Scripps Student Spotlight: Camille Pagniello

Graduate student researches marine life through an array of sensory monitoring systems to decode ocean properties

Camille Pagniello is a sixth-year PhD student majoring in applied ocean sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. Pagniello grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. With 500 miles between her the nearest ocean, Pagniello proved her passion for marine life was greater than any distance. Before attending Scripps, Pagniello completed her bachelor of computer science in marine biology and physics with minors in mathematics and ocean sciences at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Pagniello now works under the helping hand of research oceanographer Jules Jaffe at Scripps where her research is funded by California Sea Grant. Pagniello considers herself to be somewhat of an ocean “MacGyver” – part marine biologist, part physicist, part engineer.


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Camille Pagniello: At the age of 12, as part of a career exploration course, I decided I wanted to do a PhD at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and I did not change my mind over the following 10 years before applying to Scripps. Scripps was the only program with multiple researchers working in marine mammal bioacoustics. I came to Scripps with the intention of studying the acoustic ecology of marine mammals.


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

CP: The overall objective of my PhD project is to develop non-invasive monitoring methods to assess the effectiveness of marine protected areas. I have led the design, development, and deployment of a passive acoustic-optical imaging system for low light aquatic habitats. This system has been deployed in San Diego kelp forests to identify the sounds of commercially and recreationally important fish species. I have also developed algorithms to detect and track the large- and fine-scale movements of fishes using their natural sounds in their spawning areas.

en: How did you become interested in science and your field of study?

CP: At the age of seven, I came home from school and told my parents I wanted to be a marine biologist. My goal was to “talk to dolphins,” which later, became more formally defined as “to study dolphin echolocation.” However, finding a paid position in marine bioacoustics as an undergraduate was difficult. I decided to explore my other scientific interests in other fields. I told myself that if my love for marine bioacoustics remained after I completed my undergraduate degree, I would apply to a graduate program in this field. During my studies, I was a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA) scholar at Dalhousie and Memorial University of Newfoundland. I was also a Summer Student Fellow at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, researching computational geometry, atmospheric physics, biological oceanography, avian acoustics and biology, and ocean acoustics. I also completed a semester abroad as part of the SEA Semester Program, which sailed from San Diego, Calif. to Papeete, Tahiti, and conducted marine chemistry research. 


en: What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day.

CP: There is no such thing as a typical day. Every day brings something different. Some days I am scuba diving in the kelp forests to deploy my instrument. Others, I am at sea on a vessel to collect environmental data or map the extent of the kelp forest. Most days, though, involve lots of computer work. Writing code to extract information from the 50+ terabytes of acoustic or optical data, developing algorithms to generate biologically relevant information about fish movement, writing manuscripts, etc. 


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work?

CP: The most exciting thing about my work is that I am always discovering something new. While the San Diego kelp forests are considered some of the best studied on the planet (mostly due to their proximity to Scripps), no researcher has taken a combined optical-acoustical approach to investigating the biodiversity of the kelp forests’ inhabitants. Most of the biological sounds that I find in my data are of unknown origin. I have been able to capture in images the behavior of fish during the crepuscular period (dawn and dusk), where few observations have been made. My work is really exciting as I get to be both an ocean scientist and explorer! And my work has made it into a small exhibit at Birch Aquarium!


en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?

CP: My PhD work would simply not be possible without Jack Butler, who was a postdoctoral researcher at Scripps during the first few years of my PhD. He taught me a lot of the strange skills needed to do field-based research (e.g., how to mix and pour concrete blocks, how to get your equipment off the seafloor, etc.) In him, I’ve found a mentor and collaborator with a complementary skill set and who is always on the same wavelength as me. He is always the first person that I reach out to when I need help.

I also would not be here without my current advisor Jules Jaffe. I really appreciate his candor and his support, both professionally and personally. He always finds a way to make me laugh and pushes me to be the best person and scientist I can be. He has helped me navigate the challenges that have arisen during this COVID pandemic and is helping me establish a solid foundation upon which I will build my career.

en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?

CP: The past five years have been challenging to say the least. Some of my interactions and experiences have made me consider quitting. Unfortunately, this has happened more times than I can count. Let’s just say that tearing your ACL and having to learn how to walk again when you are doing field-based research is not ideal. Now, during this COVID pandemic, the lack of in-person meetings, not being able to access my data in my office or going into the lab to work with my instruments have brought new and unforeseen challenges. Reminding myself that being at Scripps has been a lifelong dream and that I am so close to achieving this dream has kept me going. The realization that communication, honesty, and trust are things I value in my professional relationships has helped me build a great team of peers, collaborators, and mentors that have supported me through the tough times during my PhD.


en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

CP: I am actively applying for funding for postdoctoral projects and positions. I am interested in developing a low-cost, real-time, multi-sensory (i.e., optical, acoustic and environmental) monitoring system for coral reef restoration in direct partnership with conservation practitioners. I am also interested in using tagged, marine top predators as sentinels for climate change. My ultimate goal is to contribute to the basic scientific understanding of the biological and physical processes to further conservation efforts.


You can find Camille on Twitter @FishySounds and Instagram @fishysounds where she posts images of San Diego’s kelp forests every Friday as part of #KelpForestFridays, or check out her website.

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