woman scientist

in the field

Swift Interview with Corvid Expert Kaeli Swift

Kaeli Swift knows crows. Between her undergradaute work and current doctoral work, she’s studied them for nearly seven years.  While these exploits have given her a holistic education on all things crow, her current interest is in understanding their “funeral” behaviors.

Crows, in the family Corvidae, are known for their intelligence and adaptability. Everyone has a story, good or bad, which demonstrates the inquisitive, sometimes mischievous nature of these corvids.

To gain expertise as an ethologist and evolutionary biologist, Kaeli earned a Master’s degree and is currently pursuing her PhD at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington.

A masked individual held a dead crow for 30 minutes (Credit: Kaeli Swift)

I met Kaeli at a dinner function in Seattle. Woman Scientist had just started hosting “Dinners with Field Scientists” — a night of informal connection between women pursuing careers in the sciences that get them out in the field. A mutual Field Scientist friend, Carolyn Rachel, brought her along. As we went around the table sharing our work, she spoke to us about studying funerals. The crow stories flew across the room.


Knowing her subject matter was such good conversation topic, I invited her to give a talk at the Institute for Systems Biology, where I worked at the time, for our informal luncheon discussion groups.  She came straight from the field to share with us everything we needed to know about crows and it was the most well attended luncheon I’ve seen.  The entire room was captivated by her research material and engaging presentation style.

Kaeli received her undergrad degree in Biology from Willamette University and knew that she wanted to go into wildlife biology. As a junior in undergrad, she started working with crows (and talking to John Marzluff), and crow work became the goal. Through her education she realized she wanted to have more power designing her own experiments. To figure out how to gain that independence, she made many calls to individuals who held job titles she saw herself having and asked what degrees they had.  Most earned degrees in higher education which inspired her to pursue a PhD.

Let’s hear more from Kaeli:

What was your first science-related job?

The summer of my Sophomore year I participated in The Student Collaborative Research Program which was basically a paid science internship (supported by the Murdock Charitable Trust). I looked at using the photo sharing network Flickr to track banded bird sightings.  

Did you have any preconceived notions about science, or scientists, and did that change once you explored your career in science?

I thought it was cleaner. You learn about these famous experiments, even animal behavior experiments, and you have no idea how much mess and disaster goes into actually producing the data. It’s much less precise than I pictured when I was a young student doing mostly very simple lab experiments.  

Kaeli and John Marzluff look at the brain activity of crows.

What is your earliest memory of being hooked by science?

When I was in 3rd grade I designed an experiment to test if goldfish had memory.  

Was there any one person that inspired you?

Jane Goodall

What do you want to achieve in your career? What is your big dream?

When we think of the most famous contemporary faces of science, the people who have made careers out of translating science for the public, the reality is that they  are still (mostly) white men.  Women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, are all an increasing (albeit still minority) presence in the highest levels of academia and I want to be part of the force normalizing their faces as the faces of science.  I love talking about my research, and science more broadly, with the public and I’d love to turn that passion into a career.  To do so at the level of someone like Neil Degrasse Tyson or Bill Nye would be the ultimate goal.   

Photo credit: Michael Werner.

Has your work allowed you to travel? If so, where have you gone and what were you doing there?

I’ve been to Australia to do a 3 month tech job looking at sexual selection in Satin bowerbirds. It was the hardest physical job I’ve ever had, but it was by far the most beautiful and exciting. Then I went to IN for the private sector job. It was the exact opposite of the Aussie job in every way.  

Tell about your experiences working in different sectors?

I’ve worked in academia and the private sector (I worked for 2 seasons with biological consulting firm). The private sector stuff paid BANK but there was also a nagging discomfort in knowing my bosses were paid by people who had very vested interests in the outcomes of our research. That being said I never witnessed anything that looked suspicious or like bad science. They treated us well, safety was taken seriously, and there were serious financial perks. Academia on the other hand is a bit more wild west. The pay is often meager, people hardly ever talk seriously about safety in the field, but there’s so much more freedom to ask crazy interesting questions.

What were or currently are some big compromises or struggles you’ve experienced making a career for yourself in the science world?

Temporary field work was always tough before grad school because I was in a relationship. My husband and I have spent most every year apart, at first because of my job and more recently because of his. That was hard. Now, being a grad student, it feels like all our friends are growing up and moving on with their lives (buying homes, earning a decent wage, starting families) and we’re living the same life we did 10 years ago in college.  

What keeps you motivated when you’re feeling the drudgery? 

Sharing stories with my colleagues or engaging with my study animal in a non scientific way. Oh, and of course doing public talks. They’re maybe the biggest pick me up. They’re a great opportunity to recognize how much stuff you do actually know (grad school has a way of becoming Ygritte –Game of Thrones reference), be supported by kind strangers, and take your academia hat off and just tell people about all the best/most interesting aspects of your field.

What are some key points you remind yourself of during your science career journey?

That other people have the same doubts that I do. Doubts about their path, their qualifications, and their achievements.  

What are some inspirational materials you’ve used along the way?

TED talks are great! Also, Dogs Days Raven Nights by John and Colleen Marzluff is a great look at the post-doc experience.


Thank you for the doing this interview Kaeli! 

I know Kaeli’s story ended too soon and you’re probably hooked on wanting to hear more about her research with crows. Well, you can!

Be sure to follow Kaeli on Instagram, Twitter, and via her engaging blog posts!

If you liked this interview, please share it!  And if you’re a Woman Scientist doing work out in the field, or know someone who is, we’d love to hear your career journey. Please fill out the interview by clicking here.

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Second Month of Graduate Life

Did you like the video? Please share!

To see more photos from our time on Catalina Island click here.

To hear about the first month of graduate school, click here.

And here is another awesome video of a green turtle swimming off the coast of La Jolla Shores.

Don’t forget to follow Woman Scientist for more inspiration on Facebook and Instagram.


