SEA Days: Diving Deeper with Scripps Scientists

by Camila Pauda, Volunteer Programs Assistant

Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of “Science, Exploration and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher and get hands-on with Scripps science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft.

February’s SEA Days, Listen Closely, is all about whales and whale acoustics. Did you know sound travels faster in water than on land? Researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography use acoustics to learn more about whales—their population abundances, seasonality, and behavior.

One such researcher is Liz Vu, a fourth year Scripps Ph.D. candidate from the Scripps Whale Acoustic Lab, who will discuss her research at this month’s SEA Days on Saturday, February 15. To get ready for the weekend, I sat down with Liz to “dive deeper” into her interests and area of expertise.

Where did you go to college?

I went to UC Berkeley for undergrad, and now I’m at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, working on my Ph.D.

What is your area of research?
I research habitat modeling using marine mammal acoustics in the context of their reproductive, social and foraging behaviors.

Who or what inspired you to become involved in marine science?
I did not grow up dreaming to be a marine biologist. I managed to get an amazing internship opportunity when I was at UC Berkeley that introduced me to the interdisciplinary field of oceanography. The life of fieldwork, working on boats, and doing real-world science got me hooked!

Liz in the field in Antactica.

Liz in the field in Antarctica.

What qualities do you need in order to become a scientist?
First and foremost, do not be afraid of science!  I am a big fan of advocating science to younger versions of myself (read: woman and Asian-American) who may not necessarily want to pursue research science due to the illusion that it is boring or hard. Also, I believe in interdisciplinary education. In order to solve complex global problems, you need rigorous interdisciplinary training. Considering I love science, social sciences, economics, and political affairs, oceanography was a way I could mesh everything together.

Why is your research topic important?
I want to be able to inform the public and policymakers how endangered species may be affected by a change in their environment (brought about by a change in climate). Since our ocean environment is changing rapidly, it is important to understand where and why whales may go to a different type of habitat.


Liz at a previous SEA Days event.

What will visitors to SEA Days: Listen Closely see?
I am bringing some acoustic equipment I use for my research. I also will bring some dolphin skulls, some samples of what dolphins eat, and some demonstrations of how I study whales in the ocean.

What is the best advice you have for people interested in becoming involved in your field of research?
It is very important to get a basic science education (whether or not it is called “marine”).  The basic principles of science and biology don’t change on a fundamental level whether you study whales, or plants, or microorganisms.  Therefore, if you get a good education studying any one ecosystem, you can still become a marine biologist!

What is your favorite ocean organism?
I will always love the right whale, one of the most vulnerable whale species right now.  However, I can’t leave out invertebrates, especially copepods (what some whales eat).  Invertebrates are so diverse and really cool!

Are you interested in a career in marine science? Do you want to learn what whale researches study? Or maybe you just love whale watching and want to learn more about these incredible mammals. Join us on Saturday, February 15 for SEA Days: Listen Closely—there’s something for everyone.

SEA Days are 11 a.m. – 3 p.m., are included with aquarium admission, and always free for aquarium members. Not a member? Join today!

SEA you there!

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