a pile of seals and a seagull on a rock

Current Research Blogs

Kyra's Blog

Kyra Bankhead, undergraduate student

1 June 2021

This month was extremely exciting! I got a finalist position in the Advancing Women in Science Scholarship and had an interview with two wonderful women in science and it was an extremely exciting chat. The interview was also great practice for presenting my poster at the Marine Mammalogy Society Conference. During the conference I got to learn so much about different ways to present research as well as what research is being done currently (awesome stuff!). The poster session was the best part; I got to talk to a bunch of scientists about my research and realized just how exciting it is to present my very own research! Unfortunately I didn’t get much criticism on my research like I was hoping to get but I can’t complain because every conversation was very intriguing.

Right now I am trying to get more students in the lab for summer. I am not having the best luck with this process but Kathleen McKeegan and Kate Clayton have helped a lot in finding eligible students. Hopefully I can get more students coming in by the end of June.

Until then,
Kyra Bankhead


Grace's Blog

Grace Freeman, graduate student

1 June 2021

The beginning of May brought an almost-final version of my thesis and a successful meeting of the Northwest Student Chapter of the Society for Marine Mammalogy. After planning an in-person conference last year and shifting to remote this year, I am relieved to be done and to have pulled it off mostly without a hitch. There were certainly times I wasn’t sure the meeting would happen with any semblance of organization, but working with Bobbie, Zoë, and Kathleen to plan and host the event kept me grounded and (mostly!) sane during lost last busy days. After the conference, I turned my attention to Scholar’s Week where I presented my research in poster form. The online format of that particular event left many things to be desired, and unfortunately, I don’t think I got much out of the experience. That said, it’s something I told myself I would do before graduating, so it feels good to have accomplished the task.

Speaking of graduating… Since I decided to use the rest of my funding and push my graduation into the summer, I’ve had a much more relaxed schedule than anticipated. After largely finishing my thesis in April, I was able to take some time away from the draft before embarking on a final once-over and sending it off to my committee. I’m looking forward to my pre-defense meeting next week when I’ll hear their feedback and receive the edits that will be incorporated into my final-final draft which I will defend at the end of June. The relaxed schedule is not what I expected for the end of my graduate school career, but I am certainly not complaining!

In the meantime, I’m wrapping up my teaching responsibilities this week, finishing the last assignment for my stats class, applying for every post-graduation job opportunity I can find, thinking about the manuscript I hope to submit for publication sometime in the next several months, and tying up the myriad of loose ends I will be leaving behind in the MMEL.

As a final note on that: I had a moment of nostalgia this week when I realized that I have fully relinquished my role as lab manager and all the responsibilities that entails. When I joined the lab, the project had been created and overseen by a handful of undergrads who changed nearly every year. There was a hard drive of photos and an expand-o folder literally bursting at the seams with datasheets. It was a great idea with some cool applications, but the shifting leadership (and their busy undergrad schedules) made it hard for the students to keep up with the demands. We now have a shared internet drive where everyone can access the photos and data for remote work, a large team of driven and talented research assistants, solid research and safety protocols, and an up-to-date photo ID database. I’ve put a lot of myself into this project over the past two years, and it was far from easy at times. Normally it would be hard to be leaving my baby behind, but not this time. This time, I’m leaving it with better organization, more funding, directed outcomes, and, most importantly, Kate and Kathleen. The two of them have turned into a fearsome team of incredibly capable researchers and managers in whom I have full confidence. I may be leaving a piece of myself behind in this work, but I am incredibly grateful to be leaving it with them!

Until next time,
Grace


Holland's Blog

Holland Conwell, undergraduate student

1 June 2021

Happy almost summer! Finals are just around the corner, and I can’t believe how quickly this quarter went by. Scat processing will be winding to a close soon, and once my classes are over, I’ll have much more time to dedicate to SSMSP work. Currently, I’ve been making progress on my introduction and continuing to peruse relevant scientific literature.

The biggest challenge so far has been trying to logically connect all my thoughts. I have a pretty distinct cloud of thoughts and points to make in this section, but I keep second-guessing how I should connect and present these ideas. Additionally, after discussing some specifics of the methods (notably that there won’t be data on size differentiation of salmon otoliths that would help distinguish between adults and juveniles), I decided to take some of the emphasis in my introduction off of smolt consumption.

By the close of this month, I plan on having another rough draft put together. I crafted a rough outline of my ideas and the flow of the paper, and I’ll be using edits to that outline to inform my rough draft and help me streamline the introduction. I’m excited to have more time soon to dedicate to polishing this part off and moving on to the next task!


Bobbie's Blog

Bobbie Buzzell, graduate student

1 June 2021

My master’s thesis defense came and went in what felt like a blink of an eye. I enjoyed the challenge of figuring out how to best present my main findings to a broad audience, from experts to those who have never touched ecology subjects. I was a little disappointed not being able to give my seminar in-person due to COVID restrictions, but I doubt this will the final time I present my results (I have at least two more in the next month, albeit virtual presentations).

My main objective at Western has come to a close, but with that comes the next step in readying a manuscript for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. I have received some of the final results from the scats collected in August and September of 2018, but there is still a little clean-up to do with fish identifications. It may be another month before I can finalize results for publication, but for now I can start paring down some content in my thesis. I foresee at least another couple of drafts prior to submission to Fisheries Bulletin (the journal I chose for this publication), but it could be another 2-3 drafts after receiving peer-review comments before a final manuscript is accepted by the journal. What a process.

