Six years of Maine Sea Grant Undergraduate Scholarships at COA: Part 2

June 1 is the deadline for the Maine Sea Grant Undergraduate Scholarship.  In a previous post, I highlighted the first group of COA students to have these scholarships. I thought I’d focus again on the recipients of this scholarship, but this time look at the four current students that have the awards, Leena Vaher, Emma Ober, Aya Kumagai, and Aliza Leit.  For me, what I think they illustrate really well is the diversity of ways that students navigate our curriculum, and how they use their own combination of opportunities to produce a really strongly focused curriculum, even when that focus differs dramatically among students. 

Among the student summaries below, there are some common themes. All of them have spent time off campus taking classes , either on a boat (SEA semester) or in a different country (Mexico, New Zealand). All of them have spent time doing fieldwork, either at marine labs, one of our island research stations (Great Duck Island or Mount Desert Rock), or in the local mudflats or intertidal streams. Finally, all of them are working with marine resources and people, either fishermen, aquaculturists or tourists, and are trying to communicate their work to a broader audience.  It’s a great group of students and I hope you enjoy their summaries and pictures – Chris 

Aliza and Emma seining in Northeast Creek on Mount Desert Island attempting to get  silversides for a Cornell Professor studying their genetics (COA alum Nina Therkildsen)

Leena Vaher ’21. I am a third-year student and my interest at COA is to combine conservation biology with filmmaking in order to enhance communication between science and the public. I have always been interested in both of these subjects and COA has offered unique resources and opportunities that have helped me to draw connections between these two fields.

Leena-mdr-falcon-redDuring the past two years, I have spent some time on one of the COA Islands,  Mount Desert Rock. During the first summer out there, I immersed myself in the wildlife and followed around harbor and grey seals, herring and great lack-backed gulls, various shorebirds, falcons who were rare visitors, and anyone really who moved. My goal was to capture the life that a small rock in the middle of the Atlantic ocean offers. It was an amazing opportunity since every day the Rock became larger and larger, as I found more interesting behaviors to capture and stories to document. Just a few examples could be seeing a Spotted sandpiper hunting down a fly or hearing male Grey seals hauling in dusk. Also, being surrounded by the ocean, one has to be creative with repairs or new ideas. It was a wonderful experience to be limited by resources and be creative with existing materials we had on the Rock in order to build something useful for my project.

Leena-and-mdr-crewThe second summer brought me back to the Rock but this time into a slightly different role — I interned as a co-station manager of the research station. Together with a fellow station-manager, we pioneered an experiment to build an “underwater camera trap” which actually was a buoy with an attached GoPro camera. We tried to capture footage of predatory fish around the Rock and did manage to see Pollock, Haddock, and diving Cormorants. We never got footage of our “target” species, Great White Shark, but we saw it swimming further away. An exciting project to continue! The summer also offered several learning experiences in leadership and offered so many good friendships. (PS – We have included another short video of Lenna’s at the end of this post.)

elversAnother opportunity to bridge science and media was in a class called Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities where for my final project, I had a chance to follow a small segment of life of diadromous fish — elvers and Alewives crossing the Somesville dam. We were all connected with a local fisheries person and I met Rustin Taylor who taught me about the elver fishery and much more. It was really interesting to film elvers who had swam all the way from the Sargasso Sea and now climbed over a few meters tall dam wall, creating a mass that covered half of the concrete wall. I learned about resilience and dedication looking at these two species. (You can see the short video on Maine Sea Grant’s you tube channel or in a previous blogpost on anadromous fishes here).

Little did I know that a year later, I had a chance to sail in the Sargasso Sea and see eel larvae in a different stage. I participated in the SEASemester Study Abroad program and we sailed in the Caribbean Sea in order to learn about colonization, conservation and everything in between. Because of the COVID-19, the ship continued to sail instead of making port stops on Caribbean islands and we sailed over the Puerto Rico trench as well as in the Sargasso Sea where we did Neuston net toes. My individual research project focused on seabird foraging and I was lucky to continue sailing and to study seabird colonies near remote islands that one can only see from a ship.

