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Continuing our series delving into real-life examples of how marine scientists got where they are today, we are thrilled to hear from another one of our fantastic interns, Ciera Edison! Ciera describes her path to becoming a marine biologist and where she is on her journey now:

I’m Ciera Edison and I was a research intern with Pacific Mammal Research for the 2018 season.

For as long as I can remember I have had a passion for marine mammals. Growing up in Bothell, WA it was easy for me to fall in love with the local species. I spent most of my childhood at the beach, on the water, or at the Seattle Aquarium. When I was 8 years old my parents took me on vacation to SeaWorld. From the moment I stepped through those gates I knew I wanted a career with marine mammals. After that trip I started volunteering for beach clean ups and every project I completed in school was in some way related to the oceans or animals the inhabit them. As I grew older, I wanted to learn more and do more so I became a High School Volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium. I was known for spending my entire day out in the marine mammal section of the aquarium. I would even arrive 45 minutes before volunteer check-in just to watch the mammologist feed and work with the animals. I will never forget the day (my 17th birthday) I was offered to job shadow the head mammologist at the time, Rodger.  That morning I shucked 100 clams for the sea otters, prepped food and frozen treats for the harbor seals and fur seals, and then I got to meet them!

Here is a photo of me petting Q, one of Seattle Aquarium’s male harbor seals! Fun fact about harbor seal fur: it’s exceptionally wiry in texture and even felt a little slimy (probably due to all the time they spend in the water).

That day was a dream come true and I couldn’t wait to do it again. After high school graduation I continued at the aquarium as an Event Volunteer and eventually Adult Interpreter while I completed my associate’s degree at a local community college. Simultaneously, I became involved with animal rehabilitation. During the summer of 2013 I was a Wildlife Care Assistant at Paws Wildlife Hospital in Lynwood, WA, and I even traveled to California to spend time learning about marine mammal rehabilitation from The Marine Mammal Center and The North Coast Marine Mammal Center.

In 2014 I transferred to Oregon State University to continue furthering my education. I chose OSU because of their amazing Fisheries and Wildlife program. I loved every single class, even the basic required ones, but I especially loved my classes at Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, located just an hour west of campus. Field methods in marine research, biology of marine mammals, and field techniques for marine mammal conservation, what more could a girl ask for! I not only spent my entire summer on the beach studying hauled out harbor seals or on the boat in Depoe Bay watching the Grey whales feed, but I also became a volunteer mammologist at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Unlike my previous aquarium work, in this position I prepped food and enrichment for the marine mammals daily. I also assisted in exhibit upkeep and conducted ethograms (“a catalog or table of all the different kinds of behavior or activity observed in an animal over a specific period of time”). I continued volunteering through fall term but eventually, due to a heavy course load, I was forced to discontinue.

Like most college programs, the Fisheries and Wildlife program requires an internship in order to graduate. I applied to 27 different marine mammal related internships. 27!!! I only received 4 requests for interviews. Heartbroken from all the rejection I questioned if I would ever make it in this field. Luckily, I ended up with a pretty awesome research internship at The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS) in Gulfport, Mississippi. In this position I worked to complete projects relating to bottlenose dolphin populations in the Mississippi Gulf coast. I assisted in photo ID processing, which included taking photos using DSLR cameras with telephoto lenses, downloading photos, cropping, renaming, sorting, photo quality analysis, tracing fins, matching and adding photos to various databases. While in the field, visual surveys for dolphins were conducted from small boats and land. During a survey data such as dolphin counts, behavior, GPS location (using ArcGIS), sea states, and environmental conditions (using a YSI) were collected. I also got to do some underwater videography and had my first experience with underwater acoustics using hydrophones. In addition, I was able to partake in Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle satellite tagging and release, real-time behavioral assessment of Pygmy Killer Whales in rehabilitation, and Diamondback terrapin nest abundance and predatory disturbance assessments.

This internship really made me realize that I want to spend my life in the field researching, studying, learning all about marine mammals. I loved the 10-hour days on the boat (even when it was 100℉ with 95% humidity and no wind). Compared to the typical Pacific Northwest, where it’s 50 degrees, pouring rain, and windy, I could care less I just loved being out in the field! I also enjoyed photographing animals. This was my first time taking photos with a professional camera and by the end of summer I got really good at it (maybe not quite as good as Dr. Elliser, yet)!

After completing my internship, I returned to OSU for my final year of undergad! While completing courses I was also the President of the Fisheries and Wildlife Club (Student subunits of The American Fisheries Society, The Wildlife Society, and The Coastal Society), and conducting acoustic research with a graduate student. Using data collected from test flights of two different autonomous passive acoustic devices (QUEphone and Seaglider), I analyzed data that was recorded in order to monitor marine mammals in the Catalina Basin. A total of 514 hours of continuous recordings from both devices were analyzed via programs Raven Pro 1.5 and MatLab based program Triton 1.93. During this project I created and managed data logs for marine mammal identification, anthropogenic noise identification, duration of vocalizations, and species diversity. After my data analysis concluded it was confirmed that I was able to identify 8 different species. Blue whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale, Humpback whale, Minke whale, and Risso’s dolphin were positively identified via spectrogram analysis. Other vocalizations such as unidentified Delphinid (oceanic dolphin), unidentified Mysticeti (baleen whale), and unidentified Otariid (eared seal) were recorded vocalizations that were not able to be more specifically identified. To conclude my research I inscribed a professional research paper and poster to present at The Research Advances in Fisheries Wildlife and Ecology Symposium.

Me presenting my research at OSU’s Research Advances in Fisheries, Wildlife, and Ecology Symposium in 2017.

Shortly after presenting my research I graduated from OSU with a Bachelor’s of Science in Fisheries and Wildlife with a specialization in Marine Conservation and Ecology. It wasn’t until almost an entire year later that I found Pacific Mammal Research. An entire year of applying for job after job, just trying to get into the field. With no luck I decided to not only move back home, but to go back to my roots of volunteering. And boy did I love every minute of it! Days at our field site were spent scanning the water counting boats and looking for harbor porpoise, harbor seals, and any other marine mammal that traveled through Burrows Pass.

Since my internship at PacMam I started branching out of marine mammals and began trying to find my way into the fish and wildlife field in anyway. In 2019, I ended up as a research technician intern at one of my local Native American tribes. Through this experience I assisted with their shellfish research which included plankton sampling and rearing oysters. I also was solely responsible for implementing and conducting light trap studies of Dungeness crab larva in their waters.

Due to financial constraints I wasn’t able to continue this unpaid position, but I have continued my hunt to find one that pays. Even though COVID-19 threw me some curve-balls I was hired by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and have been enjoying my new (paid) position as a Scientific Technician 2 (fancy term for fish checker). To this day I still find myself questioning if I will ever get a position where I am paid to study marine mammals and how humans impact them. I try not to lose hope, but it is an extremely competitive field to be in and there is only so much funding to go around. While marine mammals will always be my priority, I look forward to continue working in the fish and wildlife field.

cindy.elliser@pacmam.org

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