Professor Spotlight: Dr. Heidi Pearson

For the UAS Whalesong

Dr. Pearson is an Assistant Professor of Marine Biology at UAS and also an Assistant Professor for the School of Fisheries and Ocean Science with UAF. She was born in Iowa and had her first encounter with the ocean at the age of 12 while on a family vacation. Dr. Pearson graduated from Duke University with majors in Anthropology, Anatomy, and in Biology. After that, she went on to Texas A&M University to obtain a Ph.D in Wildlife and Fisheries Science. Up next was some postdoctoral work with the Whale Center of New England, which was a non-profit organization focused on research, conservation, and education regarding whales, as well as other marine mammals. Before coming to UAS in 2011, Dr. Pearson was also a lecturer at several universities, one of which being Stony Brook University.

One question I had for Dr. Pearson was about what brought her from the east coast to Juneau, Alaska. Her answer was the environment. Juneau is a beautiful blend of complex ecosystems and a great place for research. UAS is also a small school, which Dr. Pearson found to be a draw because of the opportunities it presented. It is also nice being able to know so many students, no one is just a number here. At UAS Dr. Pearson teaches a variety of courses ranging from biology, marine mammal behavior, tropical marine and coastal/ecosystem ecology, human anatomy and physiology, and marine ornithology and herpetology.

Dr. Pearson does so much more than just teach here at UAS. She has several multi-year projects going on, all of which are incredibly interesting. Some of her current research that I’ll touch on: dusky dolphin behavior and ecology, humpback whale behavior and potential impacts from whale watching vessels, sea otter recolonization and changes in kelp density, and “Blue Carbon.”

The dusky dolphin project started in 2013 and is about their behavior and ecology. Part of this project involved tagging dusky dolphins in New Zealand. Some of the video that they gathered from the tags may also be appearing in a National Geographic media clip!

Another project that is underway has to do with the evolution of intelligence and the brains of whales and dolphins as well as primates. This study looks into the many similarities in the social behavior and societal structure of whales, dolphins, and primates.

Blue carbon is a relatively new concept. Projects that it is integrated into are heavily focused on ecosystem services provided by marine mammals. Dr. Pearson has two projects that fall into this category. The first has to do with whales “fertilizing” surface waters due to their fecal plumes. The nutrients supplied by the whales can stimulate phytoplankton growth. The phytoplankton then absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The second project that falls under this category revolves around kelp beds and sea otter recolonization. Kelp beds are constantly under attack by sea urchins and other grazers. In southeast Alaska, sea otters are slowly recolonizing the sound. Invertebrates, such as sea urchins, are eaten by the sea otters. So, as the sea otters claim more territory, kelp beds should also grow more due to the lack of grazers. Kelp beds are an important habitat for many species ranging from fish and sea birds to other marine mammals, while also acting as a carbon dioxide sink.

Before we ended the interview, I asked Dr. Pearson if she had any advice for young scientists. Her response was that it is important to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible. Take some time and check out the some that you might not necessarily interested in because you never know where they might go. The results can often be rewarding.

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