In May, 2011,
I found myself smiling as I packed my bags for a week of field research with the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program.
I was reflecting on the fact that in 1991, I had boarded my very first flight, enroute to Sarasota for the first time. Now, 20 years and a couple hundred thousand air miles later, I was joining the SDRP team for dolphin health assessments, or as I fondly refer to it, our family reunion.
I was extremely fortunate to first meet Randy Wells, Blair Irvine, Michael Scott, and the rest of the SDRP team when I was an 18-year old Towson State University undergrad volunteering for a dolphin health assessment project through Earthwatch.
Growing up in central Maryland farm country, I had a deep appreciation for the natural world; playtime was spent outside exploring the local flora and fauna – I did not realize at the time that I was a scientist in-training.
Randy and the SDRP team helped to foster that scientist by exposing me to field research – in conservation biology, health and medicine, population management, measuring human impact on the environment, and education.
I spent the summers of 1992-93 as an assistant to Randy’s UCSC grad student, Danielle Waples. I learned skills in conducting focal animal behavioral follows, photo-identification, radio-telemetry, small boat operations, and most importantly, teamwork.
I volunteered as an exhibit guide with the National Aquarium in Baltimore through the school year and spent summers volunteering with the SDRP. At the encouragement of my SDRP mentors, I joined the Society for Marine Mammalogy and attended my first scientific conference in 1993. The exposure and networking opportunities I received as a college student, both through my work with the SDRP and through membership in a professional scientific society, have proven invaluable in my career.
In 1996, I began working with Charley Potter and Jim Mead at the Smithsonian Institution’s Marine Mammal Program. Not having been exposed to the importance of museum research before, I recall thinking to myself on my first day, “Wow, everything is dead; what can you learn from a dead thing?”
Today, I can respond: “You can conduct necropsies to determine cause of death; research life history, biomechanics, or anatomical and physiological adaptations of the mammalian system to aquatic and extreme environments; study evolution, taxonomy, and systematics and describe new species; monitor marine mammal, ocean, and human health; provide data in support of conservation and management, investigate unusual mortality events, and stranding patterns; use medical imaging techniques to guide anatomical dissections, examine injuries, or to obtain 3-dimensional body surface data for optimizing the design of equipment based on an animal model.”
While working at the Smithsonian, I conducted my Masters thesis research at The George Washington University (GWU) on a morphometric analysis of beaked whale mandibles to determine species and sex, receiving the John G. Shedd Award for Best Overall Student Presentation at the 14th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals and the Sylvia Bunting Prize from GWU. I also worked with the Marine Mammal Program staff on developing an online beaked whale identification guide, making this research collection virtually available to researchers around the world. I received a Peer Recognition Award for Leadership from the Smithsonian for successfully applying for and managing program support grants. Many of my duties at the Smithsonian involved collaborating with colleagues, hosting 70-80 national and international visiting researchers annually. My involvement with the SDRP, particularly working with international teams, set the stage for my interactions with the marine mammal community. I continue to collaborate with my Smithsonian colleagues as a Research Associate.
My field training with the SDRP provided me with the skills to participate in other marine mammal field projects. I met Peter Tyack, Doug Nowacek, and Mark Johnson from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution through tagging studies with the SDRP. I worked with the WHOI team on studies using digital archival, acoustic, and orientation tags to examine risk factors for vessel collisions for right whales in the Bay of Fundy, the response of sperm whales to seismic air gun noise in the Gulf of Mexico, and dive behavior of Cuvier’s beaked whales in the Ligurian Sea. I was invited by Andy Read, Danielle Waples, and Kim Urian from Duke University, all whom I first met in Sarasota in 1991, on a short-finned pilot whale project in the Gulf Stream waters off NC. I participated in a humpback whale survey, pelagic odontocete biopsy cruise, and a large whale survey on the Scotian Shelf, and gave marine mammal lectures in Iceland, Greenland, and Labrador.
In 2007, I accepted a position with NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML) in Seattle, which conducts research in support of conservation, policy, and management of Alaska marine mammal stocks. I currently serve as a member of the NMML Directorate, leading the annual development of the Alaska Marine Mammal Stock Assessment Reports, serving as Executive Secretary to the Alaska Scientific Review Group, assessing severity of marine mammal injuries, participating in activities related to the implementation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and working on field studies of critically endangered North Pacific right whales, aerial surveys of bowhead whales in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, and tagging studies of California sea lions and Northern fur seals in the California Channel Islands.
Safety of field team participants and the animals has always been first and foremost for Randy and the SDRP. I pursued a unique route for sharing my field experience and knowledge of safely working in remote environments by instructing wilderness medicine part-time with Remote Medical International. I currently hold EMT-B, Wilderness EMT, USCG Medical Person-in-Charge, and CPR instructor certifications, and I volunteered as a firefighter/EMT-B.
The SDRP truly is a unique and remarkable world-recognized marine mammal research program. Through every aspect of my career over the past 20 years, I have encountered individuals who have been involved with this program. I am proud to be a part of it. I have learned from them how to be a good scientist, how to work as a member of a team, how to pursue your passion, strive for better, and create opportunities. Most importantly, it has taught me how to be a colleague, a mentor, and forever a student of your chosen discipline. It also taught me perseverance. We will all encounter challenges in our careers, and the marine mammal field is certainly a challenging, competitive, yet rewarding field to pursue. Don’t give up on your passion, stay driven, and challenge those who tell you something is not possible.
I am indebted to the SDRP and Randy in particular, and the best way I believe I can repay that debt is to give back to the research community and inspire others to achieve their goals. I appreciate this opportunity to say “thank you”. And to those who have supported this program over the past 41 years, know that you are making a difference.