Reflections from this year’s 27th Annual Markham Research Symposium

Allison Dawn, GEMM Lab Master’s student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab 

The 27th Annual Markham Research Symposium was hosted at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) last week. During the event, students who have been awarded funds and scholarships through HMSC present their research via poster presentations or 5-minute “ignite” talks. Given how isolated and mostly remote academic events have been during the COVID pandemic, it was invigorating to have an in-person research event. The timing of the symposium was also strategically planned to occur during the first week of Hatfield’s REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) students’ arrival, and it felt special to have such a diversity of ages and career stages coming together to discuss science. While I was certainly expecting to have good conversations about research and receive feedback on my work, I was most surprised by how much this event inspired me to reflect on my first year as a graduate student. For this week’s blog I’d like to share some of these reflections I had while listening to the excellent keynote address and interacting with students during the poster session.

The symposium began with a keynote address by Dr. Elizabeth Perotti who identifies as a scientist, communicator, and a parent. Dr. Perotti works as the Education and Outreach Coordinator for NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program (OAP). I was expecting to hear a 45-minute presentation on the latest ocean acidification efforts, but I was surprised and appreciated that Dr. Perotti spent her time mainly focused on discussing career development through the lens of her own winding career path. While I would have been equally excited to hear about her science communication and outreach work, I am glad she took the time to share her story and give advice based on her experiences. As someone who used to feel insecure about my non-linear path to science, it was validating and inspiring to hear about the variety of experiences that prepared her to take on her current position at NOAA. Dr. Perotti describes her career path as “clear as mud”, but acknowledged that there were several key mentors who helped her identify and shape her specific interests. 

One of those mentors was the late Dr. Marian Diamond, who is renowned for her work on brain plasticity research. She was the first female science professor at Cornell and is considered one of the founders of modern neuroscience. She and her team pioneered the idea that the brain can change, and even improve, with the right stimulation. Dr. Diamond was the first person to study Einstein’s brain in the hopes of uncovering the secret to his high intelligence. She found that Einstein’s brain had more glial cells (which are now sometimes called “genius cells”) than the average person. These glial cells are known to nourish strong neuron connections and build a more complex brain structure. Dr. Diamond hypothesized that Einstein’s brain had more of these cells due to the high stimulation he put on his neurons. From the synthesis of this study and other fascinating experiments during her life’s work, Dr. Diamond suggested five core things the brain needs to continue development, regardless of age: diet, exercise, challenges, newness, and love. A healthy diet fuels the brain, exercise builds better brain cells, challenges and newness stimulate brain function, and love enriches our lives  – each of these factors are shown to contribute to the neuroplasticity of our brains (Diamond, 2001). During the keynote, Dr. Perotti asked the audience to contemplate if they are pursuing a career that is fulfilling at least one of those core requirements. As I contemplated these “brain essentials”, I realized how my experience as a Master’s student in the GEMM lab actually fulfills each one of these, and I am excited by the science that suggests I may be producing more “genius cells” because of it! 

Figure 1: Illustration showing Dr. Diamond’s suggested 5 core essentials for a healthy brain. Taken from: ​​https://blog.stannah-stairlifts.com/society/marian-diamond-women-in-science/

First, the diet I’ve had over the past year has certainly been nurturing. During the field season in Port Orford, one of my favorite meals is when we are given locally-sourced and sustainably caught fish from Port Orford Sustainable Seafood in exchange for helping them process orders. When I am back in Newport and Corvallis, my lab mates and peers are always sharing homemade snacks and we frequently get together for meals (and when the weather is nice – picnics!)

Figures 2 & 3: To the left: Locally sourced salmon cooked by Lisa Hildebrand for one of the many 2021 Port Orford team dinners; To the right: Colorful plates on an impromptu sunny day picnic with Rachel Kaplan. 

For exercise – it almost goes without saying that the field season in Port Orford is physically demanding. During data collection we are constantly alert and on our feet on the cliff site, or paddling continuously to stay on station to obtain good zooplankton and oceanographic samples.

Figure 4: Lisa Hildebrand and A. Dawn enjoying one of the last days of kayak sampling for the 2021 Port Orford field season.

Challenges – there are a variety of challenges to face as a new graduate student. Not only are there difficult, yet exciting questions to tackle, and new analysis skills to learn, but as Dr. Perotti discussed in her talk, there are also soft skills (communication, time/conflict management, task prioritization) that I am sharpening, which are equally important to master. 

Newness – as a graduate student, almost everything feels new. I frequently feel I am out of my comfort zone. Especially during the past three terms, I find myself in the mental “growth zone” consistently. Between my coursework and getting to attend exciting seminars, I consistently learn something new on a daily basis. Despite having completed a field season last year, leading the team this year will also be new, and I anticipate a steep learning curve where I am excited to learn how to be a better scientist and mentor.

