With the 2014 field season fast approaching and new research projects kicking off, I’ve been thinking about AWF’s tradition of supporting graduate students.  I joined the organization back in 2000 as a graduate student, Fred Sharpe, one of our principle biologists, helped found the organization as a graduate student, and a few years back, Sean Hanser completed his graduate work with AWFs support.  We're always glad to continue this tradition.

Supporting grad student research is a good thing all around.  For one, they’re enthusiastic and ambitious contributors to a diverse research program.  As well, they work hard (after all, their careers are on the line--or so it feels when anticipating a thesis defense!).  And in return for their hard work, AWF can offer funding, scientific equipment, and the technical know-how that comes from nearly twenty years’ experience working with marine mammals in Southeast Alaska.  

AWF graduate student Michelle Fournet listening to the underwater chatter of humpback whales in Frederick Sound. 

In the past, our support was generally limited to the field work side of things, with students’ academic support and mentorship coming largely from their respective universities.  But now, through a courtesy faculty appointment at Oregon State University I'm able to mentor grad students myself.   This has been a great development for the organization as it allows us to better ensure that the student-led research projects align with AWF’s broader conservation goals.  For example, Michelle Fournet, my first student, conducted a project on communication in humpback whales.  The inspiration for this stemmed from conversations Fred and I had had regarding humpback social foraging behaviors and our concern over the possible deleterious effects of rising anthropogenic (human-produced) noise in our oceans.  Michelle took the project and ran with it, and we’re happy to report that she recently defended her Master’s thesis (which we’ve posted HERE).  

Now, Courtney Hann has joined the team and is developing a citizen-science program that promises to be a low-cost approach to collecting crucial data on endangered whale populations by relying on the efforts of volunteer boaters.  Courtney will be heading up to our research center in Warm Springs Bay in June to kick off the field component of her project.  (Be sure to check out her research and follow along with her summer blog HERE).

My early days as a young, bright-eyed grad student.  After nearly 15 years of work on the water, I now seem to spend a lot more time living vicariously through my students, only venturing out on the water when delivering fresh vegetables and outside news to their remote field camps.

AWF has big plans for working with graduate students. With the development of our research and education center in Warm Springs Bay, we hope to start supporting two graduate students every year. This is an ambitious goal for us, but making graduate research projects happen is a key part of our vision for AWF. The work they produce not only increases understanding of marine mammals and habitats in Southeast Alaska, it also positions AWF to become increasingly influential with our conservation and education programs. 

Supporting graduate students, like almost every other aspect of AWF’s work, is funded primarily by donors. If you’d like to help by making a donation, please visit our support page.