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Mammalogist

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Alison Stimpert Whale ResearcherAlison Stimpert

What is your Job description?
I am a graduate student in zoology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. My job is to work on a research project on humpback whale acoustics, helping to organize the field season, collect the data, and analyze and publish the results. I also help coordinate some activities for the research societies with which I am involved.

What do you study now?
I study the acoustic behavior of humpback whales. We use tags that attach to the whale with suction cups, and these tags stay on for several hours. The tags record sound and also how the whale is moving and diving on a very fine scale. We are learning exciting new things about what types of sounds whales produce, and how they're behaving when those sounds are produced! Also, because the tags record everything from wave noise to sounds of ships to the sounds produced by other animals (fish, shrimp, dolphins...), we can learn about what the ocean environment as a whole sounds like to a whale.

Whats the best thing about your job?
Two things. One, it's fun. I enjoy going to work each day -- I never know what I'm going to learn next, and it's always a challenge to figure out how to interpret the data we collect. And two, it's flexible. I have to work long hours sometimes, but that means I can take time off when I need to, as long as I get everything done.

What is the worst thing about your job?
I don't really have any big complaints about my job. A biology grad student doesn't get a very high salary, so you have to be prepared to make sacrifices in terms of daily creature comforts that you may no longer be able to afford. But if you really love what you're doing, it's worth it.

What inspired you to first study science?
I love the logic of science, and the challenge of trying to figure out things that no one knows. I grew up enjoying science and math classes in school, and I've always been interested in conservation in general. Wildlife zoology and conservation science seemed like a great way to combine all my interests.

What do you do in a typical day?
When I'm in the field, I get up early and go out on the boat, searching for whales. When we find an appropriate group, we put a tag on, and if we have a successful deployment, we spend the rest of the day tracking that whale, retrieving the tag when it pops off, and downloading the data. Then sleep.

When I'm not in the field, I work on the computer most of the day, listening to whale sounds and writing computer programs to analyze and describe those sounds. I do mix it up though, by taking classes and working on educational outreach projects, including presentations to the public about our research.

What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a biologist?
Stick with it! There are lots of hurdles to jump, including getting research experience, getting into school, taking classes that may be difficult, and working through tough research problems on your own. But if you are persistent you will have success!

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