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The Story of Texas Wild’s Jessie Story

If you haven’t heard of Texas Wild make sure to watch this clip now:


Ray and Jessie’s work with Texas Wild is produced at West Texas A&M University in cooperation with Panhandle PBS KACV and reaches viewers in over 250,000 homes. In 2016, Jessie was awarded the Dan A. Klepper Memorial Scholarship from Texas Outdoors Writer’s Association for her work merging wildlife education and improving science literacy with the public through social media and television.

I first learned of Texas Wild via Instagram when Jessie Story introduced herself and shared a stunning photograph of her holding her first bobcat as a field assistant on a carnivore research project. I shared the image with all of you on Woman Scientist’s Instagram account and immediately asked Jessie to do an interview. She gladly agreed!

Jessie Story with Bobcat

Those who work with Jessie Story in the field describe her as being a “tough-as-nails outdoors person that will sleep anywhere, work in any conditions, fears nothing (except heights a little), and is low maintenance. She can handle venomous snakes, canoes and kayaks, snorkels and films underwater, and is a capable spelunker.”

Her partner, Ray Matlack, describes her as the energy that keeps Texas Wild going.

She describes herself as a bit of a fashionista. “I like my handbags, a bi-weekly trip to the nail salon and wearing my sandals to lunch. Leather jackets, scarfs and all black attire are my go-to’s. Equally, I enjoy catching animals, swamps, camping, getting lost and getting dirt on my face. Don’t let my appearance fool you!”

Let’s hear more from Jessie:

Jessie in Canyon Square 5

What is your earliest memory of being hooked by science?


As far back as I can remember I was fascinated by sharks. Since I was a child, reading has been a central pastime in my family. My mother is an avid reader which led to weekly trips to the library where she would swap out her bag of books. Some of my fondest memories are tagging along with my mother on her weekly Library trips where I would position myself in the aisle that held, on the bottom shelf, books about sharks. I would sit and flip through the pages while my mother browsed (as a child and young adult, I battled a severe speech impediment). Aside from sitting in the library aisle, I attended storytelling session in the library. I remember Native American stories as well as “Stellaluna,” an experience that shaped my love of bats.

Growing up I inhaled a large amount of nature and science documentaries, from sharks to Bill Nye. I watched as biologists explained their research and the tracking methods of specimens. I then would try to replicate the monitoring and data techniques. I would measure, weigh and sketch the patterns and morphological characteristics (such as lack of toe in Woodhouse’s toad) before releasing them. I was always fascinated by the animals themselves and this was just another way for me to handle wildlife.

Has your work allowed you to travel?

Man, I’ve been everywhere. My primary home range has been Texas–every inch of her–for the past 3 years during the creation of Texas Wild. Born in Amarillo, I reside in Canyon and consider Bastrop TX, a second home. Other activities have carried me outside of my home range from sleeping in the back of a Toyota truck on top of tripods in below-freezing temperatures at Bosque del Apache to the Sandhills of Nebraska and traversing large portions of the Great Plains. I’ve traveled from my hometown, Amarillo to Key West, scouting locations for future filming.

During the past three years working in the field for both research and film purposes, I travel the majority of the year often missing family holidays, celebrations and birthdays. This past Thanksgiving was the first holiday I’ve been home for in those 3 years

Did you have any preconceived notions about science, or scientists, and did that change once you explored your career in science?

Starting my academic career I really had no preconceived notions or expectations. One observation I quickly made was that there has been a separation between the scientific community and the public for far too long. The media has been an influencing factor in the creation of that gap. With that said, as members of the scientific community we can ill afford to not stand behind a proactive movement propelled within the realm of social media. Social networks are being used as tools to bridge this gap and to further connect the public with those in the scientific community.

KD1A2930 Filming bats in a cave

What is the big dream for your career?

To continue on my current path, traveling, filming and learning. As long as there is a camera in my hand, miles to cover and an intellectually stimulating environment, I’ll be content.

Was there any one person that inspired you?

Truthfully, there isn’t just one person who has influenced me. My drive is the result of books, music, plays, people I’ve meet along the way, childhood experiences and hockey (it sounds strange, I know but life is the place we spend in between hockey games). My parents have been a pivotal force for me; they have been married for 50 year now and have always been travelers.

What are your go-to inspirational materials?

Find what moves you whether that aligns with your path or not. Enjoy it, break it down and examine the pieces. Find out what parts reached out and grabbed you in the first place. Understanding why this “thing” lead to you become so enamored with it, will reveal what paths you should follow in your future.

Filming underwater

What were, or currently are, some big compromises or struggles you’ve experienced making a career for yourself?

The first struggle I’ve faced is “colleague conflict,” a little phrase I use that embodies the backlash one can experience as a result of their ideas, accomplishments, research or other academic endeavors. I experienced this as an undergrad at West Texas A&M University (WTAMU) when I beat out a graduate student for a position on a project. The following years introduced me intimately to “colleague conflict” as the grudge was carried by the student. As I continue my work, there is a realization that “colleague conflict” is an element that will always exist.

Another memorable experience that I get to hold close to me is being told my work holds no purpose or merit. In the aforementioned story, the very person I out-competed, told me that my work didn’t matter and “to compare you to me is like comparing apples to oranges!” Nothing woos me more. There has been a small crowd of people throughout my life and more recently, during my college career, who have lamented similar opinions and have tried to discredit the efforts that Ray and I have put forth in our time creating Texas Wild. It helps having someone like Ray in your corner during these times; he’s an optimist who never says die. As fate would have it, opposing forces have become powerful and motivating force.

Personal struggles include battling a speech impediment as a child and throughout my young adulthood. It took years of extensive speech therapy to get to the point I am today. I remember trying to learn how to say the phrase “the squirrel squatted in the square.” My speech impediment has made college that much more challenging to me. Family and friends keep me going.

What are some key points you wish you knew or that you remind yourself of during your science career journey?

Safety, safety first. Then teamwork.

What keeps you motivated when you’re feeling the drudgery?  

