Biology PhD candidate goes great lengths to study seal species
Ever since a visit to the aquarium as a child, Brianne Soulen has been fascinated by marine mammals. Her ongoing interest in warm-blooded aquatic life eventually led her to pursue environmental science degrees in college, and after working in her first lab as an undergraduate, Soulen decided to pursue a graduate degree at UNT to study seals. Now she is a PhD candidate currently studying with Aaron Roberts, professor of biological sciences and director of the Advanced Environmental Research Institute.
"I think the big part of what led me on this path were my personal convictions about the importance of marine mammals and a drive to understand how humans impact seal species specifically," Soulen says. "It feels important to give a little bit of a voice to species that can't speak for themselves, especially if they are being subjected to stressors caused by humans."
The focus of Soulen's PhD research is studying persistent organic pollutants in three species of Arctic seals. She works with blubber, serum and blood to look at the accumulation and toxicity of PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) within the organism to measure the chemicals' effects. The US National Institute of Health's Library of Medicine describes PBDEs as manufactured, flame-retardant chemicals used in many consumer products, including cell phones, remote controls, personal computers, computer monitors, textiles, electronics and cabinets and enclosures for electronics.
It's no easy task to study seal species in North Texas, but Soulen has gone great lengths to acquire the samples necessary for her research. She is currently working with tissue from seals sampled by colleagues at Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Newfoundland. She has also been working with the Aleut community of St. Paul Island in Alaska to retrieve samples from subsistence-harvested Northern fur seals. In turn, the data collected from the Northern fur seal samples will be shared with the community so they can also track the levels of different toxins in the seals.
"A large portion of my project involves collaborating with people. We don't have a lot (any) seals in Texas, much less Arctic seals, so I rely on collaborating with researchers at other institutions and agencies to provide samples and act as committee members," Soulen says.
To tackle the expenses needed to procure the supplies from so far away, Brianne recently applied and received a grant from American Wildlife Conservation Foundation, which funds research that enhances wildlife management and conservation of habitats in the United States. They focus on projects that look at wildlife-habitat and human-wildlife relationships in hopes of sustaining those relationships for future generations.
The grant will help cover the costs of supplies to analyze the aforementioned samples from St. Paul Island. Northern fur seals are a threatened species and research that can help sustain the population is also vital for future generations of the native populations that rely on them.
Soulen says that the AERI staff have also played a huge role in helping her secure the funding for her project. "I learned about the American Wildlife Conservation Foundation through working with AERI's grant writer, Kelly Basinger," she says. "Kelly was an integral part in not only helping me find opportunities for funding that I could work on as a graduate student, but also helped me learn how to write a grant proposal."
Soulen hopes to find a job in the academic field when she's completed her degree, and has recently enjoyed mentoring undergraduate biology majors. Her advice for new students in the field of science and ecology is, "Find something you love and pursue it. It won't be easy, but if you are really passionate about something you will put the work in to get there."