#17 Meet a Researcher: Karen Vale

My reasons for pursuing a career as a wildlife biologist, such as a deep respect for the natural world, an innate sense of curiosity, and an affinity for science, are probably common motivators among many individuals in my field. I grew up on the coast of Massachusetts and spent much of my childhood near the ocean, so it's not surprising that many of my career choices have placed me in, on, or above the sea.

As an undergraduate student, I gained valuable experience by volunteering and interning, primarily for non-profit organizations on Cape Cod and in southeastern Massachusetts. This was an extremely exciting and educational time in my career! For instance, I was able to assist the local stranding network in their response and rescue of stranded dolphins, seals, and large whales on Cape Cod. I participated in my first large cetacean necropsy on a humpback whale (Megaptera novangliea) and also participated in the successful release of Atlantic white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus acutus).

Outreach has always been an integral part of my science career and will probably continue to be so in the future. I have worked 6 seasons as a biologist and research assistant onboard commercial whale watch vessels, primarily based out of Plymouth, MA. While onboard, I educate the public about whales and the marine environment as well as collect data for the endangered humpback whale photo-identification catalog and database. I have also been engaged in whale watching safety education for both commercial and recreational vessels in the northeast region. For instance, I was involved with the "See a Spout, Watch Out!" Responsible Whale Watching Boater Education Program as well as disseminating the Northeast Region Whale Watching Guidelines on behalf of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

My passion for science and fascination with wildlife management certainly doesn't end at the shore. I have an interest in all wildlife, including terrestrial mammals. For two years I studied a different type of aquatic mammal - the swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus), the largest member of the cottontails and a conservation concern throughout portions of its range, while pursuing an M.S. degree in Wildlife Ecology and Management. My thesis, which I completed in 2008, concerned habitat use and territoriality of male rabbits in southeastern Arkansas. I also had the opportunity to participate in a home range study of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) on Choctaw Island Wildlife Management Area in Arkansas, which included drop-netting and radio-collaring individuals.

My professional and academic experiences have undoubtedly left me with feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction, knowing that I have made a difference for future generations, particularly with work concerning endangered and threatened species. This holds especially true for my current position with the New England Aquarium's Aerial Survey Team - helping to protect critically endangered right whales so that future generations may have a chance to appreciate these amazing creatures someday.

- Karen


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