A group of bright young minds from Alaska recently traveled to San Diego to present various topics in a research symposium, held at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. From narwhal whistles to blue whale calls, the 14th annual SeaTech Student Research Symposium saw the work of seven budding scientists who have been researching different topics in marine mammal acoustics.
As part of the SeaTech program each year, students from Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Alaska have the opportunity to conduct research alongside Scripps Oceanography scientists, who provide them with one-on-one mentorship throughout the semester. This year’s mentors included Scripps graduate students Natalie Posdaljian, Vanessa ZoBell, Morgan Ziegenhorn, Eric Snyder, and Eva Hidalgo-Pla, along with Scripps alumni and SeaTech leaders Anne Simonis and Josh Jones. Students remotely connect with mentors once a week to discuss progress on their research projects, which align with the work that the individual scientists typically conduct in their own labs.
At Mt. Edgecumbe High School, the SeaTech program thrives in the classroom of science teacher Michael Mahoney, who offers the program as a four-unit science course each winter semester. An integral element to the SeaTech class is self-selection—the student’s own initiative to partake in professional research as part of their high school experience.
Recent Mt. Edgecumbe graduate Tiahna Capelle spent three years as a SeaTech intern, and said she joined the program to expand her knowledge of the marine ecosystem.
“Growing up on the ocean, I had always thought it to be an interesting place and wanted to gain a deeper knowledge of the animals important to our ecosystem,” said Capelle, an Alaska Native. “SeaTech assisted me and other Indigenous students in learning more about the mammal acoustics that our people depend on.”
Her research project focused on the effects of environmental factors on odontocete (toothed whale) vocalizations in the Gulf of Alaska in 2014 and 2019, a colder and warmer year than average in Alaska. Capelle will remain on the water and attend University of Hawai’i at Hilo in the fall, where she plans to pursue natural resource management.
Mahoney’s SeaTech class is designed to acquaint the students with research led by the Scripps Whale Acoustics Laboratory and introduce them to marine mammal science. In coordination with the Scripps-based lab, students learn about topics in acoustic research: how sound travels through water, how to collect data in an acoustics lab, and more. Alongside their coursework, research projects are the principal component of the class. Over the semester, mentors assist the students throughout the research process from its creation to its completion, constructing an experience that closely resembles how they run their own professional labs. Following the conclusion of the school year, the students travel to San Diego to present their research projects in-person at the SeaTech Student Research Symposium, a trip generously supported by Scripps geochemist Robert Rex. This structure provides the interns with quality research experiences in the marine sciences.
Mahoney and the Scripps mentors collaborate prior to the start of the program each year to decide on its structure and operational format. “Our goal is to get students interested in the ocean sciences, and give them the ability to learn how to do acoustic research,” Mahoney said. “This program is a unique experience for the students, as we offer a hands-on structure that deviates from the typical lecture-and-textbook style class, where they can contribute to new frontiers in scientific research.”
SeaTech is an annual program, originating in 2005 through the passionate work of Jones, then a PhD student at Scripps. Originally, he co-developed the program with two partners in Southern California: Ocean Institute in Dana Point, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Capistrano Valley, on a mission to spark interest and involvement in ocean sciences within a younger and underrepresented demographic. SeaTech was initially funded by the National Science Foundation for three years, before the program shifted to its partnership with Mahoney and Mt. Edgecumbe High School in 2008.
The program’s residency at Mt. Edgecumbe carries personal significance with Jones, as he has worked on Alaskan waters for 25 years.
“When I started in research, one of my goals was to bring that back to southeast Alaska if I could,” noted Jones. “From my perspective as a mariner, having people conduct research in their own home waters is what’s really needed for effective wildlife management and research. It’s community-based research where the tools of institutions like Scripps can actually be guided to help answer necessary questions for these coastal communities.”
Simonis, current NOAA Affiliate, is also heavily involved in SeaTech, operating as both a mentor and the program’s active director as of the past five years.
“I joined SeaTech as a mentor in 2016, so that I could provide the Alaskan students with the same type of authentic, positive research experiences that I had once experienced. I think that the long-term, collaborative research experience is a fantastic way to actively learn the skills, practices and culture of scientific research,” Simonis said. “Working together with the students, researchers and teachers of SeaTech is the most rewarding part of my professional life. When I look at them, I see a bright, hopeful future, so I'm paying attention to that!”
Moving forward, Jones hopes Scripps can continue to work with Mt. Edgecumbe High School and with Simonis at NOAA while developing opportunities to expand the program’s reach to other coastal labs, locations, and communities, such as Hawaii, the Canadian Arctic, and more.
You can watch the recording of this year’s SeaTech Student Research Symposium here.