Scripps Student Spotlight: Tammy Russell

Scripps PhD student studying seabird foraging ecology finds ways to support conservation

Tammy Russell is a third-year PhD student studying biological oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. In July of this year, she was awarded the NOAA Nancy Foster Scholarship, a prestigious program representing graduate-level areas of study such as marine biology, oceanography, and maritime archaeology. She is currently advised by Scripps phytoplankton ecologist Maria Vernet


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Tammy Russell: When I was first researching graduate schools, I knew I wanted to work on seabird foraging ecology and marine food webs, and was looking into mostly ecology or fisheries programs. But during the last year of my undergraduate degree, I completed an internship with NOAA in Hawaii, and one of my project advisors, Dr. David Hyrenbach, had gone to Scripps and completed his PhD on seabirds. He told me how understanding oceanography helped him understand the relationships between seabirds and marine food webs with environmental variables and impacts from climate change. This broad understanding to address specific ecological questions really appealed to me. When I went to the Scripps Open House, getting to meet faculty from a variety of research areas and seeing how there was collaboration and access to so many resources really solidified my choice in coming to Scripps. 


en: What are you researching at Scripps and how did you become interested in this field?

TR: I was recently awarded the NOAA Nancy Foster Scholarship, and I will be investigating how seabirds use our National Marine Sanctuaries along the U.S. West Coast using a long time series of at-sea survey data. Using this data, I’ll be able to compare diversity indices and foraging of seabirds between different areas along our coasts. I will also be using this data to identify any long term changes in seabird composition and distribution. In addition to this work, I’m also working on foraging ecology and plastic ingestion in brush-tailed penguins in the Antarctic Peninsula. 

Even though I didn’t know anyone in science growing up, I knew that I wanted to work in research and was obsessed with the ocean, space, and birds! Over time, it became clear that I wanted to work on seabird ecology. I credit that passion to my wonderment of albatrosses, from seeing them in cartoons, wildlife films and Zoobooks as a kid. Many years later, while volunteering for the nonprofit Oikonos, I saw an albatross for the first time, but it was on a necropsy table and had been caught by longline fisheries. During that experience, we dissected black-footed and Laysan albatrosses, many with the large tuna hooks still in their bills or throats. That experience impacted me tremendously and I ended up doing an internship in Hawaii on the incidental bycatch of blackfooted albatross. About a year later, I saw my first live albatross while working as a naturalist in Monterey Bay, and it is one of my favorite memories; we had a pod of killer whales around our boat, but I was crying looking through my binoculars at a magnificent black-footed albatross in the air! Although I knew I wanted to do research on seabirds, through these experiences and others my passion was cultivated, and I was exposed to current research it highlighted what work was needed and helped me focus my research interests.


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

TR: Recently, life as a Scripps student has looked dramatically different. I’ve been working 100% from home since early March, and will continue remote work for quite some time. But my typical week in isolation has been very busy! In addition to my research, the weeks are full of meetings with my advisor, fellow graduate students, our lab’s current fellow with the Scripps Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, and attending online conferences. My research work has been rearranged, as all of my field and lab work has been postponed and tasks that can be done remotely have been prioritized, such as reading papers, preparing data for analysis and connecting with collaborators. Before the pandemic, my typical days were usually a mix of classes, computer work in my office, meeting friends at Pinpoint Cafe, and birding on the beach.

Tammy Russell

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

TR: Overall, I think the most exciting part of research is being able to merge creativity, critical thinking, and learning new skills to address questions and issues. As a scientist, we are encouraged to observe, question and then attempt to find out answers. For me, that has always been an exciting draw to science! 

Specific to my work, I’m also really excited to be able to promote seabirds in oceanography research and conservation planning, as they are often overlooked. Also, the field work is the ultimate perk to doing marine research. 


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

TR: After attending college for a couple of years, I took many years off before being able to go back and I eventually enrolled at Mt. San Jacinto College (MSJC). When I first went back to college, I never even considered graduate school. For one, I didn’t think I was the “right” type of person or that graduate school was even an option for me. Fortunately, there were many supportive professors at MSJC that were encouraging and incredibly helpful for me to figure out how to navigate college and plan my future goals. My history professor and advisor for the many student clubs I got involved with, Dr. Jim Davis, was and continues to be an incredible mentor to me. I learned from Jim what mentorship qualities were most valuable and effective in supporting and guiding students in the direction they want to go. Another critical mentor and role model has been Dr. Sarah Ellgen, my advisor for the research I conducted in Hawaii with Sustainable Fisheries. Both Sarah and Jim have always given me well-considered feedback, have expanded what I thought I was capable of, and provided me opportunities to achieve my goals along the way. 


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

TR: Although I knew getting a bachelor's degree was the right step towards a career in science, beyond that, I had no idea how to get involved in research or how graduate school worked, so navigating this path has had some difficult times. Because it took me so long to go back to college, I was very unsure of myself when I was able to return and had a hard time reaching out for help. I am so fortunate I eventually found mentors through that time to help me figure things out and encouraged me to pursue graduate school! But when I started at Scripps, I still didn’t really know what I was supposed to be doing and did not feel like I belonged here. Luckily, Scripps is full of supportive people and through connecting with people who were compassionate and encouraging, I no longer feel that way. But because of these struggles through my academic experience, I am especially passionate about supporting younger students and undergraduate students. 


en: What are your plans, post-Scripps?

TR: I plan to continue to do research on seabird foraging ecology, marine food webs, and climate change impacts to support conservation and management issues--whether for a government agency, such as NOAA, or a nonprofit. In addition, I plan to stay involved in mentoring students and doing outreach to communities and schools. 


You can find Tammy on Instagram @marinamorphosis.

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.