Ella Kim is beginning her third year in the PhD program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. Kim is native to Brooklyn, New York and attended Scripps College, of the Claremont Colleges, before choosing to continue her education in San Diego. She earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental analysis and is currently studying biological oceanography in the Scripps Acoustic Ecology Lab, alongside biological oceanographer Simone Baumann-Pickering. Additionally, Kim is a recent recipient of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship, awarded for exceptional academic performance within graduate-level research in marine biology, oceanography, and ecology.
explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?
Ella Kim: As an undergrad, I worked in my current lab through the Marine Physical Laboratory internship program. My time here was transformative—I fell in love with the scientific process and the special collaborative community fostered. I also started to form the foundation of a strong relationship with my current advisor Simone, and began to realize that the ocean is really an acoustic world. After graduating from college, I taught math for two years at a small high school in the Bahamas called the Island School, and spent hours every day in the ocean, exploring and observing. Working in the Bahamas cemented the discovery I made during college that I should devote my career to my two biggest passions: marine science and education. I knew that Scripps Oceanography would offer me an unparalleled opportunity to grow as a scientist while contributing to world-renowned marine science research, and to rejoin a community that I know and love.
en: What are you researching at Scripps?
EK: My research focuses on investigating fish chorus and the impact of marine heat waves across the Channel Islands, Monterey Bay, and Olympic Coast national marine sanctuaries. Fish chorus is often associated with mating, therefore characterizing fish choruses within soundscapes is a non-invasive way to identify mating season, essential habitats, acoustic niche, and species distribution. My research explores ways to automatically separate sounds in order to more easily understand fish behavior across the West Coast sanctuaries. I will also be analyzing how marine heat waves impact sonifery, or fish sounds, through habitat modeling. As a Dr. Nancy Foster scholar, studying sonifery has the potential to increase fish monitoring throughout national marine sanctuaries, provide a better understanding of fish behavior, identify essential fish habitat, protect vulnerable species, and support fishing/cultural traditions of coastal Indigenous peoples.
en: How did you become interested in science and your field of study?
EK: People are often surprised to find out that my parents are both artists. But the funny thing is: it is exactly because my parents are artists that I am so into science. I’m drawn to science because I love to think about scale. This really came to fruition in an astrophysics class that I took during my first year of college. I could not wrap my head around the magnitude of our galaxy, let alone our ever-expanding universe. This romance with scale further evolved when I began to realize my love for ocean science. Our ocean is immensely vast, and like outer space, there is so much unknown. Growing up, I spent my summers in San Diego, which is where my dad was raised. When I was little, every night my grandparents had to coax me to change out of my pink speedo bathing suit into my PJs. Those summers in San Diego were huge for me, in which NYC pavement and Superfund canals were exchanged for dramatic cliffs, sand and cold kelpy water. I spent hours picking through holdfasts for brittle stars, poking anemones in tide pools, and boogie boarding with my siblings and cousins. Needless to say, I became a huge ocean nerd. I was actually coined the Hermione Granger of my undergrad marine ecology class.
From then on, I decided to get serious about this passion. I said yes to any and all lab work. I drilled through fossilized coral skeletons, carefully peeling off layer by layer with tiny tweezers. I became a mother to hundreds of barnacles who I fed and analyzed. And I listened to and analyzed years of ocean sound data, minute by minute, documenting echolocation clicks of two species of dolphin. While my parents found joy in paint, staple guns, and stretchers, I found it in quadrats, dolphin clicks, and the smell of salty neoprene.
The world of marine bioacoustics became my landing pad because I’m moved by how much we can learn about the ocean (and from each other) solely through listening. Fish acoustics quickly spiked my interest because there is so much that we do not know about fish. Eighty percent of fish are either over or fully exploited. They are vital members of the oceanic food chain and global carbon cycle, and provide essential protein to 3 billion people globally—many of whom are in the developing world. Fish are in trouble, and ocean acoustics is a powerful way to study and better protect fish without harming them.
en: What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day.
EK: I like to get to the lab early because I find that I can focus best in the mornings. Most of my work is computational. I spend a lot of time analyzing acoustic data, listening to fish, coding, and writing. I usually have lunch with friends by the pier. After lunch, my time is usually filled with meetings with collaborators, lab mates, and advisors. I try to jump in the ocean whenever I can between meetings, or at the end of the work day. Because I get to work early, I leave with plenty of sunshine, and usually either swim, surf, run, or play soccer. During my previous job as a teacher, I found that work-life balance is really important. So, I try as hard as I can to turn off my work brain once I leave campus.
en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab)?
EK: Because fish are largely understudied in the bioacoustics world, there is so much room for exploration and discovery. I am most excited when I hear strange and silly sounds that we know are fish, but have no idea yet which species they are coming from. Trying to parse out who is who becomes a fun mystery, where I feel like a fish detective. I also really enjoy working with younger grad students and summer interns. Watching their confidence and passion grow is extremely gratifying.
en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?
EK: During my undergrad at Scripps College, I worked in the labs of climate scientist Branwen Williams and biologist Sarah Gilman. They were two strong women in STEM who were excellent teachers, supportive mentors, and genuinely kind. As a teenager I remember thinking, “I want to be you one day.” My advisor Simone Baumann-Pickering is an incredible mentor, and has always modeled to me what it means to do groundbreaking research while being a mother. Simone has always believed in me, and that has really instilled confidence that I can do hard things. I will always be grateful for Annebelle Kok, a postdoc in our lab, who took me under her wing when I started my PhD. My lab mates are a strong support network, and good friends. And from the start, my parents have always been role models of resilience and passion.
en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?
EK: The biggest challenge I faced as a student was starting the PhD during the pandemic. Community is so important as a grad student, and it was challenging to find that during a time of social-distancing. Zoom fatigue was real, and it was hard to find passion when society at large was struggling. Since coming back to campus and engaging more with the Scripps community, I have become so much happier.
en: What are your plans post-Scripps?
EK: I really love teaching, and am hoping to teach undergraduate students after graduating from Scripps. Outside of teaching, I hope to mentor underrepresented minority students who are interested in STEM. I would also love to work at a government agency, such as NOAA, or a nonprofit, focusing on equity, diversity, and inclusion in STEM.
To stay up to date with their exciting work, you can find the Scripps Acoustic Ecology Lab on Twitter @Scripps_AEL, as well as the Scripps Marine Bioacoustics Research Collaborative on Instagram @scripps_mbarc.