What’s Lab Got to do With It?
By Jose Basaldua | August 28, 2015
What do you picture in your mind when someone says “scientist”?
Although this is shifting, studies have shown that when most people are asked this question, they picture a white male in a lab coat with glasses, crazy hair, and beakers of secret chemicals. Very specific, very narrow.
I am a scientist in training (aka intern) in Point Blue Conservation Science’s marine lab. I may fit the description above in some aspects — crazy hair, glasses, male – but for the rest I break the stereotype. By sharing my experience, I hope to broaden your perspective on who and what a scientist is, the role of science in conservation, and hopefully inspire a more diverse next generation of scientists.
Lessons Learned in the Lab
I have learned a great many things after arriving at the Point Blue marine lab almost a year ago. Seabird natural history, diet, species interactions, and ocean health are a few areas I’ve enjoyed learning about.
I can say I definitely hit the ground running my first week learning about the bird species my work would relate to: the Brandt’s Cormorant and California Least Tern. These seabirds were new and amazing to me. I looked forward to learning more about them through my lab work.
You may think all labs are full of chemicals, fancy glassware, and people in lab coats, but this lab was actually full of regurgitated seabird pellets (or bird barf to put it ‘nicely’), seabird feces (or poop), fish that seabirds dropped, and vials of tiny shrimp-like ocean animals called krill.
Cormorant Barf and Tern Turds Inform Conservation?
Searching through regurgitated cormorant pellets, or barf, for little ‘prizes’ would become one of my specialties. These ‘prizes’ were otoliths, or fish ear bones, and they tell us what the cormorants are eating, including the sizes of fish they eat. This information helps provide insight into ocean ecosystem health and the health of different species. For example, northern anchovy dominated cormorant diet in 2007 but declined in 2008, followed by an increase in rockfish. Anchovy do better in warmer, low productivity ocean conditions whereas rockfish thrive in cooler, high productivity conditions. So these results reflected changing ocean conditions and how the birds and fish were responding to them.
From here, things got stinkier. I never thought I would be looking through bird poop for my job. Lucky for me, the California Least Tern is a small bird with small, less offensive droppings. I searched for, counted, and identified fish scales and otoliths in the feces samples. I also identified fish they dropped at their nesting sites (we call them “fish chips”). Just like with the cormorants, the information gathered was used to get a picture of what the terns’ diet could tell us about the ecosystem they thrive in.
The Least Tern is an endangered species, and as a biologist, it is always difficult to see any species on the path toward extinction. It has been shown that species can recover from endangerment with the proper aid from us, the way banning DDT helped Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons rebound. For the Least Terns, we’ll need to reevaluate how we manage coastal areas and marine protected areas, and I was excited that my work was serving as a small contribution to that effort.
Don’t Forget the Little Guys
Lastly, I have been involved in the study of zooplankton, specifically krill, collected during ACCESS cruises in our Sanctuaries. Many people are unaware of the importance of these little guys in the food chain. Without them, there would be no wonderful, tasty seafood you and I enjoy eating or huge whales we enjoy watching. Luckily, another great part of my job was doing public outreach in partnership with the California Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium to teach people about the importance of zooplankton. Similar to the other projects, zooplankton studies give us a gauge of ocean conditions and overall health. For example, the low number of large, adult krill in our 2015 samples is a symptom of the El Niño conditions in the North Pacific right now.
Personal Growth & Opportunity
Along with learning about marine ecology and conservation, being a part of the Point Blue lab has also required me to become more independent and versatile. This was how I was able to learn new techniques and improve ones I already knew. I also appreciated being able to live in the Point Reyes National Seashore. As a child, I was not able to take road trips to natural areas, like Point Reyes, due to lack of time and money. Suburbia was my forest. There was not much to learn firsthand about conservation, ecosystem interactions, or the wonders nature can offer in this setting. It may have taken many years, but now, since I’ve pursued a career in science through internships like this, I view and appreciate nature’s gifts with passionate curiosity.
I hope to inspire future generations by showing them that a lab is not all chemicals and lab coats and a scientist can look like anyone. The lab can be a place where a scientist like me can help nature by studying bird barf!