Category Archives: PhD Life

Listening to the Sound of Success!

Two different projects came to fruition last week, neatly coming in time for my birthday!  Not so sure about the ageing part, but it was definitely good timing on the research outcomes!

From listening for dolphins…

Earlier this month I spent a morning out on the river with the ‘Destination WA‘ TV crew, filming a short segment about the Swan River dolphins.  We spent a lovely few hours out on the Swan River Trust boat Kwilana (Noongar for ‘dolphin’) whilst the team did interviews with myself, Delphine Chabanne (Murdoch University), Marnie Giroud (SRT), and Jennie Hunt (Dolphin Watch).

It was really interesting to see ‘behind the scenes’ for the filming process, especially given the great camaraderie of the TV crew!

… to interpreting blue whales!

Non-song vocalisations of pygmy blue whalesAnother project success last week was finding out that our paper “Non-song vocalizations of pygmy blue whales in Geographe Bay, Western Australia ” had been published online by the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America!  This study used simultaneous land-based visual observations and underwater acoustic recordings to examine the communication of pygmy blue whales.

These animals are famed for their songs, made up of repeated patterns of notes.  But in this study, we focused on the non-song sounds produced by pygmy blue whales and found six different vocalisations – five of which had never been described for this population before!  Hopefully this will help inform passive-acoustic monitoring for the species.

And as for ‘Older and Wiser’?

Well, that remains to be seen!  But entering 28 as a PhD Student, TV Star, and three-times Published Scientific Author isn’t a bad way to start 😉

Fieldwork Update: Celebrating 100 hours of visual obs

Last week we passed the 100 hours milestone for visual observations in the Swan River!

"The early vollie catches the dolphin"

“The early vollie catches the dolphin”

During this first stage we have conducted 37 shifts spread across our Kings Park and Fremantle Port field sites. We spotted 16 dolphin pods, several of which had calves, with sightings lasting anywhere from a few surfacings to a few hours!

Interestingly, we have spotted Gizmo quite a few times, a dolphin who suffered a severe entanglement as a calf back in 2012. Fishing line caught around his dorsal fin cut through a lot of the tissue, leaving his fin rather floppy – and easily identifiable from a distance! Hoping we can start identifying other individuals soon in stage two!

So in summary, it’s been pretty busy!  Thankfully The Dolphineers have been there to share the load! These lovely vollies have put in a lot of time and effort in support of this project, including quite s few early mornings and long, hot afternoons! So to celebrate this milestone, last week we had our first volunteer BBQ down on the river shore.


BBQ with the Dolphineers!

And, of course, for such an event there must be prizes! Drumroll please, for:

Most ShiftsLucy Rudd, for conducting almost a third of all the shifts!

Busiest DayCharlotte Patrick and Bec Oliver, for dealing with the craziest shift which had over 150 vessels in the space of 3hrs PLUS dolphins!

Most Boring DayRobin Hare, for not only having the least busiest day, but the highest consecutive number of these with no dolphins and hardly any vessels!

As we move towards April, the mornings are getting colder and the days shorter.  But we are still getting in a few new faces amonst the Dolphineers, which should liven up the shifts with some new life stories!  Now I just have to start planning prizes for the next milestone…

Over-whale-ming: Life as a PhD Double-Agent

For the last ten weeks, I have been living two lives.

Life 1: Sarah Marley, field biologist. Commences dolphin surveillance at 0500 hours, ceases observations at 1830 hours. Spends spare time managing an ever-increasing network of volunteer dolphin spies (aka “dolphineers”) to conduct regular river monitoring at select top-secret sites. She moves as a shadow, elusive of social situations, needless of sleep, as she begins the task of data hoarding…

Life 2: Sarah Marley, regular PhD student. Comes into the office a few days a week, and spends time reading papers, learning Matlab, teaching undergrads, and tackling a never-ending flow of emails. Existing mostly on caffeine and to-do lists, she has a desk-drawer full of snacks and several types of tea. Collects dolphin-themed desk decor.

Neither sound too strenuous. But recently, co-existence of these roles has become slightly tricky…

Sometimes study can be a bit over-whale-ming...

