Embracing Failures for Personal and Professional Growth 

By Autumn Lee, Mount Holyoke College rising senior, GEMM Lab REU Intern 2023

Hello! My name is Autumn Lee, and I am a GEMM lab REU student this summer being mentored by Allison Dawn and Dr. Leigh Torres! I am a rising senior at Mount Holyoke College studying Neuroscience and Behavior, focusing on coastal and marine science. It has been a pleasure working with the GEMM Lab this summer, and I have enjoyed learning more about the field of research before I graduate. 

As part of the research experience for undergraduates (REU) program, I am doing an independent project this summer in addition to our intense fieldwork for the TOPAZ project. I am working with the CamDo underwater video data that the GEMM Lab has collected since 2020. You can read Allison’s recent blog post to learn more about our CamDo underwater housings. Over the previous seasons, scuba divers have deployed our CamDo’s in our two study sites near Port Orford Titchener Cove and Mill Rocks on a weekly schedule of collection and redeployment. My project focuses on developing a methodology for examining the interactions between zooplankton prey and marine predators, and to quantify zooplankton density from the swarms seen on camera. Even though I hope my project’s success will contribute to the field, embarking on new method protocols always carries a risk of failure. Science tends to focus on successes; only in the footnotes do we hear about failures, wrong turns, and forgotten ideas. However, failure is how research advances; and with scientists who are brave enough to take that first step and humble enough to accept and reflect on failure.

Figure 1: Team prepping CamDo setup for deployment 

In the past, I have learned to troubleshoot computer software and lab equipment. However, there were already protocols in place, and my research contributions were part of another student’s pre-defined project. Unlike my previous research experience, for my REU project, I had to learn how to use unfamiliar software, set achievable goals, overcome obstacles, and devise a plan to accomplish them without relying on a team of peers. This is a project Allison and I have been working on together outside of field work, but we have not been without support. Both Victoria Hermanson, a Biological Science Aid with the Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division, and Suzie Winquist, a graduate student at the Marine Mammal Institute, have inspired and guided us through using VIAME for our research questions.

Taking that leap into uncharted waters, we chose to work with two software programs that were new to me called VIAME (Video and Image Analytics for the Marine Environment) and ImageJ. Our goal was to utilize VIAME so that it could distinguish between zooplankton or predators in our CamDo videos (from the hundreds of unannotated frames) and then use ImageJ to quantify the density of zooplankton in those identified frames. Although it has been exciting to use this software that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to track and detect prey and predator interactions in video footage, we have encountered many challenges along the way. Within 10 weeks, we had to learn this new software, train it to identify zooplankton and predators, and calculate density using classified frames that we would train. When tackling such an ambitious project in a limited time frame, we expected some setbacks, and through the advice of experienced professionals and the support of Allison (as well as a healthy dose of self-determination), we were able to gain success by breaking down the project into smaller tasks and using trial and error to fix any issues that arose.

Figure 2: Photo of Allison and myself working together to problem solve a VIAME error 

Although we have had some failures along the way, we have accomplished a lot, and I am eager to share some results with you. First, we developed and fine-tuned a workflow in VIAME to use AI to identify zooplankton prey and predators in our CamDo videos.

Figure 3:  Screenshot of VIAME program that illustrates how we trained a model to identify zooplankton prey (yellow boxes) and fish predators (blue box) in the CamDo videos. 

 In addition, we implemented a workflow in ImageJ (another software program designed to process and analyze scientific images) to quantify zooplankton density from frames identified by VIAME with zooplankton. Even though it took a lot of trial and error, our primary objectives were met, and we learned a great deal for future GEMM projects.

Figure 4: An example processed output image depicting how ImageJ  recognized bodies of zooplankton (black outlines) and counted individual zooplankton ( red dots). 

While working on my independent project, I learned that an ability to troubleshoot software and data processing can apply to tricky field work situations as well. For instance, when we lost a weighted cage attachment that protects our RBR concerto sensor, we needed a temporary solution until the divers recovered  our lost gear. So our team discussed a few different DIY options. After a frantic afternoon of trial and error, we ultimately decided on using a milk jug as a temporary cage. While it wasn’t the most glamorous solution, the GEMM lab is known to think outside the box as a fundamental part of both the fieldwork and research process. 

