The Return To Fieldwork

Panoramic image of a field research site
Photo by Priya Shukla

Even in the most unusual of times, the importance of research remains.

Four UC Davis students in the marine sciences recount the very different ways in which their research has been affected by the pandemic and how they are cautiously resuming critical and time-sensitive fieldwork under unique circumstances.

Click or scroll to see each student’s story:

Ben Rubinoff, Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate Group in Ecology
Maddy Frey, Undergraduate Student in the Marine and Coastal Science Major
Priya Shukla, Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate Group in Ecology
Leah Mellinger, Graduate Student in Animal Biology

Ben Rubinoff

Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate Group in Ecology

I learned of the severity of the global pandemic while in the middle of a research fellowship in Panama. I had to choose between staying in Panama with fewer resources, waiting for the pandemic to end, or returning to California and abandoning the months of challenging field research I had just completed. This was an extremely difficult decision to make, but I’m glad I chose to return home to California. If I would have stayed in Panama, I would have been stuck there indefinitely (my flight was one of the last ones out of the country). I’m upset to have had to pause my project in Panama, but I plan on returning next year with my field methods perfected, if travel to Panama is permitted.

Ending my project in Panama early has allowed me to start focusing on the data I have collected, and I am writing up the first chapter of my dissertation to submit as a manuscript by the end of summer. In this process, I have realized that there are some additional field data that would help improve the story of my second chapter. As such, I’ve designed a scaled-down field experiment this summer with COVID-19 in mind. 

Ben Rubinoff's Fieldwork
In this experiment, Ben Rubinoff has deployed cages inside and outside of eelgrass with settlement plates inside that collect filter-feeding invertebrates at Sacramento Landing in Tomales Bay, CA. With the cage, the invertebrates inside are protected from predators; however, Ben will expose these invertebrates to predators at different times in the summer to identify the stage of community development that predators are most influential.

Most of my field research allows for social distancing since one person is calling out data while the other person is recording it. Since I’m unable to mentor an intern this summer (no in-person mentoring is allowed), I have been relying on the help of other grad students, technicians, friends, and my partner in collecting the last pieces of essential data for my dissertation. It’s been very rewarding to help other students with socially distanced fieldwork in return for some help with my own! As a field ecologist, I constantly have to balance research with safety, and the decisions I made to return home and continue with socially distanced research here allow me to still complete my dissertation on time while reducing my risk and exposure to COVID-19.

Ben Rubinoff's Fieldwork
Ben Rubinoff measures eelgrass health and the amount of invertebrate fouling on blades in Tomales Bay, CA. Eelgrass serves as a habitat for many organisms, including the filter-feeding invertebrates that Ben studies; however, these invertebrates can weigh down eelgrass blades preventing them from getting the sunlight they need.

Maddy Frey

Undergraduate Student in the Marine and Coastal Science Major

Maddy Frey, an undergraduate student in the Marine and Coastal Science major in the UC Davis Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute, returned to fieldwork at the Bodega Marine Reserve this month as part of the UC Natural Reserve System's Field Science Fellowship. This fellowship provides financial support for undergraduate students conducting research in the field at one of the 41 reserves in the Natural Reserve System. In between expeditions into the field, we caught up with her for a quick virtual interview about her research:

Tubulanus sexlineatus
A charismatic Nemertean: Tubulanus sexlineatus

Maddy’s project aims to quantify the hidden diversity of Nemerteans (ribbon worms) in the Bodega Bay region. She, and others, believe that there may be 2 to 3 times the number of species in the area than currently known. 

“My advisor (Dr. Eric Sanford) and I both love exploring the incredible diversity of the California coast, but understanding baseline diversity is also extremely important in a time when environmental conditions are changing around us.” Frey explains “If we don't know what lives around us, we will struggle to see shifting populations or protect vulnerable ecosystems. Plus, it's amazing to see new things, including the discovery of several species new to science!”

Maddy Frey's Fieldwork
Horseshoe Cove - See live conditions at the cove on the Bodega Webcam:

Although returning to fieldwork in the midst of a pandemic is challenging, this project needed to be completed during an 8 week period, and this was the only available opportunity for her to do so prior to starting her final year before graduation. By following UC Davis’ Field Work Safety requirements for COVID-19, though, she’s been able to gather the data she needs to complete this time-sensitive project safely.

