4. Salty Science!


Put on your lab coats and goggles as we dive into the marine research that takes place at Ocean Wise. Get hands-on experience in marine science through a variety of experiments and special guest speakers that will get your feet wet.

Gif Credit: Gfycat 

What does salty science look like?:

It can take place in an array of ways. For instance, you could be in a lab using microscopes and fancy tools to look at how micro plastics affect marine ecosystems. Or you could be in the field, diving in the depths of the ocean to collect samples to study microorganisms. What about being a marine mammal to conduct long term studies up close and personal with your study species. I asked a research scientist here at the Aquarium named Valeria Vergara and she said that a day in her life looks like this:

  • - Think about their study-species
  • - Write grant applications
  • - Think about their study species
  • - Analyze data (lots of data-entry and statistics work)
  • - Think about their study species
  • - Write mid-term and year-end reports for funding agencies
  • - Think about their study species
  • - Write papers for publication in journals
  • - Think about their study species!

Gif Credit: Medium

There may be variation in how the work is conducted however, the goal of better understandings one’s study species consistently rings true!

The Scientific Method:

If you want to conduct your own research you follow the scientific method to ensure you're receiving accurate data.

 A way to ask and answer scientific questions by making observations & doing experiments in 6 easy steps.

Gif Credit: Giphy 

    *6 Steps*

    1. Ask a question or identify the problem you would like to solve
    2. Make observations and do research about your topic
    3. Form a hypothesis. A hypothesis needs to be testable.
    4. Design an experiment and test your hypothesis.
    5. Analyze your results
    6. Draw a conclusion. Use the information you found to create your final answer.

    Marine Research at Ocean Wise:

    Types of research conducted at the Vancouver Aquarium: Propagation and Research Lab, Animal Health and Rehabilitation, Walrus Research, Northern Fur Seals Research and Stellar Sea Lion Research.  

    The following information is from the Vancouver Aquarium website as of Dec 21st 2018. To check any updates about research conducted at the Vancouver Aquarium check their website here.

    Propagation and Research Lab:

    The Vancouver Aquarium's Propagation and Research Lab has been operating for over 30 years and is a recognized leader amongst zoos and aquariums around the world in the culturing of temperate marine fish and invertebrates. To date, the lab has reared over 70 species of marine fish and 20 crustacean species from the Pacific Northwest. Rearing efforts not only allow Aquarium biologists to document the early life history of these animals - many for the first time - but also to produce animals for display, for education, and to supply research collaborators at other facilities. In addition to taking advantage of natural reproduction that occurs in the diverse collection of local fish and invertebrates from our displays, the lab also has an active field component that searches for new and interesting early life history research opportunities around coastal BC.

    Gif Credit: Giphy

    Animal Health and Rehabilitation:

    The primary goal of the Animal Health Department is to ensure the well-being and welfare of animals in the Aquarium’s diverse animal collection and to care for, rehabilitate, and release rescued individuals taken into the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre.

    The Animal Health Department also has a vibrant research program that furthers the Aquarium’s goal of improving the lives of animals maintained temporarily or permanently under human care, as well as animals in the wild. Animal Health staff are involved in studies that range from individual animals to fully planned research projects that address aspects of animal physiology, veterinary medicine, genetics, and disease.

    Gif Credit:Giphy

    Walrus Research:

    The Vancouver Aquarium is home to two young walruses, Balzak and Lakina. These two animals are part of an international research program using animals located at Aquariums across the globe. The overall goal of the research is to understand how climate change and other environmental disturbances are impacting walrus populations in the Arctic.

    Gif Credit: Giphy 

    Northern Fur Seals:

    A group of 5 northern fur seals are permanently housed at the Vancouver Aquarium. These highly trained animals participate in research projects that help shed light on what might be negatively affecting their con specifics in the wild. Areas of research include understanding how the food requirements of these animals change as they mature, how food intake naturally varies during the year, their capacity to withstand different environmental temperatures, how they can compensate for periods of inadequate nutrition, and how to determine the health and nutritional status of fur seals in the wild. 

    Gif Credit: New England Aquarium

    Stellar Sea Lion Research:

    In 1993 the Aquarium partnered with the North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium and scientists at the University of British Columbia in a unique joint research program that uses trained Steller sea lions to try to understand what is causing population declines in the wild.