Figure 5: Photo of Allison testing out our RBR milk jug temporary setup 

I have found through this experience that sometimes it is more valuable to struggle and learn skills than to immediately succeed. I am hopeful that this lesson has prepared me for my future, and I couldn’t be more grateful. It has been an interesting summer for me as far as adapting to failures and embracing them. It was a difficult transition leaving my new friends at Hatfield in Newport where I spent my first 4 weeks and embracing an entirely different living dynamic here in Port Orford. With the field season and my research approaching its end, I realize how much I appreciate all the new people I have met here. Before this summer, I had not had many opportunities to interact with similar and enthusiastic marine scientists. Now I live and work with marine science mentors and peers in the field every day, which has been an invaluable experience, and I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from and interact with these inspiring people. It has been a meaningful summer, and I look forward to continuing to build relationships and learn from my failures during this next phase of my life. 

    Figure 6: Photo of Zoop Troop, from left to right Natalee, Autumn, Allison, Jonah, Aly 

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Accurate and Precise: Learning how to track a focal species

By Jonah Lewis, rising junior at Pacific High School, GEMM Lab Intern 2023

Hello, I’m Jonah Lewis, the other high school intern for the TOPAZ/JASPER Project. I am a rising junior for Pacific High School in Port Orford. I am interested in many things, including computer sciences, electrical sciences, different types of engineering, and lately, marine biology. At the end of February, my biology teacher, Hilary Johnson, was looking for high schoolers to join this internship and I decided that it could be a great experience for me. I applied, and somewhere in March, before I knew it, I was being interviewed by Allison Dawn, our Zoop Troop Sergeant, and Leigh Torres, the head of the operation. I was so nervous for my interview, and tried my best to do well. Then on March 31st, I saw the job offer email, and my family and I were overjoyed. Now that we are in our fourth week, I can say the people and the experiences have been amazing, but my favorite part of all has been the cliff site and the adrenaline rush of tracking a whale moving across the ocean.

Figure 1: Jonah smiles after fixing a whale using the theodolite. 

Theodolite is an important aspect of this research project. This instrument was invented by Leonard Digges back in the 1550’s and is a highly accurate instrument for mapping, engineering, etc. Read here to learn more about the theodolite’s component parts, written by last year’s intern Nichola Gregory, a previous JASPER intern. In Port Orford, we use it for tracking where a gray whale blows and surfaces! Setting up the theodolite can be a challenge for newcomers, but as you repeatedly put this device together, and then take it down, you understand and can troubleshoot better and faster than the previous time. It took me and the team some practice to be able to get all three ways it needs to level just right, or else the instrument decides to throw a fit. For example, when the theodolite isn’t exactly leveled right, or maybe the batteries are low, or the cord just isn’t plugged in all the way, it will just beep at you, trying to say there is an error. After the theodolite is properly leveled, you connect it to the computer that runs our software program called Pythagoras.

Not only does the physical setup require care, but “fixing” a whale requires technique. Here, we are trained to be both accurate and precise when following our focal species. To be accurate, we would need to position the theodolite scope so that the whale is close to the crosshairs. To be precise, we need to fix the whale in the same location on the theodolite crosshairs consistently. Our team has learned how to be both accurate and precise.

Figure 2: Accurate and precise diagram using the crosshairs of a theodolite as reference, diagram by A. Dawn.

Being on cliff team can get tedious, even when you are not using the theodolite to fix a whale. Staring at the waves and the horizon can feel like an eternity, especially when gray whales aren’t active in our study area. Yet, during this time we have to be “on effort”. Being on effort is making sure you scan the horizon consistently, both you and a partner are constantly looking at our study sites. All this is best represented by our team manager Allison: On the cliff with her, she is always looking at the ocean, paying attention to both sites, and for at least the first hour or longer, she will not sit down. 

Figure 3: Kelp bed behind the jetty while a whale flukes in the background.