Sometimes study can be a bit over-whale-ming…

Life 1 is highly volunteer-dependent. My fieldwork needs at least a team of three (including myself), so my schedule varies each week depending on volunteer availability. I have an amazing team of dedicated, lovely, wonderful volunteers.  But – as I am trying to get out to each site 3 times per week – I inevitably have to spend a few hours trying to sign folk up to fill gaps. I live in constant fear of cancellations, and check my phone compulsively “just in case”.

Life 2 flows around the first; if I’m not in the field, I head to uni. But snatching office hours here and there can make it difficult to focus on larger tasks. As a result, when I make my weekly to-do list each Monday, I find myself re-writing the same few big jobs, along with a wave of new mini-tasks.

To try and combat this, I attended a time-management workshop last Friday. Which I was late for. But as a friend pointed out, I hadn’t attended the workshop yet so that was to be expected!  The presenter quizzed us on our degree courses, study habits, and sleep patterns. She assured me that “you only need four hours sleep to survive, so you’ll finish your PhD in no time“.  Funnily enough, this was not actually very reassuring.

Despite this we did pick up a few useful hints.  This week I have drafted up a timetable of activities based on how long each task takes.  Hopefully this will help me to use my time a bit more efficiently.  My New Years Resolution of getting a minimum of 7hrs sleep was becoming sadly neglected, so I’m also trying to “shut off” when I come home to make sure I’m rested enough to blast through those to-do lists the following morning! The ability to say “no” is something I’m working on improving.

I think the biggest challenge is accepting that there is only a given amount of things I can accomplish during the fieldwork phase.  This should only last a few more months, then there will be a seasonal down period, giving me plenty of time to tackle the desk-based stuff.

But I guess no one ever said being a Science Ninja was easy 😉

Fieldwork Update: Watch out dolphins, Big Sister is watching (and listening!)

Over the last couple of months I have had a busy whirlwind of deploying noise loggers; learning how to program recording schedules and then process acoustic data; complete health and safety forms; obtain permits for area use; train volunteers for visual surveys; organise fieldwork shifts…  and this is before the fieldwork has even started!  But now it’s all underway and the data is coming in!

Eavesdropping on Dolphins…

Sylvia and Mal from CMST head out into the Swan River to help deploy my first batch of noise loggers

Sylvia and Mal (CMST) head out into the Swan River to help deploy loggers

Back in November 2013, three noise loggers were deployed in the Swan River as part of my PhD project examining the acoustical and behavioural response of coastal dolphins to noisy environments.   I have been lucky enough to have great support from the students and staff at CMST to help me with deployments.  Now the first batch of acoustic data from this first logger deployment is in my office, ready for processing!

These noise loggers record underwater sound produced by ambient (wind, waves), biological (dolphins, fish, crustaceans), and human sources (vessels, traffic, and construction).  For more info on these noise loggers, see my previous post on recording whale sounds in Albany.  Whilst I am examining this first acoustic data batch, the noise loggers have been moved to new locations and are busy recording more underwater sounds.

Over the next year, I will be deploying noise loggers at several spots throughout the river.  I can then use these data to describe the underwater soundscape of the Swan River and examine the vocal behaviour of bottlenose dolphins.

…  Whilst Watching from Above!

Visual observations of dolphin behaviour began in January 2014.  I am conducting visual surveys at various vantage points along the shoreline, using a theodolite to record dolphin movements and behaviours in the river.  This visual information can then be used to understand the context of dolphin sounds and their use of the underwater acoustic environment.

A theodolite is traditionally a surveying instrument, used to create 3D models of the landscape.  It does this by selecting different points, then measuring the horizontal and vertical angles to give an exact bearing and distance to each point; this creates a scale map of the area.  But we can also use this technique to get the position of objects out at sea – such as dolphins!  So we can use a theodolite to map a dolphin’s position each time it surfaces, giving a very fine-scale track of how the animals are using an area.  The added bonus being that the dolphins are not aware of our presence, so we do not have to worry about disturbing the animals and influencing their behaviour.  Although I do often wonder if they have a “feeling of being watched”…

Volunteers Elly and Bec join me surveying for dolphins in the Swan River

Volunteers Elly and Bec join me (and theo) surveying for dolphins in the Swan River

To run these visual surveys, I require a theodolite team:  one person entering data on the computer, one collecting positions using the theodolite, and some others to find the dolphins!  Thankfully, I have had an overwhelming amount of support from my ex-students (and some marine biologist friends), and currently have around 25 volunteers donating their time to help out in the field.  Many are studying or working full-time, making their contributions all the more amazing and appreciated!