The experiences you gain as a result of this lifestyle. I have a Patagonia hat I picked up in Florida a few years back. This hat is one of a few valued treasures of mine that I take on the road. The hat alone has traveled seven states, bares the ink stains from an octopus (bikini as well), was lost in Lake Jessup FL, which has 421 alligators/mile of shoreline (a childhood hangout for Ray), worn during an encounter with an 2.5ft nurse shark and has been envenomed by a broad-banded copperhead.

I had the fortunate of filming the largest bat colony, Bracken Cave, home to 15 million free-tailed bats and carry a scar on my left hand from a water snake which certainly puts a dent on my career as a hand model and experienced parasites.

Ray and I rediscovered the endangered Houston toads calling and filmed several other endangered species, flipped out of truck windows, broken equipment, missed the best shots, been hypothermic and seen parts of Texas, most never will. It’s the excitement of what comes next.

Another motivating factor is the impact this effort is making. I too often forget to reflect on how far this team of two has come, something Ray has taught me to do more of. We are self-taught and have been fortunate enough to gain a following of people who genuinely care about the cause. Most rewarding is when you see this passion being instilled in the next generation.

The End

A huge thank you to Jessie for sharing your inspirational journey with us and thank you to all reading!  


Did you like this interview? Share it with your friends to inspire the next generation of women to build science careers that get them out in the field!

Keep in Touch with Texas Wild

Media from Texas Wild has aired on the Red Steagall Show and The Daytripper. Social media posts have been researched by many conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy-Texas and even groups as far as Australia. They’ve paired with schools around Texas so teachers can use their media in alignment with education curriculum to encourage and teach appreciation and conservation for wildlife.

Be sure to follow them on PBS, the Web, the blog, Instagram, and Facebook.  

All media was provided courtesy of the Texas Wild team!

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First Month of Graduate Life

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When I Stopped Chasing The Dream Job, I Discovered My Dream Career

Re-posting an article I wrote for National Girls Collaborative Project, because I’ve added fun links in this version! You can read the original article published on National Girls Collaborative Project Blog  (submitted by Greta Carlson on April 29, 2016 – 2:20 pm)

Contributed by Allison Lee 

Growing up I never had a clear picture of what I wanted to become. Inspecting insects, creating mud-pies and gazing at the stars were childhood past times and as I grew into a teenager I embraced traveling and learning more about nature. I didn’t immediately connect all of these interests with becoming a scientist. I spent  years frustrated by my lack of vision; finding the dream job I felt contained all of my passions was a struggle.

By the time I turned 30, I had traveled to all seven continents as a Biologist studying a diversity of lifeforms from microscopic algae, to songbirds, parrots, mice, squirrels, big cats, and whales. Obviously I figured something out! Life is funny that way. A hunch paired with the right blend of curiosity, odd jobs, research-focused vacations, volunteer opportunities, frugal living, and luck delivered me to my dream career.

Finding my passion
In my high school senior yearbook I wrote that I wanted to be an astronaut. I thought astronauts traveled the most of anyone on Earth. Inspired, I researched the degrees earned by NASA’s astronauts and found an overwhelming proportion had studied science. I decided to major in biology and geology at the University of Washington. It wasn’t until sophomore year when I had the epiphany that biology was my passion.

The scope of biology is broad and I wanted to learn as many disciplines as possible. Senior year, I signed up for an internship in neuroscience at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and found a part-time lab job in the Immunology Department taking care of a mouse colony. I started learning molecular techniques and computer programs, using fancy pieces of equipment, and doing those things called PCRs and Southern Blots. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on – but I was doing SCIENCE!


Questioning my interests
After I graduated with my Bachelor of Science in Biology, I continued to work full time in the immunology lab. Two and a half years passed. Restlessness set in and I began to wonder if maybe I just didn’t like science anymore. I knew one next possible move was to go to graduate school, like many of my college peers, but I didn’t know what I wanted to commit to studying. I wasn’t inspired by my neurobiology or immunology experiences. I hated doing computer work. I felt stuck. So I did the thing you’re never supposed to do: I quit.

The next two months were spent feverishly searching job boards, institute websites, and email listservs. Because of my interest in many aspects of biology, I didn’t know where to focus my efforts. Regardless, I felt optimistic that my Dream Job was out there. A job posting for a field technician conducting songbird research caught my eye. I didn’t know much about birds, but I convinced the interviewer I could learn bird songs because I learned other languages easily and had been playing music for 15 years. It worked! Every morning I woke at 4:00 AM to get to the field site before the sun rose. I got paid to be outside tromping through the woods looking for birds. It was during these quiet twilight mornings, outside in nature, that I realized THIS was my dream job. I never wanted it to end.

But, as is the nature of seasonal fieldwork, it did. Five months later, I found myself once again unemployed. Turns out, seasonal work is the usual for field technicians. I knew that field biology wouldn’t be the most lucrative career choice, but I felt empowered to commit myself to studying the environment – whether I got paid for it or not.


The sacrifices
I went on a quest to find as many wildlife jobs as I could. Later that year, I studied forest fire treatments on threatened squirrel populations; I studied the breeding behaviors of endangered parrots in Mexico. Each time, the pay was minimal to none, so I worked side-gigs as a professional baker and bartender to pay my bills. While I was happy to gallivant around the woods for science, working for free wasn’t exactly the dream job I had in mind. I was turning into a poor disgruntled vagabond.

In an effort to gain a sustainable salary, I left fieldwork and went back into the lab to begin a project at the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) investigating the genetic responses of algae to climate change and ocean acidification. I knew nothing about marine systems but I had skills in the lab and stellar references. Part of me thought leaving the field was a mistake but as I gained exposure to the natural world within a molecular science framework, I saw the impact of a systems approach to research and I was hooked. I still missed going out into nature every day, but I kept an open mind and a positive attitude.

Over six years have passed since I went back into the lab and the job has given me more opportunities than I could have imagined. What started off as a lab job performing controlled experiments on algae has evolved into a field job sampling algae from the natural environment. This work has led me all over the Puget Sound area of Washington, as well as to Hawaii, and even as far as Antarctica!