Lastly, the love I have experienced since starting my Master’s degree has been one of my most treasured aspects of my life here – love for my lab family and for the opportunity I have to be here. After the symposium I got together with a few lab mates and we journeyed to Nye Beach to watch the sunset. I appreciate that despite our busy schedules, we all make time to connect with each other and explore the beautiful coast we are privileged to call home.

Figure 5: Watching the sunset on Nye Beach never gets old, especially when you are with good friends. Photo credit: C. Bird.

Just as I incorrectly assumed the keynote would be solely research focused, I anticipated answering in-depth questions about my preliminary Master’s thesis analysis results at the poster session. While I did receive great questions and valuable feedback from mentors, which has already helped shape the next steps in my analysis, the interactions I had with the REU student cohort was very different. These budding scientists were more interested in my personal outlook on graduate school, and asked many questions that felt familiar to me. I let the undergraduates know that it was only a year ago that I graduated with my B.S., and shared many of those same, daunting questions about the next chapter of my career: “How do you know if a program is right for you?”, “How do you pick the right advisor?”, “What type of working environment should I be looking for?”. It was fulfilling to be able to echo the great advice Dr. Perotti gave during the keynote address, in which she encouraged students to find mentors, know their talents, learn how to communicate, and take a challenge.

Figure 6: Posing next to my Markam Symposium poster, excited to share my proposed research with peers and mentors. Photo credit: Lisa Hildebrand

I am extremely grateful to have received one of this year’s Mamie Markham awards, and for the opportunity to interact with younger career scientists who I can share my journey and experiences with. The symposium was good practice in communicating my work and stimulating food for thought as I move forward with my second year in graduate school.

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References

Diamond, Marian (2001) Successful Aging of the Healthy Brain. Conference of the American Society on Aging and The National Council on the Aging March 10, 2001, New Orleans, LA

Reuniting with some old friends: The 8th GRANITE field season is underway

By Lisa Hildebrand, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

We are almost halfway through June which means summer has arrived! Although, here on the Oregon coast, it does not entirely feel like it. We have been swinging between hot, sunny days and cloudy, foggy, rainy days that are reminiscent of those in spring or even winter. Despite these weather pendulums, the GEMM Lab’s GRANITE project is off to a great start in its 8th field season! The field team has already ventured out onto the Pacific Ocean in our trusty RHIB Ruby on four separate days looking for gray whales and in this blog post, I am going to share what we have seen so far.

The core GRANITE field team before the May 24th “trial run”. From left to right: Leigh Torres, KC Bierlich, Clara Bird, Lisa Hildebrand, Alejandro Fernández Ajó. Source: L. Torres.

PI Leigh, PhD candidate Clara and I headed out for a “trial run” on May 24th. While the intention for the day was to make sure all our gear was running smoothly and we still remembered how to complete the many tasks associated with our field work (boat loading and trailering, drone flying and catching, poop scooping, data download, to name a few), we could not resist surveying our entire study range given the excellent conditions. It was a day that all marine field scientists hope for – low winds (< 5 kt all day) and a 3 ft swell over a long period. Despite surveying between Waldport and Depoe Bay, we only encountered one whale, but it was a whale that put a smile on each of our faces. After “just” 252 days, we reunited with Solé, the star of our GRANITE dataset, with record numbers of fecal samples and drone flights collected. This record is due to what seems to be a strong habitat or foraging tactic preference by Solé to remain in a relatively small spatial area off the Oregon coast for most of the summer, rather than traveling great swaths of the coast in search for food. Honest truth, on May 24th we found her exactly where we expected to find her. While we did not collect a fecal sample from her on that day, we did perform a drone flight, allowing us to collect a critical early feeding season data point on body condition. We hope that Solé has a summer full of mysids on the Oregon coast and that we will be seeing her often, getting rounder each time!

Our superstar whale Solé. Her identifying features are a small white line on her left side (green box) and a white dot in front of her dorsal hump on the right side (red circle). Source: GEMM Lab. Photograph captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678

Just a week after this trial day, we had our official start to the field season with back-to-back days on the water. On our first day, postdoc Alejandro, Clara and I were joined by St. Andrews University Research Fellow Enrico Pirotta, who is another member of the GRANITE team. Enrico’s role in the GRANITE project is to implement our long-term, replicate dataset into a framework called Population consequences of disturbance (PCoD; you can read all about it in a previous blog). We were thrilled that Enrico was able to join us on the water to get a sense for the species and system that he has spent the last several months trying to understand and model quantitatively from a computer halfway across the world. Luckily, the whales sure showed up for Enrico, as we saw a total of seven whales, all of which were known individuals to us! Several of the whales were feeding in water about 20 m deep and surfacing quite erratically, making it hard to get photos of them at times. Our on-board fish finder suggested that there was a mid-water column prey layer that was between 5-7 m thick. Given the flat, sandy substrate the whales were in, we predicted that these layers were composed of porcelain crab larvae. Luckily, we were able to confirm our hypothesis immediately by dropping a zooplankton net to collect a sample of many porcelain crab larvae. Porcelain crab larvae have some of the lowest caloric values of the nearshore zooplankton species that gray whales likely feed on (Hildebrand et al. 2021). Yet, the density of larvae in these thick layers probably made them a very profitable meal, which is likely the reason that we saw another five whales the next day feeding on porcelain crab larvae once again.

