“What if I’m wrong? What if I make a mistake?” When I began my career after completing my undergraduate degree, these questions echoed constantly in my head as the stakes were raised and my work was taken more seriously. Of course, this anxiety was not new. As a student, my worst fear had been poor performance in class. Post-undergrad, I was facing the possibility of making a mistake that could impact larger research projects and publications.
Gaining greater responsibility and consequences is a fact of life and an intrinsic part of growing up. As I wrap up my third year of graduate school, I’ve been reflecting on how learning to take on this responsibility as a scientist has been a crucial part of my journey thus far.
A scientist’s job is to ask, and try to answer, questions that no one knows the answer to – which is both terrifying and exciting. It feels a bit like realizing that grown-ups don’t have all the answers as a kid. Becoming comfortable with the fact that my work often involves making decisions that no one definitively can say are wrong or right has been one of my biggest challenges of grad school. The important thing to remember, I’ve learned, is that I’m not making wild guesses – I’m being trained to make the best, most informed decisions possible. And, hopefully, with more experience will come greater confidence.
Through grad school I have learned to take on this responsibility both in the field and the lab, although each brings different experiences. In the field, the stakes can feel higher because the decisions we make affect not just the quality of the data, but the safety of the team (which is always the top priority). I felt this most acutely throughout my first summer as a drone pilot. As a pilot, I am responsible for the safety of the team, the drone, and the quality of the data. As a new pilot, I intensely felt this pressure and would come home feeling more exhausted than usual. Now, in my second field season in this role, I’ve become more comfortable and am slowly building confidence in my abilities as I gain more and more experience.
I have also had a similar experience in the lab. Once it’s time to work on the analysis of a project, I choose how to clean, analyze, and interpret the data. As a young scientist, every step of the process involves learning new skills and making decisions that I don’t feel entirely qualified to make. When I started analysis for my first PhD chapter, I felt overwhelmed by deciding how to standardize my data, what kind of analysis to perform, and what indices to calculate. And, since it’s my first chapter, I felt further overwhelmed by the worry that any decision I made would become a later regret in a future part of my PhD.
Recently, the most daunting decision has been how to standardize my data. For my first chapter, I am investigating individual specialization of gray whale foraging behavior. The results of this question are not only important for conservation, but for my subsequent work (check out these previous blogs from January 2021and April 2022 for more on this research question). While there is a wealth of literature to draw analysis inspiration from, most of these studies use discrete prey capture data, while I am working with continuous behavior data. So, to make my data points comparable to one another, I need to standardize the behavior observation time of each drone flight to account for the potential bias introduced by recording one individual for more time than another. After experiencing an internal roller coaster of having an idea, thinking it through, deciding it was terrible and restarting the cycle, I was reminded that turning to lab mates and collaborators is the best way to work through a problem.
So, I had as many conversations as I could with my advisor, committee members, and peers. My thinking clarified with every conversation, and I gained confidence in the justification behind my decision. I cannot fully express the comfort that comes from hearing a trusted advisor say, “that makes ecological sense to me”. These conversations have also helped me remember that I am not alone in my worry and that I am not failing because I have these doubts. While I may never be 100% convinced that I’ve made the right decision, I feel much better knowing that I’ve talked it through with the brilliant group of scientists around me. And as I enter an analysis-intensive phase of my PhD, I am extremely grateful to have this community around to challenge, advise, and support me.
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What do I mean by impact? There are different ways to measure the impact of science and I bet that the readers of this blog had different ideas pop into their heads when they read the title. My guess is that most ideas were related to the impact factor (IF) of a journal, which acts as a measure of a journal’s impact within its discipline and allows journals to be compared. Recent GEMM Lab graduate and newly minted Dr. Leila Lemos wrote a blog about this topic and I suggest reading it for more detail. In a nutshell though, the higher the IF, the more prestigious and impactful the journal. It is unsurprising that scientists found a way to measure our impact on the broader scientific community quantitatively.
However, IFs are not the impact I was referring to in my title. The impact I am talking about is arguably much harder to measure because you can’t easily put a number on it. I am talking about the impact we have on communities and individuals through outreach and engagement. The GEMM Lab’s Port Orford gray whale ecology project, which I lead, is going into its 6th consecutive year of summer field work this year. Outreach and engagement are two core components of the project that I have become very invested in since I started in 2018. And so, since we are only one week away from the field season commencing (yes, somehow it’s mid-July already…), for this week’s blog I have decided to reflect on what scientific outreach and engagement is, how we have tried to do both in Port Orford, and some of the associated highs and lows.