I do not know what will come next but one is sure, I will continue to use film as a tool to communicate science with a wider audience since there are so many stories to share!

emma-at-clarks-cove.-redEmma Ober ’20.   Coming to COA, I started my education by exploring marine biology, something that I did not get a lot of exposure to growing up in Vermont. I found that I really loved the subject and have continued to delve deeper into ocean sciences throughout my time at COA. I completed an internship with Allied Whale during the summer between my first and second years. This involved working as a deckhand and research assistant on whale watch trips with Bar Harbor Whale Watch. I also got to spend half the summer on Mount Desert Rock, COA’s remote marine mammal research station. I loved living in the field and working with other researchers on ongoing studies as well as our own studies.

After that summer, I spent a little more time exploring marine mammal science before turning my attention to other areas. In particular, I became interested in studying fisheries science as I feel that it is an area of marine biology that can have a big impact on the lives of people around the world as well as on marine organisms and ecosystems. Over the next summer, I completed an internship at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center (DMC) where I worked on a project that is attempting to develop a soft-shell green crab fishery to help control the growing population of this invasive species.

Left – Emma with her green crab poster from her summer at DMC. Right -Emma in Kino Bay with a mural she worked on while taking classes at Prescott College’s field station.

After leaving the DMC I decided to try to fill my craving for a study abroad experience by completing an ecoleague semester in Sonora, Mexico through the Prescott College Kino Bay Program. I spent six months at Prescott College’s field station in Kino Bay, along with two other COA students, Leah Rubin and Aliza Leit. Part of this was spent in a marine conservation field course where I worked with two other students to create an extensive report on small-scale fisheries in the area. I also spent a month in a Spanish immersion course learning beginner Spanish and living with a family in the town of Kino Viejo.

Young soft-shell clams

Young soft-shell clams doing well when protected from predation in screened boxes.

After returning from Mexico, I’ve focused on local fishery work for my senior project with a series of studies looking at different aspects of the soft-shell clam fishery in Downeast Maine. I am currently working on writing up a study we completed this past summer looking at predation of juvenile clams in different mudflats on Mount Desert Island – a project that I am handing off to Aliza this summer. This coming summer, I will be involved with a study analyzing data from annual reports submitted to the Maine Department of Marine Resources by towns in Downeast Maine to attempt to evaluate the strategies towns are using to manage their soft-shell clam resources.

costa-rica-field-notebookAya Kumagai ’21. I am currently in Hakodate, a port city that is located on the southern tip of Hokkaido (northern most of the four main islands that makes Japan). I am working in a seabird-researching lab at Hokkaido University as my internship. I am part of a research project that is looking at how seabirds might be impacted by offshore windfarms. My personal project is about the flight height of Black-tailed gulls. The plan was to leave for an offshore filed site late this month (April), but this has been postponed due to the current pandemic. If I do get to go to the island (which I really hope!!), I will be tagging two different species of gulls with GPS loggers that can give us information on where the gulls have been and how high they were flying. I will be analyzing this data to see what might impact how high the gulls fly, and I will also be learning ways to create a sensitivity map of Black-tailed gulls for offshore windfarms. The plan is to take these findings and experience back to Maine and see what applies to the gulls that breed off the coast of Maine. Both Maine and Hokkaido are areas with great potential for offshore windfarms, but also has many seabird breeding islands. I am very excited to see what might apply between these two places.