After we collect all of our data from kayak and cliff each day, we head down to the dry lab and get prepared to download and transfer our data to a hard drive known as “Tharp”. I learned that Marie Tharp was a woman in the 20th century, who mapped the ocean floors, which helps scientists even now. (The GEMM Lab names each hard drive after famous scientists; it helps to track the many hard drives.) When I use the hard drive, I think about her and about how I also helped collect data for mapping features in our marine study site. During the first week of data collection, Allison and I looked through the theodolite scope, found obvious kelp patches on the surface of the water, and fixed many times around the edges, making a complete polygon around the kelp beds. 

Figure 4: Team bonding at the Prehistoric Gardens in Port Orford

This internship for the past four weeks has been an amazing experience. In addition to our fieldwork, I’ve been able to participate and connect with many other interns and professionals here at the Field Station. I have also enjoyed connecting with visitors from all different areas who come by and ask what research we’re doing on the cliff.  At the field station I have fun hanging with the guys at the house as well, where we play sports in our downtime and cook together. I also learn about what projects they are doing, from urchin culling to sea otter research, it all fascinates me. I have helped POSS (Port Orford Sustainable Seafood) with bagging fish, washing dishes, and in return they provide samples of the amazing food they make. I am overjoyed about what I have learned and the people I have met during this experience, and am so thankful to be a part of the ninth year of this project.

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Diving into new experiences

By Natalee Webster, Oregon State University rising senior, GEMM Lab Intern 2023

When I was younger, I was terrified of the water, sobbing on a rock across the river, afraid to be immersed in the unknown. Flash-forward to the present and I have one more year left to finish my undergraduate degree in Biology at Oregon State University with a focus in Marine Biology. I was a little hesitant about choosing a more focused degree since I wasn’t sure what aspect of sciences piqued my interest more. However my curiosity for the ocean grew as I took the PADI Open Water scuba class through school. After earning my certification, I discovered I loved being in the water, and seeing the habitats I read about firsthand. I quickly took my Advanced Scuba and worked my way up to Divemaster, and ultimately AAUS Scientific diving. This new certification provided me with skills for a career in marine biology, performing tasks and taking surveys underwater. Through the diving community at OSU, I met Allison Dawn, our graduate student leader of the TOPAZ/JASPER project studying gray whale foraging ecology. Through meeting her I was informed about this project and decided to apply. Now, as I write, we are working on week three of this project, and I could not be happier with my decision. This internship has already taught me so much about the hard work and logistics that goes into studying the behaviors of large marine mammals in the field, as well as what it is like to closely work with a team to accomplish our goals.

Figure 1. Port of Port Orford at dawn.

Each morning we wake up before the sun with a new set of goals, with a variety of tasks ahead that certainly keeps you on your toes. Long-time readers will know of our kayak and cliff methods, but another aspect of this project is our CamDo underwater cameras. These are cameras that we place in Mill Rocks and Tichenor Cove, our two sampling sites, for a week at a time for longer term footage. In order to deploy these cameras we utilize scuba equipment to properly place them in a location. When the week is up, we go to recover the cameras to gather the data, replace SD card and batteries, and reset them for another week of underwater video footage. 

Although CamDo deployment is not a required part of this internship, I have been able to use my scientific diving certification to assist this project on the dives. I appreciate the opportunity to take apply skills to assist the project from a different perspective. Before my first week here I had never dove off the Oregon coast from a boat, so this task was daunting, as I was still getting to know everyone around the field station, and get a sense of my environment.

Figure 2. Photo of Natalee geared up for a dive in Mill Rocks. 

Our very first dive at Mill Rocks was intimidating but exciting. Allison and I got up before dawn to prepare the cameras and get to the dive boat the Black Pearl. Allison is our dive tender, handling equipment and logistics, and we worked alongside two other divers — Caroline Rice, an intern with ORKA here at the Port Orford field station, and Kevin Buch, our dive leader and the dive safety officer and scientific diving professor at OSU. Once we rolled off the boat and started our descent I began to feel more in my element as the green waters surrounded us. As we continued further and further to the ocean floor, I realized that visibility was turning from a green you could see rays of sunlight through, into a dark black — barely visible further than five inches from my face. We were able to position the camera lander as needed, but we could not secure the camera because of those black-out conditions. While I waited in the waters for direction on the dive, I put my face as close to the rock as the tides would let me and I saw a purple urchin underwater for the first time, and let me tell you, in the dark waters it was eerie. We finally surfaced and got on the boat to venture off to Tichenor Cove in an attempt to deploy the other CAMDO. Here, I realized that despite the best preparation, scientists need to remain adaptable and determined in the face of challenging ocean conditions.  