The best of both worlds
As a field scientist working indoors, I still daydreamed about the rainforests. On the weekends, I’d flee to the mountains. With a bit of money saved up, I decided to satisfy my restless soul. I used my vacations to help conduct research on voluntourism projects, like Earthwatch. From aboard a restored rubber boom era steamship, I spent three weeks studying biodiversity in the Amazon jungle. I realized I could save my money, use my vacation time to get out in the field, and still have a paying job in science. It was the best of both worlds!

The plan is working. I’ve volunteered on projects studying macaws with Tambopata Research Center in Peru, biodiversity in the Amazon, big cats in Africa, and whales in Mexico. I love volunteering so much I do it at home too, giving time to local conservation organizations like Conservation Northwest. We work to mitigate human wildlife conflicts in the migration corridors of the Cascades. I also get kids outdoors with the Sierra Club, and spend time with kids through Ocean Inquiry Project, the Woodland Park Zoo, and Pacific Science Center. I speak about careers in environmental science with students to convey my passion for nature and inspire another generation to care about protecting the biodiversity on Earth.


What’s in a dream?
I’ve come to believe the dream job doesn’t exist for me, and I don’t think it’s beneficial to maintain that perspective. I have too many passions – too much wonder for the potential of science in the world. I find fulfillment in contributing to important work for the environment and interacting with innovative collaborative thinkers. I benefit from an extremely flexible schedule, live in the city, and travel to amazing places through work. And I’ve been lucky to have many other amazing experiences volunteering with local and international conservation organizations. I am continually seeking as many opportunities as I can find, but this time things are different; I’m no longer looking for the Dream Job, I am creating the Dream Career.


Allison Lee is a Seattle native who loves coffee, talking to people, and learning new things. When she’s not doing science you can catch her ultra-running, cycling, hiking in nature, traveling, and burning the candle at both ends. At age 32, she has finally realized the differences between working a job and building a career. This summer she will begin a Masters degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego California with the hopes of following another curiosity: the social, economic and policy side of marine science. You can follow her and see examples of other inspirational women working in the field at Woman Scientist on Instagram, Facebook, and the Web.

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Beyond the B.S. ~ Career Panel Pop-Up Event

Woman Scientist and Pop-Up Science have partnered once again to bring you Beyond the B.S. – a series of free informal panel discussions for women in science, technology, and engineering looking to find their place in both life and work.



Beyond the B.S. seeks to provide women aged 15-30 a welcoming place to learn about their options, share their stories, and support each other’s career goals. Each event features two female panelists and an open Q&A which aims to give students a more creative understanding of the job opportunitites that lie before them.


There’s a lot more out there than just bench research and medical school, ladies! Join us for a night of straight talk on science, STEM careers, and life beyond the college degree — by women, for women.


Gracious Event Location Host:

Ada’s Technical Books & Cafe – Capitol Hill in Seattle, WA

Download and share the Flyer here .   Hope to see you there!

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Seal Blubber and Holiday Runs | Field Diaries – Weddell Seal Team

The seventh and final post in the Antarctica: Weddell Seal Team series comes to us from Erika Nunlist.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to read the first post in this series for more background on the project and the team. You can also read the 2nd3rd4th5th, and 6th posts if you missed them.

If you would like to help support this project, head on over to their campaign on Experiment! They only have 1 day left to reach their goal! 

Ice Livin’

December 6, 2015

As always, work and life down here has been fun filled and fast paced. We had a great Thanksgiving – McMurdo did some fine cooking. I was just as uncomfortably full as ever. I unfortunately do not have any pictures of the meal, but I do have pictures of the Turkey Trot we did earlier in the day!


The Turkey Trot. There were around maybe 100 people that ran it, many of which were dressed up in fun outfits. These pictures are all from a guy name Greg Stone in McMurdo who I actually don’t know but he shared his pictures with everyone in McMurdo. This is a shot of people about a quarter mile from the start.


I think this may be one of the best shots, also by Greg Stone. There were more than one penguin outfits running that day.


Eric and Ross at the finish line. Photo by Greg Stone again.


We only have a handful of days left here in Antarctica and times flyin’. This is one of my favorite ‘working’ photos to date. Terrill and Kaitlin near the end of a work day– I think there was an Adelie that Kaitlin was taking pictures of. My pictures of the Adelie weren’t nearly as good as this one.


After realizing that we have so little time left I have made an effort to take a few more photos of the seals. This is from one evening in the colony just behind camp. This pup is just yawning but he looks pretty fierce!


A sleeping mom. She didn’t give two hoots that I was around taking pictures, obviously.


An adult seal coming up for a breath and thinking about coming out of the water.


Seal pups are little punks. They’re very curious and playful. I find it hilarious watching them entertain themselves and bug their moms. I’ve seen many pups just crawling all over their mom while the mom is trying to sleep. This guy was picking up snow and rolling around with it, dropping it, picking it up again, seemingly very entertained by the snow piece. On another note, apparently seals will eat snow when it is ‘hot’ outside to cool themselves down. With it being up to around 35 degrees in the last couple days, I have definitely witnessed this. I wonder just how much a little bit of snow can cool off such a big mammal though.


With work slowing down a little bit we’ve had time for some sight-seeing. A couple days ago we went to a hut at Cape Evans used for some of the early expeditions of Antarctica.


This hut was built during Robert Scott’s expedition of 1910-1913. It was later used by Ernest Shackelton’s expedition in 1915. During this expedition, their ship the Aurora broke away from its anchor (above) stranding 10 men from the party at this hut for 20 months. Luckily, the hut was well provisioned and the men were eventually rescued. When they were rescued, they left in a hurry. The hut is very well preserved. Touring around the hut is almost eerie with all the objects, pictures, and personal items strewn everywhere as if the men were still living there.


Shovels in the “mud room” of the hut. The handles all looked hand-made and well used.


A big stack of seal blubber. They used blubber as fuel for their stoves. Didn’t really smell even though you might think nearly 100 year old seal blubber might stink.


Wheel barrow out in the horse stalls added to the original hut. Yes, they brought horses to Antarctica in one of the early expeditions. I don’t think it worked out too great for the horses.


