a pile of seals and a seagull on a rock

Current Research Blogs

Madison's Blog

Madison Gard, undergraduate student

1 June 2023

Wow! It is wild to think that June is here, and I’ll be walking across the stage at commencement in just a couple of weeks. I was accurate to predict that it would be a full sprint to the finish line - I’ve been working nonstop for the last 4 weeks! Between the smolt releases, closing out my time at Western, and training to work for Triad River Tours this summer, it’s been a juggling act to say the least. Luckily, I think I’ve got 14 days left in me to finish off strong (with a LOT of coffee, for support).

The smolt releases have gone swimmingly, no pun intended. Other than a few missed alarms (those 4 am's have been rough), we’ve had an amazing team of student researchers going out twice a day, every day, at dawn and dusk, to monitor harbor seal activity in the Whatcom Waterway. This has been quite the operation to coordinate. Collectively, we’ve gathered data from 5 baseline days (5/8 - 5/12) before the first smolt release took place at 10p on May 12th. In addition to 6 days post 1st smolt release (5/13-5/18) and 13 days post 2nd smolt release (5/19-5/31), which occurred on May 18th at 10p. In each release, the BTC hatchery released around half of their reared Chinook smolt into Whatcom Creek. The timing worked out perfectly for us to gather some baseline data for seal activity as well as have close to two full weeks of observations following the second release. I’ve started to organize all the data, and it’s been fascinating to look through! I’m super excited to dig into the data more and see the larger story of pinniped predation impacts unfold. On Friday, June 10th at 10 a.m. I present the preliminary study results in my Honors Capstone Session and will be working hard to put that together over the next two weeks.

As far as the Whatcom Creek side of things, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster setting up the fall team for success. Ultimately, it was decided that Kam and Maya will work together as co-managers on the Whatcom Creek Study with support from Emily, Jack, Isabel, and Haley as project leads. They will be a fantastic team of researchers and leaders to carry on the study for another year and I’m very excited for them! In my last few weeks, I’ll continue to train these researchers on everything that goes into the Whatcom Creek study, so they’ll be ready for the fall field season.

Some more exciting news - I was selected to be the Outstanding Graduate for the College of the Environment as well as the Commencement Speaker for the June 10th ceremony at 1pm! I was surprised to be chosen for these two honors and feel very grateful to my community at Western for considering me. I’m super excited for my family to be visiting me so soon and share these special moments with them!

Classes are wrapping up and winding down. I will be presenting both of my capstone projects on Thursday, June 1st. In Oceanography of the Salish Sea, my group mates and I have been researching what causes the spatial and temporal variability in the spring phytoplankton blooms each year. By examining a case study of six locations in the summer of 2021, we’ve determined that residence time and mixing impact parameters such as salinity, nitrate concentrations and temperature, which in turn impact the timing, strength and duration of phytoplankton blooms. It’s been super interesting to piece this study together, and I’m looking forward to presenting it this week. In my Spanish Capstone, we are submitting creative video projects to the Our New Gold national competition in order to celebrate and promote Siglo de Oro literature. I’ve been working on a stop-motion video of an embroidery project and will be narrating a scene from El perro del hortelano por Lope de Vega for its audio. I think I’m in a good spot to be putting the finishing touches on both of these projects at this point.

I’ve been feeling nostalgic working in the field this month and reflecting on how many hours of observations I’ve spent in Whatcom Creek and its waterway. This corner of the universe will always be so special to me, as my first experience working in a research lab! It’s been an amazing 4 years of MMEL, and I feel very grateful to have found this community of scientists and learn so much from them. I’ll definitely be back to visit and say hello to the harbor seals.