I think almost everyone in the scientific community would agree that outreach and engagement are important and that we should strive to interact frequently with the public to be transparent and build public trust, as well as to enable mutual learning. However, in my opinion, most scientists rarely put in the work needed to actually reach out to, and engage with, the community. Outreach and engagement have become buzzwords that are often thrown around, and with some hand-waving, can create the illusion that scientists are doing solid outreach and engagement work. For some, the words are probably even used interchangeably, which isn’t correct as they mean two different things.
Outreach and engagement should be thought of as occurring on two different ends of a spectrum. Outreach occurs in a one-way direction. Examples of outreach are public seminars delivered by a scientist (like Hatfield’s monthly Science on Tap) or fairs where the public is invited to come and talk to different scientific entities at their respective booths (like Hatfield’s annual Marine Science Day). Outreach is a way for scientists to disseminate their research to the public and often do not warrant the umbrella term engagement, as these “conversations” are not two-way. Engagement is collaborative and refers to intentional interactions where both sides (public and scientist) share and receive. It goes beyond a scientist telling the public about what they have been doing, but also requires the scientist to listen, absorb, and implement what the views from the ‘other side’ are.
Now that I have (hopefully) clarified the distinction between the two terms, I am going to shift the focus to specifically talk about the Port Orford project. Before I do, I would like to emphasize that I do not think our outreach and engagement is the be-all and end-all. There is definitely room for improvement and growth, but I do believe that we actively work hard to do both and to center these aspects within the project, rather than doing it as an afterthought to tick a box.
In talking about outreach and engagement, I have been using the words ‘public’ and ‘community’. I think these words conjure an image of a big group of people, an entire town, county, state or even nation. While this can be the case, it can also refer to smaller groups of people, even individuals. The outreach we conduct for the Port Orford project certainly occurs at the town-level. At the end of every field season, we give a community presentation where the field team and Leigh present new findings and give a recount of the field season. In the past, various teams have also given talks at the Humbug Mountain Campground and at Redfish Rocks Community Team events. These events, especially the community presentation, have been packed to the brim every year, which shows the community’s interest for the gray whales and our research. In fact, Tom Calvanese, the OSU Port Orford Field Station manager, has shared with me that now in early summer, Port Orford residents ask him when the ‘whale team’ is returning. I believe that our project has perhaps shifted the perception the local community has of scientists a little bit. Although in our first year or two of the project we may have been viewed as nosy outsiders, I feel that now we are almost honorary members within the community.
Our outreach is not just isolated to one or two public talks per field season though. We have been close collaborators with South Coast Tours (SCT), an adventure tour company headed by Dave Lacey, since the start of the project. During the summer, SCT has almost daily kayak and fishing tours (this year, boat tours too!) out of Port Orford. The paddle routes of SCT and our kayak team will typically intersect in Tichenor’s Cove around mid-morning. When this happens, we form a little kayak fleet with the tour and research kayaks and our kayak team gives a short, informal talk about our research. We often pass around samples of zooplankton we just collected and answer questions that many of the paddlers have. These casual interactions are a highlight to the guests on SCT’s tours (Dave’s words, not mine) and they also provide an opportunity for the project’s interns to practice their science communication skills in a ‘low-stakes’ setting.
The nature of our engagement is more at the individual-level. Since the project’s conception in 2015, the team has been composed of some combination of 4-5 students, be it high school, undergraduate or graduate students. Aside from Florence Sullivan and myself as the GEMM Lab graduate student project leads, in total, we have had 16 students participate in the program, of which 4 were high school students (two from Port Orford’s Pacific High School and two from Astoria High School), 11 OSU and Lawrence University undergraduates, and 1 Duke University graduate student. This year we will be adding 3 more to the total tally (1 Pacific High School student, 1 OSU undergrad, and 1 graduate student from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium). I am the first to admit that our yearly (and total) numbers of ‘impacted’ students is small. Limitations of funding and also general logistics of coordinating a large group of interns to participate in field work prevent us from having a larger cohort participate in the field season every summer. However, the impact on each of these students is huge.
