Elizabeth Phillips

Year finished at Moss Landing: 2005

Lab while at Moss Landing:  Vertebrate Ecology Lab

Undergraduate education: Bachelor’s of Science, Biology (Marine Emphasis) with Honors, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA, 1995

Current job position and location:  Second-year PhD student at the University of Washington, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

Some questions for Beth:

Q:  Why did you decide to pursue marine science/come to Moss Landing?

After I completed my undergraduate program, I knew I wanted to continue studying marine science, but didn’t know if I wanted a PhD, Master’s, or what (or even what those terms meant!).  I decided on pursuing a Master’s at MLML because I really wanted a solid background in conducting rigorous scientific research.  I wanted to refine and expand what I knew about the fundamentals of scientific study- how to develop a good hypothesis, how to design well-planned experiments that would answer my question, and how to know if my answer made sense or not!  I felt that if I had the fundamentals, I would be able to use that as a jumping off point to many different jobs in the field.  I found all of that, plus a very supportive group of talented students and professors at MLML.

Q: What did you do your thesis on and why do you find it interesting/important?

I studied the feeding habits of harbor seals.  The easiest and cheapest way to do this is to study their scat (a.k.a. poop)!  At first I was not very enthused about studying poop, but the more I learned about how much information you can get from studying what an animal eats, the more excited I got.  My focus was looking at developing better ways to identify certain types of fish in a seal’s diet, and how to apply what an individual seal (or group of seals) is eating to the whole population of seals living along the West coast of the U.S.  Seals and sea lions are known to eat commercially caught species of fish, like salmon, and I worked hard to develop better ways to estimate how much salmon they are eating.  I looked at otoliths (fish ear bones) and other fish bones found in scat samples and measured them under a microscope to estimate how big the fish were that the seal ate, how many fish the seal ate, and how many a population of seals would be eating.

Q:  What did you go on to after graduation?

After I graduated from MLML, I worked for 3 years at the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Reseach Center in Santa Cruz, CA (A California Department of Fish and Game facility for oiled wildlife).  I also worked with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s BeachCOMBERS program.  I worked on a seabird health study (sort of like CSI: Seabirds) and also on long-term monitoring projects of seabird and marine mammal populations in Monterey Bay.  I also got involved with a study looking at how much plastic seabirds are accidentally eating, because of how much pollution is in the ocean.  I also got to go on a couple of research cruises, including one for 3 months around Guam and the Marianas Trench (deepest part of the ocean)!

Then I worked at Oregon State University in the CIMRS program (Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies) for another 3 years.  I was based at the NOAA-Fisheries Pt. Adams Research Station, at the mouth of the Columbia River.  I studied seabirds and salmon, looking at the importance of the Columbia River Plume (where the river water flows out to the Pacific Ocean) to seabird and salmon ecology.  This involved conducting at-sea surveys, and collecting data on sea-surface temperature, salinity, productivity (plankton blooms), fish trawls, and location of different seabird species including Common Murres and Sooty Shearwaters.  This job was exciting because it involved a lot of fieldwork – going out on boats on the Columbia River or the ocean, for days to weeks at a time.  I got to learn about everything from the bottom of the food chain up, and put it all into a bigger picture of what is going on in the Pacific Ocean.

Q:  What do you do now (if different from above?) Please describe your job and the highlights/challenges of your work.

I am now combining a lot of the work I did in Oregon with NOAA in my PhD program at the University of Washington.  I’m using fisheries acoustics (echosounders, or SONAR) to quantify fish throughout the water column near the Columbia River plume, and looking at seabird and fish spatial distributions to determine the effect of the physical characteristics of the plume itself on predator-prey interactions.  In particular, I’m assessing the predation risk of endangered juvenile salmon that are migrating from the river to the ocean through the plume.

Q:  What’s the best thing that you took away from MLML?  How did you time at MLML prepare you/influence you for what you do now?

I think the best thing I got from my experience at MLML was the training in marine science research, and the confidence to go out and conduct my own projects.  I would not be where I am now without going to MLML.  I gained experience working on boats of all sizes (small zodiac up to 200′ long vessels), working in Elkhorn Slough, the Channel Islands, and the sandy beaches of Monterey Bay.  I also had some very tough classes, but they gave me the background knowledge and skills I still use now.

Q:   What would you do if you could do anything differently?

Hmmm…I don’t think I’d change anything!

Q:  What advice do you have for someone who wants to go into marine science and/or graduate school?

I say – go for it!  Take classes in math and science, and volunteer to help out anywhere you can.  I volunteered at a zoo, on whale watching boats, and for different education groups.  Get outside and poke around in tidepools, go fishing, surfing, do what you love.  Classes in chemistry, physics, and math may not be that fun, but that is the education you need to be successful.  As for graduate school, talk to people who go to the schools you want to go to, volunteer in a lab and show you are a hard worker.  People will notice this.

Q:  What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue a career like yours?

I think being open to adventure, a positive attitude (it can get cold and wet and miserable), and a strong work ethic are important.  I had to work on a boat from midnight to 4 am in pouring rain by myself, and I forced myself to stay positive and remember why I was there (and that the data I was collecting was important).  Also a strong mathematical and scientific background will get you very far.  I am now studying animals that I never thought I would be able to.  I love it.

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