Great Duck lighthouse and the pier at Hakodate – pictures by Aya

aya-with-petrel-chickMy interest in seabirds started two summers ago when I visited Great Duck Island after my first year at COA. I was only on the island for a week, but I got to tag along with students that had projects out on the island. I got to see my first Leach’s Storm Petrel in Chole’s hand (a student that was on the island). It was like magic, and that moment, I decided that I wanted to spend my next summer on Great Duck Island researching petrels. The following summer that I spent on Great Duck Island was the best summer I have ever spent so far in my life. I investigated whether vegetation type influenced petrel burrow density and conducted a population estimate. Not only I got to practice filed-research skills (ex. using GPS units to map features, banding petrels, and taking field notes) and got the opportunity to present a poster at a conference, I also got to make many mistakes in a safe environment and learnt a lot of lessons (ex. data entry should happen every day while you can remember the details but also the importance of taking filed notes that you can read a year later and make sense out of it, string your field notes on to you so you don’t accidentally drop it when going through bushes, and more.) Sunsets were always different and beautiful, and I got to share those with friends and other creatures on the island. It was very special.

As you might be able to tell from this story, I enjoy fieldwork and my interest/passion is with ecology and conservation. These interests have taken me to many places since I came to COA. I’ve been to Eastern California in an Environmental-STEM field method course with COA geologist Sarah Hall.  I also had the opportunity to spend a term in Costa Rica with a Tropical Ecology/Conservation/Science through the lens of Art course that Stephen Ressel and Jenny Rock. We visited various field stations and conducted multiple field research projects.  It was a fascinating experience to find questions in the field and think about ways to try and answer them, but it was even more fascinating to be immersed with so many unknowns of the tropical rainforest and left with even more questions. We also got to interact with field station managers, guides, and entrepreneurs that made me re-think what conservation meant for Costa Rica and for other places on this earth.

Leena and Aya also took part in a 2-day workshop on facilitating meetings run by Maine Sea Grant (pictured above).  Left – Leena and Aya on the left with MSG staff and UMO graduate students. Right – Aya presenting and Lenna on the right listening.

I also have had the opportunity to work in Dr. Beth Dumont’s lab at Jackson Laboratory. The broad objective of this lab is to better understand the causes of various mechanisms that generates genetic diversity. I was fascinated by the idea of using genetics as a way to explore my interest in ecology and evolution. My personal project at the lab looks at the DNA satellite sequence variation in voles. The overarching goal is to assess the role of satellite DNA sequence turnover in the evolutionary history and speciation of voles. Through this experience, I was able to familiarize myself with the topics in evolutionary genetics (with a focus on microsatellites), gained skills in bioinformatics and coding (with lots of help from Dan Gatti and researchers at the lab), and had a firsthand experience of working in a research lab outside of COA. Just like the rainforest in Costa Rica, mechanisms that could be contributing to genetic diversity is full on unknowns! I hope to continue working at the lab once I am back at COA.


Aliza Liet ’21. Taking Chris Petersen’s marine biology class my freshman year at COA gave me the opportunity to explore my relationship with the ocean. After this class I became completely enamored by marine ecosystems and began seeking out other unique and exciting ways to learn about marine conservation, aquaculture, and fisheries. Through the Ecoleague program I studied at Prescott College’s Kino Bay Field Station in Sonora, Mexico on the Gulf of California during the fall of my sophomore year. This immersive and memorable experience deepened my understanding of  marine protected areas, the impacts of industrial fishing fleets, and community led marine conservation efforts (Image on left from a shrimp trawl in the Gulf of California). Throughout the spring of my sophomore year I collected, counted, and staged orange footed sea cucumber plankton from Frenchman Bay to assist Chris with an ongoing research project. I also helped install clam recruitment boxes to better understand predation and environmental stressors on soft shell clam populations for another ongoing research project.

Aliza-touch-tankIn the fall of my junior year I left the U.S. once again to study abroad, this time in New Zealand through a consortium agreement. I studied aquaculture, biological oceanography, and marine invertebrate ecology and biology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. This spring I am using each of these experiences to shape COA’s new Meat and Seafood Purchasing Policy which I am working on with two other students as a group independent study. In addition to working towards enacting policy change this year at an institutional level, I received a Maine Space Grant to work on a clam recruitment experiment and will be socially distancing on the mudflats this upcoming summer of 2020.

To wrap things up, here is a short video from Leena on a day at Mount Desert Rock

About marinestudiesatcoa

Chris is a professor of marine ecology and policy at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine
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