But we have had some particularly awesome dolphin sightings to make it all worthwhile – and even on quiet days, the great team spirit (and masses of life stories to tell) keeps us pretty entertained!

Top 5 PhD New Year’s Resolutions

Academia can seem pretty tough-going at times.  In a field where everyone is striving to publish the most papers and get the most funding, but where most people are limited by time and opportunities, things can get a bit competitive.  So acknowledging your weaknesses just is not done, especially weaknesses connected to your work.

But in order to turn those weaknesses into strengths, you have to know where to start!  So to that end, here are some of my  New Year’s resolutions to work on over the next few months.  Obviously there are so many more things I can improve upon (eat healthily, call home more, go to the gym, break up with Facebook).  So these five are focused primarily on balancing PhD life.

1. Learn that it is okay to read

Good research requires a good knowledge of the subject, and this can only be achieved by searching the literature and reading,reading, reading!  But the problem with sitting reading papers at your desk all day is that you don’t have any solid outcome to show for it at the end of the day (apart from maybe eye strain and a headache).

I struggle with this lack of physical result, as it sometimes makes me feel like I’ve not been very productive by ‘just’ reading papers.  So something I aim to work on next year is to set aside time each week specifically for reading and updating Endnote.  To make it seem more productive, I’ll work on my note-taking skills – this will have the double benefit of making me feel like I’ve achieved something whilst also giving me some good quick-reference material for later.

2. Get at least 7hrs sleep each night

First step to getting more sleep - bean bag nap area under desk.  Win!

First step to getting more sleep – bean bag nap area under desk. Win!

Chronic sleep deprivation is not going to help you achieve anything.  Yes, you might have to pull some late-nighters to get that grant application in, or get up at ridiculous o’clock to reach your field site.  But that doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice sleep to do so.

It is okay to sleep in a bit later if you had to work late.  It is okay to be a granny and head to bed early if you’re up at day-break.  Need a power nap mid-avro?  Go for it!  If you’re up to date on sleep you will work a hell of a lot more effectively than someone holding their eyes open and forcing every sentence into Word.  I’m aiming to be a lot stricter (and realistic) with sleep patterns, especially as I tend to get migraines after missing a few sleeps in a row – which knocks me out for a lot longer than a lie-in would.

3. Publish

The must-have on every academics to-do list:  Publish more papers! There is a strong idea of “publish or perish”, and while this might be a bit dramatic it is probably true that you will have a better chance of succeeding with scholarships, job applications and grant funding if you can add up points in the ‘papers published’ box.  When I ask Post-Docs if they have any advice for an early-days PhD student, the recurring comment is to get multiple papers out during the PhD.

I just got around to publishing my honours thesis on bottlenose dolphin aggression this year, have a co-authored paper on whale acoustics in review, and still have material from my masters on grey seal behaviour which needs to be put into paper format.  So a big aim for next year is to finish that task, as well as publish something PhD-related.

4. Overcome the phone addiction

Smartphones are amazing.  I use mine for work a lot – especially during field work, it is very useful to be able to check emails on the go and arrange meetings without being tied to a desk.  But is there really a need for checking work emails every evening?  If you’re always online then you are always on duty.  Not conducive to the increase in sleep or quality time that most people would like in their lives.

A lot of the time I don’t mean to do this, but as I use my phone to tell the time I often see notifications about missed calls or unread emails and get sucked back into work mode without really realising it.  So the most obvious way around this would be to start wearing a watch more so I can give myself the opportunity to forget about the phone.  I’m also going to enforce a stricter ‘silent mode’ rule during quality time with boyfriend and mates in the evenings.  Feel free to give me in trouble if you see me violating this one, because it’s bound to happen!

5. Spend time with people outside of my university circle

It's important not to shut out friends during your PhD...

It’s important not to shut out friends during your PhD…

As much as you may love your office mates, it’s still important to step outside of the circle once in a while.  Because inevitably the conversation will at some point touch on work – be it project stress, supervisor management, paper writing, or “Did you hear about this grant?” type topics.  Sometimes it’s good to forget about work for a while!

