Learning from the two lives of grad school

Sharon Kay, graduate student in the Raincoast Applied Conservation Science Lab, shares about her experience in grad school.

For the past year and a half, I have been completing grad school with Raincoast’s Applied Conservation Science Lab, investigating how group composition and prey sharing relationships are associated with killer whale health. This work combines many of my growing research interests, including animal behaviour and sociality, in addition to working with diverse collaborators and participating in the long term monitoring of resident killer whales. While working on this project I’ve learned various aspects of the research process and discovered research takes many forms, often challenging preconceived notions. 

What does a biologist really do?

As a graduate student working on cetaceans in BC, I often find that when someone asks “So what do you do?”, I’m steered into a conversation all about working on boats and how researchers study whales. This usually conveys an image of me outside in the elements, collecting data on rarely seen animals in remote, dramatic settings – a real stereotype of a marine biologist. However there is a whole other significant side to our work: the time spent at the lab, in and out of meetings, brainstorming projects and battling data analysis. 

This divide between a researcher’s two worlds has been on my mind lately when reflecting on my experience thus far as a graduate student. I wonder, what will I remember most from my experience as a graduate student years down the road? Will my memories conform to the same stereotypical image of a marine biologist, remembering only the adventurous and influential times in the field? Or will I hold on to the memories which have gradually but profoundly developed from my time working in the lab?

Dr. Valeria Vergara sitting on a boat on calm water holding up a large camera to her face.
Dr. Valeria Vergara capturing photos ID’s of killer whales on Achiever’s 2023 field season. Photo by Alex Harris.

Life during field work: What everyone thinks it’s like

For myself and many other colleagues, field work is what draws us to conservation work, even if it only makes up a small portion of our year. When I envision what I will remember from my time in grad school, I can’t help but think my experiences participating in work on the water will dominate my memories. This fast-paced environment presents its own challenges and triumphs: learning how to work in tight quarters with a boat load of characters, seizing the opportunity to collect invaluable data when weather conditions and wildlife work in synchrony, and keeping focused during the limited but meaningful periods of field work. 

I have found that my most memorable fieldwork experiences, both positive and negative, are centered on the intense nature of working within a tight time frame. Fieldwork presents a paradox; you only have a snippet of time to collect data, which results in what may feel like the longest work days of your life! 

Every day as my 6:00am alarm jolts me awake, I think…something spectacular could happen today! It’s a much needed nudge to get out of my dry, cozy bed and into the chaos of the day ahead. And yes, there are days when my wish for exciting encounters with animals go unfulfilled. Yet, on other occasions, the awe-inspiring nature we study unfolds right before my eyes from the moment I wake up. I won’t forget the day this past field season with Raincoast’s photogrammetry program, when we all woke up quietly and slowly only to find Achiever was sharing the anchorage with a pod of pacific white sided dolphins who were milling in the protected bay. While we ate a rare leisurely breakfast at anchor, waiting for the wind to calm in the adjacent Johnstone Strait, the dolphins traversed the cove’s entrance back and forth as the sun lit up the mountains around us.

Looking over the ocean at mountains lit up by the morning sun.
Sunrise at our anchorage in the Johnstone Strait where we shared the day’s first hours with a group of pacific white sided dolphins. Photo by John Kelsey.

Despite the joys of field work, many challenges and fears arise. The season’s fast paced nature drives these feelings, stirring up fears of inadequate data collection, ensuring operations are safe, and keeping all equipment in working order to capture data at any opportune time. Things could derail at any point, and one must hope that days of significant data collection when one could capture much needed images of our study species do not overlap with equipment mishaps.

For Raincoast’s photogrammetry project, our objective is to evaluate the health of Northern Resident killer whales by quantifying their body condition through aerial imagery, and many of our challenges are associated with keeping our drone working. If the drone alerts you that it needs to be recalibrated, you better hurry off the boat to find level ground and reset our flying friend before another group of whales leaves the area. One of the challenges we faced this year was not only equipment-related, but the very wellbeing of the crew. In the final few weeks of the field season, a stomach bug swept through the boat, incapacitating half the crew. As if working on a rocking sailboat wasn’t enough to make you ill. 

