Joining Dr Noonanís Marine Mammal Research Team?

I'm glad you might be interested in assisting in the research I am conducting.  As you discuss this with me over the next few days, please keep in mind the following considerations. 

The process of aligning yourself with a research team is a lot like matchmaking.  The goal on both sides is to find the best possible fit between the interests, skills and abilities of the student with the opportunities, techniques, and demands of the chosen research project.  It is also important to make a good personal match as well.  You may find the atmospheres of some research teams to be more or less formal than you prefer, more or less stressful, and so on.  Interestingly, one student may experience the atmosphere of the same team differently than another.  The idea is to find the best match for you. 

Because of this, I want you to learn as much as possible about my research, my existing team of student research assistants, and about me.  This means we should both expect the process to take a little time. 

Two types of activities:

Generally speaking, my research activities are of two types:  Marineland-based and laboratory-based. 

At Marineland, we conduct both passive observations (using data-collection protocols programmed into laptop computers) and experimental testing (probing the animal's ability to solve problems presented to them on stimulus cards).  These activities are almost always team-based efforts where we work together toward a common goal.  

At Canisius, we analyze video and hydrophone recordings of the whale's behavior.  We are trying to learn more about how they are coping with captivity and how they communicate with each other.  In this setting, it is often the case that smaller groups of students or individuals work on different projects. 

Which of these two types of work is right for you?  That depends.  Here are some considerations:

The Marineland work tends to be very early in the morning and it takes place outdoors in all sorts of weather.  It also involves the handling of large quantities of raw fish.  If you are not a weather-hearty, morning person, who can tolerate fish smells, this type of work may not be right for you. 

On the other hand, the lab-based work tends to be lengthy.  One needs to approach it with a long view and a great deal of diligence and patience.  If the idea of listening to whale recordings for many hours seems too slow paced for you, then this might be a poor match. 

I know that some students mostly are seeking live animal experience and are therefore mostly seeking time with me at Marineland.  Thatís OK.  If that is your main interest, be sure to tell me this clearly.  I know that some students want to try everything.  Thatís OK.  If that is you, be sure to tell me clearly.  I know that some students would really like a project of their own Ė something that could lead to a conference presentation and/or a publication with their name on it.  Of course, thatís OK too.  If that is you, be sure to let me know this.  Sometimes the level of involvement changes.  Thatís also OK.  Just be sure to keep me updated.

Levels of involvement:

It is normal to begin the process by "shadowing".  If you are interested, you should arrange with me to tag along at Marineland and/or sit in during data collection in the laboratory.  This will test your ability to handle the early hours, the cold, the tedium, etc.  After that, you will be more informed and our subsequent conversations will be based upon clear expectations.  At that point, the amount of time that you want to put in to the effort and the kinds of contributions you'll be able to make will be easier for us to discuss. 

After that, there are four general ways students get involved in research: 

  • As a volunteer
  • In pursuit of academic credit (under Research Seminar or other suitable course title)
  • As a paid work-study student
  • On a specially funded research assistantship (under the CEEP/HHMI programs or other applicable grant)

Normally, there is a progression in the roles that you play.  If you are a beginner at the study of animal behavior, at working around large animals, at computer programming, at audio file manipulation, you will have to start with the simplest tasks.  (And don't worry.  Everyone starts out as a beginner.)  Over months, as you acquire experience and skills, you are likely to move on to more and more complex and substantial contributions. 

A minimum investment:

Even if you are volunteering, think in terms of 6-9 hours per week as the least amount of time you will be putting into the project.  The reasons for this has to do with the amount of time needed for training you, and the amount of time needed to reasonably expect you to make a beneficial contribution to the effort.  Just to learn to distinguish the individual whales and to learn our most basic data collections protocols takes a few sessions.  Then, quite a few hours of carefully supervised practice are necessary where you will gradually get better and better at recognizing and recording behavioral codes.  You will have to practice until the point where you match a standard of inter-rater reliability. 

Maybe this will take you 20 hours of practice; maybe it will take 40.  How long it takes doesn't matter too much.  What does matter is that you don't spend all of your time with my team just practicing.  For your sake and mine, we want you to eventually get on to something meaningful.  We do not want to invest 20 to 40 hours in training you if that is where it will end.  A research assistantship takes on the form of something like an exchange of benefits.  You get experience and training.  I get useable and useful data.  This way it is beneficial and worthwhile on both sides of the equation.  In order for this to happen, you will need to minimally invest one hour per day or two hours every other day. 

Last word:

Please keep in mind that there are almost always more students who are seeking research assistantships than there are places to put them.  The process is sometimes quite competitive and not everyone gets accepted.  When this happens, I will do my best to guide you toward other equally good opportunities. 




Contact Info: Michael Noonan, PhD, Canisius College , 2001 Main St., Buffalo, NY 14208