Zoom calls, group chats, and remote interns: How the GEMM lab adapts to an online world

By Marc Donnelly, Carleton College, GEMM Lab REU Intern

My name is Marc Donnelly (He/Him) and this summer I have the pleasure of working with Clara Bird and Dr. Leigh Torres on a project, within the GRANITE project, that maps the habitat use of Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales. This summer, as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) intern, I have the opportunity to learn about the scientific process in action, build relationships with researchers, and pursue my own research project. I am relatively new to the world of research and even more green in the field of marine science. In September, I will start my fourth and last year as an Environmental Studies major at Carleton College in Minnesota, but for the next seven weeks my bread and butter is whales. I could not be more excited about the road ahead. I have read about gray whales, examined pictures of them, and even studied videos of the oblong beauties (Video 1). But the one thing I have not done, and probably will not do this summer, is see one… or a boat for that matter, or a single piece of field equipment. Not in person anyway. This is because I am a remote intern. And before I continue, let me clarify that I am not lamenting unfortunate circumstances. These past three weeks have already been enjoyable, fulfilling and exciting and I expect the summer will only get better. Yet, like with so many people in the past 16 months, my expected role has undergone some changes, so I want to take this opportunity to share my experience so far.

Video 1. Examples of gray whale behaviors observed from the drone

Especially when thinking about engaging with hands-on work, a fundamental aspect of any research program is place. REUs are competitive and sought after positions because they supply undergrads, who have to balance coursework with the desire to fully immerse themselves in a research community, with the opportunity to pursue a genuine research experience. Just being in a room surrounded by peers, grad students, and seasoned scientists who are all bubbling over with excitement and ideas is a fundamentally different (and might I add more motivating) experience than classroom lectures. Location is enough by itself to facilitate the connection between a burgeoning scientist and their research community as well as their work itself. Conducting hands-on fieldwork is also a common, highly sought-after aspect of an REU. However, visiting study sites, collecting data, and experiencing your study organism first hand, are all activities that become impossible when working remotely. So what do you do when you lack the benefits of location?

Well, if you had any sense, you would start by furnishing your apartment, finding a mattress that you can sleep on and a table and a chair that you can work at. But if you are like me, 21 and excited to be living away from home in a new city, you might be so overcome with the idea of adventure that you forget sleeping is important. Beyond furniture, the course of my summer has primarily been in the hands of my new mentors at Oregon State University (OSU), the institution funding my position in the GEMM lab, and thankfully they had a much more robust plan for my summer than I did. Data analysis and an in depth literature review have filled the void where my marine mammal companions could have been. This situation does not mean that analyzing data and diving into the literature are not part of in-person internships as well, or that I am not able to build any sort of connection with the gray whales I study, but my computer screen has certainly taken a more central role in my work. This summer, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software is my weapon of choice. My goal is to create habitat maps of the coastal waters off Newport where gray whales feed that includes characteristics ranging from the type of surface on the bottom of the ocean (i.e., sand, reef, rock, etc) to more ephemeral features like kelp and prey density. This list of features I will map is dynamic based on the purpose and time scale of the map (month, year, static); so suffice it to say I will be making a lot of maps this summer. Once I have produced these habitat maps, the team and I can compare them with our whale sightings to better understand if and how gray whales use certain areas. This work will help us develop a baseline for gray whale ecology, which will ultimately be used to inform disturbance models and conservation efforts.

Figure 1: Me finally getting a table and chair for work.

After finding a way to move work online, the next step is to somehow engineer a social environment that provides people with a sense of community. As explained to the interns during our first professional development workshop, forming these connections are not just important for combating feelings of isolation, but they may also serve as fruitful professional relationships in the near or distant future. After three terms of online classes and vain attempts at forming meaningful connections via awkward breakout rooms and forced group projects, I was preemptively lowering my expectations for how this summer might unfold. I should not have worried; both the GEMM lab and the greater REU cohort have been extraordinary. It has been such a privilege and joy to meet so many compassionate and involved people. Every week there are numerous opportunities for interns to engage with various groups associated with OSU. From one-on-one meetings with my mentors to laid back “coffee breaks” with folks from Oregon Sea Grant, engrossing interactions abound. I even had the chance to attend the Marine Mammal Institute Monthly Meeting, or MMIMM, which for a newcomer to the world of marine science is both a fascinating and intimidating thing to watch unfold.

One of my favorite virtual gatherings of all was our monthly GEMM lab meeting, this month our activity involved brief presentations introducing ourselves and our research. If you are a fan of this blog and have had the opportunity to explore the happenings of the GEMM lab through this page, then you probably have some context to understand the excitement and curiosity I felt while listening about the current GEMM projects through my zoom screen. I was simultaneously humbled and comforted by the impressiveness of the work being undertaken by this group of researchers. Even though I was just being exposed to five-minute overviews of people’s work, it was daunting to compare my own limited knowledge to that of the other people on the call. Most of them have been studying marine megafauna for five years or more and their passion coupled with their grasp on their work was remarkable. I was also comforted by the descriptions of all these wonderful and intriguing projects because it gave me a sense of achievement. This feeling may sound silly, but just by virtue of being on a zoom call with such passionate scientists I felt relieved. Relieved because it seemed as though this community is what I had been working towards for the last few years. Not necessarily the GEMM lab in particular, but a community of inspiring people who care about each other, their work, and improving the world.

Despite the fact that they do not know what I look like from the shoulders down, my GEMM lab cohort has welcomed me into their midst and provided me with the tools and environment I need to connect and learn. I am grateful.

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