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Senior Allison Dawn has been using drone aerial imagery and tag data to study foraging patterns of blue whales, establishing baseline patterns and behaviors for the animals.

Allison Dawn pictured standing in front of a waterway at sunset
(Photo courtesy UNC Institute of Marine Sciences)

Carolina senior Allison Dawn has always been drawn to nature.

She remembers running around her grandparents’ 40-acre plot of land as a kid. While her three siblings stayed inside, Dawn played outside all day.

“I just find the most solace when I’m outside,” Dawn said.

Dawn’s love for nature led her to Carolina, where she is majoring in environmental sciences and minoring in marine science, both in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her path to Carolina, however, wasn’t a traditional one.

After high school, the Fayetteville native went straight into real estate and property management, working in that industry for seven years.

Her love and curiosity for nature continued. While she was working, she used online learning platforms to study topics such as geospatial mapping, and she read the works of renowned marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson. For two years, she even took part-time courses through Carolina’s Friday Center for Continuing Education.

By 2018, she was ready to enroll full-time at Carolina.

At first, Dawn wasn’t sure which major to pursue, but an early research opportunity with Carolina’s Hurlbert Lab sparked her interest in ecological patterns.

In the mornings, Dawn would find and count caterpillars at the North Carolina Botanical Garden and elsewhere on campus. In the afternoons, she learned to use computer software that analyzed and visualized her data. She loved the combination of in-person fieldwork and behind-the-scenes analysis.

“I wasn’t sure if I was smart enough for STEM,” Dawn said. “But once I got to Carolina and got my first research experience, it was very affirming. I knew that was the right path for me.”

Eager to dive into more ecological research, in 2018 Dawn applied and was accepted to study at the Morehead City Field Site, located at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences.

For the program’s independent research project requirement, Dawn worked alongside researchers at the Duke University Marine Lab and used drone aerial imagery and tag data to study foraging patterns of blue whales, which experienced a major population decline before the International Whaling Commission implemented protection measures in the mid-1960s.

Because whales spend so much time underwater, there is little research about their behavior during surface intervals — the time whales use to recover oxygen after intense foraging dives. By studying the whales’ foraging patterns, Dawn and her fellow researchers contributed to establishing baseline patterns and behaviors for the animals.

“It’s wonderful to see healthy whales out there in the ocean,” Dawn said. “It’s really exciting that these populations are rebounding, and it gives me hope for the future of the Earth in general, and that we can play an active part in monitoring and maybe even helping our world recover.”

Dawn continued her research after returning to Chapel Hill and presented it as her senior honors thesis, which she defended in April.

The support she received from her professors and mentors at Carolina, she said, has inspired her to give back to other students from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM through Growing Equity in Science and Technology, an annual one-day event hosted by the Institute of Marine Sciences.

“It’s really inspiring because I didn’t have a lot of research experience early on,” Dawn said. “To be able to provide that and connect with students and be a mentor lets me pay it forward.”

After she graduates from Carolina later this month, Dawn will continue working with students as a graduate teaching assistant at Oregon State University while working towards her master’s in wildlife science.

Although she’ll now be researching gray whales instead of blue whales at Oregon State, she plans to continue to look at foraging patterns, as well as explore how environmental variables contribute to prey abundance and distribution.

“Nothing’s really isolated, and that’s what excites me about ecology,” Dawn said. “The tree doesn’t fall in the forest, and no one hears it. The tree falls, and there are all these connections. Being able to understand those connections allows us to understand how we can do our part to help.”

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