Holland's Blog

Holland Conwell, undergraduate student

1 June 2023

What a busy month! As I predicted, May absolutely zipped by and now I’m somehow only a week out from getting my diploma. I had a wonderful (and simultaneously frenetic) time visiting California (twice) and Texas this month, and I’m so glad to finally have been able to present at the NWSSMM conference in-person at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Station. It was such a joy to reconnect with my former Log Pond manager, Kyra Bankhead, at the conference and get to see her thriving as a first-year graduate student at OSU! I also had a great time with Vic and Alex on this trip, and we even got to attend a Pacific white-sided dolphin necropsy and hit the aquarium on our way out of town. With the NWSSMM conference and Scholars Week out of the way now, this marks the end of an exciting conference season! I must say, I’m very grateful to now be here in Bellingham with more time on my hands to wrap up my undergraduate work after such a packed month of travel.

Thankfully, I’ve been able to spend some more time with my diet analysis manuscript in the last couple of weeks, and I’m planning on getting another draft to my co-authors within the week! At this point, I’m really just fixing up the language in the discussion, cleaning up my figures, and adding small sections like the acknowledgements. I’m excited for this manuscript to move on in the publication process soon, and I can’t believe that I first started working on this project during spring quarter of my sophomore year! At the same time, I finished up data analysis for my capstone research, and I’ll be presenting these results very soon during my capstone presentation. I found that while the number of seals at the Log Pond decreased over time with the removal of log booms, the number of seals in Whatcom Creek increased. It does appear that seals are not hauling out in the Log Pond as much anymore, but seals (likely coming from further away) are still swinging by the Creek every fall for the salmon. More on this at my presentation!

This weekend, Jasper and I will be training the summer Log Pond team, which is one of the last tasks on my list before I graduate! It’s been a cool process showing Jasper the ropes this quarter and watching his process forming an independent research project. I feel lucky to be leaving the Log Pond project in such capable hands, and I can’t wait to see what he does with it! I really can’t believe it, but by my next (and last) blog post, I will have graduated from Western and will be moving on to the next adventure! Until next month.

Alexandrea's Blog

Alexandra Otto, graduate student

1 June 2023

Hello there,

Funding applied for, three-minute thesis talks presented, GT-Seq panel being optimized, and most of all proposal approved! Crazy to think year one of Masters is completed (almost). Here are some of the highlights from the past month!

Started the month off by attending and presenting at the NWSSMM conference in Newport, OR at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. Presented my three-minute thesis and received some great feedback and contacts regarding sample leads! It was truly a surreal day being at a conference full of marine mammal students and professionals! All the conferences I have had the opportunity to attend in the past, I’ve had to search high and low for the few marine mammal folks. Meeting the other students and faculty (some who I’ve read and creeped on their lab websites in the past) in the field of marine mammalogy was the most impactful experience! It was a very supportive and collaborative environment. Hearing other students’ research and meeting them was amazing. Even got to meet up with a fellow MMEL alumni, Kyra, and hear about her current research! Had the opportunity to watch a necropsy start to finish as well the next day led by Jim Rice, the Stranding Program manager. We even got the chance to see the “goose beak”. If you’re not familiar with the dolphin’s “goose beak”, look it up! Hint: it’s an organ dolphins evolutionarily developed which helps them breath from their blowhole and not their mouths. Overall amazing weekend and had some fun times during the 14-hour road trip in the car with Victoria and Holland!

Around the same week, I also helped out with seal captures run by WDFW and was able to bring along Bri and Holland who had helped me with subsamples at WDFW the previous quarter! Another surreal experience and wild adventure! It was very neat to see Erin, past MMEL alumni and one of my thesis committee members, in action in the field. I had heard before about Erin’s top seal catching expertise but it was another to witness and help first-hand! Watching the beach work-up after was also very informative and eye-opening. Satellite tagging devices were attached, samples and measurements taken, and even an ultrasound done (confirmed pregnant seal)!

Later in the quarter, I was able to make the trip to the Friday Harbor and gather subsamples from the Whale Museum/SeaDoc Society! I had the pleasure and opportunity to meet another fellow MMEL alumni, Jessica Farrer, who coordinates and runs the stranding network down there at the Whale Museum. Shoutout to Gaither, an undergraduate research lead in the MMEL, also who helped me subsample on this trip.

