Marine Biology Student Profile – Alexandra Ulmke


At the beginning of her sophomore year, Alex Ulmke had no idea what to major in.  She had grown up visiting her grandparents’ house on a Florida inlet with manatees swimming by, and she wanted to become a marine biologist to save them.  During her freshman year at UW, she took study breaks to watch documentaries about whales.  After taking a course from a UW professor who was researching whales and the Endangered Species Act, she figured out she could tailor her UW education to her fascination with marine mammal conservation.  In her words:

“In the fall of my sophomore year, I was doing my usual close-your-eyes-and-point to pick classes.  I landed on an Intro to Law, Societies, and Justice class (LSJ 200).   That sparked it all for me, with the over-arching question in the class, “Can law save the whales?”  The class explored law as a social mechanism in the broadest sense and applied it to Southern Resident Killer Whales in our area.  

I love everything about whales; I cannot fathom that something can be so large and so smart, yet we know so little about them.  Once I realized that this was my niche, I started taking classes that I could tailor towards this subject. Teachers are open to students’ passions and will often allow you to explore the avenue you want.”

Choosing an Environmental Studies Major and Marine Biology Minor

Because of her experience in LSJ 200, Alex became an Environmental Studies major (PoE), marine biology minor, and LSJ minor.  She explained this process:

“Once I knew that I was on the fast track to studying marine mammals, I realized I needed to get a background in the environment in which they lived.  I had originally planned on being an LSJ major with a minor in Marine Biology, a somewhat polarized approach to conservation.  My Marine Biology advisor, Emily Beyer, recommended that I enroll in my first Environmental Studies class, ENVIR 100 – Introduction to Environmental Studies, because I expressed an interest in bridging the gap between science and policy.  I felt there was a gap in what scientists were strongly suggesting related to conservation and what was communicated to the general public. 

The Environmental Studies major is really a program that tailors itself to individuals, while taking global issues to a local level.  There are many ideas that policy makers, social scientists, and natural scientists all reference that I have learned in my three years being involved in this program.   It is a new program that is experiencing unprecedented growth within the UW community, and I believe this is due to the program’s willingness to work with students and actually hear them.  I have always made a point to tell my advisors that I am heavily interested in marine mammal conservation.  This communication has resulted in me taking dynamic courses that allow me to explore multiple facets of a very complicated issue.”

Starting Research on Southern Resident Killer Whales

After declaring her major and minors, Alex’s time at UW has involved a wealth of field and research experiences, as well as dedicated faculty mentors who have nurtured her interest in marine mammal conservation.  For example, her enthusiasm in LSJ 200 led Dr. Steve Herbert to suggest that she become his research assistant on a project that explores the implementation of the Endangered Species Act with respect to Southern Resident Killer Whales.   She described her work on this project:

“I met Professor Steve Herbert through my LSJ 200 course.  I got to know him simply by going to his office hours and asking him more and more about the material we were studying.  I was so fascinated with everything we were learning in class that I just constantly wanted to know more.  It was this passion that led to him to ask me to be his research assistant.   

My duties involved transcribing interviews from scientists who studied killer whales.  During this work, I learned how to conduct professional interviews to obtain data that will result in a book or other form of academic material.  I also learned about the different perspectives of scientists and policy makers, along with the current research on Resident Killer Whales.

I have continued working for Steve throughout my undergraduate program.  He is now my faculty advisor for my senior capstone.  He has been really crucial in helping me decide on certain classes, as well as setting up my capstone in Friday Harbor.  I advocate getting to know one’s professors and actively establishing a personal relationship with them.”

Traveling to Peru for a UW Field Course

During the summer of her sophomore year, Alex studied abroad on a field course to Peru through a UW Exploration Seminar.  Exploration Seminars are intensive field courses held in September.  Alex talked about the importance of taking this course:

“This was my first real field work experience.   Due to my plan to attend graduate school, I believe that working in a variety of environments is critical to better understanding what you would like to do.  For three weeks, we lived within the Peruvian Amazon and Andes.  We stayed in field stations.  The professors who led the trip were primarily interested in ornithology, so we were up every morning setting up mist nets to catch, tag, and document birds.  Getting up every morning and freezing while you are in the Andes and then sweating in the Amazon was certainly a trying experience.  This intensive field course helped me understand the challenges associated with designing and carrying out your own research.” 

