Outside The Lab

While tourists visiting San Francisco are entertained by the barking sea lions at PIER 39, students in Doreen Gurrola’s Research Methodology course have been looking at these marine mammals much differently — with binoculars.

“While everyone else is gawking, we are looking at the sea lions with cookie cutter bites. Do they have scars? How long have they had the scars? Were they attacked by a shark?” says biology major Wyatt Walsh ’21.

Wyatt, a graduate of Rocklin High School, enjoys his new perspective.

“We used to be in the crowd, too, thinking the same thing as tourists, `OK. This is cool’.

It’s cooler now. As students in the School of Health and Natural Sciences, researching marine mammals from PIER 39 to Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) means partnering with the National Park Service (NPS) and collecting and contributing valuable data.

Last semester the six students surveyed harbor seals at Point Bonita and visited the Marine Mammal Center to better understand marine mammal health and the connection to the health of the oceans in general. The students also learned about the elephant seal program at Año Nuevo and observed captive marine mammals at Discovery Kingdom.

Beginning in January, the students have traveled each Friday to collect data designed to understand the population trends of elephant seals and potential impact of changing weather patterns on their breeding colonies in PRNS. This is the second two-year rotation of Dominican students to research elephant seals at PRNS. The first generation of Dominican seal researchers was chronicled in an NBC Bay Area feature in 2017. They presented their research at the annual meeting of the Western Society of Naturalists in Pasadena.

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This is the kind of guaranteed undergraduate research that drew biology major Noelle Mauricio ’21 to Dominican from Western Sierra Collegiate Academy charter school in Rocklin. The Research Methodology course has inspired her to pursue a career in field ecology.

“I was not expecting public education to be such a big factor. Every time I go to the beach now it’s like `What else is here? What else can I look at? What else can I teach the people around me?’ ”Noelle says. “Professor Gurrola is more or less grooming us to be educators about climate change and advocates for the environment. It’s so rewarding. She has so many connections around the Bay Area. There are so many opportunities that come just from knowing her. It’s amazing.”

Led by faculty mentor and marine science educator Gurrola, the students determine site fidelity by documenting the location of tagged adults and pups, and then compare their findings to data collected in previous years by Dominican and PRNS researchers. Their work will contribute to ongoing studies conducted by NPS.

“What has been most impactful for the students has been going to these sites and having this real-life experience,” Gurrola says. “In the lab you can replicate something and try it again and again. In the field, it is what it is. You must learn to overcome challenges, be flexible, and think on your feet – all great life skills.”

The Research Methodology course prepares first-year students to hit the ground running when they become active participants in faculty research in the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. In the course, students learn to research literature, compile and analyze data, design a research plan, and write up their findings.

“When I first started, I couldn’t tell you the difference between an elephant seal and a fur seal and harbor seal. They were all the same to me,” says Wyatt, a student-athlete on the Dominican men’s soccer team who also minors in chemistry and aims to be a pediatrician. “Now I know things like how long they dive, how far they dive, how old they are, where they are from. I’m looking forward to getting involved with the research that could help us better understand them.”

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