Video of my Town Hall talk!

Here’s a video from my talk at Town Hall Seattle as part of the Engage program and the UW Science Now lecture series. The talk is titled, “Are we loving whales to death? Boats might make it too noisy in killer whale habitat.” The first ~20 minutes are my presentation followed by part of the Q&A session.

My talk and the Engage program were also featured in the Seattle Times – see the article here!


Making Science Understandable and Exciting!!

This quarter I have been very fortunate to be a participant in Engage– a seminar for UW students on communicating science to the public. I took the course because I was tired of people’s eyes rolling to the back of their heads when I tried to explain to them exactly what I do. Surprisingly, I had not realized that the jargon I was using made people disconnect. All of my training in graduate school: preparing for science conferences and talking with experts in my field, had made me accurate and specific, but at the cost of being interesting!!

For example, this might be what I said to explain my research a couple of months ago: “I am studying the relationship between vessel traffic and noise levels received by killer whales.” Although this is specific and clear for scientists in my field to understand (and it is way better than an earlier version which went something like “quantifying vessel traffic to compare to ambient noise…”), it doesn’t actually tell the average person what I’m doing. Now, I am proud to say that I have a new ‘go-to’ statement for explaining my master’s research: “I study how boats make it noisy in killer whale habitat.” I could probably tell that to anyone, even a grade school student, and they would have a much clearer picture of what I do.

There are so many great things that I have taken from this course. But most importantly, a great take-home message is that I should remember to relay my enthusiasm instead of bothering people with the technical details. Science is fun and exciting! It shouldn’t scare people off with an ill-composed sentence or two. My friend and fellow UW grad student, Michelle Weirathmueller has created an awesome way to bring out the fun side of science. Check out her blog post about my research using comics.

Now I get to put everything I’ve learned this quarter to the test. I am presenting a public talk at Town Hall Seattle on March 6th. Check out this page for more details!


An example of my research as a comic by Michelle – see more at

September in the San Juans – Killer Whale Field Work 2012

DTAG on an adult male SRKW, L84, September 17, 2012. Photo: B. Hanson, © NWFSC, taken under NMFS permit

Throughout this month, my collaborators and I have been collecting more data for the Southern Resident killer whale DTAG project. The DTAG is a suction cup attached digital acoustic recorder tag that has hydrophones to record ambient noise from vessels (and all other sounds), as well as sensors to collect fine-scale movement data (check out what a killer whale foraging dive might look like at Cascadia Research Collective’s project webpage).

Juliana in the San Juans with Southern Resident killer whales. Photo: B. Houghton, © NWFSC, taken under NMFS permit

As the tag is recording ambient noise, detailed vessel traffic is recorded from the surface using the “Giles Package”, aka the “G-Unit”. A big thanks to all my collaborators for working so hard in the field: Candi Emmons, Brad Hanson and Marla Holt from NOAA/NWFSC, Deborah Giles from UC Davis, and Jeff Hogan from Killer Whale Tales, among others. In the the 2012 season, we deployed 9 tags for a total of about 32 hours of data! This brings our total for the project to 23 tags deployed and 82 hours of data. For more details on what I’m going to do with all this data for my thesis, check out my research page.

Quite the fin summer!

This summer has flown by! I have been working on a project examining dorsal fin tissue structure. Although it is completely separate from my master’s research, it has been pretty cool (although stinky at times) to look at so many different cetacean species.

I began working on this project last summer, but this year I got to look at even more species, from harbor porpoise to beaked whales. All the samples that I tested were taken from animals that were stranded around the country. The most important fin we looked at was from a killer whale that died in Hawaii (see photo). This fin was huge and it really made all the internal anatomy really easy to see – very cool.

This section of fin was from a killer whale that stranded in Hawaii. You can see the periarterial venous rete (the big artery in the center with veins all around it) that helps it thermoregulate using counter-current heat exchange – so cool!

From these fins, I tested the different tissue layers for their tensile strength and measured the amount of collagen (the protein that holds tissues together) so that the different species can be compared. In the photo, you can see the different layers. After the black skin (epidermis), there is a subpapillary layer and then a yellowish layer – the ligamentous sheath that runs vertically up the fin, giving it the rigid structure (quite necessary when there are no bones in the fin!). Then in the center is the light pink/white core.

I survived my first year of grad school!…

And I’m finally writing about it. I guess that’s one of the differences between grad school and undergrad – just because you finish classes doesn’t mean that you’re done. In fact, the day after finishing my last final, I was back in the office working on a paper that I hope to be submitting to a scientific journal soon (cross your fingers!).

I guess there are some things that I did not know I was getting myself into in going for my master’s degree. Although the classes were not too much more work than they were in undergrad (although I was lucky to go straight from undergrad into grad, to keep my class-focused momentum going), the additional proposals, papers, presentations, applications,  outreach, and just some good old-fashioned jumping-through-hoops did take its toll. I think I’ve gained about 10 gray hairs in the last year…

But I’ve gained a lot more of much greater value as well. I got to attend and present at a couple conferences, give a talk at a professional society chapter meeting, and guest lecture in my advisor’s course – twice. I learned a lot (tons of statistics, lots of R, and a bunch about conservation biology) and am diving deep into my own master’s research (so exciting!). I’ve gained a couple great friends, made networking connections, and grown as a person along the way. I’d say it’s been a success, and I am so thankful to everyone (family, funding agencies, etc.) that made it all possible.


Endangered Species Day today!

May 18th is Endangered Species day! What a great time to reflect on all the researchers, managers, and public that have reached out to understand why certain wildlife populations are decreasing and to find out what we can do to help them recover. I hope my own research will fulfill these conservation goals in my future profession as well!