Apparently they had some time for bicycling? I can say I would be terrified to ride this bike around on the ice down here.


The kitchen. Lots of jars and utensils. They definitely weren’t roughing it. Actually, what I was most surprised with about this hut was how much stuff there was. There had to be hundreds of jars and trinkets. Every corner was riddled with interesting objects.


A note written on the side of R.W. Richards bed. If you can’t read the picture, it says “August 14, 1918, Losses to date: Haywood, Mack, Smith, and Shih” (I can’t really read the last name in the list)


Dead, mummified seal outside the hut.

Picture23Cross with Erebus in the background. I’m sure many of the men stranded at this hut for those 20 months did a lot of praying.


We’ve also had the chance to go to the ice edge for some wildlife viewing. Terrill taking pictures with some curious Adelies checking him out.


Rafted ice just beyond the ice edge. I do not know the name of the hill feature in the background. You can tell it was a beautiful day though. The open water in the picture is where penguins have been poking their heads up and swimming around.


Adelies are funny penguins. They act like little grouchy busy-bodies. Very fun to watch.


Close up head shot of an Adelie.


Our camp is being pulled in a day. We will live in McMurdo for the remainder of our time here (we leave on the 14th!). Here’s a couple more photos of camp life before we leave. Toasting bagels in the morning. I had never seen this type of toaster before. It works great!


The variety of shoes we see around camp. Chacos, down booties, and Sorell boots. I usually wear tennis shoes or Haflinger clogs.


Mike’s Chacos have recently been the most appropriate footwear. Around all the doors to our huts where dirt has accumulated the ice has started melting. There are puddles one to two feet deep. This is Mike probing the ice around the step to see where he can safely go for a dry step.


Most of our gear is pretty great, and we make do even when it isn’t. Kaitlin has had to hold her pants up with a carabiner all season. Kind of funny, I’m sure next year she’ll make sure the zippers work on her snow pants!

Well that’s all I have for this update! Hope you enjoyed! Share these with whoever might be interested and email me if you want my past and/or upcoming updates!


This wraps up our first series for Field Diaries – Reflections of Life in the Field. 

The inspiration for these series comes from the idea that field diaries, or subjective reflections, are just as informative and useful as objective research field notes and serve as an important avenue in outreach connecting scientists and science to the public.

Please share if you were inspired and thanks for reading!

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Its an Ice Life |Field Diaries – Weddell Seal Team

The sixth post in the Antarctica: Weddell Seal Team series comes to us from Erika Nunlist.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to read the first post in this series for more background on the project and the team. You can also read the 2nd3rd4th, and 5th posts if you missed them.

If you would like to help support this project, head on over to their campaign on Experiment! They only have 4 days left to reach their goal! 

The Ice life

November 25, 2015

Life and work are still moving right along down here on the ice. We only have about three weeks left which seems absolutely crazy. I can’t believe it’s been going so fast!

First off, I had a question from someone asking ‘what is the overall objective of this project and how is it going?’ I’ve been caught up in the day-to-day activities so maybe I should take a step back for a second and briefly say a little more about the project as a whole.

The overall objective of this project is to study the long term population trends of Weddell seals. This project has been going on since the 1960’s which presents a unique opportunity to look at multi-generational data on a population of large mammalian carnivores. The oldest seal the project has had so far was 31! She was here last year but didn’t return. I believe the project has documented her with 23 pups, some of which have already had their own pups. She had her first pup in 1990, and only took 1993, 2010 and 2011 from having pups. This is an extreme case though and most of our pup moms are between 10 and 18 years old with many fewer pups to their name. Just an interesting history on an individual to help give you a sense of the information we can get out of the data this project collects!

Our short term or seasonal objective is to work hard, document all the animals in our study area, tag all the pups, and stay happy and healthy!


As our pups get older, they start to molt their ‘lanugo’ fur in favor of their adult pelage. They can have some interesting and comical molt patterns. This guy with his mohawk reminds of some kid out of an inner city punk rock band.


Another photo of the same pup with his mom. Notice her red tags and his yellow temp tag and blue normal tags. Both their tags allow us to document their association. You can also see the pup’s splotchy molting pattern again.


One thing I was surprised with was that the seals have claws. They aren’t very sharp and kind of look like dog claws. What I’ve seen the claws used for is traction on ice and scratching themselves. The molting pups especially scratch themselves a lot. Must be pretty itchy molting all that fur!


I’ve been up in a helicopter two more times recently. Both were attempts to get to an isolated seal colony. One of the flights was abandoned because there was too much wind at our destination, the second attempt was successful. More on that later. Our first flight was commissioned out to the New Zealand base, or the kiwis. This is a photo of the kiwi AStar-B2 helicopter picking us up at our camp.


We had to bail on our first flight out to White Island, where the remote seal colony is, but we did a reconnaissance flight instead. This is a shot of the kiwi base as we flew over. McMurdo is just on the other side of the wind turbines you can see in the top right.


Sea ice and multi-year ice can be under a lot of pressure and can have some interesting shapes. This is actually a picture of ice on the ice shelf (which is a floating glacier – very different from sea ice) under pressure just outside Scott Base in the shape of large ‘rollers’. I think they look like something you might see in a desert but formed entirely differently.


A view from the helicopter of one of our larger colonies at Hutton Cliffs. We had a lot of pups born here this year. Every other day we walk the entire colony and check every individual. This photo covers around a mile left to right.


Another aerial view of one of our colonies – this one is called North Base.


Mike and I in the kiwi helicopter.


On our second attempt to White Island, we had a AStar-B2 helicopter out of McMurdo. You can see John, our pilot, enjoying himself. Often the pilots just fly and don’t get the opportunity to get out and walk around. He went with us to check out the seals. This picture also shows Mike and Terril putting our gear in the carrying cage.


