Whale Science in the time of COVID: how to make it work?

This year, professional development opportunities are extremely limited, due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Global travel restrictions and lockdowns make conferences and internships almost impossible. But there are other ways how you can advance your professional profile! How can you keep developing your skills and/or doing whale science during the COVID pandemic? Here are six things every early career scientist can do to make sure 2020 is not a complete career write-off.

Credit: Pixabay

1 – Improve your skills

Now is the time to really sit down and finally learn how to use that program or analytical method you always wanted to master. For many students and academics, that’s R, but it could be anything! For example a reference library program (such as EndNote or Mendeley), GIS, or a statistical method like GLMs (Generalized linear models). Learning new programs and methods can be tedious, but it will pay off. For open-source programs like R, there are many online tutorials and materials (most of them free) that you can delve into. You will use programs like R throughout your entire career, and you will thank yourself further down the line for having invested this time to get comfortable with it.

If you don’t have a specific program or method you’d like to learn, maybe you can educate yourself in other ways? There are several courses online which could be good options, some of them free. Here is a list:

2 – Work on your writing

Students are usually keen when it comes to learning new hands-on fieldwork skills, but less enthusiastic about perfecting their writing. I admit that fieldwork and learning field related skills are much more fun than desk work. But as a scientist, you will write a lot, and you need to do it well. After all, what’s the point of doing all that science if you can’t express your results in a clear and concise way? The same goes for writing research and grant proposals, which is a bit of an art in itself. Either way, use the time while you’re grounded! Read books on writing and style, and do the exercises they usually come with. Try to convince a friend to do it together! That way you can correct each other’s writing. Also check if your university teaches scientific writing courses, and consider taking online classes.

EDX courses on writing

Whale science during COVID? Work on your writing and learn new skills online – Credit: Anaïs Remili

3 – Attend virtual conferences and seminars

The year 2020 has been quite a letdown in all areas, but this is especially true for conferences. Travel is pretty much not an option this year. Even if countries do eventually open their borders, universities are very reluctant to approve non-essential trips. Luckily, most organizers have adapted and transitioned to virtual conferences. While they are of course not as much fun as the real thing, they are still a good option to network and learn about the work people do. Best of all, they are usually much cheaper, sometimes even free!

Another nice thing to look for is institutional seminars. Less time consuming then a full conference, these are presentations hosted through universities to showcase research. This is a great opportunity to get a good understanding of someone’s research since they are usually much longer than a conference talk.

Workshops and symposia from the Society of Marine Mammalogy

4 – Do a remote internship or a remote course

For many undergraduates, the worst thing about not being able to travel if they miss out on doing internships and volunteering. However, some labs and NGOs have become creative in these crazy times and offer remote internships. This does not include fieldwork of course, but other important skills such as Photo-ID and data editing.

A few options are:

However, most of the time these internships come with fees, so it may not be an option for everyone. Alternatively, you can contact labs and research groups and ask them if they have tasks that could be done remotely and if they’d be willing to take you on as a remote intern.

Research organizations may need help with photo-ID, will you help?

5 – Get busy: publish!

For scientists, publishing papers is extremely important. For aspiring scientists, publishing feels incredibly hard. But this is why it is so important to start early and keep at it. So, if you have data that you’ve been meaning to analyze and write up into a paper, great! Now is the time. If you don’t have anything so far, what can you do to get there? Most labs and research groups are sitting on loads of data that they just haven’t gotten around to dealing with yet. If you have some contacts, ask them if they have any data that you could analyze and write up for them. This links in well with points 1, 2, and 4: you’ll advance your analytical and writing skills, and you can develop it into your own remote internship. 

6 – Science communication

Science communication is an important skill to develop, especially during the COVID pandemic, when science needs to be accessible and trustworthy. It could be the right moment to give science communication a shot. There are different online events you can attend like ComSciCon or Skype a Scientist. They are good ways to start. The twitter #scicomm community is a cool place to build relationships as well. Finally, if you are willing to give marine mammal science communication a shot, we invite you to contact us to discuss writing for Whale Scientists. We publish stories and articles from early-career marine mammalogists. We have internal resources to help you master science communication as well.

Thank you so much for reading! The global COVID pandemic has impacted whale science. And your plans might be on hold for now. But you’ve got this! Do not hesitate to share this with your peers. We all need a bit of positivity!

whale science covid
Katharina Peters
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Katharina J. Peters is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury, New Zeland, and a research associate at Massey University, New Zealand and the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Her research interests lie at the interface of animal behavior, population ecology and evolutionary biology and how to apply this information to better manage the conservation of wild populations and their associated environments. Her current projects focus on population dynamics of Weddell seals in the Ross Sea, Antarctica, reproductive success on bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia, and on the foraging ecology and distribution of odontocetes in New Zealand waters.

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