Elizabeth Henderson

Hometown:  San Diego, CA USA

Current Job Title:  Bioacoustic Scientist

Work Location:  San Diego, CA, USA

Job Description:  My job is to assess the impact of various noise sources on marine mammals, and to apply this knowledge to ensure the US Navy minimizes their impacts on marine life. On a day to day basis this includes analyzing passive acoustic monitoring and marine mammal behavior data, keeping up with the most recent literature in this field, writing reports and papers, and developing predictive models of behavioral responses to noise.

Company, Academic Institution, Government Agency or Non-profit affiliation: Navy Marine Mammal Program, SPAWAR

Highest Degree Level Achieved: and Area of Study: POST DOC Ph.D. in Biological Oceanography

What do you love most about your career?

Studying the behavior of marine mammals is like solving a puzzle with only some of the pieces - the behavior we observe when animals are at the surface is one piece, their vocalizations are another, and their environment is a third. When these pieces come together to create a full picture of how an animal is using their habitat or why they are behaving a certain way, it's what makes my job interesting.

What inspired you to pursue a career in marine science or STEM related field?

I don't think there was a single moment that inspired me - I have always loved the ocean and have been fascinated by animal behavior. As I learned more about the field of marine mammal behavior, I realized that there is more to studying marine mammals than watching them perform at Sea World, or seeing them from a whale watching boat. They have complicated social networks and a diverse range of vocalizations, and most of their behavior goes on where we can't see it. Therefore learning about bioacoustics (the study of the sounds of living things) gave me a tool to observe marine mammals when they are out of sight. And studying the impacts of human noise on marine mammals was a natural progression from there, to help protect the animals that I love.

Describe one of the most exciting moments you’ve experienced in your work.

When I was in Hawaii studying humpback whales, I had the opportunity to be in the water near the whales a few times. Other times the whales would approach our boat or swim right underneath us, and on occasion would breach very close to us. We could hear them singing through the hull of the boat, and felt like we could reach out and touch them.  Being that close to a large whale is an awe-inspiring and humbling feeling.

Describe the biggest challenge (or challenges) that you’ve faced and how did you overcome them?

Studying marine mammals can be expensive and time-consuming work; to observe them out in their natural ocean habitat requires boats, and to record their vocalizations requires expensive equipment. Throughout my Ph.D. program, I had to work with whatever boats or other platforms were available, which often meant weeks at sea and collaborations with other researchers. This made it difficult at times to design an experiment or answer a specific research question, since sometimes I couldn't get all the data I needed or had to compromise with other people. However, over time I had the opportunity to work with great people and gathered enough data to suit my needs, and I was able to turn these limited platforms into a very interesting project.

Who is your most influential mentor and how did they help you get to where you are today?

Dr. Bernd Würsig was my advisor for my Master's thesis. He is one of the best marine mammal behavioral ecologists in the world, and also happens to be an amazing person and incredible mentor. He taught me so much of what I know about marine mammal behavior, but also taught me how to be a scientist - how to think critically, how to observe and ask questions, and how to turn those questions into answers. He continued to help and support me even after my graduate work, and continues to be a friend and mentor to this day.

How do you feel you are making a positive difference in the world?  

I try to make a positive difference by  helping the Navy minimize their noise sources to reduce the impacts of noise on marine mammals. I also think mentoring students and helping to get kids excited about science is important, so future generations continue to care about science and about the environment.