Interning with COASST, UW’s Seabird Lab

During Alex’s junior year, she continued working with Dr. Herbert and began an internship at the COASST Labs, Dr. Julia Parrish’s Seabird Conservation Lab.  COASST includes a citizen science project with 600 volunteers who walk along west coast beaches collecting data on dead seabirds.  The lab examines seabird mortality rates as indicators of environmental health.  Alex described this experience:

“By working with COASST, I was able to understand how an NGO works and how education and outreach play a key role in the success of expanding conservation efforts.  For a long time, I had thought that I would want to work for an organization very similar to COASST, with more of a focus on whale conservation.   

This was my first real internship. I learned the basics of any internship—whether it is related to seabirds or dolphins—including data entry, organization, analysis, education, and outreach.  There also is a huge focus at COASST to communicate with volunteers and incorporate them into the organization.

I really loved the people I worked with, and my supervisors were a driving factor in me finding other internships.  When it came time to ask for a letter of recommendation, it was great to have a supervisor who knew me on a personal level.  The women at COASST were above and beyond helpful. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their guidance and support.” 

 Researching Harbor Seals in New Jersey

With encouragement from her supervisors at COASST, Alex applied for five NSF funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU).  REUs offer talented students a stipend and room and board to work for 8-10 weeks semi-independently on a research project during the summer. Alex was awarded an REU at Rutgers Marine Field Station in New Jersey to research harbor seal diets.  She said:

“I found out about my REU from the national website for Research Experiences for Undergrads.  I was accepted into Rutgers Marine Field Station and was contacted by Dr. Ken Able about working on an ongoing marine mammal project that looked at a winter haul-out population of harbor seals.  The harbor seals had experienced a 67% increase in population size between 1994 and 2010. Researchers are interested in what the seals are foraging on and what is occurring to allow this explosion in population size when many populations are decreasing.

My project is titled “Prey Analysis and Feeding Patterns of Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina concolor) within Little Egg Inlet, New Jersey.” I analyzed sagital otoliths—bones in the inner ears of fish—found in scat samples that were opportunistically collected in winter 2010-2011. Once I removed the otoliths from the scat, I photographed them, and then identified them to genus and species (each otolith is species specific). Then, I measured the otoliths using a computer program. Using a correction factor that accounts for erosion, I was able to gain a rough estimate of the size of fish the seals were foraging on. Once this work was complete, I was able to find the monthly variations in foraging preferences, what size of fish they were foraging on, and generally where they were foraging.   

There was a lot of ownership in this project which is something that I haven’t had in other research that I have done. My mentors have been so open about this being my research and even helping me apply for a travel grant to the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s conference in Tampa this winter. Overall the REU experience was the greatest experience that I have done since entering UW.” 

Marine Biology Quarter at Friday Harbor Labs, UW’s Marine Station

Alex returned to Seattle from New Jersey and moved to San Juan Island to attend the fall Marine Biology Quarter at Friday Harbor Labs (FHL).  There, she took two field courses and a research apprenticeship. She described that program:

“FHL is the most amazing experience.  I asked one of the people I met up there why he chose to come to FHL, and he responded, ‘Because I never met anybody who didn’t like it.’ After spending a quarter up there, I can fully attest to this sentiment.  I did not want to leave.  So many smart people with similar interests surrounded me, but their passions were so varied, which was fascinating.  I found a small family in Friday Harbor, and I will cherish that experience throughout my post graduate career. 