Maddy Frey's Fieldwork
Maddy Frey searches for Nemerteans at the Bodega Harbor mudflats (Photo credit: Jackie Sones).

Priya Shukla

Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate Group in Ecology

Priya Shukla

As a graduate student researcher in the middle of the pandemic, I am experiencing anxiety about how this will affect me and my loved ones, uncertainty about the future, and guilt when I prepare for fieldwork when favorable tides are expected. Doing research right now is hard – not only Oystersbecause the pandemic makes things logistically difficult, but also because it can seem like a trivial endeavor while we are in the midst of a public health crisis. However, my research is also highly relevant - focuses on how climate change is affecting temperature-associated diseases that the shellfish farming industry in California grapples with. Climate change has not paused during the pandemic, and it seems ever more important to explore ways to protect this industry – already affected by our current economic crisis – from other factors that could compromise their productivity.

To ensure that my research is not adding to the burden this pandemic imposes, I go to my field sites alone (with a contact who knows my whereabouts) or with my husband, who has proven himself to be an incredibly helpful field hand. Although my research started a few months later than I had planned, I was able to deploy this experiment when the seawater is quite warm, so I may still be able to observe any disease outbreaks that the oysters experience. While devastating for the oysters, this could serve to inform the industry (and me!) about how we might help the oysters become more resistant to such outbreaks in the future. 

Make sure to follow the UC Davis Unfold Podcast and listen for an upcoming episode with an interview of Priya by Amy Quinton. The interview was conducted in the field, from a distance, while Priya worked on this research.

Panoramic View of Tomales Bay

Leah Mellinger

Graduate Student in Animal Biology

Juvenile Chinook salmon
Trinity hatchery spring run juvenile Chinook salmon that has fully smolted (transitioned to sea water). Note the camouflage!

Leah Mellinger is a Ph.D. student, NSF Sustainable Oceans NRT Fellow, and California Sea Grant Graduate Research Fellow who is studying how fish respond to environmental stressors ranging from biotic (such as parasites and pathogens) to abiotic (such as poor water quality and toxicants). She is currently working on two projects related to how juvenile Chinook salmon experience the rivers during outmigration in order to better understand the reasons behind mass mortality and poor numbers reaching the ocean. One of her projects is on juvenile spring-run Chinook salmon survival on the San Joaquin River. By sampling juvenile salmon from exposure cages along the outmigration route, Mellinger is able to analyze the sublethal stresses, pathogens, and immune responses of the salmon. 

Juvenile Chinook salmon
Trinity hatchery spring run juvenile Chinook salmon that has fully smolted (transitioned to sea water). Note the camouflage!

This project was funded by Delta Science Council and was a collaborative effort between NOAA, USFWS, DWR, UC Davis (Fangue Lab and Rypel Lab), CDFW, and the San Joaquin Hatchery.

The second project is aimed at understanding how different Chinook salmon brood stocks (Iron Gate fall run and Trinity spring-run Chinook salmon) tolerate the pathogen Ceratonova shasta (C.shasta) and how exposure to C.shasta affects outmigration success and smoltification in the Klamath River. This study was conducted at Oregon State University’s (OSU) Aquatic Animal Health Lab (AAHL). At AAHL, the brood stocks were exposed to C.shasta for different lengths of time to mimic conditions within Klamath river after hatchery release, and then simulated outmigration of the main channel of Klamath river to the Pacific Ocean.

River polychaete tray infected with C. shasta
River polychaete tray infected with C. shasta

This project was funded by NSF Sustainable Oceans NRT, CA Sea Grant, and the Yurok Tribe Educational Department and was a collaborative effort between NOAA, USFWS, OSU (Bartholomew Lab), UC Davis (Fangue Lab and Todgham Lab), CDFW, ODFW, Yurok Tribe, Karuk Tribe, Hoopa Valley Tribe, Trinity River Hatchery and the Iron Gate Hatchery.