White Island is unique and very interesting for multiple reasons. First off, it is the most southern mammalian resident population in the world. It is also an isolated population very few individuals – last year our project saw less then 20 seals. This small population was isolated due to an event in the middle of the last century when the ice shelf broke out unusually far allowing a small subset of the seals to be trapped afterwards. The seals themselves didn’t seem to different to me, but apparently (and obviously) they are very inbred. One interesting side-effect apparently might be more female pups born than usual. No clue as to why, but an interesting observation non-the-less.


I’ve had some questions on the weather we experience down here. I have to say, it really hasn’t been that bad. We had some colder, windier days to start the season off but since then we’ve had a lot of beautiful days. Recently, the temperature has been steadily climbing. Lately it’s been in the low 20’s which is warmer than places in the states! James told me it was around -10 degrees F in couple nights ago in the Centennial Valley which was about 30 degrees colder than it was here when we were talking. This is a photo of one day that the weather wasn’t good enough to work in. It was snowy, windy, and low visibility.


Later that same day we hadn’t been able to work, it cleared up into beautiful day. Sound like a familiar weather pattern for any of you living in Montana? We didn’t end up working that day even when it did clear up so we had some free time. Running is another thing that some of us do when we have the energy and time. This is a photo of Kaitlin running back from Little Razorback – around 1.2 miles from camp. Each of those bamboo flags are 50 meters apart for some depth perception. There’s also another out and back that adds up to 3 miles round trip. If you add both out-and-backs you have a nice 5+ mile run.


Terrill and Kaitlin ‘hi-fiving’ in front of camp. They both did the same run but in different directions. Good way to blow off some steam and enjoy Antarctica when you’re not working! Our crew plans on doing the Turkey Trot for Thanksgiving in a few days, excited for that!


We routinely drive our sleds around on rough terrain. Because of this, we have had multiple sleds break down on us. Mostly its our suspension systems breaking because of all the ‘streugy’ (rough icy molgul features on the ice) we drive over. When a sled does break, it’s a pretty painless routine. We put the sled on one of our siglands and tow it with another sled back to McMurdo. In McMurdo we have great mechanics that seem to be able to fix anything. Usually we’ll have our sleds back in a day or two depending on their work load. These are pictures of one of the broken down sled scenario.


Mike getting the gear together in the morning.


Eric on a survey of another colony we call South Base.


Blueberry peach pie from scratch with our event number. Pretty tasty!


No rolling pins around here, had to make due with a Coors Light can. Worked out great! Photo by Ross.


Our first adelie penguin! We haven’t had any more emperors lately, but we have had loner adelies run through camp, yes literally run. They are just as curious as the emperors but less comfortable hanging around.


One afternoon when we finished work early we went to check out a snow cave about 10 minutes away from camp. Here’s Ross with sunglasses and a headlamp – an unusual combination around here!


Mike entering the snow cave.


Inside the snow cave. Photo by Ross.


Icicles in the snow cave.


B-009. First time fooling around with light painting. Cursive by Kaitlin with a headlamp!


Kaitlin and Mike in another, shallower, snow cave (thus the brighter blue background).


Looking up into a crevasse. So beautiful!

Hope everyone enjoyed the update!


Thanks for reading!

Stay tuned for the seventh and last post in the series, coming tomorrow!

If you would like to help support this project, head on over to their campaign on Experiment! They only have 4 days left to reach their goal! 

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A Typical Weddell Work Day in Antarctica |Field Diaries – Weddell Seal Team

The fifth post in the Antarctica: Weddell Seal Team series comes to us from Erika Nunlist.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to read the first post in this series for more background on the project and the team. You can also read the 2nd3rd and 4th posts if you missed them.

If you would like to help support this project, head on over to their campaign on Experiment! They only have 5 days left to reach their goal! 

A typical work day

9 November 2015

The last couple weeks have been very busy, very awesome, and very fun! We had our two PI’s, Bob Garrott and Jay Rotella join us for the last 16 days. They are both professors and Montana State University and have been running this project for the last 15 years. While they were here, they worked every day out in the field with us and helped us set a new record on the number of pups tagged in the study area! We’ve now tagged around 630 pups with a few (maybe 10-20) to go. The most we tagged in a day was around 60 I believe.

While they were here, we also did our first survey of the entire study area. Our work so far has been focused on the main colonies where we know the majority of pups are born. The purpose of a survey day is to see where else the seals are in the study area and capture the distribution of the animals we generally aren’t as focused on (i.e. the single males and females). To do a survey, we drive around and make a note of every seal we see in the entire study area which has come to about 1500 animals this year (this number will continue to increase throughout the season).

I know many people are interested in exactly what we’ve been doing on a daily basis for work. So for this update I’m going to detail, step by step, a typical day as best I can. I must admit, I haven’t been great about pictures so many of the work photos in particular were taken by Ross Hinderer. Thanks Ross!


Our day begins in the gear hut where we keep and dry out all our seal covered gear.


Every morning we have to pack up our tools and organize them in our tagging harnesses. In each tagging harness we have two tagging pliers, a pair of nippers, a genetic sampler, a hole punch, a third tagging plier, and a brush. We also have our data book, field computer, several strands of tags, and vials to hold our genetic samples.


Tools in the tagging harness. One person will often wear this all day and have easy access to the tools.


In a separate pack we also pack materials to weigh our pups. This includes a scale and weigh bag (specialized duffel bag designed by Bob) which come in three sizes to use as the pups grow. The scale connects to the weigh bar and also to the weigh bag. Two people then stand on opposite sides of the bar and lift the pup together. We weigh pups at parturition, 20 days old, and 35 days old. Pups are born at about 60-80 pounds and can gain 2-6 pounds a day. We’ve started weighing 20 day old pups recently and they seem to average around 140-170 pounds. The heaviest 20 day pup so far has been 208 pounds. Building some good leg muscles! Can’t wait for those 35-dayers!


Additional gear we bring each day is photo bars (I’ll explain later), lunch stuff (ramen, hot water, cocoa, tea, etc.), a handful of flags, and survival bags (the red water proof bag – mandatory to have enough survival gear for each person).


