Senior Thesis Update : Olivia Blondheim

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By: Willy Nichter, Staff Writer

As the end of the Fall 2017 Semester draws ever closer, students begin to think more and more about what happens next, especially Seniors. However, for those Seniors currently working on an Honors Thesis, they still have a lot of work to do before they can truly consider themselves done. We reached out to Olivia Blondheim (’18), a student working on her thesis, to ask her a few questions about the process, shedding some light onto the work that goes into making a fantastic thesis.

Name, Hometown, Major:  

Olivia Blondheim from Edgewood, Maryland. Majors are Biology and Spanish.

Thesis topic/title:

“Vertical distribution and abundance of pyrosomes in the northern California Current during an anomalous bloom year.”

How did you get interested in this/find your topic?:

As a NOAA Ernest F. Hollings Scholar, this past summer I interned at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Newport, Oregon. When I arrived in Newport in June, NOAA scientists were monitoring a massive bloom of pyrosomes off the coast. Pyrosomes are deep sea, jellyfish-like creatures (they look like gelatinous sea cucumbers that can swim throughout the water column) that are typically found in the tropics. Researchers started to see pyrosomes for the first time off the Oregon Coast in 2014, but nothing has compared to this year where pyrosomes have been seen in the thousands! Since we know very little about pyrosomes (there are currently very few scientific papers published on them) we as scientists wanted to gather more data so that we could learn more about their distribution, abundance and swimming behavior. Also, this pyrosome bloom has already had a considerable impact on the fishing community in Newport as fishers have been catching more pyrosomes on their lines and in their nets than their targeted species, like pink shrimp. By gaining a greater understanding of what factors may be driving this bloom (such as temperature), we may be able to better predict these blooms and help fishers to find ways to avoid them.

What sort of research did you need to do for this? Did you apply for any grants?:

A team of researchers and I from NOAA and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) would go out on small research and fishing vessels and deploy stereo camera systems to collect footage of the pyrosomes in the water column. A stereo camera system has two cameras that overlap slightly so that you are getting the same object from different perspectives, which then allows you to collect information like size, distance and orientation. We would deploy these camera systems to depths of about 50 m as well as a CTD (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth) which is a device that can be used to collect a physical profile of the water column. Back in the lab, I could then use this footage to look at the distribution and abundance of pyrosomes at different depths as well as their size and orientation, which can reveal more about their swimming behaviors. This project would not have been possible without the funding and equipment from NOAA’s Oregon Sea Grant and ODFW.

What has been your favorite part so far?:

My favorite part of this experience was in August I participated in a 14-day cruise aboard NOAA’s research vessel Bell M. Shimada as part of the Pacific Hake Survey. We sailed from Newport, Oregon to the northern tip of Vancouver Island and I assisted the survey with processing the fish and invertebrate samples in the wet lab, as well as deployed a camera system attached to the CTD to collect more data on the pyrosome vertical distributions and abundances. Living and working on a NOAA research vessel is such an incredible experience and I learned so much from the other scientists and crew members onboard.

What did you not expect to be as challenging as it is?:

Conducting research on marine ecosystems can be extremely challenging because no matter how well you design your experiment or how well you prepare, sometimes the organisms you are studying decide not to show up! Pyrosomes can be extremely patchy, meaning that one day we could see thousands of them in a specific location and the next day, in the same location, we may not see any pyrosomes at all. This is all part of the nature of this kind of research, but it still can be incredibly frustrating when you have been at sea for almost 12 hours and still have not seen a single pyrosome in your footage! Another challenging aspect is that I am trying to work with my collaborators from across the country, which means that it can be difficult to find ways to upload and send massive data files either online or on hard drives in the mail.

Who/what has been instrumental in this process so far?:

It takes a village to raise a scientist, and I could not be more grateful for my NOAA mentors, Ric Brodeur and Kelly Sutherland, my ODFW mentors, Leif Rasmuson and Kelly Lawrence and my Drew mentor, Tammy Windfelder. My NOAA and ODFW mentors taught me the best methods to collect, analyze and present my data, helping me to develop and mature as a marine biologist. Dr. Windfelder has been a constant support throughout the entirety of the project, and her perspective helps me to ask new questions and to think more critically about my research.

Do you plan to submit your thesis to any journals (like The Drew Review) or present it at any conferences?: 

I will be presenting my research at the 2017 CalCOFI (California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations) Conference in La Jolla, Calif. and the 2018 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Portland, OR. I also hope to work with my mentors to submit a manuscript for publication in a marine ecology journal.

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