Leah’s work is mostly in remote areas that don’t require large teams of people, which allows them to minimize the risk of unnecessary exposure. The remote nature of this work, coupled with adherence to federal, state, and UC Davis guidelines of quarantining, wearing face masks, social distancing, hand washing, sanitizing vehicles and equipment, and keeping working groups small, has allowed them to continue work uninterrupted throughout the pandemic. This is very good news for the species she works with, which are of great concern commercially and ecologically, and the research she is conducting which, if paused, could set recovery efforts back several years.

“It always feels good to be on a boat in the sun and doing the work I love.” Mellinger says, “It was a little difficult in the beginning navigating the new restrictions and regulations, but in following them we have maintained the safety of our lab mates.”

Exposure cages in the Delta-San Joaquin River confluence
Exposure cage set line in the Delta-San Joaquin River confluence. Note that every black ring is the top of a submerged cage that is 3 feet deep. 


More Resources from UC Davis about COVID-19:

Coronavirus Campus Information
Office of Research COVID-19 Resources
UC Davis Campus Ready Plan


Santa Rosa Junior College and Bodega Marine Laboratory Offer Innovative Internship Opportunities

Bodega Marine Laboratory
Bodega Marine Laboratory - Photo by Fred Greaves

This partnership between the Santa Rosa Junior College and the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory brings research projects to life and illuminates a path from junior college to university. 

About the internship program

For the past five years, this graduate student-directed program has been a bridge between Santa Rosa Junior College students with an interest in the marine sciences and the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory and Bodega Marine Reserve. As interns, the Junior College students are paired with mentors and given access to the tools, training, and time in the lab needed to design and conduct their own research projects.

This internship program relies on a combination of resources to operate, but one of the biggest funding sources is donations from the public, especially residents of Sonoma County and alumni from SRJC and UC Davis. The program strives to pay interns for their time, and the generosity of donors helps to make it possible for the majority of interns to be in paid positions and supports the program’s intent to offer access to underserved communities in the marine sciences and provide an equitable space for the development of emerging scientists.

For those interested in making a gift to this program, please visit the UC Davis Giving Site or the SRJC Foundation Site and know that any donation, of any size, makes a difference.

Word Cloud
A word cloud of the interns responses to the question "What are you hoping to get out of the internship program?"

How does a marine science internship continue without the ocean?

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the internship program was faced with some difficult decisions. The program directors convened and agreed that being able to provide high-quality research experiences, which are so integral to the retention and success of students in STEM programs, was of the utmost importance, and worth taking on the difficulties of transitioning to virtual programming for 2020.

Their first task was to tackle the most obvious challenges: how could students still get access to hands-on research opportunities and how would they develop a sense of community within their cohort if the program went virtual? Program directors Hannah Palmer and Ashley Smart, both Graduate Students at UC Davis banded together to develop virtual programming that offered shared training and mentoring opportunities for students who were utilizing similar tools, workshops that emphasized professional development and communications, making the transition to a 4-year university, and careers in marine science.

Standout results in a summer of virtual programming

In spite of the unique challenges of this year’s internship, the program has already seen positive outcomes. Although the formal results of the intern’s research projects won’t be presented until mid-August, the team has noted that this cohort has built a strong sense of community even at a distance, with weekly meetings and workshops, grad students co-mentoring groups of interns, and even a mini cohort-within-a-cohort forming around the topic of Ocean Acidification. Hannah, Ashley, and Shawn Brumbaugh from the Junior College have even teamed up to create an abstract of their experiences in transitioning the program to a virtual setting, which will be presented virtually in December to the AGU (American Geophysical Union).

How can SRJC students who are interested in the program apply?

This internship typically begins accepting internships in March, with applications due in late April, and places a lot of emphasis on bringing intentionality to the selection process. Rather than basing decisions on GPA or what year of schooling a student is in, the program directors actively seek out students who demonstrate enthusiasm and willingness to take part in the research process, and including feedback from one of their professors at the Junior College as part of the selection process. Applicants interested in the 2021 internships can find out more details about the application process on the program’s website.

How to find out more:

For information about the Internship Program, please contact Hannah Palmer or Ashley Smart from UC Davis or Shawn Brumbaugh from SRJC.

For general requests for information about the UC Davis Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute and the Bodega Marine Laboratory, please contact us here.