When we’ve gotten all our gear together in the huts, we have to uncover our sleds, load all the gear onto the sleds, start our sleds, gear ourselves up, put on helmets and finally take off. Writing it all out makes me realize actually how much work we have to do every morning before actually going to work. With our whole crew working on it though, it really goes pretty quickly. This is a photo of penguins hanging out watching us get ready one morning. There were completely unaffected by all the hustle and bustle.


Once we get to a colony, we usually split up into groups and start working up the colony. Each group usually has their own set of tagging, weighing, and photo gear. We then go to every seal in the colony to check if there’s a pup that needs tagging or weighing. This is the normal looking scene at one of our colonies. You can see about how seals are distributed throughout the colony and another group working up seals in the background. These seals are all here because of sea ice cracks that allow them to get in and out of the water from holes they rake out with their teeth. Most of these cracks are very obvious and easy to cross but if they aren’t we have probing poles we take with us to help navigate.


Exploring part of our study area with the probing poles. This is an area with many cracks covered in snow that we don’t go to often because there really aren’t more than a handful of seals.


When we do find a mom and newborn pup it looks something like this. In this picture, Mike and I had walked up to this mom and pup pair, noticed the pup did not have tags yet so we copied down the mom’s tags and retreated to get the tagging stuff ready. At this point, we prepare two sets of tags (one pair for each flipper), write down the mom and pup information in our book, and get the weighing stuff ready. An important note, not every single of the 600-odd pups this year were weighed. That would be a ton of work. Instead, we enrolled certain pups in this particular part of the study depending on the mom’s age and history in the project. In the end, we enrolled about 180 pups in the weigh study each of which will ideally be weighed three times. Most of those pups were also enrolled in the swim study which just means we’ll take the temp tag (also explained later) off of them when we’ve weighed them for the last time. Photo by Ross.


A closer view of me writing down information in the tagging book. I’ve gotten pretty good at writing with gloves on! It’s not easy and my writing I fear is not always 100% legible. On warmer days I wear thinner gloves which makes it a little easier to write. As for entering the data into the computer, we use the butt end of a pencil which works great. After recording the necessary info, we walk up to the seal pup and tag, weigh, sex, and genetic sample the pup. There are several ways to do this and it often depends on the temperament of the mom. Some mom’s really don’t care about your presence and a single person can go up and tag the seal pup all by themselves. Other times the mom really does care and can be quite aggressive. In these instances, two or three people work together to get the pup tagged. One person tags while the other two either help drag the seal pup a short distance away or distract mom or both. Photo by Ross.


An example of a very peaceful mom and pup pair.


We always tag the outer webs on each flipper and the end product looks something like this. Sometimes we also will put a temporary third temperature recording tag in one of the inner webs. Next photo.


We call the temperature recoding tags ‘temp tags.’ The pups will wear them for about 35 days before we take them off again. The idea behind these tags is that air temperature and water temperature are different so by looking at the temperature record logged in these small devices, you can see that difference and figure out how much time pups spend in the water.

In this photo, you can kind of see the two blue normal tags and the yellow temp tag. This is a fun photo because it’s a pup that has actually been swimming. You can tell it’s freshly wet and the mom is still in the water. Photo by Ross.


Beside weighing and tagging, the last integral part of our day to day work is doing photo projects on moms with pups that we’ve chosen to weigh. A photo project entails setting up six bars (like I’m doing in the photo) evenly around the seal mom and taking photos from 8 different angles with the seal and bars in the frame. The photos are then put into a program (by Kaitlin) that can calculate the volume of the seal by referencing the bars (which are a meter long and different colors every 20 cm) and then the weight can be derived using a standard density. This may sound easy enough to do, but it is one of the hardest parts of the job. We have to make sure the seal mom stays still (very hard when she wants to watch you) and take good photos with cold hands, blowing winds, a moving pup, etc. It’s not thaaatttt hard but can be very frustrating. Photo by Ross.


So why do a photo project? This is a relatively new aspect of the project and it’s an attempt to get at how much these mom’s weigh without actually having to weigh them on a scale. We do have a weigh sled (photo) that we can weigh mom’s on, but it can’t go to all our colonies (because of rough ice) and mom’s are often very hard to coax onto the sled (we use their pups at motivation to get on the sled). We did weigh about 30 moms on the sled this year, but we got maybe 70 photo projects. So if the photo projects do work, you can see just in numbers that it would be potentially a better option. Of the mom’s we got on the sled, weights ranged from roughly 900-1100 pounds.


At the end of each day, we refuel our sleds, unpack all our gear, and cover our sleds. We fuel our sleds with a premixed fuel that is 50 gallons of gas and 5 gallons of oil per barrel. Antarctica primarily runs on fuel (some solar too) but if you calculate in the amount of effort and resources it takes to get the fuel here, fuel works out to be about $34.00 a gallon. We go through a barrel about every 5 days.

And that’s it for this this update. I have another one coming very shortly because I actually split this one in half. Hope you enjoyed and hopefully it wasn’t too much writing. The next one will be many more pictures and a lot less writing… I think.

Again, feel free to share with others and send me an email if you want me to add you to my list.


Thanks for reading!

Stay tuned for the sixth post in the series, coming tomorrow!

If you would like to help support this project, head on over to their campaign on Experiment! They only have 5 days left to reach their goal! 

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Camp Life in Antarctica| Field Diaries – Weddell Seal Team


The fourth post in the Antarctica: Weddell Seal Team series comes to us from Erika Nunlist.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to read the first post in this series for more background on the project and the team. You can also read the 2nd and 3rd posts if you missed them.

If you would like to help support this project, head on over to their campaign on Experiment! They only have 7 days left to reach their goal! 

B-009, Permit number: 2013-007, NSF, Antarctica

Settling In

October 26, 2015

We’ve been very busy the last couple weeks settling into camp and field work. Sorry to keep people waiting for this update! A lot has happened over the last weeks so hopefully my pictures and comments will highlight some of it for you.


Our camp and snowmobiles in some nice evening light. The dark feature in the back is called Big Razorback, it’s an island and part of the Dellbridge Islands in McMurdo Sound that make up a caldera from a historical volcanic explosion. I have a map later and will elaborate on the geography, etc.  