Before I started my PhD, I spent a year volunteering on projects around Australia and two years working as a science communicator.  During this time I met lots of interesting, crazy, lovely people – most of whom I haven’t seen much, if at all, in the last six months, i.e. since the PhD began.  Granted I’ve been away assisting on field projects and travelling, but since I have no plans to leave Perth in the next few months this is the perfect time to re-affirm friendships and start catching-up!  But of course I’ll still have time for my university family 😉

Humpbacks, Hills and Hobbits – a summary of the last three months

I realised it had been a long time since my last blog post, but I’d forgotten that the last you’d heard from me was some comments about my dubious sea survival skills.  On reflection this might have been a bit ominous when followed by a three month silence, but rest assured I’m still here!  And I have so much to tell you!  Too much, in fact, for one post – so to avoid the risk of boring you, I’m going to give a brief summary now with more details to follow over the Christmas break 🙂

Early Sept – Mid Oct:  BRAHSS Project (Dongara, Western Australia)

Heading out from Dongara for another day of whale research!

Heading out from Dongara for another day of whale research!

Six weeks working as a marine mammal observer on the BRAHSS project, investigating the response of humpback whales to seismic surveys.  Although bouncing around in big swells off the coast of Western Australia was quite fun, it was really great to meet so many researchers from around Australia.  Since this project involves people from Curtin University, University of Queensland, and the University of Sydney there were plenty of new friends to be made!

Prior BRAHSS field seasons were conducted in Peregian Beach on the Sunshine Coast, so 2013 marked the first experimental period for Western Australian.  Fine-scale behavioural data were collected during control and active trials, thus detailing the responses of humpback whales to air-gun signals.  This work will be compared with data collected on the eastern Australian humpback whales, thus allowing comparison of different populations with different seismic exposure histories.

Mid Oct – Early Nov:  Doing a PhD! (Perth, Western Australia)

My desk of PhD awesomeness!

My desk of PhD awesomeness!

Nice to be home for a bit!  These few weeks gave me time to get-to-grips with my PhD and make progress with my application for candidacy.  Within the first six months of the PhD, students are required to submit a 10-page research proposal detailing their intended project.

So over these few weeks I did a LOT of reading through the scientific literature and swotting up on acoustics!  I was lucky enough to spend some time with the CMST technician Dave who gave me instruction in preparing the noise loggers, programming the recording software, and general electronics!  I also got lessons in splicing and mooring design thanks to Miles and Mal, more important skills that I’ll need for deploying my own loggers over the next few years!

This period also marked a move, as I shifted from the main physics building at Curtin University to the physics student building out the back.  Although it’s strange to be away from the staff, it does mean that I get my own big fancy schmancy desk and computer!  Woop woop!  Now to decorate it with as many dolphin pictures as possible…

Most of Nov:  SouWEST Project (Geographe Bay, Western Australia)

Blue waters and blue whales for the Geographe Bay 2013 theodolite team!

Blue waters and blue whales for the Geographe Bay 2013 theodolite team!

A sudden flurry of activity to organise the theodolite and acoustic components of the Southwest Whale Ecology Study (SouWEST) project for the 2013 field season.  I headed down to Geographe Bay with Chandra, Angela and Damien to continue our blue and humpback whale monitoring program which has now completed its fourth season!

I’m very proud to have been part of this project since 2010 when I helped Chandra with the first theodolite monitoring from our hill-top site near Dunsborough.  From here we can track the whales in real-time as they move through the area, and also record their behaviours and pod compositions.  Combined with the acoustic monitoring, boat surveys with photo-ID and community-based observations, these data give us a thorough view of how whales are using the Geographe Bay region.  This year was particularly exciting, as we deployed an array of four noise loggers – having multiple hydrophones will allow us to triangulate the positions of calling whales, and track them acoustically! It is also our first year with funding from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to support the SouWEST project.  Check out my post on the SouWEST blog to read more about our season!

Late Nov – Mid Dec:  Holidays and Conference! (New Zealand)

My SMM conference poster describing pygmy blue whale interactions with vessels in Geographe Bay

My SMM conference poster describing pygmy blue whale interactions with vessels in Geographe Bay

I’ve been dying to visit New Zealand for years, so the fact that the Society for Marine Mammalogy (SMM) conference was held in Dunedin this year provided an excellent opportunity / excuse to head over!  You might remember that I had an abstract accepted back in July, meaning that I was able to present some work on the response of pygmy blue whales to vessels in Geographe Bay.  Over 1000 abstracts were accepted for presentation at the conference, and hundreds more people simply attended the proceedings, so this was an excellent chance to not only discuss this research but promote the SouWEST project!

