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Taking a Deep Dive into Dolphin Communication

Exploring many interests leads Div III student to intensive study of marine mammals

I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and attended a very conventional high school. Although I excelled academically, I didn’t feel challenged or excited about what I was learning. Hampshire seemed like a perfect fit for me because students can combine various subject areas — I knew I had too many interests to be able to narrow them down to a specific major after just a year of college. The Five College Consortium also offers many resources and possibilities that aren’t provided anywhere else.

Student Molly Dent on a boat on the ocean
Molly Dent 17F

Originally, I wanted to study policy, education, and sculpture, but then found ecology and animal behavior to be really interesting. After getting my scuba license through UMass and joining Dr. Laela Sayigh and Dr. Sarah Partan [both professors of animal behavior] on a trip to Chilean Patagonia to study marine mammals, I decided to concentrate on the marine world. I conducted an independent study with Dr. Sayigh, during which I learned the software for analyzing vocalizations. While taking Cetacean Communication with Dr. Sayigh, at the end of my Div II, the potential of a stranding alert system was brought up, and I immediately knew I wanted to pursue it as my Div III.

The way I describe a “stranding alert system” to people who aren't in science is: an acoustic network that will allow scientists to analyze dolphin whistles in real time, so that they can look for trends in dolphin vocalizations and predict that they are likely to strand in the next day or two.

I’m studying the vocalizations of two species of dolphins that frequent Wellfleet Bay, in Cape Cod, to determine whether there are differences in their communications just before a mass stranding. The goal is to develop an early warning system that would enable stranding networks to respond earlier, which is the best way to decrease the mortality rate.

The most challenging aspect of this project is the vocalization analysis. It’s extremely time-consuming and tedious, but volunteers have been helping me, and they’ve been amazing. The most exciting part is the possibility of creating an early warning system, as it could save the lives of hundreds of marine mammals and could potentially be applied to other species in other locations.

Dr. Sayigh and Dr. Blair McLaughlin, assistant professor of plant science, comprise my Div III committee. They’re both incredible scientists, mentors, and people. I don’t know what I’d do without them helping me through each step of this project. I’ve had the opportunity to work with graduate students, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute employees, and stranding networks, and have been learning programming languages, data analysis and organization, and how to oversee volunteers.

The goal for my Div III is to produce two publishable scientific papers describing my work and the foundation for the alert network. I plan to attend graduate school, and would like to continue studying marine mammals. Fieldwork is my passion, so I hope to find a career that has me doing that.

When I’m not studying, I try to camp, rock-climb, hike, and jump into bodies of water as much as I can. I’m also an avid scuba diver, which is something I hope to incorporate into my career. I play the cello and enjoy doing crafts, although recently I’ve found myself spending hours at a time trying new recipes.

I feel extremely lucky to have come across Hampshire, and to have had the privilege to study here. The resources, people, and support are something I’m sure I wouldn’t have encountered at any other institution. I’ve made lifelong friends, learned life skills, and grown as a person, thanks to the College.

If you’re a critical thinker with a variety of interests and want to join a community of people who are trying to make the world a better place, then Hampshire just might be the school for you!

 

Header photo by Courtnie Tosana on Unsplash

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