Marine Mammalogy Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals 2015: San Fransisco

Holly Armstrong

Plymouth University


I would like to thank the Challenger Society for granting me a Travel Award which helped fund me to attend the 21st Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals. The conference was a fantastic experience and it would not have been possible to attend without the Society’s generous support.

At the conference I presented a four minute speed talk entitled: ‘Heat shock protein gene expression in blubber of grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) pups during suckling and the post weaning fast: effects of development rather than contaminant exposure?’ during the Physiology session. This was my first oral presentation at a large international conference and it was an exciting, yet nerve wracking, experience. It was very beneficial to have the chance to present my research to a wider audience of scientists, outside of my supervisory team and institution, and also receive feedback. I was also able to support friends and colleagues during their own talks and poster sessions. I was happy to gain insight into the latest marine mammal research across a range of species and disciplines and, as I near the end of my PhD, consider potential collaborations with individuals and institutions whose work is similar to my own research interests.

I particularly enjoyed a talk in the ‘Health’ session by Dr Peter Cook (‘The neurobehavioral effects of naturally occurring domoic acid toxicosis in wild California sea lions’), whose work has shown that sea lions exposed to domoic acid had lesions in their hippocampus and exhibited reduced performance in spatial memory tasks; this could potentially lead to increased strandings and reduced body condition if foraging ability is compromised. There were many other enjoyable talks and posters in all sessions, including Ecology, Behaviour and the specific Sea Otter session.   

Additionally, I attended a workshop at the beginning of the conference, ‘Genomics Workshop II’, which though is not specifically my research field, there are important elements directly related to my research. For example, a presentation by a research group sequencing the Northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) genome was of particular interest as their published sequences are high quality and make it easier for me to design specific and functioning primers for my qRT-PCR (quantitative real-time PCR). The workshop also provided a good insight into choosing and using genomic techniques, and the different applications for genomics that are already being used to answer important questions in marine mammal biology.

I found that the conference was made up of friendly and interactive attendees and this provided a supportive atmosphere, which certainly catered for early career scientists. I came away from the conference having learnt new things, made some new friends and contacts, but just as importantly with a renewed enthusiasm for my own PhD techniques and data. 

Profile I completed my undergraduate degree in Marine Biology at the University of Portsmouth, and then went on to do an MSc in Applied Marine and Fisheries Ecology at the University of Aberdeen. My Honours project investigated the effect of PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) on the regeneration of the Sabellid worm Sabella pavonina, whilst my MSc research went in a different direction and focussed on the use of a bean protein concentrate (from faba beans) as an alternative protein source in feeds for commercially farmed Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar). I am currently at Plymouth University in the third year of my PhD which is entitled: ‘Eustress and distress in marine mammals: understanding the causes of cellular stress and the consequences for tissue function and whole animal health’. My focal species has been the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) which has a fascinating physiology (e.g. female animals fasting during lactation). It has been a fantastic experience so far, with a mix of intensive field and laboratory work. I have spent a large amount of my time optimising the molecular and cell culture techniques that allow me to collect my data. The majority of my data so far has come from utilising qRT-PCR, investigating the gene expression of different stress markers (in particular heat shock proteins and antioxidants) in the blubber of suckling grey seal pups and lactating adult females.

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