Of course, it also gave us the chance to travel!  Phil and I flew into Auckland on the 29th November and travelled down to Dunedin for the conference by way of hot water beaches, kayak trips, Hobbiton, glow worm caves, kiwis, thermal spas, sperm whales and Hector’s dolphins!  After the conference we headed west to spend a few days exploring the wilderness of Fiordland before heading home, checking out amazing fjords by kayak and boat.

Mid Dec – Now:  Christmas!  (Perth, Western Australia)

Now we’re back in WA and have been immediately thrown into a strange mix of PhD work and Christmas festivities!  After taking the time out to travel, there is a lot of work to catch up on…  But there are also a lot of people to catch up with!  So a 7:30am breakfast meeting the first day home was quickly followed by a CMST Christmas meal with friends (and even a santa!).  Writing emails and funding applications is punctuated by present-swapping and Phil’s amazing Christmas cookies.  Planning of fieldwork is inter-mixed with planning of Christmas morning beach BBQs and dinner with friends.  It’s a strange and busy – but happy – time of the year!

So before I nip off for (another) biscuit I’ll wish you all a merry Christmas and all the best for 2014!

Pursuing a Higher Degree: Why I’m so happy to be starting a PhD!

Last week I officially enrolled as a PhD student at Curtin University!  Here I will spend the next three years studying the response of dolphins to underwater noise.

For the last two years, I have been applying for PhD scholarships.  At the same time, to try and continue boosting my CV, I volunteered on various marine mammal projects.  This meant a lot of late nights, working weekends, unpaid leave from work, neglecting my boyfriend and basically quite a bit of juggling.  There were times when I felt overwhelmed and wondered if all this effort was ever going to lead anywhere.  But there were also a lot of fun times, filled with interesting discoveries, new friends, and happiness at pursuing something I loved.

Hope the buzz lasts three years!

Hope the buzz lasts three years!

The day I signed the last piece of paperwork I spent the next 24hrs bouncing around, occassionally squeeling to myself with pure happiness (yes, really!).  Now, a week later, the excitement has become a bit more manageable but I still get a buzz every time I look at my student card.  I’ve chosen a desk in the Higher Degree by Research student building.  I’m changing my email signature.  I’m keeping a colour-coded PhD notebook full of lists, thoughts and notes (much to the amusement of my more cynical colleagues, who frequently ask how long that is going to last).

So why is this such a big deal to me?  What’s so great about a PhD?  Here are the top three reasons why I decided to pursue a PhD:

1.  Curiosity

When I worked in science communication, we used to introduce science to kids by saying “Have you ever asked a question?  Wanted to know why, what or how?  Then you’re a scientist!”.  A bit basic, but fundamentally true – much of science is driven by pure curiosity and the desire to learn.  A PhD is an excellent opportunity to explore several avenues of curiosity about a specific topic, at a depth and intensity that will eventually satisfy almost everyone (probably overly so).

2.  A Love of Research

My childhood dolphin-spotting point in Banff, Scotland (click here for live webcam!)

My childhood dolphin-spotting point in Banff, Scotland (click here for live webcam!)

As a kid I used to spend my school holidays watching the dolphins in Banff Harbour (Scotland), recording sighting times, group compositions and animal behaviour.  Although I didn’t realise it, this was the start of my research career.  Since leaving full-time education, I’ve tried a range of jobs:  sales assistant, bosun on a tourism boat, tutoring, supermarket check-outs, university lecturer, setting myself on fire in the name of science communication…  But any length of time away from research is painful.  I miss learning new things, the craziness of fieldwork, the excitement of getting results.  Research just fits me.

3.  The Challenge

The other thing I miss is being challenged.  Although it’s more than likely that I’m going to regret this statement at some point over the next three years.  But the truth is, it’s only by pushing ourselves and going beyond the comfort zone that we develop.  That’s certainly what I expect a PhD to do!

But of course, this is just my opinion.  Did you have other motivations for pursuing a PhD?  Or perhaps decide against it?  Let me know!  I know that this is the honeymoon period and the real work is yet to come, but for now I’m just enjoying the moment.  At least when I hit the (inevitable) hard patches, I’ll have this list to check back on!  After all, nothing worth having ever comes easy.