Many people are drawn to the ocean for its charismatic marine mammals including whales and dolphins, but very few scientists actually make a career out of studying these creatures. Among this small group is Regina Guazzo, a fifth-year graduate student in the biological oceanography program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.
Guazzo grew up in Bridgewater, New Jersey, and received her bachelor’s degree in marine science from Rutgers University. She is currently studying the gray whale migration off California in the Scripps Whale Acoustic Lab under the mentorship of Scripps oceanographer John Hildebrand. We sat down with Guazzo to discuss her path to science, her innovative research using whale acoustics, and more.
What are you researching at Scripps?
Regina Guazzo: I am studying the gray whale migration along the California coast. I primarily use acoustic recordings, but am also using data from infrared cameras and visual observations. I am working to better understand gray whale behavior, improve population size estimates, and investigate the environmental signals that affect the migration.
How do you use acoustic data to study whales?
RG: Bioacoustics studies the sounds that animals make. There are bioacousticians studying all types of animals including birds, bats, elephants, fish, and marine mammals. To study whales using acoustics, our lab uses underwater microphones, known as hydrophones, that sit on the seafloor and record sounds continuously for months. Baleen whales, including gray whales, make calls that are unique to their species or population. We can study the properties of the calls such as "loudness," pitch or frequency, and duration, and we can also use the calls as tools to identify whale presence or even to locate and track a whale as it moves through the area.
(Listen to two different calls by the Eastern North Pacific gray whale: a pulsed knocking call and a very low frequency "groan." Guazzo examines these calls and others in a recent paper published in the scientific journal PLOS One.)
Why did you choose to attend Scripps?
RG: Scripps has a great bioacoustics research program led by John Hildebrand as well as opportunities to collaborate with and learn from highly respected researchers studying all aspects of the ocean. I also liked the proximity of Scripps to UC San Diego's main campus for access to other professors and classes. But I was deciding between two very good schools and the ultimate tie breaker was San Diego. I had never been to Southern California until the Open House and I was excited about the warmth, sunshine, and everything there was to do outside of school. I had always wanted to live in a big city for the diversity and activity.
How did you become interested in your field of study?
RG: For as long as I can remember, I was passionate about marine mammals, but I also had other interests as I grew older. In high school I thought I wanted to major in music, but then realized I did not want the lifestyle of a professional musician. I started out studying engineering in college because I was good at math and science, but I soon realized that although I liked math, physics, and biology, I did not like engineering. After my third year of college I did a National Science Foundation REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) internship with Doug Nowacek at the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C. where I studied bottlenose dolphin whistles. I loved how the field of bioacoustics combined everything I had always loved and it seemed like the perfect fit.
What inspired you to pursue a PhD in a science field?
RG: My mom has a PhD in pharmaceutical sciences so from a very young age I thought it would be cool to have a PhD, too. I fell in love with the ocean and marine mammals and when I was 5, I told my mom I was going to be a marine biologist when I grew up and said I needed to take more swimming lessons to swim with the "big whales." While at Rutgers, I began investigating careers and saw that most of the jobs I was interested in required a PhD, so I decided that if I could get into a PhD program, that is what I wanted to do.
What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day in your life.
RG: There really is no typical day and my life has changed significantly throughout my time as a PhD student. During my first two years, I spent most of my time going to classes, doing assignments for those classes, and studying. Now that I am focused on my research, I spend most of my time writing MATLAB code. (MATLAB is a computing program and language that enables users to create simulations and to analyze and visualize technical information.) I took a MATLAB class my first semester of undergrad, but never enjoyed coding until I saw the applications of being able to process giant datasets of bioacoustic data.
I also spend a lot of time writing up my results and making figures so that other people can understand what I do; science is worthless if it isn't effectively communicated. Last quarter I taught a class and I have participated in several workshops about teaching and science communication. Outside of school, I spend time with my husband and my dog, I decompress by working out, and I am involved with my church.
What’s the most exciting thing about your work?
RG: I am really excited about using marine mammal bioacoustics to understand and assess the impacts of anthropogenic (human-made) sound on marine mammal populations.
Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?
RG: My parents have always inspired me. They supported my love of animals by letting my sister and I have several pets (of diverse taxa!) and taking us to the beach, zoos, and aquariums every chance we had. They encouraged me to explore and experiment. They also showed me that it is possible to have a wonderful marriage and a successful career in the sciences.
In addition, I am very thankful for the many great teachers and professors throughout my education who have challenged me and helped me grow as a scholar and person.
What are some of the challenges you face as a student?
RG: Completing a dissertation is a huge challenge. It takes a lot of self-motivation and perseverance to continue with an independent project for 4-5 years (not counting the time you spend in classes). You also have to navigate relationships with advisors, committee members, and collaborators, which can also be tricky.
Additionally, one of my biggest challenges comes from my husband's job in the U.S. Navy. He has been deployed three times and has gone on countless training trips during my time at Scripps. I am so thankful to have him as my biggest supporter, love, and friend, but dealing with the emotional and logistical challenges of deployments in addition to those from grad school has been especially difficult.
What are your future plans, post-Scripps?
I have a SMART Scholarship through the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). This fellowship pays for my education and in return I work for a DoD lab following graduation. I plan to defend my dissertation in August, so after that I will be working at SPAWAR in Point Loma where a lot of research is being done on the effects of Navy sonar on marine mammals.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
– Brittany Hook