The classes I took at FHL were Marine Biology, Social Change in the Marine Environment, and the Marine Research Apprenticeship.   Marine Biology was a very broad introduction to the various fields one can explore within the marine environment.  Through field trips, lectures, and labs, everyone was able to get a really hands-on experience.  For basically all of the labs, we went out on the dock and collected samples of the things we were learning about in class.  That kind of relationship between the class and the field is something I have never experienced.  FHL is unique in that you are able to directly observe the things you are reading about.

Social change in the marine environment was certainly a class that helped me think of challenges associated with regulating and studying the marine environment.  It was an interesting class to say the least. 

I used my research apprenticeship to work on my Environmental Studies capstone project.  I was analyzing vessel interactions with Southern Resident Killer Whales during the summer of 2011.  For my capstone, I am trying to understand the effects of the first year of a federal vessel law surrounding Southern Resident Killer Whales.  By coordinating with Soundwatch, I have been able to access a plethora of data they collected in the 2011 boater season.  They go out on the water nearly every day to educate and intercept private vessels.  They record vessel counts (detailing the types of vessels and their activity), whale behavior, and any incidents that occur. 

I went out on the water with them in summer for a week.  By assisting in data collection, I was able to witness the Soundwatch process from beginning to end.  Then when I came to FHL in the fall, I helped them “scrub” the data (assuring it is all cohesive), and finally began my analysis.  I looked at violations of the federal law that we saw this summer, as well as at the types of boats we saw around the whales.  Basically – who is out there and what are they doing.  I presented these results for my marine research apprentice.  This upcoming quarter, I will be continuing my analysis and focusing on violations of the new federal law during the first summer that the law was enacted.

Through my capstone work, I have been able to see how policy affects science and the livelihoods of individuals in a small community.  The federal vessel law sent a shockwave through the small San Juan Island community.  I feel that analyzing the effectiveness of the law is a primary mechanism to advance killer whale conservation.”

Joining the Center for Conservation Biology to Study Orcas

Alex recently found a perfect match for her interests and skill-set in the Wassar Lab, where she will continue to study local Orca populations this winter.  The Wassar Lab is known for training dogs to locate scat of many different wildlife species.  The lab monitors species over large landscape areas, as well as examines the scat samples for hormones and DNA.  The lab is active in wildlife conservation efforts around the world.  Alex explains how she got a job in the lab:

“I have been able to cultivate jobs in so many laboratories (COASST, the Wetlands Ecosystem Team, and now the Wassar Lab) by actively searching for jobs but also by emailing people.  I got my job in the Wassar Lab by simply emailing Sam Wassar.  I told him about my work with harbor seal scat, how I was primarily interested in whales, and that I felt my interests would be a great fit for the lab.  The next thing you know, I got the job.

I also was able to go out on the scat collection boat with Tucker (the poop sniffing dog) a couple times while up in Friday Harbor, another thing I wouldn’t have been able to do were I not already there.  This winter, I will be working with the lab working up the scat samples and doing a DNA analysis for stress hormones.  It will be a great opportunity, and I hope that I will be able to create a summer internship at the lab as well.”

Future Plans

Alex will graduate this spring, and plans on continuing on to graduation school.  In her words:

“I certainly want to go to graduate school and ultimately I plan on getting a Ph.D. with a focus in marine mammal conservation.  Throughout my college career, I have been trying to narrow down my passions and specifically figure out what field of marine conservation I want to work in.  By constantly challenging myself and looking for more opportunities, I not only better understand my passion, but also what interests me most.”

Photos from top:

  • Alex on a class fieldtrip at FHL, from Alex
  • Alex in Peru, from Alex
  • Souther Resident Killer Whale, from the Wassar Lab Website
  • Alex photographing birds in Peru, from Alex
  • Alex interning at COASST with bird wings, from Annie Woods
  • Alex looking for otoliths in seal scat (3 photos), from Alex
  • Seal near FHL, from Alex
  • Alex hiking on trails near FHL campus, from Alex
  • Alex working with Soundwatch (2 photos), from Alex
  • Tucker a “Conservation Canine from the Wassar Labs, from the Wassar Lab Website