I’m sure people are curious about what and how we eat down here. For the most part we eat very normally besides having fresh fruit or vegetables. We cook on two Coleman, two burner stoves or the grill. Breakfast for me is usually yogurt and granola or toast. Lunch is usually a brownie and a bumper bar – a bumper bar is kind of like a cliff bar but way better. We also don’t have any fresh dairy products (except for cheese and butter) so the yogurt is actually a powdered greek yogurt that you mix with water and let sit for about 8 hours. It’s pretty good and I have to admit, I didn’t even know powdered yogurt existed! The picture above is of steaks thawing out on our wash water. The two drums are sitting on our propane heater because the source of this water is actually an ice burg about a half mile from camp. We’re constantly adding ice to these drums, letting in melt, using it, and repeat. Pretty good system!

Below is a picture of Terrill grilling steaks on our camp grill.  Apparently this is one of the only field issued grills in Antarctica. It works great and is awesome to have! We’ve cooked everything from chorizo sausage, to pork loins, to halibut, to chicken, and steak on the grill so far.


Collecting ice burg chunks for our wash water with ice axes, our siglin sled, and skidoos. This much ice will probably last us a little more than a week. Mike, Eric, and Me from left. Photo by Ross.


A big part of our initial work was flagging roads to our seal colonies. We flag them not only to navigate the cracks around here safely but also in case of ground blizzards. We drill holes in the ice (me on the left) every 50 meters and then stick a bamboo rod with a flag on the end in the hole (Mike on the right). The worst weather I’ve been out in so far was up against Mt. Erebus (the big one by Mike’s flag) where we could barely see the next flag. At some points we’d have to stop and wait to see the next flag and then quickly gun it to the flag before stopping and waiting until we saw the next one.   Photo by Ross.



This is where I sleep. There are two sleeping huts at camp. This one has three beds and the other one has four. I share this hut with Katie and Terrill.  We have a propane heater in the back right that hooks up to two 100lb propane tanks at a time. We have to switch these tanks about once a week. These huts stay very warm and the beds are very comfortable.  We also cover the windows with boards so the huts stay nice and dark despite the nearly 24-hrs of daylight we have. No trouble sleeping for me!


Inside the outhouse. The seat on the left is for ladies – the urine funnels into a tin can that we then have to remove each time and dump down the urinal – upper right in the photo – which then drains into large 50 gallon waste water drums outside of the hut. When the drums are full they get sent back to McMurdo and eventually off the continent. The seat on the right is for pooping only. There is a 5 gallon bucket under the seat. After we go, put a piece of cardboard on top of our doo so it’s more pleasant for the next person. When these buckets full, we change them out and they are also eventually shipped off the continent. This is not a heated hut so everything freezes and it really doesn’t smell too bad at all. Notice the blue foam insulating the seats – a very important detail so the seats are never too cold.


And another essential part of camp, it turns out, has been emperor penguin visitors. These guys are very curious creatures and will walk miles to check something out. In this case, I’m guessing they walked at least 5 miles to check out Big Razorback and our huts. They waddle around, making squawking noises and slowly shuffle on only to come back through around 3am to wake everyone up in camp.


This is one of the bigger groups we’ve had. Apparently these are groups of bachelor penguins – looking for the ladies maybe? Or just confused? Still haven’t figured it out.


Emperor penguins from a distance look pretty simple, but when you get up close the designs they have in their feathers are intricate and beautiful. In this picture and the following picture notice how the males are bowing their heads to each other. I haven’t researched what this means but I’m guessing it might be a display of dominance or some other social behavior. Not sure.


Woke up to this one morning. Pretty interesting to see all the outer penguins laying down with inner ones standing up. Also not sure why they were doing this. Very cool though.

One morning of work consisted of getting into a helicopter and flying around our study area to look at our seal colonies and the crack system on the ice. We flew in a Bell 212 that picked us up right out of camp. The flight was about half hour or 45 minutes. It was an awesome first helicopter flight!! Went by too quickly.


Ross and Terrill during the flight.


Kaitlin and I during the flight.


The Bell 212


A photo of the ice edge and the Dellbridge Islands/caldera I mentioned earlier from the helicopter. 


The following map is a quick one I made to illustrate where we are and where we work a little more.


A photo of our crew that Alasdair took a day that he came out with us to photograph our work.


There have been a couple days that we haven’t been able to work due to bad weather. One of these days the winds picked up so much that our huts were actually moved. Notice how hut 13 has been slammed into hut 18? Mind you, hut 13 is probably about 10,000lbs. The winds gust to move that had to have been at least 120-150 mph. Everyone was fine, and our camp is now put back together.


Another picture of our huts and how 13 moved. You can see where it was, parallel to the kitchen hut on the far right.


Besides our huts moving, our outhouse also got blown away. You can barely see it in the distance, about 500 m away. There were four ice anchors holding the outhouse down and four ice screws also in place on each side to minimize movement. Regardless, the cords holding the outhouse down (at about 4,000lb test) broke and the outhouse blew away. We also have that back and secured even better than before.



Eric and I during one of our earlier work days surveying the southern end of study area. We went to the ice edge this particular day to check out a whole bunch of juvenile seals rumored to be there. The open water is in the background along with a seal. I haven’t been enjoying myself at all by the way, no fun at all down here as you can tell by the pictures. 😉 Photo by Ross.


And, last but not least, a seal pup!! I’ve been working so hard on tagging them and getting to the next pup, I’ve hardly taken any pictures. Managed to get this one before my camera died. My next update (don’t expect it very soon, we’re going to be incredibly busy for the next several weeks) will illustrate in much more detail exactly what we’re doing with the seals and why. Along with anything else people are maybe curious about! Let me know!

Hope everyone enjoyed and I hope it wasn’t too long!


Thanks for reading!

Stay tuned for the fifth post in the series, coming tomorrow!

If you would like to help support this project, head on over to their campaign on Experiment! They only have 7 days left to reach their goal! 

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