Scripps Student Spotlight: Vanessa ZoBell

PhD student fascinated by the intelligence and mystery of whales studies ship noise impacts on baleen whales in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary

Vanessa ZoBell is a second-year PhD student studying biological oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Before attending Scripps, she earned her BS in wildlife, fish and conservation biology from UC Davis. She is currently being advised by Scripps marine physicist John Hildebrand, and is the great-granddaughter of 1940’s Scripps microbiologist Claude ZoBell. 


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Vanessa ZoBell: I chose to attend Scripps primarily because I wanted to work with and learn from the members of the Scripps Whale Acoustics Lab (SWAL). SWAL has been at the forefront of marine mammal acoustics research for a long time and I wanted the opportunity to be trained by them during my graduate school career. Apart from that, Scripps has amazing faculty that students get to learn from every day. I’ve learned so much from the faculty at Scripps in and out of classes and they have greatly enhanced my understanding of the ocean and science as a whole! 

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

VZ: I study ship noise impacts on baleen whales in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. I have always been fascinated by how intelligent and mysterious whales are, and learning how much they aid in fertilizing the world’s oceans and playing a large role in connecting marine ecosystems has only made me more fascinated! As a wildlife conservation major at UC Davis, I knew I wanted to study how to protect these giant animals. One of their largest threats in the present day is commercial shipping. Whales are exposed to chronic noise pollution from commercial vessels, which can alter their behavior and acoustic performance. I study these human-wildlife interactions in the hopes of providing policy-makers with the tools they need to efficiently and effectively protect these animals. 

en: How do you conduct your research? Do you use any specific tools? 

VZ: In order to record whale songs, I deploy High-frequency Acoustic Recording Packages (HARPs) into the ocean. These instruments are anchored to the seafloor for many months, and capture all of the cool sounds from animals that swim by. The Scripps Whale Acoustics Lab has deployed these instruments all over the world, including the Arctic, Antarctica, Hawai'i, and, of course, right off of the coast in California. These instruments pick up not only sounds from biological sources like fishes and whales, but also noise from human-made activities, like commercial shipping, seismic surveys, and seal bombs (an explosive used by purse seine fisheries to scare away pinnipeds during fishing operations). Our lab strives to disentangle all of these sound sources to see how they may interact with or affect each other. When we see how these different sounds affect each other, we can give policymakers the tools they need to protect the organisms in the ocean that rely on and are affected by sound for navigation, communication, and physiological well-being.


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

VZ: A typical day in June (not during a global pandemic) may be waking up early to go surfing or snorkeling with classmates by the pier, then grabbing a quick coffee at Pinpoint Cafe before heading over to the office! I then usually analyze acoustic data and code in MatLab to investigate these analyses further, and go to meetings with my advisers and lab mates. I usually leave Scripps around 5 p.m. and head to yoga or go for a run on the beach! 


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

VZ: I think the most exciting part of my work is the discovery. I may be grinding for months and months, analyzing decades worth of data and not picking up any patterns. But then there will be a day where I will find two male humpback whales having a sing-off for three hours and it will make that grind 100% worth it! And of course, going to sea is incredible. Seeing dolphins bow-ride in bioluminescence and picking up squishy pyrosomes always brings a huge smile to my face.



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

VZ: I grew up with a single mom and she was and still is a huge role model for me. She works SO hard and still finds time to be goofy, do hobbies, and spend time with family which has taught me and my sister to do the same. In terms of science, my lab mates have been such amazing mentors for me. When I first started at Scripps, they really showed me the ropes for which classes to take and how to manage time between research and school. Without them I don’t know what I would do! 

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

VZ: One of the aspects of graduate school that I find most challenging is finding a work-life balance. My first year I really only did the work, and by the end of the year I was definitely running on fumes. By my second year I spent more time hanging out with friends and doing the hobbies that I love! I found that when I did spend more time for myself, I was much better at my research, because I had given my brain that much needed break! 

en: What are your plans, post-Scripps?

VZ: After defending my PhD at Scripps, I want to continue conducting research at an academic institution in a postdoctoral position. From there, I would like to conduct research at a university or a research organization. I also will continue volunteering for nonprofit organizations that provide outreach and education opportunities in STEM to young girls to encourage them to find their passion and stay curious. 

You can find Vanessa on Instagram @vanessa__zobell.

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