Figure 3. A screenshot of CAMDO footage showing fish swimming in the water column.

As we prepared for the next dive and began our descent, I silently wondered what I had gotten myself into. I hoped that not all dives off the Oregon Coast were as dark. While slowly descending into Tichenor Cove, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the waters were beautiful in contrast to the darkness of Mill Rocks. Tichenor seemed to be a safe haven in comparison to Mill Rocks; rather than the strong current pushing me along the rocks and urchins, I was able to calmly swim through the rocks and look at the many sea stars, nudibranch, anemones, and different hues of purple urchins living along them. 

Figure 4. Photos taken from GoPro of Tichenor Cove environment, showing rockfish, urchins, and an anemone. 

More recently, we recovered the camera for data processing. While comparing the footage between the two locations, I have learned the ocean is incredibly variable. From clear blue waters where you can clearly see juvenile and adult fish swimming in the water column, compared to nothing but murky brown and black waters. This variability inspired me to think more deeply about what the gray whales see while they forage for food. Dr. Leigh Torres visited our team and I was able to discuss our dives and inquire about the methods these whales use in order to eat. My basic knowledge of whale anatomy tells me that they have eyes; however, I was curious if they used eyesight to locate zooplankton and other food. Leigh informed me that these whales have whiskers! This was an exciting discovery for me, I googled it later and found that gray whales and many other baleen whales have hair follicles, called vibrissae (watch this NOAA video to learn more!), around their rostrum and mouth they use as tactile sensors. Leigh Torres has hypothesized a “sense-of-scale” that illustrates an interchange of sensory modalities such as vision, audition, chemoreception, magnetoreception and somatosensory perception that allows whales to track and capture of prey (Torres 2017). Research in this sensory field continues to grow to better understand how marine mammals  capture and track prey at various scales.

Figure 5. Image of a gray whale, the spot markings along its jaw and rostrum are hair follicles known as vibrissae. (2016)

Seeing these small segments of their habitat myself while underwater has given me much more respect for how these gray whales are able to forage in such a challenging and changing environment. My teammate Autumn is currently working on quantifying the zooplankton abundance recorded in the footage taken through CAMDO, so stay tuned on the Port Orford blogs to hear more about their project!

Figure 6. Photo of Aly, Natalee, and Autumn before kayak training. Honorable mention to the bucket hats. 

The opportunity to participate in this year’s Gray Whale Foraging Ecology project is something I will not take for granted and will appreciate greatly for years. It has given me the opportunity to grow my knowledge about the marine environment that I have been fascinated with, as well as given me skills and training in methods of field research. I  even got to apply my hard-earned underwater skills and conduct my first official scientific dives! I have been able to interact with the long-time locals of Port Orford, whether it be a fisherman sharing their orca encounter tales to retired photographers that chase the whales along the shore. The field station houses many projects focusing on different aspects of the Oregon coast from sea urchins and kelp to river otters along the shores and to outreach programs within the community. When everyone is settling back into the field station after their long day of work, it is great to be gathered in the kitchen and hear about the progress we’ve made and the experiences we’ve had. I look forward to the remaining three weeks I have in Port Orford with this community and my team! Wish us luck as we prepare to deploy the next round of CamDo cameras next week.

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Torres, L.G. (2017), A sense of scale: Foraging cetaceans’ use of scale-dependent multimodal sensory systems. Mar Mam Sci, 33: 1170-1193. https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.12426

What pushes whales north in the Baja. (2016). iTravel Cabo. Retrieved August 7, 2023, fromhttp://www.itravel-cabo.com/news/cabo-news/what-pushes-whales-north-in-the-baja.