Women of STEM

A profile series highlighting women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

Kelsey Stone, Aerial Observer and Research Assistant at the New England Aquarium

Kelsey Stone, Aerial Observer and Research Assistant at the New England Aquarium

Kelsey Stone, Aerial Observer and Research Assistant at the New England Aquarium

Connect with Kelsey via her LinkedIn page

What do you do?

I work in the research department at the New England Aquarium in Boston, MA. There are a variety of marine animals that live off the coast of New England and I study them in a specific area that is South of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Islands. This area has been deemed the location for future wind farm development. This is awesome because wind energy could be an alternative to fossil fuels, but this will mean there will be construction activities and wind turbines in an area that is used by many ocean animals like sea turtles, whales, dolphins, and sharks.

My job is to understand when and how these animals use this habitat so that we can better protect them and predict how wind energy development may affect them. We do this by flying over the area in small planes and collecting data on the species we see there. I act as an observer on these flights and record data and take photographs of the animals we encounter. I also analyze the data, and photos and then write reports and papers on our findings.

What does a typical day look like in your role?

I have two types of days, flight days and office days. Flight days are extremely long and take a lot of planning! Before we can fly, we have to put together a flight crew, check the weather, and prepare equipment.

A full flight takes about 8 hours up in the air so it is important to get an early start because we can only fly in daylight. We pack up equipment, drive to the airport, load up the plane, and hook up our cameras, tablet, headsets, and GPS. Once in the area and over the water, we actively scan the water for any signs of life. We record all animals, boats, marine debris, and anything else noteworthy. We record information about sightings and info about the weather with voice recorders and also take down paper data. If we see North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species that migrates along the east coast of the US, we break off our designated track line and take photos of them so we can identify individual animals by their unique facial markings. This involves circling the whale and photographing it from an open plane window! It is a pretty crazy experience and it is very difficult to get a good shot!

After the day of flying, we have to unload the plane, pack up equipment, and transcribe all the data we collected onto a computer. These days are often 12 to 18 hours long! We only fly two days a month, however, so the other days are spent at my office where we look at the data we collected, run statistics, and write up reports. These days are not as fun, but they are super important!

What is the coolest part of your job?

The best part of my job is seeing amazing animals from the air! You never know what you will encounter and our flights give us a bird’s eye view on the action. Whether it is a large pod of traveling common dolphins, a group of feeding sei whales, or a great white shark swimming at the surface, the experience is always so cool! Seeing these animals in their natural environment and witnessing their behavior from above is something few people are ever lucky enough to do, and I try never to take the opportunity for granted.

Were you interested in science as a kid?

I’ve always loved science. Experiments in school were always my favorite. I also loved field trips outdoors and that involved science. I’ll never forget a field trip when I was in the 3rd grade where we went to the beach and went tide-pooling! It was so much fun; I loved finding animals and learning about how they lived. I was also a member of my school’s science club called The Freaks of Nature in the 6th grade. We planted gardens, spent the night at the zoo, and went spelunking in caves! It was the best.

What kinds of challenges did you face to get to where you are now?

Marine biology is a tough science and not just working with interesting animals. The schooling is incredibly difficult and courses like organic chemistry, cellular biology, and engineering calculus were required as part of my undergraduate degree. Many long nights were spent cramming in the library! It isn’t just about studying dolphins and the “cute” animals; it is about understanding ocean ecosystems and organisms on all levels, big and small!

Getting into studying animals like whales is especially competitive and there are many people who want the very few jobs that exist. Funding for most research is very limited and it takes years of hard work, which is often unpaid in the form of internships, lab work, and field projects, to become established in the field. Most jobs require long hours in extreme weather, lots of data crunching/computer work, and often exhausting tasks like loading equipment and cleaning boats. BUT, the challenges you overcome make you a better scientist and researcher and it is all worth it.

The ocean and the animals that live in it are amazing and important for a healthy world. I am so happy I play a small role in understanding and protecting these organisms and ecosystems all while experiencing them in nature.

What advice would you give others on navigating from entry level positions to more leadership roles?

It takes a lot of hard work to move up in marine mammal biology work. Only those really dedicated move up and it is because they are extremely devoted, adaptable, and passionate. A huge part of this work is being a team player. My type of work often involves living on boats or in field houses with lots of people or flying long hours in small planes. Having a positive attitude is very important in these situations as it can easily get tiring and stressful. The field is small and everyone knows each other, so if you are hard to work with or don’t pull your weight, that information will get around and you will likely not be promoted or hired for another position. Marine mammal scientists are a community and make up a network of connections; most of my jobs have come from recommendations from those I have worked for or with in the past.

What would you tell a high school student interested in pursuing marine biology?

Don’t think that being a marine biologist means you get to play with dolphins every day! While, some marine biologists do train dolphins, it is only a small portion. Many study marine invertebrates or work in labs analyzing genetics or do field research like I do. It is a vast field and there are so many amazing things to learn! Be ready to study hard and take every opportunity you can to be involved! There are wonderful volunteer positions, internships, and study-abroad programs that will expose you to awesome aspects of marine science and the more experience you have and contacts you can make, the better!

How can people interested in marine biology get involved or learn more?

There are so many cool citizen science projects that allow for the public to get involved in marine biology and other types of science. Many aquariums and research organizations look for volunteers to help educate the public or help process data. Shoot some emails around and see if any near you could use some help! There are also many marine conservation and research organizations that hold events and fundraisers. Try to get involved and maybe even become a member! Check out the American Cetacean Society (acsonline.org). It is the oldest whale and dolphin conservation organization in the world and they have local chapters in different parts of the country.

Additionally, many of your daily habits can negatively affect the ocean, even if you don’t realize it. Consider making small changes in your life like bringing reusable shopping bags to the store, not dumping harmful chemical down, the drain, picking up litter, making sustainable seafood choices, and refusing plastics when you can (and re-using and recycling them when you can’t).

Jennifer Hawkins, Brewer and Co-Owner of Tomoka Brewing Company

Jennifer Hawkins, Brewer and Co-Owner of Tomoka Brewing Company