a pile of seals and a seagull on a rock

Current Research Blogs

Holland's Blog

Holland Conwell, undergraduate student

1 August 2022

Lately, I’ve settled into my summer research and have been making big strides with data analysis! It feels like I’m finally starting to connect the dots after lots of hard work building my codes. I’ve also been able to collaborate more with Dietmar this last month and correct some issues I was having with NMDS plots and PERMANOVAs.

I began this month by running separate NMDS plots by year and investigating sex-specific effects and diet by site. This revealed visible clustering of Fraser River males in relation to Salmoniformes. Creating stacked bar graphs depicting diet composition by sex and season for each site confirmed the Fraser River trend from the NMDS plot. In fact, both Fraser River and Belle Chain (Canadian sites) showed more salmon consumed by males late in the season. This did not seem to be the case for most of the Washington sites, but a graph showing the data divided by early/late season for each site was helpful in seeing that the majority of the late season coverage is actually coming from just the Canadian sites. Late season data covers adult salmon returns, so a lack of late season data for Washington sites is important to note.

On the PERMANOVA end of data analysis, I went through my R scripts, clarified my process, and corrected some mistakes. I ended up not having to combine variables for analysis and found that sex and season were significant. I then divided the data and ran separate PERMANOVAs for early and late season data, which showed that sex was significant for the late season but not the early season. I’m now making updated NMDS plots and stacked bar graphs in hopes of seeing what could be driving my results. It’s been a dynamic month of data analysis, and I’m excited to see what next month brings!


Zoë's Blog

Zoë Lewis, graduate student

1 August 2022

I can’t believe that this is my last blog as a graduate student in the Marine Mammals Ecology Lab! It seems like just yesterday I was walking into Alejandro’s office for the first time, before the pandemic, before I had become personally acquainted with the smell of Steller sea lion and harbor seal scats (trust me, they do smell different). It’s been a crazy month of traveling to the North American Congress for Conservation Biology conference in Reno, tabling and defending my thesis, interviewing and getting a job with the Lummi Nation Department of Natural Resources, and moving. I kept telling my mom “I guess this is what happens when you are in your mid-twenties and think that you can accomplish everything at once”. It’s safe to say that this blog marks the end of both the marathon of graduate school and the sprint of the last month.

I feel like I could write a blog for each week of this month, but I’ll try to keep it to the highlights and lessons learned, week by week(ish).

July 1-7: Everyone will comment when you turn a quarter of a century old, and thesis revisions always take longer than expected. I learned a lot about time management and self-deadline setting throughout the course of this program.

July 8-14: Pre-defense meetings are a bit less scary when you know your committee, but almost scarier when you know that they are all invested and excited to read your thesis. I learned even more about managing edits, expectations, and emotions that come with scientific revisions.

July 15-21: I never want to live in Reno, and the juxtaposition of attending a conservation conference in a casino was a bit jarring. Despite this, I remembered that I love talking with scientists with different disciplines, and that the best way for me to feel motivated to continue my work is to share it with others.

July 22: Thesis defense day! Defending your thesis is so vulnerable. I’m not sure I would ever feel like my entire body of work and lessons learned from this program could be captured in one document. I left reenergized to continue my work on these manuscripts, and feeling love and support from so many, virtually, and in person!

July 23-31: Moving gets harder and harder when you are no longer an undergraduate living in basements and boxes. Thesis revisions get harder but your thesis gets infinitely better when you can include multiple editors and perspectives. It is truly an art learning how to incorporate revisions and focus on a main goal.

That’s a rough outline of the final sprint. Through all the packing, I found the notebook that I brought to the interview for this position. In it, I note “I really love the monthly blogs that Alejandro has his students do”. Now, ask me in the middle of data analysis and writing last winter, and I might not have said this is the case, but reflecting on this note really reminds me how incredible it will be personally, and professionally, to have a monthly catalog of all of my progress and problem solving. I’ve never been good at keeping a journal, but the structure of these blogs feels like an academic journal, to remind me of how much I have learned over the past two years. Yes, I still really love the monthly blogs that Alejandro had us write and was so thankful for the reminders and the grace he provided when I forgot on a couple months!

Speaking of thank yous, I am so thankful for everyone who has helped me along this journey. I really enjoyed reflecting on these thanks in the acknowledgements of my thesis, but this gives me an opportunity to give a few more shout outs. Kate and Kyra, although neither of you were on my project, you both took time out of your days to clean scat containers, process samples and talk ecology. I will forever be thankful for both of you visiting me in my data daze, forcing me to take a moment and a laugh, and continuing to make me a happier, healthier human. Of course, the end of this graduate program also marks the end of my time with my roommate, who shared many meals and late writing nights with me. Kathleen, thank you for everything, I’m lucky to have gained a best friend out of the deal.


Kathleen and Zoë filling out the laboratory “scatometer” after Zoë finished all of the scat sample processing for the project. Photo credits: Madison Gard.


Kathleen's Blog

Kathleen McKeegan, graduate student

1 August 2022

Good news! I successfully defended my master’s thesis last week! It has been a hectic and busy month, but I am very proud of the work I have accomplished.

In general, July was full of thesis work, conferences/presentations, and moving. I submitted my thesis to my committee on July 1st and had my pre-defense the second week of July. I was incredibly nervous for the pre-defense because it was the first time I got feedback from Dr. Austen Thomas and Dr. Matt Zinkgraf. But luckily, my committee only had helpful things to share and no major concerns for the overall thesis. At that point, I was able to focus on the writing and cleaning up a few aspects of the analysis and discussion.

Between my pre-defense and defense, I drove down to Reno, Nevada, with Zoë to present at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology (NACCB) conference. Due to our hectic schedules, Zoë and I drove down and only spent one day at the conference so we could be back in time for Zoë’s defense. While our stay was short, it was cool to see some of the talks and meet professionals and students in the field of conservation biology. My presentation went well, and I got a lot of great questions from the scientists in the room. It was great to finish off my graduate career with an in-person conference after all the virtual conferences I’ve been attending.

While in Reno (and on the drive down), I continued working on my thesis so I could table it with the Biology Department. Bizarrely, I completed and submitted my tabled thesis in the Casino hotel room in Reno! That was a funny end to a long two years of work! I was then able to focus on preparing for my seminar. On July 27th, I held my thesis seminar, and several friends and family members joined both in-person and remotely. It was nerve-wracking at first but ultimately it was a lot of fun to share the research I have been working on for the past two years. Immediately after, I had my defense which was also incredibly intimidating, but ultimately a great experience. Matt, Austen, and Alejandro asked great questions and, while I definitely stumbled a couple times, I left the room feeling like we had a great conversation. And fortunately, my committee decided I did enough to pass! I am officially a Master of Science!!! .... well actually.... not yet. I still need to submit my final thesis to the graduate school and go through the last couple steps before I get my degree. But the big scary part -- the defense -- is done!!!

Now, I am spending my days packing and moving out of my apartment in Bellingham, which has been a whirlwind. I will also be completing my final thesis draft, wrapping up a couple of things in the lab, and beginning the manuscript/publication process. My next step is yet to be determined, but I have several fun camping trips planned for the month of August, so I’m excited to get outside after two years of pandemic graduate school. I am very grateful to everyone who has helped me on this journey, notably everyone in the Marine Mammal Ecology Lab and Alejandro for giving me this opportunity. It was a challenge at times, but an absolute blast and I would not change a single moment. Till next time!