If I had to pick one word to describe the 6-week Port Orford field season, it would be ‘intense’. The word is perfect because it can simultaneously describe something positive and negative, and the Port Orford field season definitely has elements of both. Both as a team and as individuals we experience incredible high points (an example being last year when we saw Port Orford’s favorite whale ‘Buttons’ breach multiple times on several different days), but we also have pretty low points (I’m thinking of a day in 2018 when two of my interns tried incredibly hard to get our GoPro stick dislodged from a rocky crevice for over 1-hour before radioing me to tell me they couldn’t retrieve it). These highs and lows occur on top of the team’s slowly depleting levels of energy as the field season goes on; with every day we get up at 5:30 am and we get a little more exhausted. The work requires a lot of brain power, a lot of muscle, and a lot of teamwork. Like I said, it’s intense and that’s coming from someone who had several years of marine mammal field work experience before running this project for the first time in 2018. The majority of the interns who have participated in our project have had no marine mammal field experience, some have had no field experience at all. It’s double, if not triple, intense for the interns!
I ask a lot of my interns. I am aware of that. It has been a steep learning curve for me since I took on the project in 2018. I’ve had to adjust my expectations and remember not to measure the performance of my interns against my own. I can always give 110% during the field season, even when I’m exhausted, because the stakes are high for me. After all, the data that is being collected feeds straight into my thesis. However, it took me a while to realize that the stakes, and therefore the motivation, aren’t the same for my interns as they are for me. And so, expecting them to perform at the same level I am, is unfair. I believe I have grown a lot since running that first field season. I have taken the feedback from interns to heart and tried to make adjustments accordingly. While those adjustments were hard because it ultimately meant making compromises that affected the amount of data collected, I recognize and respect the need to make those adjustments. I am incredibly grateful to all of the interns, including the ones that participated before my leadership of the project, who really gave it their all to collect the data that I now get to dig into and draw conclusions from.
But, as I said before, engagement is not one-sided, and I am not the only one who benefits from having interns participate in the project. The interns themselves learn a wealth of skills that are valuable for the future. Some of these skills are very STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) specific (e.g. identifying zooplankton with a microscope, tracking whales with a theodolite), but a lot of them are transferrable to non-STEM futures (e.g. attention to detail and concentration required for identifying zooplankton, team work, effective communication). Our reach may be small with this project but the impact that participating in our internship has on each intern is a big one. Three of our four high school interns have gone on to start college. One plans to major in Marine Studies (in part a result of participating in this internship) while another decided to go to college to study Biology because of this internship. Several of the undergraduate students that participated in the 2015, 2016, 2017 & 2018 field seasons have gone on to start Master’s degrees at graduate schools around the country (3 of which have already graduated from their programs). A 2015 intern now teaches middle school in Washington and a 2016 intern is working with Oceans Initiative on their southern resident killer whale project this summer. Leigh, Florence and I have written many letters of recommendations for our interns, and these letters were not written out of duty, but out of conviction.
I love working closely with students and watching them grow. For the last two years, my proudest moment has always been watching my interns present our research at the annual community presentation we give at the end of the field season in Port Orford. No matter the amount of lows and struggles I experienced throughout the season, I watch my interns and my face almost hurts because of the huge smile on my face. The interns truly undergo a transformation where at the start of the season they are shy or feel inadequate and awkward when talking to the public about gray whales and the methods we employ to study them. But on that final day, there is so much confidence and eloquence with which the interns talk about their internship, that they are oftentimes even comfortable enough to crack jokes and share personal stories with the audience. As I said before, engagement of this nature is hard to measure and put a number on. Our statistic (engaging with 16 students) makes it sound like a small impact, but when you dig into what these engagements have meant for each student, the impact is enormous.
I treasure my 6 weeks in Port Orford. Even though they are intense and there are new challenges every year, they bring me a lot of happiness. And it’s only in part because I get to see gray whales and kayak on an (almost) daily basis. A large part is because of the bonds I have formed and continue to cultivate with Port Orford locals, the leaps and bounds I know the interns will make, and the fact that the gray whales, completely unknowingly, bring together a small group of students and a community every year.
