Scripps Student Spotlight: Jessica Sportelli

Marine biology master’s student is studying whale acoustics to identify why killer whales are migrating to new places

Jessica Sportelli is currently finishing up her master’s degree in marine biology as part of the Contiguous Bachelor’s/Master’s Degree Program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. She is originally from Los Angeles, California, and grew up without an interest in science. That all changed after she became scuba certified in high school, sparking her passion for the ocean. Sportelli first attended Moorpark Community College for two years, then transferred to UC San Diego where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marine biology.

She now researches whale acoustics in the lab of John Hildebrand, a professor in the Marine Physical Laboratory at Scripps. Sportelli’s research focuses on killer whale bioacoustics in the Eastern Canadian Arctic. We talked with Sportelli to discover why she chose to continue her education at Scripps, what got her interested in whale acoustics, and more.


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps to pursue your masters degree?

Jessica Sportelli: I chose to stay at Scripps for my master’s degree because of the BS/MS program that was (somewhat) newly available for those who already had projects going their senior year. The BS/MS program is an accelerated master’s degree program and I knew I couldn’t pass up an opportunity like that.


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

JS: I’m researching killer whales, which are highly social and extremely vocal animals. They, like other cetaceans, depend on sound to navigate, hunt, communicate and maintain group cohesion. Killer whales can be sorted into ‘ecotypes’ through differences in their morphology, behavior, and what they eat. Each ecotype will also differ in the way they sound, which we call a pod’s dialect. Dialects are unique to pods and we can identify where they come from based on the differences in their dialect. Two of my biggest questions for the unknown pod of killer whales I heard in recordings of narwhals was 1) can we describe their dialect to begin understanding their basic ecology and vocal abilities and 2) can we figure out their migration patterns/movements by comparing killer whale recordings from other parts of the North Atlantic.


en: How did you become interested in this field?

JS: I was working with John Hildebrand and PhD student Josh Jones on narwhal acoustic detection my senior year of undergrad when we noticed killer whale calls in the recordings, something that is not common for this area of the Eastern Canadian Arctic. Killer whales are not new to the area, but their prolonged stay, migration further into inlets and bays, and heavy predation on narwhals is concerning; especially for the native Inuit people of Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Canada, who hunt the narwhal for food.

Attached file: Recording of a killer whale call.



en: What’s life like as a Scripps student?

JS: I am so grateful to be a Scripps student, and to have been here for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Who else can take a dip in the ocean on their lunch break?! Since classes are out for the summer, a typical day for me looks like this: come into my office in Ritter Hall and get started on my to-do list (since my defense date is approaching there’s A LOT to do!). Wednesdays are lab meeting days where I get to hear about the cool projects my awesome, hardworking lab mates are working on. At some point I go up to Pinpoint Cafe because their vanilla lattes and chorizo breakfast burritos are simply the best. And then it’s back to my office to battle with code on MATLAB and write up my results.


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

JS: What’s exciting about my research is that very little is known about the killer whales in the North Atlantic in general. Everything we know about killer whale ecology comes from the three ecotypes in the Pacific Northwest. I’m providing groundwork for future projects to branch off of. These whales are a big question mark for the people of Nunavut, Canada, and I am excited to support these communities in finding answers. And listening to the whales is super fun! (Listen to more killer whale calls on the Voices in the Sea website.)


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

JS: Role models include my zoology professor Jana Johnson at Moorpark College. She is the model of a hardworking, take-no-B., determined, understanding, and mentally strong woman in science who helped shape me into the scientist I am today. Her approach to teaching through humor, hands-on learning, and genuine care for your understanding of the material drew me to her from the beginning.


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

JS: Let’s be honest, mental health is an extremely important subject matter that needs to be addressed. To be in an environment where your colleagues are all working on insanely cool projects, and all of your professors are rock stars in their field, can become overwhelming for sure. But I have to remember that I was accepted into this school for a reason. I have to remember that I too am working on something insanely cool, and that I have the tools to create a successful career for myself thanks to those rock star professors. At this current time in my life where I will be applying and interviewing for jobs, which is a stressful period in anyone’s life, I know everything will be ok because I know the Scripps community has my back.


en: What are your future plans?

JS: I would love to continue working in the North Atlantic/Arctic region on marine mammal communities. There is still so much we don’t know! And if my research can contribute to conservation laws and practices, even better. I want my research to make a difference in a community, whether it is an Indigenous community in the Canadian Arctic, or a community of endangered marine mammals, I want to know that I will be affecting something that is bigger than myself.


You can find Jessica Sportelli on Instagram @jjsportelli, on Twitter @Jess_Sportelli, and on Facebook as Jessica Sportelli.

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