How to be a Zooper Trooper: Getting Comfy with the Uncomfortable

By Aly Covey, Marshfield High School student, GEMM Lab Intern 2023

Hello, everyone! My name is Aly Covey and I am a rising senior, one of two high school interns part of the  TOPAZ/JASPER project this summer. I have the pleasure of introducing the team name for this year. We came up with our name not too long after meeting each other last week, when our team member Autumn started calling the zooplankton samples we collected  “zoop soup”, which then led us to call our team the “zoop troop” (because it rhymes!). We had some other contenders for names, but none of them felt just right. I think this is because Zoop Troop has begun to mean more to us than just the convenient rhyme. We’ve all heard the phrase “being a trooper”, which describes someone who overcomes their struggles and we certainly have embodied that in each task, where we have demonstrated resilience in the face of specific challenges and pushing forward despite discomfort both mentally and physically.

Figure 1: Logo for this year’s team name, created by Autumn Lee.

As a team, we have bonded over this quality of resiliency, and quickly became close during our first week. We go on routine sunset beach walks where we look at interesting sand fleas, baby shrimp, and bring back pocket-fulls of shells and beach glass. As well as our group meals that always lead to fun conversation and a warm, family, feel. Personally, I have enjoyed getting to know everyone on the team and seeing their unique skills. Since the first day, Jonah has constantly been trying to help cook and clean for Zoop Troop whenever he can. Natalee and I have bonded over our daily need to find time for a quick cat nap. We usually find Autumn working on her individual research project in the kitchen. And of course, Allison has earned the name of “Whale Mom” because of her dedication to taking care of the team’s needs outside of the daily training and being the best mentor to all of us. 

Over the last two weeks of training, I learned all the new technology and protocols the team needs to successfully use the gear for our research. Allison has been such a huge help teaching us the in’s and out’s of everything while still letting us make mistakes and allowing us to learn from them. So far, I feel confident in all the things I have learned. That said, I still wonder what it will feel like out in the field without a supervisor helping when something goes wrong. Allison has given us a few “non-data collecting” days to feel out the scene without her there and so far I, and whoever I’m working with that day, seem to be feeling fairly satisfied in our skill level, and it has been a nice opportunity to help each other when needed. 

Figure 2: Team prepping CamDo for deployment underwater

For me, it has been uncomfortable allowing myself to fail at certain tasks and having to restart from the beginning to get it right the next time. Patience is such an important skill needed for the work we do everyday. It’s very exciting to feel myself slowly start enjoying the idea of “trial and error” as I lean into all the new information we have absorbed these past few weeks. 

Although it is frustrating at times, I believe the team does a great job of creating a fun environment for each other while still being able to slow down and take in all the small details needed for each new task Allison teaches us. This experience has shown me that in order to persevere, you need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Figure 3: Aly and Natalee learning kayak sampling skills

While completing tasks on my own, I am vigilant to catch errors and run over each protocol in my head multiple times before going out into the field. For example, our theodolite is a very important but delicate piece of equipment we use on the cliff to track and fix on the whales we see out in the water. It is incredibly tedious to set up Theota (our nickname for the theodolite) in a sufficient amount of time without messing up the leveling, cords, or measuring needed to properly run the program. During training, we get up to the cliff around 8am and are able to take as much time as we need to correctly level, connect the telescope to the computer, and reach each fix point without feeling rushed. However, during a “real” workday, we are up on the cliff as early as 6am, held to a standard of having all our gear fully charged and ready to go for the day, as well as being able to efficiently set everything up and ready to watch the whales and be the safety watch for kayak team. The first few times I put up Theota, I got very annoyed with having trouble leveling out everything, but after my 4th or 5th set up, I was feeling very confident in my ability and also being able to quickly move from one place to another to fix on something out in the water. 

Figure 3:  Aly fixing on a whale through the theodolite  

Like cliff site tasks, on-the-water protocols call for adaptability when things get rough; and the kayak is, in my opinion, more rigorous in protocol requirements, with much more room for error than the cliff work. This is likely because of the many types of gear we use while sampling from the kayak: we conduct visibility measurements, RBR Concerto and GoPro deployments, zooplankton net sampling — all while navigating in tricky ocean conditions. During our training, Allison took us out in the morning and taught us each how to properly navigate with the GPS and use all the sampling equipment like a pro. While it was a nice opportunity to double check everything with her, I knew going out without her wouldn’t be so easy. My first morning without Allison’s support, I had to redo multiple stations but was able to correct myself and learn from my mistakes. 

It is incredibly tiresome, but so rewarding to go out in the field early in the morning and come back to the lab in the afternoon with a tote full of new zooplankton samples or pictures of high-quality whale flukes to show everyone. The protocols in the lab are extensive, but the team has done a great job of taking tasks into their own hands and finishing processing data on their own accord.

Figure 4:  Zoop Troop on a beach walk 

So far, this internship has been an incredible opportunity for me, not just in my career but also in my personal life. I have learned so much from my team, everyone staying in the field station, and all the amazing people that I’ve had the pleasure to meet in the community. It has been so intriguing to learn about another small town in my home state of Oregon and compare all the similarities and differences from my home, Coos Bay. I’m so excited for what is to come in these next 4 weeks of research and for the team to keep you all informed. Having another summer to learn about the Pacific Ocean and solidify my love for marine life is such an endearing opportunity and I’m very grateful. I’m most excited for the first day I am able to complete all 12 sampling stations with ease. I believe my skills will continue to improve and I don’t expect any day to be dull working on this project. 

Zoop Troop team member, Aly, signing off!

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