Helped mix primers with Erin for the next GT-Seq run as well this quarter! The panel is still in the process of being optimized and to help with this next run, tissue samples from my collected subsamples and picked fecal samples were included! Hopefully, the addition of tissue samples and samples from other locations across Washington will aid in increasing the genotyping success! In other news, I also learned how to run the GT-Seq genotyping pipeline! Small steps forward in my bioinformatics journey.

As the quarter wraps up, I’m currently training my small team of undergraduates on tissue extractions. I’m making my summer game plan for finishing gathering more subsamples. At times, I feel as if gathering the subsamples for my project has felt like a fun scavenger hunt across Washington state for seal DNA! I’m exhilarated to just focus on research this summer, thanks to WWU’s Biology Department. Huge thank you to the Biology Department for fellowship and research funding this summer!

Finally, shoutout to all the MMEL undergraduates graduating this quarter! The work each and every undergraduate puts into the lab is extraordinary and inspiring. Special shoutouts to Maddie in her honors smolt project this quarter and Holland’s honors thesis which she presented on at NWSSMM as well!

Till next time,

WDFW attaching a tracking tag by epoxy and Dr. Jeanne Ross performing an ultrasound on a harbor seal from the Stillaguamish River area. Photo by H. Conwell under MMPA/ESA Permit No. 22678.

Harbor seal being released post capture and work up. Photo by H. Conwell under MMPA/ESA Permit No. 22678.

Victoria's Blog

Victoria Vinecke, graduate student

1 June 2023

Happy summer everyone! I can’t believe it is already June!

It has been quite a busy month! I have applied to three different funding opportunities, presented a poster at a conference for the first time, got my proposal approved, and learned a new sequencing technique! I am writing this after finishing my last class presentation for the year. It seems like just yesterday I was attending graduate school orientation, but I am actually wrapping up my first year of graduate school. It has been a wild year in which I have learned a ton of information from professors and peers. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to be surrounded by so many people that assist in my education.

Lots of exciting opportunities arose this month with the first one being the poster presentation at the NWSSMM conference located in Newport, OR in the new OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center. I had the chance to meet a lot of brilliant people and made some contacts which will be helpful for my project! I even had the chance to meet a MMEL alumni Kyra and see her new lab at Hatfield. Along with going to the conference and meeting like-minded people who are passionate about marine mammals I also got to observe a marine mammal necropsy. The necropsy was on a white-sided dolphin in which the audience got to learn about the anatomy and what a full necropsy workup looks like. Until that day I have only been able to observe terrestrial mammal necropsies, so it was a very fascinating experience to see the inner workings of a marine mammal.

This month I was able to shadow Dr. Erin D’Agnese who is another MMEL alumni, while she prepared libraries and sequenced samples on a Nanopore MinION sequencer. I have completed DNA sequencing library prep in the past, so I was familiar with some of the techniques but being able to learn first-hand from Erin is such an amazing opportunity. Erin is a wealth of knowledge and I hope I can continue to learn from her. I am potentially going to utilize the MinION sequencer for my project to hopefully obtain long reads to understand my sample sequencing depth further so having training with the protocol and equipment will make a world of difference.

I am planning on starting my second field season once the quarter wraps up and I am extremely excited to get back out into the field with the seals. I am hoping to get more samples before sending my current samples off so I can add more samples to the first round of sequencing. Hopefully this summer I will get sequencing data back so I can start to spearhead the bioinformatics. I am currently taking a genomics data analysis class in which I have learned some starting tools to get up and running on bioinformatics in the summer.

Overall, it has easily been my busiest quarter to date, and I am looking forward to a slower pace in the summer where I can focus solely on my project and start writing my thesis.

Lastly, I want to congratulate all of our graduating undergraduates. You all have been such an integral part in the MMEL research projects, and I want to thank you for all of your hard work. Two of our undergraduate managers are graduating as well. Maddie and Holland, it is bittersweet to see the two of you preparing to move on to new avenues. Thank you for all of the support and fond memories we have made together, I will cherish them forever. Good luck to all graduating undergraduates on your future endeavors!

Until next time,