Marine Mammal Ecology Lab

APRIL 2020

Bobbie's Blog

Bobbie Buzzell, graduate student

1 April 2020

A very large paradigm shift is currently happening among all the graduate students at Western (and the entire world for that matter). Needless to say, measures to reduce and cease cases of COVID-19 have left many grads frazzled and in a state of uncertainty regarding projects and classes, since many of us teach and take classes ourselves. Western has moved all classes online for spring quarter, and with the current Stay-At-Home order issued by the Governor, there are restrictions on who may enter the biology building, including the labs in which we work.

What does this mean for scat sorting? I consider myself one of the lucky grads who can bring their work home. All the scats have been cleaned for a few months now, and I have been working with three undergraduates in sorting the fish and crustaceans to prepare the samples for prey identification. While the shelter in place order is in effect, I have been simply sorting scat from the comfort of my home. I was able to bring a dissecting microscope with me and all of the samples and materials to continue sorting.

I’m actually finding this quite convenient, so I will not really have an issue if the order stays in effect longer than the 2 weeks originally designated. In fact, I have nearly caught back up to pace with the original goals I set forth back in October (100 samples per month). The only downside is that I do not have the help from my dedicated assistants while the order is in effect, but this could change once it is lifted.

I am ready to begin shipping samples down to Seattle for the fish prey identification, and as of now I don’t think coronavirus will impact this. The next steps involve squaring away my grant and continuing to sort. I’m also starting to piece together some of the common crustaceans I’ve been repeatedly finding, including a type of kelp crab and a Crangon shrimp, though the species may be too difficult to identify as of yet.

The only set back in my project is attaining more reference specimens, which would have provided better evidence to ID the mystery crustaceans. Last week I had hoped to travel out to Neah Bay to collect more reference specimens, but the Makah Tribe is also working from home. Paired with the stay-at-home order resulted in cancelling these plans, but nevertheless, June will still be a good time to attempt collections.

Grace's Blog

Grace Freeman, graduate student

1 April 2020

To say this month has been unique would be an understatement. Like many others around the country, I have been hunkered down and working from home for the past few weeks. While I would have preferred the beach vacation and enjoying some sun during this spring break, I feel grateful to have this time to figure out lesson plans and prepare for the quarter of remote learning ahead of us. I’m also very lucky that I’ve been able to continue my research from the comfort of my apartment. Upon hearing the news that Washingtonians were to stay home for at least two weeks, I made a trek up to the lab, loaded the entire setup (computer, monitors, keyboard, mouse, drives… everything!), and brought home. I was having a hard time getting the data to load on my home computer, so I turned the lab computer into my home computer, and everything has been going great!

With this new office set-up, my life is pretty much a routine. Each morning I wake up, grab my coffee, and shuffle to the “lab” in my slippers. Then I spend the rest of the day clicking through the thousands of pictures of seals and their corresponding data observations. I try to connect each photo to previously taken photos and then match the behavioral observation with the individual’s unique ID. It’s a slow and tedious process – see my January blog post for details – but it’s going well so far. Based on the timeline laid out in my now-approved (!!) proposal, I am on track or even possibly ahead of schedule. Not all of my classmates have fared as well through all of this, so I’m going to count my blessings, take advantage of the time I have, and power on. With Western essentially shut down to undergrads for the quarter, no more observational data will be collected, but here’s hoping I can work my way through that which we already have. Ideally, we will begin data collection again in the fall, but ‘til then I’ll be alone in my apartment, talking to pictures of seals, and trying to learn how to use Zoom.

Stay home and stay well,

Delaney's Blog

Delaney Adams, undergraduate student

1 April 2020

With the end of March comes the start of a new quarter, and with the start of the quarter some of the most uncertain times I have ever experienced. Progress on my project has been slow, especially with the Biology Building closure and the transition of all academic related activities online. I’ve spent a chunk of time this last month trying to streamline the process of sorting through the surfacing events and deciphering which of each events are independent of each other, and this has taken more time than I anticipated. I think that it will be an added challenge for me to get all of the work done this coming quarter that I had originally planned, but I don’t think it will be out of reach, and I’m up for the challenge. Data management for this project has been a huge roadblock and challenge thus far, and I am looking forward to working out some of the kinks for data collection and management in the future with Grace, the graduate student who is also using the data for her thesis. For the time being, my data organization process will have to remain a bit of a mess.

I spent a significant amount of time over spring break looking for jobs and planning for my time after graduation in June, and fortunately I was successful in the search. I am looking forward to working on a farm through the spring and summer months in Mt. Vernon, as well as having some extra time to spend doing job searches for after the season ends. I am feeling quite nervous around what is to come in the future, but I’m sure that’s not out of the norm given the state of our world currently. I hope that I can continue to be productive and flexible as changes arise.

Jonathan's Blog

Jonathan Blubaugh, graduate student

1 April 2020

March has been kind of a weird month. I’ve been working from home for about 2 weeks and will be until June because of the Coronavirus. As winter quarter was ending the university moved to all online classes and will be online only for the entirety of spring quarter. Its kind of a blessing and a curse, I have less mandatory time set aside for meetings and teaching but gained a lot more flex time where I feel like I have a million things to do. I’m disappointed the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference and the NWSSMM 2020 Conference have been cancelled. I was looking forward to sharing my research and getting feedback from other in my field.

I’ve been trying to work on my thesis a little each day. I’ve decided to basically rewrite my introduction and add a background section to my thesis to allow some of the important ideas flow better in the introduction. I have a results section drafted but am going to wait for feedback until I have my rewrite finished. This will help me focus on one thing at a time. Hopefully by the end of April I will have a full draft of my thesis completed and ready to send out to Andre at Humboldt State for feedback. I’m still planning on defending in June but I’d not sure my family will be able to be there since Virginia has a stay-at-home order until June 10th.

Overall, March completely changed how the last 3 months of my Master’s program will go and all I can do is take it one day and goal at a time.

Nathan's Blog

Nathan Guilford, graduate student

1 April 2020

As SARS-CoV-2 continues to spread throughout Whatcom County and the rest of the globe, there is a lot on all of our minds in addition to my project. In terms of my time, I have begun a temporary position at Northwest Pathology as a PCR technician, performing SARS-CoV-2 tests on samples from various counties in Washington. As the situation is developing as we go, the work is giving me incredible insight into the response clinical laboratories exhibit during crises like these, and I am extremely grateful to apply my lab skills and assist in this turbulent time.

In terms of my thesis, I am continuing to analyze my first sequencing run for individual identities and prey species, with recent success. I have been able to calculate various relatedness measures between my samples, with the known resamples giving us significantly higher values than the pairs of wild non-related individuals. While some of these metrics are coming back as values one may expect to see between siblings, the fact that they are still extreme outliers from the rest of the pairs seems promising. In addition, hopefully the deeper sequencing from our second run will help boost the informativeness of our marker panel and bump up these relatedness measures. Speaking of the second run, it will continue to be completed by the University of Minnesota, however, due to SARS-CoV-2, staffing/resource alterations will delay our results. As I am anxious to see these results, I have plenty to keep me busy with writing my thesis, continuing to analyze my first data set, and working with NW Pathology.