University of Alaska Marine Biologist Found Her Passion Early
We sat down to speak to marine biologist Dr. Heidi Pearson and ask her about her passion for helping to protect animals. Growing up in Iowa, a thousand miles from the ocean, Dr. Pearson could only dream of what would become her passion and later her area of expertise, marine biology.
“Ironically, I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, you know, a landlocked state. But (we) had a terrific high school class in Des Moines and a magnet school in marine biology. And so as part of that, I first learned about marine biology and got scuba certified, and then we went to the Florida Keys (on a school trip). So anyway, that high school experience was really my first introduction to marine biology.”
Her burgeoning curiosity in the natural world would soon also take her across the globe.
“Another pivotal experience I had in high school as well, was that I had the opportunity to go to Eastern Africa on a month-long trip, to see wildlife in their natural habitat, which was just really a very pivotal time for me. And I got to see the mountain gorillas, for example, which are still among my very favorite species. And that trip also just really heightened my awareness of conservation issues. And I realized that for a career, I wanted to study animals and also help in their protection. And so kind of combining those two early experiences.”
Speaking from her office in Juneau, Alaska where she serves as a faculty member at the University of Alaska, Southeast, Dr. Pearson laughed when asked what brought her all the way north to America’s largest state — one that boasts a diversity of nature and maintains a distinct wildness rarely matched in the continental U.S.
“Well, it was, you know, I saw the job ad and it sounded really intriguing.”
Continuing on she added, “And, as I sit here in my office talking to you, I’m looking out onto the ocean. And literally, I can see whales and sea lions. So my study species are literally right outside my door, which really enhances the type of research that I can do.”
Dr. Pearson’s lab B.R.E.A.C.H. (which stands for Behavioural REsearch And Ecosystem Health) current focus is on the whale population in the popular cruise ship destination of Juneau, and more specifically the effect reduced shipping traffic during the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the local sea mammal ecosystem.
“We get over a million cruise ship passengers a year typically. And many of those cruise ship passengers go whale watching. So we have a very active and economically lucrative watching industry that has rapidly grown. And so my part in this as a humpback whale researcher is to determine if and what effects this increased vessel traffic might have on the whales themselves.”
Dr. Pearson and her team have just recently been showcased in the BBC and Apple TV featurette narrated by David Attenborough titled “The Year Earth Changed”, highlighting their work studying the humpback population.
“My hope is that what we find, you know, whether the whales have changes in health or we’re looking at stress, so whether they have, you know, we expect that they might have lower stress levels during the pandemic because there’s just not as many boats on the water. But we don’t know. And that’s why we’re doing this study. I’m hoping that if we find some changes in whale health, during these unusually quiet pandemic years that could perhaps feed back into regulations and policy that will help just to make the industry more sustainable.”
With that last statement Dr. Pearson made sure her point was clear, and it’s clear that it is not just her area of interest professionally, it’s her calling: to protect, care for, and better the earth and the creatures that dwell on it, fly above it, and especially swim beneath its oceans. As she makes clear, this isn’t an easy calling but it’s a worthy one.
And if past performance is any indication of future results, she and her team are up for the challenge.