Next Generation: Amber Fandel on tracking the movement of marine mammals

January 24, 2022

Advisor: Helen Bailey

What was the focus of your research when you were at UMCES?
I used the sounds (acoustics) produced by marine mammals to learn about them. Lucky for us, many marine mammals are very vocal, so their vocalizations can tell us all sorts of things—from what time of year they are around to who is there and what they're doing.

To record the sounds, we anchor a hydrophone—an underwater microphone—in a specific area of interest for several months. After we pick up the hydrophone, we analyze the acoustic data it has stored and try to learn as much as we can from the sounds captured on the recordings, especially those made by marine mammals.

These acoustic recordings enable us to determine when marine mammals, like whales and dolphins, are in areas such as the Chesapeake Bay or offshore of Ocean City. We also try to get a good idea of how many animals are in the area and how are they affected by disturbances such as storms, construction, or increased sound levels from boats.

Understanding these behaviors and movements is important because it will help us manage and hopefully protect them from potential disturbances in the future.

How has your research made a difference?
These animals are protected species, so figuring out when these animals are around and what disturbs them is important. My research has allowed us to understand a lot about the distribution of dolphins in the Bay and the coastal ocean. The results will help people know when dolphins and whales are likely around to minimize how much we disturb them. In this way, my research may also be used to reduce the impact of the development of offshore wind power on marine mammals.

What influenced your career path in science?
I always knew that I wanted to go into marine mammal research. When I was a very little kid, I wanted to be a dolphin trainer. That evolved from a general interest in whales and dolphins to acoustics and disturbances, and now it's shifting into an interest in policy.

Why did you choose to study with your mentor at UMCES?
I had been following Dr. Helen Bailey's work for quite some time; she did some great research on porpoises in Scotland and how they were impacted by wind energy construction. So, when I saw an opportunity to work for her, I jumped at it! I arrived at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory campus and was excited by the resources there and the diverse experiences of the researchers. It was great to be able to collaborate with those folks and learn more about this region.

What is an experience that stands out most to you about your time at UMCES?
The opportunity to participate in the Chesapeake DolphinWatch program has been extremely rewarding. DolphinWatch is our community science-based app that allows anyone in the community to report when they see a dolphin in the Chesapeake Bay. It's been great learning from those folks, sharing information with them and growing that relationship.

What is the most important thing people can do to help the environment?
I think that we can all do our part. We can do things to minimize pollution like not using single-use plastics, but also putting pressure on local legislators to make sure that they are prioritizing our waterways and making sure that people have equal access to those resources.

Do you have advice for kids who are interested in STEM fields?
It can be intimidating, that's for sure! The advice that I typically give young people these days is that you should learn to code. Coding is extremely beneficial for most STEM fields and it can be fun! Also, take as many science classes as you can and make sure you're brushing up on your math- especially your statistics.

Did you receive a scholarship, grant, travel award or gift from a donor? What did it allow you to do and why was that important?
I was awarded a travel grant to attend the Society for Mammalogy’s annual conference in 2022, so fingers crossed that that happens!

When did you earn your degree?
I defended my thesis in December 2021 and will formally graduate in May 2022.

You’ve been awarded a 2022 John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship.  Through this highly competitive program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Sea Grant award early-career professionals with one-year fellowships to work in federal government offices on national policy decisions affecting ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources. Where is your Knauss Fellowship placement, and what will you be working on there?
I am very excited to be a Knauss Fellow. I will be working at NOAA’s Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs. This office liaises between Congressional staff members and NOAA. The office is responsible for the planning, direction and coordination of the legislative programs that are of immediate concern to the Office of the Under Secretary.

How has your time at UMCES prepared you for your Knauss Fellowship?
At UMCES, I was able to research the presence and behavior of protected species. I also had the opportunity to take classes in sustainability, fisheries science and management, environmental justice, public policy and the environment, and specific issues like hypoxic zones. I’ve also had the honor to learn about all the great research being done by the staff, students and faculty.

What does the opportunity to be a Knauss Fellow mean to you?
The Knauss Fellowship is an excellent opportunity to learn more about policymaking and how policies are implemented. It’s an honor to work with such a prestigious office within NOAA and to get to know other scholars from across the country.

After your Knauss Fellowship, what sort of career or additional studies do you hope to pursue?
Following the Knauss Fellowship, I plan to continue to work in environmental policy either in the government or in a non-governmental organization. I like to see policy in action and want to work to achieve just and useful environmental policies.