While I wait for loose ends to be tied up with data in June, I will also be in the thralls of relocating for my new job as the Water Quality Specialist with the Makah Tribe. As each piece falls into place, I’m feeling more and more optimistic about the next steps after graduate school. Was getting my master’s tough? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Having great mentors and a solid project challenged and helped me reach new lengths as a biologist. I feel confident that I can apply the skills I’ve attained at Western to a new field of study.


Kate's Blog

Kate Clayton, undergraduate student

1 June 2021

Another month has flown by! I am excited that we are at the end of the quarter and will soon be able to enjoy the nice weather. I will be spending these next couple weeks catching up on homework and preparing for finals. Hopefully all goes well!

We have created the final observation schedule for spring quarter which is bittersweet since we will be saying goodbye to most of our lab assistants. I am going to miss all of the graduates next year but wish them nothing but luck as they enter the real world of science. They are all wonderful people and have been such a huge help to the lab! Thank you to Amanda, Breanna, Lileigh, Antonia, Bree, Sophie, Chaya, Drew, Olivia, Jeremy, and Tabitha for all that you have done for the lab! You will be missed! (PS: apologies if I forgot to mention anyone!)

Kathleen and I are hosting a welcome meeting next week for the new team. We are planning to do introductions so there are some familiar faces when we start in the Fall as well as completing some simple chores. I am excited to get everyone together, but I cannot wait until we can go back to in person meetings.

After finals I am going to begin my NASA scholarship work by processing photo IDs. Kathleen and I have a lot of work ahead of us and I am so grateful to have her leading the project! I am also very excited to get to spend my summer looking at the cute seal faces! It will also be nice to have the freedom to go home periodically since most of the work I will be doing is virtual.

Last Friday, Zoë let me help her sort out hard parts from several sea lion scats. I got to learn so much about fish bones, lenses, otoliths, and the scat cleaning process. I am so grateful to be part of a lab with so many different projects and ways to gain experience and knowledge about marine mammals (not to mention the great people)! Great way to spend a Friday afternoon!


Kathleen's Blog

Kathleen McKeegan, graduate student

1 June 2021

It’s almost the end of the quarter! We have a few short weeks left and then it’s officially summer break. Last month flew by, and I have some pretty exciting news. A few weeks ago, I learned that I am a recipient of the Graduate Student Research Award from the North Pacific Research Board. This $26,000 award is given to graduate students who are pursuing scientific and scholarly research addressing ecosystem and fisheries management issues. The award will help fund my research of the TAST device and its effects on harbor seal predation of Pacific salmon. With the help of this funding, I will be able to dedicate my time to research, data analysis, and public outreach. Needless to say, I am very excited!!

Thinking back to my last blog post, I listed a couple of goals for May; specifically, I wanted to nail down my summer funding, work through photo IDs, and successfully host and present at the NWSSMM conference. I can happily report that my summer funding is now secured due to the North Pacific Research Board award. Furthermore, the NWSSMM conference went really well! Our team coordinated really well during the planning process and the presentations were all great! The poster session was especially engaging, even over Zoom!

While this past month was very busy and full of little successes, I feel that I am falling behind on the photo IDs. I’m currently working on updating the catalog with higher quality photos of all the confirmed IDs (considered confirmed if they have clear ID-able photos of the right, front, and left side of the seal’s face). But the process is slow and I feel pretty behind right now. On the bright side, with this new funding, I can focus on photo IDs all summer. Plus Kate and I just hired an amazing new team of undergrads so next fall will be an absolute blast! I’m looking forward to the summer and hopefully I’ll have more good news to report next month!


Zoë's Blog

Zoë Lewis, graduate student

1 June 2021

Happy June! The sun is shining, the days are long, and I’m still processing scat!

I’m back in the lab now, not quite as much as I used to be, but every day my knee tolerates more and more, and I’m thankful for the somewhat straightforward recovery. Right now, the undergraduates I work with focus on separating the hard parts from the DNA. This is mostly due to COVID restrictions, as the room that I clean scat in is too small for more than one person. I’m hoping that, as the rules become a bit looser, I can get them in to work on some of the hard parts cleaning. As we crank along in our lab, our contractors at WDFW are working on both the hard parts analysis and DNA metabarcoding. I’m happy to report that all aspects of scat processing are in full swing!

Unfortunately, no May scats were collected for Harbor seals. Darn. Although a disappointment, I am confident there is more than enough data being collected for my project to still have a well rounded thesis, and manuscript. So, I’ll continue to shift my gaze to Steller sea lion diet analysis. As I dive further into the literature, it’s going to take some thinking regarding modeling. and With only one species (Steller sea lions), from one location (Tatoosh Island), I need to carefully examine how these data will fit into current bioenergetics models.

Other updates include...

On 5/24, I presented my proposal in our graduate student class, and was very nervous to give my first “official” presentation regarding my work. It was exciting for everyone in the biology grad program to give their feedback, and ended up being way less scary than I anticipated!

This summer, Adrianne Akmajian let me know that there is some additional funding for me to go work out in Neah bay to collect scat! I’m excited to finally make it out there and to spend more time doing field work. Liz Allyn, their technician, has already put me to work helping with their high school internship program. I’m excited to work with the interns and I’ve already started to develop some scat cleaning lesson plans. If time allows, and processing for my thesis is going well, I also hope to mentor one of the interns on an independent research project.

I love the multifaceted nature of my project and love the various activities I fill my days with.

Until next time,
Zoë