BLaST supports UAS lab in whale-human interactions in Southeast Alaska

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By Amy Topkok

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Biomedical Learning and Student Training (BLaST) program supports researchers from all over Alaska through many professional development and funding opportunities. An example of the impact of this faculty support is the mentorship between BLaST Research Advising and Mentoring Professional (RAMP) Ellen Chenoweth and University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) faculty Jan Straley. Chenoweth and Straley’s mentoring relationship began in 2009, and has continued after Chenoweth achieved her Ph.D. in 2018. Straley was a BLaST faculty pilot project awardee, and a recipient of several BLaST funding awards. 

The Straley lab

Straley's Cetacean-Human Interaction Lab, located in Sitka at the University of Alaska Southeast, focuses on foraging ecology of large whales with an emphasis on interactions with human activities. This research aligns with BLaST’s One Health approach, which recognizes the interconnection of human health, animal health and environmental health. Chenoweth, along with past BLaST Graduate Research and Mentoring Assistants Lauren Wild and Madison Kosma, has been able to mentor many rural Alaska and Alaska Native students in Straley’s lab, while working on their own research. Through these research projects, they have been able to mentor seven BLaST Undergraduate Research Experience students and three BLaST scholars.

Chenoweth shares how the BLaST connection has been so valuable for their mentoring, “For many students, working in our lab is their first experience of what it means to be a scientist, then we can point them toward new opportunities with BLaST and we’ll stay connected with them as they continue on.”

Straley, Wild, Kosma and Chenoweth are also very involved in Sitka Whalefest, an ocean science festival.  Straley was instrumental in starting Sitka WhaleFest, and since 2012, the festival has been hosted by the Sitka Sound Science Center, a non-profit organization. Students can attend the symposium for UAS college credit. For high school students, a highlight of the festival is the Ocean Bowl quiz competition in which students compete against other rural Alaskan schools.

One of the key goals of BLaST is to encourage students of diverse backgrounds to enter biomedical fields. Both Chenoweth and Straley offer learning opportunities as dual-credit courses to students, including those at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a public boarding school that has students from over a hundred villages around Alaska and a 79 percent Alaska Native student population.

Partnering with BLaST, UAS received an NIH research grant titled, Rural Alaska Students in One-Health Research (RASOR; offering early college experiences for high school students. They can earn college credit while being able to conduct research in their communities in Southeast Alaska. Straley is PI and Chenoweth is the director of RASOR. Chenoweth will transition to PI when Straley retires, an admirable example of mentoring an early career scientist and planning for program continuation. RASOR has involved 11 rural communities in the first two years of the five-year grant.

Whales in the Wild: a Straley lab video

Their most recent work includes completing a documentary video in November 2020, “Whales in the Wild: A virtual whale research cruise with the UAS whalelab,” showcasing how researchers study humpback whales in Sitka Sound. The video is descriptive, engaging, and shows how undergraduate students are involved in different research projects with guidance from Straley and graduate students. One technique the video describes is the process of studying whales’ migration patterns by matching photos of flukes of individual whales from Alaska to Hawaii. This is to see how long it takes for humpback whales to migrate from north to south or vice-versa. The video imparts a sense of adventure and shares the process of going out on the water, taking photographs, recording whale calls, and carefully recording all the data to bring back to the lab. Filming was completed during the fall of 2020, and Chenoweth and Wild narrate different video portions, making their science relatable to the public. The aim of the video is to help undergraduates understand the research process and learn the steps in studying whales in the wild, from planning a trip and getting the appropriate permissions to collecting data and analyzing it. John Ingman, UAS instructional designer, filmed and produced the project.

About Jan Straley and Ellen Chenoweth

Jan Straley has been conducting research in Southeast Alaska since 1979. Straley received her M.S. in biological oceanography from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1994. She helped found Sitka Whalefest, a statewide science-based festival since 1997.

Ellen Chenoweth is from Michigan and has a B.A. in biology from Kalamazoo College, and a Ph.D. in fisheries from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Chenoweth also is the director of the UAS Rural Alaska Students in One-Health Research (RASOR) program.

BLaST awards for the Straley Lab include two equipment awards, two curriculum development awards titled, “Engaging students in research on subsistence diets”, and “You are What You Eat: Stable Isotope Analysis,” and a One Health workshop, “Linking Community Health to Ocean Conditions and Marine Mammals” in conjunction with the 2020 Sitka Whalefest. They received BLaST support for the video mentioned. UAS also received a BLaST Renovations award in 2015 for improving her lab at UAS.

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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