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From Hawaii to the Antarctic, Ph.D. Student Works to Protect Endangered Species

How can marine protected areas be used to reduce habitat degradation and biodiversity loss? Seth Sykora-Bodie, a third-year Ph.D. student in Marine Science and Conservation, took part in the Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey to inform his dissertation on Antarctic resource management and conservation.

Advised by Lisa Campbell and Andrew Read, Sykora-Bodie was among 18 Duke University students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2017-18 from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies for training beyond their core disciplines. He shared an update:

A man stands in front of a ship

Over the last several decades, researchers have accumulated a wealth of knowledge indicating that species are disappearing at unprecedented rates. One of the tools we have at our disposal for reversing this trend is setting aside large land- and seascapes for conservation. This is what my research is broadly focused on—understanding how marine protected areas can be used to reduce habitat degradation and biodiversity loss.

Traditionally, these efforts have primarily relied on ecological data such as species richness and abundance for prioritizing conservation sites. As a result, I applied for GSTEG to participate in a large-scale marine mammal survey being conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fishery Service to gain experience in collecting the data that underlies federal conservation and management decisions. The main focus of the survey was the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, where Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, one of the ten largest marine protected areas on the planet and encompasses hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory, is located.

The goal of the research expedition was to collect data on the distribution and abundance of threatened and endangered marine mammals throughout the Hawaiian archipelago to inform regulatory and management decisions. In support of their ongoing management efforts, surveys such as this are important for understanding the current status and trends of highly endangered species such as Hawaiian monk seals and false killer whales.

During my time with the research team, I learned more about survey design and methods, marine mammals acoustics, and even seabird identification. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life and significantly improved my understanding of the data, and how it is collected, that underpins much of the work of my dissertation.


This internal funding mechanism from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies encourages doctoral and master’s students to step away from their core research and training to acquire skills, knowledge, or co-curricular experiences that will give them new perspectives on their research agendas. Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants are intended to deepen preparation for academic positions and other career trajectories.