I wanted to gain real research experience beyond the scope of what labs and classes could offer, and when I heard about the CURE course in my Mammalogy class I knew this was the perfect opportunity! I had some experience with bioacoustics research prior to this course, but the opportunity to evaluate new data and try new tools proved to be invaluable. This course provides an unrivaled opportunity to practice scientific writing, data analysis, and presentation skills that could result in a publishable paper and benefit real-world issues. CURE is one of the most beneficial courses anyone could take who is hoping to enter the scientific field.
In a time when Covid-19 related restrictions were limiting opportunities for field work, our work this semester provided the unique chance to study how these conditions had influenced marine life. I was able to research the question of whether marine protected areas in Panama were adequately preserving biodiversity by comparing the biological noise levels of protected and non-protected areas in Panama from recordings taken in 2020. My hypothesis was that if marine protected areas were preserving biodiversity, they would have higher biological noise levels than non-protected areas. I was able to select recordings from two protected sites in Coiba National Park and two non-protected sites in Islas Secas using tools from Arbimon RFCx. Once these files were selected, we were able to use a program called dBWave to measure noise levels for each location and compare them. We discovered that the non-protected areas actually had higher levels of biological noise than the protected areas! These results implicate the need for further investigation to determine whether human activities should be further mitigated in marine protected areas. The higher noise levels in non-protected areas were unlikely to be a result of boat noise given the pandemic restrictions on outdoor recreation and travel. The high noise levels could have been attributed to vocalizations made by humpback whales, but if this is the case their abundance in non-protected areas could warrant increased protections in those areas.
These results were significant enough to warrant further investigation into the effectiveness of marine protected areas in Panama, especially considering that Panama has been issued sanctions in the past for not effectively regulating its illegal fishing activity. This has opened the opportunity for me to continue working on this project with Dr. May-Collado and another student who conducted a similar analysis. I am hoping that our combined work will result in a paper that can be published and benefit the conservation efforts of the country. This is one of the most valuable takeaways from this course; the chance to conduct work that has the potential to benefit not only you and your skills as a researcher, but to actively contribute to real-world conservation efforts. Dr. May-Collado is an excellent mentor who will guide you through your research efforts and inevitable pitfalls. You will experience the frustrations and tediousness of working with an expansive dataset and the pride of creating a professional final product. If you have any interest in research, this class will be invaluable in honing the skills you will need in a job or while completing a Master’s or PhD project. I cannot recommend this course highly enough!