Two people on a boat wearing helmets and looking down at technology they are using to pilot a drone and capture images of northern resident killer whales.
Dr. Valeria Vergara and Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard piloting the drone and capturing images of northern resident killer whales on Achiever’s research platform. Photo by John Kelsey.

Overall, my favorite aspect of fieldwork lies with the people I get to work alongside. Life becomes very simple in a beautiful way as you share and breathe the same experiences as the rest of the team, united by one purpose and free from the influence of our “normal lives.” Working alongside others during fieldwork fosters what feels like summer camp style relationships. When you are bonded by such a shared and fleeting experience it is difficult to articulate why you feel so close to one another, but you just know that you are.

6 people pose together for a group photo onboard Achiever, with a backdrop of the sun setting over the ocean.
Raincoast’s photogrammetry research team and crew on our last day of fieldwork in 2023. Photo by John Kelsey.

Now once the data have been collected out on the water and big hugs solidify memories and relationships forged during the arduous field season, it’s time to delve into the rest of the scientific process and turn the hard-earned data into knowledge.

Working back at the lab: what it’s really like

Back at Raincoast’s Applied Conservation Lab (ACS), I have the joy of working with other grad students and Dr. Chris Darimont, scientists tackling a diverse array of conservation issues. Life in the lab is very different from work on the water. It is a dynamic environment where each day can be different – not due to the unpredictability of storms or wildlife, but because we are back to the world of multi-tasking and, most importantly, the internet. Here we must balance personal and professional lives, wearing the many hats of researchers. Unlike fieldwork, our time frames extend beyond daily or weekly schedules, spanning months.

One person stands on a chair looking at a whiteboard while another person writes on the whiteboard.
Chris Darimont and grad student Persia Khan drafting their tasks for the week. Photo by Sylvie Hawkes.
5 people stand among open totes and boxes in the ACS lab.
Chaos in the Applied Conservation Science Lab as grad students prep for field season. Photo by Sharon Kay.

Instead of revolving around one core objective like fieldwork, each day is packed with numerous small tasks, hour by hour. It is a constant shift from emails, to reading papers, attending meetings, writing code for analysis, budgeting, and writing grants. However, some periods can be relatively stable. 

Personally, I have dedicated the last 6 months to the ins and outs of data analysis, using an array of coding techniques and graphics to try to decipher what contributes to the health of a killer whale amidst their complex social lives. To arrive at this point, I have spent my time learning about animal sociality, workshopping hypotheses, sorting through thousands of images collected in the field, and meticulously measuring the body condition of each whale we encountered. As a result, I am finally starting to see patterns emerge from our analysis, revealing what attributes of a killer whale family are associated with higher body condition. This all makes for interesting days, but I must admit that it’s challenging to roll out of bed some mornings when I don’t have the promise of fascinating animals beckoning me to my feet.

The main distinction I notice between the two realms of graduate school is that even though work at the lab can be quite turbulent, you are still on stable ground and can rely on an evening with loved ones to help you recover from a challenging day. Luckily for me, support lives in the lab too. A long walk with the lab dogs and a warm group hug from coworkers can truly make all the difference. 

A person sitting in a desk chair with her arms around a brown and white dog that is sitting in her lap.
Fellow grad student Ali Gladwell and her assistant Jasper working out a grant application. Photo by Sharon Kay.

While images of killer whales, dolphins, and Achiever’s research platform may hold a significant place in my core memories of grad school so far, I also know that much of my time at grad school will be remembered by moments with the ACS lab. These include morning catch-ups and lively discussions of complex data sets with Chris Darimont as he fills his mug of coffee before running out the door to his packed day, and coding sessions intermittently disturbed by bursts of laughter, dramatic sighs, and heartfelt conversations between fellow ACS students.

A large group of people and dogs pose for a group photo, with some being edited in.
The Applied Conservation Science Lab members over the past few years. Photo and editing by Sharon Kay.

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.