neiblum ’26 spends summer surveying seabirds in alaska

Every year, the Bailey COE awards fellowships to fund summer research opportunities for Wesleyan students across all majors and class years. Most recently, the COE awarded more than 40 fellowships to Wes students.  Sophia Neiblum ’26 is an E&ES and biology major who worked at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska, as a seabird research intern last summer.

For my summer fellowship, I worked at the Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC) as a seabird research intern. The ASLC is a marine research center, public aquarium, and rescue and rehabilitation center in Seward, Alaska. Home to the Kenai Fjords national park, Seward hosts an incredible diversity of marine life. I interned in the ASLC’s seabird research lab, led by Dr. Tuula Hollmen from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

As a research intern, I assisted with seabird abundance surveys in the field. Every month, we conducted surveys of Resurrection Bay, recording all seabirds, waterfowl, and marine mammals seen within a 100m radius of the boat. Throughout the summer, the research lab also led multi-day survey trips of bays in the national park. I am so grateful for the opportunity to work in the field, conducting surveys on small vessels almost every week. Along with seabirds, we saw a wide range of marine life, including harbor seals, sea otters, humpback whales, and Steller sea lions, an endangered species of sea lion common to the area. 

I also developed my data analysis skills as an intern at the ASLC. Using R and other software programs, I worked with large data sets from experiments on seabirds in the aquarium. Every year, the research lab conducts a photo survey of black-legged kittiwake nestlings on the edge of Resurrection Bay. As part of my internship, I stitched these photos together and counted the nests that kittiwakes had built this year. The data from these photo ID surveys will help researchers determine how the kittiwake population is responding to environmental changes. 

Seabird research at the Alaska SeaLife Center investigates long-term population changes, habitat use, and productivity of seabirds on the Alaskan coast. Because seabirds are very responsive to environmental disturbances, they can be used as indicators of ecosystem health. Polar regions also bear the brunt of climate change, so it is important to study their ecosystems and how they respond to environmental stressors. Researchers at the ASLC have collected seabird population data before and after marine heatwaves, research that can inform environmental agencies of the state of marine ecosystems in Alaska.

It was an incredible experience to be a part of this research and to see it in action. I was able to participate in every stage of the process: brainstorming research questions, compiling literature reviews, conducting field surveys, gathering exploratory data, and analyzing data sets. I’m very grateful to the Bailey COE for supporting my internship through the summer fellowship, and to the Alaska SeaLife Center for this unique opportunity.