    Scientists perform studies with a group of Steller sea lions, held at both the Vancouver Aquarium and UBC’s Open Water Research Station. Many of the studies explore the possible effects of changes in the types and amounts of prey that are available in the North Pacific have on sea lion condition, health and energy balance. This includes studies measuring how much food/energy sea lions need to perform different activities (resting, swimming, growing, staying warm, etc.) and determining the nutritional value of different prey to sea lions. Studies are also designed to develop scientific techniques and new technologies to enable scientists to better study sea lions in the wild.

    Gif Credit: Azula 

    Meet an Ocean Wise Research Scientist:

    Valeria Vergara is an esteemed research scientist based at Ocean Wise at the Vancouver Aquarium. She has been on many adventures and we had the opportunity to interview to get an insider’s look at life as a research scientist.

    *Have you always wanted to be a research scientist?

    Yes, I knew I wanted to become a biologist when I was 7 years old and watched many Jacques Cousteau and Jane Goodall documentaries.

    *What animals do you research and why? 

    I research mostly  beluga whales (in the St Lawrence River Estuary and the Arctic), but also Narwhals (in the Arctic) and as of next year (2019) killer whales (in the Arctic and in Patagonia, Argentina). Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are amongst the most vocal mammals, other than humans, and I have always been fascinated by the communicative capacities of animals. How do social, long-lived, intelligent animals communicate with one another?  So cetaceans are ideal subjects!  I also study whale communication because of its conservation value: underwater noise pollution is a very important problem for all these highly acoustic species. I not only try to find out what “they say”, but also how noise affects their ability to hear each other and communicate effectively with each other.

    *What is the best part about being a research scientist?

    Definitely getting to watch animals go about their lives! I could do this forever.

    *What is the most challenging part about being a research scientist?

    I will name the two top challenges!  1) Work-life balance is tricky! Spending so much time in the field in remote places, away from one’s family and friends is not always easy. As necessary and as exciting as this can be, it also takes an enormous amount of commitment and time, and it is easy to get home sick!  2) Finding funding!  Research scientists are constantly looking for funding for the research projects, and they spend many hours writing extensive grant applications…

    *What training/education is required for this work?

    In terms of education, a Bachelor of Science degree is absolutely essential, as is a Master of Science (M.Sc.) degree. A PhD is optional, depending on how far the person would like to get in their career and the job opportunities they would want access to.  Without a PhD, I probably would not have been able to get this wonderful position as a research scientist in this organization. In terms of training: take as many volunteer opportunities as you can, and then try to become someone’s research assistant so you can begin to get paid!

    *Do you have a funny story to share from your job?

    Many! For example, you can read about the time I got stranded on the small beluga research tower here: https://vancouversun.com/news/community-blogs/field-notes-from-arctic-watch-2015-week-two

    Or I could tell you about the time I had a polar bear visit my large tent….when I was sleeping! (Yes, I lived to tell the tale…).

    *What is the weirdest part of your job?

    That I can literally understand “beluga-talk”!

    *What advice do you have for kids interested in this career?

    To never give up, it is worth all the hard work! Don't be intimidated, and begin to read scientific literature that is age appropriate. Research organizations that you want to work for.  Volunteer!  Do summer internships! Reach out to professionals in your field to inquire about these positions, and for mentorship and advice.

    Questions for your Junior Biologists:

     What is the scientific method?

      Answer: a method of research in which a problem is identified, relevant data is gathered, a hypothesis is formulated from this data, and the hypothesis is empirically tested.

      What is a hypothesis?

        Answer:  In science, a hypothesis is an idea or explanation that you then test through study and experimentation. Outside science, a theory or guess can also be called a hypothesis. A hypothesis is something more than a wild guess but less than a well-established theory.

         What kind of background does someone need to become a marine biologist?

          Answer: Bachelor of Science degree and a Master of Science (M.Sc.) degree. A PhD is optional, depending on how far the person would like to get in their career.


            -Check out Ocearch's education page for curriculum ideas 

            -Learn more about Valeria Vergara's research here! 

            -Watch videos of the Vancouver Aquarium's research mission here!

            Learning Objectives

            -Understand the scientific method. 

            -Observe and discuss research that is currently being conducted. 

            -Acknowledge the role animals in aquarium play in further understanding their species. 

            -Learn the daily life of a research scientist. https://www.vanaqua.org/educat...

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