learn about is to ask engaging questions. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, asking questions is a key element of conducting research. By asking questions about gray whales based on both prior knowledge and new observations, I am practicing this skill, as well as thinking of topics I am curious about and might want to explore in the future. While watching for whales, I have thought of questions such as: How is whale behavior affected by surface conditions? Do gray whales prefer feeding at certain times of the day? Questions like these help me learn about whales, and they keep me excited about research. Thanks to this internship, I can continue working towards my dreams of pursuing similar questions about whales as a career.

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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  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)