On our most recent field work day, we only encountered Solé, suggesting that the porcelain crab swarms had dissipated (or had been excessively munched on by gray whales), and many whales went in search for food elsewhere. We have done a number of zooplankton net tows across our study area and while we did collect a good amount of mysid shrimp already, they were all relatively small. My prediction is that once these mysids grow to a more profitable size in a few days or weeks, we will start seeing more whales again.

The GRANITE team from above, waiting & watching for whales, as we will be doing for the rest of the summer! Source: GEMM Lab.

So far we have seen nine unique individuals, flown the drone over eight of them, collected fecal samples from five individuals, conducted 10 zooplankton net tows and seven GoPro drops in just four days of field work! We are certainly off to a strong start and we are excited to continue collecting rock solid GRANITE data this summer to continue our efforts to understand gray whale ecology and physiology.

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Literature cited

Hildebrand L, Bernard KS, Torres LGT. 2021. Do gray whales count calories? Comparing energetic values of gray whale prey across two different feeding grounds in the Eastern North Pacific. Frontiers in Marine Science 8. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2021.683634

Experiencing a Physical Manifestation of my PhD at Sea in the NCC

Rachel Kaplan, PhD student, Oregon State University College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

I always have a small crisis before heading into the field, whether for a daytrip or a several-month stint. I’m always dying to go – up until the moment when it is actually time to leave, and I decide I’d rather stay home, keep working on whatever has my current focus, and not break my comfortable little routine.

Preparing to leave on the most recent Northern California Current (NCC) cruise was no different. And just as always, a few days into the cruise, I forgot about the rest of my life and normal routines, and became totally immersed in the world of the ship and the places we went. I learned an exponential amount while away. Being physically in the ecosystem that I’m studying immediately had me asking more, and better, questions to explore at sea and also bring back to land. 

Many of these questions and realizations centered on predator-prey relationships between krill and whales at fine spatial scales. We know that distributions of prey species are a big factor in structuring whale distributions in the ocean, and one of our goals on this cruise was to observe these relationships more closely. The cruise offered an incredible opportunity to experience these relationships in real time: while my labmates Dawn and Clara were up on the flying bridge looking for whales, I was down in the acoustics lab, watching incoming echosounder data in order to identify krill aggregations. 

From left, Clara and Dawn survey for marine mammals on the flying bridge.

We used radios to stay in touch with what we were each seeing in real time, and learned quickly that we tended to spot whales and krill almost simultaneously. Experiencing this coherence between predator and prey distributions felt like a physical manifestation of my PhD. It also affirmed my faith in one of our most basic modeling assumptions: that the backscatter signals captured in our active acoustic data are representative of the preyscape that nearby whales are experiencing.

Being at sea with my labmates also catalyzed an incredible synthesis of our different types of knowledge. Because of the way that I think about whale distributions, I usually just focus on whether a certain type of whale is present or not while surveying. But Clara, with her focus on cetacean behavior, thinks in a completely different way from me. She timed the length of dives and commented on the specific behaviors she noticed, bringing a new level of context to our observations. Dawn, who has been joining these cruises for five years now, shared her depth of knowledge built through returning to these places again and again, helping us understand how the system varies through time.

Observing whale behavior, such as for these humpbacks, provides valuable information on how they are using a given area.

One of the best experiences of the cruise for me was when we conducted a targeted net tow in an area of foraging humpbacks on the Heceta Head Line off the central Oregon coast. The combination of the krill signature I was seeing on the acoustics display, and the radio reports from Dawn and Clara of foraging dives, convinced me that this was an opportunity for a net tow,  if possible, to see exactly what zooplankton was in the water near the whales. Our chief scientist, Jennifer Fisher, and the ship’s officers worked together to quickly turn the ship around and get a net in the water, in an effort to catch krill from the aggregation I had seen.  

This unique opportunity gave me a chance to test my own interpretation of the acoustics data, and compare what we captured in the net with what I expected from the backscatter signal. It also prompted me to think more about the synchrony and differences between what is captured by net tows and echosounder data, two primary ways for looking at whale prey. 

Collecting tiny yet precious krill samples associated with foraging humpbacks!

Throughout the entire cruise, the opportunity to build my intuition and notice ecological patterns was invaluable. Ecosystem modeling gives us the opportunity to untangle incredible complexity and put dynamic relationships in mathematical terms, but being out on the ocean provides the chance to develop a feel for these relationships. I’m so glad to bring this new perspective to my next round of models, and excited to continue trying to tease apart fine-scale dynamics between whales and krill.

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