If you feel like taking a trip down memory lane, below are the links of the blogs written by previous PO interns:
By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab
A lab is a family. I know there is the common saying about how you cannot choose your family and you can only choose your friends. But, I’d beg to differ. In the case of graduate school, especially in departments similar to OSU’s Fisheries and Wildlife, your lab is your chosen family. These are the people who encourage you when you’ve hit a roadblock, who push you when you need extra motivation, who will laugh with you when you’ve reached the point of hysteria after hours of data analysis, who will feed you when you’re too busy to buy groceries, and who will always be there for you. That sure sounds a lot like a family to me.
Many of us spend weeks—if not months—conducting field research for our various projects. None of us do this work from the main campus…seeing as the main campus for Oregon State University is located Corvallis, Oregon which is approximately 50 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. The GEMM Lab isn’t actually based on the main campus; instead, you’ll find the lab at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, within a two-minute stroll of the picturesque Yaquina Bay. However, many of the core classes we need are only offered on main campus. This results in the GEMM Lab members being spread across Corvallis, Newport, and the dominant fieldwork site for their project (which could be locally in Oregon, or in the waters off of New Zealand). So rather than your typical, weekly, hour-long lab meetings, the GEMM Lab meetings are monthly and last on the order of 3-5 hours. Others hear this and think that must be overwhelming to have such a long lab meeting. On the contrary, these are scheduled to fit into all of our chaotic schedules. One day a month, all of us gather together as a family unit, share what’s new about our lives, be sounding boards for each other, solve problems, and do so in a supportive environment. Hopefully you’re getting the picture that just because we’re all part of the same lab, it doesn’t mean we’re geographically close. This is exactly why we cultivate meaningful relationships while we are together. The Harvard Business Review published an article 2015 based on multiple peer-reviewed journals, summarizing the six dominant characteristics necessary to foster a positive workplace:
Caring for colleagues as friends
Supporting each other
Avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes
Inspiring each other at work
Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work
Treating each other with respect
And I can attest that every member within the GEMM Lab embraces all of these characteristics and I have a feeling that none of them have read that article prior to today. Family naturally follows those basic guidelines. And, our lab, is a family.
Case and Point: when I was applying for graduate programs, I made a point of traveling to meet the GEMM Lab members at the monthly lab meeting. Sure, I also wanted to make sure that both Newport and Corvallis would be good fits in terms of locations. But, mostly, I needed to see if this Lab would be a strong family unit for my graduate school career and beyond. The moment I arrived at Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, it was clear, this was a family that I could see myself being a part of. Not only had all the members brought some kind of food item to share at the lab meeting (this was important to me), but Florence had baked homemade bread, Dawn had offered to show me around Hatfield, and Leila had set up a time to take me around main campus with other grad students. During the lab meeting discussions, I was welcomed to contribute and I felt comfortable doing so. That was another big moment where something “clicked” and I knew I had found a great group of amazing scientists who were also amazing human beings.
Flash forward a few months, and now I am one of those lab members who is bringing food to lab meetings. More than that, we have GEMM Lab dinners and game nights. I may be based in Corvallis, but I commute out to Newport just for these fun activities because this is my family. I want to be with them—not only when we’re talking about our research—but when we’re laughing about the silly things that happen in our daily lives, comically screaming at each other in an effort to win whatever game is on the table, and enjoying home-cooked meals. This is my family.
I guess I’d like to plug this message to any potential graduate student regardless of discipline(s): find a lab with people that you truly want to surround yourselves with—day and night—in good times and in bad times—because undoubtedly, you’ll need those kinds of people. And, to current lab constituents in any lab: it’s up to us to create a supportive family which will make everyone successful.
Sister Sledge knew just this when the group sang this verse of their hit, “We Are Family”:
Living life is fun and we’ve just begun
To get our share of this world’s delights
High, high hopes we have for the future
And our goal’s in sight
We, no we don’t get depressed
Here’s what we call our golden rule
Have faith in you and the things you do
You won’t go wrong, oh-no
This is our family Jewel
I’m grateful to have found a lab that embodies the lyrics of one of my favorite childhood karaoke songs. The GEMM Lab is not only a lab that produces cutting-edge science; it is a family that encourages one another in all facets of life—creating an environment where people can have high-quality lives and generate high-quality science.